This column originally was published on Huffington Post and appears here with the author’s permission.
At the Republican National Convention, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was loud and clear: What makes us Americans is our shared belief in God. That’s it, above all else. Forget adherence to the Constitution, forget a hatred of tyranny, forget a love for baseball. Forget watching reality TV while ingesting a double cheeseburger, large nachos and a 32-ounce orange soda.
No, what binds Americans together is, according to this Christian politician, theism.
As Rubio proclaimed: “We are special because we’re united not by a common race or ethnicity. We’re bound together by common values . . . that almighty God is the source of all we have.” And furthermore: “Faith in our Creator is the most important American value of all.”
Rubio’s wrong. There are countless values that are far more important than having faith in an invisible, invertebrate, unknowable deity. Valuing education, for example. Valuing democracy. Valuing human rights. Valuing free speech. Valuing trees, mountains, valleys, lakes, rivers and the ozone layer. Valuing affordable health care. Valuing nutritious school lunches. Valuing one’s spouse, one’s friends, one’s neighbors. It is far more important to value and love one another, and to act on that love, than to have faith in a god.
Rubio is also wrong about something else: Faith in God is not shared by all Americans. In fact, millions of hardworking, child-raising, military-joining, coal-mining and liberty-loving Americans live their lives without faith in God. Millions more live their lives without any interest in religion whatsoever. The statistics are surprisingly clear on this front.
In the 1990s, about 8% of Americans claimed “none” as their religion. Then, in 2007, the Pew Forum found that the percentage of nonreligious Americans had doubled to 16%. In 2010, Putnam and Campbell’s national survey put the percentage at 17%. In 2011, the General Social Survey reported it at 18%. This year, the Pew Forum bumped it up to 19%. (Anyone see a pattern here?)
Then, according to the 2012 WIN-Gallup International “Global Index of Religion and Atheism,” a whopping 30% of Americans describe themselves as nonreligious. So whether we’re talking 16 or 19 or 30%, we’re talking tens of millions of Americans who are more secular than not.
Of course, not all Americans who claim to be nonreligious are atheists or agnostics, but a very significant proportion are. In fact, according to the most recent American Religious Identification Survey, of those Americans who self-identify as nonreligious, about half are atheist or agnostic. Another 23% believe in a higher power but not a personal God. Only 21% are firm God-believers.
What’s really un-American
Now, maybe there is a god. Maybe there isn’t. Maybe there is a heaven. Maybe there isn’t. Maybe the precious, red blood of Jesus saves us from our sins. Maybe it doesn’t. But the answers to these questions, whatever they may be, are not what defines us as Americans, or as citizens, or as humans.
And to suggest that to be a good, decent American requires faith in a Creator, or to imply that Christian values are the only values, or to argue that our laws are given to us solely by God, or to constantly denigrate nonbelievers as somehow less-than-welcome partners in the American enterprise — well, that’s all, quite frankly, very un-American.
After all, the brilliant founders of this nation made their vision quite clear, as they proclaimed in Article 11 of the Treaty of Tripoli of 1797: “The government of the United States of Americas is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” The treaty was passed unanimously by the U.S. Senate, only the third such unanimous vote in the Senate out of 339 votes that had taken place up to that time.
And, the writers of our Constitution left God out of the entire body of that foundational, brilliant and oh-so-secular document.
Marco Rubio should know all of this. Perhaps he does. But heck, to Rubio, faith in his deity is clearly of greater value than historical accuracy or embracing all Americans regardless of their religious beliefs or lack thereof. He said so himself.
Phil Zuckerman, professor of sociology at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., is an FFRF member and a leading authority on how secular societies measure up favorably to theocratic ones.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation erected 15 billboard messages in Portland, Ore., in mid-October featuring Portland members to coincide with the 35th national FFRF convention there Oct. 12-14. Helping to celebrate the occasion were about 15 Portland-area FFRF members or families who volunteered to appear on a set of myth-dispelling billboards.
FFRF launched its largest “This is what an atheist looks like” campaign to date in Portland, also debuting a new slogan, “I’m SECULAR and I VOTE.” FFRF leased three 14x48-foot bulletins and 12 EcoPosters (10-foot by 23-inch signs), which appeared in a variety of locations.
