I grew up in an American town, a small Alabama town. It is home to farmers, soccer moms, and gang members. Residents drive tractors, sport-utility vehicles, and low-rider pick-up trucks. Although people there may seem culturally diverse, they are proud of what just about all of them share: Jesus Christ.
My mother, from Virginia, and father, from Illinois, know the outside world. They met in Madison, Wisconsin, got married, and moved to Texas, where I was born. It was not until they were in their forties that they moved to Alabama. Today, as a first-year student at Carleton College in rural Minnesota, I can almost say I miss my hometown. I miss azaleas in February and overcooked vegetables. I miss listening to the drawl of vowels and spitting watermelon seeds off the hot patio. But I do not miss religious intolerance.
It started early. No one could spend the night with me on Saturdays because they needed to go to church early the next morning. My family doesn't attend church. In fourth grade a Jehovah's Witness named Candace, a skinny kid with bright eyes, decided that I was to be her project. Every day at recess, I climbed the jungle gym and walked the balance beam with Candace nipping at my feet and reading the bible at me. Her persistence was neither successful nor terribly harmful to me. My parents told me that Jehovah's Witnesses are Christian extremists whose beliefs are far from mainstream. Later, they would explain the behavior of Southern fundamentalists with this logic. As their definition of "extremist" expanded to include first my peers and then my teachers, so did my fear that most people I would meet in life would deem me a bad person.
Candace gave up on my soul in fifth grade, but other kids soon picked up the slack. One day at school, some kids were talking about how their preachers had taught them that Sunday that Jews would burn in hell. I told them that my half-brother and half-sister are half-Jewish and that they weren't headed for hell. Then Nancy, the prettiest girl in the whole fifth grade, told me and everyone else that not only my siblings, but also the rest of my family, would burn in hell because God hates Jews. This was the first and last occasion that a teacher stood up for me. She asked Nancy if Jesus were in hell, since he was a Jew. Nancy couldn't say yes to this and begrudgingly apologized. But rumors spread. I, a Germanic gentile girl who had never seen a synagogue, became Vestavia Elementary's target for anti-Semitism! I had no friends during my two remaining years in elementary school, and I dreaded the taunts that met me each day at school.
For academic reasons, my parents took me out of the public school system and sent me to seventh and eighth grades at Holy Spirit Catholic School. They told me not to be afraid of the religiousness I would see at school. They told me that I could have different beliefs from those of the Catholics but still be respectful of them. My first few days were terrifying. Teachers called on me to read bible verses that I did not know how to look up, and I had to read the Lord's Prayer from a book because I had never heard it before. I mispronounced the "o" in "Job." But I learned what every Catholic kid should know about Church history, and eventually I was even soothed by a good mass. No one seemed to mind that I was not Catholic or even Christian. Southern Catholics know persecution. There are no uniforms at Holy Spirit because of Klan violence against Catholics in the 1960s. A plaid jumper might invite a gunshot. Maybe this history is why the Catholics were so tolerant of my differences.
In ninth grade I returned to Alabama's glorious public education system and, subsequently, intolerance and proselytizing. I had planned to take the school by storm, but my first day back did not bode well for this agenda. Schools in Alabama start in early August, when the subtropical Deep South is markedly inclement. Every morning the members of the prayer club entered the school to start their meeting as soon as they got off the bus. They would pray for a half hour or so, while the rest of us were not allowed into the building. We sinners stood around sweating, in conditions that reflected what would commence after our deaths.
The first day of ninth grade, all teachers started class by barking out their disciplinary codes. They all introduced themselves with brief biographies including their "church homes." My history teacher asked all the Baptist kids to raise their hands and to keep them raised while she wrote down their names. The year after I left my junior high school, a student in my history teacher's class asked a question when they were studying the Holocaust: If you have to believe in Jesus to go to heaven and Jews don't believe in Jesus, are they going to hell? The teacher's matter-of-fact response, "Well, yeah, all Jews will burn in hell," triggered a letter-writing campaign by parents, including mine, to ask the school board to take action against the teacher. Instead, she was promoted to the high school.
Reports of that year baffle my friends here in Minnesota. I knew that walking down the hall meant hearing other students mutter, "Jew" or "Commie," as they passed me. But I did have three girlfriends with whom I did normal teeny-bopper things. We watched movies, talked about boys, and went shopping together. Because two were Methodists and one was a Southern Baptist, I felt detached from the religious side of their lives---a side that was increasingly relevant to our relationship. A few times I went to church with them after sleepovers, and I was always uncomfortable listening to their slick-haired preachers talk about salvation.
Every Halloween, a holiday of which fundamentalists are not fond, a local Baptist church holds a Judgment House, in which congregants act out scenes from heaven and hell in various rooms of their mega-church. I agreed to go with my friends that year, because I thought I was really tough. I thought the Judgment House would make a funny story when I got out of the South. But it was not funny to see my community show me what they think I deserve. Nor was it funny when, at the last stop of the tour of hell, a man asked all those who do not attend church to come to the front of the room. It was not funny when my friends stared at me until I did so.
When I got to the front, a woman led me into a side room. She told me to sit down, and she asked me personal questions that embarrassed me. She asked me if my parents believed in God and why I did not go to church. Then she told me to repeat after her what developed into a creed that professed my belief in Jesus and my guilt for my hitherto sinful life. Dumbstruck, I left the room and found my friends. I tried to tell them what had happened, and they cried with joy because I had "found Jesus." Strangely enough, I felt much more "saved" by my later northern migration than I did by this spiritual awakening.
The repetition of the Baptist woman's words did not, indeed, convince me to attend church. Kate, the surprised alpha member of our clique, gave me an ultimatum one day in the locker room while we changed our clothes after gym class. If I didn't get baptized and start attending church every week, she and the other two would have nothing to do with me. As melodramatic as it sounds, that marked the end of my friendships in Alabama.
