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Lauryn Seering

Lauryn Seering

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Vaccine mandates are constitutional, and religious exemptions are unnecessary and harmful. That’s the clear, succinct argument FFRF Director of Strategic Response Andrew L. Seidel makes in a new column for Religion Dispatches:

The Spirit of 1776 was as much about science as it was about freedom. George Washington required the entire Continental Army to get inoculated against smallpox — the first armywide vaccination in history. Mortality dropped from 30 percent to 1 percent. Mandatory vaccinations just might have won America its freedom. From that auspicious beginning, Americans have let vaccine science protect our soldiers in the military, our students in school, our health care workers on the front lines — everyone.

Vaccine mandates are undoubtedly constitutional. The Supreme Court explained back in 1905 that freedom can be limited, especially when wielded to harm others’ rights: “The liberty secured by the Constitution of the United States does not import an absolute right in each person to be at all times, and in all circumstances, wholly freed from restraint ...”

During World War II, the court specifically said that religious freedom is no excuse to shun vaccines: “The right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community or the child to communicable disease or the latter to ill health or death.” Even the late, uberconservative Justice Antonin Scalia singled out religious exemption from “compulsory vaccination laws” as not required by the First Amendment. Most state courts have independently reached the same conclusion.

Seidel highlights the work of FFRF and quotes Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor on the luxury of herd immunity and what it will take to get us there. Take a look at the column to find out more.

Please read the piece on Religion Dispatches and share it on your social media so that people are aware of just how much is at stake and how we can solve the problem. Then start calling your senators.

Ryan Berge

The Freedom From Religion Foundation’s “Freethought Matters” show this Sunday talks about the spectacular rise of the “Nones” — those of us with no religious affiliation.

The interview guest Ryan Burge, a professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University, specializes in religious demographics. He’s the author of the new book The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are and Where They Are Going. Perhaps surprisingly, Burge has also been a pastor in the American Baptist Church for more than 13 years.

“I’m always interested in when things changed, like when things flipped from being more religious to less religious and what generation got caught up in that,” Burge tells “Freethought Matters” co-hosts Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor. “And if you look at Gen X, it’s interesting because on almost every dimension, they look a lot more like their boomer parents than they look like Millennials. So you really see this huge drop off between Gen X and Millennials.”

The episode will be airing in over a dozen cities on Sunday, Oct. 10. If you don’t live in the quarter-plus of the nation where the show broadcasts on Sunday, you can already catch the interview on the “Freethought Matters” playlist on FFRF’s YouTube channel. New shows go up every Thursday. You can also receive notifications when we post new episodes of “Freethought Matters” by subscribing to FFRF’s YouTube channel.

Coming shows this season include interviews with renowned intellectual Professor Steven Pinker on his new book, Rationality, and with investigative journalist Charlotte Dennett (sister of philosopher Daniel C. Dennett), co-author of Thy Will Be Done: The Conquest of the Amazon: Nelson Rockefeller and Evangelism in the Age of Oil and related books.

“Freethought Matters” airs in:

  • Chicago, WPWR-CW (Ch. 50), Sundays at 9 a.m.
  • Denver, KWGN-CW (Ch. 2), Sundays at 7 a.m.
  • Houston, KIAH-CW (Ch. 39), Sundays at 11 a.m.
  • Los Angeles, KCOP-MY (Ch. 13), Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
  • Madison, Wis., WISC-TV (Ch. 3), Sundays at 11 p.m.
  • Minneapolis, KSTC-IND (Ch. 45), Sundays at 9:30 a.m.
  • New York City, WPIX-IND (Ch. 11), Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
  • Phoenix, KASW-CW (Ch. 61, or 6 or 1006 for HD), Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
  • Portland, Ore., KRCW-CW (Ch. 32), Sundays at 9 a.m. Comcast channel 703 for High Def, or Channel 3.
  • Sacramento, KQCA-MY (Ch. 58), Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
  • San Francisco, KICU-IND (Ch. 36), Sundays at 10 a.m.
  • Seattle, KONG-IND (Ch. 16 or Ch. 106 on Comcast). Sundays at 8 a.m.
  • Washington, D.C., WDCW-CW (Ch. 50 or Ch. 23 or Ch. 3), Sundays at 8 a.m.

The show launched its fall season in early September with clips from the best past interviews on the program. Subsequently, it featured an interview with famed evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. A few weeks ago, the program focused on a landmark Supreme Court case against religious indoctrination in public schools, and two weeks ago it offered answers on how nonreligious people should deal with death. Last week, the interview was with FFRF Honorary Director Katha Pollitt, one of the nation’s foremost writers, freethinkers, atheists and feminists.

Please tune in to “Freethought Matters” . . . because freethought matters.

