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Ethical Dilemma

Is pointing out Jewish criminal behavior bigoted?

Joan Reisman-Brill, who writes “The Ethical Dilemma” advice column at (and is an FFRF member who contributes to “Ask a Skeptic”), shares a recent Q&A.

I am an atheist from a Jewish background. When I go through my copy of Freethought Today (the newspaper of the Freedom From Religion Foundation), I find myself skimming the “Black Collar Crime Blotter” section (a listing of religious leaders charged with crimes) looking for the Jewish entries — maybe three out of about 75 listings each month — and showing the juiciest ones to my wife, who is, alas, a practicing Jew.

She says doing this makes me anti-Semitic. Other Jewish acquaintances have called me that or even worse — a self-hating Jew — whenever I take issue with the religion’s beliefs or practices. I don’t in my heart believe that’s true, but then I’m not sure what those terms really mean, so perhaps they do mean me.

— Just Pointing Out Crimes, Not Inventing or Committing Them

Dear Just Pointing:

When you get your alumni magazine, do you zero in on the years you attended and the people you knew, and pay little to no attention to the rest? When you read wedding announcements or obituaries, do you look for names you recognize and ignore the others?

This is the same thing: You are picking out the stories you relate to because they are closest to home — the religious home you were raised in and still share with your spouse and people you associate with. I doubt you’ve been spraying swastikas on your wife’s pillow, barring Jews from your social life or discriminating against them at work, so I don’t think you qualify as an anti-Semite. We’ll get to self-hating in a moment.

I believe these terms aim to chill criticism of things Jewish and tamp down internal disputes — rightly when the criticisms are false, inflammatory or hateful, wrongly when they shut down acknowledgement of genuine issues. Just as the Catholic Church has systematically hushed up reports of pedophiles, there is a code in Judaism that prohibits making incriminating statements to outsiders.

It’s understandable that a group with such a history of persecution wouldn’t want to air its dirty laundry (and thereby provide ammunition) to the general public, which according to a recent survey [commissioned by the Anti-Defamation League] is very anti-Semitic. There are Jewish factions that apply those terms to each other, depending on which side of an argument they are on.

And in some extreme sects where members are required to report crimes to their rabbi and not to the police or the U.S. courts, the community will shun those who disobey and speak out about the crimes, while supporting those accused of the crimes (even if they may be guilty).

I think the term “self-hating Jew” is a projection by Jews who are not altogether comfortable with their identity themselves. A self-hating Jew would be someone who was embarrassed by or hid his own Jewish identity and discriminated against others for theirs. Some apply the term to any Jew who disavows Judaism in favor of another religion or no religion, but I disagree.

If a Jewish person (or formerly Jewish person) comments on something amiss within the group, that action doesn’t reflect on the commenter (other than demonstrating objectivity) as much as the derogatory label reflects on the one doing the labeling. To stoop to the same juvenile and irrational level, consider “It takes one to know one” and “I’m rubber, you’re glue.”

I’ve never heard of people who blow the whistle on pedophile priest cover-ups referred to as self-hating Catholics, but if a Jewish person argues that synagogues have no right to block public sidewalks in front of their buildings for holiday celebrations, he’s apt to be called a self-hater.

So just take the high road and continue to call ’em as you see ’em, and let others call you whatever enables them to turn on you while turning a blind eye to what you’re criticizing. As you note, it’s not just one group that earns entries on FFRF’s crime blotter.

Every group has its predators and frauds. But how the groups address or suppress that determines whether they are interested in cleaning house or just circling the wagons around their problems while pretending none exist.

Bart Ehrman, FFRF’s newest recipient of its Emperor Has No Clothes Award, is a professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He accepted the award May 2 at the Raleigh mini-convention. He writes “The Bart Ehrman Blog” and is author of many books, including Did Jesus Exist?, Forged: Writing in the Name of God — Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are, and his newest, How Jesus Became God. All three can be ordered at

After Bart’s acceptance speech, artist and FFRF Lifetime Member Scott Burdick taped an in-depth interview, transcribed here:

BE: I’m Bart Ehrman. I identify as both a humanist and an agnostic.

SB: And are you openly agnostic?

BE: What do you mean, openly?