The next year I started Tuscaloosa County High School, where my favorite classes were taught in the Lurleen Wallace Social Science Wing of the building. My education was taking place in a location named after a woman who, as the first female governor of Alabama, had served as a surrogate for her husband, George Wallace, whose entire political career was a crusade for racism. Seeing that sign next to my history classroom on the first day of school and walking past a prayer group inside the school the next morning gave me a sense of foreboding about my high school experience. This feeling proved accurate. Religion was just as interwoven in my high school as it had been in my junior high.
Instead of my classmates' growing accustomed to my disinterest in religion, more and more of them saw me as a raging atheist. One day my tenth-grade English class spent the period in the library. As there were no empty tables, I sat down next to a popular kid named Josh, whom I had never met. After a few quiet minutes, Josh announced loudly, "So, Anne, I hear you don't go to church." I told him that no, I did not go to church. He asked me if Jesus were the son of God. I said, "No, probably not." Everyone in the small library--my classmates, students from another class, and the librarians---watched him stand up and scream at me about his disgust and my impending damnation. He told me that I was a sick person. Instead of going to my next class, I found my English teacher and told her what had happened. She told me I should try church. I went to my next class for a few minutes. There, in a magnificent display of irony, Kate, who had sworn me off months earlier, explained to me that not all Christians are like Josh. She said I should give Jesus a chance. I checked myself out of school.
My junior year, another teacher, a fundamentalist Wesleyan, fell in love with the idea of saving me, just as Candace had in fourth grade. He liked me as much as a person can like someone he believes deserves damnation. He invited me to church with him (to no avail) and ranted about the merits of C.S. Lewis. One day after class he told me that he wanted me to stay late because he had invited someone to talk to me. It was another teacher, who led all of the school's Christian groups, from the morning prayer group to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. I was scared.
After all the students were gone, this teacher walked in and closed the door, pulled a chair close to me, sat in it backwards, and looked at me hard.
"You don't go to church?" he asked.
I always slipped into servile "sirs" and "ma'ams" when I got scared in Alabama.
"I don't like what I've seen organized religion do to people."
The interrogation continued, covering my parents' religiosity and my lack of friends. I gave him ambiguous answers and seemed comfortable with a lifestyle that struck him as absurd and wrong. Then he dropped the bomb.
"Anne, do you believe in a personal God?"
I stared back at him for a moment, then looked at my teacher at his desk. With a nervous smile, I said, "I don't know."
The teacher stood up, pushed his chair across the floor, and stared at me.
"I can't talk to you," he said before slamming the door.
Somehow, that announcement summed up my problem in Alabama. No one could understand me, and no one tried. I bothered everyone because I was a good kid. I was friendly, tried hard in school, and volunteered in the community. Yet, according to their preachers, I was the scum of the earth. Teachers and students wanted me to go to church to make themselves more comfortable with their religion. I didn't have the outward signs of a heathen, but I was doomed. Ultimately, I think I won parts of the battle. People who knew me at home still attend church and still believe every word of the sermons. But at least I made a few of them think. I provided a face for the group that they hate. I hope I made it a little harder for some people to dismiss non-Christians as bad people.
The scene is dismal for people like me in Alabama. It is never easy to dissent from a community's de facto consensus. Because I am not a Christian, it is hard for me to think about home. It hurts to know that my parents live there. It hurts to know that people like us are unwelcome. It makes sense that my classmates felt uncomfortable with me, because I was all they had to associate with their preachers' warnings about non-believers. Although their remarks and attitudes are not fond memories of mine, the larger issue is that teachers encouraged their intolerance. What is wrong in my tale is that institutional forces made me feel inferior. Americans paid money to hire public school teachers who told me to go to church and who acted disgusted by my religious decisions. Public money funded prayer groups that left me in the literal and metaphorical heat. When religion pervades a public school system, students learn to value homogeneity. My school system teaches children to hate those who are different. It always struck me that God is everywhere, yet nowhere, in Alabama.
My deconversion began in a most fortuitous way. While in the Boy Scouts, at about 12 years old, I really wanted the nifty-looking "God and Country" medal. As part of the procedure, I had to meet with a local minister to have the prerequisites signed off. The minister suggested I read the bible. I did. Somehow the warm and fuzzy stories we were taught in Sunday School dissolved into the nightmarish tales of rape, killing, pillaging, lying, deceit, genocide, animal cruelty and some just plain nonsense. By 13, I was an atheist and an avid bible reader. Through my teen years I would often debate religion.
I was 18 my entire senior year in high school and had been issued my friendly draft card. While watching the protests (and even joining a few in Seattle) over the war in Vietnam, I wasn't too worried since the lottery was in place and I was still in school. Then my luck began to change.
I graduated and within a week I got a new draft card--1-A; and, to make things really interesting, the new lottery drawing gave me a nice low number. Not exactly being college material at the time, or having the wherewithal to run to Canada, or finding the Army option very appealing, I did the logical thing: joined the Navy. Better education programs, better travel opportunities, and less possibility of ending up in Vietnam was my justification.
During the first few days of boot camp, we were organized from a ragtag bunch of civilians to a crack group of moronic sycophants. Like some folks, I did ask for "atheist" on my dog tags, but was designated "NP"--no preference. As part of our recruit organization, the Company Commander selected various people to fill some positions, such as recruit leader, co-leader, yeoman, company idiot, and that sort of thing. He then came to the volunteer position of Company Recruit Chaplain. My eyebrows raised as did my hand and since nobody else's did, I suppose he had to pick me and unceremoniously did so. My duties were to assist the "real" Chaplain for Sunday services and say a prayer every night before taps. No more sweeping, cleaning cigarette butts, running here, doing this, doing that. All I had to do was keep my personal religious non-preference to myself.
