Humanist Legal Advocacy: A Progress Report

Ronald A. Lindsay

The Council for Secular Humanism and the Center for Inquiry (CFI) share a long-standing interest in undertaking legal work in support of our mission, which includes not only maintaining the separation of church and state but also the protection and promotion of fundamental rights. For example, when I was in private practice, I had the privilege of submitting an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief on behalf of the Council in the case of Washington v. Glucksberg, the Supreme Court case that addressed the constitutionality of laws prohibiting assisted suicide.

Because of their limited resources, the Council and CFI rely heavily on the commitment of volunteer attorneys who generously donate their time and utilize their skills to craft briefs and undertake other legal work to support our positions. This group of attorneys has been organized as the Council’s (later, CFI’s) First Amendment Task Force (FATF). As I’ve stated, I was part of FATF when I was in private practice. Other attorneys and firms that have contributed significant amounts of time include Edward Tabash (chair of FATF), who recently authored an amicus brief in the California litigation over the legality of prohibitions on same-sex marriage; the law firm of Arnold and Porter, which worked with the Council and CFI in submitting an amicus brief in the Supreme Court case of Hein v. Freedom from Religion Foundation (which addressed the standing of taxpayers to bring suit on establishment clause claims in federal court); and the law firm of Jenner and Block, which recently submitted an amicus brief on behalf of the Council and CFI in the Supreme Court case of Pleasant Grove City v. Summum (which will consider a case involving the display of a Ten Commandments monument in a public park).

In the summer of 2006, the Council and CFI decided to increase the level of their legal advocacy—a decision that resulted in my being hired as in-house counsel for CFI. In that year, we submitted a pair of amicus briefs in Paulson v. City of San Diego, the Ninth Circuit litigation over the monumental cross on Mount Soledad overlooking San Diego, and a brief in Americans United for Separation of Church and State v. Prison Fellowship Ministries, the Eighth Circuit case that successfully challenged Iowa’s grant of money to a Christian indoctrination program for prison inmates. In May 2007, we filed our own lawsuit in Florida, The Council for Secular Humanism v. McNeil, challenging contracts between the Florida Department of Corrections and two faith-based providers of substance-abuse transitional services. (That case is pending; see sidebar.) Recently, CFI and the Council agreed to provide free legal representation to the plaintiff-appellant in Woods-Bateman v. State of Hawaii, the Ninth Circuit appeal in which William Woods-Bateman is challenging the constitutionality of the Hawaii statute that authorizes representatives of religious bodies, but not secular individuals or organizations, to solemnize marriages.

Unfortunately, as anyone who has followed the trend of church-state cases in recent years is aware, it is becoming more difficult to pursue establishment-clause claims successfully, especially in federal court. Substantively, the Supreme Court has interpreted the establishment clause more narrowly and, as indicated by the Hein decision, procedural hurdles are also placed in the way of litigants. But even though the courtroom doors may be less accessible, we sometimes are able to accomplish our objectives by working with individuals in presenting their claims outside of litigation.

Of course, it helps if you have the opportunity to work with an intelligent, persistent, committed individual. One recent success story involves Michael Swanson, a Tennessee resident who contacted us last summer after he was called to jury duty at the local county court and asked to take a religious oath without being offered the alternative of a nonreligious affirmation. But you’ve heard enough from me—Mike relates his story much better than I could.

Ronald A. Lindsay

Ronald A. Lindsay is the former president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry. Currently, he is senior research fellow for CFI and adjunct professor of philosophy at Prince George’s Community College.


The Council for Secular Humanism and the Center for Inquiry (CFI) share a long-standing interest in undertaking legal work in support of our mission, which includes not only maintaining the separation of church and state but also the protection and promotion of fundamental rights. For example, when I was in private practice, I had the …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.