Blasphemy laws violate the First Amendment. They promote religion, specifically Christianity, over nonreligion in violation of the Establishment Clause. They prohibit speech in violation of the Free Speech Clause. They violate the guarantees of religious free exercise and free press. In general, blasphemy laws assault the First Amendment’s protection of the freedom of conscience.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is on the receiving end of a letter of complaint from the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison for a religious tweet on his official Facebook and Twitter accounts.
On Sunday, March 16, either Walker or someone empowered to posted the following: "Philippians 4:13" (see screen shots), a bible verse which says, "I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me."
FFRF, a state-church watchdog with 20,000 members nationwide and about 1,300 in Wisconsin, reminded Walker in a March 18 letter that it's "improper for a state employee, much less for the chief executive officer of the state, to use the machinery of the state of Wisconsin to promote personal religious views."
Co-Presidents Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker, in FFRF's letter, said Walker's tweet "seems more like a threat, or the utterance of a theocratic dictator, than of a duly elected civil servant."
The letter cites court cases that prohibit government officials from endorsing religion over nonreligion. If a department head or ordinary employee were to use state resources to promote personal beliefs, they would most certainly be admonished.
The question is will Walker be able to get away with it? If so, what might he post next, maybe something from Acts 10 (in which a sheet descends from above, with a voice saying, "Rise, Peter; kill, and eat")? More sustenance and strength for the religious and exclusion for non-Christians.
The letter concludes, "On behalf of our membership, we ask you to immediately delete this religious message from your official gubernatorial Facebook and Twitter. May we hear from you at your earliest convenience?"
On Wednesday, March 12, the Georgia Senate passed H.B. 702, a bill designed to place a Ten Commandments monument within the state capitol building or on its grounds. The bill previously passed the Georgia House. In addition to the Ten Commandments, the proposed granite monument will also contain the preamble to the Georgia Constitution (which states in part that the people of Georgia rely “upon the protection and guidance of Almighty God”) and the “part of the Declaration of Independence which states that ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’”
Note: the monument will not include the entirely secular preamble to the U.S. Constitution, as described in the bill’s summary on first reading and as reported incorrectly by numerous news sources. The original version of the bill did call for inclusion of the preamble of the U.S. Constitution, but that was swapped for the portion of the Declaration of Independence that refers to “a Creator.” Yet the sponsor of the bill, Rep. Greg Morris (R-Vidalia), denied, with a straight face, any religious intent behind his proposed monument.
If enacted into law, this bill would be a clear and egregious violation of the separation between state and church. In reaction to the passage of H.B. 702, Erwin Chemerinsky, First Amendment legal scholar and distinguished attorney in the landmark Supreme Court decision Van Orden v. Perry, noted, “the Supreme Court has . . . made clear that putting up new Ten Commandments monuments, when the purpose is so clearly to advance religion, violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.”
The Georgia legislature needs to stop wasting time imagining new, creative ways to memorialize the Christian god and get back to work!
CONTACT GOV. DEAL TODAY!
Please take a moment to contact the governor to voice your opposition to H.B. 702.
For maximum effectiveness, be succinct and polite in messages, and identify yourself as a constituent when relevant (not as a member of FFRF responding to this action alert). For obvious reasons, do not forward this action alert to the governor. Feel free to let friends and colleagues know about this threat. You may wish to send blind copies (using bc in your email) to FFRF at:
You'd be hard-pressed to find many people who like to pay more taxes. That's what makes the "individual mandate" of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) so effective. The individual mandate requires anyone who doesn't maintain minimum essential health insurance to pay an additional fee when they file their taxes. The idea behind this tax is that people who opt out of buying health insurance place a burden on the healthcare system, since they aren't paying into it, but still risk getting sick or injured. In other words, those without health insurance increase the cost of health insurance for everyone else and the Affordable Care Act's individual mandate is meant to offset that cost.
While the individual mandate has already been upheld by the Supreme Court as a legitimate exercise of Congress's taxing power, that hasn't stopped religious fringe groups like Christian Scientists from trying to weasel out of paying their share of healthcare costs. On Tuesday, March 11, the House of Representatives passed the "Equitable Access to Care and Health Act" or the "EACH Act" (H.R. 1814), which unnecessarily creates an additional religious exemption to the Affordable Care Act's individual mandate. And by "additional religious exemption" I mean an exemption in addition to the two religious exemptions that already exist.
