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Student takes on school over prayer

Early in the 2011-2012 school year at Irmo High School of Lexington Richland School District 5 in Columbia, S.C., faculty members distributed ballots to determine whether a majority of graduating seniors were in favor of holding a prayer at their graduation ceremony. The majority was in favor, to no one’s surprise.

District policy allows for that action, so long as the prayer is nonsectarian and nonproselytizing — which is to say, it can be explicitly Christian, so long as it makes no distinctions between Catholics and Baptists, for example. The spirit of inclusion stops there.

I wasn’t comfortable getting that ballot in my English class, but growing up as an atheist in South Carolina I was used to exposure to public prayer and the religious status quo. After becoming familiar with Harrison Hopkins’ story — a student activist who, with the help of FFRF, reversed his school district’s stance on a majoritarian-governed graduation prayer in South Carolina last year — I took immediate action. Timing was critical, as I was inspired to take action just 10 days before the graduation ceremony.

FFRF moved swiftly, issuing the appropriate letters of notice and securing a spectacular lawyer for local counsel. I met with the district superintendent to discuss the issue to attempt to reach a resolution. He delivered his decision in a follow-up email after we met, which ironically states, “I do not believe that Freedom of Religion should be interpreted as requiring Freedom from Religion within the public schools.”

As such, the prayer and lawsuit proceeded. I recruited two younger students from Irmo to join the suit to ensure that it will survive despite my graduation and departure from District 5.

This event led to my realization that I have a true passion for secular activism, and I plan to tenaciously pursue involvement with the College of Charleston’s chapter of the Secular Student Alliance throughout my next four years of education.

Matthew “Max” Nielson, 18, is the principal plaintiff in FFRF’s federal lawsuit challenging illegal graduation prayer at his high school. Two younger students have sign on as plaintiffs.

Max is an honors and international baccalaureate candidate. He’s training for a black belt in American freestyle karate this summer. He’s an Eagle Scout who is religiously unaffiliated.

This article appeared June 10 in the La Crosse Tribune as part of an ongoing series by Wisconsin freethinkers. It’s reprinted with permission of the author.

I am an ordained, fundamentalist evangelical Christian minister, and an atheist. It might seem counterintuitive to read such a sentence, but a surprising number of ministers are rejecting religious belief. None of us became ministers expecting to leave religion behind; we were authentic, strong, sincere, faithful clergy and practitioners of our faiths.

Changing our minds about religion does not make us inherently bad or immoral people, uncharitable, dishonest, hostile, lacking in knowledge or common sense, deviants or any of the other epithets frequently used to malign nonbelievers.

The Clergy Project (TCP) is an organization that provides a support community for nonbelieving (atheist and agnostic) clergy and former clergy from all religions and denominations around the world. The organization, started in March 2011, currently has more than 300 members and receives over 40 applications each month. Members go through an extensive screening process to ensure that prospective members are actually nonbelievers and are clergy or former clergy.

Members are classified as either “active” (active clergy) or “alumni” (former clergy). The organization is not meant to proselytize or change the beliefs of active clergy, but to provide them with a support group as they attempt to trade their religious careers for secular careers.

Many of us accumulate a great deal of debt attempting to retrain ourselves. Many work in minimum-wage jobs the rest of their lives. A great number lose their jobs and families. Some lose everything and are homeless now.

Do we complain? No, I’ve never heard a single complaint from any member of TCP. In fact, most of us accept the consequences of our misguided religiosity without bitterness. We are content to have broken free in some manner or other.

The idea of active clergy who no longer have religious beliefs might strike you as dishonest. However, one must consider all of the difficulties of their situations before passing judgment, as well as remember that such major changes in life are the result of lengthy processes rather than snap decisions. Leaving one’s religion can result in varying degrees of consequences for even nonclergy, but the consequences are much greater for clergy. Most have families to support, so their principal concern is finding employment.

Another important concern is the loss of spouses, friends and family who might react negatively or hostilely to such drastic changes in religious belief. Fear of losing my friends and family and of possible hostile reactions in the community were major concerns for me. Indeed, when discussing my background, I am frequently attacked and prejudged by believers who seem to consider my change of mind to be an attack on their religious identity.

Starting from scratch

Clergy Project members are extremely concerned with maintaining their integrity and being honest with their families and congregations. They also feel responsible for trying to maintain the unity of their families and providing for their needs. Furthermore, most clergy have seminary degrees that do not apply to secular careers. Thus, career changes often entail starting over completely with their education, job training and professional skills.

Few days go by that we are not depressed at least to some extent due to our previous lives. Certainly we were all sincere in our desire to help people above all, and many of us, myself included, never participated in preaching intolerance or hate. I cannot with good conscience say that my intentions justify my misguided proselytizing and preaching. These are regrets we all bear, along with the regret of so many wasted years of our own short lives. The conflictive responsibilities of maintaining one’s integrity and providing for one’s family, combined with the stress of changing one’s worldview and beliefs, can lead to a great deal of emotional turmoil.

TCP offers a support network that can provide encouragement, strength, and experienced counsel to active clergy going through such traumatic processes. I became involved in the project in the fall of 2011 as an alumnus (several years after I left my career as a minister) in order to help active members make the transition more smoothly.

Members of my family have been evangelical Christian ministers for many generations, which is a legacy I was all too happy to share. I served as a minister in various volunteer and staff positions for several years before and after my ordination, including significant amounts of mission work in Central America. Throughout the majority of these years, I never questioned my beliefs whatsoever. In fact, I loved church the whole time I was involved, and always remember my experiences fondly.

My decision was not about the comfort and community offered by religion; I simply chose to follow the facts wherever they would lead me. I was encouraged in this task by several verses from the bible which encourage searching for the truth (John 8:32, Ephesians 4:25, 1 Thessalonians 5:21). We must acknowledge the courage that these clergy demonstrate by willingly following their commitment to the truth despite the probability of personal loss.

Whenever I discuss my background, the most common question everyone has is, “What caused you to change your mind about religion?” Like most clergy involved in TCP, I did not become a nonbeliever due to personal tragedy, horrible experiences with religion, ignorance of scriptures or doctrine, or a desire to be free of religious restrictions. An overwhelming number of clergy reject religion as a result of many years of serious religious study. We reject religion for intellectual rather than emotional reasons.

The passion for ethics and truth that lead us into our occupations as clergy also lead us out of religion. When I became a minister, I committed to the truth wherever that might lead. Through my religious studies, I came to know the truth, and the truth set me free.

Though originally from Texas and Louisiana, I now teach Spanish, serve as the technology guru and direct the tutoring program for the language department at a university in Wisconsin. Outside of work, I enjoy Web design and programming, as well as blogging about atheist issues in English, Spanish and Portuguese. I like to think that the language skills I learned for mission work are put to better use now.

Joshua Everett is a member of the La Crosse Area Freethought Society and the Clergy Project, co-founded by FFRF’s Dan Barker.

Joseph Taylor gave this speech (edited for print and space) at FFRF’s national convention Oct. 8 in Hartford, Conn.

