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National Convention

October 9-11, 2015

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Appearances, Debates, Speeches and More

Lauryn Seering

Lauryn Seering

Kindergarten testing in Portage, Mich., will no longer take place in church. Previously, Woodland Elementary School held its mandatory screening at First Baptist Church, where religious pamphlets were reportedly distributed to students and parents.

Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote in an April 1 complaint letter, “It is outrageous and illegal for a public school to allow a church to proselytize 5-year-old students with religious materials at a mandatory school-sponsored event.”

The superintendent responded May 1 to say that the district was able to find an alternative secular location.

San Angelo Independent School District in Texas is taking steps to ensure a teacher who bragged about praying with students will follow the law in the future. Central High School teacher Julie Upton Schniers wrote on Facebook that she was “a teacher who prays with [her] team before every speech and debate tournament knowing they don’t all believe and knowing it could get [her] fired some day.”

She also wrote it was her job to subtly influence her students toward Christianity by “planting a seed.”

“Almost more troubling than the constitutional violation is the willful and blatant manner in which Schniers is breaking the law,” wrote Staff Attorney Sam Grover in an April 28 complaint letter.

The school district responded May 1, saying it was conducting an investigation and would “promptly take all remedial actions necessary to ensure compliance with applicable legal standards.”

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Baccalaureate stops (May 19, 2015)

Olentangy Local School District in Lewis Center, Ohio, distanced itself from a baccalaureate ceremony after getting a May 13 complaint letter from Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert. An email invitation about the ceremony was sent to parents from an email address typically used to promote school events. It had no disclaimer that the ceremony was not school-sponsored and said to contact Olentangy High School teacher Linda Shank to sign up.

An assistant superintendent responded the next day to say that the district was taking steps to ensure employees maintained appropriate distance from the baccalaureate. FFRF’s complainant reported that further school announcements included a disclaimer that the baccalaureate was not school-sponsored and that students were no longer to contact school staff to sign up.

Shank, the teacher listed as the contact person, called Markert on May 19 and demanded to know the complainant’s name, a request Markert refused. FFRF carefully protects the identities of complainants, as it is allowed to do by law.

Fruita, Colo., Monument High School instituted a new policy on baccalaureates after getting a Jan. 28 letter from FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel. FFRF learned the school previously held a baccalaureate, organized by administrators and other staff, in the gym. At the 2014 ceremony, teachers reportedly read bible verses and spoke about the virtues of being Christian, with choir and orchestra students required to perform. Students were threatened with lower grades and told that failing to attend would result in having to perform all the concert music alone in front of the entire class.

“The District agrees that its schools and staff members should not sponsor, organize or require attendance at baccalaureate events in which prayers or other religious messages are recited,” wrote the Mesa County Valley School District’s attorney in an April 28 response. The new policy assures ceremonies will be conducted “in a manner that is fully consistent with modern First Amendment jurisprudence.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation's 38th annual national convention, featuring keynoter Ron Reagan and many powerful activists and authors, will also revolve around the grand opening of the "reborn" Freethought Hall in downtown Madison, Wis.

Reagan, the "unabashed atheist, not afraid of burning in hell" featured in FFRF's TV and radio ads, will speak at Friday night's opening of the formal conference at Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center, 1 John Nolen Drive, on the weekend of Oct. 9-11.

The official grand opening of the five-story addition and renovation of the existing building is Friday morning, with a food reception and workshops in the afternoon.

Reserve hotel rooms now to avoid disappointment at the Hilton Madison Monona Terrace, 9 E. Wilson St., next door to the convention center. Room rates are $169 single or double. Phone 1-866-403-8838 (toll-free) or 1-608-255-5100. The group name is Freedom From Religion Foundation and the group code is FFRF. Book online at ffrf.org/convention2015 — go to the hotel site section, which links directly to reservations. The cutoff is Sept. 7, or as long as rooms last.

There are additional rooms at the Sheraton Madison Hotel, 706 John Nolen Drive, which provides a free shuttle to and from the convention center every half hour from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sheraton rates are $139 single/double/triple/quad. Make your reservations at 1-800-325-3535 and let them know you're with "Freedom From Religion."

You may wish to arrive Thursday in order to tour the "reborn" Freethought Hall Friday morning, which is six blocks from the convention center. An informal open house will be held from 9–11:30 AM. Please indicate if you plan to attend on the registration form, to help ensure FFRF orders enough refreshments.

Due to time and staff constraints, this will be the only time to tour during the convention.

Speaker lineup

Joining Reagan as confirmed speakers are:

Kevin M. Kruse, the Princeton University professor of history whose new book, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, is creating a lot of excitement. He recently appeared on NPR's "Fresh Air" with Terry Gross, and has authored or co-edited four other books. His White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism (2005), won several prizes.

Dan Barker, FFRF co-president, will also speak about his newest book, Life-Driven Purpose: How an Atheist Finds Meaning, an answer to Rick Warren's Purpose-Driven Life, and will autograph books. Dan, a talented pianist and songwriter who has recorded three music CDs for FFRF, will also entertain throughout the conference.

Douglas Marshall will receive a Freethinker of the Year Award as the local plaintiff in FFRF's most recent federal court victory, forcing the town of Warren, Mich., to permit him to put up a Reason Station to counter an ongoing prayer booth that dominates the atrium of his city hall.

Anita Weier will be honored as Freethought Heroine for introducing a historic ordinance to make "nonreligion" a protected class in Madison, Wis. Weier, former city editor for The Capital Times, served as an alderperson for two terms. Her "first of its kind" ordinance passed with no dissent on March 31.

Steven Hewett will be honored with FFRF's Atheist in Foxhole Award. The former police officer and Afghanistan war veteran returned home with a Combat Action Badge and Bronze Star, only to find a Christian flag flying at the Veterans Memorial in King, N.C. In December, following a long court battle taken on his behalf by Americans United, the city agreed to stop flying the Christian flag and to remove a cross from a kneeling soldier statue. Steven is a Lifetime FFRF Member.

