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"The Roman Catholic Church remains enemy number one of civil liberties in our country," contends Foundation president Anne Gaylor, in the wake of a stepped-up church assault against social reforms and the Catholic politicians who support them. Gaylor said the church's political activity calls into question its tax-exempt status. At their annual conference in Dallas in November, the American Catholic bishops issued aggressive statements against contraception, same-sex unions and abortion. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops is still formulating how it intends to punish Catholic politicians who vote against Catholic doctrine. An example of the Church's increasingly overt power play occurred in Wisconsin, where the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel ran an exposŽ in early December revealing an attempt at "spiritual extortion." Bishop Raymond L. Burke of La Crosse, who was just promoted by the pope to become the Archbishop of St. Louis, sent warning letters earlier this year to selected public officials. At least two Catholic state legislators and one member of Congress were warned that they are endangering their "spiritual well-being" by not voting the church line on issues such as abortion. Burke said if they continue to contradict church teachings, "I would simply have to ask them not to present themselves to receive the sacraments because they would not be Catholics in good standing." Burke told them that as Catholics they may not support "anti-life" legislation (such as support of abortion and assisted suicide). Wis. State Sen. Julie Lassa, D-Stevens Point, received one of the lengthy epistles, which documented how several of her recent votes violate church policy. For instance, Lassa voted against an onerous bill that would have permitted healthcare professionals to refuse medical and pharmaceutical treatment based on religious dogma. "As a faithful member of the Catholic Church, you have an obligation to fulfill the duties of your office . . . with regard to the moral law. You have failed to restrict the evil of abortion when the opportunity presented itself," Burke chastised Lassa. Burke cited a document, "Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics," adopted by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. This document charged bishops with a duty to "enlighten the consciences of political leaders to the protection of life, especially political leaders who are Catholics." The document maintains that "those who are directly involved in lawmaking bodies have a grave and clear obligation to oppose any law that attacks human life." Burke ordered Lassa to study the 26-page document, and then to schedule a meeting with him to discuss it. "I call upon you to consider the consequences for your own spiritual well-being, as well as the scandal you risk by leading others into serious sin," Burke wrote. Undaunted, Lassa told the Journal-Sentinel: "I'm concerned that the bishop would pressure legislators to vote according to the dictates of the church instead of the wishes of their constituents because that is not consistent with our Democratic ideals. When I was elected, I swore an oath to uphold the Constitution, and that means I have to represent all the people of all faiths in my district." Also receiving a letter of religious threat was conservative Wis. Rep. DuWayne Johnsrud, R-Eastman, who is strongly antiabortion but is considered religiously-incorrect on birth control. Johnsrud responded: "I didn't think I was down here representing the Catholic Church. Sorry, they can lump it or like it, I don't care." The overt church attempt to dictate voting by Catholic politicians recalls the concerns raised in 1960 when John F. Kennedy became the first Roman Catholic US president. As a candidate, Kennedy took pains to allay fears that he would act as a Vatican puppet. In a historic speech to Houston ministers on Sept. 12, 1960, Kennedy delivered his famous lines of assurance: "I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish--where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source. . ." Upping the ante is the revelation that a conservative Roman Catholic organization based in Virginia is targeting Wisconsin's pro-choice Catholic governor, Jim Doyle, and dozens of other Catholic politicians around the country. The American Life League's "Crusade for the Defense of Our Catholic Church" targets 71 members of Congress and 340 Catholic state politicians. Previous attempts to sanction Catholic politicians include the January action by Sacramento Bishop William K. Weigand, who stirred controversy for telling former Gov. Gray Davis of California and other pro-choice Catholic politicians to abstain from receiving communion. In a 1989 case involving then-Bishop Leo T. Maher of San Diego, Calif. state Sen. Lucy Killea, D-San Diego, was banned from receiving communion because she is pro-choice. Bishop Francis Quinn of San Francisco overruled the action. In 1996, a Nebraska bishop declared that any Catholic in his diocese who joined groups such as Planned Parenthood would be automatically excommunicated. That year Bishop Rene Facida of Corpus Christi also excommunicated two abortion clinic workers and a doctor who performs abortions. Roman Catholicism dominates the 108th U.S. Congress, with 150 of the members claiming to belong to that denomination. Three Catholics are running for president: Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich, Ohio; Sen. John Kerry, Mass.; and Wesley Clark. The U.S. bishops, following their annual meeting in November, announced a new task force will produce guidelines on dealing with "recalcitrant politicians." Washington Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick will head the taskforce, itself a response to a 17-page "doctrinal note" issued by the Vatican in January telling Catholics in politics how to behave. * * * The November decision by the Massachusetts State Supreme Court ordering the legislature to rewrite marriage laws to provide benefits for gay couples by mid-May was denounced by Massachusetts' bishops. The bishops openly urged parishioners "to contact the governor and their state legislators to urge them to find a way to give our citizens more time to deal with this issue." Although career celibates themselves, several prominent Massachusetts bishops lamented that the ruling promotes "divisions in society by villainizing as bigotry the legitimate defense of thousands of years of tradition." Religious right groups are vowing to turn "gay marriage" into the number one election issue next year. The Vatican issued a July 31 document declaring a global campaign against gay marriages and ordering Catholic politicians to vote in lockstep against such legislation. Catholic politicians were instructed that they are "obliged" to oppose "the legal recognition of homosexual unions," and that a Catholic politician has "a moral duty to express his opposition clearly and publicly and to vote against it. To vote in favor of a law so harmful to the common good is gravely immoral." * * * The Roman Catholic bishops are also vigorously fighting access to contraception. They announced in November they will link campaigns against it with abortion. The Bishops' "Committee for Pro-Life Activities" will issue a booklet on why "natural family planning" is the only acceptable alternative. The church is condemning contraceptive use not only by Catholics, who largely ignore the ban, but is fighting to limit everyone's access, and their own obligation as employers to offer insurance coverage of contraception. In a decision announced on Dec. 2, a New York court rejected a claim by Roman Catholic groups seeking to be exempted from a new state law requiring employers to offer insurance coverage for contraception. The court maintained the law's clear "secular purpose" of promoting women's health and halting sex discrimination. The New York State Catholic Conference vowed to appeal. The California State Supreme Court will be ruling soon on a lawsuit by the Catholic Charities of Sacramento, also seeking to be exempted from a similar California law enacted in 2000. More than 100,000 employees at 77 church-affiliated hospitals in California and New York have rights at stake. Churches themselves are exempt from providing contraceptive coverage for employees who work inside parishes and houses of worship in New York and California. Catholic Charities had a $76 million budget in California alone, and receives public funding. "Mother Teresa would be forced to offer contraceptives," argued California Catholic Conference spokeswoman Carol Hogan. Catholic Charities of Sacramento attorney called "artificial" contraception "sinful." "To ignore the health benefits of contraception is to say that the alternative of 12 to 15 pregnancies during a woman's lifetime is medically acceptable," said Catherine Hanson, an attorney for the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists, which favors the coverage. According to the New York Times, the 20 states requiring private-sector insurance coverage for prescription contraceptives include: Arizona, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Georgia, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Texas, Vermont and Washington.
