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How does someone go from being a being a three-term elder in a large Presbyterian Church to the author of Time Traveling with Science and the Saints, a book that nails Christianity to its own much-vaunted cross? In my case, it was easy, much easier than the paths that many of my formerly religious friends (many of them ex-clergymen) have more painfully walked. I was raised in a family in which religion was a non-issue, free to go to Sunday school with my friends whenever I wished. But northern Minnesota's forests and lakes held much more appeal, so most Sundays found me strolling through pine-shaded woods with my dog at my side. Then came college, a dental degree, and marriage to a great young lady who was raised Presbyterian, which explains how I became involved with the church. Fortunately, our church soon acquired a forward-thinking pastor, who, to the parishioners' great surprise, turned out to be more interested in projects like aiding the poor than air-conditioning the church. That pastor lasted just two years, and when he left, so did we, for after poring through books on comparative religion, we had concluded that the emperor we'd been serving had, like Swaggart and Bakker (and today's Rush Limbaugh), been parading around with no clothes. I like to say I once served as an officer on a very impressive ship, the S.S. Presbyterian. Like most spiritual ships, the vessel rarely sought serious waters--the crew being too busy singing hymns and burnishing brass to tend to the pressing needs they found in every port. When our wealthier officers began to pressure the crew to pledge even more to embellish our splendid vessel (while ignoring needs ashore), my wife and I decided to escape. And late one evening, when we passed abeam the Rational Islands, we slipped over the gunwale and quietly swam to shore. Shortly thereafter, we joined a unique organization that we all support--the courageous Freedom From Religion Foundation, of which I am a Life Member. A subsequent move to Minneapolis provided an opportunity to join both the Minnesota Atheists and the Humanists of Minnesota, an organization for which I served as president and newsletter editor for many years before being elected to the board of the American Humanist Association. During those years we raised two good nonreligious sons, and I spent a part of every summer exploring northern Canada and Alaska in my floatplane. The experiences garnered during those thirty summers, plus the history of the marvelous people I'd met, led me to write True North, a book that not only rode the bestseller list in Canada for three months but has done very well in the U.S. To my knowledge, True North is the only U.S. mass market book that provides a mix of wildlife and adventure, criticism of missionary practices and creationists' ploys, plus praise of an atheist chieftain and the science that created all of our comforts. I'm pleased that so many readers have used True North for a birthday, graduation or Christmas gift for friends and relatives. While writing True North, I attended a program titled "Galileo and the Catholic Church," sponsored by the College of St. Thomas. Unfortunately, the event turned out to be little more than an exercise in blaming the victim. During the discussion period, when a participant repeated the commonly held belief that, despite its abuses, religion has civilized the world, I decided to write a book comparing the fruits of Christianity to those of the sciences that it has opposed for almost two thousand years. With Matthew 7:20, "by their works shall ye know them," to guide me, I scanned the historical record to see which has brought more pleasure and which has caused more pain. I'm pleased that Time Traveling with Science and the Saints (Prometheus Books), though predictably not a bestseller, has also sold very well, especially to the freethought community. Now, with my 71st birthday out of the way, my wife and I are contemplating a move to a home in northern Minnesota that we have been remodeling for more than a year. Directly across the lake from our "new" south-facing home is--surprise--a seaplane base that I expect to use for at least forty or fifty more years! Editor's note: George donates the profits from True North and Time Traveling to the Foundation whenever members order signed copies from him and mention FFRF. True North costs $15.00 incl. postage. For a CD of 167 color photos that follow True North from cover to cover, add $7.00. Time Traveling lists at $25.00, but George provides signed copies for $20.00 incl. postage. Mail checks to George Erickson at 2300 17th St NW, New Brighton, MN 55112. ￼ George and his plane George's Commandments Because of my contacts in the education community, I am occasionally asked to speak to high school and college students about religion vs. freethought. In response to a frequently asked question about the Ten Commandments, I often say that we don't have much use for most of them, and then offer the following list, explaining it is probably incomplete, but it does provide an example of how most of us operate. George's Commandments: 1. Use your head--think critically. Use your hands--be helpful. Use your heart--be caring. 2. Remember, everyone needs to be loved. 3. Leave thoughts of gods and miracles, heavens and hells to those who invented them. Many people believe they need religion to make them be good--we do well without. 4. Be at least as good as your parents. If they weren't very good, you have an easy job. If they were great, you're lucky. If everyone did this, the human race would improve quite rapidly. 5. Get an education. It might be expensive, but ignorance costs more. 6. Support democracy. It's not perfect, but it's the best system running. 7. Support science. All of your comforts and conveniences derive from science. 8. Make today a little better for someone else, and today will be better for you. 9. Be tolerant. Why should others consider your viewpoint if you won't consider theirs? 10. When you screw up, admit it--and apologize. 11. Appreciate and protect the planet that feeds you. Recycle; don't pollute. 12. Be good to your body. Why damage something that took millions of years to evolve? 13. Practice safe sex and family planning. The earth is getting crowded. Malls, factories and parking lots are expanding at the expense of the forests and farms that sustain us.--George Erickson
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And speaking of an emperor with no patience for clothing, especially when it happens to be on the women around him, well, the people of California took seriously the request that they Win One for the Groper, and they elected Schwarzenegger as their governor. This, despite the fact that the guy has no political experience, and ample experience in behaving badly, even illegally. He's a gang banger, a compulsive handyman, a fan of Hitler and a zealous drug user who has, in his words, "inhaled and exhaled everything." I wondered how Schwarzenegger could get away with doing things that would terminate the career of any normal, non-steroidally enhanced human being. Was it being a Republican? Was it being a movie star with a glamorous Tammy Wynette of a wife? Those things help, of course, but then I learned that Arnold is a devout Catholic, who attends mass just about every Sunday with his family. Catholics have this wonderful little escape clause written into their contract. It's called confession. No matter what you've done, you can go into a little box that serves as a kind of sin shredder, an autoclave for the soul. You just tell the guy sitting behind the screen, forgive me father for I have sinned, and you list your various peccadillos as earnestly but succinctly as you can. The priest asks if you're sorry, you say you are, he gives you a kind of homework assignment to prove your repentance, and voila! You're in the clear. And the great thing about the system is, you can be a repeat offender, you can keep doing the same bad things over and over, and still the priest is obligated, if you ask for it nicely, to give you a pass. Hail Mary full of grace, let me win the governor's race. If you don't, I'll bust your face. But I am not being fair. People learn many useful things in the course of getting a Christian education. Just the other evening, my daughter, who is in second grade, shared with me and my husband a series of jokes and songs that had a lot of vivid references to body parts, body functions and body fluids, ill-fitting underwear, and, Arnold's favorite, the toilet bowl. Now I am no angel. Sometimes I'm not even PG-rated. If Katherine is around when I stub a toe or step in cat throw-up or read the morning newspaper, well, I just might say shit or goddamn it or Jesus fucking Christ, and my daughter will scold me for using bad language, or for invoking the name of somebody she knows quite well I don't believe in. Yet even with my somewhat lax verbal standards, I was surprised by the vulgar nature of the little ditties my daughter sang for us. Where did you learn those things? my husband and I asked of her. From Michelle, she replied brightly. Ah, yes, Michelle, her most religiously indoctrinated friend, a girl who spends every Sunday in church and every summer at bible camp, who once made for Katherine a lovely drawing with hearts and flowers and birds and butterflies that on one side said, I love Katherine and on the other, I love the Baby Jesus, too. Now, Katherine has many friends, but whenever she's come home with some really juicy Maxim-worthy material, it turns out she's learned it from Michelle. So the question is, who is tutoring Michelle? She doesn't have older siblings. She and Katherine attend the same public school during the week. I can only conclude that there is more to bible camp than the canonical gospels, and that perhaps Katherine really is missing something by growing up in a pleasant, tree-lined Norman Rockwellesque town like Takoma Park--which is just over the border in Maryland, a couple of miles from here--without the benefit of Sunday