FFRF stops bible ads on school marquee
A high school in North Carolina no longer displays church advertisements on its marquee because of FFRF. Several proselytizing ads, including “1 Peter 5:7” (“Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you”), were featured on the marquee at South Caldwell High School in Lenoir, N.C. These ads were purchased by “Day 3 Church.”
Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent a letter to the district on Jan 8, explaining why displaying religious messages are an egregious violation on public school property:
“Messages on the South Caldwell High School sign are prominently featured and are intended to directly reach students. These messages have the imprimatur of the school and are subject to the Establishment Clause. Advertising on the sign may be properly limited to serve the school’s objectives.”
FFRF requested that if the school would not remove the church ads, FFRF would also purchase ad space itself.
The school district’s attorney promptly responded that the school had removed all ads, which a photo sent by a local complainant verified. The district has changed its policy to ban all nonschool ads on the marquee, the attorney told FFRF.
Lamb of God off Minn. school menu
A public high school in Fertile, Minn., will no longer place a nativity scene in the cafeteria, as it did last December. According to local news sources, the display was temporarily removed, then put back up after a vote of the school board late last year.
Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent a letter to the Board of Education in December, explaining that the school may not lawfully maintain, erect, or host a nativity scene:
“The placement of a scene of the legendary birth of Jesus in a public school places the imprimatur of the school district behind Christian religious doctrine. Endorsements of Christianity in public schools are disturbing for those parents and students who are not Christians.”
On Feb. 28, the district’s attorney replied in writing that the board “rescinded its previous directive, which would allow ‘religious symbols as part of holiday decor as long as it is accompanies by other holiday decor.’ ”
The letter added, “The school district is fully aware of the current status of the applicable federal and state statues as well as court decisions regarding the issues at hand and intends to proceed in a fashion consistent with the law.”
School pulls Christian film after letter
A school in New York will no longer show the Christian film “How to Save a Life” in a sophomore health class. FFRF received a complaint from a parent of a high school student in the Jamesville-DeWitte Central School District, DeWitt, N.Y.
Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent a letter to the district to point out the constitutional problems with showing Christians films to a captive audience of students:
“The film tells the story of a high school basketball star named Jake who loses a former friend to suicide, and Jake’s path to saving another friend from committing suicide by joining a church group and thus reforming his ways. The film also involves acts of premarital sex, drug and alcohol use, cutting, discussion of abortion and so on. Other films these companies have been involved with have had overt Christian messages, primarily involving accepting Jesus Christ and the Christian religion.”
On March 14, the district responded that although the film had indeed been shown during the school day, it was an “isolated incident” that does not represent and is not consistent with school policy.
The district added, “After speaking with the teacher in question, be assured that this film will not be used as a resource in the future.”
FFRF helps nonbeliever become citizen
The Freedom From Religion Foundation helped nonbeliever Adriana Ramirez, a native Colombian living in California, become a U.S. citizen after her naturalization application was initially rejected by the San Diego office of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Ramirez had refused to swear an oath “to bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law,” asking for an exemption because, she wrote, “The strength of my moral and ethical convictions in this matter is greater than any religious training or indoctrination that I may have had in my upbringing.”
She also objected to the phrase “so help me God,” saying, “I do not hold such religious beliefs.”
The agency, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, responded by writing that “the oath of alliegence [sic] must be based on religious training and belief. . . . [Y]our unwillingness is not based on religious training and belief.”
On Feb. 21, Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote USCIS a forceful complaint letter, noting Supreme Court precedent. “It is shocking that USCIS officers would not be aware that a nonreligious yet deeply held belief would be sufficient to attain this exemption. This is a longstanding part of our law, and every USCIS officer should receive training on this exemption.”
On March 20, FFRF was informed that Ramirez received a letter stating her application had been accepted and giving information on attending a naturalization ceremony.
In 2013, FFRF helped Margaret Doughty become a U.S. citizen, surmounting a nearly identical situation at the Houston USCIS office. The office relented and let her take the oath without the “bear arms” requirement.
The repeated violations led FFRF to write a comprehensive letter to USCIS Director Alejandro Mayorkas. Seidel asked Mayorkas to issue a clarifying policy memorandum to prevent future nonreligious citizens from going through similar ordeals. He also took issue with prayers at citizenship ceremonies and ceremonies occurring in Catholic institutions.
“We thought this discriminatory policy was dropped, and here another applicant encounters the same barrier. The U.S. government must resolve this problem permanently,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.
FFRF letter assures Gideon-free school
An FFRF letter of complaint ensured that bibles will no longer be distributed by Gideons International in a Tennessee high school.
A concerned parent informed FFRF that the Gideons were allowed to distribute bibles at Madisonville Intermediate School. A parent reported that at different times during the day, teachers took their classes to the guidance counselor’s office where Gideons preached to students and handed them each a Christian bible.
