The Freedom From Religion Foundation is once again calling out an Ohio town for the constitutional violation of putting Christian crosses on public property.
FFRF, a state-church watchdog based in Madison, Wis., complained April 8 in a letter to village of Stratton attorney Frank Bruzzese about crosses on the Municipal Building.
FFRF, which has 20,000 nationwide members and about 560 in Ohio, successfully got the village to earlier remove crosses from the building and the water tower, but had to threaten to sue to accomplish that.
Mayor John Abdalla recently ordered crosses to be put back on the Municipal Building, which has happened, according to a photo and story in the Steubenville Herald-Star and a local complainant.
In FFRF's April 8 letter, Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert cited legal precedent and took on Abdalla's false claim that it was constitutional to display religious imagery during holidays such as Easter: "While the permanent display of these crosses by the village is indisputably unconstitutional, the seasonal display of the crosses in recognition of Easter, the Christian celebration of Jesus' resurrection, is no less illegal."
FFRF wants immediate removal of the crosses from the front of the building and for village officials to "be reminded of their constitutional obligation to remain neutral toward religion."
Stratton, an Ohio River town with a population of about 300, already has its name on one U.S. Supreme Court case, Watchtower Society v. Village of Stratton. In 2002, the court ruled 8-1 that the village couldn't make door-to-door canvassers or solicitors get a permit. The ruling applied to religious proselytizing, anonymous political speech and handbill distribution.
Allen Korbel, 82, a Wisconsin member of FFRF since 1991 and later a Lifetime Member, died Dec. 17, 2013.
Born in Milwaukee on April 16, 1931, he was an accomplished race car driver and downhill skier with “a passion for life,” noted his friend Paul Wild. “He was a rare individual, a longtime libertarian, secular humanist and freethinker.”
He is survived by two daughters who have carried on his tradition of independent thought.
Allen most generously included a $5,000 bequest to FFRF in his estate.
His daughter, Mary Plautz, noted that he once told her, “if anything has to be written about me, I’d like it to be this” — “his creed,” which was part of a picture frame hanging on the wall. He felt this exemplifies a moral and cultural attitude not only about entrepreneurship, but about the self determining, fulfilling values in human life”:
I do not choose to be a common man
It is my right to be uncommon. . . if I can.
I seek opportunity . . . not security.
I do not wish to be a kept citizen,
humbled and dulled by having the state look after me.
I want to take the calculated risk,
to dream and build, to fail and succeed.
I refuse to barter incentive for a dole.
I prefer the challenges of life to the guaranteed existence;
the thrill of fulfillment to the stale calm of Utopia.
I will not trade freedom for beneficence
or my dignity for a handout.
I will try to never cower before any master
nor bend to any threat.
It is my heritage to stand erect, proud, and unafraid;
to think and act for myself;
enjoy the benefits of my creations;
and face the world boldly and say;
“This I have done.”
— Dean Alfange (1897-1989)
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is very sorry to report the death last fall of longtime member and former treasurer Kenneth F. Taubert Sr., at Hart Park Square in Wauwatosa, Wis.
Ken was born in Madison, Wis., in 1921, and was raised, along with his sister, in a strict Catholic foster family. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps at age 20 and spent six years in that service. He married his wife, Virginia, in 1942.
Ken worked for many years as a supervisory custodian at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He was an avid golfer.
He joined FFRF in 1980. In an October 1990 article, he poignantly detailed his secular awakening:
“I left the Catholic Church when I was about 30 years old. I became disenchanted with religion in general, when we were told by a priest that our third child, whom doctors told us would not live more than one month, would not go to heaven unless he was baptized. I argued that this little fellow had done nothing wrong, and was sure to go straight to heaven. The priest insisted, so we had him baptized, but I never set foot in the Catholic Church again.”
He went on to form the first Wisconsin group to support the rights of the mentally impaired, back in the days when it was not unusual for them to be hidden away.
Ken attended church with his wife for a number of years. “During this period, I read the bible for the first time and became a born-again atheist. From then on, I read every religious book I could get my hands on. I also read every freethought book I could find.”
He served as volunteer treasurer for more than a decade and was known to many convention-goers and readers of Freethought Today. Ken “faithfully” helped prepare Freethought Today mailings for more than a decade back when that work was done in-house. He and professor Michael Hakeem, then-chair of FFRF’s Executive Board, and Helen Hakeem, who was secretary, often engaged in freethought activism together.
Co-President Dan Barker recalls a memorable road trip with Ken and Mike to monitor a “faith-healing” event in Milwaukee featuring Peter Popoff, after Popoff’s exploits had been debunked by James Randi on “The Tonight Show.”
Ken and Mike took in another Milwaukee faith-healing event (“An Evening with W.V. Grant,” June/July 1991), with Ken noting, “I cannot think of a group more loathsome than the faith healers.”
