"By enacting RFRA, Congress went far beyond what this Court has held is constitutionally required." — Justice Samuel Alito
It was all over by page 2 of the Supreme Court's decision yesterday favoring the fundamentalist Christian owner of Hobby Lobby Stores and the Mennonite owner of Conestoga Wood Specialties.
Justice Samuel Alito, joined by his ultra-conservative, Roman Catholic brethren, actually wrote these jaw-dropping words:
"[W]e must decide whether the challenged HHS regulations substantially burden the exercise of religion, and we hold that they do. The owners of the businesses have religious objections to abortion, and according to their religious beliefs the four contraceptive methods at issue are abortifacients. If the owners comply with the HHS mandate, they believe they will be facilitating abortions."
These fanatical businessmen believe some forms of the birth control pill and IUD are abortifacients (substances inducing miscarriage), despite the science, the reality, the amicus brief of the College of Obstetrics and Gynecology and 21 other medical professional groups thoroughly debunking this misrepresentation.
Steeped in Catholic disapproval of contraception, much less abortion, Alito and his four brethren probably also prefer to make believe that an IUD is an abortifacient. But even if Alito didn't agree with the plaintiffs, he ruled that what matters is not reality, but whether a religious person "believes" even in the face of reality that a fiction is a fact.
The decision was decided on the basis of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, passed in 1993, which held that the federal government is prohibited from taking any substantial action that "substantially burdens the exercise of religion," unless it's the least restrictive means of serving a "compelling government interest." RFRA actually refers to "persons" in the law, but under the Citizens United line of "reasoning," for-profit corporations are now people, and seemingly have religious feelings to offend.
Alito warns that if the corporations flouted the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive mandate, they could "pay a very heavy price, as much as $1.3 million per day, or about $475 million per year, in the case of one of the companies. If these consequences do not amount to a substantial burden, it is hard to see what would," he adds.
Yet he gives no truck to the fact that, for instance, Hobby Lobby did not seek a "grandfather clause" for its health care coverage, as was its right as a company that was offering coverage prior to the AFA. Clearly, they blew it, but Alito won't admit this.
He also gives short shrift to the argument of his "sisters" on the Supreme Court — Ginsburg, Kagan and Sotomayor — who pointed out during oral arguments that if the companies didn't want to comply with the law, they could forgo providing health care benefits and instead pay the appropriate tax (erroneously referred to by the companies' attorneys as a "penalty").
Alito even admits in his decision that perhaps this would cost the companies less money than providing health care. But he claims that Health and Human Services didn't mention this in its briefings, so the court's not allowed to take that into account.
Most damning, Alito admits: "As we have seen, RFRA was designed to provide very broad protection for religious liberty. By enacting RFRA, Congress went far beyond what this Court has held is constitutionally required."
Even Alito admits RFRA goes "far beyond" what is required. The Freedom From Religion Foundation so far is the only group actively sounding the alarm about RFRA. Our brief, written by distinguished attorney Marci Hamilton, was the only amicus brief submitted before the high court stating the obvious: that Hobby Lobby is relying on a statute enacted by Congress that' unconstitutional.
While clearly this Supreme Court isn't going to overturn RFRA, Alito's own words should give Congress impetus to repeal a law that is being used to deny true religious liberty in the name of phony religious liberty. Excessive "liberty" is otherwise known as "license" — or religious privilege.
Lost in the meaningless verbiage of Alito's ruling is the decision's human toll. He and his Catholic cohorts may care about ova, but the rest of us care about real women. We thought the battle to access at least contraception was largely won by the late 1960s (even though many teenagers, and women in rural counties served only by Catholic hospitals and clinics, are still fighting for this right). But fundamentalists and conservative Catholics are working in concert now, not only seeking to overturn Roe v. Wade (1973), but apparently Griswold v. Connecticut (1965).
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's dissent gets real. "It bears note in this regard that the cost of an IUD is nearly equivalent to a month's full-time pay for workers earning the minimum wage."
When women cannot control if and when they become pregnant, how many pregnancies they carry, they can ultimately control very little about their lives. It's no coincidence that women reentered the workforce in huge numbers during the second wave of the feminist movement after the birth control pill had been introduced and Comstockian laws declaring contraceptives to be "indecent articles" were overturned, leading to routine access to contraception as part of good medicine.
The backlash against contraceptive access is part of the same old song and dance led by patriarchal religions worldwide: kinder, kirche, küche. Keep women barefoot and pregnant. Control the means of reproduction and you control women, as Gloria Steinem has oft stated.
The high court has ruled that contraception — the right to plan families and avert unwanted pregnancies — is not necessary for women's health. One in four U.S. women died due to pregnancy or childbirth in the 19th century. It is a lie for the Supreme Court to aver that birth control is not preventive medicine. The court is practicing reckless medicine without a license.
We cannot let a male, Catholic, ultra-conservative majority on the court turn the clock back a century. Join FFRF in working now for the most practical remedy for this pernicious decision — the repeal by Congress of RFRA.
None of our civil and human rights, established after decades and decades of struggle and education, will be safe from the reach of religious bigots until RFRA is overturned.
Photo: Christopher Johnson, "A Better Life: 100 Atheists"
Today, in a heated 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court held that for-profit corporations can exercise their so-called religious conscience in order to restrict employees' access to contraceptives. The ruling in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., absurdly holds that the contraceptive coverage granted by the Affordable Care Act creates a "significant burden" on a corporation's free exercise of religion.