SB: Do people know it? Does your family know it?

BE: Am I in the closet? Aha! Yes, I’m quite openly agnostic. Everybody knows it.

SB: So writing books about it means you’re open?

BE: Well, if anybody reads my books they know I’m an agnostic, yeah.

SB: I find it interesting, having read most of your books, how you talk about that you weren’t always an agnostic.

BE: No, I started out as an evangelical Christian. I got interested in biblical studies because I was actually a fundamentalist as a late teenager. That got me interested in the bible. But as I developed my scholarship through graduate school, I realized that my beliefs about the bible were completely wrong, that the bible’s not some kind of inherent revelation from God.

And so for years I’d become a liberal Christian. I still went to church, I still believed in God, but I didn’t believe the bible was the inspired word of God. But after many years of being a liberal Christian, I finally became an agnostic for reasons unrelated to my scholarship, reasons having to do with why there is suffering in the world, if there is a God who is in control?

I, for years, had thought about it, had read what the biblical authors said, what theologians, philosophers said. I got to the point where I just didn’t believe it anymore. So I just acknowledged at one point then that I’m probably an agnostic, and that’s what I’ve been for maybe 15 or 16 years.

SB: Sounds like it was a very gradual process.

BE: It was. I’ve heard people say that I went from being a fundamentalist to being an agnostic because of problems in the bible. That’s completely wrong. It was a very long process. I was a very open-minded liberal Christian for many, many years. It was really the problem of suffering that ended up creating the big issue for me that led me to acknowledge that I am an agnostic.

It’s very interesting being an agnostic scholar of religion. I’ll begin by explaining what I myself mean, by this term that I’m using, that we all use all the time, the term “agnostic,” because over the last 18 months or so I’ve come to think it means something different from what I used to think.

What I used to think was that agnostics and atheists were two degrees of the same thing. When I first declared myself agnostic, I was amazed at how militant both agnostics and atheists can be about their terms.

Every agnostic I met thought that atheists were simply arrogant agnostics. And every atheist thought that every agnostic was simply a wimpy atheist. Two degrees of the same thing. When someone will say “I don’t know,” the other will say they do know. I’ve come to think that they are not two degrees of the same thing but are two different things.

Agnosticism has to do with epistemology — what you know. Atheism has to do with belief — what you believe. I actually consider myself to be both an agnostic and an atheist. I am agnostic because if somebody says to me, is there a greater power in the universe? My response is, “How the hell would I know!? I don’t know!” So, I’m an agnostic.

If somebody were to ask me, do you believe in the god of the bible? Do you believe in a god that interacts with the world, who intervenes in the world, who answers prayer? Do you believe in the supernatural divine being? No! I don’t believe it! So, I don’t believe, so I’m an atheist. But — I don’t know. So I’m an agnostic. And since I’m a scholar I prefer to emphasize knowledge rather than belief. And so, I tend to identify as an agnostic.

SB: Were there any issues with coming out to your family? Were they very religious?

BE: When I was an evangelical Christian, most of my family converted to evangelical Christianity in my wake and so, hah! When I left the Christian fold, they did not leave with me, and so they’re still there wondering where I went.

SB: So, you’re an evangelical agnostic, I guess.

BE: When I was an evangelical Christian I believed in converting everyone to my point of view because I thought if you didn’t agree with me you were going to roast in hell. I was very evangelistic. I’m not evangelistic as an agnostic because it certainly doesn’t matter for somebody’s afterlife — because I don’t believe there is an afterlife.

I’m not that interested in people converting to what I think. What I’m interested in is getting people to be more thoughtful about whatever they believe or don’t believe. So I’m not interested in converting, actually.

SB: You talk in your books about how many people become ministers and learn these same facts from the bible but seem reluctant to share that with their congregations. Why do you think that is?

BE: Well, pastors learn the kind of material I teach in seminaries and divinity schools, if they go to a mainline denominational school. If they go to a fundamentalist seminary, of course, they don’t learn this, unless they learn it in order to attack it.  An evangelical school wouldn’t teach this kind of material, but Lutheran, Episcopalian, Methodist and Presbyterian seminaries teach this kind of material.