He once turned out at 6:30 a.m. with a few hardy FFRF “non-souls” to picket the appearance of U.S. Senate Chaplain Richard C. Halverson at a prayer breakfast attended by 600 religionists on a snowy morning in Madison.
“Ken was such a good activist and joined us in several other pickets, including in front of University Hospitals to protest Gideon bible distributions,” said Anne Nicol Gaylor, FFRF president emerita.
In the May 1992 issue of Freethought Today, Ken recounted “a sweet victory” — getting his polling place in Monona, Wis., changed from a Catholic church to a public school. He also persuaded the city of Madison to enforce its own ordinance prohibiting anyone from advertising on city property, including a church that was a repeat offender.
When Ken presented his annual treasurer’s report to the convention, including recapping the annual Form 990, he invariably pointed out that churches are uniquely exempted from filling it out by the IRS. “We know Ken was 100% behind our current litigation contesting that inequity,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president.
She added, “Ken was genuinely the most congenial man I’ve ever met. He had a twinkle in his eye and something cheerful to say to everyone. We’re told he loved debating religion with his mostly Catholic peers at his nursing home, and vice versa. Due to Ken’s genial nature, these debates never became personal.”
Ken was an avid runner who, in retirement, turned to brisk walking. He liked to boast, after having a pacemaker placed, about keeping pace with Annie Laurie and another young woman on a 13-mile walk around a Madison lake in the early 1990s.
More than 500 books in FFRF’s library bear Ken Taubert’s initials from previous donations. FFRF was honored to be given Ken’s remaining personal library upon his death.
He was featured in a major story in The Capital Times (April 3, 1950) for his innovative volunteerism with a neighborhood “tiny tots” group. He continued throughout his life to volunteer and participate in athletic fundraisers. In retirement, he volunteered for Mobile Meals and once wrote, “I get lots of hugs, and I don’t mind that a bit.”
Ken is survived by his son, Bruce, and daughter, Marcia Hochstetter, and their families, plus several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Ken and Virginia’s sons Kenneth Taubert Jr. and Carl Taubert are deceased.
FFRF’s staff seconds this summation in Ken’s obituary: “A man who gave everyone the benefit of the doubt and taught compassion and understanding, he will be deeply missed by all who had the privilege of knowing him.”
Hemant Mehta, “Friendly Atheist” blogger, Illinois high school math teacher and FFRF member, found that the third time was the charm for his efforts to donate $3,000 he raised from the freethought community for a worthy cause. The Niles Township Food Pantry accepted the $3,000 which had been turned down by the Morton Grove Park District and the Morton Grove Public Library board, the Chicago Tribune reported Jan. 10.
Mehta originally raised the money in October following news that an American Legion post pulled its support from the park district after a board member refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. Park officials returned the check, citing a desire to avoid a “First Amendment dispute.”
Then, a library board trustee called Mehta’s blog a “hate group,” and questioned the legality of accepting a donation originally intended for the park district.
“I can’t believe how hard it is to get rid of $3,000,” Mehta said in a YouTube video, announcing plans to give the money to the food pantry.
Niles Township Supervisor Lee Tamraz said it was immaterial to him where the donation came from. “We should be appreciative of the donation and make sure it is used to the benefit of the people of Niles Township. I’m grateful for the $3,000.”
In another recent charitable act, Mehta raised $27,254 from 1,224 contributors to donate to Ryan Bell, a Seventh-day Adventist pastor who was asked to resign from his church and from two Christian schools at which he was an adjunct professor. Bell’s “sin” was announcing he was going to spend a year living without God, in effect, giving atheism a try to see where atheists were coming from.
“As an atheist, I want Bell to know that we appreciate what he’s trying to do and that we’ll support him even if his Christian community will not and (more importantly) even if he decides atheism isn’t for him when the year is over,” Mehta said.
Ellery Schempp, an FFRF Lifetime Member and recipient of its Champion of the First Amendment award, is an accomplished Ph.D. physicist. He was a plaintiff in Abington School District v. Schempp, the landmark 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case in which mandatory bible readings in public school were declared unconstitutional. The case is chronicled in Stephen Solomon’s book Ellery’s Protest: How One Young Man Defied Tradition and Sparked the Battle over School Prayer.
Ellery discussed the case in its 50th anniversary year at FFRF’s 36th annual convention Sept. 20, 2013, in Madison, Wis. His remarks were edited for print.
His introduction included a clip of him being interviewed by Eric Sevareid of CBS News in 1963.
By Ellery Schempp
Convention photography by Brent Nicastro.
It’s wonderful to be back in Madison with my FFRF friends. I’m a second generation supporter of FFRF as a Life Member. Annie Laurie and Dan Barker do so much good work; they leave me breathless.
So, let us pray. Isn’t it amazing how that phrase grasps us and makes us compliant? Something profound is supposed to follow to make us obedient or something, but where do we want to put our obedience, our loyalties and our commitments?
