Freethought Today · May 2014

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

State/Church Bulletin

Judge’s bible handout brings rebuke 

Osceola County Judge Hal Epperson Jr. will no longer be allowed to distribute Gideon bibles from a table in his courtroom in Kissimmee, Fla. After an attorney complained anonymously, Orange-Osceola Chief Judge Belvin Perry told the Orlando Sentinel on April 25 that he’d spoken to Epperson and the practice “is no longer in existence.”

“To, in open court, offer criminal defendants who, at his will, could serve years in jail any endorsement of any religion . . . erodes the trust of the justice system that those of differing faiths have,” the attorney’s comment said. 

Perry told the reporter, “As you know, we have a separation of church and state in this country.” Giving out non-court-related literature, “whether it’s the bible or Sports Illustrated, is something that we don’t do,” Perry added.

 

Mayor rejects reason but accepts prayer

Mayor Jim Fouts of Warren, Mich., rejected local atheist Douglas Marshall’s proposed Reason Station in the City Hall atrium to counter a Prayer Station because of his FFRF membership. The Reason Station was meant to promote separation of church and state and inform people about freethought and logic. FFRF has contested governmental religious entanglement several times in Warren.

In an April 15 letter to Marshall, Fouts claimed FFRF isn’t protected by the Establishment Clause because atheism is not a religion. “Also, I believe it is your group’s intention to disrupt those who participate in the Prayer Station which would also be a violation of the freedom of religion amendment.”

“I do view this as a violation of my free speech rights,” Marshall told the Detroit Free Press. “It seems to me that the mayor allows free speech in the atrium as long as he agrees with the speech.”

FFRF is monitoring the situation.

 

Church in school loses another appeal 

A panel of the 2nd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in New York City ruled 2-1 on April 3 against the Bronx Household of Faith, a congregation that has been battling since 1994 over its efforts to hold weekend services in a public school.

The decision said the First Amendment’s “free exercise clause does not entitle Bronx Household to a grant from the [school district] of a subsidized place to hold religious worship services.”

It’s the sixth opinion on the case by the 2nd Circuit, reported Education Week. In his dissent, Judge John Walker Jr. invited the Supreme Court to take the case, which it has twice declined to do, in 1998 and 2011.

 

Virginia gov’s veto
on prayer upheld 

Gov. Terry McAuliffe, D-Va., vetoed a bill April 4, saying it could lead to “coercive prayer” or “religious messaging” at school events.

High schools already let students organize religious clubs, discuss religious themes and participate in voluntary prayer or other “nondisruptive expressions of belief,” he said.

The Lynchburg News & Advance editorial board wrote, “There was not much new in this unnecessary legislation that could be only a step away from state-sanctioned prayer in the public schools. Lawmakers in the House and Senate should recognize that and uphold McAuliffe’s veto.”

The Senate refused to override the veto April 23.

 

Sponsor pulls bible
as state book bill

Rep. Thomas Carmody, R-Shreveport, withdrew his bill to make the bible Louisiana’s official state book before it could go to a full vote of the state House on April 21. The bill had become a distraction, he said.

Legislators had amended Carmody’s bill two weeks earlier to make any copy of the “Holy Bible” the official state book instead of just the “historic” one in the State Museum. That drew even more criticism from opponents, reported the Times-Picayune.

 

Gay discrimination
now legal in Mississippi

Mississippi Republican Gov. Phil Bryant signed a “turn away the gays” bill April 3 in a private ceremony joined by a few lawmakers, lobbyists for the Southern Baptist Convention and the president of the Family Research Council.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act lets businesses and individuals refuse services to LGBT people on religious grounds. The House approved it 78-43. The Senate vote was 38-14.

The bill also adds “In God We Trust” to the state seal.

 

Secular group rates Congress; many fail

The Secular Coalition for America released its 2013 Congressional Report Cards for the U.S. House and Senate on March 31. A majority of House members earned an “F,” while a majority of senators earned a grade of “B” or above.

Representatives were graded based on their support for 14 bills related to church-state separation issues and discrimination against nontheistic and secular Americans. Senators were graded based on their support for five bills relating to similar issues, a coalition press release said.

HOUSE: 8% received an “A”, 7% received a “B”, 21% received a “C”, 2% received a “D” and 62% got F’s.

SENATE: 7% A’s, 45% B’s, 5% C’s, 43% F’s. 

