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October 9-11, 2015

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Lauryn Seering

Lauryn Seering

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a state/church watchdog which is the nation’s largest association of freethinkers (atheists and agnostics), has a full-page ad geared at “atheists in foxholes” in the 2015 USA Today Department of Defense Special Edition Commemorative Publication.

“You are not alone,” the FFRF ad advises. “There are atheists in foxholes.” The ad notes that almost a quarter of the U.S. military is not religious.

Citing a list of egregious entanglements between the military and religion — such as USAF’s mandatory religious oaths, ship-wide prayers in the Navy, chaplain proselytizing, "bible-peddling" by officers, and “spiritual fitness” testing — FFRF concludes: “You’ve been fighting for our secular Constitution and our freedom — let us fight for you.”

The stand-alone publication was released at the very end of December and is being distributed throughout the various Department of Defense and military commands including military bases nationwide, AAFES, NEXCOM and DECA central and regional offices, etc.

Read ad below. A digital version of the publication is also attached (see ad on Page 71).

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Islam-pushing prof gets FFRF attention

Professor Daoud Nassimi’s “Introduction to Islam” course crosses the line from objective religious teaching to proselytization, said a recent complaint letter from FFRF to Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale.

“[T]his class has been used to proselytize students and advance belief in the existence of a god in an attempt to prove religious belief correct,” wrote Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott and Legal Fellow Katherine Paige.

An audio recording and PowerPoint slides from a lecture show that Nassimi’s class is “a one-sided monologue by a government-paid employee whose agenda is to show the truth of religion—namely, the existence of a god.”

Nassimi also has belittled atheists and other nonbelievers. When one student expressed concern on the class website, Nassimi responded, “The reality is that science does not offer any support for the claims of those who deny God, but they are using science as a cover to hide their agenda. Please note that this course is ‘Introduction to Islam.’ So, I will be offering Islam’s position and views all along the semester, whether anyone likes it or not.”

In one lecture, he called people who deny God’s existence “worse than animals,” because they have human intelligence and still “[go] so low and wild to deny the source of their own existence.”

“The primary legal issue with this class is Prof. Nassimi’s active promotion of his personal religious views. This is not a question of Prof. Nassimi’s free speech—Prof. Nassimi is abusing his government position,” wrote FFRF. “Given his inability to separate his teaching duties from his religious sensibilities, we fail to see how he can conduct a collegiate course on Islam or religion.”

An attorney for the Virginia Community College System responded, saying it was conducting a review.

FFRF strongly criticized the Nov. 24 decision by the Colorado State Supreme Court against FFRF and four of its Colorado members, who were told they had no standing to sue the governor over his annual proclamation urging citizens to set aside a day for prayer.

Chief Justice Nancy Rice delivered the court’s 5–2 ruling that said that the psychic harm suffered by FFRF members—Mike Smith, David Habecker, Timothy Bailey and Jeff Baysinger—isn’t “injury sufficient to establish idividual standing.” Despite the fact that taxpayer standing is broad under Colorado law, the justices also called the “incidental overhead costs” insufficient to establish taxpayer standing.

Dissenting was Justice William Hood III, joined by Justice Gregory Hobbs Jr., who warned “we turn a deaf ear to citizens” who have concerns about religious freedom. Hood wrote that the court is confusing “the issue of when an individual’s claim should be heard with when it should prevail.”

FFRF has more 650 Colorado members and chapters in Denver and Colorado Springs, and 21,500 nationally. Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor noted, “Under today’s precedent, if Gov. John Hickenlooper decided to proclaim a state religion, no state citizen would have the right to challenge him. That’s shocking.”

“Being formally told to pray every year by their governor is what the Colorado Constitution so obviously sought to protect citizens from,” added Co-President Dan Barker. “This decision guts the no-preference clause of the state constitution that says no preference shall be ‘given by law to any religious denomination or mode of worship.’”

A state Court of Appeals panel ruled 3–0 in May 2010 in favor of FFRF’s challenge of Colorado Day of Prayer proclamations.

“A reasonable observer would conclude that these proclamations send the message that those who pray are favored members of Colorado’s political community, and that those who do not pray do not enjoy that favored status,” appeals Judge Steve Bernard wrote.

