This op-ed appeared in The New Yorker on Feb. 19, 2016, and is reprinted with permission.
By Lawrence Krauss
Who should replace Antonin Scalia? On Feb. 15, The New York Times reported that the justice himself had weighed in on the question: Last June, in his dissenting opinion in the same-sex marriage case Obergefell v. Hodges, Scalia wrote that the court was "strikingly unrepresentative" of America as a whole and ought to be diversified. He pointed out that four of the justices are natives of New York City, that none are from the Southwest (or are "genuine" Westerners), and that all of them attended law school at Harvard or Yale. Moreover, Scalia wrote, there is "not a single evangelical Christian (a group that comprises about one quarter of Americans), or even a Protestant of any denomination" on the court. (All nine justices are, to varying degrees, Catholic or Jewish.)
Scalia's remarks imply that an evangelical Christian should be appointed to the court. That's a strange idea: Surely, the separation of church and state enshrined in the Constitution strongly suggests that court decisions shouldn't be based on religious preference, or even on religious arguments. The Ten Commandments are reserved for houses of worship; the laws of the land are, or should be, secular. Still, I'm inclined, in my own way, to agree with Scalia's idea about diversity. My suggestion is that the next Supreme Court justice be a declared atheist.
Atheists are a significantly underrepresented minority in government. According to recent findings from the Pew Research Center, about 23% of American adults declare that they have no religious affiliation — which is two percentage points more than the number who declare themselves Catholic. At least 3% of Americans say that they are atheists — which means that there are more atheists than Jews in the United States. An additional 4% declare themselves agnostic; as George Smith noted in his classic book Atheism: The Case Against God, agnostics are, for practical purposes, atheists, since they cannot declare that they believe in a divine creator. Even so, not a single candidate for major political office or Supreme Court justice has "come out" declaring his or her non-belief.
From a judicial perspective, an atheist justice would be an asset. In controversial cases about same-sex marriage, say, or access to abortion or birth control, he or she would be less likely to get mired in religion-based moral quandaries. Scalia himself often got sidetracked in this way: He framed his objections to laws protecting LGBT rights in a moral, rather than a legal-rights, framework. In his dissent in 2003 in Lawrence v. Texas — a case that challenged a Texas law criminalizing gay sex — Scalia wrote that those who wanted to limit the rights of gay people to be teachers or scoutmasters were merely "protecting themselves and their families from a lifestyle they believe to be immoral and destructive." To him, religion-based moral objections seemed to deserve more weight than either factual considerations (homosexuality is not destructive) or rights-based concerns (gay people's rights must be protected). Indeed, Scalia's meditation on the court's lack of religious diversity was part of a larger argument that the court's decision on same-sex marriage did not reflect prevailing religious and moral values. An atheist justice, by contrast, would have different intellectual habits. I suspect that he or she would be more likely to focus on reason and empirical evidence.
In addition, the appointment of an atheist justice would send a meaningful message: it would affirm that legal arguments are secular, and that they are based on a secular document, the Constitution, which was written during the founding of a secular democracy. Such an appointment would also help counter the perceived connection between atheism and lawlessness and immorality. That unfortunate and inaccurate link is made all too often in the United States. A Pew survey conducted in January showed that, once again, Americans would be less likely to vote for an atheist candidate than for a candidate who has no experience, is gay, was involved in financial improprieties, has had extramarital affairs, or is Muslim. Atheists are widely, absurdly and openly mistrusted.
That distrust has ancient roots: because religion long ago claimed morality as its domain, atheism has long been connected to immorality. To many people, religiosity confers an aura of goodness. In the U.K., when people who had listed their religious affiliation as Christian on the national census were asked by the Richard Dawkins Foundation why they had done so, most said it was not because they actually accepted the detailed doctrines of their faith, but because it made them feel like they were good people. This is a two-way street on which both directions point the wrong way. By the same token, when good people openly declare that they cannot accept religious doctrines or question the underlying concept of God, they are often classified as "bad."
The prejudice against atheists has real-world consequences. In December 2014, the Times reported that seven states — Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas — still have laws on their books that make atheists ineligible to run for public office. And anti-atheist prejudice is shaping our presidential race, too. Consider the case of Donald Trump in South Carolina. After Trump insulted Ted Cruz using a sexist slur, one voter responded by saying, "The way he speaks — that doesn't sound like somebody who really believes in God that much. You want your children to look up at the president of the United States."
