Chancellor Bernie Patterson of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point told the approximately 1,425 graduates in the chancellor’s “charge” near the end of their May 17 ceremonies that when confronting an ethical dilemma at some point in their lives, they’ll have to lean on their foundation — “That is, your education and your faith in God. Now go and be servant-leaders. Godspeed.”
A graduate’s family member brought the statement, which Patterson has made at commencements in years past, to FFRF’s attention. In a May 22 letter, Staff Attorney Sam Grover told Patterson such remarks are inappropriate. “Graduation should be an inclusive, unifying event designed to celebrate the accomplishments and prospects of the graduates. Including religious references does exactly the opposite, isolating non-Christian and nonreligious students, cheapening their participation by sending the message that they are outsiders at their own graduation and in their own community.”
Grover added, “The university should be particularly sensitive to respecting the rights and conscience of the nonreligious, given that universities serve the least religious population in the country. One in three college-aged Americans (ages 18-29) are not religious.”
Patterson responded with a letter of thanks July 18. “I understand your concerns and will take them under consideration.”
I think atheists are getting organized. It’s a wave of visibility.
Penny Edgell, University of Minnesota sociology professor, who’s teaching what she says is the state’s first course on atheism this fall
St. Cloud Times, 8-11-14
I certainly respect the belief of the Hobby Lobby owners. On the other hand, they have no constitutional right to foist that belief on the hundreds and hundreds of women who work for them who don’t share that belief. I had never seen the free exercise of religion clause interpreted in such a way.
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who dissented in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, interview with Katie Couric
Yahoo! News, 7-30-14
[I]f we want the same acceptance that other groups have, we need to earn it — but not by convincing others there is no god. What we really need to do is get massively mobilized in service, education, and other positive social activities that will be good for us, good for our neighbors, and, it also happens, good for our image and electability.
Greg Epstein, head of Harvard University’s humanist chaplaincy
Humor for [the atheist] movement may be especially advantageous because . . . it offers a relatively non-threatening challenge to religion, while simultaneously causing people some discomfort and forcing them to rethink their religious views.
Katja Guenther, University of California-Riverside sociologist and lead author of “How Humor Matters in Social Movements: Insights from the New Atheist Movement”
UCR Today, 8-17-14
Religious teaching, especially exposure to miracle stories, leads children to a more generic receptivity toward the impossible, that is, a more wide-ranging acceptance that the impossible can happen in defiance of ordinary causal relations.
News story about a study published in Cognitive Science, “Researchers: Children exposed to religion have difficulty distinguishing fact from fiction”
The Raw Story, 7-18-14
The IRS could be coming to a church near you, and you can thank the atheists for that. They struck a deal with the troubled agency, giving it the power to keep a closer eye on nonprofit religious groups.
Fox News commentator Elisabeth Hasselbeck, on the legal settlement in which the IRS agreed to more closely monitor church politicking after being sued by FFRF
“Fox & Friends,” 7-29-14
The law’s supporters, like [anti-gay activist Pastor Martin] Ssempa and the leadership of the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda, had been whipping up their supporters during the two days of hearings before the ruling, and LGBT activists expected a backlash if they won.
News story, “Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Act Struck Down By Constitutional Court”
Things were really not good to begin with. She was so angry. After a while I think she just accepted it. We still don’t talk about it. It looks like she’s not going to kick me out.
Lasan Dancay-Bangura, 22, head of his university’s freethought group, on coming out as an atheist to his mother while still being afraid to tell his father
BBC News, 8-3-14
[L]et’s stop curtailing the rights of skeptics like myself trying to shed light on the lingering shadows of the Christian Dark Ages threatening our society under the false premise of freedom of religion.
Robert Rock, Mission City, B.C., “Letter of the Week: We should stop inflicting harmful religions on innocent children”
The Vancouver Province, 7-27-14
Why is it that we require our candidates to profess a religious faith but not that they demonstrate even minimal scientific literacy? Our representatives in Congress make critical decisions on science policy and science funding, and yet are often hostile to the entire scientific enterprise. In 2012, Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga., while serving on the House science committee, famously said that evolution and the Big Bang are “lies from the pit of hell.”
