Chambers sponsors bill to tax Neb. churches
Nebraska state Sen. Ernie Chambers, an atheist, introduced a bill Jan. 8 to eliminate property tax exemptions for religious organizations. Bill LB675 attempts to “gain more revenue, rather than less, by taking away churches’ property tax exemptions,” according to Chambers’ Statement of Intent.
“If taxes were paid on the many churches and cathedrals and temples in every city in this State, perhaps the State’s assistance to local governments and schools would be diminished considerably, leaving more in State coffers for other purposes,” said Chambers, 76, of Omaha.
Chambers’ name is on the 1983 landmark Supreme Court case Marsh v. Chambers. He sued in 1980 to end the Legislature’s practice of opening with a prayer offered by a state-supported chaplain. The district court held that the prayer did not violate the Constitution but that state support for the chaplain did. The 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals held that both practices violated the Constitution, but the Supreme Court upheld the practice on a 6-3 vote.
In 2007, Chambers famously filed a lawsuit against God for causing “widespread death, destruction and terrorization of millions upon millions of the Earth’s inhabitants.”
A state district court judge dismissed Chambers v. God in 2008, saying the defendant wasn’t properly served due to his unlisted home address. “Given that this court finds that there can never be service effectuated on the named defendant, this action will be dismissed with prejudice,” wrote Judge Marlon Polk.
Chambers’ reaction: “Since God knows everything, God has notice of this lawsuit.” He received a Hero of the First Amendment Award from FFRF in 2005.
gains in Tunisia
Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly approved a new constitution Jan. 26 by a vote of 200 to 4, with 12 abstentions. The governing Islamist Ennahdha Party made some concessions, most importantly the removal of references to Islamic law, the BBC reported.
However, it also designates Islam as the state religion, while guaranteeing freedom of worship. It also forbids “attacks on the sacred,” the meaning of which is unclear.
The constitution also recognizes equality between men and women for the first time. In 2011, a revolution overthrew autocratic President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and the first free elections were held. The population is 10.7 million, of which 98% are Muslim.
Chicago archdiocese releases documents
The Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago released 6,000 pages of documents to attorneys that sex abuse victims hope will reveal what the church knew and did or didn’t do about decades of allegations against clergy, The Associated Press reported Jan. 16.
The documents include complaints, personnel records and other files for 30 priests with substantiated abuse allegations against them. Archdiocese attorney John O’Malley warned that the documents will be upsetting. “The information is painful; it’s difficult to read, even without the benefit of hindsight.”
The archdiocese has already paid about $100 million to settle claims, including numerous ones against Fr. Daniel McCormack, who was sentenced to five years in prison after pleading guilty in 2007 to abusing five children while he was a parish priest and teacher at a Catholic school.
Many of the accused priests are dead. The documents will include only 30 of 65 priests against whom credible allegations were made. That’s because settlements that required the disclosures involved only 30.
Year of the Bible
in Texas city
Mayor Tom Hayden of Flower Mound, Texas, a Dallas suburb of about 65,000 people, has proclaimed 2014 the Year of the Bible.
“I was nervous about doing this,” Hayden told KDFW on Jan. 1. “And I’ve been thinking about it for two years, and procrastinated about if for as long as I possibly could.”
The proclamation draws heavily on President Rondald Reagan’s almost identical proclamation in 1983. It also sets up a website: thebible2014.com.
“The way it’s set up is that people would have the same scripture each day,” said Jon Bell of Calvary Chapel. “That they would go over and so that at the end of the year, they’d have gone through the whole Bible in a year.”
Hayden said the proclamation was not an official town action, which didn’t assuage resident Curt Orton. “He was elected mayor, not the spiritual leader of Flower Mound.”
Botched circumcision brings lawsuit
Pittsburgh Rabbi Mordechai Rosenberg is being sued for allegedly severing a newborn’s penis during a ritual circumcision about eight months ago at Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill.
According to the suit, the baby was rushed to Children’s Hospital, where doctors performed microsurgery. Sources told KDKA the surgery took nearly eight hours and that the boy was hospitalized for about two months.
On his website, Rosenberg says that “a doctor’s medical circumcision, usually performed in the hospital, is not considered valid according to Jewish law.”
Harvard humanist chaplain dies at 84
Tom Ferrick, 84, Harvard University’s first humanist chaplain, died Dec. 30 of complications from Alzheimer’s disease in Cambridge, Mass. He is survived by a sister.
Ferrick attended the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester and then the seminary befored being ordained a Catholic priest. After leaving the priesthood, he became Harvard’s humanist chaplain in 1974. “The notion that we all stand in need of redemption is anti-humanist,” he told the Boston Globe in 1990. “The fact that ordinary human beings are capable of love, compassion and sacrifice, independent of theology, is proof that we can indeed be good without God.”
Two years later, he told the Harvard Crimson that “humanism is not science, nor mysticism, but is a faith in human experience.”
Pew study: How
public views evolution
The Pew Research Center released a new poll Dec. 30 titled “Public’s View on Human Evolution.” The U.S. adults surveyed were asked whether, in their view, humans and other living things have evolved over time, or instead have existed in their present form since the beginning of time, reported Religion Clause.
Overall, 60% said that living things have evolved, while 33% said they have always existed in their present form. About 64% of White Evangelical Protestants and 15% of White Mainline Protestants believe that evolution did not occur. Also, 48% of Republicans, 27% of Democrats and 28% of Independents believe that living things have always existed in their present form.