That's right, Congress already exempted certain religious groups and individuals from having to pay taxes for not maintaining health insurance. It created a religious conscience exemption to the individual mandate that applies to anyone who is "a member of a recognized religious sect or division thereof" if that sect "make[s] provision for their dependent members which [are] reasonable in view of their general level of living," and has been in existence since 1951. While this first religious conscience exemption is limited in scope (and may only apply to the Old Order Amish), the Affordable Care Act also included a second exemption for anyone participating in a "health care sharing ministry."
Health care sharing ministries are religious organizations designed to provide groups of like-minded Christians with a way to pool resources to pay for each other's medical expenses. They are not health insurers, which means that 1) they are horribly under-regulated, 2) often members are under no legal obligation to pay any money into the ministry, and 3) there is no guarantee the ministry will pay for a member's medical expenses. Presumably any Christian with a religious objection to buying insurance, or to receiving medical care, could join one of these ministries to avoid paying the individual mandate without taking on any additional obligations.
Instead of relying on either of the existing religious exemptions to the Affordable Care Act, the EACH Act adds yet another way for religious individuals to avoid paying their fair share into the healthcare system. By allowing certain religious individuals to opt out of maintaining minimum essential health insurance, the EACH Act will interfere with one of the fundamental purposes of the Affordable Care Act: to lower insurance premiums by maximizing the number of participants in the health insurance market. Taxpayers who do not claim this new religious exemption will pay higher health insurance premiums due to uninsured religious freeriders burdening the market.
The EACH Act would specifically allow religious individuals to game the system by swearing that they hold sincerely held religious beliefs against receiving healthcare. They would then be allowed to opt out of paying health insurance, possibly for many years, but nothing prevents them from subsequently receiving care when they do get sick or injured. Preventing sick/injured people from receiving care is out of the question, despite the potentially catastrophic costs for those in the health insurance marketplace. The only practical solution is to deny special treatment to religious objectors in the first place.
The EACH Act is also bad policy because it interferes with other major purposes behind the individual mandate, including protecting the financial security of U.S. families by guarding against the threat that unexpected medical expenses will force them into bankruptcy. While insured families are protected by their policies' out of pocket maximums, the same is not true of those who opt out of health insurance for religious reasons. The Affordable Care Act is also designed, first and foremost, to protect the health of U.S. families by ensuring that they have affordable access to healthcare when they need it. While adult Christian Scientists may be free to claim a religious objection to receiving care, the state still has a duty to ensure the health and safety of minors growing up in religious households. The EACH Act is an abrogation of that duty.
The EACH Act passed the House without ever being vetted in committee, which means that its potential impact on the health insurance marketplace, family financial security, and family health have not been considered. The Senate has now received the bill. Contact your state's senators now with your concerns over religious people receiving special exemptions from paying generally applicable taxes.
You can read Sam's full note Religious Exemptions to the PPACA's Health Insurance Mandate, published in the American Journal of Law and Medicine in 2011.
Also, see FFRF's March 6 action alert (emailed before the House suspended its rules on March 11 to take a voice vote, without substantive debate, on this controversial bill).
The Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter of complaint and records request March 11 to Birmingham, Ala., Police Chief A.C. Roper objecting to his organizing and endorsing a Christian ministry called Prayer Force United.
FFRF, a state-church watchdog based in Madison, Wis., has about 20,000 members nationwide and about 180 in Alabama, including a chapter, the Alabama Freethought Association. FFRF also addressed Roper's inclusion of Christian prayer at mandatory department staff meetings and events.
Roper, an ordained minster, leads monthly prayer walks in different Birmingham neighborhoods under the auspices of the Prayer Force United ministry. The prayers are supposed to lower crime. FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel's letter details Roper's stated belief in the power of prayer and the powerlessness of his police force: "[T]he police are not the answer, never have been, never will be. Jesus said that he's the answer," and "one of the biggest problems [Birmingham is] facing is a lack of godliness."
Seidel explained the law to Roper: "It is unconstitutional for government officials to use their government office and email to advance, promote or endorse one religion over another, or religion over nonreligion. You must keep your religion to yourself when acting in your official capacity as police chief."
Seidel noted that prayer as a crime-fighting technique is ineffectual: "The walks themselves may lower crime simply by having crowds on the streets escorted by police cars with flashing lights, but that is not because of the power of prayer — it is the power of people. Prayer cannot stop violence. Scientific studies show that societies with less prayer have less violence."
