Freethought Today · Vol. 27 No. 7 September 2010

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

State/Church Bulletin: September 2010

Court strikes down Utah roadside crosses

The Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ruled Aug. 18 that 13 Utah roadside cross memorials to state troopers killed in the line of duty violate the Establishment Clause. The appeals court reversed a district court ruling that threw out a suit by American Atheists.

The crosses are 12 feet high and include the Highway Patrol insignia. “We conclude that the cross memorials would convey to a reasonable observer that the state of Utah is endorsing Christianity,” the court said. “The memorials use the preeminent symbol of Christianity.”

Troops punished for skipping Christian show

The U.S. Army is investigating complaints that troops at Fort Eustis near Newport News, Va., were punished for not attending a Christian music concert on the base May 13.

The story came out recently after soldiers told Chris Rodda of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation about “The Commanding General’s Spiritual Fitness Concert” headlined by BarlowGirl, an evangelical rock group. The concert was the brainchild of Maj. Gen. James E. Chambers, who, according to a story on the Army.mil website “was reborn as a Christian” at age 16. The shows were also promoted at Langley Air Force Base.

Pvt. Anthony Smith, 21, Fort Eustis, said 80 to 100 soldiers chose not to attend the show and were then confined to barracks, which they were ordered to clean. “Instead of being released to our personal time, we were locked down,” Smith said. “It seemed very much like a punishment.”

Later, the base’s Equal Opportunity office pressed soldiers to drop their anti-discrimination complaints, reported Truthout.

The Pentagon paid BarlowGirl, one of several groups performing, $23,000 for two shows.

MRFF founder Mikey Weinstein said Chambers should face a court-martial “for his blatant violations of the most foundational rubrics of the oath he swore to the United States Constitution.”

Beck channels King of Kings

FOX TV host Glenn Beck was in televangelist mode for his Restoring Honor rally Aug. 28 at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. It was held on the 47th anniversary of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech and on the 55th anniversary of the murder of a black teen, Emmett Till, by white men in Tennessee. A pre-rally event, co-hosted by Beck and Rev. David Barton, was titled America’s Divine Destiny and was held the night before at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Rep. J. Randy Forbes, R-Va., led the opening prayer.

The religious revival on the National Mall was well-attended, with at least 100,000 people gathering to hear Beck, who is Mormon, and others exhort Americans to come back to God. Some quotes from Divine Destiny and Restoring Honor:

“Our neighbors in Canada think the bible is hate speech now, believe it or not.” (Beck)
“We are 12 hours away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America. It has nothing to do with this city or politics. It has everything to do with God Almighty.” (Beck)
“We’re not here to curse the darkness. We’re here to turn on the light, and that happens tomorrow. Let every secret sin be shouted from the housetops.” (Rev. John Hagee)
“We shall endure because we live by that moral strength that we call grace. Because though we’ve often skirted a precipice, a providential hand has always guided us to a better future.” (Sarah Palin)
“Something that is beyond man is happening. America today begins to turn back to God. For too long, this country has wandered in darkness,” said Beck, acknowledging the “240 men and women of all faiths” present whom he called the Black Robe Regiment, a reference to clergy’s influence on government at the time the U.S. was founded.

Wisconsin city prevails in church tax suit

A U.S. District Court judge ruled Aug. 23 in favor of the city of La Crosse, Wis., and against Asbury Methodist Church. Judge William Conley dismissed the church’s claim for a $4,000 property tax refund.

Asbury argued it was wrongly taxed in 2008 on property that formerly was a parsonage and was being converted into a hospitality house serving the needy. The judge said no refund was due because the church was “far from readying” the property for its new use.

The city granted the exemption on Jan. 1, 2009, based on “benevolent service” to the public.

As if Oklahoma needed to be reclaimed

Rev. Paul Blair of Fairview Baptist Church in Edmond has a tax-exempt group called Reclaiming Oklahoma for Christ. Americans United for Separation of Church and State alleges Blair is using the group to reelect conservative state Rep. Sally Kern and has asked the Internal Revenue Service to investigate.

At a June “Rally for Sally,” Blair decried attempts by the “homosexual lobby” to defeat Kern. “In my few years, we’ve gone from Andy Griffith to ‘Brokeback Mountain’ and it’s not getting any better,” Blair told ABC News.

Capitol solstice fight costly for Arkansas

The Arkansas Society of Freethinkers in Little Rock agreed to settle a lawsuit Aug. 23 against the state. The group sued the state last year after it was denied space in the Capitol to put up a winter solstice display near a Christian nativity scene.

The foundation had complained for several years about the huge nativity display on capitol grounds annually erected by a religious group, which solicited funds from the public.
Pending court approval, the proposal “permanently enjoins” the state from denying the group the right to put up an annual solstice display. Documents said the state will pay $25,800 in legal fees to the group.

Judge: Commandments challenge shaky

U.S. District Magistrate Judge Karen Klein said a lawsuit should be dismissed against the city of Fargo, N.D., over a Ten Commandments monument at the Civic Center on public land, the Fargo Forum reported Aug. 18.

The Red River Freethinkers sued in 2008, claiming the city legitimized a religious marker three years ago in voting to keep it where it’s been since 1961. The suit revived a First Amendment argument from a previous suit, when the court determined the display was secular in nature.

Klein said the freethinkers’ argument “simply repackages” the earlier case. District Judge Ralph Erickson had yet to rule on Klein’s recommendation at press time.