Apologist D’Souza pleads not guilty
Dinesh D’Souza, 52, Christian apologist and conservative author, was released Jan. 24 on $500,000 bond after pleading not guilty at his arraignment in Manhattan to federal counts of making more than $10,000 of contributions in the names of others and causing false statements. According to an indictment filed by Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, D’Souza allegedly made contributions in other people’s names to a U.S. Senate candidate in 2012. The indictment didn’t name the candidate, but sources said it was Republican U.S. Senate candidate Wendy Long, who lost to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.
D’Souza takes the Christian position in frequent debates with freethinkers and has debated FFRF Co-President Dan Barker eight times. D’Souza was forced to resign in 2012 as president of King’s College, an evangelical Christian school in Manhattan, over reports he was having an affair with Denise Odie Joseph, 29, while still married to his wife of 20 years. He was raised Catholic but now calls himself a nondenominational Christian.
States’ abortion barriers mushroom
The Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit organization which works to advance reproductive health and abortion rights, reported Jan. 2 that more abortion restrictions were enacted in 2011–13 than in the entire previous decade.
In 2013, 39 states enacted 141 provisions related to reproductive health and rights. Half of them, 70 in 22 states, sought to restrict access to abortion services.
A few states adopted measures to expand access. Most notably, California enacted the first new state law in seven years to expand access to abortion. Five states expanded access to comprehensive sex education and to emergency contraception for sexual assault victims.
Pakistan blasphemy nets death sentence
A court in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, sentenced a British man, Muhammad Asghar, 70, to death Jan. 23 for blasphemy. Asghar was arrested in 2010 after he wrote letters to various people, including the police, claiming he is a prophet. According to BBC News, Asghar is a British Pakistani from Edinburgh who came back to Pakistan to look after his family’s property. The complaint against him was filed by a tenant who had been served with an eviction notice by Asghar.
Before returning to Pakistan, Asghar had been diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic, but a medical panel appointed by the court in Pakistan rejected the claim of mental illness.
According to Religion Clause, the death sentence is unlikely to be carried out since Pakistan has had a de facto moratorium on the death penalty since 2008. Asghar’s lawyer said the conviction will be appealed, and the British Foreign Office plans to raise its concerns with the Pakistani government.
Marriage equality makes more gains
In the seven months since the 2013 Supreme Court landmark decision striking down part of the Defense of Marriage Act that defined marriage as between a man and a woman, the number of states allowing gay marriage has jumped from 12 to 17 (plus the District of Columbia). In Utah and Oklahoma, the issue is in limbo pending appeals, The Associated Press reported Jan. 16.
John Williamson, a former state Senate president who wrote the ballot measure that an Oklahoma judge overturned, said that as a Christian he will never accept gay marriage. “But in states that by a vote of the people have approved that, I say ‘OK, they got what they want. You have a majority of the people there, and if the minority doesn’t like it, they can move to Oklahoma.’ But now what can we do?”
An AP poll in October showed about a third of Americans opposing gay marriage, down from 45% in 2011. Twenty-seven states still have constitutional prohibitions and four have state laws against same-sex marriage.
Judge censured for courthouse religion
Bronx County Judge Mary Brigantti-Hughes was censured by the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct, ABA Journal reported. According to a Dec. 17 statement of facts cited by the commission, Brigantti-Hughes:
• Directed staffers to type or copy religious material for her personal use.
• Asked a court attorney to accompany her to Home Depot to buy and pot plants for a church function.
• Asked court staff to join her in prayer in court chambers, and asked staffers to attend religious events after regular business hours.
Brigantti-Hughes, 54, had obtained permission to hold lunch-hour bible study and prayer group at the courthouse, but the requests for staff prayers were made at other times during regular business hours, the determination said.
She also had staff do personal favors for her that were not related to religion. The alleged conduct took place between 2006 and 2011.
Nativity scenes take military hits
Officials at Shaw Air Force Base near Sumter, S.C., ordered removal of a nativity scene that was set up by a small lake on the base, the Air Force Times reported in December.
Spokeswoman Lt. Keavy Rake said the Military Religious Freedom Foundation lodged a complaint about the display. Reke said base officials want a holiday display that reflects more than a single group’s beliefs. Volunteers from the base chapel set up the nativity scene.
The commander of the Guantanamo Bay Navy Base in Cuba ordered two nativity scenes out of cafeterias to the base chapel, reported the Miami Herald.
“The spirit of the Navy’s policy on this is, if it’s religious, it goes to the chapel,” said base commander Capt. J.R. Nettleton. “It’s more appropriate there.”
Eighteen service members had complained to MRFF. Guantanamo has about 6,000 residents, a third of them civilian contract workers from Jamaica and the Philippines.
Vouchers subject of North Carolina suits
Public school advocates sued the state of North Carolina on Dec. 11 to block a new law that would let taxpayer money be used by low-income students wishing to attend private or religious schools, reported The Associated Press.
The North Carolina Association of Educators and the North Carolina Justice Center filed the lawsuit in Wake County Superior Court on behalf of 25 parents, teachers and others. They contend the new law violates the state constitution, which requires that the school funding be “used exclusively for establishing and maintaining a uniform system of free public schools.”
The law would allow annual grants of $4,200 per students. About 2,400 students could qualify for grants in the first year, with $10 million budgeted. Legislators said they hope to expand the program.
Thirteen states had tuition tax credit programs as of this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Okla. commandments hit with suits
American Atheists filed a federal lawsuit Jan. 13 against members of the Oklahoma State Capitol Preservation Commission for allowing placement of a 2,000-pound Ten Commandments monument at the north entrance to the Capitol. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a similar lawsuit in state court.