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter in December to the district, explaining the constitutional violation: “The district may not allow any religious groups to enter school property to distribute religious literature. Even if the students are not forced to accept these bibles, the school sends a clear message to the children in its charge who are nonadherents ‘that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community.’ ”
On Feb. 21, the Monroe School District responded that it would not allow further bible distribution and would “work diligently to ensure student rights under all laws are upheld.”
Extending free exercise rights to corporations would undercut the rights of actual living, breathing Americans. At stake in this lawsuit is whether corporate chief executives are entitled to impose their religious beliefs on their employees and deny important federal rights to those employees. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood hire workers of all religious faiths and persuasions, but refuse to respect that many of their employees may have a different set of religious views and want and need access to the full range of contraceptives.
David Gans, Constitutional Accountability Center, op-ed, “These claims shouldn’t have a prayer”
Los Angeles Times, 3-18-14
These companies are not religious organizations, nor are they affiliated with religious organizations. But the owners say they are victims of an assault on religious liberty because they personally disapprove of certain contraceptives. They are wrong, and the Supreme Court’s task is to issue a decisive ruling saying so. The real threat to religious liberty comes from the owners trying to impose their religious beliefs on thousands of employees.
Editorial board, “Crying Wolf on Religious Liberty”
New York Times, 3-22-14
It’s past the point of wanting the pictures. I just want them to look at what’s happening. We’re praying that Walgreens learns that the bible doesn’t belong to anyone, it belongs to everyone.
Kelly Taylor, 46, Gulfport, Miss., after Walgreens relented after refusing to process two prints of bible verses due to concerns about copyright violation
Fox News, 2-26-14
Christ’s burial is followed by what may be the least necessary title card in cinema history: “Three days later.” Surely the resurrection comes as no consolation to the movie’s Pilate, who scoffs, “He’ll be forgotten in a week.”
Ben Kenigsberg, movie review, “History Channel’s ‘The Bible’ is cut into an equally chintzy film, ‘Son Of God’ ”
The board of trustees is requiring professors and staff to sign a statement saying that they believe Adam and Eve were created in an instant by God and that humans share no ancestry with other life forms.
News story on Bryan College’s new policy in Dayton, Tenn., home of the 1925 Scopes “monkey” trial
Chattanooga Times Free-Press, 3-2-14
Your religion is yours; it’s not a code that the rest of us must live by. If you have an issue with abortion, don’t have one. If you have an issue with gay marriage, don’t have one.
Steven Lopez, Sterling, Ill., letter to the editor responding to one headlined “Abortion still heinous, godless”
Sterling Daily Gazette, 2-22-14
Today, Michelle and I join our fellow Christians in the United States and around the world in marking Ash Wednesday. Lent is a season of reflection, repentance, and renewal — a chance to recommit to loving and serving one another, and to deepen our faith in preparation for the Easter celebration to come.
President Barack Obama, White House statement
USA Today, 3-5-14
The weather may have been a factor in not many people being out and about at lunchtime.
Linda McVay, St. John’s Episcopal Church pastoral care team member, on why only a dozen people in two hours availed themselves of “Ashes to Go” on Ash Wednesday in downtown Portsmouth, Maine
Portsmouth Herald, 3-6-14
For most of my life, I’ve been, “Hey, I’m not into it, but I respect your right to believe whatever you want.” But as time goes on, weirdly, I’m growing less liberal. I’m more like, “No, religion is ruining the world, you need to stop!”
Irish actor Chris O’Dowd, magazine interview
British GQ, April 2014
This is an excessive lifestyle.
Beth Maguire, Cathedral of Christ the King parishioner, Atlanta, on the Catholic archdiocese spending $4.4 million on two residences for clergy from a $15 million bequest from Joseph Mitchell, nephew of “Gone With the Wind” author Margaret Mitchell
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 3-22-14
We’re not anti-religious. We just think a public school should be inclusive for all kids. If they want to have a religious prayer, it should be said in scripture or prayer groups, but not during a core school activity like assemblies.
Kersten Tuckey, who withdrew her daughter from Kororo Public School in New South Wales after parents voted to retain school prayer
Sydney Morning Herald, 3-23-14
According to a survey conducted by the Israeli Science Ministry, the profession of rabbi or any other clergyman is the least well-thought-of by the Israeli public.
News story in which the medical profession was “most admired” in the poll
The Algemeiner, 3-25-14
What to give up for Lent: Religion.
Hulda Pelzl, Texas FFRF member
Science is not there for you to cherry-pick. You know, I said this once and it’s gotten a lot of Internet play, I said the good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it. All right? I guess you can decide whether or not to believe in it, but that doesn’t change the reality of an emergent scientific truth.
