FFRF continues to object to the annual production of a live nativity at the Concord Community High School holiday concert in Elkhart, Ind. The school claims that the depiction of Jesus' birth is merely "historical."
Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote a complaint letter Aug. 25 on behalf of a local complainant. Superintendent John Trout responded that the nativity is voluntary and only rehearsed after school.
Courts have rejected arguments that voluntariness excuses a constitutional violation, FFRF pointed out. Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor commented, "We are all in favor of music and performances in our public schools, but it is illegal for the schools to invite students to take part in or be in the audience of a school concert that involves a nativity display — much less a live nativity made up of students."
In addition, even if the nativity is rehearsed after school, it is still facilitated by the school and included in an official school performance. As T-shirts being sold by supporters note: "The nativity is a biblical story."
FFRF will ask for a review by the entire panel of the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals of a 2-1 decision Aug. 31 permitting a shrine to Jesus on federal land in Big Mountain, Montana. The case was filed on behalf of FFRF's members, including more than 100 in Montana and those "who have had direct and unwanted exposure to the shrine."
FFRF filed the federal lawsuit in 2012 over the Forest Service's decision to renew a special permit whose stated purpose was to erect a "shrine to our Lord Jesus Christ" on federal property in the Rockies. The Knights of Columbus, a conservative Roman Catholic men's club, has placed a devotional shrine on Big Mountain near Whitefish Mountain's Resort Chair Two in Flathead National Forest, in violation of the Establishment Clause.
Judge John Owens, an Obama appointee, and N.R. Smith, a Bush appointee, wrote the majority opinion. Dissenting Judge Harry Pregerson, a Carter appointee, strongly demurred: "First, despite arguments to the contrary, a twelve-foot tall statue of Jesus situated on government-leased land cannot realistically be looked upon as 'predominantly secular in nature.'
"Second, to determine the effect of the statue we ask whether 'it would be objectively reasonable for the government action to be construed as sending primarily a message of either endorsement or disapproval of religion.' I submit that a 'reasonable observer would perceive' the statue situated on government land "as projecting a message of religious endorsement."
Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor called it a "sham" to pretend that a "giant Jesus" is secular, thereby ignoring the Knights of Columbus' stated purpose. The Catholic men's club has "leased" at no cost the prominent parcel of land on the federal ski slope to display its Catholic shrine.
U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen issued a ruling in June 2013 granting summary judgment for the defendants, which FFRF appealed.
FFRF, which has nearly 500 Virginia members, was ably represented by Dr. Tiffany Green at Norfolk State University's first-ever Founder's Day prayer breakfast Sept. 18. The Rev. Al Sharpton was keynote speaker for the sold-out event celebrating the historically black public university's 80th anniversary.
The breakfast theme was "Forging Onward through Prayer, Education and Service," with additional prayer and "reconciliation by our Faith Partners Network of religious leaders." Tickets were sold through the university.
Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent a letter of complaint Sept. 3, noting its "illegal and inappropriate for a public university to host, organize, support, or otherwise promote a patently religious event like a prayer breakfast."
NSU responded quickly and dropped the word "prayer" from the event's name and theme. More importantly, NSU invited Green to join the panel of interfaith leaders so that secular humanism was represented. Green, assistant professor in Virginia Commonwealth University's School of Medicine, is also vice president of the Richmond Reason and Naturalism Association and a certified secular celebrant through the Center For Inquiry.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is now the proud owner of an official University of Wisconsin-Madison football helmet signed by Coach Paul Chryst and legendary coach and current Athletic Director Barry Alvarez. The helmet will be included in a silent auction at FFRF's convention Oct. 9-10 in Madison at Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center.
During its investigation of the long-running chaplaincy within the Wisconsin football program, FFRF learned that the team's chaplain, Catholic priest Mike Burke, regularly received memorabilia to auction off for the benefit of his church, St. Maria Goretti Parish. The church uses the proceeds of the annual auction for religious functions, including "religious education and youth ministry programs" as well as "adult faith formation and evangelization."
