Freethought Today is very sorry to report the death of longtime FFRF member Bly Marion Allen, 93, Altoona, Wis., on Nov. 1, 2013.
Born in Lindsborg, Kan., on July 12, 1920, Bly was one of nine children born to Eben and Dora (Herman) Johnson. She married Roy Allen in 1957. Roy was a widower with two young children, Michael, 8, and Peggy, 7. They were married 45 years.
Bly earned a B.A. in 1946 from Marymount College in Salina and an M.A. in 1950 from the University of Chicago. She was assistant dean of women and a counselor for 20 years at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. Her passion for education continued throughout her life. She was an avid reader, gardener and political activist and loved to write about her memories of growing up on a farm in a Swedish community. She was a member of the Unitarian Universalist congregation in Eau Claire. Her dream of controlling her manner and time of death was realized as she passed away peacefully under hospice care within days of leaving her independent living situation.
Bly will be dearly missed and is survived by her daughter, Sarah (Ted) Welter; stepson, Michael (Christine) Allen; son-in-law, Steve Arnold; three grandchildren, Kate (Dave) Ullman, Charles and John Welter; and two sisters, Wanda Block and Minnie Beck. She was preceded in death by husband, Roy Allen, and daughter, Margaret (Peggy) Allen.
Bly attended many Wisconsin-based FFRF conventions and was an occasional visitor at Freethought Hall over two decades. Anne and Annie Laurie Gaylor and FFRF staffers recall many lovely conversations with Bly, an ardent freethinker and supporter of state/church separation.
A Unitarian Universalist memorial service was held Nov. 10 in Eau Claire.
Name: Eric C. Sanders.
Where I live: Macomb County, Mich.
Where and when I was born: Detroit, Jan. 19, 1950.
Education: Two semesters at Wayne State University; the full course at Electronic Computer Programming Institute, Detroit (1971); variety of trade courses from McCormack & Dodge and IBM, along with lots of on-the-job training.
Occupation: First I was a kitchen boy at a Girl Scout camp, then everything from short-order cook and pizza delivery boy to mainframe computer operations, to 20 years’ mainframe computer programming to cabbing, and now retail service in a gun shop.
How I got where I am today: Luck. My bum knee got me out of the Army on a medical discharge after being drafted in spite of a doctor’s note, but my discharge was a week too early to qualify for G.I. benefits. As a result, I never finished a degree and lost a house. While a student at computer school, though, I met a fellow who wound up recommending me for progressively better jobs in information technology.
Finally, my job was eliminated, and I was invited to go someplace where my lack of a degree would not be important. Then an acquaintance was fired from the job I now hold. That’s only half of the story. I know no one up there likes me.
Where I’m headed: Short term? I’m going to find out whether my investment choices, along with Social Security and what earnings I can garner, will support me the rest of my life. Long term? Recycling, obviously.
Persons I admire: Anyone who can stay cool while his tectonic plate heads hellward — haven’t known that many such people, certainly not admirable ones.
Not personally known? Writers Bob Heinlein and Louis L’Amour, Medal of Honor winners Audie Murphy and Rodger Young, cartoon creators R. Crumb and Michael Maltese, and singers Eddie Van Halen and Janis Ian. Plus the person who first thought up writing and reading -— greatest invention in history.
A quotation I like: There are a bunch. Ecclesiastes 9:11. 1 Corinthians 13:2. Matthew 25:40. Henry James on the three things important in human life (all end in “be kind”).
“People said there was one law for the rich and one law for the poor, but it wasn’t true. There was no law for those who made the law, and no law for the incorrigibly lawless. All the laws and rules were for those people stupid enough to think like Cockbill Street people.” (Terry Pratchett)
And lastly, Abraham Maslow: “He that is good with a hammer tends to think everything is a nail.”
These are a few of my favorite things: A companion who listens. Foley that means it [accurate sound effects]. Tenderloin (skillet fried). Meatloaf that’s meatloaf. Snacks unconcerned with nutrition. Beautiful women who love to eat and drink. A book, or a movie, that is its own story. Any pistol with inverse rails. Folks who carry concealed, unconcerned with fashion. Manual transmissions. Air conditioning (thank Willis Carrier)!
These are not: Wal-Mart. Nutritious “snacks.” Religious people who do not know God, let alone Her shoe size. Teachers who don’t. Cooks more concerned with presentation than with comfort. Parents who shouldn’t. Governments.
My doubts about religion started: My childhood researches into the art and science of shoplifting led to me being sentenced to read the Revised Standard Version from cover to cover. The content was my first real brush with formal English literature, but it did not persuade me that its writers knew anything that I didn’t. It was just too inferior to really imaginative fiction, such as the works of Heinlein or Conan Doyle.
What I wished for as a child: Real proof that I was important to someone else — important for a reason unique to me.
Ways I promote freethought: Speaking and writing to anyone and everyone, always the truth as closely as I can discover it.
From left at the Tallahassee debate were Gary Whittenberger, Dan Barker, Bryan O’Neal, Mark Hohmeister and a representative of Ratio Christi.
A question long discussed around campfires, in caves, dorm halls, churches, classrooms, coffee shops and various other settings throughout history is “does God exist?” And so it was on Sept. 10 at the Challenger Learning Center in downtown Tallahassee, Fla.
Arguing for the affirmative position was Bryan O’Neal, professor of theology and dean of faculty at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. Taking the negative position was Dan Barker, an evangelist turned atheist and co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation in Madison, Wis. Debate moderator was Mark Hohmeister, associate editor of the Tallahassee Democrat.
The event was hosted by the Center for Inquiry-Tallahassee. Co-sponsors included Ratio Christi, Freethinkers’ Forum, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tallahassee, Tallahassee Atheists, First Coast Freethought Society, Humanists of Florida Association, Joan Patterson, Neil Mooney and Richard and Elaine Hull.