I first got in touch with Dan Barker after I was browsing through the atheist books at Barnes and Noble. I saw this book Godless, which is quite a provocative title. I started reading it right there in the aisle and saw his involvement in Christian music. It even mentioned southern California. I said, “I’ve got to get in touch with this guy.” So I dashed off an email to him and he was kind enough to respond.

I teach the history of rock music at James Madison [University, Harrisonburg, Va.] We have 306 students every semester. This is the first time I’ve addressed a group that’s made up almost completely of unbelievers, and I’m tempted to say you’re all going to hell. On the other hand it makes me think of that bumper sticker, “Where are we going and why are we in this handbasket?” All right, well, let’s detail my own trip to hell.

I’m an artist. I’m not a scientist and I’m not a philosopher. This is an important distinction to make, an obvious one, but I was listening to the speakers last night, and many of the books that we all read, we depend on science and philosophy. We even depend to some degree on theologians to find out what the other side, if you want to call it that, is thinking.

Art on the other hand is a little bit different. We depend on the raw material from science and philosophy and hopefully bring some interpretive meaning to it. How does this impact my world? How am I to think about this? How can I put this into some kind of meaningful context? The arts bring meaning to that.

It’s also meaningful to point out that laws, but also facts, as critically important as both are, are often not enough to change our hearts. Absolutely essential, but can they change our hearts? If you look at the history of the civil rights movement, we had the desegregation laws, but it was when at concerts where black artists were playing and they had a rope down the middle of the audience — one side for the blacks, one side for the whites — and they started dancing and the rope came down, they started dancing with each other, which was absolutely scandalous.

That’s what it takes to change people’s hearts. Laws and facts are essential, but it’s the arts that really appeal to people’s hearts.

A believing brain

Let me start by referencing Dr. Shermer’s book, The Believing Brain. I always had a sense of God in my life from my earliest memories. It might have had something to do with the fact that my mother was an Italian Catholic whose mother was one of 19 children — between 16 and 19, we’re not sure, because they lost some in childbirth.

The youngest of those, Uncle Fred, had nine children himself. He was a devoutly Catholic, Italian guy in Philadelphia who made his family sit through one decade of the rosary every night before dinner. We were threatened, “If you don’t behave, you’re going to go to Uncle Fred’s for the weekend.” Holy shit, anything but that, please.

I remember a dream that I had when I couldn’t have been older than 5. I wrote and recorded a song about this: I was in the Vatican and I was dead, in a line of dead souls waiting to ascend a staircase to heaven. The pope was walking around and he could see us, but nobody else could, so the pope knew that we were there but nobody else did. What vivid imagery.

In first grade, a year later, a nun told us a story of a statue of the baby Jesus in the church coming to life and playing with two lonely children. This is the honest truth. I went to the church after school that day and knelt down in front of the altar because we had a statue of the baby Jesus in our church. I prayed that the statue would come to life and play with me. I was 6. Of course, we know the ending to that story.

I wanted God to be real. I used to watch “Bernadette of Lourdes,” “Ben-Hur,” “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” all these religious movies, and the music was so moving. They know how to do this to appeal to our deepest, most powerful places. I wished so hard I could have lived back then. I could have walked with Jesus, I could have seen him walk on the water, I could have seen him rise from the dead, or not. So from my oldest memories, I had a believing brain.

Of course we have to adjust at some point, we have to get over it, because it just doesn’t happen. In high school I left the church altogether. God was not present in my world; that’s just the way it was.

Three ‘Broken’ records

Shortly after I was invited to be in a band in high school, my uncle told me about this church in Costa Mesa, Calif., Calvary Chapel, that had Christian rock bands. Maybe I’d like to go and check them out? I went with him. It was a very large church that spearheaded much of the Jesus movement in the late ’60s or early ’70s. The young people were coming in barefoot or with sandals and jeans and shorts. They sang and were very much animated and energized by their faith.

I really wanted God to be real in my life, and boy, God sure seemed real to these people in their lives. So there I was, and I went forward at an altar call and immediately launched my mission from God.

The band that I was in [Undercover] started playing Christian music and writing our own songs. I didn’t grow up in the Protestant sociology that Dan came from; I was Catholic. We didn’t have a lot of the same restraints, but he’s absolutely right. The church and Christian rock was an oxymoron in some of those Protestant evangelical circles.

No sooner had they started to get used to someone coming in with long hair and an acoustic guitar rather than playing piano or an organ, and here we came with tattoos and mohawks and ripped jeans and boots and spikes and leathers and earrings and whatnot. I didn’t care what they thought. We were on a mission from God. We were playing nightclubs and college campuses and high schools and wanted to communicate through the music we knew what we thought we’d found.

We were approached by Maranatha Music because we had developed a little bit of a following. They asked us to record our first record. Maranatha was a parachurch organization. It was the record company owned by Calvary Chapel, the church that started a lot of the Jesus movement stuff, and as such they were famous for their “praise” albums.

Does anyone have those early praise albums? So you know what I’m talking about. It’s very mild, stuff to be played in church. Then they started a label called A&S for edgier music. A&S’ claim to fame is Sam Phillips. She’s a great artist, writes for television shows and was married to T-Bone Burnett, who has produced all kinds of movie music and records.

We built quite a following. There were a lot of bands that were spinoffs of what we were doing. We’re talking about rather extreme music, loud alternative music, punk rock, heavy metal. And the churches are going, well, what are we going to do with this? So Maranatha Music started yet another label called Broken Records and hired me to be a staff producer to mentor new groups.

This is from a promotional postcard: “Broken Records is an unprovoked attack on complacency. Broken Records is a clear, uncompromised call to the unsaved, unchurched and culturally disenfranchised within the body of Christ. Broken Records is radical restructuring of relationships between music and the church, between artists and audience, between business and labor. Broken Records is people over product, vision over vinyl. Broken Records is surrendered and dependent.” (Whoo. Love that one.) “Broken Records is armed and dangerous. Broken Records is a militant response to the trickle-down theory of evangelism.”

We released three records on that label. Our group’s logo was designed by Rick Griffin, a quintessential San Francisco artist who did Grateful Dead record covers, concerts for the Fillmore, Janice Joplin, Jimi Hendrix. This highlights our militant approach, “Onward, Christian Soldier.”

We did 250 dates a year all over North America and Europe, giving altar calls. The lights come down, the music comes up, you know the scriptures to say. It’s powerful stuff that you can use to bring people forward.

Christian branding

Reality often interferes with the best-laid plans. Lots of us go through divorce, 52% statistically. Of course, according to the Barnard group, atheists do better than the religious, so we’re probably less than 52%. So, congratulations.

But there I was then, a mentor surrounded by kids and oh, by the way, I’m going through a divorce now. It wasn’t just how do you deal with the divorce and the scandalous aspect of it, but the bigger question of why was my faith so powerless to do anything about teaching me what it was like to be married, to do anything about building the kind of character I needed to be a successful human being in a functioning world?

I had four beautiful kids, so that was my question, and as a result I wrote this album, “Branded.”

“Branded” had multiple meanings for me: Number one, I was branded in the sense that once you go through divorce in the Christian church, your star’s dimmed a little bit. But for me the imagery of the tattoo [of crosses on the album cover] was more important. Yes, I wanted to keep my faith; I was branding myself a Christian.

