Rock the cradle;
save the Constitution
FFRF convinced the town of Century, Fla., to halt a proposal to put a nativity scene on public property.
FFRF took issue in July with the Century’s planned erection and maintenance of a nativity scene at Town Hall. Council President Ann Brooks initially told reporters “we all want a manger scene,” and said that the council had been budgeting funds to purchase such a display.
In a July 20 letter to Brooks, FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel pointed out that “not all Century residents want a manger scene.”
Century has fewer than 2,000 residents
“There are ample private and church grounds where religious displays may be freely placed. Once the council enters into the religion business, conferring endorsement and preference for one religion over others, it strikes a blow at religious liberty, forcing taxpayers of all faiths and of no religion to support a particular expression of worship,” added Seidel.
Although no town official has responded to FFRF, a Dec. 6 news story on NorthEscambia.com confirmed a victory: “The Town of Century has declared their nativity scene as surplus property and will sell it to the highest bidder, months after an attorney for a Wisconsin group that represents agnostics and atheists sent letters to the town claiming that a nativity display on public property is illegal.”
The nativity scene was later put on private church property “just yards from” Town Hall, the paper reported.
The high bid for the display was $5 from Faith Bible Baptist Church. Abundant Life Assembly of God bid $2, and Tabernacle Baptist Church bid $1.
On Dec. 12, the paper quoted an unidentified town official saying the sale of the nativity scene was not a response to FFRF’s complaint, “but was due solely to the aging condition of the manger scene.” [You’d have to believe in the Tooth Fairy to swallow that.]
FFRF limits church
sign to Sundays
Endeavour Elementary School in New Haven, Mich., took down a lawn sign promoting a church that rents the school’s cafeteria every Sunday.
After receiving a complaint from a local resident, Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote New Haven School District Superintendent Keith Wunderlich on Oct. 11 about the impropriety of keeping a permanent sign promoting a church on school property.
Wunderlich responded Oct. 12, acknowledging that keeping the sign up all week was a problem. He said the church complied with the district’s request to only keep the sign up on Sundays.
FFRF ends Kentucky prayers, church fliers
Elkhorn City Elementary School in Elkhorn City, Ky., will no longer allow organized prayer or display religious ads or fliers in the building.
The school principal and Pike County Schools Superintendent Roger Wagner took this action as a result of a July letter from FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert.
A concerned parent had told FFRF that his 5-year-old daughter’s teacher had been instructing her students to pray. His daughter told him she’d been praying every day before lunch for the past two years. The parent also told FFRF that the school had posted Christian and church event fliers.
Markert wrote that the school should educate the teacher “about why public school authorities may not abuse positions of trust to proselytize 4-year-olds or any students.”
Wagner and the principal each responded in Oct. 30 and Nov. 1 letters to affirm that organized prayer and religious fliers in the schools had ended.
Proselytizing teacher instructed to stop
A teacher at Carver Middle School in Monroe, Ga., “turned her public school classroom into a Sunday school,” preaching to students and talking about the importance of Christianity.
A local family was appalled by this blatant violation of the First Amendment and contacted FFRF.
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote Superintendent Gary Hobbs on Oct. 24, asking him to investigate and take the appropriate disciplinary action. Not only did the teacher reportedly talk about “knowing god,” she did not offer a discussion of any other religion or religious preferences aside from Christianity.
Seidel pointed out that the teacher said that “each of her students ‘needs to be saved.’ ” He also called her daily sermons an assault on “vulnerable children.”
Hobbs replied Dec. 4, writing that the principal directed the teacher to “eliminate personal discussion of religion, her church and her beliefs with students.”
L.A. sheriff addresses FFRF concerns
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel contacted Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca on Nov. 5 about religion being pushed in Vital Intervention and Directional Alternatives, a four-month program to help at-risk youth.
A local complainant said program participants were taken to an event Oct. 12 at a martial arts studio and forced to listen to a preacher and asked to “accept Jesus.”
Baca responded with a Nov. 26 letter which said that in the past, participants exercised and learned about martial arts and responsibility at the studio. The VIDA program is updating its manual to include a section that reinforces the prohibition of prayer or proselytizing with the VIDA participants, Baca wrote.
He said he appreciated FFRF bringing the issue to his attention. VIDA personnel and volunteers received specific instruction on the issue at a meeting on Nov. 16.
“It is not appropriate for VIDA personnel to place the VIDA participants into a situation where any form of religion is endorsed,” Baca wrote.
FFRF letter stops religious newsletters
A principal will no longer be able to proselytize to the staff at Deaf Smith Elementary School in Rosenberg, Texas, in weekly newsletters.
FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt sent a letter Nov. 12 to Lamar Consolidated Independent School District Superintendent Thomas Randle alerting the district to the principal’s First Amendment violation. Schmitt wrote that the newsletters, called Friday Focus, “regularly include bible verses, biblical references and sermon-like discussions that reference Jesus and present biblical stories as fact.” The staff member complained to FFRF that the newsletter had turned into a “Sunday sermon.”
Randle responded Nov. 15 to say the district investigated the issue and found the newsletters contravened district policy. The principal was instructed to stop putting religious references in staff communications. The district will review his newsletters before they are sent to staff, Randle said.
