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FFRF, three students sue S.C. school

Class voted to pray at graduation

From left are Irmo High School students Jacob Zupon, Matthew “Max” Nielson and Dakota McMillan, student plaintiffs in FFRF’s suit challenging graduation prayers in South Carolina. 

The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a federal lawsuit May 30 in U.S. District Court in Columbia, S.C., against School District 5 of Lexington and Richland Counties over a district policy that sanctions graduation prayer. Matthew “Max” Nielson, 18, who graduated May 30 from Irmo High School, was named as principal plaintiff.
Nielson has received a $1,000 Catherine Fahringer Memorial Student Activist Award from FFRF and will speak at FFRF’s 35th annual convention in Portland, Ore., Oct. 12-14. (Read more about the case from Nielson’s perspective on Page 5. You can listen to a June 2 Freethought Radio interview with him at

On June 11, FFRF filed an amended complaint adding two new plaintiffs, Jacob Zupon and Dakota McMillan. They will graduate respectively from Irmo High School in 2013 and 2014, keeping the lawsuit ripe. Zupon and McMillan “reasonably anticipate constitutional injury” similar to Nielson’s due to prayer at their upcoming graduations. All students describe themselves as “religiously unaffiliated,” meaning “they subscribe to no particular organized, institutionalized religion, nor other prescribed set of beliefs.”

A district policy titled “School Ceremonies and Observations” sets guidelines for benedictions and invocations at graduations and athletic events: Use of prayer “will be determined by a majority vote of the graduating senior class with the advice and counsel of the principal.”

Nielson was forced during his senior year to participate in a “vote” by graduating seniors on whether to pray at their 2012 graduation. That vote was organized, distributed and tallied by teachers and other staff. He met with Principal Rob Weinkle and Superintendent Steve Hefner to express his concerns. FFRF formally objected, but the district refused to remove the scheduled prayer. FFRF filed suit on the day of the graduation.

The prayer at the graduation, written by the district but delivered by a student “volunteer,” was addressed to “Father.” The prayer asked for the “Lord’s guidance, protection and mercy,” asked students to be “touched” by “the Lord,” to be led “on the path you intend for their lives to lead,” and thanked a deity for “the teachers, parents and administrators that were here through our 12 years of school.”

The students and state-church watchdog FFRF, with over 18,000 members and 130 in South Carolina, allege the district’s written policy violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a similar vote on whether to host prayer at school events violated the Establishment Clause in the case Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe. The Supreme Court explicitly ruled in the year 2000 case that “a student election does nothing to protect minority views but rather places the students who hold such views at the mercy of the majority . . . . Fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.”

Student activists (left) Jacob Zupon, Max Nielson and Dakota McMillan, plaintiffs in FFRF’s suit in South Carolina, make a lighthearted statement about the ramifications of taking an unpopular stand in their high school.

The plaintiffs, represented by South Carolina counsel Aaron Kozloski, ask the court to declare the district’s policy null and void and to enjoin the district from further school-sponsored prayers. FFRF seeks to enjoin the district from further school-sponsored graduation prayers and to award damages, costs and attorney fees. Judge Cameron McGowan Currie will preside over the case.

The legal complaint states:
“The clear purpose of the policy is to promote religion; it hardly lacks a secular legislative purpose; and it cultivates, fosters and fertilizes a most excessive governmental entanglement with religion. The mere passage by the District of this policy evidences a purpose and perception of government establishment of religion. The policy’s text and the circumstances surrounding its enactment reveal that it has such a purpose. The District’s implementation of an electoral process that subjects the issue of prayer to a majoritarian vote has established a governmental mechanism that turns the school into a forum for religious debate and empowers the student body majority to subject students of minority views to constitutionally improper messages. The award of that power alone is constitutionally repugnant.”

“We are really proud of our trio of impressive South Carolina students who are willing to stand up for the Constitution despite community pressure,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president.

She noted that students and FFRF should not have to sue over long-settled law. “The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled for more than 50 years that school prayer is inappropriate and specifically found unconstitutional class votes on whether to pray. School graduations should be secular and inclusive,” Gaylor said.

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State/Church Bulletin

Town ditches prayer before judge’s order

Vermont Superior Court Judge Martin Maley ruled June 2 that the town of Franklin may not start its annual town meeting with prayer. Town resident Marilyn Hackett sued to block the prayer in March. The town decided not to have a prayer before the judge had ruled.

“The hardship on the Town is small — it can no longer include a prayer in town meeting — while the hardship on Plaintiff if the Court fails to grant the injunction is great — continued violation of her constitutional rights,” Maley wrote in issuing a permanent injunction.

Hackett teaches in Richford, where she said she is harassed by teens daily, reported the Burlington Free Press. “They say ‘I love Jesus. God bless you, Miss Hackett. God save you, Miss Hackett.’ The only thing I can hope for is that years from now they’ll remember that there was an adult who stood up for her point of view.” quoted Hackett: “Every year they gaveled the meeting to order and anyone who didn’t want to listen to the prayer could step outside. My response to that has been: ‘I’m not the one breaking the law of the land. I’m not the one who should be asked to leave.’ ”

N.D. freethinkers win Commandments ruling

The 8th Circuit U.S. Appeals on May 25 reversed a lower court decision by a federal judge dismissing a lawsuit by opponents of a Ten Commandments monument on city property in Fargo, N.D. The appeals panel ruled 2-1 that the Red River Freethinkers lawsuit should be allowed to proceed.

The freethinkers group alleged a constitutional violation because the city gave the monument a religious purpose in voting three years ago to keep it.

