Freethought Today · Vol. 28 No. 8 October 2011

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

State/Church Bulletin October 2011

Tel Aviv judge OKs ‘without religion’ status

On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, a Tel Aviv judge ruled Sept. 27 that Israeli author Yoram Kaniuk could register his religious status as “without religion.”

“Freedom from religion is a freedom derived from the right to human dignity, which is protected by the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Freedom,” wrote District Judge Gideon Ginat, said an Oct. 2 story in Haaretz.

Kaniuk, 81, asked the court in May to order the Interior Ministry to let him “be liberated from the Jewish religion” by changing his “religion” entry in the Population Registry from “Jewish” to “without religion.” Kaniuk told Haaretz he was thrilled. “[T]his way I can be without religion but Jewish by nationality.”

Kaniuk’s petition said he had no wish to be part of a “Jewish Iran” or to belong to “what is today called the religion of Israel.”

Jane Doe,’ ACLU sue Virginia board

The ACLU of Virginia filed suit Sept. 20 on behalf of an anonymous plaintiff against the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors in Danville, Va., alleging that its practice of opening meetings with Christian prayer violates the First Amendment.

The plaintiff is called “Jane Doe” in legal papers and is a county resident citizen who regularly attends board meetings. She fears retaliation based on the anger the controversy has aroused in Pittsylvania County.

Online godless pledge petition popular

A petition created Sept. 22 by “Dimitar T” on the White House’s “We the People” website was titled “Edit the Pledge of Allegiance to remove the phrase ‘under God.’ ” It got more than 13,000 votes and was the fourth most popular petition on the site on Sept. 26, reported the Christian Post. Petitions which get 5,000 votes within 30 days supposedly get the attention of White House staff. (The threshold was increased to 25,000 signatures Oct. 3.)

The petition said the pledge is government sanctioning certain religions’ beliefs. Dimitar T had another petition calling for removal of “In God We Trust” from U.S. currency.

It had garnered 8,792 signatures on Sept. 26.

Create a petition at whitehouse.gov/petitions/.

Top USAF general warns proselytizers

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz sent a memo Sept. 1 telling “leaders at all levels to balance the Constitution’s protection of religious freedom and the prohibition on government intrusion,” the Air Force Times reported Sept. 16

“We have seen instances where well-meaning commanders and senior noncommissioned officers appeared to advance a particular religious view among their subordinates, calling into question their impartiality and objectivity,” said Lt. Col. Sam Highley, Schwartz’s spokesman. The memo, titled “Maintaining Government Neutrality Regarding Religion,” also warned against even the appearance of proselytizing.

Mikey Weinstein, founder and president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, called the memo a strong mandate of “constitutional religious compliance.”

“While MRFF wishes that such a letter had been sent by the chief of staff of the Air Force a very long time ago, the old adage ‘Better late than never’ most certainly applies.”

9th Circuit: Classroom not a bully pulpit

A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled Sept. 13 that Poway, Calif., School District officials did not violate the constitutional rights of Westview High School math teacher Brad Johnson by ordering him to remove two large classroom banners. One had the phrases “In God We Trust,” “One Nation Under God,” “God Bless America” and “God Shed His Grace on Thee.” The other said “All Men Are Created Equal, They Are Endowed By Their Creator.”

“We consider whether a public school district infringes the First Amendment liberties of one of its teachers when it orders him not to use his public position as a pulpit from which to preach his own views on the role of God in our Nation’s history to the captive students in his mathematics classroom. The answer is clear: it does not,” Judge Richard Tallman wrote.

Gideons blocked students’ passage

“I don’t care if they’re handing out $100 bills,” Webber Middle School parent Joanne Pelletier told The Coloradoan in Fort Collins, Colo., in a Sept. 14 story about Gideon bible distribution on a public sidewalk. “You shouldn’t hand anything to a child. If they want to express their feelings on religion, they should hand the bibles to parents and parents can decide if they want them to have it or not.”

Pelletier, who said she’s a Christian, said when she picked her son up from school, several Gideons were “blocking the sidewalks” and not letting students pass without being approached about taking a bible.

Principal Sandra Bickel said the men allegedly violated their training protocols by taking photos of students and putting bibles into the bicycle basket of one student who said she didn’t want one. Staff stopped the men from taking photos, she said. FFRF wrote a letter of complaint.

UW-Madison must pay Catholics’ legal fees

The University of Wisconsin-Madison will have to pay $496,500 in legal costs to Badger Catholic, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Sept. 19. The student group first sued in 2007 over the university’s refusal to fund some of the group’s activities.

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 in 2010 that UW-Madison’s policy violated Badger Catholic’s First Amendment rights. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear UW-Madison’s appeal.

Student government officials approved a $253,000 appropriation in 2007, but the school rejected $35,000 of that because it was earmarked for religious worship activities.

Badger Catholic filed suit, saying the denial violated its First Amendment rights. The school argued that funding a group that runs evangelical training camps and spiritual retreats illegally endorses religion.

