FFRF awarded Eric a $300 scholarship for his essay.
By Eric Ouellet
When I was young, my Christian mother would read bible stories to me. She would take me to church occasionally and lecture me about god. Like any child, I believed all of it.
As I grew up, I fell in love with science books at the library, particularly books about space. Christianity’s claims soon seemed completely nonsensical. By the time I was 9, I had rejected religion and the idea of a God but told no one.
I remember feeling that no matter what I believed, religion merited respect, and it was wrong to question another person’s beliefs. But over the years, religion began to anger me. I became angry at the way Christians seemed so certain about things they had no way of knowing, the way they assumed they were morally superior and that the best way to raise children was by brainwashing them.
Slowly, my mother began to suspect that I had rejected Christianity. When I was 13, I was reading A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson and telling my younger sister how the ancient Greeks calculated Earth’s circumference. Mother said to me, “Keep in mind, scientists don’t have all the answers.”
That angered me enormously and to me meant, “You can learn about science if you want, but always remember that God is the real answer to everything.” I didn’t say anything. In fact, I didn’t come out to my mother until I was 16. Thankfully, she didn’t disown me.
In fact, she doesn’t really seem to care that I am a nonbeliever (which makes me question whether she really believes the claims of Christianity herself, because if she does, she ought to be concerned that I will be tortured for eternity).
Deserving of ridicule
Why did it take me so long to come out of the closet? It was largely because of the idea perpetuated by society that it’s good and noble to be religious.
Thomas Jefferson once said, “Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions.” Every week, politicians are ridiculed in editorial cartoons and on satirical TV shows, but for some reason, it’s unheard of to ridicule the most ridiculous beliefs of all.
Religion’s unmerited respected status is the only thing that truly sustains it. After all, it’s fairly obvious that most religious people don’t believe as they do because they’ve evaluated all the possibilities and come to the conclusion that their faith makes the most sense.
They believe because those around them believe the same thing and no one seems to question it. One of the reasons it’s so important for atheists to come out and become vocal is to abolish the dangerous social custom of not questioning ridiculous beliefs.
The atheism section on the social news website Reddit has over 730,000 subscribers. It’s sometimes criticized for posting too much silly content mocking Christianity and Islam rather than discussions. But in my view, Zombie Jesus pictures and the like are extremely valuable in that they help destroy the assumption that religion deserves respect.
I’m always amused when religious defenders online try to use the same tactics as atheists. For example, one posted a picture of an obese teenager at a computer with a caption calling atheists “fat fucks with no life.”
Imagine the reaction if something like that were said about Christians. Rather than feel insulted, which was the intent of the childish picture, atheist commenters “agreed” that atheists are fat because they eat so many babies.
It’s difficult to attack atheists because they don’t have any ridiculous beliefs that require defending and therefore generally don’t feel the need to resort to tribalism.
The stigma associated with criticizing religious belief does not apply to any other belief, whether it is political, scientific or otherwise. It’s impossible to know the exact numbers, but I suspect that a large portion of supposedly religious people don’t truly believe the claims of their faiths. Thankfully, the rise of the Internet has been unkind to unjustified claims, and as a result, nonbelief appears to be accelerating.
I believe that religion will be eliminated in my lifetime, but when that happens depends on nonbelievers having the courage to come out.
Eric Ouellet, 18, lives in Mississauga, Ontario. He’s in his second year at Carleton University in Ottawa, studying computer science.
FFRF awarded Anna a $500 scholarship.
By Anna Biela
Seven years ago, I was a Catholic who was starting to ask the important questions and to put words to the doubts that plagued my childhood. I spent years trying to work through all the cognitive dissonance and the shame religion taught me.
It was one of the most difficult and freeing things I’ve ever done. Now I’m the president of the Society of Non-Theists at Purdue University. I’ve been on the local evening news standing up for separation of church and state. And I’m happier than I’ve ever been.
I wish I could say that I got here by my own willpower, but there were four people that made it possible. They’re why I’m an “out” atheist, and they’re my inspiration and motivation.
Rachel has been my friend since middle school. When we first met, she was going to a fairly conservative church, though she was never really into it. While I was still struggling with my own sexuality, she was actively advocating gay marriage. She was the window that gave me a glimpse of the world beyond my sheltered Catholic childhood.
One of my most vivid memories was when I asked her how she could be religious and pro-gay rights. She responded very matter-of-factly, “I can think for myself, and I think that everyone deserves love.”
It made something click in my mind. A very simple truth emerged from the jumbled mess of religion in my mind: The welfare of people trumps religious idealism. She was the first person I told I was an atheist. She smiled and said, “It’s about time.”
In high school I met Joseph through a friend who thought he could help me. He was the first self-labeled atheist I ever met. He never told me what to believe, just asked questions and pointed out flaws in my logic.
He made me realize that I was, in fact, an atheist already, but I was afraid of what giving up my god would mean for my world. I was afraid, and he taught me that fear wasn’t a reason to dismiss the truth. For the first time, I was taught the radical notion of “good without god.”
Then, in college, I met Kacey and Ben, respectively the former vice president and treasurer of the Society of Non-Theists. They encouraged me to come to meetings and made me feel welcome at a university swarming with campus ministries. Before I knew it, I had found myself a home with heathens in the middle of conservative Indiana.
Kacey, Ben and the other amazing Non-Theists turned my de facto atheism into activism. They gave me the courage and support I needed to be open and proud. Since joining, I’ve worked with them to raise money for charity, build relations with other campus groups, staff countless Ask an Atheist tables and coordinate trips to various conventions and the Reason Rally.
Last spring I was elected Non-Theists president almost unanimously. I was expecting a summer off, but ended up spending a month fighting a proposal for the city of West Lafayette to subsidize a church project by issuing $7 million of economic development revenue bonds.
Our work changed the original 6-1 vote to a very close 4-3 in favor of the church, which wasn’t quite a success, but we made a difference. We convinced two council members and made the city stop and think, all while establishing our presence in local government. [FFRF also got involved.]