school. How is she supposed to learn about the glories of the gutter? The only smutty poems I know are ones I learned growing up in the Bronx decades ago, and they're far too stale for today's savvy young consumer. So all I can say to Michelle is, Amen! But I am making light of a very somber business, the topic of my talk, which is the challenge of raising a god-free child in these god-besotted times. Because yes, my husband and I are raising our daughter as an atheist, in a moderately active fashion. That means not only do we fail to schlep her to church or temple or any other house of "worship" on a regular basis; not only do we expect her at dinnertime to direct her gratitude for the food she is about to eat to whichever harried parent prepared the meal--and so she does, with little ad-libbed prayers like, I beg you, please don't make me eat these Brussels sprouts! We also explain to her why we don't believe in god, and why we're big fans of evidence-based analysis, and why we think that religion is a source of a lot of the world's misery and strife. Yes, indeed, I never pass up an opportunity for a good lusty anti-god rant. In August, for example, Katherine and I were boarding a plane for North Carolina, when the person behind us, a woman with white hair and icy blue eyes, started giving the ticket agent a hard time--unfairly, from what I could hear. Their argument got heated, and finally she said she was going to report him to his airline's management. What's your name? she demanded. Mohammad, he said. Mohammad, eh? said the woman. I should have known! Well, I couldn't help but whirl around in outrage at that remark. Jesus Christ! I cried. I can't believe you said that! The woman turned her polar-cap glare on me and snarled that I should mind my own business. And who are you to talk, anyway! she added, Using the lord's name in vain like that! We were about to come to fisticuffs when I remembered, oops, I have my kid with me. Once Katherine and I were finally settled in our seats, I tried to explain the argument, and the reason why the woman's slur against the man's name was so mean and indefensible. This is what happens with religion, I said, people get into fights over whose god is better and more godlike than whose. My daughter, weisenheimer that she is, politely observed, Yes, Mom, but you don't believe in god, and you were fighting, too, at which point I suggested that she read the Sky Mall catalogue in the seat pocket in front of her. Kids say the goddamnedest things, don't they? But being an atheist parent is not always fun and games. For a while last year questions about god-belief, death, and the heaven option were big topics of discussion among Katherine and her friends. And Katherine really, really wished there was a heaven to look forward to. For one thing, she liked the dress code there, and all the cool accessories--the white flowing gowns, the wings, the harps. For another, she's no fool. She realizes that, if there's no heaven, no afterlife, then when you die, there's probably . . . nothing. This little technicality has been and continues to be a very hard thing for her to handle. Not long ago, the three of us were in the car, on the beltway, interestingly enough with the big white tetra-towered Mormon temple that some of you may have seen looming up ahead--by the way, we've told Katherine that the temple is in fact the tooth fairy's castle, and that it's built of children's teeth, a story that for some reason she's deeply skeptical about, although damn if the temple doesn't look like the jaw of some sort of extinct giant saber-toothed rodent. Anyway, all of a sudden Katherine started to scream. What's wrong? What's wrong? we gasped. Have you been stung by a yellow jacket? Are you feeling car-sick? Should we pull over? No, she cried. I was just thinking about death, and I can't stand it. I can't stand it! I don't want to have to die! Now this is a tough protest to respond to, and it's come up repeatedly. How can you answer it without resorting to platitudes, obfuscations, lies? We're still in the, um, groping stage. We start by saying, but that's a long, long, long way in the future! You're going to live for such a ridiculous amount of time that you'll be begging for a time-out! Rick and I both write about science, biology and medicine, and we tell her of all the wondrous medical advances that will keep her going for, who knows, a century, two centuries, even longer. We also have explained to her that she won't vanish altogether, and that the universe will never let her go. Matter and energy can be neither created nor destroyed, we say, but simply transformed. This isn't fantasy; this is reality. Who knows where you'll end up next, we say. Part of a dolphin, an eagle, a snow leopard--one of the big showcase species, of course, just as everybody who channels their former lives seems to discover that they were an Egyptian pharaoh or a Druidic princess. Still, Katherine rails against the injustice of our mortality. She's terrified at the idea of personal, if not molecular, extinction. Wouldn't it be better if god were real? she asks. Wouldn't you rather have something to look forward to, a place to go? She says things that really hit home, like how much she would like to meet her grandfather Keith, my father, that is, who died of malignant melanoma when I was nineteen and whom I continue to miss terribly. I reply that, yes, I wish she could meet him, and I wish I could see him again myself, but spending an eternity with your parents, sheesh! Surely she can grasp the downside of that? I also tell her that the image of heaven a lot of people have put forth sounds like a really dismal place to me. Do you know what angels supposedly do all day? Day after year after eternity? They sit around telling god how wonderful he is. It's like the routine from Monty Python's "The Meaning of Life," when a chaplain and his congregation pray, "O Lord . . . oooh you are so big, so absolutely huge. Gosh, we're all really impressed down here, I can tell you. Forgive us O Lord for this dreadful toadying and barefaced flattery, but you are so strong and well, just so super and fantastic. Amen." No thanks, I say. I'd rather die. A few people have warned me that my daughter may eventually rebel against her parents by going to the other "extreme," becoming a Moonie or a Pentacostal or a Lubevitcher. They believe that the best way to inoculate your children against religious zealotry is with a nice bland, reduced-fat faith like Unitarian-Universalist or reform Judaism. My sister is taking that approach with her two kids out in Oregon, raising them as reform Jews. She insists that, with all the right-wing fundamentalist Christians in her area, Judaism is a political statement equivalent to supporting Howard Dean. I've argued with her, saying that it would be an even bolder statement to raise them as atheists. But then everybody would be trying to save their souls, to convert them, she says. This way, they leave her kids alone. Oh, I suppose. Yet I don't like the dyspeptic narcissistic god of the Old Testament any more than the infanticidal absentee of the New. In any event, I can't be bland about my atheism. If Katherine is getting a heavy dose of unalloyed heathenism, maybe that is better, in the end, than vacillation. Maybe that's what kids really crave--strong convictions. And maybe what they don't crave is all the fear and threat of a really terrible punishment that seem to be the essential minerals and vitamins in most religions. ￼ Photo by Brent Nicastro I know about the fear from my own experience. I had a very unusual upbringing in many ways, not least when it came to religion. My mother is Jewish, my father had been raised as a Christian Scientist by my grandmother June Dawn. She'd been a silent movie actress, but then turned to heavy-duty religion, becoming a Christian Science practitioner who healed people over the phone. When my parents met, they were both members of the Young Communist Party and distinctly anti-religion. My father, however, couldn't shake his faith-based upbringing, and he eventually started shopping around for a palatable religion. He tried Episcopalianism, he tried Catholicism, and then, when I was seven, he rejected Christianity again, angrily as was his style, and started exploring Buddhism and other eastern religions. The next year, when I was eight, our family was out west visiting relatives, we got into a terrible car accident that very nearly killed my older brother. As my parents kept watch at my brother's hospital bed, they sent the rest of us kids to various relatives. I was shipped off to San Diego to my grandmother June, whom I barely knew, and as you can imagine I was in a scared and impressionable frame of mind. She had a small house. I slept on her couch. And one night, she came out into the living room, sat down on the edge of the couch in the dark and woke me up. Do you know why your family had that car accident? she asked me. I'm not sure, I said. For some reason, Aunt Estelle lost control of the car. It's because your father stopped going to church, my grandmother said. It's because he stopped asking god to protect your family. So you must do it for him. You must pray every night for the people you love. And you know what? Grandma June succeeded. She scared the bejesus into me so that, even though I had no interest until then in religion, I started praying, frantically, every night, reciting a long list of people for god to protect. I kept this up for seven years. Seven years, and then the bad spell was broken. I'm not going to put a hex on my daughter. Sure, I'm a soapbox atheist. But she doesn't have to take my word for anything. All she has to do is look around her, every day, to find the bible she needs--in the sky, sun, moon, Mars, leaves, lady bugs, stink bugs, possums, tadpoles, cardinals, the wonderful predatory praying mantises that have gotten really big and fat this year on all the insects this rainy year has brought. Life needs no introduction, explanation or excuse. Life is bigger than myth--except in California.
