Name: Luther G. Weeks. (The “G” stands for Gaylord, long ago translated from the French “Gaillard.” Who knows if a descendant of some common ancestors dropped the “d.”)
Where I live: Glastonbury, Conn., in a condo on the banks of the Connecticut River. Although our state constitution claims “the good providence of God, in having permitted them to enjoy a free government,” at least three of the members of the Connecticut Hall of Fame are atheists: Mark Twain, Paul Newman and Katharine Hepburn, all greatly appreciated and admired here.
Where and when I was born: Bristol, Conn., 1946.
Family: Wife Denise, adult descendants Madeleine and Aaron.
Education: Mathematics B.S., Clarkson University, Potsdam, N.Y., when computers were huge and their memories were small. A senior course on automata and a seminar on brain theory set me on a path to career and lifelong interests, leading to an M.S. in computer science.
I’m also a master fellow of the Life Management Institute. (That’s life insurance management, no actual life management!) I read voraciously on issues in democracy, history and science, especially evolution, brain science and how we think.
Occupation: Retired computer scientist in business — building, buying and selling software for large companies and startups. Now I’m a full-time volunteer (unpaid) political activist/watchdog for election integrity.
Two or three times a year, I organize voters to observe and independently report on the results of Connecticut’s post-election audits. I organized volunteers in 2010 for a citizen recount of 25,000 ballots in Bridgeport. Every spring, you can find me taking a rational approach to lobbying and testifying to the legislature, promoting better election laws and trashing risky schemes.
In my spare time, I have a large community garden plot and serve as president of my condo board, which keeps me sympathetic in relating to elected officials.
Military service: Drafted. After jungle infantry training, I served as a company clerk in Korea during the Vietnam War. There is no need to thank me for my service; it was all like the movie “MASH,” without the blood.
How I got where I am today: Continually improving by learning something new, jumping carefully, yet quickly, at opportunities and learning from many of my mistakes. I recently took a personality assessment and learned among other things that I am an “activator.” That fits pretty well. I am always looking at things differently, often amusingly.
Where I’m headed: Crematorium, hopefully then to produce some leaves of grass near family and familiar places.
Person in history I admire: Robert Ingersoll. I wish we could hear some of his lectures and speeches. Many are great, but all would be better in person than on paper. I’m currently reading volume 8 of the 12-volume “Works of Robert G. Ingersoll.”
A quotation I like: “Whatever comes, this too shall pass away.” — Ella Wheeler Wilcox
Whatever bugs us, whatever we love, whatever we oppose, whatever we cause, human life, and the Earth, are all temporary. That realization can be depressing or freeing, it is your choice.
These are a few of my favorite things: Walking, reading, thinking, blogging and debating. Cats.
These are not: Rigid, irrational individuals. Robocalls. Most dogs.
My doubts about religion started: I was raised Methodist, yet none of it actually set in. My mother was not pleased when I made jokes about grape juice after my first communion. I chose “no preference” on military dog tags when inducted, so there would be no question, just in case.
In the early ’90s, I started reading more and more books on atheism and decided to really determine if there was any basis for believing any religion, then confirmed myself as atheist. In 2002, I Googled “Freedom from Religion” and guess what link came up on top?
Before I die: I intend to keep living, learning and having fun.
Ways I promote freethought: I do not hesitate to tell people I am atheist. I endeavor to set an example for others, especially children, that it is fine to be an “out” atheist. You never know who might be watching or listening, or when it will make a difference for someone.
When a devout friend learned that I was atheist, he said, “There is still time for you.” That is my attitude toward everyone I know that is not yet atheist, “There is still time for you.” When appropriate, I tell them that. I have it all be friendly and fun. Once, a neighbor said that the priest wanted to talk to me about conversion. I declined. I told her to tell him, given his age and likely pension, that it would be better if he stayed Catholic.
I occasionally attend local or national atheist meetings, it never fails to inspire, educate, and be an opportunity to meet new friends and discover that other friends are also atheist. I save my copies of Freethought Today and give them to atheist friends.
I wish you’d have asked me: My epitaph — “Please join me as one who has lived.”
