FFRF keeps fighting nativity nonsense
Town welcomes signs of biblical proportions
FFRF requests probe of Illinois bishop
FFRF announces fund to aid nonbelieving clergy
FFRF has announced a fund to help “save a preacher,” in coordination with the Clergy Project, created to help clergy who have become nonbelievers and are looking for an exit strategy to a secular life.
The project has grown in one year to more than 223 participants, the majority former clergy who act as a support system for about 60 members who are still in active ministry. There are more than 60 pending applications, indicating many secret unbelievers in the pulpits of the world.
Funds donated to the Clergy Project will be used for:
• Scholarships for educational retraining. It’s hard for someone with a divinity degree and a history of preaching to find new employment, especially in today’s economy.
• Temporary hardship grants. Some of the clergy in the project tell heartbreaking stories of being unceremoniously thrown out into the street (literally, in one case!) and locked out when their nonbelief became known.
• Maintenance of the forum. The Clergy Project forum is a secret, invitation-only online sanctuary where former and active nonbelieving clergy can talk freely, comparing stories, suggesting resources, sharing concerns, asking for help and finding a sympathetic nonjudgmental community of others who have wrestled with this unique situation.
The initial funding came mainly from the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, with many hours donated by former clergy, including forum facilitator Dan Barker, FFRF co-president, and other FFRF members who are former clergy. Many have contacted Dan after reading his books, Godless and Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist, which relate his personal experiences.
Members currently come from the U.S., Ireland, Australia, South Africa, England and Canada, as well as a few non-English-speaking countries.
“It is hard to think of any other profession which it is so near to impossible to leave,” writes Dawkins. “If a farmer tires of the outdoor life and wants to become an accountant or a teacher or a shopkeeper, he faces difficulties, to be sure. He must learn new skills, raise money, move to another area perhaps. But he doesn’t risk losing all his friends, being cast out by his family, being ostracized by his whole community. Clergy who lose their faith suffer double jeopardy. It’s as though they lose their job and their marriage and their children on the same day. It is an aspect of the vicious intolerance of religion that a mere change of mind can redound so cruelly on those honest enough to acknowledge it.”
The Clergy Project arose from discussions between Dawkins, Barker and Tufts University philosophy professor Daniel Dennett. Dennett, best-selling author of Breaking the Spell, and researcher Linda LaScola, published a preliminary study of “Preachers Who Are Not Believers,” in March 2010 in Evolutionary Psychology and The Washington Post. They are currently working on a broader follow-up study.
Teresa MacBain, whose recent dramatic “coming out” from the ministry made headline news (including positive interviews on NPR and CNN) has volunteered to be project acting director. Forum administrator is “Adam,” still a conservative minister in the South, and “Chris,” who started as an active clergy but recently made his escape from the pulpit. “Catherine,” a minister from Canada, is acting secretary, under the acting board members, including Barker. FFRF members and former clergy John Compere and Stephen Uhl, recent clergy “graduate” Jerry DeWitt and other former clergy help screen new applicants.
To donate to FFRF’s “Clergy Project” fund, select it from the drop-down list at ffrf.org/donate/ or earmark checks, with donations deductible for tax purposes, to FFRF, P.O. Box 750, Madison WI 53701.
FFRF’s routine letter of complaint April 13 to Mayor Leo Fontaine, Woonsocket, R.I., over a Latin cross at city Fire Station No. 2 has provoked near-hysteria.
Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Kilmartin publicly “applauded” the mayor and City Council for “preparing to fight the attack by the Freedom From Religion Foundation.”
State Rep. James McLaughlin, D-Cumberland, introduced an overtly unconstitutional bill, H8143, to classify any “traditional, cultural or community” memorial as “secular property” even if it’s religious. Mayor Fontaine called FFRF “a couple of knuckleheads out of Wisconsin,” and on a local radio show said “I pray for people like this.”
Although FFRF has not sent a cease-and-desist letter threatening to sue, the city of Woonsocket has raised $15,000 for a fund to defend against a potential lawsuit. On May 2, more than 600 noisy protesters, carrying flags, crosses, godly signs and “Save the Cross” buttons rallied next to the cross, as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” played, including many from the American Legion. The Legion mission statement ties “God and country.”