How could this be? This Alice in Wonderland ruling is based not on the Constitution, but on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a statute. This statute was adopted by Congress and must be repealed by Congress.
The main justification for this decision is the Supreme Court's holding that RFRA protects Hobby Lobby from the generally applicable rules of the Affordable Care Act.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation's amicus brief by noted state-church attorney Marci A. Hamilton (joined by groups advocating for the rights of victims of religious abuse), was the only brief before the Supreme Court that argued that RFRA is unconstitutional. Our important brief points out that RFRA "accords religious believers extreme religious liberty rights that yield a political and fiscal windfall in violation of the clearest commands of the Establishment Clause."
A public outcry is in order. FFRF needs your help to tell Congress that RFRA is a bad law that must be repealed.
Today's decision is both dangerous and unprecedented. During oral arguments, counsel for the government, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, noted that a decision in favor of Hobby Lobby would be "the first time under the Free Exercise Clause or under RFRA in which [the Supreme Court] or any court has held that an employer . . . may be granted an exemption that extinguishes statutorily guaranteed benefits of fundamental importance."
Today's ruling ignored the rights and needs of thousands of female Hobby Lobby employees, and millions of women nationwide who work at for-profit corporations. Women workers must not be at the mercy of employers who happen to be religious fanatics who want to intrude into private reproductive decisions that are none of their business. Rather than protecting women workers' right to health care and women's freedom of conscience, the Court has turned its back on them in the name of "religious liberty." This is untenable.
This damaging decision opens the floodgates for corporations, interested only in increasing their bottom line, to claim religious objections to a variety of generally applicable laws. The Court arbitrarily claims its decision would not necessarily allow a corporation to claim a similar religious objection to blood transfusions, vaccines, or mental health services, or create a religious right to discriminate on the basis of sex, sexual orientation or race. But very obviously, the ruling creates mischievous precedent that will haunt the next generation of litigation.
Please immediately call, email and write:
Demand that your representatives in Congress uphold women's rights over religious wrongs, and restore some semblance of fairness to our corporate system, by repealing RFRA now.
Use your own words if possible, or cut and paste any of the wording below. Always identify yourself as a constituent. (Also see FFRF's statement on the Hobby Lobby ruling for more arguments.)
I am writing as your constituent to urge you to take action in the wake of the Supreme Court's unprecedented decision in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. Please take action to repeal the misguided Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which has been used to decide that a corporation trumps the civil and reproductive rights of women workers to choose their own form of contraception.
I'm dismayed and frightened by the implications of this decision, which puts the personal religious views of corporate executives above the rights of tens of thousands of employees. Corporations are not people and a corporation cannot practice religion. Yet the Supreme Court has ruled that the access to contraceptive coverage granted by the Affordable Care Act creates a significant burden on a corporation's free exercise of religion. The decision is completely divorced from reality!
The main justification for this outlandish decision is the Supreme Court's holding that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) protects Hobby Lobby from the generally applicable rules of the Affordable Care Act. Regardless of Congress's original intent, RFRA has become an untenable law. It carves out vast exceptions to neutral laws that only certain religious sects can claim. In the corporate context, this provides an unfair competitive advantage to any corporation willing to claim that it has a religious objection to a regulation.
Employers should not have a right to deny fundamental rights to employees in the name of "religious liberty." Please introduce or sign onto a bill to repeal RFRA immediately.
Today marks a turning point in the struggle to uphold the First Amendment to our Constitution. FFRF needs your help more than ever. This is a call to you, and to ask you to reach out to those you know. Please forward this email and encourage others to join us.
Some suggested destinations for freethinkers besides the ever-popular hell and Honduras (murder capital of the world) come via the crank mail, printed as received.
ten commandments: ten commandments is every americans rite if you want to change the laws in your state that’s fine stay out of our business in north Idaho we love god here if you choose to walk in darkness that’s your choice but here we will fight you tooth and nail to keep our rites as americans stay out of our business here believe if you want a war on this matter we will stay the fuck out of our business go worship the devil and keep working for satin. — tom johnson, coer d alene, idaho
Walker’s religious tweet: Wow, have you two lunatics become unhinged! Wanna take me up on a public challenge to either of you, Barker or Gaylord, for a debate on the Bill of Rights, Constitution and Declaration of Independence? Say YES (which I would crave) and I’ll dissect and dismantle your horribly flawed constitutional views. The ball is in your court. Game? — Ned Kareiva
Hello Dan: You sir are a problem. Look at today’s society and ask yourself, is it better now with the FFRF crapping in everyone’s cereal or was it better in earlier times say before the late 1960’s. Check the statistics on out of wedlock child birth, abortions (hell, half the black pregnancies were aborted in NYC, Eugenicists will celebrate that little number). Let me be clear, I am an extremely poor example of a Christian, but for fucks sake, you guys are doing more damage to society than the Scott Walkers of the world. But, maybe that is what you want. Have a nice day. — Mike Williams, Blossom, Texas
Gideon Bible removal: Prior to sending this, I have prayed and claimed that the supernatural presence of God move through this email to everyone in your organization, and that everyone in your organization be saved. Every knee will bow, every tongue confess. — Terri McMahan
10 Commandments in park: Take your heathen bullshit out of my state and go corrupt shitconsin you wannabe Nazi pigs. — Jake Rogers, Sandpoint, Idaho
Police chief’s prayer walks: If you want to be a none believer, be one. Don’t interfear with others freedom of religon. We dont bother you athiest’s even if you’re gonna burn, it’s you’re choice. Don’t try to take the rest of the world with you, go burn by yourself and mind your business. That is one of the biggest problem’s today...Minority’s trying to make majority’s bow down to there stupid want’s and demand’s. Mind your own fucking business. — Richard Lovelace, Crane Hill, Ala.