FFRF called on the chief to stop forcing prayer on city employees: "Federal courts have found that prayers at government employee meetings constitute illegal government endorsement of religion."
FFRF has created a video with clips from Ropers' sermons and Prayer Force United videos with commentary on their legality. "There was so much video footage, we thought citizens might like to see how the police are abusing their office 'in Jesus' name,' " said Seidel, who put the video together. "It's an opportunity to explain the law and provide compelling examples of exactly how the Constitution is being violated."
Prayer Force videos show Roper appearing while using his title and office to endorse the ministry and "claiming the city of Birmingham for God." Roper also explains that Prayer Force is part of the police department: [I]t's a prayer ministry, it's an intercessory ministry, that, in addition to our officers working every day to make the streets of Birmingham safe, we have a prayer force that's interceding."
FFRF also filed an open records request asking for all records relating to the department's official endorsement of the ministry.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is protesting an invitation to Pope Francis from Mayor Jim Schmitt to visit Green Bay, Wis., for the express non-secular purpose of making a Virgin Mary pilgrimage.
Schmitt's letter inviting the pope to "make a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help" was written in his official capacity as mayor on City of Green Bay letter. Schmitt signed his worshipful letter "Your servant in Christ."
"You were not elected bishop of Green Bay," noted FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor in a March 10 letter to Schmitt. The pair told Schmitt his action is a "shocking breach of your civil and secular duties as mayor." They note a government official cannot constitutionally promote one religion over another, or religion over non-religion.
Schmitt's missive to the pope extols in excited tones "the events, apparitions and locutions" occurring in 1859 that "exhibit the substance of supernatural character," involving "the first and only Blessed Virgin Mary apparition approved by the Catholic Church in the United States."
While noting Schmitt is "welcome to personally believe" in the supernatural sighting of the Virgin Mary a century and a half ago, he is "not free to use your civic office to promote your personal (and highly embarrassing) religious beliefs." FFRF noted that most Green Bay citizens are either non-Catholic or non-believing, and would not "consider it the business of the mayor to promote a 'pilgrimage' to a Catholic shrine."
Schmitt compounded the violation, FFRF says, in starting a petition, "Pope to Green Bay," at a website registered under his name.
They warned that the invitation is "fiscally reckless, given the exorbitant costs of hosting a pope, costs which invariably end up being borne by taxpayers," citing riots and rallies against public funding of recent pope visits in U.K., Spain and Brazil.
"It's bad enough to put up with the Catholic church's harmful and antediluvian doctrines — against safe and legal abortion, contraception, gay rights, same sex marriage, the equal rights and ordination of women as priests — without U.S. citizens having to literally pay to put up the pope," FFRF added.
"The shameful and unremitting scandal of sexual abuse of minors within the ranks of the Catholic clergy and even more scandalous covers-up by its highest ranking officials have tarnished dioceses through the state of Wisconsin, and left a devastated trail of victims and their families."
FFRF prevailed, after filing a federal lawsuit, in forcing Mayor Schmitt and the City of Green Bay to stop placing a nativity scene atop the entrance to City Hall in 2008.
FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott also made an open records request asking for city documents and communications about the proposed visit.
Next Tuesday (March 11), Christian Scientists are holding a “national call-in” lobbying day in Congress to demand a special exemption for Christian Scientists from the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that all U.S. citizens carry medical health insurance.
The so-called “Equitable Access to Care and Health (EACH) Act” (H.R. 1814 and S.862) would exempt people who claim “sincerely held religious beliefs” from insurance signup requirements. The bill is sponsored by 216 members of the House of Representatives and 30 senators — thanks to the power of the Christian Science lobby and politicians’ cowardly pandering to religionists.
Please take a moment now or by March 11 to contact your U.S. representative and senators to oppose HR 1814 /S.862. More background follows the contact information and brief talking points below.
Please email or phone your member of Congress today! Find your congressperson. http://beta.congress.gov/members
Use any of the information in the background following these talking points. Or simply note that you are phoning or emailing to register opposition to H.R. 1814/S.862, “Equitable Access to Care and Health (EACH).” Or feel free to copy and paste this text in a message to your representative or senators:
I strongly oppose HR 1814/S.862, introduced on behalf of the Christian Science lobby, seeking special exemption from the Affordable Care Act (ACA). It would increase insurance costs for the rest of us and be a costly nightmare for states to track. Most significantly, every year children needlessly suffer and die because parents decide to rely only on prayer and fail to seek medical care.
