Corporate personhood’s oppression by religion
By Zachary Tuck
FFRF awarded Zachary $750 for his essay.
The First Amendment states in part, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” The amendment expressed the Enlightenment-era philosophy of reason espoused by many of the Constitution’s framers. The Establishment Clause also appealed to people who had faced religious persecution in Europe. The ongoing clash between science and religion and the growth of corporate personhood complicate the issue of religious freedom in a way not anticipated 200 years ago. Corporate religious expression has devastating consequences for women, LGBTQ persons and other minorities. The concomitant erosion of the separation of church and state lets corporations legislate from the board room, circumventing legal precedent to create biased hiring practices and control their employees’ and customers’ access to health, safety and freedom from persecution under the guise of religious expression. The exercise of free speech has been the battleground for corporate personhood. Corporations have a vested interest in removing any limits to political donations, which gives them greater clout than any human person, paving the way for decisions like Citizens United and Burwell v. Hobby Lobby.
The social movements of the 20th century, most notably the civil rights and women’s rights movements, created a fairer and broader definition of what it is to be human. One such source of power is the idea of bodily autonomy, which was advanced by the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Burwell v. Hobby Lobby carries with it the implication that a corporation can use a religion to make a medical definition, which thus becomes not only a public health concern, but a threat to women’s rights. In “The Hobby Lobby Decision: A Summary & Explanation,” the blogger known as Carmen breaks down one of the most insidious aspects of the majority decision by exploring a quote from Justice Samuel Alito: “The owners of the businesses have religious objections to abortion, and according to their religious beliefs the four contraceptive methods at issue are abortifacients.”
Note how carefully Alito words it: “according to their religious beliefs.” He had to do so because the four contraceptives at issue (Mirena, Paragard, Plan B and Ella) are not, in fact, abortifacients according to the FDA. This is really crucial. The court majority wrongly allowed Hobby Lobby to define what causes an abortion. The court is not solely culpable in this, given that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, passed by Congress, mandates additional safeguards against laws placing an alleged undue burden on the expression of religion, effectively paving the way for the Hobby Lobby case and others like it.
The 21st century has also witnessed the growth of the LGBTQ rights movement, which faces strong religious opposition. Michelle Chen at The Nation has reported on Hobby Lobby’s unwillingness to let a transgender employee of 16 years use her store’s bathroom, despite having legally transitioned. George Fox University, a Christian university in Oregon, applied for and was granted a religious exemption to Title IX requirements to provide appropriate accommodations for one of its transgender students. As the student himself points out in a report by Daniel Borgen:
“I deserve to be treated like the other men on campus. Apparently, the university disagrees, as they have made clear by forcing me to live off-campus. The university is operating under the doctrine of ‘separate but equal,’ and the religious exemption they received now gives the government’s stamp of approval to what they are doing. My own tax dollars will fund the university’s discrimination against me. I don’t understand it and I don’t think it is fair.”
The Supreme Court and the prevailing political climate are strongly biased toward a very loose interpretation of the free exercise of religion. Each such law passed nationally or locally and supported judicially threatens the Establishment Clause — in word and spirit — and the freedom and safety of individuals and groups. Those of us who fear the imposition of religion, or impositions in the guise of religion, must fight the symptoms of this problem and face up to the problem itself: That no freedom is safe when corporate interests erode representative government.
Zachary Tuck, 30, Austin, Texas, is a student in the writing and literature program at California College of the Arts in the San Francisco area, working toward a bachelor’s degree.
Disquieting decision: Burwell v. Hobby Lobby
FFRF awarded Justin $1,000 for his essay.
By Justin Clark
The Supreme Court made a decision on June 30 that will be remembered for its uneven handling of justice and as a serious challenge to the secular institutions that have sustained the U.S. for over 230 years: Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. For-profit corporations now have a “religious privilege” to not conform to the contraceptive coverage mandate as outlined in the Affordable Care Act. For the first time, personal religious rights have been conferred on for-profit corporations. Owners of “closely held” companies can impose their religious beliefs on their employees. As New York Times reporter Adam Liptak noted, the decision has “opened the door to many challenges from corporations over laws that they claim violate their religious liberty.” That understates the case. Over 90% of all U.S. businesses are “closely held,” which means that while the majority opinion sees this as a narrow ruling, it actually applies the challenges to the ACA to corporate law as a whole. In effect, a private company can now challenge almost any law on “religious liberty” grounds. This terrible decision is not at all what the framers envisioned with the Establishment Clause. The decision stems from the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which, in the wake of the 2010 Citizens United decision, has been appropriated to serve the ends of religious business owners who run entities such as Hobby Lobby. Equally troubling is that at no time in the majority opinion does Justice Samuel Alito even remotely define what “deeply held religious beliefs” are or how they allow corporations to discriminate against workers. He only intimates that “it is not for the Court to say that the religious beliefs of the plaintiffs are mistaken or unreasonable.” While the explicit remark of the majority is certainly logical, based on the Establishment Clause, it is the implicit meaning that is deeply unsettling. The court has indirectly decided that the religious beliefs of the majority shareholders of a company trump employees’ rights. Picking and choosing who’s burdened or helped by RFRA sets an awful precedent, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissent elucidates this beautifully:
No doubt the Greens . . . and all who share their beliefs may decline to acquire for themselves the contraceptives in question. But that choice may not be imposed on employees who hold other beliefs. Working for Hobby Lobby or Conestoga, in other words, should not deprive employees of the preventive care available to workers at the shop next door, at least in the absence of directions from the Legislature or Administration to do so.
