Rep. Pete Stark Accepts the Emperor Has No Clothes Award
The Freedom From Religion Foundation sent letters of complaint March 7 to public school districts in Orange and Seminole counties and to the mayor of Casselberry, Fla., about government entanglement with a Christian congregation called The Venue Church.
FFRF, a state-church watchdog based in Madison, Wis., has about 20,000 members and 950 in Florida. FFRF has been fighting other religious intrusions for some time in the Orange County district and filed a lawsuit in June 2013 in U.S. District Court against the Orange County School Board.
In that lawsuit, FFRF and its chapter, the Central Florida Freethought Community, allege that distribution of freethought materials was censored while distribution of the bible and other Christian literature was unfettered.
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel detailed allegations in FFRF's letter to Diego “Woody” Rodriguez, Orange County Schools general counsel. They include:
— Rampant religious activity at Apopka High School, including weekly services and other events sponsored by The Venue Church. “We are permanently planting churches in Central Florida Schools,” the church asserts.
— Regular prayer sessions attended by football coaches and players, including prayers led by Venue Church Pastor Todd Lamphere, who is also team chaplain. Lamphere is also "bowling team chaplain." A video shows him and other adults praying with the team.
— Bible verses on signs and apparel are common. A large banner saying “Prepare for Glory, 2 Corinthians 4:17” was displayed at the football field as was another banner with a verse from John 15:13. Several T-shirts and jerseys combine the school logo with religious messages.
— Highlight reels of Apopka and other district football teams posted on YouTube sometimes include Christian music in the background. "If the district is contracting with AH Media to produce this content, or providing special access to this company to shoot video of district games, the content must be neutral toward religion," Seidel wrote.
FFRF also filed open records requests with both districts March 7 that ask for:
— Applications and contracts between schools and the church regarding use of district facilities.
— Proof of the church's liability insurance coverage and payment for facility use, including rental rate schedules.
— All email correspondence between any district staff and Pastors Todd Lamphere, Brian Pikalow, Andy Searles, and Vickie Martin, Chris Burns, Jerry Martin, and/or any other church employee.
— Contracts with AH Media.
— Any official or unofficial policies on ownership and wearing of uniforms for any Apopka High School choral group and the football team.
In FFRF's letter to Rodriguez, Seidel said it's "inappropriate and unconstitutional for the district to offer a Christian minister unique access to befriend and proselytize student athletes. Accordingly, public high school football teams cannot appoint or employ a chaplain, seek out a spiritual leader for the team, or agree to have a volunteer team chaplain, because public schools may not advance or promote religion."
It also appears that Lamphere led a mission trip for football coaches and players last summer. "Nonschool persons cannot be allowed to treat the school as a recruiting ground for their religious mission," Seidel added.
"It is very clear that a religious atmosphere has been directed and cultivated in the school district. No doubt some of these problems arise because of the school’s unconstitutional relationship with Pastor Todd Lamphere and The Venue Church. We intend to address that relationship and other issues further after our open records request has been fulfilled."
Seidel detailed several more constitutional issues in FFRF's March 7 letter to Ned Julian, Seminole County School Board attorney involving The Venue Church with Lake Brantley High School and South Seminole Middle School.
— Public endorsement of the church by district officials, including board Chairperson Karen Almond and South Seminole Principal Mia Coleman-Baker, who both appeared in a promotional video for the church and used their titles. The video appears to have been shot on campus.
— The Church published a note from Brian Shafer, Lake Brantley dean of students, to Pastor Brian Pikalow in which he stated that “my prayer is for the Venue Church @ Lake Brantley to continue prospering and grow and reach the community for Jesus Christ.”
— Special access was apparently given to pastors to district activities and to pray with South Seminole teachers at school.
— Lake Brantley Fellowship of Christian Athletes Twitter messages indicate club formation and activities were coordinated with the church, a violation of the federal Equal Access Act, which states school clubs are “voluntary and student-initiated” and that “nonschool persons may not direct, conduct, control, or regularly attend activities of student groups.”
