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Freethought Today · Vol. 28 No. 7 September 2011

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

State/Church Bulletin

Court OKs teacher’s anti-creationist stance

The 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals dismissed a student’s lawsuit Aug. 10 against James Corbett, an advanced placement history teacher at Capistrano Valley High School in Mission Viejo, Calif. Sophomore Chad Farnan alleged that Corbett made hostile remarks about creationism and religion, thus violating the First Amendment’s mandate that government remain neutral in religious matters.

A three-judge panel ruled unanimously that Corbett was entitled to immunity. “We are aware of no prior case holding that a teacher violated the Establishment Clause by appearing critical of religion during class lectures, nor any case with sufficiently similar facts to give a teacher ‘fair warning’ that such conduct was unlawful,” Judge Raymond Fisher wrote for the court.

Among the comments Corbett made in a 2007 lecture, according to the transcript, was that “real” scientists try to disprove the theory of evolution. “Contrast that with creationists. They never try to disprove creationism. They’re all running around trying to prove it. That’s deduction. It’s not science. Scientifically, it’s nonsense.”

Corbett, a Foundation member, discussed the case and the hurdles that nonreligious teachers face in public schools in an Aug. 27 Freethought Radio interview:

Calif. DOT removes encroaching crosses

The state Department of Transportation removed three decades-old crosses from Inspiration Point just off California Highway 79 outside Julian in San Diego County, the Los Angeles Times reported Aug. 23. Workers put the crosses in storage and plan to relocate them two miles away at Hillside Community Church.

The DOT deemed them an improper encroachment on public property. They were also erected without proper permits. “Save Our Crosses” supporters objected to the move and claimed the church property affords less visibility.

Bible restricted at Idaho charter school

The 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld on Aug. 15 a lower court’s dismissal of a lawsuit brought by Nampa Classical Academy, an Idaho state-funded charter school, and two of its teachers challenging the state’s Public Charter School Commission. The commission and state attorney general ruled that using religious texts like the bible as primary source documents in a public charter school classroom violated the Idaho Constitution.

The 9th Circuit held that the school, as a government entity, can’t sue the state, but that teachers had standing. But the court ruled that the curriculum is government speech, not teacher speech, and thus exempt from scrutiny under the First Amendment.

Pastor is probed for Texas recalls

District Attorney Jaime Esparza said he’s investigating if Rev. Tom Brown and Word of Life Church violated Texas and federal laws by working to recall Mayor John Cook and two council members for supporting domestic partner benefits, according to an Aug. 13 El Paso Times story.

“We’re getting more reports from more people that Tom Brown’s folks are hitting the houses of worship hard and directly asking them to permit them to circulate petitions at the churches, or have the churches circulate petitions,” Cook said in an email.

Brown also promotes his group, El Pasoans for Traditional Family Values, and the recalls at his Tom Brown Ministries website.

Indiana judge blocks city land transfer

Indiana U.S. District Judge Robert Miller Jr. on Sept. 7 blocked the city of South Bend’s $1.2 million expenditure to buy and demolish a commercial property and turn it over to St. Joseph’s Catholic High School to use for new athletic facilities.

FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent a letter of objection June 14 to South Bend’s Common Council, which voted 5-4 in August to approve the plan. FFRF followed up with an Action Alert to members June 23. The ACLU and Americans United and local residents sued in federal court.

In a 36-page ruling, Miller wrote that a reasonable observer would think “the city is endorsing St. Joseph’s High School, the local Catholic community, or the Diocese that operates the school.”

The South Bend Tribune reported Sept. 8 that city officials were mulling an appeal. Common Council Vice President Oliver Davis applauded the ruling. “I think everything starts from the drawing board. St. Joe will move forward. We’ll come together and figure out what’s best for the facility without the use of public dollars.”

The property was set to take place Sept. 15.

Davis said he favors the city lending its support through infrastructure and won’t back an appeal. “I think St. Joe can find someone else to buy it.”

Church baptism barred on Capitol grounds

The Washington state Department of General Administration denied a permit for Reality Church of Olympia to hold a baptism along with a barbecue on the Capitol grounds, the Olympian reported Aug. 14.

“We are approving their use of Heritage Park for the purpose of a picnic, a barbecue. We are denying their permit for the purpose of holding a baptism,” said agency spokesman Jim Erskine. Acting Director Jane Rushford referred to the state Constitution: “No public money or property shall be appropriated for or applied to any religious worship, exercise or instruction, or the support of any religious establishment.”

Air Force religious materials challenged

The U.S. Air Force’s use of Christian religious messages extends to training for ROTC cadets, CNN reported Aug. 9.

In a “core values” lesson, the Ten Commandments and Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” were used as ethical examples. Slides explained seven of the Ten Commandments. A USAF instructor uncomfortable with the training provided slides to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation.

