With the help of activist member Kurt Bocksenbaum, FFRF has gotten a polling place in Brown Deer, Wis. moved from St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church to a new community center.
During the spring 2011 election, citizens who voted at the church were confronted by religious symbols such as a Latin cross and a painting of Jesus, which loomed directly over voting booths. Bocksenbaum asked Village Manager Russell Van Gompel to remove or cover up the religious displays while the polls were open.
After consulting with legal counsel, Van Gompel removed the display. Reportedly, church officials immediately protested and put the display back up.
During the July 2011 recall elections, Bocksenbaum complained again about the displays and was confronted by the church president, who said that the religious displays would not be taken down while the church was used as a polling place.
FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott had sent a letter on Bocksenbaum’s behalf to village officials July 14, 2011, asking them to move the polling place to a secular location. Elliott wrote, “The Village Board has the great responsibility of assuring compliance with election laws and selecting polling places accessible to the public but which will remain free of intimidation.”
After looking into alternatives, the village’s attorney stated that a planned community center would be used for voting once construction was complete. In the interim, Bocksenbaum voted by absentee ballot.
At a Feb. 18 meeting, the board unanimously approved moving the polling place to the community center, citing “controversy over having some religious pictures on the wall in the room where voting was held.”
FFRF sent a letter of thanks to the board for making the change.
Atheist officer sues religious supervisors
The American Civil Liberties Union of Puerto Rico filed a suit March 9 on behalf of Alvin Marrero Mendez, 38, an atheist police officer who refused to take part in Christian prayers at his precinct. Defendants are four top police officials.
Marrero alleged his supervisors once led a prayer in a mall parking lot during an incident. The 14-year department veteran was demoted after filing a complaint, stripped of his gun, made to wash patrol cars and act as a messenger.
The line between state and church can get blurred in Puerto Rico. Two years ago, the Treasury Department organized a Catholic Mass, complete with altar, in the building’s lobby. Prayer circles have been held at the Supreme Court, and in March 2012, former Police Chief Emilio Diaz Colon promoted more than 470 officers at a ceremony in a church.
Judge to library: Unblock websites
U.S. District Judge E. Richard Webber ruled March 5 that the Salem [Mo.] Public Library must stop blocking access to websites related to Wicca and other minority religions.
“Even libraries that are required by federal law to install filtering software to block certain sexually explicit content should never use software to prevent patrons from learning about different cultures,” said Tony Rothert, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri.
According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the suit said the library’s Netsweeper software blocked sites such as the official webpage of the Wiccan church, the Wikipedia entry for Wicca, Astrology.com and the Encyclopedia on Death and Dying, which has entries on death and death rituals for several cultures and religions.
Rapists blame women for Egypt assaults
On the two-year anniversary on Jan. 25 of the Egyptian revolution, at least 18 women were sexually assaulted during a demonstration against the government in Tahrir (Liberation) Square in Cairo, the symbolic heart of the 2011 revolt against former President Hosni Mubarak.
The New York Times reported March 25 that due to the 18 attacks on women documented that day by human rights groups, six women were hospitalized, one was stabbed in her genitals and another needed a hysterectomy. Hania Moheeb, 42, a journalist, said in a TV interview that a group of men surrounded her, stripped off her clothes and violated her for 45 minutes.
Yasmine Al Baramawy said she was circled in November by attackers who stripped her clothes off with knives in the square and drove her around for an hour. “They told people I had a bomb on my abdomen to stop anybody from rescuing me,” she said.
The victims got no sympathy from hardliners. “Sometimes,” said Adel Abdel Maqsoud Afifi, a lawmaker and ultraconservative Islamist, “a girl contributes 100% to her own raping when she puts herself in these conditions.”
“You see those women speaking like ogres, without shame, politeness, fear or even femininity,” said Sheik Abu Islam, a TV preacher. Such a woman is “like a demon,” he said, wondering why anyone should sympathize with those “naked” women who “went there to get raped.”
Dawkins cancellation lawsuit settled
Wyndgate Country Club of Rochester Hills, Mich., agreed to an undisclosed settlement Feb. 26 with the Center for Inquiry for breach of contract and violating civil rights laws by canceling a CFI event in October 2011 at which atheist biologist Richard Dawksin was to appear.
“We’re very pleased with the outcome of this case, which we regard as an unqualified vindication of the rights of nonbelievers,” said Ronald Lindsay, CFI president. “We are confident it will send a strong message that as much as this country now rejects discrimination based on race, sexual orientation and religion, so must we reject just as strongly discrimination against those with no religion.”
