FFRF filed a brief Feb. 15 fighting the federal government’s motion in support of a permanent shrine to Jesus in the Flathead National Forest, leased at no cost since the 1950s to the Knights of Columbus. The statue is near Kalispell, Mont.
“A permanent Catholic shrine on public land is prohibited by the Establishment Clause, every bit as much as a Catholic church would be,” begins the brief by attorney Richard L. Bolton, on behalf of FFRF.
“The suggestion that a permanent shrine with a six-foot statue of Jesus Christ, standing by itself in the forest on federal land, does not convey a religious impression is unsupported by evidence or common sense.”
The Forest Service permit itself notes the permit is “for the purpose of erecting a religious shrine overlooking the Big Mountain ski run.”
“Enforcement of the Establishment Clause does not evince hostility to religion,” FFRF points out.
The brief details how local FFRF members have come into unwanted exposure to the statue, conferring associational standing upon FFRF. FFRF member William Cox, previously noted he has skied past the shrine many times and continues to ski on Big Mountain. During a fall 2012 deposition, Cox called the statue “religious in nature and offensive.”
Two other FFRF Montana members coming into contact with the shrine submitted declarations, including Doug Bonham, who lives close to Big Mountain and first encountered it about seven years ago while skiing past it.
“My immediate reaction was that the statue was grossly out of place and an oppressive reminder that Christians are a controlling and favored group in the Flathead Valley.” His daughter, 15, now regularly skis on Big Mountain and also considers it “ridiculously out of place.”
The statue “literally and figuratively looms over the Valley” and is “perceived as a reminder of the Christian religious values that the majority in the Valley promote,” Bonham declared.
Pamela Morris, a third-generation Montanan and daughter of the founder of Showdown Ski Area, first encountered the shrine in 1957 at age 15 as a member of a ski team. Although she was then part of the Methodist Youth Fellowship, “the statue felt startlingly out of place: intrusive. Since then I have avoided the area: I backpack, fish and camp where nature has not been so violated in Montana.”
Morris noted she would enjoy skiing Big Mountain again, “if it were a welcome site for all who love nature.” A Unitarian and FFRF member, she added: “I would support any religious group’s efforts to build on private land, including a mosque in my neighborhood, but I oppose any building on public land.”
FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor notes in her declaration the “number of vitriolic” phone calls and threatening emails received by the FFRF office after its complaint over the Jesus Shrine went public and each time the case gets publicity. Many messages warn, “Don’t come to Montana.”
“As a co-founder who has been an active part of FFRF since the beginning and who became co-president in 2004, I have personally observed that the public reaction to requests to end Establishment Clause violations often devolves into ad hominems, hostility and veiled or unveiled threats to FFRF and members who are state/church separation advocates.”
Federal officials are alleging “no one” ever complained about the Big Mountain Jesus before. Gaylor noted, “It is my experience that, over the years, government officials often ignore or may fail to keep or hold onto complete records of Establishment Clause complaints.”
She gives as an example the claim in the Supreme Court decision in Van Orden v. Perry that no one except Van Orden had ever complained to the government about a Ten Commandments monument at the Texas Capitol.
Gaylor entered into the record her personal knowledge that both Madalyn Murray O’Hair, as head of American Atheists, and Anne Nicol Gaylor, as FFRF president, had previously complained.
One of FFRF’s several complaints asking for removal of the religious edicts, a letter Annie Laurie Gaylor herself wrote to Texas Gov. Rick Perry in 2001, is entered into the record.
The federal government and the Becket Fund, a Roman Catholic legal society representing the Knights of Columbus, claim the Jesus statue and setting are similar to the facts in Van Orden, in which the Ten Commandments monument on the Texas statehouse grounds was approved by the high court, because they likened it to a “museum.”
FFRF’s legal brief puns: “Treating a ski slope as a museum would be a dangerously slippery slope.”
The case, FFRF v. Chip Weber and U.S. Forest Service, CV 12-19-M-DLC, is in the courtroom of President Obama appointee U.S. District Judge Dana L. Christensen.
Below is an excerpted version of the memorandum in support of a motion to use pseudonyms and request a protective order for plaintffs in Doe v. Jackson City School District, a federal lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio by FFRF and the ACLU of Ohio in early February. (Deleted are numerous legal citations. You can read the entire legal memorandum:
ffrf.org/uploads/legal/Jackson-Jesus-Complaint.pdf. The judge granted the order.)
The memo references many FFRF members such as Richard Rohrer or activists who have received FFRF awards, as well as Doe v. Porter, an important victory won by FFRF in Dayton, Tenn. The decision barred religious instruction in public schools and was upheld by the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in 2004. It also cites the harassment of the McCollum family in winning their landmark lawsuit, upon which the other religion-in-school Supreme Court precedent rests. March 8 marks the 65th anniversary of the McCollum decision. Jim McCollum, on whose behalf his mother Vashti brought the case, is now a Lifetime Member.
Plaintiffs have filed this lawsuit using pseudonyms rather than their true identities. As alleged in the Complaint, the individual plaintiffs are citizens and residents living in or near Jackson County within the Jackson City School District (JCSD). The suit is also brought on behalf of a minor plaintiff who is a student enrolled within JCSD. Plaintiff Sam Doe 1 is the parent of a minor currently enrolled at Jackson Middle School. Plaintiff Sam Doe 2, is a minor and a student currently attending Jackson Middle School. Plaintiff Sam Doe 3 has children currently attending a public elementary school within JCSD and Plaintiff Sam Doe 3’s children expect to attend Jackson Middle School in the future. The Plaintiffs fear for their safety if their identities are disclosed.
Jackson Middle School, a public school in Jackson, Ohio, has displayed a portrait of Jesus Christ in one of its hallways for some years. Plaintiffs bring suit to challenge the portrait of Jesus hanging at the middle school. Due to the highly personal and sensitive nature of the religious matters involved in this case and the potential for retribution against the Plaintiffs, Plaintiffs seek to proceed pseudonymously.
Generally, pleadings must disclose the identities of the litigants. While there is a presumption of open judicial proceedings pursuant to this rule, there are exceptions when the issues involved are of a sensitive and highly personal nature. Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(c)(1) allows a court to issue a protective order that allows Plaintiffs to proceed under pseudonyms and protects against the public disclosure of the Plaintiffs’ personally identifiable information. Courts have granted such protective orders when there is a concern that the privacy and safety of the Plaintiffs will be threatened if their names and identities are disclosed to the public.
The Sixth Circuit identified factors a court must weigh to “determine whether a plaintiff’s privacy interests substantially outweigh the presumption of open judicial proceedings.” Doe v. Porter, 370 F.3d 558, 560 (6th Cir. 2004) [Editor’s note: Doe v. Porter was a victorious lawsuit brought by FFRF]. These factors are:
“(1) whether the plaintiffs seeking anonymity are suing to challenge a governmental activity; (2) whether prosecution of the suit will compel the plaintiffs to disclose information ‘of the utmost intimacy’; (3) whether the litigation compels plaintiffs to disclose an intention to violate the law, thereby risking criminal prosecution; (4) whether the plaintiffs are children.”
In this case, the Porter factors weigh heavily in favor of pseudonymity and a protective order. The Plaintiffs are suing a governmental entity; they will be forced to reveal information of the “utmost intimacy;” and one of the Plaintiffs is a minor child. The other Porter consideration — whether litigation compels Plaintiffs to disclose an intention to violate the law — is not applicable in this case.
I. The Doe Plaintiffs Are Challenging a Governmental Activity
The Doe plaintiffs are suing Jackson City Schools. As averred in the Complaint, Jackson City Schools is a public school district in Jackson, Ohio. Since at least 1947, Jackson City Schools has posted a portrait of Jesus Christ, known as Head of Christ, in the Hall of Honor at Jackson Middle School. Plaintiffs are challenging the posting of religious iconography in a public school and are suing to remove this religious imagery from the walls of a public school.