Seven Democratic senators got perfect scores: Richard Blumenthal, Conn.; Mazie Hirono, Hawaii; Dick Durbin, Ill.; Elizabeth Warren, Mass.; Al Franken, Minn.; and Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez, N.J. Three Democratic representatives were perfect: Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.; Rush Holt, N.J.; and Louise Slaughter, N.Y. Three GOP senators received B’s: Lisa Murkowski, Alaska; Paul Kirk, Ill.; and Susan Collins, Maine.

Three GOP House members tied for the lowest score of 5%: Reps. Doug LaMalfa, Mich.; Tim Walberg, Mich.; and Walter B. Jones, N.C.

 

Georgia parents sue over school funding

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that a lawsuit was filed April 2 by parents challenging Georgia’s student scholarship organization tax credit program which lets individuals and businesses deduct contributions to groups that give scholarships to private school students, most of whom attend parochial schools.

Steve Suitts, Southern Education Foundation vice president, said since the program started in 2008, more than $280 million has been “diverted” to an “unregulated system of support for private schools” with no oversight from the state Department of Education. More than 13,000 scholarships were given in 2012.

 

SCOTUS denies cert for N.M. wedding case

The Supreme Court declined April 7 to take the case of New Mexico wedding photographers who refused to work at a same-sex ceremony for religious reasons. 

The case featured Elaine Huguenin and her husband Jonathan, whose Albuquerque studio informed Vanessa Willock and Misti Collinsworth in 2006 that it only worked “traditional weddings,” reported USA Today.

“Of particular relevance here is the Huguenins’ sincere religious belief that marriage is the union of a man and a woman,” their Supreme Court petition said. “They believe that if they were to communicate a contrary message about marriage — by, for example, telling the story of a polygamous wedding ceremony — they would be disobeying God.”

 

Bill lets humanists be wedding officiants

Minnesota state Sen. John Marty, D-Roseville, introduced a bill April 4 to allow atheists and humanists to preside over wedding ceremonies. The bill would grant “solemnization authorization” to secular celebrants appointed by atheist or humanist groups.

Current law allows only “ministers of any religious denomination” to officiate.

A House version of the bill was introduced in late March and awaits a hearing by the Civil Law Committee. The Senate bill was referred to the Judiciary Committee.

 

Obama hosts Holy Week prayer breakfast

President Barack Obama kicked off Holy Week at the White House on April 14 with 150 Christian leaders at the fifth annual Easter Prayer Breakfast.

“The tradition was started by the Obama administration in 2010 to specifically celebrate the life and death of Christ,” the New York Daily News reported.

On April 11, Obama announced a presidential delegation to attend the Mass on April 27 at which Popes John XXIII and John Paul II were declared saints.

White House counselor John Podesta led the delegation. Members were Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., chairman of the House Democratic Caucus; and Katie Beirne Fallon, assistant to the president and director of legislative affairs.

 

Jersey atheist sues
over license plate

A federal lawsuit was filed April 17 by Americans United on behalf of Shannon Morgan, a Leesburg, N.J., atheist who applied in November for an “8THEIST” license plate in November on the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission’s website. It was rejected as “considered objectionable.” She then entered “BAPTIST” as a proposed plate, which was accepted.

Attempts by Morgan to get approval for her plate were ignored, the suit alleges. The suit seeks a policy “that requires any restriction of expression on personalized license plates to be based on subjective, objective, viewpoint-neutral criteria.”   

Mt. Soledad cross
gets Obama backing

Obama administration lawyers have told the Supreme Court they will defend the 29-foot-tall cross atop Mount Soledad in San Diego as a war memorial and not unconstitutional government promotion of Christianity, the Los Angeles Times reported April 10.

The cross was erected in 1954, but it has been under legal attack since 1989. FFRF members and foxhole atheists Phil Paulson, now deceased, and Steve Trunk have led the legal challenges.

“The United States remains fully committed to preserving the Mount Soledad cross as an appropriate memorial to our nation’s veterans,” said U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr.

 

Board member sits
out Hindu prayer

Roanoke [Va.] County Board Supervisor Al Bedrosian stayed seated in protest May 13 because a non-Christian prayer was given to open the board meeting. Maharaj Sharma of the India Heritage Society chanted a blessing offering goodwill and peace as an invocation, the Roanoke Times reported. Three other board members stood.

Bedrosian recently has said that only Christians should give the opening prayer because he believes America is a Christian nation.

