Dangling from the brick fireplace in Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker's near-west-side home are three ornaments: a shiny Santa, a Hello Kitty head with a wreath around its neck, and a miniature "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" book. They are not out early for this year's holiday celebration, but left over from the year before.
The ornaments are at first a bit disconcerting, given that Gaylor and Barker are co-presidents of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Madison-based national advocacy group. And during the Christmas season, the group tends to come off as a bit of a Grinch. Recently, for the 14th year in a row, FFRF's solstice message went up in the Wisconsin Capitol Rotunda, proclaiming its wish that "reason prevail." It also says, "Religion is but a myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds."
Yet Gaylor sees no disconnect between the ornaments in their home and this anti-religious stance. She says the couple's daughter Sabrina, now 20, still gets a kick out of Hello Kitty. And for the whole family, the solstice season is special.
"Christians stole Christmas," she says, noting the holiday's pre-Christian origins. "We're pleased to share it with them - just so they don't try to hog the whole winter solstice season."
The Gaylor-Barker family celebrates the solstice in a Sears house that's a smaller version of one Gaylor grew up in. The celebration of the sun's rebirth looks a lot like any holiday celebration, with food, family, gifts and often a tree.
"It's a natural holiday," Gaylor says. "You need to have something to look forward to."
It's late November and dark. After a long day, Gaylor, 54, curls into herself on her sofa in a living room arranged more for solitude than conversation. Oriental rugs provide the biggest spark of color on wooden floors.
Gaylor is exhausted after spending five hours being deposed for a federal lawsuit against the National Day of Prayer. "When you're suing your president [Barack Obama] and his press secretary," she says, "that's a very time-consuming case."
Petite with flyaway blond hair and direct eyes, she exudes competence as well as confidence. Yet she's surprisingly taken aback by negative reactions to her group's anti-religion message. The effect is an unsettling blend of iron fist in a delicate organza glove.
A little more than a week earlier, Gaylor was sharing animal stories with author Ursula LeGuin and laughing with radio host Ron Reagan, the former president's son, at the Freedom From Religion convention in Seattle. The next Monday, Jay Leno told a joke about the group: "When asked if they were happy to be in Seattle, they said, 'We're just praying it doesn't rain.'"
Home again, Gaylor is juggling six lawsuits, including a National Day of Prayer suit in Colorado, a Pledge of Allegiance appeal, a new case challenging a federal tax deduction for clergy housing, and a local case against a Manitowoc crèche. FFRF unsuccessfully filed suit to stop the engraving of "In God We Trust" on the Capitol visitor center in Washington, D.C.
"They went ahead and did it," she says. "Now we are really injured. Now we have to duke it out." The first hurdle is getting a green light to sue, which recent court rulings have made more difficult.
Barker, 60, is traveling. In a flurry of activity after Seattle, the tall, laid-back musician in black jeans and a black blazer found time to paint over graffiti on the FFRF building before leaving for 10 events in eight days in Texas, Oklahoma and Missouri. This included a debate with Dinesh D'Souza, author of What's So Great About Christianity, with its purposeful lack of a question mark. After another brief stop in Madison, he was on his way to London, then Memphis, to look at complaints about prayer in city hall.
These days Gaylor and Barker are working longer hours than ever, often not coming home until after dinnertime. With Sabrina away to school at the UW-Whitewater, there's no reason to get home early enough for a healthy meal. The couple instead focus on their growing sense of urgency about FFRF's work.
Gaylor sees too many church/state violations and can't fix them all. The noise level - the intensity of the crank calls, four death threats so far this year - is the worst she remembers. "I think things are getting a little unsettled," she says.
Annie Laurie Gaylor and her mother, Anne Gaylor, started the Freedom From Religion Foundation in 1976. It grew out of the reproductive rights movement after the Gaylors saw legislative hearings packed with Catholic nuns, priests and schoolchildren and concluded religion was the root of women's inequality. Anne Gaylor took FFRF national two years later.
