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I am a recently completed product of public education. As I type this essay, my newly-acquired diploma rests in its place of honor among what little I've kept as reminders of my high school career: Prom pictures, dried flowers, a What Would John Denver Do? bracelet, old movie and concert stubs, art projects, a saran-wrapped Brownie for Buddha, my Highest Honor sash, and my Homecoming Queen tiara.

When I look at the artifacts on my dresser, I remember the triumphant feeling of scoring 10 tickets to the sold-out eight o'clock showing of Titanic on its Opening Night, also my birthday. I remember writing my speech to be given at Commencement and cringing in pain when last year's Homecoming Queen, Miss Mindi Wright, slammed the tiara onto my head and thrust a bouquet of roses into my arms.

I remember passing out What Would John Denver Do? bracelets in the courtyard and the subsequent trip to the principal's office regarding the matter. I remember all too vividly the bake sale held by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, in which Cookies for Christ were sold. Never a fan of oatmeal raisin, I found this fund-raiser only increased my distaste for the cookie. I also remember the bake sale held by my friends and me in which Brownies for Buddha, Yogurt for Yahweh, Apples for Allah, Grapes for Ganesh, Tiramisu for the Talmud, and a wide selection of Pies for Pagans were sold.

Whether it was our cause or the quality of our cooking that allowed every item to be sold remains to be seen. Regardless of our customers' motives, the profits financed a field trip for the Theory of Knowledge class to listen to a professor from Arizona State University speak on various religions, as well as atheism and humanism.

The memory that comes to mind most frequently is walking into the cafeteria to grab some breakfast before first period, only to be met with stares, silence, and the shaking of many, many heads. In the morning hours, the cafeteria doubles as the informal meeting place for anyone with a belief in God and a need to validate this belief through the means of mass prayer. While I don't particularly enjoy being stared at like a leper, nothing comes between me and my prepackaged Fruit Loops, not even a higher deity.

Contrary to the popular belief of school administration and students, I am not an activist or a rebel in any way, shape, or form. I am a student. I go to school to learn, and I like to learn in peace. Whatever I do that can be considered a protest of religion in public schools is the result of a simple desire to have my Mormon and Christian peers cease their extracurricular campaign to convert me and other "heretics." The Advanced Placement curriculum at Chandler High School is a rigorous, time-intensive ordeal and, like most Honor students, I cherish my lunch period as the one time of day when I don't have to be "mature" or "intelligent" or even "attentive." I'd rather spend my lunch hour with my friends, devout Christians, Muslims, and Jews alike, than nod politely and attentively at a total stranger who is telling me about his experiences with the glory of God in excruciating detail.

When I "antagonize" members of religious clubs or youth groups, I do it not out of intolerance for their beliefs or to prove that they're "wrong"; I do it in defense of my lunch and sanity. I cannot be more honest when I say that if there is one reason why religion should not pervade public school campuses, it is to keep people like myself from completely losing it and inciting a lunchtime jihad.

Thankfully, logic and rational thought are also on the side of religion-free public schools. Prayer is an entirely personal experience; it is a person communicating directly to God. Why does anyone, even a kindergartner, need a middleman such as a teacher to relay his or her thoughts to God? Instead of devoting their energies to changing part of the foundation of the United States Government as well as the educational system, Christians should concentrate on encouraging prayer before or after class, in one's free time, and in places where it would be welcome by everyone.

The bumper sticker that claims that "as long as there are tests, there will be prayer in school" is exactly right, though it also makes the critical point that prayer needn't be a public ritual. I know for a fact that teachers do not allow a "moment of silence" for students to offer the last-minute prayer, "Dear God, I didn't study for this test, but if you help me pass it I'll study extra hard for the next one." Nor do teachers publicly lead the class in pleading for a passing grade. Yet, I also know for a fact that many desperate students find the time to pray for a miracle nonetheless. This leads me to wonder why the basic school-wide prayer that the Religious Right is calling for can't be done privately and on one's own time, as well?

From my experience as a student, the answer to this is that there are things on their minds like unfinished homework or whether the demi-Gods of the Yale Admissions Office have deemed their applications worthy of acceptance. From this answer stems another question: If the typical red-blooded student, whether 8-years-old or 18, is largely preoccupied with matters more crucial to his or her immediate well-being than school-time prayer, who is it that is advocating the introduction of prayer into public schools? Obviously not students; they're too busy trading PokŽmon cards and staring at the cute girl two rows over.

There is an infamous group of people known to use American youth as the pawns that keep their business booming: tobacco manufacturers. Their exploitation of youth has led to continually stratospheric profits, and these profits have enabled them to yield considerable control in legislative issues by monetarily supporting politicians. As the slick rhetoric and objectives of Christian groups promoting religion in public schools become more apparent through their media organizations and the cases before the Supreme Court, I cannot help but see similarities between the "marketing" campaigns of Christian organizations and tobacco companies.

By introducing school prayer and other religious activities to the captive, often gullible, audience of American youth, the Religious Right exponentially increases its power in the political and cultural arenas of American society. Through peer pressure and the constant barrage of Christian rhetoric, students will no longer have access to the liberal, secular, and diverse education that has played such a key role in the lives of society's most productive members. Instead, they will learn to be judgmental of those who differ in ideology, and they will not question the ways of the world, as they will have learned that the answer of "That's the way God wanted it" will suffice.

I am not an atheist or an agnostic or a Catholic or Deist. I'm not sure what group I fall into, if any. What I can say for certain is that I am neither a devout believer nor a staunch non-believer. My best friend will attend the Moody Bible Institute next year; she's as fundamental as they come. Though she would have nothing to do with my heated theological debates with lunchtime proselytes or my John Denver bracelet enterprise, she baked the Brownies for Buddha and attended the field trip on world religions. My friend and I are friends because we can put our differences aside and because we know that diversity and individual rights are absolutely crucial to a free society, whether or not we like some of the diverse elements. Diversity strengthens one's personal beliefs and value systems, as it allows for the entire picture to be seen and analyzed; there aren't any "missing pieces" that nag at a person's conscience.