I was born in Philadelphia in the Jewish Hospital. Mom resisted having me baptized. There was a lot of pressure from the Schempp side of the family. Grandmom was a devout Methodist and a fan of Billy Graham. Dad had slowly distanced himself from the bible and what he considered to be cruel and violent. But he did want to believe in some higher power, and only late in his life concluded that gods were man-made and religion is more a business than an uplifting force in society. He was disappointed in this conclusion, but he died in 2004 as a nonbeliever.
So here I am, unwashed and unbaptized. We attended pretty faithfully the Unitarian Church in Germantown. In addition to the usual bible stories and Sunday school, we learned about all the religions, and I quickly assimilated the idea that there was no single truth, and any claim that God spoke to some and not to others was ridiculous.
The church had an especially interesting pulpit, where we heard Rein-hold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich and Norman Thomas, who spoke several times a year. I was greatly enamored with Thomas. When he spoke in a ringing voice about the great problems of our time, you wanted to rush to the barricades.
It soon became clear to me that there were many claims to religious truth, and they couldn’t all be right. The notion that there is only one true faith and that fits in all schools or in society is simply too absurd.
I started thinking about the Constitution and the bible way back in 1956. I was a 16-year-old junior at Abington Senior High School in a suburb of Philadelphia. Pennsylvania had a law that required 10 verses of the bible be read in every classroom at the start of each school day. Many schools included a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.
Twenty or 30 states had similar laws that had gone unchallenged for more than 60 years. It seemed to me that this was a violation of the First Amendment because it clearly established a Christian religious practice in the schools under the authority of the government.
The First Amendment is only 45 words long, so it’s not taxing even for teenagers. It’s interesting that this daily ceremony was known as morning devotions, so the religious nature was obvious. I did, in fact, bring a copy of the Quran to school because I wanted to show that the bible was not the only source of truth, not the only holy book. The Quran was merely by accident; I didn’t know a thing about Islam at the time, neither did anybody I knew, but one of my friend’s fathers had a copy of it in his library. [Ellery read the Quran while the teacher was reading bible verses to the class and refused to stand while a student recited the prayer.]
That got me sent to the principal, who lectured me on respect and school rules. I replied that I was concerned about respect for the Constitution and freedom of conscience. He sent me to the guidance counselor. Was I having problems at home? Did I have any difficulties with my father?
No, I said, I just disagreed about bible reading and prayer. So that evening, Nov. 26, 1956, I wrote a letter to the American Civil Liberties Union, asking for help:
As a student in my junior year at Abington Senior High School, I would very greatly appreciate any information you might send regarding possible union action and/or aid in testing the constitutionality of Pennsylvania law, which arbitrarily and seemingly unrighteously and unconstitutionally compels the bible to be read in our public school system. I thank you for any help you might offer in freeing American youth in Pennsylvania from this gross violation of the religious rights as guaranteed in the First and foremost Amendment in our United States Constitution.
Well, speaking for American youth was indeed a bit pretentious. I also enclosed a $10 bill, which is worth $85.80 today. This got their attention. If a kid can save this sum from his allowance and cutting grass, he must be serious.
Not fit for kids
In 1956, 1960, even 1963 and later, the Secular Student Alliance didn’t exist. The Freedom From Religion Foundation did not exist. American Atheists did not exist. There was no Internet. And so it was really only the ACLU that could come by to be supportive.
I had several reasons for my protest. One was fairness. I thought the schools needed to be fair to everyone. The bible is not the holy book of Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, so that is an unfairness. Nonbelievers going to school to learn history and math should not have the bible or prayer forced on them.
I got to thinking, and that’s always a bit dangerous. I knew that kids in Oregon and other states did not have bible reading. Could it be true that they were less moral than those of us in Abington?
The bible is full of unimaginable cruelties to women, to children, full of violence, rapes and genocides. Maybe a million deaths have been recorded in the bible, championed as righteous and the will of God. It was obviously not a book fit for children and had passages directly contradicting science.
In the Abington decision, the court recognized that children are particularly vulnerable and deserve particular protection for their developing thoughts as to their freedoms of belief, without coercion from a majority or a dominant religious faith’s belief. Being excused from class was not an effective answer. Self-identifying as a dissenter or nonbeliever opens the door to discrimination and taunting.
As Dan mentioned, a similar case was brought by Madalyn Murray O’Hair in Maryland in the 1960s. Murray v. Curlett was consolidated with our case before the Supreme Court. The decision in our favor was 8-1 with Justice Potter Stewart dissenting.
The decision made national news and caused outrage on a grand scale. I have a lot of cousins, and suddenly every one had an identity crisis. “Can we change our names?” they asked. President Kennedy made a nice statement to calm the country: “I’m sure we can all pray a little more in our homes, our churches and our synagogues.”
We received about 5,000 letters, roughly one-third supporting us, one-third opposing in reasonable terms where people could differ, and one-third, of course, were hateful, vituperative and ugly. My parents answered every letter with a return address. This was in the days before Xerox machines and stamps cost 3½ cents. It still came to hundreds of dollars.