Appeals court: Town prayers too Christian

The 2nd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled May 17 in Galloway v. Town of Greece that Greece, a suburb of Rochester, N.Y., didn’t make a good-faith effort in seeking non-Christians to participate in town meeting invocations.

The Associated Press reported the town violated the constitutional ban against favoring one religion over another by opening nearly every meeting over an 11-year span with prayers that stressed Christianity. The appeals court overruled a lower court’s judgment against two female plaintiffs. The lower court decided other faiths weren’t intentionally excluded.

“The town’s process for selecting prayer-givers virtually ensured a Christian viewpoint,” ruled the three-judge appeals panel.

The town and the Alliance Defense Fund both announced they would appeal. Linda Stephens, a member of FFRF, is principal plaintiff.

Baltimore abortion rights take hit

A Baltimore ordinance requiring a Christian “pregnancy center” to post notices it offers only “limited services” that exclude abortion referrals and birth control violates its free speech rights, a federal appeals court in Richmond, Va., ruled 2-1.

Plaintiffs included the Pregnancy Center, which has two locations that promote abstinence and bible studies with prenatal classes.

Judge Robert King dissented, calling the decision “indefensible” and adding “these proceedings have thus followed a course more fitting a kangaroo court than a court of the United States,” reported Bloomberg News.

King cited evidence that the centers engage in “deceptive practices” that create health risks for women.

High court denies free exercise certiorari

The U.S. Supreme Court on June 29 denied certiorari in other cases involving challenges to the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act, reported Religion Clause. The petition in one of the cases, Seven-Sky v. Holder, had raised a free exercise challenge to the ACA.

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals held that the appellants had “failed to allege facts showing that the mandate will substantially burden their religious exercise.”

‘In Jesus’ name’ ruled out in Charlotte

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg [N.C.] Police Department has asked its chaplains to make prayers nonsectarian, the Charlotte Observer reported June 21.

“This is not in any way an effort to demean anybody’s Christian beliefs,” said Maj. John Diggs. “It’s to show respect for all the religious practices in our organization. CMPD is not anybody’s church.”

If a chaplain is uncomfortable with nonsectarian prayer at an event, Diggs said a replacement will be found. The department has about 2,000 employees.

Churches can use New York schools

New York can’t refuse to allow religious groups to use city public schools for worship services, U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska ruled June 29 in a lawsuit brought by Bronx Household of Faith.

The dispute dates to 1995, when the Bronx Household of Faith sued the city for allegedly violating the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment by denying it use of a school while giving other community groups access to campuses for their activities.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in Manhattan sent the case back in February to Preska, who had temporarily allowed the church to keep meeting at the public school. Bloomberg News reported Preska made that permission permanent, saying the regulation that allows community groups to use public schools for activities outside normal school hours, while banning their use for religious services, violates the First Amendment.

“We strongly disagree with the district court’s view of the facts, including its finding that the high rents in New York City require the government to provide religious organizations government-subsidized space for purposes of worship,” said Jonathan Pines, deputy chief of the general litigation division of New York’s law department, in a statement. He said the city will appeal.

Ellwood City looks at holiday lottery

The Borough Council in Ellwood City, Pa., where FFRF has repeatedly challenged a nativity scene in front of the Municipal Building, voted 4-3 June 18 to further consider an ordinance that would institute a lottery system to determine the content of holiday displays.

The Beaver County Times reported that any borough resident or taxpayer could submit a permit application. If no resident applied, it would be opened up to outsiders.

With multiple applicants, the borough would hold a lottery to pick one applicant, who would get to choose the display.

Marisa Bunney, who chaired a study committee, opposes a lottery. “My fear is that somebody is going to be picked in the lottery and not put up the nativity.”

North Dakotans not so worried about religious freedom

A so-called religious freedom amendment on the North Dakota ballot that stated “Government may not burden a person’s or religious organization’s religious liberty” was defeated June 12. Results were 107,680 (64%) NO and 60,465 (36%) YES.

Bishop Samuel Aquila of the Catholic Diocese of Fargo was on the sponsoring committee.

“It would be different if people’s rights were being trampled,” said Tom Fiebiger, chairman of North Dakotans Against Measure 3. “The average North Dakotan has the same religious liberties they have always had and will continue to have.”

Missourians to vote on prayer Aug. 7

Missouri voters will decide Aug. 7 on a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to pray in public places. The amendment reaffirms that students can pray privately in public school, but it would not allow the schools to hold class prayers, Reuters reported. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1962 that school-initiated prayer amounted to establishing religion in public schools in violation of the Constitution.

The amendment also says students could not “be compelled to perform or participate in any education assignments or presentations” that violate their religious beliefs.

The prayer amendment passed 126-30 in the Missouri House and 34-0 in the Senate.

Anti-gay churches pass plate in Maine

As many as 200 Maine churches passed the collection plate on Father’s Day to fight a November ballot initiative legalizing same-sex marriage.

Protect Marriage Maine has been in contact with about 800 churches across the state. Denominations include Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal, Nazarene, Church of God, Wesleyan, Evangelical Free, Advent Christian and others.