CFI believes it may be the first time that federal and state civil rights laws have been successfully invoked by nonbelievers in a public accommodations lawsuit.
The club justified breaking the contract by stating “the owner does not wish to associate with certain individuals and philosophies.” A club representative cited concern over Dawkins’ appearance on “The O’Reilly Factor” a few days before.
County board ordered to stop prayers
U.S. District Judge Michael Urbanski ruled March 27 that the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors violated the First Amendment rights of ACLU of Virginia client Barbara Hudson by opening meetings with exclusively Christian prayers.
“This ruling sends a clear message to localities that government officials may not impose their own religious beliefs on the entire community by leading sectarian prayers at public meetings,” said ACLU of Virginia Legal Director Rebecca Glenberg. “The Supreme Court and the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals have ruled repeatedly that our right to religious liberty precludes the government from expressing favor for one set of beliefs over others.”
In August 2011, Hudson notified the ACLU that the board started each meeting with a Christian prayer delivered by board members on a rotating basis. Hudson sued after the board said it wouldn’t change its practice.
In February 2012, Urbanski granted a preliminary injunction to Hudson and ordered the board to stop “invoking the name of a specific deity associated with any one specific faith or belief in prayers given at Board meetings” while the lawsuit was pending. The board has since opened meetings with silent prayer.
After mediation ordered in December failed, Urbanski issued his opinion.
• • •
By reciting only Christian prayers to open meetings, the Brentwood, Md., Town Council violated the U.S. Constitution, Americans United for Separation of Church and State said in a federal lawsuit filed Feb. 26. Plaintiffs are local residents Dolores Pomerleau, a Catholic, and Anne Christine Warden, a Buddhist.
According to the complaint, Mayor Roger Rudder usually opens council sessions by leading the Lord’s Prayer. Those in the audience are asked to stand and join in.
Since AU first protested, the council agenda was changed to call the invocation a “moment of silence and/or prayer,” but the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer stayed.
Indiana high court
OKs voucher scheme
The Indiana Supreme Court voted 5-0 on March 26 to uphold the broadest school voucher program in the U.S. A family of four with an annual income of $64,000 a year is eligible for vouchers worth up to $4,500 per child.
Opponents had sued to block the program because almost all of the voucher money has gone to religious schools. That doesn’t matter as long as parents decide where to use the tuition vouchers, the court said.
“Whether the Indiana program is wise educational or public policy is not a consideration,” Chief Justice Brent Dickson wrote. The program is constitutional because it doesn’t directly benefit religious schools, wrote Dickson, “but rather directly benefit lower-income families with school children.”
The U.S. Supreme Court used similar reasoning in a 2002 ruling upholding a voucher program in Cleveland. “Just because the Indiana Supreme Court said it’s OK by our constitution doesn’t mean this is a good idea,” said plaintiff Teresa Meredith, Indiana State Teachers Association vice president. “It’s still, at the end of the day, funding religious instruction” with tax dollars, she said, according to Reuters.
The New York Times reported March 28 that 17 states offer 33 programs that let parents use taxpayer money to send their children to private schools, according to the American Federation for Children, which advocates for vouchers and tax-credit scholarship programs.
Earlier in March, Alabama Republican Gov. Robert Bentley of Alabama signed tax-credit legislation similar to Arizona’s law.
“This movement is doing more than threaten the core of our traditional public school system,” said Timothy Ogle, executive director of the Arizona School Boards Association. “It’s pushing a national policy agenda embraced by conservatives across states that are receptive to conservative ideas.”
Split appeals court approves vouchers
A Colorado appeals court ruled 2-1 on Feb. 28 that a voucher plan adopted by the Douglas County School District is constitutional. The “Choice Scholarship Pilot Program” offered vouchers worth $4,575 to 500 students at religious and other private schools.
To be eligible for state per-pupil educational funds, Douglas County still counted these children as “public school students,” attending an imaginary school that exists only on paper, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, which sued along with Americans United for Separation of Church and State on behalf of parents.
When the suit was filed, 18 of the 23 approved voucher schools were religious.
