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Video Renter, Caveat Emptor!

Vol. 20 No. 5 - Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. - June/July 2003

By Annie Laurie Gaylor

While on a brief vacation with my parents in Door County, Wis., we dashed into the small-town grocery store to select a video appropriate both for them and my 13-year-old daughter. The pickings were dismayingly slim.

Sabrina couldn't make up her mind, we had a long ride back to the cabin, and it was getting late. So when I spotted a new release ballyhoo'ed by Walt Disney Home Entertainment as an "adventure" story starring Anne Hathaway ("The Princess Diaries"), I promoted it. I was in such a hurry I barely scanned the description and didn't even notice the title, "The Other Side of Heaven." Sabrina, to her future credit, balked a bit but I talked it up and we checked it out.

We started watching the video, with fond expectations of an adventure starring a young man and woman in a wilderness survival film, as promised by the photo on the cover.

The movie, set in the 1950s, began on a jarringly maudlin note: we find out the main character, John, played by Christopher Gorem, is from . . . Idaho? Then a little bomb is dropped. He and his girl friend Jean (Hathaway) are attending . . . Brigham Young University? Next he announces that he has to go away on a three-year "mission"!

We turned to each other in astonishment. It dawned on me that somehow I'd managed to inflict a Mormon movie upon my freethinking family! I didn't even know this genre existed, much less that I should beware of such films at the "new release" rack.

Finding it hard to believe that Walt Disney would put its name on pure proselytizing pablum, I held out hope a few minutes longer for some redeeming plot twist: the Mormon missionary has a faith-shattering experience, or maybe his girlfriend has to come to his rescue. He gets eaten by a South Pacific version of a crocodile, hopefully?

There was no plot twist.

No, it turns out I had chosen a movie based on "the actual experiences of Elder John H. Groberg," and his laughably inflated memoir, In the Eye of the Storm, published by a Mormon book company.

John is sent to the Pacific island of Tonga where he meets his companion Mormon missionary, an ever-smiling young local man who knows the ropes and who speaks the lingo, but who servilely follows his fish-out-of-water colleague around as if John were a young god. (John certainly acts like he thinks he's God.)

This missionary is insufferable. He goes so far as to "forbid" a convert who is twice his age to do something. No matter what is happening--typhoons, near starvation, jungle temperatures, surviving the night in the ocean after a tidal wave, resurrecting a "dead" boy, you name it (he does everything but deliver a baby)--his white-shirt-and-tie wardrobe almost always stays clean and pressed. Now, that's a miracle!

Life on Tonga brings few wrinkles, no sweaty stains to his Mormon uniform, nor does Tonga culture penetrate his vacant commitment to preaching "the Gospel" at them. They obviously know nothing they can teach this 18-year-old "Elder." Actor Gorem's empty righteousness is almost too convincing; I half-expected his character to suddenly do something perverted, or go off the deep-end.

Perhaps the most ridiculous moment comes when the island teenage temptress, Mariama, gamely drops her skirt (off-camera) for John. He virtuously averts his gaze, while coaxing her to come to the beach to learn about "eternal love," pulling out his handy bible! (I wonder if he mentioned the Mormon polygamy and eternal spiritual baby-making awaiting her in "the other side of heaven"?)

By the movie's improbable end, he's converted the entire island, even taking out little skiffs into the vast ocean to missionize other islands. The multitudes are converted. Like transplanted plantation "darkies," the islanders tearfully turn out to sing him a harmonious farewell (with John and Mariama exchanging significant goodbye glances). They ought to have branded a giant "M" on John's Mormon underwear, because this movie is clearly introducing a new action figure: "Super-Mormon."

Hathaway's role was mere window-dressing. They used her name and very pretty face to suck in viewers, even delaying the release of the movie until after her hit, "The Princess Diaries," came out and she could give the film name recognition.

I had assumed the Mormon Church must have somehow bribed Disney into releasing it directly to home video. It turns out it was released theatrically, "in locales such as Salt Lake City."

But it was skewered by the critics, according to the reviews posted at Rottentomatoes.com:

"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that this is a Mormon family movie, and a sappy, preachy one at that," wrote Jeffrey Bruner, Des Moines Register.

"The film's implicit premise is that the faith of the Tonga people is in every way inferior to that of John."-- Jay Boyar, Orlando Sentinel.

"Although based on a real-life person, John, in the movie, is a rather dull person to be stuck with for two hours." --Gregory Avery, "Nitrate Online."

"Its appeal will probably be limited to LDS Church members and undemanding armchair tourists."--Ken Fox, TV Guide's Movie Guide.

"Much of what is meant to be 'inspirational' and 'uplifting' is simply distasteful to audiences not already sharing the movie's mindset."--MaryAnn Johanson, Flick Filosopher.

"There's a disturbing 'Great White Hope' undertone to 'The Other Side of Heaven' that subtly undermines its message of Christian love and compassion."--Al Brumley, Dallas Morning News.

"Insufferably naive."--Harvey S. Karten, Compuserve.

"Your stomach for 'Heaven' depends largely on your appetite for canned corn."--Michael O'Sullivan, Washington Post.

Well, you get the idea.

* * *
First-time writer/director Mitch Davis is (surprise, surprise) an alumnus of Brigham Young, who had wanted to make a movie about Mormon missionaries since serving his own mission in Argentina. He modestly described his movie as "swashbuckling and romantic and epic." He added: "There wasn't a lot of door-knocking going on." (Oh boy, we'll rent that one next.)

In investigating how Disney's name ended up on this Mormon movie, I did some sleuthing on the internet. I still haven't figured out how the filmmakers persuaded Disney to distribute the video, thereby ensuring some financial success and that many unsuspecting parties will be duped into renting it. I did learn that Davis was hired by Disney after college, and also worked at Columbia Studios. A Mormon website revealed that Davis obediently put his movie career on hold when he was "called as a Bishop" for five years, but he's obviously back with a vengeance.

Producer Jerry Molen, also a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints formerly known as Mormons, counts "Schindler's List" in his co-producer credits. The Mormon website reports that Molen supposedly wanted to "tell the story of Mormonism in the same way 'Schindler's List' tells part of the story of Judaism." As Dave Barry would say, I am not making that up.

Watching "The Other Side of Heaven" was such an unexpectedly silly and incongruous experience that it has now entered the family freethought lexicon. Sabrina is still periodically entering the room singing out "Super-Mormon!" I haven't belly-laughed so much during a movie in years. But, you had to have been there.

Video renter, beware!

P.S. Promoters of "The Other Side of Heaven" heavily recommended an earlier movie by a Mormon filmmaker, "God's Army," released in 2000. The promotion graphic says it all--it shows a row of white-shirted boys invading Los Angeles.

That would be enough to scare any gangs!

%916 %America/Chicago, %2004

Anti-God Play Wows London

Vol. 21 No. 3 - Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. - April 2004

By Annie Laurie Gaylor

Sabrina in front of the play's poster
It might go without saying, but when you attend a children's play, you really need to go when children are there to fully experience this form of theater. We saw Part I of Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" at the British National Theatre in the evening. Children were scarce and the crowd was somber, although our daughter Sabrina, 14, sat rapt, on the edge of her seat. When the curtain went up three hours later, she clutched my arm and exclaimed, "This is the best play I've ever seen!"

The matinee for Part II the following day, by contrast, was wild. I have never witnessed such an enthusiastic, noisy, rowdy audience--mostly uniformed school-children and young teenagers. One section was filled by a large group of preteen Muslim girls, their hair already completely covered in black headscarves.

When the live music started and the curtain went up, the theatre exploded in claps, whistles, hoots, and hollers. These kids were primed; it was clear they were hooked on this play (having earlier seen Part I). Their attention never wavered during the remaining three hours (with one intermission only), which is a testament to how fast-paced this play is. There are 100 scenes divided into six hours, so sitting through these plays is no light commitment for kids with TV-influenced attention spans. Kids were so comfortable some even started talking back to the actors at pivotal points, especially after cast members planted in the audience began climbing out of seats during one scene.