But when it came to the prayers, what an opportunity! Every night I would stand on the center board table and read a passage from the bible and say a prayer. I read the passages that contained the pillaging, murders, incest, etc., and then made up some sort of silly prayer (author's note: aren't they all?).
After one particular and somewhat dubious prayer, this big (and not too smart) southern boy came up to me and drawled, "Haay Hill, just what the f--- kinda prayer was that anyway?"
Boot camp became a breeze. When the twelve weeks came to an end, the school/fleet assignments came up. Looking down this list I found my name and the ominous words, "Fleet, deck force, USS Tacoma PG 92. Current Station: Da Nang." It would seem that one part of my plan had gone just a little askew. I joined the Navy to see the world. I didn't really think that would include being part of the Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club.
The Tacoma was a 165-foot coastal patrol boat with five officers and 20 crew who would lend "lethal fire power and logistical support" to nearby shore troops, protect larger ships operating on the coast and in the Tonkin Gulf, as well as engaging in special operations with a bunch of homicidal lunatics called seals or green berets. A .22 shell would penetrate our aluminum hull, but we could hit 40 knots if necessary. We also did river patrols from the mouth of the Da Nang to Vung Tu and Saigon and just happened to be at Cam Ranh Bay when the tet offensive in '72 was touched off. (See a picture at: http://www.gunboatriders.com/theboats/92_tacoma/pg92.html.) We certainly didn't see the kind of action of in-country troops, but had our share of enemy encounters, shelling and close calls. I spent over a year and a half in Vietnam before I won reassignment to the East Coast.
John Hill today
With respect to religion, I found that those who had deep religious convictions supported the war and were more gung-ho than those who (quietly) did not. Believers were also more prone to a "God's Will" mentality when it came to living or dying. I cannot remember how many times I told some Christian that it was fine with me if he wanted to die, but he wasn't going to take me with him and he'd better damn well do his job and not just hope some silly prayer would help. When self-preservation kicks in there is no room for God, Jesus, or some sort of mythical eternity. Those who took that time to acknowledge the deity in a combat situation usually ended up dead.
I knew many more atheists in the service than most people would like to think or admit are there. Sure, there is the nod and wink during some chaplain's speech or the skipper trying to placate everybody with some god-talk. The Captain once told us before an important squadron event, "If you're a believer, you put your head down and pray when the Chaplain prays; if you're not a believer, you'd better be checking your shoeshine."
There are plenty of atheists in foxholes and on decks and in the air and it just makes me cringe when I hear or read someone ludicrously assert the opposite.
After I left Vietnam, I was accepted to Submarine School in Groton, Conn. I made one patrol on a nuclear missile-carrying sub and then was discovered to have contracted tuberculosis in the Far East. I was placed in both naval and veterans hospitals for over a year and finally returned to society. I entered college, eventually studying philosophy and religion, which still hold the fascination they once did. I failed to get my "God and Country" medal, but received something far more valuable in return . . . freedom of thought, conscience, and reason, and all because a minister asked me to read the bible.
Utah Crackdown on Polygamy
Utah has hired a so-called "polygamy czar" to lead a campaign to root out polygamists who take child brides or commit welfare fraud. An estimated 20,000 to 50,000 polygamists live in Utah.
Police raided a picnic in July attended by 800 members of one family, arresting Jeremy Kingston, 32, for marrying his 15-year-old niece/cousin, LuAnn. Now 23, LuAnn went to the state attorney's office three years after walking out on her husband, saying, "Something needs to be done."
State attorney Mark Shurtleff told the London Observer:
"The message to these tyrants is that we are going to investigate you and prosecute you, and the message to the victims is that there is help available to you. In the past we've reacted when a victim has come out, but now we're going to be proactive."
Breastfeeding by the Good Book
Religionist Catherine Donkers was cleared of child endangerment for breastfeeding her unrestrained infant as she drove on the Ohio turnpike May 8. An Ohio court in August found her guilty of breaking Ohio's child-restraint laws and driving without a license. Troopers trying to pull her over testified she was so distracted she didn't notice the sirens: she was talking on a cell phone, taking notes about what her husband was ordering her to do, breastfeeding the baby, and driving at the same time.
Donkers and her husband belong to the First Fellowship for Eternal Sovereignty, a religion granting a husband complete control over his wife.
Colson Claims Debunked
A study advertised by Watergate felon Chuck Colson as proving the success of his Texas prison ministry actually reveals its failure.
The evangelical Innerchange Freedom Initiative segregates prisoners in their own pod of a state-run prison, and requires 16 to 24 months of biblical education. Released prisoners are followed for 6 to 12 months, must hold a job and be a church member.
Colson issued a press release in late June claiming a 2-year study by the University of Pennsylvania and the Manhattan Institute shows that faith-based mentoring decreases recidivism. Colson claimed "program graduates were 50% less likely to be arrested, and 60% less likely to become reincarcerated."
Slate, an internet news magazine, published an article in August by UCLA social studies professor Mark A.R. Kleiman debunking the claims. Prisoners enrolled in the program were not better rehabilitated, only prisoners who graduated from the program (75 out of 177).
Kleiman also found that "overall, the 177 entrants did a little bit worse than the controls."
Derailing Roadmap to Peace?
So-called Christian Zionists who see the state of Israel as fulfillment of biblical prophecy, and as a condition for the second coming of Jesus, have lobbied President Bush throughout the summer to derail his "roadmap" for peace. Bush has proposed the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005.
Spearheading the campaign is Christian evangelical Gary Bauer, of Americans for a Safe Israel. Christian Friends of Israeli communities donated $200,000 last year from U.S. churches to help build Jewish settlements on the West Bank that have inflamed relations.
"If Bush touches Jerusalem, he's not only going to get us mad but get God mad," televangelist Pat Robertson told AP. House Majority Leader Tom Delay also has stated his belief that God gave Israel and the West Bank to the Jews.