II. The Doe Plaintiffs Will Be Forced to Reveal Information of the “Utmost Intimacy”
The Plaintiffs will be forced to reveal information of the “utmost intimacy,” in particular their religious beliefs, or lack thereof, and their views on separation of church and state. Courts have recognized that “religion is perhaps the quintessentially private matter.” The “preservation and transmission of religious beliefs and worship is a responsibility and a choice committed to the private sphere.” Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577, 589 (1992).
Even if the Plaintiffs would not have to “directly state their religious affiliations, or lack thereof,” Plaintiffs will nonetheless have to explain their injuries — a requisite element to prove standing — which will necessarily “require [them] to reveal [their] beliefs concerning the proper interaction between government and religion.” “The court recognizes that such concerns can implicate privacy matters similar to those associated with actual religious teachings and beliefs.”
In Doe v. Porter, a case in which the Plaintiffs sought to enjoin a public school district’s decision to allow religious instruction in its schools, the Sixth Circuit aptly noted the uniquely controversial aspect of religious issues involved and found that forcing the Plaintiffs to reveal their identities could “subject them to considerable harassment.”
The Plaintiffs in this case face a unique risk inherent in Establishment Clause cases, which typically involve highly charged matters relating to religion. “Lawsuits involving religion can implicate deeply held beliefs and provoke intense emotional responses.”
A. Establishment Clause Plaintiffs Routinely Face Harassment and Threats Including Physical Violence
Plaintiffs would like to draw to the Court’s attention the alarming history of violence and threats of violence against Establishment Clause plaintiffs. Vashti McCollum brought a suit in 1945 objecting to the practice of allowing public school students to attend religious classes held in public school classrooms. See Illinois ex rel. McCollum v. Bd. of Educ., 333 U.S. 203 (1948). Ms. McCollum’s house was vandalized, she received hundreds of pieces of hate mail, and her sons were physically attacked.
In 1981, Joann Bell and Lucille McCord filed suit to block religious meetings and the distribution of Gideon Bibles in their children’s schools. See Bell v. Little Axe Indep. Sch. Dist. No. 70, 766 F.2d 1391 (10th Cir. 1985). The plaintiffs’ children were consequently branded as “devil worshipers.” “An upside-down cross was hung on thirteen-year-old Robert McCord’s locker,” and the Bells received threatening phone calls. “More than once a caller said he . . . was going to break in the house, tie up the children, rape their mother in front of them, and then ‘bring her to Jesus.’ ” The threats were far from empty: The Bells’ home was burned down.
In 1994, Lisa Herdahl brought an action challenging prayer practices in her children’s schools. See Herdahl v. Pontotoc Cty. Sch. Dist., 887 F. Supp. 902 (N.D. Miss. 1995). As a result, her children were called “atheists and devil worshipers” by their classmates. Other children were threatened with beatings by their parents if they were caught talking to, or playing with, the Herdahl children. There were reports that a boycott would be organized against the convenience store where Lisa Herdahl worked. Herdahl gave up her job “because of threats against her children.” She received death threats and threats that her home would be firebombed.
The son of the plaintiff in Chandler v. Siegelman, 230 F.3d 1313 (11th Cir. 2000) (a challenge to prayer at school-related events), was “harassed at school almost daily.” And even though she was not a plaintiff but merely a vocal opponent of the school prayer policy challenged in Santa Fe Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290 (2000), Debbie Mason received threatening phone calls and was followed home by persons trying to scare her. Eventually, her husband and children became unable to find work in the town where they lived.
Tammy Kitzmiller, the lead plaintiff in a high-profile case challenging a Pennsylvania school district’s promotion of intelligent design, received death threats, among other hate mail. “Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial” (PBS “NOVA” television broadcast Nov. 13, 2007); see generally, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area Sch. Dist., 400 F. Supp. 2d 707, 721-22 (M.D. Pa. 2005). New Jersey high school student Matthew LaClair also received a death threat after he tape-recorded and publicly objected to his history teacher’s frequent proselytizing of students. After speaking out, LaClair was quickly ostracized by his classmates.
In the case of Wynne v. Town of Great Falls, 376 F.3d 929 (4th Cir. 2004), the plaintiff suffered extreme harassment at the hands of her neighbors after she sued to enjoin a town council from opening its meetings with sectarian prayers. Individuals unhappy with the suit broke into the plaintiff’s home and beheaded her pet parrot, leaving behind a note reading, “You’re next.” In addition, several of the plaintiff’s pet cats were killed and her pet dog was beaten.
Tyler Deveny, the eighteen-year-old plaintiff in Deveney v. Board of Education, 231 F. Supp. 2d 483 (S.D.W. VA. 2002), endured a beating of his own after successfully challenging the invocation planned for his high school graduation ceremony. A group of eight teens evidently displeased with the outcome attacked Deveny in a public place, with one saying, “Oh, you hate God,” before striking Deveny in the face.
Unlike Deveny, the Dobrich family — plaintiffs in Dobrich v. Walls, 380 F. Supp. 366 (D. Del. 2005) — did not suffer physical violence after challenging their public school district’s practices of permitting teachers to proselytize and distribute bibles to non-Christian students and of rewarding students who attended school-sponsored bible clubs. But the harassment, anti-Semitic taunts, and veiled threats the family endured from fellow community members ultimately drove them to move to another county.
And in a case from the Seventh Circuit challenging the display of Christian paintings by the City in a public park, Judge Cudahy gave this description of events surrounding the substitution of a new, anonymous plaintiff for the original, named one:
The record indicates that the original plaintiff in this case, Richard Rohrer, was, in effect, ridden out of town on a rail for daring to complain about the City’s conduct. The present plaintiff has concealed her identity to avoid suffering the same treatment. However much some citizens of Ottawa [Ill.] may disagree with the position that the Plaintiffs have taken, however much they may think the Plaintiffs annoying and overlitigious, the conduct of some of them has been deplorable. Doe v. Small, 964 F.2d 611, 626 (7th Cir. 1992) (Cudahy, J., concurring in the judgment).
Finally, just recently in a similar case over religious iconography in school, the publicly identified high school student plaintiff, Jessica Ahlquist, faced “bullying and threats at school, on her way home from school and online.” Ahlquist v. City of Cranston ex rel. Strom, 840 F. Supp. 507, 516 (D.R.I. 2012). After filing the lawsuit, Ahlquist was “subject to frequent taunting and threats at school, as well as a virtual on-line hate campaign via Facebook.” Id.
B. Plaintiffs in this Case Have a Reasonable Fear of Facing Harassment and Threats Including Physical Violence
“To proceed anonymously for fear of retaliation and harassment a ‘plaintiff must demonstrate that . . . retaliation is not merely hypothetical but based in some real-world evidence; a simple fear is insufficient.” As discussed below, the Plaintiffs in this case have a reasonable fear of facing harassment, retaliation, and threats including physical violence based on commentaries made on the Internet, in news media accounts and on social media networks.
The issues involved in this case have already elicited a considerable amount of public outcry and will only elicit further community outrage directed at the Plaintiffs. Here, there has been a bombardment of Internet-based speech against those who oppose the continued hanging of the Head of Christ in Jackson Middle School. On Facebook and in online commentary to media accounts, individuals have expressed the desire to suppress minority viewpoints, and have alluded to a desire for those in disagreement to leave Jackson, Ohio, or have the students go to another middle school. The comments also show veiled threats of physical violence. Thus, it is reasonable that Plaintiffs fear social ostracism, harassment, intimidation and other threats including physical violence. The following demonstrates that this fear is not based on the hypothetical, but rather based on the comments made by real persons online.
Social media sites appear to be the hotbed of this threatening and harassing activity. In addition to comments on public Facebook pages, particularly news stations’ fan pages, residents of Jackson have expressed their displeasure with the opposition on their own Facebook pages.
Comments posted on Facebook have demonstrated veiled threats of physical violence. For example, John Davis commented on Lacey Williams Sturgell’s Facebook page, “Hunt down whoever complained and get them,” to which Ms. Sturgell replied, “John Davis if they remove the picture I think it might get a little ugly in this small town & it will turn so quickly they won’t have a chance 2 get away! I can’t stand people like this!”
