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The Freedom From Religion Foundation has successfully removed prayer from the Big Spring School Board meetings in Newville, Pa. 

Board President Wilbur Wolf announced Aug. 28 that “prayer will be removed from future meeting agendas to avoid the potential cost of legal action against the board and Big Spring School District.” 

A local resident had asked for FFRF’s help in stopping the unlawful prayer before every twice-monthly meeting. Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert asked Wolf and the board in an Aug. 17 letter to discontinue the “practice of scheduling prayer.”

Markert pointed out several appeals court rulings, including a decision last year in the 3rd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals (which is binding in Pennsylvania), have struck down prayer by public school boards. In the recent Doe v. Indian River School District case, the Supreme Court let stand the appeals court ruling that school board prayer rose above “the level of interaction between church and state that the Establishment Clause permits.” 

Markert added that nearly 1.5 million Pennsylvanians identify as nonreligious.

Wolf attributed the board’s change in policy to high legal costs and told a local newspaper that ending prayer “is the prudent thing to do.” He publicly stated that “We regret having to make this decision.” 

“It’s disappointing that a school board president would send a message that essentially undermines principles that require secular education and protect freedom of conscience,”  said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. 

“A school board should be modeling respect for secular education and 60 years of firm Supreme Court precedent against religion in the schools. Whatever reasons the board gives for stopping the prayers, we are pleased to see this egregious violation ended.”

FFRF sent letters to three other Pennsylvania school boards in August. Octorara Area School Board in Atglen has suspended its usual recitation of the Lord’s Prayer until further review of FFRF’s request. Greencastle-Antrim School Board in Greencastle has gone to a moment of silence for the moment. FFRF is awaiting word from Eastern Lancaster County School Board in New Holland.

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FFRF stops Milwaukee civil rights abuse

Milwaukee Irish Fest organizers announced Aug. 16, in response to a complaint by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, that they would drop a religious promotion that violated civil rights laws. 

This year the annual event was Aug. 16-19 at the city-owned Henry Maier Festival Park. A Catholic Mass is held near the entrance to Irish Fest one Sunday a year at 9:30 a.m. The fest’s website said, “Guests who donate nonperishable food items prior to the liturgy are admitted to the festival free of charge after the Mass.” All others were charged $15.

The catch was that the Fest did not open until 11 a.m.

FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote to Irish Fest, “This means that only those who would conceivably attend or want to attend the Catholic Mass can receive this major benefit. Therefore, you are discriminating on the basis of religion.”

FFRF sent its first letter of complaint about the discount in 2010.

Elliott followed up with a letter Aug. 9 to Kathy Pratscher, interim executive director, on behalf of a local complainant, who has been bothered for years by the discrimination. 

Under Wisconsin law, it’s illegal to “Deny to another or charge another a higher price than the regular rate for the full and equal enjoyment of any public place of accommodation or amusement because of sex, race, color, creed, disability, sexual orientation, national origin or ancestry.”

Elliott discovered the Catholic practice is widespread in Wisconsin. Oshkosh Irish Fest offered free admission to Mass attendees in 2009 and 2010. Polish Fest in Milwaukee offers reduced admission to Mass attendees. German Fest in Milwaukee hosts a Mass in the Marcus Amphitheater and promotes it by saying, “All church attendees receive free admission to the Fest.” Festa Italiana offers this promotion: “FREE admission to Festa when you attend High Mass at 11 a.m. in the Marcus Amphitheater. ” Elliott is pursuing complaints against those illegal practices.

FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor noted that dropping the practice will also help ensure the Hunger Task Force, recipient of the food drive, will receive more contributions: “The Mass reward was a disincentive to charity, since three-fourths of Wisconsin citizens aren’t Catholic.”

Given their history, you’d think the Irish would be more sensitive about discrimination in the U.S., including religious discrimination. 

