’Tis the season for FFRF to combat potentially illegal electioneering by churches and pastors. On Oct. 17, Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent a letter to the Internal Revenue Service regarding the senior pastor of Summit Church in Wichita, Kan.
Senior Pastor Terry Fox ran an ad in the Wichita Eagle stating that he would speak “about how the Obama administration and its socialistic agenda is [sic] making the way for the Antichrist to take over the world.” Fox and Pastor Joe also host the church’s weekly radio show, on which they routinely breach the wall of state/church separation.
Fox stated on one show that “There’s no question in my mind that the sitting president we have today is far more evil and far more committed to a one-world government. . .”
These pastors also previously violated IRS rules when they endorsed Rick Santorum during the Republican presidential primary. The church’s publication, The Summit Informer, includes illegal political campaign intervention, including an issue in August which railed against Obama’s campaign strategies: “The secular left has mastered use of the Internet to further its extremist goals. In fact, President Obama’s web-based ‘Organizing for America’ propaganda machine may have given him the 2008 election. Let’s beat them at their own game.”
On Oct. 19, Markert wrote to the IRS about a sign outside of Church in the Valley, Leakey, Texas. The church’s marquee read, “Vote for the Mormon, not the Muslim! The capitalist, not the communist!”
Markert stated the church violated IRS regulations by expressly advocating its support from presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
Bullies in the pulpit
FFRF’s legal staff continues to sift through complaints generated from the so-called Pulpit Freedom Sunday on Oct. 7 that was organized by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Religious Right law firm formerly called the Alliance Defense Fund. The pastors are thumbing their noses at the IRS, which has stopped enforcing the 1954 Johnson Amendment that requires political neutrality on candidates in order to maintain tax-exempt status.
It was first held in 2008 with 33 pastors taking part in 2008. A record 1,477 participated this year, organizers said.
The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that Skyline Church Pastor Jim Garlow ended his Sunday sermon in La Mesa with this: “Some came to hear to hear an endorsement. My endorsement will be Jesus. I’ll tell you whom I’m going to vote for, but I don’t think that makes it an endorsement. I’m going to vote for Mitt Romney, but I’m not telling you to.”
The Bloomberg News editorial board summed it up pretty well Oct. 3:
“The plan is for pastors to make explicit candidate endorsements in their churches, tape the endorsements and send the incriminating evidence to the Internal Revenue Service. . . . This is not a battle for free speech, in the pulpit or out. It’s a test of whether Americans are willing to allow a taxpayer subsidy to be used for partisan political activity.”
Voting in churches
FFRF continues to receive complaints from members distressed about voting in churches. FFRF sent three letters in October to elections officials asking them to refrain from selecting churches as polling places in their precincts.
Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent a letter to the Wake County Board of Elections in Raleigh, N.C., regarding a large picture of Jesus right above a voting booth in Christ Baptist Church.
Letters also were sent to the village clerk in Germantown, Wis., and the Orange County supervisor of elections in Orlando, Fla., asking them to “remove churches as polling places for future elections.”
Look what happened in Murfreesboro, Tenn., a city with more than six dozen churches. Muslims wanted one mosque, but the locals would have none of it. Scratch an “oppressed” Christian and watch a hypocrite bleed.
Justin Blair, letter to the editor, on the contention that nonbelievers should just not listen to pregame football prayers over the loudspeaker
Knoxville News Sentinel, 10-3-12
I just think they’re misrepresenting certain minorities. Judaism, atheism, the lack of a religion, agnosticism or Islam — their God or their lack of God wasn’t on this banner. And I think if it were, then that would be equally offensive to the many Christians that are in this community.
Dillon Nicholson, Vidor [Texas] High School senior, on cheerleaders’ Christian football banners at neighboring Kountze High School
KFDM Beaumont, 9-23-12
As we learn more about the universe, there’s less and less need to look outside it for help.
Theoretical cosmologist Sean Carroll, California Institute of Technology, comment in an article headlined “Will science someday rule out the possibility of God?”’
“Life’s Little Mysteries,” 9-18-12
If we raise a generation of students who don’t believe in the process of science, who think everything that we’ve come to know about nature and the universe can be dismissed by a few sentences translated into English from some ancient text, you’re not going to continue to innovate.