“We were pleasantly surprised but sorry we had more volunteers than we could manage to use in the campaign. We wish we hadn’t had to turn anyone away,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “The definitive American Religious Identification Survey shows that 24% of Oregonians identify as nonreligious, so FFRF’ers have plenty of good company. FFRF sends special thanks to Life Member Steve Eltinge, for taking the professional photographs, and to all participants for making the campaign possible.”
Michelle and Justin Atterbury were pictured on a magenta billboard saying, “This is what an atheist family looks like,” with their toddler, Sylvan, and baby, Scarlett. Also on a bulletin with this message were Roy Firestone, an engineer, and Karen Firestone, a Portland homemaker. Another couple, Heather Gonsior, drafter, and Shawn Swagerty, information systems director, appeared on a similar billboard.
Appealing brothers Brent Mangum, a chemist and OSU tutor, and Tyler, a physiologist, were pictured back-to-back on a blue “This is what atheists look like” billboard.
Other “This is what an atheist looks like” participants were Anita Brown, whose exotic cat, Wheely, also makes an appearance; Sonja Maglothin, an income auditor; Mark Hecate, a member of FFRF who is IT director at New Avenues for Youth; and Scott Mullin, a filmmaker in Portland.
Featured on a bright-blue billboard was Peter Boghossian, a well-known philosophy instructor at Portland State University, who has an upcoming book and spoke at the FFRF conference. Renee Barnett, who is a teaching assistant in Boghossian’s class on atheism, also appeared on a billboard.
With the election so close to FFRF’s conference, which attracted nearly 900 people from 43 states, two Canadian provinces and six nations, FFRF unveiled a timely billboard slogan, “I’m SECULAR and I VOTE.” The red, white and blue billboards featured the smiling faces of retired Portland teacher Lenora Warren; retired engineer Duane Damiano, a Life Member; retired politician and novelist Caroline Miller; and retirees Paul Buchman and Marsha Abelman.
FFRF issued a preconvention press release about the billboards asking, “With up to 19% of the U.S. population now identifying as nonreligious, when are politicians and candidates going to wake up to the changing demographics and start courting us?”
Exit polls bore out FFRF’s contention that the secular vote can sway the election. Exit polls found that 70% of seculars went for Obama. About 62% of those who never attend church voted for Obama. Obama also won the vote for those who attend only monthly or less. Of those who attend church weekly or more, 59% went for Romney.
According to Pew, Catholics made up a quarter of voters, Protestants 53%, Jews 2%, Muslims and other non-Christian faiths 7% and religiously unaffiliated 12% of the electorate.
The Catholic bishops’ campaign against Obamacare’s contraceptive mandate dented Catholic support for Obama, which went from 54% in 2008 to 50% in 2012 (48% voted for Romney this year).
White Catholic support for Obama dropped from 47% in 2008 to 40% in 2012. It was the Hispanic Catholics who buoyed the Obama vote at 75%, higher even than the secular vote. Fully 57% of the white Protestant vote went to Romney; 79% of white born-again evangelicals voted for Romney, while 95% of black Protestants went for Obama.
See the billboards
To read Annie Laurie Gaylor’s blog, “The Nones have it,” and learn more about the secular vote, go to ffrf.org/news/blog/ and scroll to Nov. 12, 2012.
FFRF sent a letter of complaint Nov. 13 in advance of a Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast to Mayor J. Michael Houston in Springfield, Ill., over illegal city involvement. FFRF, a national nonprofit with over 19,000 members, has 675 members in Illinois.
“Our complainant informs us that this religious event is promoted on the official website for the city of Springfield,” wrote Rebecca Markert, senior staff attorney. The Web page lists the main telephone number for the Springfield Department of Community Relations, a city office, as the contact number for the event.
“[I]t is grossly illegal and inappropriate for the city to be hosting, organizing, supporting or otherwise promoting a patently religious event, such as a prayer breakfast,” Markert added. “This practice, which has been recurring for the last 17 years, certainly has the effect of government endorsement of religion.”
FFRF cited legal precedent barring direct government involvement in such events. “The Department of Community Relations is inappropriately handling ticket sales for this religious event. It is of no consequence that the breakfast will take place on private property.”