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Meet an Intern: Dustin Clark

Name: Dustin Clark.
Where and when I was born: Champaign, Ill., Jan. 23, 1988.
Family: My mother, Laurie; my father, Randy; and Tyler, my older brother.
Education: Millikin University, Decatur, Ill., philosophy, class of 2010; University of Wisconsin Law School.
My religious upbringing was: Methodist. I was full of existential angst for a few years because I thought girls found the brooding sexy (I was wrong). That phase faded away, and I realized I am an atheist. I was pretty passive about my nonreligion aside from the occasional irritation at an irrational action in the name of some old dusty god. I thought it was odd to become impassioned about a nonbelief. Then, some friends and I were sharing a pizza, and I made some offhand, off-color remark, and a friend laughed and said, “Yeah, I could see you doing that because you don’t care about anything because you’re an atheist.”
Hurt, I asked my friend if he thought I did not care about him. It was at that time that I realized that misconceptions like my friend’s abound around the subject of atheism, and I have a duty to help eliminate those misconceptions and make sure that our rights are respected and protected. 
How I came to work as an FFRF legal intern: I had not heard of FFRF until a spring law clerk position was posted on the Law School’s career website. I became excited at the prospect of gaining actual legal experience while helping a cause I stand behind.
What I do here: I conduct legal and factual research into potential church/state violations. I draft legal letters for the staff attorneys. 
What I like best about it: I can keep the state from making a kid who already feels different from everyone else feel even more alone.
Something funny that’s happened: They hired me.
My legal interests are: I would like to be a civil litigator. I enjoy labor and employment and tort law. 
My legal heroes are: Well, no one is perfect, but I have always liked Judge Learned Hand and Justice Hugo Black. 
These three words sum me up: Salty, pink (inside a blender or black hole), amiable.
Things I like: Golf, weight lifting, stand-up comedy (performing and watching), Prague.
Things I smite: Brussels sprouts, ice giants, Nietzsche.

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Meet a theatrical member: Tobin Atkinson

Sgt. Tobin Atkinson (left) and members of his Army unit at Kandahar Airport on New Year’s Day 2003.

Name: Tobin Atkinson.
Where I live: Salt Lake City, Utah, where I was born and raised.
Family: I’ve been married to northern Virginia native Marynell Hinton since 2008.
Education: B.S. in theater and history, Southern Utah University; master’s in directing, University of Utah; MBA in entrepreneurship, American Military University.
Occupation: Education specialist, Veterans Administration; artistic director, Meat & Potato Theatre ( The name Meat & Potato stems from the meaning “of fundamental importance: basic; also: concerned with or emphasizing the basic aspects of something.”
Military service: U.S. Army Infantry, 2000-04 (special assignment to Army Entertainment, where I was tasked to take a play to Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, Korea and Japan). I was stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas, and Fort Belvoir, Virginia. One month before my separation from the Army, I joined the Atheists in Foxholes march on D.C., a small, but fun-loving group. We had a great time.
How I got where I am today: Hard work, clean living, pure heart and a winsome smile. LOL! But seriously, it’s good people that kept (and keep) me honest. This includes parents, NCOs, theater directors, teachers and an incredible wife.
A quotation I like: “There is nothing more satisfying than watching the self-righteous fall.” (My mother after watching a news story on Ted Haggard)
“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” (Evelyn Beatrice Hall)
“You put your hand on the bible and swore to uphold the Constitution; you didn’t put your hand on the Constitution and swear to uphold the bible.” (Maryland lawyer/now-state Sen. Jamie Raskin, testifying on a same-sex marriage bill in 2006)
These are a few of my favorite things: I’ve always loved the theater, on which most of my education has focused. I’m a member of the actors’ union, and I co-founded Plan B Theatre and Meat & Potato Theatre in Salt Lake City.
These are not: Religious hypocrisy (seriously, if you’re going to look down your nose at me, you had better be living a better life than I am, but most aren’t).
My doubts about religion started: I grew up in a nonreligious family, so doubt started very, very early. Being a freethinker in the theocracy of the Beehive State forces you to start defending your nonbeliefs at a very early age.
Early high school was my first encounter with “I don’t have to explain why I don’t believe in god. You’re the one saying there’s an invisible man up in the sky. Explain that, Jack.”
Why I’m a freethinker: I was raised as one. My father quit the Mormons at about age 16. My mother quit even earlier. She started asking questions in Mormon Sunday school, and the next week she was ushered into the nursery to take care of babies while mothers were in sacrament meeting. It was the last time she went to church.
I grew up being taught to rely on my own cognitive abilities, so that’s the way I lived life. People have always accomplished more than god. Hard, intelligent work has done more good than a billion prayers ever will do. (“No supernatural ingredients were used in the making of this life.”) 
Ways I promote freethought: Over the years, I’ve adopted a much more subtle, almost subversive, approach to promoting freethought. Gone are the days of the toe-to-toe arguments. I let characters in the plays I write have those rants. Instead, I will usually have an exchange in private with someone. I’ve found that it gives them the opportunity to open up and really say what they’re thinking.
I try to use humor to call attention to religious hypocrisy, an illogical religious assumption or a lie. I’m surprised at how many closeted liberals there are in Utah, and when I find one, I always remind them that no one knows whom they vote for when they go into that booth.
Most of the plays we produce with Meat & Potato promote freethinking. We did a “1984” in which party members’ armbands had a Christian cross in a white circle on a field of red (akin to the Nazi armband). In a recent adaptation of “The Odyssey,” we purposely never mentioned any of the Greek gods from the original text. Odysseus and the others created and solved their problems without being able to blame them on some supernatural power.
There’s also an incredibly subtle thing we do with plays to promote freethinking. We always admit that the thing we are creating and you are watching is a play. It even states in our mission that we will create plays that are overtly theatrical: farces, musicals, dumbshows (pantomime), puppets, masks, etc. Why? Because doing so invites the audience to participate in the event on stage.
We take as our cue the idea that thousands of years ago, theater evolved from one person of the tribe sitting on that side of the fire telling a story to people sitting on this side of the fire. There is no “fourth wall” (the imaginary boundary between a fictional work and its audience).
We never ask audiences to “suspend their disbelief,” because that’s religion’s job, not ours. (Suspension of disbelief is when people know that those are actors on stage, they know it’s not real, and yet they are willing to accept that what is happening is real.) Our job in the theater has always been to entertain, to tell a good story, to watch a hero struggle so that we don’t have to. And when the play is over, we know what we saw was fantasy.
Our audiences never walk out of our theater thinking that that really, actually happened — unlike those who read certain religious texts.