— District promotion of staff participation in two religion-based physical fitness programs founded by Pastor Lamphere. The church is believed to have paid for some school staff to enroll.
— Rental by Greater Life Church of space at Lawton Chiles Middle School in Oviedo, where an ad for the church is posted on a school fence "24/7" and not just when services are being held.
— Lamphere’s biography states he was chaplain of the Lyman High School and Lake Howell High School football teams. "Public high school athletic teams cannot appoint or employ a chaplain, seek out a spiritual leader for the team or agree to have a volunteer team chaplain, because public schools may not advance or promote religion," Seidel wrote.
In his letter to Casselberry Mayor Charlene Glancy, Seidel criticized Glancy's appearance in a promotional video for The Venue Church in which she was identified as mayor of Casselberry (an Orlando suburb). In the video she says:
"[W]hat I’m very excited about is that Venue is located in the heart and soul of the Casselberry community, at our middle school. I believe that this is going to be an opportunity to bless people, to help the hurting, but also for people to grow and to see this community flourish as a result of all the great things that could happen in this church called The Venue."
Seidel wrote, "Your active promotion of The Venue Church in your official capacity unabashedly promotes a particular church and its worldview, sending an official message of endorsement of religion over nonreligion and of exclusion of many of your constituents.
FFRF told Glancy it's an "inappropriate usurpation" of her office for her to use her title to promote any church, in particular The Venue Church. "As an elected official, you should condemn an organization that perpetuates constitutional violations, not publicly invite your citizens to join it."
By Andrew L. Seidel
Staff Attorney Freedom
From Religion Foundation
Louisiana State Rep. Thomas Carmody, R-Shreveport, has introduced legislation that would make the official state book of Louisiana one that advocates slavery, racism, misogyny, genocide, murder and human sacrifice. That book "shall be the Holy Bible," according to the new bill.
Carmody is the second religious right-winger in as many weeks to tout the bible. FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor recently took Tony Perkins, who heads the Family research council (a hate group) to bible school. Perkins erroneously claimed that instructions to beat children, kill homosexuals, atheists and infidels, and to subjugate women are not in the bible. Barker and Gaylor bible-slapped Perkins, pointing out countless barbaric passages and principles espoused in the book Perkins claims to know but has apparently never read.
Rep. Carmody ought to read FFRF's analysis, or the more extended analyses contained in Barker's books (Godless, Losing Faith in Faith, and The Good Atheist or Gaylor's book on biblical sexism, Woe to the Women: the Bible Tells Me So. Had he done so, this blog could have been avoided.
I cannot help but wonder why Rep. Carmody, if he has read the bible, is so eager to have the state officially endorse it. The book calls for the death of more than 19% of all adult Americans. Some 60 million Americans and 900,000 Louisianans are not affiliated with any religion, yet Carmody wants to endorse a book that says "whoever does not seek the Lord, the God of Israel, should be put to death, whether young or old, man or woman." 2 Chronicles 15:13. A lovely message for any state government to endorse—in places like Iran or Saudi Arabia, but somewhat out of place here in the free world.
The bible also demands that you murder anyone, including a family member, who might try to get you to expand your religious horizons:
If anyone secretly entices you — even if it is your brother, your father's son or your mother's son, or your own son or daughter, or the wife you embrace, or your most intimate friend — saying, "Let us go worship other gods," . . . you must not yield to or heed any such persons. Show them no pity or compassion and do not shield them. But you shall surely kill them; your own hand shall be first against them to execute them, and afterwards the hand of all the people. Stone them to death for trying to turn you away from the LORD your God... Deuteronomy 13:6-10
When the Israelites intermarry with the Moabites, another tribe or race, God orders Moses to "Take all the chiefs of the people, and impale them in the sun before the LORD, in order that the fierce anger of the LORD may turn away from Israel." Racism and human sacrifice in one passage. There are plenty of lovely tales of human sacrifice in the bible: Jephthah sacrificing his daughter to god, Abraham's willingness to blindly murder his child for god, and god murdering his own son/himself in order to appease himself.