The creators of the Constitution had such diversity in mind when they wrote and adopted the Constitution and Bill of Rights as the guidelines of American society. Every member of this society has a civic responsibility to uphold and defend these guidelines of the United States, including the section that refers to the separation of church and state. I don't support the presence of religion in public schools for personal reasons and for civic reasons, thus making me a responsible citizen. Yet, I am a pariah in certain circles of my high school's social arena. Ironically, these very groups of people that find me irritating and heretical and meddlesome claim their undying patriotism and love of country; they flaunt their status as law-abiding citizens and keepers of the American Dream. When it comes to the issue of respecting the rights of others, however, the rampant hypocrisy found in these people never ceases to boggle my mind. Principals devoted to the mental and social development of American youth refuse Atheist clubs and Gay Pride clubs, indirectly encouraging students not to bother with all the sides of an issue, to narrow, not expand, their minds. Pastors and ministers who preach compassion, love for self and others, and non-judgment in one breath, encourage their youth groups to look down upon non- believing peers with pity and disdain in another. On the opening page of Catholic monthly missalettes there is a paragraph devoted to the Roman Catholic community's "fervent prayer" that one day all sects of Christianity will resolve their differences and join together in the name of Jesus Christ. It goes on to say that until that day comes, they'd prefer only Catholics to celebrate the Holy Communion with them. It is my most fervent prayer that one day all sects of American culture, religious and otherwise, can resolve their differences and become united by the common bond of individuality and respect for personal liberty and the law. Until that day arrives, however, I'd rather you not interrupt my lunch. Amen.

Kacie Hengel is a freshman at Rice University in Houston, Texas, this fall. She graduated with Highest Honors from Chandler High School in Chandler, Arizona. Kacie plans to major in Philosophy, with the long-term aspiration of becoming a fiction writer. Due to an almost nonexistent job market for philosophers, Kacie is looking to marry into wealth to support her artistic inclinations. She spends her spare time cooking, singing showtunes, swing dancing, and reading voraciously.

Cassie Gootee, a recent high school grad, gave this acceptance speech after being presented with a $1,000 freethought student activist award at the Year 2000 national convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation in St. Paul on Sept. 16.

Cassie and the Foundation extend their thanks to Foundation member Alan Snyder, who generously underwrote Cassie's monetary award.

 

Thank you for giving me this opportunity to share my story. It's been a great honor to be invited here to receive this award.

Probably one of the reasons for what I did is because almost everybody in my high school class was a Christian. Whenever I voiced a different viewpoint like saying "Happy Winter Solstice" instead of "Merry Christmas," people basically ignored it. Although I didn't broadcast it, my family has chosen much of the Native American path so I didn't relate to any of the Christian viewpoints.

I was President of the Student Body. The other Senior Officers and I were approached to talk about graduation preparations. We watched a video from the previous year to get an idea of what we were to do. I noticed that the graduation program had a "Benediction" and "Invocation" and that the video contained prayer and several references to God.

I went home and told my parents that I was concerned about prayer in the graduation ceremony. My parents said that this wasn't right and that gave me encouragement to question it.

At the next meeting of the Senior Officers I asked if it was necessary that we have prayer in the graduation ceremony. Nobody there said prayer really mattered to them but, because it was such a family gathering and a tradition, they would put in a prayer. Rather than confronting the officers, I decided to take the issue to the principal.

The next day I made an appointment to see the principal and told his secretary my purpose for wanting to see him. A few days went by and I didn't hear back from him. This was strange to me seeing how we had a pretty good relationship since I was Student Body President. So I went back to his office and he was there. I knocked on his door and walked in. I asked him if he had gotten my message about wanting to see him and he said "yes," but that he was busy and couldn't get back to me as soon as he wanted.

I told the principal that I was concerned that there was prayer in the graduation program and that they were using religious words like "benediction" and "invocation" instead of "opening" and "closing" in the program. Right away he took the defense. He said that this was tradition and that students are free to choose what they want to say. He said that it wasn't his responsibility to tell students not to say prayer at graduation.

I said that this wasn't fair because it is a public school and there shouldn't even be a question about prayer at a public school ceremony. He kept repeating that students were free to say what they liked and that he had no control over what they said. He told me to go to the girls who were preparing the benediction and invocation and to ask if they would please not put in anything religious. This still didn't settle the matter at hand because they shouldn't even have it as an option. I got the feeling that he was trying to "blow me off" and that just made me more determined.

I didn't talk to the girls because I didn't want to get them involved. It was between me and the Administration. Plus, I felt strongly that prayer was wrong and that it was simply nonnegotiable. So there wasn't any reason to try striking a compromise with the other students.

I went home and told my parents about the meeting and how unsuccessful it was and they became just as angry as I was. The next day I talked with the teacher who was advisor to our student government to see where I should go from this point. I explained to her the measures I had already taken. She said I was making too big a deal of this, that it was a tradition, and that the majority seemed to want prayer. Like the principal, she told me to talk with the other Senior Officers about it.

After no success with my adviser, I went to talk to the principal again. I told him that I saw no reason to talk to the other Senior Officers and that prayer should be removed from the program this year and all years to come. He repeated himself saying that he wasn't responsible for what other students said and that he didn't have the right to censor students' remarks. I told him that it was one thing for a student to blurt out a prayer or invocation to God unannounced. However, statements by students on the program were to be reviewed by four of our English professors and two of our administrators. To me, this meant that the school administration was directly involved and, therefore, was sanctioning prayer. The principal responded by repeating that he wasn't free to censor students.

After that meeting, I knew that I couldn't carry this forward without some outside help because the principal didn't want to stick his neck out by making a public decision that wouldn't be popular with everyone. So, I asked Bob Tiernan [an attorney who heads the Denver FFRF chapter] to go to our next meeting. Before we went to the meeting, Bob and I talked about the different legal cases and the Supreme Court rulings in this area. This was before the 6-3 decision in the Texas school prayer case so things were not absolutely crystal clear.

