The New York Times’ “Room for Debate” series Feb. 13 included this op-ed by FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. The series addressed the question, “Should the U.S. have more or different official holidays?
If I had my druthers, Christmas would not be a federal holiday. It’s a no-brainer. The First Amendment categorically states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”
Clearly, designating the date upon which Christians observe the birth of their messiah as a federal holiday is making a law respecting an establishment of religion and placing governmental weight behind Christianity.
Would I have U.S. citizens forgo end-of-the-year festivals or miss out on a federal day off? Not for the world. I would propose one of two remedies. Option 1: Rename Dec. 25 as something secular like “Family Day.” Uruguay has long celebrated Dec. 25 as Dia de la Familia. Option 2: Make Dec. 21 (the winter solstice), not Dec. 25 (Christmas), the federal holiday. The shortest, darkest day of the year is already a natural holiday, so why not make it a federal holiday as well?
The winter solstice is, after all, the reason for the season. It signals the rebirth of the sun and the natural new year. For millennia, our ancestors in the Northern Hemisphere have greeted this seasonal event with festivals of light, gift exchanges and feasts. The federal government’s description of Christmas as a federal holiday claims: “Decorating houses and yards with lights, putting up Christmas trees, giving gifts, and sending greeting cards have become holiday traditions even for many non-Christian Americans.”
But it is the Christians who stole Christmas. We don’t mind sharing the season with them, but we don’t like their pretense that it’s the birthday of Jesus. It is, if anything, the birthday of the Unconquered Sun. The winter solstice has astronomical significance all Americans can mark, without reference to their religious beliefs.
Should we compound the current constitutional violation by turning minority religious observances into federal holidays? Banish the thought! Think how unworkable (given the hundreds of religious “holy days”) that would be.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation successfully overturned a statute declaring Good Friday to be a state holiday in Wisconsin. This statute even directed citizens when to worship! Our legal victory did not deny state workers a half-day off. Instead, workers get to choose their own half-holiday instead of being told by their government to worship. It is not the business of our secular government to celebrate anyone’s “holy days.” Accommodate, yes.
Recognizing the winter solstice would violate no constitutional provision. Accommodating family time, universal weariness during our darkest days and allowing our national “well” to fill up after a hectic year — these would indeed serve secular purposes. Let’s hear it for Family Day!
Besides Gaylor, others answering the question were Khyati Joshi, associate professor of education at Fairleigh Dickinson University (“Keep Christmas, and add other faiths’ holy days”); Mark Rienzi, senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and professor of constitutional law at the Catholic University of America (“Secular reasons to mark religious days”); and Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (“No need for an election holiday; vote on the weekend”).
FFRF Co-President debated March 7 with Rev. Joe Boot at the University of Windsor. Here, Dan gathered with members of the Windsor/Essex County Atheist Society. Back (from left) are Chris, Pat, Kristen, Jamie, Currie, Derek, Shawna Scott (society president), Dr. Gordon Drake, Dan Barker, Doug, (front) Andrew, Satpreet, Jordan, Hamid, Joshua, Rob and Joe.
On March 7, at the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada, I debated the question “Is There Life After Death?” It was sponsored by the Windsor/Essex County Atheist Society and Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. More than 400 people attended, including FFRF members who drove many miles.
The event started 90 minutes late because Joe Boot, my opponent, had a car accident on the way. His car was badly damaged but he wasn’t hurt. (He did not have a “near death” experience.)
He does believe that “all things work together for good,” and for some reason his God, who controls everything, thought it was important to inconvenience hundreds of people, some of whom had traveled a long distance. Boot, a native of England, is senior pastor at Westminster Chapel in Toronto and founder of the Ezra Institute for Contemporary Christianity.
We managed to fill up the hour and a half with some impromptu speeches. Shawna Scott, who represented the atheist group, gave a brief talk about her organization’s activities. Shawna is the student who successfully stopped graduation prayers at the university and received an FFRF scholarship award for her activism.
An Intervarsity organizer then spoke about its efforts to publicize the message of Jesus on campus. The moderator of the debate, Dr. Gordon Drake, a theistic physics professor, spoke about the complete compatibility (he thinks) of science and religion.
Still stalling for time, I got up and described FFRF’s history and legal activities, mentioning that, at that very moment, Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor was in Champaign, Ill., to take part in the 65th anniversary celebration of the McCollum Supreme Court victory, a legal precedent that removes religious instruction from U.S. public schools. I deliberately steered clear of the debate topic so as not to prejudice the audience.
But I did offer one proof of the truth of atheism. I held up a red paper coffee cup from Tim Hortons. Little did I realize how powerful that symbol was before that audience. I learned from some of the locals that the restaurant chain is one of the closest things to national pride the Canadians celebrate these days and is tied in with Horton’s 24-year National Hockey League career. He founded the chain, Canada’s largest, before dying in 1974 at age 44 in an automobile accident.
Before the debate, while the room was being set up, some of us had gone to the Hortons on campus for coffee and snacks. I ordered a medium regular coffee, which they handed to me in that red paper cup. At the table I noticed that one of the students had taken the lid off his own coffee cup and was rolling up the curved top rim. “Darn, I didn’t win anything,” he said.
