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Overheard - Religion & Politics

"Holy Joe," get out of the pulpit and come back to earth.

That's the message for Joe Lieberman, the religion-drenched Democratic veep candidate who talks as though God were his campaign manager.

And it goes for George "Dubya" Bush, Al Gore and any other tub-thumping pols who hammer their religion as a cheap campaign ploy.

Cool the gospel singing, guys, and climb off the sawdust trail.

Sandy Grady
Philadelphia Daily News, Aug. 31, 2000

This is a presidential campaign. Not a holy war.

If it doesn't stop soon, the Constitution doesn't have a prayer.

Philadelphia Daily News Editorial
Aug. 30, 2000

The time has come for all the candidates on the national tickets to reaffirm their belief in the constitutional separation of church and state. . . .

When it comes to religion and the campaign, one might ask: "Which side is God on?"

The same question might be asked of the defiant students and parents, urged on by some pastors and Christian broadcasters, who stood in the bleachers in high school stadiums across the South last weekend to recite the Lord's Prayer before the opening kickoff.

All the candidates have to do is look around the world to see how well religion and politics mix.

The Founding Fathers certainly knew and protected us from the combination.

Reporter Helen Thomas
"Keep the Wall Between Church and State"
New York Times, Aug. 30, 2000

The president is not the moral leader of his people, no matter how often he prays or mentions God's name. He was never intended to be the moral leader, and it is unhealthy when candidates for president present themselves or are regarded in this way, especially when they think they have a pipeline to God. . . .

Religifying politics tempts politicians to messianic delusion. And politicizing religion cheapens and corrupts the spirit. If we return to the wisdom of the founders on this point, excessive public expressions of religious piety will be regarded with suspicion. Our motto should be: 'By their deeds shall we know them.'"

Former Senator Eugene J. McCarthy & Keith C. Burris
"The Singular Piety of Politics"
New York Times, Aug. 31, 2000

When religion controls government, it is not a pretty sight. . . . When the government gets involved [in religion], someone's rights inevitably are going to be trampled.

Rev. Brian Harbour
Oct. 1, 2000 D.C. sermon (President Clinton in audience)

Those who would use government to push religion on their fellow citizens dishonor their political heritage as Americans, and belittle the freedom of conscience granted to each and every one of us. They need to go into a nice quiet closet and think about that.

Columnist Jay Bookman, Atlanta
New York Times, Sept. 1, 2000

For a man with one divorce under his belt, Lieberman [has shown] a distressing tendency to cast stones at a man whose marriage lasted.

I am reminded of President Truman's warning about people who pray too loud in church. The old Missouri Baptist said that loud prayers always made him think "you'd better go home and lock up your smokehouse."

Robert Reno, Newsday
Arizona Republic, Sept. 1, 2000

I believe Lieberman slept through his Yale Law School classes on the First Amendment. Americans as individuals are among the most religious people on Earth. But America as a country has no religious mandate. . . . And the First Amendment does indeed protect us from government-fostered religion.

Columnist Lars-Erik Nelson
N.Y. Daily News, Aug. 30, 2000

. . . Lieberman's words suggest that the doubters, skeptics and old-fashioned village atheists are somehow less worthy than others in what has become a faith-based democracy. . . . They may not be a potent voting bloc, they may not be targeted by the Democratic ticket, but nonbelievers have an equal claim to the First Amendment.

Columnist Walter Shapiro
"Freedom isn't only for the believers"
USA Today, Sept. 1, 2000

Politicians who invoke God's name insult those of us who recognize no establishment of religion in our personal lives. . . .Lieberman, Gore and Bush aren't likely to become ayatollahs, but I wish they would give us some freedom from religious sermons.

Columnist Rob Morse
"Let those without sin cast votes"
San Francisco Examiner, Aug. 30, 2000

One danger of piety on the campaign trail is that it equates faith with good citizenship. . . . The argument that religion is essential to moral behavior is insulting and dangerous. A second danger is that this campaign will make religion a credential for public office.