The commission put a moratorium on proposed displays on Dec. 19 after getting ones from the New York-based Satanic Temple, a Hindu leader in Nevada, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. The satanists’ monument features a 7-foot-tall Baphomet, a goat-headed creature sometimes used as a stand-in for Satan. The demon’s lap, flanked by a smiling child on each side, would double as a seat for visitors.
Tulsa atheist William Poire told KRMG-TV: “I don’t want to see a Hindu monument or a satanist monument any more than I want to see any other endorsement or any other religion.”
Church properties escape Fla. taxes
A 12,000-square-foot home in Coral Springs, Fla., that has a pool, guest house and several garages was recently assessed at at $1.9 million. The owner, the Church of the Bible Understanding, pays no property taxes, WPLG reported Dec. 13.
It’s also the primary residence of Stewart Trail, a former vacuum salesman and carpet cleaner who founded the church. The previous owner, a former Miami Dolphins football player, paid $50,000 a year.
A $2 million, 5,000-square-foot house owned by the Seafarer’s Church of the Creator is also tax-exempt. “It’s a house hosting religious services,” said Broward County property appraiser Lori Parrish.
“Federal law governs religious facilities,” said Parrish. “The law is the law, and we follow the law.”
A California FFRF member was successful in getting a state Department of Public Health official in Sacramento to remove a religious statement from her email signature. After the employee’s information such as title, address and phone number, her official emails ended with: “What you have made a matter of Prayer, should cease to be a matter of care!!!”
Pamela Koslyn, a Life Member, wrote the employee: “As I’m sure you know, not everyone believes in prayer, and as I’d expect you to know, the CDPH cannot endorse prayer. I think this is an inappropriate use of state resources, since your email speaks for the state, and by my reading of the California Constitution’s ‘No Preference,’ ‘No Establishment’ and ‘No Aid’ clauses, you’re forbidden from doing any act that proselytizes for and prefers any particular sect without a secular purpose. Since there’s no secular purpose to prayer, I believe it also forbids proselytizing for prayer. You’re of course free to include whatever you’d like on your private emails and in your private conversations.”
Koslyn followed up the next day with another email that asked the employee to “Please respond promptly in writing about what steps you are taking to respect the Establishment Clause and remedy this constitutional violation.”
That same day, Dec. 24, Koslyn received an email from the employee’s direct manager: “I would like to let you know that your e-mail was brought to my attention by [the employee]. The language on her e-mail account has been removed.”
Bibles removed from UW guest rooms
After attempting to end the practice for several decades, the Freedom From Religion Foundation has persuaded University of Wisconsin-Extension in Madison to remove Gideon bibles from its 137 guest rooms.
In November, a complainant who encountered the bible at the Lowell Center on the UW-Madison campus contacted FFRF. The seven-story conference center hosts events of up to 400 people and was used by the UW secular student group — Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics — to host a freethought festival last March.
Patrick Elliott, one of FFRF’s five staff attorneys, took action, contacting UW-Extension: “When a government entity like the Lowell Center allows distribution of religious material to visitors, it has unconstitutionally entangled itself with a religious message, in this case a Christian message.”
UW-Extension Chancellor Ray Cross (now UW System president) responded Nov. 25 that all bibles would be removed from guest rooms by Dec. 1. The decision received wide area media coverage.
Elliott called it a solid victory for state/church separation. “While private hotels may choose to put any type of literature they want in their guest rooms, state-run colleges have a constitutional obligation to remain neutral toward religion.”
FFRF President Emerita Anne Nicol Gaylor first contacted UW-Extension in the 1980s and 1990s about the unconstitutional practice. Now 87, Gaylor responded, “It’s satisfying to finally see this violation remedied.”
Letter stops N.C. employee prayers
A complainant reported to FFRF that annual Thanksgiving celebrations at a department within the North Carolina Education Lottery have included prayers initiated by the department director.
In a Nov. 29 letter, Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott urged NCEL Executive Director Alice Garland to remind employees that such practices are unconstitutional.
Founded in 2005, the lottery is mandated to turn over 100% of its proceeds to public education.
In a Dec. 6 response, lottery counsel assured FFRF that the practice will stop. “We have addressed this matter with the affected department director, and informed all upper management that religion should never be part of any activities, NCEL-sanctioned or not, while on company property and/or time.”
Okla. staff warned on teacher prayer
A concerned student reported to FFRF that pep rallies at Alva High School in Oklahoma regularly featured student-led prayer circles supported by the faculty. In a letter sent Oct. 23, Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel reminded Superintendent Steve Parkhurst and the school principal that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment deems any school-sponsored sectarian practice unconstitutional.
FFRF received a statement from Parkhurst on Nov. 4, claiming that the group prayer was merely optional after a pep rally. Seidel addressed this contention in his letter, “Even if prayer at Alva High’s pep rallies were voluntary, and even if participation at pep rallies were made non-mandatory for students in the band, cheerleaders, and football players, the mere voluntariness of the prayers would still not remedy this constitutional violation. Courts have summarily rejected arguments that voluntariness excuses a constitutional violation.”
Parkhurst concluded his letter on a positive note, “Faculty members have been reminded that this must be student-initiated and as a faculty member they cannot participate.”
from school music
Emmons Lake Elementary School in Caledonia, Mich., was contacted Oct. 3 by Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel on behalf of a concerned parent. Seidel informed Superintendent Randy Rodriguez that teaching Christian-themed music to students is unconstitutional.