Implicit in that statement is the idea that a politician's belief in God is, in itself, a reason for children to look up to him or her. Meanwhile, other aspects of a candidate's character seem not to matter. If the opinions of Cruz's colleagues in the Senate and elsewhere are any indication, he seems to be rather unlikable; his competitors in the Republican primaries have suggested that he is less than truthful, as well. Still, Cruz captures a significant fraction of the evangelical vote because his character seems to matter less than his open and pronounced invocation of God in discussing his policies.
Our strange attitudes about atheism warp our politics and our laws. It's time to remove the stigma. One way to do that is by appointing an atheist to the Supreme Court. Happily, such an appointment would be a tribute to the spirit, if not the letter, of one of Scalia's last opinions. More than that, it would be a tribute to the secular principles upon which this country was founded.
Lawrence Krauss is an esteemed theoretical physicist and author who will be receiving the Emperor Has No Clothes Award at the 2016 FFRF national convention. See more on the back page.
Name: Marni Huebner-Tiborsky.
Where I live: Richmond Heights, an east suburb of Cleveland, Ohio.
Where and when I was born: Bedford, Ohio, on March 21, 1973.
Family: Mark Tiborsky, 54, atheist spouse and staunch FFRF supporter.
Education: 1990 graduate of Mentor High School, Mentor, Ohio; 1992 graduate of Lakeland Community College with A.A. English major; and 1994 graduate of Lake Erie College with B.A. major in French/Italian.
Occupation: Coordinator, Worldwide Expense Reporting. I work in the finance department for a private equity firm and check almost all expense reports worldwide (U.S., Europe and Asia), making sure tax, internal and external coding and audit rules are followed. I also manage the Travel and Expense Reporting system and handle almost all back office administrative and helpdesk functions, training, etc.
How I got where I am today: Whew, this is a tough one. I think it's a matter of just gaining day-to-day experience, trying new things and just growing up, maturing and learning how to be better and do better, even in the face of adversity and sometimes just bad luck. I'm always learning, especially from my friends and peers. It's not always easy but I keep plugging away day to day!
Where I'm headed: Where I hope I'm headed is eventually running my own business teaching people about green smoothies and making raw vegan fruit desserts in an environmentally friendly store/food truck. I also would like to be a vegan menu planning consultant. On a far different note, I hope to eventually organize/host a freethought convention in Cleveland.
Person in history I admire and why: There are so many! I admire any freethinkers throughout history who have resisted the status quo no matter how frightening it was or how dangerous. Their willingness to put themselves on the front lines to create change is to be applauded. It is critical, especially with current events, that more freethinkers have the courage to come out to friends and family and publicly. The only way to change minds and end discrimination and ignorance is to get out in the open and educate!
A quotation I like: "The only constant is change" — Isaac Asimov.
These are a few of my favorite things: A secular, free society, green smoothies, coffee, my cats, being married to another atheist, the greatest friends in the world (you know who you are!), our social meetup group and our wonderful FFRF chapter.
These are not: My cats (yes, they are a blessing and a curse!), bad drivers, willful ignorance, entitlement mentality and tax-exempt churches.
My doubts about religion started: I have been an atheist as long as I can remember. Religion just never made sense to me. I was reared Methodist, but just didn't give it much thought, ever. The whole thing just seemed inane. I went to church and was active, but that was because of community, not religiosity.
Before I die: Wow, there's so many things! I want to visit every national park in an RV, and I want to own a completely modular, mobile tiny house (although I'd have to build another house for the kitties). I want to visit Farm Sanctuary in New York, Big Cat Rescue in Florida, and I want to get my husband to Europe. I would also like to be in New York City once for the Macy's parade and once for New Year's Eve. I'd also like to run a statewide Secular Community Center and own a very successful business.
Ways I promote freethought: In 2007, I founded and now co-organize with my husband a social group on meetup.com called The Cleveland Freethinkers, which has over 1,100 members and has had over 600 in-person meetups. In 2012, I founded the local FFRF chapter, Northern Ohio Freethought Society (NOFS), to be a local separation of state and church watchdog/activist group. Our chapter has already participated in several great community outreach campaigns and events. We are looking to become more involved with Foundation Beyond Belief and Secular Student Alliance. My husband and I are involved with the local chapter of Center for Inquiry and my husband is on the board. We have been peripherally involved with United Coalition of Reason and my husband coordinated the formation of the local Northeast Ohio Coalition of Reason. We are also involved with the local Sunday Assembly (husband's in the band!) and, of course, are heavily involved with FFRF. All of these groups we also promote through Facebook and Twitter and have a separate website for the NOFS chapter.
Susan Jacoby, an honorary director of FFRF, is the author of Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion. This op-ed appeared in The New York Times on Feb. 5, 2016, and is reprinted with permission.