FFRF filed the suit in 2008 after then-Gov. Bob Ritter spoke at an exclusionary, private Colorado Day of Prayer celebration on the State Capitol steps in 2007.

FFRF won a historic U.S. district court ruling, FFRF v. Obama, in 2010 that declared the federal National Day of Prayer unconstitutional. The suit demonstrated the religious origins of the 1952 and 1988 acts of Congress, with Rev. Billy Graham and other evangelists pushing for the laws. The evangelical National Day of Prayer Task Force — based at Focus on the Family headquarters in Colorado Springs and chaired by Shirley Dobson — has essentially acted as an arm of the government since 1988.

In 2011, the conservative 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals threw out FFRF’s standing.

“We thank our all-important state plaintiffs. We’re indignant on their behalf that courthouse doors are being slammed shut against citizens whose freedom of conscience is being violated so blatantly by theocratic elected officials,” Barker added.

Richard L. Bolton served as litigation attorney. and noted that the high court ruled only that the plaintiffs lacked standing and not that the governor’s practice is constitutional.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has filed its first lawsuit over a violation of open records law, after a track record of taking more than 60 Establishment Clause lawsuits.

In a suit filed Dec. 17 in Dane County Circuit Court, FFRF charges that Wisconsin open records law was violated by the state Office of the Commissioner of Insurance and Commissioner Theodore Nickel. In addition to FFRF, Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott is a plaintiff.

Elliott made a series of open records requests of the Office of the Commissioner after a reported agency decision that Wisconsin’s contraceptive mandate, known as the Contraceptive Equity Law, would no longer be enforced because it was preempted by the June 30 Hobby Lobby ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.
FFRF and many other observers disagreed, since the Religious Freedom Restoration Act under which the ruling was decided applies only to the federal government, not states.

On July 21, the right-wing news outlet MediaTrackers quoted J.P. Wieske, OCI legislative liaison and public information officer, as stating the Contraceptive Equity Law was “pre-empted.” MediaTrackers reported that the state would not enforce the law. Legitimate news sources then piggy-backed on MediaTrackers’ story.
Elliott first made a records request July 22 about OCI’s enforcement of contraceptive coverage requirements, including Nickel’s authority to disregard state law. Elliott followed up July 25 with further requests.

When more than a month had lapsed, Elliott again contacted the agency on Aug. 25. Although that resulted in 16 pages of documents, much of the requests were denied or not responded to. Elliott contested the denial in an Aug. 29 letter, which also was not responded to, then requested records from the Office of the Governor, including any communications with the OCI related to Wisconsin’s contraceptive mandate.

Although Gov. Scott Walker’s office made two denials, it otherwise yielded 36 pages of documents, including some communications with OCI that OCI had failed to provide to comply with FFRF’s request.

The law says responses must be provided “as soon as practicable and without delay.” FFRF charges that OCI violated numerous portions of the law and seeks an order directing the defendants to produce the requested records, award reasonable attorneys’ fees, damages of not less than $100, punitive damages and other actual costs.

“Let there be sunlight,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor, who thanked the firm of McGillivray Westerberg & Bender for representing FFRF.

FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor said they will continue to seek a way to bring down the discriminatory “parsonage exemption” after an appeals court on Nov. 13 overturned a district court ruling, saying they had no standing to sue.

“You’ll hear from us again,” the plaintiff couple promised, after criticizing the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, one of the country’s most conservative appellate courts, for “timidity” in refusing to confront “this blatant preference for ministers and churches.”

The panel, in a unanimous decision written by Judge Joel Flaum, vacated a favorable ruling a year ago by U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb for the Western District of Wisconsin, declaring unconstitutional 26 U.S. C. § 107(2). The 1954 bill’s sponsor, Rep. Peter Mack, argued ministers should be rewarded for “carrying on such a courageous fight against this [godless and anti-religious world movement].”

The generous law allows “ministers of the gospel” to be paid through a housing allowance that can be excluded from taxable income. Ministers may use the untaxed income to purchase a home and, in a practice known as “double dipping,” deduct interest paid on the mortgage and property taxes.

“It’s important to note,” said attorney Richard L. Bolton, who handled the litigation, “that the court’s opinion in no way reflects that the housing allowance is constitutional.” As Flaum himself noted, the court did “not reach the issue of the constitutionality of the parsonage exemption.”