Tim Hortons has a contest where some of the cups are printed with prize announcements to lucky winners. When I finished my coffee, I did the same thing, after Currie, one of the atheist students, showed me the arrow on the cup pointing to where the prize might be. When I rolled up the rim, surprise! I won a free caffe latte.
Maybe that doesn’t sound like a big deal, but when I held that cup up to the audience, they were impressed. “This is proof of the power of nonprayer,” I announced. “I did not pray to win, and I won!”
Joe did finally show up, around 8:30, surprisingly composed after his long day, and gave his opening statement. When it was my turn to speak, I walked over and handed the cup to Joe, as a gift. Not having heard my story, he was a bit perplexed, but quickly asked “Did I win?” The crowd loved it!
Paucity of evidence
The debate was a good show, as these things go. Joe Boot was articulate, attractive and feisty, which makes for a much better event than some other debates I have done where the opponent mainly lectures, or worse, where we agree on too many issues. A debate should be a contest.
But intellectually, it was extremely disappointing. I had prepared carefully, and my notebook was stuffed with information to rebut attempts to provide evidence for the afterlife, including near-death experiences and the supposed resurrection of Jesus. But Joe only mentioned these in passing, and said they were not the real issues. He offered no evidence at all for life after death, admitting “the paucity of empirical evidence.”
Instead, he based his whole case on the supposed philosophical weaknesses of naturalism and atheism and simply asserted that the God of Christian scripture is the best explanation for “a universe of meaning,” and since God exists, then his promise of eternal life must be true.
He thinks we have to choose between one of two worldviews: 1) naturalism, where all reality is one, and 2) dualism, where reality is split between that which is created and that which is not. (Are you a one-ist or a two-ist?)
He admitted that his worldview has assumptions and biases, but claimed that they are no worse than the atheist’s assumptions and biases. Without God, the universe is an “absurdity,” a cosmos with no meaning. But with God, we can entertain the existence of soul, spirit, immaterial objects such as mind and consciousness that can exist apart from the body.
“We are more than the sum of our parts,” he insisted, “and more than mere matter in motion.”
And that was it! A debate on one topic was morphed by sleight of hand into something else: “Is there life after death?” became “Is atheism absurd?”
Burden of proof unmet
When it was my turn, I quickly pointed out that this was not an either-or contest between two exclusive worldviews, a kind of cosmic multiple choice test. He was making a truth claim — “There is life after death” — and in any debate, the burden of proof is on the shoulders of the one making the claim.
Joe and I both believe in the existence of the natural universe, but he believes in something extra — that there is a supernatural realm populated by immaterial personalities. We both admit that human beings are biological organisms in a natural environment, but he believes that we are also something more than that — souls, spirits, immaterial entities.
We both start from naturalism, where we agree, and argue from there. My skepticism about his additional claims about the universe is not based on an opposite worldview, but on the default view that we both share, which he is trying to enlarge.
If I claim I’ve invented a perpetual motion machine, and you ask me for proof, it would be me like saying “Prove that I didn’t.”
Not only did Joe fail to meet the burden of proof, he did not even step up to the plate. He did not accept any burden of proof at all. He even admitted, “we don’t have a debate here.”
Apparently, the way to show that there is life after death is to simply beat up on atheists. Quoting Christopher Hitchens, I replied, “That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”
The debate was much more than that, of course — broader if not deeper. We dove into epistemology and definitions. I accused him of equivocation, and he replied by claiming that my simplistic, old-fashioned, worn-out and biased naturalistic diatribe was nothing more than “cereal box atheism.”
I was sorely tempted to reply that I would rather be a cereal box than a flake, but you can see from the video that I bit my tongue in mid-sentence. I think it looks better if the mud slings from only one side.
During cross-examination, I asked Joe to define “spirit.” He sidestepped the question by claiming that my materialistic biases automatically exclude a nonmaterial definition, and anyway, we naturalists don’t know how to define “energy.”
He claimed that consciousness is an immaterial object, while I insisted that it is not a thing at all: Consciousness and mind are labels for functions of an organ that cease to have meaning when the organ stops operating, just like software stops running when you unplug the computer.
Science has shown us the complete dependence of consciousness on the brain. I pointed out that asking if there is life after death is like asking if digestion continues to exist after the stomach disappears.
Questions from the audience were astute, directed at both of us. Up to that point I would say that Joe had been keeping his head up, speaking articulately (if not coherently), but when a question was asked about evolution, that’s when he lost the debate, as I heard from many members of the audience.
He asserted that humans are a special creation, that all species were created as separate kinds by God, and that there are serious problems with natural selection. “Darwin himself wondered where all the transitional fossils were,” he exulted, apparently not realizing that much work has been done since Darwin first announced his ideas.
After the debate, about 20 of us went to an Ethiopian restaurant and talked until way after midnight. Shawna handed me a gift from the group — not a Tim Hortons cup, but an elegant personalized pen that I can use to autograph books and sign FFRF legal letters.