By Susan Jacoby
The population of nonreligious Americans — including atheists, agnostics and those who call themselves "nothing in particular" — stands at an all-time high this election year. Americans who say religion is not important in their lives and who do not belong to a religious group, according to the Pew Research Center, have risen in numbers from an estimated 21 million in 2008 to more than 36 million now.
Despite the extraordinary swiftness and magnitude of this shift, our political campaigns are still conducted as if all potential voters were among the faithful. The presumption is that candidates have everything to gain and nothing to lose by continuing their obsequious attitude toward orthodox religion and ignoring the growing population of those who make up a more secular America.
Ted Cruz won in Iowa by expanding Republican voter turnout among the evangelical base. Donald J. Trump placed second after promising "to protect Christians" from enemies foreign and domestic. The third-place finisher Marco Rubio's line "I don't think you can go to church too often" might well have been the campaign mantra. Mr. Rubio was first christened a Roman Catholic, baptized again at the age of 8 into the Mormon Church, and now attends a Southern Baptist megachurch with his wife on Saturdays and Catholic Mass on Sundays.
Democrats are only a trifle more secular in their appeals. Hillary Clinton repeatedly refers to her Methodist upbringing, and even Bernie Sanders — a cultural Jew not known to belong to a synagogue — squirms when asked whether he believes in God. When Jimmy Kimmel posed the question, Mr. Sanders replied in a fog of words at odds with his usual blunt style: "I am who I am. And what I believe in and what my spirituality is about, is that we're all in this together." He once referred to a "belief in God" that requires him to follow the Golden Rule — a quote his supporters seem to trot out whenever someone suggests he's an atheist or agnostic.
Candidates ignore secularists
The question is not why nonreligious Americans vote for these candidates — there is no one on the ballot who full-throatedly endorses nonreligious humanism — but why candidates themselves ignore the growing group of secular voters.
Yes, America is still a predominantly Christian nation, but evangelical Christians (including multiple Protestant denominations), at 25.4 percent, are the only group larger than those who don't belong to any church. At 22.8 percent, according to Pew, the unchurched make up a larger group than Catholics, any single Protestant denomination and small minorities of Jews, Muslims and Hindus.
Critics have suggested that there is no such entity as secular America, because the nonreligious do not all share the same values. One might just as easily say the same thing about the religious. President Jimmy Carter, for example, left the Southern Baptist Convention because he disagreed with its views about women — but Mr. Carter remains his own kind of devout and liberal Baptist in the tradition of his 18th-century religious forebears.
Secularists politically weak
Secularists remain politically weak in part because of the reluctance of many, especially the young, to become "joiners." Rejection of labels may be one reason so many of the religiously unaffiliated prefer to check "nothing in particular" rather than the atheist or agnostic box.
But it takes joiners to create a lobby. The American Center for Law and Justice, an organization focused on the rights of Christians, gathered more than a million signatures on a petition protesting the imprisonment of Saeed Abedini, an Iranian-American pastor and convert from Islam who was one of four Americans freed in last month's prisoner swap.
For small secular organizations, a million signatures for any cause would constitute a supernatural happening. I spent a few years working for the Center for Inquiry, a humanist think tank that merged last month, in a rare union of secular forces, with the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. Michael De Dora, the center's public policy director, argues that secularists must work with liberal and mainstream religious groups on issues of mutual concern.
Yet there is some controversy over coalition building between those who consider themselves "hard" and "soft" atheists. I suppose I must be a "soft" atheist for believing that there is a huge political upside to ad hoc coalitions with liberal religious groups.
Freedom of conscience for all — which exists only in secular democracies — should be at the top of the list of shared concerns. Candidates who rightly denounce the persecution of Christians by radical Islamists should be ashamed of themselves for not expressing equal indignation at the persecution of freethinkers and atheists, as well as dissenting Muslims and small religious sects, not only by terrorists but also by theocracies like Saudi Arabia. With liberal religious allies, it would be easier for secularists to hold candidates to account when they talk as if freedom of conscience is a human right only for the religious.
Reclaim the language
Even more critical is the necessity of reclaiming the language of religious freedom from the far right. As defined by many pandering politicians, "religious freedom" is in danger of becoming code for accepting public money while imposing faith-based values on others.
Anyone who dismisses the importance of taking back this language should consider the gravity of the mistake made by supporters of legal abortion when they allowed the anti-abortion movement to claim the term "pro-life" after Roe v. Wade.
Secularists must hold candidates to account when they insult secular values, whether that means challenging them in town hall meetings or withholding donations. Why, for example, would any secular Republican (yes, there are some) think of supporting the many Republican politicians who have denied the scientific validity of evolution? Politicians will continue to ignore secular Americans until they are convinced that there is a price to be paid for doing so.