Philip Pullman's anti-C.S. Lewis trilogy, "The Dark Materials," is well-named. It is very dark. The first book introduces Lyra Belaqua, the 12-year-old protagonist, a half-wild orphan brought up at Oxford in a world that is a slightly askew version of our own, lacking major technology, where the Church still openly runs the show. Lyra is prophesied by outcast witches to be the one who will kill God ("the Authority") and destroy the Church.

Like everyone in her world, Lyra has a "daemon," a pet-like manifestation of her personality, who is inseparable. The Church is behind the sinister disappearance of many children, including her best friend Roger, snatched off the streets by "Gobblers" who have an unhealthy interest in their daemons.

Lyra's erstwhile uncle, Lord Asriel, is a renegade explorer intent on unleashing "Dust" (a positive take on "original sin") and destroying the Authority (God). Actor Timothy Dalton, still cutting a dashing figure at 60, portrayed the intrepid Lord Asriel.

A Church official orders Lord Asriel's assassination, saying: "You're either for the Church or you're against it." (Where have I heard that before?) The Church decries the "rebellion, dissent, confusion, schism, doubt" fueled by Asriel, who intends to kill the Authority with a "subtle," or "God-destroying" knife.

Book two, The Subtle Knife, introduces the character of young Will Parry, destined to be the bearer of this knife. Will seems to be from our world, and collides with Lyra while on the run, becoming entwined in her destiny as the new "Eve." The third book depicts the battle of creatures from many worlds and Heaven who are determined to unseat the Authority and dethrone the Church, as a backdrop to Will and Lyra's continuing adventures traveling through many strange and dangerous worlds.

The Church, which is relentlessly hunting Lyra via its Zeppelins, is the play's villain. In a brief scene uncomfortably close to what must have been played out in real life tens of thousands of times, Church officials torture a poor witch until she begs for death.

Several ringing freethought speeches grace the play.

Lord Asriel, calling for rebellion, orates: "The doors are open to us. The chains are broken. We can question everything we've been taught. We can challenge every dreary, grey belief that we've had dinned into our skulls."

Lyra's absentee mother, Mrs. Coulter (portrayed by the authoritative stage and film actress Patricia Hodge), is a handmaiden of the Church whose maternal instincts gradually triumph over her loyalty to religion. Realizing her daughter has been declared "an enemy of the Church," she tries to keep her safe.

At one point, as a captive of the Church, she offers this trenchant analysis of God:

"The Authority's useless. Nobody sees him. Nobody hears him. Nobody cares what he thinks. The rich get rich, and the poor and humble die in their millions without so much as a squeak of protest. If he's alive, he's clearly too old and decrepit to think or to act or even die. Wouldn't it be the greatest kindness, to seek him out and give him the gift of death?"

The witch Ruta Skadi declares passionately:

". . . it makes no difference what strange allies we find for ourselves, as long as we know our enemy. That's the Church. As long as it's been on this earth, it's suppressed and persecuted everything good about human nature. When it can't suppress, it cuts it out. . . . They burn witches! All to ravage the joy of life, in the name of that monster, that tyrant, the Authority. If the Church is on one side, then we witches have got to be on the other."

Lord Asriel, raising his armies against God, warns: "Our refusal to submit. Our resistance. Our will to be free," would anger the Authority most of all. He vows: "We will defeat the Authority. We shall topple him from his throne. We shall destroy him."

I could not help thinking of the impact of these speeches on the young girls with covered hair, those "submitters" to Islam, sitting in the audience. This isn't exactly how they speak about Allah at home.

When Balthamos and Baruch, two Authority-opposing angels, floated on stage, it soon became obvious they were gay. The schoolboys near us, many of them Muslim, got restive, some groaning and making derisive sounds. But the boys quieted as those gay Angels proceed to help save Will Parry. Pullman is full of subversive messages.

The books apparently draw heavily from John Milton, of course tweaking Milton's message. The "dark materials" phrase comes from this passage of "Paradise Lost":

Into this wild abyss,
The womb of nature and perhaps her grave,
Of neither sea, nor shore, nor air, nor fire,
But all these in their pregnant causes mixed
Confusedly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless th' almighty maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more worlds,
Into this wild abyss the wary fiend
Stood on the brink of hell and looked a while,
Pondering his voyage. . .
Pullman's trilogy features any number of magical and fantastical creatures, including a harpy, angels, and "Armoured Bears," of whom Iorek Byrnison is the hero. (This bear, who would touchingly do anything to help Lyra, is, I gather, Pullman's counter to Lewis' sacrificial Lion.)

These creatures were effectively portrayed by filmy puppets, manipulated to move naturally and given voice by puppeteers dressed in black, who often seemed to disappear from the stage while in full view.

The play, which took place in the Olivier Theater and was adapted by Nicholas Wright, made use of what Wright calls "that seldom-seen, subterranean monster," a drum-revolve developed in the 1970s. Walking sidewalks led the actors from one scene, or one world, to the next. Mini-stages, or "drums," moved up and down at what looked like perilous speeds, which the 30 actors took in stride.

Youthful twenty-somethings Anna Maxwell Martin and Dominic Cooper managed to embody the 12-year-old leads. Martin's demanding role required her to be in nearly every scene. Amazingly, some showings of the play ran back-to-back for more than six hours. Quite a tour de force.

The difficulty of staging this sprawling, multi-world fantasy was its stated draw for the National Theatre, which apparently loves a challenge. Imagine staging the "Harry Potter" stories, then multiply that difficulty level about five times.

But they did it.

Dan's (cute) assessment of the play: "It made me suspend belief."

Sabrina called it "brilliant" and even "ebullient." But her most revealing response was her request, which will not be granted, to go see it again this fall, when a new cast will restage it at the National Theatre. (Termed a "blockbuster," these plays were a complete sell-out.) Sabrina especially liked the musical score by Jonathan Dove. Eight hard-working musicians, who also provided split-second sound effects, were divided between two raised, recessed alcoves, visible to the audience.

Philip Pullman's provocative trilogy is now one of the most popular fantasy series for children, second only to Harry Potter in the United Kingdom. Its message can be summarized as: "We don't even need to kill God--he's a fraud. But we do need to junk the god and master idea if we are to achieve a happy home on earth."

The play concludes when Lyra and Will, irrevocably separated in distant worlds, tell themselves:

Lyra: You must be where you are . . .
Will: . . . and where you are is the place that matters most of all . . .
Will: . . . where you can build . . .
Lyra . . . where you can share . . .
Both: . . . the republic of heaven.
Pullman has found his own way to say what Robert Ingersoll asked humans to envision more than a century ago: "With love, earth is heaven, and we are gods."

We need Philip Pullman more than ever to counter the classic dogma of C.S. Lewis. Lewis' seven Narnia books are going to be filmed, and will be co-financed and distributed by Walt Disney and Walden Media. The first movie, with a $100 million budget, is expected out by December 2005.

The great news is that Pullman's books are set to be filmed, too. New Line Cinema, which produced the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, has put "His Dark Materials" on the fast track. Let's hope some of Pullman's philosophy survives the cutting room.

Annie Laurie Gaylor is editor of Freethought Today.

%915 %America/Chicago, %2004

Freethought Pilgrimage to London

Vol. 21 No. 3 - Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. - April 2004

By Annie Laurie Gaylor

I traveled to London last November to speak at a women's conference sponsored by the International Humanist Ethical Union. It was great fun, but I found that the two free days I'd allotted for quick sightseeing were frustratingly inadequate.

During that visit, I spotted a poster advertising the world premiere of a two-part staging of Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" at the British National Theatre.

The two ambitious full-length plays are based on Pullman's absorbing fantasy trilogy for older children-- Northern Lights(known as The Golden Compass in this country), The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. A few years ago, friend and Foundation member Liz Uhr introduced them to my daughter, Sabrina. Enthralled, Sabrina pronounced them her favorite books, and was even inspired to start (but not finish) writing a play based on them.

British Pullman is unique, so far as I know, as a children's author who is openly atheist and touts a rationalist agenda. In countless press interviews, including The New York Times, Pullman has explained that his "Dark Materials" are meant as an antidote, an alternative, to the sickly Christian sacrificial themes in C.S. Lewis' Narnia Chronology.

When I got back from London, I half-jokingly suggested to Sabrina that we should go see the plays, and finish some of my deferred sightseeing. Before we knew it, we had booked ourselves a London adventure (at very reasonable rates for the off-season of March).