This event was their first large public meeting, and because it was so successful, they are energized to do more activities on campus promoting reason, science and real human morality. There may not be life after death, but with so many smart, concerned activist students like the Windsor/Essex County Atheist Society, there is certainly life after debates!
Nicole has received FFRF’s 2013 Paul J. Gaylor Memorial Student Activist Award of $1,000, sponsored by Annie Laurie Gaylor.
“Tolerance is giving to every other human being every right that you claim for yourself.” — Robert G. Ingersoll
In April of 2001, A. Roe was 10 years old. Living in Dayton, Tenn., she was faced by very few challenges in her life other than weekly spelling homework or the panic of making it home before the inevitable flicker of streetlights.
In elementary school, A. Roe and her younger sister B. were taught many substantial life lessons: how to tie their shoes, to share with others, and once each week before recess, they learned how to accept Jesus Christ as their lord and savior. Impressionable as they were young, A. and B. brought home many of these lessons.
A. would pray to God every night that her peers would stop bullying her because of the Native American heritage that made her skin a little darker. During bubble baths, B. sang the catchy tunes she learned in school, her sweet voice singing, “Our God is an awesome God — he reigns from Heaven above.”
The “Bible Education Ministry” classes that I sat through every Wednesday in my public school were in blatant disregard of my First Amendment rights, and as those laws were much beyond my understanding at that age, my parents sought justice for me and my siblings.
I learned about Doe v. Porter, the lawsuit my parents eventually filed against the school board with help from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, not from my parents but from my peers on the playground. The moniker “A. Roe” was used to represent me in court, as well as to hide my identity to protect me from the Christian majority that was our God-fearing community.
Unfortunately for that little girl, her name was also her curse. Unbeknownst to my mother and father, my classmates were very much aware of my identity. While I was brought up to keep my mind open and my heart considerate, it seemed to me at the time that some of my peers were raised to believe that people who didn’t attend church and believe in God were sinners, and I was no exception.
Just as my parents kept their lawsuit a secret from me to keep me safe, I kept from them the parts of my school day that involved my hair being pulled and my fingers being shut between locker doors. Girls who I thought were my friends called me names I wouldn’t repeat even at my age now. While school board members and religious activists bashed my parents’ character in the local newspaper, their offspring exiled me with the same blind rage to the other end of an empty cafeteria.
A. Roe was alone for bigger reasons than she thought she would ever understand. The fact that she was bullied daily to such a terrifying level over such grown-up issues was incomprehensible to her at the time.
In 2004 my parents moved our family to Boone, Iowa, and eventually won the lawsuit for the amount of a single dollar bill. While I was occasionally made fun of for having braces, or blushing at the sight of a high school crush, it was nothing compared to the relief I felt by being able to finally identify myself openly as belonging to an atheist household without judgment.
I celebrated my 22nd birthday in February as Nicole M. Jacobsen — A. Roe a distant memory. However, when our family friend Dan Barker asked me to tell my story, it felt like it was just yesterday that I cried in a bathroom stall over religious intolerance I didn’t understand.
I don’t condemn the wonderful people of my hometown or those who treated me poorly in the past. It’s quite the opposite; their memory has helped me grow as a person. I still keep in contact with some of those old classmates to this day, and it’s just another reminder to me that there is no right or wrong when it comes to religion.
Peace is truly found in acceptance and tolerance of another, no matter what their beliefs.
Nicole still lives in Iowa and is completing her studies toward certification as a pharmacy technician. The case she writes so eloquently about is John Doe, Mary Roe and the Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Rhea County School District, which was filed in federal court in 2001. Nashville attorney Alvin Harris, an FFRF Life Member, ably represented the plaintiffs’ challenge of K-5 religious instruction for 30 minutes a week in three public schools during school hours by bible students from Bryan College (motto: “Christ Above All”). It was chartered in 1925 in Dayton after the 1925 Scopes “monkey trial” to memorialize William Jennings Bryan, the lead attorney arguing against the teaching of evolution.
Judge R. Allan Edgar ruled for the plaintiffs in 2002, writing “This is not a close case.” His decision was upheld in 2004 by the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.
See page 12 for more on the case’s 65th anniversary.
Name: Hope Knutsson.
Where I live: Reykjavik, Iceland.
Where I was born: Born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., of Russian, Hungarian, Polish and German descent. I have dual citizenship: Icelandic and American.
Family: Husband, Einar Knutsson; son, Tryggvi Einarsson; daughter, Katla Einarsdottir.
Education: B.A. in psychology and philosophy, master’s in occupational therapy.
Original occupation: Psychiatric occupational therapist.
Career: Founder and president of Sidmennt, the Icelandic Ethical Humanist Association.
How I got where I am today: I’ve been a social activist all of my adult life, first in the U.S. and then in Iceland, where I’ve started and led various organizations and movements (a mental health association built on a self-help, empowerment model, an English-speaking foreigners association, a multicultural council and a secular humanist association). I established a civil confirmation program for teenagers and have been coordinating it for 25 years.
