Georgians want school prayer referendum

The Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a warning letter May 24 to Columbus, Ga., Mayor Teresa Tomlinson to head off endorsement by the City Council of a proposed statewide referendum to allow organized prayer and bible study in public schools.

FFRF works to defend state-church separation and has over 18,000 members nationwide, including more than 350 in Georgia.

Local pastors — Chaplain Paul Voorhees and Dr. Joe Coley — and several supporters stood before the mayor and council May 22 to ask for their "blessing" of the effort spearheaded by Voorhees, who insisted more than once to the room that "We are a Christian nation." (That's historically inaccurate. Voorhees, who owns Ranger Joe's military store, also told a TV station last year that "God was at His best when he created the American soldier.") News video of the council presentation is here.

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel took issue in FFRF's letter with Voorhees' claim that “our jails are safer than our schools,” because “in our jails we have bible study, we have prayers and we have church.”

Seidel said, "We would like to caution you against taking Voorhees’ proposal seriously — violating the Constitution will not decrease crime." He added, "The purpose of schools is to educate, not to promote religion. Schoolchildren are young, impressionable and vulnerable to adult and peer pressure. . . . The exercise of religion must be left to the individual and religious education left to the family."

Voorhees claims to have the support of “50,000 bible-thumpers” for his unconstitutional proposal, but he's offending a significantly larger population by implying that the nonreligious are criminals, Seidel said.

The American Religious Identification Survey shows that that there are over 650,000 "nonreligious" Georgians and over 950,000 non-Christian Georgians. Nationwide, there are almost 50 million nonreligious Americans. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life "Religion Among the Millennials" (2010) shows that “fully one-in-four adults under age 30” are atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular.”

In claiming that prayer would make schools safer, Voorhees is implying that millions of nonbelieving Americans and Georgians are criminals, an idea that's insulting and ignorant.

The claim is also countered by hundreds of scientific studies. Dr. Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, a clinical psychologist and expert in cult religions, wrote, “The claim that atheists are somehow more likely to be immoral has long been disproven by systematic studies.”

Voorhees’s assertion is also scientifically testable. In fact, worldwide studies show when any given factor of societal health is measured, the least-religious countries:

• Have the lowest rates of violent crime and homicide.
• Are the best place to raise children.
• Are the best place to be a mother.
• Have the lowest rates of corruption.
• Have the lowest levels of intolerance against racial and ethnic minorities.
• Score highest when it comes to women’s rights and gender equality.
• Have the greatest protection and enjoyment of political and civil liberties.
• Are better at educating their youth in reading, math and science.
• Are the most peaceful.
• Are the most prosperous.
• Have the highest quality of life.

The pattern of lower religiosity to higher societal well-being holds true for the U.S. States that tend to be among the most religious:

• Have the highest rates of poverty.
• Have the highest rates of obesity.
• Have the highest rates of infant mortality.
• Have the highest STD rates.
• Have the highest rates of teen pregnancy.
• Have the lowest percentage of college-educated adults.
• Have the highest rates of murder.
• Have the highest rates of violent crime.

Seidel noted that even if the council were to reject the weight of science in favor of Voorhees’s erroneous statements, they would be in direct violation of the Constitution.

"We hope that this council will not misdirect precious time and resources in a foolish and divisive attack upon our Constitution."

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

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