That outlines perfectly the problematic aspect of this decision. The Establishment Clause mandates strict neutrality in religious matters, but because of the ruling’s broadening of RFRA, the government is now effectively picking winners and losers based on “deeply held religious beliefs.” This is corporate encroachment on individual liberties and protections, done in the name of religious liberty. It opens the floodgates for cases all over the country.
Secularism requires a position of neutrality, because the complications of defining a deeply held religious belief are astounding. RFRA should be amended or repealed altogether. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties should not have even been allowed to pursue a claim against forms of contraception in the first place. Calling contraception such as intrauterine devices the moral equivalent of abortion is not a position that the Supreme Court should decide, but it has done so at the expense of individual rights. This decision is dangerous, and future cases will make it only more so.
Justin Clark, 24, Peru, Ind., is pursing a master’s in public history at Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis. He previously earned a bachelor’s in history/political science with a minor in philosophy from Indiana University-Kokomo.
SCOTUS: All freedom not created equal
By Kat Heiden
FFRF awarded Kat $2,000 for her essay.
The New York Times headline sums it up nicely: “Supreme Court Rejects Contraceptive Mandate for Some Corporations.” Within this straightforward statement lies an important key word: “Some” suggests that the court’s decision applies to certain companies with certain characteristics.
In this case that defining characteristic is the business owners’ religious beliefs. The court’s decision ensures that these individuals’ religious preferences are maintained. In doing so, it violates the freedom of countless female employees by preventing them from accessing the contraception that, per the Affordable Care Act, they have a legal right to obtain.
The Burwell v. Hobby Lobby decision suggests that religious freedom is somehow more valuable than workers’ freedom to make decisions about their own health and futures. That alone is a fatal flaw in the decision, but there are several others. In a country where we pride ourselves on “liberty and justice for all,” the decision applies that liberty selectively, with religious business owners as its “chosen” people.
If religious employers refuse to include contraception as part of employee health plans, many women can no longer make a choice about whether or not to obtain it. They are stripped of this freedom because without insurance, contraception can be prohibitively expensive. For example, according to Planned Parenthood, an intrauterine device (one of the most effective forms of birth control) can cost $500 to $900 if paid for entirely out of pocket. For a woman making minimum wage, as many workers at retail stores such as Hobby Lobby earn, this could mean nearly a month’s wages.
A woman’s choice to obtain birth control does not infringe on anyone else’s freedom. No one will be forced to use birth control. Before, during and after the woman’s choice, the freedom to practice religion will remain intact. Disturbingly, the decision suggests that the imposition of one’s religious beliefs on others is a freedom to be protected. Burwell v. Hobby Lobby not only applies the concept of freedom unequally, it relies heavily on the idea of corporate personhood to underscore its religious favoritism. As Justice Ruth Ginsburg noted in her dissent, “the court’s expansive notion of corporate personhood invites for-profit entities to seek religion-based exemptions from regulations they deem offensive to their faiths.”
The majority opinion justifies corporate personhood by stating:
Congress provided protection for people like the Hahns and Greens by employing a familiar legal fiction: It included corporations within RFRA’s definition of “persons.” But it is important to keep in mind that the purpose of this fiction is to provide protection for human beings. A corporation is simply a form of organization used by human beings to achieve desired ends. An established body of law specifies the rights and obligations of the people (including shareholders, officers, and employees) who are associated with a corporation in one way or another. When rights, whether constitutional or statutory, are extended to corporations, the purpose is to protect the rights of these people.
The above passage shows selective freedom at work. The majority defines “people” as shareholders, officers and employees and justifies corporate personhood as a way to protect those people’s rights. Yet the employee’s right to contraception is denied. By treating employers differently from employees, the court adheres to only a select portion of its own corporate personhood definition. The Supreme Court is a public body whose purpose is to better define, interpret and apply law in service of all Americans. It cannot select which Americans it serves. In principle, the court makes our country freer by ensuring that all laws are just. Burwell v. Hobby Lobby does not strike down an unjust law or create a new one. It simply chooses the application of one existing law over another. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act is favored over the Affordable Care Act. In a more egregious misappropriation of the court’s power to apply the law, RFRA is also essentially chosen over the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause. Justice Ginsburg speaks to this point in her dissent:
The Court does not pretend that the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause demands religion-based accommodations so extreme, for our decisions leave no doubt on that score. Instead, the Court holds that Congress, in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, dictated the extraordinary religion-based exemptions [to the Free Exercise Clause] today’s decision endorses.