Bill Nye, “the Science Guy,” decrying creationism
Associated Press, 9-24-12
As long as there are those who would take innocent life in the name of God, the world will never know a true and lasting peace.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on the attacks on the U.S. consulate in Libya
You roll your eyes and say why is this going on at a government-subsidized event? It shouldn’t be happening. I also see it at all the high school games where they have prayers before games and after games. It’s really out of place. It’s hurting all those people that don’t have that belief and ostracizing them.
Retired ecologist and FFRF member Bob Craig, Oak Ridge, Tenn., on prayers over the loudspeaker before University of Tennessee football games
Knoxville News, 9-18-12
As Every Student Every School’s name implies, their idea is to proselytize every student in every public school in America through an aggressive “Adopt-a-School” campaign. And the way to do it is to have the kids do what grownups are not allowed to do: establish full-fledged missionary operations inside the schools. A clever map allows viewers to click on their state and type in their area code, revealing every school in the district and determine whether it has been “adopted” by churches or other religious organizations. Kids from those entities are instructed to conduct daily prayer groups during the school day, distribute religious literature and are given numerous other ideas for practicing or promoting their religion at school.
Author Katherine Stewart, who spoke at FFRF’s convention in Portland, Ore., “How evangelicals are making children their missionaries in public schools”
The Guardian, 9-25-12
Critical thinking says it’s time we start cracking down on child molesters, whether you are the Boy Scouts, the Catholic Church or affiliated with any other organization. Until we get tough and prosecute to the full extent of the law, more and more horrifying stories are going to come to light, and more innocent young children will continue to needlessly suffer.
Steve Siebold, author of Sex, Politics and Religion: How Delusional Thinking is Destroying America
Huffington Post, 9-26-12
We’re atheists not because we want to gather and engage in collective back-slapping, not because we want to chortle at the foolishness of benighted believers, but because we care about creating a world that’s more just, more peaceful, more enlightened, and we see organized religion as standing in the way of this goal.
Adam Lee op-ed, “Atheism’s growing pains”
To permit this name change would be placing unwitting members of the public, including public servants, in the position of having to proclaim petitioners’ religious beliefs, which may or may not be in agreement with that person’s own equally strongly held but different beliefs. For instance, a calendar call in the courthouse would require the clerk to shout out “JesusIsLord ChristIsKing” or “Rejoice ChristIsKing.”
Discussion of a New York court’s denial of a petition to change a family’s surname from Nwadiuko to ChristIsKing
Texas District Judge Steve Thomas of Hardin County implemented a temporary injunction Oct. 18 in Matthews v. Kountze Independent School District that allows Kountze High School cheerleaders to make and hold Christian banners for football players to run through before games and for players to carry them around the stadium.
Thomas didn’t rule on the actual merits of the case but set a June 24 hearing date for a permanent injunction, thus allowing the banners to be displayed through the end of the school year.
The injunction temporarily overturned the decision Superintendent Kevin Weldon made barring the banners after receiving a Sept. 17 letter from FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt on behalf of a local complainant.
The team ran through banners at home games with bible verses such as “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13); “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:14); and “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31).
Responding to FFRF’s complaint, Weldon told a TV station, “I commend [the cheerleaders] for what they stand for. But I called legal counsel and even though it’s led by students, it should not be allowed to go on.”
Schmitt had cited a long list of court cases that have held such displays “constitute an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion. A reasonable Kountze student would certainly perceive the banners ‘as stamped with [their] school’s approval.’ ” The prevailing precedent is Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, a 2000 Supreme Court case.
According to cheerleaders, the bible banner idea came from an instructional camp they attended. “Coaches preach devotionals before games. We wanted to show our support for our boys,” Meagan Tantillo said.
Banner supporters were immediately up in arms at the school’s decision. FFRF’s phone lines were swamped for several days with angry callers as the story went national, with coverage by major broadcast and print media, including “Good Morning America,” the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. FFRF Co-President Dan Barker faced off with a Liberty Institute spokesperson on Fox News.
Gov. Rick Perry and Attorney General Greg Abbott intervened on behalf of the Liberty Institute, an evangelical law firm, which sued to get the temporary restraining order. Both state officials made inflammatory public statements, as both have done in the past on state/church issues. Abbott called FFRF “menacing and misleading.”