To be completely honest, I’ve had my moments of doubt, wondering if my activism is worth it, considering the prevalent bias against the nonreligious. Any potential employer can easily discover my position in the club by Googling me. The pastor of the aforementioned church had misquoted and vilified me during his Sunday service, leading members of his congregation to harass us. It has created a huge barrier between my parents and me, and I’ve lost too many friends.
But every time I doubt, I realize that those are the exact reasons why being out of the closet is so important. I had four amazing people to stand with me and guide me. Now I have a duty and the ability to help any other young person with doubts. I will make the Society of Non-Theists strong for everyone who comes after me. I will fight for equality and rights.
I will stand up for anyone else who finds themselves the victim of religion. Religion hurt me, taught me self-loathing and repressed me. Atheists helped me, taught me the value of my voice and helped me find an ounce of truth in this crazy, beautiful universe.
Anna Biela, 20, was born in Michigan City, Ind., and is a junior majoring in nuclear engineering at Purdue University.
FFRF awarded Casimir a $1,000 scholarship.
By Casimir Klim
Unlike many of my fellow nonbelievers, I faced no backlash for my atheism until years after I had “come out” to my family and friends. Growing up in a relatively secular household, I was encouraged to think critically and draw my own conclusions about life. Although my parents were somewhat spiritual, they never forced their beliefs on me and understood when, as a young man, I rejected religious faith.
As a child and teenager, I was not made to feel like an outsider because I refused to believe unscientific explanations for existence. That all changed when I chose to become a firefighter and moved from Ann Arbor, Mich., to El Paso, Texas.
After high school, I had decided to forgo college in favor of a career in the fire service. The choice satisfied both the desire I felt for adventure and the inclination to help others that my family instilled in me. After training in Michigan, I encountered a struggling economy where most municipalities were laying off public safety workers. Being passionate about my career choice, I accepted a position in El Paso and began working as a firefighter/paramedic at the age of 22.
I had not considered what a large role religion played in the fire service. At the training academy, I saw a large number of cross necklaces and tattoos on my classmates and teachers. But my real wake-up call occurred at the dinner table a few months after I had finished training and began station work.
In fire stations, crews work 24-hour shifts and traditionally eat breakfast, lunch and dinner together. Close quarters breed familiarity, and almost no topic of conversation is off limits. As the “new guy” from out of town, I was a bit of a curiosity. During a lull in conversation, the question of my faith arose: “Hey Klim, you Catholic? What religion are you?”
I was taken by surprise. It was a question I had never been asked point blank before, let alone in a room full of other people. I could, of course, have declined to answer. But fire crews value a type of trust that is only fostered by brutal honesty. If I couldn’t tell them the truth about myself, how could they trust me to watch out for them inside a burning building?
“I — I’m not anything. I’m not religious,” I said cautiously.
I hoped it would blow over, but these were not people to take controversy lightly. They reacted with genuine shock, which quickly gave way to relentless mocking over the eternity I would surely spend in hell. To succeed as a firefighter, one must have thick skin, and I didn’t mind getting kidded about the “religion thing.”
It could just as easily been about my big ears or Midwestern accent. The joking was easy to take in stride. What really hurt was seeing the face on one of my mentors fall as I professed my lack of faith.
He, it turned out, was extremely devout. He looked both surprised and saddened by my proclamation. I wondered if our relationship would ever be the same. To bridge this new divide, I vowed to be the best firefighter I could be. I needed to prove that my atheism did not affect my abilities or my morals.
As time went by, my hard work paid off. When I proved I could successfully triage patients at a multi-car pileup and competently work the nozzle in a burning bedroom as flames rolled over our heads, the issue of where I went on Sunday went out the window. My mentor put the issue behind him and continued to serve as a great friend and adviser.
I was also pleasantly surprised to find other members of the department who lived upstanding lives without any form of religious faith. These kindred spirits also happened to be some of the best firefighters I have worked with. Many of them were equally, if not more, morally scrupulous than their religious peers.
Watching them cheerfully face long shifts with no sleep reinforced my observation that morality does not come from God. These brave men and women risked their lives to help others, not for a reward in the afterlife, but because they felt it was simply the right thing to do.
The acceptance I eventually felt from my firefighter brothers and sisters does not, apparently, translate to the rest of society. A recent study by the University of Minnesota found that nearly 40% of Americans feel that atheists “do not at all agree” with the vision that they have of society.
Would they still think so, knowing that atheists are running into burning buildings to search for their families? That we are educating their children? Policing their streets? I don’t think so. We nonbelievers are represented in myriad aspects of American society. We need to start standing up and saying so.
Initially, it was difficult to be forthcoming about my lack of faith to my peers. But in the end, it was a valuable and eye-opening experience. They were shocked at first, but it wasn’t long before we were back to eating steaks, watching TV and waiting for “the big one.” We found common ground in our work protecting the citizens of our city.
My time as a firefighter showed me the importance of “coming out” as a freethinker and atheist, regardless of one’s profession or location. If nonbelieving professionals make their position known, it will start to erode the view that atheists lack morality and do not share the values held by their fellow Americans.
If enough of us speak up, we will be recognized as the ethical and responsible members of the society that we are. I feel that this simple step will help us to move closer to a tolerant, inclusive and rational society.
Casimir Klim, 24, says his experiences as a first responder helped him discover a passion for health care. That led him to make the difficult decision to resign from the fire department and return to school. He’s a freshman at the School of General Studies, Columbia University’s undergraduate school for nontraditional students. He’s pursuing a neuroscience degree and plans to apply to medical school.
FFRF awarded Tori a $2,000 scholarship.
By Savannah “Tori” Roland
My name is Tori. I once was blind, but now I see. This is my story.
As an adolescent, I felt lost, hopeless and alone. I searched for something to take away the pain. Caroline, a Christian neighbor, leapt to my rescue. She told me that if I accepted Jesus as my lord and savior, He would forgive all of my sins. How I longed for unconditional love and acceptance! I was so excited to begin this journey!