Another Facebook commenter, Steve Hayburn, commented, “Find out who complained about it and settle this out in the parking lot.” Glen Smith commented, “But, alas, I believe in freedom of speech unconditionally unless it lessens or severs my Liberties and Freedoms . . . in which case I must invoke my 2nd Ammendment [sic] Rights upon you and your unjust endeavors.”
Equally alarming are the attempts already to find the identities of the attorneys involved. Commenters have targeted the attorneys representing the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which first contacted Superintendent Howard about the constitutional concerns regarding the portrait in January 2013. FFRF attorneys are co-counsel in this matter. CARL_IN_OHIO suggested, “Why not post the home addresses of these lawyers in Wisconsin? Let’s send THEM cards, phone calls, and emails.”
Adding to the mob mentality, many commenters espoused a “you’re either with us or against us” philosophy. On the Telegram News Facebook Page, J Matthew Thomas commented, “Support us. Or else.” On her own page, Lacey Williams Sturgell commented, “If they do remove it, I would say its not gonna be so happy go lucky in this little town of ours bc so many ppl I know disagree with removal.”
Others suggested those opposing the portrait were Satan worshippers or the “Anti-Christs.” Posting in response to an article on www.theblaze.com, Cyber Geezer commented, “It’s about time someone stood up and told these anti-Christ nut cases to take a flying leap off a tall building! This is such a fine upstanding group to be challenging what we do. They are all so proud of their beliefs that they keep a low profile so that no one in their own communites even know they are one of the Anti-Christs and self-glorifying atheists!”
Another woman posted “What a shame, This group That wants It taken Down Is Of Satan.”
Many commenters suggested those opposing the portrait of Jesus in Jackson Middle School leave the country or find another school. Samantha Ostrander commented on Ms. Sturgell’s Facebook page, “I am not even a huge Christian and believe the complainer and this so called 19,000 member cult are Fucking crazy. If they don’t like it, go to school somewhere else.” Hannah Nichelle Vance commented on Lauren Schmoll WSAZ’s Facebook page that “No one told you that you had to look at it. If you have a problem with it then don’t go into the middle school.”
“Pardon my French but these assholes need to get away from our schools PERIOD . . . get the hell out of our states, our region and our schools!” stated Sam Songer on WOWK13’s Facebook page. In addition to suggesting the Plaintiffs leave Jackson, some commenters wished eternal damnation upon the opposition. Pat Grochowski Mihaly commented, “To those who want it down, when you die I hope God sends you ‘down’. You wacko, sicko liberals are denying others their constitutional rights! Go find a deserted island and start a Liberal Colony. You are as much wanted in GOD’S COUNTRY as the lepers.”
The Plaintiffs have stated in declarations included with this filing that they fear experiencing social ostracism, harassment or threats. The Plaintiffs are aware of the online commentary directed at those opposing continued hanging of the Head of Christ at Jackson Middle School. Under these circumstances, it is unsurprising that Plaintiffs fear social ostracism, harassment, intimidation, and physical violence should their association with this lawsuit become known.
III. One of the Doe Plaintiffs is a Minor
The potential harm to children in Establishment Clause cases is great and thus, courts have frequently allowed minor Plaintiffs to proceed using pseudonyms. In Doe v. Porter, the Sixth Circuit noted, “this case is brought on behalf of very young children, to whom we grant a heightened protection.”
As a minor, Doe 2 is particularly vulnerable in this litigation. Recognizing the vulnerabilities of minors in litigation, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure require minors to be identified by their initials. This measure of protection is not sufficient in this case, however, due to the highly publicized nature of the controversy and the size of the school and city of Jackson, Ohio. Because the Plaintiffs are drawn from such a small pool of individuals, even the use of initials for the minor plaintiff would make the Plaintiffs easily identifiable.
Sam Doe 2 is a minor child in this litigation and is thus deserving of “heightened protection.” Doe 2 will not participate if identified. Additionally, Sam Doe 3 is the parent of minor children. Doe 3’s anonymity is necessary to protect Doe 3’s minor children, not party to this lawsuit, but nevertheless affected by it should the identities of their parents become known.
Pseudonymity Traditionally Granted when Plaintiffs Uniquely Vulnerable to Stigma
Pseudonymity has traditionally been granted when Plaintiffs are uniquely vulnerable to stigma. For example, pseudonymity has been granted to: a bipolar plaintiff, a plaintiff seeking an abortion, and a gay plaintiff challenging a sodomy law. The Plaintiffs in Porter who were challenging religious education in public schools were vulnerable due to the fact that they espoused a minority viewpoint in their small, rural town. So too, Plaintiffs in this case are particularly vulnerable to stigma for espousing what appears to be the minority viewpoint in their small, rural town and for being individuals on record to challenge this religious display. Plaintiffs clearly fit within the traditional purpose of pseudonymity.
For the foregoing reasons, plaintiffs respectfully request that their Motion for Leave to Use Pseudonyms and For Protective Order be granted.
A portion of the information for this brief was compiled and graciously shared by the American Civil Liberties Union.
College agrees coach’s prayers unconstitutional
Coaches at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., have been instructed to stop proselytizing student athletes after getting a Nov. 8 complaint letter from FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott.
Football coach Jerry Moore, had been inviting preachers to give sermons and pray in Jesus’ name at pregame dinners, which all football players attended. Moore also led a bible study class and encouraged players to attend.
Elliott wrote Chancellor Kenneth Peacock, asking him to “discontinue the practice of instituting team prayers, sermons and bible studies for ASU football players.”
ASU’s general counsel responded Feb. 6 that Moore’s proselytizing has “no legitimate place in the University’s athletic programs” and that a student could see the coach’s “religious observances” as coercive.
“It is highly unlikely that a coach would look favorably upon a student athlete who walked out of a team meeting when a preacher, at the coach’s invitation, began to deliver a sermon or a team prayer,” the response letter said. “In these circumstances, it would not be unreasonable for a student athlete to consider the atmosphere created by such religious observances coercive.”
Moore has left ASU for “unrelated” reasons, but the school’s attorney said ASU has reminded all coaches that proselytizing is unacceptable.
FFRF ends Texas
Religion was forced to take a knee in the Pottsboro [Texas] Independent School District after FFRF Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell’s Feb. 6 letter of complaint that the football coach was leading players in pregame prayer. The football games of both the middle school and high school also featured a prayer addressing god and Jesus over the loudspeaker.
Cavell’s letter to Superintendent Kevin Matthews outlined the constitutional violations.
Legal counsel responded the next day to say that the school had discussed its policy regarding staff-led prayer with all coaches and will discuss the issue with stadium personnel before the next football season starts.
School ditches religion for positive choices
Ohio’s Wauseon High School will now have an inclusive spring assembly instead of a proselytizing Easter assembly.
Previous Easter assemblies encouraged students to accept Jesus as their Lord and savior and pressured them to sing Christian songs. A group of students protested the sermon-like assembly by walking out of last year’s.
FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt sent Superintendent Marc Robinson a letter last May 7, asking him not to schedule religious assemblies in the future.
Robinson responded Feb. 7 that the district had asked the high school principal to change the nature, speakers and format of the assembly. He said the spring assembly will focus on positive student choices.
Religious music scratched from schools
Choir concerts at grade schools in Ocean Springs, Miss., no longer include Christian worship songs and are held at the school instead of a church. A concerned parent contacted FFRF after their child participated in a school concert held at a Baptist church, where six of 14 songs were religious.
Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote to Superintendent Bonita Coleman-Potter on Nov. 12. Schmitt found one of the songs, “Joshua Fit the Battle,” particularly worrisome because it proudly recounts a battle in which Joshua is instructed by his god to commit genocide on the people of Jericho. Schmitt quoted Chapter 6 of Joshua where “they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword.”
On Feb. 14, FFRF was informed the school’s choir and band held a fall concert, which in previous years was called a Christmas concert, on Dec. 3. The concert was held in the school’s auditorium and featured entirely secular music.