The grandstanding attorney general then proclaimed at a press conference with Perry, “We will not allow atheist groups from outside of the state of Texas to come into the state, to use menacing and misleading intimidation tactics, to try to bully schools to bow down at the altar of secular beliefs.”
Perry, who repeatedly referred during the press conference to Abbott as “General,” also castigated FFRF and, by extension, its 700-plus Texas members. “The underlying problem here is that there’s this very vocal, as you shared, and very litigious minority of Americans that are willing to legally attack anybody who dares to utter a phrase, a name that they don’t agree with.”
Perry went on to demonstrate that he apparently has never read the godless U.S. Constitution: “We’re also a culture built upon the concept that the original law is God’s law, outlined in the Ten Commandments.”
FFRF’s local counsel Randall Kallinen of Houston filed an amicus brief Oct. 3 on behalf of the school district. (FFRF’s four staff attorneys worked doggedly to research and write the brief in less than a week.)
In its brief, FFRF takes issue with the plaintiffs’ claim that the banners are an exercise of free speech: “The speech in question is government speech or, at a minimum, school-sponsored speech.”
“If the majority of the cheerleaders were atheists, would a court support their ‘right’ to hold up a banner insulting Christianity or all believers? The District has every right to simply prohibit all run-through and on-field banners.”
FFRF contends that the banners are government speech because they are displayed in a context implying school endorsement and because the school has effective control over the messages. “Cheerleading for the school is undeniably a school-sponsored activity, and the banners displayed by the cheerleaders take place during a school-sponsored event.”
The New York Times quoted Charles Haynes, director at the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum. “If the cheerleaders aren’t representing the school, then who are they [representing]? It would be like saying that the football team doesn’t represent the school, they are just individual students just coming on the field and are free to do what they want to do.”
The school district could decide to appeal Thomas’ ruling, but in what seems like a curious bit of collusion, the district had formally asked the court to hold “that the Establishment Clause should not be interpreted so as to require Defendants [the school] to bar the religious banners. . .”
While FFRF’s complaint started the case, it’s not a party to the suit. But if contacted by those with standing to sue, FFRF is prepared to challenge the continuing violation in federal court, where the case belongs.
“We encourage any student or parent with children in the public schools coming into contact with this religious practice at public school functions to contact FFRF,” said Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. Plaintiffs with standing might also include school employees coming into regular contact with the banners at school sporting events.
FFRF has taken complaints about the practice spreading to other schools and has recently sent letters of complaint to to Newton, Texas; Bossier Parish, La.; Stone County Schools, Miss.; and Thackerville Schools, Okla. FFRF was notified that the Stone County Mississippi School District ordered cheerleaders to stop making religious banners.
“Since the state’s top law enforcer, Attorney General Greg Abbott, and its highest executive officer, Gov. Rick Perry, have openly expressed contempt for atheists and the Establishment Clause, this leads to a climate of intolerance. It takes courage to face down the full apparatus of state government, but we need those brave few to contact FFRF,” added Barker.
“Don’t let collusion, politicking and religious fervor in Texas destroy respect for keeping public schools free of religious divisiveness,” Barker added.
The New York Times (“Faith, Football and the First Amendment,” Oct. 21) and Washington Post (“Bench the Bible,” Oct. 24) editorialized in FFRF’s favor.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has filed two lawsuits that contest Ten Commandments monuments at Pennsylvania schools. One suit was filed Sept. 27 in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh against the Connellsville Area School District for a marker at a junior high school.
FFRF, on behalf of two local “Doe” plaintiffs, seeks a declaration that the display is unconstitutional and should be removed. FFRF is also named as a plaintiff in both suits.
A similar federal suit was filed Sept. 14 against the New Kensington-Arnold School District for maintaining a Ten Commandments monument at Valley High School in New Kensington. FFRF first sent a letter of complaint in March about the illegal monument.
The Fraternal Order of Eagles donated the slabs to both schools in the mid 1950s. FFRF has nearly 700 Pennsylvania members. Pittsburgh-based attorney Marcus Schneider represents the plaintiffs in both suits.
Some nonmembers of FFRF were up in arms with dire predictions. At a “Save Our Stone” rally at Valley High, New Kensington resident Mike Hresko spoke to the “crowd” of 50, according to the Valley News Dispatch. “We don’t want it removed. This is part of our community. . . . They’ll lock up the churches and we’ll be just like a communist country.”