The foundation's current repertoire includes legal action, billboards, bus signs, a weekly radio show on Air America, the monthly newsletter Freethought Today, and Barker's national and international lectures and debates. There's also hope for a television show.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation was formed to educate the public about nontheistic belief and promote the separation of church and state. In practice, this has two components: legal action against perceived local, state and federal violations of the First Amendment; and education, including liberal doses of anti-religion rhetoric.
Freethought Today has for years run page after page of "Black Collar Crime Blotter." These are listings of transgressions against morality and public safety committed by clergy.
The term "freethinkers" is an umbrella for atheists, agnostics and rationalists. "To the freethinker," says the group's website, "revelation and faith are invalid, and orthodoxy is no guarantee of truth." Freethinkers test God the way they test any fact, with the scientific method.
FFRF's membership has doubled since 2006, to 14,000, and its staff has increased by 3.5 since October 2008, to a total of eight full-time employees. Its new staff attorney was involved in 20 nativity cases in her first three months and wrote 150 church/state violation letters her first year. The cases generally start with outside contacts, usually emails, about half of which come from FFRF members. School issues are a priority. Recent cases included kindergarteners forced to say prayers and a fifth-grade Bible distribution.
The group operates out of Freethought Hall, a stately 1855 home and former rectory two blocks from the Capitol. The location is not publicized and the doors remain locked, but harassing emails and calls find their way in. "There's a little feeling of being under siege most of the time," says Gaylor, "yet they [theists] say we're assaulting them."
The most virulent emails (see sidebar) and calls come in response to the group's church/state work - "and they are really mad at us," Gaylor says. The most common theme is the suggestion that Gaylor and Barker move somewhere else: Pakistan, China, Siberia, Afghanistan, Canada.
But intense criticism of the foundation is surprisingly broad-based. Madison radio talk-show host Sly, for instance, in September called Gaylor "filthy, rotten, vicious and hate-filled" for purportedly protesting a monument in Chippewa County to a police officer killed in the line of duty that contained a religious message. "Has she now ventured into the territory of harassing dead Christians? This woman has now gone from fringy, atheist activist to terrorist."
"I wonder if that is actionable, calling me a terrorist?" Gaylor wonders. But she has other things to do.
For Gaylor, being at the helm of an advocacy group for nonbelievers is hard work, and she often feels marginalized and demoralized.
She cites a Minnesota poll showing that every minority group in the nation is more widely accepted now than in the 1960s - except atheists. Barker, a former true believer, is not surprised: "When you're talking about somebody's religion, you're talking about who they are. It's like attacking them and their grandma. There's nothing we could possibly say, no matter how gentle, that challenges their beliefs that's going to make them feel good."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation says that its goal is to educate, not just provoke, and that it targets only governments, not people. But, adds Barker, "What's wrong with stirring things up? Isn't that the point of dialogue and free speech? We want to be part of the quilt that makes America America."
Consider the recent controversy over a full-page FFRF ad in the Unitarian Universalist's quarterly magazine. It included six anti-religion quotes, including one in which Clarence Darrow equates God with Mother Goose. Some church members thought the ad mocked all religions; others felt the Unitarians should be thick-skinned enough to take it. The magazine apologized.
The Wisconsin State Journal quoted Gaylor expressing shock at this reaction from a group that includes atheists. But Scott Ulrich, a Unitarian official, wrote that the ad didn't just defend the rights of nontheists, it "negatively and very broadly characterized 'religion"' and 'faith' in ways that were guaranteed to sound to many of our readers like an attack."
Similarly, many of those who fill local churches and synagogues agree with FFRF's advocacy of church/state separation but are angered by its anti-religion billboards and bus signs. After decades of being turned down, the Freedom From Religion Foundation bought its first billboard in Madison in 2007, with the message "Imagine No Religion." Its first exterior bus sign, "Sleep in on Sundays," went up earlier this year.
Now the foundation has billboards all over, including 10 in Albuquerque and eight in Las Vegas. And it has adorned 100 Seattle buses with ads of Santa saying, "Yes Virginia...there is no God."
