FFRF is getting more and more complaints about churches violating IRS regulations on political campaigning. In June and July alone, Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent complaints about five churches to the IRS.
IRS regulations bar nonprofit 501(c)(3) groups such as churches from “[participating in or intervening in] . . . any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”
A sample of violations:
• A South Carolina Baptist church’s website links to a Facebook page titled “I will NOT vote for Obama in 2012.”
• A Catholic priest in Florida was reported to have said at Mass, “You can vote for anybody, even a dog, but don’t vote for Obama.” Parishioners were outraged — at the dog reference, anyway. Others claimed the statement was not accurate or was taken out of context, but one of those naysayers admitted that “Father Dan did say ‘Whatever you do, you can’t vote for Obama.’ ”
• In Virginia, a Baptist church put campaign signs for a Republican congressional primary candidate on its property.
• A Washington church invited far-right gubernatorial candidate Shahram Hadian to speak about the threat of Islam in America. Before the event, two pastors and another church member all voiced their strong support for Hadian’s candidacy. One prayed that “more and more people would see the bumper stickers, they’d see the signs, they’d wonder about this man.” The other was so enthusiastic he twice broke into “speaking in tongues.”
• Rev. Terry Jones, infamous for burning copies of the Quran, hanged Obama in effigy on the lawn of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla. The effigy included a rainbow gay pride flag in its left hand and a doll in its right to protest Obama’s positions on gay marriage and abortion, with the backdrop of a trailer reading “Obama is Killing America.”
FFRF has written to the IRS about all of these and similar violations. The agency responds with a form letter saying IRS can’t discuss ongoing investigations. Unfortunately, it has revoked only one church’s tax-exempt status for campaigning since the restriction was put in place in 1954.
Even so, FFRF believes it’s important to pursue the violations. If you know of any churches intervening in political campaigns, contact FFRF to send a letter on your behalf or visit our Churches and Political Lobbying Activities FAQ at ffrf.org/faq/state-church/ to learn how to send a complaint to the IRS yourself.
— By Maddie Ziegler
FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Sei-del sent a follow-up letter July 12 to Houston County Schools in Perry, Ga., about egregious constitutional violations. FFRF has now been contacted by 8 families, each reporting multiple violations. (Along with the complaints were threats. A Warner Robins resident mentioned “sticking guns in your mouths and blowing the backs of your god damn heads off.”)
Reported violations include:
• Prayers at school events, such as assemblies, ceremonies, and school council meetings.
• Administrators encouraging teachers to pray.
• Teachers admitting, with pride, that “we (the teachers) did hold hands and have a prayer around the kids. It was lovely.”
• Alma mater songs endorsing religious belief over nonbelief.
• A recommended “Summer Reading Program” including the violent Left Behind series by conservative End Times Pastor Tim LaHaye.
• Religious imagery and bible quotes on school walls and websites.
• Schools partnering with churches in close and troubling relationships.
• Mandating attendance at religious baccalaureate.
Seidel has corroborated most of the claims. The 13 enclosures and more than 30 pages of evidence make it “clear that there is a systemic lack of adherence to and respect for the First Amendment in Houston County Schools,” he wrote. “Extensive corrective measures, including training of all HCSD employees and administrators on the proper boundaries of the Establishment Clause, are imperative.”
Was she even Christian?
Atop Maiden Cliff in Camden Hills State Park and visible “for miles around” is a 24-foot-tall cross. FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel’s letter to Director Will Harris of the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands noted that “the cross has fallen or been blown down approximately five times” and “government resources, including National Guard helicopters and the manpower of the Maine National Guard, local fire departments and Parks and Lands employees, were used to erect the cross on multiple occasions.”
Seidel’s letter asks Harris “to remove the cross from state property immediately or direct the display be moved to a more appropriate private location.” Local legend claims that the “cross is meant to serve as a memorial to 11-year-old Elenora French, who fell from the cliff almost 150 years ago, in 1864.”