In 2014, Burke's church auctioned off multiple memorabilia items signed by Wisconsin coaching staff, including head football, basketball and hockey coaches.
FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott submitted a "Charitable Donation Request" form in July for signed memorabilia items similar to items received by the church. The Athletic Department approved the request and agreed to provide a signed football helmet and make coaches available to sign other items. FFRF will also auction off a signed football, a basketball signed by Coach Bo Ryan and a private tour of Camp Randall Stadium.
"We appreciate that the University of Wisconsin is offering the same treatment to FFRF as it has to the Catholic Church," said Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "But we believe a public university should not be in the business of donating items for religious or nonreligious programs. As long as the university chooses to support Christian programming, it must keep a level playing field and provide similar treatment to our secular organization and others."
The second Reason Rally, sponsored by a coalition of secular groups, including FFRF, will take place at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington on Saturday, June 4, 2016.
"At FFRF, we work hard to ensure that reason will prevail, not only in urging that reason should be employed in forming opinions about religion, but must inform our public policy, not religious dogma," said Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.
"We also hope to rev up the 'I'm Secular and I Vote' movement in an election year, to ensure that candidates are reminded that almost a quarter of the U.S. population today is nonreligious, supports secular government and opposes religious interference in our laws," added Dan Barker, who co-directs FFRF, the nation's largest association of atheists and agnostics with more than 23,000 members nationwide.
You may start making travel arrangements, booking hotel rooms and coordinating with other freethinkers, atheists, agnostics, skeptics, humanists and activists for four whole days of comedy, music, eating, drinking, enlightenment and activism.
Many secular activists, authors and musicians, including Richard Dawkins and James Randi, will attend. Confirmed speakers include Eugenie Scott, Paul Provenza, Cara Santa Maria and many others.
Please visit reasonrally.org for more information on who will be speaking and performing, what will be happening, how to help and where to go for accommodations.
FFRF is pleased to report that the Carroll County School District, Carrollton, Ga., has issued a statement admitting that Villa Rica High School "failed to follow district facility usages procedures for outside groups using school facilities" by letting a coach invite First Baptist Church to perform mass baptisms in a utility tub on the football field before practice.
Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell sent a letter Sept. 1 to the district, addressing the egregious nature of this proselytizing event. FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler sent a letter earlier over promotion of a religious baccalaureate at Mount Zion High School, and a student informed FFRF that the school had made appropriate changes.
"We are pleased that the school district has publicly affirmed its commitment to keep religion out of public school events, and concurs that the bizarre baptisms crossed the line," said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.
"We would hope that the staff members who participated would be reprimanded and carefully monitored and that the district would send out a memo reminding employees that they may not engage in devotional events with students in public schools," said Gaylor.
Name: Valerie Tarico.
Where I live: Seattle, Wash.
Where and when I was born: Indiana, 1960.
Family: Husband of 24 years, Brian Arbogast, who is my best friend, and two awesome college student daughters who still like us! Funky fact: My elder daughter exists only because I was able to abort an infected pregnancy and start over. We conceived her before that first, unhealthy pregnancy would have come to term. I am grateful every day to the kind doctors who gave us a second chance and made her life possible.
Education: Graduate of Wheaton College in Illinois (Billy Graham's alma mater); University of Iowa, Ph.D. in counseling psychology.
Occupation: Freelance advocate and writer, focused on challenging religious fundamentalism and on helping to make thoughtful, intentional childbearing the new normal.
How I got where I am today: I kept asking the questions that were off limits. So wicked!
Where I'm headed: When I'm not working to undermine the corrosive power of biblical literalism, I'm working to help catalyze a technology revolution in contraception. That means a transition from outdated everyday or every-time birth control methods, like the pill and condom, to long-acting IUDs and implants that literally toggle the default setting, making pregnancy opt-in rather than opt-out.
Taking human error out of the equation drops accidental pregnancy and abortion to near zero, with bonus health benefits like lighter menstrual periods and less cancer. I want to make "surprise" pregnancy actually surprising in Washington state by 2030, so that 90% of babies are born by design rather than by default. Beyond that, I suspect I'm headed for the Urban Death Project's compost bin.