Civil confirmation is a secular alternative to religious confirmation and exists in all the Nordic countries and some other European nations. It consists of a course mainly about ethics, human rights, human relations, critical thinking and related subjects followed by a festive graduation ceremony.
Where I’m headed: I’ll continue to work for complete religious freedom, separation of church and state and a secular society in Iceland.
What’s it like to live in Iceland? I’ve lived here 39 years. The population is only 320,000, and everyone knows almost everyone else or is related. There are advantages and disadvantages to that.
There are some wonderful things about Iceland: It is a Nordic social democracy. It has no military. Nobody’s tax money is spent on building bombs or training people to kill. About 86% of homes are heated by cheap geothermal energy. There are no nuclear power plants and little pollution. We have many volcanoes, hot springs, geysers and waterfalls.
Icelandic is an archaic, difficult and very limited language with only around 90,000 words, compared with close to a million in English. I can read, speak and understand it well, but even after 39 years I need other people to correct everything that I write.
The climate is temperate. In winter the temperature hovers around the freezing point but rarely goes below that. There’s a lot of strong wind here which can make it feel colder. However, Iceland is surrounded by the Gulf Stream, so it’s warmer than people imagine because of the name. We don’t get much snow in Reykjavik, and when it comes, it usually melts within hours. In summer the temperature is around 60 degrees, sometimes higher. We have midnight sun from June through August, which is fabulous. The darkest months are from the end of November through late January, when we have just under five hours of true daylight with an hour or so of twilight on either side of that. The Northern Lights are breathtaking and magical!
Person in history I admire: Thomas Paine and Carl Sagan. I think that using reason and critical thinking are positive approaches to life and help move humankind forward. Promoting the scientific method and popularizing scientific knowledge are noble and inspiring endeavors.
A quotation I like: It’s good to have an open mind but not so open that your brains fall out.
• Science thrives on unanswered questions. Religion, in contrast, thrives on unquestioned answers.
• Insanity is continuing to do the same thing over and over again and expecting to get different results. (Einstein)
• I cannot believe in a god who wants to be praised all the time. (Nietzsche)
• If you don’t pray in my school, I won’t think in your church.
• You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?
• The belief that some cosmic Jewish zombie can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him that you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree; makes perfect sense!
These are a few of my favorite things: Irish traditional music and other folk music, classical music, midnight sun, northern lights, trees, frogs, salamanders, newts and efts.
These are not: People jumping to conclusions with little evidence; extreme nationalism, which I view as a destructive and divisive force.
My doubts about religion started: I grew up in a secular home and am grateful for not having been indoctrinated with religion. My parents sent me to Sunday school for one winter when I was 8, and I remember thinking that all those bible stories sounded like fairy tales. I couldn’t believe that anyone believed them.
Instead of “thank God” or “God bless you,” I say: “Thank goodness” and “gesundheit.”
Why I’m a freethinker: Majoring in philosophy and psychology in undergraduate school helped me to build on the tendency that I already had.
Ways I promote freethought: The organization which I helped to establish in 1990 and of which I have been president for many years, works to get religious indoctrination out of public schools, to change laws and regulations at the local and national level so that all life stance [worldview] perspectives, as well as nonreligious spiritual or philosophical alternative organizations are treated equally, and to educate the public about freethought, skepticism, philosophy, science, religious freedom and secularism.
Conducting secular and humanist ceremonies also contribute to these goals.
God is speaking, and it’s time to listen. I will stand up for the Ten Commandments in my courtroom and in the annex.
Montague County Judge Tommie Sappington, supporting a monument at the courthouse as a way to stop a long drought
Wichita Falls Times Record News, 2-14-13
[Parents need to be stricter or] we’ll be looking at caskets week after week after week. I know you don’t want to hear this, but it’s the truth: God allows things to happen for a reason. This is a love wake-up call. If you don’t wake up now, it’s going to get worse and worse.
Phillip Shealey, pastor of Greater Apostolic Faith Church in Warren, Ohio, tying God’s love to the deaths of six teens in a car accident
Youngstown News, 3-19-13
Can demonic spirits attach themselves to inanimate objects? The answer is yes. But I don’t think every sweater you get from Goodwill has demons in it. [He laughs.] But in a sense, your mother’s just being super cautious, so hey, it isn’t gonna hurt you any to rebuke any spirits that happen to have attached themselves to those clothes.
Rev. Pat Robertson, answering a teen whose mother told her she needed to pray over items she bought secondhand
“The 700 Club,” 2-25-13
The issue here isn’t about evolution, or even the existence of God. It’s about the [atheist’s] pleasure of guilt-free sexual sin. Christianity threatens that freedom by saying that fornication and lust are morally wrong, and that God will hold them accountable.
Evangelist Ray Comfort, on the real reason atheists rebel against his teaching
Skepticism Examiner, 2-25-13
We prayed. There was jubilation.
Public school science teacher John Freshwater, Mount Vernon, Ohio, expressing comfort with how his appeal for being fired for proselytizing students was presented before the state Supreme Court
Columbus Dispatch, 2-27-13
The thing that prompted me, Bryan, is the four groups that are actively working to secularize and destroy America: humanists, atheists, militant homosexuals and Muslims.