Showing it knows a thing or two about tolerance and charity, Atheist Ireland donated $100 to the Hunger Task Force to reward Irish Fest’s change of heart.

Michael Nugent, chairperson of Atheist Ireland, wrote a letter to Irish Fest officials noting that 43% of Irish identify as nonreligious and another 10% as “convinced atheists.”

Nugent added, “Thank you for ending the discrimination in admission charges against non-Catholics attending your Irish Fest this Sunday, and for reflecting the reality that Irish identity today transcends our various religious or nonreligious beliefs.

“As a small token of our gratitude, we are sending $100 to the Freedom from Religion Foundation to buy some food items to donate to your collection. Perhaps you might allow free admission to some people who otherwise could not afford the entrance fee.”

FFRF Co-President Dan Barker noted, “Milwaukee remains one of the poorest cities in the U.S., so this compassionate contribution by Irish secular citizens was really heartwarming and welcome.”

FFRF sent the donation directly to the Hunger Task Force.

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I don’t have any atheist friends or anything. So I would like to maybe make a couple of friends that live near me that I could actually go to their house and have dinner [and] not have to pray before eating. I can actually be the same as them and not have their parents hate me or whatever because I’m an atheist.

Chandler Garry, 11, a participant in Camp Quest Northwest near Seattle

ABC “Nightline,” 8-23-12


I say to the grownups, if you want to deny evolution and live in your world, in your world that’s completely inconsistent with everything we observe in the universe, that’s fine, but don’t make your kids do it because we need them. We need scientifically literate voters and taxpayers for the future.

Bill Nye “the science guy,” online post titled “Creationism Is Not Appropriate For Children”

youtube.com, 8-23-12


This isn’t a marriage made in heaven.

State Assembly member Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, who is gay, on the Vatican naming Salvatore Cordileone, who led the 2008 fight against gay marriage in California, to head the Archdiocese of San Francisco

San Francisco Chronicle, 7-27-12


When I asked them specifically, “Will you [agree] to make the city whole?” they wouldn’t do it. If they aren’t going to make the taxpayers whole, why should we be putting a million dollars into the collection plate of the Catholic Church when we have demonstrable needs?

Steve Kozachik, Tucson City Council, voting against an appropriation of $1.1 million, which passed 5-2, to remodel the Catholic Marist College

Arizona Daily Star, 7-11-12


It’s too easy for straight allies to think of gays and lesbians as separate from us. They need rights we already enjoy. They face bigotry we deplore. But it happens to them, not us. Chick-fil-A has performed a miracle. I’m a middle-class white guy in America, and Chick-fil-A has finally made me feel what it’s like to be discriminated against. Also, I have lost my appetite for those chicken biscuits.

Twice-married columnist Jason Stanford, commenting on Chick-fil-A’s religious proscription against divorce

Bennington Banner, 7-26-12


I teach my kids the same things that you do about how to treat other people. I simply believe in one less god than you do.

Thaddeus Schwartz, officer of Secular Life, Nashville, Tenn.

WBIR Knoxville, 7-24-12


In my country where it’s considered highly controversial, more controversial with the bishops than it is in Europe, 82% of Catholics believe contraception is morally acceptable. So let the women in Africa decide. The choice is up to them.

Melinda Gates, a practicing Catholic, speaking at the London Family Planning Summit on the Gates Foundation leading a drive to raise $4.3 billion to provide access to contraception

Forbes, 7-12-12 


The Boy Scouts of America just the other day reaffirmed its policy of banning openly gay boys from being members. The organization also continued its ban on gays or lesbians serving as leaders. The Scouts, in other words, came down squarely in favor of homophobia, which is a form of bigotry.

Columnist Richard Cohen, “A merit badge for bigotry?”

Washington Post, 7-18-12


Sue Paterno had been quoted as saying Joe was not a saint. That made this difficult decision easier for me to execute.