Atheists are the most hated and feared group in America. We were accused of being everything the writers hated, so we expected the letters that said, “What are you, commies? What are you, Nazis? What are you, Catholics? What are you, Jews?” We didn’t expect ones that said, “What are you, Presbyterians?” “In the name of Christ, go to hell” was a frequent theme.
Some were newspaper clippings smeared with excrement. One of the things we learned was that in the United States. it was considered bad not to be Christian. It was very bad to be a communist, of course, but it was really quite awful to be an atheist. When people called us “you communist atheist,” they had reached their ultimate in outrage.
Our family suffered relatively little, especially compared to the Murray family or the McCollum family 65 years ago. Dog feces were thrown on our steps, the kids in the school bus rolled down the windows and shouted, “Now passing the commie camp.” My brother Roger was knocked around several times, which hurt. Some parents told their daughters not to play with my sister Donna.
The ACLU had a nice remembrance in June, and I met a man named Shannon Turk. His family had moved to Butler, Pa., from someplace in the West. He had never been part of morning devotions or reciting the Lord’s Prayer, so he was initially baffled and wouldn’t recite it. The teacher called him forward, forced him to bend over and paddled him.
Turk was a determined young man and refused, so for the next two years, every day, he was paddled in front of the class. When he told his story, he embraced me with tears in his eyes, because one day the paddling stopped. Countless people over the years have told me how unpleasant it was for them at morning devotions.
Bible’s no blueprint
I went to Tufts University in the fall of 1958. I didn’t know then that when I applied to Tufts and several other colleges, my principal at Abington Senior High School, Eugene Stull, had written a letter of “disrecommendation” to every college I had applied to.
I learned about this because when 1962-63 came about, CBS News called me up and asked if I would be willing to do an interview. I went to Charles Stearns, the dean of admissions, to ask if there was anything I should know. He told me that after my application was accepted, Stull called long distance (long distance was expensive and rare in 1958) to tell him to rescind my admission, that I was a rotten apple and would bring disrepute onto Tufts.
Stearns told me that Stull’s call was the most amazing he’s ever received as dean, but he was very kind to say that Tufts did not regret their decision.
There’s nothing in the Constitution about the bible, and there’s nothing in the bible about democracy or the Constitution. Religious people assume that there is some connection. The Constitution is a purely humanistic document and mentions religion just twice. Both times, the word “no” is attached [in Article VI and the First Amendment].
The Constitution’s oath for taking office does not contain the phrase “so help me God.” That has been appended by various oath takers, probably for political spin. The writers of the Constitution were also very careful in distinguishing between an oath and an affirmation. We have the phrase “I do swear or affirm” because swearing an oath had religious connotations, and the founders were keen to put in the word “affirm” to assure freedom from religion.
The bible never mentions democracy or freedom of speech or freedom from religion. It does not mention checks and balances or limitations on the power of the executive. It does not even mention tolerance for other believers. So it’s no model for good government. I think it’s purely a religious or theological document for some believers.
You know the commandments — the 10, actually. If you type into Google “613 commandments,” you’ll find that there are 613 [mitzvahs in the Jewish tradition]. We’re not a Christian nation or a Judeo-Christian nation. We are a constitutional nation.
I’ll end by mentioning just one thing about the Declaration of Independence, which the right wing is so fond of quoting. It is a poetic document, intended to stir emotions and to override the prevalent notion of the divine right of kings. This is a topic in itself, but the Declaration is equally for religious independence as for political independence.
An important point to note is that the Declaration is not any part of the Constitution. And it is no part of the law of the United States. Not a single legal decision binds the Supreme Court or any other court based on the Declaration of Independence.
[The Declaration’s] rights “endowed by a creator” is humanistic in its intent. Even if religious, it is deistic. It emphasized the rights of the common man, the common woman, over the kingship class.
Finally, I want to say that I think it’s so important to have the Secular Coalition for America, which represents about 100 endorsing organizations at this point. The coalition has a full-time lobbyist. It’s the first time in our history that we’ve had somebody who is able to go and talk to Congress about the issues important to humanists and atheists.
I also want to say to my atheist friends, I know it’s very important to have a world outlook that rejects divine intervention and provides us a way of looking at the world around us and getting satisfaction and seeing the beauty in it. It is not enough to have a personal belief; it is important to support separation of church and state because that is social and political and extends well beyond us.
So I urge you to continue support for organizations like FFRF, Secular Student Alliance, American Humanists, the Secular Coalition, because these organizations amplify our views. When Zack Kopplin mentioned this morning that he wants to start a new organization, I worry a little bit. We don’t need a proliferation of new ones; we need to support the organizations that are doing so well now.
I thank you very much.
Name: Yuna Choi.
Where and when I was born: Bielefeld, Germany, Feb. 23, 1992.