So we released this record where I documented the process of my divorce and what it was like to deal with the failure of my faith. I don’t mean to blame my faith, I assume full responsibility for myself, but really, the faith I was practicing, the things I believed in were completely powerless in any meaningful way in my life. We released the record, and it was powerful, 25 years ago this year. The record label did a rerelease. Right now there’s a list coming out where it’s in the top 50 Christian music records of all time.

In 1987 I bought Broken Records and changed the name to Brainstorm Artists. We produced well over 100 records, won all those awards. We shifted the focus because it was obvious to me that evangelicalism didn’t work. I was still holding on to my faith, but we shifted from a more militant view to a more art-based form of Christian music.

I held that label for a number of years and sold it eventually. I was tired of the hypocrisy. I saw other artists whose lives were ruined. Alcoholism, drug addiction, all kinds of messes, and I don’t mean to say that this is caused by religion, but I’ll tell you what I do believe, that it’s perpetuated because they stay in religion and there is no power there, there just is nothing. Of course you know this, I’m preaching to the choir, if there ever was such a concept.

We played scattered concerts, Chicago in 2000 and various others, but by and large I was becoming unraveled. I stayed in a period of believing in the fundamentals of Christianity. We were doing Christian music, playing the same songs, I could deliver a sermon. I don’t feel like I was hypocritical because I did believe the things that I was saying, but the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike, and I can’t promise anybody anything. There’s no there there, so I can’t promise you anything. All I can say is you need to believe in Jesus. Now here’s this song, you know.

Date an atheist?

In 2007 I took my job at James Madison University, and in 2008 I knew not a soul there. So I’m going to have confession here, excuse me. I signed up for a dating website just to meet people. I came into contact with a scientist and she was an atheist, the first atheist I’d met.

She said the first time we talked that she had Googled me: “I want you to know that if you’re going to try to convert me or if you think I’m going to hell, I’m not going to go out with you.”

It got me to thinking about what I believed. There’s a book by Rob Bell [founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Mich.]. He’s trying to work his way through the idea that hell is still a possible coherent idea. It’s simply not, especially if you want to postulate the existence of an all-loving God. It’s ridiculous, and I knew that.

So I constructed my own idea of what hell must be like, Of course I couldn’t abandon the idea — there it is in scripture. But one day I woke up and said, “I just don’t believe any of it. It’s all bullshit. I’ve been making shit up my whole life.”

Keith Parsons, a wonderful philosopher, had this to say about two scholars arguing for the existence of hell: “To refuse to believe in hell is to measure God’s thoughts by ours.” You’ve all heard this argument. God’s ways are higher than our ways, and we don’t know the mind of God.

Parsons: “Allow me at once to plead guilty to measuring God’s thoughts by my own. As I see it. I have no other choice. If my intellect and my deepest moral convictions tell me that hell is a monstrous dogma unworthy of belief by decent human beings, then I can think of no greater sin than to accept such a doctrine. It is a sad but edifying spectacle to see how intelligent defenders of the indefensible tie themselves in ethical and conceptual knots.”

I had to wake up and say, “You know what? That’s exactly what I’ve done. I’ve tied myself in knots trying to rationalize and justify things that cannot be rationalized or justified. So I said to the woman, “Yeah, we can go out.”

But we didn’t. We had a couple of nice chats and she told me that she thought I had a responsibility to come out and to announce this to my Christian audience. I disagreed. I said, “I couldn’t possibly care less. It’s been a number of years since I’ve been out of Christian music anyway, and my phone’s not exactly ringing off the hook with people who are overly concerned with the well-being of my eternal soul. So I’m just inclined to say screw the whole thing and let them, let’s just let the world get on with itself.”

Thinking things through

Once I acknowledged to myself that I was an unbeliever, I began reading everything I could get my hands on, all the Dawkins and Hitchens, Dennett and Sam Harris. I picked up Dan’s book Godless and just soaked it all in. But the problem was this, and I would submit to you that this is a fundamental problem, that I had no context for a life away from the idea of God.

So many hands went up when I asked how many of you are lifelong atheists. You get it. I sat at breakfast with someone this morning who said they’re second-generation atheist. You’re very lucky. Me, Italian Catholic, two first holy communions for crying out loud.

How do you think about reality? It wasn’t enough to offer me facts. It’s like, all right, how do I construct a worldview out of this?

Very shortly after, this book came out: God’s Not Dead (And Neither Are We). I have a chapter in the book [subtitled The story of Christian alternative rock’s pioneers then and now, as told by the artists themselves]. It was an interview done before I acknowledged that I didn’t believe any of it. I was asked to help promote the book on Facebook. I had not done Facebook, but I said OK. I had no idea what I was getting into.

Next thing I know I’ve got hundreds and hundreds of people coming on board. I’m faced with a crisis. I’ve got to be honest with these people, or not. That was an easy choice to make. I was not willing to be untruthful about where I was, what I believed.

My fear was that I wouldn’t have all the right answers. If someone asked me a question about the beginning of the universe, the big bang theory. Remember, I’m not a scientist, I’m not a philosopher, I’m an artist.

What I didn’t know is that I don’t need the right answers; all I need is the right questions. I would submit to you that that’s one way to approach this. It’s not all about answers. It’s about questions, and so the conversation started, and it started in earnest.

‘Ojo Uncovered’

Down the Line magazine in July of 2010 is where I came out altogether, in “Ojo Uncovered.” [He was known as Joey “Ojo” Taylor.] They asked me directly — we’ve heard on Facebook what you’re saying about your beliefs. What are your beliefs? I laid it all out. What do you think about the Christian faith? And I laid it all out.

The reactions have been all over the place. I haven’t had any death threats yet, although some of my friends have warned me that I should get protection sometimes. That seems so extreme, yet I know there are people that do get these kind of threats, and I’m wary about them.

I’ve heard things like, “Oh you’re a fraud, you never were a believer, you never were sincere to begin with, you were probably just in Christian music for the money.” But there’s more interest in what I’m doing now than there was when I was Christian musician. Tons of questions.

What I hear more than anything is how tragic it is. I see blog posts titled “Ojo Taylor, one of our heroes, has fallen.” How saddened they are by it. “He’s lost his faith.”

No, I didn’t lose my faith; my faith died a thousand deaths. From the minute I walked down the altar, things didn’t make sense and it has died a thousand deaths over the years. I had no context for what it was like to live outside of that. I do now.

Many of you maybe are not involved actively with a lot of ultra-religious people, but I am regularly. Every single day, dozens of posts come to my blog, to my Facebook page.

Some are very kind and ask questions sincerely, intellectually curious, others not so much. I would submit that you have about as much chance of changing someone’s religion with debate and confrontation and argument as you do changing their political affiliation. Anyone have parents that sit in front of Fox News all day long? You know what I’m talking about. Maybe your parents sit in front of MSNBC and you roll your eyes, too, I don’t mean that to be a partisan statement, but we cannot change people’s minds just by argument. We’ve all got our arguments.

