A short first-of-its-kind feature spot, “Spotlight on Freethought and the First Amendment,” produced in conjunction with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, started airing Aug. 18 on select national public television affiliates.
The spot is guaranteed to air 500 times in the next three months and reach an estimated 3 million people. A four-minute version and one of 5:30 will run interchangeably. When and where the short program, used as filler, will run can’t be announced beforehand. Public TV affiliates decide which fillers are needed on the day they run.
If you catch one of the spots on your local public TV affiliate, please be sure to contact the affiliate promptly to say thank you and to encourage rebroadcast.
This is believed to be the first such segment featuring discussion of freethought, atheism and focus on the specific dangers of mixing state and church. The description sent to affiliates reads:
“America has more diversity, faiths, religions and cultures than any other country in the world. And yet we all seem to get along pretty well. Only in a country where we can be free of religion in our government can we then be free to practice our own or choose not to follow any faith.
“This segment focuses on our freedom to practice our faith, or no faith — exactly as we want.”
The narrator says, “More wars have been waged, more people killed, in the name of religion than by any other institutional force in human history. So with such wildly contrasting beliefs in this country, why aren’t we at each other’s throats? Here’s why. It’s our Constitution and its very core of freedom from religion. Our country was founded in part by refugees seeking freedom, seeking to escape centuries of religious persecutions, holy inquisitions, witch hunts.”
The four-minute version talks about the benefits of the United States’ secular form of government, defines “freethought” and includes brief interviews with FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor.
Gaylor, a co-founder of FFRF, says on-camera:
“The United States of America was the first nation where our founders did not claim a pipeline to a divinity. It was a revolutionary act that they created a secular and entirely godless Constitution whose only references to religion are exclusionary, that there shall be no religious test for public office. The founders were aware of the inquisitions and the pogroms and the religious wars and the terrors in Europe, and the persecutions in many of the individual colonies — and they wanted no part of that. And so they erected what Thomas Jefferson called the ‘wall of separation between church and state,’ and that protects all of us. It has prevented the bloodshed and warfare that we see in so many parts of the world where religion is involved in government.”
Barker adds, “There are some believers that don’t see the difference between neutrality and hostility. They think efforts of groups like ours to keep the government neutral are also a hostile act against their faith, when we’re not asking for the government to be pro-atheistic either. If the government stays neutral, the government stays secular, then everybody’s an insider, nobody’s an outsider.”
The longer spot features a bonus: an interview with Pitzer College professor Phil Zuckerman, a leading expert on “secularity” and how secular societies measure up favorably to religious nations. Zuckerman is an FFRF member and author of many books, including Society Without God.
As a bonus, a version that is over seven minutes — including additional interview footage of Dan talking about freethought, morality and purpose in life -— has been posted at FFRF’s website and can be viewed now on FFRF’s homepage at ffrf.org/.
Watch for little “cameos,” including appearances by Darwin, Einstein and Susan B. Anthony, shots of some mementos at FFRF’s office, Freethought Hall, a powerful quote by Mark Twain about the witch hunts, photographs of the Reason Rally crowd by Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel and of FFRF Staffer Katie Daniel giving the Westboro Baptists thumbs down when they picketed an FFRF event.
“We warmly thank members who contributed to our PR Campaign Fund as part of the spring membership appeal, whose generosity made possible the filming and airing of this first-of-its-kind segment,” said Gaylor.
Only the first three months of airing are monitored by Neilsen Ratings, but “Spotlight On” segments often run far longer. The program is not offered as any part of any PBS national program service.
FFRF has been venturing into television this year with nationally airing ads, including one featuring JFK endorsing the separation between church and state, and one by actress Julia Sweeney defending contraception from attack by Catholic bishops.
If you’d like to see more TV ads and segments, you may make a tax deductible contribution at:
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has awarded $11,250 to 13 college-bound high school seniors in this year’s essay competition. Seniors were asked to “describe a moment when they stood up for freethought and/or that made them proud to be a freethinker,” in 500-700 words. There were seven winners in the top five, with two ties for fourth and fifth place, plus six honorable mentions. Their essays can be found on pages 11-15.
Nonagenarian Herbert “Harry” Bushong of Texas once again generously endowed this year’s contest. FFRF would also like to extend special thanks to Californian John Moe for endowing the honorable mention awards of $200 and to Dorea and Dean Schramm, Florida, for providing each student with a $50 bonus.