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A tombstone-like monument of the Ten Commandments donated by the Fraternal Order of Eagles to the city of Casper, Wyo., was moved to storage in late November, after a complaint by the Madison, Wis.-based Freedom From Religion Foundation. The city council voted in October to remove the monument from a public park, after the Foundation contacted the city in September on behalf of Casper residents. However, the council additionally voted to eventually create a "monument plaza" featuring the Ten Commandments with "other" historical documents. It took a six-man combined crew from the local cemetery and the Casper Public Utilities Department to dig out the base of the two- or three-ton monument. Workers used a crane to lift it, and placed it at the Casper Service Center. The Foundation, in its letter of complaint, had pointed out that Casper is in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. The appeals court ruled last year in a Utah case that cities hosting Ten Commandments markers must permit other groups to erect their own monuments on public property. The opportunistic and notorious Rev. Fred Phelps, of Topeka, Kan., then entered the fray by threatening to sue the city if not permitted to erect a monument "celebrating" the death of slain University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard. Phelps' proposal invoked Lev. 18:22 calling homosexuals "abominations." The city turned down Phelps' request. The Foundation is monitoring future developments.
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"Friendly Neighborhood Atheist" mystery writer Jane Haddam The latest Gregor Demarkian mystery by Jane Haddam, Conspiracy Theory (St. Martin's Minotaur, July 2003, 288 pages, $24.95), contains several references to the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Haddam, who has been a finalist for both the Anthony and the Edgar Awards, has created "my latest atheist character," a woman protagonist who is a member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. At the start of the novel, the woman "considered pinning her Freedom FROM Religion button to her sweater. . ." She is also described as having a three-by-five card stuck in her car mirror advertising the Foundation's website: "Freedom From Religion Foundation: http://www.ffrf.org." At her own website, Jane Haddam writes in an essay: "I'm thinking of ordering a t-shirt that says 'Friendly Neighborhood Atheist,' if only to stop people from assuming I'm not one."
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Ralph Carlson, now 101, and Clara Carlson, 97, celebrated their 76th wedding anniversary with a toast, a party and a 4-piece band serenading them with Meredith Willson's song, "Seventy-Six Trombones." The anniversary celebration made the front page of the Peninsula Daily News. Clara, who has been a Foundation member since 1980, attributes the secret of their longevity to "chocolate, champagne and laughter." She added: "It's as simple as that." Friends who gathered at the anniversary party accordingly toasted the couple with champagne, and shared chocolate cake and laughter. They were married in San Francisco on Aug. 18, 1927. According to a Sept. 4 article in the Daily News, the couple met when Clara was at a nursing school that forbade students to marry. Ralph was working for the American Red Cross. Four months before her graduation, Clara married Ralph anyway. The registrar, nicknamed "Cupid Munson," promised not to publish the announcement of their marriage, which was kept secret until Clara graduated. They have three children, nine grandchildren and 17 great-grands. Their experiences include traveling 18,000 miles across Europe in a Volkswagen for a year. Felicitations, Clara and Ralph!