It also appears that Houston, a retired banker, helped to sponsor and attended the event in his official mayoral capacity.
“We ask that you take immediate steps to remedy the serious violations of the Establishment Clause that the city’s involvement in the prayer breakfast presents,” wrote Markert. She sent a separate letter containing an open records request on the city’s involvement.
Above, a photo of Filipinos living in festering slums in Manila, snapped last spring by FFRF Co-President Dan Barker while on a tour of the Philippine capital as part of an atheist conference. Many families live in the huge dump.
FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor recently blogged about the longstanding opposition of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines to a bill which would provide contraception and require sex education.
The New York Times (Nov. 10), reporting on new interest in the bill, quoted Jose Palma, Catholic Conference president, insisting that “a positive birthrate and a population composed of mostly young people … fuel the economy.”
The story quoted Dr. Esmeraldo Ilem: “Family planning in the Philippines is not about population control. It is a health intervention. We are focusing on women who are too young, too old, too poor or too sick to have babies, but their situation does not allow them to stop.”
The birthrate in the Catholic Philippines is 24.98 out of 1,000 (compared to 13.7 in the United States).
“The Catholic Church has much to answer for,” Gaylor wrote. Read the entire blog at ffrf.org/news/blog/ (scroll to Nov. 13, 2012).
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The U.S. Supreme Court on Nov. 13 denied a petition for a writ of certiorari by the Freedom From Religion Foundation and its co-plaintiffs, asking the court to rule against academic credit for release-time instruction in Spartanburg (S.C.) public schools.
The petition, filed by attorney George Daly of North Carolina, opposed this “delegation of governmental power to a religious school” as “an excessive entanglement of church and state” prohibited under court precedent.
The U.S. Supreme Court approved release-time instruction in the 1952 case, Zorack v. Clauson, allowing religious instructors to offer off-campus religious instruction once a week during the school day to willing public school students, provided there is no school district involvement.
“When the Supreme Court, I think misguidedly, approved release-time instruction, I feel sure the court never envisioned such students receiving academic credit for indoctrination,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.
“Accepting and passing on a grade for devotional religious instruction involves substantial school involvement. It grants an unfair advantage to students belonging to the community’s dominant religion, who can put on such instruction, and places nonreligious students at an academic disadvantage as well. What next? Students demanding extra credit because they’ve attended Sunday school?”
The facts involved a program at Spartanburg High School put on by an unaccredited bible school in a church next door to the high school. At the semester’s end, the bible school sent grades to the accredited Oakbrook Preparatory School. Without review, Oakbrook approved the grades and passed them on to the high school. The high school accepted the grades for academic credit without question, allowing up to two credits. There was no involvement by an accrediting agency over the course work.
“Respondent has granted to a religious institution the governmental power to decide whether a course of religious instruction qualifies for public school academic credit, without any assurance that the religious institution will decide the matter on secular grounds only. The district testified that if Oakbrook grants academic credit for a course entitled Laboratory for Intercessory Prayer, it would accept the credit. Bar Mitzvah training and Mass qualify for academic credit, if Oakbrook says so,” wrote Daly in the petition.
He called it a delegation of governmental power to a religious group forbidden under Larkin v. Grendel’s Den (1982).
The lawsuit was filed in federal court in 2009. The petition was filed on Oct. 2. (To read the legal petition, visit ffrf.org/news/ and scroll to Nov. 13, 2012.)
FFRF thanks its local plaintiffs, Robert and Melissa Moss, FFRF member Ellen Tillett and George Daly, acting pro bono as attorney. Thanks also to Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott for his work on the case.
“Memorial” crosses were planted outside the lunchroom at Cedar Key School. Cedar Key is an island on the Gulf Coast 50 miles southwest of Gainesville, Fla.
Florida member Ben Wilson writes to say it paid to complain about a constitutional violation at his children’s K-12 school in Levy County:
I’m so happy this morning. Yesterday afternoon I noticed that the school had a plethora of miniature white crosses at the entrance to the lunchroom. Surrounding the crosses was police tape, which I immediately assumed was a statement about abortion.