For more than two hours, the debaters vigorously defended their positions before an audience of 175 and afterward answered audience questions and engaged in informal discussions and book signings.
Seventy-eight percent of the audience completed an opinion survey consisting of one question posed before the debate and two questions posed after the debate. They were asked to answer the question “Does God exist?” (pre- and post-debate), choosing among five options: “definitely yes, probably yes, can’t decide, probably no, and definitely no.”
The definition of “God” used in the survey was one commonly held among believers in the “Abrahamic faiths” and one which the debaters had agreed to use prior to the debate. “God” was defined as “a being, intelligent agent, or person who is all-knowing, all-powerful, and perfectly good, who created the cosmos and is the supreme moral authority.”
Audience members were also asked near the conclusion “Who won the debate?”
Before the debate, 21.3% of those who completed the survey answered they were theists or believers in God, 5.1% said they were agnostics or undecided, and 71.3% identified as atheists or nonbelievers. Overall, 11.8% thought O’Neal won the debate, 69.9% thought Barker won and 11% thought it was a tie. Given the composition of the audience, this result was not too surprising.
Minds were changed
Although most people (82.4%) didn’t change their opinions about the existence of God from before the debate to afterward, 24 persons (17.6%) did. Of these individuals who had a change of mind, 16 (66.7%) changed in the direction of diminished belief in God, four (16.7%) changed in the direction of increased belief, and for four others (16.7%), the direction of change was ambiguous.
For those who began the debate as atheists, 3.1% thought O’Neal won, 84.5% thought Barker and 8.2% thought it was a tie. For the agnostics (who marked “can’t decide”), 14.3% favored O’Neal, 57.1% favored Barker and none thought it was a tie.
The most surprising result came from the theists, among which 37.9% thought O’Neal won, 31% thought Barker won and 24.1% thought it was a tie. Almost as many believers perceived Barker as the winner as thought O’Neal won.
For those who changed their belief about the existence of God, changes were in small increments, as might be expected in a 150-minute debate. Twenty of 24 (83.3%) who changed their minds did so by only one level. For example, the most common change to “Does God exist?” was from “probably no” to “definitely no.”
One surprising and rather disappointing fact was that before the debate, the religious community of Tallahassee did not come forward to support O’Neal even though he is an articulate apologist and a Presbyterian. Of five local Presbyterian churches which were invited to be debate co-sponsors, two declined and three never responded. Of approximately seven other religious groups invited to be co-sponsors, only one (Ratio Christi) agreed to support O’Neal and the debate’s goals.
This general lack of support seems inconsistent with a well-known bible verse (1 Peter 3:15): “But sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence.”
These survey results are consistent with a general U.S. trend toward secularization. On religious issues, most people are not changing their minds but some are, and among those who are, most are becoming less religious.
FFRF member Gary Whittenberger is a retired psychologist and current secretary of the Center for Inquiry–Tallahassee.
By Joan Reisman-Brill
On June 30, at the very end of a lovely vacation in Spain, I was struck by a Barcelona city bus, which came to a stop on my feet (crunch), then backed off (double crunch). I was bleeding from the head, scraped on one side, bruised on the other, and my feet were throbbing.
Although I never completely lost consciousness (and accurately told the emergency medics my name, where I was and that I thought my feet were broken), for a while I literally didn’t know what hit me.
After a round of medical imaging, it was determined that my brains and ribs were intact, but I had fractured multiple bones in both feet and had a very nasty “road burn” on one ankle near the bone. I was told that if it became infected, I could lose that foot. After a week back in the U.S., it did become infected and I was hospitalized for four days of IV antibiotics, followed by skin graft surgery.
Although my husband practices Judaism and we have friends who are devout Christians, I’m an atheist — something I don’t hide, but I also don’t constantly advertise. Despite doing all we could to head it off, we were inundated with religious friends and acquaintances (even people I thought disliked me because of my atheism) avidly praying for me in synagogues and churches and sending cards, flowers, gifts and platitudes.
It’s not that we have that many friends or are particularly beloved, it just seems to be what religious people are conditioned to do. People told me how I should thank God that I wasn’t killed, that I sustained no additional damage, that my injuries would heal “all in good time.”
When I said I wasn’t thankful to any god who would throw me under a bus, but that I was thankful for the excellent care my husband and I had pulled together, the worshippers didn’t seem to hear.
I abandoned my wheelchair and crutches after 10 weeks and started walking without as much as a cane. I am now going up and down stairs and hills with increasing ease and decreasing discomfort, and I expect to be fully recovered soon, with just a couple of scars as reminders.
Weeks after I was out of the hospital and “out of the woods” in terms of serious health risks, I received an email from the family rabbi, who had just heard what happened. She (yes, she!) apologized for not being aware sooner and asked if there was anything I needed. I said no thanks, we’re doing fine. And that, I thought, was that.
But last weekend my husband was in the synagogue and mentioned my accident to a woman who is aware of my godless views. She asked him if this experience had changed my tune, and he reported, “Not at all.” (I’m told I’m hard-headed, in more ways than one.)
Then we got a call from a synagogue committee lady we’ve never met. She had just been told (by that woman) about my injuries. The committee wanted to send food and social services and visitors — strangers! — to pray over me immediately. I did my best to convince the nice lady that I’m literally back on my feet already.
Minutes later, we got a call from another woman, who basically runs the synagogue. She wanted to double-check with us because the committee lady was arranging to unleash all that stuff upon us, despite the fact that we had firmly declined.
This time my husband succeeded in calling off the dogs. But he also assured everyone that the rabbi had personally been in touch with me, so no one could accuse her of being remiss in her duties. We’d hate to get anyone in trouble because I didn’t want an avalanche of well-meaning but unwelcome outpourings.
