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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.

Secular vote
swayed election?

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).

Don’t want to wait for the next issue of Freethought Today for updates on FFRF news and actions? Members may sign up to have news releases, action alerts, blogs or Freethought of the Day (a daily biographical calendar of quotes) delivered to your inbox.

Simply select these options at your new Membership Profile. (Click on “login” at the upper right-hand corner of ffrf.org/ to begin. If we have your email on file, we emailed you instructions on registering and your Membership ID number in November.)

Still need your Membership ID number or help? Email . Instructions are also available by clicking “login” at ffrf.org/.

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.

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Member reminds school of Constitution

wilson complain crosses

“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.

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Election Roundup

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.

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School Commandments spur fanatics

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.

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FFRF contests release-time trailers

p17 trailer

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.

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State/Church Bulletin

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.

The village of Alsip, Ill., will not display a Latin cross on the village water tower this holiday season after receiving demands from FFRF to end the practice.

The annual display of an illuminated cross each December on its distinctive water tower brought a complaint from FFRF last December. Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote that the display violated precedent by the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over Illinois. FFRF sent the village a reminder Nov. 6 about the illegality of the cross.

Mayor Patrick Kitching posted a letter on the village’s website during the week of Nov. 18:

“A tradition for almost 35 years here in the Village of Alsip is coming to an end. You will notice this year our holiday decoration on the West Water Tower (Holiday Cross) will not be erected nor [sic] lit. We have an organization out of Wisconsin, Freedom from Religion Foundation, who is threatening a lawsuit for having a holiday symbol that can be construed as a religious decoration. It is considered to be unconstitutional. Other municipalities have been brought to suit regarding this very same issue and have lost. We have chosen not to waste taxpayer dollars to fight a losing battle in court. The holiday cross will be replaced with a different holiday decoration in the future, however, I am not sure this process can be completed in time for Christmas of 2012.”

Kitching added, “I am very saddened by this and had hoped we would not have to change tradition, however in these economic times, the Village cannot afford to waste any tax dollars on a lawsuit that simply cannot be won.”

In years past, the illuminated cross could be seen by heavy traffic on Interstate 294. FFRF learned through a Freedom of Information Act request that the village Water Department installs and removes the cross each year.

The original installation of the cross, along with a decoration on another water tower, cost the village $3,200 in 2003.

Proselytizing teacher also big bully 

A high school biology teacher in Cheektowaga, N.Y., a Buffalo suburb, removed religious displays from her classroom and will no longer proselytize as a result of an FFRF complaint.  A student alerted FFRF after the teacher invited a guest speaker who promoted Christianity and used biblical quotes from Isaiah and Judges. There were also four posters with bible quotes in the classroom. The complainant also noted a cross painted in a hallway.

Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent Superintendent Dennis Kane a letter June 7. Kane said in a June 22 reply that the cross in the hallway and religious posters had been removed. He said the district discussed the student’s concerns with the teacher.  

The student complainant reported that the teacher showed a copy of FFRF’s June 7 letter to her class on June 12, the last day of school, disclaiming responsibility for her actions. The teacher also attacked the student anonymously, saying whoever had complained to FFRF lacked integrity and character and was on the same level as a student who had cheated on the class’s final exam. 

Markert responded to the teacher’s inappropriate handling of the situation with a June 14 letter to Kane. “Bullying is rampant in schools. Teachers should strive to conduct their classes in an inclusive manner so that students can participate fully without compromising their own personal beliefs.”

Kane responded Sept. 11 that the teacher’s conduct was addressed and she was directed to not discuss religion in her classroom.


FFRF closes book on bible handouts 

FFRF stopped Gideons International from distributing bibles to fifth-graders at Central Elementary School in Magnolia, Ark. Before FFRF’s involvement, men from Gideons were scheduled to give a presentation to students and then present them with bibles.

“Courts have held that the distribution of bibles to students at public schools is prohibited,” wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott in an Oct. 31 letter to Superintendent John Moore. Elliott added that districts cannot allow any group to distribute religious material during the school day.

FFRF received word Nov. 5 that the Gideons were not allowed to be on campus. 


FFRF letter ends religious song

First-graders at Ada Givens Elementary School in Merced, Calif., will no longer be instructed to sing “God Bless America” in the classroom. 

A district parent told FFRF that her 6-year-old daughter was being taught to sing the religious song in class. Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to Superintendent RoseMary Parga Duran on Oct. 17: “The first verse of ‘God Bless America’ ends with, ‘As we raise our voices in solemn prayer.’ A prayer conceived, hosted and advocated by a publicly-supported school does not pass constitutional muster.” 

The school district issued a positive response Oct. 25: “The principal spoke to the teacher about the complaint and about the district’s policy regarding these matters. The teacher was very apologetic and stated she never intended to offend any of her students, or make them uncomfortable in her class. She immediately discontinued singing patriotic songs.”

[Editor’s note: “patriotic” songs?]


FFRF: Just say no
to drug prayer

The Cherokee County School District (Canton, Ga.) has stopped including religious messages on anti-drug ribbons during “Red Ribbon Week.” During a special drug prevention week, the district distributed ribbons to students that said “God answers prayers, drugs don’t.” The ribbons also depicted two hands praying.

After being alerted by a concerned parent, Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote an Oct. 26 letter to Superintendent Frank Petruzielo urging him to “remain sensitive to the diverse religious and nonreligious views of students and staff. While the anti-drug concept is laudable, the injection of religion into the public schools is unconstitutional. Government actors must be especially careful to remain neutral on matters of religion in the public school context.”