And so I called myself a Christian. I followed Caroline to church every Wednesday and Sunday. The teen program often offered free pizza and soda, and there were so many other kids to hang out with! I had never been to a rock concert, and then the church brought in a rock band! Freaking awesome! I was addicted to all of the joy and excitement at this wonderful place.
I began to attend Bible Club meetings at lunchtime at my public school. Instead of having to eat the awful school lunches, we got to eat Papa John’s pizza. It was so good to be a Christian! My brother, who had not been saved, was angry that he did not get Papa John’s for lunch.
One day he asked the head of the meeting for some pizza. The response was, “You have to be good to get pizza.”
Occasionally, Caroline and I attended Sunday sermons at church. They were not always so happy and uplifting. The pastor often preached about the people who would burn in hell — some for not truly believing in God, some for worshipping the wrong God, some for not being baptized, some for being homosexual.
Around election time, sermons focused on political issues, like how the conservative Christians needed to stay in power to keep the U.S. on the right track. Sometimes the pastor would preach directly from “The Good Book,” which was often frightening. God seemed overly emotional, demanding, angry, power-hungry. This was a peaceful, loving God?
I often ate dinner with Caroline and her parents. It started with a prayer, the prelude to frequent arguments, usually about whether Caroline’s mother Sally should get up from the table to fetch something for Caroline’s father Richard.
Richard often read bible passages to prove his assertion that women are men’s servants. Sally’s argument was quite reasonable: She had already cooked and served the meal. Now she would like to sit down and enjoy it.
Out of the closet
In my freshman year, I moved to a different school. It was here that I met gay and bisexual students. I witnessed the hate and judgment emanating from Christians. A boy slammed my friend Josh into a locker, proclaiming him “fag” as he did so. Other students laughed and jeered. This motivated me to become involved with the LGBT club and to take a very close look at my Christian friends and their beliefs.
I had seen Christians treating people of alternate faiths with scorn. I had seen God used as an excuse to justify hatred and discrimination against women and gays. I had seen Satan used as an excuse for alcohol abuse, drug abuse and adultery. I had allowed a group of Christians to tell me what to believe and how to live my life.
I had seen no evidence to prove the existence of God. I started calling myself a nonbeliever and came out of the closet to family and friends.
My mother and stepfather, who are atheists, were thrilled. My father and stepmother, who are evangelical Christians, exclaimed, “You will burn in hell!” and “I will pray for your soul.” My Christian friends proclaimed, “You can’t believe in nothing!” Even my brother, who was never religious, was appalled.
I began attending activities with local secular groups and frequented secular blogs such as The Friendly Atheist. Learning that I was one of millions of nonbelievers helped me to feel less alone.
I was appalled to learn that atheists are distrusted and hated by the vast majority of Americans, which causes many atheists to remain closeted. How to overcome the negative stereotypes?
There is power in numbers, so atheists must come out of the closet and band together. We must be active in secular groups and visible and helpful in the community. With a large, visible presence and a new, positive reputation, people who question the existence of God will no longer fear being ostracized by society, or fear being struck by a lightning bolt hurled by an enraged God.
Sadly, critical thinking is sorely neglected within the public school system. Far too much emphasis is placed on memorization. In three years, I will be an elementary school teacher, and I will use this opportunity to teach children to use their noodles.
I imagine a future where atheists are regarded as moral and intelligent human beings. I imagine a future where individuals seek truth via scientific study and critical thinking, rather than through the bible.
I dream of a future where politicians can openly express atheist beliefs and still have a fair chance of becoming president of the United States. I dream of a future where individuals who were once blindly faithful can attain 20/20 vision.
Savannah “Tori” Roland, 18, grew up in Charleston, S.C., where she’s a sophomore at the College of Charleston, majoring in elementary and secondary education.
FFRF awarded Laila a $3,000 scholarship.
By Laila Shalikar
I let out an exasperated sigh as I stare at the mound of photos scattered at my feet. I had been jumping up and down in the storage closet, struggling to grasp an umbrella when I knocked down an old cardboard box filled with hundreds of family photos spanning 20 years.
“Laila! Hesus Maryosep! Do you always have to be so clumsy? Pick those up — quick!” my “Nanay” hollers at me. I grimace and bend down to collect them, but stop as one catches my eye.
I blow the dust off of it and hold it up to the light. It is me, standing in front of the church of Our Lady of Perpetual Help on the day of my First Communion 12 years ago. I chuckle at my poufy white dress and the ridiculous garland of artificial flowers crowning my head.
But there is more to this photo than just how silly the 8-year-old version of myself looked. Scrutinizing it further, it is clear I did not exude the same happiness as the rest of my classmates. I note the slightly sullen expression in my eyes and my close-mouthed “smile.”
Until seven years ago, religion had always played a large role in my life. My very first trip out of the U.S. was at age 3, when my mother abruptly spirited me away to her native Philippines so I could be baptized into the Catholic faith without her disapproving husband’s knowledge.
Upon returning home, instead of attending the elementary school with my neighborhood playmates, she sent me to a Seventh-day Adventist school an hour away. Classmates gawked at me for eating meat and suggesting we study evolution.
In third grade, I went to a Catholic school for the sole purpose of receiving my First Communion. That year was absolute torture. I did not have the slightest clue about the Seven Sacraments or the countless prayers the nuns forced me to memorize. I never had a say in any of this. I was brainwashed at an early age before logical, rational thought even had a chance to develop.
On the other side, my father’s Afghan family pressured him to make me attend Islamic classes at the local mosque, which he staunchly refused to do because he never appreciated people forcing their religion down others’ throats.
Whose god is right?
Being pulled in these two polar opposite directions filled me with endless questions and turmoil. Whose god is right? Is it all arbitrary? Then my father stepped in.
Now a freethinker, “Baba Jan” was raised a practicing Muslim. Not until his first year of college was he exposed to evolutionary theory and other scientific views that directly contradicted his religious beliefs.