Judge Steve Bernard dissented, writing, “[The Colorado Constitution] prohibits public school districts from channeling public money to private religious schools. I think that the Choice Scholarship Program is a pipeline that violates this direct and clear constitutional command
Employer’s religious preference illegal
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reported settlement on March 19 of its lawsuit against Voss Lighting in Tulsa, Okla. Pending court approval, Voss will pay $82,500 to Edward Wolfe and “undertake specified companywide actions designed to prevent future religious discrimination.” Voss has 21 locations in 12 states.
According to the suit, Voss advertised for an “operations supervisor” on the website of a Tulsa-area church attended by a company supervisor. Wolfe, who had relevant experience but didn’t attend the church, applied and had two interviews, one with the incumbent supervisor, who recommended hiring Wolfe.
The suit alleged that most of a second interview, with the branch manager, dwelled on Wolfe’s religious activities. He was asked to name every church he’d attended, where and when he was “saved” and if he “would have a problem” coming into work early for bible study before clocking in. He was not hired.
“Refusing to hire a qualified job applicant because his religious beliefs do not comport with those of the employer’s leadership is illegal, even if the for-profit company purports to have a religious mission or purpose,” said Barbara Seely, regional attorney for EEOC’s St. Louis District Office. “The evidence in this case suggested widespread religious discrimination throughout the company, not just its Oklahoma locations.”
Seely said if Voss doesn’t change its hiring practices, “we will be back in court again.”
Courts dismiss suits challenging ACA
U.S. courts have dismissed for lack of ripeness 16 out of 18 religious challenges to the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive coverage mandate. In a March 22 ruling, an Ohio federal court denied challenges by Franciscan University of Steubenville and the Michigan Catholic Conference.
The court concluded: “The ‘safe harbor’ provision, which protects Plaintiffs from enforcement presently, coupled with ongoing process to amend the ACA regulations to address Plaintiffs’ concerns, which is substantiated by the recently published NPRM, makes the harm Plaintiffs allege unlikely to ever occur.”
In Eternal Word Television Network v. Sebelius, an Alabama federal district court dismissed a similar challenge March 25.
U.S. District Judge Audrey Fleissig struck down a Missouri law March 14 that exempts so-called moral objectors from providing mandatory contraceptive coverage. Fleissig cites a provision in the U.S. Constitution declaring that federal laws take precedence over contradictory state laws, according to The Associated Press.
The anti-abortion group Campaign Life Missouri denounced the ruling as “a radical departure from America’s tradition of religious freedom.”
The state’s Republican-led Legislature overrode Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto in order to enact the law. Our Lady’s Inn, a St. Louis Catholic group that provides homes and counseling for pregnant women, supported the bill.
9th Circuit upholds city’s Jesus prayers
In Rubin v. City of Lancaster on March 26, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit appeals court unanimously struck down a challenge to the California city’s practice of opening council meetings with sectarian prayer.
The court ruled that Christian references aren’t prohibited by the Establishment Clause as long as a governing body hasn’t affiliated itself with Christianity. That most of the prayers are Christian is merely due to demographics, wrote Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain for the court: “The City cannot control which religious congregations settle within its limits.”
The court added that asking judges to decide what amounts to a sectarian reference “not only embroils judges in precisely those intrareligious controversies that the Constitution requires us to avoid, but also imposes on us a task that we are incompetent to perform.”
Editor’s note: What part of “in Jesus’ name” did the judges not understand?
N.D. abortion laws severest in nation
Arkansas lost its No. 1 ranking for least-friendly state for reproductive choice after only three weeks on top. On March 26, North Dakota Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple signed a bill banning abortion once a fetal heartbeart is detectable, which occurs at about six weeks. Arkansas’ new law cut the Roe v. Wade guideline of 24 weeks in half to 12 weeks.
Fetal heartbeats are detectable at six weeks only by using an invasive, transvaginal ultrasound. Heartbeats can be heard at 10 to 12 weeks with an abdominal ultrasound.
Dalrymple also signed a bill requiring abortion providers to get admitting privileges at a local hospital, which could force the closing of the state’s only abortion clinic in Fargo.
He also signed a third bill to ban abortion for purposes of sex selection (the first such law in the U.S.) or because of genetic defects such as Down syndrome.
The New York Times reported the reaction of Republican state Rep. Bette Grande, primary sponsor of the “heartbeat” bill. “This is just a great day for babies in North Dakota,” said Grande, a Methodist director of Christian education and co-chair of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in the state. Law critics say it has no chance of withstanding a federal court challenge.