Carlos Moreno, Emory University School of Medicine associate professor, “An atheist for Congress?”
CNN Opinion, 9-1-14
There’s no reason a bishop has to live like a prince or medieval monarch, even if he inherited the place from his predecessor. They should convert the mansions to museums and move into rectories.
Steven Avella, a Catholic priest and Marquette University professor of religious history, commenting on an investigation showing at least 10 of 34 active U.S. archbishops and many more who are retired live in buildings worth more than $1 million
CNN Belief Blog, 8-3-14
That it got on Irish radio, the fact of that was amazing. But there is very little loyalty left for the organization of the church at home. The damage done is obscene. And the lack of action to make reparations, and the lack of political will to make changes.
Singer/songwriter Andrew Hozier-
Byrne, on the success of his “losing your religion” song “Take Me to Church”
The Guardian, 7-31-14
The current board is operating with an outdated mindset on issues related to technology, innovation, equality, sex education and secular values. For example, why would the current board spend limited educational resources litigating cases that do absolutely nothing to further education, when that money could be much better spent on laptops for kids, leveraging technology in the classroom?
David Mech, Boca Raton, Fla., who’s running for the Palm Beach County School Board on a platform of technology, innovation, equality, sex education and secular values
If the Christian community — whether they be Baptist, Presbyterian or whatever — if they want their religious freedoms protected, then that means everybody’s religious freedoms have to be protected. You can’t let the government choose one side over the other.
Roane County Commissioner Steve Kelley, on the losing end of a 13-1 vote to place three granite “In God We Trust” signs at the Kingston, Tenn., courthouse
Nationally, as of 2009, 31 states, including New York, allowed faith-based organizations to receive public prekindergarten funds, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research. In Florida, for example, parents may send their 4-year-olds to prekindergarten programs that teach religion.
News story, “De Blasio’s Prekindergarten Expansion Collides With Church-State Divide”
New York Times, 8-4-14
The decisions regarding prayer in schools came about because of the failure of a local school district or state school board to remember that government-sponsored school prayer almost inherently discriminates against minorities.
Richard Davis, professor of political science at Brigham Young University, op-ed, “Reinstituting state-sponsored school prayer is a bad idea”
Deseret News, 8-6-14
After initially agreeing with FFRF that stocking Christian bibles in every U.S. Navy-operated hotel was wrong, the Navy backed off and returned the bibles during a review process.
FFRF sent a complaint letter March 12 to the Navy Exchange Service Command (NEXCOM). On June 19, NEXCOM issued a directive stating that the “Navy Lodge General Manager should advise the Installation Commanding Officer of our intention to work through the chaplain’s office to determine what installation policy is and the method to remove religious material currently in guest rooms.” The directive said the action “is to be completed by 1 September 2014.”
When the decision was made public, the ensuing outcry put the ban on hold. Navy spokesman Ryan Perry said in a written statement that NEXCOM made the decision “without consultation of senior Navy leadership,” adding, “That decision and our religious accommodation policies with regard to the placement of religious materials are under review.”
Perry said that during the review the bibles would be returned.
A May 9 FFRF complaint to Berkley County Schools about religious activity at New Beginnings Child Care Center in Inwood, W.Va., resulted in clarification by State Superintendent of Schools Charles Heinlein that pre-K providers must steer clear of religion. The center provides state-funded pre-K four days a week, then offers a fifth day which includes religious instruction.
Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott said that’s confusing for children too young to distinguish public from religious education. Heinlein’s Aug. 5 reply largely concurred with FFRF’s letter but didn’t agree with the objection to religious images, including a cross on the New Beginnings sign.
Heinlein wrote that “no State funds may be used to purchase or maintain them and they may not be included or alluded to during conversation or instruction during the WV Pre-K program.” He said religious images are otherwise permissible.