FFRF’s ‘Hawaiian eyes’ silence concert
The Moanalua High School Music Department (Honolulu, Hawaii) has canceled a concert in response to an complaint by FFRF and Hawaii activist Mitch Kahle.
For four years, the school had partnered with New Hope Church to put on a holiday concert. Students and families had to purchase tickets from the church. Several complainants reported that they had to attend a church service before they were allowed to buy the tickets.
In a Dec. 3 letter to state Department of Education Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi, Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel pointed out that “all payments are made to New Hope Church, not the school,” adding that past concerts included prayers and proselytizing by New Hope’s pastor.
Matayoshi contacted Seidel on Dec. 3 to tell him the concert had been canceled.
FFRF stops Oklahoma graduation prayer
Seniors at Tahlequah High School in Tahlequah, Okla., will be able to walk across the stage and receive their high school diploma without being subjected to a prayer first.
A senior at Tahlequah informed FFRF about the violation that occurred at graduation every year.
The prayer received support from much of the school’s staff, many of whom bowed their heads and prayed during the 2011 graduation ceremony. The prayer, which included references to “Our Lord,” was part of multiple practice graduation ceremonies.
FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote a Nov. 9 letter to Superintendent Lisa Presley outlining the violation. “By delivering such graduation prayers, the Tahlequah Public Schools abridges its duty to remain neutral.”
Presley responded Nov. 20: “Tah-lequah Public Schools will take the appropriate steps to ensure that religious rituals are not apart of future graduation ceremonies or any other school-sponsored events.”
School’s football prayer is no more
FFRF enforced the Constitution at East Poinsett County High School in Lepanto, Ark., by successfully ending pregame football prayer led by a pastor over the public address system.
Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote to Superintendent Michael Pierce on Nov. 19: “Public high school events must be secular to protect the freedom of conscience of all students.”
Pierce replied Nov. 27 that the prayer has stopped.
Gideons not welcome in Virginia school
Park View Middle School in Boydton, Va., will no longer allow Gideons Internation to have access to students. A local complainant reported men were distributing bibles and a teacher even told students “don’t forget to get your bibles” as they boarded the school bus.
“When a school distributes religious literature to its students, even passively, it has unconstitutionally entangled itself with a religious message, in this case a Christian message,” wrote Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott on Oct. 26 to Superintendent James Thornton.
Thornton answered Nov. 7 and said all school personnel had been informed of the district’s policy. In a memo to staff, Thornton advised: “If the purpose of the activity is not secular, if the effect of the activity is to advance or inhibit religion, or if the activity involves an excessive entanglement, then the activity is unconstitutional and will not be permitted.”
Religious emails to be reviewed
Wichita Public Schools in Wichita, Kan., is revising school policy after Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt’s Nov. 8 letter to Superintendent John Allison. Two staff members at Wichita West High School had bible quotations in their official district email signature.
Schmitt reminded Allison that was offensive and unconstitutional.
General Counsel Thomas Powell responded Dec. 7, writing that the email situation will be addressed along with separation of church/state in revisions of school policy.
Police Latin crosses out in Texas
The Cedar Park, Texas, Police Department will remove Latin cross depictions after getting FFRF’s letter. FFRF also took issue with the city’s “Police Chaplain,” especially since he drove a vehicle with an official department seal and the words “Chaplain, City of Cedar Park.”
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to Mayor Matt Powell and the council in July asking for removal of the cross on all city items. He also pointed out the impropriety of even having a chaplain program. “[T]hey are unnecessary, because unlike prisons or the military, the government is not burdening anyone’s religious practice.”
In a Dec. 6 phone call with the city attorney, Seidel learned that police badges, cars and shirts will no longer feature a Latin cross by the end of January.
‘Choose Life’ plates struck down in N.C.
CNN reported that U.S. District Judge James Fox ruled Dec. 7 that North Carolina’s “Choose Life” license plates are unconstitutional.
“The state’s offering a Choose Life license plate in the absence of a pro-choice alternative constitutes viewpoint discrimination in violation of the First Amendment,” Fox wrote.
Republican state Rep. Mitch Gillespie, who sponsored the bill for the plates, wants to appeal the decision.
Lawmakers voted down amendments that would have created pro-choice alternatives such as “Trust Women. Respect Choice.”
Judge charged for religion in courthouse
The Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission has filed notice of formal charges against Leon County Judge Judith Hawkins for allegedly running a religious materials business out of the courthouse, WCTV reported Dec. 6.
Hawkins is accused of using her county email account, judicial assistant and her office spaces and equipment to create, edit and promote Gaza Road Ministry products “to the detriment of the prompt and efficient administration of justice.”
She makes $142,000 annually as a judge.
Texas student refuses school’s ‘beastly’ ID
Northside Independent School District in San Antonio, Texas, which started requiring students to wear radio frequency identification tracking chips this year, is being sued in federal court by sophomore Andrea Hernandez, who refuses to wear the ID tag on biblical grounds.
The Rutherford Institute, an evangelical legal group in Charlottesville, Va., is representing Hernandez. Institute President John Whitehead told the Washington Post that, according to the Hernandez family’s beliefs, “any kind of identifying badge from the government is the mark of the beast, which means that you pay allegiance to a false God.”