Judge’s bible handout brings rebuke 

Osceola County Judge Hal Epperson Jr. will no longer be allowed to distribute Gideon bibles from a table in his courtroom in Kissimmee, Fla. After an attorney complained anonymously, Orange-Osceola Chief Judge Belvin Perry told the Orlando Sentinel on April 25 that he’d spoken to Epperson and the practice “is no longer in existence.”

“To, in open court, offer criminal defendants who, at his will, could serve years in jail any endorsement of any religion . . . erodes the trust of the justice system that those of differing faiths have,” the attorney’s comment said. 

Perry told the reporter, “As you know, we have a separation of church and state in this country.” Giving out non-court-related literature, “whether it’s the bible or Sports Illustrated, is something that we don’t do,” Perry added.

 

Mayor rejects reason but accepts prayer

Mayor Jim Fouts of Warren, Mich., rejected local atheist Douglas Marshall’s proposed Reason Station in the City Hall atrium to counter a Prayer Station because of his FFRF membership. The Reason Station was meant to promote separation of church and state and inform people about freethought and logic. FFRF has contested governmental religious entanglement several times in Warren.

In an April 15 letter to Marshall, Fouts claimed FFRF isn’t protected by the Establishment Clause because atheism is not a religion. “Also, I believe it is your group’s intention to disrupt those who participate in the Prayer Station which would also be a violation of the freedom of religion amendment.”

“I do view this as a violation of my free speech rights,” Marshall told the Detroit Free Press. “It seems to me that the mayor allows free speech in the atrium as long as he agrees with the speech.”

FFRF is monitoring the situation.

 

Church in school loses another appeal 

A panel of the 2nd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in New York City ruled 2-1 on April 3 against the Bronx Household of Faith, a congregation that has been battling since 1994 over its efforts to hold weekend services in a public school.

The decision said the First Amendment’s “free exercise clause does not entitle Bronx Household to a grant from the [school district] of a subsidized place to hold religious worship services.”

It’s the sixth opinion on the case by the 2nd Circuit, reported Education Week. In his dissent, Judge John Walker Jr. invited the Supreme Court to take the case, which it has twice declined to do, in 1998 and 2011.

 

Virginia gov’s veto
on prayer upheld 

Gov. Terry McAuliffe, D-Va., vetoed a bill April 4, saying it could lead to “coercive prayer” or “religious messaging” at school events.

High schools already let students organize religious clubs, discuss religious themes and participate in voluntary prayer or other “nondisruptive expressions of belief,” he said.

The Lynchburg News & Advance editorial board wrote, “There was not much new in this unnecessary legislation that could be only a step away from state-sanctioned prayer in the public schools. Lawmakers in the House and Senate should recognize that and uphold McAuliffe’s veto.”

The Senate refused to override the veto April 23.

 

Sponsor pulls bible
as state book bill

Rep. Thomas Carmody, R-Shreveport, withdrew his bill to make the bible Louisiana’s official state book before it could go to a full vote of the state House on April 21. The bill had become a distraction, he said.

Legislators had amended Carmody’s bill two weeks earlier to make any copy of the “Holy Bible” the official state book instead of just the “historic” one in the State Museum. That drew even more criticism from opponents, reported the Times-Picayune.

 

Gay discrimination
now legal in Mississippi

Mississippi Republican Gov. Phil Bryant signed a “turn away the gays” bill April 3 in a private ceremony joined by a few lawmakers, lobbyists for the Southern Baptist Convention and the president of the Family Research Council.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act lets businesses and individuals refuse services to LGBT people on religious grounds. The House approved it 78-43. The Senate vote was 38-14.

The bill also adds “In God We Trust” to the state seal.

 

Secular group rates Congress; many fail

The Secular Coalition for America released its 2013 Congressional Report Cards for the U.S. House and Senate on March 31. A majority of House members earned an “F,” while a majority of senators earned a grade of “B” or above.

Representatives were graded based on their support for 14 bills related to church-state separation issues and discrimination against nontheistic and secular Americans. Senators were graded based on their support for five bills relating to similar issues, a coalition press release said.

HOUSE: 8% received an “A”, 7% received a “B”, 21% received a “C”, 2% received a “D” and 62% got F’s.

SENATE: 7% A’s, 45% B’s, 5% C’s, 43% F’s. 

