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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

1southcarolinachaplain
At the start of football season, the Freedom From Religion Foundation is renewing its objection to the University of South Carolina's football chaplaincy.

FFRF initially contacted the university in August of last year to complain about its chaplaincy program, enclosing a broader national report. FFRF is pleased to learn of the departure of Chaplain Adrian Despres, about whom it complained. 

However, it appears that the new University of South Carolina football head coach, Will Muschamp, has decided that he wants "multiple voices available to assist with the spiritual development of student-athletes," as he was quoted in an official statement on Despres' exit. Furthermore, he told a Rotary Club meeting earlier this year, "There's no question being a Christian is very important to me. . . . That's not something I push on our players. It's something I make readily available for our players."

The university's chaplaincy program remains unconstitutional.

As an initial matter, it is improper for a public university program to "assist with the spiritual development" of students. This cannot be a task of the government under the First Amendment, which excludes government entities from sponsoring religious activity. Whether or not to engage in religious activity is squarely left to private individuals.

Despite Muschamp's claim that he does not "push" Christianity on his players, the idea that chaplain-led religious services are truly optional is questionable at best. FFRF's report concluded that "athletes do not view coaches' suggestions as optional." Moreover, "coaches add to this pressure by sending chaplains to talk with players going through difficult times, instead of allowing players to seek out their own religious or professional counseling."

"Even if the chaplaincy were strictly voluntary, that fact does not alter the unconstitutionality of the practice," FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor write in a letter to University of South Carolina President Harris Pastides. "Courts have summarily rejected arguments that voluntariness excuses a constitutional violation." 

Additionally, the University of South Carolina has only a Christian chaplain, showing an unconstitutional preference for Christianity. This is in spite of the fact that 44 percent of college-aged Americans are non-Christian and fully a third of millennials identify as nonreligious, according to the Pew Research Center.

In order to aid the university in protecting its students from religious discrimination, FFRF is also recommending the adoption of a model policy, which includes the maintenance of complete official neutrality in matters of religion. If adopted, this model policy would not only bring the university into compliance with the law but it would send the message that the University of South Carolina values the rights of every student athlete to hold his or her own religious or nonreligious views, free from direct or indirect coercion or contrary endorsement.

"In this day and age, the university should be welcoming to everyone, not making players feel they must 'pray to play,'" adds Gaylor.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a nationwide nonprofit organization dedicated to the separation of state and church, with almost 24,000 nonreligious members across the country, including nearly 200 in South Carolina.

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Court finds parent has legal standing

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit decided on Aug. 9 that an FFRF member who is a parent of a high school student has legal standing to challenge a Ten Commandments monument in front of a Pennsylvania school.

The court ruled in favor of Marie Schaub, finding that a district court dismissal of the case against the New Kensington-Arnold School District last year was improper. The three-judge panel unanimously found that Schaub's removal of her daughter from Valley High School due to the Ten Commandments monument, and prior contact with it, were sufficient for her to bring the case.

"The District Court appeared to read the direct, unwelcome contact standard to include a frequency requirement," Judge Patty Shwartz, writing for the panel, said of the legal test applied by the district court. "This is incorrect."
The court noted the ability of plaintiffs to bring Establishment Clause cases, even when they have not changed their behavior.

"A community member should not be forced to forgo a government service to preserve his or her ability to challenge an allegedly unconstitutional religious display or activity," Schwartz said. "Thus, a community member like Schaub may establish standing by showing direct, unwelcome contact with the allegedly offending object or event, regardless of whether such contact is infrequent or she does not alter her behavior to avoid it."

The court also highlighted the unique parental rights involved, writing that Schaub "has an interest in guiding her child's religious upbringing and has standing to challenge actions that seek to 'establish a religious preference affecting' her child."

FFRF and a parent previously won a similar case against the nearby Connellsville Area School District.

"If anybody has suffered injury by the presence of a Ten Commandments monolith at this community high school, it is Marie Schaub and her daughter, whose lives and education have been disrupted just for speaking up for the First Amendment," said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "We're delighted that reason — and the Constitution — have prevailed, and look forward to winning this case at the district level as we won the Connellsville case."

FFRF will be honoring Schaub at its upcoming 39th annual national convention at the Wyndham Grand Downtown in Pittsburgh on the weekend of Oct. 7-9. Schaub, the target of community wrath, will be receiving FFRF's "Atheist in Foxhole Courage Award."

The Freedom From Religion Foundation and several local members are suing Lehigh County in Pennsylvania to remove a Latin cross from the official county seal and flag.