P.S. Please tune in or record according to the times given above regardless of what is listed in your TV guide (it may be listed simply as “paid programming” or even be misidentified). To set up an automatic weekly recording, try taping manually by time or channel. And spread the word to freethinking friends, family or colleagues about a TV show, finally, that is dedicated to providing programming for freethinkers!

Broken Arrow OK

Public school football baptisms are severe violations of public school neutrality toward religion, the Freedom From Religion Foundation is informing an Oklahoma school district.

A number of student football players were baptized on Broken Arrow High School property last month. Brian Preston, student director at Battle Creek Church, posted a smoking-gun video to Facebook documenting several baptisms that occurred on Sept. 5 after a Broken Arrow High School football practice. Preston confirms in the video that the baptisms took place “after football practice, right here at Broken Arrow High School.” He explains that 10 football team members “gave their life to Christ” and “those same students step[ped] forward in baptism in front of all their peers” after practice. Included in the video is a coach’s dunking in the baptismal tub, induced to “step foot into the baptism waters” after “he saw the faith in his players.” Preston rejoiced in witnessing “the team coming around each other taking a bold stand for Christ” and in God “drawing students to the baptism water.”

Public schools may not advance, prefer or promote religion because the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits governmental entities from endorsing religion, FFRF emphasizes to Broken Arrow Public Schools.

“Courts have consistently held that public schools cannot organize, sponsor or lead religious activity at public high school athletic events, such as football practice,” FFRF Legal Fellow Karen Heineman writes to Superintendent Janet Vinson. “When religious events take place directly after a team football practice, on school property, with coaches’ participation, these activities are perceived by reasonable students to be endorsed by their school.”

FFRF adds that federal courts have specifically held public school coaches’ participation in their team’s religious activity unconstitutional. Organization of and/or participation in a team baptism are clearly prohibited. The court in one case rejected a coach’s argument that the school district’s policy of prohibiting its employees from engaging in prayer with students violated the employees’ right to free speech. Neither can the Constitution’s prohibition against school-sponsored religious exercise be overcome by claiming such activities are “voluntary.”

When public high school football players are encouraged or compelled to engage in religious activity with their team, the school has violated the Constitution and the trust of the players and their parents, FFRF underscores. The team was effectively a captive audience for the evangelists from Battle Creek Church when Broken Arrow High School provided the platform of a football practice. The fact that a coach was then inspired to be baptized is probably the best example of the peer pressure induced by this religious spectacle sponsored by a public school on school property.

FFRF observes that fostering a religious viewpoint in a public high school sends an impermissible message to students that a certain religious belief is favored, especially in this day and age. Sponsoring a Christian baptism alienates non-Christian students, families, teachers, and members of the public whose religious beliefs are inconsistent with the message being promoted, including the more than 43 percent of young Americans — those born after 1990, which is the student body — who are not religious.

FFRF is requesting that the school district investigate the complaint and take action to ensure there will be no more religious events during school-sponsored activities, including educating coaches and school staff regarding their constitutional obligation to remain neutral toward religion while acting in their official capacities.

“This egregious violation shows that this public school is all wet when it comes to enforcing constitutional rights,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Sports programs are for sports, not proselytizing.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with over 35,000 members across the country, including more than 150 members in Oklahoma. Our purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

Body Autonomy

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is cheering the news that Texas’ draconian six-week abortion ban has been temporarily halted. However, the threat is far from over as religious extremists take steps to undo this latest move.

On Wednesday, Oct. 6, U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman issued an order that blocks Texas’ abortion ban, which has created hardship and pandemonium since going into effect on Sept. 1. The law prohibits Texas abortion physicians from providing abortion care to women who are at least six weeks pregnant. For context, this is typically two weeks after a missed period, when most women do not even know if they are pregnant. Shockingly, the ban also deputizes private citizens to act as abortion bounty hunters.

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court upended decades of legal precedent by declining to block the clearly unconstitutional anti-woman, anti-science law, claiming that applicants failed to meet their burden to stay the law. In response to this inaction, the Justice Department sued the state of Texas on Sept. 9, charging that the law “is invalid under the Supremacy Clause and the 14th Amendment, is pre-empted by federal law, and violates the doctrine of intergovernmental immunity.”

Meanwhile, the horrific law has upended the lives of thousands of Texans facing unwanted pregnancies, forcing those who can find the means to travel lengthy distances to neighboring states to receive abortion care. This has not only endangered women’s health in Texas, but also in bordering states, where the demand is delaying appointments for all patients, as well as exacerbating existing inequalities for rural and low-income women, including women of color.

In his ruling late Wednesday night, Pitman expounded upon these damaging effects: “From the moment SB 8 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.”