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The Freedom From Religion Foundation has a category of membership reserved for a select, elect group of people, known as our "honorary officers." The position is reserved for freethinkers who have won Supreme Court cases in favor of the separation of church and state. Before saying more about tonight's honorary officer, Alton Lemon, I want to introduce from the audience another honorary officer, Roy Torcaso, who won the 1961 case, Torcaso v. Watkins, overturning a Maryland statute barring nontheists from being notary publics. Alton Lemon won the case Lemon v. Kurtzman, 1971, which successfully challenged a Pennsylvania law, the first such law in the nation providing public tax funds to religious schools for teaching four secular subjects. Mr. Lemon, a member of the ACLU, volunteered to be part of the challenge of this law, which became a watershed for the Establishment Clause, and resulted in a historic decision bearing his name. The United States Supreme Court unanimously invalidated the parochial aid. In one of the enduring legacies of the Burger Court, it also codified existing precedent on the Establishment Clause into a test--called the "Lemon Test." You can probably recite the "Lemon Test" with me. It has three prongs. If any of the three prongs are violated by an act of government, it is unconstitutional: One) It must have a secular legislative purpose; Two) Its principal or primary effect must neither advance nor inhibit religion; Three) It must not foster excessive entanglement between government and religion. This was not new law, per se, but kind of a noble attempt to clarify and make the Establishment Clause idiot-proof. The "Lemon Test" has been invoked in virtually every lawsuit the Foundation has ever taken. It is our best friend. ￼ Margaret Downey accepting Alton Lemon's "First Amendment Hero" plaque on his behalf from Annie Laurie Gaylor. It has been hated and reviled by the religious right. Three presidents (you can guess which ones) have openly sought to overturn it. Justice Scalia, who's a pretty scary fellow himself, has made an odious comparison of the Lemon Test to "some ghoul in a late-night horror movie that repeatedly sits up in its grave and shuffles abroad, after being repeatedly killed and buried." Despite attacks against it and attempts to modify and chip away at it, the Lemon Test endures. When we invited Alton Lemon and his wife Augusta to attend our convention as special guests, I warned him: an awful lot of people here are going to want to shake your hand! Annie Laurie Gaylor, a co-founder of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, is editor of its newspaper Freethought Today and the anthology of women freethinkers, Women Without Superstition, "No Gods - No Masters." By Margaret Downey As Annie Laurie Gaylor told you, Alton could not attend the conference. Alton is ill from the radiation treatment he is getting to control a cancer situation. Alton sends his warm regards, and regrets not being able to attend. I thank the Freedom From Religion Foundation for the opportunity to accept this "First Amendment Hero" award for my dear friend, Alton Lemon. When people visit Philadelphia, they visit well-known historical sites, such as the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, Valley Forge, and the Constitution Center. ￼ Margaret Downey When I moved to Pennsylvania I visited those places too, but their historic significance paled in comparison to meeting and making friends with Alton. His namesake U.S. Supreme Court case is a landmark decision--making all the difference when church/state separation issues are legally reviewed and argued. Annie Laurie just told you about the legal importance of the case. Now I want to tell you about Alton and why he is so important to all of us. You see, Alton's community service, social activism, kindness, and passion should be emulated by everyone. There are many people in Philadelphia who share my love for Alton. I discovered just how many when in 1996, I submitted an Alton Lemon Day proclamation to the City of Philadelphia. Mayor Edward G. Rendell immediately approved the text and declared June 28 "Alton Lemon Day." One telephone call to Councilwoman Happy Fernandez was all that was needed to inspire her to submit a City Council Citation honoring Alton's lifelong commitment to community service. The Citation was unanimously approved by the City Council to coincide with the June 28 Alton Lemon Day celebration. You might wonder how these very important people knew about Alton--well, his reputation of outstanding citizenship is legendary in Philadelphia. Alton at one time held the position of both president and vice-president of the Philadelphia Ethical Society. He served on the board of the Parents Union for Public Schools and was an active participant in the American Civil Liberties Union. It was through his affiliation with the American Civil Liberties Union that Alton became the plaintiff in the 1971 U.S. Supreme Court case of Lemon v. Kurtzman. Alton grew up in Atlanta, Ga. In that Southern state, Alton observed and experienced first-hand the harmful effects of discrimination and prejudice. Personal experiences and many people helped to shape the character and personality of Alton. As a youth, Alton played on the same basketball team as Martin Luther King, Jr. We all know the impact Martin Luther King, Jr. had on society, and Alton will always cherish the special experience of being on the same basketball team as Dr. King. Some of Dr. King's courage must have transferred to Alton during their games together, because, much like Martin Luther King, Jr., Alton went on to fight for social change. Alton has been employed as an Equal Opportunity Officer for the U.S. Department of Energy. He was a Citizen Participation Advisor for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and he was at one time the program director for the North City Congress Police-Community Relations Program in Philadelphia. But Alton is not just a socially concerned individual. He is also a very intelligent man. Alton obtained a Bachelor's Degree in Mathematics from Morehouse College in 1950. He was an aerospace engineer for the Naval Air Development Center in Pennsylvania, and he was an automotive design engineer at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Aberdeen, Md. Alton also served in the U.S. Army and saw duty in the Korean War. Alton is a patriotic, humble, honest, and devoted family man. He and his wife Augusta have been married for 52 years. They are a beautiful couple and I was thrilled to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary with their friends and family two years ago. And now I will be pleased to deliver this plaque to Alton and help him hang it in his home.