Person in history I admire: Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who makes both left- and right-wingers uncomfortable with her clear-eyed, unflinching challenge to Islamic oppression of girls and women. As someone on the left half of the political spectrum, I'm ashamed of how progressives treat her. I'm also completely infatuated with Van Jones, Sam Harris, Cecile Richards and Neil deGrasse Tyson. (My husband knows.)
A quotation I like: "We are each other's business; we are each other's harvest; we are each other's magnitude and bond." (American poet Gwendolyn Brooks) "Knowledge is an unending adventure at the edge of uncertainty." (modern Renaissance man Jacob Bronowski) "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." (anthropologist Margaret Mead)
These are a few of my favorite things: Ancient trees, misty ferns, the smell of damp earth, silences, manual labor, timeless architecture, people who are kind and curious and who step up.
These are not: Light pollution, garish disposable buildings, willful ignorance, careless cruelty.
My doubts about religion started: I never could understand how my I was going to be blissfully happy in heaven while my childhood friend, Kay, (a Mormon) was being tortured in hell. If I find it painful that kids are starving in Africa or rhino babies are losing their mamas, or that ISIS is torturing and killing people in the Middle East, why would I be fine in a heaven that coexists with hell?
Before I die: I think climate change is the core moral issue of our time and that the growth of human need is driven in large part by unsought and unwanted childbearing. I'd like to see the trend lines moving on both of these issues, to see that there's hope for that we can attain sustainable abundance in a thriving web of life.
Ways I promote freethought: I write for online news and opinion sites, including Salon, AlterNet, TruthOut and The Raw Story and also post all of my articles for subscribers at ValerieTarico.com (sign up!). I wrote a book, Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light. I have a YouTube channel with videos about the psychology of religion at youtube.com/user/TrustingDoubt. I support the hard work of freethought organizations, including Foundation Beyond Belief, Recovering From Religion and, of course, FFRF.
Name: Eleanor McEntee.
Where and when I was born: I was born in St. Louis, Mo. I'm a child of the early 1970s.
Education: Clayton High School, Mo.; Guilford College, N.C.
Family: Nancy and Donald (parents) and Holly and Emily (my older and younger sisters).
How I came to work at FFRF: I have been Women's Medical Fund's volunteer bookkeeper since 2006. When the bookkeeping position became vacant at FFRF in 2015, I applied and was hired!
What I do here: Bookkeeping and other administrative tasks.
What I like best about it: I get to work on a Mac!
What gets old about it: The crank callers and the callers who talk/lecture and refuse to listen.
I spend a lot of time thinking about: When at work, I am thinking about transparency and clean audits, and when not at work, I am thinking about the route of my next Harley ride/adventure and about how I can make this world a better place to live in.
I spend little if any time thinking about: Fashion trends.
My religious upbringing was: Casual Congregationalist and serious nature walks.
My doubts about religion started: The musical aspect and sense of community were predominating but the dogma made no sense. It seemed hypocritical and the bible seemed anti-woman and demanded domination over the Earth instead of coexisting with nature.
Things I like: Riding my Harley, petting my kitties, having Monday burger nights with Holly and brother-in-law Eric, journaling, spending time in nature and visiting my co-worker's Betta fishes named Church and State (and yes, they are separate).
Things I smite: Hypocrisy and defending poor choices with faulty/no logic instead of taking responsibility for one's own actions.
In my golden years: Continue to ride my Harley, be able to laugh, be a critical thinker, be happy and healthy.
If you like, ask yourself a question here: Why is the food that is so bad for me taste so good? Shut up and pass the deep-fried cheese curds!
With so much of America agog and on its collective knees for Pope Francis' visit to America, including a first-ever papal address to a joint session of Congress, FFRF went on the offensive with a series of statements protesting state/church entanglement.
How entangled was it? The day after the pope's speech to Congress, House Speaker John Boehner resigned his seat (for unrelated reasons). GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush had this reaction: "John Boehner dedicated his life to public service. Bringing the Holy Father to Congress was a fitting cap to a great career."
