The Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter of complaint and records request March 11 to Birmingham, Ala., Police Chief A.C. Roper objecting to his organizing and endorsing a Christian ministry called Prayer Force United.
FFRF, a state-church watchdog based in Madison, Wis., has about 20,000 members nationwide and about 180 in Alabama, including a chapter, the Alabama Freethought Association. FFRF also addressed Roper's inclusion of Christian prayer at mandatory department staff meetings and events.
Roper, an ordained minster, leads monthly prayer walks in different Birmingham neighborhoods under the auspices of the Prayer Force United ministry. The prayers are supposed to lower crime. FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel's letter details Roper's stated belief in the power of prayer and the powerlessness of his police force: "[T]he police are not the answer, never have been, never will be. Jesus said that he's the answer," and "one of the biggest problems [Birmingham is] facing is a lack of godliness."
Seidel explained the law to Roper: "It is unconstitutional for government officials to use their government office and email to advance, promote or endorse one religion over another, or religion over nonreligion. You must keep your religion to yourself when acting in your official capacity as police chief."
Seidel noted that prayer as a crime-fighting technique is ineffectual: "The walks themselves may lower crime simply by having crowds on the streets escorted by police cars with flashing lights, but that is not because of the power of prayer — it is the power of people. Prayer cannot stop violence. Scientific studies show that societies with less prayer have less violence."
FFRF called on the chief to stop forcing prayer on city employees: "Federal courts have found that prayers at government employee meetings constitute illegal government endorsement of religion."
FFRF has created a video with clips from Ropers' sermons and Prayer Force United videos with commentary on their legality. "There was so much video footage, we thought citizens might like to see how the police are abusing their office 'in Jesus' name,' " said Seidel, who put the video together. "It's an opportunity to explain the law and provide compelling examples of exactly how the Constitution is being violated."
Prayer Force videos show Roper appearing while using his title and office to endorse the ministry and "claiming the city of Birmingham for God." Roper also explains that Prayer Force is part of the police department: [I]t's a prayer ministry, it's an intercessory ministry, that, in addition to our officers working every day to make the streets of Birmingham safe, we have a prayer force that's interceding."
FFRF also filed an open records request asking for all records relating to the department's official endorsement of the ministry.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is protesting an invitation to Pope Francis from Mayor Jim Schmitt to visit Green Bay, Wis., for the express non-secular purpose of making a Virgin Mary pilgrimage.
Schmitt's letter inviting the pope to "make a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help" was written in his official capacity as mayor on City of Green Bay letter. Schmitt signed his worshipful letter "Your servant in Christ."
"You were not elected bishop of Green Bay," noted FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor in a March 10 letter to Schmitt. The pair told Schmitt his action is a "shocking breach of your civil and secular duties as mayor." They note a government official cannot constitutionally promote one religion over another, or religion over non-religion.
Schmitt's missive to the pope extols in excited tones "the events, apparitions and locutions" occurring in 1859 that "exhibit the substance of supernatural character," involving "the first and only Blessed Virgin Mary apparition approved by the Catholic Church in the United States."
While noting Schmitt is "welcome to personally believe" in the supernatural sighting of the Virgin Mary a century and a half ago, he is "not free to use your civic office to promote your personal (and highly embarrassing) religious beliefs." FFRF noted that most Green Bay citizens are either non-Catholic or non-believing, and would not "consider it the business of the mayor to promote a 'pilgrimage' to a Catholic shrine."
Schmitt compounded the violation, FFRF says, in starting a petition, "Pope to Green Bay," at a website registered under his name.
They warned that the invitation is "fiscally reckless, given the exorbitant costs of hosting a pope, costs which invariably end up being borne by taxpayers," citing riots and rallies against public funding of recent pope visits in U.K., Spain and Brazil.
"It's bad enough to put up with the Catholic church's harmful and antediluvian doctrines — against safe and legal abortion, contraception, gay rights, same sex marriage, the equal rights and ordination of women as priests — without U.S. citizens having to literally pay to put up the pope," FFRF added.