District officials have repeatedly offered to let Hernandez come to school wearing an ID card without the chip and battery. Her lawyers have filed a motion claiming that a badge with no tracking capabilities still runs counter to her Christian principles.
Louisiana vouchers ruled unconstitutional
Louisiana State District Judge Tim Kelley ruled Nov. 30 in Baton Rouge that the expanded voucher program in Act 2 of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s educational reform package put into effect this school year is unconstitutional.
Kelley ruled that the program improperly diverts tax dollars from the state’s public school funding formula to private schools, reported Ponchartrain Newspapers.
About 4,900 students have enrolled in 117 private schools with taxpayer dollars. More than 10,000 students applied.
New backdoor effort to teach creationism
Indiana State Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, who earlier failed to get a bill passed letting schools “teach the controversy” about evolution, has a new idea: Requiring teachers to provide evidence if students challenge their science lessons. The chairman of the Senate Education and Career Development Committee calls it “truth in education.”
Kruse said, “If a student thinks something isn’t true, then they can question the teacher and the teacher would have to come up with some kind of research to support that what they are teaching is true or not true.”
Gerry Wheeler, National Science Teachers Association executive direction, called it a “a creative new evolution that the creationists are going to” and one of the “very insidious ways of trying to get nonscience into the science classroom.”
Oklahoma high court reverses voucher ban
In a 7-2 decision, the Oklahoma Supreme Court on Nov. 20 reversed a lower court decision that struck down the state’s school voucher program for special needs students because it used public money to benefit sectarian institutions.
The Supreme Court ruled that the school district plaintiffs lack standing because they are not taxpayers, and that the funding is not from local tax dollars but from the Legislature’s general grant to the districts through the state Department of Education.
Judge mandates church for convicted teen
When District Judge Mike Norman, Muskogee, Okla., sentenced Tyler Alred, 17, on a vehicular manslaughter conviction in November, he included Sunday church attendance for 10 years as a requirement of a deferred sentence. The District Attorney’s Office is supposed to monitor Alred’s church attendance, the Tulsa World reported.
Randall Coyne, University of Oklahoma College of Law professor, said the church condition would likely not stand if challenged, but someone would have to complain. Norman expressed doubt anyone would challenge it.
Enter the ACLU of Oklahoma, which on Dec. 4 filed a complaint with the state Council on Judicial Complaints, asserting that the sentence violates the Code of Judicial Conduct. Brady Henderson, ACLU legal director, said giving a defendant a choice between church and prison can’t be enforced without illegal government intrusion.
“I firmly believe in going to church, but the bible also tells you to obey the laws of the land,” said Muskogee County District Attorney Larry Moore. “You can obey the laws of the land and still be a Christian. In this case, the laws of the land do not permit a judge to order you to go to church.”
Turkey fines channel for ‘Simpsons’ blasphemy
The Telegraph reported Dec. 3 that Turkey’s Supreme Board of Radio and Television fined CNBC-E for “making fun of God, encouraging the young people to exercise violence by showing the murders [in a ‘Simpsons’ Halloween episode] as God’s orders.”
The episode, “Treehouse of Horrors XXII,” has a segment titled “Dial D for Diddly” in which Ned Flanders goes on a killing rampage after hearing what he thinks is the voice of God. Later in the episode, the devil demands God bring him a cup of coffee. “Yes sir,” God responds, revealing it’s actually the devil who runs the world.
Turkey is officially secular, but most of its 75 million people are Muslim.
Diocese’s ‘Obamacare’ lawsuit dismissed
U.S. District Judge Terrence McVerry on Nov. 27 dismissed the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese’s lawsuit against the Obama administration for requiring it to offer birth control services to employees as part of the federal health care mandate.
McVerry said in his 28-page opinion that the diocese has not been harmed by the law because most of its provisions don’t take effect until 2014. “[D]e-
fendants have actively begun the process of amending the regulations to address the specific religious objections which plaintiffs raise in this litigation.”
FFRF has successfully petitioned the city of Buhler, Kan., to remove a cross from its official seal.
After receiving a complaint from an offended Buhler citizen, Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote Sept. 14 to Mayor Daniel Friesen, pointing out it’s unlawful for a city to use a Latin cross as part of its official symbol. Elliott cited seven federal court decisions that held crosses on municipal seals and logos to be unconstitutional.
Friesen told reporters that “the city consulted several law firms, which said the city would most likely lose if it took this to court.”
“The endorsement of religion in the Buhler seal is particularly egregious because the cross is prominently featured and used to symbolize the ‘Traditional Values’ portion of the town motto. Courts addressing less prominent depictions have found that the inclusion of a Latin cross among other symbols on government seals and logos violates the Establishment Clause,” wrote Elliott.
The mayor correctly noted that if the city were to fight the case it would be wasting taxpayer money.
The story erupted in Kansas and nationally in late November.
The Fox News Channel, in its coverage of what it called “culture war news,” relentlessly pummeled FFRF on various nationally broadcast programs and on Facebook. Eric Bolling, who replaced Glenn Beck and kicked FFRF Co-President Dan Barker off the air last year, said during a segment of “The Five” that the city had a “free speech” right to endorse religion: “Back off, Freedom From Religion. Can’t stand that group, by the way. . . . It’s groups like Freedom From Religion that are the problem.”