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How does someone go from being a being a three-term elder in a large Presbyterian Church to the author of Time Traveling with Science and the Saints, a book that nails Christianity to its own much-vaunted cross? In my case, it was easy, much easier than the paths that many of my formerly religious friends (many of them ex-clergymen) have more painfully walked. I was raised in a family in which religion was a non-issue, free to go to Sunday school with my friends whenever I wished. But northern Minnesota's forests and lakes held much more appeal, so most Sundays found me strolling through pine-shaded woods with my dog at my side. Then came college, a dental degree, and marriage to a great young lady who was raised Presbyterian, which explains how I became involved with the church. Fortunately, our church soon acquired a forward-thinking pastor, who, to the parishioners' great surprise, turned out to be more interested in projects like aiding the poor than air-conditioning the church. That pastor lasted just two years, and when he left, so did we, for after poring through books on comparative religion, we had concluded that the emperor we'd been serving had, like Swaggart and Bakker (and today's Rush Limbaugh), been parading around with no clothes. I like to say I once served as an officer on a very impressive ship, the S.S. Presbyterian. Like most spiritual ships, the vessel rarely sought serious waters--the crew being too busy singing hymns and burnishing brass to tend to the pressing needs they found in every port. When our wealthier officers began to pressure the crew to pledge even more to embellish our splendid vessel (while ignoring needs ashore), my wife and I decided to escape. And late one evening, when we passed abeam the Rational Islands, we slipped over the gunwale and quietly swam to shore. Shortly thereafter, we joined a unique organization that we all support--the courageous Freedom From Religion Foundation, of which I am a Life Member. A subsequent move to Minneapolis provided an opportunity to join both the Minnesota Atheists and the Humanists of Minnesota, an organization for which I served as president and newsletter editor for many years before being elected to the board of the American Humanist Association. During those years we raised two good nonreligious sons, and I spent a part of every summer exploring northern Canada and Alaska in my floatplane. The experiences garnered during those thirty summers, plus the history of the marvelous people I'd met, led me to write True North, a book that not only rode the bestseller list in Canada for three months but has done very well in the U.S. To my knowledge, True North is the only U.S. mass market book that provides a mix of wildlife and adventure, criticism of missionary practices and creationists' ploys, plus praise of an atheist chieftain and the science that created all of our comforts. I'm pleased that so many readers have used True North for a birthday, graduation or Christmas gift for friends and relatives. While writing True North, I attended a program titled "Galileo and the Catholic Church," sponsored by the College of St. Thomas. Unfortunately, the event turned out to be little more than an exercise in blaming the victim. During the discussion period, when a participant repeated the commonly held belief that, despite its abuses, religion has civilized the world, I decided to write a book comparing the fruits of Christianity to those of the sciences that it has opposed for almost two thousand years. With Matthew 7:20, "by their works shall ye know them," to guide me, I scanned the historical record to see which has brought more pleasure and which has caused more pain. I'm pleased that Time Traveling with Science and the Saints (Prometheus Books), though predictably not a bestseller, has also sold very well, especially to the freethought community. Now, with my 71st birthday out of the way, my wife and I are contemplating a move to a home in northern Minnesota that we have been remodeling for more than a year. Directly across the lake from our "new" south-facing home is--surprise--a seaplane base that I expect to use for at least forty or fifty more years! Editor's note: George donates the profits from True North and Time Traveling to the Foundation whenever members order signed copies from him and mention FFRF. True North costs $15.00 incl. postage. For a CD of 167 color photos that follow True North from cover to cover, add $7.00. Time Traveling lists at $25.00, but George provides signed copies for $20.00 incl. postage. Mail checks to George Erickson at 2300 17th St NW, New Brighton, MN 55112. ￼ George and his plane George's Commandments Because of my contacts in the education community, I am occasionally asked to speak to high school and college students about religion vs. freethought. In response to a frequently asked question about the Ten Commandments, I often say that we don't have much use for most of them, and then offer the following list, explaining it is probably incomplete, but it does provide an example of how most of us operate. George's Commandments: 1. Use your head--think critically. Use your hands--be helpful. Use your heart--be caring. 2. Remember, everyone needs to be loved. 3. Leave thoughts of gods and miracles, heavens and hells to those who invented them. Many people believe they need religion to make them be good--we do well without. 4. Be at least as good as your parents. If they weren't very good, you have an easy job. If they were great, you're lucky. If everyone did this, the human race would improve quite rapidly. 5. Get an education. It might be expensive, but ignorance costs more. 6. Support democracy. It's not perfect, but it's the best system running. 7. Support science. All of your comforts and conveniences derive from science. 8. Make today a little better for someone else, and today will be better for you. 9. Be tolerant. Why should others consider your viewpoint if you won't consider theirs? 10. When you screw up, admit it--and apologize. 11. Appreciate and protect the planet that feeds you. Recycle; don't pollute. 12. Be good to your body. Why damage something that took millions of years to evolve? 13. Practice safe sex and family planning. The earth is getting crowded. Malls, factories and parking lots are expanding at the expense of the forests and farms that sustain us.--George Erickson
