Rebecca S. Markert is the Legal Director for the Freedom From Religion Foundation. She discusses the association’s work and more with Scott Jacobsen.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: You have formal training in political science and international relations, and earned a Juris Doctor as well. How did you come to find an interest in those particular topics? How have these qualifications assisted in personal life?
Rebecca S. Markert: I was interested in international relations after I spent my senior year of high school as a Rotary Youth Exchange student in Hamburg, Germany. After that year abroad, I became interested in studying German and working in international affairs. During the course of my undergraduate work at Wisconsin, I discovered I really enjoyed my political science coursework. I started taking more of those classes and ended up with a triple major.
I wasn’t originally planning on going to law school. I thought I would get my Master’s in international affairs, but started working on Capitol Hill and became really interested in domestic issues. Then I worked on a campaign for the U.S. Senate doing compliance work with federal election law and realized how useful a J.D. would be.
These experiences have been incredibly useful in my current job as Legal Director for the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FRFF). Obviously, my legal training helps with FFRF’s legal work, but my experience on the hill also helps when we’re looking at legislative efforts to dismantle the wall of separation between state and church. Also, my experience working with a diverse constituency helps when working in a membership association.
Jacobsen: How did you find the Freedom From Religion Foundation?
Markert: Once I graduated from law school and decided to settle with my husband in Madison, Wisconsin, I started looking for attorney jobs. I was lucky to find that FFRF posted for its first in-house staff attorney the same year I passed the bar in Wisconsin. I applied and the rest is history.
Jacobsen: Why did you choose the Freedom From Religion Foundation?
Markert: I loved constitutional law as a law student and was drawn to civil rights or criminal law because of that. Working for FFRF allows me to work in constitutional law every day – something not a lot of other attorneys get to do often if ever in their careers. I work on issues of national importance. It’s very exciting to work on issues that have real significance.
Jacobsen: What do you consider some of the more pertinent, bigger goals for the Freedom From Religion Foundation? How can other organizations help? (How have they helped?)
Markert: One of FFRF’s main purposes is to protect the constitutional principle of separation between church and state. The biggest goal for FFRF is to keep that wall, as Associate Justice Hugo Black stated, “high and impregnable.” The biggest area of complaints about breaches of separation between state and church are in our public schools. This is astonishing given the clear case law that’s existed for decades about what is permissible and what is not in public schools. FFRF prioritizes these cases because of the age of school children affected by religious intrusion in their schools and the rights of the parents to direct their children’s religious or irreligious upbringing.
Jacobsen: Your main work is on the First Amendment caseload including areas of public schools, religious symbolism, and electioneering. All about the intrusion of religion in public life, whether overreach or utilization as a political tool to rally votes. What are some of the more notable cases, your work on them, and the eventual outcomes of them?
Markert: Some of the notable cases I worked on are as follows:
In 2013, FFRF along with the ACLU of Ohio sued Jackson City School District in Jackson, Ohio, to remove a portrait of Jesus that hung in the hall of honor at Jackson Middle School for decades. During the course of litigation, the district moved the portrait from the middle school to the high school. This complaint originated with FFRF, and when it came across my desk, I didn’t believe that it was true. There was strong precedent in the Sixth Circuit, of which Ohio is part, that found these displays in public schools unconstitutional. I thought it would be a quick victory and could be resolved with a letter of complaint. The superintendent refused to remove the portrait without a court order. Later that year, he got one. The case was victoriously settled with a consent degree on Oct. 4, 2013. The court order mandated permanent removal of the portrait and parties agreed to a financial settlement requiring the school to pay the plaintiffs a combination of damages and legal fees totalling $95,000.
I also work on a lot of religious display on public property cases, notably cross displays. This year, I was involved with two lawsuits involving crosses on public property. The first was in Santa Clara, California, where a large granite cross was erected in a public park, named Memorial Cross Park. The 14-foot cross apparently commemorated the 1777 Catholic mission that founded the city. The cross was donated in 1953. I wrote to the city requesting removal of the cross in 2012. The city agreed the cross was constitutionally problematic but continually delayed removal. In January 2017, FFRF sued, and the cross was removed quickly and the case settled in March 2017. The city agreed to pay attorneys’ fees totaling $6,500.
The second cross case involved a 25-foot tall cross in Bayview Park in Pensacola, Florida. A cross, in one form or another, has been there since 1941. In 2016, after unsuccessful attempts at getting the City to remove the cross through non-litigation efforts, FFRF along with the American Humanist Association sued the city for its removal. In June of this year, a federal judge agreed with us that it was unconstitutional and ordered the cross’s removal. That order stayed pending appeal. The City has now retained the Becket Fund, a religious right legal group, to represent them on appeal. The case is currently pending before the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, but FFRF is confident the lower court decision will stand.
Jacobsen: You are the President of the Legal Association for Women in Madison, Wisconsin. What is the purpose of the organization?
Markert: The purpose of the Legal Association for Women is “to promote the rights of women in society and advance the interests of women members of the legal profession, to promote equality and social justice for all people, and to improve relations between the legal profession and the public.” LAW offers monthly luncheons which include Continuing Legal Education programs, and annual events. You can find out more here: http://www.lawdane.com/
Jacobsen: How can citizens donate and become involved in the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the Legal Association for Women?
Markert: You can donate or become a member of FFRF at our website: https://ffrf.org/donate
Donations to LAW are also welcome and information about those can be found here: http://www.lawdane.com/#/contact/
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Rebecca.