Decisions like Burwell v. Hobby Lobby favor some Americans’ freedoms over others, which is extremely problematic. Freedom is the core belief that unites our United States, and it is too precious to be dispensed unevenly, especially by the highest court in the land.
Kat Heiden, 29, Sherman Oaks, Calif., is pursuing an M.A. in communications and leadership from Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash. She previously earned a B.A. in screenwriting from Chapman University in Orange, Calif.
Their ‘religious liberty’ infringes on us
By Alex Flitter
FFRF awarded Alex $3,000 for his first-place essay.
I got my first job when I was 13, a camp counselor job, looking after children not much younger than me for far below minimum wage. I thought I had a solid understanding of the employer-employee relationship.
Employees are hired to fulfill tasks that the employer needs completed. In return, the employee receives pay and possibly benefits. That’s where I thought the relationship ended. But since then, a transformation has occurred involving “religious liberty.” What used to mean the right to believe or not to believe in any religion you choose now appears to mean the right to impose what you believe on individuals over whom you have power.
Despite the claim that this is a Christian nation by partisan historians who believe the founders abhorred state/church separation, the Establishment Clause is clear. It prohibits an official state religion, including favoring one religion over others or supporting religion over irreligion. It’s a clear indication of how important religious neutrality was to the founders.
How did we get from the Establishment Clause to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act? In 1990, the Supreme Court ruled in Employment Division v. Smith, a case in which two Native Americans in Oregon were fired after consuming peyote, ostensibly for religious reasons. After the court validated the firings, Congress passed RFRA in 1993.
It states that the government can’t “substantially burden religious exercise without compelling justification.” It notes that it can burden religious exercise if it is done to further a “compelling interest” and is done using “the least restrictive means.” This history and legislation came to a head in the recent Supreme Court case Burwell v. Hobby Lobby.
Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties sought an exemption from the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that health plans cover all birth control methods approved by the Food and Drug Administration, citing the owners’ religious beliefs and RFRA. The court in a 5-4 decision found that closely held corporations could withhold benefits from employees due to religious beliefs.
Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the majority opinion that the contraceptive mandate was a “substantial burden” to the owners. He interpreted RFRA to pertain to “humans who own and control corporations,” despite the fact that nothing in the Act indicates that it was ever supposed to facilitate the imposition of one’s beliefs on others.
I keep trying to get into the mind of a religious multimillionaire, to feel the “great burden” he’s supposedly feeling. I don’t doubt the sincerity, but the burden is nonexistent, and I can only conclude that these owners are simply trying to impose their beliefs on as many people as they can.
They believe that contraception, including the morning-after pill, is equivalent to abortion (physiology disagrees). Their argument is that providing this benefit substantially burdens their religious exercise without compelling justification, to paraphrase RFRA.
Except providing full health insurance coverage is not burdening them. They can still pray as they choose and abstain from contraception if they morally disagree with it. They don’t even have to offer health plans to their employees, but could instead pay a tax. The most important point is that whether or not a woman chooses to use contraception in no way hinders the employer’s ability to practice their religion. The only hindrance is to a woman’s right to reproductive freedom.
There could be more of the same on the way. With President Obama recently announcing an executive order that bans federal contractors from discriminating against gay people in the hiring process, 14 faith leaders urged Obama in a letter to exempt religious groups. These leaders, some of whom have spiritually advised Obama, cited the need to respect different opinions on sexuality and claimed that the social services they provide will suffer without an exemption.
But of course, this had nothing to do with social services. This was a blatant case of people in a position of power desperately trying to impose their beliefs on the government and the American people. Their religion dictates that homosexuality is a sin, so they asked the president to impose their beliefs and allow workplace discrimination to continue on our dime.
As I continue my education in hopes of one day being employed, I wonder what my future employer will ask of me in the name of his or her religion. What if my employers are devout Christian Scientists and I get diagnosed with cancer? Will I be forced to pay for chemotherapy because my employer genuinely believes that relying on modern medicine instead of prayer is a sin?
With the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision and the pervasiveness of this new form of “religious liberty,” I can only guess whose beliefs will be dictating what parts of my life.
Alex Flitter, 25, Cherry Hill N.J., graduated magna cum laude from Rutgers University in 2012 with a bachelor’s in psychology and is pursuing a master’s in psychology at Rutgers.
FFRF contests public agency chaplaincies
FFRF’s latest objection in a series of complaints about law enforcement chaplaincies went to the Orlando (Fla.) Police Department on Nov. 3. Orlando chaplains, as is typical, are required to be ordained ministers who counsel employees, their families and crime victims and assist with death notifications and other activities.