Former state Adjutant General Reginald Centraccio said he was drawing a “line in the sand,” saying the Legion is “going to battle against these atheists all the way back to Wisconsin.” (The “battling” seems to be a plethora of late-afternoon phone calls laced with profanity to FFRF’s office.)
Despite denials by city officials that the Latin cross has a Christian meaning, Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Tobin addressed the rally, saying: “This is about presence of God in our lives and in our society. These are attempts to render our society bereft of moral values. If we don’t stand up we are complicit in the death of God in our society. I’m proud to stand here with you today to defend the presence of Christ in our lives.”
The cross was a gathering point for local observations of the National Day of Prayer on May 3.
A cross was erected in 1921 as part of a monument in memory of a local soldier killed in France in World War I. In 1952, the cross monument was apparently replaced with a new cross and rededicated both to the WWI soldier and three local brothers who died in World War II.
FFRF also complained about the Fire Station’s website whose rudimentary “memorial” page shows a guardian angel comforting a firefighter. The site also has a poem entitled “The FireFighters Prayer.”
Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Market noted in her letter that “The Latin cross at the fire station demonstrates Woonsocket’s preference for Christianity over other religions and nonreligion. Such government endorsements of religion runs afoul of the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution.”
The mayor initially opined it may be necessary to move the monument to private property. City Council President John Ward said the city, which is in dire financial straits, couldn’t afford a costly legal battle. “I would not vote to pay to defend it,” Ward said.
The claim is also made in an April local news story that no local person complained and that FFRF routinely patrols the whole country looking for such violations.
“That charge is absurd,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president, noting that a Woonsocket resident who regularly drives past the Christian display found it offensive and contacted FFRF for help.
“Our small staff is besieged with requests from members of the public who are upset about state-church violations,” Gaylor said. “We only wish public officials who knowingly violate the Constitution could be held personally responsible for flouting the law. Nearly 30% of Americans are non-Christians and 15% are not religious. Firefighters should be there to serve everyone, regardless of religious views.”
She added, “Of course we have no objection to war memorials, but they cannot be used as a subterfuge to post large permanent Latin crosses on government land. Cities can’t host monuments that appear to say, ‘We only care about your service if you are a Christian. Jewish, atheist or other non-Christians killed in U.S. wars don’t deserve recognition.’ There are many atheists in foxholes, and 24% of FFRF membership are vets or in the military, which is consistent with the number of nontheists in the military generally.”
U.S. District Judge Michael Urbanski, Western District of Virginia in Roanoke, heard oral arguments May 7 in a case brought by a student and parent over a school Ten Commandments display. In an unexpected move, the judge referred the case to mediation. If no settlement is reached, he’ll rule on both parties’ motions for summary judgment.
FFRF and the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia sued the School Board of Giles County, Va., last September for unconstitutionally endorsing religion by displaying the Ten Commandments in a hallway at Narrows High School in Narrows.
FFRF originally objected to the display in December 2010 when the commandments were posted in all six county schools. The Superintendent responded by taking the displays down, then the school board put them back up after the public pressured the board. On advice of legal counsel, they were again later removed.
Last June the board voted 3-2 to put the Commandments up along with other documents in the misguided belief that the documents would put the display on stronger legal footing. Included were a depiction of Lady Justice, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the Bill of Rights, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, the Declaration of Independence, the Virginia Declaration of Rights, the Mayflower Compact and the Magna Carta.
At the hearing, Urbanski commented on how he viewed the board’s vote: “It’s clear to me that when the school board voted, there was one thing on their mind. And that was God.”
Urbanski suggested compromising by omitting the first four commandments, which have explicitly religious references. He asked both sides if the commandments could be edited and reportedly said, “If indeed this issue is not about God, why wouldn’t it make sense for Giles County to say, ‘Let’s go back and just post the bottom six?’ ”
FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said she doesn’t buy the suggested compromise and referred to the Supreme Court’s McCreary ruling on the commandments:
“They proclaim the existence of a monotheistic god (no other gods). They regulate details of religious obligation (no graven images, no sabbath breaking, no vain oath swearing). And they unmistakably rest even the universally accepted prohibitions (as against murder, theft, and the like) on the sanction of the divinity proclaimed at the beginning of the text.”
