College Oaks Elementary School in Lake Charles, La., and High Mount School in Swansea, Ill., have both barred teachers from leading bible clubs for students after getting FFRF complaints.
FFRF wrote to Calcasieu Parish Public Schools on Jan. 9 after a concerned parent reported that College Oaks Elementary was recruiting students for the bible club Kids for Christ. All the club's logistics were handled by College Oaks teacher Kristen Shepherd, who encouraged other staff to announce club meetings in their classrooms, according to public email records obtained by FFRF.
Reminders about Kids for Christ meetings were sent home with students, and one teacher directly called a parent to ask permission for a student to attend the club. The school also sold children's bibles and T-shirts reading, "We are Christians at College Oaks." Shepherd distributed bibles to students, as well as order forms for Kids for Christ merchandise.
"Given the high level of faculty involvement in the organization and content of the Kids for Christ bible club, plus the location of the meetings and regular faculty promotion of the club, a reasonable student or parent will perceive this religious club as 'stamped with her school's seal of approval,'" wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover.
Calcasieu Parish Schools' attorney Gregory Balfour responded Jan. 26, assuring FFRF that staff were told not to hand out bibles, wear bible club T-shirts at school or be involved in promoting or leading the club. "School staff were also reminded that they may not 'pressure' students to join the club," he said.
In a similar situation in Illinois's High Mount School District 116, the district sent emails to K-8 students and their parents at High Mount School to promote a new Kids for Christ group. The district email described the club as "a permanent program" that "operates in cooperation with local schools."
In a Feb. 4 letter to school attorney William Stiehl Jr., Grover wrote: "All HMS staff should be reminded that their duties under the Establishment Clause prohibit them from actively promoting a religious club while acting in their official capacities as district employees."
Stiehl responded the next day: "The employee who sent the emails has been advised that emails which appear to promote or sponsor a religious organization may not be sent using the High Mount email system or on High Mount letterhead."
TurningPoint Church crosses the line
Fayette County Public Schools, Lexington, Ky., received FFRF complaints about several state/church violations.
Leestown Middle School held a "retreat" for sixth graders at two churches. Students were given T-shirts at the retreat that advertised TurningPoint Church and its website. They were told to wear shirts to a mandatory school assembly, which was supposedly secular, put on by the church's lead pastor, Joshua Mauney. He had children write down information, including their addresses, on cards. FFRF's complainant then received mail from the church.
Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote to the school district Nov. 13. "Allowing a church leader unique access to a captive audience of schoolchildren and permitting him to turn students into walking billboards for his church is inappropriate and unconstitutional, and his predatory conduct should raise many red flags."
Markert continued, "Moreover, public school employees cannot distribute or wear religious T-shirts while at school, nor can they require or encourage students to wear them."
The district responded in February, informing FFRF that speakers would be prohibited from using students as a platform for a religious message on social media and from requesting names and addresses of students in the future. The district also agreed to request advance approval of anything put on donated items.
'Praying hands' image off school wall
After initially refusing, Kenneth Cooper Middle School officials in Oklahoma have removed a poster called "Faith in America" featuring two children with their hands clasped in prayer in front of an American flag.
FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel first wrote to Putnam County Schools about the image in August. "The meaning could not be more clear," Seidel wrote, "real American children pray."
School district attorney Anthony Childers responded that the district had received no complaints in the 18 years the poster had been up and claimed it was not proselytizing. "At this time, we do not believe that the image violates the Establishment Clause and the District will not agree to remove the image from its office."
In a rebuttal, Seidel noted that the fact that the display had been up so long "only serve[d] to make the violation more egregious." The claim that the poster was not religious was "at odds with common sense," he said.
FFRF's local complainant reported that "Faith in America" has been swapped out for a George Washington portrait.
FFRF stops bible study field trip
Del Norte County Unified School District stopped a teacher at Crescent Elk Middle School, Crescent City, Calif., from holding a bible study as part of an overnight field trip to her home.
"When a school allows a teacher to lead students in a devotional bible study, the school becomes complicit in an egregious constitutional violation and breach of trust," wrote Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel in a letter sent Jan. 26.
Superintendent Don Olson responded the next day, saying that he "directed staff to stop this practice immediately," and would work with the district's legal team, thanking FFRF for making him aware it was happening.