Neil DeGrasse Tyson, host of “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” and Hayden Planetarium director, on why media shouldn’t give equal time to creationists and “flat-earthers”
“Reliable Sources,” CNN, 3-9-14
As a creationist, I find Neil deGrasse Tyson’s presumption to educate America on the meaning of science as host of “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” repulsive and sad. I am repulsed by Tyson’s transparent attempt to promote atheism and discredit the Word of God, and saddened that so many cannot recognize the Dark Age a priori pseudo-science animating his slick words.
Robert Bowie Johnson Jr., op-ed
Canada Free Press, 3-19-14
Whatever one might hear on the right about a war on religion, in this country we still care more about catering to religious sensibilities, even in liberal Hollywood, than we do about encouraging the open questioning of the claims of the faithful.
Lawrence Krauss, physicist and subject with Richard Dawkins of the film documentary “The Unbelievers,” op-ed titled “Why Hollywood Thinks Atheism Is Bad for Business”
The New Yorker, 3-5-14
Dead “Snake Salvation” Pastor Jamie Coots Had No Life Insurance
Headline about a snake-bitten Kentucky pastor who’s survived by his wife, father, two children and a grandchild
Christian Post, 2-17-14
The second goal is that particularly unchurched servers would understand that not all Christians are rude, impatient, lousy tippers.
Lead Pastor Chad Roberts, Preaching Christ Church, Kingsport, Tenn., on the website he set up named “Sundays Are the Worst” for restaurant workers to vent on
Kingsport Times News, 3-3-14
All of a sudden he just snaps. [It] just clicked like that and then he said he hopes I rot in hell.
Skyler Joly, 15, accusing his parish priest, Fr. Roman Manchester of Our Lady of Good Help in Burrillville, R.I., of inappropriate behavior during religion class
In my own parish, several longstanding parishioners have ceased all financial contributions to the parish because they do not want a cent of their gift to go to the diocese.
Catholic parishioner John Veal, supporting a petition to remove Robert Finn as bishop of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph for alleged cover-up of clergy sex abuse
Kansas City Star, 3-13-14
While most invocations are traditional and uneventful, the Rev. Joe Nelms of Lebanon, Tenn., garnered national attention in 2011, when he thanked God for several series sponsors by name and his “smokin’ hot wife” prior to a Nationwide Series race at Nashville Superspeedway.
News story, “NASCAR only pro sport to televise weekly prayer”
Bristol Herald Courier, 3-15-14
Shakespeare is my religion. Shakespeare has more wisdom and insight about our lives, about how to live and how not to live, how to forgive and how to understand our fellow creatures, than any religious tract. One hundred times more than the bible.
Sir Trevor Nunn, British theater director
The Telegraph, 3-17-14
The thing that’s really disturbing about Noah isn’t “the silly,” it’s that it’s immoral. It’s about a psychotic mass murderer who gets away with it and his name is God. Genesis says God was so angry with himself for screwing up when he made mankind so flawed that he sent the flood to kill everyone — men, women, children, babies. What kind of tyrant punishes everyone just to get back at the few he’s mad at? I mean besides Chris Christie.
Entertainer Bill Maher, on the movie “Noah” that debuted March 28
“Real Time With Bill Maher,” 3-14-14
And on the 12th day of his murder trial, Oscar Pistorius broke out what appeared to be a bible study guide.
News story on the South African Olympian accused of shooting his girlfriend to death on Valentine’s Day 2013
New York Daily News, 3-19-14
Reason has been under siege and been slapped around. Believing things on the basis of something other than evidence and reason causes people to misconstrue what’s good for them.
Peter Boghossian, author and philosophy instructor at Portland State University, speaking to the Freethinking Frogs student group at Texas Christian University
TCU 360, 3-20-14
Unfortunately, Fred’s ideas have not died with him, but live on. Not just among the members of Westboro Baptist Church, but among the many communities and small minds that refuse to recognize the equality and humanity of our brothers and sisters on this small planet we share. . . . [N]or will this be the last we hear of his words, which are echoed from pulpits as close as other churches in Topeka, Kansas, where WBC headquarters remain, and as far away as Uganda.
Nate Phelps, atheist son of Pastor Fred Phelps, on his father’s death March 19
Recovering From Religion, 3-24-14
HORRIFYING ALERT!!! IF YOU ARE A CHRISTIAN, AS I AM, WAKE UP!!! Much to my surprise last night, I found out that my opponent is not a Christian. She does not have faith in God and feels there is no heaven.
Facebook post by Marilyn Ustler McQueen, Apopka [Fla.] City Council incumbent, adding that someone should bring challenger Diane Velazquez to Christ. [Velazquez, a former New York police detective, won 55% to 45%.]
Orlando Sentinel, 2-26-14
OBAMA HAS RELEASED THE HOMO DEMONS ON THE BLACK MAN. LOOK OUT BLACK WOMEN. A WHITE HOMO MAY TAKE YOUR MAN.