The mayor announced the seal will be redesigned without the cross.
Please contact the mayor to thank him for his responsible decision and to affirm why cities can’t endorse religion:
Mayor Daniel P. Friesen
602 N Main
Buhler, KS 67522
FFRF helped one of its Pennsylvania members obtain a favorable ruling for nonbelievers from the state Human Relations Commission.
After John Wolff of Lancaster was unable to get the owners of Prudhomme’s Lost Cajun Kitchen in Columbia to stop discriminating against atheists and agnostics, he enlisted FFRF’s help. The restaurant was offering an illegal 10% discount for customers who brought in a church bulletin.
On April 11, 2011, FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote the first of three letters of complaint to owners Sharon and Dave and Sharon Prudhomme. Markert pointed out that the discount “violates the federal Civil Rights Act in addition to provisions of state civil rights statutes.
“The Civil Rights Act states in relevant part, ‘All persons shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation . . . without discrimination on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin,’ ” wrote Markert, adding, “As a place of ‘public accommodation,’ it is illegal for Lost Cajun Kitchen to discriminate, or show favoritism, on the basis of religion.”
After getting no response, Wolff filed a complaint with the state Human Relations Commission. On Sept. 24, the commission approved the following terms of settlement:
“Respondent will continue to give a discount for any bulletin from any group oriented around the subject of religious faith[,] including publications from the Freedom From Religion Foundations[,] as long as they maintain the Sunday discount program.”
Wolff was notified Nov. 21 by letter of the disposition of his complaint.
Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor noted that FFRF publishes a monthly newspaper, Freethought Today, and several irreligious “nontracts” that apparently now qualify as church bulletins. “We have titles such as ‘Why Women Need Freedom From Religion,’ ‘Is America a Christian Nation?’ ‘What’s Wrong With the Ten Commandments?’ and ‘What Does the Bible Say About Abortion?’ ”
Congratulations to John for his persistence and activism!
2012 Brian Bolton Graduate Student/Mature Student Essay Award winners
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has awarded graduate students (or any students 25 or older) $9,100 in this year’s essay competition. Students were asked to describe “Why God and government are a dangerous mix, especially in an election year” in 850- to 1,000 words.
There were six major winners with a tie for fourth place, plus seven honorable mentions. The top six essays can be found on pages 9, 10, 14, and 15.
First place ($3,000): Elizabeth Pipal, Harvard Graduate School of Design.
Second place ($2,000): Wilson Melón, Purdue University.
Third place ($1,000): Lynn Wilhelm, North Carolina State University.
Fourth place (tie, $500 each): Bryan Johnson, Colorado State University; Vicky Weber, Colorado State University.
Fifth place ($300): Jemille Bailey, Columbia University.
Honorable mentions ($200 each):
Anastassia Smorodinskaya, Columbia University.
Antwon Kennedy, Kennesaw State University.
Ashley Miller, University of South Carolina.
Justin Vacula, Marywood University.
Kristina Beverlin, University of Kansas.
Maria Rodriguez, University of Connecticut School of Law.
Wanda Thompson, Western Governor’s University.
The awards are made possible by the generosity of FFRF Lifetime Member Brian Bolton, a retired psychologist, humanist minister and university professor emeritus at the University of Arkansas.
FFRF would also like to extend a warm thank you to FFRF members Dean and Dorea Schramm for providing the honorable mention awardees and the fifth-place winner with a $50 bonus.
The month of March brings another familiar face to the Alabama Freethought Association. Bob Truett has spoken many times at AFA and other freethought organizations in the southeast. Bob is a regular attendee at AFA monthly meetings. Bob is retired Director of the Birmingham Zoo.
Bob encourages parents to bring children six years and older. He promises that the talk will be unorthodox, surprising, and will involve considerable audience participation. Expect to learn something!
11 am social hour
12 noon potluck lunch
1 pm program
Shawna received a $1,000 cash scholarship from FFRF.
By Shawna Scott
At my 2010 convocation (or “graduation”) for my B.A. at the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada, all attendees were asked to stand in prayer. This was unexpected to me because this is a public university. Also, the concept of a God had otherwise been absent from our learning experiences.
This was the prayer:
“Eternal God, the source of all goodness, discipline, and knowledge: We pray you to bless this assembly, gather to recognize achievement and celebrate life. Bless this and all universities in their quest for excellence. Be with teachers and students everywhere, that an unending search for truth and justice may be awakened in them. Inspire all researchers, philosophers and writers to provide resources for searching minds. Enable all who discern truth to make the wholeness of human kind their life’s goal. Amen.”
Being asked to stand in prayer to acknowledge a God I did not believe in made me feel excluded and disrespected. The ideals mentioned in the prayer did not fit with me or with many other students, so why were we all asked to pay lip service? Why was I not given the freedom to acknowledge the unique factors that helped me in my own personal achievement?
I consulted with members of the Windsor/Essex County Atheist Society. With their encouragement, I wrote an email to university administrative staff to address my concerns and asked that the prayer be replaced with a moment of reflection. I did not receive a reply. I tried again a year later but again received no response.
