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My evolution as a freethinker

gold diamond 1stDelaney received $3,000 from FFRF for her winning essay.

By Delaney Gold-Diamond

The evolution of the human species has not culminated in a perfect society. It holds on to the vestigial structures of the past, such as religious orthodoxy. Yet humankind continues to grow, change and evolve.

Sometimes mutations randomly occur and our evolution begins to take a different course. We are moving forward and progressing into a society of freethinkers. And, just like evolution, it is a journey that will never end. 

My personal evolution as a freethinker mirrors this process. I did not have a sudden jolt of realization during young adulthood, like many freethinkers. I have grown and changed, taken some steps forward and some backward on this journey. But I can say that my atheist worldview has emerged as naturally and organically as the evolution of our species. 

When I was 5, my dad and I were driving past the Catholic church in the center of my small town. It was a Sunday, and many well-dressed people were milling around in front. My dad has told me the story of what happened that day many times. Our conversation went like this:

“Daddy, what is that building?”

“That is a church.” 

“What is a church?”

“A church is where people pray to God.”

“What is God?”

“Some people believe there is an all-powerful being who created the universe and all living things. They pray to this being they call God to ask for good things to happen and for bad things not to happen.”

After several seconds of awkward silence, my tiny voice piped up from the back seat, “Daddy, do you believe in God?” He said no, and with a huge sigh of relief I replied, 

“Good, because that is the dumbest thing I ever heard.” 

As with philosopher John Locke’s “tabula rasa,” I was a blank slate. No one had ever taught me to question the existence of a supreme being, nor had I ever had any kind of religious experience. While many seem to think that it is naturally human to believe in a higher power, my experience proves that logic and reason are instinctual. Because I never had any religious indoctrination, I was born a freethinker. 

Many of my peers were not so fortunate. While I was allowed to develop my own moral guidelines from reason and rationality, their families subjected them to religious indoctrination.

In first grade, I got into a fight with a boy during recess. He told me I was going to hell because I did not believe in God. I told him that I could not go to hell because it was an imaginary place. He ran off crying, and I knew I had won that debate.  

In fact, debate became my passion. Once in high school, for my first foray into the world of competitive public speaking, I chose (perhaps naively) a controversial topic, advocating for a constitutional amendment to remove the words “In God We Trust” from coins and currency. I still remember the stunned looks on the judges’ faces. I may not have won many tournaments that season, but that was a matter of secondary importance. I believed in my cause.

Ever since, I have been a devil’s advocate (pun intended) in every English, history and government class I have taken, standing up for freethought whenever necessary. I religiously cross out “In God We Trust” on every dollar bill that passes through my hands and refuse to say those two very particular, unconstitutional words in the Pledge of Allegiance. 

Evolution is ongoing, never a finished process. I will continue to evolve as a freethinker, just as society will continue to evolve and become more enlightened. I believe in our nation and one day I hope to run for office as an out-of-the-closet atheist, dedicated to the separation of church and state, as our founders intended.

My achievements prove that religion and spirituality are not necessary to lead a successful, moral life. My childhood demonstrates that atheism and freethought are as natural as evolution itself.

 

Delaney writes: “I’m 18 and I’ve lived my entire life in Sonoma, Calif. This fall I will be moving 2,000 miles away to attend the University of Chicago to pursue a major in law, letters and society or political science. I plan on attending law school after I obtain my undergraduate degree. While at Sonoma Valley High School, I served as captain of the speech and debate and mock trial teams. I’m a “special distinction” member of the National Forensics League and a member of the Secular Student Alliance.” 

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Karen Abbe, 1959–2014

Karen Abbe, 54, Sacramento, Calif., died of cancer at home May 30, 2014. 

She was born Sept. 3, 1959, in Sunnyvale and graduated from Encina High School in 1977 and earned an associate’s degree from American River College in 1981 in parks administration. Her career with the state of California from 1980-2012 included the Attorney General’s Office, the Board of Pharmacy and Victims of Crime program.

Karen loved to travel in her motor home and took her dog Katie and two cats across the country, from Victoria Island to Niagara Falls.

Survivors include her parents, John and Carol Abbe; a sister, Sandra Abbe; a niece, MaryAnn Estes; and a nephew, Larry Averitt. A private memorial gathering was held in July.

FFRF offers its sincerest condolences to Karen’s family.

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Elizabeth Blackwelder, 1920–2014

Elizabeth June (Gerrard) Blackwelder, 93, La Cañada Flintridge, Calif., died at home of natural causes Jan. 15, 2014. She was born June 17, 1920, in Evanston, Ill., and grew up in Atherton, Calif. She studied biology at Stanford University and during World War II was a member of the WAVES division of the Navy, assigned to the Naval Medical Research Institute, where she worked on the development of emergency life raft rations, among other projects. After the war, she returned to college at UCLA, earning a bachelor’s degree in zoology.

In 1950 she married Spencer Blackwelder, a real estate broker. She managed the insurance arm of the business.

FFRF only recently learned of her death, said Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Elizabeth and Spencer joined FFRF in 1978 and were among our earliest members. Freethought Today published articles by Spencer in its early editions. I enjoyed corresponding with them. They were always stalwart supporters of freethought and secularism.”

A Los Angeles Times obituary noted Elizabeth’s love of horses and her ride aboard Chungo across the nation in 1976 to observe American’s bicentennial. Her horseback ride as part of a wagon train took six months from California to Valley Forge, Pa.

She was preceded in death by her husband in 1996. Survivors include three sons, Steven of Dana Point, Robert of La Cañada Flintridge and Clyde of San Juan Capistrano; a daughter, Lenora of Glendale; and two grandchildren.

“I remember Liz’s warm hospitality when she invited me to stay in her home during a speaking tour in southern California,” said Dan Barker, FFRF co-president. “Our thoughts go out to her family and friends.”

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Victor Stenger, 1935 – 2014

The man who coined the famous phrase “Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings” died Aug. 25. Longtime FFRF member and prominent atheist Victor J. Stenger died at age 79 of an aneurysm near the heart at Queen’s Medical Center in Honolulu while vacationing with his wife Phylliss in Hawaii. He was also an FFRF honorary director.

He was born Jan. 29, 1935, in Bayonne, N.J., and earned a degree in electrical engineering and advanced degrees in physics. In his last major research project, before retiring in Colorado in 2000, Stenger collaborated on a project in Japan that demonstrated for the first time that the neutrino has mass. The project’s head researcher won the Nobel Prize in physics in 2002.

In addition to numerous and influential peer-reviewed articles, he wrote 12 books, including the 2007 New York Times best-seller God: The Failed Hypothesis and the new God and the Multiverse.

That book and subsequent ones placed Stenger in the ranks of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens, the so-called “four horsemen” of New Atheism. The Salt Lake Tribune dubbed him “the fifth horseman” in its obituary.

He was a member of the Department of Physics at the University of Hawaii from 1963 to 2000 and after retiring was adjunct professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado.

“We were headed out for a pleasant dinner when he lost his balance on some steps outside our vacation rental and fell against me,” Phylliss wrote. “I unfortunately fell against a beam, suffered a skull fracture and concussion and was taken to the emergency room by ambulance. While there, Vic complained about not feeling well and in spite of having a team of neurologists and trauma surgeons, he died within 20 minutes.”

The Stengers were married in 1962 and have two children. He was cremated, followed by a memorial Aug. 31 in Honolulu.

“We will miss this great freethinker,” said Dan Barker, FFRF co-president. “He gave us so much to ponder and wonder about.”

“Our sincerest condolences go to Phylliss and the family,” added Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Vic gave a lot of himself to so many worthy causes and was such a preeminent scientist and skeptic. He will be missed greatly.”

To hear a clip from one of his three interviews with Freethought Radio, go to ffrf.org/news/radio and click on the Sept. 6, 2014, podcast.

FFRF congratulates the 16 college-bound high school seniors who placed in this year’s essay competition. FFRF has offered scholarships through essay competitions to college students since 1979, high school students since 1994 and graduate students since 2010.

The high school contest is named for William J. Schultz, a Wisconsin member who died at 57, was a chemical engineer and cared deeply about FFRF’s work. FFRF also thanks Dean and Dorea Schramm of Florida for providing a $100 bonus to students who are members of a secular student club or the Secular Student Alliance. The total of $10,250 reflects bonuses.

Essayists were asked to describe “A moment when you stood up for freethought/secularism” in 500-700 words. There were six top awards and 10 honorable mentions.

First place: Delaney Gold-Diamond, 18, University of Chicago ($3,000).

Second place: Julianna Evans, 18, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University ($2,000).

Third place: Philip Kaltman, 17, Georgia Institute of Technology ($1,000).

Fourth place: Harrison Horwitz, 17, University of California-Berkeley ($750).

Fifth place: Kali Richardson, 18, University of Arizona ($500).

Sixth place: Fallon Rowe, 17, Utah State University ($400).

Honorable mention ($200 each):

Adam Bivens, 18, Pennsylvania State University.

Erin Camia, 18, Case Western Reserve University. 

Aífe Ní Chochlain, 18, University of Pittsburgh.

Jayne M. Cosh, 18, State University of New York at New Paltz.

Sam Davidson, 18, Northwestern University. 

Alida Markgraf, 18, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.

Ryan Muskopf, 17, Rochester Institute of Technology.

Travis Northern, 17, University of Wisconsin-Parkside. 

Pranit Singh, 18, Creighton University. 

Tara Thankachan, 18, University of Texas-Austin.

“We consider our scholarships for freethinking students to be among FFRF’s most important investments in the future of freethought,” said Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “There are thousands of scholarships for religious students and hardly any rewarding critical thinking and the use of reason opining about religion.”

Upcoming issues will feature top placers in the college and graduate/mature student competitions.

Brooke Mulder

City Council, Glendale, Ariz.

Aug. 12, 2014

The purpose of the invocation read before each council meeting is to “add solemnity” to the proceedings. I can’t think of anything more solemn or significant than the act of democracy itself. As citizens of this great country, we have the right to participate equally in the proposal, development and creation of laws. We may choose to do this directly, by serving on a city council, as governor or even as president of the United States. Or we may choose to participate indirectly by electing representatives to act in our interests.

Let us all take a moment to reflect on why we are here tonight. If you are here, you may have chosen a path of serving your electorate, to the benefit of their welfare. Or you may have concerns you’ve chosen to bring in front of the council. We should be grateful that the city of Glendale has those who are willing to serve and those who trust in the system enough to participate in the process. It is people like those that enable us to truly govern ourselves.

My principles as a secular humanist teach me to rely on reason and our common humanity. A city council is an excellent illustration of how people can come together, without supernaturalism, to provide meaningful changes in each other’s lives.  I would like to leave you with a final thought from Thomas Jefferson: “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people. Enable them to see that it is their interest to preserve peace and order and they will preserve them.”

Thank you. 

 

Brooke writes: I have spent the last nine years as an Army spouse/girlfriend. My husband attended West Point for four years, followed by five years as an active duty infantry officer. I have moved from Florida, to New York, to Georgia, to Washington and finally to Arizona. My husband is now a civilian, so hopefully we can settle down here!

One of the hardest parts of being an Army spouse (in addition to the separations, the deployments and the moves) is the exclusive, nonsecular culture in the Army, especially among the officer corps. The Army is one of the only organizations where your spouse’s behavior can affect how your chain of command feels about you and consequently promotions and performance evaluations.

It is an unspoken rule as an Army officer that you should be religious, and preferably Christian. There are constantly prayers before meetings and briefings, religious marriage retreats, invitations to church and bible study.The invitations themselves did not bother me. However, the knowledge that we’d be snubbed after we politely declined did.

I remember one instance, among many, in particular. My husband’s commanding officer’s wife asked me point blank what religion I was and what church I attended. I didn’t even use the “A word” in my answer, but politely told her I did not attend church. After she found out I was not Christian, she never spoke to me again and the social invitations dried up. Now that we are in the civilian world, we are free to admit we are not believers without the fear of career retribution.

 

Eric Williams

City City Council, Colorado Springs, Colo.

Aug. 12, 2014

Good afternoon. Before I begin, let me offer my thanks to Ms. Dean Beukema for allowing me this opportunity. Her service to our community over the last 25 years reflects her dedication and love for our great community.

Council members, President [Keith] King, thank you for inviting me here.

Thousands of years ago, after emerging from relative obscurity, mankind began to form communities. The first ones were simple hunter gatherers, evolved to feed their own very small camps. Soon, these small camps and tribes began to join to each other, either through violence or simple needs. Either way, they saw joining forces as being the foundation for survival.

Over the millennia, agriculture built even larger tribes. They became large villages, then towns, then cities, then city-states. And even farther, empires and great kingdoms. These people in the later ages eventually became obsessed with power and greed, driven by their beliefs that their higher powers were better than any others. Patton Oswalt, a contemporary comedian, put it simply as, “My Sky Cake is better that your Sky Baklava.” These divisions caused chaos within the overall sapien community for millennia.

Then, after centuries of great strife, the “Enlightenment” was born. The United States was built upon the principles of this Enlightenment. The deists that formed our Constitution knew the dangers of sectarian strife and therefore enshrined secular government in our most sacred document.

With this in mind, I stand before the most basic unit of human democracy, the city council. The core unit of our lives as humans living within an inherently secular system. It’s the local government that actually guides the daily lives of the citizens of this great nation.

Let us therefore, this afternoon, provide both our vocal and thoughtful support to this most fundamental institution of humanity today, and hope that reason and thoughtful reflection will guide our elected leaders to lead this great city to where it could be.

So be it.

Eric is a member of FFRF and the Atheist Community of Colorado Springs.

 

Michele Ritt

Dane County Board, Madison, Wis.

June 26, 2014

I find continual inspiration in my family. As a young child, my grandmother instilled in me that community service is a way of life. Me being here today is part of that. My daughter connected me directly to the country of India. 

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would suffice to solve most of the world’s problems.” 

My husband and my son brought me to a completely unexpected world. 

Yoda said, “Do or do not. There is no try.”

May the force be with us all. 

 

Michele is a Dane County supervisor and FFRF member.

 

South Dakota atheist gives invocation

Amanda Novotny, Brookings, S.D., an atheist and Siouxland Freethinkers president, delivered a secular invocation Aug. 5 to open the Sioux Falls City Council meeting:

Thank you, Mr. Mayor, council members, citizens of Sioux Falls and all those present for this opportunity to provide an inspirational opening to your meeting.

Often at this time, you are asked to bow your heads. Instead, I ask you to lift your head up and look around. Turn your attention to this room, a room that has heard countless discussions, frustrations and successes, a room where important decisions regarding your city are routinely made.

Now take a moment to soak in the presence of the men and women in this room, gathered here at this time and place to engage in their civic duty, to contribute and work toward creating a better community. Think of the hundreds and thousands of others who are also affected by the ideas shared here. Let all voices be heard and understood equally.

It is also often customary to read from a book during an invocation, and tonight will be no different. I’ll be sharing a quote from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, in which Professor Albus Dumbledore said: “Differences of habit and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open.”

Although our differences may be many, we are bound together in similarity as members of the human species. As humans, we have the capacity to appreciate and thank each other, to utilize compassion and reason in our decision making. I ask those present to join me in showing gratitude to the men and women that serve the great city of Sioux Falls. We need only look to each other for guidance and work together to overcome any challenges we may face.

— Transcript courtesy of Hemant Mehta

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Living as an atheist in an Islamic state

May God grant you grace. And to you may He do the same. How are you? I am well, thanks be to God. God bless you. You are well? Everything is good, God bless you. Everything fine? God bless you, God bless you. Thanks be to God! OK, well, may God guide you on your path. Oh, God bless you, peace be upon you. Peace, may God grant you grace!

This is an average greeting shared between myself and a passerby in rural Morocco. As an atheist, I don’t believe that any gods have ever existed outside of their literary confines. Nope, not any of those named Jesus, Allah, Zeus, Almighty Father, Vishnu, or Woden (though perhaps I could bring to the attention of the government our “Germanic” religious heritage, thus instituting the sacrifice of several pilsners each Wodensday? A fine and honorable mid-week tradition indeed).

I would say maybe two or three of the hundreds of Moroccans I interacted with during my work as a Peace Corps volunteer knew of my lack of faith. Morocco is a nonsecular state, meaning that its citizens are required to follow Islamic Law. Over 99% of them consider themselves Muslim.

I often basked in the warmth of the large, caring family units with Muslim values, who took me in after only minutes of acquaintance. I learned how to tell who truly hoped that Allah would reward me, and those who merely said it because it would look bad if they didn’t. I watched my beloved host mother find relief in prayer and extreme pride in her son’s close relationship with the village imam.

I chose to suffer through two Sahara summers without food, only to share in the joy of breaking fast when the sun went down.

I love many Moroccan Muslims and enjoyed many of the ways they acted on their religion and how it affected their culture and day-to-day life. The women and girls with whom I worked left me with everlasting affection for the hijab. I get excited whenever I see a woman wearing one. I now see it as an elegant and graceful piece of self-expression worn by some of the kindest, hardworking women I know. I also appreciate the protection it provided from the often objectifying and unnerving glances of Moroccan males.

I have very close relationships with Moroccan men, who respected me and cared for me because of my intelligence, the authority I commanded when necessary and the equality I demanded in all situations. I had a whole community of young men who told me they would never harass me and would protect me from harassment, because they valued me. Apparently, I had earned a special level of respect.

These 14- to 20-year-old students knew me, had worked with me, had lived with me. Take those elements away and I become the thing they have been taught not to value — the object that walks around in public only to seek attention. The object that is to be obtained and used — the younger and healthier the better.

Women face a lot of pressures in Moroccan society, one of which is the heinous act of sexual harassment. When traveling alone in Marrakesh, I would leave my hotel and walk to a restaurant a couple of blocks away, encountering between 10 and 30 men who would shout various comments about my appearance at me, as if they couldn’t help themselves.

Or they would just stare, because I was a juicy piece of meat waggling my tender curves in their starving faces. It was taking everything in them not to pounce and devour me. That’s how those looks made me feel. That’s how women are made to feel when they walk around not attached to their male owner. Why leave the safety of your home when this is what you have to face? 

I also witnessed many girls of high school age being bullied to leave school by their mothers and older sisters, who wanted more hands and some company in their homes. My students were made to feel guilty for being so selfish, for taking time to learn and study or for exercising in our running club because it made them feel good. Being healthy is a luxury that women in my community didn’t feel worthy of.

So many girls quit school because they knew it was useless; they had no future beyond the home of their family or the family of their husband. Child marriage is incredibly common, and almost always the girl is substantially younger than the groom. This, I was told, is because women age faster than men. Soon she will catch up to her husband; soon her body will be useless. Finding a girl a husband early is doing them a favor, giving them stability and purpose. She finds all of her self-worth in the wealth and standing of her husband and the children they produce.

What an effective way to dominate half the population. So many women I lived with and grew to love were stuck in this cycle of oppression, in a society that doesn’t value them and often encourages them not to develop themselves beyond a wife and mother, housemaid and cook. 

Tea with Hayat

My 16-year-old neighbor’s name is Hayat, which means “life.” She is incredibly smart and is the family’s only female child. She is shy but confident. She is still in school and promised me she would finish. One afternoon we sat and drank tea, rehashing a sexual harassment discussion we had facilitated at the local youth center.

During the presentation, my host brother, one of the most loving, positive and emotional young men I knew in Morocco, had stormed out. His close study of Islam had convinced him it was inappropriate to discuss such a taboo subject, especially with men and women in the same room.

So much excitement makes for good tea conversation, but Hayat’s mother is an expert at changing the conversation, and soon we were discussing God’s omnipresence and good will. When asked to chime in with a fitting verse, Hayat mentioned she had not memorized the Quran. This was very upsetting to her mother, but equally incensed, Hayat responded that in her experience, those who memorize the Quran follow it blindly and interpret it in a way that ignores the human experience.

She was referencing my host brother, who had deemed it unnecessary and even forbidden to discuss an issue that so deeply affected women in Moroccan society. At 16, Hayat was thinking more critically than most adults I had encountered thus far. Her words and her thoughts were my hope and kept me working hard to find more freethinking young women to help rise above the fray of everyday life in abject poverty.

I can only hope the admiration that gleamed in my eyes when she spoke conveyed how important she was, and could be. 

What the future holds

With smart kids and wonderful people, what seems to be holding Morocco back? Why is Morocco’s Islam still so prominent in the poorest, most rural areas? Islam is young, virile and adaptive. Morocco’s educated elite are well-off, and its leaders are “liberal” enough to forge important domestic and global relationships, maintaining their role as a “progressive” force in the Middle East. Uprisings and protests are minimal, because those who suffer the most don’t have the power to make change.

Being stuck in the rural south, barricaded by mountains on all sides (well, apart from the side that faces the Sahara Desert), I was often frustrated by the lack of resources, the government’s apparent ignorance of the suffering of my neighbors, the forced complacency of my neighbors who had little access to quality education, and the exhausting circus that was government bureaucracy surrounding anything from traveling between cities to getting an “official” stamp with your name on it.

But it is changing, shwiya bi shwiya, or little by little as we say in Moroccan Arabic. I was constantly moved by individuals who shined despite the adversity they faced and will continue to inspire me for the rest of my life.

I will leave you with an impressive encounter I had while traveling during the last couple of months of my service. He was a youthful stranger who was intrigued by my “American-ness,” and probably by the fact that I was a little blonde girl speaking the local language and taking the local transportation.

While I was used to men asking me why America is a secular state — asking where we got our laws if not from a holy book — and asking me to repeat a verse that would ensure my access to al Jannah (heaven), this experience was truly unique and refreshing. He asked what religion we were, and I said that although Americans are mostly Christian, you are allowed to follow whatever religion you choose, and that most of the religions in the world have some sort of representation in the U.S.

He thought this was fascinating, and pondered it for a while. After some deep reflection and lots of smiles, he said, “I think, that if everyone was allowed to find the religion that was closest to their heart, that they would choose the best elements of whichever they found, and they could be the best, kindest people possible.”

This wave of blissful inspiration is an excellent argument for the separation of church and state. 

Charlotte Stein is transitioning back into American life in Madison, Wis., helping out as a clerical assistant at FFRF. In her free time, she practices German, French and Arabic on her adorable dog Oscar. She also loves to write, read and eat cheese curds. Soon she will be moving to either of the coasts to work for a development organization.

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Meet a Deist Member

pinski memberName: Steve Pinski.

Where I live: Colorado Springs, Colo.

Where and when I was born: St. Paul, Minn., in 1959.

Family: Linda is the love of my life, best friend and wife of 35 years. Our two married children are also freethinkers; they made the leap much quicker than I.

Education: Bourgade Catholic High School, Phoenix; bachelor’s in electrical engineering, Arizona State University; master’s in electrical engineering, Air Force Institute of Technology.

Occupation: I work for the federal government. I’m here to help — trust me.

Military service: Retired with 20 years in the U.S. Air Force (10 years enlisted and 10 as an officer). Various jobs included maintaining the avionics on the F-111F, intelligence, acquisition and teaching electrical engineering at the Air Force Academy.

How I got where I am today: I grew up in a very Catholic family with seven siblings. I was an altar boy and received the highest honor in my high school, the Cardinal Award for Christian Leadership. I married at 20 and we raised our children Catholic. I was a member of the Knights of Columbus, a Eucharistic minister and led services known as Sunday Celebration in the Absence of a Priest. Linda and I taught the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, the classes required to join the church.

Basically, I went to church every week for 50 years and was as Catholic as possible. As I went deeper into the Catholic Church, the growing doubts became overwhelming.  Finally, while reciting the Profession of Faith (Nicene Creed) one Sunday, I realized that I just didn’t believe the dogma and doctrine which I was professing to believe; I was not being honest with myself. So, I stopped going to church and started reading about the philosophy of religion. Linda, who had gone to church with me for 30 years, left the church as well, saying “It’s about time we both acknowledge the unreasonableness of all religions.”

Where I’m headed: I am determined to be mentally faithful to myself. I try not to deceive myself about all things in life. I enjoy reading about the philosophy of religion and why people believe what they believe. The human brain is fascinating.

Person in history I admire: Thomas Paine, who was a deist and wrote passionately about his beliefs and would not equivocate. Part one of The Age of Reason is my favorite book by Paine.

A quotation I like: “It is necessary to the happiness of man, that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing or disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe.” — Thomas Paine

These are a few of my favorite things: Traveling, reading and learning about other cultures, beliefs and religions. In the last five years, I have read over 100 books, including ones on atheist, agnostic and theist subjects. I am a strong supporter of FFRF and the separation of church and state.  

A few of my least favorite things: People who persecute others for their own agenda: homophobes, transgenderphobes, racists, theocrats, etc.

My doubts about religion started: In grade school. Religion, in general didn’t make sense. The more I learned, the worse my doubts became. How could all religions claim to have absolute truth? At best only one could be true; at worst they were all false. 

Today, I believe all organized religions are man-made and false. It took me 50 years to break the spell and realize that all holy texts and divine revelations are myths and fables.

Ways I promote freethought: As an FFRF Lifetime Member, I try to respond to as many Action Alerts as possible. I also share my story and my lifetime of doubting organized religion. It’s amazing how many people have similar doubts (“De omnibus dubitandum,” all is to be doubted).

I wish you’d have asked me: “What do you believe?” I believe in God; however, I believe all organized religions are false. I most closely identify with deism, where God is simply the great mystery behind the existence of the universe. I appreciate the mystery of God; on the other hand I do not profess to understand this mystery.

I do not believe in an anthropomorphic, Santa Claus God who makes wishes come true, cures cancer and will save me from a tornado, but only if I pray hard enough. As a deist, I realize I am a minority in FFRF’s freethought membership. Conversely, I have never felt more welcome in an organization as I have amongst the atheists and agnostics here. FFRF is truly an umbrella organization welcoming all freethinkers who promote separation of church and state.

If alive, I believe Thomas Paine would also be a Lifetime Member.

FFRF legal staff was extremely busy sending out letters of complaint in August, as well as spending time being interviewed by media about situations where FFRF has intervened, often at the request of local complainants. Some may have been remedied already. 

 

Contact: Folsom Cordova Unified School District, Rancho Cordova, Calif., Aug. 1.

Violation: Follow-up letter from June asking the district to address a third instance of a sign advertising a church on school grounds. The church rents space in a high school, but the sign was displayed well before the actual rental time.

Contact: North Carolina Office of Charter Schools, Aug. 1.

Violation: Wilson Preparatory Academy, a public charter school in Wilson, N.C., hosted an informational meeting for parents and students in the sanctuary of Raleigh Road Baptist Church. A pastor started the meeting with the Lord’s Prayer at the request of the school founder, who also repeatedly asked parents if he “could have a witness” throughout the meeting. 

Contact: Academy District 20, Colorado Springs, Colo., Aug. 4.

Violation: The head football coach at Pine Creek High School instituted mandatory prayers for team members and either led them or told another coach to do so. He also reportedly told students that “football is God’s game.”

Contact: DeSoto County Schools, Hernando, Miss., Aug. 4.

Violation: “Jesus Loves Me” and “In God We Trust” signs were displayed in the counseling office at Lake Cormorant Middle School.

Contact: City Council, Chico, Calif., Aug. 4.

Violation: The council refused to let an atheist give an invocation and emailed FFRF the criteria. FFRF responded later that day, pointing out that criteria were applied inconsistently and detailing why the requirements burdened free speech.

Contact: Bay District Schools, Panama City, Fla., Aug. 5-6.

Violation: The district invited pastors to counsel students after several fatal shootings in the area. More than 30 pastors wanted to participate. The school district attorney responded, claiming pastors were just one of many community representatives who would be present on the first day of school to support students. FFRF wrote back to say that while it was fine to invite members of secular community groups, pastors should be disinvited.

Contact: Boerne ISD, Boerne, Texas, Aug. 6.

Violation: The Boerne High School football coaches and players’ parents participated in a weekly bible study in which they wrote religious notes to an assigned team member. They then decorated the locker room with scripture, blessed the lockers and delivered the notes to players’ lockers.

Contact: DeKalb County, Ga., Board of Registrations and Elections, Aug. 6.

Violation: A church sanctuary with many pictures of Jesus was used as a polling place.

Contact: Alexander Central School District, Alexander, N.Y., Aug. 6.

Violation: The district stopped holding prayers at graduation, but implied the decision came from the student body, not the district, raising concerns that the district might allow a different student body to decide to hold prayer in the future. The superintendent responded Aug. 14, claiming that was not the case, that it had been the district’s decision.

Contact: Tom Schedler, Louisiana secretary of state, Aug. 7.

Violation: A University of Louisiana-Lafayette police officer was denied a request to renew his oath of office with the line “so help me God” crossed out. His superiors delayed the signing of the form while they consulted Schedler’s office, which informed them they would not accept the modified form. 

Contact: Frisco ISD, Frisco, Texas, Aug. 7.

Violation: Rebuttal to a school board which justified continuing prayers under Greece v. Galloway.

Contact: Anderson County Schools, Clinton, Tenn., Aug. 8.

Violation: The music teacher at Lake City Elementary School regularly taught her students religious songs, including “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho.”

Contact: Okaloosa County, Fla., Sheriff’s Office, Aug. 8

Violation: The office had several chaplains, whom the sheriff described as a “spiritual lifeline,” providing marriage and other counseling for employees.

Contact: St. Charles Parish Board of Education, Metairie, La., Aug. 8.

Violation: Rebuttal to a school board which justified continuing its prayer practice under Greece v. Galloway.

Contact: Jackson-Madison County Schools, Jackson, Tenn., Aug. 8.

Violation: The district held a mandatory in-service at West Jackson Baptist Church. The school’s attorney had assured FFRF that he would investigate covering/removing religious materials and that there would be no members from the church present and no religious content. FFRF’s complainant reported that the church’s pastor was present and was invited to deliver an invocation, with crosses displayed throughout the sanctuary.

Contact: U.S. Postal Service office, Katy, Texas, Aug. 8.

Violation: Every month, two stacks of a religious newspaper called “The Good News Just Keeps Coming” were left on a bench in violation of regulations.

Contact: U.S. Postal Service office, Redondo Beach, Calif., Aug. 8.

Violation: Copies of a Christian business directory were available in a magazine rack attached to the wall in violation of regulations.

Contact: Pelham City Schools, Pelham, Ala., Aug. 11.

Violation: School board meetings started with prayer led by a board member. A mandatory meeting for all employees was held at First Baptist Church, where the pastor started the meeting with prayer and invited everyone to a revival service.

Contact: Indian River County Schools, Vero Beach, Fla., Aug. 11.

Violation: The school board invited pastors to give invocations or have board members offer prayers, which were often sectarian.

Contact: 16 Texas public charter schools and school districts, Aug. 12-13, Aug. 18.

Violation: Schools participated in the Texas Christian Athletic League, a private, explicitly Christian league, which says, “We dedicate ourselves to encourage Christian values.” The league uses religious images and prayer at events.

Contact: Farmington Area Public Schools, Farmington, Minn., Aug. 13.

Violation: Elementary schools go annually to Feed My Starving Children, an overtly Christian charity. The students box food and are then asked to pray over the food they have packaged.

Contact: Wilson County Schools, Wilson, N.C., Aug. 14.

Violation: Jones Elementary School planned to host a “Backpack Prayer Service” at which “Education and faith leaders will gather to pray for the 2014 Back-to-School Fair.” Students will receive backpacks as part of the Wilson Education Partnership, which “links schools with the faith community.”

Contact: Beaverton, Ore., School District, Aug. 15.

Violation: Hazeldale Elementary School partnered with Cooper Mountain Presbyterian Fellowship to run the “Summerhawks Drop In Program,” a summer program at the school. A flier advertised “Positive character traits according to Jesus,” and T-shirts included logos for the school and the fellowship.

Contact: Jackson County Commission, Scottsboro, Ala., Aug. 15.

Violation: The commission was considering a proposal to display the Ten Commandments, along with the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, in a “historic” documents display.

Contact: Presiding judge, Breathitt County Courthouse, Jackson, Ky., Aug. 15.

Violation: A large, framed picture of Jesus was displayed in the main entranceway of the courthouse with a caption reading, “In your place what would Jesus do?”

Contact: Internal Revenue Service, Aug. 15.

Violation: Whitworth Memorial Baptist Church, Nashville, Tenn., placed political campaign signs on its grounds.

Contact: U.S. Army Installation Management Command, Washington, D.C., Aug. 15.

Violation: The army has a de facto policy allowing bibles in military-run hotels.

Contact: Bartlett City Schools, Bartlett, Tenn., Aug. 15.

Violation: The newly formed district held an employee meeting in the sanctuary of Bartlett Baptist Church underneath a large cross. The next day, a community-wide “Kickoff and Pep Rally” was held at Bartlett United Methodist Church. Both events featured student performances.

Contact: AKA Entertainment & Media, Greensboro, N.C., Aug. 15.

Violation: AKA operates food and music festivals. After an FFRF victory on a church bulletin discount at one RibFest, one in a different location was still offering the discount.

Contact: Splashdown Water Park, Spokane Valley, Wash., Aug. 18,

Violation: Admission to the park was $10, including tax, on Sundays with a church bulletin, reduced from the $16.99 plus tax regular admission.

Contact: Waller ISD, Waller, Texas, Aug. 19.

Violation: The district held a mandatory employee convocation, which began with a prayer given by a school board member, who is also a Christian pastor, and closed with a prayer given by a junior high principal.

Contact: Gwinnett County Schools, Suwanee, Ga., Aug. 19.

Violation: The district held a religious assembly at Parkview High School featuring Pastor Kevin Queen of 12 Stone Church. Queen described his “job” as “to tell the same basic and best story in many different ways, represent the Kingdom, and invite people to life with Jesus.”

Contact: Kaufman ISD, Kaufman, Texas, Aug. 20.

Violation: For the second year in a row, the district included prayer at its annual employee convocation, this year given by Pastor Chacko of Grace Christian Church.

Contact: Tipton Community School Corp., Tipton, Ind., Aug. 20.

Violation: Tipton High School displayed the Ten Commandments in a hallway with school photos.

Contact: Mayor of York, Pa., Aug. 20.

Violation: For five years, the mayor has hosted a city-organized conference, “FaithNet,” for local faith-based organizations. The events were attended almost exclusively by Christian pastors. The 2013 keynote speech was essentially a Christian sermon.

Contact: Vidor ISD, Vidor, Texas, Aug. 21.

Violation: Christian prayers are broadcast over the loudspeaker at Vidor High School football games. In addition, a teacher has publicly boasted about proselytizing to students during the school day, writing online, “I personally love my job as a public school teacher b/c I am able to talk with many kids about Jesus.”

Contact: Baldwin County, Ala., Aug. 21.

Violation: A monument displayed in front of the Baldwin County Courthouse in Bay Minette is “Dedicated to the glory of God and in honor of the veterans of all wars.”

Contact: Emmanuel County Schools, Swainsboro, Ga., Aug. 21.

Violation: Teachers at Swainsboro Primary School regularly lead students in prayer. Two teachers ask their students to bow their heads, fold their hands and pray before lunch. The complainant family alerted the principal to this issue, after which the complainants’ children were made to sit in the hallway while the rest of the class prayed. One child felt the teacher “used her mean voice” when asking the child to wait in the hall.

Contact: Internal Revenue Service, Aug. 21.

Violation: Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz, Fla., distributed a sample ballot for local elections which had “suggested candidates” marked.

Contact: Conemaugh Valley Board of Education, Johnstown, Pa.; South Butler County School Board, Saxonburg, Pa.; Northern Bedford County School Board, Loysburg, Pa.; Aug. 22. Violation: The school boards start each meeting with prayer.

Contact: Toledo Public Schools, Toledo, Ohio, Aug. 22.

Violation: The district invited all employees to a “Back to School Bash” at Cedar Creek Church, where it had held at least one earlier event. The district’s chief academic officer said that since nobody was mandated to go, “people who would be uncomfortable at a Christian church can stay away.”

Contact: Millville Police Department, Millville, N.J., Aug. 22.

Violation: The department has a chaplain program consisting only of Christian ministers. The program is meant to “have a large focus on juveniles,” but also consoles families after tragedies and counsels officers in need. The chaplains have been given some enforcement authority, recently picking up juveniles violating curfew.

Contact: Putnam County Schools, Oklahoma City, Aug. 25.

Violation: The Kenneth Cooper Middle School office displayed a religious poster with an image titled “Faith in America” by Donald Zolan, which features two children with their hands clasped in prayer against an American flag background.

Contact: Tarrant County, Fort Worth, Texas, Aug. 25.

Violation: The tax assessor’s office changed its official office envelopes, adding “In God We Trust” on the back, and intends to add the phrase to next year’s tax statements.

Contact: Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., Aug. 25.

Violation: The village annually hosts a holiday display in VFW Park in December, which contains a nativity scene erected by a Catholic church, a menorah erected by a Chabad group and a Christmas tree erected and lit by the village.

Contact: Springfield Public Schools, Springfield, Mo., Aug. 26.

Violation: Third graders at Wanda Gray Elementary School were given “take home” folders promoting a church. The front cover includes the school mascot, the name of the school, the office phone number and the school website. The back says the folder is “compliments of Seminole Baptist Temple,” lists the church contact information, and advertises evangelical Christian activities for students.

Contact: Stone Bridge High School, Ashburn, Va., Aug. 26.

Violation: The varsity girls tennis coach prayed with her students.

Contact: Seminole County Public Schools, Fla., Aug. 26

Violation: Seminole High School in Sanford reportedly allowed a pastor to serve as football team chaplain. The district responded to deny the claim.

Contact: Northern Tioga School Board, Elkland, Pa.; Blackhawk School Board, Beaver Falls, Pa.; Valley Grove School Board, Franklin, Pa.; Northern Potter School Board, Ulysses, Pa., Aug. 27.

Violation: The boards start monthly meetings with prayer.

Contact: Military Entrance Processing Station, Johnston, Iowa, Aug. 28.

Violation: A rack containing bibles and other Christian material was set up in the main lobby.

Contact: Madison County School District, Danielsville, Ga., Aug. 28.

Violation: Madison County High School unveiled a new monument in its stadium Aug. 22. The monument has two bible verses: Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me,” and Romans 8:31, “If God be for us who can be against us?”

Contact: Valley View ISD, Valley View, Texas, Aug. 29.

Violation: A teacher at Valley View Middle School distributed a tract to his students after teaching them about the Declaration of Independence. The tract was “Donated by Cooke County Republican Women” and encouraged readers to visit the website for the National Center for Constitutional Studies, a group which promotes religion under the guise of teaching American history. The website includes a list of reasons to oppose same-sex marriage and articles drawing connections between the Constitution and the bible.

Contact: Forney ISD, Forney, Texas, Aug. 29.

Violation: A student was punished for refusing to stand during the Pledge of Allegiance. The teacher stopped class and told the student that while he did not have to recite the pledge or salute the flag, he did have to stand. When the student did not stand, the teacher sent him to the principal’s office, where he received in-school suspension.

Contact: Wisconsin Office of the Commissioner of Insurance, Madison, Aug. 29.

Violation: The office provided an “inadequate and unlawful response” to FFRF’s open records request regarding the office’s enforcement of contraception coverage requirements. The agency provided no responsive records, did not specifically state the public policy reasons for the refusal and did not either detail the records being withheld or state that there were no records.

— compiled by Maddy Ziegler

Jesus saves (you from craving meth) 

Campbell County Comprehensive High School in Jacksboro, Tenn., will vet future assemblies to ensure no inappropriate religious programming after receiving an FFRF letter of complaint about a March assembly in the gym. According to a student, the school hosted a substance abuse assembly during school hours that included opening and closing student-led prayers and featured religious leaders. 

Speakers included Sheriff Robbie Goins, Caleb Arnold of the Hill College Ministry, representatives of the Stanfield Church of God and the Christian alternative rock band the Birdsongs. The band describes itself online as “passionate about spreading the gospel and pointing people to Christ.” 

The complainant reported that “references to God and Christianity” and “quotes from the bible” were prevalent and that a speaker told students that “Jesus Christ delivered [them] from methamphetamine.” 

The complainant reported that “some people I know didn’t want to go, given their beliefs, and were forced to attend the assembly.” 

Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent a March 28 letter to the director of schools: “Though teaching students about the perils of drug abuse is a commendable goal, allowing church representatives and an evangelical Christian band access to your student body gives the appearance that CCPS endorses those speakers’ religious messages.”

On July 9, after receiving two FFRF follow-ups, the district responded: “It was the assumption of the principal at the school that this would be a program in which the primary emphasis would be on curbing potential drug use. As a result of your letter we have spoken with the principal and have asked that he do a better job scrutinizing the content of future assemblies.” 

 

School backs off baccalaureate

Freeman High School in Freeman S.D., will no longer organize or sponsor an annual baccalaureate ceremony for graduating seniors. FFRF received a complaint that on May 14 a religious ceremony took place at which attendance was mandatory for all seniors and members of the band and chorus. Students were reportedly told that they would receive an “F” for not attending. Teachers, staff and the principal all have attended the event at the school.

FFRF was informed that between songs, a pastor preached and quoted bible verses. The pastor also led the crowd in prayer. The school promoted the event on the school calendar and website and announced it repeatedly over the intercom. 

Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent a complaint letter May 30 to Superintendent Don Hotchkiss. Shortly thereafter, the school responded that it would stop the practice. The complaint resulted in a flurry of Freeman Courier news articles in the town of about 1,300.

Hotchkiss said it was never his intention to eliminate the baccalaureate. “I do think we have to make some changes to how we do baccalaureate; I think we’re fortunate to have been able to do this for as long as we have.”

That comment sounded to FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor like the superintendent knew that the practice violated the law. “If so, that’s really sad,” Gaylor said. “It’s like he thought, ‘I know it’s illegal but maybe nobody is watching.’ That’s why we need state/church watchdogs like FFRF.”

Elliott sent a follow-up letter July 23 explaining that the district had to completely disassociate itself from the event. Hotchkiss then announced that the Ministerial Association would host future baccalaureates ”with no help, input, collaboration or participation from employees at the Freeman Public Schools.”

Sending FFRF a copy of the board motion to discontinue school affiliation, Hotchkiss snidely added, “I trust this information will not only be useful for you but will also allow you to have a more complete and restful nightly sleep cycle.” 

The Courier editorialized in FFRF’s favor July 24, asking readers to “Imagine if you, as a Christian, moved into a community that was primarily Muslim and the public school chose to hold a religious service as part of the graduation. Likely you’d have reservations about being there and offering prayers and following the religious tenets and traditions of Islam.” 

 

Teacher-led religious club disbanded

Hawkins Middle School in Hawkins, Texas, will no longer permit a teacher to organize and promote a “Feed and Seed” club. A concerned parent contacted FFRF, reporting that a teacher ran the club during lunch period. The teacher read from the bible and invited religious leaders to speak to students. Parents weren’t informed that their children were participating. The teacher also read religious materials on Good Friday during instructional time.  

Staff Attorney Sam Grover sent a letter to the district June 4. On Aug. 5, the superintendent replied that regulations and practices regarding extracurricular and co-curricular clubs were reviewed as well as classroom instructional material guidelines: “We are working to make certain that the Hawkins ISD complies with all applicable laws, including the First Amendment’s prohibition concerning the endorsement of religion.”

The school noted that if the club returns as a strictly student-led group, the teacher involved in the abuses will not be approved as faculty supervisor.

 

Gideon bibles out in Kansas school 

An elementary school in Gypsum, Kansas, will no longer allow the Gideons to proselytize and hand out bibles to students. FFRF was informed that on May 16, a fifth-grade teacher at USD 306 allowed representatives from Gideons International to speak and distribute bibles in his classroom. 

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter to the district July 8: “Parents carefully instruct children not to accept gifts from strangers. The Gideons’ practice is a usurpation of parental authority. It is the duty of public school administrators to protect not only the personal conscience of students but to ensure they are safe from predatory adults while at school.” 

On July 31, the district responded, “[The] superintendent . . . did not have any knowledge that this activity was going on. If he would have known it was occurring, he would have stopped it. This confirms that USD 306 will not permit this to happen anymore.” 

FFRF successfully complained about another teacher in the district who actively led, participated and organized a See You at the Pole prayer gathering. Fliers announcing the gatherings included the teacher’s name.

The letter said that a new policy prohibiting teachers sponsoring overtly religious events will be enforced by the district.  

 

Young students recruited for Team Jesus 

Michael T. Simmons Elementary School in Tumwater, Wash., will no longer allow religious materials to be handed out. 

Children were pulled out of class to attend a mandatory assembly led by former NFL player Shawn Harper, who at the conclusion handed out cards to students with his picture on the front and an image of Jesus on the back. The card said:

“I grew up in a religious home, but I did not know God. I suffered a potential career ending injury which put me out of the NFL for one year. It was during that year, when I thought I had lost everything, that I discovered the difference between religion and a relationship with Jesus. He found me, and I have been playing on His Team ever since. I was able to come back and finish my career in the NFL!” 

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter June 5 explaining why the school district needed to remedy the violation.

The district responded promptly: “The card about which you have stated concern, which looked like a traditional sports card, was made available to students by the speaker as the students were leaving the assembly hall. Not all students received a card, but many did. The card was not approved in advance by the principal. The principal has shared with me that in the future she will make sure to pre-approve any materials that are to be handed out to students in such a context.” 

The district defended the assembly itself as addressing bullying and not containing religious content, although Harper’s website says he’s a “Christian Motivational Speaker” at the top of the home page. 

The incident was scheduled for discussion at an August meeting of administrators, the response said.

 

Mandatory meetings in churches stopped

Dawson County School District in Gainesville, Ga., will no longer hold mandatory meetings for teachers in churches. 

A complainant reported to FFRF that the district held a mandatory staff meeting on Aug. 4 at the First Baptist Church of Dawsonville. The meeting was opened by a minister who gave a sermon inviting people to join his church and “come to Jesus.” He then urged the teachers to stand while he prayed to “bless” the teachers, school year, students, etc. Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent complaint letter Aug. 15, noting that letting staff skip the church meeting wouldn’t cure the constitutional violation. Employees should not be forced to “out” themselves as nonreligious or non-Christian to their employers, he said.

The district responded Sept. 3: “While a church leader was invited to give a brief welcome to the facility, the length and nature of the comments was unexpected and certainly not invited. Under all the circumstances there is no expectation of such a gathering at the church anytime in the future.”

 

Senior center halts staff-led prayer 

Employees at a senior center in Eagle Nest, N.M., will not lead prayers before federally funded meals. FFRF was informed that staff recited sectarian prayers before meals at the center and that participants were asked to join hands.

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent an Aug. 21 complaint letter. The center responded Sept. 3, saying that “to the extent that the prayers are conducted by Village employees or have an appearance of being Village sponsored, the Village will take action necessary to ensure that this does not continue to occur.” 

 

School reins in creationist teacher  

Eureka Union School District in Granite Bay, Calif., will no longer permit a teacher to “teach the controversy” about evolution during science class.

According to a complainant, a teacher at Ridgeview Elementary School routinely taught creationism and intelligent design during science instruction. The teacher claimed that it’s legally required to “present both sides of the issue.”

The strategy apparently consisted of giving the students a bag of popcorn and a sheet of paper with a complicated design, telling them to repeatedly let popcorn fall on the paper. If the popcorn did not form the complicated design, then, the teacher told them, it shows that evolution must be unreasonable. 

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter of complaint March 4, summarizing court rulings: “Evolution is not a ‘theory’ in the layperson’s sense of the word. Evolution is a ‘scientific theory.’ This difference is crucial. A misunderstanding of these terms often leads to a misunderstanding of evolution, the vast weight of evidence supporting evolution, and of its overwhelming acceptance in the scientific community.”

The district responded March 13, thanking and assuring FFRF that the complaint was immediately addressed and appropriate action taken.

 

Bibles verses removed at post office

A post office in Richmond, Calif., removed bible verses posted at employee time clocks. A concerned employee contacted FFRF that a sign quoting 1 Peter 4:15 (“But let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, an evildoer, or as a ‘busybody’ in other people’s matters”) was posted on internal bulletin boards.

Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell sent a letter to the branch, pointing out that the display directly violates regulations. The Postal Service said Aug. 19 that the verses were removed: “Employees at the facility will be reinstructed through a Stand-Up Talk regarding the policies related to posting items near time clocks and on internal bulletin boards.” 

 

Mormon video barred from assemblies

Kuna School District in Kuna, Idaho, addressed the constitutional concerns brought on by a religious video at an assembly. A complainant informed FFRF that Kuna Middle School held an anti-bullying assembly in May. A video, “Bullying — Stop It,” produced by the media channel of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was shown to students. On stopping bullying, the video claims, “This mighty change of heart is exactly what the Gospel of Jesus Christ is designed to bring about.” It also claims that, “allowing us to see others the way our Heavenly Father sees us, because God loves us so much, we too must love and forgive; remember in the end it is the merciful who obtain mercy.”

The video was paused at the end to display the Mormon Church’s logo. 

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter June 4: “[Y]our community possesses many secular experts in this field, including counselors, psychologists, and sociologists, who have experience, training, certification and/or degrees and would be delighted, usually at no cost to the district, to discuss bullying before your student bodies, and whose presence would not raise constitutional red flags.” 

On July 7, Superintendent Wendy Johnson replied: “The student who presented the assembly and video did disclose to building administration that there was religious content at the end of the anti-bullying video. The building administration requested that the video be stopped before the religious content was shown. Unfortunately the video was not stopped in the appropriate time.”

Johnson added that building administrators will be directed to use only district-approved materials.

 

In Ohio, Jesus has left the building

Religious images will no longer adorn the locker room of North Canton Memorial Stadium Complex in Canton, Ohio. A concerned student contacted FFRF to report that a portrait of Jesus was displayed near the door leading to the stadium. 

On July 3, Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent a warning letter to the Stark County Educational Services Council, requesting an immediate investigation of the illegal religious display at Hoover High School.

Markert stated: “As you may be aware, a similar situation occurred at Jackson Middle School in Jackson, Ohio. A lawsuit brought by FFRF together with the ACLU of Ohio on behalf of a Jackson Middle School student resulted in a settlement for the permanent removal of the portrait of Jesus and a hefty fine, including attorney’s fees against Jackson City School District.”

A council representative responded Aug. 21 that the portrait had been removed.

 

Miami Beach removes Jewish eruv

A public park in Miami Beach, Fla., will no longer permit religious eruvin to be erected over public property after a complaint was filed by FFRF. 

An eruv is “an urban area enclosed by a wire boundary that symbolically extends the private domain of Jewish households into public areas, permitting activities within it that are normally forbidden in public on the Sabbath.” An eruv, constructed of 15-foot plastic poles connected by string, was installed by two members of the Orthodox Jewish community in Pine Tree Park without a permit. 

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a complaint letter to the city of Miami Beach: “Allowing Orthodox Jews to permanently demarcate large areas of public property as a private Jewish household that is ‘property’ of the Orthodox Jewish community forces those of other faiths and no faith to live within an Orthodox Jewish religious enclosure, including members of other Jewish denominations who are offended by the Orthodox Jewish elevation of legalistic constructs over what they believe to be the true spiritual values of Judaism.” 

On July 10, FFRF received a response from the city insisting that an “eruv does not violate the Establishment Clause,and can be legally permitted. It has the secular purpose of allowing Orthodox Jews to participate in matters of daily living outside of their homes on Saturday, their Sabbath.” 

Seidel replied July 14: “There is nothing secular about helping a religious sect comply with religious law. What do you think the reaction would be if Miami Beach endorsed and even helped devout Muslims rope off an area in which to adhere to Sharia law?”

FFRF’s complainant confirmed on July 24 that most of the eruvin had been removed from the park. She called it “a great victory.”

 

Chorus won’t sing in S.C. churches 

Broome High School students in Glendale, S.C., will no longer perform in churches. A concerned citizen informed FFRF that on May 11 the school chorus sang at the First Baptist Church of Cowpens during a Sunday morning worship service. 

Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent a letter May 19 to Spartanburg School District 3, explaining why holding school-sponsored activities in churches, especially during services, is a bad idea constitutionally, even if students are allowed to opt out of participating. 

On Aug. 11, an attorney representing the district responded that students should not be asked to participate in any activity that takes place during a religious service, where that activity is sponsored by the school.

The counsel added that she had met with all district administrators to give a presentation including “instruction regarding the Establishment Clause and how it applies to public school students and religion.”

 

Graduations won’t have official prayer

Alexander High School in Alexander N.Y., will no longer conduct prayer at graduation. Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent a letter June 24, 2013, about an invocation listed on a recent graduation’s program. 

After several follow-up letters, the district sent an email Jan. 31: “We do not believe it was illegal. It was student initiated and student led.” 

Markert responded April 8, citing the Supreme Court’s Santa Fe v. Doe ruling on precisely such violations. 

On May 28, the district responded: “The graduation planning committee for the class of 2014 has decided not to included an invocation in their graduation program.” 

In August, Markert received more confirmation that the School Board “made the decision not to included an invocation in the ceremony.” 

 

Teacher-led prayer stopped at banquets

After a complaint by FFRF, Sandy Run K-8 School staff in Swansea S.C., will no longer lead prayer at academic banquets. FFRF learned that a school staff member led students and staff in a Christian prayer at a June 2 banquet.  

Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent a letter to Calhoun County Public Schools on July 22. On Aug. 12, Superintendent Steve Wilson responded: “I have reminded staff on numerous occasions of the law and to not engage in any activity that could be considered out of bounds as it pertains to Freedom of Religion. After receiving your letter, I immediately placed the subject on the very next District Principals’ Meeting agenda . . . and directed any and all to refrain from such practices.”

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