The newspaper also reported that Arkansas state Sen. Jason Rapert, who pushed his state’s ban, runs a Christian missionary society and preached at local churches. Liberty Counsel, affiliated with Rev. Jerry Falwell, has offered legal help to defend the North Dakota and Arkansas laws.
Lawmakers also gave final approval in March to a proposed “personhood” amendment to North Dakota Constitution. The resolution states: “The inalienable right to life of every human being at any stage of development must be recognized and protected.”
It will be on the 2014 general election ballot.
Who, me? Compare you to a summer’s day?
Heck, no, it’s hot and sweaty here — and hey,
The days are getting shorter anyway.
Summer can’t be counted on to stay.
But you’re no winter day, I’m sure of that:
You’re not all blow and bluster, slop and splat,
You never blew off anybody’s hat.
Compared to summer, winter’s one spoiled brat.
Sometimes you’re sweet like autumn, turning gold,
With moods from kinda warm to kinda cold,
Sometimes a little shy, and sometimes bold,
But amber leaves will never make you old.
Other seasons may yet play a part,
But you are always springtime in my heart.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation and 19 other plaintiffs are suing the U.S. Treasury for stamping “In God We Trust” on currency in defiance of the godless and entirely secular U.S. Constitution.
FFRF Honorary Director Mike Newdow is acting as legal counsel in the lawsuit, which was filed Feb. 1 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. Plaintiffs include Rosalyn Newdow, Mike’s mother and a longtime FFRF member and numismatist who has stopped buying coins to collect because the godly phrase on them offends her.
The legal complaint, a tour de force of historical research, unequivocally shows that there was a purely religious purpose and intent behind placing “God” on U.S. coinage.
“In God We Trust” first appeared on a coin in 1864 after a crusade by Rev. M.R. Watkinson. He wrote Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, noting such recognition was important to “relieve us from the ignominy of heathenism.”
The complaint alleges that the religious motto, a Johnny-come-lately adopted only in 1956, is proselytizing, discriminatory and an establishment of monotheism in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Congress voted to require the motto on all currency in 1955, and it first appeared on bills in 1957.
Many Americans mistakenly assume our founders chose “In God We Trust” as a motto, but for most of U.S. history, our money was as free of religion as our Constitution. The original secular motto “E Pluribus Unum” (from many [come] one) was chosen by a distinguished committee of Jefferson, Adams and Franklin.
Newdow cites statements by members of Congress who expressed hope that the proselytizing message on U.S. currency would spread worldwide.
Pennsylvania U.S. Rep. Herman P. Eberharter said, “[T]he American dollar travels all over the world, into every country of the world, and frequently gets behind the Iron Curtain, and if it carries this message in that way I think it would be very good. I think that is one of the most compelling reasons why we should put it on our currency.”
Eberharter added, “[T]he principles laid down by God and the teachings of our way of life should be kept alive in the hearts and minds of our friends enslaved behind the Iron Curtain.”
The plaintiffs, Newdow alleges, are forced to proselytize, by an Act of Congress, for a deity in which they don’t believe whenever they handle money.
“Our government is prohibited from endorsing one religion over another but also prohibited from endorsing religion over nonreligion. The placement of a theistic ideal on our nation’s currency violates this stricture and is therefore unconstitutional,” said FFRF Co-President Dan Barker.
“As Anne Nicol Gaylor, FFRF’s principal founder, has always put it, ‘In God We Trust’ isn’t even accurate. In order to be accurate, it would have to say ‘In God Some of Us Trust,’ and wouldn’t that be silly?” Barker added.
The plaintiffs point out that the motto is discriminatory, necessarily excluding nonbelievers and others who don’t believe in one god. The phrase falsely links citizenship to piety. In the words of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, that sends the “message to members of the audience who are nonadherents ‘that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.’ ”
As Newdow points out in the complaint, a similar provision discriminating against Jews, Catholics, women, blacks, Latinos, Asians or any other minority group would never be tolerated.
FFRF previously challenged the motto in a lawsuit in 1994 taken by attorney Robert R. Tiernan in Colorado. The 10th Circuit federal judge dismissed FFRF’s lawsuit on the grounds that it was not a religious phrase. FFRF had commissioned a poll in 1994 of 900 individuals which found that a majority found the words “In God We Trust” to be religious, to endorse a belief in God and to endorse religion over atheism.
The poll is entered into the new lawsuit’s exhibits. FFRF’s case caught the eye of Michael Newdow, a California emergency room doctor who “moonlights” as an Establishment Clause litigator, and in part inspired his landmark challenge of “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.