First place ($3,000): Jordan Halpern, University of California-Davis.
Second place ($2,000): Danielle Kelly, University of Montana-Missoula.
Third place ($1,000): Joseph Price, UCLA.
Fourth place tie ($500): Nicole Schreiber, New York University.
Fourth place tie ($500): Sarah Hedge, Northwestern.
Fifth place tie ($300): Rebecca Ratero, Rutgers.
Fifth place tie ($300): Samantha Biatch, Smith College.
Honorable Mention ($200): Abigail Dove, Swarthmore College.
Honorable Mention ($200): Amedee Martella, University of Colorado-Boulder.
Honorable Mention ($200): Cheyenne Tessier, The George Washington University (Cheyenne will defer her university enrollment for a year to do humanitarian service in Senegal with Global Citizen.)
Honorable Mention ($200): Jarrett Browne, Wright State University.
Honorable Mention ($200): Kaitlin Holden, Winthrop University.
Honorable Mention ($200): Zach Gowan, University of South Carolina-Spartanburg.
Look for honorable mention essays in future issues.
In September, 2012 college essay winners will be announced, and in October, FFRF will announce graduate/mature student winners.
FFRF is getting more and more complaints about churches violating IRS regulations on political campaigning. In June and July alone, Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent complaints about five churches to the IRS.
IRS regulations bar nonprofit 501(c)(3) groups such as churches from “[participating in or intervening in] . . . any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”
A sample of violations:
• A South Carolina Baptist church’s website links to a Facebook page titled “I will NOT vote for Obama in 2012.”
• A Catholic priest in Florida was reported to have said at Mass, “You can vote for anybody, even a dog, but don’t vote for Obama.” Parishioners were outraged — at the dog reference, anyway. Others claimed the statement was not accurate or was taken out of context, but one of those naysayers admitted that “Father Dan did say ‘Whatever you do, you can’t vote for Obama.’ ”
• In Virginia, a Baptist church put campaign signs for a Republican congressional primary candidate on its property.
• A Washington church invited far-right gubernatorial candidate Shahram Hadian to speak about the threat of Islam in America. Before the event, two pastors and another church member all voiced their strong support for Hadian’s candidacy. One prayed that “more and more people would see the bumper stickers, they’d see the signs, they’d wonder about this man.” The other was so enthusiastic he twice broke into “speaking in tongues.”
• Rev. Terry Jones, infamous for burning copies of the Quran, hanged Obama in effigy on the lawn of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla. The effigy included a rainbow gay pride flag in its left hand and a doll in its right to protest Obama’s positions on gay marriage and abortion, with the backdrop of a trailer reading “Obama is Killing America.”
FFRF has written to the IRS about all of these and similar violations. The agency responds with a form letter saying IRS can’t discuss ongoing investigations. Unfortunately, it has revoked only one church’s tax-exempt status for campaigning since the restriction was put in place in 1954.
Even so, FFRF believes it’s important to pursue the violations. If you know of any churches intervening in political campaigns, contact FFRF to send a letter on your behalf or visit our Churches and Political Lobbying Activities FAQ at ffrf.org/faq/state-church/ to learn how to send a complaint to the IRS yourself.
— By Maddie Ziegler
FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Sei-del sent a follow-up letter July 12 to Houston County Schools in Perry, Ga., about egregious constitutional violations. FFRF has now been contacted by 8 families, each reporting multiple violations. (Along with the complaints were threats. A Warner Robins resident mentioned “sticking guns in your mouths and blowing the backs of your god damn heads off.”)
Reported violations include:
• Prayers at school events, such as assemblies, ceremonies, and school council meetings.
• Administrators encouraging teachers to pray.
• Teachers admitting, with pride, that “we (the teachers) did hold hands and have a prayer around the kids. It was lovely.”
• Alma mater songs endorsing religious belief over nonbelief.
• A recommended “Summer Reading Program” including the violent Left Behind series by conservative End Times Pastor Tim LaHaye.
• Religious imagery and bible quotes on school walls and websites.
• Schools partnering with churches in close and troubling relationships.
• Mandating attendance at religious baccalaureate.
