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Make state-church separation absolute

FFRF awarded Bryan a $500 scholarship. 

In a speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in 1960, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy said “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute . . . where no Catholic prelate would tell the president how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference.”

Kennedy emphasized that there were “far more critical issues” that faced the nation than his Catholicism, and the same thing holds true today. In an age where unemployment and poverty are rampant, overseas wars kill our citizens and raise our deficit, and the world’s richest country also has its largest prison population, religion has become a driving force in American politics.

God’s name is used to justify policies in arenas as diverse as health care, civil rights for women and minorities, and even education. Yet invoking the bible does nothing to address the issues behind our country’s problems; it only serves to muddy the waters with arbitrary loyalties, xenophobia, and unwillingness to compromise. The separation of church and state is essential for creating effective, rational policies and ensuring freedom and equality for all. 

Government is most effective when it uses empirically proven, logic-based methods for solving real-world problems. These methods can be debated using facts learned through scientific research, from carefully recorded observations and from successful tactics used in other countries. But supernatural justifications for policy require no such vetting process; once God comes to the table, the issue becomes a matter of faith, not fact. Supernatural solutions do not solve real-world problems.

In August 2011, Texas Gov. Rick Perry convened a daylong event in Houston called The Response, a call for Americans to “to pray and fast like Jesus did” to combat Texas’ crippling drought and economic problems. It did nothing, of course, to ease economic and drought woes. His April day of prayer for rain was similarly ineffective.

The funds and time used to promote these events could have been used to research realistic methods of combating drought and deficits, but instead it was used to create a conservative soapbox that did nothing to solve the problems faced by Texans.

Religion is an entirely subjective way to create policy, since doctrine and beliefs differ between religions. Even Christian denominations disagree on the exact nature of the god they worship.

In American history, this has manifested itself in countless ways. For example, slave owners and abolitionists both used the bible to defend their position in the 19th century. In modern times, the LGBTQ movement’s fiercest critics often use God as their primary reason for fighting against marriage equality, yet there are plenty of progressive Christians who support marriage equality and use the bible to justify their claims.

Which God?

You cannot debate the idea of God in a courtroom or statehouse. You cannot objectively weigh the advantages and disadvantages of a policy that has been dictated by a higher power. When we use unverifiable, subjective reasoning to make decisions, we create unjustifiable, ineffective policy.

With God involved in policy-making, the question becomes “which God?” In the U.S., Christians make up the vast majority of the population, but our country is also a melting pot of Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, atheists, agnostics and everyone in between.

Indeed, America was founded in part on the freedom to worship or not worship any way you please, and it’s this diversity that makes America what it is. Part of freedom from religion is protecting freedom of religion. 

When the majority religion makes its way into government, it does so not by reconciling itself to all other faiths and nonfaiths, but by the power of demographics. This leads to unequal representation, which creates a government that cannot or will not hear the needs of all its citizens.

Religion-based rule is tribalism at its purest and enforces divisions that are based on arbitrary cultural labels. Recently, Louisiana passed a law allowing public funds to be used on vouchers to send children to a school of the parent’s choosing. But lawmakers didn’t realize those funds could also be used for non-Christian schools: “Republican state Rep. Kenneth Havard objected to the [Islamic School of Greater New Orleans’] request for 38 government-paid student vouchers, saying he opposed any bill that ‘will fund Islamic teaching.’ ”

Inevitably, the rights of minorities are trampled by the majority, especially when beliefs in an exclusive deity are used to justify that power.

Fifty-two years after Kennedy’s historic speech in Houston, separation of church and state brought “vomit” to the mouth of presidential candidate Rick Santorum: “I don’t believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute. The idea that the church can have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country.”

Santorum couldn’t be further from the truth. This is a country founded on freedom of religion, not domination by religion. We need equal rights for all, not just for the majority. We need a country free from the tribalism and petty divisions that politicized religion breeds.

If we are to ever separate ourselves from our country’s economic, social and ideological woes, we need a country where separation of church and state is absolute.

 

Bryan Johnson, 26, a native of Raleigh, N.C., is a first-year graduate student at Colorado State University in Fort Collins and is pursuing an MFA in creative writing. He has an English degree from Purdue University and worked as a copywriter while writing fiction.

FFRF awarded Lynn a $1,000 scholarship. 

The night of May 8, 2012, my young daughter and I awaited the election results of North Carolina’s proposed constitutional amendment. Most of the early results were promising.

Sadly, our hopes turned to dismay as county after county declared “that marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this state.”

We had both worked the week before at phone banks urging voters to get out and vote against the amendment. While making calls, it had been clear that those supporting the amendment were doing so for religious reasons. Many said things like, “God meant for marriage to be between a man and a woman.”

Amendment One was the result of the Republican-dominated General Assembly and its surge of conservative legislation. As the proposal for the marriage amendment was debated, many legislators asked why social issues were dominating the Assembly while our state had a 10.5% unemployment rate and many other concerns.

It was heavily supported by conservative religious figures and groups throughout the country. Bibles and preachers featured prominently in many TV ads. Voter approval of the amendment brings a new era of discrimination against citizens based on religious principles.

Although my daughter and I constitute a nontraditional family, I am not likely to be directly affected. So why did I take time to work phone banks and get pledges from voters? Why did I spend some of my already thinly stretched income purchasing “Vote No” materials?