Blair Imitates Bush
British Prime Minister Tony Blair has set up a ministerial working group, the Faith Community Liaison Group, in the Home Office.
The London Observer described Blair as "a committed Christian who keeps the bible by his bed," and recapped Blair's remark that "My Maker" would answer for the deaths of British soldiers in Iraq.
Florida Voucher Scandals
About 23% of all third-graders in the state of Florida ended the school year in danger of failing, following implementation of statewide testing that bases grade advancement on test results over report cards and teacher recommendations.
Private, mostly religious, schools, received a total of $88 million this year in taxpayer-subsidized vouchers, but are exempt from the testing.
Dick Baker, principal of one religious school receiving public vouchers, was accused this summer of taking schoolgirls on overnight trips to Disney, dressing them up like "princesses" and in his collection of little-girl swimsuits, taking their photographs and "tickling" them.
Community Christian School in Largo has enrolled at least 16 students in the voucher program for a minimum of $56,000. Baker's school also enrolled about 28 disabled students under a special state voucher program, to the tune of $168,000, according to the St. Petersburg Times.
"Character" Program Proselytizes
Character First!, a program by Christian evangelist Bill Gothard, has been endorsed by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Jerry Regier, the state's controversial child welfare director. The program has been foisted upon thousands of agency workers at Orlando's Department of Children and Families, and is spreading.
Character First! identifies 49 "character" qualities which Gothard based on the bible, such as "alertness, diligence, humility and tolerance." Employees are even offered a pocket guide to consult. Workers in Orlando told Florida Today they are insulted by the lessons.
Funding Faith at Secular Expense
The federal agency that oversees AmeriCorps, a national community service program, is funding a new program run by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence, while cutting all funding to several existing programs lauded for having proven track records.
The $324,000 grant from the Corporation for National and Community Service to the diocese will pay 32 AmeriCorps "volunteers" to work with preschoolers in the diocese's four daycare centers.
Utah Goes Secular?
Utah city councils in Murray, Salt Lake City, West Valley City and Ogden have recently suspended invocations. The Salt Lake Tribune reports that many other Utah towns and cities are considering whether to drop prayers.
The actions have followed several legal decisions, including a recent ruling by the Utah Supreme Court that if a city schedules any prayers, it may not censor speakers. An atheist proposing a pro-separation of church and state "prayer" won the Murray court case.
"Family Day" Litigated
The ACLU of Hawaii filed a a second lawsuit against Honolulu city officials in July, charging the city sponsored a Christian religious service on Family Day.
The group initially sued Honolulu officials for excluding three gay groups from the city's Family Day Parade. U.S. District Judge Helen Gillmor ruled on July 3 that Honolulu's Family Day Parade was privately sponsored, therefore organizers could discriminate. The ACLU's follow-up suit alleges that at least $15,000 of taxpayers' money was spent for the event.
Strong-Arming Justice Department
The U.S. Justice Department's civil rights division sent recent letters to 12 municipalities in support of churches fighting zoning requirements. It has accused Maui County, Hawaii, of religious discrimination for refusing a Christian group's request to build a sanctuary on the lower scope of the Haleakala volcano on Maui, because of city traffic and safety concerns.
"It's hard to avoid the conclusion that Maui County is being strong-armed from the nation's capital," editorialized the Maui News.
The controversy may test a federal law passed in 2000, exempting religious groups from many zoning and land-use laws.
Not "Good News"
Attorney General John Ashcroft has thrown Justice Department support to Good News Clubs demanding public school support.
The Child Evangelism Fellowship of Maryland in January sued the Montgomery County schools (Md.) for refusing to publicize religious after-school meetings by sending flyers home in childrens' backpacks. Club activities include hearing bible stories and memorizing scripture.
Rockville officials protest that being forced to hand out religious flyers makes teachers unwitting missionaries. In April, a judge refused the group's demand. The evangelism outfit, whose mission statement pledges to "locate children who have not yet accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior," appealed the ruling to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in May. Ashcroft has filed a friend of the court brief to support the gospel group.
Two years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that public schools must rent schoolrooms immediately after school to the Good News Club. The national ministry claims to host more than 1,800 religious clubs in public schools.
Boycotting the Boy Scouts
Venture Crew 488, a coed unit for boys and girls ages 14-20 in Sebastopol, Calif., announced in August that the local Scout council has given it an ultimatum: retract its anti-discrimination statement, or leave scouting. The group criticized Boy Scouts' discriminatory policy against gay and atheist youths and adults, and urges businesses, United Ways and others to stop supporting it.
United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania voted on July 31 to cancel all funding to local Scouts because they discriminate against gays. The United Way, which has supported Scouting for 80 years, voted to withhold the second-half payment of a $400,862 grant to the Cradle of Liberty Council, and the second half of a $17,901 grant to the Chester County Council. The Cradle of Liberty Council recently ousted Life Scout Gregory Lattera. Pew Charitable Trusts killed a grant of $100,000 to the council because of its discriminatory action.
The Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia, a Foundation chapter, is protesting an arrangement dating to 1928 by the city of Philadelphia, which grants the Cradle of Liberty Council of BSA free use of a city-owned lot, where it built its headquarters in 1929.
Late in March, I drove up Miami Avenue, a heavily traveled street that connects a residential area with downtown Venice, Fla., and was startled to see 15 ugly 2x3 foot red-white-and-blue signs on a grassy strip directly adjacent to the curb. The strip, part of the city right-of-way, was in front of the First Baptist Church of Venice. The signs proclaimed "Proud to Be an American," "Pray for Our Troops," "God Bless America," "Pray for Our President," and last but not least, "Jesus the Supreme Commander."