American Family Radio host Alex McFarland, explaining to Bryan Fischer of AFA his Project 2026, named for the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence
I’m going to have a great day and more to come because of the sermon. It was great for the soldiers and I think it helped with the division’s camaraderie.
Sylvia Phipps, wife of Maj. Gen. Warren Phipps Jr., First Army Division West commander, on a prayer breakfast at the Theodore Roosevelt Dining Facility, Fort Hood, Texas
Fort Hood Sentinel, 3-14-13
I don’t believe they intentionally portrayed the Lucifer character to look like Mr. Obama. I think God guided the hand of the makeup artist and blinded the eyes of everybody on the movie set while it was being recorded, and the spiritual blinders were removed Sunday night when the program was broadcast nationally on the History Channel. How many clues do we need from heaven to understand that the man in the White House is a devil from hell?
Radio host Rick Wiles, on how the actor playing Satan in “The Bible” miniseries bears an uncanny resemblance to the president
The following colors must be avoided: A. Red. B. Nude. C. Orange, yellow or green, in bright shades. D. Gold, silver or shining cloth.
Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, Jerusalem, dress code for women and girls
Under terms of a lawsuit settlement March 20, child care agencies that contract with the state of Kentucky will be forbidden to discriminate against children based on religion or to pressure them to participate in religious worship or instruction. Publicly funded agencies and foster homes also will be barred from placing religious items in children’s rooms without their consent, and religious materials will be given only to children who request them.
The suit, filed in 2000, alleged proselytizing at Sunrise Children’s Services, a contractor affiliated with the Kentucky Baptist Convention. Taxpayers challenging the state were represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Kentucky and Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Since 2000, the Baptist-affiliated ministry has received more than $100 million in government funds. In fiscal 2011, the state paid $14.8 million of the ministry’s expenses of $24.7 million.
Ripon College’s Secular Student Alliance chapter in Ripon, Wis., has successfully petitioned the administration to confine religious speech and prayers to the school’s optional baccalaureate ceremony. No more prayers will be heard at the campus-wide commencement ceremony.
Ripon College, privately founded in 1851, originally had formal ties with the Presbyterian and Congregational churches but cut them in 1868. Its first six presidents had clerical backgrounds, but the school has long been religiously unaffiliated.
Professor Steve Martin, an FFRF member and the college’s Communication Department chair, helped students draft the petition to the commencement planning committee. He’s also the group’s faculty adviser.
The petition begins, “We, the undersigned, respectfully request that religious speech be removed from commencement ceremonies and other public events. The college’s mission and values are entirely secular. Any form of religious speech at public events suggests otherwise. As such, we contend that prayers at events violate Ripon’s stated goals of teaching students of diverse interests. Furthermore, we believe it goes directly against one of Ripon College’s core values: ‘Differences of perspective, experience, background, and heritage enrich the college. Relationships are sincere, friendly, welcoming and supportive.’ ”
The students noted that “having ‘interfaith’ or ‘nondenominational’ invocations does not solve the main problem. Such prayers still show a clear preference for belief over nonbelief, religion over no religion, and theism over atheism.”
The petition further noted the value of tradition, but added the college “has had no affiliation with any church or religious group for at least 150 years. We believe it is time our public ceremonies reflect our secular mission and values. Thank you for considering our request.”
Festival drops discount for Catholic Mass
Mexican Fiesta in Milwaukee will no longer give festival-goers discounts for attending Catholic Mass per the terms of a settlement with Richard Halasz, a Wisconsin FFRF member.
The annual festival, held on the Summerfest grounds, had discounted entrance tickets for attending Mass on the grounds before the festival opened to the general public.
The regular rate at the gate was $13, but Mass attendees were charged only $5. FFRF first objected to the discriminatory discount Aug. 14, informing organizers it violated Wisconsin’s public accommodations law. A week later, FFRF advised organizers it would file a complaint with the state if the festival didn’t drop the discount.
Halasz, an atheist, attended Mexican Fiesta on Aug. 26 and wasn’t able to get the discount, which led to Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott filing a complaint with the state’s Equal Rights Division.
According the settlement, “future Mexican Fiesta promotions will not be timed to coincide with times of entry or exit of the annual Mass.” Organizers apologized to Halasz and gave him an $8 refund. Halasz agreed to withdraw his complaint and he and FFRF waived recovery of any attorneys’ fees.
“I’m thankful to the Freedom From Religion Foundation for standing up for our First Amendment and civil rights,” Halasz said.
Carolina soccer coach won’t lead prayers
A soccer coach at a Charleston, S.C., suburb high school will no longer lead prayers before matches, and coaches at all middle and high schools in the district will review guidelines on state-church separation.
A concerned parent of a student at Ashley Ridge High School in Summerville told FFRF that the coach led prayers before matches and at the annual banquet.
Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent a March 6 letter to Superintendent Joseph Pye in order to get the violations corrected.
