The Freedom From Religion Foundation’s formal request that a middle school in Jackson, Ohio, remove a prominent painting of Jesus from its entrance has created shockwaves locally.
Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote a letter of complaint Jan. 2 to the Jackson City Schools on behalf of a complainant protesting the painting’s presence at Jackson Middle School. Since sending the letter, FFRF has been contacted by other families with children in the schools distressed over the violation.
“Courts have continually held that public schools may not display religious messages or iconography. It is illegal for Jackson Middle School to post religious images on the walls of its schools. The district must remove the picture of Jesus at once,” Markert wrote.
Her letter cited a 1994 decision by the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which ruled that an identical portrait of Jesus could not be displayed in a public school. Ohio is part of the 6th Circuit.
The Jackson School Board decided Jan. 8 to not remove the devotional image. Superintendent Phil Howard told more than 300 emotional backers of the painting who attended a board meeting that the picture would stay. He claimed it was lawful because it was a gift from a student group and “has historical significance.”
Channel 10 News reported on the “tense” and heated meeting, with parents booing those who opposed the painting’s presence, and cheering and applauding the board’s decision.
“It is still violating the United States Constitution and must be removed immediately,” said a parent, who was loudly booed.
Since FFRF wrote its letter, the ACLU of Ohio has joined the fight. ACLU litigation coordinator Drew Dennis said: “The fact that this portrait has been hanging for many years does not change the fact that it promotes one set of religious beliefs at the expense of all others. Public school displays that advance one particular religious tradition are neither welcoming, nor inclusive for those who may have other beliefs.”
The “Jackson Jesus” painting is the focal point, segregated by itself, of a so-called “Hall of Honor” at the school. It reportedly was given to the school in 1947.
“I’m certainly not going to run down there and take the picture down because some group from Madison, Wis., who knows nothing about the culture of our community or why the picture is even there, wants me to take it down,” Howard told WKKJ.
A Christian-right group based in Texas known as the Liberty Institute announced Jan. 11 that it had been “retained” by Jackson City Schools as legal counsel. A Facebook group was started to support the school board’s position, garnering more than 11,000 “likes” by Jan. 7.
Joe Hensler, who started the Facebook page, dubbed himself president of Citizens of Jackson County for Jesus. “And it’s good to see that there are still people in our community that are willing to stand up and speak out for Christ,” he told a reporter.
The devotional painting in question, formally titled “Head of Christ,” was painted by Warner Sallman in 1941. According to the Sallman official website, the painting has been reproduced more than 500 million times. The Gospel Trumpet County, later Warner Press, became the principal distributor of the painting and other Sallman images.
Sallman also painted popular images titled “Christ at Heart’s Door,” “Christ in Gethsemane” and “The Lord is My Shepherd.” He enrolled in bible school and was encouraged to paint by a dean who said, “Sometime I hope you give us your conception of Christ. And I hope it’s a manly one. Most of our pictures today are too effeminate.”
Sallman said about his work, “I give God the glory for whatever has been accomplished by my efforts to bring joy and happinss to people throughout the world.”
Dan Barker, FFRF co-president and a former evangelical minister, is familiar with the painting, having encountered it himself in countless Christian churches. “It boggles the mind that in 2013, a public school superintendent and school board would not understand that a devotional painting of Jesus, called ‘The Head of Christ,’ — identical to millions hanging in churches and Sunday school classrooms around the country — may not be part of a ‘Hall of Honor’ or be posted at the entrance of a middle school.”
(Further developments in what will be an ongoing story will be reported in the March Freethought Today.)
Ending 2012 with a bang, the Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a federal lawsuit Dec. 27 to challenge the Internal Revenue Service’s preferential treatment of churches in applying for and maintaining tax-exempt status.
The IRS exempts churches and certain other religious organizations from paying expensive application fees and filing the onerous annual Form 990 required of nonchurch nonprofits. FFRF and Triangle FFRF v. the IRS was filed in U.S. District Court, Western District of Wisconsin.
FFRF, a national state/church watchdog with more than 19,000 nonreligious members, and its chapter, the Triangle Freethought Society in North Carolina, are challenging the preferential application and reporting exemptions to churches.
FFRF and its North Carolina chapter are 501(c)(3) nonprofits that paid fees of several hundred dollars in order to apply for tax-exempt status and must annually file the annual Form 990.
The IRS requires nonchurch tax-exempt nonprofits to file “detailed, intrusive, and expensive annual reports to maintain tax-exempt status, but such reports are not required for churches and certain other affiliated religious organizations,” the complaint notes.
“Why should churches be exempt from basic financial reporting requirements?” asks Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. “Equally important, why would churches not wish to be accountable?”