He then rigorously examined his faith and subsequently abandoned Islam. When I was 13, he told me I was mature enough to find my own way, a notion that delighted me because I was tired of simply going through the motions. The idea of conforming just because others did repulsed me.
My curiosity and skepticism peaked at this age. I wondered how men in the Old Testament lived to be 900, when in this day and age of advanced science and medicine, many people are lucky to reach 90.
Why do fundamentalists oppose contraceptives and stem cell research with solutions to many of our world’s ills? Why do people proclaim war in the name of religion when its tenets preach peace? When the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami struck Asia and killed 250,000 people, I stared in disbelief at survivors on TV fervently thanking God for sparing their lives. Why did God send a tsunami in the first place, especially to such a poor region? But the only response I received was, “It’s God’s will. His reasons are such that we cannot comprehend.” Dissatisfied with such vagueness, I turned to something I can always count on: education. I devoured various books investigating monotheistic texts and was shocked by the often violent, oppressive history of religion. It blew my mind that the sacred books I spent hours poring over as a child were simply man-made compilations of unverifiable fairy tales and unfounded “facts.”
My research and discoveries were liberating. I was freed from the chains of convention, dogma and disillusion. It struck me that I had outgrown religion, just as I outgrew Barbies and Britney Spears. It has nothing to offer me. It stands in the way of progress, inadequately explains the nature of life and is the main source of many global conflicts today.
One day, as I stared at Carl Sagan’s famous “Pale Blue Dot” picture from Voyager 1 showing Earth as an infinitesimal blip against the vastness of space, I realized how fragile life is. I am sure that this is the only life I have. This is the only world I have. Now is the only time I have.
Now, instead of wasting time questioning beliefs others forced upon me and feeling incomplete, I embrace free thought and reason. The process of abandoning my childhood faith made me develop as an individual, changed the way I see the world and is an integral part of my identity.
Laila Shalikar, 20, Riverside, Calif., is in her third year at the University of California at Berkeley pursuing majors in political science (international relations emphasis) and media studies. She’s traveled to 34 countries already and says: “I have had a vested interest in humanitarian efforts and foreign service in the global community, especially in my father’s homeland of Afghanistan, which is sadly a nation utterly ruined by the noxious influence of religion. The Philippines, too, is struggling with extreme levels of poverty, mainly caused by overpopulation due to the Vatican’s barbaric aversion to contraception.”
Wendy and Arik Posner carry an FFRF banner at the 2010 Rally to Restore Sanity in Washington, D.C.
Name: Arik Posner.
Where I live: In the northern Virginia exurbs of the nation’s capital.
Where and when I was born: In 1968 in Wilster, a small town near the North Sea coast in northwestern Germany. My parents run a small massage therapy business in the area. After finishing my degree I got an offer and immigrated to the U.S. to pursue scientific interests. In 2008, I became a naturalized U.S. citizen.
Family: My wife Wendy, a professional violinist and FFRF Lifer; and our children, Linus, 7, and Darwin, 5. My eldest son Kelvin, 16, lives in Germany with his mom. We see him as often as possible on both sides of the pond. On our cross-country road trip this summer, Kelvin and I swung through Madison and toured Freethought Hall.
One of our recent adventures was attending the Reason Rally together. We marched to it alongside Dan Barker and a few dozen other members, carrying an FFRF banner. At the rally, we encountered members of the Westboro Baptist Church. They had the audacity to remark to Wendy, “What a terrible way to raise your kids.” Ironically, one of the main speakers at the event was Nate Phelps, the Westboro founder’s estranged son, reporting on the terrible way he was raised.
Education: Diploma in physics from the University of Heidelberg and a doctoral degree in science from the University of Kiel.
Occupation: I work in science management for the nation’s space agency. It is exciting, fast-paced work. You never know what will come up the next day or even the next hour.
How I got where I am today: When I was growing up, I followed the reports and images from the Voyager mission uncovering the mysteries of the outer planets. I also watched the broadcast on German TV of the series “Cosmos” by Carl Sagan and his colleagues. All of this spurred my interest in science, which early on I decided would be my career choice.
Where I’m headed: Help the kids grow up well and inspire them and other young people about science as others inspired me. Isn’t it the greatest adventure there is? Maybe I’ll still have some time to find out new things in the years ahead.
Person in history I admire and why: The scientists we named our children after [Linus Pauling and Charles Darwin], and Christopher Hitchens. I admit to getting teary-eyed when I heard last December that he had died. His bravery and the way he was able to use words against all forms of tyranny could hardly be surpassed.
A quotation I like: “We would be 1,500 years ahead if it hadn’t been for the church dragging science back by its coattails and burning our best minds at the stake.” (Catherine Fahringer). We met her regularly at freethought (FACT) meetings while living in ultra-religious San Antonio. She is another person I admire greatly for her courage and outspokenness. I’m so happy that FFRF carries an award in her name.
These are a few of my favorite things: Chinese stamps (yes, I’m a boring philatelist); Scrabble (competing with Wendy is tough); Xiang Qi (Chinese chess); and an instrument on the Curiosity rover, RAD, that I originally designed. It measures radiation in preparation for the human explorers who will one day land on Mars.
These are not: In Germany: Church taxes. You become a member of a state-accredited church through baptism, which customarily happens before one has formed one’s opinion about it. I only became aware of this when I turned 18 and received my first paycheck, which was reduced by church taxes. I immediately went to the government office (where I was yelled at) in order to cancel my “membership.” My grandmother was not so lucky. At her most vulnerable, immediately following the loss of her husband, she was talked into a church burial by the pastor. A few months later, the church contacted her to inform her that she owed her husband’s “unpaid” back church taxes of several decades, which she was asked to pay on the spot. It turns out that my granddad never attended church himself. But he didn’t have much say in the matter anymore, as he was already dead. Since there was no evidence that he had ever renounced his church membership, my grandmother and my dad got stuck with a significant bill. The ruthlessness and shamelessness of church leaders victimizing a widow is astounding to me.