Plaintiffs’ briefs highlighted the religious fervor that led to the display and to statements made by board members. In one deposition, board member Joseph Gollehon said he voted for the display because “I am a Christian” and felt that the commandments “was a great thing if you can live by it.”
Liberty Counsel, associated with Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, represents the board and helped craft the current display. In briefs, Liberty Counsel argued that the board opened up a forum for private displays and that the school has a secular purpose for the commandments because they’re integrated into the history curriculum.
ACLU Attorney Rebecca Glenberg noted at the May 7 hearing that there are no cases that have allowed the commandments in a public school. Walt Hopkins, a professor who studies First Amendment law at Virginia Tech, observed the argument and told the Roanoke Times, “It was not a good day for Giles County.”
Mediation with Magistrate Judge Robert Ballou is expected to occur sometime in the next few weeks.
FFRF Co-President Dan Barker was one of the performers March 31 at Rock Beyond Belief, the first-ever nontheist festival on a U.S. military base. “We’re sending a message,” said Justin Griffith, an Army sergeant and former evangelical Christian stationed at Fort Bragg who organized event. Griffith, an FFRF member, told Reuters that “Foxhole atheists are out there fighting for your rights. Please return the favor.” FFRF and its Raleigh chapter, the Triangle Freethought Society, also hosted a booth.
FFRF’s full-page ad, “It’s Time to Quit the Catholic Church,” ran in The Washington Post (A5, main section) and on the back page of the Washington Express on May 8. The Express is free to Metro riders and D.C. residents. Express distributors wore the ad on their vests (see photo).
The provocative ad, couched as an open letter to “liberal and nominal” Catholics, asks, “Will it be reproductive freedom, or back to the Dark Ages? Do you choose women and their rights, or Bishops and their wrongs?”
The ad was similar to the full-page ad that appeared in The New York Times in March, which is still creating shockwaves among conservative religionists.
“It’s a disgrace that U.S. health care reform is being held hostage to your church’s irrational opposition to medically prescribed contraception,” the ad states. “No political candidate should have to genuflect before the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.”
“Join those of us who put humanity above dogma,” FFRF’s ad urges.
The Washington Post ad features a cartoon by the late Don Addis, a longtime FFRF member, showing a priest under a “Family Planning” banner counseling a woman: “Plan on a family.” It also includes the line, “Life begins at excommunication.”
The ad blasts the church’s “pernicious doctrine that birth control is a sin” and the “Respect for Rights of Conscience Act” introduced into Congress to impose church dogma on employees. FFRF warns the liberal Catholic that the church is “launching a ruthless political Inquisition in your name.”
FFRF placed its second “Nobody died for our ‘sins.’ Jesus Christ is a myth” banner April 11 in a city park in Streator, Ill. The replacement banner featured a postscript, “Thou shalt not steal.” FFRF’s first banner was erected April 5 and was stolen April 7.
FFRF Attorney Patrick Elliott and student intern Ryan Hettinger made the 6-hour roundtrip drive from Madison, Wis., to Streator to personally rehang the banner.
The 8-foot by 3-foot banner, which was up until mid-April, was placed on behalf of a local resident with city permission to counter a religious cross display that had sat on city property since early March. This is the fifth straight year that park-goers and passersby have been told via a prominent sign that “Jesus died for your sins.”
Last December, Elliott had written Mayor Jimme Lansford to protest a nativity scene at the same location, with a sign saying. “Unto you is born the Savior Jesus Christ the Lord,” also a recurring violation. The city responded by claiming the park was a “public forum” and other viewpoints could be offered.
“In reality, as this crime reveals, the only viewpoint that is going to be permitted in Streator is the dominant religion,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “There are tax-exempt churches throughout Streator where it is appropriate to place Christian crosses and displays. A public park is not one of them.”