Georgia school removes 10 Commandments
FFRF succeeded in getting a Ten Commandments display removed from the Pinevale Elementary School library in Valdosta, Ga. Staff Attorney Sam Grover in an Oct. 24 letter to Valdosta City Schools wrote, "Any student will view a Ten Commandments display in a school as being endorsed by a school."
After a follow-up letter, Superintendent E. Martin Roesch phoned Grover to say that the display had been removed.
No more Christian pumpkin patch trips
A field trip to a church-run pumpkin patch will not reoccur at Randolph Elementary in Centreville, Ala. Kindergartners and first graders were given nametags reading, "Hay there, Jesus loves you" with a bible verse underneath.
Students' finger paintings also had bible verses printed at the top. The students posed for a photo beneath two large signs with bible verses on them.
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote the district Nov. 24: "It excludes non-Christian and nonreligious students for a public school to schedule a trip to this type of sectarian establishment."
On Jan. 23, the superintendent of Bibb County Schools responded that this was the school's first visit to the pumpkin patch, admitting it had not been properly vetted. She said the district would not send students there in the future.
South Dakota sex ed secularized
The public school district in Aberdeen, S.D., which showed a Catholic version of a sex education program to students, is taking steps to correct the violation after getting a Jan. 9 letter from Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott.
The health curriculum at Central High School included "Romance without Regret," a religious presentation promoting sexual abstinence and "chastity" from a Catholic perspective. The presenters prayed and made religious references such as "Realize that purity is a gift from Jesus, we have to ask him of it, and he'll give it to us."
It also denigrated students, particularly girls, who had had sex, describing a man who has sex with a woman as "robbing her purity" and watching pornography as "looking at the corpse of a woman's heart." It also quoted many debunked and misleading health statistics.
The superintendent called Elliott two weeks later to say that the video was shown mistakenly instead of a secular version of the presentation. She reviewed both versions of the film in full and assured FFRF that she recognized the Catholic version was inappropriate for public schools and would not be shown again.
Team chaplain barred in Florida
A Nov. 24 FFRF letter ensured the removal of a team chaplain who, with coaches, led Franklin County Schools athletes in prayer in the locker rooms, at practices and at games.
"Public high school football teams cannot appoint or employ a chaplain, seek out a spiritual leader for the team, or agree to have a volunteer team chaplain, because public schools may not advance or promote religion," wrote Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel.
Superintendent Nina Marks, Eastpoint, Fla., later responded that the individual in question was employed as a statistician and film editor, not as a chaplain, and was "acting entirely on his behalf without permission or authority of the administration." He and other employees were reminded that district staff "cannot and will not participate or encourage religious activities of any kind."
God out of Okla. police training
Oklahoma's Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training (CLEET) is taking steps to eliminate unconstitutional religious training materials after receiving an FFRF complaint. A peace officer in training told FFRF that during training, instructors and materials repeatedly promoted religion.
Course materials contained statements such as, "While there are differences between the various faiths, we still are a people of God. This idea is the basis for the common bond of all people." A section focusing on ethics encouraged peace officers to dedicate themselves before God to their chosen profession.
In an Oct. 7 letter, Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote, "CLEET must revise its training materials and lectures by removing suggestions that belief in God is an essential component of being a competent peace officer."
Grover corresponded with an attorney representing CLEET who said he was taking steps to remove religious content, adding that instructors were warned about expressing their personal religious views in class.
Missouri park crèche won't be back
The Higginsville, Mo., Parks and Recreation Department has in the past displayed a large nativity scene in a public park with a sign saying "The Savior is Born."
Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent the department a letter after a local resident complained: "By displaying this sign, the Department is praising the Christian god and proclaiming Jesus as savior. This is in direct violation of the Constitution."
The department responded Feb. 4 that the nativity will not be put up in the future.
Letter ends Kansas bible handouts
Unified School District 219 in Kansas has stopped a Minneola Elementary School teacher from distributing bibles to students. In a letter sent Jan. 30, Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel informed the district, "When a school distributes religious literature to its students, it entangles itself with that religious message."
Superintendent Mark Walker responded Feb. 6: "The district has taken prompt action to visit with the teacher and inform the entire staff that allowing the Gideons to distribute Bibles on school property is not allowed and should not happen again."