This essay by longtime Charleston [W.V.] Gazette Editor James Haught, a FFRF member, is part of an upcoming book edited by John W. Loftus titled “Christianity Is Not Great.”

The worst aspect of Christianity is that it makes no sense, and most of its 2.2 billion believers around the planet cannot see the illogic. Let me explain:

More than any other faith, Christianity teaches that an all-loving, all-merciful, all-powerful, benevolent father-creator made the universe and everything it contains. Ministers focus on God’s special fatherly love for his favorites: people.

But if a supernatural spirit made everything, he also made breast cancer that kills women, leukemia that ravages children, brain tumors, malaria, tapeworms, spina bifida, Down syndrome, flesh-eating bacteria and many other torments that sicken or kill his human offspring. Further, he must have made tornados, earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanoes, floods and sundry disasters that mangle and maim great masses of people. Remember the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that drowned 200,000, mostly children? Did “our father which art in heaven” just watch as a spectator?

How many desperate parents pray fervently for God to save their cancer-stricken children — to no avail? Their anguished hopes find only silence.

In addition to this cruelty toward people, the animal kingdom that the loving creator supposedly made — “every living creature that moveth” — is a hell of killing and eating. Tennyson wrote of “nature, red in tooth and claw.” Did you know that rabbits scream when ripped by a fox’s fangs? I heard it once, and I still feel my shudder. Also, with my grandchildren, I put corn in trees for squirrels, until a hawk swooped away with a muncher.

Mark Twain wrote: “The spider kills the fly, and eats it; the bird kills the spider, and eats it; the wildcat kills the goose; the — well, they all kill each other. It is murder all along the line.”

Charles Templeton, a brilliant Canadian evangelist who toured with Billy Graham, later lost his faith and denounced the absurdity of believing in a kindly father-creator. Here’s his observation:

“All life is predicated on death. Every carnivorous creature must kill and devour another creature. It has no option. . . . Why does God’s grand design require creatures with teeth designed to crush spines and rend flesh, claws fashioned to seize and tear, venom to paralyze, mouths to suck blood, coils to constrict and smother — even expandable jaws so that prey may be swallowed whole and alive? . . . Life is a carnival of blood. . . . How could a loving and omnipotent god create such horrors?”

Some insects even plant their eggs inside others, so the hatching offspring can devour the hosts alive, from within. If a mighty Intelligent Designer devised all these things, he’s a monster, not a merciful father. No human would be so cruel. Why would anyone worship such a vicious creator, and insist that the heavenly father is Pure Love? See what I mean about illogic?

Rationality doesn’t rule out a malicious, sadistic creator-god, but it definitely scuttles the possibility of a merciful one. In philosophy, this inescapable conclusion is called the “problem of evil.” It was first articulated 24 centuries ago by Epicurus in ancient Greece.

Ever since, holy men have twisted themselves into pretzels trying to concoct rebuttals that hold water, but they all leak. A successful rebuttal is impossible. Instead of trying to warp reality to fit theology, a wise person concludes that there is only one believable answer: An all-loving, all-powerful father-creator cannot exist. Nature alone wrought the world’s evils.

Freud explains religion

Christianity is illogical in various other ways. Consider these:

• The bewildering dogma of the Trinity says father, son and holy ghost are separate, yet the same being, and all three have existed eternally. Does this mean that Jesus impregnated his own virgin mother, causing himself to be born?

• Homo sapiens sapiens has existed in fully modern form for perhaps 100,000 years, more than 3,000 generations. But Christianity has existed only 2,000 years. Some churches say Jesus is the only conduit to heaven. So what happened to the 2,940 generations of people who died in the preceding 98,000 years? Posthumously, were the “saved” among them declared retroactive Christians?

• Hundreds of past gods and religions have vanished, such as the Aztec faith, whose priests sacrificed victims to an invisible feathered serpent. Are Christianity’s three gods (or one) less perishable?

• Many Christian end-of-the-world predictions, including one in 2011 by an American evangelist, proved false. New predictions undoubtedly will emerge, and be just as silly.

• No scientific evidence supports any of the church’s miracle claims. The only supposed proofs are ancient writings similar to mythology tales.

• It’s often asserted that Christianity makes people better. If so, why do hundreds of priests and evangelists molest children and commit other “black-collar crimes”? And why did believers inflict centuries of faith-based killings in Crusades, witch hunts, the Inquisition, Reformation wars, pogroms against Jews, drowning of Anabaptists, etc.?

• Most of the brightest thinkers throughout Western history — philosophers, scientists, writers, democracy reformers and other “greats” — have doubted the church’s supernatural claims. Current skeptics stand alongside those towering minds.

