When you think about it, there is nothing really logical or necessary about people gathering together after a death, to talk about the deceased, witness the mourning, or even peer at the unnaturally preserved body. Our usual rationalization for this behavior is that the bereaved find it a “comfort.”
This may be, but if so, it is a culturally learned response not grounded in nature. The original reasons for funerary custom were quite different. We must ask, what did the most primitive humans do about their dead, perhaps a million years ago?
From the beginning, people have believed everything that happens is caused by invisible spirits with human-like intellect and purpose. Many people still believe this, despite all evidence to the contrary. They still pray to a god to produce benefits or avert disasters; they entreat, flatter, cajole and thank their deity accordingly. In the view of such people, nothing in the universe occurs at random. The spirit or the god always has a reason, even for the tiniest happening.
A corollary to this primitive worldview is that in death, the animating spirit of a human being deserts the body and becomes one of these invisible entities, even acquiring some extrahuman power to make things happen. At this point the dead are made into ghosts, wandering souls that, like gods, can communicate with the living, listen to entreaties, or affect events for good or ill, according to their personal inclinations.
Here it becomes necessary for formal appeasement of the ghosts of those who might harbor resentments, or of those who were especially powerful when alive. Ceremonies of homage, praise, and propitiation of the dead become common. The ghost must be made to feel kindly toward the living so as not to punish them for real or imagined slights.
Funerary ceremonies vary, but the basic idea of pleasing and eulogizing the dead is universal. Sacrifices may be offered. Adulatory speeches may be given. Exaggerated mourning behaviors are staged to convince the ghost that he/she is sorely missed.
Professional mourners or “keeners” are still employed in some areas, just as they were in ancient Egypt. This oddly illogical custom seems to assume that the dead person forgets all about any professional mourning seen during his/her lifetime and comes to believe in the sincerity of all the paid-for wailing, hair-pulling, garment-rending and otherwise carrying on.
Another requirement may be that the ghost should be flattered by maximum attendance at the solemnities. Huge funerary processions can be staged by rich and powerful families to flaunt vast numbers of mourners — certainly not all of whom find “comfort” in such ceremonies but rather feel coerced into attending.
One is reminded of the lavish funerals of Mafia dons, rejoicing in hundreds of attendees, most of whom actually hated the deceased, including the clergy who are paid to give the routine guarantee of his “sure and certain” admission to paradise. Inevitably, this guarantee is given no matter how many or how heinous the crimes committed by the deceased; God’s forgiveness is almost always for sale to those who can pay.
Propitiation of especially revered ancestors can become a recurrent event, celebrated on each anniversary, like a saint’s day. In some cultures, the ancestor thus morphs over time into a god or goddess, able to hear and answer the prayers of his/her descendants. The origin of our Halloween or All Hallows (All Saints’ Eve) was just such an anniversary, annually honoring the spirits of all ancestral ghosts at once, at the time of the harvest.
In Europe, the priestesses who officiated at such pagan funerary solemnities were later denounced by the new rival religion of the church as witches, and the ancestral ghosts they invoked were called demons. Then Halloween took on the trappings of make-believe “evil” that we now know.
The church soon discovered that ceremonies for the dead were highly lucrative. The clergy came to insist that only official clerical sanctions would guarantee the soul’s entrance into heaven. Payment then became a duty of the survivors. Medieval Catholicism even increased revenues by the direct sale of “indulgences,” meaning special rituals guaranteed to shorten the deceased’s term in purgatory.
So it has ever been: Money opens all gates, even pearly ones.
The four elements
For thousands of years previous to the intrusion of the church, however, people had developed many ideas about the spirits of the dead, and had incorporated these ideas into many different funerary customs. Methods of disposing of the body gave rise to the very notion of the four elements — fire, air, water and earth — embraced by Greek and Roman thinkers and all their European descendants up to the 18th century when discovery of the real elements began.
The classic four represented the only possible ways to dispose of a corpse, short of cannibalism: cremation by fire, dispersal into the air, burial at sea or in other water and entombment in the womb of Mother Earth, anticipating a future rebirth.
Cremation was thought to send the soul skyward along with the flames, perhaps to become a permanent spark among the stars, which were often perceived as angelic beings or immortal souls. Sun worshipers especially favored the use of fire, which was employed also to send sacrifices to various divinities of heavenly light.
The Old Testament says sacrifices to Yahweh were often burned on the altar to send their essence skyward. Souls arising from the flames gave rise to the myth of the phoenix, always arising reborn from the ashes of sacrifice.
Air dispersal was favored especially by the Persians, who left their dead in the topless “Towers of Silence” to be consumed by vultures and other birds. Some Native American tribes had the same idea, placing their dead on platforms in trees. The ancient Egyptian Goddess of the dead, Nekhbet, was depicted as a vulture. Romans also believed that souls could enter the bodies of birds, which accounted for their taking of ancestral spirits’ omens from bird behavior.
Other people believed that any flying creature could contain the soul of a deceased person. The Greek word for soul, psyche, also means butterfly. The name of the (biblically vilified) Philistine god of the dead, Beelzebub, means “Lord of the Flies” because it was thought that flies could carry souls. Some of the virgin mothers in Irish mythology conceived their children by swallowing a fly.
Air was often considered the substance of spirit, since “breath” was the very thing that a dead body lacked. Hindus believed that a father gave a soul to a newborn child by breathing into its face. Ancient Israelites had the same idea; in Genesis, God gives Adam a soul made of “breath” or air, because being male, God couldn’t make life out of the vital essence of blood, as the earlier goddesses did.
Water burial was also quite popular, as we know from the famous Viking funeral and several Oriental customs of relegating the dead to rivers. The Vikings regarded the sea as the Great Mother of their race, and their word for death meant “a return to the womb.” The name of a burial ship was ludr, which applied equally to a boat, a coffin and a cradle.
In Egypt, the dead were said to enter the sun boat of Ra and sink with him into the western ocean. Greek philosophers said water was the Arche, the primary element, the womb of all life. In this they were not too far wrong, since we now know that life can exist only on a planet that has liquid water, and liquid water is the greatest proportion of the very substance of our bodies.
The sea was a common symbol of the goddess who gave birth to all things. The fact that blood still tastes like sea water was not lost on the ancients, who also identified four “humors” of the body with the elements.
Perhaps the most common method of burial in our culture was entombment in the earth. Romans often consigned the dead to Terra Mater. They wrote on tombstones, “Mater genuit, Mater recepit” (the Mother bore me, the Mother took me back).