Georgia teacher warned about religious songs
A sixth-grade science teacher at Lakeview Middle School in Rossville, Ga., will no longer sing Christian songs during instructional time to students.
FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote a Feb. 1 complaint letter and a Feb. 11 follow-up letter to Catoosa County Public Schools Superintendent Denia Reese. He expressed concern that several co-workers reported the teacher’s behavior to administration, but that she allegedly continued to impose her beliefs on students.
District legal counsel responded that the teacher admitted singing inappropriate songs to children. Administrators discussed the law with her and instructed her to stop proselytizing.
FFRF ends Indiana staffer’s proselytizing
An elementary school principal in Ligonier, Ind., will no longer push his religious beliefs and judgments on other district employees through religious newsletters and prayers at staff lunches. A newsletter the principal sent to staff read: “People may be able to take away the symbols of Christmas, but they can never take away the meaning of Christmas; that a Savior was born to save the world.”
FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott called the principal’s actions inappropriate in a Dec. 19 letter to West Noble Schools Superintendant Dennis VanDuyne.
VanDuyne responded Jan. 28 that the principal will apologize to his staff and stop promoting religion. VanDuyne added that district policy on separation of church and state will be reviewed by all principals at the next administrators’ meeting.
Bible handouts ended at Georgia school
Bible distribution is out at S.L. Mason Elementary, a public school in Valdosta, Ga. The Gideons set up a table in the main hallway. When one girl and her friend refused to take a bible, other school children told them they were going to hell.
On behalf of a concerned parent, FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel contacted Valdosta City Schools Superintendent William Cason in a Feb. 12 letter. “The public schools should protect the personal conscience of students, especially those students of a very young age who were given bibles at the elementary school.”
FFRF was informed by the parent complainant that Cason personally contacted her to apologize. Cason said he would update school administrators to let them know the Gideons and other groups are not allowed to enter schools and distribute bibles.
Because the florist Marina Plowman no bouquet of roses wanted to deliver a 16-year-old atheist, she was now being sued by the Freedom from Religion Foundation. Twins Florist, a florist business and family business since 1951, in the small town in Cranston, Rhode Iceland wants people really just be fun.
Online translation of a German story about FFRF suing over a florist’s refusal to deliver to Jessica Ahlquist
I was a Brownie in 1978 and wanted to become a Girl Scout. It was not to be. I had a hard time fitting in as a kid. My Sunday school teacher’s eyes shot daggers at me when, after a lesson on the Virgin Mary, I asked, “Was Joseph a virgin, too?” I just didn’t take to the religion thing. Alongside my bible, I read Bulfinch’s Mythology, and I much preferred the Greek gods. They fell in love and had adventures and didn’t seem to take themselves so seriously. There was laughter in heaven. Jesus was sort of OK — I liked some of his sermons. But the bible seemed filled with harsh de-sert people (mostly men) morbidly obsessed with death and suffering. What had they to do with me?
Lynn Stuart Parramore, “I was an atheist child, and the Girl Scouts didn’t want me”
When I think of an army sporting a Christian cross, I think Crusades. Neither my country nor my army force me to swear allegiance to Odin, Jesus, Buddha or Horus. Freedom from religious oppression is pretty much the reason why the United States was founded.
Email from Afghanistan by Sgt. Joel Muhlnickel, objecting to a cross and steeple, which was ordered to be removed, at Forward Operating Base Orgun-E
NBC News, 1-24-13
CNN hasn’t flagged this iReport as inappropriate, but some community members have. This is a divisive topic, however it does not violate our Community Guidelines, so we ask people to please stop flagging it.
Daphne Sashin, producer, on a column by Texan Deborah Mitchell headlined “Why I Raise My Children Without God”
As a Christian, I have no personal issues with a prayer being said at a public meeting. But we are elected to serve the public. We need to make the public meeting a comfortable environment for all those that wish to attend.
Councilman Jason Jones, Mount Holly, Pa., questioning Mayor Richard Dow’s insertion of a Christian prayer into the meeting without consulting the council
They operate like the Mafia. They walk into a store and say it would be a shame if your window was broken or you lost your clientele. They might tell the father of a girl who wears a skirt that’s too short and he’s, say, a store owner, “If you ever want to sell a pair of shoes, speak to your daughter.”
Rabbi Allan Nadler, director of Jewish studies at Drew University in Madison, N.J., on “modesty squads” operating in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods
New York Times, 1-30-13
A few heavenly sources speculated the catalyst for the Divine Creator’s most recent bout of existential anguish may have come earlier this month, when one of His routine tsunamis claimed the lives of 6,000 people in the Indonesian port city of Kupang, causing Him to question the meaning of existence in general.
God, quoted in “God Freaks Self Out By Lying Awake Contemplating Own Immortality”
The Onion, 1-31-13
I did not believe my participation to be an act of joint worship, but one of mercy and care to a community shocked and grieving an unspeakably horrific event. I apologize where I have caused offense by pushing Christian freedom too far, and I request you charitably receive my apology.
Pastor Rob Morris of Christ the King Lutheran Church, Newtown, Conn., who was asked to apologize by the president of the Missouri Synod for taking part in “joint worship with other religions”
Our best estimate is that 700 people give up reading the bible every single day.
Paul Caminiti, vice president for bible engagement at Biblica [formerly the International Bible Society], Colorado Springs, Colo.
Mission Network News, 4-6-12
A number of courses and their instructional materials incorporate pseudo-scholarship, including claims that the bible provides scientific proof of a 6,000-year-old Earth (young Earth creationism) and that the United States was founded as a Christian nation based on biblical Christian principles. At least two districts’ bible courses include materials suggesting that the origins of racial diversity among humans today can be traced back to Noah’s sons, a claim that has long been an important element of some forms of racism.
Mark Chancey, professor of religious studies at Southern Methodist, in a report on bible courses in Texas public schools
Texas Freedom Network, 1-16-13
Hey Catholics, news flash — if the pope can quit, it’s OK for you to quit, too. ... Every poll of American Catholics shows they find most Vatican teachings to be irrelevant. Catholics use birth control, they get divorced, they have premarital sex, they masturbate, sometimes all in one night.
Entertainer Bill Maher, suggesting Hillary Clinton as a replacement for Pope Benedict because she “knows how to handle a guy who can’t keep his hands to himself”
“Real Time With Bill Maher,” 2-15-13
Percentage of freshmen at four-year colleges who declare “Roman Catholic” as their religious affiliation: 26. Who declare “None”: 25.
Harper’s Index, October 2012
The real reason for the bill is to allow certain religious or political groups to reject gay or lesbian students with the commonwealth’s blessing. It’s cut from the same mold as legislation passed last year to send taxpayer funds to adoption agencies that discriminate against prospective parents on the basis of religion and sexual preference.
Editorial calling on Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell to veto a bill passed by the House of Delegates and the Senate allowing religious and student groups to enforce discriminatory membership practices
The Virginian-Pilot, 2-19-13
FFRF is announcing topics, rules and deadlines for its 2013 high school, college and graduate/mature student essay scholarship competitions.
FFRF, an educational state-church watchdog that has more than 19,000 members nationwide, has offered essay competitions to college students since 1979. In 1994, FFRF added a separate contest for college-bound high school seniors. To include even more students, FFRF debuted its first “graduate students over age 25” competition in 2010.
This year the awards are $2,000 for the first-place essay, $1,000 for second place, $750 for third place, $500 for fourth place, $400 for fifth place and $300 for sixth place. Several $200 “honorable mentions” are awarded at the judges’ discretion.
Thousands of scholarship programs reward students for blind faith and orthodoxy, but few reward students for using reason! FFRF members are asked to help publicize FFRF’s important outreach to the next generation by bringing the contests to the attention of their local high schools, colleges and universities. See ads in the back wrap or visit: ffrf.org/outreach/student-essay-contests/.
