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Lauryn Seering

Lauryn Seering

Abbott Desantis

The Freedom From Religion Foundation denounces Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s irresponsible new order banning any entity in the state, including private businesses, from requiring employees or customers to be vaccinated.

Abbott’s overreach applies to hospitals, day cares, assisted living facilities and retirement homes, where some of the most vulnerable people live and work, and directly contravenes the Biden administration’s mandates that health care workers, most federal contractors and employees in companies with 100 or more workers must be vaccinated or undergo weekly tests. Vaccine mandates themselves have been held constitutional for more than a century. Ironically, Abbott, who is denying employers the right to keep their workplaces safe, said just a few weeks ago that “private businesses don't need government running their business.” FFRF is heartened to see major airlines rejecting Abbott’s order. Legal experts indicate Abbott’s order does not supersede President Biden’s mandates.

Unfortunately, the governor of Texas isn’t alone. Anti-science, pro-pandemic governors are working to keep America mired in the muck of a lethal pandemic. At every turn, these invariably religious public officials seem more bent on extending, rather than exterminating, the coronavirus when they should be using science to stop it.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a state law in May actually instituting fines for businesses requiring customers to provide proof of vaccination. DeSantis, in opposing masking in public schools, even set up a neovoucher program to reward Covid superspreaders.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey has issued a statement saying, “Arizona does not allow mask mandates, vaccine mandates, vaccine passports or discrimination in schools based on who is or isn’t vaccinated.” This has created untold hardships on public schools and universities trying to keep students safe. In a state where public education is plagued by voucher and neovoucher programs that undercut the public school budget, Ducey’s deadly maneuvering includes inventing a scheme that funnels federal Covid-19 relief funds into anti-science, anti-mask, anti-vaxx schools (e.g., private Christian schools).

In South Dakota, Gov. Kristi Noem’s noxious nonactions made the state the most lethally infected jurisdiction in the world for a while. If Noem spent less time trying to ban abortion and convert the state into a theocracy and more time listening to doctors and scientists, more South Dakotans would be alive today.

“Abbott, DeSantis, Ducey and Noem are like the four horsemen of the apocalypse — if they were all Pestilence,” quips FFRF Co-President Dan Barker.

Praise is deserved for the governors who are following the science, including California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who issued early mandates and is the first governor to now mandate that all eligible public school students must be vaccinated. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul is fighting anti-vaxxer health care professionals in court, who very recently won a round in seeking religious exemptions. The all-Christian plaintiffs contend the use of vaccines is linked to fetal cell lines, and oppose vaccinations as “a matter of religious conviction.” Fortunately, a federal judge in Manhattan rejected an injunction sought by public school employees there in a similar case opposing vaccination requirements. (To read more about why vaccine mandates are constitutional and religious exemptions are unnecessary and harmful, read this recent op-ed by FFRF Director of Strategic Response Andrew L. Seidel.)

The pandemic has now killed more Americans than the Spanish Flu of 1918-19. There is no hell, but if there were, surely there would be a special place for public officials who abuse their power to harm, rather than help others. Constituents deserve better.

 

Peacemaker

A collaboration between an Indiana public school and a proselytizing ministry needs to be terminated, urges the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

A concerned parent has contacted the state/church watchdog regarding a collaboration between the Dream Center Evansville, a nonprofit ministry, and Delaware Elementary School in the same town. The center has the mission of “connecting children and families to God’s will.” It provides services in six areas, including “wrap-around care” and “school integration.” The “wrap-around care coordinator spends significant time in homes with families and also in schools.” School integration includes providing “peacemakers — full-time staff members who spend half their day at school, and half their day in [their] after-school program.” The Dream Center’s summer day camp “engag[es] K-6 students with the message of the Gospel.”

The Dream Center reportedly began focusing its efforts on Delaware Elementary School in 2018. Principal Julie Underwood has lauded the center’s summer programming and has remarked that “seeing it continue in the classroom will be equally important.” Underwood has gone on to praise her school’s association with the Dream Center in a YouTube video titled “Julie Underwood Speaks About Dream Center Evansville.” Underwood explains in the video that peacemakers “infiltrate homerooms” and “help at lunch and recess.” In the more than seven-minute homage, she discusses how the peacemakers are consistent adult role models for students who serve as important bridges between school and the outside world. Students who already know the peacemakers from summer camp and the center’s after-school program perform better in school in the presence of familiar faces, she opines.

