Honorable mentions: Graduate/mature student essay contest

Humanity, individuals over religion 

FFRF awarded Antwon a $250 scholarship, thanks to an essay competition endowed by Professor Brian Bolton.

 

By Antwon Kennedy

 

The need for separation between religion and government is as important today as it has been since the introduction of the Establishment Clause in 1789. History shows that combining the two entities can have dangerous consequences. The Pilgrims, for example, when King James came into power, almost lost their lives after voicing their concerns about the Church of England and had to flee to avoid persecution.

Today, religious interests still want to influence public opinion and politics. A preacher recently spoke out in favor of physically abusive corrective actions toward children, backed by biblical teachings. Religious organizations are opposing contraceptive coverage in their employees’ insurance plans. These actions endanger our youth and strip individuals of their right to choice in family planning by placing the decision-making process in the hands of religious groups.

CNN reported: “Sean Harris, the pastor of Berean Baptist Church in Fayetteville, North Carolina, told his congregants in his sermon on April 28, ‘Dads, the second you see your son dropping the limp wrist, you walk over there and crack that wrist.’ He continued, ‘Man up, give them a good punch, OK. You’re not going to act like that. You were made by God to be a male and you’re going to be a male’ ”

The pastor later claimed he was misunderstood, saying he wasn’t advocating abuse of homosexual children. What is certain is that combining church and state would give the government power to support and uphold the pastor’s words because the bible states in Proverbs 22:15, “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him,” and in Proverbs 23:13, “Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die.”

Both passages confirm the acceptance of child abuse. Even more so, the greatest argument for the bible’s standpoint on child abuse is that God sent his son to Earth so that people could abuse him and hang him on a cross.

Mixing religion with politics is a recipe for the reversal of human choice and liberty. If politicians give in to the demands of a set religion, we face being confined to the constraints of the religious doctrine at hand.

An example of this process of constraint: religious organizations fighting to not have to include contraceptive coverage in insurance plans for their employees. These organizations are forgetting about the right of the individual to make her own choices. They are confining their employees to limited choices in the types of health services available to them.

If politicians continue to show favoritism to religious groups, citizens risk losing the rights that generations have fought for and the freedoms that make America the great country that it is. Laws must be uniform for all.

In this election year, we need to let politicians know that just because a religious doctrine says it is acceptable to beat children, we will not stand for child abuse. We need to let politicians know that we do not need to make concessions for religious organizations that want to modify laws so that they can limit the health care options of those caught under their vise.

If we concede on one issue, the stage will be set for more concessions until we are a nation under the laws of a particular religious doctrine. Our citizens, in fear for their lives, will begin to flee just as the Pilgrims did centuries ago from England.

We do not need to repeat a past that did not work. That is why in this election year, we need separation between religion and government. 

 

Antwon Kennedy, 32, Marietta, Ga., is a junior working toward a bachelor of business administration degree in finance at Kennesaw State University.

 

 

Theocracies are
deadly to freedom 

FFRF awarded Anastassia a $250 scholarship.

 

By Anastassia Smorodinskaya

 

During the recent presidential election, it became clear that we as a nation are moving further and further away from our constitutional right to the separation of church and state. Most disheartening is that with so many examples of failing theological governments throughout the world, American politicians and citizens alike turn a blind eye to the fact that God and government are indeed a very dangerous mix. 

Mideast nations serve as prime examples. The elections in Egypt were supposed to be a celebration of newfound democracy, yet citizens who don’t adhere to fundamentalist Islam live in fear of losing their rights to religion. Decades of civil unrest and bloodshed in Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Iran and Pakistan should steer the U.S. away from letting power fall into the hands of theocrats.

I am even starting to see an unhealthy partnership of church and state in my native Russia, a nation which less than 100 years ago denounced all religion in favor of atheism. The nation has started using the Russian Orthodox Church to justify blatant violations of human rights and freedom of speech, as made evident by the imprisonment of the female punk band Pussy Riot. Putin’s government is making an example of Pussy Riot for anyone else who dares speak out against Putin, but is doing so under the guise of defending religion.

In turn, the church has shocked the international community by siding with Putin’s dictatorial regime instead of practicing the Christian notion of forgiveness. This scenario shows how mixing religion and politics can lead to loss of civilian freedom and to the corruption of religious institutions themselves.

In America, the lines are blurring, as made evident by nearly every hot-button issue debated by rival political parties. The most obvious example is legalization of same-sex marriage, an issue that should be treated as a question of human rights, but instead has been argued by politicians on the basis of populist religious morality, showing blatant disregard for the Establishment Clause.

Women’s rights to birth control and family planning have also come under scrutiny from conservative Christians who, tragically, are gaining leverage in the Republican Party. 

When I see religion making its way into political debates, scenes from the dystopian novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood spring to mind. It depicts the U.S. after it has been taken over by an extreme fundamentalist Christian group that strips women of their rights and forces them into roles of pious servitude.