The other one is U.S. politicians — in particular, presidents of late, wearing faith on their sleeve. One reason I ultimately came to the U.S. was to become a (secular) voter and thus make a difference in the world. I admire John F. Kennedy for his insight. I hope that we will in the future have another president who respects the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
My doubts about religion started: I never fell for religion, although a classmate in public school, a son of missionaries, tried everything to lure me in. My school tried this as well during religion instruction, as to date there is no separation of state and church in Germany. (The German Constitution, which was drafted with American “help” after World War II, does not explicitly state anything about this question, but it contains the infamous Article 140, pointing to the relevant statutes of the pre-war Weimar Constitution that are still in place. These statutes are responsible for the ongoing entanglement.)
When I was about 15, I read Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which has an atheist poem as a foreword. This was the moment I found out that I was not alone in my nonreligiosity. It is so important that this confirmation happen early in life, before one succumbs to self-doubt. I think FFRF has helped many young people in this important way.
Why I’m a freethinker: I firmly believe that education and scientific progress are good for humanity. Religion has stood in the way of progress, in a quite chaotic and random way, wherever new knowledge has contradicted its tenets, whether it be stem cell research, evolution, family planning and prevention of STDs. Even the lightning rod was opposed when it was introduced.
Most tragic is that women in theocratic countries are excluded from educational options and full participation in society. Just recently, Iran’s mullahs decided to ban women from pursuing degrees in science and engineering.
Ways I promote freethought: I wish I could do more. I participated in the Secular Coalition’s Lobby Day for Reason, stunning some congressional staffers who apparently had never talked to an atheist before. I enjoy publicly reading Freethought Today, in particular while commuting on the bus and metro. I wish there were more large-font, stirring captions on the back page to make it more visible.
I’ve already made friends on the bus (greetings, Woody!), and I had a Mormon hand me a pamphlet and immediately “run off” the bus at what I presume was his stop.
Embryonic stem cell research upheld
In Shirley v. Sebelius, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia upheld a lower court decision Aug. 24 throwing out a suit that challenged federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. Opponents claimed the National Institutes of Health was violating the 1996 Dickey-Wicker law that prohibits taxpayer financing for work that harms an embryo.
The Washington Post reported a three-judge panel unanimously agreed with a lower court judge’s dismissal of the case. This is the second time the appeals court has said that the challenged federal funding of embryonic stem cell research was permissible.
D.C. court backs contraceptive mandate
In Wheaton College v. Sebelius, the District of Columbia federal district court on Aug. 24 dismissed for lack of standing and ripeness a challenge by Wheaton College in Illinois to the mandate issued under the Affordable Care Act requiring group health insurance policies to cover contraceptive services for women.
Religion Clause reported that “Because the Department of Health and Human Services has announced a one-year enforcement safe harbor for nonprofit groups whose religious beliefs are violated by the mandate, the court concluded that Wheaton does not face imminent enforcement action.”
Wisconsin board OKs SCOTUS appeal
The Elmbrook [Wis.] School Board voted 5-2 on Aug. 21 to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to decide if the district violated the Constitution by holding graduation ceremonies from 2000-09 at Elmbrook Church.
The vote came after a July 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals court ruling that reversed a decision to not hold the district liable, reported Brookfield Now.
The case was brought by Americans United.
Air Force officially bars proselytizing
Shortly before retiring as Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. Norton Schwartz issued a document that included what NBC on Aug. 22 called the first time the Air Force has “laid down the law on religious proselytizing by leaders.”
Included in the 27-page Standards of Conduct directive are:
Government Neutrality Regarding Religion. “Leaders at all levels must balance constitutional protections for an individual’s free exercise of religion or other personal beliefs and the constitutional prohibition against governmental establishment of religion. For example, they must avoid the actual or apparent use of their position to promote their personal religious beliefs to their subordinates or to extend preferential treatment for any religion. Commanders or supervisors who engage in such behavior may cause members to doubt their impartiality and objectivity. The potential result is a degradation of the unit’s morale, good order, and discipline.
2.12.1. “All Airmen are able to choose to practice their particular religion, or subscribe to no religious belief at all. You should confidently practice your own beliefs while respecting others whose viewpoints differ from your own.”
Mikey Weinstein of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, was unimpressed by the directive, calling it “a belated response to MRFF’s continual exposure of [Schwartz’s] scandalously nonconfrontational approach to the Christian extremist predators within the USAF who flout their oath to support and defend the U.S. Constitution.”
Hawaii judge rules against gay couples
U.S. District Court Judge Alan Kay ruled Aug. 8 against two Hawaii couples who want to get married instead of entering a civil union. Kay sided with Hawaii Health Director Loretta Fuddy and Hawaii Family Forum, a Christian group that was allowed to intervene in the case.
The women, Natasha Jackson and Janin Kleid, argued they need to be married to get certain federal benefits. Co-plaintiff Gary Bradley wants to marry his foreign national partner to help him change his immigration status. Appeals are planned.
Religious lobbies have opposed marriage equality in Hawaii.
New hearing for pregnancy center case
The full 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals on Aug. 15 ordered a new hearing in the case of Baltimore’s truth-in-advertising ordinance requiring crisis pregnancy centers to post signs saying they don’t provide or make referrals for abortion or for comprehensive birth control services.
The order struck down a June decision voiding down the ordinance, the first of its kind in the nation. A Dec. 6 hearing date was set.
The Center for Reproductive Rights joined the city of Baltimore to defend the ordinance in June 2010 against a lawsuit filed by the Archbishop of Baltimore and a local parish.
Rehearing ordered for Florida decalogue
The 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled Aug. 15 that a 5-foot-high Ten Commandments statue could stay at the entrance to the Dixie County Courthouse in Cross City, Fla. A lower court ordered the granite monument removed in 2011.
