The Freedom From Religion Foundation named Tennesse student Maia Disbrow, 12, its fifth student activist awardee this year for speaking up in favor of halting prayer before the Hamilton County Board of Commissioners in Chattanooga in July.
The issue has been extremely contentious, and two local men have sued the commission in federal court over the prayers and for being ejected from a meeting while addressing the commission.
Maia’s write-up of her experience and a text of her speech follows. Her appearance is also on YouTube (search for Maia Disbrow).
“We are impressed with Maia’s gumption, maturity and dedication to a constitutional principle. Going before government bodies to protest government prayer is something many adults are reluctant to do,” said FFRF Co-President Dan Barker.
Maia has received a $1,000 award. FFRF officially offers three student activist awards of $1,000 each annually endowed by kind members: the Thomas Jefferson Youth Activist Award, the Catherine Fahringer Memorial Student Activist Award and the Paul J. Gaylor Memorial Student Activist Award. Since both state/church violations and student activism are on the rise, FFRF expects to see increasing numbers of deserving student activists nominated for awards.
Last year, FFRF gave out six $1,000 student awards, all to high school students. This year’s other activist winners were high school students as well. Three of the five are from Tennessee.
FFRF members wishing to create and endow a one-time or annual student activist award in their name, as a memorial, etc., are encouraged to contact FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor at 608/256-8900.
View student winners since 1996 at ffrf.org/outreach/awards/student-activist-awards/.
Maia’s heartfelt speech on prayer:
Good morning. My name is Maia Disbrow, and I am 12 years old. I am a perfectly normal young adult, although some of my friends would beg to differ.
I was present at the meeting at which my dad spoke. The prayer was very rude to me and some of my closest friends, not to mention parts of my family.
My dad did not put me up to this. I came because I care about this and things like it. All through elementary school, I was teased and ridiculed by people who I thought were my friends. Whenever the subject of me being a freethinker came up, I was singled out, by my friends.
You are doing the same thing that they did to me at every meeting you have. Singling me out. Singling out every single person in Hamilton County who is not Christian.
It is not fair for you to pray openly to your God without praying to all the others as well. I believe a moment of silence would accommodate all beliefs, not just one. And after speaking today, I hope I have some friends left at school next year.
Maia writes about bullies
I was sitting right in front when my father spoke at the commission meeting, and also during the prayer beforehand. The prayer was very offensive to me, and when they gave the preacher an award, or present, or whatever they’d like to call it, I almost exploded inside. It made my dad so angry, he was shaking with rage after he sat down from speaking. After we got home that day, a news station called and wanted to interview my dad at our house. They came, did an interview and left.
At some point, one of us joked that I should speak in front of the commission. My dad didn’t push me to do it, we just joked about it. But when I thought about it, I realized that there were some things I’d like to say to them. It took me a while to decide, because even though I go to a middle school for the arts that is supposed to accept everyone, I was worried because during elementary school, I was bullied about my beliefs. Whenever the subject of my religion, or lack thereof, came up, my social status dropped for a few days.
So really, I was worried about further bullying. When I realized that the county commissioners were actually behaving like a bunch of fifth-grade bullies, I sat down and started writing my address to them. I honestly didn’t expect this much attention for a 40-second speech, but I am very thankful for it.
Thank you so much for the scholarship, although it does make me a little depressed that a person can get an award for standing up for basic human rights.
Maia’s father, Steven, writes:
Maia spoke on July 18. I spoke two weeks before that. I took both my kids with me so that they could see how the commission works and get a glimpse at how local government is run.
Maia was born on May 5, 2000, the same day as the supposedly apocalyptic planetary alignment [Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn were positioned in line with the Sun]. While her birth didn’t herald the end of civilization, it was a big event for her family.
Her interests include reading (which she was doing at 18 months), writing, acting (currently in rehearsals for a production of “Medea”), singing and taking care of her pets (a dog and two guinea pigs). In the fall, she’ll be entering seventh grade at the Center for Creative Arts, where she studies visual art.
Maia also has a younger brother, Logan, who insisted on being mentioned here at the end, rather than in the bit about the pets.