"God bless America" has become the standard ending of every major political speech. Just once in my life, I would like the chance to vote for a presidential candidate who ends his or her appeals with Thomas Paine's observation that "the most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is Reason."
FFRF hopes to engage the millions of non-religious voters with its new "I'm Secular and I Vote" campaign ahead of the 2016 presidential election.
"Since President Obama was first elected, the number of religiously unaffiliated adults in America has grown by nearly 20 million," said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "Still, most candidates and media outlets focus their time on traditional religious groups, so we're taking action to be more vocal and coordinated as a demographic that should not be ignored."
A fresh ad campaign featuring John F. Kennedy aired in 21 major television markets during The Late Show with Stephen Colbert for two weeks in March. The commercial depicts the famous lines delivered by presidential candidate John F. Kennedy to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in 1960: "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly on the general populace."
FFRF also plans to reach out to voters through its chapters, paid digital media ads, efforts to mobilize students on college campuses, and coordination with the nation's other major freethought associations as part of the June 4 Reason Rally in Washington, D.C.
A major Pew Research survey recently found 23 percent of the U.S. population is now religiously unaffiliated, with 19 million new adults since 2007 classifying their religious affiliation as atheist, agnostic or nothing in particular, a trend Pew says is being driven primarily by young adults. A third of Millennials now identify as non-religious.
"Much of the movement away from religion in America is being driven by Millennials, many of whom will be voting for the first time this year," said FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. "We need secular voters to be vocal about their beliefs, or lack thereof, while rejecting efforts to push religious dogma on the nation."
FFRF will be working with its 23,500 members, 20 chapters across America and through secular student alliances to encourage supporters to register to vote, attend and speak out on secularism at political events and submit op-eds to local and campus newspapers. FFRF also launched a student essay contest with thousands of dollars in prizes, and will distribute "I'm Secular and I Vote" buttons, T-shirts, bumper stickers and educational material across the country.
Two more parents have joined a lawsuit challenging an annual nativity performance at Concord High School in Elkhart, Ind.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Indiana filed the original suit on Oct. 7, 2015, along with "Jack Doe," a student and member of the performing arts department, and FFRF member "John Doe," his father.
The new parent plaintiffs are also seeking anonymity to protect their families from the vitriol and open hostility this state/church violation has created. This hostility includes a death threat that was sent to FFRF in December.
The anonymously penned death threat targeted FFRF Staff Attorney and co-counsel Sam Grover and a family that some have speculated is the Doe family.
"I will make it my life's mission to one day (in the next weeks, months or even years) when you think this is all done and forgotten about, to find you and the [redacted family name]," reads the email. "I will cut you into pieces and feed you to the fishes in the Elkhart River (Please note that I will enjoy this)."
The missive ends on this note: "Do yourself a favor, and believe me, when I say: NO ONE WILL STOP ME!"
For several decades, Concord High has performed a "Christmas Spectacular" each winter.
Every performance for the public, of which there were four in 2014, "ends with an approximately 20-minute telling of the story of the birth of Jesus, including a live nativity scene and a scriptural reading from the bible. During this segment, students at the high school portray the Virgin Mary, Joseph, the three wise men, shepherds and angels," notes the original complaint. Attendance and performance at the Christmas Spectacular is mandatory for students enrolled in the performing arts department.
Attorneys for FFRF and the ACLU argue that the nativity performance and the reading of the biblical story of the birth of Jesus are "well-recognized symbols of the Christian faith. Their presence at the Christmas Spectacular is coercive, represents an endorsement of religion by the high school, has no secular purpose, and has the principal purpose and effect of advancing religion."
U.S. District Judge Jon DeGuilio issued a temporary injunction on Dec. 2 barring the school from holding the nativity pageant with student actors.
The updated complaint also challenges the nativity enactment as it was modified during the 2015 Christmas Spectacular, in which the school used mannequins in place of live student performers. FFRF and the ACLU note that this modified nativity scene is no more legal or appropriate than the original show. Both versions exist solely to promote Christianity during a school-sponsored performance in violation of the Constitution.
"We had hoped the school district would simply do the right thing and adopt a neutral stance toward religion as it is required to do under the Constitution," says Staff Attorney Sam Grover.
"We are grateful to the new plaintiffs who have joined and strengthened our case, despite the backlash in the community," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "This controversy shows how divisive it is to bring religion into our public schools."
Listen to Grover discuss the case on Freethought Radio during the Feb. 13 episode at ffrf.org/news/radio.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation and two of its members are suing a Texas sheriff over his decision to affix Latin cross decals on county patrol vehicles.