Seidel has corroborated most of the claims. The 13 enclosures and more than 30 pages of evidence make it “clear that there is a systemic lack of adherence to and respect for the First Amendment in Houston County Schools,” he wrote. “Extensive corrective measures, including training of all HCSD employees and administrators on the proper boundaries of the Establishment Clause, are imperative.”
Was she even Christian?
Atop Maiden Cliff in Camden Hills State Park and visible “for miles around” is a 24-foot-tall cross. FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel’s letter to Director Will Harris of the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands noted that “the cross has fallen or been blown down approximately five times” and “government resources, including National Guard helicopters and the manpower of the Maine National Guard, local fire departments and Parks and Lands employees, were used to erect the cross on multiple occasions.”
Seidel’s letter asks Harris “to remove the cross from state property immediately or direct the display be moved to a more appropriate private location.” Local legend claims that the “cross is meant to serve as a memorial to 11-year-old Elenora French, who fell from the cliff almost 150 years ago, in 1864.”
However, Seidel’s research revealed the girl’s actual grave has no Christian iconography. “The placement, size and visibility of the cross make it far more likely this display was not chosen to memorialize Elenora, but to associate the area and the state of Maine with the Christian religion.”
Other FFRF complaints:
• The city of Draper, Utah, used at least $21,500 of city funds to pay for a worship concert starring Christian artist Michael W. Smith on his “Wonder, Worship, & Glory Tour.” The city had backed off after a resident threatened to sue, then reversed itself.
FFRF followed up with an open records request to determine actual funding and coordination between Draper and the local Christian group that urged the city to bring Smith to town.
• A local complainant informed FFRF of the Richardson [Texas] Police Department’s “Third Annual Faith-Based Crime Prevention Conference.” Registration preference went to religious organizations over secular ones.
In his complaint, Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel noted (tongue only slightly in cheek), “If they are looking to reduce crime, the RPD would do better to police the churches rather than partner with them, especially the Catholic churches.”
• The Peach County Senior Citizens Center in Fort Valley, Ga., has illegally let staff lead prayers, bible readings and hymn singing. Federal regulations prohibit senior centers that receive federal funding from engaging in religious activities at government-sponsored functions such as meals.
• The Century, Fla., Town Council budgeted money to buy “a manger scene at town hall.” Council President Ann Brooks “believe[s] we all want a manger scene.” The council has not yet replied to FFRF’s complaint.
FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt has written three letters of complaint about posting of religious material in the office of Tax Commissioner Susan Kersey in Jeff Davis County in Hazlehurst, Ga. The first two letters went to Kersey, with a follow-up letter to County Administrator James Carter. “We have written two letters to Ms. Susan Kersey regarding this matter and to date have received no response,” Schmitt wrote July 25 to Carter. “It is our further understanding that Ms. Kersey admits to receiving our letters and in fact has made comments online about her refusal to take [the religious items] down. I’ve enclosed copies of these posts as well.”
Besides the displays pictured, another says “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me, Philippians 4:13.” (A more fitting verse for someone in Kersey’s position would be “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s . . .”)
The 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals refused to accept a petition for en banc review filed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, after a three-judge panel approved academic credit for released-time instruction on June 28.
FFRF, and two sets of parent plaintiffs with children in the school district in Spartanburg, S.C., challenged the practice as a state entanglement with religion, which favored students of the dominant religious faith. The group filed suit in 2009.
The school district delegated grading power over its students and evaluation of the course material to both the Spartanburg County Education in School Time (SCBEST) and a private Christian school, Oakbrook Preparatory Academy. FFRF contends that essentially the district has added a devotional religious course as a public school elective and gave the bible school grading power over it. “If the Bible School course consisted of five hours a week of praying on bended knee and Oakbrook approved it, academic credit would nevertheless ensue as a matter of course,” FFRF’s petition noted.
The Supreme Court, in approving released time instruction in 1952, never hinted it could be treated as the equivalent of attending French or math class. It was intended as accommodation, and public schools were to have a ‘hands-off’ approach, with no academic reward for undergoing proselytization off-site an hour a week.
In its legal challenge, handled pro bono by attorney George Daly, FFRF documented that the superintendent gave the released time group names and addresses of children in order to publicize the program.
The public school has no control of the grades. Schools may be compelled to accommodate devotional religious instruction, but may not be required to provide it, or hand out grades for it, maintains FFRF.
