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Lauryn Seering

Lauryn Seering

The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a significant lawsuit Nov. 1 in California state court against the city of Pismo Beach, challenging prayers at city council meetings and the city chaplaincy post.

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments Nov. 6 in a related and closely watched case involving a challenge by two plaintiffs to Christian prayer by the town of Greece, N.Y. The plaintiffs are women, one atheist and one Jewish, who are seeking to invoke protections under the U.S. Constitution.

FFRF’s new lawsuit invokes only the California Constitution’s No Preference and Establishment Clauses, as well a civil rights provision. Regardless of how the Supreme Court decides the Greece case, FFRF’s case can proceed, and could carve out protections against government prayer for all citizens in the country’s most populated state.

Plaintiffs are FFRF, a state/church watchdog representing nearly 20,000 nonreligious members nationwide, including 2,800 in California, and local FFRF member Dr. Sari Dworkin. Dworkin is also a member of Atheists United of San Luis Obispo, which brought the First Amendment violation to FFRF’s attention.

AUSLO and FFRF have been preparing the lawsuit for more than a year. Other members of AUSLO and FFRF are named as supporters of the lawsuit, although they aren’t technically plaintiffs.

“With 20% of the adult population today identifying as nonreligious, at least a fifth of the population is routinely excluded and offended by official prayer conducted by the city,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. “Non-Christian believers are also excluded when the government prayer is Christian, as it routinely is. It’s time public officials catch up with the changing demographics. Elected officials should get off their knees and get to work.”

Pismo Beach established an official city chaplaincy in 2005, appointing a Pentecostal preacher, Rev. Paul Jones. He’s affiliated with the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, which emphasizes “speaking in tongues” (although he has refrained from doing that during city council prayers). Jones has delivered 112 of the 126 prayers scheduled by the council between Jan. 1, 2008, to Oct. 15, 2013. All but one of the 126 prayers was addressed to the Christian god.

The complaint points out that 122 of 126 prayers concluded “in the name of” the Christian god and that the Christian bible was quoted and cited at least 88 times. In virtually every city prayer, Jones pressures citizens and the council to live a Christian lifestyle in accordance with the bible, to vote for “righteous” leaders and to make decisions that honor Jones’ particular god.

Dworkin, who identifies as “an atheist Jew,” was surprised to encounter Christian prayers by her city council, which “cause[s] her to feel offended, disenfranchised, and intimidated about participating in her own government.”

The council meets twice a month. After the prayer, Jones typically leads the Pledge of Allegiance. The complaint alleges that Jones’ prayers, which often turn into lengthy sermonettes, “advance and proselytize for Christianity.” FFRF said the prayers “further the appearance that our government endorses and supports Christianity, and they disparage non-Christians by claiming that not living in accordance with the Christian god’s rules of law is sinful and wrong.”

In his prayer on Oct. 16, 2012, Jones exhorted “every home and every citizen in Pismo Beach” to be zealous for and live a lifestyle that honors his god. The complaint points out that “Plaintiffs do not derive their morality from any bible, nor do they conflate religion with morality.” Yet Jones has chastised non-Christian citizens during the prayers, saying nonbelievers’ “moral compass of Holy Scriptures has been largely laid aside.” (April 6, 2010, prayer).

At least 54 of the prayers contain a “Christianized” view of history – a version of history that exaggerates or misstates Christianity’s influence. FFRF’s legal complaint documents several egregious examples, including Jones’ claim that:

• The Constitutional Convention approved a prayer motion (there was no such prayer).

• James Madison said our government was based on the Ten Commandments (he did not).

• George Washington claimed it was impossible to govern without the bible (fabricated quote).

• James Madison read from the bible at the Constitutional Convention (untrue).

FFRF seeks a declaration that the prayers violate the California Constitution. The complaint also alleges that the prayers violate California civil rights laws by coercing and forcing citizens to undergo Christian worship if they wish to participate in their government. FFRF is also challenging the establishment of a city chaplaincy.

Attached to the complaint were several exhibits, including transcripts of the 126 most recent prayers.

FFRF thanks its local plaintiff Sari Dworkin for making the lawsuit possible, attorney Pamela Koslyn for taking the case pro bono, FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel for his work, AUSLO for their help and support, and members of AUSLO for transcription of many prayers.

FFRF v. City of Pismo Beach, case no. CV-130541 was filed in Superior Court of California, County of San Luis Obispo, and is before Judge Martin J. Tangeman.

Elliott bio 1By Patrick Elliott

FFRF Staff Attorney

Not surprisingly, the expansion of school vouchers in Wisconsin has brought a flood of taxpayer money to religious schools. What may surprise some is the fact that an overwhelming number of the voucher students who are now on the public dime were previously enrolled at parochial schools.

On Oct. 29, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction released enrollment information on the voucher expansion in Wisconsin. The DPI data reveal that 371 of the 512 students, 73%, had attended a private school last year, with tuition paid for with private funds. Only 21% attended a public school last year.

As FFRF has charged all along, taxpayer-funded vouchers were intended as a foot in the door to a statewide program of subsidizing parochial education. The voucher expansion was sold by snake oil salesmen claiming that “school choice” would save students from “failing” public schools. The DPI data expose the program for what it is: a scheme to fund religious schools, and to forge an incremental transition from a public education system to one that sends students to religiously segregated schools.