Noting the apparent resurrection of dead plants from their seeds, the ancients likened this to rebirth from the magical earth element, which was also symbolic of living flesh. Savior gods, such as Osiris, Dionysus and Attis, were sacrificed at the spring equinox and represented the rebirth of the crops each year.
Some people described flesh as “clay.” The original Hindu “Adam” was named Arya, “man of clay,” the ancestor of all Aryan tribes. The biblical God made Adam out of clay, recalling the ancient conception charm of Babylonian and Sumerian women: Construct a baby image out of clay and anoint it with menstrual blood to bring it to life. Adam’s creator, of course, used air instead of blood.
Medieval Christians also believed that burial in an earthly tomb was one way to achieve resurrection. The church taught that the body would be restored intact, no matter how much decay it had undergone. Saints’ bodies were alleged to be fresh and undamaged even after centuries, which proved their holiness, but somehow the empirical evidence for this claim always seemed to be lacking.
Ancient Egyptians similarly believed in resurrection of the flesh, so they did their best to preserve the flesh by mummification, which we now call embalming. The techniques may be different, but the purpose is the same: preserve the body as long as possible to ensure sufficient material for resurrection. Alas, neither technique really achieves the purpose; neither mummies nor embalmed corpses present a very reassuring spectacle after a long period in the earth.
Then of course, there were those malevolent spirits supposedly resurrected without their souls, such as zombies and vampires, thirsting for the blood of life that they lacked. The idea was a very old one. In Greek myth, Odysseus summoned spirits of the dead out of Hades by offering them a trench filled with sacrificial blood, which magnetically attracted the blood-hungry shades who could give oracles.
Christian authorities were quite willing to support belief in vampires, another form of the demons that they postulated to give common people the perpetual feeling of menace from the forces of darkness. Fathers of the church wrote treatises on all the various revenants and evil spirits that were supposed to threaten the living.
The common fear of a ghost with a bad attitude represents the same primitive fear of the dead that instituted funerary customs in the first place. Even deceased loved ones could be regarded as threatening, for no one knew what changes their personalities might have undergone in the afterworld.
Corpses were obviously not the same as living bodies, so the personality might radically change also. Guilt feelings about possible quarrels or abuses, endured by the deceased during life, might surface and make the ghost even more of a threat. Those who had been one’s enemies were naturally to be feared when they became invisible spirits.
Why then sorrow?
The phenomenon of death is one that has concerned and puzzled human beings from the beginning of our species. People have obviously spent a great deal of time and effort trying to figure it out and avert it, and failing that, to deal with it in ways that could give them an illusion of understanding. We now understand it pretty well, but religious attitudes toward death are still contradictory and illogical.
The general feeling, when someone dies, is regret or sorrow, even if the person is a stranger. It seems to be an occasion calling for sympathy. Yet our religions often insist that death is a ticket to a much happier place, a land of eternal bliss. Why then sorrow?
Why is it that suicide is very uncommon, even among people who believe in a postmortem paradise? The clergyperson can say, “He has gone to a better place,” but does the grieving widow really know that in her heart? All she knows for sure is that he is gone, never to return.
Grieving relatives may indeed be comforted by funeral ceremonies, or they may simply regard them as costly intrusions on their grief, having to listen to trite expressions of sympathy from casual acquaintances or even strangers who really don’t share any deep feeling.
The custom has been perpetuated by those who profit by it, just as the priests and mummy-makers of ancient Egypt profited by their craft. It might even be said that there is something not quite savory about profiting from other people’s sadness; yet funeral ceremonies have come to be considered “only decent,” or essential to maintaining social approbation, or even to securing immortality. Whether this latter effect is ever actually achieved, or ever has been, is of course something that we will never know.
For many centuries now, people of the Western world have been convinced by their religious authorities that the deceased can be assured of a comfortable afterlife only if the proper clerically sanctioned words are spoken over the corpse. Therefore, it would be a crime to omit them.
Churches are notoriously prone to criminalize, whenever possible, almost anything that might reduce their income. The idea that any afterlife at all may be nothing but a cultural illusion is an idea abhorrent to the church. Yet it may be, after all, the simple truth.
Jesse Bering in his book, “The Belief Instinct,” has this to say:
“It’s only through intellectual labor, and after countless millennia of thinking intuitively otherwise, that today we can arrive at the most obvious of all possible syllogisms: the mind is what the brain does; the brain stops working at death; therefore, the subjective feeling that the mind survives death is a psychological illusion operating in the brains of the living. Can the answer to the question of what happens to us after death, such a profound mystery, really be that simple?”
For most of us, when we look at the deaths of other species, it is that simple. The idea that our species is unique, possessing some essential inner quality found in no other mammal, is a vainglorious myth that has led us to exploit and unfairly abuse many other living creatures. Perhaps what we really need are funeral services marking the final abandonment of the myth. The rest of the world would thank us if it could.
Let us indeed have rituals that please and comfort us. But let us understand that the ritual exists for its own sake, and not for a magical purpose, to make something happen that would not otherwise happen.
Let us not allow money-making institutions to convince us differently. Humans have been enslaved by this kind of superstition for too many centuries already.
Barbara G. Walker is the author of Man Made God (available at ffrf.org/shop), The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets and The Skeptical Feminist. Go to ffrf.org/outreach/secular-funerals to read FFRF’s “Secular Memorials and Funerals Without God.”
Jim McCollum, FFRF Life Member and previous “Champion of the First Amendment” recipient, spoke at FFRF’s 36th national convention Sept. 28, 2013, in Madison, Wis. McCollum talked about his role in the landmark McCollum v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision (1948) in its 65th anniversary year. The suit was filed in July 1945 by his mother, Vashti McCollum, on behalf of Jim in Champaign, Ill.
My brothers and I had the good fortune to be raised in a nurturing, stable family setting, with the added bonus of not being burdened by God and the trappings that accompany it!
My father was a principled, quiet atheist, a scientist, who grew up with 10 siblings on a farm in south Arkansas. His parents and grandfather Daniel placed a premium on education and saw to it that all 11 children, all of whom were born by 1920, including five girls, got a full college education.
My mother was raised in a liberal family that encouraged her and her sister to seek the truth freely. Her father, raised a Presbyterian, was well-read — especially books by freethought authors such as Spinoza, Thomas Paine, Clemens and Robert Green Ingersoll — and became what I would call a bible-pounding atheist. Mom described herself as an agnostic humanist.
So what about this plucky lady, my mother “The Sarge,” who stuck to her guns with what became a landmark case all the way to the Supreme Court, losing all the way up, but winning when it counted?