And yes, when the people who go through that training become pastors, they tend not to tell their congregations. I think it’s because they’re afraid to make waves. They don’t think that people will be welcoming of it, they don’t think people are ready for it. There are some issues of job security. They want to keep their job, so they don’t want to ruffle too many feathers.

But I think it’s too bad because churches have education programs, and it’s a pity that people aren’t getting educated. There are adult education programs in most churches. But they don’t actually get educated, they sit around and talk about other issues. They don’t talk about the things that most people are interested in, which is what does one think about the bible, what does one think about theology?

SB: Do you think though that they may feel that this may put too many doubts in people’s minds?

BE: Possibly. I think pastors tend not to be in the business of generating doubt. [As] professors at universities, that is our business. Our goal is to get people to think. But pastors don’t generally see that as their goal, and so they tend to shy away from these various issues that would cause problems for people.

The result is they’ve got parishioners who really don’t know anything about what scholars are saying about materials that they are most interested in, which I think is a real pity.

By. Don Ardell

There are many days that will live in infamy alongside Dec. 7, 1941. Just two obvious examples are Nov. 22, 1963, and Sept. 11, 2001. If asked, I would also list May 5, 2014, as a date certain to live in infamy.

That’s the day the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in Town of Greece v. Galloway that it’s constitutional for local governments to host prayers at official meetings.

Someday, a secular Supreme Court will override this dreadful decision. Our Constitution is godless. It is not hostile or friendly to religion. It is simply neutral. Our founders met centuries ago at a constitutional convention that included no prayers. A separation was established in the Constitution between religions and governments at all levels. This was deliberate. The founders knew from their experience in Europe that religious matters were divisive, that disparate sectors of the population did not want to be governed by or included in the religious dogmas and rituals at odds with their own religious beliefs, or absence of such beliefs.

Freedom from is as important as freedom of religion, and these two freedoms require governments that are neutral in matters of a religious nature. Yet today, politicians and many influential allies enthused with church-based sensibilities have introduced, at every level of government, elements of the predominant form of religiosity — namely, Christianity.

My views are the same as Robert Green Ingersoll’s, who in one speech said: “Improved Man will not endeavor, by prayers and supplication, by fastings and genuflections, to change the mind of the Infinite, or to alter the course of nature; neither will he employ others to do these things in his place.” In another he said that “all prayers die in the air that they uselessly agitate.”

Consider this partial list of areas in which violations or influences are rampant:

• Religion in public schools and universities (e.g., creationism, school prayer, bibles/religious texts in curricula/student religious clubs and religious distributions, music, Pledge of Allegiance, displays, events and evangelism during the school day and use of facilities by church groups).

• Faith-based programs and other subsidies of religious institutions.

• Tax exemptions for churches and clergy.

• School vouchers and government subsidies of religious schools.

• Official prayer, religious displays and ceremonial religion at government events and meetings, religious displays on public property, religious mottoes, pledges and resolutions.

• Governments-sanctioned discrimination, religious exemptions (military, prisons, housing, health care facilities, etc.).

• Church involvement in elections/lobbying and ballot initiatives and U.S.-Vatican diplomatic relations.

• Marriage, reproductive justice and other privacy issues.

A course of action

These violations will not cease owing to the good will of Christian and other religious elements. Secular Americans have to make known their desires for adherence to separation of religion and government at every level and in social and other interactions. Doing so need not be confrontational; constructive requests for governmental neutrality should be sufficient to slow and hopefully reverse a steady drift toward theocracy. Secularists have many allies in the religious communities who share their desire to keep religion and government apart.

This requires, as a first step, that more Americans be aware of the nature, rationale and history of separation of church and state. Local officials should be reminded that they may not legally use their authority, public funds or government property to promote religion, despite the fact that a majority presently approves of religious intrusions.

The Greece decision has energized many secularists to actively resist further Christian incursions into public life, and to do more about those already in place. To foster specific protest about government prayer, FFRF has designed a contest, the purpose of which is to show that government prayers are unnecessary, ineffective, embarrassing, exclusionary, divisive or just plain silly. The thinking is that if more citizens protest prayers, the likelihood increases that they will stop sooner rather than later.