One reason is my daughter. Being a mother has made me even more aware of the threats religion poses to our freedoms. What future can my daughter, being raised without religion, expect to find in an overwhelmingly religious political atmosphere? What rights will she have to live, love and learn as she grows as a U.S. citizen? What will her education be like if religious zealots manage to defund public schools and ensure that pseudoscience makes its way into classrooms?

During this election season, we have been subjected to Rick Perry’s comments about teaching creationism, Michelle Bachmann’s belief that her God called her to run for president, and Rick Santorum’s idea that teaching evolution has been used to promote atheism.

We hear revisionists claim that America was founded as a Christian nation and needs to be returned to that ordained state. Public school systems in Louisiana, Kansas, Florida and other states are experiencing challenges to their curriculum led by those who wish to see theologically based ideas taught. The Texas GOP platform states, “We support school subjects with emphasis on the Judeo-Christian principles upon which America was founded and which form the basis of America’s legal, political and economic systems.”

Don’t they know that America’s legal and political systems are rooted largely in ancient, non-Christian Roman and Greek systems? Have they forgotten that our founders were not all Judeo-Christians?

These conservatives oppose teaching “critical thinking skills” which “have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”

The Republican platform in North Carolina says, “We oppose efforts to remove the recognition of Almighty God from our schools, courts, currency and Pledge of Allegiance. We oppose efforts to remove prayer from our public meetings and governmental institutions.”

In Louisiana, a push to allow religious education to be publicly funded backfired on at least one legislator. Rep. Valarie Hodges said, “I liked the idea of giving parents the option of sending their children to a public school or a Christian school.”

Louisiana’s voucher program attracted applications from a Muslim school and 123 other religiously based schools. Regarding the Muslim school, Hodges said, “Unfortunately [the funding] will not be limited to the Founders’ religion. … I do not support using public funds for teaching Islam anywhere here in Louisiana.”

So, will Louisiana fund all religious schools or will it discriminate against certain religions?

Last year I realized that I had to find my own way to combat the growing religious influence in the public sphere. One way to curtail religious indoctrination is to focus on reality.

An important facet of reality is that our universe seems to work quite well without the interference of supernatural beings. How could I speak out in favor of reality?  Participating in politics, far from my purview, was not a likely option.

After carefully evaluating my skills and talents, I came to realize that a career in science education would provide a way for me to teach others about reality. I know it is possible to combat pseudoscientific claims of all types through education. After learning how science unearths wholly natural explanations for phenomena, many people begin to question the supernatural explanations they’ve been taught.

If our opinions are grounded in reality, religion will lose some of its luster and the desire to have it permeate every aspect of public life may be reduced. One day, religious belief as a desirable societal guide may be regarded as a ludicrous idea.

One day, maybe I won’t have to worry how religion will affect my daughter’s future.

Lynn Wilhelm, lives in Cary, N.C. She is a single mother to Aiden, 8. She worked 10-plus years as a landscape designer and taught horticulture in a public school after getting a B.S. in agricultural education and extension in 1999 from North Carolina State University. “My teaching experience was riddled with difficulties partly due to the very religious atmosphere I found at the rural North Carolina school. I only taught for one year and thought I would never teach again.” With a recently renewed interest in education, she is pursuing a master’s in teaching science at NCSU and will graduate in May 2013.

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The First Amendment and democracy

FFRF awarded Wilson a $2,000 scholarship. 

Religion and American politics are thoroughly intertwined. There even exists within the electorate a pervasive belief that the accomplishments and the very existence of the United States are more attributable to providence than to humanistic achievement.

This idea, along with a faith in the infallibility of a divine being, often leads to public policy informed more by religious interpretations than reasoned debate.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified over 220 years ago: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

We can either accept its modern relevance and explicit dogma as articles of faith, or we can question how its concepts should apply to the present and be adjusted for current values while allowing for future change. In this way, the Constitution necessarily draws us into choices between faith and reason.

Originalists imply that the righteousness of their legal interpretations emanates from their ability to divine immutable and incontrovertible religious values in our Constitution. These individuals disregard the Establishment Clause and seek to interpret law in a manner that promotes faith-based principles and practices. Such unsound circular jurisprudence paradoxically seeks to find justification for desired religious outcomes while asserting original intent.

In the Supreme Court, several modern-era appointees have supported blending religion and politics. Evidence of this abounds. William Rehnquist, in Wallace v. Jaffree, a school prayer case, argued against a Jeffersonian wall between church and state.

Similarly, in his speech to the Catholic Knights of Columbus, Antonin Scalia criticized the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals for allegedly attempting to excise God from public life in Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow, a case about requiring students pledging allegiance to the United States “under God.”

When this case reached the Supreme Court, Rehnquist argued that references to a monotheistic God in the pledge, on federal currency, on government buildings and elsewhere do not violate the Establishment Clause. He claimed that it is permissible for government institutions to declare the existence of God, especially if they do not favor a specific denomination.

In that same case, Clarence Thomas even suggested that the Establishment Clause was merely a protection against federal interference in the religious affairs of states and that it neither guarantees rights for individuals nor should it be incorporated at the state level. 

These few examples demonstrate a larger trend within part of the judiciary to undermine the Establishment Clause. As lifelong appointees, Supreme Court justices exert a tremendous influence over the trajectory of American society.