Artist Michael Pilato, on why he painted out the halo above former Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno after revelations about Paterno’s role in the Jerry Sandusky child rape scandal

MSNBC, 7-16-12


The Israeli edition of Forbes magazine published a first-of-its-kind ranking last month of Israel’s 13 richest rabbis. In the No. 1 spot was 36-year-old Rabbi Pinchas Abuhatzeira from Beersheba, a blue-collar southern desert city, whose wealth is estimated at $335 million.

News story, “Israel’s richest rabbis become savvy businessmen”

Associated Press, 7-13-12


I believe that lots of people only follow a religion because of parental and cultural pressure and that they would be happier if they could be true to themselves and lead godless lives. Belief in god is not something that comes naturally to all of us; many of us find it impossible to believe in god and it can be liberating and life-enhancing to fully embrace this lack of belief and live our lives without religion.

Alom Shaha, a London science teacher and author of The Young Atheist’s Handbook: Lessons for Living a Good Life Without God

The Commentator, 7-16-12

Because there is no cosmic point to the life that each of us perceives on this distant bit of dust at galaxy’s edge, all the more reason for us to maintain in proper balance what we have here. Because there is nothing else. No thing. This is it. And quite enough, all in all.

Gore Vidal (Oct. 3, 1925-Aug. 1, 2012), author, playwright, commentator 

National Public Radio, 8-1-12


This isn’t a marriage made in heaven.

State Assembly member Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, who is gay, on the Vatican naming Salvatore Cordileone, who led the 2008 fight against gay marriage in California, to head the Archdiocese of San Francisco

San Francisco Chronicle, 7-27-12


When I asked them specifically, “Will you [agree] to make the city whole?” they wouldn’t do it. If they aren’t going to make the taxpayers whole, why should we be putting a million dollars into the collection plate of the Catholic Church when we have demonstrable needs?

Steve Kozachik, Tucson City Council, voting against an appropriation of $1.1 million, which passed 5-2, to remodel the Catholic Marist College

Arizona Daily Star, 7-11-12

It’s too easy for straight allies to think of gays and lesbians as separate from us. They need rights we already enjoy. They face bigotry we deplore. But it happens to them, not us. Chick-fil-A has performed a miracle. I’m a middle-class white guy in America, and Chick-fil-A has finally made me feel what it’s like to be discriminated against. Also, I have lost my appetite for those chicken biscuits.

Twice-married columnist Jason Stanford, commenting on Chick-fil-A’s religious proscription against divorce

Bennington Banner, 7-26-12


The Gideon bible is full of references to sex and violence, although it’s written using more formal language. James’ book is easier to read.

Hotel manager Wayne Bartholomew, Crosthwaite, U.K., on replacing bibles in guest rooms with copies of the erotic Fifty Shades of Grey

Westmorland Gazette, 7-19-12


I teach my kids the same things that you do about how to treat other people. I simply believe in one less god than you do.

Thaddeus Schwartz, officer of Secular Life, Nashville, Tenn.

WBIR Knoxville, 7-24-12

The Israeli edition of Forbes magazine published a first-of-its-kind ranking last month of Israel’s 13 richest rabbis. In the No. 1 spot was 36-year-old Rabbi Pinchas Abuhatzeira from Beersheba, a blue-collar southern desert city, whose wealth is estimated at $335 million.

News story, “Israel’s richest rabbis become savvy businessmen

Associated Press, 7-13-12


Our banners will hang in the stadium and we will rename the team the “Mr. Paul Aints,” The team will wear Mr. Paul Aints jerseys during the game, which will be auctioned off as a fundraiser for us.

Announcement by Minnesota Atheists about sponsorship of a St. Paul Saints baseball game Aug. 10

Sports Grid, 7-12-12


It’s further evidence of this era’s move toward Balkanization in the United States. It’s no longer sufficient that they have shared norms among themselves, they are increasingly trying to impose their norms on the rest of the culture.