If all that can be said of my mother, Vashti Cromwell McCollum, was the important contribution she made to U.S. constitutional law in the late ’40s, she would still be a shining light in the 20th century. For the 8-1 decision she won set the precedent that applied the strictures of the prohibition of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution to the several states by virtue of the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment.
Albeit that decision, written by Justice Hugo L. Black, is currently under intense attack by the radical Christian right, it still stands as a beacon in the annals of U.S. constitutional law to this day, for all cases involving purely sectarian practices in public schools and use of taxpayer money, by states and their municipalities, to fund religious activities, projects, monuments and displays, descend from McCollum v. Board of Education.
In her later years, Mom became an avid world traveler and an accomplished amateur photographer, winning salons at the Champaign County Camera Club on a regular basis. She was in great demand to present her informative and entertaining slide shows to all kinds of audiences, including at the Inman, the assisted care facility in Champaign, where she spent her last years.
Her travels took her to all seven of the world’s continents. She traveled on whatever conveyance was available — ferries, like the ones we read about in Third World countries that turn over and sink, trains and buses filled with peasants and their variety of livestock and worldly belongings, and puddle-jumping airlines, sometimes barely clearing the mountaintops. She was even trapped in the Amazon jungle for a period, while pursuing an adventure on an historic railroad that, unbeknownst to her, had been discontinued shortly before she arrived.
She traveled to places that no longer exist and to others, now too unsafe for tourists. Upon hearing stories of some of her exploits and travails, my father was heard to exclaim, “The woman is fearless!”
It was sometimes difficult to keep up with her, as she was always coming up with another trip to one exotic place or another, many of which were on the spur of the moment. Indeed, I can remember on several occasions where my first wife and I would wake up to a knock on the door early in the morning to find her on a surprise visit or just passing through on another of her excursions.
Mom was clearly her mother’s daughter and knew how to divine the bargains and travel on the cheap. I still remember spending a tortuous night at London’s Heathrow Airport, with her, just to save a £40 hotel bill. That two-week excursion to Scotland cost the two of us less than $4,000 (including roundtrip airfare). Most of her travels were on a shoestring.
Most important of all, she was the best mother one could have. She and my father, John Paschal McCollum, her husband of over 50 years, managed to raise three boys and put them through college, (a lawyer, a historian and a successful businessman), two with advanced degrees and all having made positive contributions to society. A finer tribute cannot be given to anyone!
‘Fair to a fault’
Why did I entitle this talk “My Mother, the Sarge?” Well, she was the disciplinarian in the family — fair to a fault, but there was no mistaking when she was displeased with something we said or did. While I can remember an occasional acquaintance with a flyswatter, generally all she needed to do was to give us the evil eye and that was that. More importantly, she was a consummate feminist and not one to back away from what she held dear — hence the “Sarge” moniker.
Albeit she made heavy weather at being a mother, she was an extremely effective one, never missing the opportunity to guide her sons carefully along the straight and narrow. In the last hours of her time with us, she was still correcting my English if I had the temerity to utter the phrase, “it’s me” instead of “it is I” or similar egregious grammatical transgressions.
She also admonished me to lose weight and get rid the rubber tire around my middle. Maybe feeble, but she still had her edge!
Her moral credentials were impeccable and unimpeachable, and she didn’t need a supreme being looking over her shoulder to “keep her in line.” She and my father made sure that my brothers and I were on the same page.
After the family became embroiled in her famous lawsuit, she would often admonish us to do nothing that would bring discredit to ourselves or the family, as “our detractors are watching.” However, we didn’t really need that admonishment, because our parents were the epitome of good role models.
I often chuckle to myself, remembering her choice comment, “I hope it’s not trivial,” when a prominent demagogue would be outed for some moral or ethical transgression.
Her memorial marker, in a southern Arkansas Missionary Baptist cemetery, proudly proclaims, beneath her name, the citation of the decision of her landmark case: 333 US 203 (1948).
Upon my retirement from the practice of law and move to Arkansas and her retirement from her world travels, we saw to it that one of us would call the other at least once a week, usually on Saturday morning. Her last travels, with the exception of a final one to help her older sister Helen celebrate her 95th birthday, were to visit us in Arkansas to see her “daffy down lilies,” which each February and March pave our front yard in a sea of yellow. In January she would ask us if the jonquils were blooming yet and then find a way to get here to see them, usually by catching a bus by herself to Bloomington and then the Texas Eagle Amtrak to Texarkana, where we would pick her up.
She was avidly independent in life, and even in her declining years, to the extent she could manage, she remained such. On her return trips to Champaign, she would insist we leave her at the Amtrak station in Texarkana in the early evening, where she would wait by herself several hours for the train. In spite of our reluctance, she was adamant about it.
The indelible mark she left behind, both on her three sons and grandchildren, as well on American jurisprudence, lives on!
Jim McCollum received his B.S. in geology and his J.D. in law from the University of Illinois. He served two years’ active duty as an officer in the U.S. Army and another six in the Army Reserve. He retired as an attorney after 34 years of practice and lives with his wife Betty in Arkansas, where he, appropriately, teaches constitutional law.
Vashti McCollum died in 2006 at age 93. Her story, One Woman’s Fight, is available at: ffrf.org/shop/books
More than once, a reporter has asked me what’s the best and worst thing about my job at the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Without much hesitation I usually answer: winning and losing lawsuits!
But the hardest thing has actually been the death of FFRF members, the early co-founders and activists whom my mother, Dan and I have worked with over the years. They all contributed so much to the freethought movement.
Mourning the death of someone you love is hard enough, without the knowledge that the person you love suffered terribly and unnecessarily in dying. FFRF had barely lifted off the ground as a national group when Ruth Hurmence Green died at age 64 in 1981.
Ruth’s book, The Born Again Skeptic’s Guide to the Bible, was the first book FFRF published and is still a brisk seller. She served as board secretary, was a wonderful idea generator and was my mother’s and my dear friend.
Ruth, too, fought cancer, first of the breast, then skin and throat, enduring 37 radiation treatments. Her cancer was in remission when we met her. When excruciatingly painful throat cancer returned, Ruth bravely hid the pain from friends and family, carefully stockpiling pain pills, until July 7, 1981, when she took her own life after sending her husband out on an errand.
Her final letter to my mother, mailed the morning she took her life, read: “Freedom From must grow and prosper . . . freedom depends upon freethinkers.”
It was painful to comtemplate a Freedom From Religion Foundation without Ruth Green. Worse was contemplating how she must have suffered by forgoing pain medication in order to save enough pills. The inhumanity of our society toward the dying forced Ruth to be furtive, squirrel away pills and die alone with no chance for family and friends to say goodbye.