Life without faith

I’ve learned that people need a context for seeing a life without God. I think this is where the arts become critically important: The T-shirt that says “This is what an atheist looks like.” The billboards that are going up all over the country, “Good without god.” The billboards that Freedom From Religion Foundation are doing that many of you have submitted that, “Yes, I’m an atheist, here’s what I look like. I have a family, I have a job, responsible, taxpaying citizen. I don’t eat babies, I don’t have satanic sex orgies.”

It’s very difficult for anyone to abandon their faith without an idea of life without it. We can’t just argue, we can’t just throw facts around, we need more than that, as critically important as that is. In this way the arts can be extremely effective. We appeal to feelings and emotions, that’s true. It’s not always necessarily bad. If I pay $75 to go see someone in a concert and I’m not moved, I’m pissed off. I kind of want my money back. I want you to take me on a journey.

We depend on metaphor, irony, paradox, all these things, asking questions. Stay free, that’s my message to myself. I’m not interested in replacing one fundamentalism with another. Maybe some of you will disagree with what I have to say and maybe I’ll disagree with you. That’s the beauty about this. We don’t have any kind of doctrinal purity to subscribe to.

I hear this all the time: “Atheism is nothing but a religion.” Well, atheism is a religion like the “off” switch on a television is a channel. I don’t have a purity doctrine because there isn’t one. I don’t believe, and neither do you, OK? Some of us are Republicans and some of us are Democrats and some of us are libertarians and independents and whatever else.

When I wrote the article in Down the Line, I was inclined to let the religious be. Coexist, what a wonderful world that would be, we all just coexist. You don’t put your religion on me and I won’t put my disbelief on you, but it just doesn’t work that way, does it?

The other day I posted about coming here and boy, the vitriol from the Christians about the Freedom From Religion Foundation. One guy had done some Googling and found this article by Dennis Prager about an FFRF lawsuit against a nativity scene in front of a government building. Prager got his knickers in a twist and said the people at FFRF don’t know beauty. “They’re atheists, and atheists don’t know beauty.” That was my friend posting on my Facebook wall.

I asked what in the world was he talking about? He said the nativity scene is beautiful, what don’t you get?

I said look, take away the fuzzy sheep and the donkeys, you ass, and what are you left with? The cute baby Jesus. What’s beautiful about a god who is so offended by us acting the way he made us act — so offended that he needs human blood sacrifice of his son to mollify him? That’s beautiful?

Yes, the mythology might be strong, but, I’m sorry, it’s just not a beautiful statement to me at all. This is why religion is rarely harmless and why we need groups like the Freedom From Religion Foundation. It’s important for us to support them and advocate on their behalf and get involved.

Love is the umbrella over all of humanity. Love is what unites us; to me that’s the pinnacle of the human experience. Religion would have it the other way around: doctrine is most important, and their version of doctrine is more important than anything.

So we must aggressively — again, I’m speaking to myself — counter any attempt by religion to co-opt or assimilate our own love or any of the other human experiences, the fullness of the human experience — because it doesn’t belong in the realm of religion. It’s the big umbrella under which religion unfortunately resides.

To quote the Beatles, “In the end the love you take is equal to the love you make.” For me it’s about music, freethought and “lovism,” that’s what it says on my blog.

Love, the highest calling that we have. For me, that is most deeply expressed in music. Thank you very much for listening today.

Joseph Taylor teaches the history of rock, artist management, songwriting, marketing of recorded music and entrepreneurship in the music industry at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va. He blogs at ojotaylor.wordpress.com/tag/agnosticism/.

Barbara Ehrenreich (atheist, feminist, author, essayist and columnist) gave this speech March 24 in acceptance of her Emperor Has No Clothes Award in Washington at FFRF’s post-Reason Rally gala dinner.

Wow, I have to hold it, OK? I think it’s anatomically correct, but there’s a fig leaf in case you’re curious. Thank you very much, Dan. I will be very proud of it as will my family.

It is an honor to be with you. I’m in so many settings where I am the only atheist, the only “out” atheist, and I kind of feel that whatever the subject is, I have got to get that in there somewhere. You know, particularly the idea that you cannot be moral, you cannot be socially involved or socially conscious unless you are with the “God Party.”

I thought I would go a little against the grain here with some dogmatic statements about God. Yes, I am going to talk about God. What qualifies me to do that? Well, I have read a lot of theology, surprisingly perhaps, a lot of the history of religion, and believe me this is very relevant, a huge amount of science fiction, which I am going to draw on. Plus since I have this award, I can now say anything, I think, I am entitled.

I wish we had the people picketing outside [Westboro Baptists] in here, because they seem to be experts, too. This is Saturday night, and I don’t know what all of you are planning to do for the rest of it, but I do know absolutely for sure that God does not care if you do it with contraceptives. He or she does not care if you do it with a person of the same sex as yourself, whether you are married or single, any of the rest of that.

In fact, if you search the bible, you will find no reference to birth control or gay marriage, and you will not find a word, strangely, about stem cell research. I have searched.

Let me say a little bit about abortion, since that is a major issue with the godly now. As a former biologist, I will say that if God cared about each fertilized human egg, he would not let an estimated 60% of them die each month before they get implanted in the uterus, flushed out with the menstrual flow.

They are killed by the deity him or herself, or at least not cared for by the deity. Unless of course you want to argue — I am always afraid to bring up this plain biological fact because someone is going to say, “Oh my god, we have to provide Christian burials for tampons” ­— it will get harder to dispose of a tampon than a Quran.

Where did the idea ever come from that God is called pro-life? I mean the people that say that, I am just saying pro-life here without any judgment attached to it. What about tsunamis?

What would Jesus eat?

This is equally dogmatic: God does not care about your weight-loss issues. You may wonder why I bring that up, but if you Google Jesus and quote weight loss, you will get millions of entries. A lot of people are convinced that Jesus wants them to be thin and that he has the best diet plan on the market.

You can contribute this to divine revelation on my part, but God does not care if you lose that last five pounds. Nor, sadly, does he seem to care if we are nice to each other, whether we are kind and we share, if we are nonviolent, whether we care for each other.

Those are human values, they do not come from some divine or extra-human source, and there are no rewards in the afterlife for those who put them into practice. In fact, if by some fluke or miscarriage of divine justice, I am ever offered a place in heaven, I will have to turn it down. Not only because my friends and family will be in the other place. Face it, something that seems very clear to me about the teachings of Jesus, whom I greatly admire, is that if you were offered a place in heaven that you would have to turn it down and give it to some poor sinner so that he or she does not have to spend eternity in hell, that would be the “Christian” thing to do.

I am just putting them on notice about that in case I should ever be put into that position. Now as for God’s particular interest in us or agenda for us in general, whatever issue you look at, sex or social morality, all the evidence points in one direction. He is just not that into us.

You may be wondering why talk about “God” at all. This is a Freedom From Religion celebration, not a theology lecture. If God is what they say — perfectly good and loving and all-powerful — then of course he doesn’t exist. It is impossible, as so many have pointed out over the centuries, for some deity to be both all-powerful and all-good. As Nietzsche or Stendhal said (it’s attributed to both), “God’s only excuse is that he doesn’t exist.”