For this reason, jurists should interpret the Establishment Clause broadly, thereby circumscribing faith to the private sphere where it can be practiced freely. In this way, the freedom of thought of all Americans would be protected from the religious predispositions of merely nine judges.

Separating religion from government is appropriate for all three branches of government. In the recent past, there’s been a resurgence of religious zeal across the political landscape.

In the recent Republican presidential primary, religiously charged social issues were brought to the fore. Each candidate who led in the polls took great pains to proclaim his or her religious fervor and scripturally-based opposition to aspects of gay marriage, abortion and contraception.

Similarly, congressional and state legislators have, of late, made ostentatious attempts to publicly defund the health care provider Planned Parenthood on the basis of religious opposition to family planning.

In Mississippi, legislators theologically opposed to abortion have foisted restrictions upon the last remaining in-state clinic in an effort to circumvent protections acknowledged since Roe v. Wade.

With regard to the Affordable Care Act, the Catholic Church’s public criticism of the employer requirement for contraceptive coverage riders led the Obama administration to make exemptions for religious denominations. Concessions to mollify religious critics disenfranchised employees who do not subscribe to the same theology as their employers.

Support of teaching intelligent design in public schools and opposition to the teaching about evolution, obstruction of stem cell research, taxpayer-funded subsidies and vouchers for parochial schools and their students, and tax and employment nondiscrimination exemptions for religious groups are a few examples of religion’s heavy hand.

Despite what is enunciated in Article VI of the Constitution, even presidential elections are thoroughly subjected to religious influence. During the 2008 presidential primary, the accusations that then-Senator Obama was a Muslim underscored the de facto requirement by part of the electorate that American presidents share their Christian faith.

Conclusions

Democratic government must protect each individual’s freedom of thought. Government must not promote theism, be it denominational or not. Theocracies are inherently anti-democratic because they demand faith in divine infallibility and endeavor to impose unquestionable religious beliefs and policies.

In contrast, our federalized republic is best served by its citizens voting for elected representatives on the basis of reasoned and informed debate. Both secular and religious values can be components of deliberations regarding policy, but their merits must be justifiable on the basis of logic, not blind trust.

Thoughtful, nuanced, nondogmatic debate is most suited for selecting officeholders and for creating sound public policy that balances preservation of personal choice with protection of secular values that citizens arrive at through careful consideration.

For freedom of thought to flourish in the U.S., belief and nonbelief must be protected by the government. Politics must be shielded from the influence of religion. To achieve this, we must elect individuals dedicated to disentangling religion from politics.

 

Wilson Melón, 27, was born in Concord, Mass. He’s a Ph.D. student in Spanish literature at Purdue University. He earned a B.A. in Spanish and French at Middlebury College, Vermont, and an M.A. in Hispanic literature at Boston College.

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Religion stifles democracy’s growth

FFRF awarded Elizabeth a $3,000 scholarship.

Politicians like to deify our nation’s founders. Asserting that the founders would have wanted this, or would not have recognized America today because of that, is one of the quickest ways to add authority to any claim.

Mitt Romney did this, for example, as concerns gay marriage. He said that “at the time the Constitution was written, marriage was between a man and a woman,” implying that this is why marriage should continue to be defined this way. The nation’s founders lived like this, so we should too, the argument goes.

In fact, we know that our founders were imperfect. Some held slaves, were bigots and didn’t want women to vote. But what makes them greater than their flaws is that they recognized that they were not all-knowing, that they could not predict the future and what changes it would bring.

Instead of leaving us with a Constitution that dictated their beliefs on every subject, they left us with a succinct document and simple instructions. They left room for change and reinterpretation. It was this humility that makes them seem omniscient.

The ability to change is what makes our republic great. It’s precisely the reason why religion and the state are institutions fundamentally at odds with each other. We are where we are today despite the dead weight of religion.

As a country, we have recognized the equality of (almost) all people, we have ended slavery, given women the right to vote. We are in the process of asserting the total equality of gay men and women. The Judeo-Christian holy books, on the other hand, are saying the same things they have always said: Women are property, slaves are useful, sex is evil and sodomy is even worse. The holy books cannot change; that is their nature.

Religious doctrine is meant to be eternal. It set out to legislate the lives of people centuries from the time it was written. It leaves no room for growth and enlightenment, no room for change. Our nation, on the other hand, has a Supreme Court that once upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson, and then completely reversed that decision 60 years later in Brown v. Board of Education.

No matter how important change is, or how embedded it is in our government, it can be scary. That is why religiously flavored politics are so dangerous, especially in an election year. An election offers the chance to revert to times previous.

There are those who are convinced that the best way to solve the nation’s problems is to go back to the good old days. In an election year, their flawed logic is turned up to deafening levels. One of Mitt Romney’s main super PACs is called “Restore our Future,” implying that the future is safe if we revert to the way things were.

This type of thinking is not conservative. It is regressive, and religion is the backbone of the voices for regression. People rally to bring America back to glory using biblical teachings, to reboot the nation in terms of the founders’ religious beliefs.

Suddenly, we are talking about contraception again. Didn’t we settle this in the 1960s? Isn’t stirring up this debate a little — regressive? The most fundamentalist believers want to move our laws backward, not forward.

Because religion is purportedly tied to morality, some Americans pay close attention to candidates’ religious ties. Religion becomes a moral litmus test, a cheat sheet for comparing values. It distracts us from substantive issues. Its institutions — church, synagogue and mosque — take on dangerous powers in an election, because they can tell their congregants how God would want them to vote. Suddenly, our democracy is beholden to the stubborn dogmas of the distant past.