Atheists and the Bible: You will never convince me to your viewpoint, because at one time I “was” you. You have no idea how wonderful the freeing from self becomes once you trust in Jesus Christ and His sacrifice and shedding of blood on the cross just for you! — A. Barry Hess
Freedom OF Religion: This country was founded on “FREEDOM OF RELIGION”. My ancestors had to leave Europe because they were Lutheran Ministers and were threatened with death. Many of the early European immigrants got along quite well with the Native Americans and provided much mutual support. Sadly, Atheists and Atheistic Agnostics now want to force us out of OUR country. I say OUR country because my religious ancestors founded it. Hitler was only two month short of world domination and the execution of all Jews. Some of the Jewish in the 1930’s could run to the U.S. for safety. But if FFRF gets the IRS and the Justice Dept. to persecute us and force religious groups out of the U.S., like Hitler did to Europe in the 1930’s and 40’s, WHERE ARE WE TO GO? — Burns Searfoss, Colorado Springs
You Suck: Crawl back under your rocks and STFU! — Jimmy Door, Wisconsin
Comment’s on Hannity: I would like to respond to your assertion that most free societies were free from religion? How did that work in Russia? China? Burma? Honduras, Venezuela? Nepal? North Korea? Vietnam? Cambodia? Laos? What happened to Christians in Hungary, Poland, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Czech? What about Georgia? Ukraine, Serbia, Croatia. They were free of religion weren’t they? — Charles Kunold, California
I have a Challenge: Apparently, you folks have allot social & legal clout. Why don’t you go after the Evangelists that are transplanting approx.1000 middle east refugees into Appleton & other Wisconsin cities; and other states. You worry about our tax dollars spent in the name of religion!! The estimated End cost is 750Grand to a million a person. This is really imposing religion on the general populace at our expense. — Axel Roberts, Menasha, Wis.
Freedom From Religion Foundation: I WOULD LIKE TO ASK YOU ONE THING! HOW DOES IT FEEL....TO BE THE ASS-HOLES OF AMERICA? — Stan Knowles, North Carolina
Freedom of Speech: No where in the Constitution does it talk about seperation of Church and State. That came about from a letter from Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Paine or vice versa. Atheism is a religion itself and u can’t even see it. You believe in God. You have to believe in something to deny it’s existence. By the way, God loves u and their is nothing u can do about it. — Robert Jacquart
Praying for you: I PRAY IN JESUS’ NAME THAT HE WILL TOUCH EACH MEMBER OF YOUR GROUP. I WILL HELP FIGHT IN BRINGING BACK PRAYER IN SCHOOLS, AND CHRIST IS THE THE REASON FOR EVERY SEASON. I KNOW WHERE I AM GOING TO SPEND ETERNITY. DO YOU? — Lynne Carroll, Toledo, Ohio
Gov. Walker: I read your letter in response to Gov. Walker’s tweet and I just wanted to tell you, Aw, get to your fainting couch, Myrtle, and stop blighting the public sphere with your presence. I would also suggest that your co-presidents do not operate any motor vehicles, as the grotesque lack of perspective they demonstrated in that letter means that they would pose a serious collision threat to both themselves and other drivers. — Karl Collins, New York
stay out of our religion!!! GOOD GRIEVE GIVE ME A BRAKE !! WHEN WILL YOU STOP WHEN THERE IS NO RELIGION LEFT AND WE ARE ALL ATHEIST!! YOU REALLY PISS ME OFF WITH PUSHING YOU LEFT WING AGENDA ON US!! JUST SHUT UP!! — Mieke Sijen, Long Beach, Calif.
The Bible: It is a love letter from God to us. Why would you want to deprive people of that! By the way...ALL your efforts are in vain. You can TRY to remove Him but He is God and on the last page of the book you so despise guess what? He wins! You are on a path strait to hell. — Julie Fincham, North Port, Florida
The bible: Who is forcing you to practice any type of religion ,you must believe you came from a monkey lie Obama right.? you have no power whatsoever to lengthen your stupid life or create anything as god can you can’t turn the day into night or stop a hurricane let alone create one. I’d like to meet you in person bitch. — Samuel Ruiz, San angelo, Texas
U.S. Air Force Academy: If we erase all religion, then isn’t atheism the de facto religion? So in fact, you are supporting the idea of a state sponsored religion. How the communists and fascist would love your organization. — Mark Lutz, Sanford, S.C.
Pope in Green Bay: The mayor has every right to invite whom he pleases, just as the ludicrous president obama does. You want some atheist to visit the mayor? Set it up you imbeciles. — David Woehning
When I was a Christian, we’d talk about the “peace that passeth understanding” that neither I nor anyone else I knew experienced. I did frequently see theists uttering incantations, while clinging desperately to their straw of belief, during one of life’s flash floods.