I attended a Secular Student Alliance conference in July 2012 with several club members. During a presentation, I found myself seated next to Annie Laurie Gaylor. Afterward, I asked her for her recommendations about the prayer at convocation issue. She showed a great deal of passion for supporting our cause.
I jotted down some key phrases that she advised me to include in another letter to the University. I felt empowered to be persistent in advocating for change. Our club membership increased significantly around that time, and I knew that I would have support from club members as well. I decided that I was not going to give up and would try a slightly different approach.
In September 2012, I wrote a third email to the university. We asked that a group prayer would no longer be dictated to us. We urged the university to offer a moment of reflection which would allow convocation attendees to make their own decision as to whether they want to pray, reflect, think about people who helped them along the way, and/or remember their experiences at the university.
A faculty member recommended I also send it to the Office of Human Rights, Equity and Accessibility. Within one month, I was informed by OHREA that our request was being discussed at the presidential level. Within a few days, it was announced that the convocation prayer would be permanently replaced by a moment of reflection:
“This day marks a new beginning, particularly for those about to celebrate their graduation. It is only fitting that we come together to recognize your achievements and commemorate your successes as you continue to your lifelong quest for knowledge and excellence. I ask that you take a moment to reflect on those who guided you along your path of learning, to appreciate our families, our teachers, our peers, the world in which we live, and all that inspires us.”
Secularism prevailed, and I could not have been more relieved. I received my M.A. at the October 2012 convocation, which was the first time in the school’s history that prayer was absent. What did I think about during the moment of reflection?
I thought about the wonderful professors, teaching assistants and staff who helped me along the way. I thought about my family, classmates and friends. During the moment of reflection, each convocation attendee was granted the space to be true to his or her own conscience.
The prayer removal was well-received by students and faculty. Many described the change as “long overdue.” But a local newspaper received some letters criticizing the change. Some people were upset that the atheists “win” again.
What they failed to recognize is that no atheist will be approaching the podium to present a statement about his or her lack of belief in god(s). With a moment of reflection, nothing is being imposed on anyone and neutrality is maintained.
Some argued that the prayer should not have been removed because it is part of a tradition. But with our ever-changing student population, it is imperative that the university continue its dedication to celebrating diversity.
Other critics have argued that the “minorities” have no right to speak out. Similarly, one woman wrote to a newspaper that I “could have simply stayed away from the convocation ceremonies and collected [my] diploma at the office.”
Those individuals seemingly support segregation, and that is alarming. The concept of “majority rules” can lead to an abuse of power, violating the basic and inalienable rights of nondominant groups. How much power should the majority have over the minority in the public realm?
Clearly, my journey had its ups and downs, but it was entirely worthwhile. I learned a lot about myself, how to work with others and how to create change. I learned that if you want to make change, you definitely need these two ingredients: a plan and perseverance.
In creating the plan, it is important to consult and network with others. I found it helpful to discuss my plan with club members, faculty members, other club leaders and Annie Laurie.
In being persistent, it is important to modify your approach as needed. In order for society to advance, we must harness our complaints, work together, and advocate for change.
Shawna Scott is a doctoral student in the child clinical psychology program at the University of Windsor. She has an M.A. in clinical psychology and is president and founder of the 220-member Windsor/Essex County Atheist Society, which is is affiliated with Secular Student Alliance and Centre for Inquiry.
Name: Donald B. Ardell.
Where I live: Downtown St. Petersburg, Fla.
When and where I was born: July 18, 1938, Philadelphia, Pa., in a hospital named Misericordia (a wobbly start for a future freethinker).
Family: Wife, Carol; daughter, Jeanne; son Jon; and grandchildren, Charles Grant, 8, Cadence, 8, and Buddy Miles, 6.
Education: George Washington University (sociology), University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (urban planning), Stanford University (business) and Union Institute & University, Cincinnati (doctorate in health and public policy).
Occupation: Promoter (as essayist, author and speaker) of exceptional physical and mental health based upon reason, exuberance, athleticism and liberty.
Military service: Three years in the U.S. Air Force.
How I got where I am today: Contingencies as unlikely if less consequential than those described by Stephen Jay Gould of how we all got to be here in his glorious opus Wonderful Life.
Where I’m headed: More or less in the same direction I’m going, for pretty much the reasons that got me on this path, including but not limited to trial and error, reading, asking questions and taking notes from the profiles of the glorious infidels featured in Freethought of the Day.
Person in history I admire and why: Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-99) for the life he led and the body of work he left behind. His speeches still dazzle, inform, inspire and motivate. His passions, themes and causes we, too, embrace and seek yet — secular democracy, emancipation of the oppressed, justice for all, reason as the best guide, joy the highest virtue, happiness the greatest good, science the truest source and natural wonders the only worship.
Ingersoll’s genius guided secularists then and still to this day on how to be free, rational and appreciative of science and nature.
A quotation I like: My favorite comes from a speech Ingersoll delivered at the Lotos Club in New York City on March 22, 1890: “And yet, after all, what would this world be without death? It may be from the fact that we are all victims, from the fact that we are all bound by common fate; it may be that friendship and love are born of that fact; but whatever the fact is, I am perfectly satisfied that the highest possible philosophy is to enjoy today, not regretting yesterday, and not fearing tomorrow. So, let us suck this orange of life dry, so that when death does come, we can politely say to him, ‘You are welcome to the peelings. What little there was we have enjoyed.’ ”
The last sentence of the quotation appears in large letters on the back of the cycling jersey I wear that my wife made for me. It has generated many an affable conversation during post-ride coffee breaks.