A Chick-fil-A restaurant in Chapel Hill, N.C., dropped a church discount scheduled for each Monday in June after an FFRF member complained. George White noticed an online calendar promoting Church Bulletin Night at the University Mall store:
“Bring in your Church Bulletin from Sunday from 5-8 p.m. every Monday and receive a FREE Chicken Sandwich with the purchase of a medium side and a medium drink!”
The Atlanta-based company’s “corporate purpose” is “To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us.” Founder S. Truett Cathy, 91, is a devout Southern Baptist who insists that all outlets close on Sunday. A series of allegations have been made against the firm for backing anti-gay initiatives.
Such discounts violate the federal Civil Rights Act and some states’ equal protection laws. In a June 12 email, owner/operator Sammy Culberston thanked White for bring the matter to his attention. “At present, the church bulletin promotion runs through July but we will be suspending the promotion as of next week.”
This is excerpted from FFRF Lifetime Member Larry Rhodes’ testimony July 23 before the Knox County Commission in Knoxville, Tenn., before it voted to keep prayer at its meetings. The vote was taken after FFRF complained about the practice. FFRF commends Larry for coming forward in person as a constituent to try to educate the commissioners. A majority of speakers were in favor of discountinuing prayer, including three ministers.
By Larry Rhodes
I am a citizen of Knoxville and have been for 40 years. I graduated from the University of Tennessee. I’m a Vietnam veteran. I’ve worked here, owned homes here and, for 17 years, ran my own business here.
I was born into a Southern Baptist home and raised Southern Baptist. Even though my religious views have changed over time, I’m still a citizen. As such, I expect my government officials to represent me as a citizen, without injecting individual, personal religious views into the policies that govern my life.
The First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, which you all swore to uphold, forbids the making of any laws which represent an establishment of religion. Therefore, you should be aware that you are about to vote on an unconstitutional action.
Knox County was probably, at one time, 100% Christian (Baptist). It is no longer that. It, and indeed America as a whole, is now a community made up of Baptists, Catholics, Methodists and Mormons, as well as Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and nonbelievers.
Indeed, the category called “Other” in Knox County makes up nearly 30% of the population, all of whom are taxpaying citizens. And as citizens, we have a right to be represented equally under the law.
This board today votes on a policy of having religious prayer start its meetings. It would be a specific prayer to a specific god of a specific religion. Even though you may deem it a “generic prayer,” it will still leave out all the humanist, secularist, atheist and agnostic citizens of this area, a segment of the population that, like it or not, is growing every day. You will be sending a message to those citizens that “You are not real citizens. You’re allowed to live here and pay taxes, but real citizens are those who share the religious beliefs of us, the majority.”
I am not here to try to persuade you to not practice your religion. Please, do practice your religion, by all means, in your churches, in your homes, in the closet or in the open air and on every street corner of America if you like. But not in the halls of government, and not with the power of government.
You may be thinking that you must follow your religious faith and do as it dictates. However, faith has not been proven to be a good path to truth. If it were, there would not be thousands of different religions on the planet, all claiming to be following faith.
Remember that the mother in Jonestown who gave her child poisoned Kool-Aid was also following her faith. Those misguided Muslims who flew planes into the buildings in New York and Washington, D.C., were also following their faith. The members of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, when arming themselves and fighting the federal government, were also following their faith.
Please follow your conscience, but leave religious faith at the door. Do not practice your religion for me in the halls of government.
It is much better, by far, to follow the U.S. Constitution, keep your religion out of government and work to keep all other religions out of government as well, ensuring true religious freedom in America.
This is FFRF member John Wolff’s letter to the York [Pa.] Daily Record, which was published July 23 in the wake of his public complaint about a restaurant’s illegal church bulletin discount in Columbia, Pa.
I have little to disagree with in your editorial, “Atheist raises a shrimpy issue over church bulletin discount.” But you have misjudged my motivation. I have no animosity toward the Prudhommes [restaurant owners] and wish them luck if this publicity brings them more business. And this was never about a lousy 10 percent discount, and I am not attacking any particular religion, nor am I trying to spread my nonbelief.