Anyone interested in the contest need only sign up or otherwise gain a chance to appear at a council meeting or other government function and deliver a secular, instructive invocation. The goal of the contest is to educate everyone about why we have, or should protect what we are entitled to have — namely, separation of church and state.

Giving an invocation is a real wellness act of freedom-seeking, as well as the patriotic thing to do. If you are planning such a thing, I thank you in advance for your service.

Below are transcripts of secular invocations recently entered into FFRF’s new Nothing Fails Like Prayer contest. The individual deemed to have delivered the best “atheist homily” or secular invocation before a governmental body will receive an all-expense paid trip to FFRF’s annual convention, to open the gathering with the winning “invocation” of reason, freethought, etc., and receive a $500 honorarium.

Entrants must provide a video and transcript. All eligible entrants will receive a certificate suitable for framing.

Ted Utchen, Wheaton, Ill., City Council, 6-2-14

Let us rise each morning, and strive each day, to do only that which brings happiness and joy to others, and avoid doing things that cause others hurt and pain. Let us use our minds and our reason to foster behavior based on the mutuality and reciprocity inherent in human relationships, and let us always respect the dignity and worth of each other. And let us, above all, love one another, not to obtain rewards for ourselves now or hereafter or to avoid punishment, but rather always to bring each other contentment and peace. So be it.

David Williamson: Kissimmee, Fla., Osceola Board of County Commissioners, 6-16-14

Through the millennia we as a society have learned the best way to govern the people is for the people to govern themselves. Today, in this tradition, we travel from our homes and businesses across the county; citizens, staff, and those elected converge on this chamber to work as one community united and indivisible by nearly every measure. Each of us arrives as individuals with unique ideas and experiences but all with a need or, in a spirit of goodwill, to fulfill the needs of others.

Citizens request assistance and offer their concerns and we are ever grateful for their interest and for their trust in the process. Staff provides invaluable expertise in their particular field and we truly appreciate their continued service. Elected officials listen, debate, and choose the path forward for us all out of a sincere desire to serve and honor the people of Osceola County while shaping its future. We all offer our thanks in that often thankless task.

When we leave this chamber this evening, let us carry with us this same spirit of service and goodwill tomorrow and every day that follows.

This is how we assemble to serve and to govern, ourselves.

Robert Ray, Oak Harbor, Wash., City Council, 4-4-14

Thank you, mayor and council members, for this opportunity to provide an inspirational start to your meeting. Normally, you would bow your heads for an invocation in this chamber, but I am going to ask that you raise your eyes and think about a few things today.

When this body comes together to govern, they do so with the consent of the citizens of Oak Harbor. Oak Harbor is a very diverse community with many different views and opinions.

My secular humanism, which is to say reason and science, leads me to believe that we as humans can meet the challenges of these differences and create a society with less dissension and leave a better, more equal culture for future generations.

It is incumbent upon this council to make the best decisions for the community. In this regard, I ask that you use reason, wisdom and empathy in your deliberations today. To take into account the implications your decisions will have now and in the future. We should all plant an acorn, even though we may not live to hear the wind rush through its leaves or the joyous laughter of children playing in the comfort of its shade. We plant the seed for the benefit of future generations.

In the words of Bertrand Russell, in order to do our part, “One must care about a world one will not see.”

David Suhor, Pensacola, Fla., City and County Commissions, 2-13-14/9-9-12


Mother, father, gods of ALL people,

we come today in our humble way to shape a small part of your creation

Gathering to a task, in your diverse and glorious presence,

together we invoke your unique blessings and your life essence

May the efforts of this council blend

The justness of Allah with the wisdom of Odin

May Mithra the everlasting ground them with the grace of mother Gaia

May Yahweh forgive their shortcomings and Beddru foresee their salvation

And we praise you, Jehovah of Christ, Huītzilopōchtli and Ba’al

for the sanguine sacrifice that frees us all

And for the bounty of reason, science and logic, we thank the ONE deity  

none of us knows, that of humanist, atheist and agnostic

Divine love, lead us, enlightened by Buddha and Eshu, empowered by Thetan spirits

that we may govern with the wisdom and the good of ALL gods of our nation

PLEASE impart our humble congregation 

with prudence, prosperity and peace this day     

and so we pray. Amen.