When I was a theist, that was also my kind of peace. I was taught that atheists never have peace of mind. That was a huge lie.
Sometimes I see believers on TV with ecstatic happiness on their faces, and in such moments I recall George Bernard Shaw’s thought on the subject: “The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one.”
Since I became an atheist, I’ve observed believers under stress, mentally and emotionally struggling with all the “why, why, why Lord” questions, while offering supplications to the sky Lord. As if the emotional turmoil of a crisis event alone isn’t enough, the theist is also cast into additional mental chaos with unneeded irrational and absurd thoughts.
I saw this first hand at hospice group counseling several years ago. It was pitiful seeing the believers in the group trying to process their grief while also irrationally juggling their God delusions.
The peace I’ve experienced as an atheist for the past 42 years is not some futile attempt to go past human understanding. To the complete contrary, it’s based on understanding. I’ve experienced peace as an atheist in the midst of terrible relentless pain, frustration, death of my spouse, near death myself and other very stressful and painful human events. So what is the etiology of my atheist peace that’s so very different from my former theistic kind of peace?
As an atheist, I don’t have delusional “God” thoughts confusing, disturbing, complicating, filtering, warping and frustrating my daily life and sense of reality.
My peace emanates from my understanding of verifiable sciences (not ancient religious tales), about what and who I am and my place as a living creature in the universe.
My peace comes from not having nonsense and extraneous thoughts unnecessarily disturbing me, during critical times when I need to deal with and focus on the crisis and problem at hand.
Because of the first two reasons, I have a solid, clear, unshakable peace. It is a philosophical and resilient peace. It’s like a strong safety net, woven from rational information, not fantasy tales.
I find the meaning of “philosophical” very interesting as it relates to the subject of peace:
(1. Relating or devoted to the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality and existence; (2. having or showing a calm attitude toward disappointments or difficulties.
My knowledge of what and who I am, how I came to exist and how all my atoms will return to the universe’s recycle bin. That is enough for me.
Peace is always with me because my primary raison d’être is rational: survival. I also determine the purposes of my life, not the edicts of superstitious clerics, past and present.
Integrity and backbone
Science and theistic religion both offer explanations for life and the universe. Only science offers verifiable, falsifiable evidence. Monotheistic religion asks for belief with no evidence and often threatens anyone who dares question monotheism’s most ethically immoral edicts and scientifically absurd writings and teachings.
I find the lives and words of atheists and agnostics like Thomas Edison, Democritus, Helen Keller, Carl Sagan, Dan Dennett, Andrew Carnegie, Ted Williams, Christopher Hitchens, Neil deGrasse Tyson, George Bernard Shaw, Stephen Hawking, Linus Pauling, Richard Dawkins, Dan Barker, Peter Higgs, Steven Weinberg, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, Robert Ingersoll, Marlon Brando, Sam Harris, Gore Vidal, Sigmund Freud, Bertrand Russell, Katherine Hepburn, George Carlin, Arthur C. Clarke and Thomas Paine (to name just a few) are testimony to the kind of peace I’ve attempted to explain here.
As a member of the Clergy Project, I recall how my dear fellow member “Grandparaja” recently provided so much wisdom and emanated such peace before his impending death. What a beacon. I’ll never forget him. But he was not an anomaly. I have never observed an atheist go through the added emotional turmoil, and the begging for answers from the Sky God, that so many theists do when facing death.
I certainly don’t contend all atheists have the kind of peace I’ve written about, but at least they should be free of monotheistic bats banging around in their mental attics.
Reading the bible led to my becoming an atheist. The explanations about human life and the universe that I’d been taught all crumbled, and the moral disconnect of blood sacrifice of a son became repugnant.
Then, as I studied the sciences, I found new rational information on which to hang my faith hat. I think we humans do best knowing verifiable truth.
There are many atheists for whom the sciences are not a major part of their reading or study, but they also project the kind of atheist peace I’m writing about. Therefore, I conclude that their peace comes from a lack of delusional nonsense in one’s thought process, and does not require the knowledge of the sciences.
My wife (and my former wife, who died in 2001), would fit that category. Even as children, they did not eat the baloney placed in front of them. I greatly admire humans who possessed unwavering integrity and backbone, even as children. Mark Twain would be another with enough common sense and natural perception to write, “It was the schoolboy who said, faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”
Thomas Edison was not privy to the scientific information available to anyone curious enough to search the Internet today. His take on religion was frank: “I have never seen the slightest scientific proof of the religious ideas of heaven and hell, of future life for individuals, or of a personal God.” Also: “So far as religion of the day is concerned, it is a damned fake. . . . Religion is all bunk.”
I think the bunk, in the brain, that Edison mentioned makes it impossible for theists to ever experience the peace of mind that is possible for an atheist. The bunk is like opium for the addict, and it’s still a damned fake.
Florida FFRF member Mason Lane was born Dean Aughinbaugh and changed his name for the music business, from which he’s retired. Before that he was general manager of WHME-FM Radio (Christian programming) and pastor of Christian Faith Church in South Bend, Ind., then dean of students and soccer coach at DeVry University in Phoenix. Justifiable Homicide, available on Kindle or Nook, is the story of his journey to atheism. Google “reverbnation” and “mason lane” to sample his music online.