During the ten years since I retired after 30 years as a trial lawyer, constantly knocking heads with judges and other lawyers, occasionally using spare time to cross swords with the religious majority (e.g., suing the city to stop its annual city hall Christmas pageant, harassing the local Catholic Bishop with my bullhorn when he tried to conduct an outdoor mass at an abortion clinic), I have mellowed somewhat, learning to enjoy the peace and quiet of retired life. So I tried to ignore the signs for a week. I rationalized that if only the church had planted its tasteless signs across the narrow sidewalk on its own property, the aesthetic nuisance would be almost as bad though not unconstitutional. But Miami Avenue was a convenient route to local businesses, and after being increasingly annoyed by the signs for a week I decided to take some action.
On March 31, I went to City Hall and checked with the zoning department, where I was informed that a permit issued by the city manager was required before placing signs on a right-of-way. The applicable ordinance, which exempted yard sale and political signs, required that an application be submitted at least ten days before the signs went up, and that a $25 application fee was payable unless waived by city council for a nonprofit organization.
I went directly to the office of City Manager George Hunt, who is well known to be a very religious Catholic, and asked to see the Baptist Church permit. His secretary produced a handwritten application for a permit that had been faxed to City Hall by the Baptist preacher. Hunt had marked it "OK," entering the date (3/26) and his initials, immediately faxing it back to the preacher as a permit.
"What about the ten-day waiting period?" I asked.
"I didn't think it was necessary," said Hunt.
"Let me see a receipt for the fee."
"I waived it," he replied.
I went home and typed a letter to Hunt advising that the permit was invalid and demanding that the signs be immediately removed from the right-of-way. I also pointed out that all of the signs except "Proud to Be an American" violated the state and federal constitutions by displaying religious slogans on city property. I also prepared and delivered a letter applying for a permit for signs stating "Religion Is Superstition," "Prayer Is a Waste of Time," and "There Is No God," to be placed on Miami Avenue. I enclosed a check for $25. The not-so-funny fun began.
Interviewed by a reporter on the afternoon of April 1, appropriately enough, Hunt glibly and quite falsely stated (let's make that clear--it was a black lie) that he had considered the signs to be political and thus exempt from the permit requirement.
"We didn't issue them a permit," said Hunt. "'We granted them permission for them to display the signs because we saw them as political."
Yeah? Well if the signs were political his permission wasn't needed, and better yet, why did he show me the dated, initialed sketch when I asked to see a permit?
Answering my demand for removal of the signs on April 3, Hunt built a bigger if not more plausible lie, advising that when I was in his office on March 31 he had forgotten that on March 26 he had decided the signs were political and exempt. But give George credit for lying impartially. He returned my check, saying that he considered my signs to be political as well. It seems that for many Christians, what passes for logic can be every bit as irrational as religious beliefs. And apparently the primary purpose of the Ten Commandments, including the one dealing with bearing false witness, is to decorate court houses and public schools, and not to provide ground rules for life. I sent the check back to him.
I attended the next city council meeting on April 8, and read a brief statement accusing Hunt of illegally issuing the permit to the Baptists and then lying about it, and asked Council to revoke the permit.
Operating with the divine guidance solicited by the clerk, who serves as chaplain and opens each meeting with a prayer, council members gave me blank looks. They did nothing. They didn't discuss the matter with Hunt, or ask him any questions, or ask the advice of the city attorney, who is afraid of his shadow and speaks only when spoken to. I could have stayed outside and addressed my comments to a lamp post.
By this time Hunt had decided my signs were not political after all, and issued a permit just as he had for the church, dating and initialing my letter application. The letter specified that my signs would be on Miami Avenue, and he did not strike that, but he did put "on site" next to his initials which he may have meant to limit my signs to the right-of-way in front my house on a quiet residential street.
I chose to ignore that ambiguous and improper attempt to limit my rights, and on Sunday morning I planted my signs in front of the First Baptist Church. They were promptly uprooted. Having now had my Irish stirred up, I planned my revenge for Easter Sunday. The Baptists habitually conduct a sunrise service in a public park at the Venice Jetties, a pass from the bay to the Gulf, while another group prays at the City beach parking lot. I had never interfered with these flagrant church-state violations, probably mostly because they took place at 6 AM and I'm getting lazy in my old age. But annoyed as I was, I got up at 5 AM on Easter, went down to the airport and cranked up my Cessna, and, perfectly within the law, flew up and down the beach at an altitude of 500 feet, barely offshore, almost directly over the Jesus-praising early-risers, wasting some gas by pushing in the throttle and jacking up the RPMs to make a little extra noise.
Then I went home, put a sign with big block letters--"THERE IS NO GOD"--in the side window of my car and parked it with the doors locked alongside the curb directly across from the front door of the Baptist Church. I am happy to say that the Baptists were well-behaved, not keying my VW Beetle, but they did leave it covered with religious tracts and prayer notes.
The church permit had been good for three weeks, expiring at midnight on April 16. The signs were still there the next morning. But by that time, City Hall and the Baptists had had their fill of me, and when I complained to the code enforcement officer, the signs were off the right-of-way in a few hours, though a few of them, including "Jesus the Supreme Commander," were set up across the sidewalk on church property.
The low-class tent revival creationist variety of Baptists have taken over the Southern Baptist Convention since I was brought up in the First Baptist Church of Gainesville, Ga., where we managed to get through Pearl Harbor and 31Ú2 years of global war without defacing church property with garish, tasteless signs.
Charles Cheves, a retired attorney, has been a member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation since 1984.
Our country is based on the idea of liberty and equality. Yet every day millions of American students declare the foundation of our country to be something else entirely: a single God. Although "God" may be considered in many different ways, it is undeniable that the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance is biased toward a particular religion. This phrase transforms the Pledge of Allegiance into a contradiction against itself. A nation cannot simultaneously be "under God" and provide "liberty and justice for all." Belief in a certain God should not be a prerequisite for liberty and justice in this country. Religion-specific ideas are not a part of our national government, and they should not be a part of our pledge to it.
