A Peak Behind the Veil of Public Interest Law
In a recent piece for the Civitas Institute, I give a behind the scenes look at how competing public interest groups operate in action:
A recent episode in Moore County shows how public interest lawyers can drive policy — on both the Left and the Right. Simply by writing a threatening letter, the Freedom From Religion Foundation sparked a chain of events that nearly culminated in two separate federal lawsuits. Luckily, the administration and legal counsel of Moore County Schools were able to defuse a sticky situation before it escalated further. The situation is an interesting example of the dynamic between competing public interest groups and government actors. It further underscores the importance of maintaining a public interest litigation presence on the Right, lest the Left is allowed to bully and sue public officials without any countervailing conservative presence.
It is December 2, 2014. Pinecrest High School, located in Moore County, is holding its annual awards banquet for the men’s soccer team — and awards are certainly in order. The team posted a perfect 10-0 conference record in regular season play before making a deep run in the Division 4-A playoffs. The Pinecrest Patriots ultimately fell to Charlotte powerhouse Myers Park High School, ending the season with a stellar 17-4-2 record.
Someone — maybe a coach, teacher, or parent — stands up before the attendees and says a prayer to begin the evening. Perhaps they thank God for a good season or say some words to solemnize the occasion, though the exact contents of the prayer are unknown. Regardless, one anonymous parent in the crowd does not approve, and he or she reaches out to an organization all too familiar to advocates of religious liberty — the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF).
The bread and butter of FFRF is shutting down religious expression in public spaces. The organization makes its name by seeking out any public mention of religion and challenging it in court. These lawsuits often fail, but they are used as a public relations and fundraising tool by the Wisconsin-based organization. The tone and demeanor of FFRF can be understood just through one of its slogans: “Nothing fails like prayer.”
FFRF has even launched a “nothing fails like prayer” contest to “show our government that official prayer is unconstitutional, pointless, divisive and offensive.” The winner of the contest gets to give a mock “invocation” at the atheist group’s annual convention, openly mocking the very idea of prayer.
This is not a group of friendly atheists who want to coexist with people of different beliefs and faith — and to be clear, respectful and amicable atheists do exist. Rather, this is a group that believes (religiously) that its commitment to atheism makes it better, smarter, and fundamentally more advanced than people of faith.
Upon learning about the prayer at Pinecrest High School’s soccer banquet in Moore County, FFRF puts its litigation machine into action. The atheist organization is still licking its wounds from the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway, where the Court held that a town may permit chaplains to open legislative sessions with a brief prayer. FFRF is seeking any and every opportunity to narrow and distinguish the Supreme Court’s holding in Town of Greece, and a case involving school prayer at an official event is just such an opportunity.