Chicken soup helps whom?
Just as I have a need to do community service as much as the community needs my service, I’m sure these lovely people require unfortunate souls to whom they can bring chicken soup and prayers for their own fulfillment. Imagine how disappointing it would be for a prayer group to rush over and find me up and about. I’d have to drag the wheelchair out of the closet and sit in it with a pained smile to make them feel good about themselves. Then after the prayers, I’d leap up and declare myself miraculously healed. Hallelujah!
Although I hardly think the “caring community” component is sufficient cause to convert anyone, the kind of services typical of religious organizations could be extremely beneficial to nonbelievers in times of adversity (as well as good times, such as weddings and births), if they could simply dispense with all the god talk and focus on what would truly be helpful.
Like doing only things that would lighten the load rather than add to it. My husband and I expended a lot of energy fielding phone calls and politely fending off or entertaining prayerful visitors when what we both really needed was rest and time to take care of ourselves.
It would be great if nonreligious people could, like our religious counterparts, instantly hook up with helping hands — without anyone blathering about God’s mysterious ways and how we should be thankful that things aren’t worse. We would have been glad to accept “productive” support that didn’t come with invisible (but audible) strings attached.
Many people told me my accident is a clear sign that I was saved for a higher purpose. I agree. That purpose is to reaffirm my atheism, to serve as an example that with excellent medical care, wonderful family and friends and taking responsibility for ourselves, we can survive and thrive after traumatic episodes — without resorting to piety in moments of weakness.
I want to spread the good news: People who rally around injured associates can help them get back on their feet faster if they skip the prayers and focus on things that really help. I would also remind people to always be super careful crossing the street, no matter what the light says.
That’s my mission, and I choose to accept it. It’s not impossible.
New York FFRF member Joan Reisman-Brill writes a humanist column titled “The Ethical Dilemma.”
Acclaimed author, gay rights advocate and nationally syndicated columnist Dan Savage graciously accepted FFRF’s Emperor Has No Clothes Award at the 36th national convention in September in Madison, Wis., where he gave these remarks (edited for print).
By Dan Savage
In the early 1980s, the Catholic cable channel in Chicago did a special on my family because we were the “perfect Catholic family.” My dad was an ordained deacon and my mom was a lay minister. They ran Catholic marriage encounter sessions in Illinois and Wisconsin and Indiana. All four of their children had been confirmed in the church. I was in the seminary. I was going to be a priest.
My dad was also a Chicago homicide detective. So, sort of a “gun in the pulpit” perfect Catholic family special. Two years later, sitting around the kitchen table with my mom and my siblings, we laughed at the idea of the television program returning and doing a “Where are they now?” special. My father had left and divorced my mother and had been defrocked as a deacon. I’d come out of the closet. My brother Billy, my oldest sibling, had gotten a preemptive vasectomy. We had birth control in the house. There had been abortion. My mother was sleeping with a married man.
By that time, when I was 17 or 18, I was a hardcore agnostic because I had a lot of questions. It was my sexuality that brought me into conflict with my faith. I was inquisitive and, ironically, my parents encouraged their kids to question authority. From a very early age, I had been asking the inappropriate or awkward questions.
In some ways I’m so grateful for being gay despite the chaos that that caused when I was 15, 16, 17 years old. If I hadn’t been gay, I sometimes wonder if I would’ve questioned my faith.
But my sexuality was the thread that — once I began to pull on it — ultimately unraveled the garment of faith and irrational belief. Not all gay people do that. Some gay people, after realizing their faith is in conflict with their sexuality, move on to some new faith that isn’t in quite as much conflict.
But for me, faith fell apart because I figured that if the church was this wrong about me — well, it stood to reason that the church was wrong about other stuff. The church, this human institution, was pretending to know things that no human being could possibily know.
And it’s generally a bad idea to trust people who pretend to know the unknowable, to take things — hugely consequential things — on faith alone. Better to acknowledge the unknowable, embrace ambiguity and think for ourselves — and date boys.
I call myself agnostic or an atheist, but sometimes I have to admit to being an agnosti-theist because, well, I do cross myself on airplanes. I flew here today and crossed myself. I have a superstitious hangover.
Remember Ann Landers? I’m sure all of you do. I was talking to somebody in their 20s just yesterday, and I mentioned Ann Landers and she said “Who?” Sometimes, people in their 20s make me feel as old as I am, which is 49, and also make me feel like slapping them.
Anyway, about 10 years ago, I went to an auction of Ann Landers’ effects. Her daughter, Margo Howard, had packed up her mother’s big condo on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago after she died. I read about the upcoming auction in the paper. Included was the desk on which Landers had written her advice column — for 40 years. And I thought, I want to have that desk.
I had just gotten a book deal that paid a stupid amount of money, so I called Margo. We’d been on the radio together after Ann died. A producer put us on together to pit us against each other. They thought Margo would talk about how great her mother was and how important and meaningful her column was. And me, being the author of the rudest and dirtiest sex advice column in the world, would dump all over Ann Landers and say that she sucked.
I can be an asshole, but I’m not going to go on a radio program with someone’s grieving daughter and talk about how horrible her mother was.
Also complicating the producer’s scheme was the fact that I loved Ann Landers and her column. I didn’t always agree with her, but who always agrees with anybody? I don’t always agree with myself! Sometimes I read columns I wrote 10 years ago and I think, “What was I smoking? Or thinking? Or smoking and thinking?”
I wanted Margo’s “permission” to go to the auction because I knew it would get written about as somehow disrespectful. I’m really embarrassed to say this, but I took $10,000 in cash to the auction. I took that much because I thought I’d be bidding against the Smithsonian for her desk, on which so much had been written about the culture, sexual mores and relationships over the decades.