Gaylor adds, “Having tax-exempt status is a great privilege, and in exchange for that privilege, all other groups must file a detailed report annually to the IRS and the public on how we spend donations.”
“The unfairness of this is so overwhelming,” says FFRF President Emerita Anne Nicol Gaylor, who in FFRF’s early years personally prepared the annual forms. “Churches are allowed to play by different rules.”
Form 990 requires detailed reports on revenue and functional expenses, activities, governance, management, how groups fulfill their mission and what proportion is spent on programs, management and fundraising.
The “preferential treatment of churches” directly benefits churches, while discriminating against other nonprofit organizations, including the plaintiffs, “solely on the basis of religious criteria,” FFRF’s complaint asserts. This “results in obligations imposed on secular nonprofits, including the plaintiffs, that are not imposed on churches.”
FFRF asks the court to find the church exemptions a violation of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution’s First Amendment and the equal protection rights of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. FFRF seeks to enjoin the IRS from continuing to exempt churches and related organizations from the application and annual reporting required of all other 501(c)(3) nonprofits.
This is FFRF’s third ongoing lawsuit against IRS practices involving preferential treatment of churches.
In January/February 2013, FFRF filed a high-profile lawsuit seeking to enforce the IRS’ non-electioneering code against churches.
In late August, U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb ruled that FFRF and three of its directors have standing to proceed in a challenge of the 1954 “parish exemption” act of Congress. That law, enacted to reward ministers for fighting what the law’s author, U.S. Rep. Peter Mack, called “a godless and antireligious world movement,” permits “ministers of the gospel” to deduct payment designated as a housing allowance from taxable income.
All three lawsuits were filed in U.S. District Court, Western District of Wisconsin, and were brought on behalf of FFRF by attorney Richard L. Bolton.
“We thank the Triangle Freethought Society for joining FFRF in this important challenge,” adds FFRF Co-President Dan Barker.
Fifth place: Graduate/mature student essay contest
FFRF awarded Jemille Bailey a $350 scholarship.
By Jemille Bailey
Modern America has an unhealthy love affair with religion. In recent years, U.S. government leaders have invoked God when addressing their constituents in speeches and writings. For those who don’t believe in a deity, or don’t agree with government’s interpretation of or interference with religious matters, there exists an uncomfortable relationship.
While Americans generally have great respect for the fundamental ideals of the founders, it is obvious that the secular ideological underpinnings so eloquently codified in the U.S. Constitution are frequently contested, circumvented or disregarded for political gain.
Two issues in particular are of concern nationwide: The right of women to exercise physical sovereignty vis à vis their reproductive systems and capabilities are once again being hotly debated. In January, presidential hopeful Rick Santorum gallingly proclaimed in a CNN interview that victims of rape should “accept what God has given to [them].”
Despite that issue having already been addressed and settled by the U.S. Supreme Court for almost 40 years, Santorum dangerously and irresponsibly asserts his religious beliefs as justification for setting or changing public policy.
He also single-handedly reinterprets the Constitution, arguing that “life begins at conception.” Santorum is free to argue his position, but his stance is based not on reason, science or social responsibility but on his religion.
Secondly, thinly veiled government promotion of religion has also seeped into the lives of ordinary Americans through their maltreatment of sexual minorities. The civil rights of lesbians, gays and bisexuals, as well as people who are gender nonconforming or transgender, are too frequently set aside, unrecognized or challenged.
Religion has frequently been a reason why the aforementioned Americans are marginalized and disenfranchised. Speaking to the graduating class of 2012 at Liberty University, a Christian university in Lynchburg, Va., Mitt Romney, then the presumed Republican nominee for U.S. president, reaffirmed his opposition to marriage equality:
“It strikes me as odd that the free exercise of religious faith is sometimes treated as a problem, something America is stuck with instead of blessed with.” He went on, “Perhaps religious conscience upsets the designs of those who feel that the highest wisdom and authority comes from our government.”
Using language such as “blessed” is a clear signal to Christian believers in the audience that they and Romney are on the same team. If he were running for president of Liberty University, he would be well within his bounds to use such language. This speech also doubled as a campaign event.
Such rhetoric implies a divide between religious and nonreligious citizens. Further, it’s concerning that Romney doesn’t trust legislators, judges and other public servants. We elected them presumably because of their perceived wisdom. Logically, as those leaders have been given responsibility through the ballot box or appointment, they are the highest authorities in the nation.
But Romney then shamelessly pronounced that “there is no greater force for good in the nation than Christian conscience in action.” What disappointing news for the nation’s many atheists, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews and Muslims.
Often, after all other ineffective social and moral arguments are exhausted, religion is the last, and incidentally, the most illegitimate justification for the restriction of rights or release of responsibilities. It is on the emotionally tempting but judicially irrelevant leg of religion that Romney stands to assert his opinion on what makes a family.