The Pledge of Allegiance was not always such a contradictory statement. Until 1954, it was merely a declaration of belief in the founding values of our country. As such, the pledge was a tribute to the ideas of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address, and other American documents, rather than just to a piece of colored cloth.
Then the Knights of Columbus helped spread the addition of "under God," until it was finally adopted nationally. President Eisenhower explained his support of the addition by saying, "In this way we are affirming the transcendence of religious faith in America's heritage and future." But religious faith has never been the predominant characteristic of America; in fact, many of the first American colonists attempted to escape the requirements of their religions. By including God, the pledge now supports the beliefs of only one part of the American populace. In a country dedicated to the ideal of freedom, including that of religion, God has no place in a nationwide declaration of patriotism.
The addition of "under God" to the pledge has not gone uncontested. In June of 2002, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Pledge of Allegiance was unconstitutional because of those two words. According to the court, the inclusion of God violates the First Amendment's Establishment Clause because it implies that the national government endorses Christianity.
As Judge Alfred T. Goodwin wrote, "A profession that we are a nation 'under God' is identical, for Establishment Clause purposes, to a profession that we are a nation 'under Jesus,' a nation 'under Vishnu,' a nation 'under Zeus,' or a nation 'under no god,' because none of these professions can be neutral with respect to religion." This is exactly the problem with the Pledge of Allegiance as it exists today. It is impossible to allow for freedom of religion when students across the country declare the nation the realm of one particular God.
Many argue that the pledge is not a constitutional violation because it is not mandatory for all students to recite it. It may be voluntary, but schools still present the idea of "one nation under God" as their official position. Most students, rather than attempting to fight against the statement that God prevails in this country, simply recite the pledge because it is easier. Even if they do not actually say the pledge, students are often required to stay silent and stand while the rest of the class recites it. This forces even dissenting students to respect the school recitation of the pledge.
As the 9th District appeals court stated, "Although students cannot be forced to participate in recitation of the pledge, the school district is nonetheless conveying a message of state endorsement of a religious belief when it requires public school teachers to recite, and lead the recitation of, the current form of the pledge." The environment created by the schoolwide statement of the pledge results in an "unacceptable choice between participating and protesting" for the students, according to the appeals court. Despite the legal ability of students to remain silent, the Pledge of Allegiance in reality forces most American students to state the superiority of one religion.
All across the country, students repeat the Pledge of Allegiance day after day, many not even thinking about the words they say. Yet for the significant portion of students who do not believe in the Christian God, the pledge is a contradiction of everything America is supposed to signify. For the Hindi students, the Buddhist, the students of every conceivable religion or of no religion at all, the pledge is not simply a salute to a set of values and the flag that stands for them. It is an admission that their beliefs are not truly welcome in this country. It is a negation of the founding principles of America. It is a national endorsement of Christianity, which is precisely what the First Amendment forbids. It is a Pledge of Allegiance to a religion. The removal of the words "under God" from the pledge is necessary to make it truly a pledge of allegiance to a flag and to a country.
Gilene is a graduate of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Va. Her special interests are dance and music. She plays oboe, percussion and piano, and has been dancing since she was four with ballet her "main love." She will be attending Yale University.
On June 27, 2002, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals made what could be considered the most controversial ruling of a federal court since Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. In a 2-1 ruling, the court declared that the phrase "under God" amounted to a government endorsement of religion. In the months that followed, public outrage ruled the airwaves of radio and television. School children began to recite the pledge every morning, a practice abandoned long ago in many schools across the nation. Even the House chamber of the United States Congress was filled to capacity for the morning recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, a ritual usually greeted by an empty chamber and gallery. Amidst all the outrage and protest, however, a very interesting question was raised. Could the court actually have been correct? A quick glance at the Constitution says the answer is "yes."
According to the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, "Congress shall pass no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free practice thereof." The Establishment Clause is clear in its intent. The government shall in no way promote or fund any religion, lest a theocracy overtake the nation. Yet on June 14, 1954, Congress passed a law that added "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance. The passing of the bill was to be a slap in the face to the "godless" Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. Yet at this crucial time in our history, America overlooked one of its founding principles. By adding the words "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance, the United States Congress had effectively passed a law respecting all monotheistic religions. The Pledge of Allegiance, as it stands today, does not represent polytheists in our nation and totally neglects atheists and their beliefs. This encompasses literally millions of American citizens.
In the wake of the court's ruling, the nation rose up in protest. We watched as people across the nation slandered the Ninth Circuit Court. Editorials filled local papers, including the one in my hometown of Beaumont, Tex., urging the Congress to act. In a true testament to the failure of public education in this country, a high school student wrote an editorial in the Beaumont Enterprise bashing the court by saying, "How can the court rule this way when it is clearly not the will of the people?" She goes on to ask how this is an example of a true democracy. Had this student known anything of what makes this nation a "true democracy," she would have known that the United States has an independent judiciary that doesn't answer to the people, but to the Constitution and to the Constitution alone. Writing for the majority, Judge Alfred T. Goodwin explains this in the following excerpt.
". . . judges are by constitutional design insulated from the political pressures governing members of the other two branches of government. We are given life tenure and a secured salary so that, in our unique capacity to 'say what the law is,' Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. (1 Branch) 137, 177 (1803), we may decide constitutional issues without regard to popular vote, political consequence, or the prospect of future career advancement."
Political correctness has become the tragedy of our legislative and executive branches of government. Too many times our elected officials appeal to their constituents rather than to the demands of our Constitution.
This country has seen vast changes since the days of Madison and Jefferson. Despite their most valiant efforts, politics and popular opinion, no matter how unconstitutional, now reign over the nation as the most powerful authorities governing our lawmakers. Luckily, our court system is immune from this virus, which plagues the halls of Congress and the Oval Office. The independent court system is one that will not forget the idea that the government of the United States should be free from religion, a notion long forgotten by time.