Pye responded March 12: “[The coach] was directed to cease leading or directing prayer immediately, and he gave his assurance this would be the case.”
FFRF makes bibles history in Oklahoma
The Gideons will no longer distribute New Testament bibles to fifth-graders in the Grove [Okla.] School District. Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel requested in an Oct. 19 letter to Board Chairman Jim Rutter on behalf of concerned parents that the district should stop the illegal distribution of bibles.
“The Gideon practice is a usurpation of parental authority, and can pose safety risks when children have to run a gauntlet of aggressive adults hawking religious literature on school property,” Seidel noted.
The Grove Board of Education has changed its policy to exclude external sources from distributing materials. Rutter confirmed in a Jan. 7 email that the policy prohibits bible distribution.
• • •
Cross Timbers Elementary School in Tecumseh, Okla., is reviewing its policy on bible distribution after fifth-graders were given Jehovah’s Witness bibles at school. They were told to write their names inside the bibles and take them home.
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel told Superintendent Tom Wilsie in an Oct. 26 letter that schools have a constitutional obligation to remain neutral toward religion. Seidel said the district should not allow anyone to enter schools to distribute religious literature.
Wilsie responded Jan. 7 to say the materials distribution policy is under review.
God no longer copilot on USAF plane
The U.S. Air Force removed a “Commando Prayer” from the side of one of its aircraft after Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a Feb. 25 letter on behalf of a concerned service member to the commanding colonel.
“Service members have the constitutional right to decide how or whether to observe religious practices,” Seidel said. “While non-Christians and nonbelievers are fighting to protect the freedoms for all Americans, their freedoms are being trampled upon.”
In a March 8 email, the complainant informed FFRF that the prayer was removed.
Tenn. teacher bios
can’t endorse religion
FFRF, acting on behalf of a local complainant, has stopped religious content from being posted on school district websites in Jackson, Tenn. Proselytizing messages will no longer be allowed on teachers’ biographical sections in Jackson-Madison County Schools.
Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote a July 9 letter to Superintendent Thomas White to request that the religious messages be scrubbed from the schools’ websites. She criticized the teachers’ endorsement of Christianity on Web pages.
Markert cited teacher messages from the website such as, “I see teaching as my ministry and Christian outreach to our community,” as well as direct quotes from the bible.
Markert received word Jan. 22 that the district has updated its policy to include “District staff will not post quotes from religious texts or post information about their personal religious mission or calling, while on the district network.”
FFRF puts an end to religious bullying
A school in Sulphur, Okla., will no longer require students to take part in plays and songs with Christian themes. A concerned second-grade parent at Sulphur Elementary School contacted FFRF when her daughter’s class sang a song in a play held Dec. 6 with references to “the reason for the season” in the “form of a baby boy.”
When the parent discussed the problem with the principal, she was told no child had to participate. However, three students who chose not to were forced to do homework in the principal’s office.
The parent tried to make headway with other school officials, but they expressed surprise and took offense at the idea of her atheism. Later, her daughter was made to sit in the hallway when carolers came to the class because “Mom might get mad,” the teacher said.
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote Jan. 9 to Superintendent Gary Jones to object to the religious song and mistreatment of the child. He called for the teacher to be disciplined for her unacceptable and juvenile behavior.
Jones responded Jan. 11, stating that principals and music teachers have been instructed to be more selective in choosing songs and were told not to place any child in a situation in which they feel uncomfortable or ostracized.
Schools warned about lunchtime prayer
Two grade schools in Albertville, Ala., have been reminded by FFRF that teacher-led prayer is unconstitutional. Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel told Superintendent Frederic Ayer in a Jan. 7 letter about parental complaints over prayer before lunch.
Seidel has been notified that Ayer sent a letter Jan. 14 to all administrators and teachers asking them not to ask, lead or direct students to pray or to set aside class time for students to pray.
Ohio town ‘crossed’ line on building
FFRF has successfully petitioned the town of Stratton, Ohio, to remove a large display of a Latin cross from its Municipal Building. Two large crosses, one Latin and the other Greek, were prominently displayed on the building façade.
Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote Oct. 16 to Mayor John Abdalla to ask that the unconstitutional endorsement of Christianity be removed.
A Stratton resident confirmed in a Dec. 17 email to FFRF that both crosses had been removed. He said secular decorations were added to the building to celebrate the winter holidays.
Honor Society forced to go prayerless
Utah’s Iron County Schools will no longer allow prayers to be given at school-sponsored events. FFRF received a complaint from a concerned parent that there were two student-led prayers given at Canyon View High School’s National Honor Society induction ceremony in Cedar City.
School officials participated in the prayer, bowing their heads. The parent reported that such incidents are frequent in schools.
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote Sept. 19 to Superintendent Jim Johnson, who responded Jan. 7 that he had cautioned principals that prayers are not to be given during school events.
Christ off the wall
at Florida VA facility
A Veterans Administration medical center in Lake City, Fla., removed a bible verse from a waiting room wall after FFRF contacted the facility on behalf of a local complainant. The verse was Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote Director Thomas Wisnieski on Jan. 4: “The message implies Jesus is an important element in the rehabilitation of the patient. When one is healed by doctors using taxpayer funds at this federal hospital, the patient is invited to credit the Christian god.”