Newdow won a major victory before the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in 2002, which ruled that public schools should stop using the religious pledge. It was vacated on the basis of his standing in 2004.
“We greatly admire Mike’s never-say-die perseverance, his dedication to our country’s secular roots and his pro bono representation of FFRF and our membership,” added Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president.
“You’re not truly educated as a secularist until you’ve read Mike’s very thorough summary of the secular history of the United States, and the history of religion on coins and currency,” she adds.
The here and now is all you have, and if you play it right, it’s all you need.
The late Texas Gov. Ann Richards, quoted and portrayed by Holland Taylor in the one-woman show “Ann” at Lincoln Center
New York Times, 3-8-13
Halfway into their two-week annual meeting, delegates to the [U.N.] Commission on the Status of Women fear they will not be able to agree on a final communique, just like last year. Who is to blame? Delegates and activists are pointing fingers at the Vatican, Iran and Russia for trying to eliminate language in a draft communique asserting that the familiar excuses — religion, custom, tradition — cannot be used by governments to duck their obligation to eliminate violence.
Editorial, “Unholy Alliance: The Vatican, Iran and Russia work to block global standards on protecting women”
New York Times, 3-12-13
Violence against women must be seen as a human rights issue, and that has nothing to do with culture or religion.
Inga Marta Thorkildsen, Norway’s gender equality minister
New York Times, 3-12-13
Catholicism has never excelled at letting nonbelievers live as they believe they should. The right to legal abortion, for one, will be a ruthless field of that battle: “Our” pope will surely never allow his own country, where legal abortion remains severely limited, to set a bad example. Here, as everywhere, the Vatican is a main lobbying force for conservative, even reactionary, issues. An Argentine pope can bring this power to uncharted heights.
“God Is an Argentine,” op-ed by novelist Martin Caparros
New York Times, 3-15-13
Americans don’t appreciate the vast powers that investigating magistrates have in Europe. It only takes one who wants to make a name for him or herself to issue an arrest warrant for the former pope.
Nicholas Cafardi, canon lawyer and professor at Duquesne Law School in Pittsburgh, “Victims raise legal questions about retired pope”
One-Lung Rabbi Feels Kinship With One-Lung Pope
Headline on news story about Pope Francis I and Henry Jay Karp, rabbi at Temple Emanuel synagogue, Davenport, Iowa
ABC News, 3-14-13
I’d pity the poor lady who is married to a Catholic priest. Catholics have very high demands on their priests.
Joseph Whittel, pastor at St. Paul in Chains Catholic Church, Waterford, Conn., where the previous pastor was arrested for possessing child pornography
Waterford Patch, 3-14-13
People like to read small, happy messages while sitting on the toilet. The vast majority of the feedback has been positive. Our intention was to spread love and joy, not religious messages.
Christina von Trampe, spokeswoman for a Finnish company criticized for putting bible quotes on Lambi brand toilet paper
People with Parkinson’s disease even have a tendency to lose their interest in religion — a change more readily considered philosophical than pathological. According to research by Patrick McNamara, Ph.D., of Boston University School of Medicine, people with PD report significantly lower levels of interest in religion. Brain scans show that this lack of interest coincides with changes in the prefrontal cortex but does not correlate with depression, age, education, intelligence or medication.
Article, “Losing Religion?”
Neurology Now, Dec. 2012/Jan. 2013
The mission of the Freethinking Frogs is to organize, unite, educate and serve students and student communities that promote the ideals of scientific and critical inquiry, democracy, secularism, and human-based ethics. We envision a future in which nontheistic students are respected voices in public discourse and vital partners in the secular movement’s charge against irrationality and dogma.
Statement of a new group at Texas Christian University [mascot, Horned Frogs] seeking recognition from the Fort Worth school
Extensive discrimination by governments against atheists, humanists and the nonreligious occurs worldwide.
Statement to the United Nations’ Human Rights Council by the International Humanist and Ethical Union, which has 120 member bodies in 45 countries
American religious affiliation is at its lowest point since tracking started in the 1930s, according to analysis of new survey data by researchers from the University of California-Berkeley and Duke University. One in five Americans surveyed in 2012 said they had no religious preference, more than double the number reported in 1990.
The survey asked, “What is your religious preference? Is it Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, some other religion, or no religion?”
Sociologists analyzed data on religious attitudes as part of the General Social Survey, a biannual poll conducted by NORC, a research institute at the University of Chicago.