So I took all this money, thinking, “Oh, it’s going to be me versus the Smithsonian because they’re going to want to put her desk next to Archie Bunker’s chair in the museum, but I’m going to get it and take it home.”
I bought Ann Landers’ desk for $197. I know, right? No one was there from the Smithsonian bidding against me.
Then they began to auction off all of Ann Landers’ many awards and honorary degrees, from the American Cancer Society, the American Leukemia Foundation, General Motors, Illinoisan of the Year, Chicagoan of the Year, medallions, plaques, tchotchkes. One award had been given to her by the pope when he visited Chicago in the 1960s, which now sits on my mantel. There is something in my house that a pope has touched, and it’s not a 10-year-old boy. Imagine that.
When people ask me during my college speaking gigs — often I get a card, especially when I speak in the South — “Do you believe in God?,” it’s a game for me to just read that question and say “Nope” and go right on to the next question. Because it’s the people who do believe in God who have some explaining to do, not those of us who do not.
I will take a photo of my Emperor award sitting next to the award from the pope on my mantel and post it on Instagram. Thank you all very much for this, it’s very meaningful. I can’t express it enough.
I was told to not run my mouth too long because they wanted some time for Q&A, which is my preferred format in everything. So I’m happy to answer any questions.
Q&A with Dan Savage
Q. Would you take $500 for the desk?
A. No! I have to write my column on it for four more decades so that there is a hundred or 80 years of sex column-ing and advice columning at this desk. Then maybe the Smithsonian will want it.
Q. How much cash did you have left after the auction?
A. About $9,200. So I took my mother to lunch.
Q. Was it weird having that much in cash?
A. That felt stupid, carrying that much money around. I felt very “First World and starving orphans” at that moment. But what can you do? You give a gay dude a lot of money and he’s going to spend it on stupid stuff. Like this jacket!
Q. Will you tell us more about the It Gets Better project? What motivated you?
A. The story behind why I started it is a downer. A 15-year-old kid named Billy Lucas killed himself in Greensburg, Ind. He’d been very brutally bullied in middle school and high school because he was perceived to be gay. He’d never come out to anyone as gay, so he may not have been gay. Not all victims of anti-LGBT violence and bullying are gay, but he likely was gay.
“Gaydar” is strong with middle schoolers and high schoolers. “Good” Christian kids said because he was sick and sinful, God hated him. They said he was going to hell and might as well get it over with. [Billy was found hanging from the rafters in his grandmother’s barn.] I wrote about it from a place of real rage.
I get really weepy when I try to talk about this. His parents created a Facebook memorial page for him, and the same kids who had been bullying him went to the Facebook page to celebrate his death, to call him a faggot again and to say in front of his grieving parents that they were glad he was dead. I wrote about that from a place of white hot rage.
I was reading the comments on a blog post I’d written, which drew similar outrage and fury. A woman whose handle is Despicable Me cut through everyone’s anger by writing, “I wish I had known you, Billy, and had been able to tell you that things get better. Rest in peace.”
That “things get better” kind of gutted me, along with that desire to have had a chance to speak to him, because things do get better. And they have gotten better — at a macro level for LGBT people and at a micro level personally for so many of us in our lives after escaping high school.
Vicious ‘family’ values
When I came out to my parents in the early 1980s, I was not just telling my mom and my dad. I was not just burning them with mental images that took them years to stop seeing. They could look at my sister’s boyfriend without seeing his dick in her mouth, but they couldn’t look at mine, couldn’t make the same leap with my boyfriend for a while.
But telling my very traditional parents I was gay in the early 1980s meant telling them that I would never marry, never have kids. I would have a marginal career if I had any career at all, and that I could never be a Marine.
And here we are in just the course of my adult life, since age 18, and I am married to the same guy for 20 years. We have a 15-year-old son that we raised from birth together. Now I can be a Marine. I don’t want to be a Marine, much to the relief of the United States Marine Corps. But the kind of gay people who could be Marines and would like to be Marines and would be good Marines can now be Marines and serve openly.
I need to talk to the next Billy Lucas before he harms himself, but I would never get an invitation to a high school to speak to that kid, the queer kid, who most desperately needs to hear from LGBT adults. Kids who are queer are at four times greater risk for suicide. That doubles if their parents are openly hostile.
That is why I say that Tony Perkins [of the Family Research Council] sits on a pile of dead gay children every day when he goes to work. He encourages parents to do what he damn well knows doubles the already quadrupled risk of suicide for their queer kids. Then he points to the suicide rate that he’s helping to drive up as proof that the gay “lifestyle” is unhealthy and dangerous.
I would never be able to get permission from that parent who’s following Tony Perkins’ lead to speak to their kid, to tell them that things get better. Then it occurred to me on the train to JFK that I’m in the YouTube/Facebook/Twitter era and no longer needed permission to speak to queer kids.
I could record a video, use my column and my podcast to encourage other adults to make videos, upload them to YouTube and encourage kids to watch them. And bring the LGBT youth support group to that kid whose parents would never allow them to attend one. And it worked.
A girl in Texas
The letter that most sticks with me was from a 15-year-old lesbian kid in Texas. I usually don’t say the name of the state, so don’t remember that. Growing up in a shitty state with a shitty governor. (See, I could have said Wisconsin, which is a wonderful state with a shitty governor!)
She came out to her parents because she was being bullied and needed their support. She was perceived to be a lesbian, which she is. She went to her parents and came out to them, and they did what Tony Perkins tells parents to do.
They threatened to disown her, throw her out of the house, cut off all her contact with her siblings and not pay for her education if she didn’t go into counseling at their megachurch. They said she had to take it back — not be a lesbian.