W.Va. middle school crosses removed
Ravenswood Middle School in Ripley, W.Va., has taken down crosses that were previously displayed on school property.
Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote Jackson County Schools on Jan. 20 after learning that multiple crosses were placed in a garden near an entrance to the school. One included the word "FAITH" and two verses from the New Testament.
"We are sensitive to the possibility that the crosses and angels are meant as a memorial. However, it is the school's constitutional obligation to find a religiously neutral means of expressing remembrance in a memorial display," wrote Elliott.
The district responded Feb. 6 to say that the crosses had been removed.
FFRF stops Kansas proselytizing
Haskins Learning Center, a K-8 public school in Pratt, Kan., is presenting in-service training to teachers about religious proselytizing after FFRF again objected to the school's practices.
Just six weeks earlier, the school had agreed to stop prayer at school events. But the day after the first response, FFRF received a report that teachers had distributed gifts to students with attached tags quoting the biblical John 3:16.
An attorney for the school told Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel on Feb. 9 that he had in-services scheduled with instructional and administrative staff.
Prayer get boot from graduation
Quehanna Boot Camp, an adult correctional facility in Karthaus, Pa., will not include prayers in future graduation ceremonies. Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote the camp Feb. 3 to object to the pastor-led prayers.
The Department of Corrections responded Feb. 13, writing that the invocation and benediction portions of the ceremony would be removed.
Religious odyssey off school schedule
FFRF learned that Tropic Isles Elementary School, North Fort Myers, Fla., planned a fifth-grade field trip to a church which was hosting a walk-through play entitled "Drug House Odyssey."
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote the school district on Feb. 12 informing them that the field trip was unconstitutional: "Taking public school students to a church, a place covered with religious iconography, is an endorsement of that church's religion."
Lee County Schools Superintendent Nancy Graham responded Feb. 16, stating that she shared FFRF's concern that the district's participation "not present any impression that the School District is attempting to indoctrinate students into a religious belief."
The district chose to postpone the event and consider an alternative site, she said.
Hand soap Jesus off school bottles
Bennett Elementary School in McKinney, Texas, removed hand sanitizer bottles that displayed the Lord's Prayer and the logo of a church. "Religion is a divisive force in public schools," wrote Staff Attorney Sam Grover. "Though the school may accept donations from religious entities such as churches, the school still must comply with the Establishment Clause in its use of those items."
FFRF's complainant reported on Feb. 18 that the prayers had been removed and the church logos replaced with school logos.
Prayerful posts off Ohio school site
Eastern Local School District, Reedsville, Ohio, removed two religious posts after a car accident claimed the life of a former Eastern High School student. The posts called for "prayer warriors" to "lift all of [those involved in the accident] up in prayer."
Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote Superintendent Michele Filon a letter on Feb. 12. "We are sensitive to the fact that sharing such tragic news can be a difficult and emotional task. Expressing condolences over this situation was correct, but we wish to remind the District that it must ensure that it remains neutral on matters of religion." FFRF received word Feb. 19 that the posts had been removed.
FFRF protects Minn. prisoners' rights
The Minnesota Correctional Facility in St. Cloud has agreed to discontinue providing extra gifts to prisoners who attend holiday Christian services.
"Encouraging inmates to attend a church service is constitutionally impermissible because it coerces inmates to participate in a religious exercise, and sends the message that MCF-St. Cloud endorses Christianity over all other faiths and over nonreligion," wrote Staff Attorney Sam Grover on Feb. 12.
Warden Collin Gau responded Feb. 23. "We had no intention of sending a message that MCF-St. Cloud endorses Christianity over other religion, and to avoid that effective immediately, we will discontinue providing any gifts to offenders as a part of attending any religious programming at MCF-St. Cloud."
Hotel bibles removed at Portland State
FFRF had been trying to obtain a response from Portland State University in Oregon about its hotel bibles since its original letter of complaint in February 2014. "If guests want to read this religious text during their stay, they should do what everyone else does, travel with the book they want to read. The state need not, and cannot, provide religious literature to citizens," said Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel.
With help from FFRF's Portland chapter and the PSU Secular Student Alliance, FFRF was able to confirm that the bibles had been removed from rooms, despite the university's unwillingness to admit it had taken action.