There is no way to reconcile all that power and goodness. We won that debate. Long before Dawkins and the New Atheists came along, we won that, it’s over. Ever hear of the great American nonbelievers like Robert Ingersoll, anybody? Oh wow, I don’t often find many people who know.

Imagine cosmic ‘others’

Now I am going to ask you to get a little bit more out of your comfort zone and think in more general terms. Forget about the familiar monotheistic patriarchal notion of God. Think instead about the possibility of other conscious agencies or minds at work in the universe and bear with me. This is not a disreputable thing to think about. This is not freethought heresy.

Some of the greatest science fiction of the last century speculates on the existence of beings vastly different from ourselves. I am talking about Arthur C. Clarke, for example, Philip K. Dick and Ursula Le Guin, among others. Clarke was an atheist, Le Guin is, and Dick was unclassifiable.

Some serious thinkers here. They all imagined cosmic “others” that under certain conditions could interact with human beings. I don’t think that is such a strange thought for secular thinkers to have either. If there are such beings in the universe, especially powerful beings, I want to know about them.

I am not saying this as an agnostic. I am saying this as a curious person. If there are such beings of whatever kind, I want to know their habits, their inclinations, their tastes, their dimensions, their chemical composition, assuming they have dimensions and chemical composition, of course.

For me this is part of a larger curiosity about the world. For example, I want to know about extraterrestrial life. One of the greatest regrets in my life is that I will die, most likely, before we have contact with any intelligent extraterrestrial beings.

I advocate all the time for more public spending for the poor, the middle class, for the sick, but here is a confession I am proud to make. I want to see a lot more spending on science, on space exploration and on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

I have to admit I wasn’t at the Reason Rally today because I had taken my granddaughters to the National Air and Space Museum. It is tragic. It is a monument to something we have abandoned. That’s how I felt. I could remember so clearly when the idea of being beyond the year 2000, we would have colonies on Mars.

It is not just curiosity, though, about extraterrestrial sorts of intelligence that motivates me. If there are powerful nonhuman and conscious beings in the universe, whether they are on distant planets or are floating among us right now like dark matter, then we had better find out all we can about them, and I say that seriously.

Recall the question that Einstein asked about God. He was not a believer, but he said what he wanted to know about God was one thing: Is he friendly? I would say it is important to find out. It is even kind of urgent.

There are many, many kinds of obstacles to knowing. We don’t have a lot of data on these points, and we may have some inherent mental limitations that prevent us from interacting with these other cosmic minds. But the point that I want to leave you with tonight is that one of the greatest obstacles to raising these questions and ever hoping for any kind of answer is religion.

I have all kinds of quarrels with religion — as do you, and I am not going to list them all — for its role in the oppression of women, from the Taliban to the Republican Party, for its role in fomenting war and reinforcing class hierarchies, suppressing science as well as so many other crimes against humanity.

Briefs against Christianity

I have another grievance against religion, or at least against the so-called “great” world religions, the great monotheistic religions like Christianity and Islam, Christianity being the only one I really know that much about.

Christianity has consistently for generations stood in the way of human understanding of the world: scientific understanding, philosophical understanding, even mystical insight into the world. It has prohibited these sorts of questions and punished the people who dared to raise them. It has discouraged consistently any speculation about God, or to keep that more general, as some kind of cosmic entity.

When I was a child, for example, most of my friends were Catholic and I would ask them the usual questions, “Why does God let babies die?” and so on. The answer, “It’s a mystery.” Remember that? It’s a mystery, we can’t know and if you questioned that answer or said it is not a good enough explanation for you, then you were told that God just demands one thing from you, which is obedience, submission, just shut up and do what you are told. Don’t commit any sins, including the sin of intellectual arrogance as the priests liked to put it, like asking too many questions.

You probably know that, but what is less well-known to freethinkers, and I invite you to open your minds to this, is that Christianity has repeatedly crushed or harassed or tormented the most devout Christian intellectuals and mystics who dared to think for themselves.

Meister Eckhart, for example, anyone every heard of him? Oh wow, great. When he died, the Inquisition was on his trail. He had been called to Rome because his notions about the deity were not acceptable.

Or Marguerite Porete, who was burned at the stake in 1310 because she had unusual notions about the deity, Christians, members of religions and lay orders.

Worse still in my brief against Christianity, Christians for 400 years were at the forefront of European colonialism, crushing all alternative religious systems on the planet, in the Americas, in Africa and somewhat less successfully in Asia.

They crushed polytheistic religions, they crushed ecstatic religious, they crushed goddess worship, paganism, pantheism, animism, all expunged pretty much from the world. With the destruction of all the indigenous religions throughout the world, we lost all notions of a deity other than that perfect and all-powerful monotheistic one.

We lost the female deities, we lost the multiple deities, the animal deities, the jaguar gods, the lion gods, the elephant gods. We lost the entire pantheon created by the human imagination over the centuries. We lost the vicious gods that demanded blood sacrifice, and we lost the fun-loving gods like Dionysius and Bacchus

As all those alternative ways of understanding were wiped out, pretty much, we were left with this single inaccessible, unknowable, patriarchal deity of monotheism. Which is to say, we were left with nothing, just the paradox of the perfect god whose only excuse can be that he doesn’t exist, a god who by definition doesn’t exist.

It was this vacuum that the great classics of science fiction attempted to fill, not with new dogma or myths but with an invitation to speculate about questions that organized religion prohibited people from asking. If we are truly freethinkers, no issue and no topic is off limits to us, even topics that have been historically monopolized by religion.

So yes, our great common challenge here in this group, in this gathering, is to free people from religion, get it out of our laws, our schools, our health systems, our government and, I would add, also our sporting events. I would really like to see some separation of church and stadium, if we could work on that.

What I am proposing finally is in the tradition of untrammeled freethought: We might have to also free “god” from religion.

Thank you. 

I was alone in my activism on the May 3 National Day of Prayer in Jefferson City, Mo. I made several signs, including KEEP PRAYER OUT OF THE CAPITOL. THEY HAVE A LOT OF WORK TO DO! The first reaction I got while waiting at the bus stop near my home was a neighbor giving me thumbs-up and a smile when he saw my signs as he mowed his lawn.

The Capitol was surrounded by a motorcycle gang of several dozen Christians, with amplified Christian music blaring across the grounds. I didn’t see any media all day. In the morning, I established myself on the edge of a large fountain which is the grand centerpiece of the grounds, with my signs facing the folding chairs set up on the lawn.
I was approached by a woman who graciously granted me her permission to have my opinion and assured me that she will pray for me anyway. She soon returned with about a dozen people, mostly men, who told me that my position on prayer is why the country is in the sad state that it is today.

I said, “I can see that you came over here to block the view of my signs, and I will not engage with you.” To their credit, they moved aside so that my signs were again visible, but then the men took turns praying aloud. I kept reading a magazine. As they left, one said to me, “You know, young lady (I’m 55), this country was founded on —
I finished his sentence for him: “the separation of church and state.” And they walked away.

I had also written to my state legislators and other state officials to tell them that I expect them to do any praying they may do on their own time and not while they’re on state property working for the people.