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Remarks in uniform by new Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, Lt. Gen. William G. "Jerry" Boykin: [Speaking about Somalian Muslim soldier] I knew that my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol. Church in Daytona Beach, Fla. January 2003 The battle that we're in is a spiritual battle. Satan wants to destroy this nation, he wants to destroy us as a nation, and he wants to destroy us as a Christian army. First Baptist Church of Broken Arrow, Okla., June 2002 Why do they hate us? The answer to that is because we're a Christian nation. We are hated because we are a nation of believers. [Our] spiritual enemy will only be defeated if we come against them in the name of Jesus. George Bush was not elected by a majority of the voters in the United States. He was appointed by God. Good Shepherd Community Church, Sandy, Ore., June 2003 Los Angeles Times, Oct. 16, 2003 He [William Boykin] is an officer that has an outstanding record in the United States armed forces. Defense Sec. Donald H. Rumsfeld Associated Press, Oct. 16, 2003 'If I could just get a nuclear device inside Foggy Bottom, I think that's the answer.' I mean, you get through this [book, Dangerous Diplomacy: How the State Department Endangers America's Security by Joel Mowbray], and you say, 'We've got to blow that thing up.' Rev. Pat Robertson, "700 Club" Associated Press, Oct. 12, 2003 I lack sufficient capabilities to express my disdain [for Robertson's remarks]. State Dept. spokesman Richard Boucher Associated Press, Oct. 12, 2003 The [church sex abuse] scandals in the United States received disproportionate attention from the media. There are thieves in every country, but it's hard to say that everyone is a thief. Cardinal Angelo Sodano Vatican Secretary of State Reuters/Boston Globe, Oct. 11, 2003 I have long defended the constitutionality of depicting the Ten Commandments in a courthouse, and a depiction of the Ten Commandments hangs on the wall of my office, as it has for years. Because I consider the Ten Commandments to be the cornerstone of law for Western civilization, I do not consider their display in a courthouse, as they are displayed in the Supreme Court of the United States [sic], to be an establishment of religion. Ala. Atty. General William H. Pryor Jr. Bush judicial nominee Mobile Register, Oct. 19, 2003 There should be a display of the Ten Commandments in the U.S. Capitol. U.S. Rep. Robert Aderholt Ten Commandments Defense Act sponsor TomPaine.com, Oct. 15, 2003 If we want to maintain an ethical and social system, we should build one based on spiritual and moral values that transcend any interest. God is vital. Former dictator Rev. Efrain Rios Montt Guatemalan presidential candidate Associated Press, Oct. 7, 2003 The spermatozoon can easily pass through the 'net' that is formed by the condom. Vatican official Alfonso Lopez Trujillo (calling condoms a health danger) Associated Press, Oct. 9, 2003 [I expect Iraq to be] an Islamic country by faith, just as we are a Judeo-Christian. . . Well, it's hard to tell any more, but we are a country of many faiths now. Sec. of State Colin Powell Charlie Rose Show, Sept. 22, 2003 Reuters: Oct. 23, 2003 Any kid would be proud to have my parents. We were really, really bad. Testimony by 12-year-old who was denied food and tied up, and whose adopted brother Brian Edgar, 9, was tortured and killed by his religious parents, Rev. Chasity Edgar, and Neil Edgar, Olathe, Kan., both found guilty of first-degree murder To learn you must love discipline. 9-year-old adopted Edgar daughter Kansas City Star, Sept. 29, 2003 Where Was God? High School cross country runners gathering for a pre-run prayer on the side of a highway in Luling, Texas, were struck by a car on Oct. 11. One student was killed and at least three were injured. Source: Associated Press, Oct. 6, 13, 2003 A church bus driver fell asleep while driving on Interstate 20, near Tullulah, La., and slammed into a parked tractor-trailer. The accident killed eight senior citizens and injured seven other passengers on an outing sponsored by the First Baptist Church in Eldorado, Texas. Source: AP, Oct. 14, 2003 On her way home from a Sunday student rally to promote a Billy Graham Crusade, Alicia Layne, 19, died in a three-car accident on Interstate 35. Her 15-year-old sister was severely injured and six others were released after treatment at a hospital. Prior to her accident, the Oklahoma City Community College student had attended Sunday school at Immanuel Baptist Church, performed her daily bible reading, joined her family for another worship service, and even prayed with her parents about the safety of the trip. Source: Daily Oklahoman, June 6, 2003 Mary Corrigan, who worked as a house parent at the former Baptist Children's Home in Kouts, Ind., was charged with six counts of neglect of foster children. She and two friends confined three young Indianapolis children in a bathroom for months without any clothing and little food, forced children to sit in ice-cold baths for hours, and let them out only to clean the house. "These kids were living in a house of horrors," said the Marion Co. prosecutor. Former Baptist Home residents also alleged mistreatment, such as being forced to drink vinegar by Corrigan for committing "sins." Corrigan's Indianapolis home was licensed.Source: Indianapolis Star, Aug. 28, 2003
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Settlement Nixes Fire Chaplains The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, which was sued by several firefighters this year over its chaplain policy, agreed as of Sept. 1 to halt operation of the Chaplaincy Program. Employees may only provide chaplain services on a voluntary basis on their own time. No CDF or state funds, materials, facilities or equipment will be used to perform chaplain duties. No employees may perform chaplain duties while wearing an official CDF uniform or patch. They may offer "words of inspiration" at CDF events "so long as the words of inspiration are nonreligious." The term "CDF Chaplain" is "no longer appropriate," and may not be used on official correspondence, business cards, letterhead, voicemail, emails, etc. The case was settled in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, Western Division. (Information provided by George Mason, Calif.) HHS Funds More Faith Health and Human Services Sec. Tommy Thompson in September awarded $30.5 million in grants to 81 groups, to provide technical assistance and sub-grants to church-related and community groups in 45 states. Fifty grants of $50,000 were given to groups in 35 states, the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands to serve at-risk youths and homeless people. Larger grants were awarded to intermediary groups to provide training and technical assistance to faith-based and community groups. At least 25 percent of the grant money is to go to grassroots organizations assisting individuals with homelessness, addiction or incarceration of a parent. Sixty new grants totaling $8.1 million will "help faith-based and community organizations expand and strengthen their ability to provide social services," according to the HHS. HHS announced a grant of about $24 million to support 21 continuing grants under HHS's "Compassion Capital Fund" to build the capacity of faith-based and community groups to provide social services. HHS's Compassion Capital Fund was created two years ago, with a $35 million budget for the current fiscal year. Bush's budget proposal would increase support for the Compassion Capital Fund to $100 million in fiscal year 2004. The Administration said these actions will remove "unnecessary barriers" to create a "level playing field" for faith-based groups to compete for federal dollars. * * * In late October, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao awarded more than $1.5 million in grants for Memphis workforce projects to area "faith community" groups. "The president believes in the power of faith to transform lives. There is no one closer to the heart and soul of the needy than the faith-based groups," Chao told 2,000 people at a government conference of faith applicants for federal funding. Memphis is one of two cities the Labor Department has chosen to test a model between workforce readiness agencies and faith-based groups. The Memphis Leadership Foundation and the Hope Center of Greater Community Temple Church of God in Christ will use a $98,000 grant from the Labor Department to support substance abuse treatment and employment services for 45 people. The Christ Community Health Service in Memphis received a $1.95 million HHS grant to provide medical care for three years to the poor. US Charity Begins at Church The Bush Administration in late September announced that religious charities providing social services may compete for $28 billion in federal grants. The Administration proposed new rules that would: Let job retraining vouchers train recipients to work in a church, synagogue or religious institution. Let religious charities working with the Veterans Administration display symbols, such as crosses. Make it easier for faith-based groups to receive donations of forfeited assets, previously barred indefinitely. Such property may now be used for religious purposes after five years. * * * Cabinet members met with the president at the White House in late September to discuss eliminating barriers keeping "faith-based" groups from obtaining federal grants. Four new government regulations were announced on Sept. 21 to provide federal money for religion-oriented programs run by people Bush calls "neighborhood healers." Labor Secretary Elaine Chao announced two changes: one regulation to let training vouchers be used by people pursuing faith-based careers, the second to help faith-based institutions compete for federal contracts even if they discriminate in hiring based on religious beliefs. Mel Martinez, secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, announced rules letting faith-based groups compete for $8 billion in housing grants. "This is a monumental thing for us because in the past we have seen not only a negative feeling, but outright hostility to organizations of faith." Changes will be unveiled soon at the Justice, Education, Labor and Veterans Affairs departments. Bush Gives Faith Testimony With a backdrop of banners bearing crosses reading "King of Kings" and "Lord of Lords," Pres. Bush told a cheering audience on Oct. 28 at Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship, Dallas: "Government has no business funding religious worship or teaching. However, our government should support the good work of religious people who are changing the world. "You've got to understand that sometimes, and a lot of times, the best way to help the addict, a person who is stuck on drugs and alcohol, is to change their heart. See, if you change their heart, then they change their behavior. I know," said the self-avowed former heavy drinker and rowdy. "All levels of government ought not fear programs based upon faith [and] must understand the power of faith programs to make the communities in which we live a better place." Bush spoke of "miracles" and a "higher power bigger than people's problems."
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A September complaint by the Freedom From Religion Foundation to the city of Casper, Wyo., on behalf of area members over a Ten Commandments monument in a city park, resulted in a 5-4 vote on Oct. 28 to remove the monument. However, the mayor broke ranks and subsequently voted with pro-Ten Commandments council members to put the monument in temporary storage, while the city creates a new public home for the bible edicts. A city-owned "monument plaza" would feature monuments "vital to the historic development of American law." Casper council members based their second vote on a 2001 federal court decision in an ACLU case in Grand Junction, Colo. Officials there moved a Ten Commandments monument from city hall to a city-sponsored area with monuments supposedly devoted to U.S. legal history. That decision, which was not appealed, occurred prior to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals decision in 2002, in a case out of Utah, advising that if a city hosts a Ten Commandments monument, it must permit other groups to place their own monuments on city land. Wyoming, Utah and Colorado are part of the 10th Circuit. The Casper monument was donated by the Fraternal Order of Eagles in 1965. The club offered to take the monument off city hands following the Foundation complaint. Complicating the request was the bizarre intervention of Rev. Fred Phelps of Topeka, Kan., a rabid, publicity-seeking, anti-gay Baptist who routinely pickets funerals of AIDS victims. After reading about the 10th Circuit decision and the Foundation's state/church complaint, Phelps contacted Casper officials demanding to be allowed to place his own monument on public property. He proposed a marble marker bearing an image of Matthew Shepard, saying, "Matthew Shepard entered Hell Oct. 12, 1998, in Defiance of God's Warning: 'Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind; it is abomination.' Leviticus 18:22." Phelps has regularly visited Casper on the anniversary of the death of Shepard, a Casper native. The 21-year-old gay college student was brutally pistol-whipped and left to die on a fence in rural Wyoming in one of the United States' most notorious hate crimes. Phelps' request was turned down by the council on Oct. 28, giving the minister grounds to sue. Phelps announced plans in October to "pock-mark this nation from sea to shining sea with this message." Phelps is currently asking to place his homophobic monument in an Idaho county currently considering an American Legion request to erect a Ten Commandments monument on a courthouse lawn. Pointed out Foundation spokeswoman Annie Laurie Gaylor: "If a city 'blesses' ten of the 600 commandments supposedly given to Moses by the Old Testament deity, how can it then say to Rev. Phelps that the barbaric Mosaic laws regarding homosexuality are not also 'historic'? The Mosaic laws are replete with savage and inhumane instructions, such as to kill gays, non-virgin brides, 'stubborn sons,' blasphemers, etc. "The city has opened a can of worms with its First Amendment entanglement. It is now compounding the violation by erroneously claiming the Ten Commandments are part of U.S. legal history. The First Commandment ('Thou shalt have no other gods before me') so clearly violates the First Amendment," Gaylor said. The Foundation is looking for Casper-area individuals willing to be named plaintiffs in a potential Foundation lawsuit. Please contact the mayor and urge her to reconsider her vote in favor of moving the Ten Commandments monument to a "monument plaza." Moving the bible edicts off public land would end the debate, and give Phelps no case.