Faith-healing parents get prison terms
Herbert Schaible, 45, and Catherine Schaible, 44, a faith-healing husband and wife from Philadelphia, were sentenced Feb. 19 to 3½ to seven years in prison for the 2013 death of their son, the second child they have lost to pneumonia. Brandon Schaible, 8 months, died of of treatable pneumonia but was never taken to a doctor.
Instead, the couple, who pleaded no contest to 3rd-degree murder, and other members of First Century Gospel Church, prayed for God to heal him.
In doing so, they defied a court order to get medical care for their children after their son Kent, 2, died of bacterial pneumonia in 2009. They were convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to 10 years’ probation.
“April of 2013 wasn’t Brandon’s time to die,” said Judge Benjamin Lerner said. “You’ve killed two of your children. . . . Not God. Not your church. Not religious devotion. You.”
Their pastor, Nelson Clark, blamed Kent’s death on a “spiritual lack” in the parents’ lives, reported The Associated Press. The eldest of their seven surviving children is 18.
Ulster council reverses bible play ban
The Newtownabbey Borough Council in Northern Ireland reversed a controversial decision made Jan. 22 to ban the comedy play “The Bible: The Complete Word Of God (Abridged)” by the Reduced Shakespeare Company as blasphemous. The board backed off on the ban five days later.
Mayor Fraser Agnew supported the ban “because they are poking fun at the bible, they are poking fun at Christ.”
The ban was the “worse type of censorship,” said Councillor Gerry O’Reilly. “This is clearly an example of certain councillors forcing their religious views onto everyone else in the constituency. What the councillors are basically saying is that they can dictate what type of dramas people can view.”
Given the worldwide publicity the ban garnered, several dates on the U.K. tour are sold out, the Belfast Telegraph reported Jan. 29.
‘Messiah’ judge loses Tennessee job
Child Support Magistrate Lu Ann Ballew of Newport, Tenn., has been fired in the wake of her court order last August to change a toddler’s name over the parents’ objection. Ballew threw out the child’s birth name of Messiah and ordered his first name to be Martin, which is his mother’s surname. Another judge overruled Ballew’s order as unconstitutional.
“The word ‘messiah’ is a title, and it’s a title that has only been earned by one person, and that one person is Jesus Christ,” Ballew told a TV reporter in August.
O. Duane Slone, Fourth Judicial Circuit presiding judge, terminated Ballew’s appointment Jan. 31 without giving a reason, Reuters reported. Ballew was cited earlier by the state Board of Judicial Conduct for inappropriate religious bias. A hearing is set March 3 on that.
FFRF filed a formal complaint with the board Aug. 14.
Orlando church goal: Overcharge city?
A Florida judge ruled Jan. 31 that the Orlando City Council can use eminent domain to acquire the property of Faith Deliverance Temple if negotiations with the church fail. The church is the last parcel needed to build an $84 million Major League Soccer stadium, the Orlando Sentinel reported.
City officials tried to negotiate the purchase without going to court and offered $1.5 million, more than twice the appraised value. When the family that owns the church countered by asking for $35 million, the council voted to file eminent domain.
U.N. clergy abuse report stings Vatican
In a Feb. 5 report, the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child accused the Vatican of “systematically” adopting policies and a “code of silence” that let clergy molest tens of thousands of children over decades.
The Associated Press reported that the panel also severely criticized the Holy See for its attitudes on homosexuality, contraception and abortion. It recommended changes in canon law to ensure children’s rights and access to health care. The Vatican promptly objected.
Austen Ivereigh, coordinator of Catholic Voices, said the report was a “shocking display of ignorance and high-handedness.”
‘Science guy’ meets
‘pie in the sky’
About 900 audience members watched Bill the “Science Guy” Nye debate Creation Musem founder Ken Ham on Feb. 4 at the museum in Petersburg, Ky
Misty Brewer of Tulsa, Okla., told USA Today she has “traveled my journey to atheism” and drove 12 hours to bring her son to the event. “I think the believers will stay believers,” Brewer said. “No one’s going to walk out of here saying, ‘I changed my mind.’ ”
“The bible says God created man. It doesn’t say evolved,” said Diana Yokum, Akron, Ohio. “I really believe those who believe in evolution will have their eyes opened tonight.”
“Your assertion that there is some difference between the natural laws that I observe today and the natural laws of 4,000 years ago is extraordinary and unsettling,” Nye told Ham, noting kangaroos don’t live in the Middle East, where Noah’s Ark supposedly ran aground.
