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Casandra Zimmerman

Casandra Zimmerman

The blatant misuse of police powers and lack of secularism in a California police department must end, asserts the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

A concerned local resident has informed the state/church watchdog that the Covina Police Department provides counseling or emotional support via a chaplaincy program to members of the department, their families and the public. The chaplains are required to have five years of counseling experience, but the current chaplains do not meet this requirement. These police chaplains, though volunteers, are reportedly considered official “representatives of the department” and receive uniforms and badges. Not only are the chaplains fronting as representatives of the police department, but they are also getting special treatment, such as not having to pay tickets for traffic violations.

Police chaplaincies are unconstitutional, FFRF emphasizes. “Chaplains’ employment, even if volunteer, demonstrates endorsement of religion, in this case, Christianity, which violates the Constitution,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line writes to Covina Police Department Chief David Povero. The department has even gone against its own written policies, Line points out, since “despite a requirement against proselytizing, chaplains regularly proselytize, including by leading prayers at Covina City Council meetings.”

The Police Department is also vulnerable to a discrimination lawsuit due to the chaplaincy. Even if the chaplains intend, at least nominally, to assist people of all faiths, the Covina Police Department serves all Covina citizens regardless of their religious affiliation or lack thereof. Nonreligious Americans make up the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population by religious identification — and this includes the 28 percent of Los Angeles County residents who are religiously unaffiliated. Chaplains view the world and its problems through the lens of religion and a god, a view inapposite to nonbelievers. Claims that someone is “in a better place” or that a god “works in mysterious ways” may be the bedrock of religious consolation, but are meaningless and even hurtful trivialities to nonbelievers.

All of this is why FFRF is asking that the Covina Police Department discontinue its chaplaincy program and instead offer secular support services.

“As recent surveys have confirmed, populations around the country are becoming increasingly non-Christian and nonreligious,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “The Covina Police Department needs to police itself better and stop anointing chaplaincies that push a particular religion on police officers and the public.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 35,000 members and several chapters across the country, including nearly 5,000 members and a chapter in California. Our purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

 

A preacher’s blatant proselytizing at a public high school needs to be halted at once, the Freedom From Religion Foundation is urging a West Virginia school district. 

A concerned Hardy County Schools parent has reported to FFRF that students were encouraged to attend a prayer event during the school day. The person in charge of the prayer event, an evangelical preacher, Nik Walker, reportedly told students that if they do not follow the bible they would go to hell. He then asked students to stand up if they accept Jesus and to go to the front of the room to pray.

It is well settled that public schools may not advance or promote religion, FFRF reminds the school district.

“Allowing evangelical pastors regular, or even one-time, access to proselytize and recruit students for religious activities is a violation of the Establishment Clause,” FFRF Staff Attorney Christopher Line writes to Superintendent Sheena Van Meter. “The courts have protected public school students from overreaching outsiders in similar situations.”

A public school promoting Christianity also alienates those non-Christian students, teachers and members of the public whose religious beliefs are inconsistent with the message being disseminated by the school, including the 38 percent of young adults, FFRF emphasizes. Nonbelieving and non-Christian students feel singled out and intimidated by school-sponsored prayer events like this one.

The school district must immediately investigate this complaint and ensure that Walker is no longer allowed to proselytize students on school property during the school day, FFRF is demanding. It is also making an open records request for any school district contracts and records pertaining to this prayer event and Walker.

“A public school system has no business permitting this hell-and-brimstone preacher and his obvious sermonizing,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Hardy County Schools must immediately make sure that he’s denied further access.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 35,000 members, including members in West Virginia. Its purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

An ill-informed Nebraska preacher’s misstatements are compelling the Freedom From Religion Foundation to correct the record.

Brenda Kunneman of One Voice Ministries recently stated that the United States was “founded as a Christian nationalist form of government.” This could not be further from the truth. The U.S. Constitution was the first to officially separate state and church, the framers having learned from the pitfalls of European countries that had wedded the two. The Constitution’s only references to religion are exclusionary, including the First Amendment’s opening clause, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” The country’s Founders understood that to protect freedom of religion, the government must be free from religion.