“The problems with the music are compounded by the fact that [the teacher] used the song as an opportunity to teach Christian doctrine to students, as well as by the fact that the concert is specifically labeled a ‘Christmas’ concert,” noted Seidel.
On Oct. 16, the superintendent assured FFRF that the school “has initiated steps to resolve this concern at a local level.”
The complainant confirmed that religious teachings have been withdrawn from music classes.
stops church discount
FFRF successfully ended a discount extended exclusively to churchgoers by Aleathea’s Restaurant in Cape May, N.J. Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell, informed by a concerned customer, advised the restaurant to drop the discriminatory practice in an Oct. 10 letter:
“Your restaurant’s restrictive promotional practice favors religious customers, and denies both customers who do not attend church as well as nonbelievers the right to ‘full and equal’ enjoyment of Aleathea’s. Any promotions should be available to all customers regardless of religious preference or practice on a nondiscriminatory basis.”
Cavell said such a discount violates New Jersey law and the federal Civil Rights Act, which ensures equal opportunity to “goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages and accommodations.”
The owner confirmed Dec. 2 that the restaurant had dropped the discount.
Carolina meals won’t open with prayer
Prayers will no longer precede meals at the Simpsonville Activity and Senior Center in Simpsonville, S.C. Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel warned the Parks and Recreation Department, which runs the center, that such religious practices are prohibited by the Establishment Clause and Title XX of the Social Security Act.
“Not only does organizing public prayer at meals jeopardize your federal funding, it also violates our citizens’ rights to be free from religious proselytizing by the government or government funded organizations,” wrote Seidel.
On Dec. 5, FFRF received a reply from Director of Recreation Robbie Davis, stating that “staff at the Simpsonville Senior Center has ceased leading or encouraging prayer before meal functions.”
FFRF letter curbs Cornerstone prayer
FFRF reminded the Hyde Park Central School District in New York that active involvement of faculty during after-school clubs is inappropriate.
In a Nov. 7 letter to Superintendent Greer Rychcik, Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell requested that staff at F.D. Roosevelt High School in Staatsburg, N.Y., stop participation in the school’s prayer group, Cornerstone, on constitutional grounds.
Cavell also referenced the Equal Access Act, which prohibits teachers from participating in noncurricular student activities.
“We ask that teachers throughout the district be reminded of their constitutional duty to remain neutral toward religion, a duty that does not simply begin and end with the school day,” wrote Cavell.
The school’s legal counsel responded Dec. 3: “The district understands and appreciates its constitutional and statutory obligations to students in this regard and, to that end, has reminded those teachers who were approached by Cornerstone to remain neutral toward religion and to refrain from participating in the substantive affairs of religious clubs. The district has also instructed those teachers to refrain from any participation or activity that may be perceived as an endorsement of the club’s religious message.”
Proselytizing cop warned to stop
A concerned citizen in Toledo, Ohio, informed FFRF that during a traffic collision investigation, after asking whether the citizen attended church, the police officer started recommending various churches in the area.
Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell requested in a Nov. 26 letter that the city remind the officer that such actions are unconstitutional.
“[The officer’s] overt promotion of religion while acting in his official capacity as a government agent gives the unfortunate impression that the Toledo PD endorses Christianity over other religions and generally endorses religion over nonreligion,” wrote Cavell.
In his response Dec. 4, the police chief said the situation would be investigated further and that “[the officer’s] supervisor was made aware of the incident and was instructed to counsel [the officer] about his actions.”
FFRF extinguishes Points of Light
A proselytizing group will no longer have access to families at Frick Middle School in Oakland, Calif. A religious organization called Points of Light hosted a barbecue at a “Back to School Night” alongside school activities. FFRF’s complainant reported that both events were treated and advertised through official school channels as a single event with no mention of the ministry’s involvement. At one point, a PoL representative addressed the crowd and made religious statements, such as “praise God” and “lift up Jesus.”
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter to Oakland Unified School District Superintendent Gary Yee on Nov. 7: “It is regrettable that religious groups seek to use the school as a recruiting ground for their particular religion. Their presence at this school event creates the appearance of district endorsement of their programs. Given the purpose of the school welcome event, the prominence of the PoL ministry, and PoL’s use of the school to spread its message, a reasonable parent would conclude that PoL has the backing of the school.”
In a Dec. 19 response, the district’s attorney strongly criticized the arrangement. Attorney Laura O’Neill told Points of Light, “The statements made by your staff member violated board policy because they promoted Christian viewpoints. It is the district’s expectation that your staff will comply with Board Policy and refrain from making any statements that proselytize or favor one religious viewpoint over another. Specifically, your staff may not in any way promote Christian viewpoints or proselytize on any district campus.”
School tells coach to stop prayer
A coach at West Linn High School in Tualatin, Ore., will no longer participate in team prayer. FFRF received a complaint last fall that Assistant Coach Art Williams would regularly join a circle of football players to bow his head in prayer.
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter Sept. 24 to William Rhodes, superintendent, requesting that all coach-led prayer cease immediately: “West Linn High School and its coaches should be aware of the tremendous influence coaches have on their athletes. Parents trust their children to the coaches’ charge and coaches — through their own example — must be sure that athletes are not only treated fairly but also imbued with a sense of community and camaraderie.”
On Oct. 15, an attorney representing the district responded that Williams was directed not to join students in prayer.