So she did what so many queers before her have done. She lied to her parents under duress and told them that she was mistaken, that she was not a lesbian, that she was confused. She went home from her counseling session and put up a poster of Justin Bieber, because that’s as close to lesbianism as she could get for a while. (I’m not making fun of effeminate boys. Anyone who’s ever met anybody I’ve ever dated knows that effeminate boys are my favorite.)
She wrote me at [my column] Savage Love to tell me that she was watching It Gets Better videos on her phone, in her bed, in her bedroom, under the covers in her parent’s house in the middle of the night. That was what we wanted to do. We kicked down her parents’ front door, marched into their daughter’s bedroom and climbed into bed with her. We brought the queer youth support group to her, the one her parents wouldn’t let her attend.
She said that it was helping. She was seeing families of gay people, bi people, and trans people, whose families had the same reaction as hers, coming around. She was seeing lesbians with families of their own and wives and children and colleagues who respected them and friends who loved them for who they really were.
It was giving her hope for her future, and it was getting her through this time when she was being pushed toward suicide by her parents.
You can’t stop us anymore by accusing us of “recruiting” or being pedophiles. You can’t! The culture has to stop pretending that there is no such thing as queer kids. Because there are. We don’t jump fully formed out of the backs of gay bars at age 21, pride beads around our necks.
So I kept saying on TV, “game over.” We’re going to talk to your queer kids whether you want us to or not. And I would say we’re going to talk to your queer kids whether preachers, teacher or parents like it or not. And she wrote, this Texas kid, that not only were the videos giving her hope for her future, they were giving her hope for her parents. Because she was seeing people whose parents were like hers and had came around. She was seeing parents like my parents, who came around. Right?
What she said at the end of her letter, which changed the way I talk about the It Gets Better project on television, was just so shattering.
She said, “Every day I get up and go downstairs and I look at my mother and my father and I love them for who they’re going to be in 10 years.”
Terry and I made one out of 150,000 “It Gets Better” videos. We made one, but because so many other people made them and shared their stories, we convinced her that that was possible, even for her family. And one day, her parents are going to thank us for what we did for their daughter.
She is the success story of It Gets Better. That we reached that kid, at that moment and gave her what she needed to get through it but also gave her the insight that allows her to love her parents at a time when they are failing her. And incapable of loving her.
Thank you very much!
What would taxpayers save if FFRF ultimately wins its challenge of the parsonage exemption and the housing allowance tax benefit for ministers is abolished?
The congressional Joint Committee on Taxation reports that the exemption amounts to $700 million a year in lost revenue. The committee doesn’t break down in-kind housing, provided for in §107(1), which the decision doesn’t affect, and §107(2), which the decision declared unconstitutional.
“Church-owned parsonages have gone out of favor in the last several decades, so I would put a fair estimate of the effect of this decision at about half a billion per year,” said Forbes contributor Peter J. Reilly.
Religious News Service calculated it could reduce the take-home pay of some pastors by up to 10%. RNS erroneously reported only 44,000 clergy would be affected. Christianity Today found that 84% of senior pastors get a housing allowance of $20,000 to $38,000 in added (but not reported) compensation to their average base salary. The base salary of a full-time senior pastor in 2012-13 ranges from $33,000 to $70,000, according to Christianity Today.
ABC-TV reporter Stuart Watson has been investigating the impact of the parish exemption on megachurch pastors such as Steve Furtick, a Charlotte, N.C., pastor who’s building a $1.6 million residence.
William Thornton, a Georgia pastor and blogger, told Forbes, “No reasonable, thinking Southern Baptist minister can avoid one conclusion in all of this: The manner in which our housing allowance has been used borders on clergy malpractice. A growing subset of ministers who are very highly paid and who live in multimillion dollar mansions are able to exclude hundreds of thousands of dollars from income taxation.
“Do we really think it fair to shift taxes from wealthy clergy living in mansions to the less highly compensated? Surely not. Add to that the practice of churches ordaining ministry associates in administrative or peripheral church jobs solely so that they can be qualified for the housing allowance.”
Sampling of reaction
FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie said, “The reaction of the religious press to our court victory reveals how deeply the idea of clergy prerogative and privilege runs. They truly believe clergy should not have to pay their fair share of taxes.”
Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability: The decision is “sending shockwaves through the religious community.
“This ruling in effect would force clergy of nearly every religion across America to pay additional taxes, regardless of faith or creed. This will either force congregations to increase clergy compensation to offset these taxes or require pastors to dig deep to see if they are able to absorb these taxes.”
Southern Baptist Convention: “The clergy housing allowance isn’t a government establishment of religion, but just the reverse,” claimed Russell Moore, president of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “The allowance is neutral to all religions. Without it, clergy in small congregations of all sorts would be penalized and harmed.”
GuideStone Financial Resources: GFS, a financial division of the Southern Baptist Convention, called the housing allowance “the most important tax benefit available to ministers.” President O.S. Hawkins said GuideStone would join a legal brief supporting the allowance when the case is appealed.
“This decision, while not unanticipated, is sadly symptomatic of our culture today,” Hawkins said. “We count it a privilege to be an advocate for those who have given their lives to ministry, and we will not forsake our mission to undergird those who so faithfully serve our churches and ministries.”
Family Research Council: “We have seen many courts over the years attempt to banish God in various ways from the public square, but this case in particular reveals a level of supreme arrogance,” said President Tony Perkins in a statement. “Once again, Judge Crabb has neglected to consult the Constitution that she has sworn to uphold.”
The Rabbinical Assembly: “[Disallowing the exemption would put many rabbis] at risk of losing their homes,” said Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the international group of Conservative rabbis. “Owing to dramatic increases in housing costs across America, many of our synagogues are located in areas where the cost of a home in walking distance of the synagogue is out of reach of any rabbis’ salary or the synagogues’ resources to pay them. Homes were purchased taking into account the exemption to make the budget work.”
Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism: “[The Reform movement is] confident in the end that we will be able to protect the financial well-being of our clergy and our synagogues,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, director.
Jewish Federations of North America: “The parsonage allowance has a long-standing history in the United States, as a demonstration of the great importance our nation places on the role of clergy in American civil life,” said William Daroff, the group’s chief Washington lobbyist.
“Congress quickly and virtually unanimously came to the defense of the parsonage allowance when it was subject to attack over a decade ago, and we are certain that it would, with our support, again protect this provision that has been part of the fabric of our tax law and civil society for almost 100 years,”
Police Chief Gary Jones in Harlem, Ga., has apparently been using the Department of Public Resources Facebook page not only to proselytize but to promote his church and even the corporal punishment of children in the name of Jesus.
FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter on Nov. 21 to David Sward, director of the Harlem Department of Public Safety, about Jones’ egregious conduct.
Jones’ Facebook posts include remarks such as, “No, it is not reasonable to strike a child with a bat or some other object, but you can use a belt and strike their rear-ends. Parents be nosy, check behind your kids and never assume that they will always be truthful. Doing these very things just may save the life of your child. Fathers you are the head of the home and God will hold you accountable.”
In another post, Jones said, “I am certainly not trying to turn this into a so-called religious site. However since my last posting about 30 minutes ago, my wife called and said our 5 year old daughter was eating breakfast this morning and plainly told her mother that she wanted to accept Jesus as her Savior and ask him into her heart. Her mother prayed with her and afterwards she said this means I am going to heaven now.”
Seidel’s letter said if Jones wishes to disseminate such sentiments, he must do so on his own Facebook page. “He cannot use the machinery of the government, or even his own title, to push people to live in accordance with his religion or go to church.”
Jones wasn’t apologetic about advertising the church he attends. “I will continue to post and most of the people in Harlem are of Christian belief and I’ve gotten a lot more support than the people that don’t support it.”
“The solution is simple,” wrote Seidel. “Jones must stop using a government office to promote his personal religion.”
FFRF has about 380 Georgia members.
Catholic bishops sued over care denial
The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Michigan have filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on behalf of Tamesha Means, a pregnant woman who miscarried and was denied appropriate care by a Mercy Health Partners hospital in Muskegon.
According to a Dec. 2 ACLU press release, Means rushed to Mercy Health when her water broke after 18 weeks of pregnancy. “Based on the bishops’ religious directives, the hospital sent her home twice even though Tamesha was in excruciating pain; there was virtually no chance that her pregnancy could survive, and continuing the pregnancy posed significant risks to her health.
“When Tamesha returned to the hospital a third time in extreme distress and with an infection, the hospital once again prepared to send her home. While staff prepared her discharge paperwork, she began to deliver. Only then did the hospital begin tending to Tamesha’s miscarriage.”
The directives prohibit “pre-viability” pregnancy termination, even when there’s little or no chance that the fetus will survive, and the life or health of a pregnant woman is at risk.
City turns down atheists’ $3K check
Friendly Atheist blogger Hemant Mehta’s charitable check for $3,000 was returned, not for insufficient funds, but because of political cowardice that shows the divisiveness of religion.
Mehta, 30, Naperville, Ill., a public school math teacher (and FFRF member), sent the check to the Morton Grove Park District after a local American Legion post dropped its $2,600 annual subsidy because a park board member refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. In October, Commissioner Dan Ashta took a public stand against the pledge, saying no one should have to pledge allegiance to any government, adding that people with religious objections shouldn’t have to feel isolated for not standing.
In an email to Mehta, Park District Executive Director Tracey Anderson said the board “has no intention of becoming embroiled in a First Amendment dispute.”
Ashta is a lawyer specializing in constitutional law, according to the Chicago Tribune. Mehta said his fundraising effort was in appreciation of Ashta’s stance.
“I know everyone who gave money wanted to help the Park District make up for that injustice that happened,” he said. “Unfortunately, the Park District would rather lose money than take the charity of atheists and their supporters.”
Ad company refuses skeptical billboards
Billboard ads planned to be placed in Vancover by the Centre for Inquiry Canada were rejected by the advertising agency Pattison Outdoor. The ads showed a woman and the words “Jenn 13:1 Praying won’t help. Doing will. Without God. We’re all good.”
Pattison Outdoor didn’t respond to a request for comment from the Vancouver Sun. Pat O’Brien, a CFI Canada board member, said CFI may file a complaint with the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal.
In October, LifeSiteNews.com reported that Pattison designed a billboard called “Signs for Life.” The ad showed the head of a fetus and the words “Abortion: Aren’t we forgetting someone?”
“If they don’t like controversial ads,” O’Brien said, “they certainly ran anti-abortion ads in Halifax.”
Pattison is the third-largest privately held company in Canada. According to Funding Universe, comedian Bob Hope once called British Columbia a suburb of Jim Pattison [who gives millions of dollars to Christian schools and other Christian entities].
Christian student body head is atheist
Eric Fromm, student body president at Northwest Christian University in Eugene, Ore., “came out” as an atheist in an article in the school’s online newspaper, said a Nov. 7 story in the Eugene Register-Guard. “I don’t have to hide anymore,” said Fromm, 21. “I know that people accept me for who I am.”
In the Beacon Bolt story, communications major Fromm, baptized Lutheran and raised Methodist, wrote, “I couldn’t force myself to believe in God.”
Student reaction has been mixed, he said. Some peers have stopped talking to him, others have ridiculed him, but a surprising number have been supportive.
Michael Fuller, NCU vice president for enrollment and student development, called Fromm “a man of very high character and respect. He’s a great advocate for our student body, which is exactly what he’s supposed to be and do.
“If we all had our wishes, we wish Eric would be a strong Christian man,” Fuller added. “We’re an open and welcome community, and we meet students exactly where they’re at.”