At a similar event in Connellsville, a woman told WTAE-4 that the monuments contain “God’s principles” and should stay. “I believe that God should be in school with our children.”
The legal complaints state that the continued presence of the Ten Commandments on school property unconstitutionally advances and endorses religion. The complaints also note that [each] display “lacks any secular purpose,” citing Stone v. Graham, a 1980 Supreme Court decision which ruled the Commandments may not be posted in public school classrooms, because “The pre-eminent purpose” for doing so “is plainly religious in nature.”
Plaintiffs in the suit against the New Kensington-Arnold School District are FFRF member Marie Schaub, who has a child, Doe 1, in the school district who regularly encounters the bible edict, and Doe 2, a student at Valley High School, along with Doe 3, parent and guardian of Doe 2.
The Valley News Dispatch reported that Schaub came to a pro-Commandments rally. “I just wanted to hear what they are saying. I find it amazing that people gather in support of breaking the law.”
Doe 5 is an atheist member of FFRF who views the Connellsville monument as usurpation of parental rights and who does “not subscribe to the religious statements that are inscribed on the monument.” Her child, Doe 4, attends the junior high and comes in regular contact with the prominent monument, which is in view of students boarding or exiting school buses and participating in outdoor gym classes.
The complaint notes, “FFRF and Doe 5 contend that a public school district has no right to instruct its captive audience of impressionable students on which god to have, how many gods to have, or whether to have any gods at all.”
The tombstone-like New Kensington monument, about 6 feet tall, is directly in front of the main school entrance, near two footbridges that students, staff and visitors use to enter the building.
School Board President Robert Pallone wrote in March on a Facebook page called “KEEP THE TEN COMMANDMENTS AT VALLEY HIGH SCHOOL,” that the district would not “remove this monument without a fight !!!!!”
The Eagles’ Commandments campaign started when a devout judge and Eagles member, E.J. Ruegemer — who wanted to promote religion and Minnesota granite — teamed up with film director Cecil B. DeMille, who was advertising his 1956 epic “The Ten Commandments.”
In 2002, FFRF successfully removed one of the first such monuments placed on public property in the city of Milwaukee. Actor Yul Brenner, who played Rameses II in the movie, had attended the dedication.
FFRF seeks permanent injunctions directing the districts to remove the monuments from district property, reasonable costs and attorneys’ fees and nominal damages to plaintiffs. Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott helped draft both complaints.
The Republican National Convention was greeted by Uncle Sam in Tampa, Fla.
A so-called “act of god” (Hurricane Ivan) didn’t stop the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s message from being posted the Thursday before the Republican National Convention began in Tampa.
FFRF’s patriotic red-white-and-blue message, depicting a finger-wagging Uncle Sam cautioning that “God fixation won’t fix this nation,” was placed on Kennedy Boulevard.
FFRF’s election-year caveat was drawn by editorial cartoonist Steve Benson, the grandson of Ezra Taft Benson, the secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture under President Dwight Eisenhower who later became president of the Mormon Church. Steve Benson left the Mormon Church in the early 1990s.
“Our equal-opportunity message to both political parties and all public officials is: Get off your knees and get to work!” said FFRF Co-President Dan Barker.
FFRF placed the same admonition on two billboards in Charlotte in time for the Democratic National Convention the following week. It included a hard-to-miss, 14x48-foot version near downtown Charlotte, at 1720 Freedom Drive, and on a highly visible, 10x30-foot billboard on Interstate 77.
“The preoccupation with religion by our nation and our public officials is holding back the USA scientifically, intellectually and morally,” added Annie Laurie Gaylor, who co-directs FFRF.
FFRF’s tradition of placing billboards at the national party conventions began in 2008. (Note: All FFRF-placed billboards are clearly identified with FFRF’s full name and website.)
Name: Wayne Bartz.
Where I live: Out in the sticks in the Sierra foothills not far from Lake Tahoe, Calif. We are frequently entertained by deer and raccoons, along with mountain lions and coyotes.
Where and when I was born: Chicago, long, long ago in 1938. I actually remember Hitler strutting around in newsreels at the local movie theaters.
Family: I live with my wife, Linda, and eight rescued feral cats.
Occupation: Now retired, I began my career working the trenches as a clinical psychologist, then as a college psychology professor (and also co-authored several self-help books).