(The group is holding Fargo-Moorhead’s first major freethought convention Sept. 18 at the Fargo Civic Center. Speakers include Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker of FFRF, PZ Myers, August Berkshire and Brian Keith Dalton, aka Mr. Deity. Website: project42convention.org)

Court: Charity can fire nonbelievers

In Spencer v. World Vision, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld World Vision’s 2006 firing of Sylvia Spencer, Ted Youngberg and Vicki Hulse, who “denied the deity of Jesus Christ and disavowed the doctrine of the Trinity.” The 2-1 majority ruled Aug. 23 that the anti-poverty charity is exempt from Title VII provisions of the 1964 Civil Rights Act barring discrimination.

Colleagues noticed the three were not attending daily prayer sessions. World Vision, based in Federal Way, Wash., says shared Christian faith is central to its mission.

Dissenting, Judge Marsha Berzon, said that although churches qualify for the exemption, it shouldn’t apply to nonprofits whose primary mission is similar to secular groups. “My colleagues may wish to expand that narrow exemption to nonprofits that assert they are motivated by religious principles. But that interpretation would severely tip the balance away from the pluralistic vision Congress incorporated in Title VII, toward a society in which employers could self-declare as religious enclaves from which dissenters can be excluded despite their ability to do the assigned secular work as well as religiously acceptable employees.”

Gospel tracts OK for national parks

The U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., overturned a lower court decision and ruled Aug. 6 that a Minnesota man was wrongly barred from distributing Christian gospel tracts in 2007 in the parking lot at Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota.

National Park Service officials told Michael Boardley of Coon Rapids that he needed a permit, which he eventually got but not until after he sued. The court ruled that the federal government can’t require permits for “expressive activities” in designated areas at its 391 national parks.

“Within ‘free speech areas,’ the government has exceedingly little basis for hushing ‘lone pamphleteer(s)’ . . . in the name of peace and tranquility,” the decision said.

Judge blocks expanded stem cell research

The war against scientific and medical progress by religion continues unabated in the United States. U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth, on behalf of a Christian-right group, enjoined the Obama administration Aug. 23 from funding expanded human embryonic stem cell research.  Embryonic stem cells are “master” cells that can morph into any cell of the body, and are derived from fertilized eggs created by fertility clinics that would otherwise be discarded.

The court challenge was brought by the Christian-right Alliance Defense Fund, a wealthy Christian law firm, on behalf of Nightlight Christian Adoptions, which runs the Snowflakes frozen embryo adoption program, unnamed embryo plaintiffs and researchers who use adult stem cells.

The judge originally threw out the case saying all the plaintiffs lacked standing to sue. But an appeals court reinstated the standing of the researchers, who claimed that new National Institutes of Health rules would increase competition for limited funds. Lambert ruled the new guidelines are illegal because the research “depends upon the destruction of a human embryo” and violates the Dickey–Wicker Act, passed by Congress annually since 1996, which outlaws federal funds for any “research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death.”

Obama had lifted the Bush administration’s limits on taxpayer-funded research to a small number of stem cell lines in existence in August 2001. The judge’s broad wording imperils even the use of those limited lines. The Obama administration is appealing the ruling, but has been forced to freeze funding of embryonic stem cell research.

Groups want right to discriminate

Leaders of more than 100 religious groups signed an Aug. 25 letter that went to every member of Congress urging opposition to efforts to reform federal law to stop groups from practicing employment discrimination.

“We respectfully urge you to oppose any effort to amend the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, to amend Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, or otherwise to dilute the right of faith-based social service organizations to stay faith-based through their hiring, including when awarded a federal grant,” the letter said.

Religious charities receiving taxpayer funds believe it is their right to hire only people who share their faith, and that civil rights don’t apply at, for example, the Salvation Army or World Vision or Catholic Charities.

Congress never passed a law granting such an exemption, but executive orders signed by former president George W. Bush allowed it. President Obama campaigned on a promise to end hiring discrimination with taxpayer dollars but has yet to act.

A liberal group called the Interfaith Alliance disagrees with the exemption. Its president, Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, said in a statement that civil rights laws should be enforced at all times. “Religious organizations cannot have it both ways. Historically, religious entities have been protected from government regulations related to employment and other matters, but those religious organizations were not accepting federal money.”

Gaddy added, “Quite simply, if religious organizations want to determine who to help or hire based upon religion, they should refrain from taking federal tax dollars.”

Cheering crowd stones couple to death

Two lovers were stoned to death Aug. 15 by the Taliban and a crowd of the couple’s family and neighbors in the village of Mullah Ouil, Afghanistan. The couple, a 25-year-old man named Khayyam and a 19-year-old woman named Siddiqa, had eloped but were convinced to return by the man’s family. He was married with two small children, and she was engaged to one of his relatives. They had publicly confessed to their relationship.

The New York Times reported the couple was killed amid cheering and a festive atmosphere. About 200 villagers took part, including Khayyam’s father and brother and Siddiqa’s brother. Women weren’t allowed to attend.

“People were very happy seeing this,” said Nadir Khan, 40. “[They] did a bad thing.”

Ohio settles religious harassment suit

The state of Ohio will pay about $55,000 to three former employees and $15,000 in legal fees to settle a suit alleging wrongful discharge, religious discrimination, harassment and retaliation by the director of the state Workers’ Compensation Council.

The workers contend Director Virginia McInerney fired them in February for their refusal to go along with her Christian religious beliefs. According to the suit, McInerney asked them to pray with her, told them God placed her in the job and asked a worker to listen to and take notes on “God at Work” CDs. She also allegedly complained that a bill to privatize the bureau was “another of Satan’s efforts to stall or impede the council’s progress.”

McInerney’s Web site says she has a master’s from Regent University. She has appeared on “The 700 Club” and teaches regular seminars at Vineyard Church of Columbus.

Under the agreement, the council and McInerney admit no wrongdoing, the Columbus Dispatch reported Aug. 28. The council’s records will say the three resigned instead of being fired.

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