I am adamant, however, in opposing the conventional wisdom that churchgoing makes you a better person. I am at least as good a person as any churchgoer. I am a much better person if you include the many religious child molesters, their enablers, embezzlers, hypocrites and even terrorists who, we are always astounded to discover, “came from a churchgoing family.”
For a restaurant to use religion to advance their business is tacky at best, and in my opinion and that of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, it is illegal. I am not a second-class citizen, potentially charged more because I do not attend church. If the Prudhommes want to increase traffic on Sundays, they should give everyone a discount without promoting church attendance. Restaurants have to follow regulations, all the way from food-handling to those affecting public accommodations and civil rights.
You are correct that this a shrimpy deal, just another irksome little thing that advances the agenda of the Religious Right and leads to laws favoring religion over nonreligion like taxpayer-funded vouchers for religious schools and exemptions from fair-hiring laws. Or legislators posturing to honor the bible. Or restrictions on the availability of contraceptives. Such laws are the serious business.
I felt an obligation to speak out because my fellow nonbelievers who hold jobs must pull their punches and may need to remain in the closet in order not to offend anyone. Evidently, the issue has hit a nerve locally to even suggest that churchgoing could be criticized. I admit being very surprised by the size of the flap this has caused. Reminds me that one of the first questions newcomers to the area are often asked is “What church do you go to?”
I do not regret bringing this complaint to the Pennsylvania Human Rights Commission, and I have no intention of escalating this to a lawsuit and enabling lawyers, as it is reported the well-funded Religious Right is eager to do. But I am a bit saddened by the hate mail I’ve received both in the papers and by mail. One came with a bulletin from a local church, accompanied by a hand-written note calling me an a-hole and adorned with a swastika. Certainly proves my point that churchgoing does not make you a good person.
John Wolff writes that he was born a German Jew in 1932. “Bad timing! My mother always told the story that she was listening to one of Hitler’s first harangues while in labor. Catholics saved my life in Belgium by hiding me in boarding schools (at the price of conversion). Although my parents were never religious, I became a fervent Catholic between the ages of 10 and 16, so I understand a bit that religion/meditation can bring good feelings.
“The flap about the church bulletin discount is really the tiniest matter, but it has brought into evidence the bigotry that still lurks under the surface around here. Religion is such a large industry that no one dares attack it.”
An FFRF complaint over the depiction of a chapel with a cross atop it on the new city seal in Steubenville, Ohio, initially had the city agreeing to change the logo, although the city now says it’s not so sure about the change.
On July 25, FFRF received word from the city law director that “the city council has agreed to change the logo as per your request.”
But Mayor Domenick Mucci announced several days later that city leaders will review offers of legal help and all other options before making a decision. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty plus several other unnamed Religious Right groups contacted the city offering “free” help.
Part of the silhouette prominently depicts Christ the King Chapel of Franciscan University with a cross atop it. The logo was commissioned by the city from Nelson Fine Art and Gifts, which claims it is the largest-volume American manufacturer of Catholic art and gifts.
By the logo designer’s admission, the chapel and cross are a symbol of “faith.” The depiction of the cross and chapel on the city logo is a “near copy of the Franciscan University logo, which further blurs the line between church and state,” said FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott.
After the decision went public, it created a media storm. Elliott, in a formal letter, cautioned city officials about being “duped by offers from Religious Right legal groups. They may volunteer their time pro bono but they never pick up the plaintiffs’ tab.”
For example, the Becket Fund defended the city of Cranston, R.I., from Jessica Ahlquist’s challenge to the unconstitutional prayer mural in her school. After the Becket Fund lost the case earlier this year, the school and city of Cranston officials agreed to pay $150,000 to reimburse the ACLU of Rhode Island for part of its legal fees.
“Any claims of historical or cultural significance to the Latin cross on the Steubenville City logo do not relieve the city of its constitutional obligations,” noted Elliott.
In July, Elliott also wrote the city of Wyoming, Mich., about a similar violation on its city seal, which is more than 50 years old and in need of an update. The seal features four quadrants, with a church, a factory, a house and a golf green.