Every year in the U.S., a National Prayer Breakfast is held and televised, attended by Democrats and Republicans alike. While some may view it as mere tradition, its implicit nature makes clear that we are under an ever-growing threat of moving toward theocracy.
When reason and objective analysis are pushed aside or ignored and replaced with tribal and theocratic allegiances and dogma, the resulting separatism can provoke the same unseemly acts of marginalization or restrictions of civil liberties that have led toward slavery, genocide and other atrocities throughout modern history.
Those acts may, in turn, be irrationally justified as divinely inspired or even virtuous at the expense of the physical and intellectual sovereignty of dissenting citizens.
Jemille Bailey, 32, is a Los Angeles native pursuing an undergraduate liberal arts degree with a concentration in financial economics at Columbia University.
FFRF awarded Vicky a $500 scholarship.
I’m an atheist, and this election year, I’m a family values voter. Families are one of the most important institutions in any society. The way we are raised as children influences our views on important issues such as morality, politics, sex, money and religion.
As an atheist, I vote to value the families in which we actually live: single parent households, LGBT partnerships, multigenerational homes and any other configuration that exists. My family values extend beyond families that are healthy and functioning to those that are struggling through poverty, domestic violence, mental illness and other issues.
My family values extend to those men and women who are not yet ready to start a family and want to protect themselves or terminate an unplanned pregnancy. I’m a family values voter because I support the rights of individuals to live in a safe, healthy family environment and make their own choices.
Some politicians, however, foist their religious ideology onto their legislation and decision making, telling the rest of us what we should want and how we should live our lives.
In Wisconsin, Sen. Glenn Grothman proposed Senate Bill 507, which named “nonmarital parenthood as a contributing factor to child abuse,” a slam at single mothers.
In Michigan, Rep. Lisa Brown was censored for using the word “vagina” during a debate on an abortion bill, when she stated, “I’m flattered that you’re all so interested in my vagina, but ‘no’ means ‘no.’ ”
Fellow Rep. Mike Callton said in response: “What she said was offensive. It was so offensive, I don’t even want to say it in front of women. I would not say that in mixed company.”
On the national stage, presidential candidate Mitt Romney pledged to ensure that his version of marriage is practiced throughout the land. His platform includes support for the Defense of Marriage Act and for an amendment to the Constitution defining marriage as between one man and one woman.
These are people who could be making decisions about how all Americans, secular and nonsecular, live the most intimate parts of their lives. People like state Rep. Don Pridemore of Wisconsin, who told abused women that “If they can refind [sic] those reasons and get back to why they got married in the first place it might help.”
Instead of suggesting a way for women to get out of their abusive relationships and providing support for them and their children, Pridemore encourages them to go back based on his definition of what it means to be a family.
It is one thing to espouse a view against abortion or gay marriage. It is another thing to tell someone else how they should live their lives, and it’s completely unacceptable when it comes from our elected officials.
America cannot ignore these blatant attempts to enforce their religious viewpoints on everyone. The so-called “family values” espoused by the Religious Right are not the values of the families that actually exist. God and government are a dangerous mix in our schools, public meetings, legislation, health care and tax code.
It’s time to fight back, and there’s no place better than at the ballot box. It’s time for the secular community to step up and reclaim “family values” for all families.
Perhaps we should pay more attention to what Brown, who is Jewish, said before her censorship-inducing use of the word “vagina.” She explained her position on the bill, stating, “Judaism believes that therapeutic abortions, namely abortions performed in order to preserve the life of the mother are not only permissible but mandatory. . . . I have not asked you to adopt and adhere to my religious beliefs. Why are you asking me to adopt yours?”
She shouldn’t even have to ask. Her Judaism, Grothman’s Christianity and my atheism are all equally valid. The only way all people can maintain their freedom of choice is to separate god and government and elect those who will maintain this separation.
Therefore, this election year, I am an atheist voting for the values of all families. Are you?
Vicky Weber, 22, graduated with honors from Ripon College in Ripon, Wis., with a degree in communication and a double minor in politics and government and nonprofit business management. She’s pursuing an M.A. in communication studies at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. At Ripon, she co-founded a Secular Student Alliance and plans to be active in the SSA chapter at Colorado State. Another laudable life goal she has set is to eventually enjoy a beer at all 30 Major League Baseball parks.
FFRF awarded Bryan a $500 scholarship.
In a speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in 1960, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy said “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute . . . where no Catholic prelate would tell the president how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference.”
Kennedy emphasized that there were “far more critical issues” that faced the nation than his Catholicism, and the same thing holds true today. In an age where unemployment and poverty are rampant, overseas wars kill our citizens and raise our deficit, and the world’s richest country also has its largest prison population, religion has become a driving force in American politics.
