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Two school districts and towns in Pennsylvania are aggressively fighting FFRF’s federal challenges of Ten Commandments markers at public schools. 

Marie Schaub, a New Kensington-Arnold parents who joined FFRF as a plaintiff in one of the lawsuits, reports that a “Thou Shall Not Move” movement is growing louder. “This time of year makes us feel marginalized and like second-class citizens,” she said.

Children were lined up to pull Commandments mounted on wagons as part of a “float” at New Kensington’s Christmas parade. A “Save Our Stone” rally in New Kensington organized by a man who says the United States is “Christian” led to mass distribution of “Save our Stone” lawn signs.

FFRF sued the Connellsville Area School District on Sept. 12 over an Eagles bible monument at a middle school. Two days later, FFRF sued New Kensington-Arhold School District over a 6-foot-tall bible marker in front of Valley High School.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1980 that the Ten Commandments can’t be posted inside schools: “The preeminent purpose for posting the Ten Commandments on schoolroom walls is plainly religious in nature. The Ten Commandments are undeniably a sacred text in the Jewish and Christian faiths, and no legislative recitation of a supposed secular purpose can blind us to that fact. The Commandments do not confine themselves to arguably secular matters. 

The New Kensington district has asked the court to strike from the lawsuit the plaintiffs’ mention of school board President Bob Pallone’s pro-monument comments on a Facebook page, “Keep the Ten Commandments at Valley High School.” The page, which has been “liked” by about 1,200 people, including several school board members, was created last spring by New Kensington Controller John Zavadak. 

In early December, FFRF’s motion to allow pseudonyms for several plaintiffs in its New Kensington challenge was granted. A similar motion will be filed in the Connellsville case. FFRF submitted as evidence comments from Facebook posts, website comments, email and letters to the editor, which included:

• “Maybe we should get that lady‘s phone number who is (a) participant in the lawsuit and have everybody call her and give he(r) our opinion.”

• “I‘m sure if we look up the (expletive) she probably has a facebook account or a facebook page for her ridiculous group and we can slam the (expletive) out of the (expletive).”

• “Have the families involved in the lawsuit been identified? I cannot believe anyone living in the community would participate in such a worthless cause. Someone needs to send that group back to Wisconsin with several black eyes.”

• “These people need drug onto the street and shot.”

“I have been particularly alarmed by the reaction to the filing of this lawsuit by community members,” Marie Schaub, the only local plaintiff whose identity has been revealed, told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “I am aware of numerous hateful messages that have been posted online, either as comments to newspaper articles about the lawsuit or on social media websites.”

“The continued anonymity of my child and I is important to me because I fear that if our involvement were made public, both my child and I would experience social ostracism, harassment or threats from community members,” said the other parent suing the district, who is identified as Doe 3.

“It amazes me to see people willing to come together in order to support something that’s clearly in violation of the law,” Schaub recently told the Tribune-Review. “I would encourage our school board and community to adhere to the Constitution, which will save our district from a very expensive court case.” 

“Relocating this religious monument will not prevent anyone from practicing their faith, but it will send a message that the school district includes people of all religions — in addition to those who choose none,” Schaub added. 

Dan Barker’s column, headlined ‘We atheists love this time of year like everyone else,’ first appeared Dec. 5 in the Washington Post’s “On Faith” section.

Charles C. Haynes, in his “Christmas wars” column [Nov. 27 Washington Post], acknowledges that atheists have achieved a victory in the battle to keep religious symbols from dominating certain public property during December. He astutely outlines the reasoning of the courts and municipalities that are opting for fairness and inclusivity for all Americans.

But then, like a sore loser, he calls on nonbelievers to “stay home for the holidays. Let Christian groups set up Nativity scenes in public spaces unanswered in December, and save the atheist messages for another time of year.”

Haynes complains that the “in-your-face tactics” of people like [FFRF member] Damon Vix, who organized the nonreligious displays in Santa Monica, Calif., including a Winter Solstice banner from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, have become “counterproductive and needlessly divisive.”

Counterproductive of what? Isn’t diversity — with freedom and justice for all — what America is all about? And if there is divisiveness, who is to blame? Does December belong only to Christians?

Haynes is certainly aware that this season of the year has been celebrated for millennia before the Christian Church usurped it for its own agenda. No respectable scholar thinks Jesus was born in December, if he was born at all.

Many other pagan sun gods and resurrected “saviors” had been purportedly born on Dec. 25, long before a sect of messianic Jews came up with their own version of the story. The Romans celebrated the Saturnalia during December, leading up to the New Year, Dies Natalis Sol Invicti, the “Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun,” on Dec. 25, which was the date in the Julian calendar of the Winter Solstice, the actual new year.

The real “reason for the season” is the natural astronomical holiday. We all like to honor the shortest day of the year with lights, food, gifts, fun, music, and family gatherings, as it signals the return of the sun for another year. While everything in the upper northern hemisphere is dark and colorless, the evergreen signifies hope for a returning spring. None of this is supernatural. It has nothing to do with the birth of a god.

In America, Christians are welcome to celebrate whatever they want. We are happy to share the season with them. They just can’t use the government to privilege their party over everyone else’s.

I understand how Haynes might feel that nonreligious displays during December “ridicule” the precious beliefs of Christians, but what is wrong with ridicule? What is wrong with protest, in this great country that cherishes the freedom of speech and the freedom of religion? Protestantism, for example, is based on protest — it’s right there in the word itself. The Puritans (who eschewed Christmas) based their entire flight to the new world on their ridicule of the Roman Catholic faith. And Catholics have had their inquisitions and holy wars. Religion, at its core, is fiercely divisive, criticizing and ridiculing all other faiths and nonfaiths.

To us nonbelievers, the nativity scene is a ridicule of human nature. We are all damned sinners who need to be “saved” by bowing down to the baby in the manger who grew up to become a king and dictator who threatens us with eternal torment if we do not submit like slaves to his authority. A popular Christmas carol claims that Jesus came “to save us all from Satan’s power while we were gone astray.” Believers might see a cute baby in a manger, but most nonbelievers see an in-your-face put-down of humanity.

We are not sinners or slaves. We live in a proudly rebellious country that fought a divisive Revolutionary War to get rid of kings and lords, establishing a nation that disestablishes religion.

Nobody should have to stay home for the holidays. We atheists love this time of year like everyone else, and we actually know what we are celebrating: the rebirth of the sun, not the birth of the son. Christians can do whatever they like in their churches and private property, but in the American public square, there is room at the inn for all of us.

 

Dan Barker, a former minister, is co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and author of Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists and several other freethought books.

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FFRF Legal Victories

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.

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State/Church Bulletin

‘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

Email:

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!

Schedule:

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. 

Public reaction

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.

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