FFRF staff attorneys will give a detailed presentation on their major accomplishments in ending state/church entanglements in 2015. Other speakers and honorees will be announced in future issues.

To receive an expenses-paid trip to the convention, persuade your prayerful local governmental body to let you to give a secular invocation, and enter FFRF's Nothing Fails Like Prayer contest (see details on page 20 or at ffrf.org/outreach/nothing-fails-like-prayer). The award includes opening a session of the conference with your secular words and a $500 award, plaque, transportation and accommodations at the convention.

FFRF will honor major donors who made possible the expansion of Freethought Hall at Saturday's dinner, which will also include the annual drawing for "clean money" (pre-"In God We Trust").

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Sharing the Crank Mail

Neither sunlight nor gloom of night stays the crank mailers from the swift completion of their appointed screeds, printed as received.

freedom: yel yor foundation is a bruch of shit you won"t even talk to someone with about you foundation you hang up if you dont want to tell the trueth it a joke every one of you should be shot for a lie you tell. — mike wells, liberty, kentucky

I saw you're commercial: I am appalled you're an atheist,I love Jesus,am on Twitter,Facebook got a few messages here they go!Jesus loves you!The Devil steals,kills,and destroy!He's defeated. — Kimberly Ferguson

ridiculous! Why dont you just give up your citizenship and join another country, because noone really wants you here. Get a REAL job and a REAL life like everybody else. Maybe that is just how stupid atheist are that they would actually send money to you! — Nancy Johnson

Freedom of religion: We do not go to your houses and tell you how to pray or not to pray so if you are offended you can just excuse yourself from the circle for a few minutes then return. WE ARE TH MAJORITY AND THE MAJORITY RULES! — Sammy Silly, Salt Lake City

Anonymous: Your organizations is absolutely rediculous and should not be in exist. Your countries constitution (u.s.a.) which allows you freedoms that you and your organization probably take for granted are founded on christian values. You are all lost in life and need serious help. I will be praying for your obsurd "beliefs" in "nothing". Thanks — Trent Heisler

Clown: Keep your non beliefs to your self. — Bozo D, Michigan

The Devil: I would like to know how a person can say they're not afraid of goin to hell and they obviously have never been there. ONE DAY,,"EVERY KNEE SHALL BOW & EVERY TOUNGE CONFESS"! — Rodney King, Corinth, Miss.

Don't worry about the Lambs: You good folks better start worrying about the real problem. Separation of Mosque and State. Most Christians are tax payers and support most anything that is good..even schools that indoctrinate their children to science with philosophical rhetoric to fill voids are that obvious. So, focus on the real problem, and not fanciful idea that some professor with degree's can explain the complexity of life. — Jack Matson Jacoby

Do you people treat Muslims the same way you treat Christians with your complaints? I guess not, because Muslims might actually show up and mame or kill you, right? Honestly, I wish great bodily harm and death would somehow befall you people. You well deserve a robust, full-throttled Muslim visitation. Good day. — James M. Baker, Indianapolis
Please help! Your going to hell unless you accept the sacrifice of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Go ahead, smirk and think you have nothing to worry about. — Gohen Tohell, Liberty, Rhode Island

Contact: You a trash orginisation that needs to be dissolved. GOD bless America. — GH

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Secular invocations

We call this morning to god, goddess, universe, that which is greater than ourselves to be with us here today. By the earth that is in our bones and centers us, may all here remember our roots and those we are here to represent. By the fire that gives us light and passion, may all here remain passionate about the work that must be done for the people of Iowa. By the air that gives us breath and logic, may all here find thoughtful solutions to the problems that are presented. By the water that flows through our blood and stirs our emotions, may all here draw an emotional intelligence which helps us see the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

We call this morning to spirit ever present, to help us respect the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. Be with us and this legislative body and guide them to seek justice, equity and compassion in the work that is before them today. Blessed be, Aho and Amen.

Deborah Maynard, Cedar Rapids, leads the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans and is a project manager for a private company. One Republican legislator turned his back during her invocation and several others came late to avoid hearing it.
Cheryl Kolbe

Board of County Councilors, Clark County, Wash., April 7, 2015

Yamhill Board of Commissioners, Yamhill, Ore., April 16, 2015

I invite you to take your seats and join me as I invoke reason. Reason: the basis or motive for an action, decision, or conviction, good judgment, sound sense.

R — Review the facts. Facts are verifiable. Facts provide crucial support for the assertion of an argument. Let's keep in our awareness that omission of some facts may foster misconceptions.

E — Evaluate the facts. Facts are only useful when we put them in context and draw conclusions. Albert Einstein is reported to have said, "It is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned in textbooks."
A ­— Apply rational thinking. Poor decisions are often the result of flawed or incomplete thinking, not the absence of thinking.

S — Sometimes the best solution isn't our personal first choice. What are the consequences of the proposed solution? Will there be a negative impact on some of the members of this community?

O — Only by looking for better ways to solve our problems will we find the best solution. Another quote widely attributed to Einstein: "We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them."

N — Never start with an assumption. An assumption is a thing that is accepted as true or as certain to happen, without proof.

I invite residents and board members to use reason as you work together for the benefit of the community.

Cheryl Kolbe is founder and president of FFRF's Portland-area chapter. She retired from Portland Community College in 2004 as student systems support manager for enrollment services, with responsibility for software implementation.

Robert Ray
Washington House of Representatives
April 13, 2015

I would like to open this invocation by asking everyone look around you. Beside you, in front of you and behind you, is a person that is, in so many ways, the same as you. We may have different backgrounds and beliefs. We may come from different ethnicity and religions. But when it comes down to it, we are all sharing the same speck of dust floating through a vast and wondrous universe

Many have come before me in this chamber to speak of their faith. But I would, instead, like to speak of trust. Of trust in humanity, trust in the fundamental good will within people. Trust that we all yearn to make the world a better place. Trust that some can answer to a higher calling. A calling many of us have in common, that is to serve our fellow humans to the best of our ability. I have trust that everyone in this chamber has felt this or you would not be here.

