By PJ Slinger
Justin Scott is making a name for himself among freethinkers and presidential candidates alike.
Scott, an FFRF member from Manchester, Iowa, has been able to ask almost every presidential candidate about their thoughts on state/church separation issues or on secular values. Scott has used his camera phone to take videos of his questions and responses from the candidates, who were campaigning in Iowa prior to the Iowa caucus.
The only candidates who refused to answer Scott's questions were Donald Trump and Rand Paul. "At least The Donald signed an autograph for me, thanked me for coming, and told me to take care as he walked away from me," Scott said.
Scott's videos have been viewed millions of times via various news outlets and presidential campaign websites. In fact, his video of Marco Rubio has been viewed more than 10 million times on Rubio's site. The extensive media coverage Scott has received includes the Washington Post, Time, Fox News, ABC News, Associated Press. (View Scott's Q&As yourself at goo.gl/US0LcN. Listen to Freethought Radio's interview with Scott at ffrf.org/radio.)
"It's a very exhilarating feeling to stand in front of someone that might become the next president of the United States and, for a few minutes, have them focus entirely on a question about secular values like the separation of church and state," Scott said.
He added that when he first introduces himself to the candidate, the people in the crowd have a definite reaction.
"Usually it's the gasps, blank stares, whispers that I get when I start off the question by stating, 'Hi! I'm an atheist.' It's as if I had just opened up with, 'Hi! I'm an alien from another galaxy.'"
Scott says that even though he is a self-described "political junkie," being able to ask candidates about secular and state/church separation issues has been more than he could have hoped.
"I'm not so much surprised by the [candidates'] responses but surprised by how easy it has been to get this type of access to them as a voter," he said. "I haven't had to jump through any hurdles to get right up in the front row at each event and have just been able to raise my hand and ask whatever question I wanted."
Scott, who is also a member of the Iowa Coalition of Reason, is encouraging other freethinkers around the country to follow his lead.
Below are the responses (edited for print) by the presidential candidates from questions by Scott. (FFRF is nonpartisan and does not endorse or oppose any candidate for office.)
Here's the challenge. I'm a person of faith. And I respect the fact that you're not. And you have protections under the law just as I do.
And a big tolerant nation ought to be able to say, for example, let's take the issue of gay marriage...if you walk into a bakery and you're gay, and you say "I want to buy that cake.' A person whose faith suggests that is a sin, by law has to sell that cake. But if you walked into that same store and said 'I want you to participate in my marriage with my companion,' you ought to have the right, based on religious conscience, to say no. There's a difference. We need to sort this out.
You cannot discriminate housing, employment, retail, you can't discriminate. That's how our laws work and that's the way it should work. But people of faith ought to be able to act on their faith outside of their churches and outside of their homes. . . I worry more now, frankly, about the loss of religious freedom than I do about the other side of this. We should be respectful of both.
First of all, everybody, including atheists, live according to their faith. It's just what they decide to put their faith in. And everybody's [actions] are ruled by their faith. Now, in my case, you know, I have strong faith in God and I live by godly principles: loving your fellow man, caring about your neighbor, developing your God-given talents to the utmost so that you become valuable to the people around you... and that's going to dictate how I treat everybody. Fortunately, our Constitution, which is the supreme law of our land, was designed by men of faith. And it has a Judeo-Christian foundation. Therefore, there is no conflict there. So it is not a problem.
I believe that God is an important part of what this country is all about. But what I also know [is] that the great thing about America is everybody gets to believe what they want to believe. As long as they're not trying to impose it upon me, they can believe what they want to believe. And as long as they're not committing violent acts to try and forward their point of view, go ahead and believe what you want to believe. Teach within your family what you want to teach.
I think we've gotta stick with our founding principles, separation between church and state. And remember: It was done in the beginning mostly to protect religion from the state. So we need to stick...we need to stick with what has worked.
We're seeing our constitutional rights under assault every day, whether it's free speech, which for atheists is particularly important. Whether it's religious liberty, which atheists have a right as well to not believe. Whether it's the Second Amendment or the privacy of the 10th Amendment. I've spent my whole life fighting to defend the Bill of Rights and Constitution, and as president, every day I will defend the Bill of Rights and Constitution for every American.
You're free to believe whatever you'd like in this country. So if you're an atheist, good for you. I happen to be a Christian. I happen to believe that our Christian values help me as a leader because they make me humble and empathetic and optimistic. And I think all of those qualities are vital in leadership.
No one is coercing you in any way. However, many Christians are being coerced not to practice their religion. So religious liberty is under assault in this country. When our federal government is suing the Little Sisters of the Poor in the Supreme Court, denying them their ability to practice their religion, that's a problem.