Kunneman is unfortunately not alone in her ahistorical Christian nationalism, however. FFRF has highlighted a disturbing surge of this erroneous and dangerous belief, which seeks to equate being a true American with being Christian, and to insert Christian religious beliefs into the law. While most Christian nationalists use coded language because they know that theocracy is antithetical to the U.S. Constitution, Kunneman displayed a rare show of honesty by labeling herself a Christian nationalist.

After her constitutional error, Kunneman declared that the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits churches and other nonprofits from endorsing political candidates or parties, is “over.” This, too, is demonstrably false.

Then-President Trump made a similar claim in 2017, stating he had signed an executive order that he claimed “got rid of” the Johnson Amendment. FFRF immediately filed a federal lawsuit, which led Trump’s attorneys to concede defeat by admitting that the president does not have the authority to unilaterally overturn an act of Congress such as the Johnson Amendment. The wise law remains on the books and is still in effect. 

The Johnson Amendment is a crucial protection against abuse of political funding using nonprofits as a conduit. This is especially true of churches because they are not required to file any financial documents with the IRS, unlike all other tax-exempt entities. Without the Johnson Amendment, churches could operate as unregulated political action committees, with political operatives dumping millions in tax-deductible contributions into churches without any oversight whatsoever.

Although the IRS has been lax about enforcing the Johnson Amendment — another issue FFRF has successfully litigated — the law stands, and churches that flaunt it through partisan politicking are violating the law. 

Kunneman is deliberately miseducating her audience of gullible church attendees, seeking to undermine one of the most foundational and important aspects of the U.S. government: the separation between state and church. FFRF will continue to work to correct this intentional miseducation by Christian nationalist mouthpieces and their allies.

Please take a moment to ask your representative to vote yes on the Women’s Health Protection Act. It would protect the right to abortion throughout the United States, rendering unenforceable medically unnecessary and burdensome restrictions against abortion passed by state legislatures.

After the Supreme Court shockingly refused to block the Texas law banning abortions after six weeks even in cases of rape and incest, this act is more important than ever. While court reform is clearly crucial to protecting constitutional rights, the immediate remedy is for Congress to pass the Women’s Health Protection Act. Now that the House Committee on Rules has agreed to put it to a floor vote this Friday, Sept. 24, it is more important than ever to get this passed.

Please urge your member of Congress to vote yes on the Women’s Health Protection Act so we can curb many of the abuses that will inevitably follow the Texas law. The lives of millions of women depend on our secular action, since religion has always been at the heart of the push for anti-choice legislation.

Read FFRF’s WHPA testimony letter here.

Talking Points

Please vote in favor of the Women’s Health Protection Act (HR 3755). The shocking enactment of an unconstitutional abortion ban in Texas, with the Supreme Court refusing to intervene, is a wake-up call that immediate action is required to protect access to safe and legal abortions. Abortion rights are already endangered in many states, and the Texas law will inspire even more bans. 

The Women’s Health Protection Act would guarantee a statutory right to safe, legal reproductive care, and would void medically unnecessary and burdensome measures. I ask you to vote yes on the bill’s floor vote, and to speak up for its immediate passage. Millions of women — and their rights and safety — depend on your action.

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In a new column for Religion Dispatches, FFRF Director of Strategic Response Andrew L. Seidel is offering backing to people questioning their faith.

Seidel’s “A love letter to #exvangelicals and those deconstructing their toxic faith” was published Monday afternoon. “This is unlike anything I’ve ever written,” Seidel says. He was prompted to write the piece due to the attacks on individuals interrogating and “deconstructing” their faith. “I’m not one to sit quietly by while people are bullied,” Seidel remarks, “and those willing to question with boldness their religion are courageous. We owe them some support.”