“The city may not depict the church and cross because to do so places the city’s imprimatur behind Christianity. This excludes non-Christians and violates the Constitution,” Elliott wrote.
The Grand Rapids Press (July 31), in reporting FFRF’s complaint, noted that the city of Zion, Ill., which fought to keep a seal that included a cross and the phrase “God Reigns” in the late 1980s, spent about about $250,000 in a losing cause, as did Rolling Meadows, Ill., when it fought to retain a cross on its seal.
Wyoming City Manager Curtis Holt commented Aug. 2 in a blog on the city’s website, calling FFRF a “third-party radical group.”
“It’s so clear why a city cannot and should not send a message that it is is a ‘Christian city,’ or favors Christianity or in the case of Steubenville, Catholicism,” said FFRF Co-President Dan Barker.
“Government cannot pick sides on religion. All citizens — whether Christian, Jewish, atheist or agnostic, Muslim, etc. — must be welcomed as full participants,” said Barker.
FFRF After-Life Member Philip Appleman, distinguished poet, scholar and freethinker, appeared on “Bill Moyers Journal” on July 8 on PBS. The powerful interview and transcript is online at billmoyers.com/segment/the-poetry-of-philip-appleman/.
There are website-only bonuses. Phil reads five additional poems. Photographs of Phil and his wife, playwright Margie Appleman, are featured, along with photos of Phil’s mother, the subject of his moving poem, “Gertrude” (read on air).
The interview, which encompasses Phil’s freethought views, included Phil reading his poem “Eve” and “God’s Grandeur” (which, at his request, was set to music by FFRF Co-President Dan Barker and is featured on FFRF’s music CD, “Friendly Neighborhood Atheist”). He also read “Parable of the Perfidious Proverbs,” which Freethought Today was honored to publish first and is the title of his newest book of poetry, a satiric look at the bible.
“Our love and congratulations to Philip Appleman for everything he has done for freethought, reason, population control and compassion,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.
“The freethought community is honored to have Phil as one of its most distinguished, eloquent and gentle spokespersons.”
America’s “Nones” — the nonreligious — are at an all-time high, now comprising nearly one in five Americans (19%), according to a new study by the Pew Center for the People and the Press. The 19% count is based on aggregated surveys of 19,377 people conducted by the Pew Research Center throughout 2011 and reported by USA Today.
“This means great news for progress, for reasoned debate, for the status of nonbelievers in our nation,” said FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. “The freethought movement and FFRF are growing rapidly. There is an explosion of local and campus freethought groups, activities and conferences.”
“Nones” were already the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population, according to the definitive American Religious Identification Survey, whose 2008 study showed adult Nones up to 15% from 6% in 1990. ARIS, released in 2009, actually estimated “Nones” at 20% if responses to broader questions about religious practices were included.
Freethinkers have been highly marginalized, in part for being perceived as making up a small segment of the U.S. population. Actually, there have always been many more nonreligious than Jews, Muslims, Mormons or Eastern religions’ adherents, currently respectively at 1.2%, 0.6%, 1.4% and 0.9% of the U.S. population, according to ARIS.
“Most minority religions, however tiny in numbers, are treated with respect, inclusion and sometimes deference. It’s time public officials and the American public wake up to the changing demographics and stop treating atheists and agnostics as outsiders,” added Annie Laurie Gaylor, who co-directs FFRF with Barker.
“With nonbelievers at about 20% of the population, there is no longer any excuse for leaving us out of the equation. Public officials cannot continue to assume ‘all Americans’ believe in a deity, or continue to offend 20% of the population by imposing prayer at governmental meetings or government-hosted events. These surveys now show that ‘In God We Trust’ is a provenly inaccurate motto. Nonbelievers should not be treated as political pariahs,” Gaylor said.
“ ‘Nones’ in fact were at the time of the last ARIS survey, the second-largest ‘denomination’ in the nation,” Barker said, “following Catholics at 25% and tied with Baptists at 15%. According to the new Pew study, nonbelievers now outrank Baptists.”
An atheist for president?
