“Library Display Criticized” was the heading of a recent letter to the editor published by The Columbian, a newspaper in Vancouver, Wash. The letter read in part:
“Upon entering the Cascade Park Community Library ... I was disturbed by the blatant promotion of atheist/secular humanist authors and books displayed prominently in the front window. Included were atheist authors such as Richard Dawkins, Bill Nye, Christopher Hitchens, with books titled Living Without God, The Portable Atheist and Women Without Superstition.”
The letter continued: “I was thinking to myself, is this even constitutional from an American First Amendment perspective? Also, even if it is legal, is this something the taxpayers of Vancouver would approve of, considering it is their millions in tax revenue that keep the library up and running?”
Well, this “unconstitutional” display was put up by the Humanists of Greater Portland, which has been placing displays in public libraries and colleges for more than 10 years. This was only the second time that patrons have voiced a concern about our displays. (The other time was when some church members questioned the display, but then they put up their own bible-based display a month or two later.)
We set up our book display at the Cascade Park Library in early January. The very next day the librarian called asking us if we had a list of the books in the case. She said that a number of people had already expressed interest in the display.
One of our members quickly made copies of the list and dropped them off at the library. One library patron commented on our HGP Facebook page that she “almost cried with joy” when she saw the titles of the books in the display case.
The letter critical of our display was published in the paper late in January, and the online comments immediately poured in, coming from as far away as New Jersey and New York. The online response was overwhelmingly positive and supportive:
• “Fantastic! I know the library has featured differing philosophies and religions in the past, so in fairness this is a good thing.”
• “Libraries are among the last bastions of free speech and the open exchange of ideas in our culture. We cannot grow as human beings unless we challenge and question, and allow others to challenge and question our received beliefs and opinions. I applaud the staff at Cascade Park . . . for their willingness to initiate a conversation about true freedom of (and from) religion. (I am not an atheist, by the way.)”
The icing on the cake was a follow-up letter to the editor from the executive director of the Fort Vancouver Regional Library District. She wrote in part:
“I was heartened to read the many online comments about the letter that articulated the important mission FVRL has as a public library in supporting diverse points of view and interest through our collections, services and programs.”
The director continued: “Public libraries exist to offer access to ideas and information from a variety of perspectives. A democracy can only be healthy and vigorous if we both learn and explore our differences as well as our common ground. If we are fulfilling our responsibility, FVRL libraries will promote understanding, prompt a conversation, encourage a healthy debate, and — yes — sometimes strike a nerve. It’s what good public libraries do.”
Our humanist group has been overwhelmed by the response of the citizens of Vancouver, the staff at FVRL and the online comments in support of our display at their library. We hope the person who wrote the initial letter to the editor criticizing our display will apply through the library to set up a display of books that support his position.
The library director said it best: “Public libraries exist to offer access to ideas from a variety of perspectives.”
Deanna Sewell is a longtime member of FFRF and the Humanists of Greater Portland. For the past eight years, she’s been putting up six or seven humanist book displays at area public libraries each year. Deanna is also the proud owner of godless “clean” money she won at the 2001 FFRF national conference in Madison, Wis.
This is Maine FFRF member Meredith “Dick” Springer’s letter in September to the Boy Scouts of America:
In 1943 I proudly received my Eagle Scout badge from the Boy Scouts of America. At that time I was a sincere religious believer.
As I later critically examined my beliefs I realized that I no longer could honestly believe in God. I fail to understand how reaching this conclusion made me unfit to belong to your organization. Now my self-respect as a nonbeliever as well as my conscience compel me to join hundreds of others in reluctantly returning my badge to the BSA to express my disgust with your discriminatory policies.
The Boy Scouts of America accepts for membership all boys except those in two groups that are unpopular in much of America, gays and nonbelievers in God. Stigmatizing these groups clearly sends a message to your members that only reinforces prejudices many already have. The BSA also denies a religion badge to boys who are Unitarians because their church passed a resolution in 1992 opposing your discriminatory practices.
Many scouting associations around the world do not require their members to have specific religious beliefs. In the United States, the Girl Scouts of the USA voted overwhelmingly in 1993 to allow its members to substitute another word or phrase for God in its oath, saying that the change was “a very strong statement that Girl Scouts . . . have strength in diversity and that we are an inclusive organization.” The Girl Scouts also permits lesbian girls to participate.
The BSA has never established a relationship with the Girl Scouts, but it has partnered with American Heritage Girls, a new organization formed by intolerant opponents of the nondiscriminatory policies of the Girl Scouts, with a “memorandum of mutual support [that] recognizes the common values and goals of both organizations.”
As a private organization the BSA can do anything it wants, but as an American icon comparable to apple pie, it has a special moral obligation to teach the best American values. These values include religious tolerance and recognizing the worth of all of us.
Meredith N. Springer
The Feb. 10 Maine Sunday Telegram also published Springer’s thoughts on the issue (which he’d sent as a letter to the editor) as an op-ed. As of Feb. 9, 222 Eagle Scouts had shared their photos and letters renouncing their Eagle awards on the website Eagle Scouts Returning Our Badges.
FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott’s op-ed opposing school vouchers ran in Wisconsin’s two largest newspapers — the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Wisconsin State Journal — in late January. It was also picked up by numerous other publications and websites.
With voucher advocates trumpeting “National School Choice Week,” it is a fitting time to examine the proposed expansion of private school vouchers in Wisconsin. Some politicians are intent on slowly doing away with our public education system in favor of privatized education paid for with taxpayer money.
Voucher money largely flows to religious schools. In the newly expanded “choice” of schools in Racine, 10 out of the 11 schools are parochial schools. Based on a review of Department of Public Instruction data on the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, more than 21,000 of nearly 25,000 enrolled students at the beginning of this school year attended readily identifiable religious schools.