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And speaking of an emperor with no patience for clothing, especially when it happens to be on the women around him, well, the people of California took seriously the request that they Win One for the Groper, and they elected Schwarzenegger as their governor. This, despite the fact that the guy has no political experience, and ample experience in behaving badly, even illegally. He's a gang banger, a compulsive handyman, a fan of Hitler and a zealous drug user who has, in his words, "inhaled and exhaled everything." I wondered how Schwarzenegger could get away with doing things that would terminate the career of any normal, non-steroidally enhanced human being. Was it being a Republican? Was it being a movie star with a glamorous Tammy Wynette of a wife? Those things help, of course, but then I learned that Arnold is a devout Catholic, who attends mass just about every Sunday with his family. Catholics have this wonderful little escape clause written into their contract. It's called confession. No matter what you've done, you can go into a little box that serves as a kind of sin shredder, an autoclave for the soul. You just tell the guy sitting behind the screen, forgive me father for I have sinned, and you list your various peccadillos as earnestly but succinctly as you can. The priest asks if you're sorry, you say you are, he gives you a kind of homework assignment to prove your repentance, and voila! You're in the clear. And the great thing about the system is, you can be a repeat offender, you can keep doing the same bad things over and over, and still the priest is obligated, if you ask for it nicely, to give you a pass. Hail Mary full of grace, let me win the governor's race. If you don't, I'll bust your face. But I am not being fair. People learn many useful things in the course of getting a Christian education. Just the other evening, my daughter, who is in second grade, shared with me and my husband a series of jokes and songs that had a lot of vivid references to body parts, body functions and body fluids, ill-fitting underwear, and, Arnold's favorite, the toilet bowl. Now I am no angel. Sometimes I'm not even PG-rated. If Katherine is around when I stub a toe or step in cat throw-up or read the morning newspaper, well, I just might say shit or goddamn it or Jesus fucking Christ, and my daughter will scold me for using bad language, or for invoking the name of somebody she knows quite well I don't believe in. Yet even with my somewhat lax verbal standards, I was surprised by the vulgar nature of the little ditties my daughter sang for us. Where did you learn those things? my husband and I asked of her. From Michelle, she replied brightly. Ah, yes, Michelle, her most religiously indoctrinated friend, a girl who spends every Sunday in church and every summer at bible camp, who once made for Katherine a lovely drawing with hearts and flowers and birds and butterflies that on one side said, I love Katherine and on the other, I love the Baby Jesus, too. Now, Katherine has many friends, but whenever she's come home with some really juicy Maxim-worthy material, it turns out she's learned it from Michelle. So the question is, who is tutoring Michelle? She doesn't have older siblings. She and Katherine attend the same public school during the week. I can only conclude that there is more to bible camp than the canonical gospels, and that perhaps Katherine really is missing something by growing up in a pleasant, tree-lined Norman Rockwellesque town like Takoma Park--which is just over the border in Maryland, a couple of miles from here--without the benefit of Sunday school. How is she supposed to learn about the glories of the gutter? The only smutty poems I know are ones I learned growing up in the Bronx decades ago, and they're far too stale for today's savvy young consumer. So all I can say to Michelle is, Amen! But I am making light of a very somber business, the topic of my talk, which is the challenge of raising a god-free child in these god-besotted times. Because yes, my husband and I are raising our daughter as an atheist, in a moderately active fashion. That means not only do we fail to schlep her to church or temple or any other house of "worship" on a regular basis; not only do we expect her at dinnertime to direct her gratitude for the food she is about to eat to whichever harried parent prepared the meal--and so she does, with little ad-libbed prayers like, I beg you, please don't make me eat these Brussels sprouts! We also explain to her why we don't believe in god, and why we're big fans of evidence-based analysis, and why we think that religion is a source of a lot of the world's misery and strife. Yes, indeed, I never pass up an opportunity for a good lusty anti-god rant. In August, for example, Katherine and I were boarding a plane for North Carolina, when the person behind us, a woman with white hair and icy blue eyes, started giving the ticket agent a hard time--unfairly, from what I could hear. Their argument got heated, and finally she said she was going to report him to his airline's management. What's your name? she demanded. Mohammad, he said. Mohammad, eh? said the woman. I should have known! Well, I couldn't help but whirl around in outrage at that remark. Jesus Christ! I cried. I can't believe you said that! The woman turned her polar-cap glare on me and snarled that I should mind my own business. And who are you to talk, anyway! she added, Using the lord's name in vain like that! We were about to come to fisticuffs when I remembered, oops, I have my kid with me. Once Katherine and I were finally settled in our seats, I tried to explain the argument, and the reason why the woman's slur against the man's name was so mean and indefensible. This is what happens with religion, I said, people get into fights over whose god is better and more godlike than whose. My daughter, weisenheimer that she is, politely observed, Yes, Mom, but you don't believe in god, and you were fighting, too, at which point I suggested that she read the Sky Mall catalogue in the seat pocket in front of her. Kids say the goddamnedest things, don't they? But being an atheist parent is not always fun and games. For a while last year questions about god-belief, death, and the heaven option were big topics of discussion among Katherine and her friends. And Katherine really, really wished there was a heaven to look forward to. For one thing, she liked the dress code there, and all the cool accessories--the white flowing gowns, the wings, the harps. For another, she's no fool. She realizes that, if there's no heaven, no afterlife, then when you die, there's probably . . . nothing. This little technicality has been and continues to be a very hard thing for her to handle. Not long ago, the three of us were in the car, on the beltway, interestingly enough with the big white tetra-towered Mormon temple that some of you may have seen looming up ahead--by the way, we've told Katherine that the temple