I took my children to school this morning and stayed until the principal showed up. I asked him about the crosses. He said he didn’t know what they were for but said he would check. I explained that it would be a violation regardless of the motive(s). He was dismissive and walked off.
Ten minutes later, he called me and stated that the crosses were not an abortion statement but were meant to symbolize the deaths from cancer in our county. He then said, “So that would be OK, Mr. Wilson, right?”
I explained to him that as I previously stated, having the crosses on school grounds was not legal, regardless of their intended message. I explained that latin crosses symbolize Christianity.
They are “only there to represent the deaths,” he said. I answered, “But you are symbolizing the deaths with Christian symbols. Were all those who died Christian?”
“Mr. Wilson, I’ll remove them if they offend you. Is that what you want?” I said, “Yes, not just because it offends me but to protect children and to uphold the Constitution.”
Minutes later, I drove by and the crosses and tape had been removed.
What little tactical skills I have to counter these abuses have come from what I’ve learned from FFRF, its newspaper, its updates and Action Alerts. Thank you all for doing what you do.
[Update, a week later]: Today I called the principal about another violation with the science teacher. This is the third time I’ve complained about his incessant pandering to Jesus.
Some favorable election results for nontheists
There were plenty of religious issues and candidates on the Nov. 6 general election ballot across the U.S.
The Catholic Church and other denominations that vigorously opposed same-sex marriage with millions of dollars in four states lost all four referendums.
In Washington state, voters approved by 6 percentage points a same-sex marriage law passed by the Legislature. Maine voters approved a similar law by the same margin. Maryland voters approved gay marriage by 52% to 48%.
Minnesota was the first state ever to defeat a constitutional ban on the issue. A measure to amend the Constitution to define marriage as a union of one man and one woman lost 52% to 48%.
Bishop Richard Malone of the Diocese of Portland said he was “deeply disappointed” how Mainers voted. He’d issued a statement earlier saying same-sex marriage supporters are “unfaithful to Catholic doctrine.”
Nine U.S. states and the District of Columbia have now legalized gay unions.
Relatedly, Iowa voters retained Supreme Court Justice David Wiggins despite efforts by conservative evangelicals to get him off the bench because of his 2009 vote affirming the legality of same-sex marriage.
Wiggins was the fourth justice to stand for retention since the unanimous ruling. Three justices were all ousted in 2010.
Jesus shrine defender loses in Montana
U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., lost the race for a U.S. Senate seat held by Democratic incumbent Jon Tester, 49% to 45%. Rehberg, a social conservative had some very ugly things to say about FFRF after it sued Feb. 7 in U.S. District Court, challenging the U.S. Forest Service’s decision to renew a special permit to maintain a Jesus shrine in the Flathead National Forest near Kalispell.
Rehberg publicly denounced FFRF and started a website, vetsforjesus.com/, which takes visitors to his congressional website and a pitch to retain the shrine. He also joined a legal brief to keep the statue on Big Mountain.
Religion takes electoral hit in Florida
Florida voters on Nov. 6 defeated Amendment 8, the “Religious Freedom Amendment” that would have repealed the state’s Blaine Amendment, a constitutional ban on tax money going to religious institutions. It was rejected by 56% to 44%.
Voters also defeated Amendment 6, which for the most part would have barred use of public funds to pay for abortions or for insurance coverage for abortions. The vote was 55% to 45%.
Darwin gets Georgia votes as write-in
Jim Leebens-Mack, a University of Georgia plant biologist who started a “Darwin for Congress” write-in campaign after incumbent Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga., made some wacky remarks about evolution, said his candidate got a few more votes than he expected.
About 4,000 voters wrote in Charles Darwin for 10th District Congress. Broun, who had no Democratic opponent, called evolution “lies straight from the pit of hell” while speaking at a sportsmen’s banquet at a Hartwell church.
Roy Moore regains Alabama court seat
Roy Moore, the former Alabama Supreme Court chief justice who was removed in 2003 by a judicial panel for disobeying a federal court order, won a seat Nov. 6 on the state Supreme Court, garnering 52% of the vote against a Democratic opponent.
Moore refused to enforce a federal order requiring a Ten Commandments monument to be removed from the state judicial building.
He ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2006 and 2010 and most recently served as president of the Foundation of Moral Law, a conservative group. On his campaign website for the Supreme Court, Moore said he won’t try to bring the Ten Commandments back to the judicial building.
Pete Stark loses Calif. House seat
Rep. Fortney “Pete” Stark, D-Calif., Congress’ only “out” atheist, lost his seat by 6% to challenger Eric Salwell, a fellow Democrat. Californian has a new “top-two” primary system. Swalwell had 53 percent of the vote to Stark’s 47, with about 99 percent of the precincts reporting.
Stark, 81, had accused Swalwell of accepting “hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes” from developers, a charge he later retracted and apologized for.
The House will instead have a new person with a secular philosophy — Arizona Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, 36, a former state senator and former Mormon who is bisexual. She won narrowly by about 2,000 votes.
“This is a step forward in that she was able to run openly as a nontheist, and it didn’t seem to be an issue,” Lauren Anderson Youngblood, communications manager for the Secular Coalition for America, told Religion News Service.
While some were trumpeting Sinema as a nontheist, campaign spokesman Justin Unga told RNS after the election that Sinema prefers a “secular approach. Kyrsten believes the terms nontheist, atheist or nonbeliever are not befitting of her life’s work or personal character.”
Local school control takes Georgia hit
Georgia voters by 58% to 42% approved a new state board to issue charters for private operators to run public charter schools. Control over charter currently rests mostly with local school boards, though operators who are denied can appeal to the state Board of Education, reported The Associated Press.
State Superintendent John Barge said the new commission will lessen local control and siphon public money away from existing schools. A state charter commission was created in 2008, but the Georgia Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutionally took control away from local boards. The amendment effectively overrides that decision.
Exit polls offer snapshot of voters
A new Pew survey showed that 5% of respondents identifying themselves as regular churchgoers were “urged to vote in a particular way” on Nov. 6. For white Catholic churchgoers, the number jumped to 13%, and “none say they were urged to vote for Democratic candidates.”
Pew Forum analysis also showed President Barack Obama got 70% and 69%, respectively, of religiously unaffiliated voters and Jewish voters. About 79% of white evangelical Protestants and 78% of Mormons voted for Mitt Romney (George W. Bush got 8% in 2004).
Among white mainline Protestants in the exit poll, 54% voted for Romney and 44% supported Obama. White Catholics backed Romney by 59%, up 7% from votes for John McCain in 2008.
Three-quarters of Hispanic Catholics voted for Obama. Half of Catholics as a whole voted for Obama, 48% for Romney.
About 59% of voters who said they attend church at least once a week voted for Romney, 39% for Obama. Among those who never attend church, 62% backed Obama.
Jews accounted for 2% of the 2012 electorate. Muslims and members of other non-Christian faiths together accounted for 7% of the electorate. The religiously unaffiliated made up 12%.
First Hindu elected to new Congress
Tulsi Gabbard, a Hindu from Honolulu, will serve in the 113th Congress representing Hawaii’s 2nd District in the U.S. House. Gabbard, a Democrat and the first Hindu elected to Congress, will take the oath of office on the Bhagavad Gita.
Gabbard, 31, was born in American Samoa to a Catholic father and a Hindu mother. She’s a member of the Vaishnava sect that believes in the Supreme Lord Vishnu and his 10 primary incarnations.
Gabbard follows the Vaishnava branch that believes in the Supreme Lord Vishnu, and his 10 primary incarnations.
U.S. Democratic Rep. Mazie Hirono, 65, defeated former Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle for a U.S. Senate seat and will become the first Buddhist and Asian-American woman in the Senate. She was born in Fukushima, Japan.
According to CQ Roll Call, 11 members of the new Congress (about 2%) didn’t specify a religious affiliation, up from six members in the 112th Congress.
In 2006, Hirono and Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., were the first Buddhists to be elected to the House. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, D-Hawaii, became the Buddhist in 2010. Johnson and Hanabusa both won reelection.
The first Muslim to serve in the House or the Senate, Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., was elected in 2006. Rep. Andre Carson, D-Ind., became the second Muslim in 2008. Ellison and Carson were reelected.