Sue Gibson
Missouri

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Win for the home team

The U.S. Supreme Court announced June 25 it will not hear an appeal of a 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruling that the 43-foot-tall Mount Soledad cross on public property in La Jolla, Calif., is unconstitutional. It’s a great legal victory for cross challenger Steve Trunk, a longtime FFRF Board Member and Life Member (and FFRF’s third Atheist in Foxhole awardee). The suit was first filed in 1989 by the late Philip Paulson. Trunk joined the suit while Paulson was dying of cancer.

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FFRF Victories

Vacation bible school takes a holiday

Although kids may be out of school, FFRF knows that the Constitution doesn’t take a vacation.

Hazelwood Elementary School’s summer program in Waynesville, N.C., includes gardening, crafts and games, and religion. This year on June 18-22 and in years past, the school sponsored trips to a local Baptist church’s vacation bible school.

FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott objected in a letter to Haywood County Schools Superintendent, Anne Garnett. Elliott explained that the school’s summer programming, including its registration forms, program handouts and advertisement on the school website, all served to “facilitate student recruitment for religious indoctrination.”

School attorney Patrick Smathers replied June 21 that he’d advised administrators that in his opinion, such coordination “is improper. Though the Haywood County School System takes pride in complying with all laws involving religion, this matter unfortunately occurred.”

The superintendent “will implement plans to assure that future summer programs . . . will not coordinate or advertise vacation bible school activities,” Smathers said.

FFRF letter ends church endorsement

Granite City, Ill., residents will no longer have to tacitly endorse a church or face a fine, thanks to the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

The city municipal code required residents to purchase and prominently display sticker permits on their car windows each year. This year’s permit featured a photo of St. John United Church of Christ. Drivers who did not want to showcase the religious building faced up to $100 in fines for each day that the permit was not displayed. A local FFRF member opposed this use of permits and contacted FFRF.

Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote to Mayor Edward Hagnauer in late April that the mandatory church stickers violated the First Amendment rights of residents. Citing the Supreme Court case of Wooley v. Maynard, Elliott wrote, “No person can be compelled to display a message that violates her rights of conscience.” The letter also said the stickers give the impression that the city officially approves of St. John UCC.

In response to the complaint, the City Council met May 15 to adopt a resolution allowing residents to refrain from displaying the vehicle permits. The resolution provided that police would not enforce the sticker requirement.

Residents would still have to pay the permit fee, but a receipt would suffice as proof of a permit. The adopted resolution quoted both Illinois and U.S. Constitution religion clauses.

FFRF halts Georgia teacher’s prayers

A May 24 letter of complaint from FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel resulted in the principal of West Forsyth High School, Cumming, Ga., agreeing to stop leading students in prayer.

“We have been informed that, on the morning of May 21, 2012, the graduating class of West Forsyth High School was required to attend a mandatory meeting to receive information about their graduation ceremony,” Seidel wrote. “We were also informed that, prior to dismissing the meeting, Principal Betty Pope asked the students to ‘bow your heads for an invocation before breakfast.’ Our complainant tells us that Ms. Pope then proceeded to give an overtly sectarian prayer to her ‘Heavenly Father’ and ending ‘in Jesus’ name.’ ”

Forsyth County Schools Superintendent L.C. Evans responded May 31 and said the principal “admitted that the prayer had been said, indicated that she did not mean to offend anyone and acknowledged that in the future, prayers will not be delivered in such a setting.”

FFRF tackles coach’s football prayers

An Auburn [Wash.] High School football coach will no longer lead the team in prayer before games, nor will any other school district employees. The prayers took place in the locker room, with team members and coaches bowing their heads and taking a knee. Everyone in the locker room felt obligated to participate, according to FFRF’s complainant.

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote May 23 to Timothy Cummings, the school district’s assistant superintendent of human resources, about the illegal prayers and concerns that other schools were allowing staff to lead prayer.

Cummings responded June 1 to say that “the school district’s athletic director has sent a memo to all building athletic directors to desist immediately with organized team prayers by coaches.” He also sent a copy of FFRF’s letter to all administrators and noted that “Principals will need to monitor closely so that staff refrains from leading prayers in school.” The district will also be hosting an in-service on “Constitutionality of Prayer in Public Schools.”

FFRF sacks football prayer in Alabama

Football coaches at Hoover [Ala.] High School will no longer engage in pregame locker room prayers. FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote to alert Superintendent Andy Craig to the constitutional violation Jan. 6.

FFRF received confirmation from the school district’s attorney June 4 that coaches would not lead prayer or arrange for other adults to pray before football games in the future.

Bible distribution ended in Tennessee

Tullahoma [Tenn.] City Schools will prohibit bible distribution after receiving an FFRF complaint letter.

Fifth-graders at East Lincoln Elementary School were told by teachers to come up and take a bible in their classrooms. Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt warned Superintendent Dan Lawson in a May 21 letter that “Courts uniformly have held the distribution of bibles to students at public schools during instructional time is prohibited.”

In a May 29 response, Lawson wrote that he would advise principals to prohibit such distribution in the future, assuring FFRF that “we fully adhere to a belief that we are responsible to be neutral in matters of religion.”

Cross removed from Nebraska state park

Indian Caves State Park in Shubert, Neb., removed a large wooden cross from public property after receiving an FFRF letter of complaint May 22.

Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote to Ron Stave, chair of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, “No court of final resort has ever upheld the government’s permanent display of a Latin cross on public land as constitutional. The inherent religious significance of the Latin cross is undeniable and is not disguisable.”

Stave replied the next day to say that the cross had been removed.

County ends prayer at training luncheon

Christian prayers by government employees in Mecklenburg County, N.C., were silenced. FFRF acted on complaints from three county employees about prayers at a mandatory training luncheon for the county’s Department of Social Services. In a Feb. 8 letter to DSS Director Mary Wilson, Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt objected to the sectarian prayers. Schmitt wrote an April 18 follow-up letter.

A county attorney responded April 23 that “the matter has been addressed and is resolved. The county and DSS are very much aware of constitutional constraints placed on governmental behavior.”

FFRF letter blocks Texas football prayer

Coaches will no longer encourage students to pray in the locker room at McAllen [Texas] High School. McAllen’s head football coach reportedly asked a student to recite the Lord’s Prayer before each game.

Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote Feb. 1 to Superintendent James Ponce: “The coaches’ apparent organizing and obvious participation in a team prayer constitutes an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion.”

Assistant Superintendent Mike Barrera responded after an April 18 follow-up letter, writing on May 9 that the district “has taken steps to orient staff and heighten awareness about the proper procedures involved in student-led prayers at public events.”

No longer will ‘God richly bless you’

Massachusetts’ Health and Human Services and Department of Children and Families will now refrain from making inappropriate religious references in their correspondence. An HHS employee forwarded FFRF an official letter from a DCF employee which included the phrase “may God richly bless you.”

FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt noted in her Jan. 25 complaint letter to HHS Chief of Staff Stacey Monahan that “the U.S. Supreme Court has held that public officials may not seek to advance or promote religion.”

Monahan replied after FFRF sent a March 19 follow-up letter. She said the departments “regret any offense engendered,” and affirmed that they would “caution employees generally regarding inappropriate religious references in communications made in their official capacities.”