Family: Mom, Dad and a 13-year-old brother.
Education: Senior psychology major at Carleton College, Northfield, Minn. I expect to graduate in 2014.
My religious upbringing was: Primarily Buddhist, although we did casually attend a Baptist church during part of my childhood. I am, however, pretty secular and have been since I was fairly young.
How I came to work as an FFRF intern: An externship opportunity at FFRF was advertised through the career center at my school. I have always been interested in religion in a philosophical way and thought that this was a good chance to become more acquainted with the political aspects of religion as well as to develop skills in public relations and journalism. Although I am a prospective medical school candidate, I wanted to extend my involvement to other areas.
What I do here: As an editorial intern, I write legal victory reports and profiles of famous “freethinkers” (Freethought of the Day), upload relevant YouTube videos, edit copy for Freethought Today and assist the publicist with various tasks.
What I like best about it: Acquiring a better understanding of the legal system through cases of First Amendment violations.
Something funny that’s happened at work: I enjoy learning of the various “hate” mail and “crank” calls that FFRF receives.
My legal interests are: Separation of church and state (obviously), restorative justice, criminal prosecution/defense.
My legal heroes are: Clarence Darrow, Nelson Mandela.
These three words sum me up: Curious, empathetic, paradoxical.
Things I like: Any book by George Orwell or Kurt Vonnegut, fruit and chocolate/cheese pairings, the smell of incense, “Arrested Development” (TV show), science fiction, blunt honesty.
Things I smite: Fox News, licorice, passive aggression, chauvinism.
My loftiest goal: To find a cure for a chronic disease. Also to become proficient in Arabic (equally important and lofty).
FFRF is most appreciative of Yuna for giving us three weeks of her life, gratis, in December and making all her own living arrangements. She was immensely helpful.
Name: Patrick Elliott.
Where and when I was born: St. Paul, Minn., Oct. 7, 1983.
Education: B.S. in legal studies and political science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (2005) and a J.D. from the University of Wisconsin Law School (2009).
Family: I live in Madison with my girlfriend, Sarah, and our Labrador retriever, Macy. My parents, sister, two brothers and extended family live in the Twin Cities.
How I came to work at FFRF: As a recent law school graduate and First Amendment enthusiast, I saw that FFRF had an opening in the legal department in 2010 and I jumped at the opportunity.
What I do here: Separate church and state. Our attorneys work to resolve state/church violations through communications with government officials. We also educate the public about the Establishment Clause and advise FFRF on litigation and act as in-house counsel. I have helped oversee litigation involving Ten Commandments displays in schools, school board prayers, state days of prayer, and FFRF’s IRS cases. In addition, I help with advocacy on legislation, including opposing proposals to expand private school vouchers.
What I like best about it: I get to work on a lot of really fun and interesting cases that most attorneys would never have the chance to work on. They are fun because almost every one involves the government, religion and the Constitution.
One of my favorite moments at FFRF was when I received a thank-you call from a school administrator. I thought to myself, “This never happens.” We are used to angry calls but not thank-you calls. School board members had changed their mind on approving a fundamentalist charter school, and the administrator said we were instrumental in changing the vote.
What sucks about it: I feel like Newman from “Seinfield” sometimes and how he talked about the mail: “There’s never a letup, It’s relentless.” The number of new violations does not seem to be letting up, even though we are surely making progress.
I spend a lot of time thinking about: Accepted everyday practices that are probably wrong or could be done better. This is mostly “Freakonomics” type stuff like how buses stopping at train tracks in the city probably cause more accidents than they prevent.
I spend little if any time thinking about: How to make sense of the bible or any religious text.
My religious upbringing was: Roman Catholic, and not just nominally Catholic. My brothers now make fun of me for hurrying them up so we would not be late to Mass and for “shushing” them in church.
My doubts about religion started: After taking a course on early Christian literature in college. I took that class after watching Dan Barker debate a Christian apologist on whether Jesus rose from the dead. At the time, I thought Dan lost the debate but I was interested in learning more about the history of the bible. It turns out that he won the debate, but it just took me a while to realize it.
Things I like: Marine aquariums, poker, stand-up comedy, NCAA “March Madness.”
Things I smite: Closed government meetings and records, revisionist history, coaches not going for it on fourth down when it’s the correct thing to do.
In my golden years: I’ll be living near a lake or ocean.
Upcoming projects? I’m working on creating a T-shirt celebrating the Third Amendment.
The Freedom From Religion Found-ation sent out a total of 938 formal letters of complaint in 2013 to errant public officials, winning more than 235 solid victories keeping religion out of government. The total will grow, as many complaints lodged in 2013 will bear fruit this year, especially as FFRF follows up.
The letters total doesn’t include the many follow-up letters that go out or represent the time that staff attorneys spend responding to questions and queries from FFRF members and many members of the public. More than 2,430 requests for help to end state/church entanglements were received by FFRF last year. Most requests were lodged via FFRF’s Web form: Report a State/Church Violation.