It is ironic that while many Americans fear losing their freedom to Islamist groups like al-Qaida, they are blind to the fact that Christianity is slowly seeping into the pores of government, with equal potential to do serious damage to constitutional rights. 

It would behoove all Americans to keep in mind that we must vote for the candidate who best protects our constitutional liberties and not for one whose decisions will be based on the moral compass of a particular religion. Rev. Otis Moss III said it best in a sermon he delivered to his Baptist congregation in Chicago:

“To claim that the president of the United States must hold your theological position is absurd. He is president of the United States, not president of the Baptist Convention, not president or bishop of the sanctified church. He is called to protect those who are Jew and gentile, male and female, young and old, gay and straight.”

That powerful statement perfectly sums up the way Americans need to look at government. Sadly, the fact that Moss felt compelled to make the plea shows that too many are still inclined to vote in the name of God. 

 

Anastassia Smorodinskaya, 25, was born in Moscow, Russia. She moved to the U.S. at age 6 and grew up in the quiet college town of Middlebury, Vt. She graduated from Eckerd College in 2008 as a communications major and theater minor. She’s enrolled in Columbia University’s master’s program for broadcast journalism.

 

 

Wanted: Separation of state, church

 

FFRF awarded Justin a $250 scholarship. 

 

By Justin Vacula

 

Four recent Establishment Clause issues in Pennsylvania — legislation declaring 2012 “The Year of the Bible,” sectarian governmental prayer, coercion of citizens who dare to remain seated for governmental prayer, and intentions to fund religious schools with taxpayer monies — should convince Pennsylvanians that they need separation of religion and government.

Lawmakers seemed to neglect Section 3 of the state Constitution, which states, “All men have a natural and indefeasible right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences,” and “no human authority can, in any case whatever, control or interfere with the rights of conscience, and no preference shall ever be given by law to any religious establishments or modes of worship.”

The “noncontroversial” resolution declaring “The Year of the Bible” said there was a “national need to study and apply [its] teachings,” and claimed that “renewing our knowledge of and faith in God through holy scripture can strengthen us as a nation and a people.”

“The dictates of conscience” in the Constitution were trampled on because the resolution took sides on theological issues and recommended religious actions.

Another obvious example of religion and government being a dangerous mix is the constant stream of unconstitutional sectarian governmental prayer during House of Representatives sessions. Many contain specific references to Christianity, with Jesus Christ dying on a cross to save people from sin, Jesus Christ as “Lord and savior,” “God in heaven” and “the maker of heaven and earth.”

Unconstitutional prayers also exist in a background of coercion directed at citizens who dare to remain seated during prayer. Individuals, before entering the guest chambers, view a prominent sign which encourages people to stand for prayer. Then the House speaker asks people to stand.

On one occasion, I remained silently seated while taking notes on a tablet. An armed security officer approached me and repeatedly asked me to stand to “show respect.” Two requests — from the House speaker and a sign — were not enough.

Another insidious foray by lawmakers concerned a school voucher program in which public funds, instead of funding public schools which must educate children regardless of their religious upbringing or belief, would fund private schools. Many are religious and exist primarily to indoctrinate impressionable minds, compel students to participate in school-led prayer and teach “young Earth creationist” doctrine instead of sound science.

When I peacefully protested a rally, holding a sign calling for separation of church and state, at which pious politicians assembled to urge lawmakers to vote for the school voucher program, I was told that I should go back to my “community of privilege” and send my children “to whichever school I wanted to whether they be atheist schools or not.”

That was said to me from the podium by state Sen. Anthony Williams, who angrily added, “By the way, this is my rally, not yours,” and “These are our dollars, not just yours. These are our children, not yours. These are our school systems, not yours, and by the way, this has nothing to do with separation of church and state.”

At the voucher rally and with the coercion I faced for staying seated for governmental prayer, I was made to feel like a political outsider. A climate of divisiveness — pitting citizens against lawmakers acting in pious unconstitutional manners — was created in which I, as a citizen of Pennsylvania, while peacefully objecting to that which I saw as unconstitutional, was poorly treated.

If lawmakers had remained neutral on matters of religion while acting in their official capacities to serve all citizens, there would have been no divisiveness.

The above situations create a compelling case for freethinkers, and even religious Pennsylvanians, to be concerned with matters of separation of church and state. Establishment Clause violations are especially grievous in election years because pandering politicians are seeking votes while lawmakers who otherwise would object to the violations may not because they fear losing support from their constituents.

 

Justin Vacula, Exeter, Pa., 23, is a graduate student at Marywood University studying mental health counseling. He has a bachelor’s in philosophy and psychology from King’s College, is active in the NEPA Freethought Society and blogs at examiner.com/user-justin-vacula.

Justin was also a plaintiff in FFRF’s lawsuit challenging “The Year of the Bible” in Pennsylvania. He recently spent a lot of time getting FFRF’s Winter Solstice banner included in the Wilkes-Barre Public Square holiday display. The banner was vandalized and later reinstalled.

