Freethought Today · Vol. 26 No. 10 December 2009

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

State/Church Bulletin

Court: No Cross For License Plates

South Carolina license plates will not have the words “I Believe” next to a cross superimposed on a stained-glass window, U.S. District Court Judge Cameron McGowman Currie ruled in November.

The specialty plates, which got legislative approval in 2008, were never issued after four religious leaders and two nonprofits sued the state.

The law “plainly fails all three prongs of the Lemon test,” Currie said in her opinion. “It takes little imagination or legal expertise to . . . conclude that a state-sponsored message on a legislatively created license plate which references only one religion constitutes a violation of the Establishment Clause.” The law “demonstrates an obvious and singular purpose of legislative endorsement and promotion not only of religion in general, but of Christianity in particular,” Currie added.

Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer was the driving force behind the bill to issue the plates after a similar bill in Florida failed. Bauer attacked Currie for the ruling, calling her a “liberal judge appointed by Bill Clinton.”

The state was ordered to pay plaintiffs’ legal costs. Currie berated the state for wasting taxpayers’ money: “Despite such clearly established law, this state’s limited resources have been used to promote, pass and defend a state law, the ‘I Believe’ Act,” she wrote.

Freethinker Takes Houston to Court

Kay Staley, the Foundation’s 2008 Freethinker of the Year, is suing the city of Houston and a city council member for the sectarian prayers that open council meetings.

Staley, a Houston attorney and real estate broker, was earlier successful in getting a bible monument removed from the Harris County Courthouse after a protracted legal fight.

Staley reviewed more than 70 prayers from the meetings. Most were overtly Christian, the suit said. It also names council member Anne Clutter­buck, who on several occasions said the Lord’s Prayer for the invocation.

Appeal Denied for Graduate’s Speech

The microphone went dead in the middle of this sentence in Brittany McComb’s Foothill High School graduation speech in 2006:
“God’s love is so great that he gave His only son up to an excruciating death on a cross so His blood would cover all our shortcomings and our relationship with Him could be restored.”

The U.S. Supreme Court rejected McComb’s appeal Nov. 16 that officials at the Clark County school in Henderson, Nev., violated her free speech rights by pulling the microphone plug. A federal appeals court ruled earlier in the school’s favor.

Administrators had vetted students’ speeches to guard against religious proselytizing. In the 750-word unedited version, McComb made two references to the lord, nine mentions of God and one mention of Christ. The school OK’d a version with six of those words omitted along with two biblical references and the “excruciating death” sentence, but McComb re­neged on her pledge to abide by the revisions.

“We review the speeches and tell them they may not proselytize,” district legal counsel Bill Hoffman said in 2006. “We encourage people to talk about religion and the impact on their lives. But when that discussion crosses over to become proselytizing, then we tell students they can’t do that.”

School Vaccinations Upheld by Court

West Virginia public school students don’t get a religious exemption to the state’s mandatory immunization law, a U.S. District Court ruled Nov. 3. The court upheld Mingo County Schools’ decision to stop an elementary student from attending because her mother refused to get her vaccinated. West Virginia and Mississippi are the only states without a religious exemption.

Jennifer Workman sued the school, stating “that her Christian Bapticostal religious beliefs require that she honor God by protecting her child from harm and illness, and that immunizing [her daughter] in this instance would violate those sincerely held beliefs.”

Chief Judge Joseph Goodwin wrote in his opinion that “Ms. Workman’s freedom of religion claim fails. . . . It has long been recognized that local authorities may constitutionally mandate vaccinations.”

Constitution Derails Christmas Parade

The 3,000 or so residents of Amelia, Ohio, won’t have a Christmas parade for the first time in 29 years due to concerns over lawsuits and logistical issues. Private groups have always sponsored it, but none would do so this year, so the village council was asked to take over the event.

The village solicitor told the council it could be sued if it spent tax money on a sectarian event. The village suggested changing the name to “holiday parade,” which brought protests from Christian groups which said they wouldn’t take part if the parading wasn’t done in Jesus’ name.

“Some of the local churches said they would be protesting along the parade route,” said Mayor Leroy Ellington. “That’s not the spirit of the parade—protesting.”

Ruling: Church Must Comply With Zoning

The city of Phoenix can ban churches in areas with residential zoning from operating charity dining halls, a hearing officer ruled in No­vem­ber. CrossRoads United Metho­dist Church had appealed a city ordinance  barring the programs in residential areas.

Churches aren’t exempt from zoning regulations, said retired Arizona Supreme Court Justice Robert Cor­coran.

Tenn. Students Sue School District

A federal lawsuit filed in November in Nashville, Tenn., on behalf of four students accused Cheatham County schools of promoting Christianity and violating the U.S. Constitution. Ash­land City is the county seat.

According to the complaint, the schools showed a pattern of endorsing religion that included the distribution of Gideon bibles in class, a teacher who has a cross on a classroom wall and sectarian prayers at school events.

Attorneys worked with the school district for six months before suing, according to the ACLU, which is in­volved in the suit. One high school did remove bible verses from its website, but other religious activities are ongoing. The suit said the plaintiffs “are a captive audience for school officials’ religious displays and activities.”