These are a few of my favorite things: Writing essays on politics, sex, religion and real wellness; vegan dining; time with my wife, children and friends; classical music; novels; biographies; red wine; triathlons and road races (for starters on things I like).
These are not: I try not to pay attention but if pressed would certainly have to mention anything associated with religion, environmental degradation, animal husbandry, hunting for sport, the fact that the 1% control too much of society’s resources.
My doubts about religion started: When I learned to think for myself, even a little bit (approximately around age 12).
Why I’m a freethinker: I can’t envision any other options that seem sensible, attractive and conducive to the way I choose to think and live.
Ways I promote freethought: In my conversations, the essays and books I write, the speeches I give and the life I lead.
By Andrew Seidel
Andrew Seidel, FFRF staff attorney, gave this speech accompanied by PowerPoint (edited here for print) in October at FFRF’s 35th annual convention on Oct. 13, 2012 in Portland, Ore.
I’d like to thank Dan and Annie Laurie for asking me to speak here today. It’s quite an honor to share the stage with such illustrious speakers. I’d also like to take a moment to thank all the FFRF members out there. Your generosity and support make my job possible, and I absolutely love my job.
Today I want to discuss two things: One, the idea that we’re founded as a Christian nation. When you hear that argument, you may debunk it using, say, the Treaty of Tripoli, which most of you are probably familiar with, which says we’re not founded in any sense on the Christian religion. Or maybe you cite the First Amendment or the fact that religious oaths are constitutionally prohibited or that the Constitution is entirely godless.
When you use those facts to refute their first argument, your opponent will fall back on the second argument, which is that we’re founded on Judeo-Christian principles. Typically, you’ll hear three arguments as to why we are founded as a Christian nation: “In God We Trust” or “One nation under God” (these silly little phrases always seem to come up), the Declaration of Independence made us a Christian nation, and the claim that the founders were all Christian.
You obviously know that “In God We Trust” and “One nation under God” are not from the founding era. The former first appeared on one coin in 1863 and was required on currency only in 1956 and the latter was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954.
The timing of these late additions is telling. Lincoln had declared martial law in 1863, the year the battle of Gettysburg was fought. Habeas corpus was suspended in 1861 for the first time in U.S. history. Brothers were killing brothers, and the country was literally tearing itself apart. It’s at this “propitious” time that Christian nationalists — a phrase I’m going to use to describe anybody who claims that we’re a Christian nation — push their religion on us all.
When Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase ordered James Pollock, U.S. Mint director, to make the change on one coin, he wrote: “We claim to be a Christian Nation. . . . The time for this or the introduction of a similar motto is propitious. ’Tis an hour of National peril and danger, an hour when man’s strength is weakness, when our strength and our nation’s salvation must be in the God of Battles.”
The same thing happened in the 1950s during the height of McCarthyism and the “Red scare,” marked by witch hunts for nonbelievers and communists, blacklists, loyalty oaths and arrests. Chief Justice Earl Warren at the time said that if the Bill of Rights were put to a vote it would lose.
The second thing to note about these changes is their effect. That religion is divisive is probably not a controversial claim to make here. The founders were well aware of this. James Madison in the “Federalist Papers, Number Ten” wrote that the zeal of different opinions concerning religion has divided humankind into parties and enflamed mutual animosity. This is one of the reasons the founders wanted to keep religion out of government. The original motto was “E pluribus unum” (from many, one). The Christian nationalists erased that unifying theme and put their divisive, religious theme in its place.
The same thing happened with the pledge. It’s even more striking because they actually divided the indivisible and then injected religion.
When discussing the Declaration of Independence, the Religious Right typically focuses on four phrases from it: “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” “their Creator,” “the Supreme Judge of the world” and “Divine Providence.” Notice that not a single one of these is Christian. There’s no mention of Jesus or Yahweh or the God of Abraham.
There are two competing views on natural law. The first is that laws or rights are given to us by a divine being. The second is that we have rights because we’re human.
We know which one of these Thomas Jefferson was talking about because he wrote about natural law in several other places. A great quote from his opinion of the French treaties: “Questions of the natural right are triable by their conformity with the moral sense and reason of man. Those who write treatises on natural law can only declare what their own moral sense and reason dictate.”
Human rights — natural law — are discoverable by reason. This is most certainly not a divine idea of natural law. Jefferson also said in 1774 that “a free people claim their rights” — they are “not a gift of the chief magistrate.” I think that would also include they are not a gift from God. People have to assert those rights.
Moreover, the Declaration of Independence has two principles that Judeo-Christianity is directly opposed to: When you have a tyrannical government, it’s a “duty” and a “right” to throw off that government; and it explicitly states that governments are instituted by the people, not by the magistrate, not by the king. The bible directly contradicts these two ideas.
The Book of Romans in the New Testament says, “There is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.” The Old Testament Book of Daniel says basically the same thing: “The Most High has sovereignty over the reign of mortals and gives it to who He will.”