Voucher proponents tout the program as advancing “school choice.” But there is no “choice” involved. A full 100% of the voucher schools, 25 out of 25, are Christian schools and 17 out of 25 are Catholic schools. Christian schools are the only voucher option, and almost three quarters of the students in the program were already attending parochial schools.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that decisions on the future of the voucher program would be based on whether the students perform better at voucher schools. Yet, we already have data on the voucher schools in Milwaukee that have been receiving taxpayer money for years. Voucher students have performed worse than their peers. Only 13% of students in the Milwaukee voucher program tested proficient or better in math and 11% scored proficient or better in reading on 2012 state exams. Milwaukee Public Schools students tested at 19% and 14% respectively, with the state average much higher, 48% in math and 36% in reading. The Milwaukee voucher program has cost nearly $1.5 billion since it began in 1990. State funding for vouchers is continuing to the tune of over $192 million per year despite lackluster results.

Wisconsin’s 1848 Constitution provides a sound framework for Wisconsin schools:

“The legislature shall provide by law for the establishment of district schools, which shall be as nearly uniform as practicable, and such schools shall be free, and without charge for tuition, to all children between the ages of four and twenty years, and no sectarian instruction shall be allowed therein.” Art. 10 Sec. 3.

The state should continue to offer a public education system and end its alarming experiment to allow church-run schools to siphon taxpayer funds.

Austin, TX - After a contentious six-month struggle narrowly avoiding a lawsuit, James Bowie High School has decided to allow senior Nick Montana to form his club. The group in question? A secular student alliance, which would provide a community for nonreligious teens.

Principal Stephen Kane had repeatedly refused to approve the group, but school attorneys ordered him to relent after Montana reached out to two national secular nonprofits, the Secular Student Alliance and the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The organizations declared the school's change of course a victory for atheist equality.

"We're thrilled that Nick gets justice, but it shouldn't be controversial for atheists to want to form communities of their own," said Jesse Galef, spokesperson for the national Secular Student Alliance. "America's youth is becoming less and less religious, and we're ready for some friction as society comes to terms with that."

Struggles like Montana's are common occurrences across the country, according to the Secular Student Alliance. In a new effort to defend students' rights, it formed a partnership with the Freedom From Religion Foundation and its team of lawyers in June. FFRF is a state/church watchdog based in Madison, Wis., and is the nation’s largest association of agnostics and atheists.

Citing the federal Equal Access Act and the First Amendment, the partnership appealed to Kane to stop stonewalling Montana. The law requires schools with extracurricular clubs to treat all student groups equally, regardless of viewpoint. Once FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel weighed in for the partnership, it took four working days for school attorneys to order Kane to approve the group.

Montana's efforts took six months from the time he first asked to start the student group. School administrators had delayed approving the group, and later suspended it when it tried to meet unofficially. Federal law and school policy state that a group shall be approved once a student has a faculty sponsor and submits a constitution, which Montana did. Two other groups submitted requests and were approved while Montana's languished. The indefinite suspension of the group motivated Montana to contact the national SSA and FFRF.

"The principal had no right to suppress Nick's group. We shouldn't have to force school officials to stop discriminating against nonbelieving students," said Seidel. "But FFRF and the SSA will do what it takes to protect those students' rights."

Montana's controversy comes as America youths are becoming more secular and increasingly organizing around their secular identities. A 2012 Pew Research Center survey found that the percent of millennials 18-29 reporting doubts about the existence of God has doubled in five years, from 15% in 2007 to 31% in 2012. In the same time period, the SSA exploded with growth, from 81 campus groups to 357. They support 402 groups today, 52 of them at high schools.

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The Secular Student Alliance (www.secularstudents.org) is a 501(c)(3) educational nonprofit that organizes and empowers nonreligious students around the country. Their primary goal is to foster successful grassroots campus groups which provide a welcoming community for secular students to discuss their views and promote their secular values.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation (www.ffrf.org) is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity based in Madison, Wis., and, with 19,000 members is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics). It has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

Legislation is underway in the Pennsylvania legislature to mandate the display of the phrase "In God We Trust" in every public school building. This is a blatant attempt to favor religion with a public statement of faith in every school.

House Bill 1728, introduced on Oct. 1, by Republican State Representative Rick Saccone, cleared the Education Committee last week with a 14-to-9 vote.

Saccone claims that the measure would promote patriotism through the display of the national motto and "educate" students on Pennsylvanian heritage.

State legislators are elected to represent all citizens, including those of us who do not believe in a monotheistic god or any gods. Both supporters and opponents of the bill recognize that "In God We Trust" is a religious statement. The history of the motto "In God We Trust" evidences no secular purpose; on the contrary, the motto was first adopted in 1956 during the Cold War, as a reaction to the purported "godlessness" of communism. "E Pluribus Unum" [out of many, one] is the entirely secular original motto selected by a distinguished committee of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin.

A spokesman for the House majority leader says he has "no idea when it might come up for a full House vote; however the Republicans have the House advantage." 

This is not Saccone's first theocratic overture. You may recall that with the help of many Pennsylvania members, FFRF filed suit challenging a resolution sponsored by Saccone that declared 2012 "The Year of the Bible." Although U.S. District Judge Christopher Conner dismissed the case, ruling House officials had legislative immunity, he chastened House officials for "premeditated pandering" and expressed alarm that the resolution passed unanimously.

The phrase "In God We Trust" is not representative of all Pennsylvanians. To be truly accurate, it should say "In God SOME of Us Trust," and wouldn't that be silly? The Pew Research Center reports that nearly 20% of adult Americans, and one in three young adults, is now nonreligious. Students should not be taught that patriotism requires piety. HB 1728 also proposes holding student contests to create artwork for the motto; this creates the impression of school-sponsored endorsement of religion. With bullying rampant it schools, the Pennsylvanian legislature should not be proposing legislation that will divide students rather than unify them.

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

 

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