The letter certainly offers that support. Seidel begins:

I’m astounded by people who have the intellectual honesty, courage, and fortitude to examine their most deeply held beliefs. Not just examine, but challenge and reject beliefs that shape how their entire world is constructed — beliefs that they have been told were unequivocally true, by their most trusted sources, since they were little — beliefs that have been deliberately and systematically ingrained.

The reverse of indoctrination, the process of systematically pulling apart those beliefs is sometimes called “deconstructing.” And deconstructing is having something of a media moment. This gives me hope for our species because it shows that humans are capable of the intellectual courage and honesty that our species needs, but which is far too rare.

I’m not religious. I never have been. My mom insisted I question and challenge authority as a guiding principle. I never had to deconstruct. I don’t know what that is like. But I admire the hell out of it. I often wonder if I had been raised and systematically told to believe X, whether I’d’ve had the courage to shake off that mind-forged manacle.

Of course I want to say, “yes, without doubt,” but that undersells the pressures and defense mechanisms some religions, sects, and religious communities have evolved to keep people enthralled.

Seidel mentions a few people secular-minded folks may recognize, such as Dan Barker and Jerry Dewitt, and a few new names. He also muses on what exvangelicals can offer the secular movement and vice versa. Please read the entire piece on Religion Dispatches and share it on social media. 

A Florida high school is repeatedly violating the Constitution by utilizing a chaplain who has been proselytizing, praying and even baptizing football players during the school day on school grounds, says FFRF

Niko Belavilas has posted material on Facebook and YouTube that reveals him regularly engaging in constitutionally out-of-bounds conduct at the Springstead High School. For instance, he is shown leading students in a locker room prayer in a video on Facebook:

“Lord, we just thank You, Father, as You come the whole spirit, and power us, give us focus, give us energy, just give us wisdom, to the coaches, Lord, to the players, just let us talk to You, Daddy. Lead us in our stance and how we should play. Motivate us, inspire us, Lord, to give everything we’ve got every single play that we have no regrets, nothing held back and the name of Jesus will be glorified in this place… And God’s hand was on that team, we declared done, and we are Yours, Father, we give glory in Jesus’ name. Amen.”

“Public school football teams cannot appoint or employ a chaplain, seek out a spiritual leader for the team, agree to allow someone to act as chaplain, or otherwise infuse the team with religion because public schools may not promote religion,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line writes to the Hernando County School District’s legal counsel. “It is therefore inappropriate and illegal for the Springstead High School football team to have a team chaplain and for coaches to allow and participate in religious activities with students, as this signals a blatant promotion of religion over nonreligion generally, and in this case, Christianity in particular.”

This type of aggressive preaching of Christianity at a public school also has the possibility of alienating, isolating, and embarrassing the teachers, students and parents who are either non-Christian or nonreligious, FFRF points out. 

This public school is a federal tax-supported institution, FFRF emphasizes. “The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that public schools may not be co-opted, either by staff or outside adults, to proselytize students,” the letter adds.

The Hernando County School District cannot give an adult not affiliated with the school access to the children in its charge, and it certainly cannot grant that access to a religious leader to advance his faith. Belavilas cannot be involved with the team at all going forward, nor may anyone else serve as a team chaplain. Such a blatant disregard for the separation of state and church needs to be stopped immediately, FFRF concludes.

“A public school chaplain is, by the very definition, a huge constitutional penalty,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “The Hernando County School District needs to get rid of him at once.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 35,000 members and several chapters across the country, including over 1,700 members and a chapter in Florida. Its purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

 

The Freedom From Religion Foundation and its secular allies are pushing back in the U.S. Supreme Court against Mississippi’s religion-infused attempt to severely curtail abortion rights. 

The state/church watchdog has drafted and filed a friend-of-the-court brief before the highest court in the land in Dobbs v. Jackson Health Organization. In the brief, FFRF puts forth a well-reasoned argument as to why Mississippi’s lawsuit to effectively overturn Roe v. Wade will require courts to confront the religious purposes underlying abortion bans: “Religion has always been at the heart of anti-abortion legislation, and Mississippi House Bill 1510 is likewise motivated by religious ideology.” This is revealed by various highly sectarian religious statements that Mississippi legislators made in support of the legislation, such as: “I believe that life is precious and children are a gift from God” and “I am not God, but I serve a God who says life is in the blood. And this bill will protect those lives.”