FFRF offered a $1,500 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the perpetrator(s). The theft and vandalism to the banner’s supporting posts are classified as misdemeanors. Since FFRF’s nonreligious message was targeted, the act also qualifies as a Class 4 felony under Illinois’ hate crime law.
FFRF is a national state/church watchdog with over 18,000 nonreligious members nationwide, including nearly 700 in Illinois.
A unanimous three-judge panel of the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled May 10 in favor of the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s challenge, originally filed in 2008, against gubernatorial proclamations of a Colorado Day of Prayer.
Judge Steve Bernard, with concurrences by Judges Alan Loeb and Nancy Lichtenstein, overturning a lower court decision, ruled in favor of FFRF’s lawsuit: “A reasonable observer would conclude that these proclamations send the message that those who pray are favored members of Colorado’s political community, and that those who do not pray do not enjoy that favored status.”
Bernard wrote that the six litigated Colorado Day of Prayer proclamations (from 2004-09) violate the Preference Clause of the Religious Freedom section of Colorado’s Constitution because the content is “predominantly religious; they lack a secular context; and their effect is government endorsement of religion as preferred over nonreligion.”
The proclamations “have the primary or principal effect of endorsing religious beliefs” and “convey a message that religion or a particular religious belief is favored or preferred.” The 74-page decision noted that the “inclusion of biblical verses and religious themes,” statements urging “that individuals will unite in prayer” and the governor’s signature, imprimatur and seal make “no doubt here that the religious message is attributed to the Governor.”
Bernard wrote, “The proclamations serve an exclusively religious purpose,” and are “addressed to the public generally . . . extend[ing] beyond the walls of the legislative assembly, or the boundaries of the graduation hall, to the borders of the State.” He noted that they “reflect an official belief in a God who answers prayer. At the same time, for those who do not believe in such a God, the proclamations tend to indicate that their nonbelief is not shared by the government that rules the State. In so doing, they undermine the premise that the government serves believers and nonbelievers equally.”
The decision continued, “They are not a small part of something larger that serves a secular purpose. Rather, they stand, individually and collectively, as a call to ‘actual worship or prayer’. . . . Indeed, the proclamations, by themselves, are reasonably viewed as exhortations to participate in ‘official prayers’ that have been composed as ‘part of a religious program carried on by the government.’ This effect is amplified by the biblical verses and religious themes.”
The appeals court noted that Gov. Bob Ritter even spoke at a private Colorado Day of Prayer celebration on the steps of the Capitol in 2007.
The judges said that “religious liberty is “abridged when the State affirmatively sponsors the particular religious practice of prayer.” The individual has the “right to refrain from accepting the creed established by the majority.”
Bernard pointed out that all the proclamations were issued in response to annual demands from the National Day of Prayer Task Force, based in Colorado Springs, Colo., which was seeking gubernatorial support for its overtly theocratic mission.
FFRF won a historic federal district court ruling, FFRF v. Obama, in 2010, when U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb declared the federal National Day of Prayer unconstitutional. FFRF demonstrated the religious origins of the 1952 and 1988 acts of Congress, introduced by Rev. Billy Graham and other evangelists. The evangelical National Day of Prayer Task Force — based at Focus on the Family headquarters — has essentially served as an arm of the government since 1988 by organizing government prayer day events that exclude non-evangelical Christians.
In 2011, the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals threw out FFRF’s standing, but the Colorado appeals court affirmed standing to sue, without offering a legal judgment on the National Day of Prayer itself. No court has ever upheld the day of prayer on its merits under the Establishment Clause.
The appeals court is remanding the case to the trial court to consider whether a permanent injunction should be entered.
“We’re exulting over the fact that reason has prevailed and constitutional rights have been affirmed,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president.
FFRF thanks its local plaintiffs and members Mike Smith, David Habecker, Timothy G. Bailey and Jeff Baysinger, who made the challenge possible. FFRF congratulates its litigation attorney Richard L. Bolton.
FFRF, with Arizona members and pro bono help from attorneys Richard Morris and Marc Victor, is also in state court in Arizona challenging the Arizona Day of Prayer.
Read the Colorado appeals court decision at ffrf.org/news/ (scroll to May 10, 2012).