Brewster County Sheriff Ronny Dodson announced in December that he "wanted God's protection over his deputies" in deciding to place the prominent crosses on at least five county law enforcement vehicles.
Local plaintiffs Kevin Price and Jesse Castillo, both atheists and FFRF members, have come in regular contact with the Christian displays numerous times while out driving in the county. They "do not believe in any supernatural beings" and object to "an exclusively Christian religious symbol" being displayed on their county's patrol vehicles, the suit notes.
Both men contend "the Latin crosses convey the divisive message that non-Christians . . . are not equally valued members of the community and that Christians are favored."
When the Brewster County Sheriff's Office Facebook page posted two comments supportive of the Latin crosses, Price criticized the action. His comments were deleted by the sheriff's office and he was blocked from making further comments.
Castillo believes "that the crosses heighten the stigma associated with being an atheist and that he might receive more favorable treatment from the Sheriff's Office by hiding his atheism or by displaying pro-Christian messages," states FFRF's legal complaint.
FFRF seeks appropriate declaratory and injunctive relief, as well as nominal damages and attorney's fees.
FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor asserts that no government official has the right to promote his or her personal beliefs on government property.
"Whether it is a cross, a star and crescent, or a pentagram, law enforcement must remain neutral on matters of religion in order to foster public confidence in their impartiality," Gaylor said.
Brewster County, located in the western part of Texas, has a population of less than 10,000.
The federal lawsuit against Dodson was filed in U.S. District Court, Western District of Texas, Alpine Division, on March 2. To view the full lawsuit online, go to ffrf.org/brewster.
The case is brought on behalf of the plaintiffs by Randall L. Kallinen of Houston, with FFRF Staff Attorneys Sam Grover and Patrick Elliott as co-counsel. Kallinen represented the late Kay Staley in her victorious litigation to remove a bible monument from the steps of the Harris County Courthouse.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has won a significant federal court judgment against a California school board for its blatantly religious meetings.
U.S. District Judge Jesus Bernal ruled on Feb. 18 against the Chino Valley Unified School District for overtly and consciously inserting religion into official proceedings.
"Finally, a Jesus I can believe in," wrote a commenter on an article in the San Bernardino County's Inland Daily Bulletin, playing off the name of the judge.
FFRF, along with 22 local residents, filed a lawsuit on Nov. 13, 2014, challenging the School Board's prayers, bible readings and proselytization at official gatherings. The district, which serves about 32,000 students, was ordered to pay court costs and plaintiff fees, which are currently about $200,000. On March 7 the School Board voted 3-2 to appeal the ruling, which means the suit could take another two years and cost between $350,000 and $500,000.
At one meeting, then-Board President James Na "urged everyone who does not know Jesus Christ to go and find Him," after which another board member closed with a reading of Psalm 143.
The judge wasn't having it.
"The court finds . . . permitting religious prayer in board meetings, and the policy and custom of reciting prayers, Bible readings, and proselytizing at board meetings, constitute unconstitutional government endorsements of religion in violation of plaintiffs' First Amendment rights," Bernal wrote. "Defendant board members are enjoined from conducting, permitting o otherwise endorsing school-sponsored prayer in board meetings."
Reporters covering the lawsuit clearly had fun with their articles. David Allen of the Inland Daily Bulletin wrote: "After years of prayers and religious references at its meetings, the Chino Valley Unified School Board has been halted by a higher power: a federal judge."
And Mel Ewald of the Chino Champion wrote: "God and Jesus Christ were conspicuously absent from Thursday's meeting of the Chino Valley School Board."
FFRF obviously welcomes the ruling.
"Our plaintiffs told us the board proceedings were more like a church service than a school board meeting," said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "So my reaction to the ruling is, 'Hallelujah!'"
The board tried to claim a legislative prayer exception, invoking the U.S. Supreme Court's 2014 Greece v. Galloway decision. But Bernal called the argument "meritless," saying, "The legislative exception does not apply to prayer at school board meetings."
"The risk that a student will feel coerced by the board's policy and practice of religious prayer is even higher here than at football games or graduations," Bernal stated. "The School Board possesses an inherently authoritarian position with respect to the students. The board metes out discipline and awards at these meetings, and sets school policies that directly and immediately affect the students' lives."
He added, "Regardless of the stated purpose of the [prayer] resolution, it is clear that the board uses it to bring sectarian prayer and proselytization into public schools through the backdoor."
RMuse, a writer for the PoliticusUSA web site, backed FFRF: "For now, though, there is one public school district in California that is safe from theocrats, thanks to the Freedom From Religion Foundation and concerned parents who prevailed with absolutely no assistance whatsoever from even one 'Constitution-loving' politician."