We met with the principal and brought out the cases that we felt supported our position. He argued against us by saying that the students were in charge of the program and, therefore, could say what they wanted. However, he did agree to take the words "Benediction" and "Invocation" out of the program.

I then went back to the Senior Officers and brought the subject up directly. They agreed not to say any prayers. However, because I had to bring it to the Senior Officers, it circulated throughout the school. A number of students came up to me and screamed directly in my face telling me how majority rules in this country, and that I had no right to take away tradition. They said that all their families were going to be there and would be disappointed with no prayer. I was thinking how they would react if I was to get up and start the ceremony off with a Native American drum chant. Other students told me that I had gone too far and couldn't understand why I was making such a big issue out of this.

What my classmates didn't understand was that it was my graduation too, and that I shouldn't have to feel like an outsider at my own graduation. I had to go through school putting up with Christian views my whole life, but this was too much. My family was going to be there too. Even taking out the emotional reason for my action, this was still against the law and could not be permitted under any circumstance.

In the middle of all that was going on, I attended my Senior Awards. My family was watching from the audience, as I received my award from the Elks Club as "Teenager of the Year." They were seated behind a group of parents that my family had known for years. These parents are all very conservative Christians, and knew from their kids what I was trying to do at the graduation ceremony. When I got up to receive my award, my family seemed to be the only ones clapping. We had known these parents for years, and they clapped for every student but me.

Well, I graduated and am happy to say that there was absolutely no prayer and that everything went well except, of course, there was a noticeable lack of applause when I received my diploma and an award that was presented.

Would I do this again? I sure would. It was painful and frustrating in many ways but I learned a lot from the experience and I learned that persistence can pay off. Hopefully, one day people will realize that their Christian viewpoint is not the only one.

Cassie Gootee graduated from Englewood High School, Colorado, this year. She was inducted into the National Honor Society and was president of the student body. She represented Colorado at the National Young Leaders Conference in Washington, D.C. Throughout high school, Cassie served as an active volunteer. Cassie plans to major in political science and government. She is receiving a "student activist award" for successfully objecting to organized prayers at her graduation.

Public funding of a pervasively sectarian Milwaukee program called "Faith Works" was challenged in a federal lawsuit filed on October 11 by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national First Amendment watchdog group based in Madison, Wisconsin.

Milwaukee's Faith Works program receives at least two-thirds of its $700,000 yearly budget from tax dollars. During a campaign stop at the Faith Works office in July, Gov. George W. Bush, seated by a wall hanging covered in crosses, pledged $185 million in federal funding for similar faith-based groups to "strengthen fatherhood" if he becomes president.

The Foundation's lawsuit has generated substantial media interest as it is believed to be only the second explicit challenge of "charitable choice," a perilous provision in the 1996 Welfare Reform Act routing welfare reform money to overtly religious groups.

In order to receive public funding in the past, religious social service providers had to start secular arms, keep separate accounts, remove religious symbols and promise not to proselytize clients.

Under the Welfare Reform Act's limited charitable choice provision, no such requirements are imposed. Religious groups receiving public funding under charitable choice provisions may also force religious requirements upon employees.

Bush has pledged to expand charitable choice to all federal social service programs; Gore endorsed a more limited expansion. Significantly, charitable choice's leading proponent, U.S. Sen. John Ashcroft, R-MO, was defeated in the Nov. 7 election.

The first charitable choice challenge was filed in July by the American Jewish Congress and the Texas Civil Rights project in Texas, challenging a yearly grant of $8,000 in public funds to churches running a local proselytizing jobs program.

The Foundation's lawsuit challenges tax expenditures totaling about $675,000 to date to the Faith Works program, which touts a "faith-based approach" in providing services to some 28 men with addiction problems who have not been paying child support.

The lawsuit names Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, who has allocated $450,000 so far to Faith Works in discretionary funds under a Welfare-to-Work grant at the request of a former legislator, the Rev. Susan Vergeront. Faith Works in Milwaukee had no established track record when it sought government funds, the complaint notes.

"Faith Works was established in 1999 as a demonstration model, intended to show the effectiveness of using government money combined with a faith based institution, whereby success is measured by securing ongoing government funding sources," the complaint alleges.

Also named as defendants: Jennifer Reinert, Secretary of the Department of Workforce Development; Richard Gartner, Administrator, Division of Workforce Excellence; George Lightbourn, Secretary of the Department of Administration, and Jon E. Litscher, Secretary of the Department of Corrections.

Litscher has agreed to appropriate at least $75,000 to Faith Works to provide faith-based addiction recovery services to individuals under the control of the Department of Corrections.

Faith Works, whose bylaws describe it as "inherently Christian," and seeking to "put a holistic, faith-based approach to bring healing to mind, body, heart and soul," rents the Queen of Apostles Convent in Milwaukee for $100,000. In addition to its mostly public grants, Faith Works has received money from the ultra-rightwing Bradley Foundation.

Clients apparently numbering fewer than 30 are interviewed about their attitudes toward faith, are required to participate in a faith-enhanced version of the 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous program, are evaluated on spirituality, and attend bible studies, prayer and chapel services.

"State appropriations to Faith Works convey a message that the Christian religion is favored, preferred and promoted over other beliefs and nonbelief, and Faith Works' mission is clothed in traditional indicia of government endorsement," according to the Foundation's complaint.

"The advancement of Christian indoctrination is an integral component of the program provided by Faith Works, which indoctrination is directly funded by appropriations from the State of Wisconsin." The complaint notes there are no provisions, restrictions, standards or oversight to prohibit use of tax money to advance, endorse and promote the establishment of religion.

The plaintiffs--the Freedom From Religion Foundation and staff members Anne Gaylor, Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor--seek to enjoin further appropriations, to obtain a court declaration that the appropriations violate the establishment clause, and an order requiring the defendants to establish rules, regulations, standards and oversight to ensure future appropriations are not given to pervasively sectarian providers.