School religious materials draw FFRF scrutiny

Lewis County Intermediate School (Hohenwald, Tenn.) will stop teachers from handing out religious materials in the classroom. A local parent contacted FFRF after his fifth-grader came home on separate occasions with a bible and a permission slip for summer vacation bible school.

Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote May 23 to Director of Schools Benjamin Pace to note the constitutional violations. Pace replied June 7 to say that the district would revisit policy on materials that are sent out.

FFRF mutes religious music at school

Preschoolers at Herman Leimbach Elementary School (Elk Grove, Calif.) did not sing “God Bless America” at their June 14 graduation after receiving Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel’s June 12 letter of complaint to Superintendent Steven Ladd.

“Because this is a graduation for preschool students as young as four years old, Elk Grove United School District must consider how the messages it sends are perceived by its youngest, most impressionable students,” wrote Seidel.

Seidel spoke with FFRF’s local complainant the next day, who reported that the administration agreed to remove the song from both the graduation program and the school’s future repertoire.

FFRF educates pious Texas on Constitution

Byron Nelson High School (Fort Worth, Texas) will no longer mix prayer with school-sponsored assemblies. FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt sent a June 1 letter to Superintendent Karen Rue outlining significant “constitutional concerns” brought on by an end-of-the-year assembly. A prayer was delivered during an event to honor the senior class. A local complainant told FFRF that school officials had full knowledge of the prayer before it was given and that the assembly was mandatory.

An attorney for the school district replied June 18, “The district has recently provided its administrators and educators with in-service training over a variety of issues, including those addressed in your letter.” He added that the district staff was specifically trained on the “ ‘do’s and don’ts’ of religion in public schools.”

FFRF excises AFB’s surgical unit bibles

FFRF put an end to the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base’s practice of placing bibles in the medical center’s waiting rooms.

Prior to FFRF’s complaint, the Wright-Patterson Medical Center displayed Gideon bibles throughout its surgical unit waiting room. These bibles were the only religious materials available to patients at this government-run facility. FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote to facility management on April 27, 2012. Schmitt wrote that “providing such material to patients and guests sends the message that they are expected to want to read the religious publications and that the hospital endorses the message found in the material.” She added that “government-run hospitals have a constitutional obligation to remain neutral towards religion.”

Schmitt noted that if a patient desires to read religious material during their hospital visit “they can bring their own.”

A local resident informed FFRF on June 26 that all bibles have been removed from the surgical unit waiting room.

FFRF stops information distribution to church

Bret Harte Union High School (Angels Camp, Calif.) will stop distributing student contact information to and supporting a baccalaureate program at St. Andrew’s Catholic Church.

A Bret Harte student contacted FFRF after receiving an invitation to a graduation Mass at St. Andrew’s. Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote Superintendent Michael Chimente on June 18 to take issue with this constitutional violation, calling it “shocking that a school, entrusted with the care, education and protection of minors, would give children’s information over to an organization known to harbor and shield sexual predators.”

Seidel emphasized that the “Stockton Diocese, of which Angels Camp is a part, has a sordid history of priests sexually abusing minors (at least 10 priests have been accused of sexual abuse of minors, two recently fled to Ireland).”

One of the most notorious is Fr. Oliver Francis O’Grady, who fled to his native Ireland and has admitted molesting at least 25 children.

Chimente called June 26 to say the school would stop distributing students’ information to religious institutions and stop supporting the baccalaureate at St. Andrew’s.

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FFRF to appeal Michigan judge’s ruling

FFRF will appeal the May 31 decision by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan that dismissed its nativity scene suit to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit in Cincinnati.

FFRF filed a suit in December 2011, charging Mayor James Fouts of Warren, Mich., with government censorship of its nonreligious views and unlawful endorsement of religion. Judge Lawrence Zatkoff issued a ruling granting the city’s motion for summary judgment.

The city hosts a yearly holiday public forum in the atrium of the Warren Civic Center. The display includes “Christmas trees, ribbons, ornaments, a ‘Winter Welcome’ sign, a ‘Merry Christmas’ sign, nutcrackers, elves, reindeer, a Santa’s mailbox, snowmen, wreaths with lights, bushels of poinsettias, candy canes, wrapped gift boxes, a ‘prayer station’ and a Nativity Scene.” A plaque indicates that the display is “sponsored and provided by the Warren Rotary Club.”

FFRF sued the city after the city denied placement of FFRF’s Winter Solstice display in the atrium.

Zatkoff ruled that FFRF and local plaintiff Douglas Marshall did have standing to sue but denied a free speech claim: “Plaintiffs, however, do not have an unlimited right to express their private speech on government property.”

Zatkoff ruled the atrium display was a limited public forum. “The government may restrict speech in a limited public forum as long as the restrictions do ‘not discriminate against speech on the basis of viewpoint’ and are ‘reasonable in light of the purpose served by the forum.’ There is nothing indicating to the Court that the Holiday Display was intended as a forum for religious or political debate and consequently, non-celebratory advocacy and political statements are properly excluded.”

The judge ruled exclusion of FFRF’s solstice sign was “because its political nature does not comport with the purpose of the overall display — to celebrate the holiday season and promote good will.”

“The purpose of the Holiday Display is to celebrate the holiday season, not to act as a catalyst for religious debate,” Zatkoff ruled.

FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor noted that Fouts has been involved in several other state-church entanglements. “He’s shown good will only to people who are religious.

“Fouts may not set up a ‘limited public forum’ open to all religions while barring nonbelievers or critics of religion.”

FFRF greatly appreciates the pro bono work of the Butzel Long law firm, Gaylor added.

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FFRF counters anti-contraceptive bishops

‘Storming the bishops’ bastille!’

Zachary Moore in front of FFRF’s Fort Worth billboard. 

The Freedom From Religion Foundation went into high gear against a June offensive by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to impose its anti-contraceptive dogma on civil law. FFRF countered the bishops’ “Fortnight for Freedom” June 21­–July 4 with its own energetic media campaign.

FFRF launched a historic TV ad campaign with a 30-second spot featuring one of America’s favorite former Catholics — actress Julia Sweeney, beloved by freethinkers for her play “Letting Go of God” and by the American public for her portrayal of “Androgynous Pat” on “Saturday Night Live.”

In the ad, Julia says:

“Hi, I’m Julia Sweeney, and I’m a cultural Catholic. I am no longer a believer and I even wrote a play about it called ‘Letting Go of God.’ But I wanted to let you know that right now Catholic bishops are framing their opposition to contraceptive coverage as a religious freedom issue. But the real threat to freedom is the bishops, who want to be free to force their dogma on people who don’t want it. Please join the Freedom From Religion Foundation and help keep church and state separate. (FFRF’s name, toll-free number and website are displayed throughout the ad.) See ad: ffrf.org

FFRF purchased two weeks of airtime, about 1,200 showings of the ad, on an impressive variety of national TV programs, mainly news-oriented, airing regionally to about 42 million viewers whose carriers included Dish, DirecTV, Cox, Comcast, Verizon and Viamedia. Shows included first-run and reruns of programs hosted by CNN’s Anderson Cooper, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews and Rachel Maddow, “Mythbusters” and even Comedy Central’s “Daily Show” and “Colbert Report.”