Superintendent removes nativity scene
The superintendent of Green Local Schools in Green, Ohio, took down a nativity scene after receiving a letter from FFRF.
Superintendent Judith Robinson had displayed a nativity scene in her office window. Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to her Dec. 18: “It is unlawful for a public school to maintain, erect, or host a nativity scene, thus endorsing Christianity.”
Robinson emailed promptly that same day stating that she had taken down the scene.
OK at Utah school
Students at Oquirrh Hills Middle School (West Jordan, Utah) will no longer be reprimanded for refusing to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. A student contacted FFRF to say that, on multiple occasions, a teacher had singled out a student for refusing to recite the pledge.
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to the superintendent Nov. 13: “Students should not be singled out, rebuked, told they must stand, or otherwise penalized for following their freedom of conscience. It is illegal to reprimand a student in any way for non-disruptively exercising his or her constitutional right to object to reciting the pledge of allegiance.”
The district responded Nov. 20 that it has and “will continue to teach and remind our students, faculty, and staff to foster and maintain an atmosphere of respect and tolerance in our classrooms and communities.”
Religious fliers out in Ohio school
South Bloomfield Elementary School (Ashville, Ohio) will no longer be permitted to pass out religious fliers to students.
A concerned parent contacted FFRF when her child brought home an advertisement for “A Night in Bethlehem,” an event organized by a church and featuring a live nativity scene, Christmas music and religiously themed activities.
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel contacted the school Dec. 12 about its constitutional obligation to remain neutral to religion and pointing out that religious fliers “waste the time and resources of paid school personnel” and force “teachers of diverse views and beliefs to distribute religious promotional materials.”
Superintendent Jeff Sheets responded Dec. 23 that the district has a policy not to send any third-party communications home with students. He said he informed the South Bloomfield principal, who was new, of this policy. Sheets also stated he would remind district residents of the policy.
K-9 unit’s bible
posts taken down
The Douglas County [Ga.] Sheriff K-9 Unit’s Facebook page no longer posts religious messages. The page administrator regularly posted bible quotes on Sundays, as well as several other Christian-themed posts. Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to the sheriff Nov. 27: “It is a fundamental principle of Establishment Clause jurisprudence that the government cannot in any way promote, advance, or otherwise endorse religion.”
Since receiving FFRF’s letter, there have been no further religious posts on the unit’s Facebook page.
Religious marquees banned at school
The superintendent of the Wayne County [W.Va.] School District will ensure that religious messages are not put on school marquees after FFRF notified her of one such marquee and the constitutional problems it posed.
Buffalo Elementary School had displayed the message “WISE MEN STILL SEEK HIM” around Christmas. Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote to the superintendent Dec. 31.
Superintendent Lynn Hurt responded Jan. 3 that she had notified the principal to remove the sign. The school district’s attorney “will prepare a notice for all of our principals and share it with them at their monthly meeting about this situation,” Hurt said.
Public school prayer monitored in Minn.
FFRF has received multiple complaints about prayer at Pillager [Minn.] Public School events. In 2010, FFRF objected to a prayer led by a pastor at a Veterans Day assembly for all K-12 students. Superintendent Chuck Arns gave assurances that prayers would not recur at future events but prayers at some events continued.
Most recently, an invocation by a pastor was included as part of a National Honor Society ceremony in November.
Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote to the attorney for the school district about the continuation of prayers, asking for the superintendent to “issue a memorandum which makes absolutely clear that prayers are not permitted as part of school-sponsored events, which includes all events organized by school staff. We also request that all staff who plan school events are trained on the legal necessity to immediately cease scheduling prayers.”
The attorney replied Jan. 8: “In the next week, Superintendent Arns will address all school administration and others who could be responsible for planning school events. He will remind them that during school-sponsored events, there shall be no religious expression or instruction, whether in the form of prayer or references to the bible.”
FFRF members with students in the district will monitor future activities to ensure compliance.
Band director’s prayer strikes sour note
The marching band director at a high school in Rock Hill School District Three, Rock Hill, S.C., apparently initiated a student prayer circle before performances. Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott contacted the school’s legal counsel Dec. 6 on behalf of a complainant:
“It is a violation of the Constitution for a [school] employee to organize, schedule, or participate in prayers or other religious proselytizing before marching band performances.”
In a Dec. 12 letter, legal counsel admitted that “the band director has on occasion signaled to the students just before they recited the prayer.”
The director “understands that he is to refrain in the future from signaling that any such prayer take place at a school-sponsored activity or event.”
School strips staff of ‘Jesus’ shirts
FFRF action led to return of shirts like this to the donor.
Buchtel Community Learning Center teachers in Akron, Ohio, will no longer be allowed to wear religious T-shirts in school. The shirts promote the school’s athletic program with messages such as “Jesus Is My Hero,” “Pick Up the Cross and Follow Me: Jesus” and “God’s Got Our Back.”
FFRF contacted Akron Public School Superintendent David James on June 5. Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert detailed constitutional concerns and conflict with the board’s policy, which bars staff from using their positions or property “ ‘for participant political or religious purposes.’ Wearing T-shirts calling upon others to follow Christ is not an example public school teachers are constitutionally allowed to set. Furthermore, the policy states staff would ‘dress in a manner consistent with their professional responsibilities.’ ”
The district responded that it takes such allegations seriously and requested names of teachers involved. Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a follow-up letter with names of staff who had worn the shirts, including the principal and assistant principal. Seidel also noted that the shirts were being sold in the official school store.
“The [shirt] designs themselves align official athletics teams (not private student clubs) with Christianity in violation of the law.”