When obliging Jennifer Jeynes, Secretary of the South Place Ethical Society, learned we would be in town, she immediately scheduled Dan for a Sunday afternoon concert at Conway Hall on March 7, billing him as "The Singing Atheist."

Dan's "Singing Atheist" concert took place in the library of Conway Hall, bedecked with portraits of famous freethinkers such as Voltaire, Mark Twain and Bertrand Russell, its walls lined with row upon row of fascinating freethought books. Dan had an appreciative audience, and we enjoyed meeting London secularists. The event ended hospitably with tea and biscuits (cookies). Pointing out that the British government has proposed teaching atheism in the schools along with its usual religion classes, Jennifer Jeynes concluded the afternoon with the gracious wish that she could send the "Singing Atheist" into every British school.

Dan and I stopped at the park in Red Lion Square across the street to pay homage to the small bust of Bertrand Russell planted there, surrounded by daffodils.

Taking the advice of several Britons, and abiding by Sabrina's request to see a castle, we toured the Tower of London the next day. (Did you know the Roman conquerors originally built it to keep the Britons out? That fact was mysteriously omitted by the Beefeater leading our tour.) I suggested we skip the tour of the torture chamber. Dan noticed that one of the early King Edwards, according to a sign, was only nominally religious but was a great practitioner of charity. (No surprise there.)

Dan and Sabrina ventured eight miles out of London to Greenwich one day to see the place where "time" begins, straddle the prime meridian and tour the Royal Observatory, a nice science outing. I opted for flowers, taking a long trip to Kew Gardens. Sweeps of daffodils went on for fields, interspersed with blazing patches of purple and white crocuses, quite awe-inspiring to the spring-starved. Did you know freethought played a small role in these gardens? Queen Caroline, a noted Deist who refused to marry a Roman Catholic or to take the "oath," was an early promoter of what became Kew Gardens.

I detoured to the nearby "Maids of Honour" bakery, which originally served kings, thanks to a kind tip and directions from Foundation member and volunteer Phyllis Rose, to indulge in their delicious "cream tea"--tea with fresh scones accompanied by double-whipped cream and jam. In fact, I detoured almost everywhere I went for "cream tea" or "high tea," although finding this tradition is increasingly difficult in Starbucks-infested London.

That evening we went to the National Theatre for the first of the two-part Pullman play. We returned for a matinee of Part II the following day. Sabrina was enchanted. Dan, who was new to the material, was a bit confounded. But the freethought philosophy, even if buried in a dizzying plot, was unmistakable. Lyra, the 12-year-old protagonist, is destined to "kill" God and create "the republic of heaven on earth." Not your everyday plotline!

We concluded our sixth and final day with a "pilgrimage" to Down House, Darwin's home in Downe. I'd longed to visit it ever since reading of its restoration by the English Heritage, which acquired it in 1996.

This excursion involved a ride on the Tube, transferring at Victoria Station to a real train. The 16-mile train trip ended in Bromley, where we discovered the bus to Downe departs only once an hour. We were in luck, and waited only 15 minutes in the unseasonable cold as snowflakes fell. We took that bus to the end of the line, then walked a quarter-mile to the outskirts of the pretty village, and into the welcome warmth of Down House's tearoom. (First things first.)

After warming and fueling up, we took the fascinating self-guided audiophone tour of the ground floor of Darwin's home, where such personal effects as his wife's collection of novels are showcased. Emma Darwin regularly read Dickens, Thackery and Austen aloud to her husband and eight children. (She gave birth to ten, if you can imagine such stamina; two died, including little Annie, Darwin's favorite, at age 10.)

In Darwin's study, where a "water closet" and bath were installed for the invalid's comfort, we learned that the indulgent father let his children run riot among his collections, including his famed barnacles. Children would wheel themselves around in his "microscope chair." A son, imagining all fathers were like his, once asked a neighbor boy, "Where does your father do his barnacles?"

Also unVictorian was the Darwin attitude toward servants. After fixing up the house, which they first considered "ugly," they felt the servants were entitled to comfort as well, enlarging and improving the servants' quarters. When Darwin's mind needed more of a break than could be provided by his three regular constitutionals, he rang for his manservant, and they repaired to the billiards room, both men looking forward to the sport. It makes a cozy picture.

Aside from the children's nursery, where you can spot the children's carvings on shelves, the upstairs has become a museum. The exhibits, including one geared at children, are thoughtful, and include more samples of Darwin's work, equipment and collections. One room is devoted to documenting the outcry, mainly religious, greeting the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species in 1859. Origin was followed by the even more controversial The Descent of Man (1871). Darwin's skepticism was not stated outright in the museum scripts, but it was certainly implied.

We saved for last the long-anticipated "Sandwalk," located beyond the gardens and vegetable fields, whose path Darwin blazed pacing back and forth, working out kinks in body and mind. We took a quick but satisfying hike down this "contemplation trail" in the frosty cold.

In the gift shop, we discovered the perfect memento: pretty blue and white decorative plates bearing Darwin's profile, produced by the Wedgwood Company. Potter Josiah Wedgwood had a special place in Darwin's heart as the advocate who had persuaded Darwin's father to let him take his historic voyage of the Beagle. Wedgwood was not only Darwin's uncle, but became his father-in-law when Darwin, in very 19th century fashion, married his first cousin Emma. What could be more appropriate than a Wedgwood plate honoring Darwin? The little plates had been marked down to under US$4. How could we resist? We purchased one for the Freedom From Religion Foundation office and one for our home.

We thoroughly enjoyed our whirlwind trip, and all its details, from riding the Underground and the endangered double-decker red buses to sampling British chocolate bars and gawking at historic sites on every corner. Sabrina, with a 14-year-old concept of time and money, even suggested, "Let's come back every year." The play and the British Museum, which has not lost its charm for one Egyptian-crazed girl, were Sabrina's favorite memories. Dan and I most enjoyed our unexpectedly moving visit to Down House.

Next stop on our Darwin pilgrimage, someday: Galapagos!

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Battle Hymn on Ice?

Vol. 19 No. 5 - Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. - June/July 2002

But Michelle Kwan Transcends

By Annie Laurie Gaylor

I'm no autograph hound, but several years ago I resolved that if and when figure skater Michelle Kwan ever came to town, my daughter Sabrina and I would go to see her, and even get her autograph. It was as much a promise to myself as to Sabrina, made after I felt Kwan was cheated of her gold at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano.

Could there be a more graceful image than that of Michelle at 17, in her simple blue velvet dress, skating with exquisite technique and emotion during her Olympic long program? She seemed the embodiment of youth, athletic perfection and beauty.

I became an avid figure skating fan while watching Michelle Kwan grow up on ice. There is something poignant about the world's best figure skater seeking and failing to get the gold in two successive Olympics, sometimes struggling on the ice, yet never losing her competitive spirit.

At this year's nail-biting Olympics, Kwan's most memorable performance was her post-competition exhibition skate, wearing a gold dress and skating ethereally to "Fields of Gold," a bittersweet moment for the bronze medalist. Dan, who usually leaves the skating competitions to me, sat spellbound while watching a videotape of her "gold" skate (at my urging). At the conclusion of her touching program, he volunteered: "Michelle Kwan transcends." (I've decided, and I hope Michelle has too, that the Olympics are highly over-rated.)

When it was advertised that "Champions on Ice" was coming to Madison in May (with a shockingly expensive ticket price), Sabrina and I were able to fulfill our longtime ambition of watching Michelle Kwan skate in person.

Unfortunately, the overkill opening, with its flashing flags and deafening rendition of the Olympic theme, couldn't help but make me flash back to news footage of the 1936 "Nazi" Olympics. Once that hoopla was over, I relaxed and settled back to enjoy the rest of the show.

Although I have seen some magnificent skating at live events, I was unprepared for Kwan's remarkable presence on the ice. Her performance was quantitatively different from the other athletes. Michelle took command of the ice and managed, in that huge impersonal venue, to make her performance intimate. The audience hushed--almost afraid to clap lest they break the spell. Every movement was sure and lovely. Michelle skated with a lightness and gentleness that the camera cannot quite capture. It must have been gratifying to Michelle that she received the only standing ovation of any of the performers.