Ham focused on “observational science” [how do you know if you weren’t there?]. “The battle is really about authority. It’s about who is the authority, man or God,” said Ham, who wants to build a $60 million Noah’s Ark theme park in Grant County, Ky.
Religious freedom bill falters in Virginia
A Virgina House subcommittee in Richmond tabled a student religious freedom bill Feb. 5 that had passed the Senate 20-18, the Lynchburg News & Advance reported. No subcommittee member favored advancing the bill to the full House.
The bill “[c]odifies the right of students to (i) voluntarily pray or engage in religious activities or religious expression before, during, and after the school day in the same manner and to the same extent that students may engage in nonreligious activities or expression; (ii) organize prayer groups, religious clubs, ‘see you at the pole’ gatherings, or other religious gatherings before, during, and after school to the same extent that students are permitted to organize other activities and groups; and (iii) wear clothing, accessories, or jewelry that display religious messages or religious symbols in the same manner and to the same extent that other types of clothing, accessories, and jewelry are permitted.”
The bill would have required every school division to let students express religious views at any school event in which students are allowed to publicly speak, said the Roanoke Times.
Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, said the bill would create “a patchwork quilt” of local policies. “If this bill is passed, it almost guarantees litigation. Do we really need to spend time and money and effort litigating different school districts’ policies that are established under this bill?”
Missouri bill allows evolution opt out
Missouri Rep. Rick Brattin, R-Harrisonville, has introduced a General Assembly bill to make schools notify parents about the “basic content” of any instruction students are getting about evolution. It would also let students opt out, with parental consent, of “any part” of that instruction.
Brattin told KCTV that public schools teach Darwinian theory as fact and that students who question it are ridiculed.
“I definitely think parents should be notified if evolution is taught because I believe in creation,” said Tina Decavale of Drexel.
Brandon Eastwood, of Harrisonville, went further. “Evolution is not taught in the bible so it shouldn’t be taught in the class. Even if I had to spend some time in jail, I wouldn’t subject my kids to that nonsense.”
The Daily Beast online publication said Oklahoma, South Dakota and Virginia have similar bills circulating, from “teaching the controversy” to including so-called “intelligent design’ theory in biology courses.
On “The Daily Show,” host Jon Stewart referred to the Missouri bill and called state legislatures “the meth labs of democracy” for even considering such legislation.
bill dies in Senate
The Kansas House approved a bill 72-49 on Feb. 5 that would let individuals, groups and businesses discriminate against same-sex marriage or civil union couples by refusing to provide services. Anti-discrimination lawsuits also would be barred.
The bill, introduced by Rep. Charles Macheers, R-Shawnee, responds to the possibility that a federal court ruling could invalidate the state constitution’s ban on same-sex marriages, the Wichita Eagle reported. Government agencies would still be required to provide services, but individual clerks could refuse to participate based on their religious beliefs.
Then on Feb. 18, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Jeff King, R-Independence, said the bill won’t advance in the Senate. “We’re not working House Bill 2453,” King told The Associated Press. He said he will still have hearings on whether Kansas needs to enact other “religious liberty” protections.
[Fr. Benjamin Kneib] had called me the day of the rosary and said he wouldn’t be able to give us communion because of our same-sex relationship.
Carol Parker, Chillicothe, Mo., on a Catholic priest’s phone call the day before her mother’s funeral
The Raw Story, 2-7-14
Ariz. gov vetoes bill singling out gays
In a room packed with media Feb. 26, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed Senate Bill 1062 in the wake of national outcries, including some from Republicans and business interests, over a bill that would allow discrimination against gays for religious reasons.
The Legislature gave final approval Feb. 20 to a bill that lets businesses and individuals refuse to provide goods and services to gays. Similar “religious protection” legislation has been introduced in Ohio, Mississippi, Idaho, South Dakota, Tennessee and Oklahoma, but Arizona’s plan is the only one that has passed, The Associated Press reported. Similar efforts are stalled in Idaho, Ohio and Kansas.
The law “could divide Arizona in ways we cannot even imagine and no one would ever want,” Brewer told a room packed with media.
Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, a Religious Right group, said that “by vetoing this bill, Governor Brewer is saying she supports government discrimination against people’s religious freedoms.”
Brewer denied such claims. “As governor, I have protected religious freedoms when there is a specific and present concern that exists in our state. Senate Bill 1062 does not address a specific and present concern related to religious liberty in Arizona. I have not heard of one example in Arizona where a business owner’s religious liberty has been violated.”
Before the 33-27 vote in the House, Democrats called the bill “state-sanctioned discrimination.” Democratic House Minority Leader Chad Campbell said the law would be “horrible for our economy.” Opponents predicted the law would also bring boycotts of the 2015 Super Bowl in Glendale.
Republican Rep. Steve Montenegro defended the bill, commenting, “Please, I will accept you because you are a child of God, I love you because you are a child of God. But please don’t ask me to go against my religious beliefs.”
According to the Arizona Republic, enough lawmakers oppose the bill now that it’s certain there will be no veto override.
Rattler bite fatal for Pentecostal pastor
The ninth time was not the charm for Jamie Coots, pastor of Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus’ Name in Middlesboro, Ky., who died at home Feb. 15 from a rattlesnake bite that night at church.
Coots refused to be taken to the hospital or get treatment at home. His son Cody said he’d been bitten eight times before. “We’re going to go home, he’s going to lay on the couch, he’s going to hurt, he’s going to pray for a while and he’s going to get better. That’s what happened every other time, except this time was just so quick and it was crazy, it was really crazy,” Cody Coots told WBIR-TV.
Coots was profiled on the National Geographic show “Snake Salvation.”
Cody Winn, Full Gospel co-pastor, and Andrew Hamblin, another “Snake Salvation” participant, saw the rattler bite Coots on the hand. “Andrew said he looked at him and said ‘sweet Jesus’ and it was over,” Winn said. “He didn’t die right then, but he just went out and never woke back up.” Church members took him home.
Uganda anti-gay bill signed into law
On Feb. 25, a day after Uganda passed even harsher anti-gay laws, the Red Pepper tabloid newspaper printed a list of 200 people it called the country’s “top homos,” according to CNN.
President Yoweri Museveni signed the bill, telling CNN, “They’re disgusting. What sort of people are they?”
Homosexuality is illegal in 38 African nations, CNN reported.
NPR reported statements that the bill was composed with the help of American evangelicals with close ties to its Ugandan sponsors. “There are these factions of the evangelical community in the U.S. that believe they’ve more or less lost the fight against ‘the homosexual agenda,’ ” said Malika Zouhali Worrall, co-director of the documentary “Call Me Kuchu.” (Kuchu is a word for “queer” in Uganda.) “Therefore, they’re trying to preempt it in other countries.”
Oregon officials notified a federal court Feb. 20 that the state will no longer defend a ban on same-sex marriage. Similar switches in Nevada and Virginia were announced recently.
Pennsylvania is still officially defending its ban, but some officials see it as unconstitutional.
The Oregon filing came in one of two consolidated cases challenging the 2004 voter-approved ban that passed by 57% to 43%.
Scotusblog.com reported 17 states and Washington, D.C., now allow same-sex marriage. Federal judges have struck down bans in Oklahoma, Utah and Virginia, but those rulings are on hold pending appeals.
A lawsuit, Wolf v. Walker, was filed Feb. 3 in U.S. District Court in Madison by lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin and the law firm Mayer Brown on behalf of four same-sex couples from Milwaukee, Eau Claire and Madison.
“These families simply want the security and recognition that only marriage provides,” said Larry Dupuis, ACLU of Wisconsin legal director.
The suit also seeks a permanent injunction to block a state law that makes it a criminal offense for a Wisconsin resident to leave the state to obtain a marriage that would be prohibited in Wisconsin. Maximum punishment is nine months in jail and a $10,000 fine.
Also in Wisconsin, Democrats have introduced a bill to repeal the state’s constitutional gay marriage ban. Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos told WISN that he doesn’t expect it to even get a hearing.
“Unfortunately, I think at the end of the session, people are doing this much more based on a political answer than trying to find anything else,” Vos said.
Wisconsin Family Action, a socially conservative evangelical group, is vigorously lobbying against the bill as an assault on “religious freedom.”
