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Lead Us Not Into Penn Station:Provocative Pieces

National Convention

October 7-9, 2016

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Lauryn Seering

Lauryn Seering

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.

1harrisburgThe Freedom From Religion Foundation has gotten an outsider-led lunchtime religious group at an Illinois public school disbanded.

School administrators at Harrisburg Middle School were allowing a Baptist minister to lead a religious session during lunch hour. He offered free pizza and soda to students who joined the group. Parents received a permission slip asking them to allow their child to "meet occasionally with a youth minister representing the Baptist denomination during lunch break at the middle school."

It was inappropriate and unconstitutional for the district to offer religious leaders access to befriend and proselytize students during the school day on school property, FFRF stressed. No outside adults should be provided carte blanche access to minors—a captive audience—in a public school.

"It is a fundamental principle of Establishment Clause jurisprudence that a public school may not advance, prefer or promote religion," FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote in February to Harrisburg School District Superintendent Michael Gauch. "Allowing church representatives access during school hours to proselytize and recruit students for religious activities is a violation of the Establishment Clause. This practice demonstrates an unlawful preference not only for religion over nonreligion, but also Christianity over all other faiths." 

Gauch quickly responded that the Harrisburg Board of Education would have to address the matter, and once it did, he would get back to FFRF. 

After waiting for months, Jayne sent a reminder letter, pointing out that Gauch had not followed up on the matter, as he had promised. This time, the missive elicited a desired response. 

"Please be advised that the Board of Education did consider the matter of a local minister meeting with students during lunchtime last semester," Gauch replied in an email. "Following the school board's directive, school administration instructed the local minister that he would no longer be allowed to come onto school property and meet with students during the lunchtime or anytime during the instructional day."

FFRF welcomes the outcome.

"We were taken aback when we learned about a minister being allowed to preach to middle school kids on the premises during school hours," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "We're pleased we played a part in getting this outrageousness ended."

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nontheist organization dedicated to the separation of state and church, with nearly 24,000 members all over the country, including more than 700 in Illinois.

 

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