The Freedom From Religion Foundation is protesting the state of Pennsylvania's unconstitutional funding of Christian symbols on a Catholic campus.
A number of local taxpayers have contacted FFRF to report that the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation has contributed taxpayer funds toward construction of an overtly Christian bridge on the campus of Villanova University. The pedestrian bridge will reportedly include four large, metal Latin crosses atop stone pillars.
The religious significance of the Latin cross is unambiguous and indisputable, FFRF points out. The location of the proposed crosses on the campus of a Catholic university only makes the religious nature of the crosses more clear.
"It is illegal for the Department of Transportation to use public funds to construct permanent Latin crosses, even if part of a larger secular project," FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne writes to Pennsylvania Transportation Secretary Leslie Richards. "The Establishment Clause strictly prohibits the government from advancing religion. The Supreme Court has struck down grants to religious schools, even when the funds will not be used to advance religion directly. Providing the funding to erect prominent Christian symbols directly advances Villanova's religious mission."
Furthermore, the Pennsylvania Constitution prohibits the government from using taxpayer funds to advance religion, or from giving preference to any religion, FFRF adds. Erecting prominent Latin crosses atop stone pillars on a bridge serves no purpose other than to advance Christianity. Pennsylvania taxpayers have a right not to be compelled to fund such a project. To FFRF's knowledge, the state Department of Transportation has never used taxpayer funds to construct permanent religious symbols representing Islam, Hinduism, Satanism, or any other minority faith, nor should it.
"There is a disturbing indulgence toward Catholicism taking place based on the fact that the bridge is located on a Catholic campus," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "But non-Catholic taxpayers may not be forced to subsidize such a bridge. We are not a Christian nation; we live under a secular Constitution."
FFRF is asking the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to reconsider the misguided funding decision and take immediate action either to remove the crosses from the proposed bridge or withdraw the department's offer to fund the project.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 27,000 members nationwide and chapters all over the country, including 800-plus in Pennsylvania and two chapters in the state, Nittany Freethought and Central Pennsylvania Rationalists. FFRF's purpose is to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church.
A Florida school district has promised to safeguard state/church neutrality after admitting to the Freedom From Religion Foundation that it blundered in the case of a religious film.
A few months ago, Gulf Breeze High School and Gulf Breeze Middle School in Gulf Breeze, Fla., publicized "I'm Not Ashamed," a faith-based movie that uses the 1999 Columbine shooting to plug Christianity and disparage atheism. FFRF learned that adult members of "The Dash," an outside group boosting the film, were permitted inside the school to distribute event flyers to students during the school day, among other violations.
Public schools may not promote religious movies, including by granting adult-led religious groups like The Dash access to students during the school day to invite them to such a movie, FFRF emphasized to the school district.
"It is well settled that public schools may not advance, prefer or promote religion," FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote to Santa Rosa County District Schools Superintendent Tim Wyrosdick. "When a school allows representatives of an adult-led faith-based group to recruit students for a religious event, it has unconstitutionally entangled itself with a religious message — in this case, a Christian message. This practice alienates those non-Christian students, teachers and members of the public whose religious beliefs are inconsistent with the message being disseminated by the school."
These school visits apparently took place without parental knowledge or consent, FFRF added. Allowing representatives of The Dash to distribute tickets to a religious movie usurps the authority of the parents, some of whom surely do not want their children approached by unknown adult religious leaders at their child's public school lunch.
FFRF requested a written assurance that the Santa Rosa County School District would not grant outside groups access to students during the school day to promote religion.
The school district acknowledged that proper school protocol had not been followed.
"The allowance of a parent of one of the students of the club to pass out tickets during the lunch period at the middle school was not in keeping with practice and has been appropriately addressed," Wyrosdick replied. The school district "has taken the concerns of FFRF seriously and through the process of reviewing these concerns, it has taken the opportunity to review pertinent laws, policies and procedures with the administration and staff at the sites that were immediately affected."
The district assured FFRF that it would use the organization's concerns to modify procedures.
"Where there was an oversight, it was addressed directly with administration and expectations for corrective action to avoid future incidents were communicated," Wyrosdick added. "Moving forward, the Santa Rosa County School District will be using these scenarios in future professional development opportunities to train developing administrators, teachers, and adult stakeholders on campus about the guidelines in which they must operate when dealing [with] activities or events."
FFRF thanks the school district for being responsive.
"It is established law that outside groups cannot preach inside public schools," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "We're pleased that our objection to this is resulting in the school district strengthening its rules."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national state/church watchdog representing 27,000 atheists and agnostics around the country and chapters all over, including almost 1,400 in Florida and a chapter in the state, the Central Florida Freethought Community.
FFRF member Warren Allen Smith, a teacher, editor, businessman and author, died on Jan. 8, 2017, of happiness.
That's how Warren's self-penned obituary began. If true, not a bad way to go.
He was born Oct. 29, 1921, in Minburn, Iowa, and graduated from Iowa State Teachers College with a B.A. in English in 1948, and received his M.A. in American Literature from Columbia University in 1949. During his time in the U.S. Army from 1942 to 1946, Smith was known as "the atheist in a foxhole," according to his website. "Were there atheists in foxholes during World War II? Of course, as can be verified by my dogtags . . . A veteran of Omaha Beach in 1944, I insisted upon including 'None' instead of P, C, or J as my religious affiliation."
He worked as a high school English teacher from 1949 to 1986. In 1961, Smith co-founded Variety Recording Studio. He lived with his partner of 40 years, Fernando Vargas, an atheist, until Vargas' death from AIDS in 1989.