The spell was broken, however, by a pandering finale, an ensemble number. A super-militaristic version of "America the Beautiful," with words to all verses, boomed out as the ice skaters--in the Madison show representing Ukraine, France, and Russia, as well as the United States--skated, decked out in various red-white-and-blue outfits. Russian silver medalist Evgeni Plushenko was practically draped in a U.S. flag.

As I sat bridling at the insensitivity of this nationalistic display, using even foreign skaters like pawns in a patriotic battle, it got worse. The music segued to "Battle Hymn of the Republic," all verses. Julia Ward Howe's song, written as a Union anthem in the Civil War, warns of the wrath of "the coming of the Lord." You may recall it ended the service of "prayer and remembrance" held at the National Cathedral on Sept. 14. The fourth verse is typical of the song's message:

In the beauty of the lilies
Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom
That transfigures you and me;
As he died to make men holy,
Let us live to make men free,
While God is marching on.

I can't believe "Champions on Ice" routinely forces its Olympic skaters to perform to Christian hymns! Since the "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" is practically the trademark of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, I can't help but feel there is some nefarious Mormon influence at work.

Whatever or whoever prompted the inclusion of this overtly Christian song of conquest, it was tacky and disrespectful, both to skaters and the audience. Flags made of lights, the U.S. flag predominating, of course, swirled around the rink with the skaters. I thought it would never end. Finally, three huge U.S. flags dropped ludicrously from the ceiling as fireworks rang out. Nearly everybody (but not this atheist) stood and clapped.

Half-dazed by this assault on eyes, ears and personal conviction, I dutifully lined up with Sabrina and other would-be autograph-seekers. When fans bearing official-looking decals told me we had to have a pass to get in, and we had to know someone to get a pass, I was ready to call it quits. Then a woman with a teenage daughter generously handed us their passes, since they couldn't stay.

A handful of us were eventually led to the bowels of the arena, all concrete and full of equipment, and were told to stand behind a limp bit of rope. As we milled around awkwardly, suddenly there appeared Michelle Kwan, no taller than my 5'2", conferring with a stagehand first before turning to her fans. For an instant, she looked flattened, as though enduring rather than enjoying the moment. Who could blame her, having to skate to the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" night after night during "Champions on Ice's" grueling schedule?

Sabrina was second to ask for her autograph. When Sabrina shyly told her, "You're my favorite," Michelle's face lit up in a warm smile. Impulsively, I asked Michelle if she would autograph my baseball hat, which bears an imprint of the same words, "Life is Good," as one of Dan's freethought songs. She laughed, said "Sure!," read the sentiment out loud approvingly, and signed her name with her own felt-tip pen. Tongue-tied, I merely nodded as a woman next to us told Michelle what a beautiful skater she is. As Michelle moved on, we made our escape. Mission accomplished.

When I got home and examined Sabrina's program magazine, I discovered to my dismay that the inside cover features an American flag emblazoned with the words "God Bless America." It was worth putting up with to see Michelle Kwan, but I couldn't help feeling a bit indignant, and a bit dejected, over the unwarranted intrusion of religion and chauvinistic politics into a tour meant to showcase sport, art and internationalism.

Is nothing in our country to be free of this saber-rattling theo-patriotism? Must every store sport a U.S. flag (do they think we'll forget which country we live in?), much less "God Bless America" posters? I had fondly hoped the hysteria was dying down--but it certainly won't be wherever "Champions on Ice" is touring over the next few months.

"Champions on Ice," which is run by Tom Collins Productions (with John Hancock billed as "worldwide sponsor"), appears to be co-hosted by the U.S. Figure Skating Association, and has some connection to the Olympic Committee.

I wrote a heartfelt letter of complaint to the only addresses I could find on the Web, objecting to a Christian hymn being forced on audiences, including substantial numbers of nonbelievers and nonChristians. If you care to join me in decrying the inclusion of a Christian "battle hymn" in the Olympic figure skating show, maybe they'll put such religious displays "on ice" for future tours:

Tom Collins Inc.
3500 W 80th St
Minneapolis MN 55431

U.S. Figure Skating Association
20 First St
Colorado Springs CO 80906

%913 %America/Chicago, %2001

Atheist Chic at the Movies?

March 2001

"Chocolat," a sleeper hit based on a fable set in a small French village in 1959, proudly boasts an atheist heroine.

The audience in the packed theater in Madison, Wis., where I recently saw the film erupted in spontaneous cheers and claps of approval when the main character, Vianne, played by Juliette Binoche, gently announces her refusal to go to Mass, and is identified as an atheist.

The plot, based on a novel by Joanne Harris, revolves around the disruptions and transformations that occur when Vianne blasphemously opens a "chocolaterie" during Lent. It's full of great supporting performances by Johnny Depp, Judi Dench, Leslie Caron, and Lena Olin. Victoire Thivosol is especially appealing as Anouk, Vianne's young daughter, who has an imaginery kangaroo named Pantouf. (It's PG-13 but was suitable for our unworldly 11-year-old.) The film, with a definite anticlerical bent, is directed by Lasse Hallstrom ("The Cider House Rules").

If you go see this movie, better stick some emergency chocolate rations in your pockets--the chocolate scenes are mouth-watering.

Another new-release Miramax film (not so hot) that features an atheist character is "Bounce," with Ben Affleck and Gwyneth Paltrow. Affleck's atheism is briefly revealed when the recovering alcoholic criticizes AA's higher-power routine. Fortunately the movie portrays the secular redemption of this atheist.

These atheist protagonists join last fall's "Contender," directed by Rod Lurie, whose heroine (played by Joan Allen), a U.S. Senator nominated for the vice presidency, coolly admits her atheism and support for the separation of church and state at a confirmation hearing.

And isn't it nice that both Allen and Binoche are up for a "best actress" Oscar for their portrayals of these freethinking characters? In other Oscar atheist trivia, Steven Soderbergh, director of two of the films nominated as "best movie of the year"--"Traffic" and "Erin Brockovich"--recently replied "no" when The Onion asked him, "Do you believe in God?"

Could it be atheism is becoming chic?

--Annie Laurie Gaylor

%869 %America/Chicago, %2004

Review: "Magdalene Sisters" a Masterpiece

Vol. 21 No. 5 - Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. - June/July 2004

A Must-Rent

By Annie Laurie Gaylor


If you missed Peter Mullan's exceptional film, "The Magdalene Sisters," during its short airing in U.S. theaters, it's a must-rent. Even if you caught the foreign release last fall, the movie wears well in a second viewing, and the DVD version contains the bonus of the original BBC documentary, "Sex in a Cold Climate," that inspired the fictional version.

Set in 1964 Dublin, the movie focuses on several wards of the notorious Magdalene Sisters Asylum, the laundry institutes of punishment run for the profit of the Roman Catholic Church. An estimated 30,000 Irish women were condemned to servitude in them in the 20th century. For some of them it was a life sentence.

The institutes originally targeted prostitutes. Then the definition of "fallen women" was expanded to encompass any young woman who had sex outside marriage, or even came "under suspicion." Sex outside marriage was considered by the Roman Catholic Church, like murder, to be a mortal sin.

By the 1940s, a majority of the inmates of the ten Magdalene asylums were unwed mothers, working relentless hours of penance cleaning dirty linen from early morning 'til late at night, six days a week. Work, prayer, silence and atonement were preached.

The film opens by showing how three young women find themselves suddenly enslaved at a Magdalene institute. Upright young Margaret, played by Anne-Marie Duff, is raped by a cousin at a wedding. Breaking a taboo by telling on him, Margaret is hustled off the following morning by the local priest to join the Magdalene Sisters.

Bernadette, a flirty orphan with wide green eyes and glossy black hair, is whisked away simply for attracting too much male attention on the playground. Actress Nora-Jane Noone makes her defiant, occasionally cruel character sympathetic. Rebelling at her unfair fate, she exclaims: "All the mortal sins in the world wouldn't justify this place!"

Warm-hearted Rose, played by Dorothy Duffy, has just given birth and wants only to hold her baby. Her mother won't speak to her in the hospital, and she is coerced into signing away her child, told by her priest that her "bastard child [would otherwise be] rejected and scorned by all decent members of society." The same shell-shocked day she finds herself locked in the grim, barred dormitory behind the unpassable gates of a Magdalene institute, suffering excruciatingly as her milk builds up.