Russ is a graduate of Hamshire-Fannett High School in Texas. He will attend the University of Texas at San Antonio. His special interests are government, politics and public policy. He plans to major in political science and communications and to attend law school.
Every Memorial Day in the elementary schools of my hometown all the students rise up in the auditorium and recite together the Pledge of Allegiance. Almost all the students, that is. There are some who stand silent as the words "I pledge allegiance to the flag. . ." echo through the auditorium. Most of those who stand mute are temporary residents, citizens of foreign nations who wish not to pledge allegiance to the United States. Others simply do not yet know the words to the pledge. When I was in elementary school, there was another group of dissenters, a group of just one member. This was a group of Americans, a group that knew the words, a group that was just as patriotic as anyone else in the room. And yet this group also did not speak, for this was a group of atheists.
Standing alone in this category, I was aware that the Pledge of Allegiance is an important sign of patriotism and is a longstanding tradition of the United States of America. The Constitution is also a document of patriotism, also a tradition to be upheld. Unfortunately, since the McCarthy era of the 1950s, these two traditions have been in conflict with one another. With the fear of communism at its peak in 1954, the Congress of the United States added the words "under God" to the pledge. This phrase does not belong in our Pledge of Allegiance.
Using the words "under God" in an attempt to protect the country from the "heathen Soviets," Congress undermined one of the most important values of American life, that of separation of church and state. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." Certainly adding "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance indicates a belief in the existence of such a being and, therefore, the phrase should not be supported by the government.
But the illegality of "under God" is hardly the only problem with it as a part of the Pledge of Allegiance. The pledge is something that children across America are required to recite in classrooms every day. The idea of a monotheistic God is thereby thrust upon all children, opposing the beliefs not only of atheists and agnostics, but also of children from families following polytheistic eastern religions. Why send children the message that they cannot be patriotic and believe in Krishna at the same time? A child's beliefs should not be based on what is said in the Pledge of Allegiance.
Not only do the words "under God" suggest the existence of a monotheistic god to children, and everyone else for that matter, they also suggest that the United States is an inherently religious nation. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although the vast majority of citizens of the United States are religious, one of the most important aspects of being an American is respecting and accepting all religious beliefs. As Americans we were horrified when we saw the women of Afghanistan forced to wear traditional Muslim clothing whenever they left the sanctuary of their homes. We cringed when we learned that the fundamentalist government did not allow television for religious reasons. We fail to realize, however, that every time the Pledge of Allegiance is said we are pressured into acknowledging a religious government.
There are those who argue that the words "under God" have some sort of traditional significance. To dispel that notion it is necessary only to look at the date when the phrase was added--1954. 1954!
Under God" is about as traditional as Burger King (founded that very same year, as a matter of fact). The founding fathers could do without "under God" just as easily as they could without onion rings. If anything, it is traditional to not include "under God" in the pledge. Besides, the tradition of separation between church and state is far more important than three syllables--just save us all some breath and take the phrase out!
So why not save the breath? Why not save the Bill of Rights? Why not save our freedoms? It is not right for a patriotic citizen of the United States of America to have to remain silent during the pledge or else risk sacrificing freedom of religion. It was a choice that I was forced to make each year in elementary school, as my patriotism and my atheism were played against each other in an unwelcome, and equally unnecessary, conflict. At every Memorial Day assembly I knew that I remained quiet not because I hated my country but, standing in the school auditorium hearing the chorus of voices recite the pledge in unison and feeling the quizzical eyes of others staring at me, the oddly silent American, I could never quite rid myself of the eerie feeling that because I was an atheist, my country hated me.
A graduate of Brookline High School, Mass., Kurti will attend Boston University in the fall. His interests include law, philosophy, computers and history. He plans to major in philosophy.
In 1892, Francis Bellamy wrote a flag salute for a quadricentennial Columbus Day celebration and called it the "Pledge of Allegiance." His intent was to crystallize the best and most basic ideals of the United States. Drawing from Webster's and Lincoln's speeches about the indivisibility of the nation and from Jefferson's Preface to the Declaration of Independence, he wrote: "I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." Bellamy concisely stated our country's guiding principles.
Over the years, two changes have been made to Bellamy's original pledge. In 1924, the words of the pledge were altered to read "the flag of the United States of America"--over Bellamy's objections.
In 1954, the phrase "under God" was added. Religion was enjoying a resurgence during the post-World War II era. The president at the time--Dwight D. Eisenhower--had only just joined a church in 1953. After the horrors of war, most Americans were ready for a more optimistic outlook on life. Television commercials proclaimed, "The family that prays together stays together"; ministers preached about God's forgiveness in lieu of the fire-and-brimstone sermons of the past; and religious radio and TV shows were becoming popular.
In addition, there was a widespread distrust of the communist U.S.S.R.--an atheistic society. President Eisenhower was promising to contain this new threat to the God-fearing and democracy-loving world. But this religious renaissance was not all-inclusive. While many shared Eisenhower's delight that ". . . millions of our school children will daily proclaim . . . the dedication of our Nation and our people to the Almighty," our country was too religiously diverse for everyone to have shared in the jubilation.
In 2002, Michael Newdow of California filed a case against the United States, Congress, California, and two school districts and their officials because he did not want his daughter being taught religion in school. A lower court threw his case out. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Newdow. Justice Goodwin, writing for the majority, stated that "to recite the pledge is not to describe the United States; instead it is to swear allegiance to the values for which the flag stands: unity, indivisibility, liberty, justice and--since 1954--monotheism."