— Compiled by Maddy Ziegler
FFRF has signed on to an amicus brief in support of a gay couple refused a wedding cake by a Colorado bakery owner. While it doesn't usually get involved with non-Establishment Clause issues, FFRF strongly opposes redefining "religious freedom" to include the right to discriminate.
Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, refused to make a cake for David Mullins and Charlie Craig for their 2012 wedding reception. "I'm a follower of Jesus Christ so you can say it's a religious belief, but I believe that the bible teaches that that's not an OK thing," said Phillips.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado brought a case on the couple's behalf. The state Civil Rights Commission ruled in May 2014 that the business violated state anti-discrimination laws, ordering the bakery to change its policy. The bakery's appeal sits at the Colorado Court of Appeals.
FFRF joined Americans United for Separation of Church and State's amicus brief, written by AU Legal Director Ayesha Khan.
The order telling Phillips to stop discriminating does not violate his rights to free speech and free exercise of religion, the brief argues. Cakes are made to order for customers, who commission them for their own enjoyment, "not because they want to assist the bakery in expressing itself."
Requiring the bakery to make cakes for gay couples doesn't force the business to proclaim its approval of gays, notes the brief. A business might serve gay people "because it wishes to increase its revenue by serving as many customers as possible, because it values same-sex marriages as much as straight couples' marriages, because it did not inquire about its customers' sexual orientations and does not consider that information relevant to its business, or because it simply wishes to follow applicable state antidiscrimination laws."
FFRF filed a federal lawsuit Feb. 9 challenging the infliction of daily prayer on elementary school students in the Emanuel County School System, Swainsboro, Ga.
Defendants include Superintendent Kevin Judy, Swainsboro Primary School Principal Valorie Watkins, teacher Kaytrene Bright and teacher Cel Thompson. Anonymous co-plaintiffs are Jane and John Doe and their young children, Jesse and Jamie Doe.
Before lunch, Jamie's teacher asked students to bow their heads, fold their hands and pray while Thompson led a call-and-response prayer: "God our Father, we give thanks, for our many blessings. Amen."
In Jesse's first-grade class, Bright led students in this daily prayer: "God is great. Let us thank you for our food. Thank you for our daily prayer. Thank you. Amen."
When parents learned of the prayers in August 2014, they immediately Watkins to object. The teachers responded by telling the Doe children to leave their classrooms and sit in the hallway while the rest of their classes prayed.
"It should not be necessary for FFRF to sue over such an obvious violation of specific Supreme Court decisions barring devotions from our public schools," noted Dan Barker, FFRF co-president. "No child in our secular school system or their parents should be subjected to prayer, or stigmatized when their parents speak up to defend the Establishment Clause. But unfortunately, it appears a lawsuit will be the only way to protect the freedom of conscience of these young children."
"If anyone needs a picture drawn on how destructive religion is in our public schools, this situation is a perfect example," added Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president. "The fact that such abusive practices are continuing in our public schools 63 years after the first Supreme Court decision against school prayer shows just how much FFRF's legal work is still needed."
FFRF is represented by W.R. Nichols of Atlanta, with FFRF Staff Attorneys Samuel Grover and Andrew Seidel serving as co-counsel.
The following Q&A with Stephen Uhl is from Linda LaScola's Feb. 12 Rational Doubt column, which has been focusing on "Clergy Doubt." She is co-author with Daniel C. Dennett of Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind and Preachers Who Are Not Believers. She's also a co-founder of the Clergy Project. Uhl, a Ph.D. psychologist and former Catholic priest, is a major FFRF supporter and author of Out of God's Closet.
1. What caused you to start seriously doubting your faith?
I had always trusted Mother Church and her teachings. One of those official teachings was that the human mind, without the aid of faith, could prove God's existence. So when, in morning meditation, I saw that the official teaching of the church was based on an unwarranted assumption, I realized that the church teaching was not as infallible as that church claimed.
2. How did you initially react to the doubts (e.g., discuss them with others, keep them to yourself, do religious or secular reading, do something else)?
As best as I can now recall, after many decades have passed, I mainly kept the doubts to myself at first. But as the doubts got strong enough for me to think of likely making a lifestyle change, I then discussed with my spiritual adviser/confessor and with the abbot.