The federal lawsuit was filed on Aug. 16 in United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

FFRF is a plaintiff, as are members residing in the county who have encountered the religious symbol on governmental property and documents, such as on letterhead, numerous official county forms and reports, the county's website, a display in the Board of Commissioners meeting room and even on flags prominently displayed at the entrance of county buildings, including the Lehigh Valley International Airport. Joining FFRF in the suit are four county residents: Stephen Meholic, David Simpson, John Berry and Candace Winkler. The board adopted the imagery that appears on the seal in 1944. Allentown, the third largest city in Pennsylvania, is located in Lehigh County, which has a population of about 350,000. FFRF first wrote a complaint letter in November 2014 and again in January 2015, creating a minor firestorm. Following several meetings about the controversy, the Board of Commissioners sent a reply on March 25, 2015, noting: "The cross, one of more than a dozen elements, was included to honor the original settlers of Lehigh County who were Christian."

Members of the public clearly view the Latin cross as having religious significance. Among representative responses to FFRF's complaint from members of the public was this message from a local citizen: "It's do or die time. Stand up and live our national motto, 'In God We Trust.' And Jesus' words 'fear not,' should give you strength to win one for the cross. The people of the state's prayers are with you. Go with God in your effort to prevail over this clear and present evil."

By adopting and displaying a seal and flag with a Latin cross, the county is violating the First and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The purpose is religious, not secular, and "has the primary effect of both advancing religion and expressing defendant's preference for Christianity above all other religions and nonreligion," the plaintiff contends.

FFRF and its plaintiffs are seeking a declaration that the religious symbols on the county seal and flag are unconstitutional, a permanent injunction against displaying them, nominal damages, costs and attorney's fees.

"Lehigh County is not a Christian county, it should be equally welcoming to all its citizens regardless of their religion or their reject of religion," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "A redesign to comply with the Constitution is imperative."

The litigation is being handled by Marcus B. Schneider of Pittsburgh, with assistance from FFRF Staff Attorneys Patrick Elliott and Elizabeth Cavell.

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Christian flag removed

A Georgia courthouse has taken down a Christian flag after hearing from the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

An overtly Christian flag on a flagpole boasting an additional cross had been prominently on display next to the judge's bench in a Bryan County courtroom for many years. The flag is a traditional evangelical Christian design, reportedly conceptualized by Protestants in the early 20th century. The white in the flag is said to represent the biblical notions of purity, the blue is supposed to stand for baptism in water and the red is meant to symbolize the sacrifice that Jesus made for humankind.

The religious significance of the cross and the flag display is indisputable, and FFRF had urged its immediate removal.

"An overwhelming majority of federal courts agree that the Latin cross universally represents the Christian religion, and only the Christian religion," FFRF Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell wrote to Rebecca Crowe, Bryan County clerk of courts. "And a majority of federal courts have held displays of Latin crosses on public property to be an unconstitutional endorsement of religion."

After agreeing to remove the display, Bryan County officials dilly-dallied for a while, shirking responsibility for actually getting rid of it.

Crowe said the flag was "reluctantly" removed, according to the Christian Today website. "It's not in there any longer," Crowe said. "I'm not sure who removed it or where it is, but it's not there."

Ted O'Neil, assistant editor of the Bryan County News, wrote in an op-ed that he, even as a religious person, was for the removal of the flag.

"I was asked by a few people what I felt about the issue," he wrote. "I'm in favor of removing the flag and anything connected to religion from any and all levels of government. Due to schisms, theological disagreements and stubbornness, there are actually more than 4,000 distinct Christian denominations alone. Whose version do you want government to embrace? Christians and everyone of faith should support the removal of such flags, along with all traces and/or mentions of religion in any and all government action."

But not everyone who chimed in on the subject understood that it was a constitutional issue, not one of aesthetics. The Gospel Herald wrote a somewhat snarky editorial claiming that no one should be offended by an image of the cross.

"It is rather absurd to say that the image of the cross is offensive simply because one does not adhere to the Christian faith, but this seems to be the case when an atheist activist group filed a complaint against a Georgia county courthouse, causing a Christian flag to be removed," the editorial said.

And the Christian News incorrectly thought archaic state law should trump the godless U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1787.

"The Georgia state Constitution, first formally written in 1777 — just one year after the founding of America — acknowledged Christianity and required its leaders to be Christians. '[W]e the people of Georgia, relying upon the protection and guidance of almighty God, do ordain and establish this Constitution," it reads.

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Meet a member: Marjorie Halpern Holden

Name: Marjorie Halpern Holden

Where I live: Manhattan Beach, Calif.

Where and when I was born: October 1927 in New York City.

Family: Two sons: David and Robert. Three grandsons: Donald, Paul and Anthony.

Education: Cornell University B.A. 1947; Columbia University M.A. 1950; Columbia University Ph.D. 1972.

Occupation: Retired School of Education professor, California State University-Dominguez Hills.

How I got where I am today: Through a lifetime of making mistakes and making small corrections.

Where I'm headed: At almost 89, this is a loaded question. I am still hoping to write a short monograph on what I perceive as the current deficiencies of public elementary education.