The American Civil Liberties Union first sued in 2007 on behalf of a “John Doe” client. The 11th Circuit ruled that U.S. District Judge Maurice Paul failed to consider conflicting evidence on whether Doe has standing to sue, the Wall Street Journal reported. The case goes back to Paul’s court.
Russian PM: Free Pussy Riot Oct. 1
A judge sentenced three members of Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot to two years in jail Aug. 17 for staging a protest against President Vladimir Putin in Moscow’s main Orthodox cathedral, an act Judge Marina Syrova called “blasphemous.”
Syrova found the women guilty of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred, reported Reuters. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, Marina Alyokhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, stood watching in handcuffs in a glass courtroom cage.
The Associated Press reported Sept. 12 that Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said the women should be freed when their cases are appealed Oct. 1. “In my view, a suspended sentence would be sufficient, taking into account the time they have already spent in custody.”
Church trailer removed from school
FFRF filed a complaint in July to Maury County Public Schools (Columbia, Tenn.) about a trailer from WellSpring Christian Church that was permanently parked next to the sign for Spring Hill Elementary. The church uses the school for Sunday worship servicesy.
Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote that it “is inappropriate for the District to permit advertisement of religious organizations or churches, especially a permanent advertisement, on school property. Even if allowed to rent district facilities to churches, a public school should not allow any activity that would give the appearance of promoting or supporting religion.”
A school attorney responded July 19 that “The church has been informed that this trailer, along with any other advertisement it utilizes, may only be upon school grounds immediately before and during the time in which the church utilizes the school facilities.”
FFRF ends Kentucky graduation prayer
An invocation and benediction were given at the 2012 Mercer County High School graduation ceremony in Frankfort, Ky. Both prayers, also listed in the official program, made reference to Jesus Christ and one ended with a genuflection.
Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote June 8 to remind the school that “the Supreme Court has continually struck down prayers at school-sponsored events, including public school graduations.”
On July 20, the school district’s attorney wrote, “I have advised that there should not be any prayers as part of the ceremony.” He added, “While planning for the graduation ceremony in the spring of 2013 has not yet occurred, it is my understanding the School District representatives intend to make the necessary changes to next year’s graduation so that this is no longer an issue.”
FFRF letter halts Christian assemblies
Thanks to a July 26 letter from Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert, Signal Mountain Middle/High School, Chattanooga, Tenn., is on notice that future school assemblies cannot use warnings about alcohol as a pretext for Christian proselytization.
FFRF’s local complainant detailed an assembly speech by Dave Walton, allegedly an expert on substance abuse. But a cursory search of his website, braggingforjesus.org/, reveals ulterior motives.
The attorney for Hamilton County Schools wrote Aug. 1 that many faculty members were also concerned that the presentation was inappropriate and that the presentation resulted from a “gross failure” to screen the speaker. The attorney called the situation “a good story for training.”
Georgia school bans football prayer-giver
On behalf of a local complainant, FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote May 23 to Dougherty County Schools, Albany, Ga., to point out constitutional violations by a Fellowship of Christian Athletes member who gave postgame prayers for football teams in Albany.
FCA rep Bill Cox gathered the team and coaches told them to kneel. Prayers included several references to Jesus’ crucifixion “fiction,” including “Thank you Lord Jesus for dying on the cross to save us from our sins.”
Superintendent Joshua Murfree replied Aug. 23 that Cox’s activities “are inconsistent with the practices of the school system, and I have issued instructions that, because of his activities, Mr. Bill Cox is not to be permitted to come upon school property or to attend school-sponsored functions.”
Murfree “reiterated to our athletic employees our practice of not permitting prayer at athletic functions.”
FFRF stops Alabama graduation prayers
A graduating senior who’s an atheist reported to FFRF that East Limestone High School in Athens, Ala., had graduation prayers listed in the program for which the student leading the invocation and benediction asked everyone to bow their heads and pray.
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel first wrote the school board June 4 and sent two follow-up letters. The superintendent replied Aug. 21 that schools “have been informed of the law and have taken appropriate steps to ensure that religious prayers will not be scheduled or endorsed as a part of the graduation ceremonies or any other school-sponsored events.”
Georgia bible distribution halted
Thomas County School District, Thomasville, Ga., stopped allowing Gideons to distribute bibles after a March 23 letter from Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt. A middle school principal had announced over the intercom that the bibles were being handed out.
Superintendent George Kornegay Jr. replied July 16 that bible distributions “will not occur in the future in the Thomas County Schools.”
Senior center agrees to obey law
Employees at Peach County Senior Citizens Center, Fort Valley, Ga., were regularly leading residents in prayer before meals, playing Baptist hymns on the piano and reading from the bible to celebrate any event or special day, according to FFRF’s senior citizen complainant.
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote a letter July 26 to the center director noting that because it receives federal funds, it is subject to federal law which “is explicit and unequivocal in its prohibition on religious activities.”
The center responded August 9: “[W]e have discussed this matter with the participants to educate them that our staff cannot/will not initiate, encourage, or participate in any religious based activity. Any participant that observes staff promoting religion in any way has been made aware of the Agency’s grievance policy.”
FFRF blocks school soccer prayer
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a complaint letter July 31 about the Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA) hosting a soccer tournament that included prayer. Video showed a Fellowship of Christian Athletes member praying.
AHSAA responded Aug. 6 that “we certainly appreciate your concerns and take very seriously our duties and obligations under federal and state law. To that end, we intend to fully comply with all constitutional mandates.”
FFRF stops daily prelunch prayers
The Tishomingo County School District will no longer allow teachers to lead students in prayer.
Iuka Elementary School teachers in Iuka, Miss., will stop leading students in prayers before lunch. Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote the school May 3 about the illegal practice.
Superintendent Ben McClung wrote July 23 to say “we understand that teachers cannot encourage students to pray or lead students in prayer.”
Texas FCA adviser played active role
A coach at Hutto High School in Texas can no longer play an active role in the school’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapter. The coach/club adviser was sending emails to staff promoting FCA events and listing himself as the contact person.
Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt complained in February. On Aug. 8, a school attorney replied that the district would offering training on constitutional issues and “will also ensure that this club is truly student-initiated and student-run.”
Complaint gets cross taken down
FFRF received a complaint last spring from a New Yorker who reported that a science teacher at Public School 76 in Queens displayed a cross on the wall next to the blackboard. The display included the words “love god.” Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote a letter of complaint May 8 to the principal. The principal responded July 18 that “the item has been removed.”
FFRF stops Community College violation
Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote April 4 to the Peralta Community College chancellor in Oakland, Calif., about a staff member using “BY GRACE ALONE THROUGH FAITH ALONE IN CHRIST ALONE” as his email signature. The staffer had sent a system email to all district employees inviting them to join a “prayer at the pole” event.
The college’s general counsel responded Aug. 22 to say that the employee is no longer sending emails with religious content.
FFRF stops Ohio graduation prayer
Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert’s three letters of complaint about 2011 graduation prayer in Mogadore, Ohio, have borne fruit. The prayer given by the class treasurer was listed in the program.
The district has responded that “Field High School will not have prayer at graduation ceremonies and has enacted policies prohibiting prayer at graduation.” The letter included a copy of the new policy.
Pregame prayers halted in South Dakota
The Castlewood [S.D.] School District will no longer hold pregame prayers after an FFRF complaint May 23 and follow-up letters by Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel. A video posted on YouTube showed school personnel leading prayers before sporting events.
Superintendent Keith Fodness responded Aug. 14: “Our coaching staff has been briefed on the case law pertaining to prayer as it relates to the situation described in your letter and have been instructed to act within those guidelines.”
Florida probes ‘In God We Trust’ plates
In May, FFRF contacted four Florida state agencies about an apparent “scam in God’s name” involving a policy allowing drivers to buy specialty license plates for an additional fee which goes to the group sponsoring the plate.
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel noted in several letters that the “In God We Trust Foundation” had collected over $630,000 and distributed nothing to a charity for children which it claimed to be supporting.
The Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles replied Aug. 27: “Our department is aware of the alleged noncompliance regarding the distribution of funds from sales of the In God We Trust specialty license plate. As this is an ongoing investigation, we are not at liberty to divulge related information.”
The letter added that due to the probe, “our department has not distributed any funds to the IGWT Foundation.”
Did ‘man in sky’ see complaint coming?
FFRF’s objection about a teacher at a Mandarin language immersion elementary school in the San Mateo/Foster City [Calif.] School District was successful.
A local complainant told FFRF that the teacher told students that the “man in the sky can see everything you do, but you can’t see him because he is camouflaged.”
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to the district May 22 about the allegation of proselytization of a captive audience of children.
The school district informed FFRF Aug. 16 that it “has reminded its employees of the District’s policy of not [teaching] religion in schools.”
Court now offers
After an FFRF letter, the Rocky River [Ohio] Municipal Court will offer secular alternatives to Alcoholics Anonymous. The court had required some offenders to either attend Alcoholics Anonymous or be jailed.
Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote on March 16 to the court’s probation department, pointing out that courts have consistently found AA and other 12-step programs to be “religious programs for purposes of First Amendment analysis.”
Chief Probation Officer Judy Nash responded Aug. 1 that the court will offer offenders other options, including information on Rational Recovery and Secular Organizations for Sobriety.
God hates divorce
FFRF received a complaint about a Missouri pastor who appeared to hijack required Family Court educational programs on divorce in Jackson County by talking about himself and his faith for most of the three-hour period. The pastor also handed out fliers offering his religious services outside of class, which were held in his church.
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to the court July 16 to ask for correction of the theological bent of the secular class.
The court responded a month later that the minister was told that “the issue of his religious faith and his ministry have no place in the teaching of this curriculum and we have instructed him to discontinue references to his background such that gives the appearance that the Court is promoting religion over nonreligious beliefs.” The court will “monitor this issue with all” of its instructors.
The response noted that the court is also “actively looking for locations outside of church property where we can hold classes.”
FFRF stops prayer at Michigan school
Hastings Area School District in Michigan refrained from including a prayer in its 2012 high school graduation ceremony after receiving an April 13 complaint letter from Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt. For at least 10 years, Hastings High School has included an illegal invocation in its official graduation program and selected a student to lead the prayer.
In a July 17 reply, Superintendent Todd Geerlings assured FFRF that, “there were no prayers said at the Hastings High School graduation ceremony on May 25, 2012.”
Mississippi teacher oversteps bounds
A U.S. history teacher in Raymond, Miss., who brought “Truth for Youth Bibles” to class for students to take will no longer do so after a May 23 letter from Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt. The teacher also asked her students to raise their hands if they “believe that women who have abortions are going to hell.”
While the teacher was present, a student was allowed to ask classmates who were “saved” to raise their hands.
Superintendent Stephen Handley replied Aug. 8 that “the teacher was given instruction and counseling on her role as a teacher in our district and the requirement of neutrality with respect to religious issues.”
FFRF deletes religious recording
The recorded message of the License Office in Rolla, Mo., no longer ends in “God bless you.” Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt’s letter resulted in it being changed to “Have a wonderful day.”
Indiana discovers the Constitution!
According to publicity, Indiana Dunes State Park appeared to be hosting and co-sponsoring a 5-kilometer event with St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, with proceeds going to the church’s school. In a March 15 letter, Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt chastened state officials.
A June 29 response confirmed that while a flier mistakenly stated the event was co-sponsored, the Division of State Parks did not sponsor it. The church was required to obtain a special event permit to use the park.
FFRF stops Alabama religious emails
An Alabama Medicaid Agency employee used her official email account to ask recipients to help ban an upcoming film depicting Jesus as a homosexual. Her email included a quotation from the bible and urged recipients, “Let’s stand for what we believe and stop the mockery of Jesus Christ our Savior.”
Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt sent the agency a letter June 20.