In life, there's a window of opportunity. I happen to believe there is a higher power, and the reason I believe it is because, well, I kinda felt it as a kid. And then when my parents were killed in 1987 by a drunk driver, I think the Lord rescued me. But it only happened when somebody said 'You've got a window of opportunity because of your pain. I would suggest you go through it and check it out because eternity lasts a long time.' And so, for me, 1987 was — 13 and 16, that's 29 years ago — and I've been working at this every day.
And I'm not a believer because I need a rabbit's foot or a lucky buckeye. I believe it because I've actually looked at the evidence.
This nation was founded on the principle that our rights come from our creator. If there's no creator, then where did your rights come from? And so that's why it's important for us to understand that. We're gonna protect the right of Americans to continue to believe that. We're also gonna have a country where no one is forced to violate their conscience. Which means no one's going to force you to believe in God. But no one's gonna force me to stop talking about God.
I'm more interested in eternity, and the ability to live forever with my creator. That's what I aspire to more than anything else. I believe that God, our creator, became a man, and he came down to Earth and lived among us, suffered like a man would. Emotions. Physical suffering. Emotional suffering. Pain. Illness. Sickness. Sadness. And then he died. And he died to remove sins that we couldn't remove up to that point. They could only be covered but they couldn't be removed. And, as a result, I now have the free gift of the opportunity to live forever with my creator. And I believe that passionately, and it influences every aspect of my life.
Religious freedom in this country is part of our Constitution, and all of us agree with that. And you have many different religions, and people have the right, in this country, to practice the religion that they believe in.
But we also have a separation between religion and state. We know how dangerous it is, historically, for governments to get deeply involved with religion. Let's not confuse and merge religion and state. That is not what our Founding Fathers wanted, and they were right.
The Texas Supreme Court ruled on Jan. 29 that cheerleaders may continue their suit against the Kountze Independent School District over their regular practice of displaying biblical banners at football games.
The court remanded the case back to the court of appeals. Although the evangelical Liberty Institute is touting the decision, the court did not address the underlying speech claim, merely declaring that the cheerleader case was not moot.
The case began after FFRF filed a complaint with the school district in 2012 over proselytizing banners held up by the cheerleaders as football players ran through them to open games. The banners had such messages as: "But thanks be to God which gives us Victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Cor 15:57," and "If God is for us, who can be against us? Romans 8:31."
After the school temporarily restricted the religious banners, the cheerleaders filed suit seeking a court order that they had a right under Texas law to promote religion on banners on the football field. Then-Gov. Rick Perry also championed the cheerleaders. The school district changed course immediately and began allowing them to be displayed.
If a current student or teacher at the school sought to challenge the banners under the Establishment Clause, they, along with FFRF, could still file a separate legal challenge, offered FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. She called the biblical banners "so patently inappropriate at a public school that should welcome and include everyone, including nonreligious and non-Christian students and fans."
For more than two years, FFRF has been objecting to the use of religious iconography to mark the graves of the unknown soldiers at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, also called the Punchbowl.
"Why are some Unknowns buried in the Punchbowl marked with the Latin cross while others are not?" FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel asked in the original letter to the secretary of Veterans Affairs.
Twenty-eight months later, after about a dozen correspondences between FFRF and the military, Debra S. Wada, assistant secretary of the Army, finally responded. The Department of the Army is trying to identify unknown soldiers from WWII, and a project is under way to disinter and identify those unknowns associated with the USS Oklahoma and other unknowns.
"In those cases where Unknowns are identified, the DoD will work with the DoVA, which has provided the government-furnished headstones and markers since 1973, to ensure the gravesites at NMCP or elsewhere are appropriately marked," Wada wrote.
"It's an interesting program and we applaud the military's attempt to identify these heroes," said FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel, who's been working the case for a long time.
While "The Department of the Army will not initiate any action to replace the headstones of Unknowns marked with the Latin cross in the NMCP at this time," this is progress of a kind.
Wada also claimed, "It is apparent that, over time, the Latin cross has developed a secular meaning as a commemorative symbol of sacrifice in wartime."
"Wada is absolutely wrong about the secular meaning of a Christian cross," said Seidel, "and no court would agree with her, but we are happy that some action is being take to identify and more appropriately memorialize those who sacrificed all."
On the day President Obama spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast, FFRF sent a letter to the president inviting him to attend and speak at the Reason Rally on June 4 at the Lincoln Memorial.
"It is laudable for the President to embrace citizens of all colors and religious viewpoints as being part of 'one American family' and to caution citizens not to be 'bystanders to bigotry,' " wrote FFRF Co-Presidents Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker in the letter to the president, sent out on Feb. 4. "But there is one U.S. minority that has been consistently excluded from such notice: nonreligious Americans. We respectfully invite you, in your final year in office, to do something no American president has ever done: reach out to secular America. Such attention from the Office of the President would demonstrate that freethinkers, atheists, agnostics, secular humanists and rationalists are accepted citizens."