Many will argue that religion is a moral anchor for the government, telling us what is right and good and making sure that in our progress, we never lose sight of our core values. This is patently false. I agree that religion offers valuable moral teachings, but these teachings are not monopolized by the faithful.

These ideas are just as strongly held by nonreligious people. Morality was not invented with the writing of the Old Testament. In its most basic forms, it is programmed into us as a cooperative species. The religious and nonreligious simply trace the roots of their morality differently. 

I like to think of our government as a tree. The founders planted a very small seed hundreds of years ago for the benefit of future generations. They had no way of knowing where its branches would emerge and what shape they would take, so they gave the seed ample room to grow.

This tree has been watered by generations of Americans and has been shaped by the winds of change, by flood and drought. We have grown and become strong.

Religion in government is an axe aimed at the base of this tree. Religion believes that reducing it to its roots is the only way to save it. To me it sounds like a good way to kill it.

 

Elizabeth Pipal, 23, was born in Oklahoma City and moved to California when she was 4. She’s a proud atheist who loves dogs, drawing, cooking and collecting maps. She graduated in 2011 with a bachelor’s in linguistics from Columbia University and is pursuing a master’s in architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.

Statement by the Freedom From Religion Foundation on placement of its Winter Solstice nativity at the Wisconsin Capitol:

 

For a fact, the Christians stole Christmas. We don’t mind sharing the season with them, but we don’t like their pretense that it is the birthday of Jesus. It is the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun — Dies Natalis Invicti Solis

Christmas is a relic of Sun worship.

For all of our major festivals, there were corresponding pagan festivals tied to natural events. We’ve been celebrating the Winter Solstice, this natural holiday, long before Christians crashed the party. For millennia, our ancestors in the Northern Hemisphere have greeted this seasonal event with festivals of light, gift exchanges and seasonal gatherings.

The Winter Solstice is the reason for the season. The Winter Solstice, on Dec. 21 this year, heralds the symbolic rebirth of the Sun, the lengthening of days and the natural New Year.

We nonbelievers are quite willing to celebrate the fun parts of anybody’s holidays. We just want to be spared the schmaltz, the superstition, and the state/church entanglements.

The customs of this time of year endure because they are pleasant customs. It’s fun to hear from distant family and friends, to gather, to feast, to sing. Gifts, as freethinker Robert Ingersoll once remarked, are evidences of friendship, of remembrance, of love.

The evergreens displayed now as in centuries past flourish when all else seems dead, and are symbols, as is the returning Sun, of enduring life.

In celebrating the Winter Solstice, we celebrate reality.

We are unveiling a tableau that celebrates the human family, reason and the Winter Solstice.

• Our wise-people depict the atheists and scientific giants, Darwin and Einstein, who have enlarged human understanding of the natural world far more than the bible or any “holy books.” They were both nonbelievers as was progressive reformer Emma Goldman, representing wise women everywhere. The irreverent literary genius Mark Twain is added for good measure.

• Although Venus, like Mary, was a mythical fertility figure, this image, after which a planet was named, represents our solar system. 

• Thomas Jefferson, a Founding Father, was a passionate advocate of separation of religion and government and would have disavowed Christian devotional scenes on state property.

• Our “angels” are also natural. The Statue of Liberty symbolizes freedom, and the astronaut represents the human achievements of science unfettered by religious dogma. 

• Our baby was chosen partly for simple egalitarianism, and partly because it’s high time we adore female children as much as male children, and to acknowledge that humankind was birthed in Africa.

FFRF would vastly prefer that government buildings and seats of government be free from religion, and irreligion. It is divisive. The rotunda is getting very cluttered. But if a devotional nativity display is allowed, then there must be “room at the inn” for all points of view, including irreverency and freethought. 

FFRF gratefully acknowledges the exceptional carpentry work and enthusiasm of Andrew Seidel. Thanks also to Katie Daniel, Melanie Knier and Scott Carney for their invaluable help in creating the natural nativity on very short notice. Part of this statement was adapted from a 1985 Winter Solstice speech by Anne Nicol Gaylor, FFRF president emerita.

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DARKTOLIGHT: A secular coming together

By Fred Strong

In Portland, Ore., the city that Huffington Post considers America’s least religious, we seculars have a plethora of meetups, discussion groups, potlucks, talent programs and lectures throughout the year. In recent years, we’ve seen the emergence of more large-scale undertakings such as the annual Portland Humanist Film Fest.

Another event, in its third year, that’s gaining national attention is DARKTOLIGHT.

DARKTOLIGHT is the manifestation of an idea that came to me many years ago concerning a desire to have a secular event to celebrate in December, the month when the world around us goes mad with hyper-religiosity. As a composer and arts lover, I knew that music and art would definitely be a part.

I decided to center the event on the Winter Solstice, a natural, celestial occurrence that carries with it very deep symbolic implications having to do with the very essence of the cycle of life itself. The emergence from darkness and death into the seasons of light and life became, in my mind, a metaphor for a paradigm shift in human attitudes from myth-based thinking to an enlightened world of scientific reason.