Sergeant Davis is a member of FFRF and the Inland Northwest Freethought Society, FFRF’s chapter in eastern Washington and northern Idaho.
I’m originally from New York and have been in the military 16 years. My family was mainly secular. My parents never forced me to hold any of their personal philosophies while I was growing up. They left that for me to figure out on my own.
After college and entering the Air Force, I came to a balanced general understanding of everything theological but have since stopped wasting my time on theology. I focus more on a humanist and scientific approach to matters with practicality and reason. So I’ve been a freethinker for as long as I can remember, probably around when I found out Santa wasn’t real.
During my deployment in 2010, my oldest Air Force friend, Rick Hamelin, established the first “official” freethought group in the Middle East, the Southwest Asia Freethought Association. SWAFA (swafreethought.jimdo.com/) was recognized by the base as a private organization. When I arrived, I helped Rick run it.
To our surprise, it grew quite fast, from about five people to 30 or so, including freethinkers, Buddhists and a Wiccan, who had no support groups. We welcomed everyone. Our group was first met with some doubt and confusion, even some hostility. People took down our signs on the public boards and threw out business cards that we handed out.
We asked for space in the chapel to hold our meetings, but Rick had Pascal’s Wager pulled on him and was pretty much told “no.”
We were soon holding two meetings a week and a movie night every other Thursday. Our growth got the chapel’s attention. They even sent a chaplain’s assistant to one of our meetings. We wore PT [physical training] uniforms to remain anonymous. Rank would not be an issue for anyone, so we were free to speak our minds.
The chaplain’s assistant came in uniform. I asked her if she was on duty and attending by direction of her boss. My suspicions were correct. But, all in all, she was most likely proved wrong if they assumed we just sat around bashing religion. She left actually liking how our group discussions went and how respectful we were of others’ diverse opinions.
Religion didn’t come up much unless it was part of another topic. Otherwise, it was opinions on general and miscellaneous science news — unless we had a new member, who would typically unload on us. People were just coming out as nontheist or had endured years of frustration.
Speaking up for others
I went to the Equal Opportunity Office in September 2013 with a complaint about an inappropriate display of a religious symbol on government property (civilian office in the hospital). I showed them that it was incompatible with Air Force Culture/AFI 1-1 and actually won one for once. The head chaplain went over and told them the display was not allowed. They removed it.
I have been battling with the base over miscellaneous things for the past few years and have met several times with the base chaplain. We discussed and debated a bit back and forth about policy and a little philosophy, but mainly about what’s right in a government setting. Most of these things I did by myself, since many people here at Fairchild AFB who are Freethinkers choose to remain silent about many things. They have their reasons, so I ask them to tell me and I’ll do it for them.
I’ve never asked for help on these matters because I believe that most of them can be solved at the lowest level, with tactful dialogue and understanding gained throughout. Also, I guess I like the challenge. I have talked with one of the attorneys at FFRF for advice on a complaint and, for another case, I sought advice from Mikey Weinstein, head of MRFF.
As far as the Oath of Enlistment topic which came up while talking with FFRF Co-President Dan Barker in February, I have always thought that the little injected “God” word at the end of “So help me” was pointless. To me it’s ludicrous to have to swear an oath on behalf of myself and some “Cosmic Being,” so I decided to do things differently before others really started to publicly challenge it.
On one of my enlistments, I left “God” out of it. I had an officer staring at me with hand still raised because I left that word out, like he was waiting for me to say it. I didn’t and just gave a nod to signal I was done.
This last enlistment, I used “gods” plural, just to get a funny look. Most people at work know me well enough and so they expected it. However, it would have been neat to add a random “god” of my choice (Zeus, Thor) at the end of each of my enlistments. At one of them, I almost said “Odin,” but couldn’t bring myself to do it.
Sgt. James Davis is on his sixth deployment and is headed to Afghanistan after completing combat adviser school. SWAFA membership is open to all personnel currently assigned to the base hosting the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing, including military, DoD civilians and contractors.
(Atheist journalist Jamila Bey spoke to attendees at FFRF’s 36th annual convention. The speech was edited for print.) Photography by Brent Nicastro.
Thank you one and all for coming. Thank you for the work you do. Thank you for showing up and showing up the fact that we heathens exist, that we enjoy community and we come together.
I’m a journalist and reporter and a radio show host in Washington, D.C. I’ve been a hellraiser since before I was allowed to cross the street by myself. As a journalist, I really take issue with a lot of what’s happening in this country.
I really take issue with the fact that, frankly, in this modern era, reporters are people who like to be on television, talking in this weird voice, flipping their “helmet hair” and asking questions that a really smart 22-year-old intern has written for them. There is not much critical thought to what they do. They don’t understand history, and they certainly don’t understand science. They don’t understand politics, yet they’re informing our population.
I’m really happy to be talking to you now because this morning built upon what I want to explain to you. We got to see how the local reports about FFRF’s work are kind of skewed. Nobody wants the picture of our lord and savior Jesus Christ taken down. Why would anyone ever object? Use a different stairwell if you don’t like it.
My show, the “Sex, Politics and Religion Hour: SPAR with Jamila,” is on the radio in D.C., New York, Chicago and Miami. After January, the Voice of Russia radio network is going to broadcast me in English to 166 different countries. I’m really excited about that because voices like mine were not heard for way too long.