Researchers found that 20% of a nationally representative group reported no preference. The figure was 8% in 1990 and 5% in 1972.
Study authors said they are careful to distinguish the survey category of “no [organized] religion” from “atheists,” who made up 3% of those interviewed last year. About 8% said they were raised with no religion.
Other results: 40% of self-identified liberals claimed “no religion” compared to 9% of conservatives; “no religion” among males was 24% and 16% among females; 21% of whites, 17% of African Americans and 14% of Latinos said “no religion.”
Pennsylvania state Rep. Tim Krieger has introduced a bill in the General Assembly directly in response to current litigation by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which would have a chilling effect on plaintiffs and state/church lawsuits.
House Bill 922 would outlaw the use of pseudonyms in litigation challenging religious symbols on public property.
In a memo to representatives seeking co-sponsorship, Krieger cited lawsuits by FFRF and local families challenging two Ten Commandments monuments, donated by the Fraternal Order of Eagles, in front of public schools.
Krieger, who graduated from one of the defendant school districts, says he remembers the Ten Commandments monument at Connellsville Junior High School.
FFRF is suing over a second commandments monument in front of Valley High School in the New Kensington-Arnold School District.
The students and parents, with one exception, filed using pseudonyms because of community hostility and fear of retaliation. Some of the children represented in the suit are elementary students.
FFRF has received many hateful comments. Marie Schaub, the only named plaintiff in FFRF’s New Kensington challenge, has been the subject of harassment. Last fall, a man posted this message on the “Keep the Ten Commandments at Valley High School” Facebook page, which has 1,200 followers:
“I’m sure if we look up the bitch she probably has a facebook account or a facebook page for her ridiculous group and we can slam the shit out of the bitch.”
Another commenter asked whether “the families involved” have been identified, adding, “Someone needs to send that group back to Wisconsin with several black eyes!” Plaintiffs’ counsel have also received harassing messages. Given the community reaction, parent plaintffs are fearful their children will be subjected to religious bullying, harassment at school and by the public, and efforts to drive them out of the community.
A social media comment about FFRF’s unnamed Connellsville plaintiffs stated, “These people need [to be] drug onto the nearest street and shot.” A common refrain is that the plaintiffs must move out of the area.
“These legislators need to put their religious views aside and understand that protecting children from harm is a paramount interest of the state,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president.
She noted the long, documented history of threats and reprisal against Establishment Clause plaintiffs, most recently against Jessica Ahlquist, who became persona non grata when she filed suit and won a federal court ruling against religion in her Rhode Island high school.
Jessica at one point last year was attending school under police escort, and was subjected to cyberbullying, including death and rape threats and even threats against her younger siblings.
A Pennsylvania pastor weighing in on FFRF’s litigation addressed the Connellsville Eagles Club on March 27, telling them that in filing to remove the monument from the junior high, FFRF is “trying to destroy our country,” according to a news report in the Daily Courier.
Rev. Ewing Marietta, a leader of the “Save the Ten Commandments” group, called the court battle “ground zero.” The newspaper reported that the pastor “drew parallels” seemingly comparing FFRF with Nazi Germany and commandments backers with the United States allies during World War II.
Ironically, the bill will have no impact on the type of legal challenges it seeks to regulate. Both of the Ten Commandments cases were filed in federal court.
“One would expect that elected legislators would have a basic understanding of government and know that they lack the ability to regulate the First Amendment and the federal judiciary,” added Gaylor. The U.S. Supreme Court promulgates the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, not state legislatures.
Judge Terrance McVerry of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania issued an order in December allowing the plaintiffs in FFRF’s New Kensington case to proceed using pseudonyms. McVerry found that community members had expressed threats of violence and ostracism and ruled:
“The Court finds that this basis upon which the Does fear disclosure is substantial and that there is a substantial public interest in ensuring that litigants not face such retribution in their attempt to seek redress for what they view as a Constitutional violation, a pure legal issue.”
McVerry also issued a protective order March 28 limiting disclosure of the plaintiff’s identities. FFRF and its attorneys had asked that disclosure be limited to an appropriate district employee who could verify school enrollment by the plaintiffs’ children. The district fought to be able to disclose to any former or school staff. The judge ruled that only members of the school board and superintendent may know the identities, but must keep them confidential.
FFRF and its attorneys plan to proceed with a similar request for pseudonyms and a protective order in Connellsville.