With that being said. I also ask that you use your trust in the same way that I have described. Reach out to one another. Try to understand and have empathy with those you may disagree with. Make an honest attempt at compromise, for that is what our secular government is based on.

With today being the 272nd birthday of Thomas Jefferson, I felt I should honor his memory with a quote: "He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me."
So I thank you for this opportunity to bring my message of trust, humanity and humanism into this chamber.

And I will end with this simple phrase.

E Pluribus Unum.

FFRF member Robert Ray is a secular activist and humanist celebrant. He's president of two humanist groups in northwest Washington and sits on the Humanists of Washington board of directors. In his "spare time" he works as an electrician and participates in the Society for Creative Anachronism.

Bernard Drumm, Gennadiy Gurariy, Ryan Davis

City Council, Sparks, Nev., June 8, 2015

(Invocation written by Bernard and Gennadiy and delivered by Ryan.)

I would like to thank the council for inviting me to speak here today. Let us bow our heads in prayer.

We give thanks and praise to you, whom in all your teachings, guide us in our lives and give meaning to our existence and endow these fine people here today to perform their duties to serve all of us. Thank you, Satan.

Now, I am not a Satanist, but ladies and gentlemen, I imagine that these words are making some of you rather uncomfortable. You probably feel that they don't represent you or further the cause of the citizens of Sparks.

I would now like you to realize that this is exactly how the secular citizens of Sparks, statistically 20% of your constituents, feel when an invocation of any kind is given in this room.

I stand before you today with the daunting task of representing these numerous atheists, agnostics and secular individuals. And while it may not be possible to speak for them all, I ask you to meditate on the following thoughts:

While the desire to be inclusive and respectful to others is something to be condoned, the reality is that we cannot represent all religions, all of the time, and thus the only truly fair way to represent everyone is to not represent religion at all.

The constitution of the United States, which all members here swore an oath to uphold, was founded on secular principles and was the first of its kind. One of the cornerstones of being American is the freedom of religion and the freedom from religion. The only way to ensure that this freedom to express our beliefs is maintained is to ensure that the government does not participate in any action that would endorse any religion or even the concept of religion itself.

When religious invocations are given in a government capacity, those of us who do not subscribe to such beliefs are alienated and not represented.

For people like me who are atheist, and others who are agnostic or simply secular, we invoke you to not use religious invocations in your meetings, which only deepens the divisions between us. But rather, focus on what all of your constituents, including the secular ones share. And that is the common humanistic desire to increase the happiness of all human beings. People like me can do this without religion, and likewise, those in government can do good without religion, too.
Thank you.

Bernard Drumm is a native of the Republic of Ireland who moved to Reno for a post-doctoral position at the University of Nevada after receiving his Ph.D. in physiology in 2012.
Bernard works primarily on researching smooth muscle contraction and has a passion for teaching science. He served as outreach coordinator for UN-Reno's Secular Student Alliance chapter and is now an organizing officer for the chapter group.

Gennadiy Gurariy completed his undergraduate degree in psychology in Ohio before moving to UN-Reno to begin a graduate degree program in cognitive neuroscience. He instigated the SSA chapter's discussion groups and continues to lead them as well as serving as the group's graduate president from 2013-15.

Ryan Davis is a Las Vegas native who moved to Reno in 2012 to pursue a double major in physics and mathematics. He is the chapter's undergraduate president.

Marci Hamilton, recipient of FFRF's Freethought Heroine Award, is a leading state/church scholar who holds the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University, New York City. She holds degrees from Vanderbilt University, Pennsylvania State University and the University of Pennsylvania. Hamilton clerked for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and is the author of God and the Gavel: The Perils of Extreme Religious Liberty, newly updated in 2014. Professor Hamilton wrote FFRF's amicus brief before the Supreme Court in Hobby Lobby's challenge of the contraceptive mandate. Her websites are sol-reform.com and RFRAperils.com and her blog is at hamilton-griffin.com.

By Marci Hamilton

It's an honor to be here. Thanks to Annie Laurie for inviting me and for this wonderful honor.

I'm going to talk tonight about what it has been like being inside the RFRA war, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act war, and what the future holds for these extreme religious liberty statutes and civil rights.

I have been fighting for 20 years the idea that religious believers and institutions should have a right to take actions that harm others. That is really what is wrong with the current balance of church and state in the United States. We've created a culture of narcissistic religious believers, who believe sincerely that their rights should trump anybody else's rights — that they're right and everybody else is wrong.

It was illuminating to read the crank mail in Freethought Today on the airplane. The person next to me thought I had lost my mind because I was laughing so hard. I had two favorites. One was, "I am a high school student who is also a Christian. Your organization is making it hard for me to express my religion in public." No, it's not. Then there was: "This makes me very angry. I would really appreciate it if you let us believe in our god, the god who holds the universe in his hands. Let us be pro-life and let us not believe in the lifestyle of homosexuals." No one is stopping you.

They seem to believe they have a right to own the public square. There is a lot of talk about religion in the United States; there's never been more talk about religion in the United States. This talk of the public square is an attempt to own the public square rather than share it.

Another favorite was, "My goal is to destroy, dissolve this organization. 75% of Americans claim to be of Christian faith, which makes us the majority, and in a traditional Democratic Republic the majority rules. When the majority unites we will smash this website organization or company like the sledgehammer to an ant." This one brought to mind James Madison, who crafted the First Amendment and repeatedly said things that today's religious lobbyists don't want repeated. Madison believed that the greatest thing to fear in a republican democracy is faction. And when he used the word "faction," he meant interest groups.

But at the same time, he said in "Memorial and Remonstrance [against Religious Assessments," 1785] that we must be aware and be concerned about ecclesiastical establishments. With the framing of the First Amendment, he understood that the problem for religion and the problem of religion is that we need freedom, but we also need disestablishment.