Seven Democratic senators got perfect scores: Richard Blumenthal, Conn.; Mazie Hirono, Hawaii; Dick Durbin, Ill.; Elizabeth Warren, Mass.; Al Franken, Minn.; and Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez, N.J. Three Democratic representatives were perfect: Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.; Rush Holt, N.J.; and Louise Slaughter, N.Y. Three GOP senators received B’s: Lisa Murkowski, Alaska; Paul Kirk, Ill.; and Susan Collins, Maine.

Three GOP House members tied for the lowest score of 5%: Reps. Doug LaMalfa, Mich.; Tim Walberg, Mich.; and Walter B. Jones, N.C.

 

Georgia parents sue over school funding

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that a lawsuit was filed April 2 by parents challenging Georgia’s student scholarship organization tax credit program which lets individuals and businesses deduct contributions to groups that give scholarships to private school students, most of whom attend parochial schools.

Steve Suitts, Southern Education Foundation vice president, said since the program started in 2008, more than $280 million has been “diverted” to an “unregulated system of support for private schools” with no oversight from the state Department of Education. More than 13,000 scholarships were given in 2012.

 

SCOTUS denies cert for N.M. wedding case

The Supreme Court declined April 7 to take the case of New Mexico wedding photographers who refused to work at a same-sex ceremony for religious reasons. 

The case featured Elaine Huguenin and her husband Jonathan, whose Albuquerque studio informed Vanessa Willock and Misti Collinsworth in 2006 that it only worked “traditional weddings,” reported USA Today.

“Of particular relevance here is the Huguenins’ sincere religious belief that marriage is the union of a man and a woman,” their Supreme Court petition said. “They believe that if they were to communicate a contrary message about marriage — by, for example, telling the story of a polygamous wedding ceremony — they would be disobeying God.”

 

Bill lets humanists be wedding officiants

Minnesota state Sen. John Marty, D-Roseville, introduced a bill April 4 to allow atheists and humanists to preside over wedding ceremonies. The bill would grant “solemnization authorization” to secular celebrants appointed by atheist or humanist groups.

Current law allows only “ministers of any religious denomination” to officiate.

A House version of the bill was introduced in late March and awaits a hearing by the Civil Law Committee. The Senate bill was referred to the Judiciary Committee.

 

Obama hosts Holy Week prayer breakfast

President Barack Obama kicked off Holy Week at the White House on April 14 with 150 Christian leaders at the fifth annual Easter Prayer Breakfast.

“The tradition was started by the Obama administration in 2010 to specifically celebrate the life and death of Christ,” the New York Daily News reported.

On April 11, Obama announced a presidential delegation to attend the Mass on April 27 at which Popes John XXIII and John Paul II were declared saints.

White House counselor John Podesta led the delegation. Members were Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., chairman of the House Democratic Caucus; and Katie Beirne Fallon, assistant to the president and director of legislative affairs.

 

Jersey atheist sues
over license plate

A federal lawsuit was filed April 17 by Americans United on behalf of Shannon Morgan, a Leesburg, N.J., atheist who applied in November for an “8THEIST” license plate in November on the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission’s website. It was rejected as “considered objectionable.” She then entered “BAPTIST” as a proposed plate, which was accepted.

Attempts by Morgan to get approval for her plate were ignored, the suit alleges. The suit seeks a policy “that requires any restriction of expression on personalized license plates to be based on subjective, objective, viewpoint-neutral criteria.”   

Mt. Soledad cross
gets Obama backing

Obama administration lawyers have told the Supreme Court they will defend the 29-foot-tall cross atop Mount Soledad in San Diego as a war memorial and not unconstitutional government promotion of Christianity, the Los Angeles Times reported April 10.

The cross was erected in 1954, but it has been under legal attack since 1989. FFRF members and foxhole atheists Phil Paulson, now deceased, and Steve Trunk have led the legal challenges.

“The United States remains fully committed to preserving the Mount Soledad cross as an appropriate memorial to our nation’s veterans,” said U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr.

 

Board member sits
out Hindu prayer

Roanoke [Va.] County Board Supervisor Al Bedrosian stayed seated in protest May 13 because a non-Christian prayer was given to open the board meeting. Maharaj Sharma of the India Heritage Society chanted a blessing offering goodwill and peace as an invocation, the Roanoke Times reported. Three other board members stood.

Bedrosian recently has said that only Christians should give the opening prayer because he believes America is a Christian nation.

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