"By showing up on June 4 . . . and addressing nonbelieving Americans, you can send a signal that the marginalization of a quarter of the U.S. population is unacceptable," the letter continues. "Please use your 'bully pulpit' to help erase harmful attitudes toward the nonreligious minority in the United States, as you have done for religious minorities. Please address the Reason Rally on June 4 or speak at our auditorium in Freethought Hall (our offices) any time. We look forward to your reply."
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott submitted a legal memo to state Attorney General Ken Paxton on Thursday erroneously insisting that Christian crosses may be legally displayed on sheriffs' vehicles. The governor is interfering in a controversy resulting from the Freedom From Religion Foundation's official complaint letter about this unconstitutional practice by the Brewster County Sheriff's Office, which recently added Latin crosses to its patrol cars.
Government officials such as Abbott, and sheriffs like those in Brewster County, took an oath of office to uphold the Constitution. But, apparently, they need a reminder that it is an entirely secular document. The Constitution does not recognize a god, much less the Christian one, and its only references to religion are exclusionary.
Abbott is governor of all Texas citizens, not just Christians. So it's dismaying that his brief assumes Brewster County has a Christian "heritage." Not so. Individuals may be religious, but counties have no religion. When public officials use their official capacity to promote their personal religion, they are violating the law. FFRF's complaint was not over an individual sheriff who had a personal cross around his neck, or a sheriff placing a cross on a personal vehicle, but over the department officially aligning itself and its officers with religion, in this case Christianity.
Such governmental speech and action sends a chilling message that the department itself enforces Christian doctrine, instead of civil law, and further signals that Christian citizens are the insiders, while non-Christians and nonbelievers are outsiders.
The absence of religious symbols from official sheriff vehicles would not, contrary to Abbott's claim, express "hostility to religion." Governmental neutrality is the appropriate viewpoint. A sheriff should not care about the religion of citizens or suspects, but about enforcing the law evenhandedly and protecting citizen rights.
Abbott attempts but fails to reconcile the government displaying exclusively Christian symbols on its property with the Constitution's Establishment Clause. Rather than addressing the considerable body of Supreme Court case law condemning religious endorsement by the government, including by the placement of crosses on governmental property, Abbott mischaracterizes the Supreme Court as having an "expansive interpretation of the Establishment Clause's limited and unambiguous test."
The mayor of Oak Ridge, Tenn., cut off Aleta Ledendecker's secular invocation in mid-sentence prior to the City Council meeting on Jan. 11.
FFRF sent a letter to Mayor Warren Gooch and the City Council, protesting the constitutional violation.
"The City Council must ensure that your invocation policy does not discriminate against atheists and freethinkers," FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote. "Additionally, a public apology to Ms. Ledendecker for the City Council's discriminatory treatment of her is clearly warranted."
Oak Ridge allows up to three minutes for opening prayers or invocations, but Ledendecker, an FFRF Life Member, was cut off in mid-sentence with more than 30 seconds left. A video recording shows the invocation beginning at 0:0:24, and Ledendecker is harshly cut off by the mayor at 0:02:48, two minutes and 24 seconds into her invocation. It is followed immediately by the Pledge of Allegiance.
"To our knowledge, the City Council has never cut off a religious invocation mid-sentence prior to the expiration of this allotted time," Jayne wrote. "We are writing to request assurances that the City Council will not discriminate against nonreligious invocations, or the citizens delivering them, in the future. We also request that the City Council permit Ms. Ledendecker the opportunity to present another invocation — and allow her three full minutes — at her earliest convenience. The best solution, however, is to discontinue invocations at future City Council meetings altogether."
"This is not only bad policy, but very bad manners," said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "Such discrimination and censorship show the harm of entangling religious rituals with government."
See the complete transcript of Ledendecker's invocation on Page 22.
FFRF is taking issue with Tazewell County (Va.) Sheriff Brian Hieatt, who recently decided to put "In God We Trust" bumper stickers on county vehicles, declaring, "We want the public to know that we have strong Christian men and women serving their community."
"Our department feels very strongly about having In God We Trust on our vehicles," Hieatt said. "We know there is nothing we can do for our community without the guidance of our Lord."
FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler sent Hieatt a letter on Jan. 27 in response to complaints from several Tazewell County citizens. "The United States Supreme Court has held that public officials may not seek to advance or promote religion," she wrote. Ziegler said that Hieatt's statements disturbingly "imply a religious test for employment, which is unconstitutional."