Tim Earl, Portage, Mich., City Council, 7-23-13

Thank you once again for inviting me back to give this invocation on behalf of the nonbelievers in our city.

As you gather here today to see to the business of our city, I ask you to consider whom you are here to serve. Not a deity, but the diverse population of Portage. This includes not only Christians of many sects, but also Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Wiccans, nonbelievers and others.

As Aristotle said over 2,000 years ago, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Our community is made stronger by the presence of different cultures, traditions and viewpoints. The freedom each of us enjoys to follow our own spiritual path with no government interference, established by our constitution over 200 years ago, has served as a shining example for the rest of the world and has contributed to the astonishing success of our nation. When we forget or ignore this principle of inclusion, we turn our backs on the wisdom of the founding fathers and tarnish their legacy, weakening our society in the process.

We don’t have to respect each other’s views. But we do have to respect each other’s right to hold those views and practice their beliefs without fear of persecution, as long as it doesn’t infringe upon the rights of others.

But the differences between us are really not that significant. Nearly every religion claims that its holy book serves as the basis for human morality, and yet they’re remarkably similar. Even atheists, with no holy book of our own, share many of the same values as believers. Whereas a Christian may value all life as a gift from God, an atheist values life just as much because he believes that it’s all we have, and all that we’ll ever be. In the end, our goal is the same: to enrich the lives of others and make the world a better place for everyone. It’s our common humanity, not ancient texts, that unites us all and guides us to treat each other with dignity and respect.

And so I ask you to consider that common humanity as you deliberate tonight.

Because in this chamber, it doesn’t matter what Jesus would do, or Buddha or Muhammad, or even Jefferson or Lincoln. What matters is what’s best for the citizens of Portage today and in the years ahead. Let that be the principle which guides your decisions.

Justin Vacula, Wilkes-Barre, Pa., City Council, 6-12-14 [excerpted]

I asked to provide a secular invocation at the start of council meetings to provide an alternative to the government-led Judeo-Christian prayer offered by Councilwoman Maureen Lavelle which begins each meeting.

The council refused my request to offer an invocation at the beginning of the meeting, but allowed me to offer a secular invocation during the public comment period. I lament that decision to continue exclusionary prayer led by government officials at public meetings.

We come here to do the business of local government. Government officials have pledged to improve the quality of this community and are entrusted with doing so.

As we gather, we are reminded that although we have differences we are linked by our common humanity.  When we work together to move our community forward in a spirit of mutual respect and common decency, we showcase what is best about our community, our state and our nation.

We embrace many traditions and represent many demographics. We are Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, humanists, atheists, agnostics, Wiccans, pagans, unaffiliated, uncertain and so many other things. We are young and old and everything in between. We represent many races and nationalities. We identify as libertarian, liberal, progressive and conservative.

To be sure, we do not agree about everything and we often feel fiercely protective of what we do believe. But there is one thing on which we all agree. We share the goal of making our community the best place it can be. We unite here today with that noble aim and common purpose.  

Let informed reason, evidence, and argument inform discourse not only at council meetings, but also in all aspects of our lives. Demand good reasons, arguments and evidence when people present claims. Thoroughly consider perspectives of those with whom you disagree.

For if we happen to discard our cherished beliefs, we make intellectual progress. While it may be difficult to admit being wrong or break away from tradition, changing our beliefs so that we perceive the world more accurately is a huge benefit, a sign of growth and maturity.

It is my hope that we challenge ourselves and others to improve our quality of life. It is my hope that respect, when deserved, is extended to others. It is my hope that good argument, evidence and reason guides the decisions of all within and outside of this room. Thank you.

Linda Stephens was a plaintiff in the Town of Greece v. Galloway Supreme Court case. She’s an FFRF Life Member and a member of the Atheists Community of Rochester, N.Y. Her op-ed was printed June 7 in the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle and is reprinted with her permission. To hear her on Freethought Radio, scroll down to May 30 at She and co-plaintiff Susan Galloway will receive FFRF Freethinker of the Year awards in Los Angeles at the 37th annual convention Oct. 24-26.