He believed that people who were believers would overreach. And of course that whole generation believed it; why wouldn't they? They escaped Europe because they were being oppressed for their religious beliefs. But many of them came over here and oppressed others, not knowing any other way.

It's really the miracle of the First Amendment, and frankly, the way the Supreme Court has interpreted it, that has created diversity and the right to be or not to be a believer in the United States.

I always tell my students that one of the most interesting aspects of the Constitution is that there is only one absolute right in the entire document — every other right the government can trump if its interests are strong enough. The one absolute right is the right to believe anything you want. That is the miracle of the United States. And that's the right that is protected regardless of what the government ever tries to do. The right to believe what one wants, however, is not packaged with a right not to be criticized or a right to dictate public policy. Quite to the contrary.

Roots of RFRA

So how did I get into this crazy RFRA war? I was clerking for Justice O'Connor the year Employment Division v. Smith was decided [in 1990]. That quite simple case was used as the launching pad for extreme religious liberty statutes. It involved two Oregon drug counselors who took peyote as part of a religious ceremony and were fired. When you're a drug counselor, you're not supposed to use illegal drugs.

To paraphrase, the Supreme Court said, "In the vast majority of our cases, we have said that if there is a law that's neutral, not discriminatory, and it applies to everybody who does the same thing, that law is constitutional." That description was correct. I can tell you as a clerk that year that none of us thought that Smith was going to be the most politically important case of the year. No one thought much of it at all.

But it was the religious lobbyists who jumped on the minute Smith came down and said, "Oh no, that's not what the standard was. No, Justices, you are wrong. You know what, since the Supreme Court's so stupid not to know its own cases, we're going to go across the street to Congress, and we'll say to Congress, you need to restore religious liberty."
So they marched over to Senators Orrin Hatch and Ted Kennedy. They are the two that made things happen. What they were handed by the Coalition for the Free Exercise of Religion is the so-called, the most brilliantly named statute in American history, the "Religious Freedom Restoration Act." The "Restoration" in the title is a lie. It was not restoring anything that had been in place before. It was putting in place what the religious litigants had failed to obtain for years.

The coalition asserted that Smith was the end of religious liberty and they got Congress on board. What's worse is they got the ACLU, People for the American Way and Americans United for Separation of Church and State on board, too. Everybody thought this was a wonderful thing to restore religious liberty.

In 1993, after three years of lobbying and three years of testimony by members of religious and civil liberties groups, including 450 pages of telling Congress that the Supreme Court was stupid, that the Supreme Court didn't know its own doctrine, didn't even know what its own cases said, members of Congress said to each other, "You know, if the ACLU and the Christian Legal Society are on the same page, we cannot go wrong. This has to be good."

The ACLU and People for the American Way and Americans United, none of them did the deep digging. None of them appeared to have read a few cases to figure out that in fact RFRA was a lie. It wasn't restoring anything; it was creating a new extreme religious liberty standard that was now going to make it so that believers could challenge every law in the country. The law schools were teaching that the standard in RFRA was the standard all along, but it was the standard they wanted. It wasn't the standard at the court.

In 1993, three years after Smith, the Supreme Court decided Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. Hialeah. It was the first case the court decided in which it appeared there was real religious discrimination. The city of Hialeah, Fla., had banned animal sacrifice so that the Santeríans could not practice their religion, but had left in place kosher slaughtering, which is virtually an identical practice.

The church argued the following: The government cannot enforce this discriminatory law against us unless the government can prove it has a "compelling interest," and that its regulation is the "least restrictive means" of regulating for these believers. In other words, the standard that was suggested to the Supreme Court was that every law had to be tailored closely to the demands of each believer.

The Supreme Court rejected it. The court said essentially, "Yes, when there's targeting of religion, yes, the government must prove a 'compelling interest,' and that's part of the tradition. But we're not going to require the government to regulate so that each law is the 'least restrictive' for this believer. The law can't be shaped to one believer."
In the first free exercise of religion case in Reynolds, involving polygamy in 1878, the court held that no one may be a law unto themselves. The Smith court in 1990 and the Lukumi court in 1993 echoed that. Five months later RFRA was signed into law by President Clinton and celebrated as a restoration of the standard that purportedly had been in place before, but RFRA is the standard the court rejected in the Lukumi case for discrimination cases. It is beyond discussion that the First Amendment had never been interpreted to apply this extreme medicine to laws that are neutral and generally applicable to all.
Voilà, RFRA appears and dramatically shifts the balance between religious liberty and harm. Suddenly, if you can show you have a religious belief that is being "substantially burdened" by that law discriminatory or not, the government now bears the extraordinary burden of proving that that law was passed for a "compelling, or highly important, interest" and it is the "least restrictive means" of regulating this policy for this believer. In short, the law must be tailored to this believer. That's the RFRA that President William Clinton signed into law in 1993.

Boerne v. Flores

I challenged RFRA's constitutionality at the Supreme Court. It was my first case, indeed my first oral argument. In Boerne v. Flores, I represented the city of Boerne (pronounced BUR-nee), Texas. It was 1997, and in Boerne, a Catholic church in the historic preservation district wanted to demolish the church and build basically a box. The city responded, "No, no boxes. You have to keep the front of that building. If you don't keep the front of that building, then it doesn't fit in with the historic district." As always happens in land use applications across the United States, the parties sat down to find a middle ground.

They started negotiating and essentially reached the point where the city said, "You need to keep 70% of the façade." The church said, "No, we'll keep 50% of the façade." Now it does not take a genius to know the middle ground between 70% and 50% is 60%, right? That was a solution that would have precluded going to court and would have led to building a new church for believers as soon as possible.

But then RFRA became law, and the archbishop of San Antonio invoked it with the message that they did not have to abide by Boerne's historic preservation law.

The case went all the way up to the Supreme Court. One of my favorite parts of representing the city of Boerne was that the mayor was a Methodist minister, Patrick Heath. He was 100% behind challenging RFRA because he thought that it was wrong. He had both a gentle soul and a practical bent and knew that a landowner should not be able to dictate land use policy just because it was a church.

