From vouchers to tax credit scholarships programs, "school choice" schemes are a means to divert public money to private, mostly religious schools.
The Alabama Senate passed Senate Bill 277, the so-called "Religious Display Freedom Act," on Tuesday, April 7. The bill purports to allow municipalities to place nativity scenes and other religious displays on government property. Protections against government-endorsed religious messages are codified in the U.S. Constitution, which the Alabama legislature cannot unilaterally ignore. This ill-conceived bill is now before the Alabama House Committee on Judiciary for further review. Shockingly, the bill passed the Senate unanimously (with only one member absent).
Seemingly by design, this bill misleads cities and other local bodies by portraying nativity scenes or other government-sponsored holiday displays as constitutional. The law, however, is far from straightforward. Most of the bill is devoted to laying out a black-and-white interpretation of the Supreme Court's Lynch v. Donnelly decision of 1984. But SB 277 misrepresents and overstates the Lynch decision at every turn. This is why the U.S. Constitution leaves legal interpretation to the judiciary, not the legislature.
The city-owned holiday display found permissible in Lynch was located in a park owned by a nonprofit organization and included, "among other things, a Santa Claus house, reindeer pulling Santa's sleigh, candy-striped poles, a Christmas tree, carolers, cutout figures representing such characters as a clown, an elephant, and a teddy bear, hundreds of colored lights, a large banner that reads 'SEASONS GREETINGS' . . . ." The nativity scene was not featured prominently; it was one small element of a much larger display. But this nuance is lost in SB 277, which decrees that a nativity scene is permissible if the display includes "at least one secular scene or symbol."
That misleading interpretation of Lynch flies in the face of other Supreme Court precedent. Five years after Lynch, the high court ruled in County of Allegheny v. ACLU that a crèche display on the steps of the county courthouse was unconstitutional. The court held that the crèche, located at the seat of county government, endorsed an indisputably Christian message, while a Christmas tree and menorah could remain, as they signaled diversity.
SB 277's biased, incomplete review of case law sets up municipalities to recreate the mistakes of the past, with legal costs inevitably raiding taxpayers' pockets.
So what pressing need does the bill's sponsor, Senator Phil Williams, cite as the reason for drafting SB 277? Williams claims, "Like many Alabamians, I was outraged when the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Wisconsin threatened the cities of Rainbow City, Piedmont, and Glencoe with lawsuits, all for having a manger scene in front of their city halls during Christmas."
What Williams fails to mention is that the Rainbow City and Glencoe nativity scenes stood alone without any other holiday decorations, in clear violation of Allegheny and not in conformance with Lynch. (FFRF's letter to Peidmont was about a Christmas parade, which isn't addressed by SB 277). The Glencoe nativity even included banners reading "KEEP CHRIST IN CHRISTMAS" and "Wise men still seek Him," clear endorsements of Christianity above all minority religions and religion over nonreligion. SB 277 can't make these displays constitutional. All it serves to do is embolden municipalities to further violate the Constitution.
While none of FFRF's letters threatened a lawsuit as Williams claimed, SB 277 increases the likelihood that a lawsuit will be necessary, by needlessly encouraging municipalities to test the limits of the law, rather than having them conform to established Supreme Court guidelines.
Alabamians interested in true religious liberty should contact their state representatives and urge them to kill this bill.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation and The Center for Inquiry have teamed up to create a unique competition for current and aspiring television writers and directors, the No God But Funny Contest. The contest will award $15,000 to those crafting the winning sitcom script and $25,000 to producers of the winning webisode that takes the "ass" out of atheists.
James Underdown, executive director of the Center for Inquiry Los Angeles notes "of the few atheist characters on TV, virtually all are unlikeable. You know TV would be in big trouble if any other group were so unfavorably portrayed. We happen to know lots of godless folks who are great fun to be around. So we are challenging writers to develop funny, fun and well-adjusted atheist characters."
The contest, that is taking entries until May 15, accepts 20-25 page teleplays with outlines for the remaining 11 episodes of the season, or an original and never broadcast anywhere digital episode for broadcast on the web of between 3-15 minutes in length, also with outlines for the remaining 11 episodes of the season.
The contest judges are a group of experienced Hollywood writers and comedians who have worked extensively in television including veteran stand-up comedian and actor Paul Provenza, who was the host of Showtime's The Green Room; game show super producer Jonathan Goodson; noted magician Max Maven; Comedy Central/Adult Swim/Funny or Die regular Rich Fulcher; thinking man's comic Steve Hill; and longtime comedy agent, television development executive and live comedy event producer Barbara Romen.
Dan Barker, a co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation notes that entries must "reflect a positive view of atheism, and we expect that at least one story line per episode/webisode out of the typical 3 story lines will be about the atheist character's life. All sitcoms deal with friends, family and work. Submissions can touch on topics like what to say when someone sneezes, atheist writers who hate the idea of submitting something called a 'bible' for the TV show, how to respond when someone wishes you a 'blessed' day, how to handle 'the holidays' – the malls, the inescapable holiday music, fake trees, the workplace, gifts, parties, family traditions, greeting cards, the 'war,' new traditions like 'festivus' with its airing of grievances and feats of strength, etc. Also, what happens when you get sworn in for jury duty or in court as a witness, 'prayers' in legal complaints, AA or other 12 step programs referring to a 'higher power,' events like weddings, funerals, baptisms, etc., filling out applications that ask about religion, etc."
Writers and producers do not have to be atheists to enter. All the characters in the script or webisode do not need to be atheist. For further info about the contest, including contest rules, and to enter please visit http://www.nogodbutfunny.com/.
Center for Inquiry:
The mission of the Center for Inquiry is to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. To oppose and supplant the mythological narratives of the past, and the dogmas of the present, the world needs an institution devoted to promoting science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. The Center for Inquiry is that institution.
About the Freedom from Religion Foundation:
The Foundation works as an umbrella for those who are free from religion and are committed to the cherished principle of separation of state and church. The purposes of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc., as stated in its bylaws, are to promote the constitutional principle of separation of state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.
For press information please contact Susan von Seggern at or 213-840-0077.