In 2008, working with a soprano duo and a roster of musicians and performers who would work for little or nothing, I booked the 140-seat theater of the Portland Music Community Center for Dec. 21. I’d written a work called “Songs for Winter Solstice,” consisting of three contrasting songs. But when Portland was hit by an unusual cold front that essentially crippled a city ill-equipped to deal with radical weather conditions for close to two weeks, DARKTOLIGHT 2008 became a casualty.

In 2009, working with Center For Inquiry—Portland and the Humanists of Greater Portland, we held a joint potluck and interested several performers. DTL had its “sort of” debut.

The above groups approached me in 2010 and agreed to fund a small DARKTOLIGHT. I booked the 140-seat theater again, got the sopranos back on board and assembled a very accomplished group of actors, singers, songwriters and musicians. Kol Shalom, a secular Jewish group, helped with an ad in the program. We were all nervous -— no secular event like this had ever been attempted here.

Then the crowd started coming. Couples, families, children, teens, small groups and, before long, we realized we had a hit. DTL 2010 was standing room only! And, with the donations received and the sale of refreshments, the new event was fiscally almost a break-even affair.

I took 2011 off for personal reasons while receiving a fair number of inquiries about whether there’d be a solstice show in December. Early in 2012, CFI-Portland agreed with my vision of a much larger, bolder event, one truer to my original vision but also with a higher price tag.

I began putting together the newest incarnation of DTL called BANG! We booked a 200-seat, professional theater space and are doing three shows with a cast of 14 and four instrumentalists. BANG! takes the audience on a trip through time and space from the big bang to present-day Earth, with a humanist message about our choices and responsibilities. The music ranges from doo-woop to hip-hop and folk to jazz.

DARKTOLIGHT is a special time of secular togetherness, a cultural tether to fill us with a sense of pride, purpose and community. We encourage all locales to celebrate the solstice in their own way. We need to start establishing our own culture, arts and traditions, and it can certainly be done in ways that reflect individual locales.

We’ll perform BANG! at Portland Metro Arts on Friday, Dec. 21, at 7 p.m. and on Dec. 22 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Go to darktolight.org/ for more information.

As a proud member of FFRF, I am very honored that you have allowed me this chance to be spotlighted in Freethought Today. Please say “hi” if you attend BANG! By supporting each other, we support the greater cause.

 

Fred Strong lives in Portland with his partner, Sandra Brown, and her five cats. He holds a B.A. in composition from Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Va. As he works toward making his avocations (writing, composition, songwriting) his vocation, he owns and operates a small but popular sustainable irrigation company.

In 2011, his humanist choral piece “The Well” was performed in the U.S. Capitol by the Women’s Vocal Ensemble of Clark College, Vancouver, Wash.

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Legally bland, Calli is not

Name: Callahan (Calli) Hyde Miller.

When and where I was born: Dec. 30, 1992, in Waukesha, Wis. I’ve lived my whole life, up until moving to Madison, in Wauwatosa.

Family: My mom (Kari), my dad (Patrick), my little brother (Charlie, 16), my little sister (Michaela, 14), and, of course, most importantly, my golden retriever Murphy (10).

Education: I’m currently enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and majoring in sociology with a certificate in criminal justice. I plan to double major, but I’m not sure in what yet. I graduated from Wauwatosa West High School in 2011.

My religious upbringing was: Lutheran, but my formal religious association never went beyond baptism as a baby, besides the occasional forced Easter/Christmas services.

How I came to work as an FFRF legal intern: I heard about the opportunity through the UW-Madison student organization Atheists, Humanists and Agnostics, of which I am treasurer. We’ve worked with FFRF pretty frequently. For example, FFRF generously helped fund our inaugural free conference, Freethought Fest, in 2012, where Annie Laurie Gaylor gave a speech entitled “God Fixation Won’t Fix This Nation.” Dan Barker is speaking at Freethought Fest 2013 in March, and we’ve hosted him as part of our Freethought Speakers Series in the past.

What I do here: I do whatever the staff attorneys need. Mostly, I help write letters and follow-up letters to various people and organizations nationwide who are committing state-church violations, as well as do research on some of the tips sent in from FFRF members on potential violations. I also help drink the coffee, out of the kindness of my heart.

What I like best about it: The coffee (just kidding)! I’m really enjoying all of the formal writing experience, as well as learning more and more about constitutional law. It has definitely been, and continues to be, a very valuable experience that I’m thankful for.

Something funny that’s happened at work: I find it endlessly amusing how someone is almost always offering me food. And by “endlessly amusing,” I mean “the best thing ever.”

My legal interests are: I like the more sociological aspects of law, meaning the law in action versus the law on the books. I’m really interested in the field of criminology. I plan to go to law school after I graduate from UW.

My legal heroes are: Elle Woods. (Just kidding! OK, I’m not kidding.) But I think I’ll have to go with my dad on this one, since he’s a lawyer and thus really was the driving force behind my interest in law and politics. [Elle Woods is a character played by Reese Witherspoon in “Legally Blonde.”]

These three words sum me up: Easily distracted, sleepy.

Things I like: Dogs, Lord of the Rings, folk music, boots.

Things I smite: Bugs, the meat industry, sinus infections.

Fun fact: I worship macaroni and cheese.

 

Shortly after I got back home from the FFRF convention in October in Portland, Ore., I started hearing advertisments on the radio where I live in Clarkston, Wash. The ads were for a church called Canyons Church and its services at the Clarkston High School auditorium.

