After the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent letters to 26 Oklahoma school districts about illegal bible distribution, state Attorney General Scott Pruitt went on the offensive (you can take that two ways).
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel's February complaint letters objected to letting Jamison Faught (son of state Rep. George Faught) and other Gideons International members distribute bibles to fifth-grade students during the school day. FFRF educated the districts on the law and advised them that if they continued to allow third-party distributions, FFRF would seek to distribute its literature.
Faught had bragged on Facebook about being allowed to distribute bibles "at every school in McIntosh, Okmulgee and Ofuskee counties except one or two. Last year, the Checotah principal not only personally took us to each classroom, but he helped us hand them out!"
In response to the letter, several schools ended their open forum policies, with at least one superintendent confirming he did not know the Gideons had been allowed into the schools. Gideons typically operate by deliberately avoiding superintendents and school boards, seeking permission from lower-level, less-informed staff.
In his response letter April 14 to superintendents statewide, Pruitt smeared FFRF and trumpeted false claims about government's hostility toward religion.
"Schools have a right to enact neutral policies that allow all viewpoints on religion to thrive," Pruitt wrote. "As the Attorney General of Oklahoma, I will not stand idly by while out-of-state organizations bully you or any other official in this State into restricting the religious freedom the Founders of this country held dear."
Seidel responded to Pruitt the next day, informing him that several districts contacted by FFRF already had such policies, but decided to "revisit the wisdom of these forums" after FFRF asked for equal time.
"It is obviously far easier for an Oklahoma student to get hold of a bible than it is to get hold of criticisms of the bible, which FFRF will seek to pass out in every public school forum that is opened under your offer," Seidel wrote. "If the goal of the Oklahoma Attorney General's Office is to allow public schools to be used to distribute atheist messages, then this is a brilliant idea."
However, he added, "FFRF prefers that public schools focus on education rather than serve as a venue for divisive religious debates."
It's not the first time Pruitt has smeared FFRF. Last year, in discussing the Internal Revenue Service's inaction against pulpit politicking, he claimed FFRF "is unabashed in its desire to destroy" free speech and the First Amendment's free exercise clause.
ELEANOR MCENTEE has over a decade of experience as a nonprofit bookkeeper and is very dedicated to nonprofit organizations. In her free time, she journals, spends time with her cats Steven and MacNcheez, and rides her Harley all over Wisconsin and more!
Statement by Annie Laurie Gaylor
Freedom From Religion Foundation
While Wisconsin's reputation for progressivism is sadly overrated, there is one fact, as a state native, that I remain very proud of: Wisconsin was the first U.S. state to abolish the death penalty for all crimes. (A few states never adopted capital punishment in the first place.)
Wisconsin has only executed one person since becoming a state in 1848. John McCaffary was hanged in 1851 for drowning his wife Bridgett. He dangled gruesomely for 20 minutes while slowly strangling, as a crowd of thousands in Kenosha watched in horror. The death penalty was repealed in 1853.
Today, some 32 states still officially have capital punishment on their books, plus the federal government and the military. This puts the U.S. in the company of the worst despotic regimes and Islamist states.
While the root source of capital punishment may not be solely biblical, in the Western world, the bible is the sourcebook for the death penalty. "Life, for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth," as Exodus 21:22 barbarically commands. "An eye for an eye will leave everyone blind," as Gandhi reputedly observed.
The crimes of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the convicted Boston Marathon bomber, are incomprehensible, horrific and cold-blooded. But it's cold-blooded for the U.S. government to execute him. It's so obvious: If killing is wrong, how can it be right for the government itself to sentence someone to death?
And, of course, Tsarnaev will become a martyr, at much greater taxpayer expense than the cost of keeping him imprisoned.
Perhaps not surprising in a nation where 70% are nominally Christian, 60% of Americans are in favor of the death penalty for Tsarnaev. But it's a credit to Massachusetts, which itself opposed the federal government's decision to seek the death penalty and has outlawed the state death penalty, that the figures were reversed: Only 30% supported the death penalty in this case.