In the face of such evidence, why does much of humanity still believe in a father-god? Sigmund Freud saw a clear explanation, as follows:

Tiny tots see a huge father looming over them, loving them, punishing them, protecting them. The image embeds in the infantile subconscious. Years later, when their biological father has lost his awesome majesty, they’re told that an invisible, divine father looms over them, loving them, punishing them, protecting them. Bingo — the buried subconscious image makes the god claim seems true.

“The god-creator is openly called Father,” Freud wrote. “Psychoanalysis concludes that he really is the father, clothed in the grandeur in which he once appeared to the small child. The religious man. . . looks back on the memory-image of the overrated father of his childhood, exalts it into a deity, and brings it into the present and into reality. The emotional strength of this memory-image and the lasting nature of his need for protection are the two supports for his belief in God.”

When all evidence and knowledge are tallied, thinking people should reach the inevitable conclusion that all gods, devils, heavens, hells, angels, demons, miracles, saviors and other supernatural entities are just fairy tales — fantasies that grew in the fertile human imagination.

Evangelist-turned-skeptic Charles Templeton ended his book, Farewell to God:

“I believe there is no supreme being with human attributes — no god in the biblical sense — but that all life is the result of timeless evolutionary forces. . . . I believe that, in common with all living creatures, we die and cease to exist.”

An honest person can reach no other conclusion.

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From a Baptist minister to atheist member

Name: John Senter Compere.
Where I live: Chandler, Ariz.
Where and when I was born: Ellisville, Miss., Oct. 17, 1934. When I tell people I grew up in Mississippi, I usually add, “Please don’t hold that against me. I left as soon as I found out you could!”
Family: Joyce Compere, wife; Layne Starling, daughter; Virginia Starling, granddaughter; LouAnn Vaughn, daughter (husband Scott Vaughn); Padgett, Rachael and Sydney Vaughn, granddaughters; Lee Compere, son; Shelly Baldenegro, daughter (husband Art Baldenegro); Ashley and Lindsey Baldenegro, granddaughters.
Education: Central High School, Jackson, Miss., 1952; Mississippi College, Clinton, Miss., B.A. in English and history, 1956; Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Wake Forest, N.C., bachelor of divinity, 1961; School of Pastoral Care, Baptist Hospital, Winston-Salem, N.C., certificate in pastoral counseling, 1963; Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, M.A. in psychology, 1969; University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Ph.D. in clinical psychology, 1972; Jung Analytic Institute, Zurich, Switzerland, post-doctoral training in psychology, 1977.
Occupation: Clinical psychologist and professional speaker (retired).
Military service: During graduate school, I was a civilian auxiliary chaplain at a North Carolina Air Force radar station.
How I got where I am today: I was ordained at 18 and served as a student summer missionary in Alaska (1952, 1955). I was pastor at rural Baptist churches during college and youth minister at a campus church during seminary, then full-time pastor at two Baptist churches. I left the ministry in 1967 at age 32 and went back to graduate school.
After receiving my Ph.D., I taught psychology at Wake Forest University, 1972-77 and maintained a private practice from 1972-89. I started speaking professionally in 1981 and still speak occasionally on my journey from fifth-generation Southern Baptist minister to atheist.
Where I’m headed: I’m clearly headed where we all are headed, to the oblivion of death, for me, sooner than later. I do not fear it, though I cannot imagine not existing. Until then, I will continue trying to live each day to the fullest, with honesty and kindness to people and animals.
Person in history I admire: Nelson Mandela, a true statesman if ever there was one, and American Revolution-era writer Thomas Paine.
A quotation I like: “The world is my country. To do good is my religion.” (Thomas Paine)
These are a few of my favorite things: Classical music (including good religious music), babies and young children, Yorkshire terriers, cats, well-written editorials, tennis, raquetball, cycling, seeing (or helping) someone live up to his/her potential, Low Country barbecue (vinegar-based sauce), well-delivered oratory, a poignant story, serious programs about cosmology.
These are not: Violence in movies or on TV, people talking loudly on cell phones in public, rap music, auto races, most conservative politicians.
My doubts about religion started: In my freshman year in college. I was already an ordained minister and was preparing to deliver a sermon in a large “First Baptist” church. Out of the blue, I found myself asking if there could possibly be such a thing as eternal punishment for finite “sins.” I had not met or read or talked to anyone who challenged religion and had always taken what I learned in church as the absolute truth.
Once the questions began, I couldn’t stop them. I continued in the ministry and the faith for 14 more years, before I admitted to myself that I no longer believed any of the dogma I had been taught and had been preaching. I knew many of my liberal minister friends had asked some of the same questions I was asking, but they had somehow been able to stay in the ministry, while casting doubt and joking in private about many of the faith-based tenets they were professing in public.
I had to leave the ministry to avoid doing that and becoming what I call “publicly phony and privately cynical.”
Why I’m a freethinker: I’m basically a scientist at heart and believe in evaluating evidence. Once the blinders were off, my study of the bible made it clear to me that this book was anything but a “holy” book. In fact, it’s a horrible book, with a few inspiring passages in it. It’s a collection of myths and suspicious “history” from Bronze Age ignorant people and has little, if any, relevance to the real world of today.
Ways I promote freethought: I’m vice president of the Valley of the Sun FFRF chapter and a member of the Humanist Society of Greater Phoenix. I’ve published a book, Towards the Light: A Fifth-generation Baptist Minister’s Journey from Religion to Reason, and I am asked fairly often to speak on subjects of the various chapters in my book. I’m also one of the early members of the Clergy Project and coordinate the screening process we use with new applicants to our private online site.