We argued it was unconstitutional in about five different ways. The court ruled 6-3 that RFRA was unconstitutional in virtually every way that we had argued. Once Boerne came down, the religious lobbyists — largely at that point the Becket Fund and the Rutherford Institute — expanded their targets.

It used to be that Smith was the worst decision in history; now it was going to be the Boerne case. The religious lobbyists went back to Congress and said we want to do it all over again. We'll agree to a few touch-ups but we want the same law again. Well by that point, groups that fight religious groups on a daily basis in our society had made themselves known to me: the American Academy of Pediatrics, National Association of Regulatory Agencies, every prison authority in the country, the attorneys general, the governors, the mayors, Children's Healthcare Is a Legal Duty (CHILD).

All of them said, "This law must not be passed again; this law is a nightmare." And frankly, I didn't know that many people lobbied against religion when I first undertook to represent Boerne. I had no idea, but I was really taken with people like CHILD's Rita Swan, who fights medical neglect, and I was persuaded that RFRA was not just a bad constitutional idea but also bad law and bad policy.

I testified against it and had members of Congress tell me, "Oh, I know it's unconstitutional, but we have to pass it anyway."

In addition to children's groups, now we had other groups coming out of the woodwork and the ACLU began to stir. The Christian Legal Society and other conservative Christian groups were losing some of the battles on fair housing laws in the states and needed RFRA as a backstop to permit them to reject rental applicants who were unmarried, single mothers and/or same-sex couples. The ACLU saw that their own agendas were being undermined in the states.

No unanimous consent

There was back and forth from 1997 to 2000. First they tried to pass just RFRA redux. It doesn't make it because everybody knows this is a law that's intended to undermine civil rights. The House passed it 308-117 as a political nod, knowing the Senate would not take it up. Then there was the deal with the devil. The civil rights groups acquiesced with, "You can have RFRA as applied to federal law because the federal civil rights don't apply to the LGBT community." But no RFRA applicable to state laws, because LGBTQ and housing civil rights were making progress in some states.

At the time, Title VII didn't protect sexual orientation but states were starting to, and the Supreme Court had yet to treat LGBTQ as a suspect class and worthy of heightened protection under equal protection. So a RFRA only against federal law wouldn't cut back on LGBTQ rights. In other words, the ACLU agreed to a law that had the potential to attack federal civil rights but was willing to let it go if it just didn't do anything to the LGBTQ community.

Then James Dobson and Charles Colson came into the picture. Dobson purportedly was behind the push for rights for religious landowners to trump local land use laws. Colson, of Watergate fame, came in from his Prison Fellowship ministry saying he needed to be able to evangelize with fewer restrictions in the prisons.

It's July 27, 2000. I get a call. We are told that we need to start putting together the panels because there are going to be hearings from the opponents to a new RFRA in September. We'll bring in Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Sen. Patrick Moynihan, both of whom had asked to testify, the National League of Cities, International Municipal Lawyers Association. A lot of people wanted to explain what was wrong with this law.

That night I get a phone call from a reporter: "Did you know that RFRA and RLUIPA just passed?" I said, "No, they're on summer recess." He said, "You better talk to someone because I heard they passed."

As soon as they went into recess and the members who were opponents had left town, leadership took RFRA and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which is RFRA applied to land use and to prisons in the states, and passed it by "unanimous consent" in one house and then the other. Unanimous consent is the phrase used by Congress when you have leadership bring a bill up with no quorum, no roll call and no requirement of anybody being there but a handful.

They hired a courier to run it from the House to the Senate, and before anybody in opposition could learn what was going on, the new RFRA and RLUIPA was passed. To this day, they say they passed it "unanimously." That is propaganda.

I'm on the phone to reporters and editors routinely, "How in the world could you not do the research to figure out that it wasn't unanimous?" "Well, they told me." I say, "Please do your homework." It was not passed unanimously, ever, ever. It was passed by unanimous consent in 1993 in the House; it was passed 97-3 in the Senate. It was passed by unanimous consent in both houses in 2000, never a roll call, never a quorum.

So that is the bill that is so beloved, and that everybody says, "Well, how can you be against something that everybody loved?" Well, because it's a bad bill. So at the same time they're in Congress trying to get a new federal RFRA, the Rutherford Institute fanned out into the 50 state capitols in order to push for 50 state RFRAs.

The idea was that this super-strict standard would apply to the federal government from the federal RFRA and to all state laws through state RFRAs and thereby halt all laws for any religious believers. The thinking was that if we can't get it at the federal level, we'll do it at the state level. That had mixed results. California's RFRA was killed twice, partly because someone accidentally faxed me the Christian Legal Society's letter explaining the fair housing point, which I had not known up until then.

The group in California that really blocked it was the juvenile justice judges. They were very concerned about custody and family decisions and how a RFRA would take away the standard of the best interest of the child. But it's now in place in 20 states; we now have 20 state RFRAs. We have a federal RFRA that only applies to federal law, and we have RLUIPA applying to land use at the local and state levels and in prisons, and 20 state RFRAs.

First there were about 10 or so and then interest petered out for about a decade, but with same-sex marriage on the horizon, interest rose again and the last 10 have been a product of that movement.

Affordable Care Act

So the Affordable Care Act shows up, and conservatives don't like it, to put it mildly, but it's declared constitutional. They can't wipe it out at the Supreme Court, so how could they attack it? They sought the tools available, and the tool available was RFRA. In come the Koch brothers — money — who founded the Cato Institute, you get the Greens' money [Hobby Lobby], and you get the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Becket Fund [for Religious Liberty]. What do you get? You get an argument that Hobby Lobby, which sounds like a mom and pop organization, but has $3.3 billion in annual sales, 23,000 employees and over 600 stores, needs protection. Why? They're religious.