FFRF contends he’s wrong and that all pre-K classes must be held in a secular environment. “Facilities used to teach public school students have to be secular. This is a bedrock constitutional principle that is not erased merely because classes are held in a nontraditional setting,” said Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.
FFRF’s major victory to compel the Internal Revenue Service to resume monitoring tax-exempt churches that engage in illegal electioneering was finalized July 29.
U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman in Milwaukee issued an order approving the joint motion for dismissal between FFRF and the IRS. FFRF agreed to voluntarily dismiss its closely watched federal lawsuit after being given evidence that the IRS has authorized procedures and “signature authority” to resume initiating church tax investigations and examinations.
Since agreeing to settle July 17, FFRF has encountered a lot of misconceptions about the suit, the settlement and the law, which went into effect in 1954. FFRF is not “targeting” churches.
No tax-exempt 501(c)(3) nonprofit, church or otherwise, may lawfully engage in partisan political action. Among those who bought the claims of various theocratic media was Oklahoma Attorney General E. Scott Pruitt, who stated in early August:
“At the intersection of those two fundamental rights [free speech and free exercise] lies the right of religious organizations to encourage their members to engage in the political process in a manner consistent with the core tenets of their religions. The Freedom From Religion Foundation is unabashed in its desire to destroy that right, and the fact that this organization has now entered into an agreement with the IRS — an agreement that they call ‘a victory’ for their cause — is alarming.”
FFRF wrote Pruitt on Aug. 7 asking him to stop the smears, noting that FFRF “works not to ‘destroy’ the First Amendment but to uphold the law and the Constitution.”
“FFRF agreed to voluntary dismissal of our case because recent changes by the IRS have remedied our concerns,” noted Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor in her letter to Pruitt. “FFRF is satisfied that the IRS does not at this time have a policy specific to churches of nonenforcement of its anti-electioneering provisions. As you are undoubtedly aware, there is an appropriate blanket ban against any and all 501(c)(3) nonprofits from engaging in political action, specifically such as endorsing political candidates.”
To clarify the issues, FFRF put together an online FAQ.
FFRF will be monitoring “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” Oct. 5, as proclaimed by the theocratic Alliance Defending Freedom. ADF urges pastors to deliberately break the law by endorsing candidates from the pulpit.
Mary’s Gourmet Diner agreed with FFRF that all of its customers should be treated equally instead of some being rewarded for praying in the restaurant in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell wrote an Aug. 4 letter of complaint after FFRF learned that the diner had long been offering a 15% discount for “praying in public.”
Co-owner Mary Haglund emailed Cavell Aug. 6: “I am notifying you & the FFRF that as of today we are no longer offering the 15% discount for Praying in Public.”
A news story in the Greensboro News & Record included a photo of a sign in the restaurant window: “We at Mary’s value the support of all our fellow Americans. While you may exercise your right of religious freedom at this restaurant by praying over your meal to any entity or non-entity, we must protect your freedom from religion in a public place. We are no longer issuing the 15% praying in public discount. It is illegal and we are being threatened by lawsuit. We apologize to our community for any offense this discount has incurred.”
Cavell’s letter noted that according to the federal Civil Rights Act, as a place of public accommodation, “Mary’s Gourmet Diner may not lawfully offer a discount only to customers who pray,”
FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor added, “We have found that most restaurant owners, who, after all, are in business to please all customers, are gracious and drop illegal discounts that selectively reward customer piety.”
FFRF is currently involved in a discount-related lawsuit in Rhode Island and took successful action before a human rights agency in Milwaukee in another case.
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence has chimed in to publicly oppose FFRF’s objection to the state’s acceptance of a wooden sculpture with a cross as a memorial to vets in a state park.
Pence issued a statement in support of the sculpture being placed at Whitewater Memorial State Park in early September: “So long as I am governor, I will defend the right of Hoosiers to display this sculpture in Whitewater Memorial State Park as a lasting tribute to the service and sacrifice of all who have worn the uniform of the United States.” He added, “The freedom of religion does not require freedom from religion.”