This is our public high school of which I am a 1980 graduate. I thought this was curious — having church at the public high school. When, eventually, I saw a huge billboard advertising Canyons Church at Clarkston High School (with no disclaimer by the school), I decided I should look into this situation.

I went to “Legal” at ffrf.org/ and clicked on “State/Church FAQ” on the dropdown. I scrolled down and found “Churches Meeting at Public Schools.” FFRF said I could do a public records request and would have to pay for copies of the information I am requesting.

The FAQ said to (1) ask the school district for a copy of the rental contract; (2) ask for verification that rent has been paid up to date; (3) ask for a copy of the school district’s rental rate schedule to confirm that rent is reasonable. 

I emailed the superintendent with the public records request on Nov. 11. He replied on Nov. 13 that he would have the information to me by Nov. 20. On Nov. 19, I received a phone call from Wendy, the executive director for financial services, who said  I could pick up the information at the school district office.

I paid $1.05 for the copies (eight pages) and went home to study them. A cover letter was attached and in part said, “The third request asks for the current payment status of the Canyons Church account. Canyons Church is paid up through June 24, 2012. The district is at fault for not billing beyond this date (up until Friday, Nov. 16, 2012) due to a glitch in our system that we corrected on Friday. Invoices totaling $4,648 were sent to Canyons Church on Nov. 16.”

Hopefully, the church is up to date and will stay that way.

FFRF’s FAQ also advised to monitor signs and disclaimers. I did not find any signs at the school other than on the day of the service. There was, however, no disclaimer on the billboard in neighboring Lewiston, Idaho.

One last thing: The contracts state that all charges associated with use of facilities will be paid in full within 10 business days of receipt of invoice from the district. Yet the June 24 billing invoice date was 8/31/12, it was mailed on 9/11/12, due date was 9/30/12, and finally the invoice was paid on 10/15/12 (15 days late and apparently without penalty).

This whole process was quite exciting, I must admit. What shall I do next?

[Editor’s note: You’re doing fine, Jeff, but keep your powder dry. We try to gear FFRF’s FAQ to citizen activism as much as possible, depending on the situation.]  

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Sharing the Crank Mail

My, aren’t we cranky this month, the very month Jesus their savior was born? Hit and missives are printed as received.

 

You piece of shit Marxist Communist! Go live in Russia. Get the fuck out of here! Can’t wait to see you burn in hell!!!!! — Joann Stump

FFRF Information Request: You people are sick, lonely, pieces of excrement. OK, it’s your right to be stupid enough to not believe in God, but to FORCE YOUR SICK EVIL WAYS on others through legislation, pressure, and attempted intimidation is EVIL and WRONG.
Almighty God DOES exist, although not in YOUR lifeless, soulless eyes. I would NOT want to be you come the day of judgement. — “Suckmy Schwang”

ridiculous: I find you people to be out of line and unpatriotic. This nation was found as One Nation “Under God” and if you don’t like it move to another Country. Having served this Country along with a lot of fellow Veterans we will put God on our side anyday, and if you don’t like God used in the military or anywhere else keep it to yourselves or move. You are a minority but can believe what you like, but abortion is against God’s will and it folks like you that have made it a political issue. Your organization is no different than the KKK. — Tom Lemmer 

 

Freedom From Religion: You people make me fucking sick. You all don’t need any organization your just a bunch of attention-whores crying like an infant who needs attention. I hope you all realize how pathetic you all are and just crawl back in your fucking caves. Yes that is my real address and anyone who comes to meet me there in a trespassing fashion will also meet my vast gun and ammo collection in a unfriendly way. — Steven Main

morons: r u clowns 4 freaking real when im up in heaven ill b looking down at u freakin morons burning in hell id like 2 c u on judgement begging god and his son jesus 4 forgiveness but then its 2 late burn in hell 4ever r tell god u r sorry and ask 4 forgiveness 

 

You’re watertower terrorists! I’ve concluded that your organization is deliberately targeting the water supply of an entire community by threatening its water tower and what they do with it. That makes you terrorists. You are just evil, not to mention that you have no regard for the safety of low flying aircraft in the darkest months of winter near an area where the Great Lakes exist that can perpetuate adverse weather conditions. Any kind of marking lights on that water tower is a good thing. It’s a small town. They have what they can afford. Shame on you. Why don’t you go to Colorado and attack the cross on the side of the Rockies that is lit up at night? Get a life! — Mary Adler, Waldorf, Ill.

Sickening Joke: You sick cunts are a fucking pestilence. My hope is that God is real, and you find out in the most awful way possible. Secondly, I hope each one of your deaths is slow, painful and cancer riddled. Fuck the lot of you. — Marcus Armstrong 

 

UP YOURS: Your full of shit up yours ass holes. — Tony Roberts 

 

assholes: why dont you idiots mind your own business.stay in wisconsin and leave everyone else alone.u are liberal assholes. — “Bendover Jerks”

Statue in Montana: You people are absolutely out of your mind. You are all sick and mentally handicapped in my opinion. You can all go to hell. — David Dempsey, Homer, Mich. 