Sign outside Pastor James David Manning’s ATLAH World Missionary Church in Harlem
New York Daily News, 2-27-14
Am I too WHITE to be your pastor?
Sign held by Patrick Kelley, pastor at River Pointe Church, suburban Houston, for a promotion to get black people to attend his Sunday service honoring Martin Luther King Jr.
Houston Chronicle, 3-1-14
There are [all-night] prayer vigils all over Ukraine. They are praying for peace and for aggression to stop. God is in ultimate control. We trust him. We never expected Russia to move in so swiftly.
Vitaly Sorukun, pastor of New Hope Church in Kharkov, an hour from the Russian border
Christianity Today, 3-3-14
Let’s skip the Oscars and take our families to see Son of God this weekend. #SonofGod #JesusoverOscar
Tweet on the day of the Academy Awards by Pastor Matthew Hagee, Cornerstone Church, San Antonio
Christian Post, 3-4-14
More bothersome than the replacement of biblical characters with birds who, for example, gorily get their heads cut off, is the deliberate portrayal of the Christian parents as plastic, phony, mean and indifferent, predictably simple-minded and against imagination. This negative portrayal of believing Christians is part of the left’s ongoing attempt to demonize Christians.
Rabbi Aryeh Spero, author of [Push Back: Reclaiming Our American Judeo-Christian Spirit, panning “The Bird Bible” skit on “Saturday Night Live”
Regardless of what some people believe, we were not founded to be secular.
Baptist Pastor Chris McCombs, speaking in favor of prayers “in Jesus’ name” at Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, city council meetings, to which FFRF has objected
Akron Beacon Journal, 3-5-14
We want to tell lots of people about Jesus by every means available.
Mars Hill Church spokesman Justin Dean, Seattle, justifying spending at least $210,000 to get Pastor Mark Driscoll’s book Real Marriage on The New York Times best-seller list
World Magazine, 3-5-14
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is delighted to announce that world-renowed scientist Steven Pinker, already an honorary FFRF director, will serve as its first honorary president.
Pinker, a Johnstone Family Professor in the psychology department at Harvard University, is on Time’s list of the “World’s 100 Most Influential People.” As an experimental psychologist, he’s one of the world’s foremost writers on language, the mind and human nature. His research on visual cognition and the psychology of language has won awards from the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Institution of Great Britain, the Cognitive Neuroscience Society and the American Psychological Association.
Pinker told FFRF, when receiving its Emperor Has No Clothes Award in 2004: “I was never religious in the theological sense. I never outgrew my conversion to atheist at 13.”
Born in Montreal, Pinker studied at McGill University and Harvard, where he earned his Ph.D. He taught at MIT for 21 years and also at Stanford. He’s the author of six critically acclaimed books for a general audience, including The Language Instinct (1994), How the Mind Works (1997), The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (2002), and The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Declined (2011).
Pinker has actively worked against religious incursions in science and government, including testifying before Congress. He prevailed against a proposal at Harvard to require a course on “Reason and Faith,” saying, “[U]niversities are about reason, pure and simple. Faith — -believing something without good reasons to do so — has no place in anything but a religious institution, and our society has no shortage of these. Imagine if we had a requirement for ‘Astronomy and Astrology’ or ‘Psychology and Parapsychology,’ ” he wrote in an op-ed titled “Less Faith, More Reason” in the Harvard Crimson in 2006.
In a 2007 interview with Salon.com, Pinker noted, “Atheists are the most reviled minority in the United States, so it’s no small matter to come out and say it.”
Pinker is part of an intellectual power couple with his wife, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, a recipient of a Mac-Arthur “genius grant.” A philosopher and novelist, Goldstein was named a Freethought Heroine by FFRF in 2011, when she spoke poignantly about her escape from the strictures of strict Orthodox Judaism.
Among her books are 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction, and the just released nonfiction work, Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away. The Boston Globe calls her “a playful, bouyant, witty stylist who parses intractably difficult philosophical and religious ideas with breaktaking ease.”
March roared like a lion from beginning to end in winter-weary Wisconsin, and so did the Freedom From Religion Foundation, acting on many egregious entanglements between religion and government.
FFRF’s complaints stirred up lots of regional and national news coverage, crank mail and crank callers, starting with the March 3 announcement that the Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct agreed with FFRF that former magistrate Lu Ann Ballew violated codes of judicial conduct by ordering a boy’s named changed from Messiah to Martin at an August hearing.
Ballew said Messiah is a title “earned by one person, and that person is Jesus Christ.” Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert’s letter of complaint set in motion the board’s public censure.
Garnering at least of a week of media attention in March was a letter from Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor to Green Bay Mayor Jim Schmitt, reprimanding him for inviting the pope to visit the Wisconsin city next year to make “a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help.”