Smith's fame was largely due to his journalism, which often focused on humanist issues. He was book review editor for The Humanist from 1953 to 1958 and wrote the column "Humanist Potpourri" for Free Inquiry from 1997 to 1998, as well as writing columns for Gay and Lesbian Humanist, The Freethinker, The American Rationalist and Skeptical Inquirer. He wrote the books Who's Who in Hell, a 1,264-page biographical listing of over 10,000 philosophic non-believers (2000), and Celebrities in Hell (2002), which are extensive compilations of famous freethinkers. Smith's other books include Gossip from Across the Pond (2005) and In the Heart of Showbiz (2011).
Smith was the personal agent to Gilbert Price, a three-time Tony Award nominee, from 1963 until Price's death in 1989.
In college, Smith rejected his Methodist upbringing and became an outspoken humanist and freethinker. In an article for The New York Observer on Aug. 14, 2000, Smith wrote: "If you're the member of an organized church group, you really have to have a guilt complex. You have to feel guilty about not loving God enough or not contributing enough money or not contributing enough to society." He describes himself as a "humanistic naturalist." In 1948, he formed the first college humanist club in the United States.
Smith's other accomplishments include being vice president of The Bertrand Russell Society from 1977 to 1980, serving as treasurer of the Secular Humanist Society of New York from 1988 to 1993 and co-founding Agnostics, Atheists and Secular Humanists Who Are Infected/Affected with AIDS/HIV Illness in 1992 (although Smith himself was not HIV positive). He created Philosopedia, an online reference of philosophers and atheists that has received more than 6 million page views. Smith was an activist member of ACT UP (and participated in the Stonewall Riots in Greenwich Village in 1969); Freethinkers NY (a co-founder); Mensa (1964 until his death); the New York Society of Ethical Culture; the Rationalist Press Association (United Kingdom); and the Unitarian Society.
It's not often that people write their own obituaries, but that's what Life Member Kay Ann Heggestad of Madison, Wis., did prior to her death on Jan. 13.
She began: "Kay Ann Heggestad, age 72, bought the farm, is no more, has ceased to be, left this world, is bereft of life, gave up the ghost, kicked the bucket, murió, c'est fini. She died on Friday, Jan. 13, 2017, after a wimpy non-battle with multiple myeloma, a nasty bone marrow cancer, after almost two years to the date of diagnosis. No one should say she fought a courageous battle, because she did not! Unlike most folks, she complained all the way. What a whiner!" (To read her full obit, go to bit.ly/2jUut4O.)
While Kay's self-written obituary was humorous and self-deprecating, her children wanted people to know more about their amazing mother, so they wrote a second obituary that filled in some of the blanks they thought she left out.
"She was raised Roman Catholic and got a very good education in the Catholic school system," the second obit read. "She used that education to help people by correcting their grammatical errors, even if no one asked her to. She later, as an adult, found that she could not tolerate a religion that treated women as second-class citizens and left the faith."
Kay was born on Sept. 18, 1944, to John and Augusta (Pulvermacher) Heggestad in Madison, where she spent most of her life with the exception of one year as an intern in St. Paul and two years on the Navaho reservation in Gallup, N.M. She attended medical school at UW-Madison.
"The two best things about med school were finding her husband, Paul Wertsch, in the pathology lab and marrying him a year later, and being taught how to do a proper physical examination by William S. Middleton, who was her escort at med school graduation," her self-written obit read. "She even wore a dress for that occasion."
After a few years at a clinic, she, her husband and two others opened their own clinic in 1977, where she worked until 2000 when she became a medical director at a hospice care facility.
"She had found her true calling in life, only to be 'let go' after five years," her self-obit read. "After she left, they replaced her with a puppy. Paul says it was because the dog had a nicer personality."
Kay and Paul Wertsch were married for 48 years and have two children, Johanna Wertsch (Larry Kaltenberg) in Madison and Gregory Wertsch (Mark Ferrandino) in Denver; and two granddaughters, Paulina Kay Wertsch, and Lila Augusta Ferrandino.
Included in her obituary was a short list of places to donate memorials in lieu of flowers. That list included FFRF.
Kay was a friend and comrade in arms to the late Anne Gaylor, FFRF's principal founder, as well as her personal physician for many years.
"We're so grateful to Kay for her long years of cheerful support, and send condolences to her family," said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.
Atheist Nat Hentoff, who was known for his civil libertarian views as much as his prolific writing, died at the age of 91 on Jan. 7 at his home in Manhattan while "surrounded by family members and listening to Billie Holiday," according to his son.
Hentoff was born in Boston on June 10, 1925, to Simon and Lena Katzenberg Hentoff, who were Jewish immigrants from Russia.
Hentoff wrote for The Village Voice for 50 years and also contributed to The New Yorker, The Washington Post, Down Beat magazine and dozens of other publications. He wrote more than 35 books — novels, volumes for young adults and nonfiction works on civil liberties, education and other subjects.
Hentoff received the National Press Foundation's award for lifetime achievement in contributions to journalism, and in 2004 was named one of six Jazz Masters by the National Endowment for the Arts, the first nonmusician to win the honor.
FFRF Member Alice Nicol, age 89, died on Dec. 19, 2016, in Baudette, Minn.
She is survived by her husband Tom Nicol, a longtime member of FFRF and last living sibling of Anne Nicol Gaylor, FFRF's principal founder.
Alice Irene Brunson was born March 3, 1927, to Charels and Florence (Woodard) Brunson, in Merrillan, Wis. She graduated from Tomah High School, Tomah, Wis., in the 1940s. She and Tom Nicol were married for "71-plus wonderful years," says Tom. They loved to travel together and in their travels Alice worked a variety of jobs, including at a roadhouse in Chistochina, Alaska. She worked for area resorts when they moved to Baudette, a town known for setting record low temperatures. At the end of her life, Alice enjoyed puzzles. She and Tom have a son, Gary, and daughter-in-law Beth, two grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.