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Freethought Today · Vol. 28 No. 2 March 2011

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

State/Church Bulletin March 2011

SCOTUS declines case on Commandments

In McCreary County v. American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, the U.S. Supreme Court declined without comment Feb. 22 to reconsider its landmark 2005 ruling and earlier lower court rulings that barred posting of the Ten Commandments in courthouses in McCreary and Pulaski counties in Kentucky. The displays first went up in 1999.

The case took a new tack in recent years after Commandments proponents tried to make an end run around the Constitution by adding other historical elements to the displays, calling them the “Foundations of American Law and Government.” Those documents used selective and often erroneous statements attributed to the nation’s founders to show that America was founded as a Christian nation.

The court apparently agreed with former Justice David Souter’s 2005 contention that the documents’ secular purpose “has to be genuine, not a sham.”

Mat Staver of Liberty Counsel, the evangelical law firm which is fighting FFRF’s effort to keep the Ten Commandments out of Giles County, Va., Public Schools, represented the appellants in McCreary.

High court declines to hear Newdow case

The U.S. Supreme Court on March 7 declined without comment to rehear Newdow v. Lefevre, a challenge to “In God We Trust” on the coins and currency by California physician Michael Newdow. The Obama administration and the conservative Pacific Justice Institute had opposed the lawsuit.

Newdow told the San Francisco Chronicle that he was disappointed but would refile the suit in another jurisdiction. “A nation that holds itself out as a beacon of religious liberty chooses an exclusionary term as its national motto, and says one religious view is better than another.”

Funding for UW Catholic group upheld

The U.S. Supreme Court declined on March 7 to review a 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals 2-1 decision from last September in Badger Catholic Inc. v. Walsh.

The appeals court overturned a University of Wisconsin policy barring funding from student activity fees of a religious student group formerly called the Roman Catholic Foundation. The university must now fund Badger Catholic programs to the same extent that programs with a secular perspective get money.

Florida atheists see retaliation in arrests

Two Atheists of Florida officers who are also FFRF members were arrested in separate incidents that smack of retaliation for their ongoing outspokenness about prayer at public meetings.

AoF President John Kieffer was arrested Feb. 22 at a Polk County School Board meeting in Bartow because he was talking during the opening invocation. The school board, in response to an FFRF compaint, moved its regular prayer to before the meeting formally started. He was handcuffed and charged with resisting an officer without force, disorderly conduct and possession of drugs without a prescription (he had one prescription anti-anxiety pill in his pocket). Vice President EllenBeth Wachs was threatened with arrest if she didn’t leave the school grounds, which she eventually did.

Wachs told the Lake Wales News that that neither she nor Kieffer stopped the pastor from presenting the invocation, and since it had been offered before the official call to order, it was inaccurate to say they were disorderly.

“The whole point in doing this was to show how unworkable [praying before the start of the meeting] was, she said. “This is civil disobedience.” The board’s ire was “simply because we were doing it during their prayer. They got furious.”

In Lakeland on March 3, Wachs, who also serves as AoF’s legal affairs coordinator, was charged by the state’s attorney with misrepresenting herself as qualified to practice law, a third-degree felony. She hold a juris doctor degree from Widener University but isn’t licensed in Florida.

Florida atheists, along with FFRF, have also criticized the Polk County sheriff for taking down basketball hoops at county jails and giving them away to churches. The state’s attorney claims Wachs misrepresented herself in letters contesting the action, which she denies.

Wachs posted $1,000 bail and was released. She told the Tampa Tribune she’s retired as an attorney. “I honestly knew immediately that this was pure retaliatory conduct. This is simply to stop us.

“This is Polk County,” she said. “This is a Christian theocracy. They don’t want the boat rocked, and we have rocked the boat.”

Listen to her interview on Freethought Radio, March 5 podcast:

Honolulu council set ‘Aloha’ guidelines

The Honolulu City Council has a new policy to govern meeting openings, which it calls the “Message of Aloha.”