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Mirthful Montana myth

Each Good Friday, the Miles City Ministerial Association sponsors “Walk With the Cross,” during which Christians gather at a church at one end of Main Street and march a large wooden cross to Riverside Park at the other end of the street. A service is held and the cross is planted in the public park for Easter weekend. FFRF member Kelly Thibault has protested with an FFRF banner in the past, and this year was no different. Thank you, Kelly!

Yahoo! Answers lets readers online ask questions which other readers respond to.
Q. What is the best way to stop your child from becoming an athiest [sic]? I don’t want any of my children to be punished by God.
A. David M.:
Do not educate them, or expose them to critical thinking, logic or science. Lie to them constantly about how the world works. Feed them a steady diet of mumbo-jumbo dressed up like real knowledge — the [creationist] jumbo jet in the whirlwind, for example — and pretend that it is deep wisdom.
Make them loathe their own natural bodies and functions. Convince them they are small and weak and worthless and need redemption. Tell them everything enjoyable is grievously wrong to even think about, and that their only fun should be in grovelling to an invisible friend.
Ensure that they resent anyone who is not like them in every way — skin color, nationality, political opinion but especially creed. Make such people out to be evil and vile and give them — impotent minorities all — the fictional power to somehow oppress and persecute the vast majority who do think like you.
Teach them to laugh at and dismiss out of hand any faith but their own. Early — early mind you — make sure they are taught the difference between superstitious deadly error — that one raving lunatic in the desert told the truth about a vicious god who killed people, and divine eternal truth — that another raving lunatic in the desert told the truth about a vicious god who killed people.
Instruct them with all severity and import to never question for themselves — to never think for themselves — to never live for themselves — but to seek answers only in one — just one — particular set of semi-literate Bronze Age folk tales.
Above all, and this cannot be overemphasized, make sure they cannot spell, use correct grammar or understand basic English words.
That should do the trick.

%904 %America/Chicago, %2012

FFRF’s latest legal victories

Colin Mueller, a junior at Walton High School, Marietta, Ga., was denied approval from his school in April to start a new student group titled Freethinkers for Cooperation Acceptance and Trust (FACT). The school has more than 70 approved student groups, including the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and the Muslim Student Association.

Proposals for creating new groups were heard April 18 by a school committee. FACT was one of several groups denied approval for the next school year. After receiving a letter from FFRF, the school reversed its earlier decision and granted FACT student group status.

The application for FACT included information on the group’s purpose, activities, a list of 10 prospective members and a faculty supervisor. The application described the club this way:

“The purpose of the club is to bring freethinking students together who are surrounded by a predominantly religious society; together the students will be able to find a support group and help each other with problems associated with being a freethinker (such as ‘coming out’ to your parents that you are not religious, or seeing the meaning in life). The mission of the club is to show the Walton community that freethinkers (atheist, agnostics, Unitarians or other non-mainstream religious affiliates) can very well live a life of high morals and be genuinely good people without reporting to a higher power.”

Colin received a rejection letter that said:

“There are so many clubs existing at Walton that part of the decision-making process includes making sure that clubs do not compete for the same members. Additionally, we cannot accept a club that holds or espouses any particular religious, political or philosophical beliefs, is physical in nature or does not have a service or curriculum component.”

Colin appealed but was told that the denial was final and that the committee only approved the “best” of the proposed groups.

After the denial, FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent a letter of complaint to the Cobb County School District. Elliott wrote that the denial was a violation of both the federal Equal Access Act and the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. The Equal Access Act provides that schools receiving federal funds cannot deny equal treatment to noncurriculum student groups on the basis of their religious, political or philosophical views.

Elliott said, “If FCA [Fellowship of Christian Athletes] is allowed club status, then the school may not censor FACT. . . . Minority views are protected under the First Amendment. It is not permissible for a committee to vote on group approval based on which views will be the most popular. The school should train any persons who make approval decisions, whether staff or students, on how to make decisions in a viewpoint neutral manner.”

On April 29, Colin was informed that his group was approved. Ironically, his initial application focused on the mistreatment of atheists: “This club would not be formed if it were not for the lack of acceptance of freethinkers in the USA. In this day, there are still 50% of Americans who say that they would not vote for a well-qualified atheist candidate solely based on the grounds that said candidate is an atheist.”

Florida school ends adult-led prayers

After receiving a complaint from a student and FFRF, Highlands County Schools, Sebring, Fla., took action to limit the reach of a Christian group that was interacting with Lake Placid Middle School students before school.

A student reported that an adult from a group called Youth for Christ was regularly in the gym playing Christian music and leading students in prayer. All students were subject to the music and prayers because students who arrive early to school are required to be in the gym.

In March, FFRF sent a complaint stating that the school’s grant of access to a minister to proselytize a captive audience violated the Establishment Clause. Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott also wrote, “This predatory conduct is inappropriate and should raise many red flags.”

John McClure, Highlands County Schools general counsel, replied, saying that use of the gym for prayers has been stopped. But his letter also said that the school will allow the meetings to continue if the group is operated as a student club not run by adults.

McClure said, “Upon becoming aware of the circumstances, the school principal has changed the meeting place and reinforced with the club the requirement that the club be student led.

“Further, the Deputy Superintendent of Schools is publishing the issues at the monthly principal’s meeting so that the requirements can be reinforced throughout all schools in the school district, which I think was one of your primary concerns.”

‘9 Commandments’ judge loses robes

FFRF started fighting a proposed Ten Commandments display and the judge pushing it in July 2010 at the Hawkins County Justice Center in Rogersville, Tenn. It was a pet project of Juvenile Judge James “Jay” Taylor, whose personal website was plastered with piety. As it turns out, all that piety blew up horrendously in his face after FFRF took an interest in the case.