One Boston couple, Bill and Denise Richard, lost a son in the bombing and were both injured. Their daughter lost a leg. But they still publicly opposed the death penalty for Tsarnaev. They wrote a poignant plea in the Boston Globe, "To end the anguish, drop the death penalty."
"We understand all too well the heinousness and brutality of the crimes committed. We were there. We lived it. The defendant murdered our 8-year-old son, maimed our 7-year-old daughter, and stole part of our soul." A death sentence, they noted, "could bring years of appeals and prolong reliving the most painful day of our lives."
They concluded, "We honor those who were lost and wish continued strength for all those who were injured. We believe that now is the time to turn the page, end the anguish, and look toward a better future — for us, for Boston, and for the country."
It's time for the United States and the individual states to likewise "turn the page, end the anguish, and look toward a better future," by joining the rest of the civilized world in rejecting the death penalty.
Statement by Annie Laurie Gaylor
Freedom From Religion Foundation
I've been saying for years that public officials, and the media, haven't caught up with the changing secular demographics in the United States. The newest Pew report on the growing population of religiously "unaffiliated," released last week, begs for attention by public officials and political candidates.
As Pew reported, "The Christian share of the U.S. population is declining, while the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing." Christians have dropped 8% in just seven years, to 70.6%, while the percentage of those of us who describe ourselves as atheists, agnostics or "nothing in particular" has jumped more than 6%, from 16% to 22.8%. About a third of millennials remain solidly secular.
As New York Times writer Charles Blow points out in a recent column ("Unaffiliated and underrepresented"), 92% of Congress identifies as Christian, 5% Jewish, 0.4% both Buddhist or Muslim and only 0.2% "unaffiliated." The "unaffiliated" would be Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., not that these figures are fully credible.
While believing in God may be a "gotcha" issue, and it may be far easier to raise money if you're part of the Religious Right, there have always been closeted members of Congress. After all, a Pew poll last year found that not believing in God is the most negative trait a presidential candidate could have, so what ambitious national politician is going to look forward to coming out of that closet?
Blow correctly wonders "how long can this overrepresentation of Christianity and underrepresentation of the unaffiliated last in government?"
He also points to the paranoia of the Religious Right, which is panicking over what I call the "re-Enlightenment" in the United States, acting as if a return to secularism is an attack on Christianity. "The issue in America," Blow observes, "is less that Christians are persecuted as much as peevish."
The secular movement has the power to swing elections. Yet who is courting our vote?
If nonreligious Americans even get a nod, it's been as a mere afterthought by recent presidents in the context of religious freedom proclamations. Minorities much less statistically significant than the "nones" are routinely courted, while seculars have to pinch ourselves to know we exist. The fact that atheists and nonbelievers remain at the bottom of the totem poll in social acceptance shows the continuing domination of blind faith in our society.
Blow points out that the "unaffiliated" supported Obama over Romney by 51% in the last presidential election. For now, Blow writes, "unaffiliated is an identity as yet unaware of its power."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, while devoutly apolitical and nonpartisan, has long been aware of the power of secularists. We called attention to our presence in the last presidential election, releasing "I'm Secular and I Vote" T-shirts, buttons, and bumper stickers (still available at ffrf.org/shop). We've also sponsored "I'm Secular and I Vote" billboards.
We nonreligious are purists when it comes to secular government. At nearly 23% of the U.S. population and growing, it's time to flex some secular muscle and demand that politicians not only pay us some heed, but start promoting secular platforms.
We're seeing the heartening and overdue rejection of religious influence when it comes to gay rights and marriage equality. Now it's time to direct some attention to the right to be free of religious dogma when it comes to women and reproductive rights, increasingly under attack. We need a reason-based, not faith-based, response to climate change. We need to safeguard secular education and reject schemes to defund public education.
"Freedom depends on freethinkers" is FFRF's motto, coined by "Born Again Skeptic" author and early FFRF member Ruth Hurmence Green. Freethought is not only an intellectually respectable position —it's a must for progress, for humane government and for world peace.