Marci Hamilton, Cardozo School of Law, on strict Hasidim dress codes for all shoppers at stores in Brooklyn

New York Post, 7-22-12 

Within the past five years, the Roman Catholic Human Life International, the Pat Robertson-founded American Center for Law and Justice and Family Watch International, led by a Mormon, have launched or expanded their work in Africa dedicated to promoting their Christian Right worldview. A loose network of right-wing charismatic Christians called the Transformation movement joins them in fanning the flames of the culture wars over homosexuality and abortion by backing prominent African campaigners and political leaders.

Report titled “How the U.S. Christian Right is Transforming Sexual Politics in Africa”

publiceye.org, 7-25-12


CNN . . . assumes from the outset the existence of some “god,” in order to ask where he “was,” at the time of the crime, as if CNN wants god to provide an alibi. Naturally, the most logical approach is to reject the premise, and with it the existence of things for which there is no physical evidence. 

Michael Luciano, PolicyMic editor, on CNN Belief Blog’s question, “Where was God in Aurora massacre?”

policymic.com, 7-30-12


This case exemplifies the absurdity and tragedy of the blasphemy law, which is an instrument of abuse against the most vulnerable in society.

Ali Dayan Dasan of Human Rights Watch, commenting on the arrest of a Christian girl with Down syndrome girl for allegedly burning a religious textbook about the Quran in Pakistan, where there are at least 100 blasphemy prosecutions

New York Times, 8-21/8-29-12

If God has chosen to bless this [rape victim] with a life, you don’t kill it.

Sharon Barnes, president of the Republican Women’s Club of St. Louis, defending the “legitimate rape” remark by U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo.

New York Times, 8-20-12


He would say things like, “I can’t understand why you won’t obey me [and have sex], the other ladies can.” I always gave up. I was afraid not to.

Testimony from an Ohio woman in the trial of Bishop Samuel Mullet Sr., accused of orchestrating hair- and beard-cutting attacks on fellow Amish

Detroit Free Press, 8-31-12

People have this picture in their minds of a person planning to — a psychopath — but that’s not the case. Suppose you have a man having a nervous breakdown, and a youngster comes after him. A lot of the cases, the youngster — 14, 16, 18 — is the seducer.

Fr. Benedict Groeschel, 78, founder of the conservative Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, claiming that emotionally needy children often seduce clergy

National Catholic Register, 8-28-12


Ask a Pastor: Is there sin in Heaven?

ANSWER: [Bible verses] seem to show that evil (thus sin) has, like a slug’s slimy trail, even left its mark in Heaven.

Rev. R.A. McDonald, New Testament Baptist Church, Safford, Ariz.

Eastern Arizona Courier, 8-18-12


I was asked why the power of God isn’t moving and I said it’s because I haven’t kicked that woman in the face. The Holy Spirit spoke to me, the gift of faith came on me, and said: “Kick her in the face, with your biker boot.” I inched closer and I went like this [kicking forcefully]. Bam! Just as my boot made contact with her nose, she fell under the power of God.

Canadian Pastor Todd Bentley, Fresh Fire Ministries, who claims he can kick disease, even cancer, out of people’s bodies

Croydon Today, 7-19-12


The Truth for Youth consists of the entire New Testament in the God’s Word Translation along with 100 pages of powerful, full color comic stories that present the “absolute truth” about issues that young people are confronted with, such as: Sexual Purity, Sorcery & Witchcraft, Homosexuality, Abortion, Pornography, Drug Addiction, Drunkenness, Peer Pressure, School Violence and Secular Rock Music.

Statement by Revival Fires Ministries, which wants to get a copy of the book to all “unsaved teenagers in America’s public schools”

thetruthforyouth.com, 8-14-12


[Plaintiffs] believe that the procreative capacity of human beings represents a precious gift from God by which individuals are allowed to participate in God’s plan to share life and that, as a result, any acts of deliberate interference with that procreative capacity bound up with acts of unitive human love — including artificial contraception, abortion, and/or sterilization — are gravely wrong and sinful.