By Linda Stephens

All is not lost. There are some positives coming out of the recent Supreme Court decision about governmental prayer. First, the court ruled that governments can no longer exclude potential speakers on the basis of religion, as the Town of Greece did for years. If a government relies on outsiders to deliver a solemnizing message at meetings, it must now allow monotheists, polytheists and nonbelievers to do so as well.

That has prompted a number of atheist and humanist organizations to encourage their members to “crash the party” and volunteer to deliver secular invocations at government meetings. The Freedom from Religion Foundation, the largest atheist and agnostic organization in the country, is offering an annual award for the best secular invocation at a government meeting.

Similarly, the Humanist Society is training people to deliver secular invocations. Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which advocates for both theists and nontheists, has just launched “Operation Inclusion,” which aims to help diversify the pool of people delivering prayers/invocations.

Another bright spot: Henceforth, those giving invocations may no longer proselytize or disparage religious minorities or the nonreligious. Having been on the receiving end of some disparaging and hurtful remarks hurled by overzealous Christian pastors at Greece Town Board meetings, I commend the court for laying down the law about this matter.

Some Christian pastors are gloating about the court decision, no doubt relishing the idea of returning to business as usual. One Greece pastor told a Democrat & Chronicle reporter that he was “ecstatic about the ruling.”

In November, the pastor told a USA Today reporter: “Do I want everybody to be a Christian? Of course I do.” And as for the residents who complain about the invocations: They need to “grow some thicker skin,” said the pastor.

Not all Christian pastors, it should be noted, are thrilled about this court decision. David Whitney, a pastor in Pasadena, Md., calls the decision “a hollow victory.” Why?

“What really is at question is the role of Christianity in our society. Does it deserve a special place of honor and encouragement? The Court has said no. In that same opinion, part of the reason the Town of Greece was successful in this case, they allowed people of all persuasions, even a Wiccan, to offer a ‘prayer’ at a public meeting. What is even more amazing is that the Town Council said they would allow an atheist to offer the invocation as well.”

Pastor Whitney goes on to say:

“Does it make a difference if Christianity is simply one among a pantheon of religions in America? That it holds no special place in our land?”

Apparently, the court has said just that.

FFRF Staff Attorneys Andrew Seidel and Sam Grover spent June 12–13 on Capitol Hill in Washington spreading secular good news to Congress. They scheduled seven meetings at congressional offices and dropped in at 20 others to let officialdom know that while the Religious Right is shrinking, the secular movement is getting stronger and more organized every day.

As a 501(c)(3) organization, FFRF can only engage in limited lobbying, but as a member of the 501(c)(4) Secular Coalition for America, FFRF is able to extend its reach. The coalition set up meetings as part of its Lobby Day, where more than 50 freethinkers had more than 60 meetings at congressional offices.

Andrew and Sam scheduled many of their own meetings and dropped in on offices to let Congress know that the demographics are changing for the better. That the “nones” is the fastest growing segment of the population, that we are getting organized, that we are a force.

While Sam contacted lawmakers to schedule meetings in addition to those organized by the coalition, Andrew drafted some eye-catching literature.

FFRF asked Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin to reconsider her co-sponsorship of the EACH Act (Equitable Access to Care and Health, HR 1814), which passed March 11 in the House. FFRF has taken a stand against this bill before. If it passes in the Senate, EACH would undercut the efficacy of the Affordable Care Act by exempting individuals with “sincerely held religious beliefs” from the requirement to get health insurance.

The bill effectively raises the cost of insurance for millions of Americans in the name of “religious liberty,” when in reality, those who object to health insurance on religious grounds are no less likely to need health care. It would also endanger children’s lives.

Andrew and Sam also alerted lawmakers and their staff to FFRF’s three ongoing lawsuits challenging various church-specific exemptions in the tax code. The lawsuits include FFRF’s parish exemption lawsuit, its challenge to the Form 990 exemption for churches and its lawsuit on the lack of enforcement of church electioneering restrictions.

While FFRF has won its challenge to the parish exemption in federal district court, a legislative effort to undermine that decision could come at any time. FFRF asked legislators to vote against any bill designed to protect the disparate treatment between churches and secular nonprofits in the tax code.

FFRF attorneys found the meetings in less-than-friendly offices to be some of the most important. Politicians who use religious rhetoric to pander to their constituencies need to know that they are alienating the country’s fastest-growing demographic by religious identification.