So far this year, FFRF has sent 14 letters of complaint about such chaplaincies, surpassing the past two years’ totals combined. Most have gone to public agencies in the South: three to Georgia and four to Florida. Many cities and counties are launching new chaplain programs, said FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel, who has handled the bulk of the complaints. One involved a fire department.
FFRF’s letter explain that courts allow government-employed chaplains only as an accommodation where the government makes it difficult for people to seek out private ministries, as is the case with military service members or prisoners. Since there is no government-imposed religious burden on law enforcement officers or the public, the government does not need to provide chaplains.
“Favoring religious officers with free, on-the-job counseling while ignoring the needs of those of no faith is discriminatory,” Seidel noted. “If chaplains were adept at providing secular therapy, they would be therapists, not chaplains. There is no reason to think a nonbelieving employee would be comfortable dealing with a person who provides comfort from a religious viewpoint.”
There are few court decisions or laws governing law enforcement chaplaincies, which perhaps explains why agencies try to stonewall FFRF. Orlando Police Chief John Mina emailed back the day after receiving FFRF’s letter, saying, “I have no intention of discontinuing our Chaplain Program,” but failed to cite any law or decision permitting it to continue.
FFRF again takes on pulpit politicking
Before the Nov. 4 general election, FFRF provided the Internal Revenue Service with nine complaints about churches improperly endorsing or opposing candidates for political office. FFRF is investigating more complaints that came to light after that.
FFRF in August voluntarily dismissed its high-profile federal lawsuit against the IRS, challenging its failure to enforce its own electioneering restrictions against churches. FFRF dismissed its suit after the IRS indicated that it had resumed flagging churches involved with political intervention. FFRF may refile the suit if there is evidence the IRS has resumed looking the other way when tax-exempt churches violate the law.
Many complaints stem from pastors who purposely violate restrictions as part of “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” an annual event put on by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian Right law firm. Many pastors, at the urging of ADF, have sent videos of their lawbreaking sermons directly to the IRS, hoping to incite a legal challenge to rescind the 1954 law against politicking by 501c3 churches. According to ADF, more than 1,700 pastors participated in Pulpit Freedom Sunday in October.
Pastors reported to the IRS by FFRF include Skyline Church Pastor Jim Garlow of La Mesa, Calif. In a sermon, Garlow described a letter sent by some Christian Right groups to Republican leadership opposing certain Republican candidates across the country, including Carl MeMaio, running for California’s 52nd Congressional District. DeMaio is gay. Garlow encouraged his parishioners to go one step further and vote for DeMaio’s Democratic opponent as part of what he called “defensive tactical voting.” DeMaio lost by about 5,000 votes.
Other flagrant violations have come in the form of “sample ballots” provided by churches with “suggested candidates” filled in or highlighted. Legacy Church in Albuquerque, N.M., handed out such ballots to parishioners along with actual campaign materials for certain candidates. Three candidates were also introduced during the church’s Oct. 11 service.
Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz, Fla., set out “Conservative Primary Ballots” in August.
The ballots indicated how liberal or conservative each candidate was judged to be, placing stars next to the most conservative candidate in each race. Several other religious groups were reported for posting campaign signs on their property. Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert handled those complaints.
Schools get ‘civics lesson’ on prayer
Coaches at Cape Henlopen High School in Lewes, Del., and Piedmont High School in Piedmont, Ala., will no longer lead their players in prayer or participate in students’ prayers.
Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell wrote to the Cape Henlopen School District on Oct. 8 after receiving a report that the high school football coaches participated in a team prayer circle: “While students may wish to engage in prayer on their own, school staff, including coaches, cannot participate in or encourage such religious activities.”
In an Oct. 17 response, Superintendent Robert Fulton told FFRF he had discussed the matter with the administration and football coach, and said “employees, including coaches, will be reminded of laws involving the Separation of Church and State.”
In a similar violation, Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert first wrote to Piedmont City Schools in March about Piedmont High’s unconstitutional practice of starting football games with prayer broadcast over the loudspeaker.
After several follow-up letters, Superintendent Matt Akin emailed Markert last summer: “Beginning immediately, the Piedmont City School District will no longer allow student-led prayer at athletic events.”
The complaint made news again in October after Piedmont High School posted a message on its Facebook page informing the public of its decision. Noting that FFRF had cited numerous Supreme Court cases in its letter, the post said, “While the personal opinions of the administration and employees of the system may differ with the opinions of the Court and the author of the letter sent to the system, the school system’s attorneys advised that we consent since there is established case law regarding this issue.”
“It’s a lesson in civics,” said Principal Adam Clemons, who manages the school Facebook page. “Sometimes the courts make decisions that we may or may not agree with, but we have to abide by those decisions.”
Tamara Woodard told the Anniston Star that she supports the Christian prayer. “I was surprised that anybody even complained about it our community.”