Schmitt’s invitation on city letterhead was signed “Your servant in Christ” and extolled in excited tones “the events, apparitions and locutions” in 1859 that “exhibit the substance of supernatural character,” involving “the first and only Blessed Virgin Mary apparition approved by the Catholic Church in the United States.”
While noting Schmitt is “welcome to personally believe” in the supernatural sighting of the Virgin Mary a century and a half ago, the FFRF directors told Schmitt he’s not free to use his civic office to promote “your personal (and highly embarrassing) religious beliefs.”
At a press conference Schmitt called to defend himself, he admitted his letter was a “little heavy” on the religion. This is not FFRF’s first tussle with Schmitt, who was stopped by FFRF’s federal lawsuit from putting a nativity scene atop the entrance of City Hall.
FFRF, by the way, also criticized the invitation to the pope to address Congress from Catholic politicians John Boehner, U.S. House speaker, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi: “Congress needs a visit from the pope like Boehner needs more time in a tanning booth.”
Gaylor and Barker also stirred up an online hornet’s nest for reprimanding Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker for misusing his official gubernatorial Facebook and Twitter accounts to promote religion. On March 16, Walker posted the words “Philippians 4:13” — a verse from the bible reading: “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.”
FFRF’s press release added that “this braggadocio verse coming from a public official is rather disturbing” and seems more like “a threat, or the utterance of a theocratic dictator than of a duly elected civil servant.”
Florida school violations
FFRF sent letters of complaint in March to two Florida school districts in Orange and Seminole counties over entanglement with a Christian congregation called The Venue Church (whose “venue,” ironically, is only in public schools).
Already, Seminole County Public Schools has promised to end the constitutional violations outlined by Seidel in FFRF’s letter.
Orange County allegations detail rampant religious activity at Apopka High School, including weekly services and other events sponsored by the church, which asserts, “We are permanently planting churches in Central Florida Schools.”
• Regular prayer sessions attended by football coaches and players, including prayers led by Venue Pastor Todd Lamphere, who is also team chaplain. Lamphere is also “bowling team chaplain.” A video shows him and other adults praying with the team.
• Bible verses on signs and apparel are common. A large banner saying “Prepare for Glory, 2 Corinthians 4:17” was displayed at the football field as was a banner with a verse from John 15:13. Several T-shirts and jerseys combine the school logo with religious messages.
Similar constitutional concerns were voiced to Seminole County Schools, including public endorsement of the church by district officials, who appeared in a promotional video for the church using their titles. The video was shot on campus. Seminole County Schools agreed almost immediately to end all such ties with the church.
Idaho, Kentucky letters
A letter sent by FFRF in November dominated March news and airwaves in Idaho, with more than 100 people turning out March 19 at a city meeting in Sandpoint over FFRF’s request that the Farmin Park Ten Commandments monument be moved to private property. The monument is one of several placed by the Eagles Club.
FFRF also called out Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear’s use of state resources to promote a March 13 prayer breakfast. The governor’s home page included a tab promoting the breakfast, and Kentucky.gov included a link to the event, named “Governor’s Prayer Breakfast.”
FFRF has received regular complaints about Beshear’s annual event, particularly from state employees who received two email invitations from the governor to the event. The prayer breakfast invitations included the official state seal and were sent to most state employees in violation of the state’s Internet policies.
Chief’s prayer walks
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel’s complaint about the police chief of Birmingham, Ala., received statewide and national coverage. Police Chief A.C. Roper, an ordained minister, created a Christian ministry called Prayer Force United. In his capacity as police chief, he leads monthly prayer walks through different neighborhoods, “claiming the city of Birmingham for God,” ostensibly to lower crime.
Roper has opined that one of Birmingham’s biggest problems is a “lack of godliness.” Seidel noted Roper can’t use his public office to “advance promote or endorse one religion over another, or religion over nonreligion.”
He also debunked the notion of prayer as a crime-fighting technique, citing statistics showing that nonreligious states and nations are safer. (View a video Seidel created documenting Rogers’s sermons with commentary on their legality on FFRF’s YouTube channel.)
FFRF members can sign up to receive FFRF news releases, action alerts, blogs or daily news links by emailing and specifying what you’d like sent to your inbox.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation this week filed a strong brief before the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago, defending its November victory in federal district court overturning the housing allowance exclusion uniquely benefiting "ministers of the gospel."
"Even the Bible commands citizens to 'render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's," the state/church watchdog notes in its 47-page brief. Yet the tax code and the clergy who benefit from it at the expense of all other taxpayers ignore "basic principles of neutrality and fairness when it comes to clergy taxation."
The "parsonage allowance" law enacted in 1954 lets churches pay ministers with a housing allowance (up to the fair rental value of a home), which is then excluded from their taxable income.