How I got where I am today: Today I am a retired geezer, so I guess I got here mainly by surviving. Where I am as a freethinker is not surprising, since as a psychologist I spent most of my professional life in the company of nonbelievers (80% of psychologists reject supernatural explanations for natural events, including human behavior).
Three decades of training college students to think critically and question authority eventually led to the publication of my recent book, Critical Thinking: The Antidote For Faith.
Where I’m headed: Presumably to oblivion. I am pretty sure I am not destined either for heaven or hell.
Person in history I admire: Carl Sagan, with whom I was privileged to interact briefly on two occasions. He was a warm and engaging scientist who was able to lay open the mysteries of science in a way understandable to the general public,
I most admired Sagan’s ability to remain calm, pleasant and persuasive in the face of hostile questions or ignorance-based preposterous claims. He had that rare gift of keeping his cool in situations where most of us would lose it, and that made him a great educator.
A quotation I like: “Eternal suffering awaits anyone who questions God’s infinite love,” (the late humorist Bill Hicks). I also like comedian Rich Jeni’s description of going to war over religion: “This involves two groups of people willing to kill each other in order to determine who has the best imaginary friend.”
These are a few of my favorite things: My fondest freethought accomplishment came from spearheading a California college faculty organization 25 years ago working for the separation of church and state. Our efforts eventually resulted in invocations and closing prayers being permanently banned from graduation ceremonies at more than 100 California community colleges.
Although it sometimes may not seem that way, once in a while we actually win one. Today I am encouraged by the vociferous nationwide out-of-the-closet atheist revolt, fueled by FFRF, Dawkins, Hitchens, Newdow, Harris, et al. As a retired educator, I am delighted by the younger generation’s increasing rejection of religion, with nearly a third now admitting that they have discarded traditional beliefs.
These are not: Nothing is more irritating to me than sanctimonious politicians (e.g., Rick Santorum) pandering to the ignoramus Religious Right, not to mention President Obama repeatedly babbling publicly about Jesus. That’s embarrassing.
My doubts about religion started: When I was a kid, my family attended a Lutheran church where I experienced an odd mixture of community solidarity, social events and high-minded ideals, along with watching adults engage in petty squabbles, hypocrisy and political infighting. My favorite minister, a brilliant speaker and thought-provoking pastor, was let go because he failed to present simple hellfire and brimstone in his weekly sermons.
He tried to make the congregation think, and they didn’t like it one bit. He was replaced by a mundane standard-issue preacher who bored me to tears, even as a teenager. Our wonderful new pastor managed to alienate my parents by pulling a nasty fast-shuffle on me and my older brother. We had worked for a couple of years as church custodians, being paid a few bucks for our labors.
One day the pastor notified me that we were being fired for failing to properly do our job and then quickly appointed his newly retired father to the position. We knew better because my father, a serious German-style taskmaster (a supervising chemist at Kaiser Steel), did a weekly white-glove inspection of our work every Saturday, making sure that everything was 100% up to snuff. He was not at all happy with the way his sons had been treated and eventually became alienated from the church. He never spoke of it, but my parents quit attending and so did I.
Why I’m a freethinker: The alternative is unthinkable.
Ways I promote freethought: I spent three decades teaching the scientific method and honing college students’ critical thinking skills as a psychology professor. Based on that work, I recently wrote Critical Thinking: The Antidote For Faith. (It’s available from Amazon and as an e-book from River’s Bend Press at riversbendpress.com.) The book characterizes blind faith as a “toxic poison of the intellect,” in sharp contrast to contemporary American society, which enthusiastically endorses faith as a positive value.
Chapters such as “The Folly of Faith” and “Miracles, Healing and Health Hokum” point out how unsubstantiated beliefs can lead the faithful to some very silly and sometimes dark places. Critical thinking is proposed as an alternative to faith, its implementation based on a step-by-step approach summarized by the acronym CRITIC. The book also targets faith-based scam artists such as psychics, seers, faith healers, hokey health practitioners and assorted gurus and cult leaders.
It concludes with a review of the skeptical views of the nation’s founders, noted scientists, contemporary public figures and entertainers. Philip Appleman, Freethought Today poetry contributor, says that CRITIC methodology should be taught in every grade school, high school and college.