Still, there is much uncertainty and the fight is far from over. Just one hour after Pitman blocked the law, Texas filed a notice that it would petition the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to undo Pitman’s order and leave the law in place. Abortion providers fear that they may be sued retroactively if the ban goes back into effect, since the law includes a provision that says: “Doctors who perform abortions or other people who assist a pregnant person based on a court decision that is reversed later on cannot rely on that original order as a defense if they’re sued.”

“Judge Pitman commendably took the action that was the Supreme Court’s duty,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “We are seeing the damage of three Trump appointments tilting the high court to an extremist majority.”

So while this temporary injunction is a step in the right direction, it is not enough. The Senate must pass the Women’s Health Protection Act to ensure that SB 8 and all other abortion bans — as well as anti-abortion harassment — stop. Then a robust discussion on court reform is essential if individual liberties are to be protected in the United States. Photo by Chris Line

Catholic Church

The Roman Catholic Church has abused more than 300,000 French children since 1950, according to an explosive report that an independent commission has just released. The Freedom From Religion Foundation applauds the work of the investigators and once again urges the U.S. Department of Justice to initiate a similar, long-overdue investigation.

Jean-Marc Sauvé, president of the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church, said that the Catholic Church had shown “deep, total and even cruel indifference toward victims.” To put the numbers into perspective, the French clerics or church-related laypersons on average abused one child or minor every two hours for 70 years.

The major report includes many first-hand accounts of abuse, such as one survivor who described being raped as a fifth-grader by a cigar-smoking priest on a camping trip. The priest instructed the child to sleep close to the entrance of his tent so that the priest could easily access him at night. “I felt like I was part of a game to him, waiting for him to come out of his lair,” the survivor said.

The staggering number of victims, including more than a quarter of a million young boys (who were 80 percent of the reported victims), confirms yet again the Catholic Church’s history of systematically harboring and protecting abusers. The massive, 2,500-page report took three years to compile. It estimated the number of perpetrators at about 3,000 priests or clerics, collectively allowed to abuse hundreds of thousands of children due to what the head of the inquiry called “an institutional cover-up” by the church. The report was based in part on more than 6,000 testimonies from survivors and witnesses.

The abuse and cover-up by the Catholic Church in France is no anomaly. A blistering 1,400-page grand jury report about abuse in Pennsylvania detailed thousands of instances of sexual abuse in six of the state’s eight dioceses. It also revealed disgusting practices, such as when priests would give the most pliable, reticent victims a gold cross, marking the children for predation by other abusive priests.

Washington, D.C., and at least 21 other states have conducted such investigations, with similar results. Earlier this year, following requests by FFRF and other groups, Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul initiated an investigation that the Milwaukee Archdiocese is refusing to fully cooperate with.

FFRF has repeatedly called for a federal investigation into clergy child sex abuse in the United States, asking both Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Attorney General Merrick Garland to take action.

Just in the United States, we have seen major abuse cases settled in Baltimore, Los Angeles, Miami, Delaware, Houston, Dallas, Iowa, Milwaukee, Chicago, New York, Buffalo, San Diego, St. Paul and Minneapolis, Louisville, Denver, Portland, Phoenix, Seattle, Ohio, Kentucky, Montana, and more. This pattern has been taken seriously enough by other countries that they have launched national investigations, including Germany, Australia, Ireland and others in addition to the French investigation that led to the recent report. Every one of these reports reveals a shocking prevalence of abuse and cover-up by the church.

“The United States is decades behind other countries in holding churches accountable for complicity in child sex abuse,” comments FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor, who authored the first nonfiction book on abuse in the church in 1988, published by FFRF. “It has been clear beyond any doubt that this is a systemic problem, and every new report confirms that, all around the world. A federal investigation is long overdue.”

Billboards Oct. 5

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has put up side-by-side billboards in Houston urging churchgoers, including Joel Osteen followers, to stay home.

The 14-by-48-foot bulletins, featuring a stained-glass window motif, offer advice to “Sleep in on Sunday” and “Enjoy life now — there is no afterlife” instead of displaying bible verses. The Houston boards, positioned on U.S. Highway 59 South, are part of a campaign FFRF is taking around the country targeting what the state/church watchdog calls “irresponsible megapreachers.”

Osteen is known for promising “The prosperity gospel,” a self-serving brand of evangelism preaching that the biblical deity blesses with material wealth believers who give the most to God’s chosen — such as Osteen.

The prosperity gospel has certainly been prosperous for Osteen, who is worth millions of dollars and has a home valued at about $10 million. Osteen’s wealth is the source of much consternation and speculation. Lakewood Church is the largest church in the United States, with a ministry to match, according to the Houston Chronicle, spending roughly $90 million during the fiscal year ending March 31, 2017. (As a church, Lakewood Church, of course, is not required to divulge to the IRS or the public its tax-free income and expenditures.) Despite its wealth, the church has received a highly controverial $4.4 million Paycheck Protection Program loan from the U.S. government.

