A Madison-area coffeeshop — and the lethality of magical pandemic thinking

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is taking on fundamentalism-inspired pandemic idiocy at its home base this weekend.

FFRF has been a pillar of the Madison community for 40 years. We pride ourselves on shopping locally, beautifying our space a few blocks from the Wisconsin state Capitol, and volunteering and protesting. On the national level, we fight intrusions of religion into our secular government and work to end the stigma against atheists and other nonbelievers. This weekend, all those missions will coincide as we protest against Helbachs Coffee in nearby Middleton.

FFRF deals with a lot of religious folks who think the rules don’t apply to them. Religious privilege is ubiquitous and harmful, whether it’s unwarranted tax benefits and privileges, exemptions from laws prohibiting discrimination, or a refusal to provide contraceptive coverage to employees. But now, in an era of coronavirus masking and stay-at-home orders, the marriage of magical thinking and arrogance is potentially lethal.

On Monday, July 13, morning, with a mandatory mask order in effect for Dane County, a customer reported that other “customers and an employee at Helbachs Coffee in Middleton mocked his daughters for wearing masks.” The shop had a sign declaring itself a “mask free zone” — and the treatment brought one of the little girls to tears. This was not simply cruel, but also illegal and possibly deadly.

It’s not the first time we’ve seen a holier-than-thou, above-the-law attitude from Helbachs.

Melissa Helbach, who owns the coffeeshop, is a major donor and initiator of the notorious fundamentalist-funded Jesus Lunches in the public park right next to Middleton High School. These lunches have tempted students with a promise of free food and soda, to convert them to a particularly conservative brand of Christianity.

FFRF was called in to help by students on the receiving end of the religious antagonisms that resulted during the school day. The raptorial meals divided the student body along religious lines, turning the attendees into insiders and others into outsiders, especially those with minority beliefs or no religion. FFRF for a time brought in our own pizzas and stood with placards to protest the Jesus Lunches. (FFRF Co-President Dan Barker’s sign: “No matter how you slice it, religion is divisive.”) Helbach and the other Jesus Lunch organizers took advantage of liberal rules for public spaces, bending them to the limit and ignoring polite norms.

It comes as no surprise that this is how Helbachs is run, too — as the anti-mask obstinacy reveals. The protest against Helbachs’ obdurateness is organized for Saturday, July 18, from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., and some of us from FFRF will be there. We’ll be wearing masks. Because a deity isn’t going to fix this pandemic. That’s up to us.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

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