Wash. school benches praying ‘All Pro Dad’
FFRF stopped White Bluffs Elementary School in Richland, Wash., from promoting religion. Meetings in the school sponsored by All Pro Dad, a private group focusing on religious programming, were advertised in fliers sent home with students.
The fliers failed to indicate the event was not school-sponsored. The meetings were also noted in the calendar along with official school events.
“The circumstances surrounding ‘All Pro Dad’ events would lead a reasonable observer to view it as school-sponsored,” wrote Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel in his Jan. 14 letter to Superintendent Rich Schulte. “Because of the religious aspects of the programming, Richland School District must take measures to address parental concerns regarding school involvement in this event.”
The district responded in late January, calling the promotion a clerical error and saying it would be removed from the school calendar. Staff will also be informed on the policy barring distribution of religious materials and announcements.
Teachers’ religious symbols removed
FFRF was informed that a teacher at Southside Elementary School in Pulaski, Tenn., prominently displayed several religious images in her classroom. Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter Dec. 17 to Giles County Schools Superintendent Timothy Webb:
“When a teacher puts up crosses and images of Jesus, they have unconstitutionally entangled the school itself with a religious message, specifically a Christian message. To avoid continuing to violate the Establishment Clause, we ask the teacher to remove the crosses and images of Jesus from her classroom.”
Webb responded two days later with a copy of the memo he sent to principals and supervisors: “The situation mentioned in the complaint has been addressed. Please remind your staff of the federal requirements in matters such as this.”
• • •
A teacher in Rusk, Texas, will no longer be displaying religious iconography after FFRF was contacted by a concerned parent of a Rusk High School student. A classroom poster read, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God the salvation of everyone who believes. Romans 1:16.” At the bottom it said, “This poster is illegal in 51 countries.”
Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell wrote the district Dec. 13 to note the constitutional violation while adding that a public school teacher has no free speech or free exercise right to proselytize.
Superintendent Scott David replied Jan. 9: “All campus principals and department directors will be reminded of our constitutional duties as public school employees with regard to the separation of state and church.”
• • •
A local complainant alerted FFRF that a classroom in Bernard Campbell Middle School in Lee’s Summit, Mo., displayed a religious poster prominently on the wall facing students. The poster read, “Blessed are the people who know the joyful Sound! They walk, O Lord, in the light of your countenance. Psalm 89:15.”
Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent a letter Feb. 20 to Superintendent David McGehee about the egregious, obvious violation. “When a school teacher places religious posters in the classroom, she unconstitutionally entangles the school with a religious message. It is also a usurpation of parental authority — parents have the right to direct the religious, or nonreligious, upbringing of their children.”
McGehee called FFRF the next day to say he agreed that the poster shouldn’t be allowed in the classroom and that it had been permanently removed.
School Good News Club gets bad reviews
After Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel’s Jan. 24 letter of complaint, FFRF was informed that an elementary school secretary in Sanford, Fla., will no long-er be involved with Good News Club permission slips.
Child Evangelism Fellowship of Central Florida had distributed registration forms to Geneva Elementary students to promote the club. The form told students to return forms to the secretary.
Seidel said, “Despite the appropriate disclaimer, students might presume that Good News Club is sponsored by the school because of the apparent role of school personnel in facilitating the club’s activities by collecting registration forms. While the Child Evangelism Fellowship of Central Florida is entitled to host meetings, there are limitations on adult involvement.”
The Seminole County School Board’s attorney responded Jan. 28 that the district agreed that the club, not public school employees. was responsible for collecting forms,
Charter school’s church graduations end
The Academy for Academic Excellence in Apple Valley, Calif., will no longer hold its graduation ceremony in a church. According to the complainant, AAE, a K-12 public charter school operated by the Lewis Center for Educational Research, held graduation in churches where crosses, bible verses and other religious symbols were displayed.
AAE reportedly held a baccalaureate at a second church, advertising it on AAE’s calendar and listing the school’s vice principal as “coordinator.” Many school officials, including the principal, attended.
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a November letter to Superintendent Thomas Hoegerman: “Religious faith and worship are an intensely personal choice. The government cannot make attendance at a secular school’s graduation ceremony contingent on entering the holy ground of a particular religion.” He also lodged objections to mandatory baccalaureate attendance.