William J. Schulz High School Senior Essay Competition
This competition is newly endowed in memory of William J. Schulz, a member of FFRF who left a major bequest to FFRF. William was a farm boy in Edgar, Wis., who became a chemical engineer and built paper-producing mills around the world. He also had a degree in German, held several patents, brewed his own beer and was a recreational pilot. He died at 57 of a stroke.
Topic: Challenges of Being a Young Freethinker.
A freethinker is “one who forms his or her opinion about religion based on reason, rather than faith, tradition or authority.” Write from a personal perspective about the challenges you’ve faced as a nonbelieving teenager, in your family, your high school or community. Maybe you took flak for being an atheist, stood up for freethought or spoke out against the encroachments of religion in the classroom, at school events, in government, or in your family. Write about how you’ve dealt with such challenges.
Eligibility: North American high school senior who graduates in spring 2013, going on to college in fall 2013.
Word length: 500 to 700 words.
Deadline: Postmarked no later than June 1, 2013. Winners announced in August.
Michael Hakeem Memorial College Essay Competition
The late Michael Hakeem, a sociology professor, was an FFRF officer and active atheist known by generations of University of Wisconsin-Madison students for fine-tuning their reasoning abilities.
Topic: Why I Don’t Believe in God.
Use a personal (first-person) approach about why you are a nonbeliever. Muster your best intellectual or philosophical arguments for rejecting religion, but frame it within your personal experiences.
Word length: 750 to 900 words.
Eligibility: Currently-enrolled undergraduate college student through age 24, including college seniors graduating in Spring or Summer 2013, attending a North American college or university.
Deadline: Postmarked no later than June 15, 2013. Winners announced by September.
Brian Bolton Graduate/ “Older” Student Essay Competition
The competition is generously endowed by Brian Bolton, an FFRF Lifetime Member who is a retired psychologist, humanist minister and university professor emeritus at the University of Arkansas.
Topic: Why the USA Is Not a “Christian Nation.”
Research and debunk the perennial “Christian nation” myth, citing specific, chronic or topical “Christian nation” claims. You may wish to use examples of the harm created by the widespread perception that the U.S. government is based on a deity, the bible, the Ten Commandments or Jesus, or by instances of religion in government.
Eligibility: Currently enrolled graduate student up to age 30, or undergrads ages 25-30, attending a North American college or university, including but not limited to someone graduating or earning a degree in spring or summer 2013.
Word Limit: 750 to 1,000 words.
Deadline: Postmarked no later than July 1, 2013. Winners announced in September.
Rules applying to
Essays must be submitted both by mail by postmark deadline and email by the specified deadlines. No faxes accepted. All essays must be typed, double-spaced, standard margins and stapled. Must include word count.
Place your name and essay title on each page. Entrants choose their own title and include a one-paragraph biography on separate page at end of essay. Your bio should include name, age and birth date, hometown, university or college, year in school, major or intended major, degree being earned and interests.
High school students should include high school’s name, city, state and date of graduation as well as intended college. Do not include a résumé. Provide both summer and fall 2013 addresses (campus and home), phone numbers and email addresses for notification. Winners may be asked to send verification of student enrollment.
Students will be disqualified if they do not follow instructions. FFRF monitors for plagiarism. Do not write under or over word minimums and maximums.
By entering, students agree to permit winning essays to be printed in full or in part in Freethought Today, FFRF’s newspaper, and posted online at ffrf.org. Winners agree to promptly provide a photograph suitable for reproduction with their essay. Winners will receive a school-year subscription to Freethought Today. All eligible entrants will be offered a subscription to Freethought Today or a freethought book or product.
Mail essays by required deadline to:
______ (fill in) Essay Competition
PO Box 750
Madison WI 53701
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is suing a Rhode Island florist in Superior Court in Providence for refusing to deliver FFRF’s order of a dozen red roses to Cranston teen Jessica Ahlquist after she won a court case in January 2012.
The complaint, filed Jan. 25, alleges that Marina Plowman, owner-operator of Twins Florist in Cranston, denied FFRF “full and equal access to public accommodations by refusing to fulfill a flower order on the basis of religion (nonbelief), in violation of Rhode Island General Laws.”
FFRF filed a previous complaint in January 2012 with the state Commission for Human Rights. A preliminary investigating commissioner determined in October that “probable cause” existed to believe that Plowman violated state law.
FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor asked for the following message to be delivered with the roses, “Congratulations, and hang in there. With admiration from FFRF.”
At the time, the defendant told ABC 6 television reporter Alexandra Cowley, “It’s my freedom of speech. I refuse orders when I want and I take orders when I want.”
The parties could have engaged in more conciliation with the commission, but the defendant chose to move the matter to Superior Court.
The suit notes that FFRF feels responsible “to expose the perceived discrimination by notifying the media of the defendant’s refusal, as well as the refusal of the other flower shops, in order to educate the public on matters related to nontheism and to defend the civil rights of nonbelievers.”
FFRF filed a similar complaint with the commission about Flowers by Santilli’s refusal to fulfill the order. Flowers by Santilli chose to pursue mediation through the commission. A hearing is set in March in that case.
Attorney Katherine Godin of Warwick is FFRF’s local counsel in the lawsuit.
James T. Nickell, 23, Sandy Hook, Ky., given a choice of church or jail after being caught stealing guitars and amplifiers at First Baptist Church of Sandy Hook in December, chose church.
WSAZ reported the plea bargain option of a year in jail or attending Sunday services for six weeks. The church option included wearing a sign that said, “I stole from this church” before and after services.
Nickell chose church and started his sentence Jan. 13, but on Jan. 31 he was booked into jail on a charge of theft of under $500.
Kayla Lykins alleges he stole a tool from her relative’s house. “Yeah he did, and he really doesn’t need to be doing that stuff.”
A proposal to start common council meetings in Onalaska, Wis., with prayer got what the La Crosse Tribune dubbed “a chilly reception,” when council member Jack Pogreba’s pious suggestion was voted down 4-2 on Feb. 12.
FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent a strong letter of objection Jan. 12 on behalf of local complainants.
Seven people spoke against prayer and five spoke in favor. Pogreba made a motion after the vote to put the prayer matter before voters with a referendum. The motion was ruled out of order because it wasn’t on the agenda.
Thanks to FFRF member Hank Zumach, members of the La Crosse Area Freethought Society and others who spoke against government prayer.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio filed a federal lawsuit Feb. 6 on behalf of local plaintiffs to remove a portrait of Jesus from Jackson Middle School in Jackson. The Ohio community of 6,300 residents boasts 41 churches.
Immediately after the suit was filed, threats were posted on social media, one suggesting the plaintiffs ought to be shot, another that they ought to be beheaded. This evidence was brought to the attention of U.S. District Judge Algenon L. Marbley, a Clinton appointee. The judge acted swiftly, granting a motion for pseudonyms and protective order on Feb. 12.
FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent an initial letter on behalf of a local complainant on Jan. 2 to Jackson City School District Superintendent Phil Howard. The superintendent stated publicly that “it would take a court order to remove the picture.” Howard has since been named a defendant, as are the Jackson City Board of Education and the school district.
The suit was filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio on behalf of a child who attends Jackson Middle School, and the parents of children who attend school in the district. The children already visit the school for the annual Christmas concert, and will eventually be enrolled at the middle school.
The portrait of Jesus Christ is prominently displayed high up on an entrance wall at the school, where it has been reportedly located since 1947.
Dan Barker, FFRF co-president and a former evangelical minister, is very familiar with the devotional painting, “The Head of Christ,” having encountered it in countless Christian churches. “It should not require a court order to persuade a public school district to remove a devotional painting of Jesus — identical to millions hanging in churches and Sunday school classrooms around the country — from the entrance of a middle school.”
The 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals (where the suit was filed) has previously ruled unconstitutional the display of this same painting in a Michi-gan public school.
A motion was filed with the legal complaint to maintain plaintiffs’ anonymity, along with a protective motion barring disclosure of their personal information so that they aren’t subject to potential adverse consequences, including harassment and personal threats. To read the memorandum for protective order chronicling some of the alarming history of harassment of Establishment Clause plaintiffs, turn to the center spread on pages 12-13.