"The shameful and unremitting scandal of sexual abuse of minors within the ranks of the Catholic clergy and even more scandalous covers-up by its highest ranking officials have tarnished dioceses through the state of Wisconsin, and left a devastated trail of victims and their families."
FFRF prevailed, after filing a federal lawsuit, in forcing Mayor Schmitt and the City of Green Bay to stop placing a nativity scene atop the entrance to City Hall in 2008.
FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott also made an open records request asking for city documents and communications about the proposed visit.
Next Tuesday (March 11), Christian Scientists are holding a “national call-in” lobbying day in Congress to demand a special exemption for Christian Scientists from the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that all U.S. citizens carry medical health insurance.
The so-called “Equitable Access to Care and Health (EACH) Act” (H.R. 1814 and S.862) would exempt people who claim “sincerely held religious beliefs” from insurance signup requirements. The bill is sponsored by 216 members of the House of Representatives and 30 senators — thanks to the power of the Christian Science lobby and politicians’ cowardly pandering to religionists.
Please take a moment now or by March 11 to contact your U.S. representative and senators to oppose HR 1814 /S.862. More background follows the contact information and brief talking points below.
Please email or phone your member of Congress today! Find your congressperson. http://beta.congress.gov/members
Use any of the information in the background following these talking points. Or simply note that you are phoning or emailing to register opposition to H.R. 1814/S.862, “Equitable Access to Care and Health (EACH).” Or feel free to copy and paste this text in a message to your representative or senators:
I strongly oppose HR 1814/S.862, introduced on behalf of the Christian Science lobby, seeking special exemption from the Affordable Care Act (ACA). It would increase insurance costs for the rest of us and be a costly nightmare for states to track. Most significantly, every year children needlessly suffer and die because parents decide to rely only on prayer and fail to seek medical care.
The ACA will save children’s lives. My costs as a taxpayer should not increase because Christian Scientists and others citing “sincerely held beliefs” want to be exempted from purchasing health insurance coverage designed to control costs and make universal coverage affordable. Christian Scientists shouldn’t be exempt from this tax, any more than parents who send children to parochial schools are exempt from supporting our public schools. Many Christian Scientists routinely seek emergency or pregnancy health care, and if they are not covered by insurance, the rest of us will pay more. Most importantly, children’s health should not be put at risk. Kill this bill!
What’s wrong with this bill? As Rita Swan of Children’s Healthcare Is a Legal Duty (CHILD) notes, the exemption bill has many serious consequences. Besides setting reckless legal precedent, it would increase insurance costs for the rest of us and endanger children.
More than 170 children are buried in the Followers of Christ Peaceful Valley Cemetery in Idaho, many of whom might have survived had their parents been required to obtain health insurance for them.
The U.S. Supreme Court, in upholding the Affordable Care Act, ruled that the universal mandate, enacted to control costs, is a form of taxation, which everyone needs to pay, just as all taxpayers must support our public schools.
Christian Scientists complain they shouldn’t have to pay for care they won’t use, yet Christian Scientists usually seek medical care for fractures, prenatal care, delivery of babies and going to the eye doctor for glasses.
Insurance works on the assumption that many in the pool of policyholders won’t draw from it. For instance, most people with fire insurance will never need to make use of such coverage.
Equally unworkable would be tracking those who are exempt to ensure they haven’t sought medical care. HR1814 is modeled on the Massachusetts religious exemption. CHILD notes that in 2007, about 9,700 Massachusetts residents claimed a religious exemption. A data match done that year showed that 745 of them had nevertheless received free medical care during the year.
Massachusetts has failed since to track exemptions or enforce its penalty for individuals who seek exemption from medical care but then obtain it. If a state relies on an honor system of self-reporting, there will be widespread abuses of the law. Many individuals will find it convenient to claim an exemption yet continue to get care at the public’s expense. This is grossly unfair and will lower the public’s respect for the law.
Swan notes, “Our organization has information on hundreds of American children who have died because of their family’s religious objections to medical care. Many others get to the emergency room at the last minute, and their medical care is much more expensive than it would have been if the children had a medical home and routine basic care. HR 1814 increases the risk to children in faith-healing sects and the cost to the state if the children do get medical care.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is challenging Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear's use of state resources to promote a prayer breakfast March 13 at the Frankfort Convention Center.