They come in and say they're religious. Those of us who are on the inside are saying, "No, they're not." I was there, I know that we discussed that Exxon would never be thought to be religious, that a large for-profit nonreligious corporation was not going to have the benefit of RFRA. We knew that was the deal that was cut.

The Dictionary Act defines the terms in every federal statute, and they had chosen "person" as the rights-holder in RFRA. [The 1871 Dictionary Act instructs courts to apply definitions of certain common words (including "person") and basic rules of grammatical construction "unless context indicates otherwise."]

In the Dictionary Act, a corporation is a person. It was either brilliant drafting or blind drafting. Justice Scalia's favorite resource is a dictionary, and this was the Dictionary Act. So we get a ruling that says this humongous corporation with all of its political power has the right to refuse to provide contraception that it believes is an abortifacient, which is not scientifically an abortifacient.

It has the right not to include four types of contraception in its coverage. Let me explain how RFRA gets you to that unbelievable result, which in my view is a violation of women's civil rights against gender and religious discrimination. They are being discriminated against because they don't believe what their employers believe.

RFRA is the concoction of a legal standard that has never existed before, but it's all terminology that has been pasted together from Supreme Court constitutional cases. So the first thing that has to happen is that the believer has to prove that there's a "substantial burden" on their conduct. Normally, "substantial" has had quite a bit of bite to it. It means substantial, not de minimis.

In this case, an employer who's putting money into fungible funds, will never know if an employee ever uses any contraception, let alone the types the employer doesn't like. That's because of the HIPAA [federal privacy] rules. This is about five times removed from any violation of Hobby Lobby's religious liberty.

But five members of the Supreme Court believe it's a "substantial burden." I've litigated religious land use cases for cities all over the country. I have never seen substantial burden interpreted in that attenuated way. Then the court asks, "Well, does the government have a compelling interest in women having cost free access to contraception?" And the majority can't bring themselves to say that there is a compelling interest in that. They say, "We'll assume it." Because they get to the part of the test that it is typically impossible for the government to win — the "least restrictive means" test.

RFRA is contagious

What is the "least restrictive means" for women to have cost-free contraceptive coverage that won't substantially burden the Greens' belief that four types of contraception are abortifacients when they're actually not? That's the question, and the court has the answer. The least restrictive means is for the government to pay for it. That's not in the statute. The government has not allocated any funds to cover what the Greens aren't paying for, or what the other 49 for-profit corporations are asking for since Hobby Lobby was decided.

These corporations are saying they have the right not to provide health care that serves the compelling interests of women's health. Here is the single most important point I'm going to make tonight, by far: RFRA is not establishing a constitutional rule. It's not a constitutional standard. It's just a statute, so when you see talk about RFRA, what you see is politicians saying, "I'm in favor of religious rights," it's statutory rights, not constitutional rights.

The First Amendment stands for this: Each of us has a right under the Constitution to be free from discrimination from the government based on our beliefs and to have the government treat us like everybody else. If we engage in conduct, and anybody else does the same thing, we're all treated alike. If the government discriminates against us, the First Amendment kicks in big time.

Believers also have a statutory RFRA right. And the RFRA right is sui generis, it's made up, it's on its own and it needs to be repealed. It is the wrong standard.

There are also some rather entertaining RFRA cases, if you have a really sick sense of humor and nothing else to do. The fundamentalist Mormons [FLDS, led by imprisoned "prophet" Warren Jeffs] argued that they can't testify about their practices in a proceeding involving an alleged violation of federal child labor laws, and the court agreed.

Another RFRA wrinkle is that Gitmo detainees see Hobby Lobby as a wonderful opening, not because they're for-profit corporations, but because they think that "person" must also include nonresident detainees. So they've asked for the right to engage in communal prayer, which is not permitted at Gitmo because that's where they "collude," that's where they pass messages. They have also asked for a right not to have a female guard because it's against their religious beliefs to have a woman touch them.

The good news is that this is just a federal statute. The second good news is that it's unconstitutional to apply it to the states. Even the state RFRAs are not bound by Hobby Lobby. It's a federal interpretation of a federal statute.

What that means is that a state right now, especially if it does not have a RFRA, could pass a law that says every female employee has a right to contraceptive coverage. If she doesn't get it, it's a violation of her civil rights. If a RFRA-less state were to do that, all the Hobby Lobby stores in that state would have to provide their employees with contraceptive coverage.

What's ahead?

What's next is finally what I've been hoping for years. After the court declared in Boerne that RFRA was unconstitutional and I saw them going back to Congress, I started calling groups to say you have no idea what you are up against and you need to start fighting it now. There is a statute that is going to undermine your interests and you need to do something about it: RFRA.

I called groups like the National Organization for Women. They hung up on me. You know, at the time I sounded like a lunatic, right? A rational lunatic, but a lunatic. Now I don't. Now I'm right.

Finally, the ACLU, People for the American Way, Americans United, Freedom From Religion Foundation, reproductive rights groups, women's rights groups — including NOW — children's advocates, are all joining together to push back against the RFRAs.

I thought the best question this afternoon was, "What is FFRF doing with other groups?" It is going to take that kind of coalition of Americans to either repeal the RFRAs or to inflict deaths by a thousand amendments.

It ought to be clearly stated in every RFRA that it does not trump civil rights, whether they are rights for women, race or the LGBTQ. How about a line in each RFRA that says it has no effect in cases involving the death of children, the abuse of children or the neglect of children? Let religious entities defend the right to do that.

Finally, there are two things that need to happen. The attorneys' fees provisions should be repealed. They perversely force taxpayers to underwrite special treatment of religious entities and believers when they harm others like Hobby Lobby has.

There was a move starting last spring [2014] to enact state RFRAs that would permit private businesses to invoke RFRA against their customers. So the pizzeria that doesn't want to serve a homosexual could deny service. Or, the white supremacist who owns a tavern would be able to keep minorities out, or the black supremacist would be able to keep whites out. That's the bill that Arizona was considering and that Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed. Why did she veto it? Because the National Football League and Major League Baseball threatened to pull their teams. Unfortunately, Mississippi did enact such a law.