According to the Pew Forum, Catholics saw the biggest gains in the new Congress. Catholics gained five seats for a total of 161, about 30% of the 530 seats. Jews saw the biggest decline, from 39 to 32 seats (6%). Mormons continue to hold 15 seats.
Members with Protestant affiliation make up about 56% of Congress, down 1% from 2010.
Two Pennsylvania communities with Ten Commandments monuments in front of their public schools have seen rallies, signs and fundraisers to support keeping the illegal displays in place since FFRF filed suit in September.
The New Kensington-Arnold School District and the Connellsville Area School District are defendants in two lawsuits that FFRF brought on behalf of nonreligious families seeking the removal of the monuments. Local newspapers have regularly reported on community events initiated by clergy to support the monuments.
Rev. Ewing Marietta started a group called “Thou Shalt Not Move” in support of the Connellsville Junior High School monument. Marietta said the group has sold over 2,000 Commandments yard signs. He told the Daily Courier that proceeds will go toward purchasing more monuments to be placed at churches.
In October, Marietta participated in a rally and candlelight vigil at the school. The event was part of a “Values Bus” visit by the Family Research Council, a national Christian organization headed by Tony Perkins.
Before the event, vandals removed a wooden covering that the school district had placed over the Commandments in September. Dave Tantlinger, who helped remove the covering, said, “It’s the right of the people to have God in their society.”
Neither school district has expressed a desire to settle the lawsuits by moving the monuments. Both suits will proceed before judges in Pittsburgh in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania.
FFRF’s local complainant was driving by Benito Juarez Elementary in Anaheim, Calif., when he spotted this monstrosity parked right in front of the school.
Like Big Tobacco, religions follow the “Get ’em while they’re young” philosophy of marketing. In Anaheim, Calif., a Christian group is parking “chapels on wheels” outside of public schools to offer bible study.
According to the group’s website, it owns six of these eyesores and parks them at various schools in the district.
FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter of complaint Nov. 9 to the district superintendent. Citing three previous court cases, Seidel explained that it is unconstitutional for the trailers to be parked on or near school property.
According to the Supreme Court, the only permissible relationship between a public school and a release-time class is when the schools “do no more than release students whose parents so request.” Keeping forms in the school office (see photo) and parking the trailer in a school pickup/drop off lane violates that stricture.
Seidel also informed the Anaheim Police Department and the city of Anaheim Code Enforcement Division about the trailer chapels, citing several ordinances the trailers are likely violating.
UW-Madison seculars get landmark funding
Atheists, Humanists and Agnostics (AHA), a secular group at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is on track to receive $67,400 in student fees for staffing and programming next year. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, it appears to be the first such university secular group nationally to get such substantial funding.
“Religious groups have been receiving this type of funding for years,” AHA President Chris Calvey told the Journal Sentinel. “It’s about time that secular students got the support we deserve.”
The university’s Student Services Finance Committee approved the request unanimously. Student fees generate about $39 million annually, and about $1.2 million goes to student organizations.
It appears to be the largest subsidy to any campus group of its kind in the country, said Jesse Galef, spokesman for the Columbus, Ohio-based Secular Student Alliance. “It’s pretty common for groups to have budgets of a few hundred dollars. This is something on a different magnitude entirely.”
In 2007, the student-run Badger Catholic sued the university for rejecting $35,000 of a $253,000 allocation because it had been earmarked for worship activities. The university lost, paying $500,000 in legal fees.
Badger Catholic is getting $116,000 for the current academic year.
AHA’s email list has grown from about 100 to 1,500 over the last three years.
Activists win out over nativity displays
A federal judge on Nov. 19 denied a Christian group’s attempt to force Santa Monica, Calif., officials to reopen spaces in city parks for private displays, including Christian nativity scenes. U.S. District Court Judge Audrey Collins denied a motion for a preliminary injunction to a Religious Right group.
Activists stopped a violation of nearly six decades involving 14 area churches, which dominated Palisades Park by erecting nativity displays in December.
The reform started three years ago when FFRF member Damon Vix put up a sign quoting Thomas Jefferson on one side: “Religions are all alike — founded on fables and mythologies,” and on the other, “Happy solstice.”
By 2011, Vix had recruited a local coalition to apply for display places, and the coalition scored a coup, winning 18 of 21 spaces. FFRF was proud to contribute its “Let reason prevail” solstice sign (which was mutilated but replaced).