Perth students freed from Lord’s Prayer

Edgewater Primary School in Perth, Australia, stopped public school students from regularly reciting the Lord’s Prayer after complaints from parents. The school had allowed it for 25 years, The Age reported Sept. 21.

Principal Julie Tombs said the school has students from a range of backgrounds, “and it is important to consider all views and not promote one set of religious beliefs and practices over another.”

Officials said the school was deluged with hate mail and phone calls after the decision.

Kazakhstan getting tough on religion

Kazakhstan’s Senate in Astana, following similar action in the lower legislative house, approved a bill Sept. 29 banning prayer rooms in state buildings, Reuters reported. President Nursultan Nazarbayev reportedly favors the bill.

Kazakhstan, which is 70% Muslim, has started to experience violence from militant Islamists. The law also requires review of all religious literature and mandatory annual registration of all foreign missionaries.

Hilton Head says no to staff prayer

You can’t yell prayer in this fire station, crowded or not.

Hilton Head Island, S.C., Fire & Rescue Division’s senior staff stopped opening monthly officer meetings with prayer, a tradition started after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Staff attorney Brian Hulbert, who asked for an opinion, said the prayers are not protected by the First Amendment, The Island Packet reported Sept. 28. “Historically, the Supreme Court has said it’s OK to have an opening prayer before a legislative session, but that doesn’t extend to everything — for example, a workplace meeting.”

Hulbert said it’s inappropriate because employees might feel obligated to participate. “The problem becomes, if your boss is leading and participating in the prayer, will you feel comfortable doing that or feel pressured to participate?” he said. “The practice had to stop.”

Resolution barring church use loses 3-2

The Bernalillo County [N.M.] Commission voted 3-2 on Sept. 27 to defeat a resolution prohibiting use of churches for county employee ceremonies, with some exceptions, the Albuquerque Journal reported.

The proposal came after a Sheriff’s Office decision to hold a cadet graduation at Legacy Church, where Sheriff Dan Houston is a member.

Commission Chairwoman Maggie Hart Stebbins objected to forcing employees to attend a mandatory event at a church. They might be afraid to complain, she said, and everyone’s religious beliefs should be respected.

“This is not an attack on religion,” Stebbins said. “I’m not anti-church. I’m not anti-God.”

The proposal would have required “all public ceremonies involving county employees be held in public facilities” unless one wasn’t available.

Commissioner Michael Wiener said the ACLU, which backed the resolution, “can go to hell.”

6 of 9 justices attend Catholic Red Mass

Six U.S. Supreme Court justices were among the members of the legal profession who attended the annual Catholic Red Mass on Oct. 2 at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, D.C. Chief Justice John Roberts joined associate justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Stephen Breyer and Samuel Alito for the service. All are Catholic except Breyer, who is Jewish. Justice Sonia Sotomayer, the other Catholic, didn’t attend, nor did Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The Red Mass is so named because of the color of the garments worn by clergy. When it started in 1953, the court had no Catholics.

Attendees included Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and White House Chief of Staff William Daley.

Tax Court extends parsonage allowance

The Wall Street Journal explored the ramifications in an Aug. 23 story of a 7-6 ruling in March by the U.S. Tax Court that lets clergy members buy or live in multiple homes tax-free.

The court ruled that Phil Driscoll, an ordained minister and Grammy Award-winning trumpeter in prison for tax evasion, didn’t owe federal income taxes on $408,638 provided to him by his ministry to buy a second home near Cleveland, Tenn.

The ruling extends the so-called “parsonage allowance” to an unlimited number of homes, which may be owned by the religious organization or the clergy member.

The panel ruled that the word “home” is equivalent to “homes,” just as “child” is interpreted to mean “children” in the tax code.

Before the decision, most tax experts believed the allowance only applied to one home, said Ellen Aprill, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

In January, a U.S. Senate committee released a report that showed Kenneth and Gloria Copeland of Kenneth Copeland Ministries in Fort Worth, Texas, live in an 18,280 square-foot parsonage valued at $6.2 million in 2008. Taxes were $0.

Illinois moment of silence stands

The U.S. Supreme Court declined on Oct. 3 to hear a challenge to a 2007 Illinois law requiring a daily period of silent prayer or reflection. A federal appeals court upheld it 2-1.

The court also turned down a Ohio state-church case. Richland County Common Pleas Judge James DeWeese put a poster in his courtroom that listed the Ten Commandments as part of a “Philosophies of Law in Conflict” display including personal commentary like “I join the Founders in personally acknowledging the importance of Almighty God’s fixed moral standards for restoring the moral fabric of this nation.”

Lower courts ruled DeWeese’s display was illegal.

The appeals court said in light of DeWeese’s 2000 Ten Commandments poster that was ordered removed by courts, “the history of [the judge’s] actions demonstrates that any purported secular purpose is a sham.”

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