We also meet a young, unwed mother already there--a gauche, trusting girl who has been renamed "Crispina" in a cruel joke by the mother superior. Sister Bridget tells the lank-haired young woman, embodied by Eileen Walsh, that the name means someone with curls.

Sister Bridget is deftly played by actress Geraldine McEwan as a sinisterly soft-spoken sadist. She smiles at her tormentees before inflicting punishment. Busy counting all the cash, Bridget scarcely looks up as she orients the three new inmates. Working in the laundry will cleanse their souls, she tells them.

Scenes will haunt you. In one Oliver Twist-like scene, nuns gorge on a cornucopia of savory dishes as their charges eat gruel. Shaving heads, with lots of gratuitous cutting of scalps and blackening eyes, was a common punishment. After Bernadette's hair is hacked off, the camera shows an extreme close-up of her eye, the lashes coated in blood. Reflected in her pupil is the image of Sister Bridget forcing her to look at herself in a mirror to see "how she really looks."

The most unforgettable scene takes place in the lavatory, where a group of naked inmates is humiliated by two unattractive nuns picking out the "biggest bum," the smallest breasts, and worse.

As a Christmas carol with the refrain "O tidings of comfort and joy" plays, the camera pans the joyless, comfortless dormitory with its huge posters reading: "God is Just," "God is Good."

Margaret, discovering that Crispina is sexually serving the priest, plans a petty revenge on the priest that unwittingly sets up her friend for an even worse fate. No one who sees this film will ever forget Eileen Walsh screaming out: "You're not a man of God!"

At the film's conclusion, a chilling blurb announces that the last Magdalene institute closed only in 1996.

As a former ward recalled in the documentary, "The Sisters of Mercy showed us no mercy."

"The Magdalene Sisters" ends on an optimistic note, with the three main protagonists being "sprung." Perhaps this sugarcoated the reality, but it makes the movie easier to watch. While it all sounds very grim, "The Magdalene Sisters" transcends through art. The script, editing and acting are tight as a poem. It deserved its "Best Picture of 2002" vote by the Venice Film Festival. But I suspect Peter Mullan, the Scottish actor who directed and wrote this movie, was even more pleased by the sharp criticism from the Vatican.

Annie Laurie Gaylor is editor of Freethought Today.

%908 %America/Chicago, %2000

"The Contender" a Secular Parable

November 2000

By Annie Laurie Gaylor

The last movie to show a woman admitting unbelief before a Congressional hearing was "Contact," which realistically depicted the shock wave attending a revelation that the Jodie Foster character is an atheist.

"The Contender," written and directed by Rod Lurie, takes this scenario one step further. Senator Laine Hanson, portrayed by Joan Allen, volunteers her atheism, after undergoing a brutal nomination hearing as a vice presidential contender dogged by charges of participating in an orgy while in college.

The shell-shocked Senator maintains a composed, steadfast silence, refusing to dignify the charges, or even discuss them with the President. The lurid scandal, complete with photographs, escalates in the news and over the Internet, thanks to the overt machinations and leaks of the rightwing chair of the Senate hearings, Cong. Shelly Runyon. A nearly unrecognizable Gary Oldman is appropriately hateful as a ruthless Kenneth Starr stand-in.

The movie's premise is that the hard-as-nails Democratic president (a convincing Jeff Bridges) wants to go down in history for choosing the first woman vice president, so decides to somewhat inexplicably stand by his controversial woman nominee.

Atheism rears its head during the nomination hearings when it is revealed that Senator Hanson was once quoted on the subject of the separation of church and state, saying "fairy tales" should not be legislated.

Apparently figuring she has nothing to lose, Hanson acknowledges at the hearing's conclusion that yes, she is an atheist. She eloquently states her strong support for strict gun control, abortion rights, the Establishment Clause and her opposition to the death penalty.

"The Contender" of course is a thinly-veiled examination of the ethics of the Clinton impeachment proceedings. Nothing is black and white, however. The vice presidential nominee is a bit hard to understand herself, presented as the Republican daughter of a well-known governor who switches party allegiance some time after being elected to the Senate. Her vote--when she was still a Republican--to impeach, but not convict Clinton ("He was responsible, but not guilty") is brought out at the hearings, just to confuse matters.

What's especially nice is that screenwriter Rod Lurie wrote the part of the vice presidential nominee expressly for actress Joan Allen, to give her a starring vehicle after she has been typecast as "the wife" (Patricia Nixon, for instance) and "the mother" in many of her previous roles. Allen's delicate, almost brittle beauty and reserved air lend authenticity to her portrayal of the besieged, enigmatic character.

In light of the discouraging August 14 Reuters poll showing that an atheist vice presidential nominee would place at the bottom of the totem pole with voters, it's especially gratifying that Lurie made his main character a forthright atheist. He is also to be lauded for making a movie that champions feminism and denounces the double standard.

Lurie's cautionary tale on the public's right to know all about the personal lives of candidates ("Sometimes you can assassinate a leader without firing a shot") will certainly satisfy those of us who found Ken Starr's abuse of power and the Clinton impeachment to be one of the most painful endurance contests in modern political history.

Some of the film's over-the-top, Capra-esque touches seem jarring, such as the final scene in which patriotic music plays loudly out of nowhere as the President makes an impassioned pitch for his nominee. Thinking about it afterward, I decided Lurie deliberately, commendably set out to make a movie that is neither cynical nor realistic, but which serves as just plain old-fashioned wishful thinking. "The Contender" is a secular parable.

Talk about fairy tales! But what a lovely pipe dream.

%907 %America/Chicago, %2001

Calidas, Yoga and the Getting of Wisdom

March 2001

By Annie Laurie Gaylor

This business of "the getting of wisdom" has been a slow process for me. As one "for-instance," I have to admit it's taken me--a native-born Wisconsin citizen--most of my life to figure out how to keep warm in winter.

Since I'm a walking buff and have always walked to classes or work every day (a good 45 or 50 minutes), dressing defensively is essential. I met my annual Waterloo trying to keep my toes warm, finally learning only after many years that lightweight hiking boots--not warm-looking fleece boots--are the ticket. A revelation! That and other slowly acquired bits of knowledge ensure that I can happily walk three miles to work even in subzero temperatures. It's a small adventure, Woman Vs. Nature, that I can win--although I am always aware that Nature would gladly freeze me to death should I stop moving.

Ditto for how long it took me to find a warm winter nightgown. Since flannel sheets work, I always assumed flannel nightgowns must be the warmest albeit not the most fashionable. But somehow I was always cold in them. When my mother began singing the praises of the Calida nightgown for warmth, I was skeptical. These are classic ballet-length nightgowns made of the lightest-weight "green" cotton (no formaldehyde), with a graceful cut and nothing to bind. They are produced in Switzerland and sold in this country by several catalogs, such as Garnet Hill. The "luxury item" price alone kept me from trying them out.

One birthday several years ago, my mother presented me with my first Calida. I was immediately converted. (Mothers are always right.) Nothing compares to Calida's softness. It has taken me many cold years to learn that the secret to staying warm is having an air pocket around you, not being cloaked in heavy layers.

Even though its durability makes a Calida gown practical in the long run, it is pricey. So last fall I was delighted to find a Calida gown at nearly half-price in a catalog called "Sierra Outpost" out of Wyoming. It specializes in reduced-price brandname hiking and outdoor gear, but has apparently found a market for seconds and overstocks of the coveted Calida.

Only one problem with the classic Calida nightgown--it's too hot for summer. Leafing through a "Sierra Outpost" catalog last month, I spotted advertised seconds of some sporty, short Calida nightshirts I'd never seen elsewhere.

Eager at the prospect of acquiring a Calida cool enough for summer, I turned to the order blank. I was disappointed I couldn't make a phone order that day--closed on Sundays, kind of unusual in these days of 24-hour-a-day catalog companies. Then I spied the reason why. There, right on the order form, was a drawing of an American eagle with the bible quote, "Jesus said, 'I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.' John 10:10." Yuck.

After laughing out loud at the absurdity of it, I realized I faced an ethical dilemma.