Displaying the portrait violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, the 14th Amendment and Article I, Section 7 of the Ohio Constitution, the suit alleges. The defendants’ actions “have no legitimate secular purpose, and are motivated by a desire to advance a religious purpose.”
Plaintiffs seek removal of the portrait and a permanent injunction barring “any substantially similar display.”
FFRF’s Markert and ACLU of Ohio attorneys James L. Hardiman, Jennifer Martinez Atzberger and Michael Honohan are representing the plaintiffs.
Read legal complaint and documents at: ffrf.org/legal/challenges/ongoing-lawsuits
This discussion, edited for print, was part of FFRF’s 35th national convention in October 2012 in Portland, Ore.
DAN BARKER: Now we’re going to be in church for a while. We’ve got ordained clergy — amen, brother! — on the panel, all of us taking advantage of the housing exclusion by the way, or we used to. We’re going to talk about the Clergy Project.
When I was a minister, I used to preach “Give Christ a chance, give Jesus a chance, what do you have to lose?” How many of you have had people come up to you and say, “You know, if you would just try it, you would believe.”
Well, on the stage are people who have given Christ more than a chance. They’ve given their entire lives to the propagation of the gospel. They were educated, they were ordained in the ministry, and they stood up and publicly proclaimed their faith in Jesus and the life-changing message in the gospel.
We have a good cross section from Pentecostal to more moderate to more liberal clergy. The Clergy Project, which Richard Dawkins alluded to briefly last night, is a brand new group that none of you can join.
Isn’t that nice, a new group that you don’t have to join, unless you are a former clergy or an active member of the clergy? The project exists to offer clergy who are in the ministry an escape strategy. They want some way to land on their feet.
When I was going through my transition, I wish there had been something like that. I wish I could have compared notes with somebody. I wish I could have sympathized or cried with somebody. I wish I could have said, “How did you do it? How did you get through it? How did you tell your family and all that?”
I was collecting stories of former clergy, many of them wrote articles for Freethought Today, and we sort of became a loose-knit club of friends. Daniel Dennett, the philosopher, and his researcher and investigator Linda LaScola, were working on a project on preachers who are not believers. They needed to find clergy who were still in the pulpit to interview.
Since my book Godless came out in 2008 and Losing Faith in Faith came out before, I hear from some of these people. Sometimes they email me with pseudonyms. “I’m still preaching in the pulpit, but I read your book and I agree with you and I need to get out.” I was able to give Daniel Dennett some names.
For a number of years, Richard Dawkins had been talking about how we can help. In Copenhagen in 2010, he suggested starting a group that could offer scholarships to help get clergy out of the ministry. In March of 2011, the Clergy Project officially started with a very generous donation from the Richard Dawkins Foundation to set up the Web page (clergyproject.org/) that would be a private online forum where people’s identities could stay private.
About a fourth of them are actively practicing, and three-fourths of us are out now. The Clergy Project started with about 50. We have some of the founding 50 here. Today there are about 380 members. We screen people very carefully to make sure they are the real thing. Adam in Tennessee for two years now has been itching to get out but can’t find a way to. Adam is not his real name.
Today we are honored with five clergy. Ray, why don’t you say hi? Ray is a former Lutheran.
RAY IDEUS: I was one of the 52 that Dan sometimes calls the forefathers. I simply struggled my way through it and waited until retirement and haven’t gone to church since. Thank goodness for that. For a while, I was waiting for Christ to come again and decided that wasn’t going to happen anyway, so I married my wife, who has been a big help to me.
I can’t recommend that to everybody because it doesn’t work that way. That’s why I was rather fortunate in being able to get out of the ministry.
DAN: Ray is involved with the Spokane Freethinkers and has done some state-church activism there as well. We invited four former clergy, all of whom have been guests on Freethought Radio.
annalise fonza was a pastor for six United Methodist churches. Teresa MacBain spent 20 years in the ministry in the South. Jerry Dewitt is the first Clergy Project graduate. He came into the project as an anonymous active Pentecostal preacher in Louisiana. I was Pentecostal, too, so we speak the same heavenly language. Robert Parham is from Tacoma. Robert is currently the project’s acting treasurer and was a Southern Baptist minister for 13 years. Why don’t we start with annalise?
You’re giving a handheld mike to an ex-preacher? I might break out in song or something! I joined the Clergy Project in June. I’ve been “out” of the church since 2000, openly as one who rejected the central tenets of Christianity for more than a decade, from the United Methodist Church.
Several months ago I posted a blog on Freethoughtblogs [Black Skeptics], which is hosted and edited by Sikivu Hutchinson, a black woman, activist, atheist, feminist, a wonderful woman. At that time, I had already been with the Clergy Project and I had just interviewed on the radio with Dan and Annie Laurie.
So this has been a new pathway in my life, to be publicly invited to places, and to be very outspoken about the church and in critique of the church as well and the whole concept of religion. I think that’s good because people have this assumption that black people are not atheists, and when I look out into this crowd, I’m like, well, there’s something to this [laughter].
I also have my Ph.D. in regional planning. I was presenting at a conference this week and talking about a book idea with a publisher about black freethinkers and the publisher was like, “Why black atheists? Why is this important?”
I said it is important for a number of reasons. One of them is that there is this assumption that African Americans are not atheists, and that is very important that we make clear
that there are black atheists, and while there may not be as many, and there may be many reasons for that, that that [being black and atheist] be a part of the public discourse so that people don’t believe that the discourse around atheism is simply coming from white males or white females, or what have you, that African Americans are contributing to the dialogue, [with] people as I mentioned, Sikivu Hutchinson, myself, Dr. Anthony Pinn at Rice, as well.
Groups are forming all over the country: Black Freethinkers of Chicago; I live in Atlanta [and] Black Nonbelievers of Atlanta is a group that I am active with; [and] Black Skeptics of L.A.. So black atheism is a movement in a movement, if you will.
I answered “a call” in 1992, I was a student, a law school student in Texas, that was my dream.
I was very excited about being in law school and it was my colleagues, my friends who were the ones who pointed to me and they said there is “a call” on your life, and I was like, “Yeah, God wants me to be an attorney. . . I don’t know what you think, but this is what God wants me to be” [laughter], but then I shifted, I spent a lot of time praying and with a very large church in Houston, Texas, Windsor Village United Methodist Church.
Windsor Village had a downtown church that served primarily people who lived on the street and I was very active with them. As time went by, however, and as I got in to the ministry: I answered that call, I went to seminary, I [obtained] the M.Div., I [learned] biblical Hebrew and Greek, and all those things, and, I ended up teaching as well as pastoring.
I started teaching religion in a community college in Illinois, and I finally came to the realization, while I was in my second-to-last appointment, that I did not believe in the atonement theory. I did not believe that, number one, that there is a such thing as original sin, and that Jesus died for the sins of all. And so when I came to that realization, I began to mull that over, and that was about 2000. I took a leave of absence for one year intentionally and the second year by default because the conference folk didn’t do the paperwork properly, and I stayed in contemplation for the next year.
At that time I was also moving into another phase of my education, getting a Ph.D., so when I went to the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, I came out of the leave, went back into local church ministry and in that year, while I was practicing, I realized again that that was not the place for me.
I notified my district superintendent, I wrote a letter to the bishop and it was a done deal. I submitted my credential for return, and they, on request, returned it to me stamped “This is to hereby certify that Annalise Fonza is permanently withdrawn from the United Methodist Church.” And that was done in June of 2003 [applause].
Ever since then I’ve been on a journey of continuing to emancipate myself from any other ideology or thinking or behavior that is oppressive. I think Christianity is oppressive, I think the idea of God is oppressive as well as the doctrine of original sin which led me to that point [to leave].
One other thing that was important to me while I was serving under appointment in Illinois was that I was active with a group that was meeting call A-B-C, [or] Alternative Bible Study, a gathering of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans folk, community people who were coming to the church for bible study, basically.
