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In the News - May 2012

Gay rights fight: Win some, lose some

North Carolina voters approved a constitutional amendment May 8 to ban gay marriage, which was already illegal by statute. Of the 2.1 million votes, 61% favored and 39% opposed the amendment. It adds two sentences to the section on marriage:

“Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State. This section does not prohibit a private party from entering into contracts with another private party; nor does this section prohibit courts from adjudicating the rights of private parties pursuant to such contracts.”

Churches were very involved in the election, with the vast majority opposed to same-sex marriage. Patrick Wooden, a black Pentecostal pastor in Raleigh, denounced Barack Obama from the pulpit for being “in support of sin” a few days after the amendment passed and Obama came out publicly for equal marriage rights for gays.

The LGBT issue is dividing congregations and denominations around the U.S. United Methodists voted in May to uphold a ban on ordaining gay ministers.

In Colorado, a civil unions bill opposed by most churches was killed 5-4 in committee May 14 after the governor called a special session to deal with the bill that Republicans had filibustered in regular session.

Also on May 14, Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee signed an executive order declaring the state will recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere, giving gay couples the same rights as heterosexual ones.

In Arizona, Pius X trumps Title IX

Paige Sultzbach, 15, is the only girl on her Mesa, Ariz., baseball team. A team from Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic School in Phoenix forfeited the championship game to Mesa on May 10 rather than face a female player.

Paige sat out two earlier games against the Catholic team but refused to miss the championship game.

The school said in a statement that “proper boundaries can only be respected with difficulty” in co-ed sports. The ultra-conservative Society of Saint Pius X operates Our Lady of Sorrows.

Study: Church scams total $35 billion

The Wall Street Journal reported May 7 that of the $569 billion that churchgoers and others are expected to donate to Christian causes worldwide in 2012, about $35 billion or 6% of the total will end up in the hands of “money launderers, embezzlers, tax evaders or unscrupulous ministers living too high on the hog.” The articles cites a study by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Mass.

The article notes that churches aren’t required to file IRS Form 990 that other 501(c)(3) nonprofits must file. [FFRF does file the 990, which makes its financial operation transparent for donors and the public.]

Study: ‘Modest’ decline in religious belief

A recent study by University of Chicago sociologist Tom Smith, “Beliefs about God across Time and Countries,” summarized May 14 in Foreign Policy, looked at “belief in God” in 30 countries between 1991 and 2008. Citizens of the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany) had the highest rate of atheism at 52%.

Nations with high numbers of nonbelievers: The Czech Republic, 40%; France, 23%; the Netherlands, 20%; and Sweden, 19%.

The most religious country in the survey was the Philippines, where 84% are sure God exists. In the U.S., 61% are sure of the existence of God. The study concludes, “Belief in God has decreased in most countries, but the declines are quite modest.”

Judge Roy Moore back to high court?

Roy Moore, the former Alabama Supreme Court chief justice famous for a 5,000-pound Ten Commandments monument, won 50.14% of the Republican primary vote in March and will face a Democrat in November in the race for Supreme Court chief justice. Moore, 65, held the job in 2001-03 but was forced out when he defied a federal order to remove the monument in the rotunda in the Judicial Building in Montgomery.

A nine-member judicial ethics panel voted unanimously to remove Moore from office for flouting the order.

“Roy Moore is a walking, talking argument against judicial elections,” Alex Koppelman wrote March 14 in The New Yorker.

Compassion motivates nonbelievers more

A new study from the University of California-Berkeley shows “highly religious people are less motivated by compassion to show generosity than are nonbelievers.”

The results challenge a widespread assumption that acts of charity are largely driven by feelings of empathy and compassion, researchers said.

Social psychologist and study co-author Robb Willer said, “Overall, we find that for less religious people, the strength of their emotional connection to another person is critical to whether they will help that person or not. The more religious, on the other hand, may ground their generosity less in emotion, and more in other factors such as doctrine, a communal identity or reputational concerns.”

Singer’s fans go gaga, Islamic groups don’t

Reuters reported that pop star Lady Gaga has been banned from performing as scheduled June 3 in Jakarta, Indonesia, because of objections by Islamic groups about her “vulgar” style.

While Indonesia is officially a secular state, it has the world’s largest Muslim population.

“She’s a vulgar singer who wears only panties and a bra when she sings, and she stated she is the envoy of the devil’s child and that she will spread satanic teaching,” said Salim Alatas of the Islamic Defender Front.

More than 30,000 tickets had been sold, ranging in price from 465,000 rupiah ($50.35) to 2.25 million rupiah ($240).