What would you do? I haven't decided. Since "the customer is always right," I may try one more order, with a letter, to see if I can educate this company that not all customers appreciate being preached at. But I'll probably forfeit my longed-for Calida and tell them why they've lost a customer. (If you've ever ordered from this catalog, please complain, too: 1-800-713-4534.)

The day after making this unpleasant discovery I went to my yoga class, held at a public hospital. (Doctor's orders--chronic tendinitis in both elbows.)

After a particularly grueling workout, my personable teacher instructed all of us to end the session by putting our hands in a "prayer" position with thumbs at sternum. Okay. We'd done that before--and it's good for my arms. But this time, she instructed us to chant over and over between breaths: "God and me are one. Me and God are one." I was too startled (and exhausted) to do anything but engage in passive disobedience. As far as I am concerned, what makes this chant a truly unpardonable sin is its bad grammar!

This was too much! Religion with my nighties, and now with my exercise class?

When I got home and told Dan about it, he said disbelievingly (with the fervor of the deconverted): "You didn't complain?!" I replied that I was mulling over the right approach.

I've opted for my concept of subtlety. I arrived early for my next class wearing a "Friendly Neighborhood Atheist" sweatshirt and a smile, as befits the message. My instructor's eyes flickered over my shirt, looked away, and eloquently glanced back. There was no "God" chant this time. But I'm planning to wear the shirt every session, just to make sure.

Besides the secret to warm feet, something I've also been slow to grasp is the infinite chutzpah of the religionist. And they always get you when you're cold or tired.

Annie Laurie Gaylor is editor of Freethought Today and the anthology, Women Without Superstition: "No Gods - No Masters." The Writings of 19th and 20th Century Women Freethinkers.

%865 %America/Chicago, %1998

Saga Of A Civil Rights Complaint

April 1998

The following correspondence documents a Civil-Rights victory. See story on page 1.

October 23, 1997

Dear Mr Kopp:

We are writing to inform you that, under the Civil Rights Act, it is strictly illegal to discriminate (or show favoritism) on the basis of religion. As an official "place of accommodation" Ken Kopp's Fine Foods has violated the Civil Rights Act by offering Catholics who have gone to Mass a discount not offered to other shoppers.

The federal code reads: "All persons shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages and accommodations of any place of public accommodation . . . without discrimination or segregation on the grounds of race, color, religion, or national origin."

Our Foundation has stopped this type of church-bulletin discount violation in other parts of the country. We have never encountered before your particular offensive practice of singling out members of one particular denomination for favoritism! Your message is certainly coming out loud and clear: only Catholic customers are truly valued. As an atheist customer who has frequented your store an average of twice a week for the past six years or more, to the tune of probably $100 a week on average, I'd appreciate one of these special coupons myself!

We are requesting that you immediately cease and desist offering and honoring this illegal promotion. Please note that it would be illegal even if you offered the same to nonCatholic church-goers as well. Please advise us promptly of your compliance with the Civil Rights Act, so that we may regard this as a closed case.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, Staff
FFRF, Inc.

October 28, 1997

Dear Ms. Gaylor:

Please be advised that this office represents Ken Kopp's Fine Food. This is a follow-up to your letter of October 23, 1997.

From the conclusions drawn in your correspondence, it appears that you are unaware of our client's business practices. Our client does advertise citywide in the Madison newspapers, and locally in neighborhood publications. Coupons are available and advertisements are placed in church bulletins. If a coupon from a church bulletin is brought to the store for redemption, it is honored regardless of anyone's denomination, belief or non-belief. Coupon presenters are not questioned about their beliefs or denomination or whether they attended Mass. Anyone presenting the coupon and making a $20.00 purchase receives a gallon of milk without further inquiry.

Our client is proud of its years of service to people of all creeds. Your patronage and, those sharing your beliefs, have always been and will always be welcomed. You advised that you are "an atheist customer who has frequented [the] store an average of twice a week for the past six years or more, . . ." Your actions confirm the fact that you are not denied access to the store, that your patronage is neither unwelcomed, objectionable nor unacceptable. There is, accordingly, no unlawful discrimination, nor violation of any local, state or federal civil rights legislation, nor is there a violation of Wis. Stats. � 106.04(9), Wisconsin's Public Place of Accommodation statute.

Pursuant to your request, I enclose a coupon from a church bulletin for your free gallon of milk. This coupon is redeemable and available to persons of all creeds and beliefs. It may be redeemed at Ken Kopp's Fine Foods in the same manner as those who pick up the coupon at Sunday Mass. You are also welcome to take advantage of future coupons. This Church is only a few blocks from your home. Simply stop at the Church any Sunday and pick up a bulletin which contains the coupon. In that manner, should you desire and elect, you will be treated as any other coupon-redeeming customer and neighbor regardless of your religious affiliation or beliefs.

As a personal aside, until a year ago, I was a resident of the Monroe Street neighborhood and lived in that neighborhood for thirty-two years. I have seen many changes in the neighborhood. One of the great strengths of the neighborhood has been the coexistence and tolerance the neighbors and businesses show one another regardless of individual beliefs and socio-economic backgrounds. I empathize with you to the extent you find a small percentage of our client's marketing "a particularly offensive practice." The neighborhood has always been one that prides itself on understanding and tolerance as opposed to looking for ways to be offended. Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. is a tribute to this tolerance and exemplary of the fact that not all offensive behavior is illegal. Your letter understandably expresses your desire not to be treated unfavorably because of your beliefs. That courtesy has been extended to you by Ken Kopp's Fine Foods and its employees. I am assuming you will extend the same courtesy to my client.

If you have any further questions in regard to this matter, do not hesitate to contact me.

SWEENEY & SWEENEY, S.C.
Timothy C. Sweeney

November 17, 1997

Dear Mr. Sweeney:

We represent the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. We are writing you on its behalf with regard to your October 28, 1997 letter to Annie Laurie Gaylor concerning Ken Kopp's Fine Foods.

Your letter states that because Ms. Gaylor has not been denied access to Ken Kopp's and because her patronage is neither "unwelcomed, objectionable nor unacceptable," there has been no violation of any local, state or federal civil rights legislation, including the state's public accommodations law. However, the public accommodation laws are not so restricted in their scope. Both the state and City of Madison public accommodation laws prohibit price discrimination by places of public accommodation based on race, gender, religion or other specified factors. See sec. 106.04(9), Stats.; Madison General Ordinances sec. 3.23(5). Novak v. Madison Motel Associates, 188 Wis. 2d 407, 525 N.W.2d 123 (Ct. App. 1994). Offering a discount only to members of a particular religious group is prohibited by those laws, regardless of whether other customers' business is welcome.

In Novak, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals held that the state public accommodations law prohibited the Holiday Inn East Towne from offering free drinks to women only during its "ladies' night" promotion. (It also noted that the Madison ordinance parallels state law.) In rejecting the hotel's arguments, the court noted that the hotel's "interpretation would permit offering free drinks (or other discounts) to persons of one race and not to persons of another race, or to persons of one religion and not to persons of another religion. This is inconsistent with the obvious goal of the statute and is an unreasonable interpretation of the statute." Id. at 415 (emphasis added).

Your letter states that the coupon "is redeemable and available to persons of all creeds and beliefs." That is not what the coupon states, of course--it expressly conditions redemption on going to Mass. Moreover, regardless of whether anyone at the store actually questions the customer whether he or she attended Mass, the plain wording of the coupon discourages any customer who has not attended Mass from attempting to use it. Assuming that the great majority of Ken Kopp's customers are honest, they likely would not wish to engage in misrepresentation by presenting the coupon without having attended Mass. In the words of Mr. Kopp himself, as quoted in the October 23, 1997 Wisconsin State Journal, "if they didn't [attend Mass], then they're lying . . ."

We also question the asserted availability of the coupon to individuals who are not members of the church. Unless the church is prepared to print a large number of bulletins and make them freely available to all requesters--and it is doubtful that the church's printing budget contemplates such a public service--the practice of providing promotional coupons solely in church bulletins constitutes an unlawful preference for church members.