The ACA will save children’s lives. My costs as a taxpayer should not increase because Christian Scientists and others citing “sincerely held beliefs” want to be exempted from purchasing health insurance coverage designed to control costs and make universal coverage affordable. Christian Scientists shouldn’t be exempt from this tax, any more than parents who send children to parochial schools are exempt from supporting our public schools. Many Christian Scientists routinely seek emergency or pregnancy health care, and if they are not covered by insurance, the rest of us will pay more. Most importantly, children’s health should not be put at risk. Kill this bill!
What’s wrong with this bill? As Rita Swan of Children’s Healthcare Is a Legal Duty (CHILD) notes, the exemption bill has many serious consequences. Besides setting reckless legal precedent, it would increase insurance costs for the rest of us and endanger children.
More than 170 children are buried in the Followers of Christ Peaceful Valley Cemetery in Idaho, many of whom might have survived had their parents been required to obtain health insurance for them.
The U.S. Supreme Court, in upholding the Affordable Care Act, ruled that the universal mandate, enacted to control costs, is a form of taxation, which everyone needs to pay, just as all taxpayers must support our public schools.
Christian Scientists complain they shouldn’t have to pay for care they won’t use, yet Christian Scientists usually seek medical care for fractures, prenatal care, delivery of babies and going to the eye doctor for glasses.
Insurance works on the assumption that many in the pool of policyholders won’t draw from it. For instance, most people with fire insurance will never need to make use of such coverage.
Equally unworkable would be tracking those who are exempt to ensure they haven’t sought medical care. HR1814 is modeled on the Massachusetts religious exemption. CHILD notes that in 2007, about 9,700 Massachusetts residents claimed a religious exemption. A data match done that year showed that 745 of them had nevertheless received free medical care during the year.
Massachusetts has failed since to track exemptions or enforce its penalty for individuals who seek exemption from medical care but then obtain it. If a state relies on an honor system of self-reporting, there will be widespread abuses of the law. Many individuals will find it convenient to claim an exemption yet continue to get care at the public’s expense. This is grossly unfair and will lower the public’s respect for the law.
Swan notes, “Our organization has information on hundreds of American children who have died because of their family’s religious objections to medical care. Many others get to the emergency room at the last minute, and their medical care is much more expensive than it would have been if the children had a medical home and routine basic care. HR 1814 increases the risk to children in faith-healing sects and the cost to the state if the children do get medical care.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is challenging Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear's use of state resources to promote a prayer breakfast March 13 at the Frankfort Convention Center.
In a March 3 letter to the Democratic governor, FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert noted that a press release about the so-called "nondenominational" event "leads one to believe that the government is the sponsor of the breakfast and not a private individual or organization."
The release also includes a prayer breakfast link on the governor's portion of kentucky.gov. The governor's home page includes a tab at the top promoting the breakfast.
Markert added, "While elected officials may of course attend private functions on their own time in their personal capacity, it is a misuse of office for the governor or his staff to promote, organize or cosponsor activities such as prayer breakfasts or to lend the governor’s name to a “Governor’s Prayer Breakfast.”
FFRF, a national state-church watchdog with about 20,000 members nationwide and 168 in Kentucky, last contacted Beshear in 2012 about his sponsorship of annual prayer breakfasts.
"By sponsoring or co-sponsoring a Prayer Breakfast, which calls Kentucky citizens to prayer, you abrogate your duty to remain neutral," Markert wrote. "The event sends a message that the governor of Kentucky prefers and endorses religion over nonreligion and more specifically, the Christian faith. Moreover, these actions exclude and offend a significant portion of the population, which is non-Christian or nonreligious."
Using recent polling data, FFRF estimates about 400,000 Kentuckians are nonreligious.
FFRF has good reason to believe that Beshear sent prayer breakfast invitations, which included the official state seal, to the bulk of state employees from his state email address, an apparent violation of the Internet and Electronic Mail Acceptable Use Policy, which states, “Internet and E-mail resources, services and accounts are the property of the Commonwealth of Kentucky. These resources are to be used for state business purposes in serving the interests of state government.”