Christopher and Mary Yep’s lawsuit against the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act

Religion Clause, 8-24-12


Orthodoxy or death

T-shirt slogan worn by praying, cross-toting protesters burning a Pussy Riot poster as an “exorcism”

New York Times 8-9-12


We’re going to rip them up and burn them. Like in the Middle Ages.

Leonid Simonovich-Nikshich, leader of Union of Orthodox Banner Bearers, about feminist punk band Pussy Riot members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich, convicted of “hooliganism” for conducting a “punk prayer”against Russian President Vladimir Putin and his ties to the Orthodox Church

New York Times 8-9-12

It would be an America in which access to birth control would be controlled by people who never use it.

Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke, speaking to the Democratic National Convention about allegedly celibate Catholic bishops who oppose the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act

CBS, 9-5-12


I wasn’t elected to be a spiritual leader. I was elected to fill potholes. I was elected to analyze budgets.

City Commissioner Adam Stern, Livingston, Mont., voting against meeting prayers and a moment of silence

Livingston Enterprise, 6-12-12


After an 18-month consultation, the Girl Guides revealed they will no longer swear a 43-year-old promise to “do my duty to God, to serve the Queen and my country” and will instead promise “to be true to myself and develop my beliefs.”

On the new wording in the pledge that Australian Girl Guides (Scouts) recite

The Telegraph, 7-6-12




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FFRF parish exemption case clears hurdle

A district court in Madison, Wis., gave the green light to the right of FFRF’s nonbelieving directors to challenge the parish exemption giving preferential tax benefits to “ministers of the gospel.”

U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb, Western District of Wisconsin, issued a strong 20-page opinion and order Aug. 29 granting standing to FFRF’s plaintiffs to pursue their challenge of the 1954 law. Plaintiffs are Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor and President Emerita Anne Gaylor.

FFRF v. USA was filed in September 2011. FFRF first challenged the parish exemption in district court in Sacramento in 2009 with 21 FFRF members named as federal taxpayers in a case destined for the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. A ruling on taxpayer standing in an unrelated Supreme Court ruling forced FFRF to withdraw the suit in 2011.

FFRF then refiled in Wisconsin, challenging the statute’s injury to FFRF’s paid directors, who receive part of their salaries designated as a housing allowance, yet are unable to benefit from it as ministers are.

“We’re very pleased that the court has acknowledged our injury and right to sue over this,” said Barker, ironically a former minister who previously qualified for and used housing allowance benefits. Barker is not accorded the same privilege as director of an atheist/agnostic organization, which shows governmental favoritism of religion over nonreligion. Barker calls the statute a subsidy rather than an accommodation of religion.

FFRF seeks a declaration that the federal statute creating the parish exemption violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. FFRF is asking the court to enjoin the tax benefits exclusively given for ministers of the gospel under 28 U.S.C. § 2201 that 26 U.S.C. §107.

“Because it is clear from the face of the statute that plaintiffs are not entitled to the exemption, I see no reason to make their standing contingent on the futile exercise of making a formal claim with the IRS,” Crabb ruled. She wrote that “there is no plausible argument that plaintiffs could make that they qualify as ‘ministers of the gospel,’ so it would be pointless to require plaintiffs to jump through the hoop of filing a claim to prove that they are not entitled to the exemption.”

She dismissed as “another straw man” the government’s characterization of the FFRF directors’ injury as mere “disagreement with the government’s claim.” Crabb wrote, “It is undoubtedly true that plaintiffs object to §107 because they believe it violates the Establishment Clause and that this may be the primary reason they filed the lawsuit, but that is not the injury plaintiffs are alleging for the purpose of showing standing.”

The exemptions permit clergy to deduct from their taxable income housing allowances furnished as part of compensation. Congress in 1954 amended the tax code to permit all clergy to exempt their housing costs from their taxable income. U.S. Rep. Peter Mack, author of the amendment, declared:

“Certainly, in these times when we are being threatened by a godless and antireligious world movement we should correct this discrimination against certain ministers of the gospel who are carrying on such a courageous fight against this foe. Certainly this is not too much to do for these people who are caring for our spiritual welfare.”

The statute defines the gross income of a minister of the gospel as not including “the rental value of a home furnished to him as part of his compensation,” or “the rental allowance paid to him as part of is compensation, to the extent used by him to rent or provide a home and to the extent such allowance does not exceed the fair rental value of the home, including furnishings and appurtenances such as a garage, plus the cost of utilities.”

The exclusion can be used by ministers for virtually all of the costs of home ownership, including down payment on a home; home mortgage payments, including interest and principal; real estate taxes; personal property taxes; fire and homeowners liability insurance; rental payments and cost of acquiring a home (i.e., legal fees, bank fees, title fees, etc.).

Crabb’s ruling means FFRF’s lawsuit will go forward to be argued on its merits. FFRF is being represented by attorney Richard L. Bolton

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Thou shalt honor thy First Amendment!

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has announced its intention to sue two Pennsylvania school districts in federal court after neither met a deadline to remove illegal Ten Commandment markers on school property.

FFRF had warned both districts that without notification by Sept. 7 that they were removing the monuments, FFRF would sue. FFRF has hired Pennsylvania counsel and has parent plaintiffs in both districts. Attorney Marcus Schneider of Pittsburgh wrote the districts Aug. 29 on behalf of FFRF, noting that the Ten Commandment monuments “will not withstand judicial scrutiny.” 

In response, the Connellsville Area School District grudgingly agreed to remove its 5-foot-tall monument near the Junior High School East auditorium entrance. The district placed  plywood over the front of the monument. After some in the community raised a fuss, the school board declined to vote Sept. 12 to remove the monument, so a lawsuit is imminent.

A suit is also being prepared against New Kensington-Arnold School District, which FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott first contacted last March. The similar granite bible monument prominently displayed at Valley High School is at the school entrance. It sits between two footpath bridges leading from the parking lot to the main entrance.

“The permanent display of the Ten Commandments in front of a New Kensington-Arnold school violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Courts have continually held that public schools may not display religious messages or iconography,” wrote Elliott. He cited the Supreme Court decision (Stone v. Graham, 1980) that ruled posting the Ten Commandments in schools violates the Establishment Clause: “The preeminent purpose for posting the Ten Commandments on schoolroom walls is plainly religious in nature.”

The New Kensington marker is a Catholic version of the Ten Commandments (with no reference to “graven images”).

His letter also cited Justice Stephen Breyer’s observation that Ten Commandments displays have no place “on the grounds of a public school, where, given the impressionability of the young, government must exercise particular care in separating church and state.”

“The school districts deserve an ‘F’ in civics,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Instead of protecting the freedom of conscience of students, they are sending a message that the First Amendment is trumped by the First Commandment. Contrary to the First Commandment, a school district has no business telling students and their parents which god to have, how many gods to have or whether to have any gods at all!”

FFRF has more than 18,500 nonreligious members nationwide. It’s currently suing over the declaration by the Pennsylvania House that 2012 is “the Year of the Bible.” That federal suit is being brought by attorney Richard Bolton behalf of FFRF and its 700 Pennyslvania members, including 41 named state members, and its chapter, Nittany Freethought.

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Intern foils crank mailer

ziegler maddy

Name: Maddy Ziegler.

Where and when I was born: Janesville, Wis., Sept. 7, 1989.

Family: Parents, two sisters, 21 and 19, and a brother, 17.

Education: I majored in English and political science at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. I’m about to start my second year of law school at UW-Madison.

My religious upbringing was: I was raised Roman Catholic.