U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb of Madison, Wis., agreed that this major tax benefit — expressly awarded to clergy for fighting "godlessness," according to bill sponsor U.S. Rep. Peter Mack, D-Ill. — is an unconstitutional preference for religion over nonreligion. Crabb noted that "the exemption provides a benefit to religious persons and no one else, even though doing so is not necessary to alleviate a special burden on religious exercise."
"Just about every church denomination in the country has mobilized to fight our victory," reported Annie Laurie Gaylor. She and her husband Dan Barker are FFRF co-presidents and co-plaintiffs in the nationally watched lawsuit.
"The rest of us pay more taxes because ministers don't pay their fair share. Ministers and churches are unabashed in aggressively demanding special treatment. We like to call it our 'David versus Goliath' IRS battle," she added, "and you know who won that!"
"It's disappointing that FFRF is being fought not just by conservative churches but by liberal ones, including the American Baptists, traditionally our allies for separation of church and state," noted Barker. "Even Unitarian Universalists, Jewish and Islamic groups have joined literally hundreds of Christian denominations and individual congregations in signing onto seven amicus briefs filed against FFRF by theocratic legal aid societies."
As a former ordained minister, Barker previously benefited from the preferential treatment of clergy by the IRS. But he and Gaylor, as directors of an atheist/agnostic group, may not deduct from their taxable income the portion of their salaries now designated by FFRF as a "housing allowance." That discriminatory treatment gave the couple standing to sue over the law.
Richard L. Bolton, serving as FFRF's litigation attorney, laid out the discriminatory treatment of Gaylor and Barker as similarly situated taxpayers. Section 107(2) of the tax code violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment because it is not neutral — providing significant tax benefits exclusively to ministers of the gospel, and providing greater benefits to ministers than to non-clergy taxpayers.
Ministers derive an enormous financial benefit by being paid in tax-exempt dollars, FFRF's brief notes. So do churches, which may pay clergy less because tax-free dollars go further. There's no requirement that the housing allowance be used for the convenience of the employer. Even retired ministers are eligible to claim the housing allowance.
The IRS has determined that teachers at parochial schools, even basketball coaches, may be paid through a housing allowance if they're ordained. FFRF documents the substantial entanglement between church and state that results from intrusive IRS standards about what constitutes an eligible church and minister.
"While all taxpayers would like to have exclusions and deductions to cover their housing costs, the reality is that only ministers of the clergy now get this break," FFRF's brief concludes. "Section 107(2) therefore violates the Establishment Clause in a most obvious way by conditioning tax benefits on religious affiliation."
FFRF, a state/church watchdog, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), with more than 20,000 members and is based in Madison, Wis.
The case is Freedom From Religion Foundation, Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker v. Jacob J. Lew and John A. Koskinen.
Visit FFRF's website to read background, including the theocratic amicus briefs against FFRF's challenge (scroll down to view).
A challenge of the invidious use of a religious motto on U.S. coins and currency taken by intrepid secular litigator Michael Newdow on behalf of many plaintiffs, including the Freedom From Religion Foundation and many of its members, was ruled against by a 3-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York today.
Primary plaintiff in Newdow v. The Congress of the United States, was Rosalyn Newdow, a member of FFRF and a devoted numismatist who collected coins for 40 years, but has felt obligated to stop purchasing coin sets which exclude her and all nonbelievers.
"It's necessary to remind not just the courts but the public that 'In God We Trust' is a Johnny-come-lately motto adopted at the height of the Cold War. It was only officially required on all currency in 1955," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president.
"It's not even an accurate motto. To be accurate, it would have to say, 'In God Some of Us Trust,' and wouldn't that be silly?" she said, pointing out that today nonbelievers are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population by religious identification, approaching 20% — the second largest "denomination" after Roman Catholics.
FFRF first sued over the motto and its use on coins in the 1990s, and says that religion on the motto and on money remain two of the most common complaints the state/church watchdog receives.
"It creates the dangerous misperception that our republic is based on a god, when in fact it is based on an entirely godless and secular Constitution. These symbolic violations from the 1950s have damaged respect for the constitutional principle of separation between religion and government."
Gaylor praised Newdow for carrying on his pro bono work to divorce religion from government.
FFRF offers "clean," pre-"In God We Trust" currency as door prizes at its national conventions, and is currently offering a "clean" dollar bill to any FFRF member recruiting a new member.
"Godless money is a great way to end the argument when someone misguidedly says, 'God has always been on our money,' " Gaylor said.
Newdow commented that the decision was based on such weak contentions as “other circuits have ruled that ‘In God We Trust’ is OK” or “It’s just ceremonial.” He will move for a rehearing.
"I plan to keep trying in the remaining six circuits until we find some federal appellate judges who believe in the principles that underlie our Constitution."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a state-church watchdog and the nation's largest association of atheists, agnostics and freethinkers, is beating back Hobby Lobby's attempt to proselytize in the Oklahoma public schools.