Perhaps these are the family values Rep. Carmody thinks most Louisianans respect: murdering your sons, daughters, wife, or most intimate friend because they believe in a different god? But I lived in Louisiana for seven years and cannot recall any of my neighbors exercising these "positive" values.
This legislation does not just endorse the bible generally, but the specific bible of a specific religion — a 1523 Latin Bible — which FFRF's biblical scholars take to mean that Vulgate translation. Pope Damascus I commissioned the Vulgate translation and it was/is the official bible of the Roman Catholic Church. Do the other Christians in the Louisiana legislature know that Carmody is trying to promote Catholicism over other branches of Christianity? Does Carmody?
Then again, maybe Carmody is not ignorant of the sectarian nature of this particular version of the bible. Maybe he is deliberately endorsing Catholicism. After all, Mardi Gras, a Louisiana institution, has its roots in Catholicism. Nothing says Catholicism like flashy costumes, gaudy jewelry, booze (or blood, if you believe in magic), and gross attempts to use the power of the state to impose your religion on everyone else — Carmody's latest bill continues that coercive tradition.
This proposal is unconstitutional on its face and should be opposed by every citizen who cherishes the freedoms protected by our First Amendment.
By Sam Grover
Freedom From Religion Foundation
"And God said unto Noah, seek out a $62 million municipal bond offering."
Genesis 6:14-21 describes the instructions given by God to Noah to build an ark and stock it with food and animals before the great flood. While not quite up to Ikea assembly manual standards, God was still quite specific about the end goal: Make the ark 300 by 50 by 30 cubits in dimension, coat the ark with pitch, make sure you put a door on the side, and fill it with two of every animal. Unfortunately, God left out the specifics of how Noah was supposed to achieve this great task and the bible authors, as they tend to do, just skip that part of the story. All we are told is that Noah went ahead and pulled it off. How very unsatisfying.
One might assume that if God thought it necessary to remind Noah that the ark needed a door, he would also have spent at least a little time explaining to Noah how to finance this endeavor... but no. Now, however, thanks to Ken Ham and the young earth creationists at Answers in Genesis, we can finally begin to fill in those pesky biblical gaps!
After a recent media boost from Ham's highly publicized debate with Bill Nye "the Science Guy" (a personal childhood hero of mine), Answers in Genesis now claims to have the necessary capital for groundbreaking on its newest project: construction of a 510-foot replica of Noah's ark. The ark is designed as the centerpiece of an 800-acre theme park estimated to cost $120-150 million to build. In 2011, shortly after the project was first announced, the Kentucky Tourism Development Finance Authority promised up to $43.1 million in sales tax rebates over 10 years to help offset the initial costs of construction. The ark-building phase of the project has also been funded in part through a $62 million municipal bond offering.
While the final ark replica is no doubt designed to demonstrate the plausibility of the underlying biblical story, Ken Ham's saga in trying to fund his latest pet project may have unintentionally had the opposite effect. Skeptics now have a whole new set of questions to ask biblical literalists, based on the struggles that Answers in Genesis has experienced in trying to achieve what Noah seemingly accomplished without incident.
Where did Noah get the $24.5 million needed to fund his project? (That's AiG's estimated cost of building its ark). Moreover, how did Noah and his seven family members secure the necessary finances in a timely manner, given that it has taken over three years for AiG, with all of its media capital and state support, to meet its minimum financing goal? And if Noah could build his ark without the help of the Kentucky government, why can't Ham?
Now that groundbreaking has been announced, the next question that AiG will help to answer is how long it took a 600-year-old Noah, his wife, three sons, and three daughters-in-law to construct the ark without the benefit of modern-day tools or construction equipment. I'm sure that AiG will stay true to the biblical narrative by avoiding the use of these implements, right?
FFRF considers the issuance of government bonds to support a religiously-fueled project inappropriate and constitutionally suspect. We are continuing to follow this debacle with rapt attention in order to evaluate all of the funding issues and any potential ways in which they may be challengeable. Meanwhile, this is one project that's sure to provide leagues more entertainment, whether it sinks or not.
“If the concept of God has any validity or use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of him.” –James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (1963)