FFRF provides this service free of charge and is one of the few state/church watchdogs in the country, writing more individual letters of complaint over state/church violations than any other group.
“The need is great,” noted FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. “We’re deluged with requests for help from around the country by citizens who care about defending the Jeffersonian wall of separation between church and state.”
Because of growing demand for help, FFRF is pleased to report the hiring of a fifth attorney at year’s end: Sam Grover, who had served as a summer legal intern.
The “top ten” states (where FFRF sent the most complaints to):
. North Carolina
The top 10 legal areas were religion in schools, legislative prayer, miscellaneous, nativity/holiday displays, church bulletin discounts, crosses, National Day of Prayer violations, religion in the workplace, election law complaints and government prayer breakfasts.
FFRF attorneys filed a whopping 522 complaints over religious violations in public schools, followed by government prayer (112), nativity/menorah displays on public land (41), formal complaints over crosses on public property (23), National Day of Prayer events (18), religion in the military (17), religion in the workplace (17), and election violations (13, typically endorsement from the pulpit).
Last year FFRF downed four crosses on public land, and impressively ended at least 166 promotions of religion in public schools, some as egregious as daily prayers in elementary schools. (Keep up with FFRF’s significant victories by reading the monthly synopsis in Freethought Today.)
FFRF also lodged 28 complaints about church bulletin discounts, the only other type of violation FFRF concerns itself with, whereby the Civil Rights Act is abridged when, typically, restaurants offer discounts for churchgoers.
In 2013, FFRF’s legal department also wrote and filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court case Town of Greece v. Galloway. Staff attorneys also aided litigation attorneys in writing and filing lawsuits. FFRF entered into an informal partnership with the Secular Student Alliance to help defend the rights of freethinking students and educate students about their rights.
FFRF and SSA drafted a Secular Public High School Students Bill of Rights. The new partnership will help form more student groups around the country. FFRF also sent out many regional action alerts and watched developments concerning troublesome bills in several state legislatures. Staff attorneys wrote letters to the editor, blogs and other educational outreach on state/church matters.
“A decade or two ago, FFRF was winning a victory or two a month, and now it’s nearly one a workday,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.
“It’s important to realize that nearly once a day last year, our staff attorneys’ efforts educated, and ensured that reason and the Constitution prevailed.”
Chambers sponsors bill to tax Neb. churches
Nebraska state Sen. Ernie Chambers, an atheist, introduced a bill Jan. 8 to eliminate property tax exemptions for religious organizations. Bill LB675 attempts to “gain more revenue, rather than less, by taking away churches’ property tax exemptions,” according to Chambers’ Statement of Intent.
“If taxes were paid on the many churches and cathedrals and temples in every city in this State, perhaps the State’s assistance to local governments and schools would be diminished considerably, leaving more in State coffers for other purposes,” said Chambers, 76, of Omaha.
Chambers’ name is on the 1983 landmark Supreme Court case Marsh v. Chambers. He sued in 1980 to end the Legislature’s practice of opening with a prayer offered by a state-supported chaplain. The district court held that the prayer did not violate the Constitution but that state support for the chaplain did. The 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals held that both practices violated the Constitution, but the Supreme Court upheld the practice on a 6-3 vote.
In 2007, Chambers famously filed a lawsuit against God for causing “widespread death, destruction and terrorization of millions upon millions of the Earth’s inhabitants.”
A state district court judge dismissed Chambers v. God in 2008, saying the defendant wasn’t properly served due to his unlisted home address. “Given that this court finds that there can never be service effectuated on the named defendant, this action will be dismissed with prejudice,” wrote Judge Marlon Polk.
Chambers’ reaction: “Since God knows everything, God has notice of this lawsuit.” He received a Hero of the First Amendment Award from FFRF in 2005.
gains in Tunisia
Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly approved a new constitution Jan. 26 by a vote of 200 to 4, with 12 abstentions. The governing Islamist Ennahdha Party made some concessions, most importantly the removal of references to Islamic law, the BBC reported.
However, it also designates Islam as the state religion, while guaranteeing freedom of worship. It also forbids “attacks on the sacred,” the meaning of which is unclear.
The constitution also recognizes equality between men and women for the first time. In 2011, a revolution overthrew autocratic President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and the first free elections were held. The population is 10.7 million, of which 98% are Muslim.
Chicago archdiocese releases documents
The Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago released 6,000 pages of documents to attorneys that sex abuse victims hope will reveal what the church knew and did or didn’t do about decades of allegations against clergy, The Associated Press reported Jan. 16.
The documents include complaints, personnel records and other files for 30 priests with substantiated abuse allegations against them. Archdiocese attorney John O’Malley warned that the documents will be upsetting. “The information is painful; it’s difficult to read, even without the benefit of hindsight.”
