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Convention speech: Marie Schaub — On the winning side of a monumental decision

Marie Schaub
Marie Schaub waits for her turn to speak at FFRF’s convention in Madison, Wis., in 2017.
FFRF Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott stands with Marie Schaub, who was given FFRF’s Freethinker of the Year award.

Here is an edited version of the speech Marie Schaub gave as one of FFRF’s four 2017 Freethinkers of the Year. She delivered it on Sept. 16, 2017, at FFRF’s 40th annual convention in Madison, Wis. Schaub was introduced by FFRF Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott:

I was co-counsel on Marie Schaub’s lawsuit against the Ten Commandments monument at the school that her daughter was set to attend. Five years later, I’m proud to be awarding Marie the Freethinker of the Year Award.

As you proceed through a lawsuit, each side can request information from the other side. The school district requested extensive information from Marie, including any social media posts that she wrote on the subject of religion. If you’re Facebook friends with Marie, you would know this is thousands of posts. So we had to disclose literally thousands of pages to the district’s attorneys. It brings a smile to my face to think of them reviewing each of Marie’s defenses of freethought. Maybe they even learned something.

Marie, as the only publicly named plaintiff in the case, has been vilified in her community. In 2016, FFRF honored her with the Atheist in a Foxhole Courage Award. After the 3rd Circuit ruling and after our convention in 2016, FFRF and our attorney Mark Schneider were able to negotiate a victorious settlement.

In March of 2017, the biblical monument was finally removed. Marie, we thank you for being a champion of the First Amendment!

By Marie Schaub

Hello, everyone, and thank you for being here today!

2017 has not been a good year for controversial monuments. I’m sure most of you have heard of the Christian man who ran over the Ten Commandments monolith in Arkansas while streaming it live on Facebook. It was certainly entertaining to watch! But I was relieved to hear that it was not one of my fellow atheists.

Confederate monuments have been dropping like Trump’s approval ratings. Some have been toppled over and others have been vandalized beyond repair. While I can appreciate their passion and understand their frustration, it’s important to exhaust every legal avenue that is available before taking such drastic measures of civil disobedience.

Believe me, there were many nights where I imagined tying a chain around that religious monument that sat outside my kid’s public school and yanking out the damn thing with my truck. But doing so would not only hurt our cause by tarnishing our image, it would have probably ended in jail time for me.

There was a 6-foot tall, 2,000-pound religious monument that stood outside of Valley High School, unchallenged, for over 60 years. The decalogue was placed at the end of two main foot paths leading up to the front side of the building. A very similar monument at another nearby public school was recently ruled unconstitutional, thanks to the help of FFRF, and it was relocated to private property.

‘How is this possible?’

I remember the first time I saw the huge stone as a visitor at my child’s karate event at the school in 2006. My main feeling was confusion, like, “How is this even possible?” But I was also sickened by a feeling of helplessness. It wasn’t until 2011 that my family and I transferred to the New Kensington/Arnold School District.

We live in a small suburb of Pittsburgh. Where I’m from, there is a church on every block. The tax base is low and the number of senior citizens is high, but that didn’t stop the district from trying to defend an unconstitutional, coercive message that negatively affected nonbelievers and people of other faiths.

It was in 2012 that I first heard of a group known as the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Our local news station was discussing the monument that I had encountered several years before. That’s when it hit me. My daughter was in middle school, but eventually she would have that religious rock facing her on a daily basis. It was then that I filed my complaint.

After numerous depositions, continuations and motions, the judge said that my daughter and I did not have standing because she had not yet been harmed enough, basically saying our suit was premature. But that did not stop us.

After some discussion, FFRF Attorney Patrick Elliott, who held my hand throughout this entire process, informed me that we were going back to court on appeal at my request. The panel of three judges unanimously agreed that the potential danger to my child was imminent and that I did have standing. This meant the case would go back to the lower court to be heard on its merits.

Important fight

After five long years, we did it! I am proud to be a part of such an important fight for the separation of state and church. After the case was moved back to the lower court, the school realized it was going to lose. It agreed to move the monument and pay $165,000 in legal fees. That’s only a fraction of what was spent over five years of litigation. As a plaintiff and parent, it was never about the money.

It is unfortunate that it took so many years. My daughter will finish her senior year elsewhere due to this interference, but now when I drive by Valley High School, I think of the huge lesson the community learned and about the kids who will not have to walk in the shadow of its inappropriate message.

Our win did not go unnoticed. The view from my living room window of my neighbors’ house across the street includes a cutout cross on their property. All over southwestern Pennsylvania, these cardboard cutouts are popping up in response to our victory. They do not realize that I support their rights to have whatever they want on their private property, and that every time I see them, it reminds me of our fight and our victory. Apparently, my neighbors can erect a life-size crucifix, yet they cannot seem to put out one recycling bin.

I have received my fair share of crank mail, but for as many negative messages I have received, I have gotten just as many, if not more, positive ones. Many people have since reached out to me to tell me that I have inspired them to speak out against inequality and that is why I am here today. I want to tell you to stand up for your rights and the rights of others.

As of today, the one-ton granite slab is in storage at an unknown location. It was secretly removed overnight at the beginning of March. Its new home will be at a Catholic school approximately two miles from its original placement. And even though the private school admits it needs a new roof, updated gym, and funding for families, it started a GoFundMe campaign with a goal of $75,000 for the monolith. They claim they want to use the money to place the donated monument on a foundation and they want to buy a fancy, new, lighted sign to put up next to the 60-year-old stone. After falling short of their original goal, they lowered it to $25,000. At last check, they weren’t even up to $5,000.

I have really enjoyed being a small part of this great movement and I hope to continue my involvement long after I am forgotten.

I would like to personally thank Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Anti-Defamation League, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Jewish Social Policy Action Network, the Sikh Coalition, the Union for Reform Judaism, and, of course, the Freedom From Religion Foundation! Thank you, FFRF, for everything you have done for me and my family and for all of the hard work you do.