Acting Commissioner Stephanie McGee Azar agreed in a July 13 letter that the employee violated policy, adding that “appropriate disciplinary action” was taken against her.
Religious narrative out in Ohio
The Antwerp [Ohio] School District will no longer include religious messages in school assemblies after a complaint last fall from Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt.
A Veterans Day assembly had included recitation of “The Meaning Behind the Folding Ceremonies of the Flag,” a discredited religious narrative which explains the “meaning” of each of the 12 folds of the flag. The “meaning” of the 12th fold, e.g., is to represent and glorify “God the Father, The Son, and Holy Ghost.”
On Aug. 9, school attorney Kimball Carey told FFRF that the principal who organized the assembly wasn’t aware of the content of the presentation, and said it wouldn’t happen again in Antwerp schools.
‘Faith & Family Night’ fan draw dismal
California University of Pennsylvania, a public school in the borough of California, Pa., agreed after getting Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt’s complaint that it’s unconstitutional to offer reduced admission to basketball games for those who mention their church affiliation.
“Faith and Family Night” last Jan. 6 offered $3 admission for people who mentioned their church affiliation. Churches also were allowed to set up informational tables in the new basketball arena.
Legal University counsel Jacqueline Morrow replied Aug. 20 that she told administrators on the day of the event that the promotion was unconstitutional. “The University administrators responsible for the event were apologetic, and because the game had already been advertised, we decided that the available cure would be to make sure that everyone that attended the event would be charged the same, lower price.”
Morrow added, “Not only was the plan unconstitutional, it was not successful. Attendance was low.”
God’s help out in San Francisco
The San Francisco Assessment Appeals Board removed “so help me God” from the oath used to swear in parties testifying at board hearings after getting Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt’s February letter and follow-up letters.
Board Administrator Dawn Duran wrote on Aug. 14 that the religious oath is out and has been replaced by, “Do you solemnly swear or affirm that the testimony you are about to give will be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?”
Census unlinks to Catholic ‘research’
FFRF was contacted by a curious researcher in November 2011 who “wanted to look up religion statistics and tried www.census.gov/,” the U.S. Census website. The census stopped collecting religious statistics in 1936, but provides links to “more information.” These links included the Hartford Seminary and the Glenmary Research Center (GRC).
The link to the GRC in fact linked to Glenmary Home Missioners, a missionary organization “dedicated to establishing a Catholic presence in rural areas and small towns of the United States where the Catholic Church is not yet effectively present.”
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to Census Bureau Director Robert Groves on May 22 about the links. Several follow-up letters and phone calls ensued. Seidel suggested the Pew Forum on Religion & the Public Life would be a better source.
The Census’ Web and Social Media Branch reviewed all the links to religious information, and as of July 2, removed them all. The Census also now links to the Pew Research Center.
Football prayers forced to ‘take a knee’
FFRF was victorious against pregame football prayer at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, where sectarian prayer led by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes had been a home game staple since 2010.
Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt initially wrote to UTC Chancellor Roger Brown on May 15: “While students, athletes, and athletic event attendees may choose to gather privately in prayer, a public university has no place in encouraging or endorsing religious ritual.”
Schmitt also noted that a 1997 decision, Chaudhuri v. State of Tenn., by the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals held that sectarian prayers at public university events violate the Establishment Clause.
After several months of indecision, Brown announced Sept. 10 that “the right decision for the university” was to offer a moment of silence in lieu of prayer.
Brown told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that “we need to make sure there is never anybody that goes away from our campus, our stadium, our arena or classroom or work, that feels like they have been excluded or feel uncomfortable in any way.”
FFRF member Dr. Irving Norman Wolfson, 90, Worcester, Mass., died peacefully at home in his sleep July 8, 2012.
He was born July 20, 1919, in New York City. After graduating from Columbia University, he received his M.D. from Yale in 1943, then served as an Army medical officer in India and China in World War II. He later practiced internal medicine and cardiology in Worcester and held many leadership positions in the medical community.
As an activist and humanist, he supported Amnesty International, UNICEF, American Civil Liberties Union, NAACP and Freedom From Religion Foundation. He was an FFRF member since 1989. Irving’s son, Charles, sent word of his death and said his dad died “still a strong atheist.”
He was preceded in death in 1983 by Annabel Kreider Wolfson, his wife of 37 years. Survivors include three children: Richard (Artley) Wolfson, Middlebury, Vt., Helen (Eric Thomas) Wolfson, Durham, N.C., Charles Wolfson, Westborough; six grandchildren; a great-grandchild: and his sister, Florence Howitt, Westport, Conn.
FFRF offers its sincerest cond-
olences to the Wolfson family.
Restaurant frames FFRF complaint letter
Blue Ridge Mountain BBQ in Blue Ridge, Ga., stopped a preferential 10% discount for churchgoers after gettomg Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt’s June 26 letter. The restaurant also offered free meals for pastors dining with a paying customer.
On July 5, FFRF received confirmation that not only had the sign offering the church discount been removed, but it had been replaced by a framed copy of FFRF’s letter of complaint.
FFRF adds ‘nones’ to ‘All Faiths Day’
The West Michigan Whitecaps baseball team, which plays in Comstock Park, Mich., decided after getting FFRF’s complaint that any publication would qualify for an “All Faiths Day” promotion. Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote the team president July 18 about the discriminatory promotion offering half-price seats for people with church bulletins.
A team attorney replied Aug. 9: “In actual practice, the Whitecaps accept any secular publication, such as school newsletters, community recreation department fliers, apartment and home association newsletters, municipal newsletters, and trade association newsletters and publications. . . . If a patron brought an FFRF newsletter, they would be given the same discount as a patron bringing a church bulletin.”
FFRF letter ends Georgia discount
A 20% church bulletin discount at Las Banderas Mexican Restaurant in Valdosta, Ga., was ended after Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt complained Aug. 16. The owner agreed in a phone call Aug. 22 to end the discount and remove the promotion from the restaurant website.