Minneapolis Star Tribune Editorial
"Holier than thou"
Aug. 31, 2000

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The Host and Hostess with the Mostes'

Early in August I received a phone call from an FFRF member in Brownsville, Texas, telling me that the big news down in the valley was that a German high school exchange student had been booted out of the host family's home. The reason? The German student was an atheist. Horrors!

The weird thing about the story was that the student had plainly filled out the required papers and had put a-t-h-e-i-s-t in the space for religious preference. The host family (C-a-t-h-o-l-i-c) was given that information before the student was assigned to them and had expressed no alarm or displeasure.

The coordinator for the local chapter of SHARE! High School Exchange Program had been quoted as saying, "We exist so that we can help people from other countries learn about Americans, to develop an understanding and a tolerance."

It wasn't quite clear to me who was to develop the tolerance, but the American family certainly flunked it bigtime. As for learning about Americans, the German student learned very quickly that "tolerance" meant control. When invited to attend Mass with them, Martin demurred politely. The host family quickly called Yvette Coffman, Texas State Director of SHARE! High School Exchange Program, and told her that things were not working out because the German boy would not attend Mass with them, thus exhibiting a distinct disinclination on his part to partake in the exchange of tolerance.

Of course I do not know the full story of what was said, or how much time elapsed between the opening of the door of the Catholic family's home to the exchange student, and the slamming of it behind him (about a week, I think). Nevertheless, it put Ms. Coffman in a terrible fix, but, in her unflappable manner, she found the student a temporary home until she could find a more stable host family for this sixteen-year-old pariah.

News of this act of American tolerance reached the ears of a reporter at the McAllen newspaper. He wasted no time in spreading the story, which resulted in Ms. Coffman being bombarded with offers from families wanting to take in the homeless student. He was placed . . . take a deep breath . . . with another Catholic family! However, they had read the whole sad tale and were eager to remove the stain of intolerance from the Catholic escutcheon. So far as I know, the family and the exchange student are getting along peacefully.

On September 20, I received a phone message from Ms. Coffman, requesting I return her call so that we could discuss something that was on her mind. I wasted no time in doing so. She had been delightful when I had called her last August to express concern from the freethought community, and our wish to help with the placement of the evicted student.

I was now further delighted when she said that she had been thinking about foreign students and host families and realized that the program's contact for these families was largely through the churches. Since many of the foreign students were atheists, she felt that they were not given a wide enough option regarding host families. Did my heart jump for joy? Right out of my mouth.

Ms. Coffman suggested that perhaps atheist groups should be informed of this fact and would be inclined to volunteer as hosts. I assume that terms such as freethinker, humanist, rationalist, etc., would also be welcome designations. However, do remember that the word atheist is not, in more enlightened countries, the big scary horned beast that it is here in the United States.

Knowing many freethinker folk, of one designation or another, I feel confident that many of them have hosted a foreign exchange student at one time or another. This program is the sort that would be appealing to them. However, I think that, possibly, these nontheist families never registered their true religious nonpreference in the space provided, maybe daring to go so far as writing the word "none" as a response. I know that in civic activities we have all learned that it is better not to advertise.

I am aware that British and European citizens do not regard religion with the same adolescent fanaticism as do a vast number of Americans, but it never entered my mind that in one mainstream activity, the exchange student program, our nonbelief category would be wanted, needed and welcomed!

There's a big push here in Texas for host families for the 2001 spring semester. Wear your religious dis-preference proudly and print your preferred freethinker designation on the forms you may request from:

The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs
United States Department of State
475 Washington Blvd. Ste. 220
Marina del Rey, CA 90292
Tel: 1-310-821-9977 or
Fax: 1-310-821-9282

In Texas, contact:

Yvette Coffman
TX State Director
1-972-727-7966 or 1-800-941-3738

Waste no time; go for it

The writer is a long-time Foundation activist and officer who lives in San Antonio, Texas.

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"Exorcism" in the News

Chicago Archdiocese Hires Exorcist

The Archdiocese of Chicago secretly appointed a fulltime exorcist nearly a year ago, whose task is to "heal those afflicted by the Evil One," according to a page one story in the Sept. 19 Chicago Sun-Times.

The archdiocese's "spokesman on exorcisms," the Rev. Robert Barron, told the newspaper there is a "world of angels and devils, fallen angels."