Judge Barbara Crabb, U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin, has drawn the case. The Foundation's attorney is Richard L. Bolton, of Boardman, Suhr, Curry & Field, Madison.

See Legal Complaint on Internet at: www.ffrf.org/legal/fwcomplaint.html

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"The Contender" a Secular Parable

The last movie to show a woman admitting unbelief before a Congressional hearing was "Contact," which realistically depicted the shock wave attending a revelation that the Jodie Foster character is an atheist.

"The Contender," written and directed by Rod Lurie, takes this scenario one step further. Senator Laine Hanson, portrayed by Joan Allen, volunteers her atheism, after undergoing a brutal nomination hearing as a vice presidential contender dogged by charges of participating in an orgy while in college.

The shell-shocked Senator maintains a composed, steadfast silence, refusing to dignify the charges, or even discuss them with the President. The lurid scandal, complete with photographs, escalates in the news and over the Internet, thanks to the overt machinations and leaks of the rightwing chair of the Senate hearings, Cong. Shelly Runyon. A nearly unrecognizable Gary Oldman is appropriately hateful as a ruthless Kenneth Starr stand-in.

The movie's premise is that the hard-as-nails Democratic president (a convincing Jeff Bridges) wants to go down in history for choosing the first woman vice president, so decides to somewhat inexplicably stand by his controversial woman nominee.

Atheism rears its head during the nomination hearings when it is revealed that Senator Hanson was once quoted on the subject of the separation of church and state, saying "fairy tales" should not be legislated.

Apparently figuring she has nothing to lose, Hanson acknowledges at the hearing's conclusion that yes, she is an atheist. She eloquently states her strong support for strict gun control, abortion rights, the Establishment Clause and her opposition to the death penalty.

"The Contender" of course is a thinly-veiled examination of the ethics of the Clinton impeachment proceedings. Nothing is black and white, however. The vice presidential nominee is a bit hard to understand herself, presented as the Republican daughter of a well-known governor who switches party allegiance some time after being elected to the Senate. Her vote--when she was still a Republican--to impeach, but not convict Clinton ("He was responsible, but not guilty") is brought out at the hearings, just to confuse matters.

What's especially nice is that screenwriter Rod Lurie wrote the part of the vice presidential nominee expressly for actress Joan Allen, to give her a starring vehicle after she has been typecast as "the wife" (Patricia Nixon, for instance) and "the mother" in many of her previous roles. Allen's delicate, almost brittle beauty and reserved air lend authenticity to her portrayal of the besieged, enigmatic character.

In light of the discouraging August 14 Reuters poll showing that an atheist vice presidential nominee would place at the bottom of the totem pole with voters, it's especially gratifying that Lurie made his main character a forthright atheist. He is also to be lauded for making a movie that champions feminism and denounces the double standard.

Lurie's cautionary tale on the public's right to know all about the personal lives of candidates ("Sometimes you can assassinate a leader without firing a shot") will certainly satisfy those of us who found Ken Starr's abuse of power and the Clinton impeachment to be one of the most painful endurance contests in modern political history.

Some of the film's over-the-top, Capra-esque touches seem jarring, such as the final scene in which patriotic music plays loudly out of nowhere as the President makes an impassioned pitch for his nominee. Thinking about it afterward, I decided Lurie deliberately, commendably set out to make a movie that is neither cynical nor realistic, but which serves as just plain old-fashioned wishful thinking. "The Contender" is a secular parable.

Talk about fairy tales! But what a lovely pipe dream.

The writer is editor of Freethought Today.

I remained seated. I, and a few of my friends, endured the nasty comments from other students. I actually called some of those other students friends. I did not always remain seated for the Pledge of Allegiance. Honestly, I had trouble ignoring other students telling me that I had to stand up.

So I developed several versions of the Pledge, for example: "I pledge allegiance to the Republic of El Salvador, and to the dictatorship for which it stands, one nation under Me, with liberty and justice for about six people," or, "I pledge allegiance to the Iron Fist of America, and to the corporate oligarchy for which it stands, one nation under Pat Robertson, with liberty and justice for Fundamentalists." In other words, I was destined to never be the Homecoming King. But my smallish act of defiance got me thinking: Why should I have to skip over a part of the pledge to my country? Why should there be a de facto establishment of the existence of a god (which everyone assumes to be the Christian one) every day in my public school?

The clear answer is that I should not have to skip a part of the Pledge any more than I, or anyone else, should have to have a government-sponsored deity shoved down our throats each morning at school. What is worse than having to either remain seated or skip over parts of the Pledge of Allegiance is that most students have no idea that they cannot require other students to stand up and pledge to the flag. In my AP English class, one fundamentalist student was almost screaming at me for not doing so. I had never seen someone get so close to a self-induced coronary. Lucky for both of us we were good friends and had been so since grade school. I replied to his beseeching that there was no law saying one had to stand for the Pledge and that the Supreme Court had actually ruled against any such laws. Because we respected each other, this tit for tat never amounted to anything, but most people do not have the luxury of growing up with someone who turns out to be an opponent. Many people, otherwise lacking any common interests, view those of another faith, a different version of one's own faith, or of no faith, as enemies. Healthy discussions degenerate into vituperative attacks and disgusting rumors. Enmity emerges from the ashes and we soon have another holy war, Inquisition, Crusades, or Salem under humanity's proverbial Bible Belt.

First, religion does not belong in public schools because it is divisive. It engenders a smug, holier-than-thou attitude that makes students, teachers, and administrators believe it is okay to violate the rights of others. And what hasn't been done in the name of God? Hitler based his anti-Semitism on the Bible, even going so far as to state that killing the Jews would make him a doer of the Lord's work. The website of the Ku Klux Klan is so blatantly Christian that I'm waiting for them to get Pat Robertson's Pious Award. Osama bin Laden seems like a religious individual. Maybe Congress should ask him to open the legislative sessions with a non-sectarian, non-proselytizing prayer. Perhaps the Catholics and Protestants of Northern Ireland could teach us a few things about church/state separation. What about Waco or Jonestown?