The Knoxville News Sentinel reported that Hawkins agreed to resign May 1 in an agreement with the Tennessee Court of Judiciary, which charged him with taking $9,000 from clients for personal gain. “He is a charlatan, and his charlatanry is about to come to an end,” said Morristown lawyer Paul Whetstone, who represents two clients who have filed civil suits.

The Court of the Judiciary earlier sanctioned Taylor for lobbying the County Commission to support the “Foundations of American Law and Government” display and fundraising for it.

A county committee had approved the display, heavily weighted with religious elements, including the Ten Commandments, all obviously meant to show that America is a Christian nation. Besides the constitutional violations, as FFRF noted in a follow-up complaint, shouldn’t a decalogue that’s supposed to be historical at least have ten commandments? Taylor’s proposed plaque listed only nine (omitting adultery — hmm — see below), and mixed up the Roman numeral XI for IX. Local media neglected to pick up on the errors, which Taylor corrected after FFRF’s letter pointed them out. The display, which has never been put up, also contained numerous historical inaccuracies.

A petition for discipline filed in February by the Board of Personal Responsibility alleged Taylor used about $6,000 of display donations for his personal use.

Taylor is also the subject of a $3 million lawsuit by a former employee alleging he violated her civil rights, made “unwelcome and unwanted” sexual advances and unlawfully fired her.

FFRF starves out N.C. church discount

An FFRF complaint put an end to an illegal church bulletin discount at the Fisherman’s Quarters II in Asheville, N.C. The restaurant regularly offered a 10% discount to church-going patrons. The promotion was at the top the list of discounts on its website.

Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt first wrote to the owners in October 2011: “Fisherman’s Quarters II’s restrictive promotional practice favors religious customers and denies customers who do not attend church as well as nonbelievers the right to ‘full and equal’ enjoyment of Fisherman’s Quarters II.”

After Schmitt sent two follow-up letters, a restaurant representative said in late March that the discriminatory practice had ended.

Religion stripped from Ala. sheriff’s sleeve

Chilton County, Ala., Sheriff Kevin Davis will no longer send his constituents an overtly sectarian Christmas card, thanks to FFRF’s action. Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt first wrote Jan. 20 to Davis that his card was “grossly inappropriate.”

It showed Davis and his family in front of a Christmas tree and was signed “Sheriff Davis and Family.” The card also contained a religious poem ending with “The Christmas gift given to us is Jesus Christ’s gift of love.”

Schmidt added, “We strongly urge you to consider your status as one of the highest elected officials in Chilton County and the importance of the constitutional principle of separation of church and state before you send out holiday cards promoting your personal religious beliefs and viewpoints.”

Davis spoke with Schmitt on March 19 and assured her that the card will be changed for the upcoming holiday season. He said he had “no intentions of offending anyone.”

FFRF opens Nevada libraries on Easter

The Washoe County Library System in Reno, Nev., will be open during Easter next year.

FFRF and a local complainant took issue with the library’s holiday closure policy. Before FFRF’s involvement, all county libraries were closed each Easter Sunday, even libraries that had typical Sunday hours.

Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote to Library Director Arnie Maurins on Feb. 16: “Easter is neither a federal holiday nor a Nevada state holiday. It is unconstitutional and inappropriate for a public library system to close on Easter.”

FFRF learned that library employees are forced to make up the hours they missed for the mandatory Easter shutdown by working at another branch unless they took vacation time. “Government employees should not be inconvenienced or punished so that Christian employees can celebrate a holy day,” asserted Markert.

Maurins replied March 12 and said the policy will change in the future, and staff would be directed to “take the necessary steps to enable libraries with Sunday hours to be open on Easter.”

FFRF letter muffles Christian rock band

Lewis County Schools in Weston, W.Va., canceled a Christian concert after receiving an FFRF letter of complaint. Both the Lewis County middle school and high school were scheduled to interrupt instructional time to host the Jason Lovins Band, a Christian rock group with a clear mission to “take the focus off themselves and point it to the One they sing about.”

Lovins is known to “testify” at performances and frequently insists “life begins at conception.” He claims he was conceived as the result of rape and warns students against abortion. The event was sponsored by Youth Alive a student Christian club.

“We are concerned that this assembly will be utilized by the Youth Alive club and their guest to push their religious agenda and religious values on a captive audience of students,” wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt.

A school representative confirmed March 9 that the middle school assembly was canceled. While the high school assembly took place, “no religion was brought into the assembly,” the school said, assuring Schmitt that it will “stay within the proper guidelines of separation of church and state.”

FFRF hunts down Tenn. Easter event

FFRF persuaded the city of Mt. Juliet, Tenn., to stop promoting “the Great Easter Bash,” a Christian event set to take place on April 7 in a public park. The city Parks and Recreation Department was the designated host, with Friendship Community Church as a co-sponsor.

The city advertised the event on the department’s website and on mass-distributed postcards. Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote April 4 to Parks Director Jay Cameli to protest city sponsorship of a religious event.

Schmitt received confirmation April 6 that the city removed all information about the event: “[The Parks Department] removed the city logo, as well as all references to the ‘City of Mt. Juliet’ on the printed materials that will be distributed at the event.” Employees were instructed to treat the event as they would any other.

Bible-pushers banished at UW Hospital

The University of Wisconsin Hospital in Madison, Wis., will no longer allow Gideons International to unlawfully distribute bibles on public property, thanks to FFRF’s vigilance.

Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt sent an advisory letter March 22 to UW Hospital President and CEO Donna Katen-Bahensky: “Permitting members of the Gideons or other bible distribution organizations the privilege of passing out their religious literature in the entrance of a state-run hospital constitutes blatant state endorsement of these Christian publications.”

A local complainant noted that security officers regulated the area in question, but claimed they were unable to take any action because it was in “a public space,” even though it was by the main hospital entrance. Many of the security officers stated that “they were getting a lot of complaints” and admitted being upset about the situation.

Katen-Bahensky sent a positive reply April 9: “In reeducating our Security Department on the nonsolicitation policy earlier this year, we did discover that there had been some confusion with respect to the Gideons, but that confusion has been clarified. All solicitors, including members of the Gideons, will be asked to leave the area if they are soliciting there.”

FFRF had protested the practice on behalf of patients, families and staff for many years.

FFRF to Ga. judge: Send aid, not bibles

A judge in Douglasville, Ga., was ordered to stop using county resources to promote Christianity after Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt sent a complaint letter April 13. Magistrate Court Judge Barbara Caldwell was soliciting donations of new and used bibles in the county newsletter and collecting bibles at the courthouse.

An aide to the chief magistrate promptly responded to Schmitt and confirmed that bibles will no longer be accepted at or delivered to the courthouse. She added that there will be no more newsletter bible ads.

‘Homeboy’ Jesus loses N. Carolina homeroom

An eighth-grade teacher at Starmount Middle School in Booneville, N.C., will no longer proselytize to her students. The teacher said in class that “God is the only creator of the universe,” and “Evolution is not allowed to be considered.” She also used skeletons adorned with T-shirts as teaching aids, including shirts that said “Jesus is my Homeboy” and “Mary is my Homegirl.”

The Secular Student Alliance sent two emails to the teacher, asking for the removal of the offensive shirts. A third email went out to the school principal but garnered no response. FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert intervened on Feb. 28: “Public schools are prohibited from teaching creationism or ‘intelligent design.’ Courts have routinely found that such teachings are religious and unconstitutional.”

In a March 8 reply, Superintendent L. Stewart Hobbs confirmed that the shirts had been removed.

FFRF ‘deletes’ biblical emails in Georgia

Inappropriate use of employee email at the Harris County School District in Hamilton, Ga., ended after FFRF’s involvement. The school district allowed “principals and other leadership staff to send emails to their subordinates which include bible passages.”

One correspondence took place between an elementary school principal and the district’s director of transportation. The emails contained “relevant” bible passages intended to “guide” the recipient.

Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote to Superintendent Craig Dowling on March 15: “No public school employee may urge religious points of view on students, parents, or employees. This includes bible verses and talking about ‘following God.’ ”

Dowling responded March 23: “The Harris County School District will take such action as it deems appropriate regarding such communications to fulfill its responsibilities to avoid the advancement of religion and remain neutral in respect thereto.”

Mandatory school staff prayer is stopped

The Wichita Falls [Texas] Independent School District has barred sectarian prayer at mandatory staff events. The district held its August convocation at the First Baptist Church. Local complainants told FFRF that School Board President Reginald Blow delivered the sectarian prayer “in Jesus’ name” at the mandatory meeting.

FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote three complaint letters, starting last August, before Superintendent George Kazanas answered March 7 that “future convocations will not include a prayer.”

‘Faith & Family Day’ ousted at Ohio college

FFRF informed a Cleveland university that faith does not mean family Cleveland State University, Cleveland, Ohio, sponsored “Faith & Family Day” on Jan. 7 during a men’s basketball game. It was promoted with a logo featuring several Christian crosses.

Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote to CSU President Ronald Berkman on March 13 about the inappropriate religious endorsement. The school responded March 26:

“Immediately upon being notified of this, all posters, fliers and marquee messages within the Wolstein Center were removed [and] appropriate steps have been taken to ensure that there will not be any future advertisements or promotional events sponsored by the university that will in any way suggest that the university endorses religion or any religious preference.”

‘Pagans’ remove Gideon bibles from Hagan

Hagan Elementary School in Williston, N.D., will no longer permit representatives of Gideons International to distribute bibles to students.

In a letter of complaint to Superintendent Viola LaFontaine, Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt took issue with fifth-grade students getting bibles. Students returning one day from music class found bibles on each of their desks. The teacher then led the class in a discussion of the bible.

Schmitt wrote that Williston Schools may not allow Gideons or any other religious group to enter school property to distribute religious literature, or to engage in bible discussions.

In an April 9 response, LaFontaine wrote, “Please be assured this will not happen again and bibles will not be distributed in any of the Williston Public School District #1 Schools.”

FFRF stills Kentucky loudspeaker prayer

FFRF stopped a preacher from delivering pregame basketball prayer over the loudspeaker March 6 at Madisonville-North Hopkins High School in Madisonville, Ky. A local complainant informed FFRF about the pastor’s Christian prayer, which was allowed even though the school was warned last fall about it.

FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor sent a statewide memorandum to all Kentucky superintendents prior to the 2011 athletic season. Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert followed up with Superintendent James Stevens in a March 12 letter: “As was made clear last fall, it is illegal for a public school to organize, sponsor and lead prayers at public high school athletic events.”

A school district attorney responded March 20: “We appreciate your reiterating [the law] and we have taken steps to ensure compliance with federal law on this issue.” The district directed Stevens to address the issue with all principals and administrators to ensure compliance.

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