Commandments monument at Oklahoma Capitol
A Ten Commandments monument was installed Nov. 15 on the north grounds of the state Capitol in Oklahoma City. It was paid for with $20,000 of private funds, according to the Tulsa World. Made of red granite, it’s 6 feet tall and weighs 2,000 pounds.
“I think under the very best of circumstances, it is of questionable constitutionality,” said Ryan Kiesel, American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma executive director.
Sabbath is misspelled on the monument as Sabbeth, which will be corrected.
Hobby Lobby denied religious designation
Oklahoma U.S. District Judge Joe Heaton ruled Nov. 19 that the Hobby Lobby chain must offer its 13,000 employees contraceptive coverage without a co-pay, as mandated by Obamacare.
Hobby Lobby had sued in September, citing conservative evangelical owner David Green’s personal religious objections.
Heaton ruled that “Hobby Lobby and Mardel [its partner company] are not religious organizations. Plaintiffs have not cited, and the court has not found, any case concluding that secular, for-profit corporations such as Hobby Lobby and Mardel have a constitutional right to the free exercise of religion.”
No rush to set up Florida student prayer
Not one Florida public school district to date has pursued plans to set up guidelines that allow student-led prayer. That’s despite passage of a law in March to let students offer “inspirational” messages, including prayer, at school events, even mandatory ones such as assemblies.
“We advised [school districts] against it,” said Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida Association of School Boards. “We told districts they’d be opening themselves up to litigation,” Blanton told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.
“If any school districts did, it would essentially be volunteering their time and resources to be a test case,” said Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida.
Personhood initiative dead in Oklahoma
The U.S. Supreme Court on Oct. 29 declined to let a proposed Oklahoma “personhood” initiative that said life begins at conception be placed on the ballot.
Without comment, justices let stand a decision by the state Supreme Court that the proposed ballot question would put an unconstitutional ban on abortion, reported The Oklahoman.
‘Fatwa on your head’ bus ad nixed
The 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled Oct. 25 that the transit authority in Michigan’s four southeastern-most counties could bar a bus ad that read, “Fatwa on your head? Is your family or community threatening you? Leaving Islam? Got Questions? Get Answers! RefugefromIslam.com.”
The American Freedom Defense Initiative, through its executive director Pamela Geller, tried to place the ad in 2010 and was denied. A federal judge ruled in favor of AFDI in 2011.
The appeals court ruled that the side of the bus, in this case, wasn’t a public forum because the transit authority rejected all political ads.
Geller called the opinion “tortured and twisted.”
Poll: Catholics disagree with hierarchy
In a poll released Oct. 25 by the American Civil Liberties Union and Catholics for Choice, 68% of Catholic respondents said universities shouldn’t be able to deny birth control insurance coverage.
About 77% of Catholics surveyed objected to pharmacies refusing to fill birth control prescriptions.
Substantial majorities also believe Catholics have no obligation to follow their bishop’s recommendation on how to vote and that Catholic politicians don’t have an obligation to follow official church directives.
Jewish colleges top religious Pell grants
Jewish colleges are among the leading religious institutions receiving federal Pell Grant funding, according to The Forward, a Jewish-American newspaper published in New York City.
Sixty-three of the 152 religious institutions that receive Pell grants are Jewish, U.S. Department of Education data reveals. the data shows. The Jewish schools collectively received 53% of the $84.5 million in Pell grant money that went to religious schools in 2010.
Of the top 10 Pell grant recipients, six were yeshivas, many of which focus primarily on Talmud study.
Judge tosses Muslim’s bacon lawsuit
In Lopez v. Wendy’s International Inc., an Ohio federal district court ruled Oct. 23 in a case in which a Muslim customer at a New York City Wendy’s restaurant sued. The plaintiff claimed he wasn’t adequately warned that the Asiago Chicken Ranch Club Sandwich contained bacon, which he claims the cashier didn’t mention as an ingredient when asked.
Religion Clause blog noted that the court dismissed the plaintiff’s Lanham Act claim on the ground that a one-time answer from a restaurant employee is likely not an “advertisement” and that there was no intent to deceive.