While 90% of Americans would vote for a black, a woman, Catholic, Hispanic, or Jewish presidential candidate, only 54% would vote for an atheist and only 58% would vote for a Muslim, according to a recent Gallup poll. It’s an improvement from 1958, when Gallup first asked the question and just 18% said they’d vote for an atheist. This is the first year a majority said it would vote for an atheist candidate.
Gallup began asking a Mormon question in 1967, when former Michigan Gov. George Romney, Mitt Romney’s father, was a top candidate for the GOP nomination. That year, 19% said they wouldn’t vote for a Mormon for president. Now, 18% wouldn’t vote for a qualified Mormon, down from 22% in 2011.
U.S. District Court Judge Michael Urbanski accepted a settlement July 3 and ended the lawsuit between a Giles County, Va., parent and student and the Giles County School Board. Attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia and the Freedom From Religion Foundation filed the suit last fall.
The school board has agreed that the Ten Commandments will not be posted in any school “unless and until there is precedent in the Fourth Circuit or United States Supreme Court allowing the posting of the text of the Ten Commandments in the public schools.”
Supreme Court precedent states that such postings are impermissible. The Supreme Court ruled in Stone v. Graham that Ten Commandments displays in public schools violate the Establishment Clause.
“No government authorities, including school officials, have the right to tell citizens, much less a captive audience of students, which god to worship, how many gods to worship or whether to worship any god at all,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president.
FFRF first contested the postings in Giles County schools in December 2010 on behalf of a local complainant. State/church watchdog FFRF has more than 19,000 members, including about 500 in Virginia.
In response to the complaint, Superintendent Terry Arbogast removed the Ten Commandments from Giles County schools in January 2011. They had been posted in a frame with the U.S. Constitution in all district schools for over a decade. Members of local churches were outraged and stormed the school board seeking to reinstall the Ten Commandments. Students at one school walked out of classes in protest. Some students called for people objecting to the displays to “go live somewhere else.”
The board voted to repost them and adopted a policy to allow displays of the Ten Commandments and nine other “historical documents” in schools. The board also approved a Ten Commandments display in Narrows High School in Narrows, a town of about 2,000.
A Narrows student and parent sued in September 2011. The plaintiffs sought a protective order shielding their identity because of the animus expressed by the public. Liberty Counsel, a Christian legal group affiliated with Liberty University, represented the board and filed a brief opposing the ability of the plaintiffs to use pseudonyms. Urbanski issued a protective order, saying in part, “no harassment, threats, intimidation, or interference with the plaintiffs will be tolerated.”
During the course of litigation, other items were added to the Narrows High School display, including portraits and select items on George Washington, Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson. In May, 26 items were on display.
Urbanski’s approval of the settlement ended the long and contentious dispute. In addition to assurances that the Commandments would not be reposted in school, the settlement agreement kept the protective order in effect. The school board or a third party would pay the plaintiffs’ legal costs ($6,511). Each side is responsible for their own attorney fees.
Recent changes by the school board and the settlement agreement altered some elements of the display. A page from a Prentice Hall U.S. history textbook replaced the Ten Commandments. The page includes an infographic titled “Roots of Democracy” and includes statements on “Judeo-Christian Roots,” “The Enlightenment,” “English Parliamentary Traditions” and “Greco-Roman Roots.” References to the Commandments were removed from a separate “explanation document” in the display.
The court retains jurisdiction to enforce the settlement for eight years following dismissal of the case.
“FFRF thanks the courageous student and parent who stood up for the U.S. Constitution. We are grateful for the dedicated work of the attorneys on the case, Rebecca Glenberg and Thomas Fitzpatrick of the ACLU of Virginia, Frank Feibelman, cooperating attorney for the ACLU, and Patrick Elliott from FFRF,” said FFRF Co-President Dan Barker.
Name: Patricia Jones.
Where I live: I live on a plateau in rural middle Tennessee.
Where I was born: I come from Michigan and never thought I’d be living in the South. But in one year’s time, I’ve actually met more atheists in “bible belt” Tennessee than I ever did in the North.
Family: A small one — daughter, son-in-law, granddaughter (one of each), and of course, my husband Mike — atheists all.
Education: I’m a graduate of the garden variety public school, but I like to think of myself as an autodidact.