I started attending these bible studies, and primarily to just learn and to undo my own heterosexism. In the course of being there, I really learned to embrace not only same-sex couples, same-sex loving, bisexuality as a valid and legitimate form of self-expression, but then that helped me to embrace my own expression as a heterosexual woman.
So that really was a big thing in my development, this cross-talking of people with differences really helped me, so I just gradually made my way out, and here I am.
It has been a very difficult ride at times. It’s not been easy, financially I have struggled since I have left the church, primarily with work. Also, since I’m so public with my nonbelief or disbelief. It is not hard, if I apply for a job, that people will Google me and see something come up [that I am atheist] and perhaps decide, oh this isn’t the person we want, especially living in Atlanta, Georgia, if you know what that is like living the bible belt.
So it has been difficult. My family and I, we don’t really talk about it a whole lot. It’s not a conversation we have. I was born and raised Catholic, but I come from a family that would be considered very typically African American and religious.
My mother was actually a Franciscan nun, and before she decided to take her final vows, she said, “I don’t want to do that.” I try to remind her every now and then we are a lot alike, but then I say maybe not, not so much [laughter].
Another influence that helped me to move into a very open rejection of the idea of God and the concept of religion was Alice Walker. Alice Walker wrote a piece once called, “The Only Reason You Want To Go To Heaven is That You’ve Been Driven Out of Your Mind.” [laughter]
Hopefully, you know who Alice Walker is; she is a phenomenal writer, but she is also very vocal against organized religion and Christianity in particular, again as a tool of oppression. She has had a huge influence on my life and I went online because I originally heard her talk about this on the radio, I once had my own radio program in Massachusetts, and she this, “It is fatal to love a god who does not love you.”
That is so important. I meet lots of people who ask me questions. This decision has affected my life on so many levels, including dating, social interactions, you name it.
One story is that, you know, I have former colleagues who are preachers obviously, and one guy was really ambitious and he found me on Facebook and he requested that I be his friend, and so on and so forth, which we did.
But then day he posted something on his Facebook page and it said, “In times of crisis, Jesus is the first responder.” And I couldn’t help myself that day, so I wrote back in the comments and said, “Well, if that’s the case, then Jesus sucks on the job, next!” [laughter]. The next thing he did was unfriend me within minutes, literally, within minutes.
I thank FFRF for making it possible for me to be here and share in what’s happening here. This is a place and also an organization that many should think about joining, so I will definitely talk with the many that I know about coming and joining and being a part of this, so thank you very much.
I’ve had opportunities to share what has happened to me in my journey, coming out months ago, six months ago [after about 10 years as a Methodist pastor]. In 10 years I’m going to come back and share how it’s been for the last decade.
I grew up in Alabama, the daughter of a Baptist pastor. What do you think of when you think of a preacher’s kid? They go wild. Not me. I was the good girl. I carried a bible around with me in elementary and middle school.
If I knew you didn’t go to church, I was trying to witness you and trying to convert you. I was so far and so deep into it, that that was my entire life. I never questioned it up until about middle school, when I started seeing things that didn’t really match up in the scriptures. I asked my dad, who said, “God’s ways and thoughts are higher than our thoughts. You need to pray that you have stronger faith.”
The message I took away at 12 years old was “doubt equals lack of faith equals sin.” You want to know how someone can get trapped for decades — that’s it, right there. We’re all nasty, rotten, wretched sinners and we have to come to Jesus for salvation.
I felt from the time I was young that I was called to be in the ministry. I had one little problem. In the Baptist Church, what are women allowed to do? Nursery, cook, clean the tables, sing in the choir, play the piano.
Eventually, I came upon a woman going through the process of becoming a Methodist pastor. We became fast friends. I followed through with Methodist doctrine and was studying and reading and taking classes. I came across this quote attributed to John Wesley [documented as the work of a Lutheran theologian]: “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity.
That was the beginning of the end for me because what it meant was as long as I hold to the core teachings of the church, which is basically the Apostles’ Creed, then I had the freedom to think and figure out all these things I had been ignoring in my mind for so many years.
Several years passed as I dealt with all those issues. One day I found myself on the Internet — not looking at what you think I was looking at — typing in a Google search “pastors who feel like they’ve lost their faith.” Wouldn’t you know, Dan Barker’s name came up.
I downloaded his book Godless and read it in record time. There was contact info at the end for FFRF, and within a very short amount of time, Dan contacted me back. I shared my story and he shared his story. I felt like I had died and gone to heaven [smiles] because there was somebody out there like me.
A little over a year ago, he told me about the Clergy Project and sent me all the information — he taught me the secret handshake, everything. I logged on with my fake name. I was active in the pulpit still. I found about 60 other people who were struggling like me.
The Clergy Project and my friends there have been and continue to be the absolute source of life for me. I came out six months ago during the American Atheists convention in Bethesda, Md., not knowing what atheists were like. I knew what the Clergy Project’s folks were like, which was OK, because that was the kind of life that I understood,
I stood before them and started to share my story and was just overcome by the thought that for so many years I had hated people who were not believers. The only thing I could do in that moment was to apologize for those things I had said and the way I had lived my life.
I spoke for about 10 minutes as part of a clergy panel like this. Afterward, I was embraced by the atheist freethought community and it hasn’t stopped. It’s unbelievable how the freethought community has come to our aid.
None of us knew what was going to happen when we stood up and were honest with the world about what we didn’t believe. But I can say for a fact that the response has been one of love, compassion and understanding. So I’ll end with a huge thanks and all my love back to you for what you’ve given me.
How many of you have already heard my story? I’ve got a couple of things I can do here in the next 10 minutes. I can tell the story once again. We can go that route, or with your permission, I can preach the story. There will be times when you will have to participate. Just know that for 25 years I said, “Can I get an amen?” What we’ll do this afternoon is, I’ll say, “Can I get a Darwin?” [DARWIN!] Now you know your part. When I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you. Haven’t you ever been to church?
Brothers and sisters, it’s truly a privilege. From the very beginning at the earliest stage that I can remember, I was surrounded by religion, and not just any religion, mind you, but the religion that I am obviously enjoying at this moment, good old heartfelt, Southern-fried, barbecued all the way to the bone, Pentecostal religion. Can I get a Darwin? [DARWIN!]
One of my earliest memories was to lay my head on my grandmother’s lap and hear her praying in other tongues for my earache. Some of the first words I heard were unintelligible. You may ask yourself how it is that a person can come this far, that maybe he once stood in a Pentecostal pulpit and preached what he believed to be the gospel, but now he’s here, somehow celebrating the notion that the future one day may be free of religion. Can I get a Darwin? [DARWIN!]
For 25 years I traveled down that path. I wanted the creator of heaven and earth to move in my life and relieve in any way possible the sufferings I was experiencing, that I saw so many of my loved ones experiencing, because I love humanity and I love truth. Can I get another Darwin? [DARWIN!].
I wouldn’t be here wasting your valuable time if I had found what I was looking for. I know just like many of you, I was told that without faith you would never have happiness. But what I found in the faith of my family was that there was no stopping point. You could never be content, because you could never be good enough. I’m here to tell you that I’m living proof that there is happiness after faith. Now that’s when the ushers would know to make their move. There’s still room in these pockets for you!
But I’m here to tell you that I’ve gotten more optimism now than I’ve ever had. It’s because of conventions like this, and because of groups made up of old and young, black and white, every single aspect of the whole broad spectrum of humanity is now represented in a secular movement. Can I get a Darwin? [DARWIN!]
This is hope after faith, which is the name of my book, so I want you to remember that! The greatest damage that religion has done to humanity is teaching us that it’s OK to be passive — that we can somehow clear our conscience and not truly be our brother’s keeper by simply bowing a knee. It’s taught us that there’s something larger than us, that this whole ball of wax is completely out of control and there’s nothing we can do about it except pray.
I come to you to say there is hope after faith. This hope has made me persevere through the worst year of my life. Last May I reached out and my own personal Jesus, Dan Barker, reached back. He told me every time I say that I owe him tithes.