There is nothing in the state or local public accommodations laws that would prohibit Ken Kopp's Fine Foods from offering discount coupons in a church bulletin, provided that the same offer is extended to others on a non-discriminatory basis. That requires that the coupons not express a preference for certain religious practices and that the coupons be made as readily available to non-church members as they are to church members, through an in-store display or newspaper advertisement. Accordingly, in the interest of resolving this matter without the need to involve the relevant city or state administrative enforcement agencies, we ask on the Foundation's behalf that Ken Kopp's Fine Foods modify its promotional practices by deleting all references to attending Mass from its promotions and by making its coupons freely available to the general public.

We look forward to a response at your earliest convenience.

LA FOLLETTE & SINYKIN
Jeffrey J. Kassel

December 15, 1997

Dear Mr. Kassel:

This is a follow-up to your letter of November 17, 1997. Therein, you cited Wisconsin Statutes, Madison General Ordinances and Novak v. Madison Motel Associates, 188 Wis. 2nd 407, 525 N.W.2nd 123 (Ct. App. 1994) as support for the premise that:

"Coupons not express a preference for certain religious practices"; and
"Coupons be made readily available to non-church members as they are to church members, through an in-store display or newspaper advertisement."
We both appear to be in agreement that the Madison General Ordinances Section 3.23(5) is very similar to the applicable Wisconsin Law, Wis. Stats. 106.04(9) and address the City and state public accommodations law.

It must initially be determined which, if any, of the subsections of Wis. Stats. 106.04(9) apply. There does not appear to be any issue in regards to an admission charge, lodging prices, automobile insurance, or rent, thereby eliminating subsections 1, 1m, 3m, 4 and 5 of Wis. Stats. 106.04(9).

I repeat our position as expressed to Ms. Gaylor in my letter of October 28, 1997 that Ms. Gaylor had not been denied access to our client's premises and that her continued patronage is demonstrative of the fact that her patronage is not unwelcome, objectionable or unacceptable. This was not an attempt to oversimplify the applicable statutes, nor an attempt to "restrict" the public accommodation laws as alleged in your letter of November 17th. Rather, it was a statement which demonstrates that Wis. Stats. 106.04(9)(3) (one of the only two possible remaining applicable subsections) does not apply to this fact situation.

Accordingly, we are left with the analysis of whether the sole remaining subsection of the Wisconsin Statutes, Wis. Stats. 106.04(9)(2), is applicable. Said subsection prohibits ". . . preferential treatment to some classes of persons in providing services or facilities in any public place of accommodation or amusement because of . . . creed . . ." There appears to be a threshold issue of whether the lack of creed constitutes "creed" as used in the statutes. The only statutory definition of "creed" that I was able to locate was in Wis. Stats. 111.337(1), defining "creed" as used in the employment discrimination context. Therein, the statutes defines[sic] "creed" as "religious observance or practice." It is my understanding that the whole basis of Ms. Gaylor's objection, as well as the basic premise of your client "Freedom From Religion, Inc.," is that they are opposed to and reject any religious observance or practice. Does lack of creed constitute creed? If lack of creed does not constitute creed, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. is not a member of a protected class entitled to the protection of Wis. Stats. 106.04(9).

There appears to be an additional threshold issue of whether the purchase of goods in excess of $20 and the corresponding gallon of milk are "services or facilities" as used in Wis. Stats. 106.04(9)(2). In this regard, Novak provides us with some direction. In Novak, Madison Motel contended that the drinks in a bar were not "services or facilities," but rather "goods" and therefore not covered by this section. In disagreeing with Madison Motel, the appellate court stated:

"A bar is providing a service when it sells drinks to customers for consumption at the bar. Customers go to a bar to buy drinks, but also to sit in the establishment and, usually, to socialize. A bar offers more to its customers than the opportunity to purchase goods, which they could purchase at retail stores." (emphasis added)

In our case, it appears clear that a grocery store is certainly distinguishable from a bar. Our client's grocery store is a retail store. The gallon of milk and the $20 of other grocery goods are clearly "goods" and not "services or facilities." In all of the years which our client has operated the grocery store, there has never been an incident of someone sitting in the establishment, opening and consuming their gallon of milk in the store for the purpose of socializing. It is certainly not the practice of grocery store customers, nor the intent of grocery stores that the goods sold will be consumed on the premises in a social atmosphere.

If your client can overcome on the initial threshold issues of "creed" and services or facilities," the next issue would be whether Wis. Stats. 106.04(9)(2) prohibits the coupon as presently offered. Again, I refer you to my correspondence with Ms. Gaylor in regards to the business practices of my client to determine whether or not preferential treatment does in fact occur in the redemption of the coupon. If the milk and the groceries are not "goods" and if lack of creed constitutes creed, there does appear to be amendments we can make to this coupon to eliminate any and all questions of whether or not it constitutes a preference.

The final issue is whether the statutes, ordinances, and/or case law require a merchant, who elects to and pays for the coupon to be printed in an[sic] church bulletin, to incur the expense of making that same coupon available in some place other than the church bulletin. I find no basis in the statutes or ordinances that require a private merchant to incur the additional advertising expense to make the availability of that coupon more convenient to your client and others simply because your client and others do not want to stop by a church and pick up the coupon. It is difficult to believe that the legislative intent of Wis. Stats. 106.04(9)(2) requires that any coupons of any retail merchant published in a church bulletin must be made readily available through in-store displays or additional newspaper advertisements. The reasonable extension of this provision would be to require a retail merchant who places a coupon in a liberal publication, newsletter, or newspaper to also make this coupon available through an in-store display or require the merchant to purchase additional advertising in a conservative newspaper. "Political beliefs" are a protected class under the Madison Ordinances. Likewise, if a merchant publishes a coupon in a publication, newsletter or newspaper that targets women, must the merchant also make this coupon available through an in-store display or require the merchant to purchase additional advertising in a similar media which targets men? Following your position, a merchant would be so required, or be in violation of Wis. Stats. 106.04(9)(2) for giving preferential treatment in a place of public accommodation because of sex. Would a coupon in Ebony magazine require your suggested remedial action? The analogies would lead to unreasonable results which are not consistent with the legislative intent of Wis. Stats. 106.04(9), or Madison General Ordinances 3.23(5). I was unable to locate any case law supportive of your position that any coupon which may be published in a publication which may be allegedly more convenient for some would have to be made available to all through an in-store display or counter-balancing advertisement. This is an over-burdensome and unreasonable standard upon retail business owners, especially small neighborhood businesses, that was not intended by the legislation.

After you have had an opportunity to review this matter and discuss the same with your client, please contact me so that we may further discuss this matter. We look forward to your response at your earliest convenience.

SWEENEY & SWEENEY, S.C.
Timothy C. C. Sweeney

December 29, 1997

Dear Mr. Sweeney:

Thank you for your letter dated December 15, 1997 responding to ours of November 17, 1997 regarding the coupon promotion offered by Ken Kopp's Fine Foods.

Your letter challenges our assertion that the public accommodations law prohibits discounts in the sale of goods based on creed. Your clients' position, it appears, is that a seller of goods may discriminate on the basis of religion by offering a discount only to those of a particular faith. Does your client believe that it would be permissible for a hardware store to offer a discount only to Jews or Muslims? Or that a pharmacy could offer sale prices only to non-Catholics? Yet that is exactly what Ken Kopp's Fine Foods has done, by offering its free-milk promotion only to those who attend Catholic Church.

We do not agree with your contention that sec. 106.04(9)2 is the only statutory provision at issue here. Section 106.04(9)1 provides that no person may "[d]eny to another . . . the full and equal enjoyment of any public place of accommodation because of . . . creed. . . . Whether or not Ken Kopp's Fine Foods says that it welcomes the patronage of all persons, its coupon promotion operates to deny non-Catholics the full and equal enjoyment of the store because they have no opportunity to take advantage of a discount offered only to church members.

Your suggestion that the statutory prohibition against discrimination based on creed does not ban discrimination against nonbelievers is without merit. In the context of the federal laws banning employment discrimination based on religion, the courts have held that Title VII "protects those who refuse to hold, as well as those who hold, specific religious beliefs," Shapolia v. Los Alamos Nat'l Lab., 992 F.2d 1033 (10th Cir. 1993), and have specifically found that atheists are protected by laws banning religious discrimination. Young v. Southwestern Savings and Loan Ass'n, 509 F. 2d 140 (5th Cir. 1975). There can be little doubt that the public accommodations law would be similarly interpreted.