The Rev. James LeBar, an exorcist for the Archdiocese of New York, appointed by the late Cardinal John O'Connor, says there has been a "large explosion" of exorcisms (from zero to 300) over the past decade in New York.

"As people lose their respect and reverence for life, spirituality and human beings, the devil can move in," LeBar warned.

Among the Catholic Church's ten warning signs of possession: "aversion to all things spiritual" and "hidden insights into a person's private life, or past sins."

Both LeBar and the Chicago exorcist agreed the newly re-released 1973 movie, "The Exorcist," accurately portrays the exorcist ritual. LeBar added: "In one or two cases, there was an extraordinary amount of gagging."
Pope Fails in Exorcism

Pope John Paul II carried out an impromptu exorcism in September upon a teenage girl, after the church claimed she began "screaming insults in a cavernous voice" during a general audience in St. Peter's Square.

The pope's chief "Satan-buster," Father Fabriele Amorth, told Italian media that when Vatican guards restrained the 19-year-old, she displayed "a superhuman strength" in trying to free herself. The pope then "exorcised" and prayed over her, but later admitted failure.
"She Was Possessed"

Police found the lifeless body of seven-year-old Aaren Dunn, who had been baking cookies with her sister, on the kitchen floor of her home in Manitou Springs, Colorado, after her father sliced her throat from ear to ear, slashed her carotid artery, stabbed her chest and fractured her left upper arm.

Robert Walter Dunn, 51, who faces first-degree murder charges for the June 26 killing, turned himself in to police, his hands soaked in blood, saying: "I killed the devil. She was possessed; I killed the devil."

The Denver Post (June 28) reported the little girl liked to play dress-up, read books, eat macaroni and cheese, and would have entered the third grade this fall.

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Foundation Protests Court's Catholic Bias

Divorcing parents in Washington County, Wisconsin, are being ordered by the Court Commissioner to take a seminar conducted by Catholic Charities, and to pay a $25 fee to the Catholic organization. The court describes the program as "nationally licensed" and in use in Milwaukee and other counties.

"Divorcing parents should not be compelled by our courts to go to a Catholic organization and pay them for a seminar," said Anne Nicol Gaylor, Foundation president. "This program should be conducted by a neutral facilitator with payment, if necessary, to the county or the state.

"This particular state/church entanglement is especially troubling for parents who regard the Catholic Church as destructive in its attitudes toward women's equality, reproductive rights and divorce," Gaylor said.

On Oct. 4, the Foundation, on behalf of a local complainant, wrote the Honorable Jeffrey Jeager, Assistant Family Court Commissioner, State of Wisconsin Circuit Court, Branch II, Washington County, asking that he halt this "illegal, unconstitutional abuse."

"The Wisconsin Constitution (Art. I, Sect. 18) says that no person shall be compelled to support religion. Yet this is what is what is happening as your court is now administering the program," Gaylor wrote.

The Washington County complainant who contacted the Foundation was given no comparable secular counseling alternative. Parents must attend the seminar under penalty of contempt of court.

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Foundation Calls Foul Over Coach

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is charging officials at the University of Wisconsin-Madison with stonewalling the Foundation's request to investigate a religion question posed to prospective UW Women's basketball recruits.

Among the facts collected for a dossier on each prospective recruit by the UW women's basketball program is "Religion." Foundation president Anne Gaylor said she believes this may be unlawful, and, at minimum, considers it "certainly inappropriate."

This is the third major complaint the Foundation, a national watchdog group based in Madison, has made to the UW-Madison about coach Jane Albright, a self-described born-again Christian.

The Foundation protested when the coach arranged an exhibition game with the Christian Athletes-in-Action in November 1995, permitting religionists to distribute proselytizing material to the crowd during halftime, and to hold a religious postgame service. The Foundation also notified the UW that the coach was using campus mail to proselytize, and had instituted regular pre-game prayers.

The Division of Inter-Collegiate Athletes responded to the Foundation's complaint with a June 14, 1996 "policy clarification," saying it will maintain an environment "free of harassment or intimidation based on religion beliefs or practices." The statement concludes: "The mission of the Division does not include sponsoring religious events or activities."