The Dream Center also discusses its peacemakers in a YouTube video, explaining that “in our after-school programs peacemakers play, teach, and walk alongside our kids helping them grow in their faith in Christ.” The video then cuts to Underwood’s video. The Dream Center is currently recruiting for a peacemaker. The job description begins with the center’s mission of “connecting children and families to God’s will” and adds, “This position is responsible for developing an evangelistic environment around them that nourishes program participants’ walk with Christ.” Job requirements include that the applicant is “a member or regular attender of a bible-believing church” and “has a personal saving relationship with Jesus Christ.” The peacemaker — paid by the ministry — is expected to split the day between the after-school program and the elementary school. And now it seems that the Dream Center is going to expand its peacemakers program into other schools.

While public schools may accept secular donations and services from community organizations, they cannot be used as recruiting grounds for religious organizations, FFRF stresses.

“It is well-settled law that public schools may not advance or promote religion,” FFRF Legal Fellow Karen Heineman writes to legal counsel for the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation. “It is inappropriate and unconstitutional for the school to offer an evangelical Christian ministry unique access to its students during the school day and to have the principal publicly promote the relationship.”

Courts have repeatedly struck down public school practices that affiliate public schools with religious groups and religious instruction, FFRF adds. The partnership between Delaware Elementary School and the Dream Center impermissibly advances religion, communicates a message of school endorsement of religion, and is the epitome of excessive entanglement between a school and religion.

As importantly, an alliance with a Christian evangelical ministry alienates non-Christian students, teachers and parents whose religious beliefs are inconsistent with the message being promoted, including the 38 percent of Americans born after 1987 who are not religious. Even worse, as the principal herself states, the peacemakers “infiltrate” homerooms, meaning that students realistically have little opportunity to avoid the Dream Center’s programming.

Principal Underwood’s description explains precisely why the collaboration is unconstitutional. The First Amendment requires separation, FFRF emphasizes. That’s why this partnership between the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation and the Dream Center Evansville must cease. Principal Underwood must stop promoting the ministry, since she is acting in an official capacity in her messaging. FFRF is also making an open records request pertaining to all official material regarding the school district and Dream Center’s alliance.

“A school district shouldn’t be championing and partnering with such a brazenly Christian group,” comments FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 36,000 members and several chapters across the country, including almost 500 members and a chapter in Indiana. Its purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

Abortion Rights

The Freedom From Religion Foundation denounces an appeals court move late Friday to reinstate Texas’s cruel abortion ban.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, after hours on Oct. 8, temporarily blocked a lower federal court ruling earlier in the week halting the unconstitutional ban. FFRF had cheered the earlier decision by U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman, who wrote, “From the moment SB 8 [the Texas law] went into effect, women have been unlawfully prevented from exercising control over their lives in ways that are protected by the Constitution. … That other courts may find a way to avoid this conclusion is theirs to decide; this court will not sanction one more day of this offensive deprivation of such an important right.”

However, within the hour of Pitman’s ruling, the ultraconservative Texas attorney general filed a notice that it would petition the similarly hard-right 5th Circuit to undo Pitman’s order and leave the law in place. The appeals court did just that.

More than 100 pages of court filings detail how Texan abortion clinics have been forced to turn away hundreds of patients since the law was enacted on Sept. 1. It makes no exceptions even for cases of rape and incest. Texas women are flooding clinics in neighboring states like Oklahoma, where services have become overwhelmed.

Center for Reproductive Rights CEO Nancy Northup, who received FFRF’s Forward Award in 2019, issued this short, memorable statement Friday night:

The Supreme Court needs to step in and stop this madness. It’s unconscionable that the 5th Circuit stayed such a well-reasoned decision that allowed constitutionally protected services to return in Texas.

Patients are being thrown back into a state of chaos and fear, and this cruel law is falling hardest on those who already face discriminatory obstacles in health care, especially Black, Indigenous and other people of color, undocumented immigrants, young people, those struggling to make ends meet, and those in rural areas. The courts have an obligation to block laws that violate fundamental rights.

The U.S. Department of Justice, headed by Attorney General Merrick Garland, sued the state of Texas over the dystopian abortion prohibition after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to block the ban. The appeals panel has given the Justice Department until tomorrow, Tuesday, Oct. 12, to respond to Texas’ filings. A ruling by the 5th Circuit on a permanent stay is expected later this week.

“As U.S. attorney general, Merrick Garland is finding a way to champion the constitutional right to abortion,” notes FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “But had his hearing been held when Obama nominated him for the Supreme Court, he would have been confirmed — and abortion rights would not now be in jeopardy.”

President Trump appointed more than one-third of the lower federal judiciary, plus one-third of the U.S. Supreme Court, with candidates who passed extremist litmus tests. Robust action is overdue to correct the courts and thus protect reproductive rights and other jeopardized liberties.