FFRF thanks its plaintiffs and Daly for challenging the violation. FFRF is considering its options.
Appeals court nixes Wis. church graduations
The Elmbrook [Wis.] School District illegally held graduation ceremonies at Elmbrook Church, the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled 7-3 on July 23. Symbols in the church, including a giant cross on the wall, conveyed a message that government was endorsing a particular religion, the court ruled in a 2009 suit bought by Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
“[The decision] ensures that students in Wisconsin will not be forced to enter an intensely religious environment as the price of attending their own high school graduation, a seminal event in their lives,” said attorney Alex Luchenitser, AU associate legal director.
Court denies challenge to hate crimes law
The 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals on Aug. 2 upheld a lower court’s ruling that denied a 2010 claim by three Michigan pastors and the American Family Association of Michigan that the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act hampered their religious obligation “to state clearly the immoral nature of homosexuality” and “to publicly denounce homosexuality, homosexual activism and the homosexual agenda as being contrary to God’s law and His divinely inspired Word.”
“The Act does not prohibit Plaintiffs’ proposed course of hateful speech,” wrote appellate Judge James Gwin wrote.
Courts rule against reproductive rights
Women’s reproductive rights took hits in July in three court rulings cheered by the Religious Right. Phoenix federal Judge James Teilborg upheld an Arizona law banning all abortions starting at 20 weeks after a woman’s last menstrual period.
The New York Times reported the law “defies binding Supreme Court precedent that prevents states from banning abortions before a fetus can survive outside the womb, which generally occurs at about 24 weeks.” Teilborg also embraced questionable claims about when a fetus can feel pain.
• Denver U.S. District judge issued a temporary injunction stopping the Obama administration from requiring a secular ventilation and air-conditioning company to provide employees with contraceptive coverage.
The Times noted, “There is no constitutional precedent for individuals, much less corporations, allowing them to violate generally applicable laws because they may have a religious objection. Conversely, the company’s claim that its owners or officers have a First Amendment right to impose their personal religious beliefs on the corporation’s employees is groundless.”
• The 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in St. Louis upheld 7-4 a 2005 South Dakota law requiring doctors “to misinform women seeking an abortion that they face an increased risk of suicide and suicidal thoughts” if they have an abortion, the paper reported.
Zoo removes Commandments after protest planned
The Oakland [Calif.] Zoo removed a Ten Commandments monument July 25, days before a planned protest by the East Bay Atheists and Atheist Advocates of San Francisco. The 6-foot-tall marble sculpture has been on zoo property since 1965 when the area was a state park.
Joey Piscitelli, Martinez, told the San Jose Mercury News that the removal wasn’t a coincidence. “They wanted to thwart the demonstrations and keep this out of the public eye.”
Court: Mennonite B&B can’t bar gays
A Mennonite-owned bed-and-breakfast in Grand Forks, B.C., discriminated against a gay couple from Vancouver by refusing them a room, the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal ruled July 17.
Brian Thomas and Shaun Eadie were each award $4,500 in damages and expenses.
Riverbend B&B owners Les and Susan Molnar, members of a Mennonite church, argued they were exercising their right to religious freedom in the sanctity of their own home.
Florida county sued over 10 Commandments
Bradford County commissioners in Starke, Fla., are being sued by American Atheists for refusal to remove a Ten Commandments monument from outside the courthouse in Starke.
The county asked the group that put the monument there, the Community Men’s Fellowship, to remove it “immediately,” but the group refused, reported News 4 in Jacksonville.
FFRF sent a complaint letter May 14 to the commission.
“The county doesn’t have the ability to move it without accruing a very substantial cost in doing that,” said County Attorney Terry Brown. “So somebody needs to pay for it, and it doesn’t need to be the taxpayer.”
Faith-healing conviction upheld in Oregon
An Oregon appellate court upheld the 2009 conviction on July 11 of Carl Brent Worthington, a member of the Followers of Christ Church, for second-degree criminal mistreatment in the death of his 15-month old daughter. The girl died of sepsis and bacterial pneumonia from an untreated cystic mass.
Worthington and his pregnant wife, Raylene, were acquitted on manslaughter charges. She was also acquitted of criminal mistreatment. He was sentenced to two months in jail and five years’ probation.