FFRF first wrote to the Department of Natural Resources on Aug. 20 to urge rejection of the proposed statue, an 8-foot-tall, chainsaw-carved veterans memorial that depicts a bald eagle and includes a prominent white cross.
DNR Director Cameron Clark wrote to the Union County Development Corp., which arranged for the statue, on Sept. 2, stating that he was “pleased to accept [their] gift on behalf of the citizens of Indiana and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.” Clark ordered the sculpture to be placed next to the park’s administrative office, in part to provide “proper visibility.” According to a story in the Richmond Palladium-Item, the park was created in 1949 to be a memorial to veterans in surrounding counties.
FFRF noted in its letter that the memorial did not in fact honor all veterans. “[T]he Christian-only memorial will send a message that the government only cares about the deaths of Christian soldiers, not Jewish, other non-Christian and nonreligious soldiers,” Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote.
“The religious significance of the Latin cross is unambiguous and indisputable,” Markert wrote, adding that “an overwhelming majority of federal courts agree that the Latin cross universally represents the Christian religion, and only the Christian religion.”
She cited a string of court decisions that bolster FFRF’s position, including a ruling that the cross “is not a generic symbol of death.”
Markert continued, “Although the cross serves as a tombstone, a religious symbol is not necessary to mark a grave, and . . . the use of a religious symbol where one is not necessary evidences a religious purpose.”
“The freedom of religion does require freedom from religion,” said FFRF Co-President Dan Barker, “because the freedom of religion means nothing without the freedom to dissent. And Governor Pence should be free from religion when acting in his role as a public servant.”
Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor added, “FFRF has no objection to veterans memorials, but they cannot be used as a subterfuge to put Latin crosses on government land. Whitewater Memorial State Park should not host a monument that appears to say ‘We only care about your service if you’re a Christian.’ There are many atheists in foxholes, and 24 percent of FFRF membership is made up of veterans or active military.”
About 25% of all military personnel identify as atheist or agnostic or hold no religious preference.
FFRF is considering legal action.
An FFRF complaint over religious plaques at two North Texas schools has many Texans in a theocratic tizzy. Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote the Midlothian Independent School District in June after receiving a complaint about the plaques.
A plaque at Mountain Peak Elementary says: “Dedicated in the Year of our Lord 1997 to the education of God’s children and to their faithful teachers in the name of the Holy Christian Church. Soli Deo Gloria [Glory to God alone].”
A similar plaque is at Longbranch Elementary. The plaques were part of the buildings’ dedications 17 years ago.
In response, school district attorney John Hardy promised FFRF that the plaque would be removed from Mountain Peak Elementary. Both plaques were then covered with duct tape. But in late August, a vandal removed the coverings.
Nearly 100 people attended a rally at the administration building to protest removal of the plaques. NBC-5 Fort Worth interviewed one protester, Lisa Huski, who said her daughter carries a bible to class: “It’s not about a plaque. It’s about God being in our children’s schools. It’s about us standing up for the fact that God’s in our school.” On Aug. 28, Superintendent Jerome Stewart announced the plaques would remain uncovered while the district seeks legal advice. Stewart earlier had said they’d have to be replaced because of their “questionable constitutional nature.”
NBC-5 reported that the Liberty Institute in Plano, infamous for defending the bible banners used by cheerleaders in Kountze, Texas, is involved. Liberty Institute’s Hiram Sasser claimed “the school district created a limited public forum for plaques relating to the topic of the building dedication,” which he further claimed cannot be censored “simply because of its religious viewpoint.”
“The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment stands for the principle that the state must remain separate from church, from religion,” FFRF attorney Grover said. “This is a public school district, so it represents the state, and therefore it can’t take a position on religion.”
FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor pointed to more than 65 years of firm Supreme Court decisions protecting chidren from religious proselytizing and rituals in public schools.
“What makes this case especially egregious is the fact that these religious plaques hang on elementary schools where a captive audience of very young students are being sent a theocratic message. What a lesson in abuse of authority and our secular school system,” Gaylor added.