3. What caused the doubts to start becoming stronger than your beliefs?
Once the complete blinders of faith were discarded/punctured, the more I looked at my own and others' lives and circumstances, the more clearly I could see that what I had believed for three decades was "not necessarily so."
4. How did the doubts affect your preaching, teaching or other responsibilities or your interactions with your congregation and your family?
Whether in the classroom during the week or in the pulpit on weekends, I stayed away from most all dogmatic matters of faith while sticking to natural "golden rule" sorts of things. So I thereby avoided hypocrisy in these situations.
5. How did you come to the realization that your doubts were overcoming your beliefs, that you were no longer a believer?
Faith is blind and complete or it is inadequate to keep a reasonable person from ditching it altogether.
6. How did you think of yourself at that time (e.g., agnostic, atheist, spiritual but not religious, nonbeliever, "different" believer, something else?
I guess "anxious agnostic" would describe me for a while. But I think the anxiety soon became directed towards the practical details of leaving the monastery and dealing with survival details with minimum scandal for those who knew what I was doing. Philosophical agnostic but practical atheist would be the best personal descriptor for me.
By Annie Laurie Gaylor
Philip Appleman decrees: Let there be Enlightenment. And it is good.
Phil, a talented and compassionate poet who turned 89 in February, has had an amazing literary outpouring in his eighties. Recent books include Karma, Dharma Pudding & Pie (2009) and Perfidious Proverbs & Other Poems: A Satirical Look at the Bible. A poet and a scholar, he is editor of the Norton Critical Edition, Darwin, and the Norton Critical Edition, Malthus, as well as of the classic New and Selected Poems, 1956–1996 (1996) and Let There Be Light (1991).
The Labyrinth (Quantuck Lane Press, 2014), his newest work, is an elegant and wise 69-page monograph on God, Darwin and life, as its subtitle promises. Every page is rife with insights into the meaning of life and the reckoning with death.
"The large brain is the ultimate weapon, and sometimes it is aimed at us," he muses. "We are capable of abstractions, capable of imagining things; that is part of the problem. We imagine all sorts of useful and pleasant things: wheels, shoes, poems. But the imagination refuses to stop before it is too late and proceeds to invent sinister hells, and sumptuous heavens, and miscellaneous hypotheses, such as 'God.' "
Phil fearlessly wrestles with religion in The Labyrinth, and reality wins: "People in general have never exhibited much passion for the disciplined pursuit of knowledge, but they are always tempted by easy answers. God is an easy answer." He writes that "God" may "soothe some minds temporarily, as an empty bottle may soothe a crying baby; the nourishment from each is the same."
It's a beautiful little hardback with a dust jacket that's also beautifully written, reasoned and true. Every paragraph is studded with secular epiphany. Each page, for me, elicited a frisson of appreciation.
As Phil untangles the knotty riddles of existence, volition, human neurosis and religion, his searing logic is tempered, always, by empathy. What we have is "the joy of human life here and now, unblemished by the dark shadow of whimsical forces in the sky. Charles Darwin's example, both in his work and in his life, helps us to understand that that is the only 'heaven' we will ever know. And it is the only one we need."
Philip Appleman, the person, the freethinker, the poet and the friend, has added immeasurable joy to my life, and that of his countless readers, who include Bill Moyers, who interviewed him recently for his show.
Moyers writes: "I came across Philip Appleman's essay The Labyrinth at a difficult moment in my life and work, when I seemed to be groping from one maze to another only to find that each led to a minotaur of complexity and conflict. . . . I had been looking for the meaning of these things — of complexity, conflict, and life itself — in the wrong places. If you're in doubt about where to find such meaning, take up the thread and come along. It leads to a most surprising place."
Anita Weier, a Madison Common Council member in Madison, Wis., is the sponsor of a proposal to add atheists and the homeless as protected classes under the city's Equal Opportunities Ordinance, which offers protections in housing, employment and public accommodations. It appears to be the first such proposal in the nation.
At its initial presentation Feb. 12 before the Equal Opportunities Commission, it was referred to the employment subcommittee for discussion. A vote was set for March 12 (the day after press time for this issue) on whether to recommend passage to the council.