is in fact the tooth fairy's castle, and that it's built of children's teeth, a story that for some reason she's deeply skeptical about, although damn if the temple doesn't look like the jaw of some sort of extinct giant saber-toothed rodent. Anyway, all of a sudden Katherine started to scream. What's wrong? What's wrong? we gasped. Have you been stung by a yellow jacket? Are you feeling car-sick? Should we pull over? No, she cried. I was just thinking about death, and I can't stand it. I can't stand it! I don't want to have to die! Now this is a tough protest to respond to, and it's come up repeatedly. How can you answer it without resorting to platitudes, obfuscations, lies? We're still in the, um, groping stage. We start by saying, but that's a long, long, long way in the future! You're going to live for such a ridiculous amount of time that you'll be begging for a time-out! Rick and I both write about science, biology and medicine, and we tell her of all the wondrous medical advances that will keep her going for, who knows, a century, two centuries, even longer. We also have explained to her that she won't vanish altogether, and that the universe will never let her go. Matter and energy can be neither created nor destroyed, we say, but simply transformed. This isn't fantasy; this is reality. Who knows where you'll end up next, we say. Part of a dolphin, an eagle, a snow leopard--one of the big showcase species, of course, just as everybody who channels their former lives seems to discover that they were an Egyptian pharaoh or a Druidic princess. Still, Katherine rails against the injustice of our mortality. She's terrified at the idea of personal, if not molecular, extinction. Wouldn't it be better if god were real? she asks. Wouldn't you rather have something to look forward to, a place to go? She says things that really hit home, like how much she would like to meet her grandfather Keith, my father, that is, who died of malignant melanoma when I was nineteen and whom I continue to miss terribly. I reply that, yes, I wish she could meet him, and I wish I could see him again myself, but spending an eternity with your parents, sheesh! Surely she can grasp the downside of that? I also tell her that the image of heaven a lot of people have put forth sounds like a really dismal place to me. Do you know what angels supposedly do all day? Day after year after eternity? They sit around telling god how wonderful he is. It's like the routine from Monty Python's "The Meaning of Life," when a chaplain and his congregation pray, "O Lord . . . oooh you are so big, so absolutely huge. Gosh, we're all really impressed down here, I can tell you. Forgive us O Lord for this dreadful toadying and barefaced flattery, but you are so strong and well, just so super and fantastic. Amen." No thanks, I say. I'd rather die. A few people have warned me that my daughter may eventually rebel against her parents by going to the other "extreme," becoming a Moonie or a Pentacostal or a Lubevitcher. They believe that the best way to inoculate your children against religious zealotry is with a nice bland, reduced-fat faith like Unitarian-Universalist or reform Judaism. My sister is taking that approach with her two kids out in Oregon, raising them as reform Jews. She insists that, with all the right-wing fundamentalist Christians in her area, Judaism is a political statement equivalent to supporting Howard Dean. I've argued with her, saying that it would be an even bolder statement to raise them as atheists. But then everybody would be trying to save their souls, to convert them, she says. This way, they leave her kids alone. Oh, I suppose. Yet I don't like the dyspeptic narcissistic god of the Old Testament any more than the infanticidal absentee of the New. In any event, I can't be bland about my atheism. If Katherine is getting a heavy dose of unalloyed heathenism, maybe that is better, in the end, than vacillation. Maybe that's what kids really crave--strong convictions. And maybe what they don't crave is all the fear and threat of a really terrible punishment that seem to be the essential minerals and vitamins in most religions. ￼ Photo by Brent Nicastro I know about the fear from my own experience. I had a very unusual upbringing in many ways, not least when it came to religion. My mother is Jewish, my father had been raised as a Christian Scientist by my grandmother June Dawn. She'd been a silent movie actress, but then turned to heavy-duty religion, becoming a Christian Science practitioner who healed people over the phone. When my parents met, they were both members of the Young Communist Party and distinctly anti-religion. My father, however, couldn't shake his faith-based upbringing, and he eventually started shopping around for a palatable religion. He tried Episcopalianism, he tried Catholicism, and then, when I was seven, he rejected Christianity again, angrily as was his style, and started exploring Buddhism and other eastern religions. The next year, when I was eight, our family was out west visiting relatives, we got into a terrible car accident that very nearly killed my older brother. As my parents kept watch at my brother's hospital bed, they sent the rest of us kids to various relatives. I was shipped off to San Diego to my grandmother June, whom I barely knew, and as you can imagine I was in a scared and impressionable frame of mind. She had a small house. I slept on her couch. And one night, she came out into the living room, sat down on the edge of the couch in the dark and woke me up. Do you know why your family had that car accident? she asked me. I'm not sure, I said. For some reason, Aunt Estelle lost control of the car. It's because your father stopped going to church, my grandmother said. It's because he stopped asking god to protect your family. So you must do it for him. You must pray every night for the people you love. And you know what? Grandma June succeeded. She scared the bejesus into me so that, even though I had no interest until then in religion, I started praying, frantically, every night, reciting a long list of people for god to protect. I kept this up for seven years. Seven years, and then the bad spell was broken. I'm not going to put a hex on my daughter. Sure, I'm a soapbox atheist. But she doesn't have to take my word for anything. All she has to do is look around her, every day, to find the bible she needs--in the sky, sun, moon, Mars, leaves, lady bugs, stink bugs, possums, tadpoles, cardinals, the wonderful predatory praying mantises that have gotten really big and fat this year on all the insects this rainy year has brought. Life needs no introduction, explanation or excuse. Life is bigger than myth--except in California.