FFRF has been monitoring and protesting Mustang Public Schools' (Mustang, Okla.) bible curriculum since last November. Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel has written several letters to the school district about the dangers of the class and the Christian bias of the curriculum. Other state-church groups, like the ACLU and Americans United, have also warned the district.
Accompanying Seidel's letters were open records requests. According to Seidel, "The records show that Hobby Lobby CEO Steve Green is intimately involved in the development and administration of this course." The records also show that (1) Green helped the school board avoid Oklahoma open meetings laws (2) Green admits the legitimacy of some of FFRF's criticisms, and (3) Green's biblical scholars are not familiar with biblical texts as basic and central as the Ten Commandments. The records also show that approximately 170 of more than 2,700 students — less than 7% — are interested in taking the elective.
Hobby Lobby CEO Steve Green is heavily involved in promoting the Christian curriculum. The first email record obtained by FFRF is an email from Green to Mustang Superintendent Sean McDaniel. Later, Green instructed McDaniel "not to provide any information [to media] at this time." For his part, McDaniel kept Green personally informed ("Just wanted to keep you in the loop") with progress reports. Green, CEO of a multibillion dollar corporation, even scheduled meetings with McDaniel for people working on the curriculum and meetings occurred at Hobby Lobby headquarters.
Green also helped the school board circumvent Oklahoma Open Meeting Laws. These laws require school boards to open meetings to the public and the media if a quorum of members is present. More than 20 school district representatives, including three of five board members — a quorum — met at Hobby Lobby headquarters on April 14, 2014, to discuss the curriculum. Green gave Saxum, the public relations company working to spin Hobby Lobby's challenges to the Affordable Care Act, the job of making sure the meeting was closed to the public. According to an April 10, 3:25 p.m. email from Green's assistant Marsha Bold to Superintendent McDaniel, "Steve [Green] reached out to Saxum this morning after several concerns were brought to his attention and he asked that they reach out to you to discuss options." McDaniel had a phone conversation with a Saxum rep who "suggested she was representing HL [Hobby Lobby]." (Sup. McDaniel email to Jerry Pattengale and Marsha Bold, Thursday, April 10, 2014 3:14 PM.) Green and his PR team sought to circumvent the law "because the curriculum and the Obama Care issues cannot be 'co-mingled.' " Id.
To avoid having an open, transparent meeting as required by law, the school representatives met at Hobby Lobby headquarters on the same day in two different groups. That way, no quorum of school board members would be in the same room at the same time: "I want to emphasize again that per my conversation with Ashleigh [the Saxum rep] and the decision to break into two groups, that this will not be a public meeting." (Sup. McDaniel email to Marsha Bold, Thursday, April 10, 2014 4:07 PM.) Green personally called McDaniel to discuss this arrangement: "Steve called and left a message for you as he wanted to visit with you if you have a minute." (Marsha Bold email to Sup. McDaniel, Thursday, April 10, 2014 5:08 PM)
Ascertaining Green's motives is vital given his personal involvement. When someone with the desire, the drive, and the funds to impose their religious beliefs on a captive audience of public schoolchildren is pushing a course on the bible, parents have a right to know why.
FFRF has been sounding this alarm from the beginning. Green uses Hobby Lobby as an "opportunity to start distributing God's Word." He supports foundations that put "Scripture into the hands of nonbelievers," targeting children as young as 4 years old. Green and Hobby Lobby have a record of distorting history to evangelize. Every year Hobby Lobby places a July 4th ad in national papers featuring spurious quotes, misquotes, mined quotes, and creatively edited quotes attempting to show that America is a Christian nation. (FFRF completely debunked Green's most recent ad.
Green's Museum of the Bible runs the Green Scholars Initiative, which, in turn, is developing the curriculum at issue. Green's bible museum's mission is "to bring to life the living word of God, to tell its compelling story of preservation, and to inspire confidence in the absolute authority and reliability of the Bible" according to the documents filed with the IRS.
Green's own experts admit criticism is valid
Jerry Pattengale, as Executive Director of the Green Scholars Initiative, heads up Green's curriculum push. According to his resumé before joining the Green Scholars Initiative, Pattengale authored a book with a telling title: A History of World Civilizations from a Christian Perspective. That title encapsulates the problem with the curriculum he is designing — it is told from a Christian perspective and heavily endorses that perspective. For another book, Straight Talk: Clear Answers about Today's Christianity, Pattengale wrote, "To know Christ's words, to read and study them, and to know about His life, death, and Resurrection is to know history." In Pattengale's eyes, the "Resurrection" is not an article of faith, but a historical fact.
Despite this Christian bias and goal of "inspir[ing] confidence in the absolute authority and reliability of the Bible," Green and Pattengale often note that FFRF's criticisms are accurate.