The archdiocese has already paid about $100 million to settle claims, including numerous ones against Fr. Daniel McCormack, who was sentenced to five years in prison after pleading guilty in 2007 to abusing five children while he was a parish priest and teacher at a Catholic school.
Many of the accused priests are dead. The documents will include only 30 of 65 priests against whom credible allegations were made. That’s because settlements that required the disclosures involved only 30.
Year of the Bible
in Texas city
Mayor Tom Hayden of Flower Mound, Texas, a Dallas suburb of about 65,000 people, has proclaimed 2014 the Year of the Bible.
“I was nervous about doing this,” Hayden told KDFW on Jan. 1. “And I’ve been thinking about it for two years, and procrastinated about if for as long as I possibly could.”
The proclamation draws heavily on President Rondald Reagan’s almost identical proclamation in 1983. It also sets up a website: thebible2014.com.
“The way it’s set up is that people would have the same scripture each day,” said Jon Bell of Calvary Chapel. “That they would go over and so that at the end of the year, they’d have gone through the whole Bible in a year.”
Hayden said the proclamation was not an official town action, which didn’t assuage resident Curt Orton. “He was elected mayor, not the spiritual leader of Flower Mound.”
Botched circumcision brings lawsuit
Pittsburgh Rabbi Mordechai Rosenberg is being sued for allegedly severing a newborn’s penis during a ritual circumcision about eight months ago at Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill.
According to the suit, the baby was rushed to Children’s Hospital, where doctors performed microsurgery. Sources told KDKA the surgery took nearly eight hours and that the boy was hospitalized for about two months.
On his website, Rosenberg says that “a doctor’s medical circumcision, usually performed in the hospital, is not considered valid according to Jewish law.”
Harvard humanist chaplain dies at 84
Tom Ferrick, 84, Harvard University’s first humanist chaplain, died Dec. 30 of complications from Alzheimer’s disease in Cambridge, Mass. He is survived by a sister.
Ferrick attended the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester and then the seminary befored being ordained a Catholic priest. After leaving the priesthood, he became Harvard’s humanist chaplain in 1974. “The notion that we all stand in need of redemption is anti-humanist,” he told the Boston Globe in 1990. “The fact that ordinary human beings are capable of love, compassion and sacrifice, independent of theology, is proof that we can indeed be good without God.”
Two years later, he told the Harvard Crimson that “humanism is not science, nor mysticism, but is a faith in human experience.”
Pew study: How
public views evolution
The Pew Research Center released a new poll Dec. 30 titled “Public’s View on Human Evolution.” The U.S. adults surveyed were asked whether, in their view, humans and other living things have evolved over time, or instead have existed in their present form since the beginning of time, reported Religion Clause.
Overall, 60% said that living things have evolved, while 33% said they have always existed in their present form. About 64% of White Evangelical Protestants and 15% of White Mainline Protestants believe that evolution did not occur. Also, 48% of Republicans, 27% of Democrats and 28% of Independents believe that living things have always existed in their present form.
Apologist D’Souza pleads not guilty
Dinesh D’Souza, 52, Christian apologist and conservative author, was released Jan. 24 on $500,000 bond after pleading not guilty at his arraignment in Manhattan to federal counts of making more than $10,000 of contributions in the names of others and causing false statements. According to an indictment filed by Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, D’Souza allegedly made contributions in other people’s names to a U.S. Senate candidate in 2012. The indictment didn’t name the candidate, but sources said it was Republican U.S. Senate candidate Wendy Long, who lost to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.
D’Souza takes the Christian position in frequent debates with freethinkers and has debated FFRF Co-President Dan Barker eight times. D’Souza was forced to resign in 2012 as president of King’s College, an evangelical Christian school in Manhattan, over reports he was having an affair with Denise Odie Joseph, 29, while still married to his wife of 20 years. He was raised Catholic but now calls himself a nondenominational Christian.
States’ abortion barriers mushroom
The Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit organization which works to advance reproductive health and abortion rights, reported Jan. 2 that more abortion restrictions were enacted in 2011–13 than in the entire previous decade.
In 2013, 39 states enacted 141 provisions related to reproductive health and rights. Half of them, 70 in 22 states, sought to restrict access to abortion services.
A few states adopted measures to expand access. Most notably, California enacted the first new state law in seven years to expand access to abortion. Five states expanded access to comprehensive sex education and to emergency contraception for sexual assault victims.
Pakistan blasphemy nets death sentence
A court in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, sentenced a British man, Muhammad Asghar, 70, to death Jan. 23 for blasphemy. Asghar was arrested in 2010 after he wrote letters to various people, including the police, claiming he is a prophet. According to BBC News, Asghar is a British Pakistani from Edinburgh who came back to Pakistan to look after his family’s property. The complaint against him was filed by a tenant who had been served with an eviction notice by Asghar.
Before returning to Pakistan, Asghar had been diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic, but a medical panel appointed by the court in Pakistan rejected the claim of mental illness.
