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Lead Us Not Into Penn Station:Provocative Pieces

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October 7-9, 2016

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Lauryn Seering

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1missionofhopeThe Freedom From Religion Foundation has made certain that a Wisconsin religious organization will pay full rental fees at local public schools.

Mission of Hope has held several events at public schools in Waupaca, Wis. Among other activities, the events include a prayer tent staffed by local church members to "pray with and for" visitors. Records that FFRF obtained revealed that the School District of Waupaca forgave Mission of Hope the $180 facility fees and $100 nonprofit kitchen use fees for past such events at the Waupaca Learning Center Elementary School.

"It is unconstitutional for a public school district to waive ordinary fees for an event that includes religious exercises, but not for all other nonprofit events," FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote earlier this month to Waupaca School District Superintendent Greg Nyen. "It is well settled that public schools may not advance, prefer or promote religion. Waiving rental fees for an event that includes a prayer tent promotes religion on behalf of the district, no less than directly funding the event." 

Jayne added that the Wisconsin Constitution assumes that "reasonable compensation" will be charged in such instances and asked that this standard be applied to avoid discrimination against non-Christians and nonbelievers.

FFRF's complaint was taken seriously and received an appropriate response.

"I understand your concern regarding the need for separation of church and state," Nyen, who was recently appointed superintendent, quickly responded to FFRF in an email. "I am hereby providing you said assurance that in the future, charges for facility usage will be applied to Mission of Hope (MoH) as it would any other outside organization."

FFRF appreciates the assurance.

"Religious entities should not be entitled to preferential treatment," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "We're glad that the new superintendent has rectified the erroneous and unconstitutional past practice in his school district."

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a Wisconsin-based organization dedicated to the separation of state and church, with almost 24,000 members, including more than 1,300 in Wisconsin.

1livingston

A freethought charity is providing financial assistance to a flood-hit Louisiana public school district.

Nonbelief Relief, which functions as the charitable arm of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, has just donated $10,000 in flood relief to the Livingston Parish Public Schools. The group, which represents nonbelieving donors nationwide, has asked that it be used for the repair or rebuilding of public school infrastructure or buses.

NonBelief Relief, Inc., is a humanitarian agency for atheists, agnostics, freethinkers and their supporters "to improve this world, our only world," says its administrator, Annie Laurie Gaylor, who also serves as co-president of FFRF.

On the same day $10,000 was funneled to help the Livingston public school district, which suffered loss of many school buses and other major flooding damage, Gaylor also sent a polite but pointed letter to Superintendent Rick Wentzel.

The letter says, "It has come to our attention that the parish public schools website has a banner message reading in part, 'Praying for all of our Livingston Parish people – Superintendent Rick Wentzel.'" FFRF, extending "sincerest sympathies for the tragedy facing the school district" and greater area, notes that the school district has an obligation to concentrate on secular, not religious, needs.

"A famous freethinker of the 19th century, Robert Green Ingersoll, once wrote, 'The hands that help are better far than lips that pray,'" Gaylor adds. "To that end, Nonbelief Relief is very pleased to provide the practical assistance of $10,000 in flood relief to the Livingston Parish Public Schools."

"We have a saying around our office: Nothing fails like prayer. We humans need to join together to make this a better world, to get off our knees and get to work," she further states.

Nonbelief Relief seeks to remediate conditions of human suffering and injustice on a global scale, whether the result of natural disasters, human actions or adherence to religious dogma. Such relief is not limited to but includes assistance for individuals targeted for nonbelief, secular activism or blasphemy.

In other action this month, Nonbelief Relief voted to give a $5,000 stipend to a major Bangladesh atheist author whose life is under threat, and is holding stipends in reserve for two other endangered bloggers. The charity this year has now spent about $50,000 in grants to individuals whose lives have been imperiled because of public atheist activism.

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BrookeMulderYou can help to make the United States more constitutional by picking a winner in our annual online Nothing Fails Like Prayer contest

The U.S. Supreme Court unwisely (and unconstitutionally) sanctioned sectarian prayer by city and county governments in its May 5, 2014, Town of Greece v. Galloway decision. It's now up to us—up to you!—to uphold the U.S. Constitution.

Although the Greece decision is a blow to secularism and the rights of the nonreligious, Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the decision, did include language that acknowledges the equal right of an atheist to give a governmental invocation. So, FFRF in 2014 instituted an annual activism prize: The Nothing Fails Like Prayer Award. The award will be given for the best secular "invocation" at a government meeting. The annual winner or winners will receive a commemorative plaque, $500 and will be invited to deliver the invocation at FFRF's annual convention in October in Pittsburgh as our guests. 