 

Government for the people, not the god  

 

FFRF awarded Ashley a $250 scholarship.

 

By Ashley Miller

 

Religion, in the hands of the power hungry, is a dangerous thing, and you’ll find few groups more power hungry or more religious than U.S. politicians. That only one member of Congress admits to being a nonbeliever speaks volumes about the usefulness of professed religious devotion for those seeking office.

Politicians fall all over themselves to prove their support of religion. In the past decade, Congress has unanimously reaffirmed “In God We Trust” as the national motto three times. Countless bills are presented with hopes of winning the religious base. Even if sponsors don’t think they will pass, they want credit for proposing them.

Sincere or cynical, politicians know that pandering to the religious gets them votes and, just as importantly, gets them money.  The relationship between religious money and the state has always been problematic, but never more so than it is today.  And fighting against that relationship is never more important than in an election year.

Every year, the churches of America get $71 billion in tax breaks thanks to very generous exemptions.  The American taxpayer has to cover the lost revenue, forcing the population to subsidize organized religion.  Churches pay no property taxes, write off housing expenses for their clergy, do not pay sales tax on anything they sell, and do not pay taxes on the money they earn.  US churches own $400 billion in untaxed land and the Church of Scientology alone earns over $500 million untaxed dollars annually.  Donations to these churches are written off individuals’ taxes, even if those churches spend little money on charitable works -- churches, unlike other charitable organizations, don’t have to publicly disclose what they use the money for; they are automatically exempt.

So, what do the religious use the money for?  Rather than focusing on charity, they have used their untaxed income to wage war on our secular Constitution, to try to force the Christian version of Sharia law onto the American people.

Churches use this money to support their campaigns against gay marriage. Groups like Focus on the Family are funded almost entirely by the Catholic and Mormon churches. Proposition 8, the amendment to the California Constitution that overturned the right to gay marriage, raised over $40 million, $20 million of which came from Mormons.  At the urging of their church,   Mormons provided over half the funds that helped Proposition 8 pass. When the California government was alerted to this, not only did the LDS church not lose its tax-exempt status, they were fined only $5,000, practically an invitation to do it again.

Churches use this money to promote their choices for judicial nominations. Justices in South Carolina have given reading assignments from the bible as punishment for crimes as serious as vehicular homicide.  Of the nine justices on the Supreme Court, six are Roman Catholics and three are Jewish, in a country that is 24% Catholic and 2% Jewish.  These judges ensure the bench is biased in favor of religion and that bias encourages decisions like Citizens United, which allows the religious to spend unlimited funds on pushing their political agenda.  

Churches use this money to push religion into the public classrooms of America, to make sure after-school programs have access to children, to remove evolution and Thomas Jefferson from schoolbooks, and to force non-religious students to listen to and participate in prayers on secular campuses.  Religious exemptions don’t just hurt the education of young people; they can also lead to disease and death.  In many states, religious schools are exempt from government oversight, which has led to deaths of children through poor care and negligence.

Churches use this money to promote their hatred for women.  In 2011, there were 1,100 bills about reproductive rights introduced at the state level. There were bills that force women to accept a transvaginal exam to get an abortion; that have nearly gotten rid of abortion clinics altogether in states like Mississippi; that allow doctors in Arizona to lie to women if they think it will prevent them from having an abortion; that charge women with manslaughter for having miscarriages; that allow doctors and pharmacists to refuse to give birth control to women.  All of this in a country where being pregnant is more dangerous and more expensive than in many other industrialized nations.  Even bills to make the life-saving, cancer-preventing HPV vaccine mandatory have been vetoed out of fear that it would encourage girls to have sex; in South Carolina, the governor vetoed a bill that would allow schools to simply tell parents the vaccine exists.  These bills are so cavalierly anti-woman; women are dying in this country because of religious interference.

And, before you blame this entirely on the religious right, the Democrats are guilty as well.  President Obama prevented Plan B from becoming over-the-counter, despite the recommendations of the medical community, primarily because he wanted to avoid the Christian backlash.  Democrats are just as afraid of the repercussions of upsetting the godly, and just as interested in getting their money.

Before you despair, there is good news.  The non-religious population is growing and becoming more vocal and actively fighting the destruction of separation of church and state.  There are things we can do to fight back.  We can support organizations like the Secular Student Alliance, Secular Coalition for America, Freedom From Religion Foundation, and the many other secular institutions in our country.  We can vote for the candidates that don’t pander to the religious, if they can be found.  And, if they cannot be found, we can follow the lead of people like Pete Stark and Cecil Bothwell, and run for office ourselves.  Our Constitution clearly states that God and government do not go together, and we must fight for a government that is truly representative of “we the people,” all of us, not just those under the command of a fictitious and very wealthy deity.

 

Ashley Miller, 28, grew up in Litchfield, S.C., and attends the University of South Carolina as a second-year Ph.D. candidate. She holds a master’s in radio, film and television production from Florida State University and B.A. in film studies from Emory University.

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