The EOC has been discussing adding the homeless as a protected class for more than two years. Weier told the Wisconsin State Journal that she's seeking protections for atheism because religion is already a protected class, and she thinks lack of religion should have similar guarantees. She noted that groups such FFRF have raised concerns about discrimination.
The city already prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, race, religion, color, natural origin, citizenship status, age, handicap/disability, marital status, source of income, arrest or conviction records and more.
In her blog, FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor noted that the most typical discrimination FFRF has faced, locally and nationally, is refusal by companies to make its T-shirts, print its brochures or post its billboards. "We don't just have problems with free speech. We have problems with 'paid speech.' Whether this ordinance would affect such discrimination remains to be seen. But the public has no idea how often freethought views are censored. This includes a decision by CBS last year and NBC this year to refuse to nationally air a TV ad made for us by well-known public figure Ron Reagan." (At the end of the ad, he says, "Ron Reagan, lifelong atheist, not afraid of burning in hell.")
Gaylor suggested broadening the ordinance language to include "nonbelievers" or "nontheists" as well as atheists.
"Many nonreligious Madisonians may prefer other appellations to that of atheist. I like to joke that our members may call themselves by many an appellation — atheist, agnostic, skeptic, secular humanist, rationalist, nonreligious, etc. — but whatever we call ourselves, we all disbelieve in the same gods."
In his testimony, FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott noted, "Having worked to protect the civil rights of nonreligious persons, I can tell you that discrimination against atheists is widespread and an ongoing concern. It permeates into employment, public schools, and even in discounts offered by places of public accommodation."
Elliott referenced his experiences halting free admission for those who attend Catholic Mass at various ethnic festivals.
FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel testified about discrimination nationally, including state constitutions that unlawfully prohibit atheists from holding public office, shelters and soup kitchens that reject atheist volunteers, atheist parents being denied custody and job discrimination against model employees who are atheists. Seidel pointed to a complaint by FFRF in the 1990s which involved substantial legal fees to stop involving a Madison grocery from giving out free gallons of milk only to those who had attended Mass.
"If any group in this country needs protection, it's the one that is least liked and most distrusted"—that is, atheists, according to surveys, Seidel said. "It's time that atheists enjoy the same protections as other Americans, and I encourage this council to set an example and take this historic first step."
Name: Andrew Lewis Seidel (SIGH-dle).
Where and when I was born: Jan. 31, 1982, in Woodbury, N.J.
Family: My wife Liz, who's also an FFRF staff attorney.
Education: B.S. in neuroscience and environmental science (cum laude), juris doctor (magna cum laude), Tulane University; master of laws (Outstanding LLM Award), University of Denver, Sturm College of Law.
How I came to work at FFRF: I was working in private practice in Colorado but wanted to do something more. I looked at all the state/church separation groups and atheism and humanism groups in the country. To me, FFRF has the perfect balance of atheism and separationism. We focus on helping people first, which is a bit unique in this movement.
I had already won a scholarship from FFRF for an essay I wrote for the annual contest. I used that foothold to do some volunteer work and then asked Dan and Annie Laurie to hire me full time. I believe I have a responsibility to use my law degree to make this world a better place. That's why I chose FFRF.
What I do here: I do a bit of everything, but mostly I defend Jefferson's wall of separation. I also speak around the U.S., take photos, write blogs and help write ads and serve as a general handyman around the office. Several staffers have joked that my staff attorney title is too restrictive.
What I like best about it: Every day we fight to uphold the First Amendment. Not many lawyers have that privilege. We also fight on behalf of an underrepresented minority. Helping freethinking students and families attend school, free from proselytizing or praying and preying teachers, is immensely rewarding.
What gets old about it: Playing against a stacked deck can get tiresome. We are way overmatched in funding, and courts are reluctant to decide cases in favor of an unpopular minority, even if the law is clear. The media portray us as whiny rabble-rousers. But we have reason and right on our side, and I truly believe that we will be successful.
I spend a lot of time thinking about: My family, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And the book I am working on about how Judeo-Christian principles conflict with America's founding principles. I'm almost done with the first draft.