 

Then get out of the USA: If you don’t like living in the USA, then get out. We have freedoms too. All ragheads, and people that don’t believe in Christ should be shot. This makes me so mad, it has been fine up until a bunch of you self rightous dick wads want us all to be fair, well life isn’t always fair, so buck up, shut up, and kiss my ASS! — James Williams

You are all assholes: You fucking people ought to mind your own business and let people express their own beliefs - if you don’t agree with it keep your fucking mouths closed and don’t worry about it.....you are not the majority. What a bunch of low life losers. — Stan Rohde

 

Hallelujah: You fags need to get a life, or just do the world a favor and kill yourselves. Is a statute on a ski slope really that offensive to you? Seriously you all must be the most over sensitive pussies in the world. Merry Christmas Bitches
— John Nelson, Houston, Texas

 

You are human trash: Just because one of your stupid assholes doesn’t like a statue then it must be removed for everyone?
IDIOTS you sub-humans are! — Rick Lane 

 

Evolution? Does your organization believe in “The THEORY of Evolution” ? If we have evolved, explain why so many people are so stupid as to vote for Barack Hussein Obama. If we have evolved, why do so many people murder their unborn? I can’t think of any animal that does that, can you. – Britt Whit

no one: who the FUCK DO YOU THINK YOU ARE? There is a God. And I think all of you will be going to HELL. — “I love God”

 

Scum: I look forward to pissing on your grave, as well as all your children. Your nothing but a bunch of little spoiled dbags . . . get a fucken life!! — Mike Kelley— Travis Peebles, Texas 

Texas: Don’t mess with Texas. We don’t need your Bullshit here. 

 

Freedom From Religion! HEY, MERRY CHRISTMAS....YOU COMMUNIST ASS HOLES! — Stan Knowles

Haralson County High School: The people of west Georgia have a way of life and for you people up there in that dismal state of ugly girls, snowdrifts, and millionaire athlete worship to try to tear it down is disgusting, sad, repugnant and insulting to every peace loving comm unity on the planet. I’m sure you’d love to pick on some Muslims but you four-eyed, dope smoking geeks are too chicken sh!t. — Jesup Gentry, Atlanta, Ga.

 

Your Star: You should be sued for your interference of an organization to excercise its right of freedom of religion. If you don’t like it here in the US, then leave dummy!!!  — Leroy Smith

 

OF OF OF OF OF: IT’S FREEDOM OF RELIGION NOT Freedom FROM Religion you freaks! Read the Constitution! By asking government to HIDE religious events you are asking them to VIOLATE THE CONSTITUTION! YOU ARE IDIOTS! PS: GOD WILL GET YOU EVENTUALLY.

 

stay the hell out of my religion: bELIEVE WHAT YOU WANT, BUT STAY THE HELL OUT OF MY RELIGION AND WHAT I BELIEVE. GO BACK IN YOUR SEWER AND STAY THERE — Mickey Mathis, Brownwood

Freedom from religion: You’re a bunch of idiots. You will lift up your eyes in hell! Enjoy! — Glen Kinard

stay within in you own state: mind your own house. your work is ignorant, intrusive, and serves no divine purpose. — Tawni Flick 

 

National Holiday: I’d like to suggest April 1st as your group’s national holiday. — Greg Thomas 

 

assholes: Are you the Anti-Religion Nazi’s that fucked over that town over it’s cross ? What a bunch of fucking assholes. fuck off and die! — David DeSau 

 

Kansas Town Forced to Remove Cross: Nothing but a group of  progressive thugs. YOU PEOPLE SUCK — Chris Marshall 

 

Freedom: This is America so you are free from religion. Your childish borish behavior towards people of faith is really quite telling to your character. This e-mail is sent with neither malace or respect as I have none of either for you. Oh who am I kidding “GO FUCK YOURSELVES” — Michael White, Green Bay, Wis.

Your Org: Your fucking existence is offensive to me, does my opinion matter? Or does only your opinion matter? Also it is freedom from the establishment of a state religion not freedom from religion you psycho fucks. — Miles Bouck, Carpenter, Va.

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In the News

Where atheism gets
you a death sentence 

A new study by the International Humanist and Ethical Union in Switzerland shows that atheists and other religious skeptics suffer persecution or discrimination around the world and in at least seven countries can be executed if their beliefs become known. The IHEU issued the report on the United Nation’s annual Human Rights Day on Dec. 10.

The report, “Freedom of Thought 2012,” said “there are laws that deny atheists’ right to exist, curtail their freedom of belief and expression, revoke their right to citizenship, restrict their right to marry.”

According to the survey of about 60 countries, nations where atheism or defection from the official religion can bring capital punishment are Afghanistan, Iran, Maldives, Mauritania, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Sudan.

The report also notes policies in some European countries and the U.S. that favor the religious while excluding nonbelievers.

In the U.S., a social and political climate prevails “in which atheists and the nonreligious are made to feel like lesser Americans, or non-Americans,” the report said.

In at least seven U.S. states, constitutional provisions bar atheists from public office. One state, Arkansas, has a law that bars atheists from testifying in court, the report said.

 

Judge to archdiocese: Give up abuse files 

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Emilie Elias on Dec. 10 ordered the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles to turn over secret files it’s had for decades on 69 priests accused of sex abuse. Elias gave the archdiocese until Dec. 27 to give her the files. She set a date for early January to hear arguments from priests who want to keep their files private.

The Los Angeles Times reported that the order came five years after the 2007 settlement of $660 million with more than 550 alleged victims of 245 priests.

Ray Boucher, lead plaintiff’s attorney, estimates the archdiocese has files on 80 more priests that it is not turning over to the judge. He also said documents on priests who belonged to Catholic religious orders are also missing.