All this may seem out of proportion to having to say the Pledge every morning. But think about it: The goal of Pat Robertson, James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, et al., is not to force people to say "under God" each day, or to keep "In God We Trust" on our money. Their goal is a Christian version of Iran. Total theocracy. In no uncertain terms the Religious Right does not care about the family, liberty, freedom, the Bill of Rights, the Constitution, the free market, or anything remotely ensconcing the rights of man above the rights of a god. They crave souls. Like any addict, any path to the drug is acceptable. Saying "under God" now means one may be under someone's version of God's iron fist later. Step up the dose little by little. Tax exemptions, Blue Laws, post office closings, ceremonial deism (God on coins, Pledge, etc.), vouchers, "faith-based partnerships," political meddling, blasphemy laws, direct funding of churches, and finally our nation becomes the Religious Right's wet dream: Welcome to the Christian States of America.

That is why it is important to say that religion most certainly does not belong in public schools. That is why church/state violations of any kind must be fought. Students should not have to skip over the words "under God"; those words should not be there. Period.

In addition, religion should not be in public schools because it is false. As atheists, we frequently ignore or do not even consider that point. Religion is false. Evolution should be taught in biology classes, creationism in humanities. Evolution is a fact, creation is a myth. Public schools should be neutral about the existence of a god, even if everyone were to agree that a god existed. This is not to say that lively debate should not occur in public schools. Far from it, I discussed the non-existence of God as part of a presentation I did in my AP English class on Dante's Inferno. I argued with my fundamentalist friend in class as well. But the government did not sponsor my presentation, nor my discussions with my friends. I did not borrow the band's sound system and announce during football games that God was a fiction. I did not force people to remain seated during the Pledge of Allegiance or tell everybody to say, "one nation, without God . . . "

When someone asks me the greatest reason for not having government-sponsored religion in public schools, perhaps the best answer would be because there should not be government indoctrination in something as important a topic as God. Would a Christian want government-sponsored atheism? Then I say get the State out of the metaphysics business all together. Religion is divisive, false, and far too important a topic to trust to the government. Forget the metaphysical, it can't even fix the physical. That sounds like a ringing endorsement for keeping religion out of public schools.

Eric Breitenstein graduated at the top of his class (out of approx. 330) from Gulf High School in New Port Richey, Florida. He attends the University of Florida in Gainesville and will major in journalism. He enjoys photography, biking, writing, and reading. His favorite author is Bertrand Russell.

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You Won't Believe You're Reading This

Pizza Extremists. The Ava Maria School of Law, MI, bankrolled with $50 million by Domino's Pizza founder Tom Monaghan, opened for biz in August with 77 students. Combining legal theory with staunch Catholic theology, the law school--whose governing board includes Henry Hyde and Catholic officials, and whose staff includes Robert Bork--is expected to train a cadre of antiabortion lawyers. Source: Associated Press, 8/25/00

Making Gays Latter-day Lepers. At its 170th Semiannual General Conference in Salt Lake City, tens of thousands of Mormons twirled handkerchiefs and gave a "Hosanna Shout" at the dedication of a new church conference center, as LDS Church officials promised to continue active anti-gay lobbying attacks. Source: Salt Lake City Tribune, 10/9/00

Not A Good Day. Police arrested the parents of a 17-year-old Bronx youth for severely beating their gay son with a lead pipe while yelling, "God will punish you for your lifestyle." The parents' answering machine greets callers with the salutation: "God bless you. You have a good day." Source: New York Daily News, 8/13/00

Muslim Wife-Beating Urged. A Spanish Koranic scholar's book Women in Islam describes how to bring rebellious women into line: hit without leaving marks. Blows should be administered to feet and hands with a rod that "is not too thick," writes Mohamed Kamal Mostafa. Source: The Telegraph [UK], 7/23/00

Ditto, Turkish Handbook. The Muslim's Handbook by cleric Kemal Guran, published by a state-funded religious foundation in Turkey, prescribes wife-beating and polygamy, shuns contraception and even music, which is sinful because it "arouses sexual desire." It advises readers "not to strike the woman's face" but to hit her "gently" elsewhere "just as a warning." Source: The Telegraph [UK], 8/12/00

Bishop Blames Rape Victims. As a Mexican state debated a proposal to jail rape victims who have abortions, Guadalajara Bishop Juan Sandoval Iniguez blamed women for rape "because the way they dress is provocative. Women must be more decent and not encourage it." Source: Reuters, 8/17/00

Polygamy USA. It is not unusual for a single family in Colorado City, AZ, home to the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to have 50 members, according to Ben Bistline, a local historian. Prophet Rulon Jeffs, 92, whose recent order caused a mass exodus from public schools this fall, reportedly has 16 wives and as many as 90 children. Source: Los Angeles Times, 10/10/00

Muscular Christianity. A grandmother, 63, was the second person in her parish to be arrested in connection with homophobic harassment of Rev. Neil Follett, the vicar of St Paul's, Knightsbridge, who fled in fear of his life last summer. Source: [London] Times, 8/18/00

One Can Believe This. Arizona's House Chaplain, the GOP-appointed Rev. Charles Coppinger, 36, explained he realized he is gay last spring, but it took him half a year to work up the courage to tell lawmakers. Source: Arizona Republic, 10/11/00

Rodney Lyle Scott is a thirty-four-year old mechanic who works for United Airlines. He travels daily to and from Denver International Airport on Interstate 70, which is the main east-west highway in Colorado. Rodney is divorced and has joint custody of his three-year-old daughter.

In recent years, private citizens have erected a number of Christian crosses and other religious memorabilia along the median strip of Interstate 70. These displays mark the spots where loved ones died in traffic accidents although, in one case, a cross marked the area where a murdered woman's body was thrown from her assailant's car. So many crosses have been erected that Rodney Scott has likened it to driving through a graveyard. This phenomenon has not been restricted to Interstate 70. Crosses are cropping up on other highway rights of way all over Colorado and, we understand, in other states.