If Krieger’s bill is passed, it likely wouldn’t stand for long, Bruce Antkowiak, St. Vincent College law professor, told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “I think the legislation would be challenged immediately as being unconstitutional,” he said.
In FFRF’s 2012 challenge of the Pennsylvania Assembly’s “Year of the Bible” resolution, U.S. District Judge Christopher Conner dismissed the case on jurisdictional grounds but took the House to task.
Connor wrote that his rebuke of legislators was “directed to the blatant use of legislative resources in contravention of the spirit — if not the letter — of the Establishment Clause.”
He continued, “At a time when the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania faces massive public policy challenges, these resources would be far better utilized in meaningful legislative efforts for the benefit all of the citizens of the Commonwealth, regardless of their religious beliefs.”
A month after the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the ACLU of Ohio sued the Jackson City School District over a portrait of Jesus in a middle school, the district moved it to Jackson High School.
The ACLU of Ohio and FFRF thwarted the overt attempt to elude the Constitution by filing an amended legal complaint in early April, adding as plaintiff “Sam Doe 4,” who has a minor child attending Jackson High School, and “Sam Doe 5,” a student who attends Jackson High School. Also filed is a motion for a temporary restraining order and memorandum in support of the motion.
FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert first complained Jan. 2 about the unconstitutional painting. Superintendent Phil Howard refused to remove it, warning “it would take a court order to remove the picture.” The lawsuit was filed Feb. 6 on behalf of several local plaintiffs, all parents of children or students in the district. The suit sought removal of the portrait and a permanent injunction barring “any substantially similar display.”
The devotional painting titled “the Head of Christ” was prominently displayed on an entrance wall at Jackson Middle School.
The Jesus painting was moved March 13 to the high school near its Fine Arts Department. The school board adopted a policy in February designating the high school space and the middle school foyer as “limited public forums.”
At the portrait’s new location in a public area at Jackson High, it’s encountered by nearly 700 students, faculty, staff and community members. The school board meets at Jackson High, and the school hosts a variety of other events there that are open to the public.
The district also announced, a claim not previously made, that it did not even own the portrait, saying that it was owned by the Hi-Y Club, a Christian service club at the high school.
Howard, a co-defendant, told The Associated Press that the portrait was moved at the request of the club, which put it up in 1947 in the high school. In 2004, the high school moved to a new building and the previous building became the middle school. No middle school clubs claimed to own the portrait.
The plaintiffs note that district employees, not high schoolers with the Hi-Y Club, removed the portrait from the middle school, transported it to the new location and affixed it to the high school wall with permanent bolts.
At the school board’s March 12 meeting, Howard acknowledged that the limited public forum policy was new and that the portrait violates the Establishment Clause if it is government speech.
“We have to respect the rights of the club,” Howard is quoted as saying. “Failure to do so might open the district to even another lawsuit — this time by the H-Y Club” — or violate the Constitution by “turning the portrait into government speech.”
Howard claimed that “it’s student speech, not government speech.”
The plaintiffs suspect that the district hoped FFRF and the ACLU of Ohio, which had a middle school plaintiff and others with standing to sue, wouldn’t be able to find a plaintiff who attended the high school.
“This is a transparent effort to shake off a lawsuit, and we’re grateful to the high school student and parent of a student who have come forward to ensure the challenge continues,” commented FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.
“It doesn’t matter which public building the portrait is in. It’s an unconstitutional endorsement of religion on the part of a public school,” said Nick Worner, with the ACLU of Ohio.
FFRF and the ACLU allege that display of the portrait infringes on the plaintiffs’ First Amendment right to freedom of religion, causing them to question whether their religious beliefs will be respected by the school district. The display forces them to view a portrait representing religious views promoted by the district that differ from the way they choose to view religion and morality.
The school district actions have “no legitimate secular purpose.”
“None of the rationales offered by the school board can obscure what any reasonable observer would recognize: 1) that the prominent display of a portrait of Jesus in a school hallway is government speech 2) that the display and maintenance of the portrait endorses one particular religion; and 3) and that the school board acted with a predominantly religious purpose when it accepted, installed and displayed the portrait of Jesus Christ at Jackson City High School.”
The plaintiffs charge that the so-called “limited public forum” is a contrivance, lacking any evidence of a written or well-established prelitigation policy for such usage. Two of the school’s only three noncurriculum-related clubs are Christian-based organizations. The Jackson High School student handbook lacks a procedure for creating new clubs on currently unrepresented interests, creating “de facto, viewpoint discrimination” in terms of access to the limited public forum.