Study: Churches too involved with politics

A Pew Forum poll conducted March 7-11 asked, “Should churches and other houses of worship keep out of political matters or should they express their views on day-to-day social and political matters?”

Results: Keep out, 54%; express views, 40%

Another poll statement: “There has been too much expression of religious faith and prayer by political leaders.”

Nearly half of Democrats (46%), 24% of Republicans and 42% of independents said there’s been too much discussion.

Oregon couple charged in son’s death

Brandi and Russel Bellew, Creswell, Ore., are charged with second-degree manslaughter in the December death of Austin Sprout, 16, of an “undisclosed treatable ailment.” The family attends the General Assembly and the Church of the First Born, which puts prayer over medical care. Both of the Bellew’s previous spouses died at young ages, as did two of Russel Bellew’s children from his first marriage, according to a story in the Eugene Register-Guard.

Six of the couple’s children were made wards of the state April 16 while they await trial.

Egyptian, 17, sentenced for mocking Islam

An Egyptian court sentenced a 17-year-old Christian boy to three years in jail April 4 for publishing cartoons on his Facebook page that mocked Islam and the prophet Muhammad. Gamal Abdou Massoud was also accused of distributing his cartoons to friends in the city of Assiut.

About 10% of Egypt’s population of 80 million are Christians.

‘Monkey bill enacted in Tennessee’

Tennessee joined Louisiana April 10 as the second state to authorize teachers to “teach the controversy” about evolution and global warming. The Tennessee bill became law without Gov. Bill Haslam’s signature. Haslam refused to veto the bill, which he called flawed: “Good legislation should bring clarity and not confusion.”

The National Center for Science Education headlined the story on its website as “Monkey bill enacted in Tennessee.”

“Telling students that evolution and climate change are scientifically controversial is miseducating them,” said Eugenie Scott, the group’s executive director.

Florida robber made his victim pray

Tampa Bay Online reported April 13 that a robber made his victim, a pizza delivery driver, pray while he pointed a gun at him and took $100, according to sheriff’s deputies in Manatee County, Fla.

The robber made the victim lay on the ground. Then the robber said a prayer and made the victim repeat the prayer.

Actor dies portraying Judas’ suicide

Tiago Klimeck, 27, died on Easter Sunday from accidental hanging while reenacting the suicide of Judas on Good Friday in Itarare, Brazil. Klimeck was hanging for about four minutes before fellow performers realized something was wrong.

Faith-healing case to Wis. high court

A Wisconsin state appeals court has asked the state Supreme Court to decide if jurors wrongly convicted Dale and Leilani Neumann for the 2008 death of their daughter, Kara, 11, of undiagnosed diabetes. The couple prayed but sought no medical help.

“We submit that it is appropriate for Wisconsin’s highest court to determine the scope of the prayer treatment exception and to inform trial courts regarding the appropriate jury instructions when the exception is raised in a reckless homicide case,” said the May 1 ruling from the Wausau-based Third District Court of Appeals.

The parents were sentenced to six months in jail, 10 years’ probation and 120 hours of community service, with the jail terms stayed pending appeals.

‘Wasted Without Jesus’ shirt roils school

William Swinimer, a high school student in Chester Basin, Nova Scotia, was suspended for five days for wearing a shirt that said “Life Is Wasted Without Jesus” and for repeatedly proselytizing schoolmates. When he returned May 7, reported the Halifax Chronicle Herald, students held a forum to discuss religious beliefs and freedom of speech.

William was unable to participate though, because his father came to school waving the bible at media and took William home. “He will not attend this school unless they are having readin’, writin’ and ’rithmetic, good old-fashioned academics. When they’re having forums, when they’re having other extracurricular activities, he will not attend that school.”

Judith Sullivan-Corney, School Board chairwoman, said she could not discuss all the issues involved due to confidentiality. “Unfortunately, it all became about the T-shirt.”

Riley Gibb-Smith, 15, said, “This thing never was about a shirt. He’s telling kids they’ll burn in hell if they don’t confess themselves to Jesus.”


There is no nice way of saying it. Our [ultra-Orthodox Jewish] community protects molesters. Other than that, we are wonderful.

Pearl Engelman, whose great-grandson reported he was molested as a child at the United Talmudical Academy, which allowed the alleged perpetrator to return to teaching

New York Times, 5-10-12

Massachusetts Health and Human Services (HHS) and Department of Children and Families (DCF) will now refrain from making inappropriate religious references in their correspondence.

An HHS employee forwarded FFRF an official letter from a DCF employee which included the phrase “may God richly bless you.” FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt noted that “the United States Supreme Court has held that public officials may not seek to advance or promote religion” in her Jan. 25 letter to HHS Chief of Staff Stacey Monahan.