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Back by popular demand is a sampling of religious emails recently received by the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Spelling and grammar, as you shall see, has not been corrected, although some emails have been excerpted for tedium and redundancy. From: "Matthew Mull" Subject: GOD BLESS AMERICA Date: 11 Sep 2003 20:55:31 -0400 You are part of the reason young men and women that serve our country have died. And apart of the reason many more will and finally you are apart of the reason 9-11 happened. From: "Seth S Cronson" Subject: Dear Anne I am so pleased to have read about your protest to 'Praying in the Capitol,' in the Chnl 3000 website. I promise you that I will made a considerable effort to pray for your salvation. You are only going to prove how far Satan has gone to pollute the minds of God's children. (us) You can be guaranteed a place right beside the Father Of Lies in his eternal lake of fire. God Bless and much love. Johanna Milleur, Child Of Christ From: Curt Blank Subject: La Crosse's Monument I'm not a church go'er by any stretch of the term, but I have one thing to say to all of you: YOU FUCKING BUNCH OF ASSHOLES!! MIND YOUR OWN FUCKING BUSINESS, MONUMENT'S ARE NOT YOUR BUSINESS, AND GET A LIFE OR A HOBBY AND LEAVE SHIT LIKE THIS THE FUCK ALONE!! It's really sad that an Organization like yours has to tarnish my home State in the news. Curt Blank Subject: La Crosse Ten Commandments From: spanky I went to school when school prayer was done everyday and the Pledge of Allegiance and yet today I am still able to dessent if I so chose to do that. From: "John Ewers" Subject: Congratulations! Congratulations on your victory for the 10 commandments marker in La Crosse, WI recently. Then again, the court you "won" the lawsuit in would also be an abomination to you as it was founded on christian values! You should keep your big mouth shut, keep your narrow views to yourself, take some diversity classes so you can appreciate the opposite view of your own, and return to a church of some sort. You could definately use some help from MY GOD! But congratulations just the same. From: "Patrick S. McCague" Subject: your SICK YOU are one sick person. Christian, Catholic, and proud of it. From: Gabe & Maria Subject: Annie Laurie Gaylor - You are quoted as making the following statement: "The rulings are now mostly against the Ten Commandments. The tide has turned," says Annie Laurie Gaylor of the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison, Wis." Against the Ten Commandments? And who do you think they cam from? You shallow person you. You have no clue whom you are dealing with. I pray He will understand that you are not an evil person at heartÉ.just a bitÉquite a bit misguided, and He shall take your blindness into account when judging you. . . . Gabriel Espinosa From: "Pat Hughes" Subject: Newsflash I am sure, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that your organization is the cornerstone for communism that has become rampant in this country and the complete moral deterioration of all that is descent about my Country. America is obviously not your homeland, so get the hell of of it. You are a group of cowards who seek to do the devils work here on earth. There will always be those of us who have taken an oath to support and defend this Nation against all enemies, foreign and domestic. (Guess which category you are in). GOD BLESS AMERICA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! From: Subject: burn in Hell you fuckers i can't wait til you clueless dumbasses die and go to Hell........YOU are what's wrong with this country......fuck you........if you don't like it here, go somewhere else.......you fuckers.....i can only hope i come across one of you bastards..........there, how do you like my free thinking........you fuckers Subject: freeedom from religion From: "bentay" I KNOW that the devil is at hand with your organization and I truly pitty you when you end up in HELL for eternity. Hats off to the Free Thinker of the year, does he not realize that when we seperate church and state our children and country are in grave danger. This country was founded on Christianity and we have become a society of hippocritical, servents of SATAN. From: douglass k arnold Go to church and get your site off the Internet thanks From: "Cora Smallman" It is your kind that has drug this nation down to the gutter where it is now. Expect retaliation in the court system for your "In God we Trust" trial, and others. Subject: MYOB From: Joel T Smith Hey chick, just a note from an Okie concerning your sticking your nose into business that doesn't concern you. I am talking about your involvement about the cross on state property on the fairgrounds in OKC. You guys are a joke and your actions push those of us who are middle of the roaders to embrace the other side. In short, you suck and FUCK OFF! Disrespectfully, Joel T Smith Subject: WARNING From: Organization: Mt. Pleasant Public Schools Watch out for Carnivore, the FBI is watching You and the US is not happy! Subject: Leave God alone From: "Chris Anderson" Why must you pick on organizations that want to give their employees off on Good Friday? It should not be up to you to make sure there is NO religion in our state agencies. This country is not based on freedom FROM religion, it's based on FREEDOM OF RELIGION. Every citizen should be entitled to have Good Friday off, if that is their religious belief, and offices should be allowed to close. A PROUD CHRISTIAN, Chris Anderson
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Opening with a prayer to St. Francis, a public debate on "The Place of Religion in the Public Square," sponsored by Viterbo University, a Franciscan Catholic school, took place on Sept. 9 in the university's Fine Arts Theatre in La Crosse, Wis. La Crosse is the site of the Foundation's current legal challenge over a Ten Commandments monument in a city park. Pictured at the event: organizer and moderator Richard Kyte with the Philosophy Department of Viterbo University; Dan Barker of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a former minister who argued for a strict separation between church and state; Francis Manion, senior counsel with the American Center for Law and Justice founded by evangelist Pat Robertson, and Scott Moore, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Baylor University. Manion, who identified himself as a Catholic during the debate, claimed there is nothing in the Constitution prohibiting a local majority from promoting religion, insisting that "separation of state and church is a myth." Manion is representing the Fraternal Order of Eagles, which is seeking to intervene in the appeal, since the city sold it the land and monument after the Foundation filed suit last summer. A federal judge ruled this summer that the presence of the monument violates the Constitution, as does the sale of prime real estate to maintain a religious symbol as the centerpiece of a public park. Moore said that although religion is extremely important, he would not mind seeing the monument moved from the park. Since the debate began with the prayer of St. Francis of Asissi, "Where there is doubt, let me put faith," Dan ended the debate by saying: "Where there is doubt, let me put reason." More than 500 people attended the 2-hour event, including many of the 22 plaintiffs in the Foundation's lawsuit. For information on how to obtain a video copy of the debate, contact Dan Barker.
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Affirmation By Michaela Bronstein ￼ If it is the aim of the United States to make its residents pleased to reaffirm their allegiance to its flag, the words "under God" quite needlessly hinder this aim. The most directly harmful effect is to force a public declaration of religious faith or disbelief on the part of students. More insidiously, they alienate those who do not share the majority's certainty in religious faith. Ultimately, they are simply unconstitutional. There is no fundamental difference between them and the non-denominational prayer that the Supreme Court struck down in 1962 ( Engel v. Vitale). Few aspects of character are more personal than religious feeling. The addition to the Pledge of Allegiance of the words "under God" turns its recitation into a public litmus test, and can compel people to declare whether or not they believe in a higher power. This choice should be thrust upon no one, and it is particularly inappropriate in the realm of public schooling. . . . The absence of the words "under God" would not be a governmental declaration of atheism, or of hostility towards religion. It would merely cleanse American political rhetoric of the preferences for religion which litter its phrases. The phrase is currently, however, an infected needle which pricks and festers every time it is encountered, by needlessly dividing people from each other and their government. Michaela graduated from Garfield High School, Washington State. She will be attending either Harvard College or Balliol College at Oxford University in the fall. She plans to major in English Literature. Special interests include literary analysis, creative writing, constitutional law and film criticism. The Tarnished Pledge By Hagop Bouboushian ￼ In spite of our president's popular "crusade," in spite of the jingoism and paranoia perpetuated throughout the populace, in spite of the cavalcade of Ford Excursions bearing matching American flags and Icthus emblems, in spite of the very coins in my pocket, I stand firmly opposed to the inclusion of the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance to the United States of America. . . . Written, ironically, by prominent socialist Francis Bellamy during a year otherwise characterized by the invention of the Ferris Wheel, the pledge was meant to reflect the principles of his cousin Edward's utopian novels such as Looking Backward, which promoted ideas like nationalized health care and total freedom of religion. Why and how, then, would a divine commitment exist in the pledge? Only an atmosphere of terrified patriotism to rival today's could have produced the desire to mar this secular purity. Fearful that "godless" communist orations sounded similar to the pledge and that atomic war was imminent if a stronger division was not instituted between patriots and "traitors," President Eisenhower was easy prey for religious zealots like the Knights of Columbus. After a little persistent lobbying, the words "under God" slipped into the pledge just as quietly as the pledge itself had slipped into our devotional routine. . . . Hagop is an honor graduate of Corsicana High School in Texas, placing 5th in a class of 306. He plans to attend the University of Chicago. Interests include reading in all scholastic fields, writing, music, politics, athletics, photography, carpentry and attending artistic exhibits of film, music and visual art. Possible college majors include political science, philosophy and physics. The Pledge of Allegiance, Not the Pledge of Faith By Kathryn Morrison ￼ At a time when textbook editors, writers and illustrators are not allowed to include in books for school children such phrases as "minority group" because it is offensive, "elderly" because it is ageist, and "heroine" because it is sexist, then why do they have these same children recite "one nation, under God" every morning? In a country as diverse as America, it is ridiculous to assume that everyone worships the same "God" or even worships a god at all. Am I not patriotic because I do not believe in God? Should I have to resort to not showing my patriotism every morning because I do not believe in God? If church and state truly are separate, then the government should not include this outdated phrase in the Pledge of Allegiance. I do not think they realize that by keeping those two words they are excluding and offending a substantial group of Americans. . . . Although Americans are given the option of not reciting the pledge, those who do not believe in God still have to listen to others reciting these words. I cannot help but feel excluded and upset when everyone in my classroom recites "one nation, under God," making me feel unpatriotic for not reciting the pledge because I do not believe in God. I believe in the ideas and foundations of my country, but I also believe that church and state should be entirely separate. Expressing patriotism and expressing religion should be two separate acts, but the pledge combines them into one. Prayers are not allowed in schools, but the inclusion of "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance still intertwines the concept of prayer. Why forbid one and allow the other to continue to offend? Kathryn graduated from Cherokee High School in New Jersey. She plans to attend Rowan University with a major in Radio/Television/Film. She will minor in psychology. Her interests include reading, writing, creating documentaries and other films, singing, speaking German and "being a Vegetarlan." The Pledge of Allegiance: An Un-American Tradition By David Leuszler One of those who showed concern about my refusal to stand for the Pledge of allegiance happened to be my teacher. She decided to lecture me in front of the class about how I was "showing disrespect to the men and women who protect our freedoms," including her father, a World War II veteran! How ironic it was that the current pledge I objected to was not established until 1954, likely a solid decade after her father served in World War II. . . . The pledge that was established in 1954 denies the main American ideal that is embodied in the original national motto "e pluribus unum," literally meaning "from many, one." Our original motto represents our acknowledgment of the power that comes from being a melting pot of cultures, ideologies and ideas. The pledge, in its current language, excluded atheists from the society in which they contribute significantly, as demonstrated by their proportionally high presence in research labs and universities, and their proportionally low presence in jails and prisons. The current Pledge of Allegiance is merely a remnant from the McCarthy era. As it is written today, it can only serve to unnecessarily divide and weaken us in this crucial time. David is a 17-year-old honor graduate of Tucker High School in Georgia and plans to attend Georgia Tech in the fall. His major will be either computer science or biomedical engineering. Interests include debating politics and religion in online forums, playing a "good game of chess or a good game of go" and math and science in general. Freedom From Religion By Jason Lindgren ￼ One of the greatest strengths of the United States is its commitment to remaining a secular political body despite religious pressures, to avoid religion without disallowing it. But this commitment was betrayed when the phrase "under God" crept into the Pledge of Allegiance. The placement of this deceitful phrase serves as an implicit pledge to the concept of Godhood itself, a breach of my guaranteed right to freedom of religion, and by extension, freedom from religion. Perhaps its inclusion was innocent in nature, simply reflecting the beliefs of its author, or perhaps it was a political means of rooting out "godless Communism" in our midst, but the truth is that its intent is irrelevant. Unequivocally stated, the phrase "under God" has no place in our political body, and certainly no place in our schools. It only supports the dishonest misconception that all good things are descended from the will and "grace" of a fictitious entity above. Jason attended Oak Park High School in California. He will attend Yale in the fall. He is an avid reader, a "consummate gamer," and takes part in numerous sports including cross-country running, soccer, track, mountain biking and "kendo, the Japanese art of sword-fighting with bamboo swords called shinai." His major still is indefinite, but he is interested in pursuing writing, nanotechnology, political science and possibly law. Politics: Child's Play? By Carmen Alexis Byrd ￼ Ashley, along with her class, stands in front of her desk, her hand pressed firmly against her heart, her lips reciting words that she can't spell, or even understand. Gina won't stand and won't recite the words that make up the United States of America's Pledge of Allegiance. Gina is sent to the principal's office again for disobeying the teacher's commands while obeying the ardent convictions of her parents. Gina is confused. She is singled out among her peers as being a "troublemaker," but praised by her parents for standing up for their beliefs and not violating a conscience that she has yet to develop. Gina is the subject of a political battle and religious war that has progressed for years through the actions of many adults who have proven to be as juvenile as she is. Gina has cause for confusion. In fact, the entire nation has proven its confusion, as political leaders, parents and press have buried the real issue, along with their intelligence, in the sandbox. What is that issue exactly? The issue is that approximately one out of seven Americans is a nonbeliever, and insertion of the "under God" in the pledge is in direct defiance of all American citizens' First Amendment rights. . . . So, what will happen to Gina? Well, Gina will continue to be troubled and confused until her elders adopt the realization that the pledge is in complete opposition to the nation's Constitutional promises and to the beliefs of many of its people. Until that realization is acknowledged, the real issue will continue to be buried in the sandbox of politics and covered with the murky dirt of unconstitutional policies and discrimination. Carmen graduated from North Carolina School of the Arts with a contemporary dance major and a GPA of 4.0. Her special interests include reading, writing, singing, crafts and all forms of techniques of dance. She plans to attend Howard University with a psychology, pre-med major with possible minors in biology, English and dance. Don't Fear God or His Pledge By Joshua Parry ￼ It happens every Monday morning. The students are startled awake by the intercom's shrill crackling to life. A bubbly teenage cheerleader on the other end exclaims, "Please stand for the pledge." Lazily the children get up with groans closely mimicking the elderly rising out of bed. Hundreds of limp hands are placed on deflated chests. By the time the students are in the correct position of vertical awareness, the girl is already halfway through, saying "for which it stands." The kids then mumble a phrase or two and collapse back into their sleep-deprived comas. Except for one student who had never stood, although everyone notices and he can feel their eyes burning into him. He is an atheist and rightfully refuses to take part in religious activities, but this activity is in school, this activity occurs every Monday morning, and he can't escape it. For this act he will be singled out by the teacher and be taunted by his peers. This student should be protected by the Constitution. . . . Joshua graduated from Keller High School in Texas. He does not stand for the pledge. He enjoys life--he likes to work out and eat healthy. He is the captain of the varsity hockey team. He was district champion in the UIL Ready Writing competition. He will be attending the University of Arizona where he will study molecular biology. He is an atheist. America The Theocracy? By Sanjay Gopinath ￼ America was founded on principles, the principles of thoughtful men. The laws of our nation are manifestations of these principles. When we break these laws, regardless of the popularity or enthusiasm for the violation, it is wrong. The separation of church and state, one of these principles, is being broken every day. The role of the state is not the spiritual upbringing of a child, yet every day children invoke the words "under God" as a part of their daily routine. This is an egregious violation of the secular laws of our nation. These words need to be stricken from the Pledge of Allegiance. This is not what Francis Bellamy intended when he wrote the Pledge of Allegiance or what the founding fathers hoped for when they created a state without religious prejudice. . . . I grew up the son of immigrants. As most children of immigrants do, I yearned to be "normal." I wanted to fit in with all my classmates and the easiest way was to be as "American" and patriotic as possible. It did not matter to me then that the words "Under God" were against my own religious beliefs or that there would always be people who would consider me foreign. All that mattered was my "American-ness." In retrospect I regret the importance I placed on other people's opinion of me and with this a regret that I stood up with my hand over my heart and recited a pledge I did not believe in. I regret that I said the Pledge of Allegiance out of fear of being ostracized. If called upon, I will serve my country's armed forces. I will pledge my loyalty to this nation but I will never again subject my religious beliefs to the state. Sanjay Gopinath is an avid fan of history and geopolitics. Although born in Philadelphia, Penn., Sanjay has lived in Brussels, Belgium, India and Hong Kong in addition to various cities in the U.S. Sanjay has played competitive soccer for more than a dozen years. Sanjay played varsity soccer and lacrosse in addition to his involvement in Model UN. He graduated from Flint Hill School in Oakton, Va., and will be a freshman at George Washington University in Washington, DC, this fall majoring in international affairs and economics. With Liberty and Justice for All . . . Monotheists By Sam Marcellus ￼ There is a plethora of reasons why "under God" does not belong in the pledge, from its casual use of God's name, which should offend any true religionist, to its unconstitutional infusion of religion into public schools and other public settings. Most harmful, however, is its threat to one of America's most fundamental principles, which our founding fathers went to great lengths to protect: the doctrine that every group in society, no matter how small a minority, is guaranteed basic rights as citizens of this nation. "Daily proclaim[ing] the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty" (as President Eisenhower put it upon altering the pledge to its current incarnation) only serves to instill the notion that freethinkers are not truly American. With an overwhelming monotheistic majority in this country, the rights of freethinkers are rarely respected. A passing reference to a deity, whose existence most of the populace takes for granted, may initially appear innocuous, but I don't believe the majority would be so tolerant if it were a passing reference to the lack of a god. This double standard needs to be recognized and the regular endorsement of monotheistic values by the federal government must end. Sam graduated from Paul D. Schreiber High School, New York. He will attend Clark University in the fall with a major in computer science and a possible minor in political science. His interests include "technical and stage crew for theater productions, political science, computers and Bob Dylan." Taking Away Another Barrier to Diversity By Adam Katrick ￼ It is early in the morning, a regular school day. The announcements come on, and the students lazily stand to recite the pledge in slurred, exhausted tones. A few seconds later, a loud thump is heard in the building as all of the students sit down in unison. Did any of them feel patriotic that morning? Was the Pledge of Allegiance really that important? Only recently did the turmoil over "under God" reinstate itself. My high school hadn't announced the pledge until the September 11th attacks. Just when the patriotic fervor had quieted down, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals put the pledge on trial. Once again my school was announcing the Pledge religiously every morning, and "under God" became a fiery topic. During my high school education in a southeastern Ohio town, I have seen the effects of one overwhelming religion. Sanctioned or not, religion made it into my school day in announcements, class lessons and the Pledge of Allegiance. Being one of only a few voices who protest this undertow of religion in my school, I have refused to stand for the pledge, or religious songs, and have tried to bring a secular opinion into many daily class topics. . . . Taking "under God" out of the pledge is by no means attacking religion. It is simply putting the emphasis back on support for one's country, rather than someone else's religion. I and many students may choose one day to stand again for the Pledge of Allegiance if this religious barrier is removed. This would mean that there is one less cause for discrimination, something all schools should work for. This way the Pledge of Allegiance would serve as a pledge to freedom, instead of another barrier in the road to diversity. Adam graduated from West Muskingum High School in Ohio and is attending Marlboro College in Vermont in the fall. He will major in either environmental biology or physics. His hobbies are woodworking, gardening, playing the trumpet, and debating politics and religion. Are We the Home of the Free? By Luiza M. Goncalves ￼ In my senior year of high school, it was announced over the loudspeaker that from now on the Pledge of Allegiance was to be said every Monday for the rest of the year. My only question was, why now and never before? My thoughts were that this must be to advertise nationalism and patriotism as a consequence of the disaster on September 11, 2001. However, among my peers there was another issue to be discussed: what about God? As a former Catholic school student, for years I prayed and said the Pledge of Allegiance in school; it was as common as peanut butter and jelly. What I did not realize at first was that not everyone believes in God. A nation could not be labeled as "the home of the free" when it was also "one nation, under God." "Under God" is a religious statement and should not be recited in a pledge that is said by all American citizens, including those who may believe in other gods or may not believe in a god at all. Being Catholic, the mention of God does not offend me, but being a United States citizen, having the public recite something that is not in their beliefs or against their religion does bother me. Are we not the home of the free? Luiza is a gradate of Santa Clara High School in California. She plans to attend the University of California, Davis. She plans to major in psychology with the goal of achieving a Ph.D. in that field and establishing her own practice. A Modest Proposal By Emily Gundlach ￼ Editor's note: Emily's essay is a satirical piece, "inspired by Jonathan Swift," which does not lend itself to excerpting. However, the judges wanted her to receive an honorable mention award for creativity and originality. Emily graduated from Charlotte Valley Central School in New York. She has applied to and been accepted by SUNY Oneonta and plans to attend that school in the fall. She is especially interested in English, writiing and law. Her major will be either English or Pre-Law.
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We constantly hear complaints in the media about how badly Christians are treated and how thoroughly Christianity is being driven from the public arena. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth, but some religionists love to promote that image of beleaguered martyrdom because it plays well with the masses and aids their fundraising. Attempts to get secular government agencies to stop promoting religion in general and the icons of specific religions in particular are about ensuring that our government is truly neutral on the subject of religion. The notion that such efforts are directed at destroying any religion is ludicrous. American society is awash with religion. One can go nowhere without being confronted with public professions of piety, religious hucksters, bumperstickers, broadcasters and books. There are churches on practically every corner and billboards and banners promoting various religions and religious causes on most major traffic arteries. We constantly hear from those who extoll the virtues of faith or offer thanks to the deity they worship for some favorable treatment they think they've received. As an atheist, none of that troubles me. I have no objection to anyone practicing their religion in whatever manner they feel is appropriate so long as they don't injure anyone while doing it. Although I may wish the people involved in such activities would find more productive uses for their time, money and energy, I recognize those things are, after all, theirs to waste. However, I do not want my government preaching to me. I do not want it adorning itself in the trappings of religion or promoting religion, religious practices or religious organizations. I don't want it funding religious organizations or their activities, regardless of how worthwhile those activities are intended to be. Those who claim the United States of America was based on religious concepts or was intended to be a "Christian" nation are misreading history. One of the greatest achievements of this nation's founders was the creation of a form of government that was intended neither to serve the cause of religion nor hinder it. It does no damage to anyone's religious faith if children aren't led in prayer in public schools or if government agencies are not allowed to promote religion by displaying religious artifacts or promoting religious slogans like "in God we trust" on our money or "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. No religious organization is damaged by the removal of overtly sectarian displays--such as the Ten Commandments--from the walls and lobbies of government-owned buildings. Indeed, such practices, such displays are a slap in the face to the millions of Americans who do not worship the "God" of the majority and may not worship any god at all. There is ample scope in the public arena for religious ideas. They can be debated, dissected, promoted, attacked, analyzed and repudiated in books, magazines, newspaper articles, speeches, seminars, and all sorts of other public forums, including the editorial pages of newspapers. They may be the subject of movies, plays, television shows and every form of artistic expression. And all of that is in addition to the activities of religious organizations and individuals who are constantly extolling the virtues of their faith and attempting to market the brand they prefer to the rest of us. Our government has no place in that debate, and it should seek no role in the marketing of religion. Regardless of the claims of religionists, ours is a secular society, and our government is a secular institution. It was not created to promote sectarian religion. Modern-day politicians, regardless of their political ideology, need to recognize that fact and abandon such efforts. We don't need more attempted legislative end-runs around the wall of separation between church and state. We need more bricks and mortar to repair the damage already done to that wall by misguided politicians and to end the leakage caused by that damage.
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The title of outsider brands me. Even as a child, I had my own ideas. I announced at the age of three that I didn't want to be president of the United States. My simple logic said that people like you before but do not like you after you're in office. Raised Roman Catholic, I promptly stopped going to church upon being confirmed as a teenager. That particular sacrament signals adulthood in the faith, and as an adult I chose to be an honest heathen rather than a hypocrite. I didn't buy the meaning behind the hoohah, so I stopped going. Also, I was one of the first in my family to graduate from college. Despite financial pressures, I got loans and scraped up enough money to finish, rather than quit and take a nice job at a bank. That's not to say family traditions hold no meaning for me. On the contrary, many of these quirks provide comfort in their own logic of love. I believe in rituals, but only if they have meaning to those taking part. So, when I married, I sought my own rituals, symbols, and meaning--much to the chagrin of some family members. Since I write for a living, of course, I wrote my entire wedding ceremony and merely found someone to perform it. I live in Colorado, and marriage laws are not tied to religious rites. You can simply purchase, sign, and hand back a marriage license, and it's done. No ordained minister needed. Fast-forward a decade into my life as a freelance writer. For nearly two years, I've been the "Vows" columnist for The Denver Post. It's a human-interest concept that started at The New York Times long ago. When my local newspaper editor wanted to do it here, she turned to me. I'm good at building rapport with people I interview. I'll ask anyone nearly anything, and, honestly, I love weddings. I enjoy seeing people in their beaming moments. My ideas on God, government, and life may be alternative, but my thoughts on love, I think, are universal. Working as a journalist requires accuracy, objectivity, and even diversity. I told my editor from the beginning that if I only did expensive, white, Christian weddings that I'd shoot myself. I try to cover people of different cultural, religious, and economic backgrounds. This isn't news writing, however. It also isn't society writing. These are regular folk, for the most part, and my job is to tell their stories. So imagine me sitting through at least 26 weddings each year. Imagine me listening to the words people say, the rituals they use to cement a relationship. Imagine me--feminist, independent thinker--hearing religious texts that discuss outdated roles of women in marriage. Imagine my sadness, sometimes watching people go through the motions of a tradition with no personal meaning. Types of weddings Weddings, it seems, fall into four categories: creative, municipal, religious with heart, or religious without heart. Creative weddings often feature stunts or outlandish mechanisms. In other words, they are so outside tradition that they can be a bit odd. My favorite so far is the couple who met and later married at a bowling alley. The facility didn't close for the nuptial event, so strangers stopped bowling for a few minutes and watched. The snack bar even announced that someone's order was ready right in the middle of the ceremony. Now, that's funny. Sure, creative weddings make good stories, but they also carry an independent spirit that I enjoy. Municipal weddings, on the other hand, can come off a bit institutional, unless you know the story behind them. On a Friday before a three-day holiday weekend, a photographer from the newspaper and I showed up at a nearby county courthouse. We accosted people who were eloping. One couple met through mutual friends and wanted a simple ceremony. The bride's young son came along and told me that the time so far with his new stepdad was way better than years spent with his biological father, which was both sad and compelling. Another couple met and dated in high school, went off to their separate lives and found love again on a reunion cruise. They were in their 60s and as giggly as a couple of kids. I often meet couples who are truly devout, and these religious weddings have heart. Whether Christian, Jewish, or Pagan, this faith-based bond plays large roles in many relationships, and I honor that as best I can by telling the stories I find. As a professional observer of love, I can say it's sometimes very moving to see people glowing with fervor. The best religious weddings feature a minister who clearly knows the couple and has a long-term relationship with them. The couples truly live their faith, often obeying church rules on premarital sex or cohabitation--a point they make clear during interviews. Surprisingly one of my favorites was a Catholic wedding held at the local cathedral and performed by Denver's archbishop, who happened to be a longtime friend of the groom. The ceremony was funny and real and felt fairly modern, while covering all the religious bases at the same time. Trust me, I've sat through some bad ceremonies. I once heard a priest talk about the couple's childhood pets while explaining that animals weren't enough companionship for man, so god created woman. At another wedding, the deacon gave marital advice, including "don't loan friends your car or your wife." That brings us to the final category of weddings: traditional religious weddings with no heart. Here couples blindly follow rituals, reciting words that they do not whole-heartedly believe. These events usually include a minister and church merely hired for the day. I watch modern, urban, professional couples stand before a minister who quotes Biblical passages and notes duties of the proper wife. I hear things about the man as head of the house, wife as helpmate, and I squirm. Because I do the interviews in advance of the big day, I know these people. They tell me about their lives, careers, and relationships. They let me listen to their newlywed banter. Together we laugh through their cocktail party stories about how they met or how he proposed. So, it breaks my heart to witness cold traditions masquerading as something meaningful. Luckily, I know and can share the real story. Tradition of type At all of these weddings, I stand and sit as protocol demands, but I do not pray, sing, or kneel. I've certainly sat amid guests shouting out praise, arms raised in passion. Sometimes people want to hold my hand during prayers or shake it in a sign of peace, and I feel goofy. So, as much as possible, I sit off to the side, in the back and alone--not participant, not celebrant, just watcher. I usually tell the couples, "You won't even know I'm there." I do get a little misty when an event is clearly infused with personal meaning, be it religious or otherwise. For the others, I'm sad but also grateful to have the opportunity to listen and write the real stories. Consider it my own tradition through type on the page. Roxanne Hawn is a freelance writer, living in a mountain meadow west of Golden, Colo. In addition to being the Vows columnist for The Denver Post, she writes about lifestyle topics for regional and national magazines. ￼ Roxanne and her husband Tom Hawn. "Being a professional writer has its advantages, and feeling comfortable crafting my entire wedding ceremony is one of them. I researched wedding structure from a variety of cultures and religious traditions. I then used that framework--at least the parts that made sense to me--to support what we wanted to convey to each other and to our assembled family and friends. "I chose a poem for our 'reading' called How Will I Know You? by Meryl Fishman because I liked its message. "Before exchanging vows with my husband, I had our officiant say this: " 'Standing before you today, Roxanne and Tom promise not only to seek but to find, not only to find but to accept, not only to accept but to rejoice in all that they discover in each other today and for each day forward.' "That led into our vows, which were: Today, I become your husband/wife. I promise to give and to receive, To speak and to listen, To inspire and to respond In all circumstances of our life together. I pledge you my love and my loyalty, My strength and my respect Above all others, forever."