Gordon Soholt, chief academic officer, responded Nov. 20: “It is anticipated that both ceremonies will be held in the new gymnasium in the future, thus removing any potential First Amendment issues. The previously named ‘baccalaureate’ has been renamed to reflect its intent, which is issuance of senior awards and scholarships.”
No more forced pledge for Florida student
A student at Southwest Middle School in Orlando, Fla., will no longer be coerced into reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
After refusing to stand for the pledge, the student was taken aside by a teacher and was told by the school’s attendance dean to stand and recite it or face reprimand.
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote a letter Nov. 20 to object: “Faced with the choice of either reciting the pledge or being punished by the school, this student has relented, but now only recites the pledge out of fear of being punished. Students should not be singled out, rebuked, told they must stand, or otherwise penalized for following their freedom of conscience. It is illegal to reprimand a student for choosing not to stand during the recitation of the pledge.”
The student sent an email response on Jan. 25, “I am so thankful for your help. Thanks to you, I’m now able to sit during the pledge without punishment!”
FFRF has a lawsuit against the Orange County School District regarding literature discrimination.
To make things worse, the accuser claims Burrell used anointment oils during the act. After the incident, they then worked on [installing bathroom] tiles for a few hours before Burrell took him back to the home, saying, “What happens at the church stays at the church.”
Teen’s testimony at the trial of Pastor Bobby Burrell, whom he accused of masturbating in front of him in Lawton, Okla.
I am facing my imminent death. [Why are people in other states] able to die with dignity and I am not? This should be a basic human right.
Robert Mitton, 58, a Denver man with a terminal cardiac condition, favoring a proposal to authorize prescriptions for lethal doses if two doctors agree a patient will die within six months
New York Times, 2-8-14
At present the Religious Right has a tremendous amount of power, but they are getting older. Surveys show young Americans are rejecting institutional religion because they identify it with the Religious Right and values that they find off-putting, and frankly, immoral.
Dan Linford, Virginia Tech Freethinkers president and graduate student in the philosophy of religion
The Telegraph, 2-10-14
An ordained psychotherapist who has treated many pedophile priests in Britain wrote to me: “In all those cases of clerical abuse I dealt with, the sacrament of confession was used by the molester to discover vulnerability and groom candidates for abuse.”
John Cornwell, author of The Dark Box: A Secret History of Confession
The Daily Mail, 2-8-14
Not all prisoners are religious, and I wanted them to know that to turn your life around and be a good and productive member of society does not require a belief in God.
Leslie Zukor, Seattle, founder of the Freethought Books Project, which distributes reading material to inmates across the U.S.
USA Today, 1-25-14
Just as gay marriage is not a threat to straight marriage, atheism is not a threat to religion.
Column by atheist journalist Cindy Hoedel, “Let 2014 be the year we start accepting atheists”
Kansas City Star, 1-18-14
Just as there are laws guaranteeing the division between church and state, there must be national guidelines to separate education and religion.
Op-ed by Veronica An, sophomore narrative studies major, “Prayer should be left out of public schools”
USC Daily Trojan, 1-27-14
I feel very sorry for teachers when the children who come here start guessing if what they’re being taught is wrong.
Phil Jardine, a paleobiology graduate student touring the Creation Museum, Petersburg, Ky.
This is exactly what I was concerned about. Maybe the only thing that hasn’t happened yet is any particular group saying, “We haven’t been represented here and now we want to sue you.” That’s the only thing that hasn’t gone wrong yet.
Mark Senmartin, Marathon [Fla.] City Council, refusing to stand for pre-meeting prayer and objecting to a pastor’s “creationist” invocation
Florida Keys Keynoter, 2-5-14
The new generation of Iraqis are tired of religious extremists and politicians, who are responsible for the ongoing sectarian divide in the country.
Nawaf Al-Kaabi, 23, Basra, on how violence is turning young Iraqis away from religion
Al Bawaba, 2-5-14
Holly Huber and Mitch Kahle at the 2011 FFRF annual convention in Hartford, Conn., where Kahle received the Freethinker of the Year Award.
New Hope Church agreed to pay $775,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by Hawaii FFRF members Holly Huber and Mitch Kahle. Three branches of the international megachurch apparently were getting sweetheart deals for years on rentals of school space from the state.