Seidel urged the district to confiscate the remaining stock of shirts and remind staff not to wear them to school.
The district responded Oct. 23: “The entire school staff was notified that the donated shirts are not to be worn during school because they are a violation of the board’s policy regarding the wearing of religious symbols. The rest of the donated T-shirts have been confiscated and will be given back to the donor.”
Religion off athletic shirts at school
After a complaint by FFRF, coaches at South Central High School in Winterville, N.C., received a lesson from the school principal on the Constitution.
Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote Nov. 27 to the Pitt County School District about reports of coach-led prayers at football, soccer, baseball and basketball games.
On Dec. 20, FFRF received assurances from the school district’s attorney that the principal had informed all coaches of restrictions on prayer at school events. The district also agreed that bible verses would not be placed on athletic shirts, which at least one team had done in the past.
School removes ‘Lord God’ from mural
FFRF was successful in remedying this constitutional violation in a Georgia elementary school.
Robinson Elementary School in Dawsonville, Ga., painted over part of a verse from an Anglican hymn after FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliot contacted the attorney for the Dawson County School District on behalf of a concerned parent.
The verse, which read, “All Creatures Great and Small. The Lord God Made Them All,” was painted above a cafeteria mural depicting a variety of animals and insects.
In December, the parent notified FFRF that the religious portion of the hymn had been painted over with a new message. The mural now reads, “All Creatures Great and Small. Robinson Elem. Loves Them All.”
The mural was the latest violation in Dawson County Schools that FFRF has rectified. In January 2013, FFRF received confirmation from the school system that it would not grant academic credit to students for attending an unaccredited Christian Learning Center, as had been reported in the news.
In February 2013, a parent alerted FFRF about a Latin cross painted on a large boulder beside the high school football field. After receiving a letter from Elliott, the school painted over the cross.
I was an atheist by third grade.
Singer Linda Ronstadt
New York Times, 12-29-13
The Kickstarter campaign for “Bible Chronicles: The Call of Abraham” is not off to a quick start. After launching two days ago, it has gathered just $1,649 of its $100,000 target from 28 total backers. Funding closes on Feb. 6.
Article on the “God-focused single-player role-playing” video game
Sexual abuse in Jewish religious institutions has emerged as one of the most tragic issues of our generation. Fearing scandal, rabbis in the past were often inclined not to report such cases to the authorities, thus enabling pedophiles to continue preying on children as they moved on to other religious educational institutions.
Columnist Isi Leibler
Jerusalem Post, 1-1-14
If you didn’t think that took balls, you’ve never been to Oklahoma. Saying “I’m an atheist” in Oklahoma is like screaming “jihad” at airport security.
Entertainer Doug Stanhope, on atheists raising $125,000 for tornado survivor Rebecca Vitsmun, who famously told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer she was not thanking God for saving her family
The Raw Story, 12-30-13
It’s a campaign to get the word out that there are atheists and agnostics. There’s no attempt to convert anyone. It doesn’t say, “We hate God.”
Stephen Hirtle, Pittsburgh Coalition of Reason spokesman [and FFRF chair], on a bus ad rejected by the city’s Port Authority over which the group is suing
Pittsburgh City Paper, 12-4-13
You do know Jesus wasn’t born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, right?
Jon Stewart, responding to Fox News host Megyn Kelly’s claim that Jesus and Santa were both white men
“The Daily Show,” 12-12-13
The lady looked at me. I thought she was going to put money in the kettle. She came up to me and said, “Do you believe in God?” And she says, “You’re supposed to say Merry Christmas,” and that’s when she hit me.
Kristina Vindiola, Salvation Army bell ringer, on what happened when she said “Happy Holidays” outside a Phoenix Walmart
I am a retired Christian.
Irish actor Peter O’Toole, who died Dec. 14 at 81, saying he prefers “education and reading and facts” to faith
New York Times, 7-26-07
How did my family miss the dedication of Dorr Township to the Holy Family with a nativity in the publicly owned gazebo at the center of town?
Atheist Jeremiah Bannister, Dorr, Mich., on how a crèche was allowed on land leased by the township
Advance Newspapers, 12-15-13
The hardest thing I had to do was walk through the door of a police station and stand at a desk with people around, and say why I was there.
Clergy abuse victim DG, 55, on reporting in 1993 his molestation at age 13 by Marist Brother Raymond Foster, who killed himself after being arrested in 1999
Australian Broadcasting Corp., 12-13-13
Mr. Obama has gone to church 18 times during his nearly five years in the White House, according to Mark Knoller of CBS News, an unofficial White House historian, while his predecessor, Mr. Bush, attended 120 times during his eight years in office.
News story analyzing the president’s personal faith and church attendance, which included a “no show” on Christmas
New York Times, 12-29-13
There is nothing about the image that suggests he believes in one god, no god, or several. It simply depicts a Native American shooting a bow and arrow.
U.S. District Judge Joe Heaton, ruling against a Methodist pastor in his suit claiming that the Oklahoma license plate forces him to display an image contrary to his beliefs
Tulsa World, 1-15-14
There has been anti-science propaganda running unchecked on the right for years, from anti-gay equality misinformation to climate change denials. When you look at white evangelical Protestants, the evolution denialism gets even worse. Only 27% of that group believes in evolution.
Columnist Charles Blow, citing a Pew Research Center study
New York Times, 1-4-14
It seems that if Oklahoma Christians want to imbue society with their values, there are better ways to do it that respect the pluralistic nature of our society. Perhaps they should just focus on living out the Ten Commandments and ditch the monuments.