Other networks included LOGO, Discovery, Science and WE (Women’s Entertainment). Taking its message to some who need to hear it most, FFRF even placed a limited number on Fox’s “O’Reilly Factor” and “Hannity.” A similar radio commercial recorded by Sweeney also played in June on “The Randi Rhodes Show.”

FFRF produced the TV ad in direct response to the Catholic bishops’ posturing as victims of religious persecution, while working to limit women employees’ access to contraception.

In August, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is scheduled to expand preventive care to provide FDA-approved contraceptives without charging female employees a co-pay. The bishops claim their “religious liberty” is jeopardized by this guideline, even though they and all churches and denominations are explicitly exempted from providing this benefit to their own employees.

The bishops have orchestrated federal lawsuits against the Obama administration’s mandate involving 43 Catholic institutions, most of them dioceses. The suits target the administration’s compromise, which orders private insurance companies to pay for and provide the contraceptive benefit to employees of religiously affiliated hospitals, schools and other nonchurch organizations.

The Catholic Church is lobbying Congress to adopt a church-authored law to permit any employer to deny employee health care coverage if they cite a religious objection. For example, a Jehovah’s Witnesses employer could bar blood transfusion coverage for an employee, or a Southern Baptist could bar prescription contraception for an unmarried female employee.

“Most Americans are not Catholic, yet the Catholic Church wants our civil laws to bend to the will of one church,” noted FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. “The church is free to preach its irrational doctrine that contraception is a ‘sin’ to its own membership, the vast majority of whom disregard that teaching and use contraception. But no church has the right to demand that our government deny basic health care benefits because its dogma opposes such care.”

Patriotic billboards go up

As part of its “Counter the Bishops” campaign, FFRF placed three strategic billboards around the country saying “Quit the Church: Put Women’s Rights over Bishops’ Wrongs”:

• A red-white-and-blue 14x48-foot billboard went up at Interstate 70 and North Broadway in St. Louis, Mo., in mid-June for 4 weeks. Nearly 300,000 people drive by weekly. FFRF chose St. Louis for its “truth to power” message because the Archdiocese of St. Louis and Catholic Charities of St. Louis are parties to the suit over the mandate.

• FFRF also placed a patriotic 14x48-foot “Put women’s rights over bishops’ wrongs” billboard off busy Interstate 30 east of Highway 360 in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. The Diocese of Dallas and the Diocese of Fort Worth are among the dozens of Catholic institutions suing the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Area FFRF member Zachary Moore, who was interviewed about the billboard on TV station WDBJ 7, said he used to be among the many Catholics using birth control, is now a member of FFRF and encourages others like him to “quit the church.”

• For a Fourth of July “grand finale,” FFRF placed a 20x60-foot billboard at 42nd Street and 8th Avenue in New York City, taking its message to Times Square and the home of Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops. View more photos of the billboard at:

ffrf.org/get-involved/bus-billboard-campaign/new-york-city-quit-the-church

You can find the New York Post’s video coverage at: youtu.be/rqd2lvC09FU

(Yes, the billboard is technically one block from the official Times Square, but it’s at the Port Authority bus terminal, “where zillions pass by, many of them twice a day,” as former New Yorker Lawrence S. Lerner informs us.)

Other educational efforts

FFRF also issued a white paper, “Our First, Most Cherished Freedom: A Statement Exposing the Catholic Church’s Attempt to Redefine Religious Liberty,” thoroughly researched and written by Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel, rebutting a phony statement on religious liberty by the bishops. Read FFRF’s statement.

The bishops’ fortnight assault against the contraceptive mandate began on the “the vigil of the Feasts of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More.” FFRF noted the irony of beginning with a celebration of two men who had people tortured and burned to death for exercising freedom of conscience. FFRF documented the Catholic Church’s bloody history of zero tolerance for dissent.

The bishops charged religious discrimination when federal funds recently were cut off after Catholic institutions refused to provide contraception to victims of sex trafficking. A court ruled against them, noting: “To insist that the government respect the separation of church and state is not to discriminate against religion; indeed, it promotes a respect for religion by refusing to single out any creed for official favor at the expense of all others.”

Previously, FFRF placed full-page ads saying “It’s Time to Quit the Catholic Church,” in The New York Times, The Washington Post and USA Today. View the ad: ffrf.org/news/releases/ffrfs-quit-the-catholic-church-ad-in-weekend-usa-today/

FFRF raised $100,000 to “Counter the Bishops” campaign, thanks to many kind benefactors of the last-minute effort. “We are deeply grateful for the activism and support of FFRF’s stalwart secularists, allowing a timely response,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “We also owe a debt of gratitude to Julia Sweeney for so graciously recording this commercial.”

A separate, slightly longer Web-only message from Sweeney about the bishops’ crusade can be viewed at FFRF’s homepage at ffrf.org.

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Newsnotes

Wis. faith-healing convictions appealed

The Wisconsin Supreme Court announced June 27 it will hear an appeal of the conviction of a Weston couple found guilty of reckless homicide in the faith-healing death of their 11-year-old daughter. Dale and Leilani Neumann were sentenced to 6 months in jail and 10 years’ probation.

A state appeals court in Wausau declined to rule and sent the case to the Supreme Court. Wisconsin has a prayer exception, but the state contends it doesn’t apply in this case.

Millennials’ belief levels plummeting

A new Pew Research Center found that belief in the existence of God has dropped considerably in the last five years among Americans age 30 and under.

Just 68 percent of “millennials” in 2012 agree with the statement “I never doubt the existence of God.” That’s down from 76 percent in 2009 and 83 percent in 2007.

Of all those surveyed over age 18, the study found, 80% agree and 18% disagree with the statement.

Creationist views change little since 1982

A USA Today/Gallup poll conducted May 10-13 found that 46% of Americans believe in the creationist view that God created humans in their present form at some point in the last 10,000 years. That’s virtually unchanged from 30 years ago, when Gallup first asked the question.

About a third believe that humans evolved, but with God’s guidance; 15% say humans evolved, but that God had no part in the process.

While 58% of Republicans believe that God created humans in their present form, 39% of independents and 41% of Democrats agree.

Deaths attributed to mohel’s procedure

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported June 7 that 11 baby boys in New York City were infected with herpes between November 2000 and December 2011 following an ultra-Orthodox Jewish circumcision ritual called metzitzah b’peh, in which the mohel puts his mouth directly on the newly circumcised penis and sucks away the blood.

“There is no safe way to perform oral suction on any open wound in a newborn,” New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley said in a statement.

Ten of the boys were hospitalized, at least two developed brain damage and two died, according to the New York City Health Department.

Study: Religious

tax breaks costly

A Florida professor estimates tax breaks for religious institutions in the U.S. result in as much as $71 billion in reduced revenues.

Ryan Cragun, a University of Tampa assistant professor of sociology, and two students examined tax laws on exemptions on property, donations, business enterprises, capital gains and “parsonage allowances.” Findings include:

• States lose about $26.2 billion a year in property taxes.

• Capital gains tax exemptions amount to about $41 billion a year.

• Clergy claim as much as $1.2 billion via the parsonage allowance.

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