The facts of the case are nearly identical to those in a 1994 case decided by the 6th Circuit appeals court in which the court held it’s impermissible to place a copy of the same ‘Head of Christ,” a famous portrait by Warner Sallman, in a public school hallway with trophy cases.
Statement by Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor
While President Obama was counseling "faith in the Almighty" and prayer in the wake of the devastating Oklahoma tornado (to his credit, promising to "back up those prayers with deeds"), a brave secular survivor of that tornado has become a social network phenomenon.
CNN's Wolf Blitzer on Tuesday asked Rebecca Vitsmun, a young mother holding her 19-month-old son Anders amid the rubble left in the tornado's wake, whether "she thanked the Lord" for her survival. He seemed pretty surprised as she, laughingly, forthrightly replied, "I'm actually an atheist."
Comedian Ricky Gervais, by the way, tweeted these words in response to the religious reaction to the disaster: "Beyonce, Rihanna & Katy Perry send prayers to Oklahoma. I feel like an idiot now. . . I only sent money."
Gervais later added, "Praying for something but not doing anything to make it happen has the same effect as writing to Santa and not letting mummy read the letter.
"The best way to help the disaster victims is to donate at redcross.org or text REDCROSS to 90999."
Also this week, another brave nonbeliever, Arizona state lawmaker Juan Mendez, acknowledged that he is an atheist as he gave an unusual House invocation Tuesday at the statehouse in Phoenix. Mendez urged legislators to look at each other, rather than bow their heads, and "celebrate our shared humanness."
Mendez' secular invocation reads:
"Most prayers in this room begin with a request to bow your heads. I would like to ask you not to bow your heads. I would like to ask that you take a moment to look around the room at all of the men and women here, in this moment, sharing together this extraordinary experience of being alive and of dedicating ourselves to working toward improving the lives of the people of our state.
"This room in which there are many challenging debates, many moments of tension, of ideological division, of frustration. But this is also a room where, as my Secular Humanist tradition stresses, by the very fact of being human, we have much more in common than we have differences. We share the same spectrum of potential for care, for compassion, for fear, for joy, for love.
"Carl Sagan once wrote, 'For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.' There is, in the political process, much to bear. In this room, let us cherish and celebrate our shared humanness, our shared capacity for reason and compassion, our shared love for the people of our state, for our Constitution and for our democracy – and let us root our policymaking process in these values that are relevant to all Arizonans regardless of religious belief or nonbelief. In gratitude and in love, in reason and in compassion, let us work together for a better Arizona."
State Rep. Steve Smith chastised Mendez yesterday, asking other members to join him in a second daily prayer in "repentence" for Mendez's secular words.
Mendez replied: "If my lack of religion doesn't give me the same opportunity to engage in this platform then I feel kind of disenfranchised. So I did want to stand up and offer some kind of thing that represented my view on what's going on."
State Rep. Jamescita Peshlakai, a traditional Navajo who represents a district on the Navajo reservation, took offense at Smith's chastisement as well, noting "I want to remind the House and my colleagues and everybody here that several of us here are not Christianized."
All of this illustrates what the Freedom From Religion Foundation invokes daily in formal letters of complaint to public officials who mix religion and government: Religion is divisive, and government prayer is one of the most divisive of the chronic state/church entanglements. We receive complaints nearly every day from someone around the country encountering coercive government prayer.
Inappropriate government devotionals are the topic of a case just accepted this week by the U.S. Supreme Court. The court will hear an appeal by a Religious Right group that had lost a case in which an appeals court ruled it is unconstitutional to host mostly Christian prayers to open government meetings.
This legal development is an opportunity to educate the high court on the harm and inappropriateness of prayer and religious ritual hosted and imposed on citizens as part of a government function. FFRF has already agreed to submit an amicus brief in this case.
We've offered Rep. Mendez our Emperor Has No Clothes Award reserved for public figures who make known their dissent from religion. We're making inquiries to reach the young atheist mother in Oklahoma who told it like it is about religion. Freethinkers have been waiting a long time for newsmakers to utter such rational statements.
Finally, we leave parting words to President Obama: Prayer without deeds would be meaningless indeed.
We'd rather "invoke" the wise words of this country's first secular lobbyist, Annie Royall, who fought religion in government in the 1820s and 1830s and whose motto was: "Good works instead of long prayers."