The Air Force said headquarters officials didn’t know about the religious component of the ethics course. It’s been taught for almost 20 years by chaplains.

sJudge stops Colorado voucher program

U.S. District Court Judge Michael Martinez issued a permanent injunction Aug. 10 in Denver to block the Douglas County School District from enacting its voucher program until a constitutional challenge is resolved.

Martinez ruled in a 68-page opinion that the program “violates both financial and religious provisions set forth in the Colorado Constitution.” The “defendants have provided no legal authority supporting a limitation on the scope of the religious provisions of the Colorado Constitution and this court declines the invitation to craft one now,” he wrote.

The ACLU of Colorado, Americans United for Separation of Church and State and several residents had sued, alleging the pilot Choice Scholarship Program illegally gives tax money to private schools.

Douglas County’s program lets up to 500 students get up to $4,575 for private school tuition.

Religious theme park gets tax breaks

The city of Williamstown, Ky., will give a biblically themed amusement park a property tax discount of 75% for the next 30 years, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported Aug. 9.

The deal with Petersburg-based Ark Encounters LLC is on top of about $200,000 given to the company to locate there, along with 100 acres of reduced price land on the 800-acre site.

It gets better: The state has promised $40 million worth of sales tax rebates and a possible $11 million in improvements to the interstate near the park.

Orthodox Jews object to church voting

An attempt to move a New York polling place to St. Agatha’s Catholic Church in Brooklyn was denied due to objections by Orthodox Jews, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported Sept. 6.

Assemblyman Dov Hikind, an Orthodox Jew, intervened after residents were notified that their precinct was being moved from a public school to the church, which has large interior and exterior crosses. “Who knows how many Orthodox Jewish or other voters would have been disenfranchised by the Board of Elections’ decision to move these voters to a church?” Hikind said in a statement.

Because a new site wasn’t selected in time for an upcoming judicial primary, voters were allowed to cast a ballot at the Brooklyn Board of Elections by selecting the “Religious Scruples” box.

Commandments cases costly for counties

Pulaski County, Ky., will take out a loan to pay $231,662 to the ACLU of Kentucky for its share of court costs in a losing 11-year battle to post the Ten Commandments in the courthouse, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported Sept. 10.

Pulaski and McCreary counties owed the ACLU more than $460,000 in legal fees and interest. McCreary County hasn’t paid its share of the judgment.

Officials in both counties plan to solicit donations from groups like Focus on the Family and the Trinity Broadcasting Network. David Carr, a Christian broadcaster in Somerset, has been raising money on his King of Kings radio network. Pulaski County has received only about $20,000 so far in donations.

The case started in 1999 and made it to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005. Not until this year did Commandments supporters decide to throw in the towel. Federal appeals court judges ruled adding other documents later to the Commandments displays was a sham to cover “blatantly religious” motives.

Wisconsin church graduations upheld 2-1

The 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago ruled 2-1 on Sept. 9 that two Brookfield, Wis., high schools didn’t violate the Constitution by holding graduations at Elmbrook Church.

“There is no realistic endorsement of religion by the mere act of renting a building belonging to a religious group,” Judge Kenneth R. Ripple wrote for the majority.

The issue began in 2000, when Brookfield Central seniors voted to move graduation from the school’s “hot, crowded gymnasium” to the evangelical Christian church where Superintendent Matt Gibson was a member of the church. Brookfield East moved its ceremony there two years later.

Complaints flowed in quickly

Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a federal lawsuit in 2009 on behalf of nine students and parents. Last spring, after the two schools held graduations at a new fieldhouse, the school district tried to moot the case but the appeals court refused.

Dissenting Judge Joel Flaum wrote, “The sheer religiosity of the space created a likelihood that high school students and their younger siblings would perceive a link between church and state. That is, the activity conveyed a message of endorsement. The only way for graduation attendees to avoid the dynamic is to leave the ceremony. That is a choice . . . [the Constitution] does not force students to make.”

Hindu joins Colorado Christian prayer caucus

Lawmakers announced Sept. 6 the formation of the Colorado Legislative Prayer Caucus. Its goal is to “uphold Judeo-Christian principles.” While the caucus is technically bipartisan, only two of its 27 members are Democrats. One is Hindu, Rep. Janak Joshi, R-Colorado Springs, the only Hindu in the Legislature. No caucus members are Jewish.

A press release said the group’s goals are to:

• Ensure that Christian beliefs have unfettered access in the marketplace of ideas.
• Reverse the dismantling of our nation’s Judeo-Christian foundation.
• Sustain and equip leaders to uphold Judeo-Christian principles in government.
• Communicate the constitutional truths that establish America’s freedom.
• Protect public expression of prayer and faith in God.

N. Carolina commission wants prayer appeal

The Forsyth County Board of Commissioners in Winston-Salem, N.C., voted 6-1 in August to challenge a federal appeals court ruling that barred it from opening meetings with sectarian prayer.

The board made its appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court contingent on conservative foundations continuing to pay its legal bills, including attorney’s fees if the county loses.

The county stopped prayers after a U.S. District Court judge ruled against the board last year.

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