Kirsten Powers, columnist and Fox News political analyst, on a State Capitol controversy
USA Today, 1-14-14
I don’t give a [expletive] about religion when it comes to sports. In fact, I think it’s stupid. I think everyone that goes on national television and is asked why do you win says, “I want to thank God.” Really? Like God gives a [expletive] that you made 18 jump shots. I have always had a problem with that. I have a problem with people showing their religion in public. I have a real problem with that.
Luigi “Geno” Auriemma, head coach of the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team
Hartford Courant, 1-17-14
[Atheists] need to buck up, assert our rationality, and change the way we deal with the religious, with everyday affronts delivered (at times unknowingly) by believers, with the casual presumptions that historically have tended to favor the faithful and grant them unmerited respect. A lot is at stake. Religion is a serious matter, reaching far beyond the pale of individual conscience and sometimes translating into violence, sexism, sexual harassment and assault, and sundry legal attempts to restrict a woman’s right to abortion or outlaw it altogether, to say nothing of terrorism and war. Now is the time to act.
Journalist Jeffrey Tayler, “15 ways to stand up for rationality”
With “National School Choice Week” upon us, it is a fitting time to take a look at Wisconsin’s failed voucher program. The abrupt closure of LifeSkills Academy, a Christian school in Milwaukee, is merely a symptom of a larger problem. Wisconsin’s voucher system is broken and cannot be repaired.
At its core, the voucher system is a backdoor means to fund religious schools with taxpayer money instead of public schools. The expansion of vouchers statewide highlights this fact. All of the new schools, 25 out of 25, are Christian schools.
Notably, the one Islamic school and two Jewish schools that applied for state approval were not able to garner as many applicants as the 18 Catholic schools and seven other Christian schools now receiving taxpayer money. Only parents in the religious majority were able to send their children to a denominational “choice” school.
This flawed program violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and its equivalent in the Wisconsin Constitution: Article 1, Section 18.
While the legality and feasibility of statewide vouchers have not been tested, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program has been tested. It is the long-est running voucher program in the country. What have we learned? Wisconsin taxpayers are paying millions of dollars to dozens of incompetent religious schools that do not provide a comprehensive education.
Milwaukee’s LifeSkills Academy, which received $2.3 million in state voucher money since 2008, shut down suddenly in mid-December. A priest in charge of the building that was rented by the school said that the school’s operators moved out “in the dead of the night.” Families of students were left scrambling to find a new school.
LifeSkills students had struggled with basic reading and math, with only one of the 56 students testing proficient in either subject on 2012 state exams. Despite their poor operation of the Milwaukee school, Taron and Rodney Monroe opened LifeSkills Academy II in Florida last year and bragged about their ability to get government grants for religious schools.
LifeSkills Academy is merely one of many inept Milwaukee voucher schools. Department of Public Instruction testing data published last year showed that Milwaukee Public School students outperform voucher students in reading and math. Looking past the averages, the data reveals that entire voucher schools lack basic skills.
Carter’s Christian Academy and Daughters of the Father Christian Academy are two Milwaukee schools that rely almost entirely on taxpayer funding. Daughters of the Father promotes itself as “specializing in reading and math.” Of the 92 students tested in 2012 at Daughters of the Father, only one tested proficient in reading and two tested proficient in math.
At Carter’s Christian Academy, none of the 85 students tested proficient in reading and only one tested proficient in math. Between the two schools, 81% are classified as having “minimal” skills in reading and 75% have minimal math skills.
It is understandable that students attending these schools are struggling, given the fundamentalist curriculum that is being taught in what are generally considered secular subjects. Information available on each school’s website makes it clear that they both utilize curriculum provided by A Beka Books, a publisher of fundamentalist Christian textbooks. A Beka has promoted its materials by saying that textbook writers “do not paraphrase progressive education textbooks and add biblical principles” but instead “create textbooks from a biblical worldview, built upon the firm foundation of Scriptural truth.”
A profile of the 2011-12 curriculum on the Daughters of the Father website includes revisionist history lessons from A Beka Books, creationism instruction in science classes and health class instruction for seventh and eighth graders on “sins such as adultery, fornication and homosexuality.”
It matters what is taught in taxpayer-funded schools. No parental “choice” on where to send a child for school should mean that all taxpayers pick up the tab for fundamentally flawed schooling by educators who are incompetent. It is expected that the Milwaukee voucher program will cost $161 million this school year alone.
With vouchers, there are no assurances that educators are answerable to the citizens who ultimately write the checks. They are not governed by publicly elected school boards that have to answer to constituents. There are virtually no protections to ensure that students are receiving a sound education.
Voucher supporters will be unable to offer reforms that guarantee another LifeSkills Academy debacle will not happen again. Moving students around in the middle of a school year like they are chess pieces is absolutely disruptive to student learning and will continue under a voucher system.
Any additional accountability measures for voucher schools that are put into place cannot fix a fundamentally broken program.
Patrick Elliott is a staff attorney with the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison, Wis.
The federal government filed notice Jan. 24 that it’s appealing the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s significant federal court victory declaring the “parish exemption” unconstitutional. Under the 1954 law, “ministers of the gospel” don’t pay any taxes on salary designated as a “housing allowance.”