But 24 hours later. the court put its decision on hold. The circuit court's ruling raised the hackles of state representatives, U.S. senators, and the president, who could not understand the offensive nature of "one nation, under God." As President Eisenhower said in 1954, "Recognition of the Supreme Being is the first, most basic expression of Americanism. Without God there could be no American form of government nor an American way of life." His contemporary, Rev. George M. Docherty, held that while the First Amendment separated church and state, that separation should not also be "a separation of religion and life."
The whole purpose of keeping our government secular, however, is to ensure religious freedom for all of our citizens. The inclusion of "under God" in our pledge validates only those people adhering to a monotheistic belief system. Even then, the term "God" may be deemed unsatisfactory by those who have a different moniker for their Supreme Being.
The Pledge of Allegiance represents a commitment to our country and not to a religious doctrine, vague as it may be. The theological aspect of the current pledge obscures its initial, essential purpose. Bellamy himself was a former Baptist minister and could easilyhave included a reference to God. The fact that he chose to focus solely on our nation as a secular entity reinforces the point that the pledge was not intended to have religious overtones. One of the most dearly held founding principles of our country was the separation of church and state. The pledge we make to our country's ideals should certainly honor that separation.
Our American form of government was called a "Great Experiment." Few people thought it would survive--even George Washington had his doubts. Yet here we are 227 years later, still striving to be Lincoln's nation "of the people, by the people, for the people." We have all disagreed with the actions of our leaders and fellow citizens at one time or another, but when we recite the pledge together we are united in a shared hope for our future. We are united by a love for our country and for the freedom it offers us all to live our lives as we choose in harmony with those around us. The belief in those qualities of liberty and freedom is what binds all U.S. citizens together. Liberty both defines and unites us--free speech, freedom of the press, freedom to peaceably assemble, freedom to petition the government, and freedom of religion. We have the freedom to worship as we see fit, praising one god, many gods, or no god at all. This freedom should be reflected in our pledge.
Before writing this essay I had never given much thought to the Pledge of Allegiance. After reading about its history and considering Bellamy's intentions, I realized how significant the pledge can be in reminding us of all the virtues this country struggles to embody. "I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
Bellamy's words are both powerful and personal in their original, unadorned state. The United States of America is the most diverse country in the world and it seems fitting that such a simple statement so well expresses the one allegiance that is universal to us all: not fealty to any particular dogma, but devotion to the country we share.
Aubrey is a graduate of Conlara School, Ann Arbor, Mich. She is most passionate about acting, singing, and her family and friends. She enjoys dancing, reading, and "leaving long voice-mail messages." She will be attending Tisch School of the Arts at NYU this fall, where she will major in drama.
Following the U.S. Supreme Court's 6-3 decision decriminalizing sodomy, Christian Broadcasting Network's "700 Club" host Pat Robertson urged viewers to pray for the retirement of three justices. He said the ruling "has opened the door to homosexual marriage, bigamy, legalized prostitution and even incest."
"We ask for miracles in regard to the Supreme Court," he prayed over the air on July 14. "One justice is 83 years old, another has cancer and another has a heart condition. Would it not be possible to put it in the minds of these three judges that the time has come to retire?"
He apparently was referring to Justice John Paul Stevens, born in 1920, and possibly Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who had cancer surgery in 1999. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor has also had cancer. But the identity of the justice with a heart condition was unclear.
Robertson's "clarification," issued on July 17, insisted he was not singling out any particular Supreme Court justices:
"I don't care which three, I mean as long as the three conservatives stay on. There's six liberals, so it's up to the Lord. I'm not telling God what to do. I'm just saying, 'Lord, help us.' "
Robertson's 21-day "Operation Supreme Court Freedom" is eerily similar to a 1986 campaign. Robertson told a National Right to Life convention in June 1986 that antiabortionists could look forward to that "wonderful process of the mortality tables" to change the court composition.
That summer, Rev. R.L. Hymers, Jr., pastor of a large fundamentalist Baptist congregation in Los Angeles, urged his congregation to pray for the death of Justice William Brennan. (See Alma Cuebas' whimsical cartoon from that era, above.) He later prayed for the "repentance, death or retirement" of five justices who voted that a couple could withhold medical treatment in the "Baby Doe" case.
Pat Cleveland, director of the Alabama Freethought Association, a Foundation chapter, opened this year's "glorious fourth" Independence Day celebration.
The annual 4th of July bash at Lake Hypatia Freethought Advance, near Talladega, Ala., was the perfect spot to celebrate the appellate court ruling handed down earlier that week against Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Moore must remove the 5,200-pound Ten Commandments monument he had installed in the rotunda of the Alabama Supreme Court building by stealth.
A packed house of about 200 freethinkers, representing about half of the states in the nation, attended the 2-day event sponsored by the Alabama Freethought Association. Events were held in the Lake Hypatia Freethought Hall and the surrounding tranquil lakeside grounds, which the Cleveland family opens to participants and campers.
Above: the "antigodville vaudeville" team of Steve Benson and Dan Barker, following a standing ovation for their Lake Hypatia performance of "Tunes 'n Toons." Steve is a Pulitzer Prize-winning daily editorial cartoonist and Dan is "staff musician" of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The one-of-a-kind show weaves topical editorial cartoons with musical parodies for a pointed look at religion and freethought in the news. The talented pair is at work on a revised show scheduled for the 26th annual FFRF convention in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 11. (See back page for details and registration form.)
A slate of speakers alternated with leisure and camping activities, a poetry reading led by Ilene Sparks, Ala., and a suspenseful freethought trivia quiz directed by Clark Adams, Nev. Michigan Foundation member Kristine Danowski took top honors for her impressive repertoire of freethought knowledge. Other presenters included Charleston Gazette editor-in-chief James Haught, W.V., speaking on the history of "Holy Horrors," author Kimberly Blaker, Mich., American Humanist Association president Mel Lipman, Nev., and Hemlock Society director Faye Girsh, Colo.