Freethinker of the Year Award — FFRF plaintiff fights city hall, and wins
This is the speech given by Daryl Cobranchi at FFRF’s national convention in San Antonio on Oct. 28, 2022. He was introduced by FFRF Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott. To watch the speech, go to ffrf.us/convention-2022.
Patrick Elliott: I’m here to introduce Daryl Cobranchi, who will be receiving FFRF’s Freethinker of the Year award, along with Eric Engle, who couldn’t join us today. They were essential plaintiffs in one of our winning lawsuits. We challenged the city of Parkersburg’s (W.Va.) practice of reciting the Lord’s Prayer before every council meeting.
The suit was filed in 2018 and we are thrilled that the federal judge ruled in May 2022 and has permanently enjoined the practice. The judge has also awarded us our attorney’s fees in that case. Daryl has shown extreme patience and resolve while the city was flagrantly violating the Establishment Clause. He began to work to correct this violation more than seven years ago. The city continued with the Lord’s Prayer practice despite FFRF’s warning letters to cut it out.
In 2017, Daryl and the other awardee were part of a coalition that advocated that the City Council adopt a nondiscrimination ordinance. On the other side were members of local churches opposing it, who happily joined in unison with the City Council during the Lord’s Prayer. The meetings were packed, and there was a clear division between those who were saying the prayer and those who weren’t.
After the nondiscrimination ordinance was voted down in 2017, Daryl was quoted in the local newspaper: “For far too long, this council has acted as if the only people whose opinions matter are conservative Christians.” Later that year, he wrote a letter to the editor that said the council’s practice “assigns second-class status to anyone who’s not Christian.” His opposition to the prayer caused a member of the council to personally criticize Daryl.
Daryl ultimately gave up a leadership position in a local political party. Thankfully, he stood firm and he was a co-plaintiff in our winning case. While it is not much consolation, the city will be sending him a check for exactly $1. Daryl has said that he’s going to definitely save it. More importantly, the city is permanently enjoined from continuing to violate the Establishment Clause.
FFRF has offered the Freethinker of the Year Award since 1985, and usually it’s received by successful state/church litigants. We cannot take or win any of these lawsuits without crucial local plaintiffs.
This award includes a plaque and a $1,000 award, but Daryl has generously refused the honorarium, saying that FFRF needs it more. Please join me in welcoming our 2022 Freethinker of the Year.
By Daryl Cobranchi
want to tell some of the stories of the genesis of the lawsuit that brought me here today.
I grew up in a mostly practicing Catholic family, living in the heart of conservative Southern Baptist country — Greenville, S.C.
By “practicing,” I mean the whole nine yards. Mass every Saturday evening or Sunday morning, etc. The lone exception to following all of the church’s teachings — I only learned many years later — was that after having three boys in three years, my mom said, “Enough,” and went on the pill. This, of course, was a sin, according to the church. She dutifully had to confess this sin each and every week.
Eventually my dad decided to get a vasectomy, another sin, because, per his understanding, then he’d only had to confess once. Religion can make you do some strange things.
Anyway, I went through the four C’s of Catholic youth indoctrination — catechism, confession, communion and confirmation.
Growing up a religious minority was a challenge, at times. I was regularly told I was going to hell for my family’s beliefs. My first serious girlfriend invited me to her church. This was apparently part of the mating ritual in Baptist country. I warned her that if the preacher started in on Catholics, I was leaving. Sure enough, that was the topic of the evening. I suspect it was aimed specifically at me. My girlfriend almost wrenched my arm out of its socket, pulling me back down into the pews.
Later that same year, I gave serious thought to starting a religious riot in my high school. Every student assembly started with a student-led prayer ending with “in the name of Jesus, amen.”
I was always uncomfortable with this formulation. I thought I knew enough about the Constitution that this was probably illegal. I was one of the student leaders on campus and was one day told that I would be leading the prayer at the next assembly. Told, not asked.
I had previously read that you could convert to Islam by reciting, “There is no God but Allah” and “Muhammed is the prophet of Allah” in Arabic. I found a translation guide and planned to lead the senior class in the prayer. Converting the entire class to Islam would have likely gotten me kicked out of school, and I backed down, but it was a fun fantasy for a while.
Many years later, married with four kids, I came out as atheist. It had been brewing in my mind for a while. What pushed me over the edge was learning that something like 90 percent of physical scientists identified as atheists. That was me — I’m a chemist by training — and I finally felt free to claim the title.
The coming out led to a few tears from my wife, but we managed to stay together. Right around this time, I started attending city council meetings in Fayetteville, N.C., where we were living. They always started with a moment of silence. Cool, no problem. I didn’t bow my head or close my eyes. There was nothing to pray to. Then I got transferred to Parkersburg, W.Va. After getting settled into our new home, I started attending the city council meetings. I was more than a bit surprised when it opened with the Lord’s Prayer. It was led by the council president, with all the audience being invited to stand and participate.
I checked with a politically active friend and learned that it was always so and had been the practice for many years. The first few times I stood along with everyone else, but eventually decided to stay seated and silent.
I had heard of FFRF and your support for separation of church and state issues. So, I contacted y’all. This contact led to a letter to the council. The council basically told us to pound sand, and that led to the lawsuit.
FFRF’s Patrick Elliot, Chris Line and the other lawyers who pushed the case through over several years were all top-notch. My co-plaintiff Eric Engle and I never doubted that FFRF would win, and y’all did, 100 percent down the line.
So, the council is now prohibited from starting meetings with council-led prayers.
Now my atheist, Jewish and other non-Christian friends can attend city council meetings without being made to feel as if they are second-class citizens.
Thank you for all that you do.