She and so many others with terminal illnesses should have been afforded the same right and dignity as Cliff Richards, who had the peace of mind provided by Washington’s death with dignity law. It’s so obvious that civil rights should not be dependent on the state you happen to live in.
So little progress has been made on this front. In 1990, Freethought Today published an important piece by Jan Hitchborn, the daughter of one of our members. Jan wrote about the death of her father, Read Schuster, a member of FFRF and the Hemlock Society.
Read had developed amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. In Read’s case, the disease started in his throat, so that he gradually lost the power to speak. Then he choked and coughed as he ate. Then he could scarcely swallow his Ensure.
Although he could still get up, dress himself and even drive, and although his mind stayed sharp and alert, he faced death by starvation, choking or asphyxiation. In September 1990, less than a year after his diagnosis, when he could no longer lift his leg from gas pedal to brake, he mustered all his inner strength, got himself into the garden shed, closed the door and shot himself in the head.
The area was classed as a crime scene, and although his family was grateful he was at peace, they were left with the horror of the cleaning up.
“He should have been able to die whole, in his bed, with us to hold his hands telling him again how much he meant to us, how much he had touched our lives. He should have been able to take an injection to peacefully slip off to sleep,” wrote Jan.
Only Washington, Oregon and Vermont have passed referendums or laws authorizing prescriptions for lethal doses by two doctors who agree the patient will die within six months. Courts in Montana and New Mexico have recently approved such aid. Even these few states granting death with dignity rights do not permit injections for the terminal patient, such as Read, who are too sick to swallow the necessary pills.
Among Read Schuster’s goodbye letters were those to doctors and the police department, lecturing the authorities “about a society which boxes terminally ill people into a corner.” “My dad was able to close his life. But he should have been able to do it with an injection. There should have been a Dr. Kevorkian for him,” Jan wrote.
Jan’s moving article can be read in its entirety at ffrf.org/news/timely-topics (scroll to “There ought to be a law”).
Jan’s piece was accompanied by a short plea by Anne Nicol Gaylor, FFRF president emerita. “Prolonging dying is a religious idea,” she wrote. “Those who wish to die painlessly, at an appointed time, should have that right.” — Annie Laurie Gaylor
I received a heartbreaking letter Dec. 20 from Cliff Richards, a member of FFRF from Washington state, informing me that he was naming FFRF as a beneficiary on his Fidelity account, adding that FFRF could expect to receive $100,000. He very wonderfully asked to designate these funds for student activist scholarships.
The news was so welcome, as FFRF has a handful of recurring student scholarships but no major long-term fund. My excitement turned to dismay as I read Cliff’s next paragraph:
“Because of the advanced nature of my cancer, I’m told that my life extension will, at best, be approximately three months. I am going to be using Washington state’s Death With Dignity program that allows me to end my life if I have less than six months to live.”
I quickly replied by mail, expressing FFRF’s gratitude for Cliff’s outstanding generosity in endowing student activist awards, noting how much the bequest would mean to many thousands of deserving students and youth activists. “This is an act of greatness,” I told him.
Cliff phoned after receiving my letter, and we talked once or twice again, the last time on Dec. 29, when he told me his story. He had just retired last summer and was in the middle of relocating to the South when his cancer — Stage 4 colon cancer metastasizing to his spine — was discovered.
He was grateful he discovered it while still living in Washington, one of only five states with death with dignity laws or court rulings. Having sold his home, Cliff was ending his last days in a hotel room in the Sequim area.
His doctors warned him that the cancer could eventually lead to blockage, deadly rupture, blood poisoning and painful death. The cancer that had spread to his spine could also weaken the bone and snap his spine, leading to instant paralysis. Cliff was determined, by making use of death with dignity provisions, to avoid one or both fates.
When the subject changed to his life story, which he authorized me to publish after his death, Cliff’s voice brightened. He was born July 20, 1943, in Milwaukee, grew up there and attended a Catholic grade school, high school and college, graduating with a degree in medical technology from Marquette University in 1966.
“I lost my religion when I reached the age of reason,” he told me. He began questioning the “one true religion” mantra of the Catholic Church. “How can a just god say a Native American living in the woods who never heard of Jesus could go to hell because he was not baptized?”
Cliff told me, “This whole religion thing got me when I would see yet another religion was trying to impose its edicts on the rest of us.” He said he “absolutely enjoyed reading Freethought Today, especially about the students and student essays. It was a breath of fresh air to see kids going out and taking on the system. We need a whole lot more of them.”
• • •
After graduation, Cliff had moved to Minneapolis and got a position as chief lab manager. By age 23, he realized he had gotten as far as he could go with his degree. Hennepin County, he noted, had made Time magazine as one of the best-run county hospitals and he wondered why.
Then he realized, “Its esprit de corps was phenomenal. Administrators would come into the lab and talk to lower echelon employees, chat about family, etc.” He was inspired to go into administration.
He graduated with a master’s in hospital administration at the University of Ottawa in 1974 and worked in Minnesota and Georgia, where at the latter he had to desegregate the blood banks. He wound up at a 100-bed hospital in California.
He belatedly fulfilled a childhood dream to fly and earned a private pilot’s license. He started a chartered airline service in 1989. The enterprising Cliff was hired by US Airways and flew for them for 11 years until being furloughed. He was then hired by a small Nevada hospital to do lab work, commuting from Washington in his own plane until retiring in June 2013.
Although engaged four times, Cliff told me he had never married. He had arranged for a longtime friend to stay with him at the end. He predicted he might last to mid-February.
On Valentine’s Day, our office received a copy of Cliff’s death certificate. He had died Jan. 27 at the age of 70 and was cremated Jan. 29, the birth date of Thomas Paine.
Cliff Richards had seized control of his own life and death.
He split his generous legacy between FFRF and the University of South Dakota Foundation, indicating he hoped his bequest to them would benefit Native American women students. We’re so grateful to him for his generosity to freethinking students.
FFRF is proud and very thankful to be able to administer a variety of ongoing or one-time student activist awards created by other FFRF members. These include the annual $5,000 award newly endowed by Richard and Beverly Hermsen and the annual $1,000 Thomas Jefferson Youth Activist Award by Len and Karen Eisenberg.
Is state pride considered a deadly sin? If so, I’m going to burn for it.
I became very proud of my home state of Vermont recently when I read the Gallup poll results on religiosity across the U.S. The results, published Feb. 3, paint a portrait of the U.S. that will not be surprising to most, but are fun to read nonetheless.