However, Seidel’s research revealed the girl’s actual grave has no Christian iconography. “The placement, size and visibility of the cross make it far more likely this display was not chosen to memorialize Elenora, but to associate the area and the state of Maine with the Christian religion.”
Other FFRF complaints:
• The city of Draper, Utah, used at least $21,500 of city funds to pay for a worship concert starring Christian artist Michael W. Smith on his “Wonder, Worship, & Glory Tour.” The city had backed off after a resident threatened to sue, then reversed itself.
FFRF followed up with an open records request to determine actual funding and coordination between Draper and the local Christian group that urged the city to bring Smith to town.
• A local complainant informed FFRF of the Richardson [Texas] Police Department’s “Third Annual Faith-Based Crime Prevention Conference.” Registration preference went to religious organizations over secular ones.
In his complaint, Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel noted (tongue only slightly in cheek), “If they are looking to reduce crime, the RPD would do better to police the churches rather than partner with them, especially the Catholic churches.”
• The Peach County Senior Citizens Center in Fort Valley, Ga., has illegally let staff lead prayers, bible readings and hymn singing. Federal regulations prohibit senior centers that receive federal funding from engaging in religious activities at government-sponsored functions such as meals.
• The Century, Fla., Town Council budgeted money to buy “a manger scene at town hall.” Council President Ann Brooks “believe[s] we all want a manger scene.” The council has not yet replied to FFRF’s complaint.
FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt has written three letters of complaint about posting of religious material in the office of Tax Commissioner Susan Kersey in Jeff Davis County in Hazlehurst, Ga. The first two letters went to Kersey, with a follow-up letter to County Administrator James Carter. “We have written two letters to Ms. Susan Kersey regarding this matter and to date have received no response,” Schmitt wrote July 25 to Carter. “It is our further understanding that Ms. Kersey admits to receiving our letters and in fact has made comments online about her refusal to take [the religious items] down. I’ve enclosed copies of these posts as well.”
Besides the displays pictured, another says “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me, Philippians 4:13.” (A more fitting verse for someone in Kersey’s position would be “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s . . .”)
The 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals refused to accept a petition for en banc review filed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, after a three-judge panel approved academic credit for released-time instruction on June 28.
FFRF, and two sets of parent plaintiffs with children in the school district in Spartanburg, S.C., challenged the practice as a state entanglement with religion, which favored students of the dominant religious faith. The group filed suit in 2009.
The school district delegated grading power over its students and evaluation of the course material to both the Spartanburg County Education in School Time (SCBEST) and a private Christian school, Oakbrook Preparatory Academy. FFRF contends that essentially the district has added a devotional religious course as a public school elective and gave the bible school grading power over it. “If the Bible School course consisted of five hours a week of praying on bended knee and Oakbrook approved it, academic credit would nevertheless ensue as a matter of course,” FFRF’s petition noted.
The Supreme Court, in approving released time instruction in 1952, never hinted it could be treated as the equivalent of attending French or math class. It was intended as accommodation, and public schools were to have a ‘hands-off’ approach, with no academic reward for undergoing proselytization off-site an hour a week.
In its legal challenge, handled pro bono by attorney George Daly, FFRF documented that the superintendent gave the released time group names and addresses of children in order to publicize the program.
The public school has no control of the grades. Schools may be compelled to accommodate devotional religious instruction, but may not be required to provide it, or hand out grades for it, maintains FFRF.
FFRF thanks its plaintiffs and Daly for challenging the violation. FFRF is considering its options.
Appeals court nixes Wis. church graduations
The Elmbrook [Wis.] School District illegally held graduation ceremonies at Elmbrook Church, the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled 7-3 on July 23. Symbols in the church, including a giant cross on the wall, conveyed a message that government was endorsing a particular religion, the court ruled in a 2009 suit bought by Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
“[The decision] ensures that students in Wisconsin will not be forced to enter an intensely religious environment as the price of attending their own high school graduation, a seminal event in their lives,” said attorney Alex Luchenitser, AU associate legal director.