Markert added, "We urge you to cancel this event immediately and to remove anything indicating official government sponsorship from the website, reservation forms, media packets, décor, etc. . . . If you wish to be a part of this event you may do so only in your capacity as a citizen, not as governor. In addition, FFRF filed an open records request for financial records for prayer breakfasts from 2011-14, copies of any correspondence from state employees related to the four events and copies of invitations or other correspondence to and from breakfast speakers.
This year's scheduled keynoter is Jacob Tamme, tight end for the National Football League's Denver Broncos and University of Kentucky graduate. "Off the field, Jacob is outspoken about the important role his faith plays in his life," the governor's website says.
The Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct's public censure March 3 of a former magistrate for changing a baby's first name from "Messiah" to "Martin" was set in motion by a formal complaint by the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
FFRF is a national state/church watchdog based in Madison, Wis., with 20,000 nonreligious members, including nearly 300 in Tennessee. Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert formally requested in an Aug. 14 letter that the board investigate and properly sanction the magistrate.
Child Welfare Magistrate Lu Ann Ballew had presided over a hearing Aug. 8, 2013, in Cocke County Chancery Court in Newport. Although the boy's first name was not among the reasons for the hearing, Ballew decided to change it, saying, "Messiah is a title, and it's a title that has only been earned by one person and that one person is Jesus Christ." (WBIR-TV interview)
In her letter to Timothy Discenza, disciplinary counsel of the board, Markert pointed out that Ballew had violated Canons 1 and 2 of the state Code of Judicial Conduct by imposing her own religious beliefs on the parties, signaling "that she is incapable of offering justice to those who espouse a different point of view or who practice a different religion or no religion."
Discenza announced yesterday that a panel of the board voted unanimously for a public censure, described as the most serious sanction the board could take against Ballew, who was removed from her position last month.
Discenza agreed that Ballew had violated several sections of the code of conduct, including those that require judges to rule with impartiality and fairness and without bias or prejudice.
Read ABC Nashville's story about the development.
Have you contacted Gov. Jan Brewer yet asking her to veto SB 1026? Phone her office now: (602) 542-4331
Statement by Dan Barker & Annie Laurie Gaylor
Freedom From Religion Foundation
The newest threat to religious liberty is the campaign to pass legislation permitting individuals or businesses to impose their religious beliefs on unwilling others.
The Arizona Legislature last Thursday passed SB 1062, to allow business owners to invoke personal religious beliefs as an excuse to deny gays service. This prompted one witty Tucson pizzeria owner to put up a sign giving tit for tat, saying: "We reserve the right to refuse service to Arizona legislators."
It's kind of a warped version of the Golden Rule, which, phrased in the positive, has always had a dangerous "escape clause." "Do unto others as you would have them do onto you" could be a license to preach at others (if you like being preached at), to hurt others (if you're a sadomasochist) or, in this case, to exhibit bigotry toward others (if you're a bigot). The superior rule far predating Christianity is expressed in the negative: "Do not do to others what you don't want done to you."
According to The New York Times, similar "religious protection legislation" has been introduced in Idaho, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Tennessee, with efforts stalled in Idaho, Kansas and Ohio.
The bill, while couched as antigay, is so broad it allows any person, business or church to cite religion as a defense if the government or an individual claims they're being discriminated against. Think about all those floral shops in Rhode Island that refused to take FFRF's order for a bouquet of roses to atheist student plaintiff Jessica Ahlquist. FFRF is pursuing redress under the Civil Rights Act, but if Gov. Jan Brewer signs the Arizona bill into law, such discrimination would be lawful — indeed, encouraged. The bill could permit individuals to break nearly any law and cite religious freedom as a defense, as Arizona Democrats pointed out.
The Civil Rights Act came into being to ensure that basic services (such as food, accommodations, medical care) couldn't be denied because of the customer's or patient's race, ethnic heritage, religion or gender. The Arizona bill and the religious bigotry fueling other such bills pose a serious threat to the Civil Rights Act, equal protection under the law and harmony and good will in our nation.
The chain store Hobby Lobby, which is suing Kathleen Sebelius, is likewise invoking "religious beliefs" to defy the guarantees of the Affordable Care Act, because its fundamentalist founder wants veto power over which forms of contraception his women employees may use.
Brewer vetoed a bill similar to SB1062 last session. It's encouraging that the outcry against this bigoted bill prompted three Arizona Republican senators, including the senate majority whip, came forward yesterday with a change of heart on their vote.
To protect true religious liberty it's crucial for these mischief-making pieces of legislation to be vetoed, voted down and ridiculed out of existence.