The suit was filed under the state’s False Claims Act, which rewards whistle-blowers for exposing fraudulent billing.
The payments were disclosed in court filings by New Hope’s parent organization, the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, Hawaii News Now reported in early February.
Most of the money will go to the state Department of Education, but as much as $200,000 will go to the plaintiffs, who allege that New Hope shortchanged the state $4.6 million over six years.
Kahle noted that state rules setting rent amounts were undermined by Board of Education Chairman Donald Horner.
Honolulu Civil Beat reported Feb. 14 that Horner declined to comment except to say the board was not a party to the case. Horner is a licensed pastor with ties to New Hope, the paper reported.
The plaintiffs’ attorneys plan to file an amended suit against One Love Ministries and Calvary Chapel Oahu, alleging that the two churches’ underpayments total about $1.1 million. An earlier claim was dismissed in January.
Attorneys representing the city of Eureka, Calif., and Eureka resident Carole Beaton (an FFRF Lifetime Member) are working on a settlement of Beaton’s prayer lawsuit against the city.
At a case management conference Feb. 18 at the Humboldt County Courthouse, City Attorney Cyndy Day-Wilson told Judge Bruce Watson that she and Beaton’s attorney Peter Martin are “currently negotiating a settlement,” which is expected in about 60 days, the Times-Standard reported.
Martin filed the suit on behalf of Beaton in January 2013, asking the council to stop holding invocations before meetings and for Mayor Frank Jager to stop promoting the annual Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast.
Watson ruled Dec. 24 that nonsectarian invocations at council meetings are legal but said Beaton can still pursue her claim against Jager’s prayer breakfast.
Neither party is discussing potential settlement details. ”I want to say that the lawsuit was not against prayer and was not against religion,” Beaton told a reporter. “It was against the mixing of church and state. A city or any other government entity should not be sponsoring a religious event.”
The suit alleges use of city resour-ces in promoting the breakfast. Jager downplayed the city clerk’s involvement.
The next case management conference is set for April 30.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has asked the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals to overturn a federal district court decision approving a shrine to Jesus on public land near Whitefish, Mont.
“A permanent Catholic shrine on public land is prohibited by the Establishment Clause, every bit as much as a Catholic church would be,” asserts FFRF’s appeal brief, filed Jan. 28.
The 6-foot-tall shrine sits on a 7-foot pedestal on Big Mountain in the Flathead National Forest, which is owned by the U.S. Forest Service. Since 1953, the Forest Service has issued a permit at no cost allowing the Knights of Columbus, a conservative Catholic men’s group, to place a “Shrine overlooking the Big Mountain ski run,” whose purpose is “to erect a Statue of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
In response to initial objections to the shrine, the Knights of Columbus claimed “that our Lord himself selected this site.”
FFRF wrote the Forest Service in 2011 to object to permit renewal. When Chip Weber, forest supervisor, agreed, determining it was “an inappropriate use of public land,” he faced blistering criticism and renewed the permit in January 2012.
FFRF is suing on behalf of its 100 Montana members, including three who have come into unwelcome contact with the shrine. William Cox, who has long been personally opposed to the shrine, has frequent and unwanted exposure to it when he skis on Big Mountain many times each winter. FFRF member Doug Bonham found the shrine “grossly out of place” when first encountering it, and his 15-year-old daughter, who often skis on the mountain, considers it “ridiculously out of place.”
Likewise, FFRF member Pamela Morris, a third-generation Montanan, first encountered the shrine as a teenager in 1957 at age 15 as part of a ski team, when she found the statue “intrusive” and “startlingly out of place.” She has since avoided the area, choosing to backpack, fish and camp where nature has not been violated.
The record shows a decision by the Forest Service to emphasize the shrine’s “historic” ties to development of the ski hill over its religious nature. The government argues that because the violation is longstanding, the shrine has become “historic.” FFRF counters that if courts followed such logic, segregated public schools and bans on interracial marriage would still prevail.
“The Government’s argument, reduced to its essence, otherwise would mean that religious iconography on public land is acceptable if supported by popular interest groups. The Establishment Clause, in other words, would be subject to majoritarian or popular demand. That, however, is not the lesson of our Constitution — nor a paradigm for historical success, as worldwide religious conflict attests. Religious icons on public land cannot be constitutionally salvaged by local celebrity status.”