Person in history I admire and why: I have a few from different fields. I admire many of the classical Greek philosophers and dramatists. There is so much we can learn from them today. They tangled with many of the same issues we are dealing with: The place, existence and nature of the gods; the right way to govern a city; moral issues about sex, gender, murder, family ties and war. It's amazing that in many ways we haven't yet solved many of these problems. At the highest levels, the men (they were a bit sexist) had very clear and high-minded ideas about how men should behave both in their personal and civic lives. So much of what I read about them resonates with me. They make me aware of so many subtleties in human relations, both personal and political. The one nice thing about an afterlife, which I know I won't have, is a chance to meet any of them.

A quotation I like: Again, the Greeks, and I think it was Socrates: "The unexamined life is not worth living." They also said, "All things in moderation." My undergraduate college, Cornell University in Ithaca N.Y., had a saying by the founder of the university, a Quaker by the name of Ezra Cornell, carved into a stone bench on the campus, which said, "ABOVE ALL NATIONS HUMANITY." That bench has helped me to resolve issues many times in my life.

These are a few of my favorite things: Bach's music, foreign travel, reading, knitting, hanging out with my sons and grandsons, and, of course, Greek drama.

These are not: I do not respond well to people who think they have authority over others that is not legally mandated to them. I think a lot of very religious people think they have a mandate to inflict their misery, self-made quite often, on the rest of us. I think they resent the fact that we don't suffer from lack of family planning, inability to have an abortion, the legal obligation to treat LGBT people as if they were human beings, and the need to give enormous amounts of our income to people in the "religion business." And most of us don't even feel guilty about this freedom from superstition. I think knowing that life is finite makes it more precious, and it should influence the higher angels of our nature to try to help everyone get the best they can in life while they are here.

My doubts about religion started: I was fortunate. My parents were non-observant, and I think of my mother as the "village atheist." My parents were Jews, but they did not belong to any religious groups and my mother made us go to school on the Jewish holidays. This made me uncomfortable because the teachers sent a message that I interpreted as: "It's bad enough that you're not Christian, but being non-observant is even worse than being a Jew."

My husband's people were Protestants, and his mother was an observant Methodist. His dad was as much a freethinker as he could be without upsetting his wife. My husband read the Old and New Testaments, the Koran and all of Spinoza. Then he came around and told me that even if there were a god, he was inscrutable.

Since our parents were pretty decent, civilized people, we really didn't feel the need for instruction about ethics from a tithe collector. I don't mind people's need for a spiritual leader, but I think that faith is a ridiculous trait to ask of people to whom you have given intellectual abilities.

The three great monotheistic traditions have different rules about forbidden foods, number of wives, how to observe the Sabbath, and probably other things that are important. What kind of a God does such a loopy, inconsistent presentation when people's souls are on the line? I long ago decided that even if there is a deity, he is not anything like the being painted by any religion. None of them makes any sense. So we had best use our energy to get along with each other and solve the problems of this world as best we can. Obviously the thousands of years' lead that monotheistic religions have had has not led to the resolution of a number of serious problems.
Before I die: I hope to write a short monograph about teaching children from kindergarten on up the joys and responsibilities of American citizenship.

I think when they graduate from high school that they should be quite familiar with the U.S. Constitution. And this should occur in an atmosphere that respects their dignity and well-being as citizens even at the earliest ages. How else can we raise men and women who will fight for what the country stands for as it is expressed in our founding documents? Most people don't even understand the basic constitutional position on separation of church and state.

I am trying to involve FFRF and Americans United to adopt the long-range goal of having educational administrators deal with First Amendment infractions much more actively.

In order to be school principals and administrators, candidates should be required to understand the First Amendment and associated case law regulating religious activities in the public schools. University students should not be awarded this credential if they are not totally aware what religious activity is permitted in the public schools. If the law is taught to the administrators and the administrators hold annual meetings to spell them out to the faculty, there should be no reason not to actually fine, fire or publicly dress down a school employee who willfully inflicts his faith during class or sports activities on vulnerable children and adolescents. I am so tired of hearing, reading and seeing pictures of praying, kneeling football players and coaches at public high schools that I just want to get some teeth into those laws. I learned that the football coach in my local district is holding something called "Chapel" in the locker room. I thought this kind of thing only happened in Texas, but it seems to be highly contagious, and has certainly hit our little city with a vengeance.

Ways I promote freethought: Mostly, I don't argue with people who I think are well-meaning, but slightly dim. In certain situations I just say, "I'm totally secular," in what I hope is a polite, non-threatening way. I try to project the idea that I am trying to be a responsible, concerned adult without religious direction. Most people don't take offense or argue. They seem to accept me on that basis, although I sometimes wonder, if they think "secular" is some kind of new-age sect. Of course, I also support FFRF and Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Center for Inquiry.