Wisnieski responded that the verse was removed and said he asked supervisors to avoid inappropriate postings.
FFRF stands up to bullying bus driver
FFRF stopped religious bullying in Honolulu of students who identify as gay or lesbian. Two female Pearl City High School students were reprimanded by their bus driver for public displays of affection while riding the bus. They were harassed twice in December.
During the first incident, the driver pulled the bus over and asked the girls if they were both female and then told them to separate because she was Christian and did not approve of their behavior. Several days later, the driver yelled at the girls when one leaned her head on the other’s shoulder, reiterating her Christian connection.
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel contacted Kathryn Matayoshi, state Department of Education superintendent, in a Dec. 11 letter , asking her to conduct an immediate investigation of the incidents. “The bus driver’s behavior creates a hostile and intimidating environment for LGBT students and non-Christian students, who now know that their driver demands conformity with [her] particular sect,” Seidel wrote. “This behavior is nothing short of bullying.”
James Kauhi, director of Student Transportation Services, responded Jan. 16 to say that an investigation was under way and that the woman driver was relieved of driving duties.
School won’t include religious ‘history’
An Alabama Baptist church will no longer use school assemblies on the “History of Easter” and the “History of Christmas” to proselytize students. A concerned parent of two young children in the Houston County Schools system contacted FFRF after the Columbia Baptist Association came to her children’s school.
The school routinely held proselytizing assemblies. Around Christmas time, a teacher gave students handouts with bible verses, told them about “the true meaning of Christmas” and referenced a local church. After talking with teachers, the parent received a note and conflicting information from the teacher about a “History of Easter” assembly.
She then contacted Superintendent Tom Pitchford in a March 4 letter, requesting religious activities be stopped. Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel also sent Pitchford a letter on March 6: “The [church’s] attempt to insinuate themselves into public schools by camouflaging their purposes as ‘history’ does not make the assemblies legal. That a baby was born of a virgin and a person rose from the dead after three days are matters of faith, not history.”
Seidel also said allowing students to opt out is not an option, because it excludes students and leads to bullying.
In a March 7 conversation, Pitchford told the parent the “History of Easter” assembly was cancelled, along with all future religious assemblies.
All godly hope gets
swooped from Swope
A publicly funded health clinic in Independence, Mo., will no longer post religious plaques and decorations on the walls. A client at Swope Health East contacted FFRF about the displays near the check-in and other areas.
Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell contacted Dave Barker, Swope Health Services president and CEO, in a March 5 letter, asking the company to respect patients’ diverse religious views. On March 10, the complainant informed FFRF that the religious postings were removed.
FFRF finds foxhole atheists for school
Assemblies at Lawrence B. Morris Elementary School, Jim Thorpe, Pa., will no longer include organized prayer. FFRF was contacted by a concerned parent after a Veterans Day assembly included opening and closing prayer by a chaplain.
Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote Superintendent Barbara Conway on Nov. 21. Markert noted that prayers alienate nonreligious members of the school and mislead children into believing only religious people serve in the military, while citing the statistic that about 23% percent of military personnel identify as having no religious preference.
“These prayers further perpetuate the myth that there are no ‘atheists in foxholes’ and that the only veterans worth memorializing are Christians,” Markert wrote.
The district’s attorney responded March 14 to say that the violation will not recur and that all outside entities making presentations in the district “will not engage in offending behavior.”
FFRF plagues teacher who proselytized
Students at Harrison Elementary School in Riverside, Calif., weren’t required to complete a religious homework assignment after Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter of complaint.
A concerned parent contacted FFRF after a sixth-grade teacher assigned homework that treated religious events, such as the biblical 10 plagues on the Egyptians, as historical facts. Assignments also required students to read the bible and copy the Ten Commandments.
Renee Hill, director of elementary education for Riverside Unified School District, responded Feb. 27 to say students would not be required to turn in the assignment and would not be penalized if they choose not to complete it.
School won’t repeat play on nativity
A winter program at Jackson Elementary School in Santa Ana, Calif., that included a 15-minute play reenacting Jesus’ birth naturally didn’t sit well with a parent, who contacted FFRF. The play was performed and narrated entirely by students and included children in praying positions reciting lines such as, “God told Mary she was going to have a baby.”
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote Superintendent Thelma Melendez de Santa Ana on Jan. 7 about the obvious and egregious constitutional violation.
The district’s attorney responded March 1 by letter, admitting that the nativity play was inappropriate and assuring FFRF that the district has taken measures to make sure similar performances do not happen in the future. Next holiday season, district staff will be reminded about the Establishment Clause.
Jesus prayer out at Michigan school
At the 2012 graduation for West Michigan Academy of Arts and Academics, a public elementary charter school in Spring Lake, a pastor delivered a Christian prayer that referenced Jesus.
Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent a letter March 8 to Timothy Wood, special assistant to the president for charter schools, urging that schools must remain neutral toward religion and remove religious rituals from graduation ceremonies.