A school district attorney replied Oct. 30: “[S]taff has been counseled to be more careful in the future in giving even an appearance of promoting religion.” 


Football bible banners won’t happen again

FFRF received a local complaint after Stone High School cheerleaders held a banner with a bible quote at a football game in Wiggins, Miss.  

Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt sent a letter Oct. 17 to Stone County School District Superintendent Gwen Miller. FFRF has contacted the district in the past about prayer at school-sponsored athletic events.

District attorney Sean Courtnal called FFRF on Oct. 22 to say the district took this violation very seriously and that it would not happen again. [Editor’s note: Till the next time it happens, when FFRF will again contact the district about flouting the law.]


School counselors leave religion at door

FFRF helped Cesar Chavez Elementary School in Oklahoma City rethink its use of religion in school assemblies and counseling sessions. 

A local complainant witnessed several incidents at an Oct. 4 assembly. A third-party counselor was invited to speak to students after a bullying incident. The speaker described “what heaven looks like” and “how we get to heaven.” Even more egregiously, the speaker told students “the way they were acting was not going to get them into heaven.”

Counselors were also being forced to distribute fliers to students. One listed worship times at a church and a Gamblers Anonymous meeting schedule.

Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote Nov. 5 to Superintendent Karl Springer, urging the district to “refrain from hosting overtly religious assemblies” and religious flier distribution.

General counsel for the district told Seidel in a Nov. 9 phone call that the superintendent agrees “that their current policy on religion in the public schools is ‘clearly not enough for nonlawyers’ and they are going ‘to draft a new policy.’ ” She added that this will involve additional staff training. 


‘First priority’: warn about religious clubs

Austin High School (Decatur, Ala.) teachers will no longer sponsor the First Priority Club, a Christian, noncurricular group that describes itself as a vision with a comprehensive plan of action to reach and disciple a generation with the message of Jesus Christ.

A photo caption in the local paper described the relationship between the school and churches: “Austin High School students, teachers and youth pastors join hands and pray at the closing of the First Priority club meeting Tuesday.”

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote Oct. 19 to Superintendent Edwin Nichols: “A public school may not endorse or provide preferential treatment to a Christian club. While students may organize religious clubs, we are concerned that FPC is not ‘student-inititated’ or ‘student-run.’ Students might presume that this Christian club is sponsored by the school because of the apparent role of school faculty in organizing club activities.” 

Nichols responded in a Oct. 29 letter that he would “review with the teacher providing custodial oversight of this student noncurricular group and make sure that they understand their parameters as related to the legal ramifications cited in your letter.”  


Pep rally prayers stopped in Texas

Ballinger [Texas] Independent School District no longer selects a student prayer leader during pep rallies as a result of a Sept. 18 letter from Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt. FFRF received a complaint from a Ballinger alumnus.  

Superintendent Will Brewer in a Sept. 26 response letter thanked FFRF for alerting him to the violation and said that the district does not endorse religion and is reviewing the pep rally program. “Ballinger ISD employees do not request that students engage in prayer, privately or publicly, nor do they encourage or otherwise lead students in prayer,” Brewer said.  

Football coach brags
he breaks the law

After receiving an Oct. 25 letter from Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel, Newton County Schools ordered a football coach in Covington, Ga., to stop leading students in prayer at practices and games. 

Occasionally, FFRF receives taunting “complaints” from teachers, coaches and government officials intentionally violating the Establishment Clause. Rick Hurst, head football coach and athletic director at Eastside High School in Covington, wrote one such email to FFRF, defending another praying coach and happily thumbing his nose at the Constitution:

“I am a Christian first and a Head Football Coach in the state of Georgia . . .  I have open prayer at my practices and before and after our games. If a player does not want to participate I would kindly excuse him.”

Unwilling to limit his bragging to constitutional violations, Hurst pointed out that we here at FFRF are probably going to hell:

“Here is the important question that I ask to ALL of you. What if your [sic] right about your idea of there not being a God? Well, that would be ok for all of us including myself. But, what if I am right about my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and you are wrong. I am still ok, but where does that leave you?” 

The letter was signed, “Rick Hurst (A believer).”

Seidel sent a copy of the email to Superintendent Gary Matthews. FFRF received a copy of a Nov. 5 letter from Matthews to Hurst, chastising the coach: “Legal counsel for the Newton County School Board of Education has reviewed this matter and confirmed that your actions may violate federal law, including but not limited to the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Therefore, you must cease and desist these actions immediately.”


Another school board drops meeting prayer

There was no prayer before the Eastern Lancaster County  (Elanco)[Pa.] School Board meeting Nov. 12, according to LancasterOnline.

The board decided to halt the practice after getting an FFRF complaint letter in August. The Anti-Defamation League of Philadelphia also pressured Elanco to stop praying.

Superintendent Robert Hollister notified FFRF after the October board meeting that Elanco would no longer open meeting with a board member leading a prayer.

“After consultation with our solicitor, it was clear that the district would lose the lawsuit,” Hollister told LancasterOnline in an email. “So rather than throw money away and simultaneously add fuel, cash, to the coffers of those organizations, the board made the logical choice to withdraw the formal prayer.”

Four other Pennsylvania school districts also agreed this year to stop prayer at board meetings after getting letters from Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert. A fifth school board dropped prayer in 2011 after getting a warning letter.

FFRF thanks current interns JJ Rowling, Maddy Ziegler, Calli Miller, Sarah Eucalano, legal assistant Liz Cavell and publicist Katie Stenz.

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

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