Court denies challenge to hate crimes law
The 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals on Aug. 2 upheld a lower court’s ruling that denied a 2010 claim by three Michigan pastors and the American Family Association of Michigan that the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act hampered their religious obligation “to state clearly the immoral nature of homosexuality” and “to publicly denounce homosexuality, homosexual activism and the homosexual agenda as being contrary to God’s law and His divinely inspired Word.”
“The Act does not prohibit Plaintiffs’ proposed course of hateful speech,” wrote appellate Judge James Gwin wrote.
Courts rule against reproductive rights
Women’s reproductive rights took hits in July in three court rulings cheered by the Religious Right. Phoenix federal Judge James Teilborg upheld an Arizona law banning all abortions starting at 20 weeks after a woman’s last menstrual period.
The New York Times reported the law “defies binding Supreme Court precedent that prevents states from banning abortions before a fetus can survive outside the womb, which generally occurs at about 24 weeks.” Teilborg also embraced questionable claims about when a fetus can feel pain.
• Denver U.S. District judge issued a temporary injunction stopping the Obama administration from requiring a secular ventilation and air-conditioning company to provide employees with contraceptive coverage.
The Times noted, “There is no constitutional precedent for individuals, much less corporations, allowing them to violate generally applicable laws because they may have a religious objection. Conversely, the company’s claim that its owners or officers have a First Amendment right to impose their personal religious beliefs on the corporation’s employees is groundless.”
• The 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in St. Louis upheld 7-4 a 2005 South Dakota law requiring doctors “to misinform women seeking an abortion that they face an increased risk of suicide and suicidal thoughts” if they have an abortion, the paper reported.
Zoo removes Commandments after protest planned
The Oakland [Calif.] Zoo removed a Ten Commandments monument July 25, days before a planned protest by the East Bay Atheists and Atheist Advocates of San Francisco. The 6-foot-tall marble sculpture has been on zoo property since 1965 when the area was a state park.
Joey Piscitelli, Martinez, told the San Jose Mercury News that the removal wasn’t a coincidence. “They wanted to thwart the demonstrations and keep this out of the public eye.”
Court: Mennonite B&B can’t bar gays
A Mennonite-owned bed-and-breakfast in Grand Forks, B.C., discriminated against a gay couple from Vancouver by refusing them a room, the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal ruled July 17.
Brian Thomas and Shaun Eadie were each award $4,500 in damages and expenses.
Riverbend B&B owners Les and Susan Molnar, members of a Mennonite church, argued they were exercising their right to religious freedom in the sanctity of their own home.
Florida county sued over 10 Commandments
Bradford County commissioners in Starke, Fla., are being sued by American Atheists for refusal to remove a Ten Commandments monument from outside the courthouse in Starke.
The county asked the group that put the monument there, the Community Men’s Fellowship, to remove it “immediately,” but the group refused, reported News 4 in Jacksonville.
FFRF sent a complaint letter May 14 to the commission.
“The county doesn’t have the ability to move it without accruing a very substantial cost in doing that,” said County Attorney Terry Brown. “So somebody needs to pay for it, and it doesn’t need to be the taxpayer.”
Faith-healing conviction upheld in Oregon
An Oregon appellate court upheld the 2009 conviction on July 11 of Carl Brent Worthington, a member of the Followers of Christ Church, for second-degree criminal mistreatment in the death of his 15-month old daughter. The girl died of sepsis and bacterial pneumonia from an untreated cystic mass.
Worthington and his pregnant wife, Raylene, were acquitted on manslaughter charges. She was also acquitted of criminal mistreatment. He was sentenced to two months in jail and five years’ probation.
Church graduations costly for Conn. school
The Enfield [Conn.] School Board voted 6-3 on July 18 to settle a suit challenging the school system’s practice of holding high school graduation ceremonies in a church.
“No students or their families should feel like outsiders at their own graduation ceremony,” said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, the Hartford Courant reported.