Her husband, Joe Woodard, said he’s also Christian but disagreed with her. “Now there are so many diverse religious groups that go to our school,” he said, adding that no member of any one religious group should be subjected to the prayers of another group. “It would not be right for a Christian in the crowd to be subjected to a Muslim or a Jewish prayer.”
While officially a moment of silence was announced at Piedmont’s Oct. 24 game, many in the crowd broke the silence by reciting the Lord’s Prayer in unison.
FFRF employs five staff attorneys and a legal fellow and has sent out more than 800 formal letters of complaint over state/church violations so far in 2014. Public school violations accounted for the greatest majority of letters. FFRF has halted over 150 state/church violations this year, including 13 related to prayer in public school athletics. FFRF stills middle school prayer
Robert Louis Stevenson Middle School in Honolulu will no longer allow a partner organization to pray with students after getting an Oct. 31 FFRF complaint letter.
The school holds “Family Reading for Success” events regularly. An attendee informed FFRF that a recent meeting opened with a sectarian prayer initiated by a nonprofit organization, Kula No Na Poe Hawaii, that partners with the school for the events.
“It is unlawful for any school-sponsored event, such as a meeting dedicated to student literacy, to include prayer,” wrote Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel in a letter to the state Department of Education.
The school’s principal responded the same day to say that he had followed up with Kula No Na Poe Hawaii and reminded them that all school-sponsored events must remain prayer-free.
Religious assembly canceled in Texas
School administrators at Azle (Texas) ISD canceled an assembly set for Oct. 29 after getting an FFRF complaint letter. The assembly was to be presented by Seven at Schools, which is affiliated with the religious ministry Youth Alive North Texas, a “strategic outreach organization that maintains the vision of reaching every student in every school across the region and beyond with the life-changing message of Jesus Christ,” according to its website.
Although the group claimed that the assembly would have no religious content, a Seven at Schools representative told FFRF’s complainant that the personal stories in the presentation “would include religious themes, including discussion of God.”
Staff Attorney Sam Grover sent the district a letter Oct. 28 asking the district to ensure the presentation would be secular.
Acting on the advice of counsel, the district took even stronger action to ensure students would not be proselytized and canceled the assembly entirely, according to local news reports. Seven at Schools representatives gave a religious talk to Azle community members at a church that night.
Good news: Good News Unlinked
Greater Albany Public Schools in Oregon will no longer give preferential treatment to the Good News Club over other after-school groups. Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent the district a complaint Sept. 11.
The district partners with community groups for early release day programs, including a community program, Boys and Girls Club and the Good News Club, a Christian organization. Seidel pointed out that the district’s link to the Good News website linked directly to its registration forms but instructed parents to contact other organizations directly to register. The club’s forms were also sent home with students the first week of school and made available at schools and were to be turned in to the school office. Fliers from other groups weren’t distributed.
“By extensively coordinating the Good News Club’s signup, the district is providing a benefit to the club that it does not afford other secular programs,” Seidel wrote. The complaint was forwarded to FFRF from its Portland chapter. Cheryl Kolbe, chapter president, said Oct. 29 that the website had been modified so that parents were instructed to contact the Good News Club directly for registration like the other groups.
Adults warned to back off prayer
Adults will no longer participate in religious activities at Bath High School in Lima, Ohio. Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote Oct. 16 to Bath Local Schools after a local complainant forwarded a media profile of the school’s “team chaplain,” who, along with coaches, prayed with students.
Superintendent Dale Lewellen responded Oct. 23: “I recognized that the constitutional line may have been crossed and have taken appropriate steps to ensure it will not recur. Religious proselytization and/or participation by staff in their school capacities are not consistent with my aim to comply with applicable constitutional and statutory requirements.”
Mizzou U. cancels church discount
The University of Missouri agreed that a church bulletin discount offered as part of a volleyball ticket promotion was inappropriate, said the school’s director of athletics in response to an Oct. 16 letter from Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell.
A university employee informed FFRF that free admission was offered to the Sept. 28 game with a church bulletin as part of “Faith and Family Day.”
Cavell noted that the discount violated the federal Civil Rights Act, Missouri statute and raised Establishment Clause concerns.
Director of Athletics Michael Alden responded the next day, agreeing that the discount was “not consistent with our department’s practices and that we stopped the promotion from being carried out as described in the materials.”
Name: Sally Dean Mitchell.
Where I was born and live: Fayetteville, Tenn., 1940. I’ve lived in Atlanta since since 1970.
Family: Married happily to Harold Mann, another longtime FFRF member. He is 86 and has a terrific collection of humanist books.
Education: B.S. and M.A. in education from Peabody Teachers College, Nashville; graduate work at Columbia University, New York City.