I spend little if any time thinking about: The differences between the various religious sects. To me, it's a bit like arguing over the average height of leprechauns or what color unicorn hair is. It's all an argument over something that isn't real. The Methodist is just a wrong as the Catholic who's just as wrong as the Sikh. They're wasting their breath on differences over fictional nonsense.
My religious upbringing was: Pretty liberal. My mom encouraged me to go to different churches with my Christian friends and to temple with my Jewish friends, etc. According to my mom, I briefly wanted to convert to Judaism after attending my first bar mitzvah. That broad exposure made it pretty clear that no religion had a monopoly on truth. I soon realized they were probably all wrong.
My doubts about religion started: They didn't start, they were always there. I agree with Hitchens, who observed that "You don't so much as become an atheist as find out that's what you are. There's no moment of conversion. You don't suddenly think 'I don't believe this anymore.' You essentially find you don't believe it."
Religion never made sense to me. I think it's natural for every child to doubt and question. Kids are curious. It takes religion to silence that curiosity and shut down those doubts. If humans were truly, deeply religious, they wouldn't need to attend church every week to reinforce their faith.
Things I love: Learning, traveling, reading, my wife (FFRF Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell), my family, dogs, trying to capture the beauty of nature with my camera and redemption through effort, thought and will.
Things I smite: Cruelty, bigotry, proud, confident ignorance and redemption through human sacrifice.
My favorite authors are: In no particular order, P.G. Wodehouse, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, George MacDonald Fraser, George Orwell, Christopher Hitchens, Ron Chernow, Colleen McCullough and many more.
My legal heroes are: There are so many to choose from — Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, Clarence Darrow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Earl Warren, Learned Hand (coolest name ever) and Ruth Bader Ginsburg all spring to mind.
But my true legal heroes are plaintiffs in cases like those FFRF takes: the McCollums, Ellery Schempp, Roy Torcaso, Joann Bell, Jessica Ahlquist, Max Nielson and everyone who challenges religious privilege in court. I'm in awe of their courage and willingness to stand on principle. (John Scopes also, although he was a criminal defendant and not a plaintiff.)
The Office of the Governor in Wisconsin has no record of communications between Gov. Scott Walker and any deities, according to the office's legal counsel.
While it's on the record that the governor is communicating with higher powers like billionaire and political kingmaker Sheldon Adelson, that's where the paper trail ends.
The official denial came in response to an open records request from Edward Susterich, a Milwaukee man who is a member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Susterich's request said:
"Since your terms as Governor, please provide a copy/transcript of all communications with God, the Lord, Christ, Jesus or any other form of deity."
Walker, who attends a nondenominational, evangelical church and is the son of a Baptist preacher, regularly mentions his reliance on God. In January he told a group of Wisconsin bankers that he will only run for president if he felt "called" to run.
Asked later by a reporter if he was praying about the decision, Walker said he was. "Any major decision I've made in my life, politics or otherwise, I've tried to discern God's calling on."
In a 1990 interview with the Marquette University yearbook, he said, "I really think there's a reason why God put all these political thoughts in my head."
God apparently isn't putting them on paper, however. David Rabe, assistant legal counsel for the Office of the Governor, responded on Feb. 13 to Susterich's open records request with this: "Pursuant to the Public Records Law, we are responding to let you know that this office does not have records responsive to your request."
Walker most recently caused a bit of a flap in London with his answer to a British journalist who asked if he was comfortable with the theory of evolution: "I'm going to punt on that one as well. That's a question a politician shouldn't be involved in one way or another."
Some skeptics think he dodged the question either because he doesn't give credence to the theory or that he does and didn't want to offend conservative evangelicals.
"I wish the media would press him more for details on any messages from God or about his religious beliefs that affect political decisions (abortion, birth control, same-sex marriage, end-of-life decisions, immunizations, religious exemption for parental neglect)," Susterich said in an email after receiving the response. He's a former longtime FFRF executive board member.
In March 2014, FFRF sent a complaint letter about Walker's tweet "Philippians 4:13" on the governor's official Twitter account. The New Testament verse reads, "I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me."
In 2009, Walker told the Christian Businessmen's Committee in Madison in 2009 that he started his "walk to Christ" when he was 13. He recalled the day he met his wife Tonette: "That night I heard Christ tell me, 'This is the person you're going to be with.'"