Occupation: I was a home health care aide for 10 years. I also worked in a florist shop and for the Post Office. Currently, I’m a builder of rock walls.
How I got where I am today: I suppose the best way to describe my atheism is to say that religion just didn’t stick with me. The silly bible stories sounded a lot like fairy tales, and I knew those weren’t real. I read Ayn Rand’s Anthem when I was 14, and it was then that I knew religion was a conjured lie.
Where I’m headed: I’m currently the administrator of Cookeville Atheists & Agnostics. It’s a social meetup group with eight to 10 active members and 42 total in our ranks.
Persons I admire: I most admire women in science. Caroline Herschel was an astronomer like her brother William. Another is the venerable Rosalind Franklin. It was her photographs that made it possible for Crick and Watson to see the structure of DNA. Two amazing women to acclaim.
Quotations I like: “What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?” (George Eliot), and, “Self education is, I firmly believe, the only kind of education there is.” (Isaac Asimov)
Things I deplore: Oh, don’t get me started!
The way I promote freethought: I have a huge collection of books, all thoroughly read and reread in my home library, and telescopes that are kid magnets. When children are around me, not only do I introduce science and secularism, I tell them about the Constitution. I make it fun and speak in conversational tones so children don’t feel as though they are in school.
They just know they are around a grown-up, one who listens to them and tells them cool and exciting things. We do the stuff of science. I tell them how smart they are, and I tell them to question everything, even me. I tell them thinking is not always easy, but it’s better than someone else doing it for them.
Some favorite things: My loving family, my cherished library, astronomy, the Cookeville meetup group, gardening and rocks, especially laying “miles” of dry stone walls, keeping state and church separate, and lastly, being “discovered” by Darrell Barker. It was through my Facebook friendship with Darrell that I learned about FFRF. I post in the FFRF Forum (ffrf.org/get-involved/forum/) with the username “rockon.”
Statistics about my Wall of Separation: Darrell calls it “The Great Wall of Patricia.” I started building it as a solo project in 2009. As of April, it was about 900 feet long. The average height and width are 26 by 22 inches.
Although the rock shapes and quantity vary significantly, a pickup truck load weighs about a ton. To date, I’ve hauled 106 truckloads. I know, I know, it’s hard for me to imagine that, too. The nearest approximation to the amount of rocks placed in the wall is about 84,700.
U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen ruled Nov. 27 that the Freedom From Religion Foundation's lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service and the Catholic Knights of Columbus council in Kalispell, Mont., can proceed.
FFRF sued in February 2012, seeking a declaration that the "continued presence of a six-foot-tall statue of Jesus Christ in the Flathead National Forest, on a 25-by-25-foot plot owned and administered by the United States Forest Service, violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States."
The Knights placed the shrine in 1954 after receiving a special-use permit from the government. The Forest Service continued to sanction the shrine overlooking the Big Mountain ski run until the most recent lease ran out in late 2010.
The Forest Service announced in 2011 it wouldn't renew the permit but later, after being pressured politically, reversed the denial on the grounds the statue qualified as a historical display, which spurred FFRF's lawsuit.
After the suit was filed and several defendants sought to have it dismissed, FFRF submitted a declaration by local resident William Cox, who asserted he "had and will continue to have direct and unwelcome contact with the statue."
In his Nov. 27 ruling, Christensen said: "Cox's declaration meets [standing requirements. He is a member of FFRF, he lives 15 miles from Whitefish Mountain Resort, he is a frequent skier at the resort who has skied past the statue many times previously and intends to again this winter, and he is a non-believer who considers the statue religious in nature and offensive."
The judge added, "Cox would have standing to sue in his own right if he were a named plaintiff."
FFRF is asking the court to enjoin the defendant from continuing to approve the shrine for federal property and ordering the Forest Service to direct the Knights of Columbus to remove it.
The case was filed on FFRF's behalf by attorney Richard L. Bolton and local counsel Martin S. King. A trial is scheduled for March.
Christensen, who was confirmed as an Obama appointee in December 2011, had practiced law in the Kalispell area since 1977.