How I came to work as an FFRF legal intern: I had been an admirer of FFRF for a few years, so I applied first thing when I saw their advertisement for summer interns through the UW Law Career Services.

What I do here: I research complaints and legal issues and draft letters to people violating the First Amendment. 

What I like best about it: Gaining legal experience while working toward something I’m passionate about.

Something funny that’s happened at work: Someone wrote us a piece of “anonymous” crank mail through the online complaint form, taunting us that his restaurant gave free meals to Christians and daring us to find him. However, he included his email address, so another intern and I were able to track him down immediately online, figuring out his name, restaurant, P.O. Box and phone number in a matter of minutes. We’re still thinking of the best ways we could put this information to use.

My legal interests are: Still being figured out, but include constitutional law, environmental law and family law.

My legal hero is: Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

These three words sum me up: Intelligent, snarky, optimistic.

Things I like: Books, good TV, politics, the Green Bay Packers, playing the violin, cats, indie music, living in Madison, concerts, Wisconsin beer and fall weather.

Things I smite: Irrationality, the crickets infesting my apartment and people who chew with their mouths open.

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Second ‘War of Northern Aggression?’

FFRF’s major successes in ending entrenched illegal prayer practices in many Southern public schools are attracting the attention of the Religious Right.

Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association, a Christian group based in Tupelo, Miss., charged in a rambling broadcast Aug. 22 that FFRF has launched a “second War of Northern Aggression.” (The term is used by some Southerners to describe the Civil War.)

Fischer’s remarks came after publicity over FFRF’s complaint that persuaded a Mississippi public school to obey the law and stop broadcasting prayers over its P.A. system before football games. Fischer mused about FFRF’s legal strategy, imagining it to be, “Let’s get rid of every trace of religious liberty in the South, and we can do it because these people will not fight back. And again the Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Wisconsin, and this is the second War of Northern Aggression and they’re winning this thing.”

FFRF has also followed up on Walker County Schools’ response to FFRF’s request to investigate unusual constitutional violations by Ridgeland [Ga.] High School football coach Mark Mariakis. Although praising the superintendent’s “commitment to upholding the Constitution,” the response raised lingering concerns.

Attorney Andrew Seidel’s Aug. 21 letter detailed allegations that FFRF had received over several egregious sports/church entanglements at Ridge-land. Most notable was the coach taking public school football teams to pregame church meals where prayers are recited.

It was also alleged that Mariakis regularly prayed with his teams, had pressured students to attend a “Christian football camp” and that the team had adopted a “team chaplain.”

Superintendent Damon Raines responded Aug. 30 that “the district will not have a team chaplain nor will school officials or employees, including coaches, organize, lead or participate in any prayers. Staff will also refrain from participating in the [Fellowship of Christian Athletes].” The district said pregame meals will no longer include “religious references.” 

Seidel replied Sept. 11 that “taking public school teams to church still involves constitutional concerns.” Quoting legal precedent that bars public schools from holding graduations in churches, he argued that regardless of the purpose in choosing to have a pregame meal in a church, “the sheer religiosity of the space create[s] a likelihood that high school students . . . would perceive a link between church and state.”

FFRF is alarmed over Mariakis’ attendance at a Sept. 9 “Rally to Pray” held to “keep prayer in the practices and before games.” Seidel said, “It seems to send a message that he is unrepentant and hostile to First Amendment limitations on his proselytizing.”

FFRF wants the district to investigate the coach’s remarks and the rally and to “ensure that Mariakis understands he cannot use his position as coach to ‘share the Gospel’ with his team and other public students.”

FFRF also noted that it appears that school buses are taking players, coaches and staff from the school to churches for meals. FFRF further requested a response to an unanswered allegation from its original complaint that the football program has used the bible as a motivational tool.

FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor added, “When a public school district has permitted unconstitutional practices to flourish for years, it creates a climate of intolerance. We see that intolerance in the community’s reaction to our reasonable request to ensure that student rights of conscience, and Supreme Court precedent, are honored in Walker County schools.” 