The minute I hit 18, I was like, “Yes, it’s happened. I can say what I want,” and that’s what I’ve really been working to do. I am a student of democracy. I’m a student of this great American experiment. We’ve got it right — this is a nation formed by secular ideals, where everyone is valued, but we have to be able to go to the public square and put forth our ideas.
At least that’s the way it was supposed to be. The problem and the opportunity is that in this modern era, anybody can get up and say anything and if you have money behind you, your money equals speech. I’ve got a huge, huge problem with that.
It’s my obligation as an American to try my damnedest to advance the principles upon which this great nation was founded. I understand that we’re not perfect. I can give you a whole lot of reasons why I take issue with the founders, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water.
So I get to be loud and obnoxious and cheeky and I have the coolest job in the world. But I need some help from smart folks like you. I need you to go back to your respective hamlets and townships and big cities and I need you, when you see reporting like we saw [in a video] earlier, I need you to call up those stations. I need you call up those news directors. I need you to write letters to the editor and say, “Why was it that you didn’t — there’s a university here! Why didn’t you ask anyone from the biology department? Why would you only interview . . . ?
We all have to take responsibility for this democracy in which we live and raise our voices. I love the fact that we’re here, in the heartland, where you know, this is Jesus country. And it don’t look too Jesus-y ’round here [in this room] to me. That makes me smile.
Each of us has to do a better job. We’re doing a lot, but we’re outnumbered at the moment. However, I love to point out, we own the Internet, folks under 30, who are less inclined to be religious. They’re more inclined to be pro-same gender marriage.
I’m going to surround myself with people who aren’t hateful, who understand the way things are. I’m really excited that we have a legislator here [Arizona Rep. Juan Mendez]. We need to take a page out of that Christian Right handbook. We need to be running candidates. We need people to get in there at town halls and wear our flair and T-shirts: “I am secular and I vote,” that’s an important one. We need to be asking questions of our politicians.
I can’t remember, if you can help me on this? The Louisiana legislator who was all pro-voucher and then realized, “Oh my God, a Jew could get this money too, oh no! I’m not for that!” She didn’t want it to go to a Muslim school, but Christian schools, it was just fine. [Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Watson, said later she regretted her vote.]
I guess I’m a radical. I’m very glad that today we recognize what will happen if we continue to be silent, if we continue to be hidden. I need to see us on more news programs. I need to see us on more editorial pages, and I certainly need to see more of us having lunch at various places wearing shirts! I love the shirts, please buy some shirts and wear them.
I am delighted to be here. FFRF is doing some amazing work and it’s getting noticed. I’m honored that you had me here today. Thank you very much!
Q. I know that you’re funded by the Russians. How do you feel about Vladimir Putin and the “homosexual propaganda” situation?
A. Yes, the station that I work for is funded in part by the Russian government. The reason I was hired is because I’m an expert in American politics. I’m trained as a health reporter. I’m good in live, breaking news situations. They hired me for my particular skill set. I of course don’t support [Putin’s anti-gay views] or that members of Pussy Riot were jailed for blasphemy.
My bureau is three blocks from the White House. I defend the First Amendment. When Chelsea Manning announced to the world who she was, I had two experts from the Human Rights Campaign on my show to talk about how we talk about transgender issues and rights. My employer is never going to dictate or mandate my ethics or morals to me.
Q. Last night, we went to dinner and as we walked out of the hotel, there was a man there with a sign that said, “God loves you atheists.” I wanted you to share with the audience your response when he asked, “What state are you from?”
A. Hah! I have a firm policy. I do not engage with the idiots until after I’ve done my speaking. I need my intellect and energy for the crowd, but it just flew out! I just couldn’t stop myself, so I said, “I live in the state of reality!”
Q. Do people have a right to pray in schools and at work?
A. Can the satanist pray? If the [public board] is going to have prayer, we’re going to have a Wiccan come and have a whole celebration. Nudity is optional. Wait, wait, wait, they say. Whoa, they say. What’s your problem, they ask? And I say, prayers for all!
But I like conflict. I love confrontation. I love “going there,” because there is where the fun happens for me. But yeah, it’s madness.
Q. I would imagine you must have come from a religious background. The question is then, what did you have to go through to become the person you are?
A. I started doing stand-up comedy by talking about my family, and people thought I was doing material, and I going “I’m not being funny, I’m telling you the truth.” My father was raised as a Black Muslim, a follower of Elijah Muhammad in Pittsburgh in the mid-1950s. My mother was a Southern Baptist, “submit unto your husband, Jesus will stop him from beating you when it’s appropriate” type.
She converted to Catholicism about when it was time for me to go to Catholic school and get that discount. Many of my friends in school were Jewish. I went to a scholars program where there were a couple of Orthodox Jewish kids. By the time I was 7, I realized that nobody knew what the hell they were talking about, and they were making up crap as they went along.
I’ve always been loud and obnoxious, I cannot have a thought that I don’t express, and if it’s a question, it burns until I get it out. It was hard, growing up. I have a second-grade teacher, who’s still friends with my mom, who swears that the only difference in me then and now is that now I’m taller and have a baby.
Yeah, I’ve been pissing people off since I was embryonic. According to Mom.