The district agreed to hold no more graduations in church. Its insurance provider will cover up to $470,000 in settlement costs. The exact amount of the settlement wasn’t revealed, but plaintiffs’ legal fees are about $1 million.
Ohio high court takes creationist teacher’s case
The Ohio Supreme Court voted 4-3 on July 5 to hear Mount Vernon science teacher John Freshwater’s appeal of his 2011 firing for pushing Christianity and creationism in the classroom. Freshwater alleges his rights to free speech and academic freedom were violated. The first complaint against him surfaced in 2008.
Religion Clause blog reported that the court granted review on two issues: Could he be fired if the board didn’t clearly indicate what materials or teaching methods were unacceptable, and did the mere presence of religious texts from the school library and/or display of a patriotic poster can justify his firing?
I guess now that the “God particle” has been discovered -— or very nearly confirmed by a majority of physicists — I need to decide what church to join. We atheists, after all, have long been devoutly demanding evidence of the hypothesized intelligent designer holding the universe together.
So now that scientists have observed the predicted Higgs boson that gives matter its mass — without which there could be no creation, no gravity, galaxies, stars, planets, waterfalls, pansies, panthers or “Hallelujah” choruses — we must conclude that the theologians have been right all along.
Or maybe not.
Peter Higgs, the physicist who first deduced and proposed the existence of the theoretical field now known as the Higgs boson, does not believe in God. After Leon Lederman, another nonbelieving physicist, had jokingly referred to the mysterious boson as the “God particle,” Higgs was not happy: “I wish he hadn’t done it. I have to explain to people it was a joke. I’m an atheist.”
The phrase became part of the title for Lederman’s 2006 book, The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question?
Other scientists agree with Higgs. Pauline Gagnon, a Canadian physicist working at the Large Hadron Collider, said: “I hate that ‘God particle’ term. The Higgs is not endowed with any religious meaning. It is ridiculous to call it that.”
I am certain Lederman did not have any spiritual motive. He was not trying to endow the particle with any “religious meaning.” He was using language in an ironic and humorous way. And most likely his publisher knew that the word “God” helps sell books.
According to one story, Lederman first called it the “goddamn particle,” but the editor didn’t think that would make a great title. (Although I would have bought such a book!)
When Einstein said that “God does not play dice with the universe,” he was clearly not talking about a supernatural being playing a game of craps. The word “God” has often been used (inadvisedly, in my opinion) as a convenient placeholder for “We don’t know.”
“God” is a synonym for “mystery.” When the cause of an event is unknown, some say “God did it.” Surprised by a natural disaster, some call it an “act of God.” Not having a sure answer, some say “God knows” — meaning, “Who knows?”
God reflects uncertainty, not knowledge. It’s the same with faith: We only rely on faith when the claim cannot stand on its own merits.
When the ancient Greek and Nordic civilizations heard thunder, they said, “Zeus is on the warpath,” or “Thor is angry.” In other words, “Who knows?” Now that we understand something about the weather and electricity, we no longer need Zeus or Thor. We no longer need “God did it.” Thor is dead. God has one less place to hide.
But our language still reflects those old patterns. The fact that I’m writing this article on a Thursday (the day of Thor) does not mean the Norse gods really exist or that a thunderstorm is truly an “act of God.” When Lederman nicknamed the Higgs boson the “God particle,” he was playing with language, joking that since we don’t know what holds matter together, God must be the explanation (wink, wink).
While we atheists cannot pretend that the discovery of the Higgs boson proves there is no God, we can certainly say that such evidence, if confirmed, gives God one less place to hide.
Believers will always find other hiding places, so this discovery will pose little threat to their faith. But now maybe they can join us — those with a sense of humor — in officially changing the name of the Higgs boson.
From now on, let’s call it the “Godless particle.”
Dan Barker is FFRF co-president and author of The Good Atheist: Living a Purpose-Filled Life Without God; Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher To Atheist; Godless: How An Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists; and Just Pretend: A Freethought Book for Children.
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.