Occupation: Teacher in public and private schools from 3-year-olds to college student. In the 1960s, I taught for seven years at Punahou School in Honolulu (President Obama was a 10-year-old there two years after I left in 1969). In the mid-’80s, I owned and directed my own preschool called Children First. I trained teachers for Head Start. Since 1997, I’ve taught piano, drawing and sewing in my home studio.
How I got where I am today: My primary family believed strongly in education, which set my destiny, I suppose. I have lots of friends and mentors who have influenced me.
Where I’m headed: Continuing to love life, learning to draw and paint better, to be a more effective teacher and more tolerant person.
Person in history I admire: Ric Masten, deceased, American humanist poet, musician, philosopher.
A quotation I like: “Variety’s the very spice of life.” (British poet William Cowper) These are a few of my favorite things: Dogs, wolves, books, fabric (I have a huge stash for my art quilts), drawing animals (including a cardinal for FFRF’s newest winter solstice card).
Pet peeves: Being called a guy, as in “you guys.”
My doubts about religion started: In high school, studying Latin and then Greek and Roman mythology. Those god-to-mortal matings!
Before I die: I’d like to share more of my art and love of life.
Ways I promote freethought: Since I rely on students and their parents for my career, I have to be cautious being outspoken as a humanist, although in my adult groups (not income-related), I am “coming out.” Harold and I have loved attending several FFRF and humanist national and regional conventions.
I wish you had asked me: How full my life is. Very! I’m proud of teaching children since 1962, being elected Teacher of the Year at a large private school, buying a home as a single person in the mid-1970s, international travel (including two months’ independent travel across Europe at age 49), editing a 300-page Unitarian Universalist cookbook, having three solo shows of my art quilts, directing/producing two different programs of Edgar Lee Masters’ “Spoon River Anthology” at UU services, writing and directing a service about poet Ric Masten (with a cast of 23) and having my artwork on an FFRF solstice card!
FFRF congratulates the seven currently enrolled student winners in its annual essay contest for graduate students to age 30 and undergrads ages 25-30. They were asked to write about “Why ‘Religious Liberty’ does not mean the right to impose your religion on others.”
The competition is generously endowed by Brian Bolton, a Lifetime Member who is a retired psychologist, humanist minister and professor emeritus at the University of Arkansas. Scholarships totaled $8,550.
- First place ($3,000): Alex Flitter, Rutgers University.
- Second place ($2,000): Kat Heiden, Gonzaga University.
- Third place ($1,000): Justin Clark, Purdue University.
- Fourth place ($750): Zachary Tuck, California College of the Arts.
- Fifth place: ($500): Benjamin van Loon, Northeastern Illinois University.
- Sixth place (tie, $400 each): Jared Plotkin, California State University-Los Angeles, Ashley Reynolds, Oklahoma State University-Stillwater.
“We congratulate these students for analyzing what is wrong with the theocrats’ newest strategy to undermine true religious liberty in the United States,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.
FFRF has three annual essay competitions. Earlier this year, FFRF awarded $10,250 to a total of 16 college-bound high school graduates and $12,550 to a total of 21 college students. FFRF would also like to extend a special thanks to Dorea and Dean Schramm in Florida for providing each student who is a member of a secular campus group a $100 bonus. The total of $8,550 reflects bonuses.
A summary of legal complaints sent by FFRF legal staff since the last issue of Freethought Today. (ISD is Independent School District.)
Contact: Hardin-Jefferson ISD, Sour Lake, Texas
Violation: After receiving a letter from FFRF about a teacher-run Christian club in an elementary school, the teachers wrote an “open letter” to parents asking them to pray for the club, The letter said the club would now be student-led but urged parents to encourage their children to share with the group and told parents to contact one of the three employees to “avoid conflicting speaker scheduling.”
Two district classrooms have crosses on their walls, the high school’s football games open with prayer and the school song includes the line “and when the year is over, God bless our school.”
Contact: Waller ISD, Houston, Texas
Violation: The district’s high school had a poster in its library entitled “The Bulldogs’ Prayer.” The school also solicited faculty to advertise a “Bulldogs Cure for Cancer” T-shirt with the word “Faith” on the back.
Contact: Habersham County Sheriff, Ga.
Violation: The sheriff’s Facebook page regularly posts religious messages, including a lengthy prayer posted on Sept. 11 and misattributed to Thomas Jefferson.
Contact: Chester County Commission, West Chester, Pa.
Violation: The county’s holiday display includes a nativity and a menorah among other decorations. FFRF urged the commission to include a local freethought group’s “Tree of Knowledge” display.
Contact: Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training, Ada, Okla. Violation: Course instructors and materials repeatedly promoted religion and a belief in God. Contact: East Whittier City School District, Calif.
Violation: Teachers at East Whittier Middle School and Granada Middle School participate in weekly bible study classes with students during lunch.
Contact: Clinton County R-III School District, Plattsburg, Mo.