However, the very month the clarification was issued, the Foundation was contacted by the family of a young girl enrolled at the coach's summer basketball camp for 4th to 12th graders, reporting Albright included proselytizing sessions. Following the Foundation's request that this be investigated, UW-Madison Chancellor David Ward wrote the Foundation on June 26, 1996, promising that "future camps will not include any policy violations."

"It does appear that Coach Albright is uneducable on this issue," Gaylor noted. "Wouldn't she be happier working at a Christian college?"

Gaylor also expressed dismay at the "prying" quality of the questions in the dossier, which records personal information on the prospect's "boy friend," "best friend," and "kind of car," as well as religion.

Albright told the Capital Times (Oct. 4) that if a "girl" would mention that she attends church every Sunday, Albright would arrange a visit to church if the recruit visited campus.

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Backlash Begins Over Bigoted Boy Scouts

A backlash against the discriminatory policies of Boy Scouts of America is sweeping the nation, following the 5-4 ruling on June 28 by the U.S. Supreme Court affirming the club's constitutional right to exclude gays as members and troop leaders.

Over the past 20 years, BSA has aggressively denied memberships both to gays and to boys whose families are not religious. Gay groups are joining the call of freethinkers to lobby school districts to stop sponsoring Boy Scout troops. Associated Press reports that schools, which give Scouts many special perks, sponsored 10,653 Boy Scout and Cub Scout troops last year--about 9% of all troops.

According to USA Today (Oct. 9), Boy Scouts of South Florida just lost nearly $350,000 in public money and charitable aid, after a "domino effect" of denial of funds from traditional supporters. United Way of Broward County, the Broward County government and the cities of Miami Beach, Manors and Fort Lauderdale have severed ties with Boy Scouts.
The state of Connecticut has dropped Boy Scouts from the list of charities state employees can contribute to through payroll deductions, prompting a retaliatory lawsuit by Boy Scouts.
A community school district in Manhattan has withdrawn support of Scouts. The Minneapolis school system in early October voted to stop sponsoring two dozen troops with almost 900 members.
School Board member Joann Elder, Madison, Wisconsin, who has a gay son, is asking to re-examine a district policy charging Scouts the same low rental fee charged to nondiscriminatory groups. Following a complaint by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the school board in 1994 started charging rent to Scout troops.
The United Way of Evanston, Illinois, voted in September to stop its $5,000 annual donation.
The school district in Framingham, Massachusetts, voted in September to end Scout recruitment through its schools. "It may be that the Scouts won the battle but end up losing the war," town manager George King told USA Today.
City Council members in Tucson, Arizona, voted on Sept. 25 to cut public funding to Boy Scouts and any other organization deemed discriminatory. That will cost Catalina Council $20,000 next year. The city may also withhold its $1.7 million contribution to the local chapter of United Way. But a policy change banning employee donations to Boy Scouts via the city of Tempe caused such an uproar it was reversed on October 5.
The ACLU filed suit in August to revoke a 50-year lease with the city of San Diego, which rents Balboa Park to the Scouts for $1 a year.
About 24 chapters of United Way, whose 1,400 chapters contribute more than $8.7 million to Scouts, have ended or redirected donations.

A backlash against the backlash is also occurring. U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-CO, introduced the Scouts Honor Act to protect Scouts from punitive measures by any entity receiving federal funds. Several conservative Arizona lawmakers vowed to support legislation to penalize cities that "discriminate" against Scouting.

Youth Today recently published an article by Patrick Boyle claiming that BSA's stance against gays is a "case of money and Mormons." Boyle notes the Mormon Church sponsors about 31,000 Scout units--more than any other group, accounting for 12% of all troops and involving 400,000 boys. The Mormon church filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court supporting the Boy Scout anti-gay policy. In total, 65% of all Scout units are sponsored by religious organizations, according to the BSA.

"If the Boy Scouts stand for discrimination, they should stand alone," the Freedom From Religion Foundation reiterated in letters to public officials, the United Way, and various school organizations following the June decision.

"We urge freethinkers to continue pressuring school districts and government to sever ties with Boy Scouts, based on the group's religion-based bigotry against both freethinking boys and gays," said Foundation president Anne Gaylor.

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Residents support humanist book display

Library Display Criticized” was the heading of a recent letter to the editor published by The Columbian, a newspaper in Vancouver, Wash. The letter read in part:

“Upon entering the Cascade Park Community Library ... I was disturbed by the blatant promotion of atheist/secular humanist authors and books displayed prominently in the front window. Included were atheist authors such as Richard Dawkins, Bill Nye, Christopher Hitchens, with books titled Living Without God, The Portable Atheist and Women Without Superstition.”

The letter continued: “I was thinking to myself, is this even constitutional from an American First Amendment perspective? Also, even if it is legal, is this something the taxpayers of Vancouver would approve of, considering it is their millions in tax revenue that keep the library up and running?”

Well, this “unconstitutional” display was put up by the Humanists of Greater Portland, which has been placing displays in public libraries and colleges for more than 10 years. This was only the second time that patrons have voiced a concern about our displays. (The other time was when some church members questioned the display, but then they put up their own bible-based display a month or two later.)

We set up our book display at the Cascade Park Library in early January. The very next day the librarian called asking us if we had a list of the books in the case. She said that a number of people had already expressed interest in the display.

One of our members quickly made copies of the list and dropped them off at the library. One library patron commented on our HGP Facebook page that she “almost cried with joy” when she saw the titles of the books in the display case.

The letter critical of our display was published in the paper late in January, and the online comments immediately poured in, coming from as far away as New Jersey and New York.  The online response was overwhelmingly positive and supportive:

• “Fantastic! I know the library has featured differing philosophies and religions in the past, so in fairness this is a good thing.”

• “Libraries are among the last bastions of free speech and the open exchange of ideas in our culture. We cannot grow as human beings unless we challenge and question, and allow others to challenge and question our received beliefs and opinions. I applaud the staff at Cascade Park . . . for their willingness to initiate a conversation about true freedom of (and from) religion. (I am not an atheist, by the way.)”

The icing on the cake was a follow-up letter to the editor from the executive director of the Fort Vancouver Regional Library District. She wrote in part:

“I was heartened to read the many online comments about the letter that articulated the important mission FVRL has as a public library in supporting diverse points of view and interest through our collections, services and programs.”

The director continued: “Public libraries exist to offer access to ideas and information from a variety of perspectives. A democracy can only be healthy and vigorous if we both learn and explore our differences as well as our common ground. If we are fulfilling our responsibility, FVRL libraries will promote understanding, prompt a conversation, encourage a healthy debate, and — yes — sometimes strike a nerve. It’s what good public libraries do.”

Our humanist group has been overwhelmed by the response of the citizens of Vancouver, the staff at FVRL and the online comments in support of our display at their library. We hope the person who wrote the initial letter to the editor criticizing our display will apply through the library to set up a display of books that support his position.

The library director said it best: “Public libraries exist to offer access to ideas from a variety of perspectives.”


Deanna Sewell is a longtime member of FFRF and the Humanists of Greater Portland. For the past eight years, she’s been putting up six or seven humanist book displays at area public libraries each year. Deanna is also the proud owner of godless “clean” money she won at the 2001 FFRF national conference in Madison, Wis.

This is Maine FFRF member Meredith “Dick” Springer’s letter in September to the Boy Scouts of America:


In 1943 I proudly received my Eagle Scout badge from the Boy Scouts of America. At that time I was a sincere religious believer. 

As I later critically examined my beliefs I realized that I no longer could honestly believe in God. I fail to understand how reaching this conclusion made me unfit to belong to your organization. Now my self-respect as a nonbeliever as well as my conscience compel me to join hundreds of others in reluctantly returning my badge to the BSA to express my disgust with your discriminatory policies.

The Boy Scouts of America accepts for membership all boys except those in two groups that are unpopular in much of America, gays and nonbelievers in God. Stigmatizing these groups clearly sends a message to your members that only reinforces prejudices many already have. The BSA also denies a religion badge to boys who are Unitarians because their church passed a resolution in 1992 opposing your discriminatory practices.