As you know, the Freedom From Religion Foundation objects both to the wording of the coupon, which conditions its use on attending Mass, and to the exclusive distribution of the coupon in church bulletins. Your letter does not attempt to defend the coupon's wording; indeed, you indicate some willingness to eliminate that restrictive language. We would appreciate a clear statement with regard to whether your client is, in fact, prepared to eliminate that language.

The other issue concerns the restricted distribution of the coupon. You compare the placement of the coupon in a church bulletin to a coupon published in a liberal newspaper or a magazine such as Ebony, which "target" certain audiences. Those publications are not comparable to a church bulletin, however, because they are generally available to the public. A church bulletin, in contrast, is not merely directed at a particular readership, but is distributed solely to those who are members of or attend the church. While you suggest that our clients could pick up the coupon at the church, we doubt that Madison churches see their role as providing marketing support for your client's business promotions. Nor is there any reason why a customer should be compelled to visit a church to be able to get a good deal on a gallon of milk.

Your client's restrictive promotional practice denies to our clients and others, based on creed, the "full and equal enjoyment" of Ken Kopp's Fine Foods. If your client is unwilling to change its marketing promotions to eliminate this discriminatory practice, the Freedom From Religion Foundation intends to pursue its legal remedies. Under sec. 106.04, Wis. Stats., a complainant has the option of filing an administrative complaint with the Equal Rights Division or bringing an action directly in circuit court, with the full range of remedies provided by sec. 106.04(10)(e)1. City ordinances also provide an administrative remedy, and we note in that regard that if the holder of an alcohol beverage license has been found to engage in discrimination, the city attorney is required by ordinance to commence a proceeding for the revocation, suspension or nonrenewal of that license. Madison Gen. Ord. Sec. 3.23(9)(c)2.b.

We hope that this matter can be resolved without the need for the initiation of formal proceedings. We look forward to your proposal for a prompt resolution.

LA FOLLETTE & SINYKIN
Jeffrey J. Kassel

March 5, 1998

Dear Mr. Kassel:

Please be advised that our client has discontinued the coupon ad which was the subject of our correspondence over the last several months. Our client has, accordingly, modified its promotion.

SWEENEY & SWEENEY, S.C.
Timothy Sweeney

%905 %America/Chicago, %2003

A Piece Missing at Peace Rally

Vol. 20 No. 2 - Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. - March 2003

Praise Peace, Not God

By Annie Laurie Gaylor

Dan and I timed a brief mid-February vacation in New York City to take in comedian Julia Sweeney's new monolog, "Julia Sweeney in the Family Way," at the Ars Nova theater. Julia, the "Saturday Night Live" alumna and actress, was a popular speaker at the Freedom From Religion Foundation's most recent convention.

We were thrilled when we realized our last day in New York City would coincide with the huge peace rally scheduled there and in some 600 other cities around the world on Saturday, Feb. 15.

Julia Sweeney's monolog about how she came to adopt a baby girl in China was very, very funny. Thanks to Julia's hospitality, it was topped off by meeting the tiny subject of the monolog herself, Mulan, now three, a vivacious, adorable little personality in her own right. (Freethought news scoop: Julia is beginning to schedule her newest monolog: "Letting Go of God.")

This was my first visit to Manhattan, so Dan and I spent an enjoyable two and a half days sightseeing. But by Saturday, I was ready to start marching. You may know that city authorities refused a permit for a march, or even to let us congregate in front of the United Nations building, a refusal upheld by two courts.

Hoping for the best, Dan and I set off for the noon rally at about 10:30 a.m. from our hotel at 45th Street and Eighth Avenue, walking a long mile toward First Avenue, the site of the rally. Dan got a lot of laughs carrying a homemade sign with his personal pun: "Bush is a bad precedent." Packing light, I only had a piece of bright pink cardboard bedecked with two relevant bumperstickers and a little scrawled advertisement, "Bumperstickers available" (always the freethought saleswoman).

Reaching Third Avenue, we realized we were in for an endurance contest. Police had barricades up along the sidewalks, and had totally shut off side streets that led directly to the rally. Instead, they slowly herded us (there is no other word) for blocks and blocks away from the rally site before letting us turn toward Second and then First Avenues. We later learned that marchers filled First, Second and Third Avenues all the way from 51st to 80th Street!

At least we had our march of sorts, however poorly the city had planned for it. There was no room and no way to contain us. Confrontations took place on Third Avenue later as marchers, dangerously overcrowded, had no choice but to overflow the barricades. Almost 300 were arrested, some simply for doing what I had done--walking in the street to avoid overcrowded sidewalks.

We kept moving like cattle, finally squashed into pens erected on First Avenue. We came to a dead halt six or seven blocks from the rally. Utterly smashed, I was contemplating being the first in our block to climb over a barricade, until I spotted a police officer sauntering by with a German Shepherd. Was that necessary, Mayor Bloomberg?

The diverse crowd was extremely good-natured. In too-close proximity, we smiled at each others' signs. A grandmotherly woman passed out Girl Scout Thin Mints. I chatted briefly with a female professor from Iran. She shrugged off the unhappy crowd conditions but told me she was so dismayed to realize she was using the same slogans against Bush that she had used against rulers back in Iran. With a wicked wind blowing up from the East River, we were slowly freezing. Protesters took every opportunity to clap, cheer and jump up and down.

As the rally began, heard through loudspeakers, at least three or four "reverends," maybe more, invoked their respective gods. There was a Baptist minister or two, a rabbi, and preachers sprinkled throughout the program, such as Al Sharpton. It's one thing if a speaker mentions personal beliefs--but scheduling formal prayers and invocations excludes so many of us. Just as a welcome secular speech began by actress Susan Sarandon, the loudspeakers by us turned to static.

This was too much for me: I hadn't come to the rally just to freeze, smother and hear only prayers! Although it looked impossible, we politely elbowed our way through wall-to-wall protesters until we came to an intersection. There was no way out of our corral.

Since the coast looked clear, I climbed over the barricade. Dan followed eventually (son of a police officer, he is usually very law-abiding), and we slowly worked our way through two more pens until we could see and hear again, getting about five blocks from the stage.

A monitor screen displayed the speakers: many local activists, some celebrities such as Harry Belafonte and Rosie Perez, a few politicians, Palestinians, Israelis for peace, Arab Americans and representatives from around the world. Although we missed a lot, we heard enough to realize that many speakers were liberally peppering their remarks with "God," reassuring the crowd that "God is on our side," or ending remarks with "God Bless America." Dan and I periodically exchanged glances of wonderment, and muttered, "They sound just like George Bush!"

(I later read European coverage contrasting the religious nature of American peace rallies with Europe's pronounced secularism.)

The final straw was special guest Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa. (I do give him great credit for attending.) He expansively told us "God was smiling" on all the people down the avenue. Tutu always argued from divine authority against apartheid, rather than as a civil libertarian ("We are all God's children."). Although I clapped enthusiastically at Tutu's secular follow-up remarks, I wondered if nonbelievers--after all, we are 14% of the U.S. adult population--would ever be acknowledged or represented at this huge rally!

Feminist singer Holly Near saved the day, when she launched without preamble into her feisty song, "I Ain't Afraid."

I ain't afraid of your Yahweh
I ain't afraid of your Allah
I ain't afraid of your Jesus
I'm afraid of what you'll do in the name of your god.
She took a minute to explain that we shouldn't do stuff in the name of a god or divide ourselves by religion. I sensed no crowd comprehension. But after her song, when I put down my sign to tie a shoe, a little girl read it and asked if she could buy a bumpersticker. Her father stepped forward and handed me a dollar for "Imagine no religion."

We know freethinkers were there in full force, are here in full force. We just haven't made it to the radar screen of the media, politicians or the public. We need to demand representation of our reason-based views. Analyzing the growing crises out of context, without acknowledging the role religion plays in war, in suppression of civil liberties and in terrorism, is like trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle when vital pieces are missing.

Annie Laurie Gaylor is editor of Freethought Today and the anthology Women Without Superstition: No Gods - No Masters: The Collected Writings of Women Freethinkers of the 19th & 20th Centuries.

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