The message can be a moment of silence, thought for the day or nonsectarian prayer. Prayers:
• may invoke Divine guidance. References to God should be general, such as “God” or “Lord.”
• may not proselytize, advance or disparage any faith or belief.
• must not make specific reference to deities, symbols or beliefs peculiar to the religion of the speaker. “References to Jesus Christ, Mohammed, Allah, Buddha, Brahma or multiple Gods are not permitted.”

The Hawaii House of Representatives will continue to hold prayers before daily session, unlike the state Senate, which canceled them last month.

The House voted Feb. 9 to adopt new rules that call for prayers to be held before the start of the official business of the lawmaking body.

Prayers can continue to mention a deity or God, but they can’t be used to disparage any religion.

FFRF member Mitch Kahle has been instrumental in contesting injection of religion into Hawaii’s state and local governments.

Judge dismisses MRFF suit against Air Force

U.S. District Judge Christine Arguello ruled Feb. 9 against the Military Religious Freedom Foundation’s request for an injunction to stop the National Prayer Luncheon on the campus of the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Arguello said the plaintiffs — MRFF and Air Force Academy professor David Mullin — had no legal standing to challenge the event, despite the overtly Christian keynote speaker, Marine Corps Lt. Clebe McClary. McClary is a favorite of evangelicals and is known to mix military values with his Christian beliefs.

Judge: Illinois funds for cross OK

U.S. District Court Judge Michael McCuskey dismissed on Feb. 8 Chicago atheist Robert Sherman’s suit seeking return of a $20,000 state grant that will go to restore the 11-story Bald Knob Cross at Alto Pass, Ill.

McCuskey ruled the grant was legal because it was awarded by the state’s executive branch and wasn’t a designated legislative “earmark.” The Friends of the Cross group has raised more than $400,000 ($100,000 over the goal). Former Friends’ president Rev. Bill Vandergraph was charged in July with predatory criminal sexual assault of a child under the age of 13. He’s been ruled mentally unfit to stand trial.

Virginia board backs bible as history

The Chesterfield County [Va.] School Board voted 5-0 on Feb. 9 to approve a textbook for an as-yet unscheduled elective course on the bible’s impact on history.

Board member U. Omarh Rajah called the bible “the greatest book of all time. What a great time to rejoice,” Rajah told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “To me, this is a hurdle we’ve jumped across.”

The board approved the class in 2009, but due to funding cuts, lack of student interest and qualified instructors, it hasn’t been offered and may not be this fall either.

Obama order boosts patient protections

The Obama administration on Feb. 18 rescinded most of a federal “conscience clause” rule put in place by President George W. Bush.

The order reversed a trend that in recent years let pharmacists refuse to fill prescriptions for the emergency contraceptive Plan B, let doctors in California reject a lesbian’s request for infertility treatment and allowed an ambulance driver in Chicago to turn away a woman who needed transportation for an abortion.

“Without the rescission of this regulation, we would see tremendous discrimination against patients based on their behavior and based just on who they are,” said Susan Berke Fogel of the National Health Law Program.

The new rule does leave intact “conscience” protections for doctors and nurses who refuse to perform abortions or sterilizations.

Judge: New Jersey borough must pay

A New Jersey Superior Court judge ordered Point Pleasant Beach to reimburse the ACLU of New Jersey a total of $11,200 in legal fees incurred in its two lawsuits to stop sectarian prayers from being said at borough council meetings.

The ACLU, which sought $38,000 in fees, represented a Jewish resident who claimed the Lord’s Prayer at meetings violated her civil rights. After the borough agreed to allow only nonsectarian prayers, one was given ending with “in Jesus’ name” so a second suit was filed.

Colo. House moves prayer after gavel

The Colorado House voted 49-25 to say a prayer after sessions are gaveled to order, a change from the old rule. That means lawmakers will be counted absent if they show up post-prayer. Some Democrats argued the change could make some people uncomfortable by having to register their presence and then leave again if they prefer not to pray.

Prayer won’t go away in Rhode Island gym

A School Board subcommittee voted Feb. 22 to keep displaying a Christian prayer banner in Cranston [R.I.] West High School’s gym despite ongoing complaints and an ALCU threat to sue. A similar banner hangs at Hugh B. Bain Middle School.

Backers want the banner to stay up despite a district policy says “the proper setting for religious observance is the home and places of worship.”

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