With all due respect to the grieving families, about two years ago FFRF's Colorado Chapter asked the Colorado Department of Transportation, commonly known as "CDOT," to stop this use of State highways to promote Christianity. This led to a program whereby CDOT, upon receiving a complaint, would first offer the family which had erected the memorial an opportunity to remove it. If that was not successful, CDOT would remove and dispose of the display itself.

Although a number of religious objects were removed under this program, it proved to be unsatisfactory primarily because, usually within days, the object would reappear at the same location. For this reason, the Colorado Chapter filed a written request with CDOT asking (1) that fines be assessed against the party or parties who erected a display and (2) that CDOT's maintenance crews routinely remove these objects regardless of whether their presence had been brought to official attention by the Colorado Chapter.

Ironically, just about the time this request was made, a Colorado State Trooper noticed Rodney Scott's pickup truck sitting in the median strip one evening alongside Interstate 70 about 25 miles east of Denver. He also noticed some religious paraphernalia in the back of the truck and questioned Scott. Satisfied that nothing was wrong, the Trooper left but not until he had made a note of the license plate number on Rodney's truck.

Things get a bit fuzzy after that. However, it appears that several people complained to the authorities that their Christian crosses had been removed from the Interstate 70 median strip and an investigation was initiated by the local sheriff's department. The State Trooper who had taken Scott's license number heard about the investigation and contacted the sheriff, who then questioned Scott. In the course of this questioning, Scott was not advised that he had a right to say nothing, that anything he said could be used against him and that he had a right to consult with a lawyer. This is the Miranda warning that is so often ignored by the authorities.

It was determined that Scott was probably the culprit who removed the crosses. An effort was first made to charge Scott in Arapahoe County because that was where he was originally spotted by the State Trooper. However, the Arapahoe County District Attorney refused to file charges, so Scott was charged in Adams County. The District Attorney in Adams County is a mean-spirited, politically ambitious person and undoubtedly saw this case as a career stepping-stone.

Curiously, Scott was not charged with theft of a roadside memorial. Instead, he was charged under a little-used law making it a crime to "desecrate an object venerated by the public." This has all the indicia of a crime against religion. The word "desecrate" means to destroy the sacredness of, and "veneration" is synonymous with worship. Our legal system has a long history of rejecting crimes such as blasphemy and heresy, so a major issue in the case will be whether the law violates the Constitutional principle of church/state separation.

At the arraignment, Scott was offered a plea bargain whereby he would only be fined $50 if he pled guilty. Scott refused and the case has been set for trial in early December.

We are now in the "discovery" phase of the case. This means that Scott is entitled to receive all documents relating to the case that are in the hands of the prosecution. One such document is a letter written by CDOT about two years ago advising a private citizen to remove a roadside cross which he complained about. On the basis of this, we asked that Scott's case be dropped, but the District Attorney refused. The prosecution's position on this issue is that the authorization was limited to the person to whom the letter was written and no one else. Odd, to say the least.

We are now in the "discovery" phase of the case. This means that Scott is entitled to receive all documents relating to the case that are in the hands of the prosecution. One such document is a letter written by CDOT about two years ago advising a private citizen to remove a roadside cross which he complained about. On the basis of this, we asked that Scott's case be dropped, but the District Attorney refused. The prosecution's position on this issue is that the authorization was limited to the person to whom the letter was written and no one else. Odd, to say the least.

The trial promises to be interesting. Assuming for the sake of argument that Scott did remove the roadside crosses, does this constitute "desecration"? What is an "object venerated by the public"? Will a survey be taken to establish this? What about those people who find roadside crosses repulsive? Will this be taken into account in determining whether the public venerates them? How can CDOT give one citizen authority to remove a roadside memorial and then have the government turn right around and file criminal charges against another person who did the very same thing? What gives people the right to erect private memorials on property owned by all the taxpayers? And what recourse does a citizen have if the government does not fulfill its responsibility by seeing to it that public property is not used to promote religion? If the government refuses to take a patently unconstitutional display down, doesn't the public have the right to do so?

At the arraignment, the presiding Judge insisted that the trial should not take more than one day. He reluctantly set it for a two-day trial but we believe that it will take the better part of a week. This could create some friction with the Judge so, thankfully, under our system of justice, Scott is entitled to a jury trial. Empanelling the jury to make sure that there are no jurors who are biased in favor of religion or opposed to separation of church and state could take an entire day.

Meantime, we have filed a motion with the Judge to dismiss the case on two grounds: first, that the criminal statute has the effect of unconstitutionally endorsing religion and, second, that the statute is unconstitutionally vague because it does not set an objective standard against which an alleged wrongdoer's actions can be measured. That motion is pending before the Judge and we are not optimistic that it will be granted. The usual response from a Judge is to allow the case to go to trial and let the jury decide.

After the case has been tried or in the unlikely event the Judge dismisses it, we shall do a follow-up on the results.

Attorney Robert R. Tiernan is a Foundation member who directs the Denver FFRF chapter. He is representing Rodney Scott pro bono.

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Tennessee Schools At It Again

On behalf of a family in Dayton, Tennessee, the national Freedom From Religion Foundation is protesting pervasive religious influence in the town's public schools, including:

bible study in the classroom, conducted during school hours by an outside group of fundamentalist Christians from Bryan College
distribution of bibles in classrooms by the Gideon Society
morning bible reading over the intercom followed by a moment of silence; and
the posting of overtly religious messages by some teachers on the walls and doors of classrooms

The school board more than a year ago voted not to stop the bible classes.

Dan Barker, a spokesperson for the Foundation, which has members in the Dayton area, as well as throughout Tennessee, and in every state, sent an official letter of complaint to Superintendent Susan Porter, Rhea County Schools, enumerating the various prevailing Supreme Court decisions which the practices violate.