The brief elaborates on its secularly informed assertion.

“The state is asking the court to toss out the decades-long safeguard of choice before viability, and require courts to engage in fact-finding and searching analysis of state interests in order to judge them compelling enough to justify abortion bans,” it states. “But doing away with the viability framework and asking courts to review and weigh state interests before viability will require courts to address the underlying purpose of such abortion bans — to enshrine into civil law a religious belief about when personhood begins.”

Due to the religious impetus of Mississippi’s anti-abortion onslaught, FFRF felt a compelling need to make itself heard in this Supreme Court case.

As FFRF stated in May when the Supreme Court decided to hear the lawsuit, abortion access and care are unnecessarily divisive due to the ideological motivations of the few. A recent Pew study found that the majority of Americans believes that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, and 82 percent of religiously unaffiliated people support legal abortions. Not surprisingly, today almost all of FFRF’s members consider reproductive rights a vital secular policy issue. A recent membership survey showed that 98.8 percent of FFRF members support the constitutional right to legal abortion embodied in Roe v. Wade. Among FFRF members and the general population, abortion rights have high approval, but a religious minority is driving the agenda of states such as Mississippi.

This brief states in its closing portion: “The government has no business requiring citizens to comply with the religious beliefs of those who are in power. The framers of the Constitution adopted a godless and entirely secular Constitution, in which the only references to religion are exclusionary.”

It is simply unconstitutional for a state to force a religious belief about personhood onto anyone else, FFRF contends and urges the Supreme Court to uphold the judgment of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that struck down the Mississippi anti-abortion law.

“Religion has no legitimate function to play in lawmaking in the United States,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “The Supreme Court, as guardian of our Constitution, should be fully cognizant of this.”

FFRF Associate Counsel Elizabeth Cavell drafted the amicus brief for the organization, with help from FFRF Legal Director Rebecca Markert, Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott and FFRF Reproductive Rights Intern Barbara Alvarez. The Center for Inquiry and American Atheists are the other groups that have joined in FFRF’s brief.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 35,000 members across the country. FFRF protects the constitutional separation between state and church and educates about nontheism.

Discontinue using your office to promote your personal religion and do something practical instead to prevent crime, the Freedom From Religion Foundation is telling the Texas governor.

During a bill signing on Sept. 13, Gov. Greg Abbott stated: “We need to restore God in our communities. … If we do that, we will be able to reduce crime in this region.” Due to this blatant promotion of religion, Freedom From Religion Foundation Co-Presidents Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker have written to the governor.

Our Constitution’s Establishment Clause, which protects all Americans’ religious freedom by ensuring the continued separation of religion and government, dictates that the government cannot in any way endorse religion, FFRF reminds Abbott.

The state/church watchdog also emphasizes that Abbott is insulting and excluding the 35 percent of Americans who are nonreligious. These “Nones” make up the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population by religious identification — 35 percent of Americans are non-Christians. Abbott further demeans nonreligious Texans by implying that “restoring God” would reduce crime when studies have shown societies with less religion have less violence. Abbott’s declaration is, if anything, counterproductive to his goal.

Religious people regularly commit crimes, including religious leaders, FFRF points out to the governor. FFRF has long run a black collar crime series in its newspaper Freethought Today, which chronicles the crimes of preachers and church leaders, and unfortunately for those who fall prey to these criminals, it is a robust section with dozens of crimes reported monthly.

“You were elected governor, not preacher,” Barker and Gaylor conclude. “We ask that you, as governor of Texas, remain cognizant that you have taken an oath to uphold and defend the U.S. Constitution, an entirely godless and secular document, and are charged with great responsibility over citizens, including those citizens who may not share your personal religious viewpoints.”