Ziegler pointed out that court acceptance of "In God We Trust" has been based on courts ludicrously claiming the phrase lacks "religious significance." The sheriff's admission that his use of the motto is meant to be a mark of the "strong Christian men and women" employed by the sheriff's department undercuts any attempt to argue that the "In God We Trust" stickers are in any way "nonreligious."
"It's hard to imagine that any non-Christian — whether atheist, Jewish or Muslim — would feel welcome in this sheriff's department, with Hieatt so openly favoring Christianity and misusing his authority to promote religion on the job," said Dan Barker, FFRF co-president.
The Phoenix City Council voted 5-4 on Feb. 3 to stop pre-meeting prayers and move to a moment of silence. The move comes after FFRF sent a Feb. 1 letter backing the Satanic Temple's bid to give a prayer before the City Council's Feb. 17 meeting.
In that letter, FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel, who's been working on behalf of Phoenix members to stop prayers in their city since August 2012, wrote, "If this council is unwilling to listen to prayers from all citizens, regardless of their belief, the solution is to not have prayers at all." Seidel explained the law simply: "Government prayers are an all or none proposition."
Hundreds filled the seats for the Feb. 3 meeting. Several FFRF members testified. The meeting dragged on for hours with more than 50 citizens giving public comment, some of them shouting in defense of the "one true God." A few prayer supporters held a prayer circle outside after the meeting, tears in their eyes.
The Phoenix City Council's choice to get rid of prayers appears to be another example of "Lucien's Law." The law is named after the Satanic Temple founder Lucien Greaves but the phrase was coined by FFRF member and Florida chapter President David Williamson. Lucien's Law states that governments will either 1) discontinue starting official sessions with prayer when the Satanic Temple asks to lead or 2) censor the Satanic Temple, thereby opening themselves to legal liability. In this case, the Phoenix City Council fortunately decided to go with option #1.
Michelle Shortt, the Satanist who was scheduled to pray, delivered her invocation to the media. FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor commented, "We're delighted to see that reason and the Constitution has prevailed in Phoenix."
After receiving a complaint letter from FFRF, the Okaloosa County School Board in Florida in May 2015 ended the practice of opening with a prayer and went to a moment of silence instead. However, on Jan. 11, the board opted to resume prayer before meetings, according to the Northwest Florida Daily News.
"The resolution is put together by following court cases and research on other resolutions," said board attorney Jeff McInnis. "It's not a resolution that will advance a particular religion over another."
The Daily News writes, "Before coming to a conclusion, Dr. Lamar White and Melissa Thrush, the two opposing votes, again voiced their concerns for the resolution, insisting that a moment of silence was the best course of action."
"For me, this vote is not about my personal needs," Thrush said. "This vote is about . . . an added burden to the superintendent and school board staff and the need to establish a budget to effectively address this resolution. This resolution potentially exposes us to future lawsuits."
By PJ Slinger
A large banner reading "God Bless America" has been taken down from the Pittsburg Post Office in Kansas, eliciting outrage from many residents of the town who don't understand the difference between private and government displays of religion.
FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler originally wrote to the post office on June 3, 2015, about the unconstitutionality of the banner on government property. The Constitution prohibits government sponsorship of religious messages, and "United States postal regulations prohibit the display of religious materials, other than stamp art, on postal property," she noted. In addition, the regulations ban all signs other than official notices.
But many residents and others, interviewed by several media outlets, made it clear they were upset with the post office's decision.
After the banner came down, a local retailer began to distribute "God Bless America" yard signs and banners, and ended up handing out more than 1,000 signs and 400 banners.
"This is a subject that makes people angry," resident Pittsburg resident Cheryl Brooks told Sarah Okeson of the Joplin Globe. "People have the right to express how they feel."
"I'm so mad about it I can't even think straight," Lane Brant told Okeson. "I just don't get it. You have freedom of speech."
"Of course we have no objection to religious slogans and symbols on private property," responded Dan Barker, co-president of FFRF. "But we think Pittsburg residents would be surprised to know that Irving Berlin, who wrote the song 'God Bless America' for a character in a musical, was not himself religious."
Even U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins, R-Kansas, weighed in on the removal of the banner, showing her ignorance of the Constitution and the post office's own regulations. Her statement reads, in part, "I find it sad that our local post office would be forced to bend to the whims of an outside organization, such as the Freedom from Religion Foundation. Seeking the removal of this patriotic banner is a classic solution in search of a problem and I urge the United States Postal Service to rethink their decision, as this banner means more than just words to our veterans and community members."
And Janet Butler, a Pittsburg resident, told the Joplin Globe: "It's ridiculous. If someone doesn't like it, don't look at it."
But would Butler feel the same if there were a sign on a government building that said "Allah Bless America"?