Monahan replied after FFRF sent a March 19 follow-up letter. She said the departments “regret any offense engendered,” and affirmed that they would “caution employees generally regarding inappropriate religious references in communications made in their official capacities.”

Indian Caves State Park in Shubert, Neb., has removed a large, wooden cross from its property after receiving a letter of complaint from the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote to Ron Stave, Chair of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, on May 22: “No court of final resort has ever upheld the government’s permanent display of a Latin cross on public land as constitutional. The inherent religious significance of the Latin cross is undeniable and is not disguisable.”

The director of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission responded promptly, notifying FFRF the following day that the cross has been removed.

Granite City, Ill., residents will no longer have to tacitly endorse a church or face a fine, thanks to the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

The Granite City municipal code required residents to purchase and prominently display sticker permits on their car windows each year. This year’s permit featured a photo of St. John United Church of Christ. Drivers who did not want to showcase the religious building faced up to $100 in fines for each day that the permit was not displayed. A local FFRF member opposed this use of city permits and contacted FFRF.

Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote to Granite City Mayor Edward Hagnauer in late April. Elliott pointed out that the mandatory church stickers violated the First Amendment rights of residents. "No person can be compelled to display a message that violates her rights of conscience," wrote Elliott. He added "The stickers give the impression to observers that the city approves of. . . St. John UCC."

In response to FFRF's complaint, the city council met on May 15 to adopt a resolution allowing residents to refrain from displaying the vehicle permits. The resolution provided that police would not enforce the sticker requirement. Residents would still have to pay the permit fee but a receipt would suffice as proof of a permit. 

Students and coaches will no longer be praying in the locker room at McAllen High School (McAllen, Texas), thanks to the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

McAllen’s head football coach reportedly asked a student to recite the Lord’s Prayer before each game. FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote to Superintendent James Ponce on Feb. 1: “The coaches’ apparent organizing and obvious participation in a team prayer constitutes an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion.”

Assistant Superintendent Mike Barrera responded after an April 18 follow-up letter, replying on May 9 that the district “has taken steps to orient staff and heighten awareness about the proper procedures involved in student led prayers at public events.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has ensured that disclaimers will be placed on religious clubs’ fliers at Foothill High School in Redding, Calif.

The school’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes put out fliers inviting readers to an event called “Campus United” to “join…in a night of worship as God breaks down barriers between our schools and churches.” FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote to Superintendent Jim Cloney on April 9, 2012: “It is important for a school district that allows such distribution to be cognizant of how that literature will be received by its students and parents and to exercise the control it retains over the content of that literature.”

Cloney responded on May 1, saying that he agreed “that flyers announcing events such as this one typically carry a disclaimer to clarify that the event is sponsored by the club and not the school” and that future announcements would have the disclaimer.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has silenced a proselytizing first-grade teacher at Minford Elementary School in Minford, Ohio.

Prior to FFRF's complaint, young and impressionable first-grade students were subjected to bible lessons in their public school classroom. The offending teacher was cited with inserting religion into the curriculum during the holiday season. This teacher issued religious assignments and referred to Christmas as "Jesus' birthday." She also asked students to color a sheet depicting Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus in a manger. The worksheet included an overtly and leading Christian question: "Who has a birthday on Christmas?" FFRF and its local complainant were concerned the teacher would continue "to teach biblical stories as fact and indoctrinating her very young students."

FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt first wrote to Superintendent Mark Wilcheck on Feb. 16: "No public school employee may urge religious points of view on students. If this teacher taught her students that Christmas was the day that Jesus was born, she violated basic constitutional principles."

It wasn't until Schmitt complained again in April that she received a response. A representative of the school district confirmed that the administration warned "all of the first grade teachers about the legal parameters for teaching about religion in the classroom." 

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has ensured that there will be no further Christian prayers by government employees in Mecklenburg County, N.C.

FFRF received a complaint after three different Mecklenburg County employees gave sectarian prayers at a mandatory training luncheon for the county’s Department of Social Services (DSS). In a Feb. 8 letter to DSS Director Mary Wilson, FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt informed the agency that “the prayers and statements made at the DSS training meeting on Jan. 25 impermissibly advanced Christianity and led a reasonable observer to believe that the department is endorsing not only religion over non-religion, but also Christianity over all other faiths.”

After an April 18 follow-up letter, a county attorney responded on April 23, assuring FFRF that “the matter has been addressed and is resolved. The County and DSS are very much aware of Constitutional constraints placed on governmental behavior.”

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

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