FFRF is a nationwide nonprofit organization with more than 35,000 members across the country, including over 1,400 members in Texas. FFRF’s purposes are to protect the constitutional separation between state and church and to educate the public on matters related to nontheism.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is delighted that an important secular bill has been reintroduced in Congress.

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and several co-sponsors have reintroduced the Do No Harm Act in the Senate today. Earlier this year, Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., introduced the same bill in the House with 138 co-sponsors.

The Do No Harm Act ensures that the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) may only be used as a shield to protect religious freedom, rather than as a sword to harm religious minorities, women, LGBTQ people and nontheists. Until it was enacted in 1993 (opposed by FFRF from the start), religious freedom was never meant to be a license to violate the rights of another citizen.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act will still protect religious exercise, such as ensuring Sikh individuals in the military may wear beards, when the Do No Harm Act passes. But it prevents RFRA from being abused to violate basic civil rights. Increasingly, RFRA has been used to undermine anti-discrimination laws, such as by allowing employers to deny women employees insurance coverage for birth control, to turn away foster parents because they are the “wrong” religion or are LGBTQ, or to allow federal contractors to discriminate in employment. It has also led to evasion of child labor laws, refusal by government employees to perform duties and denial of government-funded services.

“Religious freedom does not include the right to force your religion onto other citizens,” says FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. “Now is the time for Congress to act swiftly to protect true religious liberty by passing the Do No Harm Act.”

An Oklahoma school district’s football program will not be used for proselytizing, thanks to the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

A concerned community member informed the state/church watchdog that football coaches in the Elgin Public Schools system had been letting outside adults promote religion to district students and had been boosting it on the district’s official Facebook page. One such post read, “Thank You! SWOK FCA — Richy Large and FBC Marlow Pastor Jordy McKaskle on sharing two of the greatest things in the world … watermelon and the Love and Grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

It is well settled that public schools may not advance or promote religion, FFRF reminded the school district. 

“Courts have consistently held that it is illegal for a public school to include religious content in school events, including events taking place outside of the regular school day,” FFRF Staff Attorney Christopher Line wrote to Superintendent Nathaniel Meraz. “Allowing representatives of religious groups regular, or even one-time, access during a school activity to proselytize and recruit students for religious activities is a violation of the Establishment Clause.”

FFRF asked the district to stop promoting religion during football games and on the official Facebook page, asserting that “the Facebook post should be removed, and the district should refrain from endorsing religion on its official social media pages in the future.”

FFRF’s constitutional coaching made Elgin officials play by the rules.

“That post has been removed,” Meraz recently responded via email. “The actions have been addressed.”

FFRF is always pleased to be providing school districts the correct playbook.

“I’m glad the district punted this blatant endorsement of religion,” says Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 35,000 members across the country, including in Oklahoma. Its purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

Back in March, FFRF asked you to urge Congress to support the Do No Harm Act. This act is meant to curb the abuse that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) has let fester. It is being reintroduced today, Sept. 15, by Sen. Cory Booker and co-sponsors. 

Please take a moment to contact your two U.S. senators and urge them to co-sponsor the Do No Harm Act.

Meant to protect minority religious beliefs from the domination of the religious majority, RFRA has been a free-for-all that has let people discriminate on behalf of religion. A well-known example of this was when, in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, the U.S. Supreme Court effectively allowed employers and for-profit corporations to deny women workers contraceptive coverage based on religious offense.

The Do No Harm Act will help protect people’s fundamental legal, civil liberties and make certain religious liberty cannot be wielded as a weapon to discriminate.

Read FFRF’s full statement here. Read FFRF’s full statement here.

Please click on the red “Take Action!” link below and follow the prompt provided to contact your senators. Feel free to use or adapt the talking points provided.

Talking Points

As your constituent, I am urging you to support the Do No Harm Act, to amend the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA.) This will stop dangerous religious exemptions from laws guaranteeing fundamental civil and legal rights. RFRA is filled with abuses of religious liberty, which at its core is intended to protect those with minority religious beliefs from the tyranny of the majority. Please support the Do No Harm Act. Thank you for your time.

 

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