Church graduations costly for Conn. school
The Enfield [Conn.] School Board voted 6-3 on July 18 to settle a suit challenging the school system’s practice of holding high school graduation ceremonies in a church.
“No students or their families should feel like outsiders at their own graduation ceremony,” said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, the Hartford Courant reported.
The district agreed to hold no more graduations in church. Its insurance provider will cover up to $470,000 in settlement costs. The exact amount of the settlement wasn’t revealed, but plaintiffs’ legal fees are about $1 million.
Ohio high court takes creationist teacher’s case
The Ohio Supreme Court voted 4-3 on July 5 to hear Mount Vernon science teacher John Freshwater’s appeal of his 2011 firing for pushing Christianity and creationism in the classroom. Freshwater alleges his rights to free speech and academic freedom were violated. The first complaint against him surfaced in 2008.
Religion Clause blog reported that the court granted review on two issues: Could he be fired if the board didn’t clearly indicate what materials or teaching methods were unacceptable, and did the mere presence of religious texts from the school library and/or display of a patriotic poster can justify his firing?
I guess now that the “God particle” has been discovered -— or very nearly confirmed by a majority of physicists — I need to decide what church to join. We atheists, after all, have long been devoutly demanding evidence of the hypothesized intelligent designer holding the universe together.
So now that scientists have observed the predicted Higgs boson that gives matter its mass — without which there could be no creation, no gravity, galaxies, stars, planets, waterfalls, pansies, panthers or “Hallelujah” choruses — we must conclude that the theologians have been right all along.
Or maybe not.
Peter Higgs, the physicist who first deduced and proposed the existence of the theoretical field now known as the Higgs boson, does not believe in God. After Leon Lederman, another nonbelieving physicist, had jokingly referred to the mysterious boson as the “God particle,” Higgs was not happy: “I wish he hadn’t done it. I have to explain to people it was a joke. I’m an atheist.”
The phrase became part of the title for Lederman’s 2006 book, The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question?
Other scientists agree with Higgs. Pauline Gagnon, a Canadian physicist working at the Large Hadron Collider, said: “I hate that ‘God particle’ term. The Higgs is not endowed with any religious meaning. It is ridiculous to call it that.”
I am certain Lederman did not have any spiritual motive. He was not trying to endow the particle with any “religious meaning.” He was using language in an ironic and humorous way. And most likely his publisher knew that the word “God” helps sell books.
According to one story, Lederman first called it the “goddamn particle,” but the editor didn’t think that would make a great title. (Although I would have bought such a book!)
When Einstein said that “God does not play dice with the universe,” he was clearly not talking about a supernatural being playing a game of craps. The word “God” has often been used (inadvisedly, in my opinion) as a convenient placeholder for “We don’t know.”
“God” is a synonym for “mystery.” When the cause of an event is unknown, some say “God did it.” Surprised by a natural disaster, some call it an “act of God.” Not having a sure answer, some say “God knows” — meaning, “Who knows?”
God reflects uncertainty, not knowledge. It’s the same with faith: We only rely on faith when the claim cannot stand on its own merits.
When the ancient Greek and Nordic civilizations heard thunder, they said, “Zeus is on the warpath,” or “Thor is angry.” In other words, “Who knows?” Now that we understand something about the weather and electricity, we no longer need Zeus or Thor. We no longer need “God did it.” Thor is dead. God has one less place to hide.
But our language still reflects those old patterns. The fact that I’m writing this article on a Thursday (the day of Thor) does not mean the Norse gods really exist or that a thunderstorm is truly an “act of God.” When Lederman nicknamed the Higgs boson the “God particle,” he was playing with language, joking that since we don’t know what holds matter together, God must be the explanation (wink, wink).
While we atheists cannot pretend that the discovery of the Higgs boson proves there is no God, we can certainly say that such evidence, if confirmed, gives God one less place to hide.
Believers will always find other hiding places, so this discovery will pose little threat to their faith. But now maybe they can join us — those with a sense of humor — in officially changing the name of the Higgs boson.
From now on, let’s call it the “Godless particle.”
Dan Barker is FFRF co-president and author of The Good Atheist: Living a Purpose-Filled Life Without God; Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher To Atheist; Godless: How An Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists; and Just Pretend: A Freethought Book for Children.