God’s name is used to justify policies in arenas as diverse as health care, civil rights for women and minorities, and even education. Yet invoking the bible does nothing to address the issues behind our country’s problems; it only serves to muddy the waters with arbitrary loyalties, xenophobia, and unwillingness to compromise. The separation of church and state is essential for creating effective, rational policies and ensuring freedom and equality for all.
Government is most effective when it uses empirically proven, logic-based methods for solving real-world problems. These methods can be debated using facts learned through scientific research, from carefully recorded observations and from successful tactics used in other countries. But supernatural justifications for policy require no such vetting process; once God comes to the table, the issue becomes a matter of faith, not fact. Supernatural solutions do not solve real-world problems.
In August 2011, Texas Gov. Rick Perry convened a daylong event in Houston called The Response, a call for Americans to “to pray and fast like Jesus did” to combat Texas’ crippling drought and economic problems. It did nothing, of course, to ease economic and drought woes. His April day of prayer for rain was similarly ineffective.
The funds and time used to promote these events could have been used to research realistic methods of combating drought and deficits, but instead it was used to create a conservative soapbox that did nothing to solve the problems faced by Texans.
Religion is an entirely subjective way to create policy, since doctrine and beliefs differ between religions. Even Christian denominations disagree on the exact nature of the god they worship.
In American history, this has manifested itself in countless ways. For example, slave owners and abolitionists both used the bible to defend their position in the 19th century. In modern times, the LGBTQ movement’s fiercest critics often use God as their primary reason for fighting against marriage equality, yet there are plenty of progressive Christians who support marriage equality and use the bible to justify their claims.
You cannot debate the idea of God in a courtroom or statehouse. You cannot objectively weigh the advantages and disadvantages of a policy that has been dictated by a higher power. When we use unverifiable, subjective reasoning to make decisions, we create unjustifiable, ineffective policy.
With God involved in policy-making, the question becomes “which God?” In the U.S., Christians make up the vast majority of the population, but our country is also a melting pot of Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, atheists, agnostics and everyone in between.
Indeed, America was founded in part on the freedom to worship or not worship any way you please, and it’s this diversity that makes America what it is. Part of freedom from religion is protecting freedom of religion.
When the majority religion makes its way into government, it does so not by reconciling itself to all other faiths and nonfaiths, but by the power of demographics. This leads to unequal representation, which creates a government that cannot or will not hear the needs of all its citizens.
Religion-based rule is tribalism at its purest and enforces divisions that are based on arbitrary cultural labels. Recently, Louisiana passed a law allowing public funds to be used on vouchers to send children to a school of the parent’s choosing. But lawmakers didn’t realize those funds could also be used for non-Christian schools: “Republican state Rep. Kenneth Havard objected to the [Islamic School of Greater New Orleans’] request for 38 government-paid student vouchers, saying he opposed any bill that ‘will fund Islamic teaching.’ ”
Inevitably, the rights of minorities are trampled by the majority, especially when beliefs in an exclusive deity are used to justify that power.
Fifty-two years after Kennedy’s historic speech in Houston, separation of church and state brought “vomit” to the mouth of presidential candidate Rick Santorum: “I don’t believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute. The idea that the church can have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country.”
Santorum couldn’t be further from the truth. This is a country founded on freedom of religion, not domination by religion. We need equal rights for all, not just for the majority. We need a country free from the tribalism and petty divisions that politicized religion breeds.
If we are to ever separate ourselves from our country’s economic, social and ideological woes, we need a country where separation of church and state is absolute.
Bryan Johnson, 26, a native of Raleigh, N.C., is a first-year graduate student at Colorado State University in Fort Collins and is pursuing an MFA in creative writing. He has an English degree from Purdue University and worked as a copywriter while writing fiction.
FFRF awarded Lynn a $1,000 scholarship.
The night of May 8, 2012, my young daughter and I awaited the election results of North Carolina’s proposed constitutional amendment. Most of the early results were promising.
Sadly, our hopes turned to dismay as county after county declared “that marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this state.”
We had both worked the week before at phone banks urging voters to get out and vote against the amendment. While making calls, it had been clear that those supporting the amendment were doing so for religious reasons. Many said things like, “God meant for marriage to be between a man and a woman.”
Amendment One was the result of the Republican-dominated General Assembly and its surge of conservative legislation. As the proposal for the marriage amendment was debated, many legislators asked why social issues were dominating the Assembly while our state had a 10.5% unemployment rate and many other concerns.
It was heavily supported by conservative religious figures and groups throughout the country. Bibles and preachers featured prominently in many TV ads. Voter approval of the amendment brings a new era of discrimination against citizens based on religious principles.