Violation: Clinton County R-III Middle School’s principal writes bible verses on the whiteboard in his office and places a bible on his desk in full view of students and visitors.
Contact: Poudre School District, Fort Collins, Colo.
Violation: A Laurel Elementary School kindergarten teacher had a picture hanging on her classroom wall with a bible quote, “I will praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Psalm 139:14.”
Contact: Yukon City Council, Okla.
Violation: The council voted to display “In God We Trust” in the council’s chambers Contact: Clinton Public Schools, Madison County Schools, Pearl Public School District, Miss.
Violation: These schools participated in a swim meet which opened with a Christian prayer facilitated by meet organizers.
Contact: Seminole County Attorney, Fla.
Violation: A county employee in the Water and Sewer Billing Department sends messages to county residents from her county email with a bible quite in her signature, “Thank God for everything, be Grateful. 1 Thessalonians 5:18.”
Contact: Texas A&M University, College Station
Violation: The university began broadcasting prayers over the loudspeaker at football games and also includes prayer at graduation.
Contact: Mayor of Huntington, W.Va.
Violation: The mayor organized a prayer event to end addiction, releasing a video asking local religious leaders to join him in prayer.
Contact: Mansfield City Council, Texas
Violation: The council denied a local atheist the opportunity to give its invocation.
Contact: Madison County School District, Fla.
Violation: A private religious event occurring at the district’s high school was extensively advertised on the grounds of Madison County Central School.
Contact: Cranston Public Schools, R.I.
Violation: Western Hills Middle School students were given a story entitled “A Mustard Seed that Threatened Imperial Power,” presenting the biblical account of Jesus and his apostles as factual, and a game titled “The Medieval Church,” which quizzed students on the origins of Christianity as presented in the bible and Christianity in the Middle Ages, while ignoring historical events like the Crusades that would portray Christianity negatively.
Contact: Naval Base Kitsap, Bremerton, Wash.
Violation: The base’s pinning ceremony, which was mandatory for all officers being promoted, included an invocation and a benediction.
Contact: North Georgia State Fair, University of Missouri volleyball, Mellow Mushroom restaurant, Ala.
Violation: These entities offered church bulletin discounts.
Contact: Poplar Bluff Public Schools, Mo., Thomas-Fay-Custer Unified Schools, Okla.
Violation: Schools broadcast loudspeaker prayers before football games, and the Poplar Bluffs Senior High School team has two team chaplains.
Contact: Iowa Law Enforcement Academy
Violation: The academy included opening and closing Christian prayers at its graduation ceremonies.
Contact: Round Rock ISD, Texas
Violation: Cedar Ridge High School’s internet filter censors websites with information about atheism and certain minority religions as promoting “alternative beliefs,” while granting access to other websites promoting religious ideas.
Contact: Liberty County Elections Supervisor, Ga.
Violation: The Registrar’s Office, which served as the early voting location in Liberty County, displayed bible quotes behind the voter check-in counter.
Contact: Chilton County Schools, Clanton, Ala.
Violation: A bible was prominently displayed in a glass case near the principal’s office at Jemison High School, bible quotes are displayed on banners throughout the school’s hallways during special events, and a teacher regularly displayed bible passages in her classroom.
Contact: U.S. Attorney for the District of Maine
Violation: Assistant U.S. Attorney Margaret D. McGaughey, when asked to identify common trends in the profiles of criminal defendants, said, “There was no religion.” She explained that religion “instills moral values in early childhood” that “tend to stick with a person throughout their life.”
Contact: Mesa Public Schools, Ariz.
Violation: Mountain View High School’s marching band dedicated a performance to the military that involved rows of Latin crosses.
Contact: Indiana Academy, Muncie
Violation: A teacher sends regular emails to students promoting a weekly bible study and other religious events like See You at the Pole and a Christian charity drive. She was directly involved with the bible study.
Contact: Valdosta City Schools, Ga.
Violation: Pinevale Elementary School displayed a Ten Commandments poster in its library. Contact: Paris School District, Ark.
Violation: Paris Middle School allowed Gideons to distribute bibles to fifth graders, announcing the distribution as part of its morning reports.
Contact: Fauquier County Public Schools, Warrenton, Va.
Violation: A substitute bus driver at Grace Miller Elementary School passed out fliers promoting a church’s services and events.
Contact: Washington Department of Licensing
Violation: The department’s personalized license plate application prohibits plated deemed to be “blasphemous.”
Contact: Evansville Vanderburgh School Corp., Ind.; Anniston City Schools, Ala.; White Oaks ISD, Texas; Camas School District, Wash.
Violation: Coaches led athletes in prayer and/or participated in students’ prayers.
Contact: Homewood City Schools, Ala.
Violation: Football teams have a team chaplain that leads prayers and sometimes delivers a sermon. Church representatives are permitted to circulate around lunchrooms and recruit students. A Christian club organized by a teacher meets weekly. Students who arrive at school before classes are required to congregate at the club, which operates essentially as a church, with a youth pastor leading a worship service.