Osteen’s reputation took a hit a few years ago when he only reluctantly opened up the doors of his 16,000 capacity megachurch — which was once home to the NBA’s Houston Rockets — to serve as a shelter after Hurricane Harvey.

FFRF, the nation’s largest association of nonbelievers with 35,000 members (including 1,400 members in Texas), is advising the good folks of Houston to “kick the habit — and become a None [as in unaffiliated].” Gallup revealed this year that America’s reported church attendance dropped below 50 percent for the first time in eight decades, with a minority of Americans (47 percent) saying they belong to a church, synagogue or mosque.

The proportion of the U.S. population that is white Christian has declined by nearly a third in the last few decades, with a corresponding rise of the “Nones.” Roughly one in four adult Americans now have no religion.

“Sleep in on Sunday — spend relaxing time with your family or communing with nature or volunteering to help someone — instead of wasting time and money with a parasite like Osteen,” says Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. “The only afterlife that ought to concern any of us is leaving our descendants and planet a secure and pleasant future.”

FFRF aimed similar billboard messages last month at Nashville megachurch pastors Kent Christmas and Greg Locke, who are both Christian nationalist proponents.

FFRF Supreme Court Building

The Supreme Court began its fall term two days after tens of thousands of citizens marched to signal to the court their support for abortion rights, and as a new poll reveals plummeting public approval of the institution after it failed to block a clearly unconstitutional Texas abortion ban.

The justices must be feeling the heat, because they’ve started to make public statements, with four extremist justices, notably the newest justice, Amy Coney Barrett, spouting the most defensive comments. Shortly after the controversial abortion decision by the court, she said, “My goal today is to convince you that this court is not comprised of a bunch of partisan hacks.” (Shades of Nixon’s “I am not a crook”?)

Barrett, whose nomination is a case study in the politicized nature of the Supreme Court process, nevertheless insisted that the court isn’t politically driven. Irony of ironies, she delivered her speech at the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville, named for the very senator in attendance at her lecture who led the campaign to steal two seats on the high court. First, Mitch McConnell as Senate majority leader refused to hold a hearing for Merrick Garland, nominated by President Obama, when he still had 11 months left in his presidential term. McConnell stole that seat, claiming that in an election year, voters should determine which president nominated Justice Antonin Scalia’s replacement. (McConnell thus preserved the right-wing ideological tilt of the court.)

McConnell then reversed course after Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death on Sept. 18, 2020. Showing no compunction or embarrassment over his hypocrisy, McConnell rushed through President Trump’s appointment of Barrett in the midst of the 2020 national presidential election. Only 30 days after she’d been nominated, Barrett was confirmed on Oct. 26, 2020, about a week before Election Day, when more than 60 million Americans had already voted.

Last week, Justice Samuel Alito denounced critics for portraying the court as “sneaky” and “sinister,” claiming critics are trying “to intimidate” the justices. The Catholic justice, one of six Catholic justices — five of whom vote in a conservative bloc — complained to an audience at Notre Dame Law School that the court has been cast as “a dangerous cabal . . . deciding important issues in a novel, secretive, improper way, in the middle of the night.”

Those are his words, not ours. Did Alito forget that the majority issued its ruling not to block the Texas ban shortly before midnight? That cavalier last-minute ruling has created a crisis for abortion care in Texas and bordering states that is growing worse daily. As Reuters has documented, there are many more shadow docket (emergency ruling) cases being issued without full review, which are bypassing federal appeals courts, privileging religion and buttressing Trump policies.

Justice Clarence Thomas, known for his near-silence on the bench during non-pandemic times, also spoke defensively to a Notre Dame audience. Apparently criticizing advocates for court reform and expansion, he said, “I think we should be careful destroying our institutions because they don’t give us what we want when we want it.” What Thomas, who seems to see his role as being justice disciplinarian, intends to give us is the overthrow of Roe v. Wade, which he has said has “no basis in the Constitution.”

Liberal justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor have also been speaking out. Breyer told National Public Radio that the decision by the court majority not to block the Texas ban was “very, very, very wrong.” In Breyer’s new book, The Authority of the Court and the Peril of Politics, however, he cautions against “political intervention” on the court. Sotomayor, who has replaced Ginsburg as the voice of dissent on the court, told a group of law students about her frustration over having to write so many dissents and warned, “There’s going to be a lot of disappointment in the law, a huge amount.”

“Can our nation truly have an independent judiciary if the judicial nomination process has been politicized to this extreme degree? How can we rebalance and depoliticize the court after McConnell has brazenly stolen two seats for political reasons?” asks FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation continues to call for court reform and expansion as necessary to safeguard liberty, since the federal judiciary already has been “packed” by McConnell and Trump with hundreds of judges chosen precisely because they’ve passed extremist litmus tests.