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Remarks in uniform by new Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, Lt. Gen. William G. "Jerry" Boykin: [Speaking about Somalian Muslim soldier] I knew that my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol. Church in Daytona Beach, Fla. January 2003 The battle that we're in is a spiritual battle. Satan wants to destroy this nation, he wants to destroy us as a nation, and he wants to destroy us as a Christian army. First Baptist Church of Broken Arrow, Okla., June 2002 Why do they hate us? The answer to that is because we're a Christian nation. We are hated because we are a nation of believers. [Our] spiritual enemy will only be defeated if we come against them in the name of Jesus. George Bush was not elected by a majority of the voters in the United States. He was appointed by God. Good Shepherd Community Church, Sandy, Ore., June 2003 Los Angeles Times, Oct. 16, 2003 He [William Boykin] is an officer that has an outstanding record in the United States armed forces. Defense Sec. Donald H. Rumsfeld Associated Press, Oct. 16, 2003 'If I could just get a nuclear device inside Foggy Bottom, I think that's the answer.' I mean, you get through this [book, Dangerous Diplomacy: How the State Department Endangers America's Security by Joel Mowbray], and you say, 'We've got to blow that thing up.' Rev. Pat Robertson, "700 Club" Associated Press, Oct. 12, 2003 I lack sufficient capabilities to express my disdain [for Robertson's remarks]. State Dept. spokesman Richard Boucher Associated Press, Oct. 12, 2003 The [church sex abuse] scandals in the United States received disproportionate attention from the media. There are thieves in every country, but it's hard to say that everyone is a thief. Cardinal Angelo Sodano Vatican Secretary of State Reuters/Boston Globe, Oct. 11, 2003 I have long defended the constitutionality of depicting the Ten Commandments in a courthouse, and a depiction of the Ten Commandments hangs on the wall of my office, as it has for years. Because I consider the Ten Commandments to be the cornerstone of law for Western civilization, I do not consider their display in a courthouse, as they are displayed in the Supreme Court of the United States [sic], to be an establishment of religion. Ala. Atty. General William H. Pryor Jr. Bush judicial nominee Mobile Register, Oct. 19, 2003 There should be a display of the Ten Commandments in the U.S. Capitol. U.S. Rep. Robert Aderholt Ten Commandments Defense Act sponsor TomPaine.com, Oct. 15, 2003 If we want to maintain an ethical and social system, we should build one based on spiritual and moral values that transcend any interest. God is vital. Former dictator Rev. Efrain Rios Montt Guatemalan presidential candidate Associated Press, Oct. 7, 2003 The spermatozoon can easily pass through the 'net' that is formed by the condom. Vatican official Alfonso Lopez Trujillo (calling condoms a health danger) Associated Press, Oct. 9, 2003 [I expect Iraq to be] an Islamic country by faith, just as we are a Judeo-Christian. . . Well, it's hard to tell any more, but we are a country of many faiths now. Sec. of State Colin Powell Charlie Rose Show, Sept. 22, 2003 Reuters: Oct. 23, 2003 Any kid would be proud to have my parents. We were really, really bad. Testimony by 12-year-old who was denied food and tied up, and whose adopted brother Brian Edgar, 9, was tortured and killed by his religious parents, Rev. Chasity Edgar, and Neil Edgar, Olathe, Kan., both found guilty of first-degree murder To learn you must love discipline. 9-year-old adopted Edgar daughter Kansas City Star, Sept. 29, 2003 Where Was God? High School cross country runners gathering for a pre-run prayer on the side of a highway in Luling, Texas, were struck by a car on Oct. 11. One student was killed and at least three were injured. Source: Associated Press, Oct. 6, 13, 2003 A church bus driver fell asleep while driving on Interstate 20, near Tullulah, La., and slammed into a parked tractor-trailer. The accident killed eight senior citizens and injured seven other passengers on an outing sponsored by the First Baptist Church in Eldorado, Texas. Source: AP, Oct. 14, 2003 On her way home from a Sunday student rally to promote a Billy Graham Crusade, Alicia Layne, 19, died in a three-car accident on Interstate 35. Her 15-year-old sister was severely injured and six others were released after treatment at a hospital. Prior to her accident, the Oklahoma City Community College student had attended Sunday school at Immanuel Baptist Church, performed her daily bible reading, joined her family for another worship service, and even prayed with her parents about the safety of the trip. Source: Daily Oklahoman, June 6, 2003 Mary Corrigan, who worked as a house parent at the former Baptist Children's Home in Kouts, Ind., was charged with six counts of neglect of foster children. She and two friends confined three young Indianapolis children in a bathroom for months without any clothing and little food, forced children to sit in ice-cold baths for hours, and let them out only to clean the house. "These kids were living in a house of horrors," said the Marion Co. prosecutor. Former Baptist Home residents also alleged mistreatment, such as being forced to drink vinegar by Corrigan for committing "sins." Corrigan's Indianapolis home was licensed.Source: Indianapolis Star, Aug. 28, 2003
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Settlement Nixes Fire Chaplains The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, which was sued by several firefighters this year over its chaplain policy, agreed as of Sept. 1 to halt operation of the Chaplaincy Program. Employees may only provide chaplain services on a voluntary basis on their own time. No CDF or state funds, materials, facilities or equipment will be used to perform chaplain duties. No employees may perform chaplain duties while wearing an official CDF uniform or patch. They may offer "words of inspiration" at CDF events "so long as the words of inspiration are nonreligious." The term "CDF Chaplain" is "no longer appropriate," and may not be used on official correspondence, business cards, letterhead, voicemail, emails, etc. The case was settled in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, Western Division. (Information provided by George Mason, Calif.) HHS Funds More Faith Health and Human Services Sec. Tommy Thompson in September awarded $30.5 million in grants to 81 groups, to provide technical assistance and sub-grants to church-related and community groups in 45 states. Fifty grants of $50,000 were given to groups in 35 states, the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands to serve at-risk youths and homeless people. Larger grants were awarded to intermediary groups to provide training and technical assistance to faith-based and community groups. At least 25 percent of the grant money is to go to grassroots organizations assisting individuals with homelessness, addiction or incarceration of a parent. Sixty new grants totaling $8.1 million will "help faith-based and community organizations expand and strengthen their ability to provide social services," according to the HHS. HHS announced a grant of about $24 million to support 21 continuing grants under HHS's "Compassion Capital Fund" to build the capacity of faith-based and community groups to provide social services. HHS's Compassion Capital Fund was created two years ago, with