FFRF sponsored full-page ads (see pages 12-13) Sept. 24 in The New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today and Philadelphia Inquirer to explain why it's wrong for a religious leader to address Congress. It also sponsored a 30-second spot on ABC "World News Tonight" featuring President John Kennedy as a candidate making his famous remarks to Houston pastors: "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute."
The same ad ran in more than 20 major metro areas during "Late Night with Stephen Colbert" but CBS refused to air it nationally.
The New York Times' Sept. 17 edition featured a story headlined "An Atheist Group Asks, Should New York Be in the Pope Business?" It detailed FFRF's efforts, including:
• A letter to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio criticizing the city's ticket giveaway and staff involvement in the pope's Central Park "procession." The visit was estimated to cost taxpayers at least $1.5 million.
• A letter to Boehner asking him to invite an atheist dignitary, Richard Dawkins, to address a joint session of Congress to balance the score.
• Protesting use of Pennsylvania prison inmates to build a hand-carved walnut chair for the pope.
• Contacting President Barack Obama to protest the official website promotion of the pope's devotional events, including a Sept. 23 White House visit, and its invitation to citizens to sign up for alerts about the pope.
Co-President started her Sept. 24 blog: "I'm in Philadelphia to provide a feminist/secular voice with a speech at the Ethical Society on the eve of the pope's visit to Philadelphia, which is taking over the city."
She wrote that Francis "has been harder to criticize, sounding more like a real human being. And I think that's the real danger — putting a pretty face on Catholic dogma, which has not budged."
She noted that Francis responded to criticism of his canonization of Junipero Serra, the father of the missionary system, by saying that missionaries' first contacts with Native Americans were "often turbulent and violent."
"After his remarks to U.S. bishops praising their 'courage' in dealing with the pain of systemic predation by Catholic officials against minors, he had the gall to mention the young being subject to 'violence, abuse and despair.' Talk about a jarring note.
"But it doesn't really matter what the pope said during his joint address to Congress. Even had I or you agreed with everything the pope said, it was still unfitting, unprecedented, unconstitutional, that a religious figure was invited, for the first time in history, to make such remarks before a joint session of Congress. . . . What distresses me the most is the spectacle of a deferential and adoring Congress turning out and giving a standing ovation to a religious leader of such a powerful religion, the huge screens for onlookers outside, the governmental websites devoted to promoting the pope's visit including devotional events — all of this put on by our secular government at taxpayer expense. The symbolism of our government united with the Catholic Church is the worst message."
After months of community turmoil and divisive religious pandering by the mayor of Hawkins, Texas, the city council voted Sept. 21 to remove a sign saying “Jesus Welcomes You To Hawkins” from city property.
FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover first sent a letter to the city in June, asking for removal of the sign due to its promotion of a Christian messag: The sign “sends a message to the city’s citizens that the Hawkins government is endorsing and compelling belief in a particular god.”
Mayor Will Rogers reacted negatively, making such statements as “Jesus is not a religion, Jesus is in every religion across the globe.” He also compared Jesus to Superman, stating, “If you don’t believe that Jesus existed, then he would be fiction. If he’s fiction, and you want to remove his name from everything then you need to remove every fiction name that there is across the country. That means we couldn’t say Superman welcomes you to town.”
Rogers also insisted that the sign was the idea of private citizens. It turns out that he composed the wording and had public school students paint it, magnifying the state/church entanglement.
The council, after ordering a land survey to verify that the sign was indeed on city property, voted to remove it and place it in storage within the next 30 days.
Grover noted, “Despite the absurdity of his statements, Rogers confused the issue enough so that many Hawkins residents became convinced that FFRF was targeting their private right to worship. Many posted their own ‘Jesus Welcomes You To Hawkins’ signs on their lawns and petitioned the council to keep it, despite its clear illegality. FFRF, of course, has no problem with private citizens exercising their right to free speech. We did think it was odd that so many people were pretending to know that their god has strong, positive opinions about their town, but that’s beside the point.”