The grand prize for “least religious state” goes to Vermont, which boasts a whopping 56% nonreligious citizenry! Nearly 30% of those polled nationally identify as nonreligious. Gallup classifies Americans as “nonreligious” if they indicate in their poll response that “religion is not an important part of their daily lives and that they seldom or never attend religious services.”
Respondents are classified as “very religious” if they say “religion is an important part of their daily lives and that they attend religious services every week or almost every week.” “Moderately religious” (a third category) applies to those stating that “religion is important in their lives but that they do not attend services regularly, or that religion is not important but that they still attend services.”
Both coasts fared well in the Gallup poll. East Coast runners-up include New Hampshire (51% nonreligious), Maine (45%), Massachusetts (44%) and Connecticut (41%). On the West Coast, Oregon (43% nonreligious) edged out Washington (41%) and California (37%). Honorable mentions from elsewhere in the U.S. include Nevada (39%), Colorado (39%), Hawaii (36%) and, perhaps surprisingly, Wyoming (39%).
At the other end of the spectrum are the usual suspects. Most religious states include Mississippi (61% very religious), Utah (60%), Alabama (57%), Louisiana (56%) and South Carolina (54%), though notably, 26% of respondents in Utah fall into the nonreligious camp.
How did FFRF’s home state of Wisconsin fare? Our 36-year presence here has undeniably shaped state/church relations and freethought awareness — from our secular “nativity” displays in the statehouse to our recent victory removing bibles from the University of Wisconsin-Extension’s guest rooms. Even so, Wisconsin still only ranks 21st on the list of least religious states. According to Gallup, 38% of Wisconsinites are very religious, 32% are moderately religious and 31% are nonreligious.
Due to growing up in Vermont with parents who did not attempt to indoctrinate me with any religious ideology, it took me a long time to realize how normalized religion is in other parts of the country. It wasn’t until I had graduated from college (in Connecticut, eighth least religious) that I experienced life as an atheist in an aggressively religious state.
I spent a few months in Oklahoma (10th most religious, 49% very religious) and quickly realized that when it came to my nonbelief, I had a choice between being silent-but-accepted or being an outspoken outsider. This was not a difficult choice for me, given the temporary nature of my stay, but the reality that some atheists and agnostics face this choice every day helped solidify my desire to become a freethought advocate.
So now I live in Wisconsin, least religious state in the middle quintile of Gallup’s results. While I may look back fondly at my statistically more secular life in Vermont, FFRF has provided me with an amazing opportunity: to advocate on behalf of fellow freethinkers, many of whom face far more daunting barriers to their freedom of conscience than I ever did.
For that opportunity, I would even move to Mississippi.
To see how your state compares to the nation, search for “least religious” at gallup.com.
Sam Grover first worked for FFRF in 2010 as a legal intern while attending Boston University School of Law. He returned to work as a constitutional consultant for FFRF in the fall of 2013.
Name: Ken Knighton.
Where I live: Bountiful, Utah.
Where and when I was born: Clovis, N.M., 1952, when my father was in the Air Force.
Family: I’m the oldest of eight children, all still living. No, we’re not a polygamist group.
Education: Public schools through high school and various college courses in real estate and business.
Occupation: My wife Shirley and I own and operate K and J Auto Inc. in Bountiful. We’ve operated it for 28 years.
How I got where I am today: I’ve read many books and Internet articles on topics of religion — Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, Russell, Dennett and others. I’ve been a “faithful” listener to FFRF’s broadcasts and other freethinking programs.
Where I’m headed: I will continue my research into early Mormon histories and fact-finding to share and hopefully open some minds.
Person in history I admire: Christopher Hitchens, for his style, persistence and penchant for the truth.
A quotation I like: “All thinking men are atheists.” (Ernest Hemingway)
These are a few of my favorite things: Studying early Mormon history, debunking religious dogma, snowmobiling and quiet Sundays.
These are not: Religious bigotry and dishonest bureaucrats.
My doubts about religion started: By reading and rereading The End of Faith by Sam Harris.
Before I die: A good meal, please.
Ways I promote freethought: I thought becoming the 20,000th member was a cool way to show my support for FFRF’s ongoing work in keeping religion out of our government, schools and public places.
I wish you’d have asked me: When I can co-host the radio show with Dan and Annie Laurie.
Name: Luther G. Weeks. (The “G” stands for Gaylord, long ago translated from the French “Gaillard.” Who knows if a descendant of some common ancestors dropped the “d.”)
Where I live: Glastonbury, Conn., in a condo on the banks of the Connecticut River. Although our state constitution claims “the good providence of God, in having permitted them to enjoy a free government,” at least three of the members of the Connecticut Hall of Fame are atheists: Mark Twain, Paul Newman and Katharine Hepburn, all greatly appreciated and admired here.
Where and when I was born: Bristol, Conn., 1946.
Family: Wife Denise, adult descendants Madeleine and Aaron.
Education: Mathematics B.S., Clarkson University, Potsdam, N.Y., when computers were huge and their memories were small. A senior course on automata and a seminar on brain theory set me on a path to career and lifelong interests, leading to an M.S. in computer science.
I’m also a master fellow of the Life Management Institute. (That’s life insurance management, no actual life management!) I read voraciously on issues in democracy, history and science, especially evolution, brain science and how we think.
Occupation: Retired computer scientist in business — building, buying and selling software for large companies and startups. Now I’m a full-time volunteer (unpaid) political activist/watchdog for election integrity.
Two or three times a year, I organize voters to observe and independently report on the results of Connecticut’s post-election audits. I organized volunteers in 2010 for a citizen recount of 25,000 ballots in Bridgeport. Every spring, you can find me taking a rational approach to lobbying and testifying to the legislature, promoting better election laws and trashing risky schemes.
In my spare time, I have a large community garden plot and serve as president of my condo board, which keeps me sympathetic in relating to elected officials.
Military service: Drafted. After jungle infantry training, I served as a company clerk in Korea during the Vietnam War. There is no need to thank me for my service; it was all like the movie “MASH,” without the blood.
How I got where I am today: Continually improving by learning something new, jumping carefully, yet quickly, at opportunities and learning from many of my mistakes. I recently took a personality assessment and learned among other things that I am an “activator.” That fits pretty well. I am always looking at things differently, often amusingly.
Where I’m headed: Crematorium, hopefully then to produce some leaves of grass near family and familiar places.
Person in history I admire: Robert Ingersoll. I wish we could hear some of his lectures and speeches. Many are great, but all would be better in person than on paper. I’m currently reading volume 8 of the 12-volume “Works of Robert G. Ingersoll.”
A quotation I like: “Whatever comes, this too shall pass away.” — Ella Wheeler Wilcox
Whatever bugs us, whatever we love, whatever we oppose, whatever we cause, human life, and the Earth, are all temporary. That realization can be depressing or freeing, it is your choice.
These are a few of my favorite things: Walking, reading, thinking, blogging and debating. Cats.
These are not: Rigid, irrational individuals. Robocalls. Most dogs.
My doubts about religion started: I was raised Methodist, yet none of it actually set in. My mother was not pleased when I made jokes about grape juice after my first communion. I chose “no preference” on military dog tags when inducted, so there would be no question, just in case.
In the early ’90s, I started reading more and more books on atheism and decided to really determine if there was any basis for believing any religion, then confirmed myself as atheist. In 2002, I Googled “Freedom from Religion” and guess what link came up on top?
Before I die: I intend to keep living, learning and having fun.
Ways I promote freethought: I do not hesitate to tell people I am atheist. I endeavor to set an example for others, especially children, that it is fine to be an “out” atheist. You never know who might be watching or listening, or when it will make a difference for someone.
When a devout friend learned that I was atheist, he said, “There is still time for you.” That is my attitude toward everyone I know that is not yet atheist, “There is still time for you.” When appropriate, I tell them that. I have it all be friendly and fun. Once, a neighbor said that the priest wanted to talk to me about conversion. I declined. I told her to tell him, given his age and likely pension, that it would be better if he stayed Catholic.
I occasionally attend local or national atheist meetings, it never fails to inspire, educate, and be an opportunity to meet new friends and discover that other friends are also atheist. I save my copies of Freethought Today and give them to atheist friends.
I wish you’d have asked me: My epitaph — “Please join me as one who has lived.”
Faith-healing parents get prison terms
Herbert Schaible, 45, and Catherine Schaible, 44, a faith-healing husband and wife from Philadelphia, were sentenced Feb. 19 to 3½ to seven years in prison for the 2013 death of their son, the second child they have lost to pneumonia. Brandon Schaible, 8 months, died of of treatable pneumonia but was never taken to a doctor.
Instead, the couple, who pleaded no contest to 3rd-degree murder, and other members of First Century Gospel Church, prayed for God to heal him.
In doing so, they defied a court order to get medical care for their children after their son Kent, 2, died of bacterial pneumonia in 2009. They were convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to 10 years’ probation.
“April of 2013 wasn’t Brandon’s time to die,” said Judge Benjamin Lerner said. “You’ve killed two of your children. . . . Not God. Not your church. Not religious devotion. You.”
Their pastor, Nelson Clark, blamed Kent’s death on a “spiritual lack” in the parents’ lives, reported The Associated Press. The eldest of their seven surviving children is 18.
Ulster council reverses bible play ban
The Newtownabbey Borough Council in Northern Ireland reversed a controversial decision made Jan. 22 to ban the comedy play “The Bible: The Complete Word Of God (Abridged)” by the Reduced Shakespeare Company as blasphemous. The board backed off on the ban five days later.
Mayor Fraser Agnew supported the ban “because they are poking fun at the bible, they are poking fun at Christ.”
The ban was the “worse type of censorship,” said Councillor Gerry O’Reilly. “This is clearly an example of certain councillors forcing their religious views onto everyone else in the constituency. What the councillors are basically saying is that they can dictate what type of dramas people can view.”
Given the worldwide publicity the ban garnered, several dates on the U.K. tour are sold out, the Belfast Telegraph reported Jan. 29.
‘Messiah’ judge loses Tennessee job
Child Support Magistrate Lu Ann Ballew of Newport, Tenn., has been fired in the wake of her court order last August to change a toddler’s name over the parents’ objection. Ballew threw out the child’s birth name of Messiah and ordered his first name to be Martin, which is his mother’s surname. Another judge overruled Ballew’s order as unconstitutional.
“The word ‘messiah’ is a title, and it’s a title that has only been earned by one person, and that one person is Jesus Christ,” Ballew told a TV reporter in August.
O. Duane Slone, Fourth Judicial Circuit presiding judge, terminated Ballew’s appointment Jan. 31 without giving a reason, Reuters reported. Ballew was cited earlier by the state Board of Judicial Conduct for inappropriate religious bias. A hearing is set March 3 on that.
FFRF filed a formal complaint with the board Aug. 14.
Orlando church goal: Overcharge city?
A Florida judge ruled Jan. 31 that the Orlando City Council can use eminent domain to acquire the property of Faith Deliverance Temple if negotiations with the church fail. The church is the last parcel needed to build an $84 million Major League Soccer stadium, the Orlando Sentinel reported.
City officials tried to negotiate the purchase without going to court and offered $1.5 million, more than twice the appraised value. When the family that owns the church countered by asking for $35 million, the council voted to file eminent domain.
U.N. clergy abuse report stings Vatican
In a Feb. 5 report, the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child accused the Vatican of “systematically” adopting policies and a “code of silence” that let clergy molest tens of thousands of children over decades.
The Associated Press reported that the panel also severely criticized the Holy See for its attitudes on homosexuality, contraception and abortion. It recommended changes in canon law to ensure children’s rights and access to health care. The Vatican promptly objected.
Austen Ivereigh, coordinator of Catholic Voices, said the report was a “shocking display of ignorance and high-handedness.”
‘Science guy’ meets
‘pie in the sky’
About 900 audience members watched Bill the “Science Guy” Nye debate Creation Musem founder Ken Ham on Feb. 4 at the museum in Petersburg, Ky
Misty Brewer of Tulsa, Okla., told USA Today she has “traveled my journey to atheism” and drove 12 hours to bring her son to the event. “I think the believers will stay believers,” Brewer said. “No one’s going to walk out of here saying, ‘I changed my mind.’ ”
“The bible says God created man. It doesn’t say evolved,” said Diana Yokum, Akron, Ohio. “I really believe those who believe in evolution will have their eyes opened tonight.”
“Your assertion that there is some difference between the natural laws that I observe today and the natural laws of 4,000 years ago is extraordinary and unsettling,” Nye told Ham, noting kangaroos don’t live in the Middle East, where Noah’s Ark supposedly ran aground.
Ham focused on “observational science” [how do you know if you weren’t there?]. “The battle is really about authority. It’s about who is the authority, man or God,” said Ham, who wants to build a $60 million Noah’s Ark theme park in Grant County, Ky.
Religious freedom bill falters in Virginia
A Virgina House subcommittee in Richmond tabled a student religious freedom bill Feb. 5 that had passed the Senate 20-18, the Lynchburg News & Advance reported. No subcommittee member favored advancing the bill to the full House.
The bill “[c]odifies the right of students to (i) voluntarily pray or engage in religious activities or religious expression before, during, and after the school day in the same manner and to the same extent that students may engage in nonreligious activities or expression; (ii) organize prayer groups, religious clubs, ‘see you at the pole’ gatherings, or other religious gatherings before, during, and after school to the same extent that students are permitted to organize other activities and groups; and (iii) wear clothing, accessories, or jewelry that display religious messages or religious symbols in the same manner and to the same extent that other types of clothing, accessories, and jewelry are permitted.”
The bill would have required every school division to let students express religious views at any school event in which students are allowed to publicly speak, said the Roanoke Times.
Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, said the bill would create “a patchwork quilt” of local policies. “If this bill is passed, it almost guarantees litigation. Do we really need to spend time and money and effort litigating different school districts’ policies that are established under this bill?”
Missouri bill allows evolution opt out
Missouri Rep. Rick Brattin, R-Harrisonville, has introduced a General Assembly bill to make schools notify parents about the “basic content” of any instruction students are getting about evolution. It would also let students opt out, with parental consent, of “any part” of that instruction.
Brattin told KCTV that public schools teach Darwinian theory as fact and that students who question it are ridiculed.
“I definitely think parents should be notified if evolution is taught because I believe in creation,” said Tina Decavale of Drexel.
Brandon Eastwood, of Harrisonville, went further. “Evolution is not taught in the bible so it shouldn’t be taught in the class. Even if I had to spend some time in jail, I wouldn’t subject my kids to that nonsense.”
The Daily Beast online publication said Oklahoma, South Dakota and Virginia have similar bills circulating, from “teaching the controversy” to including so-called “intelligent design’ theory in biology courses.
On “The Daily Show,” host Jon Stewart referred to the Missouri bill and called state legislatures “the meth labs of democracy” for even considering such legislation.
bill dies in Senate
The Kansas House approved a bill 72-49 on Feb. 5 that would let individuals, groups and businesses discriminate against same-sex marriage or civil union couples by refusing to provide services. Anti-discrimination lawsuits also would be barred.
The bill, introduced by Rep. Charles Macheers, R-Shawnee, responds to the possibility that a federal court ruling could invalidate the state constitution’s ban on same-sex marriages, the Wichita Eagle reported. Government agencies would still be required to provide services, but individual clerks could refuse to participate based on their religious beliefs.
Then on Feb. 18, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Jeff King, R-Independence, said the bill won’t advance in the Senate. “We’re not working House Bill 2453,” King told The Associated Press. He said he will still have hearings on whether Kansas needs to enact other “religious liberty” protections.
[Fr. Benjamin Kneib] had called me the day of the rosary and said he wouldn’t be able to give us communion because of our same-sex relationship.
Carol Parker, Chillicothe, Mo., on a Catholic priest’s phone call the day before her mother’s funeral
The Raw Story, 2-7-14
Ariz. gov vetoes bill singling out gays
In a room packed with media Feb. 26, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed Senate Bill 1062 in the wake of national outcries, including some from Republicans and business interests, over a bill that would allow discrimination against gays for religious reasons.
The Legislature gave final approval Feb. 20 to a bill that lets businesses and individuals refuse to provide goods and services to gays. Similar “religious protection” legislation has been introduced in Ohio, Mississippi, Idaho, South Dakota, Tennessee and Oklahoma, but Arizona’s plan is the only one that has passed, The Associated Press reported. Similar efforts are stalled in Idaho, Ohio and Kansas.
The law “could divide Arizona in ways we cannot even imagine and no one would ever want,” Brewer told a room packed with media.
Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, a Religious Right group, said that “by vetoing this bill, Governor Brewer is saying she supports government discrimination against people’s religious freedoms.”
Brewer denied such claims. “As governor, I have protected religious freedoms when there is a specific and present concern that exists in our state. Senate Bill 1062 does not address a specific and present concern related to religious liberty in Arizona. I have not heard of one example in Arizona where a business owner’s religious liberty has been violated.”
Before the 33-27 vote in the House, Democrats called the bill “state-sanctioned discrimination.” Democratic House Minority Leader Chad Campbell said the law would be “horrible for our economy.” Opponents predicted the law would also bring boycotts of the 2015 Super Bowl in Glendale.
Republican Rep. Steve Montenegro defended the bill, commenting, “Please, I will accept you because you are a child of God, I love you because you are a child of God. But please don’t ask me to go against my religious beliefs.”
According to the Arizona Republic, enough lawmakers oppose the bill now that it’s certain there will be no veto override.
Rattler bite fatal for Pentecostal pastor
The ninth time was not the charm for Jamie Coots, pastor of Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus’ Name in Middlesboro, Ky., who died at home Feb. 15 from a rattlesnake bite that night at church.
Coots refused to be taken to the hospital or get treatment at home. His son Cody said he’d been bitten eight times before. “We’re going to go home, he’s going to lay on the couch, he’s going to hurt, he’s going to pray for a while and he’s going to get better. That’s what happened every other time, except this time was just so quick and it was crazy, it was really crazy,” Cody Coots told WBIR-TV.
Coots was profiled on the National Geographic show “Snake Salvation.”
Cody Winn, Full Gospel co-pastor, and Andrew Hamblin, another “Snake Salvation” participant, saw the rattler bite Coots on the hand. “Andrew said he looked at him and said ‘sweet Jesus’ and it was over,” Winn said. “He didn’t die right then, but he just went out and never woke back up.” Church members took him home.
Uganda anti-gay bill signed into law
On Feb. 25, a day after Uganda passed even harsher anti-gay laws, the Red Pepper tabloid newspaper printed a list of 200 people it called the country’s “top homos,” according to CNN.
President Yoweri Museveni signed the bill, telling CNN, “They’re disgusting. What sort of people are they?”
Homosexuality is illegal in 38 African nations, CNN reported.
NPR reported statements that the bill was composed with the help of American evangelicals with close ties to its Ugandan sponsors. “There are these factions of the evangelical community in the U.S. that believe they’ve more or less lost the fight against ‘the homosexual agenda,’ ” said Malika Zouhali Worrall, co-director of the documentary “Call Me Kuchu.” (Kuchu is a word for “queer” in Uganda.) “Therefore, they’re trying to preempt it in other countries.”
Oregon officials notified a federal court Feb. 20 that the state will no longer defend a ban on same-sex marriage. Similar switches in Nevada and Virginia were announced recently.
Pennsylvania is still officially defending its ban, but some officials see it as unconstitutional.