Many scouting associations around the world do not require their members to have specific religious beliefs. In the United States, the Girl Scouts of the USA voted overwhelmingly in 1993 to allow its members to substitute another word or phrase for God in its oath, saying that the change was “a very strong statement that Girl Scouts . . . have strength in diversity and that we are an inclusive organization.” The Girl Scouts also permits lesbian girls to participate.

The BSA has never established a relationship with the Girl Scouts, but it has partnered with American Heritage Girls, a new organization formed by intolerant opponents of the nondiscriminatory policies of the Girl Scouts, with a “memorandum of mutual support [that] recognizes the common values and goals of both organizations.”

As a private organization the BSA can do anything it wants, but as an American icon comparable to apple pie, it has a special moral obligation to teach the best American values.  These values include religious tolerance and recognizing the worth of all of us.

Sincerely yours,

Meredith N. Springer


The Feb. 10 Maine Sunday Telegram also published Springer’s thoughts on the issue (which he’d sent as a letter to the editor) as an op-ed. As of Feb. 9, 222 Eagle Scouts had shared their photos and letters renouncing their Eagle awards on the website Eagle Scouts Returning Our Badges.

FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott’s op-ed opposing school vouchers ran in Wisconsin’s two largest newspapers — the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Wisconsin State Journal — in late January. It was also picked up by numerous other publications and websites.

With voucher advocates trumpeting “National School Choice Week,” it is a fitting time to examine the proposed expansion of private school vouchers in Wisconsin. Some politicians are intent on slowly doing away with our public education system in favor of privatized education paid for with taxpayer money.

Voucher money largely flows to religious schools. In the newly expanded “choice” of schools in Racine, 10 out of the 11 schools are parochial schools. Based on a review of Department of Public Instruction data on the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, more than 21,000 of nearly 25,000 enrolled students at the beginning of this school year attended readily identifiable religious schools.

This amounts to more than $133 million in taxpayer money going to religious institutions in Milwaukee this school year alone.

Funding private and religious schools through vouchers is an end run around our constitutionally created public education system. The Wisconsin Constitution requires the Legislature to “provide by law for the establishment of district schools, which shall be as nearly uniform as practicable; and such schools shall be free and without charge . . . and no sectarian instruction shall be allowed therein.”

Proposals to continue to chip away at public education and expand vouchers by increasing the geographic area, income limits and funding are contrary to our long-valued public education system.

Schools do not exist just to benefit parents. They serve to educate the next generation to create an educated citizenry and to ensure the vitality of the state. This is a public good supported by all, including those who do not have school-aged children. This social value is recognized by our constitutionally created public schools and our compulsory education laws.

While parents pick the school of their choice in using vouchers, taxpayers pay the bills. And taxpayers have no means of holding voucher schools accountable. Low performing voucher schools, which have little state oversight, can do as they please. Voucher schools are not governed by publicly elected school boards that have to answer to constituents.

Some of the Milwaukee choice schools are not holding up their duty to provide a comprehensive education. Take, for instance, the Clara Mohammed School. According to its IRS filings, the school’s purpose is to engage in “a Qur’an-guided journey toward active global citizenship.” It is funded almost exclusively through vouchers. In 2011, only 0.8 percent of its students (1 out of 123) tested proficient in math and 5.7 percent tested proficient in reading on state exams.

Other Milwaukee choice schools are using unscientific and outdated curriculum from fundamentalist Christian textbook publishers such as A Beka Books. Carter’s Christian Academy in Milwaukee describes the A Beka materials, covering normal school subjects, as being “presented from God’s point of view.” Of the 69 Carter’s Christian students tested in 2011, none tested proficient in reading by state standards and only three tested proficient in math. IRS records show the principal got $109,000 in 2011 compensation.

Both the Clara Mohammed School and Carter’s Christian Academy have increased enrollment this year. While they enroll a small number of students, they are a symptom of a larger problem. The schools can take public money and teach what they want. The schools do not have to have licensed teachers or even safe outdoor space for students to play. Parents will continue to send their students to these schools, whether for religious reasons or because they mistakenly believe school leaders are up to the task of providing a sound education.

The voucher school program needs elimination rather than expansion.

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