Under McCollum v. Board of Education, 333 U.S. 203, 212 (1948), religious instruction in the public schools is unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court has let stand two lower court rulings barring distribution of Gideon Bibles on school property: Tudor v. Board of Education of Rutherford, 14 J.N. 31 (1953), cert. denied 348 U.S. 816 (1954), reaffirmed in Berger v. Rensselaer, 982 F.2d, 1160 (7th Cir.) cert. denied, 124 L.E. 2d 254 (1993). A moment of silence with religious intent was halted as unconstitutional in Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 U.S. 38, 72 (1985). Stone v. Graham, 449 U.S. 39 (1980) outlawed the posting of the Ten Commandments in public schools because they are religious.

The Tennessee Constitution also forbids such entanglements, stating that: ". . . no human authority can, in any case whatever control or interfere with the rights of conscience; and that no preference shall ever be given, by law to any religious establishment or mode of worship." (Article I, Declaration of Rights)

In his letter, Barker noted that the family complainants object to "the indignity that their children (as young as kindergarten!) experience while being forced to sit through the indoctrination of someone else's religion in their own public school system."

The Foundation called for assurance that these blatantly illegal practices will be halted immediately.

"Seventy-five years after the Scopes Trial, is this where the Dayton public schools want to be--illegally promoting religion and violating the law?" Barker asked.

"The Dayton schools need to evolve," Barker added.

Chattanooga radio stations have been covering the story, as well as the Chattanoogan. After a story about the issue ran in the Dayton Herald-News (which is editorializing in favor of the bible classes), a second family with children in the Dayton schools contacted the Foundation to join the complaint.

As of press time, no formal answer to the Foundation's September 27 letter has been received from the school board, although Superintendent Porter has reportedly told the media that she is not afraid of a lawsuit, asserting that 99.9% of the community supports religion in the schools.

Bryan College is the bible school in Dayton that was founded in the name of William Jennings Bryan, who debated Clarence Darrow during the famous 1925 Scopes trial in that town.

%679 %America/Chicago, %2013

Tennessee Schools At It Again

On behalf of a family in Dayton, Tennessee, the national Freedom From Religion Foundation is protesting pervasive religious influence in the town's public schools, including:

bible study in the classroom, conducted during school hours by an outside group of fundamentalist Christians from Bryan College
distribution of bibles in classrooms by the Gideon Society
morning bible reading over the intercom followed by a moment of silence; and
the posting of overtly religious messages by some teachers on the walls and doors of classrooms

The school board more than a year ago voted not to stop the bible classes.

Dan Barker, a spokesperson for the Foundation, which has members in the Dayton area, as well as throughout Tennessee, and in every state, sent an official letter of complaint to Superintendent Susan Porter, Rhea County Schools, enumerating the various prevailing Supreme Court decisions which the practices violate.

Under McCollum v. Board of Education, 333 U.S. 203, 212 (1948), religious instruction in the public schools is unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court has let stand two lower court rulings barring distribution of Gideon Bibles on school property: Tudor v. Board of Education of Rutherford, 14 J.N. 31 (1953), cert. denied 348 U.S. 816 (1954), reaffirmed in Berger v. Rensselaer, 982 F.2d, 1160 (7th Cir.) cert. denied, 124 L.E. 2d 254 (1993). A moment of silence with religious intent was halted as unconstitutional in Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 U.S. 38, 72 (1985). Stone v. Graham, 449 U.S. 39 (1980) outlawed the posting of the Ten Commandments in public schools because they are religious.

The Tennessee Constitution also forbids such entanglements, stating that: ". . . no human authority can, in any case whatever control or interfere with the rights of conscience; and that no preference shall ever be given, by law to any religious establishment or mode of worship." (Article I, Declaration of Rights)

In his letter, Barker noted that the family complainants object to "the indignity that their children (as young as kindergarten!) experience while being forced to sit through the indoctrination of someone else's religion in their own public school system."

The Foundation called for assurance that these blatantly illegal practices will be halted immediately.

"Seventy-five years after the Scopes Trial, is this where the Dayton public schools want to be--illegally promoting religion and violating the law?" Barker asked.

"The Dayton schools need to evolve," Barker added.

Chattanooga radio stations have been covering the story, as well as the Chattanoogan. After a story about the issue ran in the Dayton Herald-News (which is editorializing in favor of the bible classes), a second family with children in the Dayton schools contacted the Foundation to join the complaint.

As of press time, no formal answer to the Foundation's September 27 letter has been received from the school board, although Superintendent Porter has reportedly told the media that she is not afraid of a lawsuit, asserting that 99.9% of the community supports religion in the schools.

Bryan College is the bible school in Dayton that was founded in the name of William Jennings Bryan, who debated Clarence Darrow during the famous 1925 Scopes trial in that town.

%676 %America/Chicago, %2013

Clarence Reinders: Freethinker of Year

Foundation Life Member Clarence R. Reinders was named "Freethinker of the Year." He was unable to attend the Foundation's 23rd Annual Convention in person, but sent this acceptance speech.

 

I wish to thank the Freedom From Religion Foundation for naming me "Freethinker of the Year." I am delighted to accept this award. It is like receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor for fighting and being wounded in a fierce war in defense of the First Amendment to the Constitution. After all, that's what I really am, a defender of the first clause of the Bill of Rights, i.e., the separation of church and state.

I am honored to have fought and prevailed in keeping the church and state separate because it is between these two powerful governing forces, one "sacred" and the other secular and profane, that freedom of the individual is given a chance to survive and thrive, where free men and women can think and believe and act freely. What a privilege to have been given the opportunity to be a foot soldier in service to such a noble cause.

On June 19, 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court, by a vote of 6 to 3, handed freethinkers everywhere a huge victory. Like the successful appeal, by a 3 to zero vote, of the Jesus idol in the Marshfield Park, it was a strong decision in upholding the first clause in the First Amendment of the Constitution which bars government from establishing religion.