Fromm said he still attends chapel meetings almost every week. “I use it as my own personal time, to gather my thoughts.”
Breyer’s cryptic remark fuels speculation
Is Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer a closet atheist? A comment by Breyer, who is Jewish, during Nov. 6 oral arguments in Town of Greece v. Galloway, a government prayer case, fueled speculation he may be.
Breyer’s remark came after Catholic Justice Antonin Scalia asked a lawyer for the town, “What is the equivalent of prayer for somebody who is not religious?” The lawyer, Thomas Hungar, had trouble formulating an answer, according to the Huffington Post.
Breyer then appeared to suggest that Scalia’s question may have been directed at him. “Perhaps he’s asking me that question and I can answer it later,” Breyer said.
The story said, “Nonbelievers have responded with excitement to the possibility that Breyer may not have a religious faith at all.”
Breyer’s daughter is an Episcopal priest.
Kansas City atheists’ help not wanted
The Kansas City Atheist Coalition was told by the Kansas City Rescue Mission that nonbelievers couldn’t help deliver Thanksgiving food to the poor and elderly.
“We are an unapologetically Christian organization, and we always have been,” said Julie Larocco, development officer. Larocco told the Kansas City Star, “We want to share the message with the people we serve that ‘God loves you, and you are not alone.’ It seemed to us that this group probably would not want to deliver those meals.”
Atheist Coalition President Josh Hyde posted on the group’s website that the mission told the coalition it “would not be a good fit” for its charitable work.
Larocco confirmed that each meal and food box contained a religious message.
Religious music flap brings hate mail
Kathleen Williams, superintendent of the Wausau School District in Wisconsin, was subjected to a spate of threatening, mostly anonymous, phone calls and emails after the district limited the amount of religious music that holiday programs could have.
Some were full of invective and obscenities, Williams told the Daily Herald. One person called her at home and said she had a lot of trees in her yard and “wouldn’t I [Williams] look good hanging from one.”
Williams added, “The classic irony to me, is that all this ugly email, hoping I’m hurt, all is in the name of Christ.”
A motion at the Nov. 11 school board meeting to require Williams to write a letter of apology to the community failed 7-2.
She said the intent of the music review procedure was not to quash Christmas but to ensure all students felt comfortable in participating in music programs, whether they are Christian or not.
FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent a letter Oct. 10 to explain to the board why religious music in public schools is problematic. FFRF also sent an action alert urging area members to tell the board that the music curriculum shouldn’t make religion its primary focus.
Mass. taxes paying for church rehabs
Ten residents of Oak Bluffs, Mass., suing to block the town from using taxpayer money to restore stained glass windows at Trinity Methodist Church, were thwarted by Superior Court Associate Justice Richard Moses.
Moses ruled against the motion for a preliminary injunction, saying “there has been an insufficient showing of a likelihood of success on the merits.” Notice of the decision was mailed Nov. 25, reported the [Martha’s] Vineyard Gazette.
Oak Bluffs voters approved the $32,000 outlay at the April 2013 town meeting. The funds will come from the Community Preservation Act,
The town opposed the injunction, claiming the practice is common statewide: “The Massachusetts Historical Commission has funded at least 12 rehabilitation and restoration projects of historic churches since 2002.”
Religious ‘Friends’ back discrimination
Oregon gay marriage opponents announced Nov. 21 they’ve filed a proposed ballot measure to let businesses refuse to provide services at gay ceremonies that violate owners’ religious beliefs.
“We are deeply concerned that even Oregon elected officials are becoming hostile toward religious freedom,” Teresa Harke of Friends of Religious Freedom told The Oregonian. Harke is also communications director for the Oregon Family Council, a group opposing the proposed initiative to legalize same-sex marriage.
Jeana Frazzini, executive director of Basic Rights Oregon, said in a statement that “while we are all entitled to our religious beliefs, those beliefs don’t entitle any of us to discriminate against others, or disobey laws that are already in place to ensure that everyone is treated equally.”
Rachel Cryer and Laurel Bowman of Portland filed a complaint with the labor commissioner in August against Sweet Cakes by Melissa. Bakery owners Aaron and Melissa Klein have said they don’t want to provide services for same-sex weddings because of their religious beliefs.
In November, Hawaii and Illinois became the 15th and 16th states to legalize same-sex marriages. Twenty-nine states still have constitutional amendments banning them, and ballot challenges for 2014 and 2016 are being readied in Oregon, Arizona, Colorado, Michigan, Nevada and Ohio.
UCoR sues Pittsburgh for ad rejection
The United Coalition of Reason filed a lawsuit Nov. 26 against the Port Authority of Allegheny County, Pa., for initially accepting and then refusing to run $5,700 worth of bus ads in the Pittsburgh area that would have said, “Don’t believe in God? You are not alone.” The ads were scheduled to run from Dec. 12, 2011, to Jan. 11, 2012.
“We tried to support the Port Authority by buying ads,” said Nicole Currivan of Pittsburgh CoR. “I take the bus to work every day in my personal effort to support them. But we also want to be treated with the same fairness, dignity and respect as other groups. We just want the Port Authority to run our ads. We want nonbelievers to know they’re not alone.”
Judge won’t block church graduations
U.S. District Judge Ross Anderson Jr. denied a motion Dec. 3 for a preliminary injunction to block Greenville County schools in South Carolina from holding events in places of worship and allowing student-led prayer. Anderson said the American Humanist Association’s allegations made “a mountain out of a mole hill.”
According to the Greenville News, the judge also told an AHA attorney that “with all due respect and apologies,” he’d never heard of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit founded in 1941.
The suit was filed Sept. 4 on behalf of John and Jane Doe and their minor child after Mountain View Elementary in Taylors held graduation in the chapel of North Greenville University, a Christian school. Two student speakers were asked to write a prayer for the ceremony, according to the suit.