Bishop Robocalls For Dem Candidate

Roman Catholic Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, N.Y., made robocalls on behalf of Democratic boss Vito Lopez, to support City Council candidate Marzita Davila against incumbent Diana Reyna in District 34.

DiMarzio’s call touted Lopez’s state Assembly role in defeating a bill that would have let adults file suit over sexual abuse that occurred when they were children.

A Brooklyn Law School professor told The New York Times that DiMarzio could be treading close to legal lines limiting political advocacy by nonprofit groups like churches.

Reyna won the race with 60% of the vote.

School Head Sorry Bible Signs Banned

Catoosa County Public Schools, Ringgold, Ga., said it’s a violation of the First Amendment of the Con­sti­tu­tion for signs with bible verses to be displayed on the football field.

“I regret that we had to ask the LFO [Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School] cheerleaders to change the signs used in the stadium prior to football games,” Superintendent Denia Reese said in a press release. “Per­sonally, I appreciate this expression of their Christian values; however, as superintendent I have the responsibility of protecting the school district from legal action by groups who do not support their beliefs.”

Reese noted that the Bill of Rights protects the rights of the minority: “For this reason, the stamp of approval of religion by the government is not a matter subject to majority vote.”

The school board upheld Reese’s decision in a vote Oct. 13. Reese said she reads the bible daily, and she signed a petition brought to the meeting that asked the board to overrule her decision, to show she personally supports the cheerleaders.

Court: Crucifixes Are Off the Wall

The European Court of Human Rights ruled in favor of a mother in Italy who objected to classroom crucifixes because she wants her children to have a secular education.

“The compulsory display of a symbol of a given confession in premises used by the public authorities . . . restricted the right of parents to educate their children in conformity with their convictions,” and restricted the “right of children to believe or not to believe,” said the ruling from the court in Strasbourg, Germany. (The court, an arm of the Council of Europe, heard its first case in 1959.)

Her children’s public school in northern Italy had crucifixes in every room, said Soile Lautsi, who was awarded 5,000 euros ($7,400). A law dating from the 1920s mandates that classrooms have crucifixes.

While an accord between the Vatican and the Italian government ended Catholicism’s position as the state religion in 1984, the crucifix law has never been repealed.

Sectarian Prayers Out of Order

The Forsyth County Board in North Carolina violated the First Amend­ment by opening meetings with sectarian prayers, Federal Magistrate Trevor Sharp said in a nonbinding opinion in early November.

A lawsuit challenging the prayers was filed in 2007. Sharp’s recommendation to the U.S. District Court carries no legal weight, other than offering guidance to the judge who will handle the case.

Sharp found that the “overwhelming frequency” of references to “Jesus, Jesus Christ, Christ or Savior” in the prayers showed that the board demonstrates a “preference for Christianity over other religions by the government.”

Stupak Bill Gives Land to Church

Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., became notorious for his anti-choice amendment to the health care reform bill, but his conservative Christian leanings became evident in March when he introduced H.R. 1291.

The bill would turn over a parcel of land owned by the U.S. government in Cheboygan, Mich., at no cost to the Cornerstone Christian School, which has rented the property for $1 a year from the Coast Guard since 1987. In 2007, the Michigan Messenger reported, the Coast Guard and school signed a new lease for $81 a month. The government had earlier declared the parcel to be surplus property.
Stupak’s bill was referred to the House Transportation and Infra­struc­ture Committee and its Sub­committee on Coast Guard and Mari­time Transportation, where it has languished. He also introduced a bill in the previous Congress to give the land to Cornerstone Christian.

“Rep. Stupak’s bill would allow the government to provide a ‘gift’ to a religious group of property that is owned by all taxpayers, including those with no religious faith,” said Pete Irons, emeritus professor of law at UC-San Diego. “This is precisely the kind of religious preference the Constitution forbids and the Supreme Court has ruled against in numerous cases.”

The Messenger also reported last summer about Stupak’s residence at the C Street House in Washington, D.C. Stupak denied having affiliation with or knowing anything about the group known as The Family and The Fellowship.

Reporter and author Jeff Sharlet said Stupak’s claim is hard to believe. “The bottom line here is that Stupak is either being dishonest or confessing dangerous ignorance.”

More Somalia Sharia Atrocities

In separate cases, a Somali woman and a man were stoned to death for committing what Islamic sharia law terms adultery.

The 20-year-old divorcee was executed after confessing to sex with a 29-year-old unmarried man. The woman, who gave birth to a stillborn child, was buried up to her waist before being stoned by al-Shabab rebels in November. Her boy­friend was given 100 lashes.

The un­identified man was stoned to death the week before for the same “crime.” His pregnant girlfriend is due to be executed by stoning after she gives birth.

The Times of India also reported that Somali women are being publicly whipped for wearing bras. Mogadishu residents told the paper that the whippings are punishment for what Islamists call deception.

“They are now saying that breasts should be firm naturally, or just flat,” said a woman named Halimi, whose daughters were whipped and forced to shake their bare breasts.

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