Q. I’m wondering how we can get more politicians who are on our side in Washington?
A. I can’t answer that in the time I have. But, I had a lovely exclusive interview last week with Sen. Ernie Chambers [1983 Supreme Court victor in Marsh v. Chambers]. Give it up for Ernie Chambers! He’s been called the scariest man in Nebraska. They changed the state constitution and instituted term limits after his 38th year of service. It’s been two years and now he’s back. He says there’s no way that anybody who speaks honestly the way he does, and who believes in the rights of his constituents to be served as he does, can get on the national stage. There’s too much money.
The way elections happen, I fear that Mr. Chambers is right. I think that the political system would do well with somebody like me. No way in hell can I be elected as things stand today. No way, no way. We need to change that.
Jamila Bey also writes for The Washington Post blog “She the People” and worked as a producer and editor for a decade at National Public Radio. She’s currently writing a book on the role religion plays in the lives of African-American women.
Every great idea starts out as blasphemy.” (Bertrand Russell)
“Where there is no belief, there is no blasphemy.” (Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses)
“Blasphemy is a victimless crime.” (FFRF T-shirt issued to condemn a 1989 fatwa on Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses)
Indonesian civil servant Alexander Aan was freed Jan. 27 after serving a year in prison and being fined $8,000 for committing blasphemy. He posted words on Facebook that at least 75 million humans around the globe agree with: “There is no god.”
Aan was released “on license,” meaning he’s required to report regularly to authorities. He’s also vulnerable to vigilante retribution.
In December, two members of the Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot were released from prison for committing “hooliganism and inciting religious hatred.” Their crime? Singing a one-minute protest song on the altar of Moscow’s main cathedral to condemn the Russian Orthodox Church’s social repression and its ties to President Vladimir Putin.
Internationally, blasphemy prosecutions are chillingly on the rise. It’s not just places like Pakistan and Iran. Ireland passed a law in 2010 punishing blasphemy with a €25,000 fine ($34,000).
While such laws clearly violate the First Amendment, America has also seen its share of persecutions. Blasphemy laws turn thoughts objectionable only to some religionists into “crimes,” thereby clearly violating the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of conscience.
Robert Ingersoll captured the injustice of blasphemy statutes marvelously while defending C.B. Reynolds of New Jersey in 1887:
“By making a statute and by defining blasphemy, the church sought to prevent discussion — sought to prevent argument — sought to prevent a man giving his honest opinion. Certainly a tenet, a dogma, a doctrine, is safe when hedged about by a statute that prevents your speaking against it. In the silence of slavery it exists. It lives because lips are locked. It lives because men are slaves.”
The few antiquated blasphemy laws still on the books in the U.S. discriminate against non-Christians. By definition, blasphemy must discriminate. Any profession of faith in favor of one sect is blasphemy against another (i.e., you either believe that Jesus was the son of God, or not; that the angel Gabriel spoke to Muhammad, or not; that a dry cracker is the body of a noncorporeal being, or not).
Establishing a religion
Blasphemy statutes place the religious sensibilities of the chosen sect on a pedestal. As Bertrand Russell observed of the English common law, “[C]learly no one ought to speak ill of Christianity in such a way as to be likely to promote a breach of the peace. Those who use this argument do not, however, propose to extend the same protection to other religions. If you abuse Lenin to a Communist until he gets so angry that he hits you on the nose, the Communist is sent to prison. If the Communist abuses Christ to you until you get angry so that you hit him on the nose, it is again the Communist that is sent to prison.”
As stated by former Associate Justice Abe Fortas in Epperson v. Arkansas: “Government in our democracy, state and national, must be neutral in matters of religious theory, doctrine, and practice.”
Speech and blasphemy
Freedom of speech is not absolute. Fighting words, threats, defamation and libel are included in prohibited speech. Merely uttering a phrase that would once have been considered a sin against God must now fall into one of those categories if it is to be punished.
In a case challenging a Michigan law that made “profanely curs[ing] or damn[ing] or swear[ing] by the name of God, Jesus Christ or the Holy Ghost” a crime, the court held that “God damn” was not speech justifiably prohibited by law. The court referenced a Supreme Court holding that states may not make a “single four-letter expletive a criminal offense” and found “no principled distinction between the expletive in [that case] and the milder profanity in this case.”
In a challenge to a Pennsylvania law prohibiting corporate names containing “[w]ords that constitute blasphemy, profane cursing or swearing or that profane the Lord’s name” another court found the statute violated the First Amendment because it restricted speech on the basis of viewpoint.
The Supreme Court summed it up, “from the standpoint of freedom of speech and the press, it is enough to point out that the state has no legitimate interest in protecting any or all religions from views distasteful to them which is sufficient to justify prior restraints upon the expression of those views. It is not the business of government in our nation to suppress real or imagined attacks upon a particular religious doctrine, whether they appear in publications, speeches, or motion pictures.” Joseph Burstyn Inc. v. Wilson (1952).
From blasphemers’ mouths
American colonial punishment was severe. Massachusetts had the death penalty until 1697, with the later sanction of branding the blasphemer’s tongue with a hot iron. With the adoption of the federal and state constitutions, these laws dropped into disuse. But before that happened, brave American freethinkers paid a price.
Thomas Jefferson Chandler of Delaware was found guilty in 1837 of declaring that “the virgin Mary was a whore and Jesus Christ was a bastard.” Another blasphemer, a Mr. Ruggles, was convicted in 1811 for observing “Jesus Christ was a bastard, and his mother must be a whore.”