A short first-of-its-kind feature spot, “Spotlight on Freethought and the First Amendment,” produced in conjunction with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, started airing Aug. 18 on select national public television affiliates. 

The spot is guaranteed to air 500 times in the next three months and reach an estimated 3 million people. A four-minute version and one of 5:30 will run interchangeably. When and where the short program, used as filler, will run can’t be announced beforehand. Public TV affiliates decide which fillers are needed on the day they run.

If you catch one of the spots on your local public TV affiliate, please be sure to contact the affiliate promptly to say thank you and to encourage rebroadcast.

This is believed to be the first such segment featuring discussion of freethought, atheism and focus on the specific dangers of mixing state and church. The description sent to affiliates reads:

“America has more diversity, faiths, religions and cultures than any other country in the world. And yet we all seem to get along pretty well. Only in a country where we can be free of religion in our government can we then be free to practice our own or choose not to follow any faith.

“This segment focuses on our freedom to practice our faith, or no faith — exactly as we want.”

The narrator says, “More wars have been waged, more people killed, in the name of religion than by any other institutional force in human history. So with such wildly contrasting beliefs in this country, why aren’t we at each other’s throats? Here’s why. It’s our Constitution and its very core of freedom from religion. Our country was founded in part by refugees seeking freedom, seeking to escape centuries of religious persecutions, holy inquisitions, witch hunts.”

The four-minute version talks about the benefits of the United States’ secular form of government, defines “freethought” and includes brief interviews with FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor.

Gaylor, a co-founder of FFRF, says on-camera:

“The United States of America was the first nation where our founders did not claim a pipeline to a divinity. It was a revolutionary act that they created a secular and entirely godless Constitution whose only references to religion are exclusionary, that there shall be no religious test for public office. The founders were aware of the inquisitions and the pogroms and the religious wars and the terrors in Europe, and the persecutions in many of the individual colonies — and they wanted no part of that. And so they erected what Thomas Jefferson called the ‘wall of separation between church and state,’ and that protects all of us. It has prevented the bloodshed and warfare that we see in so many parts of the world where religion is involved in government.”

Barker adds, “There are some believers that don’t see the difference between neutrality and hostility. They think efforts of groups like ours to keep the government neutral are also a hostile act against their faith, when we’re not asking for the government to be pro-atheistic either. If the government stays neutral, the government stays secular, then everybody’s an insider, nobody’s an outsider.”

The longer spot features a bonus: an interview with Pitzer College professor Phil Zuckerman, a leading expert on “secularity” and how secular societies measure up favorably to religious nations. Zuckerman is an FFRF member and author of many books, including Society Without God.

As a bonus, a version that is over seven minutes — including additional interview footage of Dan talking about freethought, morality and purpose in life -— has been posted at FFRF’s website and can be viewed now on FFRF’s homepage at ffrf.org/.

Watch for little “cameos,” including appearances by Darwin, Einstein and Susan B. Anthony, shots of some mementos at FFRF’s office, Freethought Hall, a powerful quote by Mark Twain about the witch hunts, photographs of the Reason Rally crowd by Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel and of FFRF Staffer Katie Daniel giving the Westboro Baptists thumbs down when they picketed an FFRF event.

“We warmly thank members who contributed to our PR Campaign Fund as part of the spring membership appeal, whose generosity made possible the filming and airing of this first-of-its-kind segment,” said Gaylor. 

Only the first three months of airing are monitored by Neilsen Ratings, but “Spotlight On” segments often run far longer. The program is not offered as any part of any PBS national program service. 

FFRF has been venturing into television this year with nationally airing ads, including one featuring JFK endorsing the separation between church and state, and one by actress Julia Sweeney defending contraception from attack by Catholic bishops. 

If you’d like to see more TV ads and segments, you may make a tax deductible contribution at: 


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