In a March 3 letter to the Democratic governor, FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert noted that a press release about the so-called "nondenominational" event "leads one to believe that the government is the sponsor of the breakfast and not a private individual or organization."
The release also includes a prayer breakfast link on the governor's portion of kentucky.gov. The governor's home page includes a tab at the top promoting the breakfast.
Markert added, "While elected officials may of course attend private functions on their own time in their personal capacity, it is a misuse of office for the governor or his staff to promote, organize or cosponsor activities such as prayer breakfasts or to lend the governor’s name to a “Governor’s Prayer Breakfast.”
FFRF, a national state-church watchdog with about 20,000 members nationwide and 168 in Kentucky, last contacted Beshear in 2012 about his sponsorship of annual prayer breakfasts.
"By sponsoring or co-sponsoring a Prayer Breakfast, which calls Kentucky citizens to prayer, you abrogate your duty to remain neutral," Markert wrote. "The event sends a message that the governor of Kentucky prefers and endorses religion over nonreligion and more specifically, the Christian faith. Moreover, these actions exclude and offend a significant portion of the population, which is non-Christian or nonreligious."
Using recent polling data, FFRF estimates about 400,000 Kentuckians are nonreligious.
FFRF has good reason to believe that Beshear sent prayer breakfast invitations, which included the official state seal, to the bulk of state employees from his state email address, an apparent violation of the Internet and Electronic Mail Acceptable Use Policy, which states, “Internet and E-mail resources, services and accounts are the property of the Commonwealth of Kentucky. These resources are to be used for state business purposes in serving the interests of state government.”
Markert added, "We urge you to cancel this event immediately and to remove anything indicating official government sponsorship from the website, reservation forms, media packets, décor, etc. . . . If you wish to be a part of this event you may do so only in your capacity as a citizen, not as governor. In addition, FFRF filed an open records request for financial records for prayer breakfasts from 2011-14, copies of any correspondence from state employees related to the four events and copies of invitations or other correspondence to and from breakfast speakers.
This year's scheduled keynoter is Jacob Tamme, tight end for the National Football League's Denver Broncos and University of Kentucky graduate. "Off the field, Jacob is outspoken about the important role his faith plays in his life," the governor's website says.
The Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct's public censure March 3 of a former magistrate for changing a baby's first name from "Messiah" to "Martin" was set in motion by a formal complaint by the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
FFRF is a national state/church watchdog based in Madison, Wis., with 20,000 nonreligious members, including nearly 300 in Tennessee. Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert formally requested in an Aug. 14 letter that the board investigate and properly sanction the magistrate.
Child Welfare Magistrate Lu Ann Ballew had presided over a hearing Aug. 8, 2013, in Cocke County Chancery Court in Newport. Although the boy's first name was not among the reasons for the hearing, Ballew decided to change it, saying, "Messiah is a title, and it's a title that has only been earned by one person and that one person is Jesus Christ." (WBIR-TV interview)
In her letter to Timothy Discenza, disciplinary counsel of the board, Markert pointed out that Ballew had violated Canons 1 and 2 of the state Code of Judicial Conduct by imposing her own religious beliefs on the parties, signaling "that she is incapable of offering justice to those who espouse a different point of view or who practice a different religion or no religion."
Discenza announced yesterday that a panel of the board voted unanimously for a public censure, described as the most serious sanction the board could take against Ballew, who was removed from her position last month.
Discenza agreed that Ballew had violated several sections of the code of conduct, including those that require judges to rule with impartiality and fairness and without bias or prejudice.
Read ABC Nashville's story about the development.
Have you contacted Gov. Jan Brewer yet asking her to veto SB 1026? Phone her office now: (602) 542-4331
Statement by Dan Barker & Annie Laurie Gaylor
Freedom From Religion Foundation
The newest threat to religious liberty is the campaign to pass legislation permitting individuals or businesses to impose their religious beliefs on unwilling others.
The Arizona Legislature last Thursday passed SB 1062, to allow business owners to invoke personal religious beliefs as an excuse to deny gays service. This prompted one witty Tucson pizzeria owner to put up a sign giving tit for tat, saying: "We reserve the right to refuse service to Arizona legislators."