For instance, regarding FFRF's complaint that the book utilizes leading questions like "how do we know that the bible's historical narratives are reliable?" instead of asking "is the bible historically accurate?" Pattengale says, "actually they are right..."
Pattengale wrote of FFRF's "Feminism complaint ... the writer [of the critical letter, i.e., FFRF] was correct..." Id. Pattengale added, "we're discussing removing the Color Filter sections ..." Id. But many of the changes are superficial and fail to correct the inherent Christian bias. In fact, Pattengale admits to altering the text, but not the meaning: "The simple change from 'that' to 'if' in the title, which carries the same intended meeting [sic, meaning] makes all the difference for those seeking things to criticize." (emphasis added).
Not all of FFRF's criticisms were appreciated. FFRF pointed out, as the textbook's best example of Christian bias, it answering the question, "What is God like?" by listing only positive attributes such as "gracious and compassionate" or "full of love."
Pattengale's response to this criticism is stunning. Writing about God's negative attributes, Pattengale says "the Bible doesn't list any, and these [positive attributes] are in [the] section representing what the text says."
Some of the most basic and central biblical verses do, in fact, discuss God's negative characteristics. One prominent example is God's jealousy. According to the Ten Commandments, God himself says "I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation." Exodus 20:5. Not only does God admit that he is jealous, he promises to punish innocent children for the crimes of their parents in the Ten Commandments. God repeats himself, in the second set of Ten Commandments in Exodus 34:18, and elsewhere in the bible, Deuteronomy 4:24, 5:9, 6:15 and Joshua 24:19 to name a few.
Pattengale's erroneous statement seems to indicate one of three possibilities, that (1) Pattengale does not know the Bible, which disqualifies him from developing a Bible curriculum for the nation's youth, (2) he's deliberately keeping the superintendent in the dark, which is even more disturbing or (3) he's blinded by his bias, which again calls the curriculum into question.
Green and his staff are using the Mustang School District for their own ends. The school district has adopted a curriculum that is not constitutional and for which the Mustang taxpayers, not Green, could ultimately pay. FFRF's April 24, 2014, letter was correct: "This course is too tainted with Christian bias. It should be scrapped altogether." Mustang Schools needs to rethink its trust in Green and Hobby Lobby.
FFRF is working closely with the ACLU and Americans United to ensure that this class meets the constitutional standards. These groups are interested in discussing the curriculum with Mustang families should the board fail to address these problems.
DAYNA LONG is an administrative assistant at FFRF. Originally from Illinois, she attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she received a degree in English. She has been with FFRF since July 2013. She spends her free time volunteering for the Wisconsin chapter of the National Organization for Women. She also enjoys reading, cooking, and admiring her beautiful cats.
The contest is ongoing until we can persuade governmental bodies to pray on their own time and dime or the Supreme Court overturns the infamous Town of Greece v. Galloway ruling. New entries received from this point on will be considered for the 2015 award.
So get out there and give your local government a piece of your secular mind! Read the contest rules here.
It's time to show our government that official prayer is unconstitutional, pointless, divisive and offensive. The U.S. Supreme Court unwisely "blessed" sectarian blessings by city and county governments in its May 5, 2014, Town of Greece v. Galloway decision.
If the Supreme Court won't uphold our godless and entirely secular Constitution — adopted at a prayerless constitutional convention — it's up to us. It's up to you!
Although the Greece decision is a blow to secularism and the rights of the nonreligious, Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the decision did include reasoning that acknowledges the right of an atheist to give the invocation:
"The town at no point excluded or denied an opportunity to a would-be prayer giver. Its leaders maintained that a minister or layperson of any persuasion, including an atheist, could give the invocation." Town of Greece, N.Y. v. Galloway, 12-696, 2014 WL 1757828 (U.S. May 5, 2014).
To foster the groundswell of protest against government prayer, FFRF announces the creation of its newest activism award: The Nothing Fails Like Prayer Award. The award will be given for the best secular "invocation" at a government meeting. The annual winner or winners will receive a commemorative plaque, $500 and will be invited to deliver the invocation at FFRF's annual convention. Be a Paine in the government's Mass — a Thomas Paine.
All eligible entries will receive a commemorative certificate. FFRF will post eligible video entries of the secular invocation at its website and/or reprint it in FFRF's newspaper, Freethought Today.
We'd like to see secular citizens flood government meetings with secular invocations that illustrate why government prayers are unnecessary, ineffective, embarrassing, exclusionary, divisive or just plain silly. The more citizens that protest prayers, the more likely government prayers will stop.
The individual or individuals judged to give the "best" secular invocation will be invited to open FFRF's annual convention with the "invocation," receiving an all-expenses-paid trip to FFRF's annual convention (in 2015, weekend of Oct. 9-11 at Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center, Madison, Wis.), a plaque and an honorarium of $500.
FFRF plans to make the contest an annual event until the Greece decision is overturned.