Gaylor says such efforts are a response to FFRF members who wanted the group to be less ambiguous. Isn't this taking a cue from the Christian right? Gaylor doesn't think so.
"The religious right has billboards with blood on them," she says, "oversized miscarriage objects on their placards talking about 'God says do not kill.' That is gross. There's nothing gross about our bus sign."
As with the Unitarian ads, Gaylor expresses surprise that anyone would be angry about the bus signs. They're "gentle snowball lobs, not a war on Christmas," she says. "If [Christians] are so insecure that they can't even stand that somebody has a bus sign, a funny bus sign saying there's no God, what does that say about their beliefs? They must have a lack of confidence...to be so angry just because there's something saying there are atheists and agnostics in this country and here's our view."
Gaylor urges critics to consider what nonbelievers are expected to endure. "Here we are, crosses everywhere we go, religious signs and steeples, and being preached at and told we're sinners 24/7 on TV and radio," she says. "And for the first time, we are being allowed to market our ideas too, and we have to be very clear about them."
What about tolerance?
"Well, what about it?" she responds. "Nonreligious people in this country are scarcely tolerated. It's considered aggressive to even tell somebody in the context of a conversation about religion that you're an atheist."
Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker grew up at opposite ends of the spiritual spectrum.
Gaylor, a third-generation freethinker on her mother's side, grew up without religion or even much talk about it at home, though she attended church with her paternal grandparents. Barker grew up fundamentalist Christian turned charismatic, singing in the family's evangelical music group.
Gaylor remembers coming home from school in fifth grade and proudly reciting to her mom the Pledge of Allegiance, with its "under God" addition. "I still remember her face, the shock," she says. "She didn't know the pledge had been interfered with."
As a freethinking parent, Anne Gaylor believed in providing a safe, stimulating environment for her children but not indoctrinating them. She was a businesswoman, an early feminist and abortion rights activist, a mother of four who liked Jackie O suits and the smell of Chanel. Anne, who stepped down as FFRF president in 2004, "wasn't Superwoman," her daughter insists; but she was a super role model and a laid-back but devoted parent. "I greatly admired her."
Her mother returns the compliments. "She's very bright," says Anne, now 83. "She is not easily dissuaded. You cannot be a shrinking violet and be a freethinker. She is not a shrinking violet."
Anne is glad that her daughter did not feel a need to fit in: "When you grow up free from religion and the people around you are free from religion or indifferent, to be irreligious seems quite normal."
Barker, in contrast, had been "born again" by the time he was in high school, confessing he was a sinner, accepting the death of Jesus as payment for his sin, and asking Christ into his heart. At 15, he received his call to ministry during a revival meeting in Anaheim, Calif., knowing God was talking directly to him about how to live his life. He started carrying a Bible (sometimes two) to school, preached his first sermon on the dusty bank of a Mexican irrigation canal, and was crushed when a Supreme Court decision ended daily Bible broadcasts into Anaheim classrooms. He won his first soul before his 16th birthday, and later converted his agnostic Spanish teacher.
"I had a star in my crown," he writes in his 2008 autobiography, godless. "Of course, I gave all the credit to the Holy Spirit, but I accepted it as authentication of my calling."
When Gaylor was a sophomore at the UW-Madison, she and her mother and a friend formed the Freedom From Religion Foundation. No one expected it would become a career. By the time she graduated, with a degree in journalism, Annie Laurie had successfully petitioned the university to eliminate prayer from commencement.
Barker studied religion at Azusa Pacific College. He was a soul winner, playing accordion in the park, singing about salvation in restaurants, hiking Mexico for Jesus. He married, had four children, spoke in tongues, faith healed. He was invited to schools that believed religion added moral value. He wrote "Mary Had a Little Lamb," a popular Christian children's musical for which he still gets royalties.
Barker's de-conversion began in 1979, when he realized he could not condemn others who did not take the Bible literally, as his faith instructed. After five years of reassessment, he migrated all the way to atheism. He soon persuaded both of his parents to follow him.
Barker and the Gaylors met in 1984 on Oprah Winfrey's AM Chicago. The Gaylors suggested Barker as a co-guest sight unseen, having heard of his journey. "We felt we had met a kindred non-spirit," jokes Annie Laurie. "I was very impressed with him. My mother was too." They married in 1987.
Gaylor says she's the practical one; Barker is philosophical.
For her, not believing in God is simple: "If something isn't true, you shouldn't believe in it." She refers any detailed theological questions to him.
Barker's lengthy legalistic arguments take the Bible apart phrase by phrase, to decry its claims to truth and morality. He contends that neither God nor Jesus is worthy of emulation. If Christians happen to be good people, he argues, it's despite their religion and not because of it.
Gaylor likes reading newspapers. Barker reads science, history and mythology. She tends a spectacular perennial garden. He loves jazz piano and plays about 110 paid gigs a year with local combos.
"If we can sneak in a movie on the weekend, I'm lucky," Gaylor says. When both are home, he brings her morning coffee in bed, while she finishes the Wisconsin State Journal and The New York Times. With Sabrina gone, he can play piano for a half-hour before work.
Gaylor and Barker both insist they are not focused on religion, though they must be conversant with it. They are encouraged by signs of a growing freethinking base, and such gestures as President Obama referring to "nonbelievers" in his Inaugural.
"I think we make society more interesting, and there are people who appreciate that," Gaylor says. "And on the philosophical side," adds Barker, "the more criticism you get, the more you're being noticed."
Gaylor and Barker are fulfilled in their work. Barker calls it "an emotional thrill fighting for the views our founders fought for." Gaylor sees the Freedom From Religion Foundation as part of creating the great American experiment. "It's been a ride, a blast, as Dan would say. I've enjoyed almost every minute of it."
God is going to strike you dead
A sampling of recent emails (spelling and punctuation not corrected) received by the Freedom From Religion Foundation:
"Take a hike with your f*ckin' lawsuit against In God We Trust! God haters, maggots! - Nedd Kareiva
"Dear Atheists, God is going to strike you dead for messing with religion. When you, your staff or their families have a bad accident, don't say I didn't warn you or that you don't deserve it because you do. You must be stopped at any costs." God's Squad, Jim Franklin
"Just read an article about your long nose sticking into other people's business. (It's going to get broken, you know.) SO, STICKIT WHERE THE GOD MADE SUN DOESN'T SHINE. - A GRY HAIRED GROUCHY OLD S.O.B. P.S. DON'T PICK FIGHTS WITH OLD PEOPLE. YOU WILL NOT WIN. THEY WILL DO WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE THEN LET GOD SORT YOU OUT."
"JUST WONDER WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE? I REALLY FEEL SORRY FOR YOUR CHILDREN. TO BAD THEY'LL BE RAISED BY PEOPLE LIKE YOU. YOU THINK ALL YOU HAVE TO DO IS THREATEN WITH A LAW SUITE? I'LL BET YOU THAT IF YOU BELIEVED IN ANYTHING YOUR LIFE WOULDN'T BE SO MISERABLE THAT YOU HAD TO TRY AND SCREW UP EVERYONE ELSES. AND THAT'S MY OPINION." Deborah Lortz
"You Atheists just don't get it! Fuck all you God Haters! Jesus will win in the end! I hope you're happy when this all goes down. Hellfire awaits!" Brad
"I am telling you to stay out of our community. There are plenty of places in this country where people likeyou thrive, places like California where moral decline and crime are running wild. Here in Lake Township WE DO BELIEVE IN GOD! If you want to bring your simple-minded, big bang-gorilla evolving beliefs here to live that's fine. You people need to mind your own business and stay in Wisconsin!" Jeremy Wise
"I just cannot believe that you even are allowed to do the things you do. Do not respond tothis email. I don't want to hear a thing you have to say about what a wonderful world this would be without jesus to believe in. What should we do believ in you???? That is sick." Ann Doty