They also visited the House Office of the Chaplain, deep in the recesses of the Capitol, to do a little secular proselytizing. After meeting Patrick Conroy, a Jesuit priest who’s the 60th House chaplain, Andrew and Sam had an educational conversation with his two assistants, who didn’t quite know what to make of the polite, smiling atheists in their midst.

The conversation turned to morality and the atheists explained how it’s possible to be good without God. “Having had to reason out my moral code based on my appreciation for a shared humanity — rather than having it fed to me from a pulpit by reference to an antiquated book — has made my moral convictions all the stronger,” Sam explained.

Andrew passed along informational literature on the country’s nonreligious demographics and pointed out that the chaplain’s prayers typically exclude more than 62 million nonreligious Americans.

Andrew’s favorite moment

In between our scheduled meetings, we dropped in on numerous representatives and senators. In the one Southern lawmaker’s office, representing a state to which FFRF has written too many letters over the years, we sat down with a staffer who had been on her way out of the office. “I can give you three minutes,” she said. What can you say in three minutes, especially to a politician who scored an F on the Secular Coalition’s report card?

Quite a lot, actually. You can tell them, “the times they are a-changin’.” You can tell them, “the atheists are coming, the atheists are coming!” You can tell the staffer that when their representative invokes his or her god, they are alienating millions of Americans.

Andrew was wearing his scarlet letter, the Atheist “A” pin on his tie. “You must be a ’Bama fan,” the staffer said, referring to the University of Alabama logo.

“No, it’s worse than being a fan of the Crimson Tide, I’m an atheist,” Andrew said proudly and with a smile. “I watched as, behind her eyes, her preconceived notions and stereotypes came crashing down. Clearly, she had never met an open atheist, and certainly not on Capitol Hill. It was by far my most favorite moment of the day.”

Montana’s attorney general teamed up with the American Legion in early May to file an “unfriendly brief” opposing the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s challenge of a Jesus shrine on federal property. FFRF’s appeal of a district court ruling on the church/state controversy is before the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

The amicus brief was filed on behalf of the attorney general and conservative vets’ group by the Liberty Institute of Texas. Liberty Institute lost a federal case to FFRF and the ACLU of Ohio last year in defending a portrait of Jesus in a public high school.

A 6-foot-tall shrine to Jesus Christ sits on a 7-foot pedestal on Big Mountain in the Flathead National Forest, which is owned by the U.S. Forest Service. Since 1953, the Forest Service has issued a permit allowing the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic men’s group, to place without cost a “Shrine overlooking the Big Mountain ski run,” whose purpose is “to erect a Statue of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

In response to initial objections to the shrine, the Knights of Columbus claimed “that our Lord himself selected this site.” The American Legion got involved because of the belated sham relabeling of the shrine as a “war memorial.”

Bizarrely, the Legion and the attorney general said there is no constitutional violation “simply because it is a statue of Jesus. But removing it because it is a statue of Jesus does create both impermissible viewpoint discrimination and a content-based restriction of the Kalispell Knights’ private speech.”

“A permanent Catholic shrine on public land is prohibited by the Establishment Clause, every bit as much as a Catholic church would be,” asserts FFRF’s appeal brief, filed  Jan. 28.

Also filing an amicus brief against FFRF was the American Center for Law and Justice, started by televangelist Pat Robertson.

A challenge of the invidious use of a religious motto on U.S. coins and currency by intrepid secular litigator Michael Newdow on behalf of many plaintiffs, including the FFRF 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 on May 28.

Primary plaintiff in Newdow v. The Congress of the United States is 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 noted that nonbelievers are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population by religious identification, approaching 20% — the second largest “denomination” after 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.

Gaylor praised Newdow for carrying on his pro bono work to divorce religion from government. Says Newdow: “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 filed a  brief in early June before the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago, defending its major 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.”

“Just about every church denomination in the country has mobilized to fight our victory and flout the ‘Render unto Caesar’ injunction,” said 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 demanding special treatment. We like to call it our ‘David versus Goliath’ IRS battle,” she added, “and you know who won that!”

The “parsonage allowance” law enacted in 1954 favors ministers by allowing churches to pay them through a housing allowance that is then excluded (up to the fair rental value of a home) from 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.”