These principles behind Judeo-Christianity are fundamentally in conflict with the principles that the Declaration of Independence lays out.
George Washington died in 1799. The next year, Mason Weems, a parson, wrote a book about him, a book in which we get the myths about the cherry tree and about Washington praying in the snow at Valley Forge. There’s no evidence to suggest either happened, and the prayer story didn’t actually come out in Weems’ book until something like the 34th edition.
These claims are reminiscent of Mormons posthumously baptizing people — claiming that the founders were all Christian and therefore we’re a Christian nation. It’s also incredibly rude. These men and women sacrificed an awful lot — lives, blood, treasure — and it just ignores that and attributes to God this monumental achievement.
More importantly, what the founders thought personally about God or Jesus is irrelevant to the nation itself. Religion does not claim ownership over other ideas generated by a mind. For instance, there’s no such thing as Jewish blue jeans. We just call them blue jeans, even though they were invented by Levi Strauss. Same thing with vaccines. They’re not Jewish vaccines, they’re just vaccines. Algebra is just algebra, not Muslim math.
Whatever the founders chose to do in their private lives, publicly they chose to erect the wall of separation between church and state. You’ve all probably heard the quip that if we’re a Christian nation, you might as well call us a white nation. That’s a very effective argument to make. The idea that they were all Christian and therefore founded us as a Christian nation is absolute nonsense.
When I set out to debunk the Christian nationalist fallback argument, it took me a while to discover what a Judeo-Christian principle is. It turns out the best answer comes from Harry Truman, president during McCarthy’s rise to fame. Known for being a plain speaker, he occasionally used vulgarity.
Arguably, the most vulgar thing he ever said was, “The fundamental basis for all government is in the bible. It started with Moses on the mountain.” He then mentions the New Testament and the Ten Commandments.
Let’s compare the Judeo-Christian principles in the bible and the Ten Commandments to our nation’s founding principles.
First, which commandments? There are four different sets of Ten Commandments in the bible. The first set is given to Moses on the mountain. He comes down the mountain and finds his followers worshipping a golden calf. They are breaking one of the commandments, a commandment they don’t know about yet. His response is to smash the commandments on the ground in anger and slaughter 3,000 of his friends, brothers and neighbors. Mark that term for later — friends, brothers and neighbors.
God orders Moses to make a new set and promises to sweep all of the current residents off the land in favor of the Israelites. So the second set is sealed with the promise of genocide, and in that set, God lays claim to all the firstborn of Israel. The third set is substantially similar to the first, and the fourth set is just a list of people who are cursed.
Any given bible cannot agree on which 10 are the 10. Actually, different religious traditions do not agree on how the commandments should be numbered or translated either. Such discrepancies may seem like small differences, but when you couple unshakable certainty with a claim to hold the ultimate truth, everything, no matter how small, matters. There is no such thing as a small religious difference.
Which set? I’m going to use the first set, the one that people are most familiar with because of Charlton Heston. We’ll use the Protestant version.
First Commandment: “I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods before me.” This obviously conflicts with the First Amendment’s guarantee of free exercise of religion, but it also conflicts with Article VI of the Constitution. The Constitution specifically says that it, not God, is the supreme law of the land.
This commandment conflicts with the constitutional Supremacy Clause and the First Amendment. So it did not have an influence because it conflicts.
Second Commandment: “You shall not make for yourself an idol.” But read the unabridged commandment, which continues, “for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God punishing the children for the inequity of the parents until the third or fourth generation.” This conflicts with the First Amendment again. You can make as many idols as you want, but the Constitution also directly prohibits punishing children for their parents’ crimes. Article III: “No attainder of treason shall work a corruption of blood.” That means if you are guilty of treason, only you will receive punishment, not your children, and certainly not your grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
This also conflicts with our principle of justice that only the guilty are punished.
Third Commandment: “Thou shall not take the name of thy Lord thy God in vain.” I claim that this is void for vagueness. Under the 14th Amendment, laws have to be simple enough for people to understand them, so that they know what action is being prohibited.
I’ve asked this of a number of people and get different answers. The best I’ve heard is that it prevents people from swearing an oath and then violating that oath. It fails to give adequate guidance. Quite obviously, this also runs afoul of freedom of speech.
Fourth Commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” Again, read the whole commandment: “You shall do no work neither shall your male or female slave. In six days the Lord made the heaven and earth and sea and all that is in them.”
First of all, we’re supposed to be celebrating because a God who is all-powerful took six days to make the earth and on the seventh day he had to rest? I call this celebrating lazy omnipotence.
Most importantly, this commandment sanctions slavery. We do have to concede the bible has had a severe influence on the history of slavery. Every original justification for continuing the practice came from the bible. We can concede that to the Christian nationalists. They are welcome to this shameful influence.
Fifth Commandment: “Honor thy father and mother.” I don’t really like this commandment, not because I don’t want to honor my mother and father, but I think it should be simply to honor people. This really didn’t have an effect or influence on our nation’s principles, unless somebody can correct me later.
Six through nine
I’m going to group these next few together and come back to adultery at the end: “You shall not kill; don’t steal; and don’t bear false witness against your neighbor.”
These commandments are not Judeo-Christian at all. They are universal principles that apply to absolutely everyone. All successful societies have discovered them.