U.S. District Judge Barbara B. Crabb for the Western District of Wisconsin issued a strong, 43-page decision on Nov. 22 declaring 26 U.S. C. § 107(2) unconstitutional. The case is FFRF, Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker v. Jacob Lew, Acting Secretary of the Treasury Department and Daniel Werfel, Acting Commissioner of the International Revenue Service.
The appeal will go before the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago.
The law allows “ministers of the gospel” who are paid through a housing allowance to exclude that allowance from taxable income. Ministers may even use untaxed income to buy a home and deduct interest paid on the mortgage and property taxes — known as “double dipping.”
The clergy benefit costs the government up to $700 million a year in lost revenue, and benefits not just ministers but their employer churches, which can pay ministers less because untaxed income goes further.
Christianity Today found that 84 percent of senior pastors receive a housing allowance ranging from $20,000 to $38,000 in added (but not reported or taxed) salary.
“I agree with plaintiffs that §107(2) does not have a secular purpose or effect,” wrote Crabb, adding that a reasonable observer would view it “as an endorsement of religion.”
At the time of the federal ruling, attorney Richard L. Bolton, representing FFRF, noted: “The Court’s decision does not evince hostility to religion — nor should it even seem controversial.” However, the decision set off “shock waves” in the clergy network.
Clergy are permitted to use the housing allowance not just for rent or mortgages, but for a wide range of home improvements, including maintenance and repairs. They may exempt from taxable income up to the fair market rental value of their home, particularly benefiting well-heeled pastors.
The 1954 bill’s sponsor, Rep. Peter Mack, argued ministers should be rewarded for “carrying on such a courageous fight” against a “godless and anti-religious world movement.”
All taxpayers are burdened by taxes, Crabb noted. “Defendants do not identify any reason why a requirement on ministers to pay taxes on a housing allowance is more burdensome for them than for the many millions of others who must pay taxes on income used for housing expenses.”
Gaylor and Barker, as co-presidents of FFRF, are the primary plaintiffs. Crabb agreed they have standing to sue and are injured because FFRF designates part of their salaries as a “housing allowance,” but they are not lawfully able to claim the same benefit “ministers of the gospel” are accorded.
“The clergy and churches have become accustomed to privileges and prerogatives from our secular government which are not only unconstitutional, but which don’t play fair. The rest of us should not have to pay more taxes, because clergy don’t pay their fair share,” said Gaylor.
Barker, a former minister, now heads the volunteer Clergy Project, which helps clergy who have changed their minds about religion leave the pulpit. Barker said he knows hundreds of former ministers who agree with FFRF that “the housing exclusion is an unfair and unwarranted boost from the government and should be abolished.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, working with noted state-church attorney Marci A. Hamilton and groups advocating for the rights of victims of religious abuse filed an amicus brief Jan. 27, before the U.S. Supreme Court. The brief opposes Hobby Lobby’s claim that for-profit corporations have a right to deny contraceptive coverage to women workers based on religious objections.
The Hobby Lobby chain of stores argues that it is “a person” under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), and that the federal government’s contraceptive insurance mandate imposes a “substantial burden.”
Hamilton successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in City of Borne v. Flores (1997) that RFRA was unconstitutional as applied to state and local governments.
In the amicus brief, Hamilton argues that the unconstitutionality of the federal RFRA “has been lost in the intense public debate between claimed religious liberty for for-profit corporations and women’s reproductive health.”
FFRF’s brief is also signed by Bishop
Accountability.org, Children’s Healthcare Is a Legal Duty (CHILD), the Child Protection Project, the Foundation to Abolish Child Sex Abuse, Survivors for Justice and the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).
FFRF’s interest in the case arises from its position that “the radical redefinition of ‘religious freedom’ to include a right to impose one’s religious beliefs on others is arguably the greatest threat to individual freedom of conscience.”
FFRF notes that its original founders, Anne Nicol Gaylor and Annie Laurie Gaylor, formed FFRF “partly in response to unwarranted governmental and religious intrusion into a woman’s reproductive health decisions.”
Hobby Lobby was founded by David Green, who has a religious objection to some forms of prescription contraception, and essentially maintains his corporation has a soul and rights of conscience that trump the rights of conscience of his employees.
Green runs a chain of more than 500 craft stores and is challenging the contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act. The law requires health care plans to provide coverage for certain “preventive care” at no additional charge, including immunizations, diabetes screening, AIDS screening and contraception.
“RFRA is being invoked in this case as a license for employers to influence their female employees’ contraception choices,” FFRF contends in the amicus brief.
The amici also assert: “If Hobby Lobby can deploy RFRA to block coverage of women’s reproductive health, the next believer will argue against vaccinations, and the next against screenings for children or domestic violence screening and counseling. There is no limit to the variety of religious believers in the United States, and good reason to know that the vulnerable will pay the price.”
Hamilton writes: “RFRA lets religious citizens rewrite any federal law they don’t like, to their benefit.”
Oral arguments will be heard March 25. The 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby that corporations have the same (or stronger) religious rights as individuals.
However, the 3rd Circuit ruled against a similar challenge by another business that “for-profit, secular corporations cannot engage in religious exercise” and that a business owner’s religious rights do not allow that owner to impose his religion on his business’s employees.”
Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp., East Earl, Pa., is appealing that ruling, which will also be heard March 25.
RFRA is being “permitted to foment culture wars,” Hamilton writes, which violates the separation of powers, Article V and the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.
Hamilton holds the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and is the author of God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law.
“We find ourselves in the novel position, for once, of siding with the federal government, in this case Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of Health and Human Services,” commented FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Dogma must not be permitted to trump civil liberties in our secular republic.”