 

Film documents
abuse by Wis. priest

“Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God” opened in U.S. theaters in November and will air on HBO in February. The film centers on four men who attended St. John’s School for the Deaf in St. Francis, Wis., as boys and were sexually molested.

“A lot of individual stories had been done about clerical sex abuse, but I hadn’t seen one that really connected the individual stories with the larger coverup by the Vatican, so that was important,” director Alex Gibney told Reuters.

In a letter to the Vatican in 1998, the year he died, Fr. Lawrence Murphy admitted molesting some 200 deaf boys over two decades beginning in the 1950s.

 

‘No faith’ gains in United Kingdom

The Independent reported Dec. 10 that the number of persons with no religious faith in the U.K. rose from 14.8% in 2001 to 25.1% in 2011.

During that period, the number of Christians fell from 37.3 million to 33.2 million. The proportion of Muslims rose from 3% to 4.8%. Hinduism claims 1.5%, Sikhism 0.8% and Judaism 0.5%. About 180,000 claimed to be followers of the Jedi religion featured in “Star Wars,” down from 400,000 in 2001.

 

Mothers ‘maimed, forgotten’ in Ireland

“The imperative to bear as many children as possible crippled hundreds of Irishwomen,” Marie O’Connor writes in a column titled “The maimed and forgotten mothers” in The Irish Times. Catholic hospitals encouraged doctors to treat difficult childbirths with a symphysiotomy, a procedure that severs the pelvic joint, instead of doing a caesarean section.

According to O’Connor, the church preferred the symphysiotomy because it could widen the pelvis, “enabling an unlimited number of vaginal deliveries.

“But when it went wrong, which was often, the women suffered chronic pain and incontinence, and many could barely walk. . . . Doctors in every other Western country shunned the operation, but in Ireland it was performed on some 1,500 women between 1944 and 2005. About 200 victims survive today, most of them disabled. Yet they can’t seek redress in the courts, because it only recently became public that these operations were unnecessary, long after the statute of limitations expired.”

 

Bible favorite book, child favorite porn

A Manchester, N.H., lawyer with ties to a conservative Christian law firm took a teen girl to Canada, had her engage in sexual activity and convinced her to let it be filmed, according to federal indictments reported Nov. 17 by the Concord Monitor.

Lisa Biron, 43, is charged with transportation with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity, seven counts of possession of child pornography and five counts of sexual exploitation of children.

Biron is associated with the Alliance Defending Freedom, which, its website says, is committed to keeping “the door open for the spread of the Gospel” by advocating for “religious liberty, the sanctity of life, and marriage and family.” In Concord, she worked with ADF to defend a Pentecostal church in its tax fight against the city.

She recently served on the board of directors at Mount Zion Christian Schools in Manchester. On her Facebook page, which was been removed, she listed the bible as her favorite book.

Police began investigating after receiving a tip from a man who said he’d seen child porn on Biron’s computer. 

 

Priest on abuse list
now that he’s dead

Fr. Donald Musinski has been added to the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s list of clergy restricted because of substantiated allegations of sexual abuse of children, 15 years after the victim first accused him, the Journal Sentinel reported Dec. 1.

The archdiocese did not announce Musinski’s addition to the list, possibly because he is deceased, said spokeswoman Julie Wolf. He died at age 69 in 2006. He was ordained in 1962 and served parishes in Milwaukee, Belgium and Johnsburg before retiring in 1999.

The victim, Karen Konter, now 54, reported Musinski to the archdiocese in 1997. She said Musinski began molesting her when she was 8, progressing to rape by the time she graduated from eighth grade. She said the priest took advantage of her, “an isolated and ostracized little girl, hobbled by polio and numerous surgeries,” as the Journal Sentinel put it, at St. Adalbert’s on Milwaukee’s south side.

U.K. Scouts mull
atheist membership

The Telegraph reported Dec. 3 that the British Scouting movement is working on plans to draft an alternative godless oath and let atheists become full members and group leaders for the first time. For more than 40 years, versions of the promise have existed allowing Muslims to pledge allegiance to Allah and Hindus to substitute the words “my Dharma.”

The traditional pledge mentions “duty to God and to the Queen, to help other people and to keep the Scout Law.”

Scouting founder Robert Baden-Powell in his book of advice for boys, “Rovering for Success,” compared atheism to gambling, excessive drinking, smoking and syphilis as a danger to be avoided.

 

Bible played role
in boy’s death

Police said 7-year-old Roderick Arrington was beaten to death by his parents because he didn’t read the bible and do his homework, the Las Vegas Sun reported Dec. 3. The boy’s stepfather, Markiece Palmer, 34, and mother, Dina Palmer, 27, were charged with murder, child abuse and neglect.

Roderick died after being taken to the hospital on Nov. 30. A doctor reported he had fixed pupils, bruises all over his body and buttocks showing “fresh open wounds.
Markiece Palmer told police he spanked his stepson because he lied about reading a chapter in the bible and didn’t do his homework. He admitted he hit the boy on multiple occasions with his belt, a spatula, a wooden paddle and his hands.

On one Facebook photo, Markiece Palmer wrote, “My babies they make me happy. GOD bless the children!!!”

On another photo of the boy, Dina Palmer wrote, “I wanna do better 4 my son, my family, myself, 4 you LORD!!!!!!!!”

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