Contact: Walker County Board of Education, Ga.
Violation: This school board prays at their meetings.
Name: Rebecca Markert.
Where and when I was born: Green Bay, Wis., 1976.
Education: B.A. in German, international relations and political science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (1998); J.D. from Roger Williams University School of Law, Bristol, R.I., (2008).
Family: I live in Verona (just outside of Madison) with my husband, Mike, and our two children, Dexter, 3, and Audrey, 1.
How I came to work at FFRF: By chance. I was graduating from law school and looking to live in Madison and came across a job posting on a legal jobs board. I thought it would perfectly fit my love for constitutional law, separation of state and church and the ability to work on federal issues.
What I do here: A lot. I’m the senior staff attorney, so in addition to state/church complaints (for issues like crosses on government property, mayoral prayer breakfasts, Good Friday closings, electioneering by churches and religious groups, religion in public schools and holiday displays for the 1st, 2nd and 6th federal appellate circuits), I manage the legal department, assign projects, train attorneys and hire interns and clerks. I put together all the administrative policies and protocols to make FFRF’s legal team work more cohesively and efficiently.
What I like best about it: Working in constitutional law. There are not a lot of lawyers who ever get to work in this area and I get to do it full time. I also love working with FFRF members and seeing how my work directly effects change (hopefully for the better). And the tea. FFRF has some amazing tea.
What sucks about it: Victories that look like losses. My first case involved a nativity scene on the courthouse lawn in 2009 in Manitowoc County, Wis. We were thrown out of court before reaching the merits of the case, but the nativity scene never returned to the courthouse again. During litigation, a church offered to place the crèche on its lawn, where it’s been on display ever since. Victories like that don’t make the news!
I spend a lot of time thinking about: How wonderful life is now that Dexter and Audrey are in the world. And how I’m never going to have the time to see everything in my Netflix queue.
I spend little if any time thinking about: This was a hard question to answer, but NASCAR and soccer come to mind.
My religious upbringing was: Roman Catholic.
My doubts about religion started: I don’t remember an exact time or event, I’ve always been skeptical. My parents never discouraged questioning, or critical thinking for that matter.
Things I like: Hugs from my kids and hearing them laugh, the Green Bay Packers, watching baseball, summers in Madison, the Fourth of July; the National Mall in D.C., going to movies at the theater, Spotted Cow beer from New Glarus Brewing, traveling and Diet Coke. Things I smite: The death penalty, concealed carry and stand your ground laws, the lack of high-speed rail running through Madison, misusing the apostrophe and anything requiring audience participation.
In my golden years: I’ll hopefully be debt-free from my student loans and be able to be a snowbird, spending summers in Madison and winters in Arizona or North Carolina.
The Covington County Commission in Andalusia, Ala., voted unanimously Nov. 6 to rescind a $3,000 appropriation from taxpayer funds to the Covington Baptist Association for a men’s ministry whose purpose is “to get more men to church.”
The vote was in response to an Oct. 27 complaint letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation protesting the flagrant constitutional violation. FFRF represents more than 21,500 members, including 200 Alabama members as well as its longest-lived chapter, the Alabama Freethought Association.
The commission voted Oct. 8 to appropriate $3,000. Katherine Paige, FFRF legal fellow, sent the commission a second complaint letter Nov. 7 after learning that Commissioner Harold Elmore might ask to renew the grant to the ministry under the guise of funding building renovations.
Paige investigated property records and learned that Elmore was an incorporator of the Judson Baptist Church, which owns the building and runs the ministry. Elmore serves as church deacon and is one of the Covington Baptist Association’s four trustees.
“The commission cannot escape the grant’s religious purpose, and Commissioner Elmore’s involvement raises serious ethical concerns under Alabama law,” wrote Paige.
“The grant had, and would still have, a religious purpose: funding a Christian men’s ministry,” said Paige. At the Oct. 8 commission meeting, Elmore was asked if the ministry was for Baptists only. He replied, “No, it’s just a men’s ministry. If any denomination wants to attend, we don’t even claim to be a denomination, that’s what it’s for, just trying to get folks to accept the Lord.”
Any further donation would be “tainted with the religious purpose of the first grant and the men’s ministry,” FFRF noted. “Alabama law prohibits public officials from using their official position to obtain personal gain for themselves or for any business with which they are associated,” said Paige.
FFRF also resubmitted a records request, which it had dropped after learning the grant had been rescinded.
“The Covington Baptist Association and the Judson Baptist Church are free to conduct their men’s ministry, but the government may not support or fund it or their buildings,” concluded FFRF’s letter. “We assume this matter is dropped, but in the event the commission chooses to readdress the issue and provide support for this ministerial endeavor, FFRF will be inclined, at the very least, to submit an official complaint with the Alabama Ethics Commission.”