Although my daughter and I constitute a nontraditional family, I am not likely to be directly affected. So why did I take time to work phone banks and get pledges from voters? Why did I spend some of my already thinly stretched income purchasing “Vote No” materials?
One reason is my daughter. Being a mother has made me even more aware of the threats religion poses to our freedoms. What future can my daughter, being raised without religion, expect to find in an overwhelmingly religious political atmosphere? What rights will she have to live, love and learn as she grows as a U.S. citizen? What will her education be like if religious zealots manage to defund public schools and ensure that pseudoscience makes its way into classrooms?
During this election season, we have been subjected to Rick Perry’s comments about teaching creationism, Michelle Bachmann’s belief that her God called her to run for president, and Rick Santorum’s idea that teaching evolution has been used to promote atheism.
We hear revisionists claim that America was founded as a Christian nation and needs to be returned to that ordained state. Public school systems in Louisiana, Kansas, Florida and other states are experiencing challenges to their curriculum led by those who wish to see theologically based ideas taught. The Texas GOP platform states, “We support school subjects with emphasis on the Judeo-Christian principles upon which America was founded and which form the basis of America’s legal, political and economic systems.”
Don’t they know that America’s legal and political systems are rooted largely in ancient, non-Christian Roman and Greek systems? Have they forgotten that our founders were not all Judeo-Christians?
These conservatives oppose teaching “critical thinking skills” which “have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”
The Republican platform in North Carolina says, “We oppose efforts to remove the recognition of Almighty God from our schools, courts, currency and Pledge of Allegiance. We oppose efforts to remove prayer from our public meetings and governmental institutions.”
In Louisiana, a push to allow religious education to be publicly funded backfired on at least one legislator. Rep. Valarie Hodges said, “I liked the idea of giving parents the option of sending their children to a public school or a Christian school.”
Louisiana’s voucher program attracted applications from a Muslim school and 123 other religiously based schools. Regarding the Muslim school, Hodges said, “Unfortunately [the funding] will not be limited to the Founders’ religion. … I do not support using public funds for teaching Islam anywhere here in Louisiana.”
So, will Louisiana fund all religious schools or will it discriminate against certain religions?
Last year I realized that I had to find my own way to combat the growing religious influence in the public sphere. One way to curtail religious indoctrination is to focus on reality.
An important facet of reality is that our universe seems to work quite well without the interference of supernatural beings. How could I speak out in favor of reality? Participating in politics, far from my purview, was not a likely option.
After carefully evaluating my skills and talents, I came to realize that a career in science education would provide a way for me to teach others about reality. I know it is possible to combat pseudoscientific claims of all types through education. After learning how science unearths wholly natural explanations for phenomena, many people begin to question the supernatural explanations they’ve been taught.
If our opinions are grounded in reality, religion will lose some of its luster and the desire to have it permeate every aspect of public life may be reduced. One day, religious belief as a desirable societal guide may be regarded as a ludicrous idea.
One day, maybe I won’t have to worry how religion will affect my daughter’s future.
Lynn Wilhelm, lives in Cary, N.C. She is a single mother to Aiden, 8. She worked 10-plus years as a landscape designer and taught horticulture in a public school after getting a B.S. in agricultural education and extension in 1999 from North Carolina State University. “My teaching experience was riddled with difficulties partly due to the very religious atmosphere I found at the rural North Carolina school. I only taught for one year and thought I would never teach again.” With a recently renewed interest in education, she is pursuing a master’s in teaching science at NCSU and will graduate in May 2013.
FFRF awarded Wilson a $2,000 scholarship.
Religion and American politics are thoroughly intertwined. There even exists within the electorate a pervasive belief that the accomplishments and the very existence of the United States are more attributable to providence than to humanistic achievement.
This idea, along with a faith in the infallibility of a divine being, often leads to public policy informed more by religious interpretations than reasoned debate.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified over 220 years ago: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
We can either accept its modern relevance and explicit dogma as articles of faith, or we can question how its concepts should apply to the present and be adjusted for current values while allowing for future change. In this way, the Constitution necessarily draws us into choices between faith and reason.
Originalists imply that the righteousness of their legal interpretations emanates from their ability to divine immutable and incontrovertible religious values in our Constitution. These individuals disregard the Establishment Clause and seek to interpret law in a manner that promotes faith-based principles and practices. Such unsound circular jurisprudence paradoxically seeks to find justification for desired religious outcomes while asserting original intent.
In the Supreme Court, several modern-era appointees have supported blending religion and politics. Evidence of this abounds. William Rehnquist, in Wallace v. Jaffree, a school prayer case, argued against a Jeffersonian wall between church and state.