FFRF’s office has fielded a number of crank calls from Texas and reported one threat to police.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation recently ended a series of violations in public schools in Orange County, Fla., as well as invocations at City Commission meetings in Winter Garden.
The commission voted Sept. 5 to replace prayers with a moment of silence, following a controversy in which Mayor John Rees ejected a citizen from the meeting simply because he wouldn’t stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.
FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter of complaint Aug. 29 in support of the citizen, “John Thoreau,” a member of FFRF and the Central Florida Freethought Community, FFRF’s local chapter.
As documented in a video recorded by Thoreau, Rees told everyone present to rise for the invocation and the pledge. As the prayer began, Rees interrupted, pointing at the seated Thoreau and saying, “We’re waiting for everyone to rise.” Thoreau repeatedly asserted he did not have to and remained seated. The sectarian prayer, given by a commission member, continued.
When Thoreau also refused to stand for the pledge, Rees ordered Police Chief George Brennan to “either escort him out or have him stand for the pledge.” Rees continued, “This is just not fair to our troops and people overseas, sir.” Brennan asked Thoreau whether he would stand or leave. He answered, “I guess I’m leaving” and was escorted out in front of the nearly 100 people in the room.
Rees claimed the refusal to stand was disrespectful, telling the Orlando Sentinel, “I did not make him stand for the prayer, but the pledge? Even school kids stand. So I told him, ‘You have two choices: You can stand or go outside.’ ”
Seidel, in a follow-up letter, asked the commission to “get rid of prayer altogether” and asked Rees to explain at the next meeting “that citizens are within their rights to remain sitting for the pledge and that it does not reflect a lack of patriotism.”
The commission held a special meeting Sept. 5 and voted 3-2 to substitute a moment of silence for an invocation. (Rees voted no.) Four chapter members and chapter leader David Williamson spoke against the prayers.
FFRF Co-President Dan Barker praised the decision, noting that it’s a major coup to persuade a city to drop prayers.
Orange County Schools
Orange County Public Schools in Orlando agreed in late August to end a variety of state/church violations. This is the district that, following a federal lawsuit, is now permitting FFRF and other nonbelievers to distribute freethought literature on the same date that evangelists “passively distribute” bibles. FFRF has had to contact the district about more than 10 violations in the past 18 months.
Following a March complaint letter from Seidel, the district is abolishing athletic chaplaincies for its teams and removing bible verses from sports venues and apparel. Other violations included using religious music on game footage.
The district’s August memo from the Office of Legal Services stated: “Having a team chaplain is not permitted as it is an unconstitutional endorsement of religion in the same manner as a school employee participating in prayer with students. In this area the law is very clear.”
Regarding staff praying with students, the memo said: “On this issue the matter is well decided that school personnel ‘cannot participate in a visible way with the players’ during student-led prayer. . . . Please make sure to educate the staff at this and other schools that active participation by any School Board employee and/or non-faculty coach in student-led prayer must not occur as it is contrary to established case law.”
The school also properly got rid of the bible verses on team signs and apparel. “While the signs themselves may be permitted,” the memo said, “the reference or citation to a particular bible verse is deemed to be an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.”
The school also agreed with FFRF about banning religious music in videos: “The usage of religious lyrics could be seen as an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.”
Of course, these sensible actions were met with near hysteria on Fox News. Bobby Bowden, retired Florida State University football coach, noted during one interview that he didn’t care about the Constitution or the First Amendment: “I want to be spiritually correct.”
Extremely conservative Fox columnist Todd Starnes, not known for his accuracy or balance, reported that one chaplain would stay but be renamed as a “life coach.” He also charged that FFRF is trying to “eradicate Christianity in the public marketplace of ideas.”
“If this ‘life coach’ nonsense is accurate, Orange County can’t avoid this issue with creative wordplay,” responded Seidel.
FFRF still has outstanding complaints, including school-sponsored baccalaureates, holding school events in churches and forcing students to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.