It's kind of a warped version of the Golden Rule, which, phrased in the positive, has always had a dangerous "escape clause." "Do unto others as you would have them do onto you" could be a license to preach at others (if you like being preached at), to hurt others (if you're a sadomasochist) or, in this case, to exhibit bigotry toward others (if you're a bigot). The superior rule far predating Christianity is expressed in the negative: "Do not do to others what you don't want done to you."
According to The New York Times, similar "religious protection legislation" has been introduced in Idaho, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Tennessee, with efforts stalled in Idaho, Kansas and Ohio.
The bill, while couched as antigay, is so broad it allows any person, business or church to cite religion as a defense if the government or an individual claims they're being discriminated against. Think about all those floral shops in Rhode Island that refused to take FFRF's order for a bouquet of roses to atheist student plaintiff Jessica Ahlquist. FFRF is pursuing redress under the Civil Rights Act, but if Gov. Jan Brewer signs the Arizona bill into law, such discrimination would be lawful — indeed, encouraged. The bill could permit individuals to break nearly any law and cite religious freedom as a defense, as Arizona Democrats pointed out.
The Civil Rights Act came into being to ensure that basic services (such as food, accommodations, medical care) couldn't be denied because of the customer's or patient's race, ethnic heritage, religion or gender. The Arizona bill and the religious bigotry fueling other such bills pose a serious threat to the Civil Rights Act, equal protection under the law and harmony and good will in our nation.
The chain store Hobby Lobby, which is suing Kathleen Sebelius, is likewise invoking "religious beliefs" to defy the guarantees of the Affordable Care Act, because its fundamentalist founder wants veto power over which forms of contraception his women employees may use.
Brewer vetoed a bill similar to SB1062 last session. It's encouraging that the outcry against this bigoted bill prompted three Arizona Republican senators, including the senate majority whip, came forward yesterday with a change of heart on their vote.
To protect true religious liberty it's crucial for these mischief-making pieces of legislation to be vetoed, voted down and ridiculed out of existence.
A sampling of the voluminous crank mail recently received by FFRF, printed in all its grammatical glory:
You say there is no afterlife: One day when you stand before Jesus himself and look into his all knowing eyes ready to be judged and cast into hell-fire you will know then that there is afterlife. But also if you die before that and the instand you die you will drop into the pits of hell-fire itseld instantly. You should talk to a doctor that while resusitating a dieing man he heard the man as he regained conscienceness began to scream “I’m in hell pull me out” and begged the Dr. to not let him die. That doctor was an atheist until then, but he became a believer after seeing the fear in that man’s face shaking horibly. — Homer Bentley, Texas
Christmas/winter sulstice: Why aren;t you brave enough to attack other religions like Islam, Satanism, Buddhism etc. Are you really that gutless that you only pick on Christianity, the religion you know won’t attack you back. I pity you as you must be miserable bastards.
— Gary Hooper, Kemp, Texas
Free thought: Your organization is setup almost exactly like a church ie: your president/copresident are your pastor and his wife, then your vice presidents are top deacons or elders, then you have the rest of your deacons and staff that work at the church during the week between services. Just thought you should know. — Monroe Smith II, Bryan, Texas
Hypocrites: Some police officers decided they wanted to march against violence with some people of faith. Your group ihreatened a law suit against the police department? Who the f**k do you think you are? I’m not even a full blown christian. I was once an athiest, on my way converting to Christianity. Take your threatened lawsuit and shove it up your ass. — RYAN MCGAHA
Hell: Have fun in HELL.....it is HOT....JESUS SAVES YOU FROM THIS!!!!!! — John Thompto, California
separation of church and state: Satan would be proud as you have followed every deceit possible. i mourn for your soul as i looked at the site. I am glad that you help people as this is good, but other than that, it is scary. I pray to the only true God that you may return to truth as you once knew or at least participated in. — Paul Somner
Pathetic: The name GOD or a cross or commandments on a building needs to be removed because it offends you? Bunch of damn cry babies. Don’t look at it when you go by. Religion offends you but a strip club doesn’t or a xxx video store doesn’t? So its ok for your children to look at strip clubs or porn movie stores. Wow what great parents you are. I don’t see you suing any satanic cults or these groups that sacrifice live animals. — Paul Smith
To Dan Barker: We say Merry CHRISTmas at our house and no it’s not a myth. It turns out that the winter solstice you reference is not on Christmas Day, something you may or may not know. — d w
Upon reflection: I was going to contribute to your group, but after rationally thinking about it, I don’t believe you actually exist. I’ll put the checkbook away. — Yes Abs
Hoover High School church graduation: Some anonymous person complained about this ceremony? I find that hard to believe. If the person truly complained, they should come out from behind the coward’s cloak of anonymity and face the people of North Canton’s Class of 2014. The ceremony has now been relocated to an inferior facility that is a dinosaur in a terrible section of downtown Canton. Because of your organization, my son’s 89 year old grandmother, who is oxygen dependent and in a wheelchair, will not attend his graduation as she considers it too much of a burden on us to get her back and forth and into the facility. Keep that in mind as you high five each other over this “victory”.