Similarly, in his speech to the Catholic Knights of Columbus, Antonin Scalia criticized the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals for allegedly attempting to excise God from public life in Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow, a case about requiring students pledging allegiance to the United States “under God.”
When this case reached the Supreme Court, Rehnquist argued that references to a monotheistic God in the pledge, on federal currency, on government buildings and elsewhere do not violate the Establishment Clause. He claimed that it is permissible for government institutions to declare the existence of God, especially if they do not favor a specific denomination.
In that same case, Clarence Thomas even suggested that the Establishment Clause was merely a protection against federal interference in the religious affairs of states and that it neither guarantees rights for individuals nor should it be incorporated at the state level.
These few examples demonstrate a larger trend within part of the judiciary to undermine the Establishment Clause. As lifelong appointees, Supreme Court justices exert a tremendous influence over the trajectory of American society.
For this reason, jurists should interpret the Establishment Clause broadly, thereby circumscribing faith to the private sphere where it can be practiced freely. In this way, the freedom of thought of all Americans would be protected from the religious predispositions of merely nine judges.
Separating religion from government is appropriate for all three branches of government. In the recent past, there’s been a resurgence of religious zeal across the political landscape.
In the recent Republican presidential primary, religiously charged social issues were brought to the fore. Each candidate who led in the polls took great pains to proclaim his or her religious fervor and scripturally-based opposition to aspects of gay marriage, abortion and contraception.
Similarly, congressional and state legislators have, of late, made ostentatious attempts to publicly defund the health care provider Planned Parenthood on the basis of religious opposition to family planning.
In Mississippi, legislators theologically opposed to abortion have foisted restrictions upon the last remaining in-state clinic in an effort to circumvent protections acknowledged since Roe v. Wade.
With regard to the Affordable Care Act, the Catholic Church’s public criticism of the employer requirement for contraceptive coverage riders led the Obama administration to make exemptions for religious denominations. Concessions to mollify religious critics disenfranchised employees who do not subscribe to the same theology as their employers.
Support of teaching intelligent design in public schools and opposition to the teaching about evolution, obstruction of stem cell research, taxpayer-funded subsidies and vouchers for parochial schools and their students, and tax and employment nondiscrimination exemptions for religious groups are a few examples of religion’s heavy hand.
Despite what is enunciated in Article VI of the Constitution, even presidential elections are thoroughly subjected to religious influence. During the 2008 presidential primary, the accusations that then-Senator Obama was a Muslim underscored the de facto requirement by part of the electorate that American presidents share their Christian faith.
Democratic government must protect each individual’s freedom of thought. Government must not promote theism, be it denominational or not. Theocracies are inherently anti-democratic because they demand faith in divine infallibility and endeavor to impose unquestionable religious beliefs and policies.
In contrast, our federalized republic is best served by its citizens voting for elected representatives on the basis of reasoned and informed debate. Both secular and religious values can be components of deliberations regarding policy, but their merits must be justifiable on the basis of logic, not blind trust.
Thoughtful, nuanced, nondogmatic debate is most suited for selecting officeholders and for creating sound public policy that balances preservation of personal choice with protection of secular values that citizens arrive at through careful consideration.
For freedom of thought to flourish in the U.S., belief and nonbelief must be protected by the government. Politics must be shielded from the influence of religion. To achieve this, we must elect individuals dedicated to disentangling religion from politics.
Wilson Melón, 27, was born in Concord, Mass. He’s a Ph.D. student in Spanish literature at Purdue University. He earned a B.A. in Spanish and French at Middlebury College, Vermont, and an M.A. in Hispanic literature at Boston College.
FFRF awarded Elizabeth a $3,000 scholarship.
Politicians like to deify our nation’s founders. Asserting that the founders would have wanted this, or would not have recognized America today because of that, is one of the quickest ways to add authority to any claim.
Mitt Romney did this, for example, as concerns gay marriage. He said that “at the time the Constitution was written, marriage was between a man and a woman,” implying that this is why marriage should continue to be defined this way. The nation’s founders lived like this, so we should too, the argument goes.
In fact, we know that our founders were imperfect. Some held slaves, were bigots and didn’t want women to vote. But what makes them greater than their flaws is that they recognized that they were not all-knowing, that they could not predict the future and what changes it would bring.
Instead of leaving us with a Constitution that dictated their beliefs on every subject, they left us with a succinct document and simple instructions. They left room for change and reinterpretation. It was this humility that makes them seem omniscient.
The ability to change is what makes our republic great. It’s precisely the reason why religion and the state are institutions fundamentally at odds with each other. We are where we are today despite the dead weight of religion.