According to Religion Clause, the death sentence is unlikely to be carried out since Pakistan has had a de facto moratorium on the death penalty since 2008. Asghar’s lawyer said the conviction will be appealed, and the British Foreign Office plans to raise its concerns with the Pakistani government.
Marriage equality makes more gains
In the seven months since the 2013 Supreme Court landmark decision striking down part of the Defense of Marriage Act that defined marriage as between a man and a woman, the number of states allowing gay marriage has jumped from 12 to 17 (plus the District of Columbia). In Utah and Oklahoma, the issue is in limbo pending appeals, The Associated Press reported Jan. 16.
John Williamson, a former state Senate president who wrote the ballot measure that an Oklahoma judge overturned, said that as a Christian he will never accept gay marriage. “But in states that by a vote of the people have approved that, I say ‘OK, they got what they want. You have a majority of the people there, and if the minority doesn’t like it, they can move to Oklahoma.’ But now what can we do?”
An AP poll in October showed about a third of Americans opposing gay marriage, down from 45% in 2011. Twenty-seven states still have constitutional prohibitions and four have state laws against same-sex marriage.
Judge censured for courthouse religion
Bronx County Judge Mary Brigantti-Hughes was censured by the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct, ABA Journal reported. According to a Dec. 17 statement of facts cited by the commission, Brigantti-Hughes:
• Directed staffers to type or copy religious material for her personal use.
• Asked a court attorney to accompany her to Home Depot to buy and pot plants for a church function.
• Asked court staff to join her in prayer in court chambers, and asked staffers to attend religious events after regular business hours.
Brigantti-Hughes, 54, had obtained permission to hold lunch-hour bible study and prayer group at the courthouse, but the requests for staff prayers were made at other times during regular business hours, the determination said.
She also had staff do personal favors for her that were not related to religion. The alleged conduct took place between 2006 and 2011.
Nativity scenes take military hits
Officials at Shaw Air Force Base near Sumter, S.C., ordered removal of a nativity scene that was set up by a small lake on the base, the Air Force Times reported in December.
Spokeswoman Lt. Keavy Rake said the Military Religious Freedom Foundation lodged a complaint about the display. Reke said base officials want a holiday display that reflects more than a single group’s beliefs. Volunteers from the base chapel set up the nativity scene.
The commander of the Guantanamo Bay Navy Base in Cuba ordered two nativity scenes out of cafeterias to the base chapel, reported the Miami Herald.
“The spirit of the Navy’s policy on this is, if it’s religious, it goes to the chapel,” said base commander Capt. J.R. Nettleton. “It’s more appropriate there.”
Eighteen service members had complained to MRFF. Guantanamo has about 6,000 residents, a third of them civilian contract workers from Jamaica and the Philippines.
Vouchers subject of North Carolina suits
Public school advocates sued the state of North Carolina on Dec. 11 to block a new law that would let taxpayer money be used by low-income students wishing to attend private or religious schools, reported The Associated Press.
The North Carolina Association of Educators and the North Carolina Justice Center filed the lawsuit in Wake County Superior Court on behalf of 25 parents, teachers and others. They contend the new law violates the state constitution, which requires that the school funding be “used exclusively for establishing and maintaining a uniform system of free public schools.”
The law would allow annual grants of $4,200 per students. About 2,400 students could qualify for grants in the first year, with $10 million budgeted. Legislators said they hope to expand the program.
Thirteen states had tuition tax credit programs as of this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Okla. commandments hit with suits
American Atheists filed a federal lawsuit Jan. 13 against members of the Oklahoma State Capitol Preservation Commission for allowing placement of a 2,000-pound Ten Commandments monument at the north entrance to the Capitol. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a similar lawsuit in state court.
The commission put a moratorium on proposed displays on Dec. 19 after getting ones from the New York-based Satanic Temple, a Hindu leader in Nevada, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. The satanists’ monument features a 7-foot-tall Baphomet, a goat-headed creature sometimes used as a stand-in for Satan. The demon’s lap, flanked by a smiling child on each side, would double as a seat for visitors.
Tulsa atheist William Poire told KRMG-TV: “I don’t want to see a Hindu monument or a satanist monument any more than I want to see any other endorsement or any other religion.”
Church properties escape Fla. taxes
A 12,000-square-foot home in Coral Springs, Fla., that has a pool, guest house and several garages was recently assessed at at $1.9 million. The owner, the Church of the Bible Understanding, pays no property taxes, WPLG reported Dec. 13.
It’s also the primary residence of Stewart Trail, a former vacuum salesman and carpet cleaner who founded the church. The previous owner, a former Miami Dolphins football player, paid $50,000 a year.
A $2 million, 5,000-square-foot house owned by the Seafarer’s Church of the Creator is also tax-exempt. “It’s a house hosting religious services,” said Broward County property appraiser Lori Parrish.
“Federal law governs religious facilities,” said Parrish. “The law is the law, and we follow the law.”