This amounts to more than $133 million in taxpayer money going to religious institutions in Milwaukee this school year alone.
Funding private and religious schools through vouchers is an end run around our constitutionally created public education system. The Wisconsin Constitution requires the Legislature to “provide by law for the establishment of district schools, which shall be as nearly uniform as practicable; and such schools shall be free and without charge . . . and no sectarian instruction shall be allowed therein.”
Proposals to continue to chip away at public education and expand vouchers by increasing the geographic area, income limits and funding are contrary to our long-valued public education system.
Schools do not exist just to benefit parents. They serve to educate the next generation to create an educated citizenry and to ensure the vitality of the state. This is a public good supported by all, including those who do not have school-aged children. This social value is recognized by our constitutionally created public schools and our compulsory education laws.
While parents pick the school of their choice in using vouchers, taxpayers pay the bills. And taxpayers have no means of holding voucher schools accountable. Low performing voucher schools, which have little state oversight, can do as they please. Voucher schools are not governed by publicly elected school boards that have to answer to constituents.
Some of the Milwaukee choice schools are not holding up their duty to provide a comprehensive education. Take, for instance, the Clara Mohammed School. According to its IRS filings, the school’s purpose is to engage in “a Qur’an-guided journey toward active global citizenship.” It is funded almost exclusively through vouchers. In 2011, only 0.8 percent of its students (1 out of 123) tested proficient in math and 5.7 percent tested proficient in reading on state exams.
Other Milwaukee choice schools are using unscientific and outdated curriculum from fundamentalist Christian textbook publishers such as A Beka Books. Carter’s Christian Academy in Milwaukee describes the A Beka materials, covering normal school subjects, as being “presented from God’s point of view.” Of the 69 Carter’s Christian students tested in 2011, none tested proficient in reading by state standards and only three tested proficient in math. IRS records show the principal got $109,000 in 2011 compensation.
Both the Clara Mohammed School and Carter’s Christian Academy have increased enrollment this year. While they enroll a small number of students, they are a symptom of a larger problem. The schools can take public money and teach what they want. The schools do not have to have licensed teachers or even safe outdoor space for students to play. Parents will continue to send their students to these schools, whether for religious reasons or because they mistakenly believe school leaders are up to the task of providing a sound education.
The voucher school program needs elimination rather than expansion.
By Keith Taylor
To start with, I am neither evil nor unpatriotic. I served my county, in uniform, for 22 years, 9 months and 11 days.
As a Navy cryptologist, both enlisted and as an officer, I held the nation’s highest security clearance. I have voted in almost every election since Truman and Eisenhower.
As a civilian, I do the requisite community work to be considered a good citizen. The local Optimist group once dubbed me Optimist of the Year. I participate in elections, often walking the precinct for candidates of my choice. I make phone calls, at my own expense, to people in the battleground states.
I believe in the First Amendment so much that I have used it to defend my opinion on a myriad of things. For many years, hundreds of my opinions appeared in Navy Times, a Gannett weekly. Not all pleased everybody, but all were based on verified facts. Other pieces appeared in papers and magazines across the country. I could go on and on, but you get the idea.
I insist I’m a good citizen, even a thinking one. Still, I carry the onus of not being worthy of respect, and it is for a very strange reason: I just cannot swallow stories such as the Earth being created in seven days, a woman talking to a snake or that whopper about a man living in the belly of a big fish for three days.
I am an atheist.
Nor am I mollified by the 21st century claims such as, “Oh, they’re just apocryphal. You don’t need to take them literally.” Oh no? Ask any kid about the stories they teach him in Sunday school.
Defense of weird ideas comes with attacks on science and scientists. By the fourth century, Alexandria, Egypt, was home to the most impressive library ever seen. It held scientific and historical documents, many of which contradicted bible stories.
The custodian of the library was Hypatia, a mathematician and scientist. Carl Sagan, the magnificent chronicler of science, told us Hypatia was beset by a mob, followers of Cyril, the archbishop of Alexandria. The mob raked her flesh from her body with abalone shells. This magnificent woman was mostly forgotten.
Cyril was made a saint.
To this day, publicly denying a belief in the “accepted” religion of any area will ensure one’s never being able to hold office. This is as true of Christianity as it is of Islam, Buddhism or any other religion.
Say you’re an atheist just once and your world changes. The Boy Scouts won’t have you. According to polls, more than half our population would not vote for you, not even if you were as smart as Einstein, as wise as Bertrand Russell or as uniquely American as Mark Twain.
It matters not that atheists in general are in league with the members of what is arguably our country’s most prestigious group, the National Academy of Sciences. According to a recent poll, 93% of its members do not believe in a personal god. Such observations are blithely dismissed with the old bromide, “Oh, scientists don’t know everything.”
Of course they don’t, and every scientist has to realize that, but they do not have to believe in myths.
About half the country seems to agree with former president Richard Nixon. Some years ago he replied to a question that he did not think a person could be president without a belief in God.
His vice president and successor as president emphasized it further. In 1988, George H.W. Bush was asked by a Chicago atheist journalist about his views on atheism. Bush replied that in his opinion atheists couldn’t be patriotic.
The comment has been repeated across the country, even in The New York Times. Bush has never denied it.
The consensus is everybody has to believe in something, and that something better be supernatural.
The country which has idolized the man who said, “I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death” now demands we all follow the same course when it comes to accepting things without proof.
Keith Taylor, Chula Vista, Calif., is a retired U.S. Navy officer and past president of the San Diego Association for Rational Inquiry.