As a country, we have recognized the equality of (almost) all people, we have ended slavery, given women the right to vote. We are in the process of asserting the total equality of gay men and women. The Judeo-Christian holy books, on the other hand, are saying the same things they have always said: Women are property, slaves are useful, sex is evil and sodomy is even worse. The holy books cannot change; that is their nature.
Religious doctrine is meant to be eternal. It set out to legislate the lives of people centuries from the time it was written. It leaves no room for growth and enlightenment, no room for change. Our nation, on the other hand, has a Supreme Court that once upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson, and then completely reversed that decision 60 years later in Brown v. Board of Education.
No matter how important change is, or how embedded it is in our government, it can be scary. That is why religiously flavored politics are so dangerous, especially in an election year. An election offers the chance to revert to times previous.
There are those who are convinced that the best way to solve the nation’s problems is to go back to the good old days. In an election year, their flawed logic is turned up to deafening levels. One of Mitt Romney’s main super PACs is called “Restore our Future,” implying that the future is safe if we revert to the way things were.
This type of thinking is not conservative. It is regressive, and religion is the backbone of the voices for regression. People rally to bring America back to glory using biblical teachings, to reboot the nation in terms of the founders’ religious beliefs.
Suddenly, we are talking about contraception again. Didn’t we settle this in the 1960s? Isn’t stirring up this debate a little — regressive? The most fundamentalist believers want to move our laws backward, not forward.
Because religion is purportedly tied to morality, some Americans pay close attention to candidates’ religious ties. Religion becomes a moral litmus test, a cheat sheet for comparing values. It distracts us from substantive issues. Its institutions — church, synagogue and mosque — take on dangerous powers in an election, because they can tell their congregants how God would want them to vote. Suddenly, our democracy is beholden to the stubborn dogmas of the distant past.
Many will argue that religion is a moral anchor for the government, telling us what is right and good and making sure that in our progress, we never lose sight of our core values. This is patently false. I agree that religion offers valuable moral teachings, but these teachings are not monopolized by the faithful.
These ideas are just as strongly held by nonreligious people. Morality was not invented with the writing of the Old Testament. In its most basic forms, it is programmed into us as a cooperative species. The religious and nonreligious simply trace the roots of their morality differently.
I like to think of our government as a tree. The founders planted a very small seed hundreds of years ago for the benefit of future generations. They had no way of knowing where its branches would emerge and what shape they would take, so they gave the seed ample room to grow.
This tree has been watered by generations of Americans and has been shaped by the winds of change, by flood and drought. We have grown and become strong.
Religion in government is an axe aimed at the base of this tree. Religion believes that reducing it to its roots is the only way to save it. To me it sounds like a good way to kill it.
Elizabeth Pipal, 23, was born in Oklahoma City and moved to California when she was 4. She’s a proud atheist who loves dogs, drawing, cooking and collecting maps. She graduated in 2011 with a bachelor’s in linguistics from Columbia University and is pursuing a master’s in architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.
Statement by the Freedom From Religion Foundation on placement of its Winter Solstice nativity at the Wisconsin Capitol:
For a fact, the Christians stole Christmas. We don’t mind sharing the season with them, but we don’t like their pretense that it is the birthday of Jesus. It is the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun — Dies Natalis Invicti Solis.
Christmas is a relic of Sun worship.
For all of our major festivals, there were corresponding pagan festivals tied to natural events. We’ve been celebrating the Winter Solstice, this natural holiday, long before Christians crashed the party. For millennia, our ancestors in the Northern Hemisphere have greeted this seasonal event with festivals of light, gift exchanges and seasonal gatherings.
The Winter Solstice is the reason for the season. The Winter Solstice, on Dec. 21 this year, heralds the symbolic rebirth of the Sun, the lengthening of days and the natural New Year.
We nonbelievers are quite willing to celebrate the fun parts of anybody’s holidays. We just want to be spared the schmaltz, the superstition, and the state/church entanglements.
The customs of this time of year endure because they are pleasant customs. It’s fun to hear from distant family and friends, to gather, to feast, to sing. Gifts, as freethinker Robert Ingersoll once remarked, are evidences of friendship, of remembrance, of love.
The evergreens displayed now as in centuries past flourish when all else seems dead, and are symbols, as is the returning Sun, of enduring life.
In celebrating the Winter Solstice, we celebrate reality.
We are unveiling a tableau that celebrates the human family, reason and the Winter Solstice.
• Our wise-people depict the atheists and scientific giants, Darwin and Einstein, who have enlarged human understanding of the natural world far more than the bible or any “holy books.” They were both nonbelievers as was progressive reformer Emma Goldman, representing wise women everywhere. The irreverent literary genius Mark Twain is added for good measure.
• Although Venus, like Mary, was a mythical fertility figure, this image, after which a planet was named, represents our solar system.