The Oregon filing came in one of two consolidated cases challenging the 2004 voter-approved ban that passed by 57% to 43%.
Scotusblog.com reported 17 states and Washington, D.C., now allow same-sex marriage. Federal judges have struck down bans in Oklahoma, Utah and Virginia, but those rulings are on hold pending appeals.
A lawsuit, Wolf v. Walker, was filed Feb. 3 in U.S. District Court in Madison by lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin and the law firm Mayer Brown on behalf of four same-sex couples from Milwaukee, Eau Claire and Madison.
“These families simply want the security and recognition that only marriage provides,” said Larry Dupuis, ACLU of Wisconsin legal director.
The suit also seeks a permanent injunction to block a state law that makes it a criminal offense for a Wisconsin resident to leave the state to obtain a marriage that would be prohibited in Wisconsin. Maximum punishment is nine months in jail and a $10,000 fine.
Also in Wisconsin, Democrats have introduced a bill to repeal the state’s constitutional gay marriage ban. Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos told WISN that he doesn’t expect it to even get a hearing.
“Unfortunately, I think at the end of the session, people are doing this much more based on a political answer than trying to find anything else,” Vos said.
Wisconsin Family Action, a socially conservative evangelical group, is vigorously lobbying against the bill as an assault on “religious freedom.”
Wash. school benches praying ‘All Pro Dad’
FFRF stopped White Bluffs Elementary School in Richland, Wash., from promoting religion. Meetings in the school sponsored by All Pro Dad, a private group focusing on religious programming, were advertised in fliers sent home with students.
The fliers failed to indicate the event was not school-sponsored. The meetings were also noted in the calendar along with official school events.
“The circumstances surrounding ‘All Pro Dad’ events would lead a reasonable observer to view it as school-sponsored,” wrote Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel in his Jan. 14 letter to Superintendent Rich Schulte. “Because of the religious aspects of the programming, Richland School District must take measures to address parental concerns regarding school involvement in this event.”
The district responded in late January, calling the promotion a clerical error and saying it would be removed from the school calendar. Staff will also be informed on the policy barring distribution of religious materials and announcements.
Teachers’ religious symbols removed
FFRF was informed that a teacher at Southside Elementary School in Pulaski, Tenn., prominently displayed several religious images in her classroom. Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter Dec. 17 to Giles County Schools Superintendent Timothy Webb:
“When a teacher puts up crosses and images of Jesus, they have unconstitutionally entangled the school itself with a religious message, specifically a Christian message. To avoid continuing to violate the Establishment Clause, we ask the teacher to remove the crosses and images of Jesus from her classroom.”
Webb responded two days later with a copy of the memo he sent to principals and supervisors: “The situation mentioned in the complaint has been addressed. Please remind your staff of the federal requirements in matters such as this.”
• • •
A teacher in Rusk, Texas, will no longer be displaying religious iconography after FFRF was contacted by a concerned parent of a Rusk High School student. A classroom poster read, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God the salvation of everyone who believes. Romans 1:16.” At the bottom it said, “This poster is illegal in 51 countries.”
Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell wrote the district Dec. 13 to note the constitutional violation while adding that a public school teacher has no free speech or free exercise right to proselytize.
Superintendent Scott David replied Jan. 9: “All campus principals and department directors will be reminded of our constitutional duties as public school employees with regard to the separation of state and church.”
• • •
A local complainant alerted FFRF that a classroom in Bernard Campbell Middle School in Lee’s Summit, Mo., displayed a religious poster prominently on the wall facing students. The poster read, “Blessed are the people who know the joyful Sound! They walk, O Lord, in the light of your countenance. Psalm 89:15.”
Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent a letter Feb. 20 to Superintendent David McGehee about the egregious, obvious violation. “When a school teacher places religious posters in the classroom, she unconstitutionally entangles the school with a religious message. It is also a usurpation of parental authority — parents have the right to direct the religious, or nonreligious, upbringing of their children.”
McGehee called FFRF the next day to say he agreed that the poster shouldn’t be allowed in the classroom and that it had been permanently removed.
School Good News Club gets bad reviews
After Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel’s Jan. 24 letter of complaint, FFRF was informed that an elementary school secretary in Sanford, Fla., will no long-er be involved with Good News Club permission slips.
Child Evangelism Fellowship of Central Florida had distributed registration forms to Geneva Elementary students to promote the club. The form told students to return forms to the secretary.
Seidel said, “Despite the appropriate disclaimer, students might presume that Good News Club is sponsored by the school because of the apparent role of school personnel in facilitating the club’s activities by collecting registration forms. While the Child Evangelism Fellowship of Central Florida is entitled to host meetings, there are limitations on adult involvement.”
The Seminole County School Board’s attorney responded Jan. 28 that the district agreed that the club, not public school employees. was responsible for collecting forms,
Charter school’s church graduations end
The Academy for Academic Excellence in Apple Valley, Calif., will no longer hold its graduation ceremony in a church. According to the complainant, AAE, a K-12 public charter school operated by the Lewis Center for Educational Research, held graduation in churches where crosses, bible verses and other religious symbols were displayed.
AAE reportedly held a baccalaureate at a second church, advertising it on AAE’s calendar and listing the school’s vice principal as “coordinator.” Many school officials, including the principal, attended.
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a November letter to Superintendent Thomas Hoegerman: “Religious faith and worship are an intensely personal choice. The government cannot make attendance at a secular school’s graduation ceremony contingent on entering the holy ground of a particular religion.” He also lodged objections to mandatory baccalaureate attendance.
Gordon Soholt, chief academic officer, responded Nov. 20: “It is anticipated that both ceremonies will be held in the new gymnasium in the future, thus removing any potential First Amendment issues. The previously named ‘baccalaureate’ has been renamed to reflect its intent, which is issuance of senior awards and scholarships.”
No more forced pledge for Florida student
A student at Southwest Middle School in Orlando, Fla., will no longer be coerced into reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
After refusing to stand for the pledge, the student was taken aside by a teacher and was told by the school’s attendance dean to stand and recite it or face reprimand.
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote a letter Nov. 20 to object: “Faced with the choice of either reciting the pledge or being punished by the school, this student has relented, but now only recites the pledge out of fear of being punished. Students should not be singled out, rebuked, told they must stand, or otherwise penalized for following their freedom of conscience. It is illegal to reprimand a student for choosing not to stand during the recitation of the pledge.”
The student sent an email response on Jan. 25, “I am so thankful for your help. Thanks to you, I’m now able to sit during the pledge without punishment!”
FFRF has a lawsuit against the Orange County School District regarding literature discrimination.