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October 9-11, 2015

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Lauryn Seering

Lauryn Seering

The nation's largest association of nonbelievers is calling on U.S. Reps. John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi to withdraw their invitation to Pope Francis to address Congress, in part over the pope's actions to harbor a Vatican official accused of sexually preying on minors.

The Madison, Wis.-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national state/church watchdog with more than 21,500 atheist, agnostic or freethinking members, has previously contacted two mayors asking them to withdraw the red carpet to the pope based on the constitutional separation of religion from government. FFRF contacted Green Bay (Wis.) Mayor Jim Schmitt  after he invited the pope to make a "pilgrimage" in 2015 to a local Virgin Mary shrine, and St. Augustine Mayor Joseph Boles, who invited the pope to celebrate the "birthplace of Christianity in the New World, specifically Catholicism."

Today FFRF sent a letter to U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Speaker of the House John Boehner, asking them to rescind their joint invitation to the pope, issued in March. If he accepts, Pope Francis would become the first pontiff to address U.S. lawmakers at the U.S. Capitol. 

FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor objected on "compelling and cogent" grounds that such an event would blur the lines between religion and government. They quoted America's first Roman Catholic president, as candidate, saying: "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act." They cited the "exorbitant price tag" such an event would incur for the American public, and the appearance of preference for Roman Catholicism over other religions, and religion over non-religion.

But they also lodged vigorous objections to the invitation, given Pope Francis' decision to harbor papal nuncio Archbishop Jozef Wesolowski, 66, who stands accused of using impoverished Dominican Republic minors for sex.

FFRF cited the New York Times' expose revealing the Vatican's protection of this personal envoy of the pope. The article by Laurie Goodstein, which appeared in the Aug. 23 edition, detailed criminal accusations against Wesolowski, who served as papal nuncio in the Dominican Republic beginning in 2008. The posting included access to a beach house.

"Despite Pope Francis' assurances of 'zero tolerance,' and his vow that 'There are no privileges' for priests and bishops who violate children, actions speak louder than words," said Gaylor, who, in 1988, wrote the first book calling attention to priest and minister predators of minors, Betrayal of Trust: Clergy Abuse of Children

The Vatican moved swiftly and secretly to muzzle the scandal involving the papal nuncio, she charged. The leader of the Dominican Church, a cardinal, personally carried evidence of the allegations to Pope Francis, who secretly recalled Wesolowski. The Vatican and Dominican Republic church authorities failed to follow the church's own policies requiring them to report suspected sexual abuse of minors to criminal authorities. The Vatican then provided diplomatic immunity when both the Dominican Republic and the nuncio's native country of Poland sought extradition.

Only on Tuesday did the Vatican place Wesolowski under house arrest.

The specific allegations include preying on impoverished youths as young as 11. The papal envoy is accused of trading medication for sex with an epileptic boy in need of treatment, beginning when he was 13.

FFRF respectfully urged the Congressional pair to rescind the invitation and instead "call for hearings into severing ambassadorial ties to the Vatican, and investigating the Vatican Embassy's alleged role in covering up systemic Catholic crimes against minors."

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has awarded and sincerely congratulates the 21 currently enrolled college student winners in its annual essay competition. Currently enrolled college students were asked to write about the topic, "My atheist/unbeliever 'coming out' story" in 700-900 words. There were eight winners in the top six, with ties for fifth and sixth places. FFRF also awarded 13 "honorable mentions" this year.

The late Professor Michael Hakeem, a sociologist, was an FFRF officer and active atheist known by generations of University of Wisconsin-Madison students, whose bequest endows the college essay competition.

  • First Place ($3000): Bijan Parandeh, University of Illinois-Chicago
  • Second Place ($2000): David Andexler, Duquesne University
  • Third Place ($1000): Reem Abdel-Razek, Onondaga Community College
  • Fourth Place ($750): Audrey Gunn, Concordia College
  • Fifth Place: ($500): Marcus Andrews, Ohio State University
  • Fifth Place: ($500): Keith Greer Milburn, University of Memphis
  • Sixth Place: ($400): Aaron McLaughlin, University of Iowa
  • Sixth Place: ($400): Anvita Patwardhan, University of California - Berkeley

Honorable mentions each receiving $200 are:

  • Nathan Hume Stevens, University of Oregon Eugene
  • Chris Holder, Unviersity of Montevallo
  • Joe Magestro, University of Wisconsin - Whitewater
  • Marina Esposito, Grand Canyon University
  • Jennifer Wilson, St. Olaf College
  • Eric Duran, University of North Texas
  • Jessie Warme, College of the Canyons & University of California San Diego
  • Harrison Slater, Pennsylvania State University
  • Benjamin Carton, Lesley University
  • Jenny Cox, Cosumnes River College & California Polytechnic State University - San Luis Obispo
  • Alexander Andruzzi, University of British Columbia
  • Blake Allen, Louisiana State University
  • Anna Bridge, South Dakota State University

"We consider our student scholarships as among FFRF's most important endeavors and outreach to the next generation of freethinkers," said FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. "All too many scholarship programs reward orthodoxy, but FFRF rewards students for critical thinking, and for being willing to make known their dissent from religion."

FFRF earlier this summer awarded $10,250, to a total of 16 college-bound high school graduates. Next to be announced: FFRF's annual essay contest for graduate/older students. The top winning college essays will appear in the October issue of Freethought Today, FFRF's newspaper, and honorable mentions will run in future issues.

FFRF would also like to extend a special thanks to Dorea and Dean Schramm in Florida for providing each student who is a member of a secular campus group with a $100 bonus. The total of $12,550 in awards reflects the additional $100 bonuses.

Check back in February 2015 for the guidelines to next year's essay contest.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is urging the Ocala (Fla.) Police Department to cancel a "Community Prayer Vigil" scheduled for tonight, Wed., Sept. 24. Police Chief Greg Graham posted a letter on police letterhead to the department's Facebook page on Sept. 18 exhorting citizens to attend the vigil. Graham called a recent series of shootings in the area "a crisis that . . . requires fervent prayer and your presence to show unity and help in this senseless crime spree that is affecting our community."

FFRF, the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics) based in Madison, Wis., with 21,500 members, representing more than 1,000 members and a chapter in Florida, works as a state/church watchdog.

"Calling upon citizens to pray is coercive and beyond the authority of any government. Citizens should not be made to feel offended, excluded, or like political outsiders because the police department, which they support with their taxes, imposes religious ritual on them," wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel in a letter to the police department today.

Graham told the Ocala Star Banner that the vigil would be "an opportunity to show solidarity in our community, that we are not going to tolerate people who are going to go out and victimize innocent people." Seidel responded, "It is not necessary to endorse religion to achieve these aims. A secular community gathering could achieve these exact goals without excluding a significant portion of the citizens the OPD is sworn to protect."

FFRF cited a 2009 scientific study showing that homicide rates are higher in more religious nations, and noted that the most religious states in the United States have the highest rates of societal ills such as poverty, infant mortality, and violent crime. The letter also cited a 2006 study that showed prayer had no effect on those recovering from surgery. "Prayer is the ultimate cop-out, the admission that the prayer-giver is giving up and transferring personal responsibility to an invisible, absent being," wrote Seidel.

The letter also strongly objected to the official patches, declaring "GOD BE WITH US," worn by Ocala police officers. The unconstitutional phrase is Ocala's motto and appears on the city seal. FFRF sent a separate letter to Mayor Kent Guinn protesting the use of this religious phrase as the city motto.

Seidel pointed out that variations of the phrase appear numerous times in the bible and Catholic liturgy, and that Nazi soldiers wore the German version of the motto, Gott mit uns, on their belt buckles.

FFRF further called for the department to end its chaplain program. "Given that chaplains are organizing this unconstitutional prayer vigil, the OPD is already clearly failing to properly limit the chaplains from imposing religion," wrote Seidel. He also noted that it is discriminatory to provide "free, on-the-job" religious counseling to religious officers or members of the public, while failing to providing secular counseling for those who are nonreligious or nonChristian.

FFRF asks the Ocala Police Department to cancel the vigil "or convert it to an entirely secular event where all OPD citizens are welcome, regardless of their religion or lack thereof," to replace the religious patches and to discontinue the chaplain program.

The vigil is slated to be held tonight at 6:30 p.m. in Ocala's Downtown Square.

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

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