You have an array of 13 impressive short speeches to choose from. The award winner will join secular activists David Williamson and Aleta Ledendecker at the Pittsburgh convention, who are the co-presidents' "picks" this year. You get to choose the third "Nothing Fails Like Prayer" winner. Brooke Mulder won the contest last year, while Amanda Novotny, Dan Courtney and Tim Earl shared the honors in 2014.

The nonwinners have no need to fret. All contesting entries will receive a commemorative certificate. In addition to posting their videos on its website, FFRF publishes the transcript of each secular invocation in its newspaper, Freethought Today.

Vote now for your favorite humanist or freethought invocation-giver. The vote ends on Monday, Aug. 29, at midnight. The winner will be announced next week. The 2017 Nothing Fails Like Prayer Contest officially opens on Sept. 1. Read rules here

We'd like to see secular citizens flood government meetings with secular invocations that illustrate why government prayers are unnecessary, ineffective, embarrassing, exclusionary, divisive or just plain silly. The more citizens protest prayers, the more likely government prayers will stop.

FFRF plans to make the contest an annual event until the Greece decision is overturned. Help it gain traction, so that we can achieve secular change.

 

1BillofRightsNativityThe Freedom From Religion Foundation's closing brief in its federal lawsuit, FFRF v. Gov. Greg Abbott, does not mince words.

"This case is foremost about the conceit of the censor and the braying of a bully," it says, referring to the Texas governor.

Abbott "banished" FFRF's Bill of Rights Winter Solstice display, intended to counter a nativity display at the Texas Statehouse last December, "due to its content and viewpoint." FFRF compared the governor's actions to an impermissible "heckler's veto."

Abbott, FFRF contends, has the "mistaken view that the First Amendment does not protect private speech on government property if the governor considers it to be offensive to the sensibilities of Christians."

FFRF filed its brief on Aug. 19 seeking summary judgment in its favor before U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks in the Western District of Texas. Abbott and the State Preservation Board, the defendants, also filed a motion for summary judgment late last week and both parties will have the opportunity to file a final rebuttal on Sept. 19 before the district court makes its ruling on the motions. 

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a state/church watchdog organization serving as an association of freethinkers (atheists and agnostics), has 24,000 members nationwide and almost 1,000 in Texas. It filed its challenge in February.

FFRF's whimsical Winter Solstice exhibit commemorates the "birth" of the Bill of Rights on Dec. 15, 1791, depicting the Founding Fathers and the Statue of Liberty crowded adoringly around a manger scene containing the foundational document.

Abbott called FFRF's exhibit indecent and mocking, antithetical to public immorality, said it had no educational purpose and compared it to a controversial 1980s photo showing a plastic crucifix in a jar of urine.

In his brief on behalf of FFRF, attorney Richard L. Bolton noted that Abbott never ordered removal of the nativity display as "offensive to, or exclusionary of, nonbelievers, agnostics, atheists, and non-Christians." By contrast, "Acting with autocratic impunity, the governor ordered FFRF's exhibit immediately removed from the Capitol, despite preapproval by the Texas State Preservation Board. This the governor cannot do."

FFRF points out the case does not involve a state message and the government's right to control that message. "Instead, this case is about censorship and exclusion of viewpoints from a public forum based on the personal disapproval of individual government officials," it says. Yet, "The First Amendment to the United States Constitution undeniably prohibits content and viewpoint discrimination by government officials."

The organization's legal complaint details a "history of hostility directed against FFRF" by Abbott when he was the state attorney general. For instance, Abbott told Fox News in December 2011 that FFRF should keep out of Texas, stating: "Our message to the atheists is: Don't mess with Texas or our nativity scenes or the Ten Commandments." In 2012, Abbott again attacked FFRF during a press conference: "We will not allow atheist groups from outside of the state of Texas to come into the state to use menacing and misleading intimidation tactics to try to bully schools to bow down at the altar of secular beliefs."

As governor, Abbott has continued this pattern, assailing FFRF for asking the Brewster County's Sheriff's Office to remove crosses from patrol vehicles. FFRF handily won its federal lawsuit against Brewster County earlier this year, when the county settled the case by removing the crosses and covering FFRF's legal expenses. 

FFRF Staff Attorneys Sam Grover and Patrick Elliott serve as co-counsel in the Bill of Rights lawsuit.

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