Secondly, the Judeo-Christian interpretation is actually less moral because it is not universally applied, but applied only to one’s “neighbor.”
In the original Hebrew translations, there are no punctuation marks, no paragraph breaks, no line breaks. These commandments could be read so that “against your neighbor” applies to all the preceding commandments starting with “you shall not murder.”
So it could mean, you shall not murder your neighbor, you shall not steal from your neighbor, you shall not lie to your neighbor. I submit to you that that’s actually the better reading.
Who is your “neighbor?” In Leviticus, “any of your people” is how they define neighbor. “Stand against the blood of your neighbor,” “your people,” “the sons of your own people,” “your countrymen.” It’s only the people who believe in the same God as you, your co-religionists. That’s what neighbor means in the Old Testament.
Immediately after getting these commandments, the Israelites commit genocide after genocide. But none of the slain are Israelites. So they are not actually breaking the “don’t kill” commandment if it only applies to Israelites.
“You shall not commit adultery.” The Seventh Commandment actually did have an influence. I don’t think there can be any doubt that Christianity has an incredibly powerful history influencing legislation concerning sex in the U.S. It’s also a shameful history.
In Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court in 1967 overturned miscegenation laws banning interracial marriage. One law was justified like this: “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, Malay, and red and placed them on separate continents.”
Condemnation of homosexuality is firmly rooted in Judeo-Christian “moral” standards. Finally, a Supreme Court ruling in 2003 in Lawrence v. Texas overturned sodomy laws in 14 states. Again, Christianity had a very shameful influence.
Tenth Commandment: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house.” Again, read the commandment fully: “or fields, nor his male or female slaves, nor his ox or ass, or anything that belongs to him.”
Women are chattel. Slavery is condoned. This is thought crime. Big Brother is watching. Christopher Hitchens was very fond of pointing this out. This completely conflicts with the First Amendment.
To sum up the Ten Commandments and their influence on our nation’s founding: they either have no influence, being in conflict with our founding principles or have a shameful influence.
Hell cruel, unusual
Obedience is a theme that runs through the whole bible. In the annihilation of Sodom and Gomorrah, when Lot and his wife are fleeing, Lot’s wife disobeys the angelic command to not turn around and look. She disobeys and is turned into a pillar of salt.
And obviously, Isaac and Abraham, the sacrifice, the murder of a child, is often held up as the ideal for obeying God. This is fundamentally opposed to our nature and founding principles.
Edmund Burke wrote: “In this character of the Americans, a love of freedom is the predominating feature which marks and distinguishes the whole.” In Common Sense, Thomas Paine wrote about the importance of “securing freedom and property to all men, and above all things, the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience.”
People are required to believe this nonsense by their bible, but they are allowed to believe nonsense because our nation cherishes freedom and has enshrined it, not obedience, in our founding documents.
The Golden Rule? Here’s a list [PowerPoint slide] of Golden Rules that predate the Judeo-Christian tradition. Jesus is down there at No. 14. Hillel is down there at No. 12. We have found equivalence of the Golden Rule as far back as 2000 B.C.E. in Egypt. It’s arrogant for Christian nationalist Judeo-Christians to claim as their own a rule that is universally known and not even original to their tradition.
Hell is definitely a Judeo-Christian principle. More properly, it’s a Christian principle because Jesus invented hell. In the Old Testament is a place called sheol, which was a place for the dead to go but not a place of eternal torment.
On the other hand, the bible describes hell as where “The worm dyeth not and the fire is not quenched.” It’s described as a burning wind, fiery oven, unquenchable fire, furnace of fire, eternal fire and eternal punishment. You should get the sense that hell is hot and it’s eternal.
The Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. Need I say more?
The Supreme Court has actually said that being locked in a jail cell with a five-pack-a-day smoker is cruel and unusual, so I think that hell most certainly qualifies.
Finally, the Judeo-Christian principle: Vicarious redemption, that Jesus died for your sins. This is a total and complete abrogation of personal responsibility. Our entire system of justice is founded on the idea that people are responsible for their own actions.
But abrogation of personal responsibility is the central tenet of Christianity. This conflicts with the central tenet of our system of justice and government. You can imagine how this would go: The defendant gets on the stand and admits to raping children but says, “It’s OK, your honor, I’ve accepted Jesus as my savior and he forgave my sins, so you don’t need to punish me.”
I’d like to leave you with this quote from James Madison. It’s my favorite quote and is on my wall at FFRF. It’s how I motivate myself every day:
“It’s proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties. We hold this prudent jealousy to be the first duty of all citizens, and one of the noblest characteristics of the late revolution. The free men of America did not wait till usurped power had strengthened itself by exercise, and entangled the question in precedence.”
I hope that I’ve given you some mental ammunition to counter the pernicious notion that we are a Christian nation or founded on Judeo-Christian principles. We must prevent that myth from growing and becoming entangled in precedent.
Andrew Seidel graduated magna cum laude from Tulane University Law School and has completed a master of laws at Denver University’s Sturm College of Law. He practiced law in Colorado before joining FFRF as a constitutional consultant in 2011. He became a member of the Wisconsin Bar in May 2012, and serves as one of four staff attorneys.