Will Satanists get Capitol monument?
The New York-based Satanic Temple has asked state officials in Oklahoma to be allowed to submit designs for a monument to honor “the historic/literary Satan” to be placed near the Ten Commandments display at the Oklahoma City Capitol, The Associated Press reported Dec. 8.
Temple spokesman Lucien Greaves said one design involves a pentagram and another would be an interactive display for children. He estimated the cost at about $20,000.
A privately funded, $10,000 Ten Commandments marker was placed at the Capitol in 2012. The American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma is suing to get it removed.
Brady Henderson, ACLU-Oklahoma legal director, said the best solution would be to ban all religious displays. “But if the Ten Commandments, with its overtly Christian message, is allowed to stay at the Capitol, the Satanic Temple’s proposed monument cannot be rejected because of its different religious viewpoint.”
Cake OK for dog marriage, not gays
Judge Robert Spencer of the Colorado Office of Administrative Courts ruled Dec. 6 that Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood unlawfully discriminated against David Mullins and Charlie Craig by refusing to sell them a wedding cake.
Masterpiece owner Jack Phillips allegedly told the couple that selling them a cake would be against his religious beliefs.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado said the decision noted evidence that Phillips was willing to take a cake order for the “marriage” of two dogs but not for the commitment ceremony of two women, and that he would not make a cake for a same-sex couple’s wedding celebration “just as he would not be willing to make a pedophile cake.”
Sara Neel, ACLU staff attorney, said, “Masterpiece Cakeshop has willfully and repeatedly considered itself above the law when it comes to discriminating against customers, and the state has rightly determined otherwise,”
Religious assemblies stopped in Miss.
The American Humanist Association and the Rankin County [Miss.] School District have settled a lawsuit filed in April over allegations that high school students were forced to attend a religious assembly. In a court filing Nov. 22 in U.S. District Court in Jackson, the school district agreed to comply with its Religion in Public Schools Policy adopted in July.
The suit was brought on behalf of a 16-year-old Northwest Rankin junior. A video provided to The Associated Press purportedly of the assembly showed a student talking about the role Jesus has played in his life. The suit described assembly presenters as representatives of Pinelake Church, the largest Southern Baptist church in Mississippi. The church denied taking part in the assembly.
What do nonbelievers do during the month of December in Sacramento, Calif.? They “come out of the closet” very publicly.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation and its new Sacramento chapter unveiled the largest freethought billboard campaign ever launched in one area: 55 affirmative billboards placed throughout California’s capital city and suburbs. The personalized billboards each feature the smiling face and unapologetically forthright view of an area nonbeliever.
The motto of the campaign is “Many faces make Enlightenment work.” More than 55 participants are actually involved, since some of the messages feature couples, friends or families.
Newlywed Judy Saint, chapter director, is featured with her wife, Kathy Johnson, saying: “Reason. Equality. Doing Good. — All without gods.” (See their billboard on opposite page.) They’re one of six featured couples.
Making the world better is a common theme. Other themes are believing in and trusting oneself and humanity (rather than a god), embracing healthy skepticism, promoting science and living, loving, being moral and doing good without god. As Sacramento teacher Liz Shoemaker, put it, “I believe in people, not gods.”
Other messages are simply plain-spoken: “Reasonable faith is a contradiction in terms,” says aerospace engineer Bryson Sullivan.
Some turn religious testimonials on their head, such as 20-year-old Reace Niles’ message of “I’m an atheist, and I’ve never been happier,” and Sacramento student Noel Navarro, who has a message for Oprah Winfrey: “I’m not a believer, and life is still awesome!”
Quilters and friends Karla Sprandel and Susan Myers, Sacramento secular humanists, show off their quilts and their philosophy: “No gods, no devils, no worries.” Other playful messages include Rancho Cordova homemaker Maggie Johns’ quip: “I don’t believe in Odin, either.”
While most participants self-identify as atheists, some prefer the description of agnostic, humanist or secular humanist. There’s even one “Pastafarian,” Sacramento tech support worker Elizabeth Porter, a devotee of the whimsical Flying Spaghetti Monster.
The 55 billboards became national news in late November, even before they went up. Nearly all reporters turned to religious leaders for comment. Sacramento Catholic Bishop Jaime Soto of the Cathredral of the Blessed Sacrament told Fox affiliate KTXL that the billboards were “propaganda.” One local imam called the affirmative messages an “attack” on his faith.
“We’re proud of our Sacramento chapter and its comfident membership,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “We had to lease more boards from a second outdoor company just to keep up with the demand.”
Sacramento is the sixth city to which FFRF has taken its “out of the closet” public relations campaign. Previous cities include Madison, Wis. (where FFRF is based), Tulsa, Raleigh, Columbus, Phoenix and Spokane. A similar campaign also went up last year in Portland, Ore., featuring local freethinkers saying “I’m secular and I vote” and “This is what an atheist looks like.”
The campaign’s objective is to reveal to communities the diversity of nonbelievers within their ranks. “Many people have met, do business with and are friends with atheists — but don’t realize it,” Gaylor added.
It’s also a chance for freethinkers to openly express themselves. In December, Gaylor noted, the views of non-Christians, especially nonbelievers, are often suppressed. “Those of us who are free from religion, who work to keep dogma out of government, science, medicine and education, have a lot to offer society.”
FFRF, with nearly 20,000 members, has about 3,000 in California.
FFRF sends “awed thanks” to professional photographer Matt Martin, who volunteered his services, and is pictured on a board with his wife, Kimberley, who is also an atheist. Their message: “Integrity and compassion require no gods.”
FFRF also warmly thanks Judy Saint for superb coordination and energy, and all participants for making freethought history!