In fact, the court seemed to acknowledge that the law is discriminatory, saying “the mere fact that discrimination is occurring is not enough to establish standing.”
FFRF sets aside a portion of the co-presidents’ salaries as a “housing allowance,” which, under the IRS code, the couple is not eligible to claim, as they are not “ministers of the gospel,” but instead espouse atheism, freethought and secularism.

Gaylor and Barker took issue with the appeals court’s cavalier assessment that they have suffered no concrete injury, since they must pay taxes on their housing allowance, while ministers are rewarded, simply for being religious leaders, with a unique and substantial tax benefit.

“We’ll continue to challenge this indefensible favoritism for religion in other forums until the issue cannot be circumvented,” Barker promised. Barker is a former minister who was rewarded with this subsidy when he was “Rev. Barker” the believer, but is now penalized as “Mr. Barker” the freethought leader.

Virtually all major denominations and many minor congregations weighed in, with amicus briefs against FFRF’s challenge to religious privilege, including Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Unitarian and Muslim. “The entitlement and privilege which religion and its leaders demand is discriminatory, and clearly signals governmental preference and subsidy for the promulgation of religion over nonreligion,” Gaylor charged.
Stay tuned!

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No tax break for Ark Encounter

A proposed Noah’s ark theme park in northern Kentucky won’t get about $18 million in state tax incentives, said a Dec. 10 letter from the Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet.

According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, the letter said Ark Encounter intends to discriminate in hiring based on religion. The state’s development authority gave preliminary approval in July but wanted written assurances on nondiscriminatory hiring practices.

“State tourism tax incentives cannot be used to fund religious indoctrination or otherwise be used to advance religion,” Tourism Secretary Bob Stewart wrote. “The use of state incentives in this way violates the separation of church and state provisions of the Constitution and is therefore impermissible.”

FFRF contested the proposal from the start and asked its members on Dec. 12 to write Gov. Steve Beshear and Stewart to thank them for standing up for the rights of non-Christians. Evangelist Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis, the park’s developer, wants to keep 25% of the sales tax it collects for 10 years. Ham said he’s considering a lawsuit now.

Thanks to FFRF’s efforts, Mustang Public Schools in Mustang, Okla., is canceling plans to conduct a bible course developed by Hobby Lobby President Steve Green, a zealous evangelical Christian.

Superintendent Sean McDaniel emailed in November that “the topic of a bible course in the Mustang School District is no longer a discussion item nor is there a plan to provide such a course in the foreseeable future.”

The district’s announcement came in response to a follow-up open records request to the district from FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel, in conjunction with Americans United Senior Litigation Counsel Greg Lipper, ACLU of Oklahoma Legal Director Brady Henderson and Daniel Mach of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.

FFRF led the charge against the proposed class in April when the school board voted to approve Green’s curriculum. Seidel researched the curriculum, entitled “The Book, the Bible’s History, Narrative and Impact of the World’s Best-selling Book,” and pointed out numerous flaws with the course, which the billionaire Green wants to be implemented in schools around the country.

Americans United and ACLU later also wrote letters and joined FFRF’s most recent records request.

McDaniel said two “non-negotiables” the school had requested from Hobby Lobby were not met, namely that the district be permitted to review the final curriculum before introducing it and that Hobby Lobby commit to providing legal coverage to the district.

Through its first records request, FFRF learned that the curriculum contained heavy Christian bias. FFRF also criticized Green for encouraging the school board to circumvent open meetings laws by inviting school representatives to meet at Hobby Lobby headquarters in nearby Oklahoma City on the same day in two different groups at different times.

Hobby Lobby’s first commitment, according to its website, is “Honoring the Lord in all we do by operating the company in a manner consistent with biblical principles.” The company brought a challenge resulting in a 5-4 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that said corporations with religious objections could defy the contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act. Green is also planning an $800 million bible museum to open in 2017 in Washington, D.C., clearly intended to influence Congress.

“This development is a victory not only for reason and the law but for the inviolable right of a captive audience of students to be free from indoctrination in a public school setting,” commented Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president.

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

FFRF has received a 4 star rating from Charity Navigator

 

FFRF privacy statement

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FFRF is a member of Atheist Alliance International.