• Thomas Jefferson, a Founding Father, was a passionate advocate of separation of religion and government and would have disavowed Christian devotional scenes on state property.
• Our “angels” are also natural. The Statue of Liberty symbolizes freedom, and the astronaut represents the human achievements of science unfettered by religious dogma.
• Our baby was chosen partly for simple egalitarianism, and partly because it’s high time we adore female children as much as male children, and to acknowledge that humankind was birthed in Africa.
FFRF would vastly prefer that government buildings and seats of government be free from religion, and irreligion. It is divisive. The rotunda is getting very cluttered. But if a devotional nativity display is allowed, then there must be “room at the inn” for all points of view, including irreverency and freethought.
FFRF gratefully acknowledges the exceptional carpentry work and enthusiasm of Andrew Seidel. Thanks also to Katie Daniel, Melanie Knier and Scott Carney for their invaluable help in creating the natural nativity on very short notice. Part of this statement was adapted from a 1985 Winter Solstice speech by Anne Nicol Gaylor, FFRF president emerita.
By Fred Strong
In Portland, Ore., the city that Huffington Post considers America’s least religious, we seculars have a plethora of meetups, discussion groups, potlucks, talent programs and lectures throughout the year. In recent years, we’ve seen the emergence of more large-scale undertakings such as the annual Portland Humanist Film Fest.
Another event, in its third year, that’s gaining national attention is DARKTOLIGHT.
DARKTOLIGHT is the manifestation of an idea that came to me many years ago concerning a desire to have a secular event to celebrate in December, the month when the world around us goes mad with hyper-religiosity. As a composer and arts lover, I knew that music and art would definitely be a part.
I decided to center the event on the Winter Solstice, a natural, celestial occurrence that carries with it very deep symbolic implications having to do with the very essence of the cycle of life itself. The emergence from darkness and death into the seasons of light and life became, in my mind, a metaphor for a paradigm shift in human attitudes from myth-based thinking to an enlightened world of scientific reason.
In 2008, working with a soprano duo and a roster of musicians and performers who would work for little or nothing, I booked the 140-seat theater of the Portland Music Community Center for Dec. 21. I’d written a work called “Songs for Winter Solstice,” consisting of three contrasting songs. But when Portland was hit by an unusual cold front that essentially crippled a city ill-equipped to deal with radical weather conditions for close to two weeks, DARKTOLIGHT 2008 became a casualty.
In 2009, working with Center For Inquiry—Portland and the Humanists of Greater Portland, we held a joint potluck and interested several performers. DTL had its “sort of” debut.
The above groups approached me in 2010 and agreed to fund a small DARKTOLIGHT. I booked the 140-seat theater again, got the sopranos back on board and assembled a very accomplished group of actors, singers, songwriters and musicians. Kol Shalom, a secular Jewish group, helped with an ad in the program. We were all nervous -— no secular event like this had ever been attempted here.
Then the crowd started coming. Couples, families, children, teens, small groups and, before long, we realized we had a hit. DTL 2010 was standing room only! And, with the donations received and the sale of refreshments, the new event was fiscally almost a break-even affair.
I took 2011 off for personal reasons while receiving a fair number of inquiries about whether there’d be a solstice show in December. Early in 2012, CFI-Portland agreed with my vision of a much larger, bolder event, one truer to my original vision but also with a higher price tag.
I began putting together the newest incarnation of DTL called BANG! We booked a 200-seat, professional theater space and are doing three shows with a cast of 14 and four instrumentalists. BANG! takes the audience on a trip through time and space from the big bang to present-day Earth, with a humanist message about our choices and responsibilities. The music ranges from doo-woop to hip-hop and folk to jazz.
DARKTOLIGHT is a special time of secular togetherness, a cultural tether to fill us with a sense of pride, purpose and community. We encourage all locales to celebrate the solstice in their own way. We need to start establishing our own culture, arts and traditions, and it can certainly be done in ways that reflect individual locales.
We’ll perform BANG! at Portland Metro Arts on Friday, Dec. 21, at 7 p.m. and on Dec. 22 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Go to darktolight.org/ for more information.
As a proud member of FFRF, I am very honored that you have allowed me this chance to be spotlighted in Freethought Today. Please say “hi” if you attend BANG! By supporting each other, we support the greater cause.
Fred Strong lives in Portland with his partner, Sandra Brown, and her five cats. He holds a B.A. in composition from Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Va. As he works toward making his avocations (writing, composition, songwriting) his vocation, he owns and operates a small but popular sustainable irrigation company.
In 2011, his humanist choral piece “The Well” was performed in the U.S. Capitol by the Women’s Vocal Ensemble of Clark College, Vancouver, Wash.