You need to understand, however, that blocking this expansion of the RFRAs to private disputes is not enough to redress how RFRAs undergird discrimination. [After my talk, Indiana enacted a RFRA that applied to private transactions, and then "fixed it" but few understand that the "fixed" RFRA still permits discrimination by employers (like Hobby Lobby) against their employees based on religious belief.]

Discrimination against religion, discrimination against atheists, discrimination based on race, gender and sexual orientation have no place in our society. I hope we'll wipe out RFRA.

Thank you again for this extraordinary honor.

The following was first published online May 22 by the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies.

By Hank Pellissier

Is every orphanage in the world operated by a religious organization? Nope. Not anymore.
Steps to launch BiZoHa Orphanage were taken earlier this year by four members of the Brighter Brains Institute, a think-and-do tank located in San Francisco's East Bay. BiZoHa, believed to be the world's first atheist orphanage, is situated in Muhokya, in Kasese Province, near the Rwenzori Mountains of western Uganda, close to the Congo border.
Children living there will not be indoctrinated in any religion and instead will be tutored by the secular staff of the nearby Kasese Humanist Primary School. KHPS is aligned with godless groups like the Foundation Beyond Belief and Atheist Alliance International, plus other irreligious organizations in Australia, the United Kingdom, United States, Germany and Canada.

BiZoHa raised its start-up funds via a GoFundMe campaign in February that asked for $4,506 to construct a home for 20 to 25 orphans. The request went "viral" with astonishing quickness. Humanist writer Zoltan Istvan's reportage on VICE Motherboard blasted the news into public consciousness. On Facebook, it was shared by tens of thousands of godless enthusiasts.

Thirty-three people donated $100 or more. One benefactor tossed in $1,000. Ninety-seven people contributed. The campaign was enriched beyond expectations in only 29 hours.
A brick building will shelter 25 orphans and staff. The construction cost was only $3,122. The remaining funds helped with installation of a 30-foot-deep latrine, brought in a pipeline for water and seeded most of the orphanage's 7 acres with crops to provide economic self-sufficiency.

Bwambale M. Robert is director of KHPS and will be BiZoHa director. Establishing the orphanage has long been his dream. Orphaned at age 5, Bwambale worked his way through high school as a barber, subsequently received a university scholarship and matriculated in biology. He's the author of the book Orphans of Rwenzori: A Humanist Perspective.

Bwambale intends to make BiZoHa economically self-sufficient in one year. This goal will be achieved by selling corn, beans, cassava, peanuts and lettuce grown on its 7-acre crop farm and by selling drinks in a roadside stand on the popular Fort Portal Mponde Road that leads to destinations like Bushenyi, Mbarra town, Queen Elizabeth National Park and Bwera.
BiZoHa is an acronym of the three main U.S. fundraisers. "Bi" is Biba Kavass, an award-winning economics teacher at Southwind High School in Memphis, Tenn., where she started the state's first high school KIVA Club and encouraged students to write the upcoming book Microfinance in Action: A Guide for Teenagers.

"Zo" is Zoltan Istvan, author of The Transhumanist Wager and feature writer/columnist at Gizmodo, VICE, National Geographic, Huffington Post, Psychology Today and other publications.

"Ha" is Hank Pellissier, journalist and interim managing director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technology and Brighter Brains Institute director. I was the founder/co-producer of the world's first Atheist Film Festival, in 2009.

Uganda has 3.5 million orphans, or about 9% of the population. Children are parentless due to AIDS, civil war and other violence, accidents and abandonment. Up to 70% of orphans become criminals as adults. Among girls, 60% end up in prostitution, where the HIV/AIDS rate is 37%.

Education is limited. When they "age out" of orphanages, many become street kids, sniffing glue, stealing, scavenging in garbage dumps and begging. Many are subjected to illness, filth, malnutrition, sexual abuse and child trafficking.

The main building in which the children and staff will be housed is already finished. It has a cheery humanist symbol on one side and a list of all significant contributors on another side.

Dr. Bruce Chou, a California anesthesiologist, contributed $1,000 for the nearly completed "Dr. Bruce Chou Classroom." Andrea Vogt, from Germany, donated $925 to construct the "Andrea Vogt Roadside Stand," which is about 50% complete. Another contributor added $500 to purchase a solar panel to help meet electrical needs.

Currently (late May), there's a second GoFundMe campaign in progress that has raised an additional $2,500. Funds will be used for a variety of needs, including staff salaries. Full-time workers will receive $700 annually, a decent wage in rural Uganda.

Anyone interested in helping can donate at http://www.gofundme.com/BiZoHa2 or email questions to .

%250 %America/Chicago, %2015

The Clergy Project, then and now

By John S. Compere

The Clergy Project is the brainchild of FFRF Co-President Dan Barker, Richard Dawkins (our planet's best-known evolutionary biologist), Daniel Dennett (professor of philosophy at Tufts University) and Linda LaScola (researcher and co-author with Dennett of the 2010 groundbreaking study "Preachers Who Are Not Believers").

It started with informal conversations among these four leaders of the secular movement about providing online support for former and current religious professionals who no longer believe in a supernatural being.

The formal launch was March 20, 2011, with 52 charter members. Initial financing was provided by the Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. FFRF took the new project under its wing and provided financial and organizational support for the first three-plus years of its existence. Four years later, the Clergy Project has become its own nonprofit 501(c)(3) with total active participants of 640, its own board of directors and seven active committees.

Participants come from 30 different countries and 43 of the 50 U.S. states. There are 39 Christian sects/denominations represented and a few participants from Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism and Scientology. The male/female ratio is 86% to 14%, primarily because the idea of women in ministry has been strongly discouraged or forbidden by most religious groups until fairly recently.

All applicants are carefully screened. No attempt is made to recruit new members because the leadership is clear that the mission is not to try to convince believers to give up their faith. Instead, it's to help those who, for their own reasons, are no longer able to believe try to figure out how to make a huge sea change in their lives. It may well be the most challenging career change anyone can make.