A tamer utterance by Abner Updegraph in Pennsylvania in 1824 was condemned: “The Holy Scriptures were a mere fable, that they were a contradiction, and that although they contained a number of good things, yet they contained a great many lies.”
Abner Kneeland of Massachusetts was convicted in 1838 of uttering the following:
• “The Universalists believe in a god which I do not; but believe that their god, with all his moral attributes, (aside from nature itself,) is nothing more than a chimera of their own imagination.”
• “Universalists believe in Christ, which I do not; but believe that the whole story concerning him is as much a fable and a fiction as that of the god Prometheus, the tragedy of whose death is said to have been acted on the stage in the theatre at Athens, five hundred years before the Christian era.”
• “Universalists believe in miracles, which I do not; but believe that every pretension to them can be accounted for on natural principles, or else is to be attributed to mere trick and imposture.”
• Universalists believe in the resurrection of the dead, in immortality and eternal life, which I do not; but believe that all life is mortal, that death is an eternal extinction of life to the individual who possesses it, and that no individual life is, ever was, or ever will be eternal.”
The aptly named Michael X. Mockus was found guilty in 1921 for saying:
• “Mary (meaning the Virgin Mary) had a beau. When her beau called one evening (both being young) he seduced her. He brought her a flower and put her in a family way. No woman can give birth to a child without a man.”
• “Look how the priests teach you, the falsifiers, thieves. It is not possible that he could be of the Holy Ghost, there must be a man. A young Jew was the father of the Christ. No woman can have a child without a man; that never happened and never can happen.”
• “The father of Christ was a young Jew and was no Angel Gabriel. Any girl who wants a child can call a Gabriel or some John.”
• “All religions are a deception of the people.”
• “There is no truth in the Bible; it is only monkey business.”
If you’re accused of blasphemy, you’re in good company. Throughout history, some of the greatest artists and writers have been accused of (though perhaps not criminally tried for) blasphemy. Among them are James Kirkup, author of the poem “The Love that Dares to Speak Its Name,” Monty Python for “The Life of Brian,” John Steinbeck for “The Grapes of Wrath,” H.L. Mencken (pretty much constantly from 1899-1956), Charles Darwin for “On the Origin of Species,” Percy Bysshe Shelley for “Queen Mab,” Thomas Paine and his publisher Richard Carlile for “The Age of Reason,” Shakespeare contemporary Christopher Marlowe, arrested for atheism and blasphemy, Galileo Galelei, Aesop (born c. 620 B.C.E) and Socrates (died 399 B.C.E).
According to the “Encyclopedia of Unbelief,” Charles Lee Smith, in 1928, was the last person in the U.S. to be convicted of blasphemy as a crime. Smith had moved to Arkansas to protest the anti-ex`xvolution statute that was about to be passed. (It was overturned 40 years later by Epperson.)
Smith had rented a storefront and distributed leaflets such as “The Bible in the Balance,” “Godless Evolution” and “The Ape Ancestry of Man.” What got him into trouble was the sign he put in his window, “Evolution is True. The Bible’s a Lie. God’s a Ghost.” He was arrested for selling literature without a permit, even though he was giving the pamphlets away. In court, he refused to swear an oath, wishing to affirm instead. The judge, appalled at his atheism, refused to let him testify and fined him for distributing obscene literature.
After numerous threats, arrests and an attack on his storefront, Smith was charged with blasphemy. Again he was not permitted to testify and was convicted, although the conviction was overturned.
In the most recent U.S. case, George Kalman wanted to name his film company “I Choose Hell Productions.” His choice was rejected by Pennsylvania because corporation names were not allowed to be “blasphemous.” In 2010, the court held that the blasphemy statute violated the First Amendment.
Despite the numerous cases overturning blasphemy laws and the fact that “it is proper to regard the statute before us not only as obsolete, but as repealed by implication in such essential parts as an advanced and enlightened civilization justifies with due regard for the personal liberties of the citizen,” several states still have them, although they’re rarely enforced and would fall to a constitutional challenge. The following are still on the books:
Massachusetts: “Whoever wilfully blasphemes the holy name of God by denying, cursing or contumeliously reproaching God, his creation, government or final judging of the world, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching Jesus Christ or the Holy Ghost, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching or exposing to contempt and ridicule, the holy word of God contained in the holy scriptures shall be punished by imprisonment in jail for not more than one year or by a fine of not more than three hundred dollars, and may also be bound to good behavior.”
Michigan: “Any person who shall wilfully blaspheme the holy name of God, by cursing or contumeliously reproaching God, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.”
Oklahoma: “Blasphemy consists in wantonly uttering or publishing words, casting contumelious reproach or profane ridicule upon God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Ghost, the Holy Scriptures or the Christian or any other religion.”
South Carolina makes it a crime to “use blasphemous, profane or obscene language at or near the place of [religious worship].”
Blasphemy prosecutions are still rampant in many other countries, and not just places like Pakistan and Iran. Ireland passed a blasphemy law in 2010 punishing the crime by a €25,000 fine. The United Nations debates a “defamation of religion” resolution every year.
They should instead listen to Dan Barker, sage and FFRF co-president: “You cannot be convicted of a victimless crime.”
FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel graduated cum laude from Tulane University with a B.S. in neuroscience and environmental science and magna cum laude from Tulane University Law School. Go online to see the complete Blasphemy FAQ: