My visit to the Freedom From Religion Foundation

I’ve long been a supporter of the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF), whose headquarters are in Madison, Wisconsin. I’d never visited that town before, so when they invited me up to do some events, I jumped at the chance, taking the three-hour Amtrak train from Chicago to nearby Columbus, Wisconsin.  Plus I wanted to visit their new headquarters, which involved a remodeling of and addition to their earlier, cramped building. It’s located just a stone’s throw from the Wisconsin State Capitol Building, which you can see in this photo taken from the South:

The East Entrance of Freethought Hall. It’s definitely a Frank Lloyd Wright look.

The north entrance (the main entry to the building). Security is tight here; you have to be buzzed in and there are cameras everywhere. The reason is obvious.  Note the illuminated sign: “In students we trust”. The message changes every five minutes.

One had me on it, in honor of my visit:

There are four floors. This is the legal wing where the real business is done: filing lawsuits, writing letters to Constitution violators and so on. The FFRF has two big cases underway: the exemption for ministers’ housing allowance (violation of the First Amendment), and the right of Dan Barker to give a secular prayer in the House of Representatives (it was denied; that’s also a First-Amendment violation since it privileges religion).

I wasn’t sure what the turkey tail represented on the legal wing wall. I wrote FFRF attorney Andrew Seidel (see below) for clarification, who explained:

That is an excellent question. Diane Uhl, the generous donor who gave her name to the legal wing, wanted us attorneys to keep kicking all those theocratic turkeys’ butts. She brought the framed feathers as both congratulations and a motivational reminder, or, as she put it “an artistic, fun mission statement: work your tail off.”

A picture of Clarence Darrow, atheist and fierce defender of civil rights, adorns the legal wing.

If you’ve been to the FFRF conventions, you know that they auction off “clean money”: US currency printed before 1957, when the words “In God We Trust” were added under President Eisenhower. Here’s a framed display of clean money in the hall:

This is the only remnant of the house that was later turned into FFRF headquarters. It was saved and mounted on the wall at the request of Annie Laurie:

A portrait of Robert G. Ingersoll (1833-1899), the “Great Agnostic”, a wonderful orator and exponent of “freethinking” (atheism) in the 19th century. Right now I’m reading his biography by Susan Jacoby.

This is a Darwin Wedgewood plate (Darwin was of course married to his first cousin, Emma Wedgewood of the pottery factory), carefully brought back from England by Annie Laurie.

I love the atheist signs that hang over every restroom (mixed gender, of course). Katherine Hepburn: “I’m an atheist, and that’s it. I believe there’s nothing we can know except that we should be kind to each other and do what we can for other people.”

Here’s another. Emily Dickinson:

“Faith is a fine invention for gentlemen who see—
But microscopes are prudent in an emergency!”

The television and radio studios:

Inside the video studio where we recorded the “Ask an Atheist” Facebook stream (next post) and the “Freethought Matters” video.

The control room:

A selfie in the bathroom, which, like all spaces in the building, has various freethought items. This is a thank you from school kids to Dan for giving a talk:

Also in the bathroom: all of Dan’s nametags from various conventions and meetings:

One of the many whimsical freethought items that pop up here and there in the building:

The wonderful library, full of freethought and science books. There’s a full-sized latex statue of Darwin in the library. I’m told that once, when the building door was found to be open, the police came and went through the building. Seeing this statue in the dark (and it looks very realistic), they ordered it to put its hands up. Darwin didn’t comply, and they almost shot him! It would have been amazing to have Darwin with a bullet hole in him!

Who could resist having their photo taken with Chuck D? He was tall for a Victorian man: about 5′ 10″, I think. Certainly taller than I.

The face; it’s very well done and very realistic.

There’s a book on how the effigy was made (I didn’t remember the details), but it was built up bit by bit. This is what Darwin looked like before they added his beard.  And that’s what he would have looked like as an old man had they shaved his beard. Who does he look like to you? He reminds me a bit of Gollum.

Darwin’s hands:

Andrew Seidel, one of the FFRF’s constitutional attorneys, and one I’ve worked with in the past. Notice the “Don’t give up the ship” banner, appropriate for lawyers used to losing their First Amendment cases. But I’m told the FFRF wins 2/3 of the cases it brings to court. Their legal accomplishments are one reason why I support them so strongly.

Dan in his office. Like me, he collects toys, artifacts, puzzles, and stuff, so his office is full of whimsy. (Dan told me that his job at the FFRF was “to provide levity”.)

Although he gave up the ministry and became an atheist, Dan still retains his valid certificate of ordination, which he displays here. It allows him to still perform marriages, which he often does.

Here’s a small cupola in the building, a place where Dan often performs marriage ceremonies:

Annie Laurie busy preparing for the 40th anniversary convention of the FFRF, to be held this fall in San Francisco.

Dan gets some makeup before the afternoon taping of the “Freethought Matters” t.v. show (broadcast locally on Saturdays). It will also be up on YouTube, as will the “Ask an Atheist” video we also made yesterday.

Dan and Annie Laurie just before we taped:

This is the auditorium where Dan and I had our 1.25-hour conversation and Q&A last evening. I think it went well. Dan is great at running conversations, and we have good rapport. Afterwards we signed our books, which you can see on the table to the right. Before the discussion, Dan played the piano, a gift to the FFRF (Dan used to write and play hymns; now he does jazz and popular songs).

And another message flashed on the building.

If you’d like to donate to this worthy organization—in my view, the best of all secular and humanist groups—go here. For only $40 a year (tax deductible), you get a membership and a spiffy monthly newspaper full of cool items.


  1. Posted March 15, 2018 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    Thanks, Jerry. FFRF is one of my two favorite organizations with the other being Earthjustice (Because the earth needs a good lawyer). Thanks to FFRF we have good lawyers protecting us from religious privilege and state/church violations.

  2. GBJames
    Posted March 15, 2018 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    I’m glad you got there, and look forward to hearing your discussion when it becomes available.

    I agree… There is no better use of a tax-deductible contribution than FFRF.

  3. Randall Schenck
    Posted March 15, 2018 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    Either on line or in the monthly news is the best way to find out all the things FFRF is doing. It also shows how much work it is to fight the intrusion of religion into everything. Some like the term it takes a village but better to say it takes a bunch of lawyers.

  4. PatrickQ
    Posted March 15, 2018 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    Those who shop at Amazon can have 0.5% of your purchases automatically donated to FFRF through the AmazonSmile program.

  5. yazikus
    Posted March 15, 2018 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    I’ll never forget the day that my postman left me a ‘thank god for atheists’ bumper sticker. Pretty sure he’d been snooping in the mail and enjoyed the FFRF newsletter. A fun moment in a small, religious town.

    • GBJames
      Posted March 15, 2018 at 9:44 am | Permalink

      That’s great!

      From time to time I’ve pondered FFRF’s need to have the outside of the mailing be plain paper. Sad that having copy exposed would likely dramatically reduce deliveries.

      • yazikus
        Posted March 15, 2018 at 9:50 am | Permalink

        Yeah, it isn’t quite as bad as the solid blue plastic packing they put porn in, but it does make it seem like ‘dirty mail’. But I get why they do it.

        • Posted March 15, 2018 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

          One wonders how you know…

          • yazikus
            Posted March 15, 2018 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

            True story, the office was the executor for an elderly gent who passed away some years ago. Turns out, the fellow had a lifetime subscription to some adult magazines, which started arriving at the office. This was problematic, as we had teenage runners who did things like open the mail. So we went to work trying to end the subscription. Years of certified letters, attorney letters, phone calls, threats to no avail. They still arrive. They look quite similar to some financial mailers, too boot.

            • Diane G.
              Posted March 15, 2018 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

              WHY does this happen? I cannot unsub from Biblical Archaeology. My aunt (in California) subscribed to it, and when she died (at least 10 years ago), my Dad (in Oregon–her only heir) started receiving it. He couldn’t get rid of it, even though he & Mom went through 3 different addresses (into increasingly assisted living homes) before they passed away. Since then it’s been forwarded to me (their only heir) in Michigan. As far as we can tell, no one’s paid for it in more than a decade.

              Now that’s something I’d like to have arrive disguised–but no such luck.

              • Michael Fisher
                Posted March 16, 2018 at 1:08 am | Permalink

                Is it a bi-monthly magazine, Biblical Archaeology Review formerly edited by the lunatic & plagiarist Hershel Shanks? It rips off the layout of the National Geographic :-
                ** full page photo on the front
                ** blue border around the edge [NG uses yellow & TIME uses Red]
                ** white title font with serifs to show it’s serious & scholarly

              • GBJames
                Posted March 16, 2018 at 8:08 am | Permalink

                The Lord God Amighty is tracking you, Diane!

  6. jaxkayaker
    Posted March 15, 2018 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    Without the beard, Darwin looks a bit like the actor Sir Patrick Stewart.

    • Posted March 15, 2018 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

      My immediate reaction exactly. So we know who to cast should the role come up in a movie or documentary.

    • zoolady
      Posted March 15, 2018 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

      I thought so, too! With a lovely smile and twinkling blues!

  7. Michael Fisher
    Posted March 15, 2018 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    What I’ve figured out from the pics:

    ** Under the pink baseball cap: “we have met the enemy and it is us”
    Which I assume relates to Earth Day & environmentalism. The associated triptych of skulls, one with a Star of David has me puzzled – a commentary on the three antagonistic, monotheistic religions perhaps?

    ** Behind Dan’s head: “G + O + T + TLos Glück…” = Gottlos Glücklich = Godless Happy

    • Mark R.
      Posted March 15, 2018 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

      Yes the triptych must be representing the Abrahamic religions. You can just make out a cross on the middle skull…I assume the 3rd skull has Islam’s star and crescent.

      I think the German is Godless luck.

    • John Dentinger
      Posted March 15, 2018 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

      “. . . and he is us.” by Walt Kelly in the character of Pogo, and yes, Pogo was distressed at the amount of trash in his beloved Okefenokee swamp.

    • Christian
      Posted March 15, 2018 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

      ** Behind Dan’s head: “G + O + T + TLos Glück…” = Gottlos Glücklich = Godless Happy

      That’s a parody of the blessing the so-called Star singers write on your door (if you’re Catholic) on January 6.

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted March 15, 2018 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

        Thanks – now the rationale for the puzzle makes sense

  8. Liz
    Posted March 15, 2018 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    The success rate of the lawyers is mildly encouraging. They are very lucky to have met and been able to dedicate their lives to this together.

  9. glen1davidson
    Posted March 15, 2018 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    I like their flat-earth disk.

    Glen Davidson

  10. Posted March 15, 2018 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    Many thanks for sharing the pics. A good reminder to renew support of a worthwhile organization.

  11. Simon Hayward
    Posted March 15, 2018 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    How do you take a selfie in a mirror and not reverse the writing on the sign or move the ring on your finger to appear to be on your left hand? Is there a picture flip option on your camera?

    • rickflick
      Posted March 15, 2018 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

      Good question. Jerry’s laptop probably has PhotoShop or some such magical software. Without the flip it would be tough to read.

      • Simon Hayward
        Posted March 15, 2018 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

        I briefly considered that he might have taken up mirror writing, but the ring was a giveaway. Could certainly be done with Photoshop, I was just wondering if it was a camera or phone-based approach.

      • Posted March 15, 2018 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

        I can flip the picture in either I-Photo or the “preview” function on a Mac when you open a jpeg file.

        • rickflick
          Posted March 16, 2018 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

          Well that excludes my other theory (and it’s mine) that you used a double mirror technique 😎 .

  12. Posted March 15, 2018 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    Wonderful, thanks for sharing this Jerry!

    How was the train ride to Madison and back?

    • GBJames
      Posted March 15, 2018 at 10:27 am | Permalink

      Madison has rail service? Hey! Not in Scott Walker’s Wisconsin!

    • Posted March 15, 2018 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

      A great train ride. The train (which goes on to Seattle) was virtually empty from Chicago to Columbus, and the seats were comfortable and capacious: FAR better than a coach airplane seat.

  13. Posted March 15, 2018 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    I don’t know why, but that Darwin statue creeps me out a bit.

  14. Mark Cagnetta
    Posted March 15, 2018 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the great photographic tour!

    • Glenda Palmer
      Posted March 16, 2018 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

      + 1

  15. Jim batterson
    Posted March 15, 2018 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    Excellent and very informative travelogue jerry. Thanks. Looking forward to the conversation.

  16. Ken Kukec
    Posted March 15, 2018 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    … Clarence Darrow, atheist and fierce defender of civil rights …

    Technically, as I recall from his famous essay, and from my dog-eared childhood copy of Attorney for the Damned, Darrow self-identified as an agnostic.

  17. Diane G.
    Posted March 15, 2018 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    So nice to get a virtual tour of their new headquarters and so many of the meaningful and clever artifacts within! I’ve always loved the FFRF–I think this may be the year I opt to be a lifetime member.

  18. Frank
    Posted March 15, 2018 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    Perhaps you want to change that to Robert G. Ingersoll? I very much enjoyed Jacoby’s book.

  19. Ken Kukec
    Posted March 15, 2018 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    Darwin didn’t comply, and they almost shot him!

    Kinda looks like they tazed him, bro.

  20. Posted March 15, 2018 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    What a wonderful looking place – and they sure have lots of resources (though no doubt not enough!). I had no idea they were that big. Sad that it is needed, though.

  21. Posted March 15, 2018 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for the post, sounds like a great place to visit.

  22. Wotan Nichols
    Posted March 15, 2018 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    In his ‘accidental memoir’, Darwin descendant Matthew Chapman claimed that Darwin was fully 6 feet tall. Trials of the Monkey is the title of his book, worth reading, as I recall. I joined FFRF after reading about the group here, & am also considering becoming a lifetime member. They also offer an ‘afterlife’ plan, for those who wish to hedge their bets.

  23. Posted March 15, 2018 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    Great tour and their work, long may it continue… liked the Darwin photos 🙂

  24. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted March 15, 2018 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    Beardless Darwin still seems too warm and friendly to look like Gollum (though many have noticed the resemblance between Gollum and James Carville).

    The beardless Darwin looks to me much more like actor Ed Harris.

    The grounds for disallowing Barker’s invocation at the House of Representatives are fairly bad, including that he was “not a true minister of the gospel”. So also the notion that Barker’s request was a challenge to the freedom to pray. Had been asked as a hypothetical classroom exercise to come up with a reason for refusing Barker, I suspect I could come up with a better one.

    On the other case mentioned, since minister’s housing allowance exemption was made law in conjunction with laws allowing same for members of the military, I’m unconvinced that it is a First Amendment violation.

    The main 1st Amendment violations that concern me are any religious proselytizing under the auspices of any government institution, including teaching of creationism, and any privileging of religion (including priveleging one religion over another).

    • Posted March 16, 2018 at 11:18 am | Permalink

      Military housing allowances I can understand. Public servants if they had one, or congresspeople, them too. But arbitrary clergy? Why them? Why not, say, football players or chemists?

      • Diane G.
        Posted March 16, 2018 at 11:38 am | Permalink

        Yeah, I was wondering about the logic there, too.

  25. Mark R.
    Posted March 15, 2018 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been a member for a few years now, and look forward to their newsletters and email highlights. I really appreciate seeing their base of operations; I’m glad to see my donations have helped such a splendid and important organization.

  26. zoolady
    Posted March 15, 2018 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this, Jerry! I’ve sent a few dollars to FFRF for many years but haven’t seen their location, so this was fun! Looks as if you enjoyed yourself, and that’s a bonus, too!

  27. Posted March 15, 2018 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

    Gottlos Glücklich!
    (hidden in one picture)

  28. Posted March 16, 2018 at 12:32 am | Permalink

    “Who does he look like to you? He reminds me a bit of Gollum.”

    We all do at that age.


  29. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted March 16, 2018 at 5:52 am | Permalink

    Fun post –

  30. Quadrivial
    Posted March 16, 2018 at 8:14 am | Permalink

    I notice that you’re reading Susan Jacoby’s biography of Ingersoll. I found it to be a very good book. Of particular note is the eloquence with which Ingersoll expressed himself. He had a wonderful turn of phrase and a command of history and literature that was truly admirable.

    • GBJames
      Posted March 16, 2018 at 8:18 am | Permalink

      I also enjoyed the biography a lot. Made an Ingersoll fan out of me.

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