The percentage of those still actively engaged in ministry varies over time but is usually about one-third of total participants, with the other two-thirds being those who have left the ministry but who still want support and to be supportive of others in the same situation.

A generous grant from Todd Stiefel of the Stiefel Freethought Foundation has enabled transition assistance grants for qualifying current ministers who need help making a career change. They aren't asked to sign a note but are encouraged to begin paying back their financial assistance when and if their new career allows them to do so.

Here are some comments from participants about what the project has meant for them. (Even though they are in leadership and are thus, by definition, open with their deconversion experiences, we are using only first names for reasons of privacy and varying needs for anonymity.)

KEITH:

When I deconverted, I thought I was alone. No one I knew could relate. At best they could not understand the reasons for my deconversion, and at worst they feared for my soul and either judged me or avoided me. The Clergy Project suddenly gave me a sense of being surrounded by people who understood. I no longer had to wonder if I was the crazy one.
The reality is that very few ministers still believe what they so naively and enthusiastically held dear when they entered seminary. But once one is in the role, and personal income depends on toeing the party line, the stakes are just too high to be honest about one's own maturing of faith. I am convinced that most ministers, even if they have not gone so far as to deconvert, secretly hold views that are far from what their eldership would find acceptable.

Secondly, no one can understand the depth of pain and loss that those of us carry who have given our best years to the church, and great sums of time and money to become eligible to be ordained and approved by our denominations, only to arrive at midlife and find it all irrelevant. There are no do-overs. We can't go back to business school, or follow natural dreams of normal careers.

No one understands the complete identity crisis, regrets and sadness that dog us daily. That is, unless they have been through the same experience. In my 20 years since deconversion, I had met maybe one or two people that got it, but the Clergy Project is an entire community of kindred souls.

DREW:

I've only been with TCP since July 2014, so that might make me the official rookie committee member, though I had left the ministry and the faith two years before that. The wealth of support and community I found here was exactly what I was looking for.

After taking part in my first podcast interview as a member in November and helping out with the Facebook page in February, I joined the communications committee in March, focusing on administration of the public website and Facebook page.

My experience just keeps getting better and better, and I can't wait to see what's next!

JOHN:

I joined TCP almost three years ago, not because I felt alone after my "deconversion" (I have several atheist friends locally) but because I thought it sounded like an organization with which I would be happy to be associated.

I was very pleased when I was asked to be come a screener for prospective members and get a lot of satisfaction out of interviewing them and introducing them to the project. I look forward to many more years of being active in this organization.

CAROLYN:

Although it had been 40 years since leaving Catholicism and 18 years as a nun, I found that joining TCP in 2011 provided me with an appropriate place to seriously examine my transformative journey to atheism. The opportunity to reflect and put words to the rejection of religious belief, and receiving feedback from other members, was valuable in clarifying my thoughts.

In the process, a stronger appreciation of godless life emerged.

GRETTA:

After a decade of struggling to transition a liberal congregation into one in which my beliefs could be shared with integrity, the Clergy Project came into my life. It reminded me that despite being an anomaly, I am not alone. The encouragement and support offered through its forums has been enormously helpful during the more challenging periods within my ministry.

Even the challenges from those who can't imagine why I'd want to remain in the church have contributed to the confidence I now have in my leadership and the work I do in my congregation. [Gretta's church followed her into humanism.]

EARL:

Although some members, like me, have left their ministries due to changed convictions years ago, we still find a need for support from those who share this common experience. It is not easy to set aside deep-seated beliefs and a profession devoted thelping others in many ways other than religion as such.

The scars of being alienated from close friends and even family never fully heal. So, we are helped by the Clergy Project even as we are able to help younger members cope with what is nothing less than a traumatic experience.

LON:

Everyone's story is different, but my pursuit of truth did not lead me to embrace atheism until six years after I left vocational ministry to return to my blue-collar roots. I was accepted in the project in November 2011. I'm a numbers guy, so I'll share that TCP kicked off on March 9, 2011, with fewer than 20 charter members. [By its formal launch on March 20, it had 52 members.]

Four years later, we have well over 600 participants. I kept track from the start of member numbers, religious affiliation and states and countries of residence, frequently posting my observations. I now maintain the participants list and perform various forum administrative duties.

I've observed that not only can people be good without god, but that godless active and former clergy are the cream of the crop. By the providence of happenstance, I am most privileged to help keep this esteemed community going and growing.

MICHAEL:

Even years after leaving the ministry, I'm plagued by thoughts of the damage I wreaked during that time. Learning about TCP through Freethought Today let me know that I wasn't alone in my circumstance or dilemma. Simply knowing it exists is comforting; being a part of it is fortifying.

I can give a little help to other "no-longer believers" struggling to claw their way out of the clutch of a religious career. And maybe (oh how I hope!) I'm compensating for some of the destruction I imposed years ago.

TERRY [board president]:

The Clergy Project has provide me an opportunity to be of service to those struggling with a new life without the supernatural and the community support that their current or former affiliations provided. Having been "out" for 30 years, I don't have any struggles, nor do I have much need to discuss things with those with a similar background.

I participate first as a member supporting and encouraging those with issues and concerns, while volunteering what expertise I've developed over the years through careers in ministry, psychotherapy, website and social media consulting and humanist celebrant. TCP has enriched my life through close friendships with men and women around the world as we work together to accomplish our mission, separated though we are by the miles.

There are no dues. The project relies on financial support from those who share its goals and philosophy. To contribute by credit card, go to clergyproject.org/contributions/ or send a check to Clergy Project, 8800 49th St. N, Suite 311, Pinellas Park, FL 33782.

John S. Compere, Ph.D., is a Clergy Project charter member and vice president. His book, Towards the Light: A Fifth-generation Baptist Minister's Journey from Religion to Reason, details his deconversion more than 40 years ago.

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

FFRF has received a 4 star rating from Charity Navigator

 

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