Wood said March 11 that he would inform the school board about the violation and make sure “they understand that religious rituals are not allowed at graduation ceremonies or any other school-sponsored event.”
Texas coach ordered
to stop prayer
Football games at Stephenville [Texas] High School frequently included postgame prayers led by coaches, including a coach putting his hands on a player’s head as the coach prayed.
Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell wrote a letter of complaint March 13 to Superintendent Darrell Floyd: “Parents trust their children to the coach’s charge, and the coaches through their own example must be sure that athletes are not only treated fairly but also imbued with a sense of community and camaraderie.”
Floyd said in a March 17 response that the district “will take immediate action to stop all school-sponsored prayers occurring at district events.”
Wall of separation topples ‘Firewall’
A high school in Haysville, Kansas, will no longer invite clergy to proselytize students after getting Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel’s March 9 letter to Superintendent John Burke. The school’s religious class, called “Firewall,” was held every Wednesday in the school during the lunch period. Staff members frequently attended and solicited students to do the same. Posters advertising the class were hung around the school, and food was provided to entice students.
One of the pastors, after quoting copiously from the bible, told students, “A life lived with God is more valuable than anything you can achieve.”
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel contacted Superintendent John Burke on March 9, calling the inappropriate arrangement “predatory conduct [that] should raise many red flags.”
Seidel corrected several calculation errors one pastor made while “solving” a math problem about King Solomon and gold.
School can’t encourage bible acceptance
FFRF has put an end to another case of the Gideons peddling bibles to children in public schools, this time in Bartow County, Georgia.
A parent of a student at White Elementary contacted FFRF in September with concerns that her child was coerced by the Gideons to take a bible. Students were also encouraged by the principal during morning announcements to take one.
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel objected in October to Superintendent John Harper, who finally responded Jan. 16 to say that no school official will encourage students to accept a bible.
School to teachers: Don’t lead prayer
A concerned parent contacted FFRF after a kindergarten teacher at Clay Elementary School in Clay, Ala., required students to learn a prayer and recite it several times during the school year.
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel contacted Superintendent Stephen Nowlin on Feb. 5, requesting he end the unconstitutional teacher-led prayer. Nowlin responded Feb. 12 to say the teacher has been told she must stop leading prayer and that all teachers in the district have been instructed not to lead prayers.
An Oklahoma school district superintendent instructed teachers not to promote religion in classrooms after correspondence with the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
A concerned family in the Wynnewood Public Schools District contacted FFRF with concerns about a sixth grade teacher displaying posters with bible quotes and promoting Christianity to students at Wynne Middle School. The social studies teacher attacked evolution and misinformed students that the U.S. Constitution, an entirely secular and godless document, is derived from the bible.
A parent had complained to the principal, who is married to the offending teacher. The principal removed the posters but insisted it was the teacher’s “First Amendment right” to talk about her personal religious views with students.
FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel contacted Superintendent Randy Cole in a Feb. 28 letter which cited numerous Supreme Court cases showing that public schools can’t promote religion. Seidel noted that “the First Amendment is not a license for uncontrolled expression at variance with established curricular content” and that courts have upheld the termination of teachers who violate the Establishment Clause.
On March 4, Seidel received an official email from Cole, who conceded the teacher should not have placed religious posters in her classroom. Cole said he told her to “stay strictly with the information presented in the book.” But he volunteered that student-led prayer is constitutional.
Although Cole said he has “a degree in science,” he argued against evolution. He also asked Seidel whether he’s a believer and sermonized, “What happens when you die, if you’re wrong? If I’m wrong, when I die I just die, but if you’re wrong, when you die —”
He also said “the further we separate God from our schools the nearer we bring violence and evil.”
Seidel responded, “Evolution is as much a fact as gravity,” and called it “disturbing” that a superintendent does not “believe in” evolution. He recommended Cole read books by Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne.
Seidel then addressed Cole’s condescending question: “Please understand that my personal beliefs have no bearing on the illegality of the Carters’ actions. But since you asked, I believe in the First Amendment. I believe in protecting minorities from the tyranny of the majority. I believe that religion is the single most divisive force on this planet, and that it has no place in our public schools. I believe that ideas should be subjected to reason, debate and inquiry, not blindly accepted.”
Seidel added, “I believe in love, in family and in making the most of this life because it’s the only one we have. In short, I am an atheist.”
Seidel called Cole’s assertion that secularism causes school shootings “appalling,” adding, “Murder rates are actually lower in more secular nations and higher in more religious nations where belief in God is deep and widespread. And within America, the states with the highest murder rates tend to be highly religious, such as Louisiana and Alabama, but the states with the lowest murder rates tend to be among the least religious in the country, such as Vermont and Oregon.”
In a March 6 email, Cole said he instructed district principals to hold meetings by the end of the week on the topic of not promoting religion in the classroom. He added, “You raise some good and interesting points, as I said, it would be foolish of me to argue with a lawyer.”
Seidel said Cole got one more thing wrong: “It’s not foolish to argue with a lawyer; it’s foolish to argue with an atheist.”