a $35 million budget for the current fiscal year. Bush's budget proposal would increase support for the Compassion Capital Fund to $100 million in fiscal year 2004. The Administration said these actions will remove "unnecessary barriers" to create a "level playing field" for faith-based groups to compete for federal dollars. * * * In late October, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao awarded more than $1.5 million in grants for Memphis workforce projects to area "faith community" groups. "The president believes in the power of faith to transform lives. There is no one closer to the heart and soul of the needy than the faith-based groups," Chao told 2,000 people at a government conference of faith applicants for federal funding. Memphis is one of two cities the Labor Department has chosen to test a model between workforce readiness agencies and faith-based groups. The Memphis Leadership Foundation and the Hope Center of Greater Community Temple Church of God in Christ will use a $98,000 grant from the Labor Department to support substance abuse treatment and employment services for 45 people. The Christ Community Health Service in Memphis received a $1.95 million HHS grant to provide medical care for three years to the poor. US Charity Begins at Church The Bush Administration in late September announced that religious charities providing social services may compete for $28 billion in federal grants. The Administration proposed new rules that would: Let job retraining vouchers train recipients to work in a church, synagogue or religious institution. Let religious charities working with the Veterans Administration display symbols, such as crosses. Make it easier for faith-based groups to receive donations of forfeited assets, previously barred indefinitely. Such property may now be used for religious purposes after five years. * * * Cabinet members met with the president at the White House in late September to discuss eliminating barriers keeping "faith-based" groups from obtaining federal grants. Four new government regulations were announced on Sept. 21 to provide federal money for religion-oriented programs run by people Bush calls "neighborhood healers." Labor Secretary Elaine Chao announced two changes: one regulation to let training vouchers be used by people pursuing faith-based careers, the second to help faith-based institutions compete for federal contracts even if they discriminate in hiring based on religious beliefs. Mel Martinez, secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, announced rules letting faith-based groups compete for $8 billion in housing grants. "This is a monumental thing for us because in the past we have seen not only a negative feeling, but outright hostility to organizations of faith." Changes will be unveiled soon at the Justice, Education, Labor and Veterans Affairs departments. Bush Gives Faith Testimony With a backdrop of banners bearing crosses reading "King of Kings" and "Lord of Lords," Pres. Bush told a cheering audience on Oct. 28 at Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship, Dallas: "Government has no business funding religious worship or teaching. However, our government should support the good work of religious people who are changing the world. "You've got to understand that sometimes, and a lot of times, the best way to help the addict, a person who is stuck on drugs and alcohol, is to change their heart. See, if you change their heart, then they change their behavior. I know," said the self-avowed former heavy drinker and rowdy. "All levels of government ought not fear programs based upon faith [and] must understand the power of faith programs to make the communities in which we live a better place." Bush spoke of "miracles" and a "higher power bigger than people's problems."
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A September complaint by the Freedom From Religion Foundation to the city of Casper, Wyo., on behalf of area members over a Ten Commandments monument in a city park, resulted in a 5-4 vote on Oct. 28 to remove the monument. However, the mayor broke ranks and subsequently voted with pro-Ten Commandments council members to put the monument in temporary storage, while the city creates a new public home for the bible edicts. A city-owned "monument plaza" would feature monuments "vital to the historic development of American law." Casper council members based their second vote on a 2001 federal court decision in an ACLU case in Grand Junction, Colo. Officials there moved a Ten Commandments monument from city hall to a city-sponsored area with monuments supposedly devoted to U.S. legal history. That decision, which was not appealed, occurred prior to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals decision in 2002, in a case out of Utah, advising that if a city hosts a Ten Commandments monument, it must permit other groups to place their own monuments on city land. Wyoming, Utah and Colorado are part of the 10th Circuit. The Casper monument was donated by the Fraternal Order of Eagles in 1965. The club offered to take the monument off city hands following the Foundation complaint. Complicating the request was the bizarre intervention of Rev. Fred Phelps of Topeka, Kan., a rabid, publicity-seeking, anti-gay Baptist who routinely pickets funerals of AIDS victims. After reading about the 10th Circuit decision and the Foundation's state/church complaint, Phelps contacted Casper officials demanding to be allowed to place his own monument on public property. He proposed a marble marker bearing an image of Matthew Shepard, saying, "Matthew Shepard entered Hell Oct. 12, 1998, in Defiance of God's Warning: 'Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind; it is abomination.' Leviticus 18:22." Phelps has regularly visited Casper on the anniversary of the death of Shepard, a Casper native. The 21-year-old gay college student was brutally pistol-whipped and left to die on a fence in rural Wyoming in one of the United States' most notorious hate crimes. Phelps' request was turned down by the council on Oct. 28, giving the minister grounds to sue. Phelps announced plans in October to "pock-mark this nation from sea to shining sea with this message." Phelps is currently asking to place his homophobic monument in an Idaho county currently considering an American Legion request to erect a Ten Commandments monument on a courthouse lawn. Pointed out Foundation spokeswoman Annie Laurie Gaylor: "If a city 'blesses' ten of the 600 commandments supposedly given to Moses by the Old Testament deity, how can it then say to Rev. Phelps that the barbaric Mosaic laws regarding homosexuality are not also 'historic'? The Mosaic laws are replete with savage and inhumane instructions, such as to kill gays, non-virgin brides, 'stubborn sons,' blasphemers, etc. "The city has opened a can of worms with its First Amendment entanglement. It is now compounding the violation by erroneously claiming the Ten Commandments are part of U.S. legal history. The First Commandment ('Thou shalt have no other gods before me') so clearly violates the First Amendment," Gaylor said. The Foundation is looking for Casper-area individuals willing to be named plaintiffs in a potential Foundation lawsuit. Please contact the mayor and urge her to reconsider her vote in favor of moving the Ten Commandments monument to a "monument plaza." Moving the bible edicts off public land would end the debate, and give Phelps no case.