“It’s more than disappointing that FFRF is under assault 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 nondenominational 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.

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 nonclergy 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 allowance.

The IRS has determined that teachers at parochial schools, even athletic 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 is the nation’s largest association of atheists and agnostics, with more than 20,000 members, and is based in Madison, Wis. FFRF has two other challenges of the IRS’ preferential treatment of religion. Its challenge of lack of IRS enforcement of anti-electioneering laws by tax-exempt churches is in district court, as is its challenge of the IRS exemption of churches from mandatory reporting laws applying to all other 501(c)(3) entities.

The case is Freedom From Religion Foundation, Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker v. Jacob J. Lew and John A. Koskinen.

There will be no public funding of a Christian park named The Shepherd’s Garden in Sioux City, Iowa. The Freedom From Religion Foundation had sent a letter of complaint May 19 after learning that the park’s developers had been awarded a $140,000 grant from the board of Vision Iowa, which is overseen by the Iowa Economic Development Authority, a public entity. After the agency got FFRF Staff Attorney Seidel’s letter, IEDA spokeswoman Tina Hoffman claimed that public money would only be used for green space and not the park’s religious elements. Plans included a “Walk of Faith,” a “Calvary Crosses water feature,” “prayer spaces,” “crosses” and “bible verses.” The plans even differentiated between “public spaces” and “prayer spaces.”

Using the money for so-called nonreligious elements wouldn’t make the grant any less unconstitutional, Seidel said. “This is one of the most egregious grants for a religious purpose FFRF has encountered,” he said, noting that project plans described it as “a space that pays particular attention to the promise of new life in Jesus Christ that is available to all.”

On June 6, Timothy J. Whipple, IEDA general counsel for legislative affairs and rules, emailed FFRF: “You will be pleased to learn that the applicant has declined the board’s award and that the project will be completed entirely with privately raised funds. For your information, I have attached a PDF copy of the letter the board received declining the award.

“Thank you for your interest in Iowa’s economic development programs,” Whipple wrote.

“I didn’t want to be in the middle of a lawsuit,” Garry Smith, a member of the Shepherd’s Garden board, told The Associated Press. “All I want to do is build the park. I don’t want to be in the middle of depositions.”

Smith said June 6 that FFRF’s objections prompted private donors to come forward so the project doesn’t need state money. The $810,000 park is on track for completion in the fall, he said.

“This was a no-brainer for anyone who knows anything at all about the Constitution,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “You don’t build a private park with public money. We’re expecting a card any day now in the mail from Shepherd’s Garden thanking us for shaking loose the cash from their donors, who most certainly must see this as a win for the free market.”

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Meet an Intern

Name: Neal Joseph Fitzgerald.
Where and when I was born: St. Louis, Mo., July 6, 1989.
Family: Mother, Terrie; father, Tim; sisters Jill and Jane; brother-in-law Mark; nieces Charlotte, 6, and Eleanor, 3.
Education: B.A. in history, University of Wisconsin-Madison; starting my second year at the UW Law School.
My religious upbringing was: Catholic, including K-12 Catholic schooling and an all-boys high school.
How I came to work as an FFRF legal intern: On a bike! FFRF was actually an organization that factored into my decision to come to Madison for law school, and working here was one of my goals in law school.
What I do here: I draft letters on a wide variety of church/state violations and concerns for all five staff attorneys and Dan and Annie Laurie. I research a variety of topics, from legislative history to civil procedure.
What I like best about it: The victories. I like to see that the work I'm doing is having a positive effect.
Something funny that's happened at work: I received a response to a complaint that began. "Before I commence, I have to say how sorry I am that my assailant is an Irishman." The letter that followed was entertaining if not confusing. But all is well, as it was a victory.
My legal interests are: Constitutional law, the First Amendment, legislative drafting and administrative law.
My legal heroes are: Alexander Hamilton, Thurgood Marshall, Stephen Breyer and Josh Lyman [on "The West Wing"].
These three words sum me up: Family, friends, food.
Things I like: Cooking, St Louis Cardinals baseball.
Things I smite: Tardiness, "Libertarians."
My loftiest goal: White House chief of staff.

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