Richard L. Bolton, of Boardman and Clark, Madison, Wis., is litigation attorney, with Martin S. King and Reid Perkins of Worden Thane, Missoula, serving as local counsel.
Sign up to receive FFRF news releases and action alerts by request at . Read more about the case at ffrf.org/legal/challenges.
A court decision allowing an obscure Milwaukee-area church to intervene in FFRF’s nationally significant lawsuit against the Internal Revenue Service over church politicking has placed the litigation “on the front line,” said FFRF’s litigation attorney, Richard L. Bolton.
“This will put everything in play, including the churches’ argument that the politicking restriction violates the First Amendment — using the Citizens United argument,” he added.
Although FFRF and the government defendants opposed the intervention, U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman in Milwaukee ruled Feb. 3 that Fr. Patrick Malone and the Holy Cross Anglican Church of Wauwatosa, Wis., could intervene. (The congregation left the Episcopal Church in 2008 in reaction to a series of decisions, most prominently the ordination of a gay bishop, and joined the more conservative Convocation of Anglicans of North America.)
“The intervention by the clergyman and church, which openly admit in their brief that they don’t obey the electioneering restrictions applying to tax-exempt organizations, puts all the cards on the table,” said FFRF Co-President Dan Barker.
The church argues it has a “legal right to participate in political campaigns without forfeiting their tax-exempt status,” and cites the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, as well as the free speech, free exercise and establishment clauses of the First Amendment. Incidentally, FFRF calls RFRA unconstitutional in its amicus brief, written by attorney Marci Hamilton, in the Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
FFRF filed its suit in November 2012, taking the IRS to court over its failure to enforce electioneering restrictions that require 501(c) tax-exempt entities to refrain from endorsing political candidates.
FFRF recently prevailed in its federal challenge to an IRS policy that benefits clergy. The government has appealed that ruling on the parish exemption to the 7th Circuit.
FFRF has a third challenge of the IRS in federal court over the fact that churches are exempt from filing the same financial accountability reports, the Form 990, required of all other 501(c)(3) nonprofits.
Building on its success removing bibles from University of Wisconsin hotel rooms in December in Madison, the Freedom From Religion Foundation scored another victory for secularism on an Iowa public college campus.
The Memorial Union at Iowa State University in Ames agreed to remove Gideon bibles from its hotel rooms on March 1.
FFRF received a complaint about the religious propaganda on state property. “If a state-run university has a policy of providing a Christian religious text to guests, that policy facilitates illegal endorsement of Christianity over other religions and over nonreligion,” said Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott in a Jan. 29 letter to the university. “Permitting members of outside religious groups the privilege of placing their religious literature in public university guest rooms also constitutes state endorsement and advancement of religion.”
Elliott added, “Individuals, not the state, must determine what religious texts are worth reading.”
Union Director Richard Reynolds responded Feb. 13: “The concern you raised about the availability of bibles in the guest rooms of the Memorial Union has been taken under advisement and, effective March 1, 2014, the bibles will be removed from the hotel rooms.”
“We’re delighted to see reason and the Constitution prevailing. We can all sleep easier knowing secularism is being honored at our public universities,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.
“Many nonbelievers greatly object to its primitive and dangerous instructions to beat children, kill homosexuals, atheists and infidels and that it sanctions the subjugation of women, who are scapegoated for bringing sin and death into the world,” Gaylor added.
“Imagine the uproar if someone found a Quran or atheistic literature such as Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion in their state-supported hotel room. Government can’t take sides on the religious debate.”
FFRF’s victory received widespread Iowa and national coverage. Elliott appeared on national Fox News coverage and Gaylor was invited to debate Sean Hannity on Fox. (View the video on YouTube with the search terms “Gaylor FFRF Hannity.”)
John McCarroll, executive director of university relations, told WCCI News 8 in Des Moines: “It’s a public institution and we do have certainly responsibilities on the separation of church and state. We thought it was appropriate to put the bibles in the browsing library.”
Gaylor noted that as long as there are a variety of books of varying views, and the library is not solely religious, that is a satisfactory resolution. FFRF, which has more than 20,000 members, represents nearly 150 in Iowa.