The Santa Fe Independent School District in suburban Houston, Texas, had a policy which allowed an elected student representative to deliver a public prayer before home high school football games. The Supreme Court banned this student-led prayer. You all probably remember reading about this. But what you may be unaware of is that this suit was not brought to the court by a bunch of us "immoral" atheists attacking religion in public life. Irony of ironies, it was brought by a Catholic family and a Mormon family, two Christian minorities bobbing in a sea of the majority Southern Christian Baptists in the very hostile buckle of the Bible Belt.

But what most people are unaware of is that these two families--one Catholic and one Mormon--had their identities sealed by the courts. That fact speaks volumes about their fear of reprisals from their loving Southern Baptist Christian friends and neighbors and the courts' concern to protect their lives, limbs and property from the depredations of their fellow Christians. So much for Christian love.

Yet in order to challenge the statue of Jesus in a Marshfield public park a named citizen of Marshfield had to step forward, identify himself and sign his name on the dotted line of the legal complaint.

Freedom From Religion needed someone with legal standing, a foot soldier on the frontline to be shot at and I gladly agreed to be that sitting duck. In fact I volunteered. My Christian wife who had supported me in my beliefs, i.e., disbelief of all religious belief systems, had died. My career as a motel owner/operator in Marshfield was near its end. I was in my late sixties. If I didn't finally take a stand for liberty of conscience and do it now, when?

Anne Nicol Gaylor had asked me many years ago when I first became a member of Freedom From Religion to sue the city regarding the Jesus shrine in the Marshfield park. But I could not do it at that time and she understood. I was fearful about how this basically Christian community and my Christian wife would react. But conditions change and become ripe for ideas whose time has come. And we as atheists, agnostics, skeptics and humanists--our time has finally come.

I knew it wasn't going to be any cake walk and that I would be the target of much Christian hate. So I bought a telephone answering machine and a tape recorder to record the calls and settled in for the inevitable hostile reaction to the lawsuit. I knew it wasn't going to be pretty but was totally unprepared for the violent and vitriolic ad hominem attacks on me as the mere messenger. After all, I only said, "The emperor has no clothes." And the good loving Christian community was really steamed at me for having said it. They never addressed the issue of the unconstitutionality of a religious statue in a public park.

Instead I was called all kinds of names and invited to leave this god-fearing country if I didn't like it here. One fellow knew of an island in the ocean where I could go. A doctor's wife from the Marshfield Clinic said I would be lucky if I didn't get my house egged. And so on. All recorded on tape. I even had a news reporter and a policeman together listen to some pretty nasty threats. Naturally after it was reported in the Marshfield News-Herald that their phone messages were being recorded the volume of phone calls trailed off.

I did however receive three anonymous phone calls from supporters who were fearful of giving their names and phone numbers. Two upfront outspoken supporters called, one of whom was Bernie Ehrman, a Freedom From Religion member who has since died. The other was a very sharp local lady. I also had three or four supporters drop by in person at the motel to give me encouragement, one of whom was my doctor from the Marshfield Clinic. So we as atheistic and agnostic individuals are not so alone as we may seem. Definitely a despised minority but definitely not alone.

Whenever there would be some report in the newspaper as the lawsuit progressed there would be a flurry of letters to the editor. Sometimes four or five letters on this issue dominated the comment section. I clipped and saved them all. The vast majority of them, like 20 to 1, were in favor of keeping the idol in the park. They thought that the majority in Marshfield should rule and that I as part of the minority should just accept it and when I drove by the idol I should just look the other way. They just didn't get it that the Bill of Rights is not about majority rule but about the protection of the minority within the majority.

They thought that Anne Gaylor and that atheistic organization in Madison should keep their noses out of the way they ran the parks in Marshfield. They just didn't understand that to protest an egregious violation of the First Amendment is everyone's secular civic duty and that the benefits of the defense of the First Amendment accrue just as well to them. The day is fast coming when, because of projected future demographic multicultural changes, the Christian majority will become the Christian minority and then they will be most thankful for the religious protections secured by the First Amendment.

As soon as the lawsuit had been filed against the city of Marshfield, the city immediately knew that it was in an indefensible position and was in violation of the First Amendment. First it put up a disclaimer sign saying that it did not endorse any particular religion. Then it quickly sold 15 hundredths of an acre of the public park to the Praschak Memorial Fund and smugly thought it was off the unconstitutional hook. Then Freedom From Religion sued the city and the Praschak Memorial Fund as still being in violation of the separation of church and state because the shrine would still appear to be in a public park. Judge Shabaz found otherwise and the case was appealed to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago where, to my wonderment and surprise, it found 3 to zero in our favor.

I never in my wildest dreams ever thought we would get more than one vote on our side. Three to zero! What a victory! The Jesus idol was found to be in violation of the First Amendment. We were vindicated. That's what we had claimed all along and we were right. The emperor did indeed have no clothes.

Now a final delicious irony. The Praschak Memorial Group in collusion with the City of Marshfield fought to keep the statue in its present high visibility and prime location on Highway 13 as a welcoming figure to travelers entering and exiting Marshfield on the south side. All north and south traffic is funneled on that one road only. You had to drive by the idol unless as a native of Marshfield you knew of one back street to avoid it. I was several times counseled to use this detour since I was so offended by the sight of their precious Jesus. What a juicy propaganda location to display their cherished idol for all to see.

Even with a fence around it and two disclaimer signs, the city and the Praschak Memorial Group think that they have nevertheless won. After all, they did not have to move the idol which still commands its high visibility location. For, as they say in real estate, the three most important features of a property are location, location and location.

However, the State of Wisconsin is building a bypass around and through the city. Guess what? That bypass will become Highway 13. And the street ahead of the idol will no longer be the official Highway 13 but just plain South Central Avenue. The upshot will be that the vast majority of the traffic that enters and leaves the city will no longer be forced to travel past the idol. What delicious just deserts!

We did not succeed in moving the religious statue out of the public park but benevolent and capricious fate intervened and moved the highway away from the shrine, thus effectively negating the propaganda value of its prized location.

And they say there is no god!

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