— Drew Gonyias, North Canton, OH
religous freedom: You will never win. Our faith in GOD as christians will ALWAYS trump your lack of it. Enjoy this short life...hell fires burn hot...you’re not against BB-Q right? — JoLynn Bolden
Your wrong: I thought that I had seen it all in this End Time generation, but now what I am seeing from our Atheistic community is the worst by far. There has always been unbelievers, and as we get closer to the tribulation, the bible predicts that this situation want get better but worse. However, in previous generation atheist understood that you can’t have democracy with out Jesus and the bible, so they respected what the religious community did for the world by giving hope to the hopeless. A belief in God is what helps a drunk, put down the bottle after 20 years of hard drinking, and helps a prostitute, give up there life of selfish, pursuits to live a saintly life with Jesus. If life is so great without God why not move to atheistic China, or Russia were there a dictator telling you what to wear, and how to wear it. — Jordan Wells, Indianapolis
You are all fuck heads: Go die! — Jesus Christ, , 1234 Fuck YOu PL. 101 Suite Fuck YOu, Sacramento, CA
ur assholes: u r ass==== and penis lickers. — bart simpson, 10 dick drive, irwin, pennsylvania
bill boards: How dare you push your communist ideals off on my children. Its your business if you are atheists, but my business when you put up nasty dirty bill boards for my children to see. If your the children of the devil that is your business, but don’t try to push your nasty evil views on all of us. — sharon howard, madera, calif.
Check Your Selves: Check your selfs an tread lightly. i have names —
God loving: i learned about your bogus bullshit trying to look at some news you are not news you are not america maybe you you would be better off in russia,maybe iran i have no respect for you or your rights if you notice i did nt call you out you called us out get over it and go ahead and get out of our good country nazi trash like you have ruined america for all of us. — good ol religious arky
Happy Solstice?!?! You liberal bleeding heart scumbags will be the downfall of this nation, but not without a fight. Honor and respect the history and heritage of our country’s Judeo Christian values or get the fuck out. Where would you be without this nation’s Judeo Christian heritage? Worked out well for Lenin’s commie atheist experiment didn’t it? You will burn in Hell. Enjoy! — Matthew Stevens, California
Atheists? Who keeps the sun just far enough away for warmth, light for plants, animals? Who feeds the birds? Who thought up all this? Atheists insult their own intelligence. We all get to meet JESUS. Never has JESUS/GOD been taken out of schools, poems, songs, books, till now. I hear JESUS’ footsteps. HE is walking towards you. — Lance Thomas, Savannah, Ga.
Reality: If there was proof that contradicts your beliefs, would you be willing to listen? Let me know. — Drake Kent, Marlinton, W. Virginia
Just A Hate Letter: Seriously guys, what the fuck? There is nothing wrong with religion. It brings people hope and happiness. Shoving this bullshit down the throats of everyone is not fair. It’s annoying to see people like you make being an atheist a struggle. I hope everyone in your pathetic fucking organization gets shot in the dick. Even the female members. — Brandyn Silva, Vacaville, Calif.