By coming out publicly, I’ve lost friends, I’ve lost family — including my marriage — I’ve lost finances. I have a hearing next week about my bankruptcy case. I’ll admit to you that with the help of friends, the Clergy Project, Dan Barker, and with the help of so many beautiful people like you, I’ve found strength I didn’t know I possessed.
We’re told in this country, in the 21st century, of all times, that without God you can’t be good. What I’ve found is just the opposite. In hope, “e” stands for empathy. Religion gives you a different “e” — it gives you an ego. It makes you feel special and gives you an excuse to overlook the sufferings of so many other people because it’s not your fault if you’re more privileged than the next person.
I don’t know if the [collection] plates are full, but what I will tell you, and it’s what I say to you doubters hiding behind the pulpit: It’s not easy, it may be worse than you can imagine, but I can assure you that if this little Southern-fried preacher from the backwaters of Louisiana can do it, then for everyone everywhere there is hope after faith.
Can I get a Darwin? [DARWIN!]
I’m a former Southern Baptist minister. I grew up in Charlotte, N.C. It’s been a series of really interesting coincidences over the last few years. Teresa and I grew up 30 minutes from each other and both went to Stanford University.
We have a member of the Clergy Project, and when I saw his profile, I noticed a few things that looked familiar, particularly the location. So I messaged him a welcome, and it turned out he was our pastor.
I feel very fortunate. I grew up a Southern Baptist. By the time I was 18, I was licensed by my church as a minister and was already serving in my first church as a senior in high school. In my senior year, a good friend and I started a prayer group that met in the auditorium every week. It’s still going today, one of the many regrets from my past.
As an undergrad, I was president of the Baptist Student Union. It later became Baptist Campus Ministries. I continued to serve churches part time and full time for 13 years.
What changed for me was going to graduate school and being challenged by issues around diversity — comparing specifically what I learned in this process of graduate school to be true about people who were different, in particular about people who were gay. It flew in the face of everything I had believed and had been taught from the bible. Once I decided that the bible was clearly wrong on that one issue, I questioned what else was wrong.
That’s how it all started. My process was a 10-year process, and for most of those years I lived in denial. Many Clergy Project members will tell you that there was a period of depression they went through. Letting go of something that is the foundation of your life is a very difficult thing to do. We have many members who have many stories that are just like Jerry’s. That’s why I’m a part of this.
I’ve heard so many heartbreaking stories as a screener the last year and a half. We want to be able to make a real, practical difference for them, for those active clergy who are struggling to get out or who have gotten out only to find there are many, many challenges that they didn’t anticipate.
The Clergy Project wants to be able to do more. We want to be able to give scholarships for reeducation and vocational training programs. We want to be able to give hardship grants. As a member of the board, the acting board as we approach incorporation, I feel so honored to be here because this organization as well as the Richard Dawkins Foundation has very graciously agreed to be a conduit for us.
It is through the Freedom From Religion Foundation that we have already received some donations that have been designated for the Clergy Project. We have a long way to go. I’m sitting here today feeling extra happy because we have wanted to go ahead and be able to help people if we could, and it’s only because of FFRF that we can.
I am going to officially, on behalf of the Clergy Project and the Freedom From Religion Foundation, give the first hardship grant to Jerry DeWitt.
Because I made a smooth transition into a secular career, I truly am blessed. Sorry — old habits. I thank Dan, I thank Richard, I thank Daniel Dennett, I thank Linda and I thank you for making the Clergy Project a reality and for allowing me to be a part of it.
Elizabeth Cornwall with the Dawkins Foundation has also been intimately involved with the project, along with Linda LaScola, the screeners and the board members, in slowly bringing the group up to where we can make a real difference.
I wanted to ask you all if you have an opinion about the percentage of clergy today who are sincere? I was sincere, but I know there were a bunch of phonies. Do any of you have any comments about what you think is the level of hypocrisy among ministers?
I was very sincere. If you watch “American Idol,” Randy always says, “In it to win it.” That was me, not to win it but to win you.
But since I’ve come out, I’ve had so many pastors — male and female — ministers of music, missionaries, people who may or may not have gone into the Clergy Project send me messages.
I’ve also had children of ministers contact me and say, “I’m an agnostic, help me. I’m an atheist, help me, I’m struggling.” I’ve even had a handful of pastors’ wives contact me, I think because I’m a woman, and say, “My husband is a pastor. He is so on fire and if he knew this, it would be over for us and I would be devastated. What do I do?”
I know that there are plenty. Does that make them hypocrits? I guess technically, based on the definition of the word, but they are struggling with it.
Umm, I would say the word “sincere” is probably causing me a little hesitation, simply because in the African-American tradition, the idea of God, the church, what have you, is seen as intimately connected with the struggle and the progress of black people. So, I actually think a lot of the colleagues, former colleagues and friends that I have are actually believers. They would not begin to question or reject the idea, and as you know those who do are seen kind of as race traitors.
Particularly it is more difficult for black women when they have come out in this regard, because in terms of society black women are penalized more so when they, or women they’ve been penalized more so, when they reject faith, the idea of faith, the idea of God, differently because of the normative gender roles, identities that women have had to play in time and history.
So, I would say that many of the people that I know and went to seminary with are believers, I wouldn’t say that there’s a big percentage of people that are in and want to come out. Hence, I remember when I came in [to the Clergy Project] I asked Robert how many black women or black folk in general are part of it, and he was kind of like, “Umm, ahh, eee,” [laughter] it was like, “I’m not really sure.”
But, that kind of was an indication to me that perhaps there are not that many and there is a reason for that, you know, class, race, gender, sexuality are all tied into one’s social location and ability to either have faith or not. So it’s really a complicated question for me to answer.
Well, Robert wouldn’t know because only one or two people know all the people. We don‘t ask skin color.
Adam has been administrator for the forum, doing all the grunt work, and it’s been two years now. Adam, who’s in Tennessee, can’t leave because his wife is disabled and it’s a preexisting condition. They need the health care; he can’t just leave the ministry.
He’s tried this and he’s tried that and he can’t. He actually told his son, who was happy to hear it. He hasn’t told his wife or daughter yet. He gets up and preaches on Sunday morning, then emails us, “You won’t believe the crap I had to say this morning. And I wish I could find a way out.”
Adam is just one example.
I was a Lutheran pastor for 30 years. In Spokane everybody knows I’m an atheist because of an interview on CNN and because I took the police department to court.
I really don’t want to be preaching about the goodness of the church, but I think that the Lutheran Church has always been very honest about recent biblical research and criticism, and we were very open to talking about that in seminary and later. I was frequently accused of “psychologizing” the scriptures in sermons.
I don’t know of one person who has come to me and said “I’ve lost my faith.” They all know I’m an atheist and they pretty much leave me alone. Not always.
In the South, Southern Baptist churches are like Starbucks — there’s one on every corner. I only have one person from my background who I know does not believe in God any longer. They were honest with me about that and with some other people, but remain in the ministry for their own reasons, philosophical reasons.
I think what happens for a lot of ministers is they start out in a more conservative denomination and as their thinking evolves, they just move to a less conservative denomination.
If I’m not mistaken, the best definition of a hypocrite is an actor, I think that’s the root, that’s where we derive our cultural connotation from. My answer would be every minister I’ve ever known is a sincere hypocrite.
He’s sincere and is forcing himself to act in ways for the benefit of the congregation or because — here’s the loophole — in the modern-day evangelical theology it really doesn’t matter what you believe, what matters is what you proclaim — because faith is what adults call pretending.
You don’t really have to believe. You just have to live it, you have to proclaim it. A minister can go to bed at night with great confusion and great concern and maybe feel somewhat hypocritical if he is introspective enough.
But at the same time, because of his love for the community and all of these other relationships, he may feel it’s the better thing to keep pushing forward and to keep making those declarations. There’s an underlying of “fake it until you make it.” I think that’s what creates the conflict of terminologies.