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It pays to complain: By Jimmy Holcomb

I got "God" off of my county's marriage certificate. Yip!

Before our HB2 ("Bathroom bill") fame, North Carolina was most riled-up about same-sex marriage. We saw years of loud protest, with government officials standing behind agitated preachers telling me exactly why God hates my marriage. Our state constitution still specifies that if you don't believe in God, you can't hold elective office. OK, then! But after my same-sex marriage, my certificate told me I was in "holy" matrimony under the "ordinance of God." Meanwhile, my magistrate could have legally quoted God in refusing to issue me a license. So which is it?

I talked to my county's register of deeds. He was cautious, but receptive. He mentioned "ceremonial deism," and I reminded him that there's no such thing. I offered secular replacement language. After 18 months of emails, 900 Orange County newlywed couples every year will no longer be told that God ordains anything as the county removed that religious language from the certificate.

So then I tried the same thing in Wake County, North Carolina's capital county, where the certificate bears the biblical text, "Those whom God hath joined together . . . blah blah blah." I received emailed insistence from the Wake County registrar that courts have upheld this kind of "harmless" government mention of God. I was told that mine was the only complaint she'd ever received, and that the biblical quote did not promote a specific religion. My response included this: If the high court engages in bogus reasoning like "historical use," "traditional" and "ceremonial deism" to avoid hard decisions about the Establishment Clause, it will continue to rehear cases until constitutionality is established, and that, it only requires one complaint to get a major constitutional decision. Eventually I was told that my complaint was no longer relevant because the county has decided to stop issuing these certificates. We'll see if that's true.

Jimmy is an FFRF member from Efland, N.C.

By Julie Stahl

Two years ago, my 18-year-old son was killed about a mile from our house while driving home. A man high on drugs (meth and heroin) drove across the center line at 70 miles an hour and slammed his car head-on into my son's.

Jackson was my only child and I a single mother. Since then, I've heard countless "pearls of wisdom," usually in the form of religious platitudes from well-meaning people, some of them complete strangers, when they hear about what happened and feel compelled to say something. I say "well-meaning" because I think for the most part they are. They see I am broken, and they want to fix me. It's human nature. They don't consciously think, "Here is someone who is clearly in a vulnerable and compromised state of mind. I can exploit that to further my religious agenda." They believe they are offering comfort.

Here are some of the things I have been told:
1. God has a plan for us all (otherwise known as, "There's a reason for everything.").
2. God must have had a reason for taking your son so young (a personalized version of No. 1).
3. The Lord works in mysterious ways.
4. Your son will be waiting for you in heaven.
5. He's looking down on you and keeping you safe.
6. God called him home.
7. It was just his time.
8. He was too good for this world.
9. God must have needed another angel.
10. God never gives us more than we can handle.

To an atheist like me, these aphorisms are loaded with offense. They feel presumptuous, taking for granted a shared belief in a higher power and an afterlife. They are also condescending. After all, if I believed in a god and/or a heaven, wouldn't it have already occurred to me to take comfort from my faith in these? They insult my intelligence, all of them being childishly simplistic and illogical. No. 5, for example, would have me believe my son has become an angel who will watch over me. I guess I'm not supposed to wonder where his angel was (my mother, for instance, who adored him and died 10 years ago), when he needed one. Why would I get one, but he would not? As for him waiting for me in heaven, if I thought that were the case, do you think I'd still be here? I would have committed suicide days, perhaps even hours, after he was killed.

Worst of all, however, these comments are naively menacing, implying beneath the mantle of wisdom and mystery a god who is pretty damned heartless, to put it mildly. Try as I might, I can't come up with any possible reason that a beneficent, not to mention omnipotent, being would have for allowing children to be killed, among other things.

Right now, in the time it's taking me to compose this, a little girl somewhere in the world is being gang raped. When the perpetrators are done, they'll slit her throat, hopefully quickly, but maybe not. Somewhere else a man is being beheaded; a woman is being stoned (almost certainly "in the name of God"); a child is wasting away from leukemia, while another is being sold into slavery.

You can rely on as many myths about original sin and free will as you like, but none of these illustrates anything but an arrogant, conceited and self-righteous creator. Or to put it another way, what kind of sick, twisted bastard would allow these atrocious things to happen on his watch? And who, in any of the above scenarios and countless others, is "handling" what God has "given" them?

All of these beg the question: What does it say about you, that you would choose not only to believe in the existence of a heartless, perhaps even vicious deity, but to adore it, to idolize it, to worship it?

Then there are the so-called spiritual people, who offer almost identical consolation, merely substituting the word "universe" for "god," or "presence" for "ghost" and implying notions like reincarnation.

A woman whom I consider to be my friend, who broke ranks with any form of organized religion years ago and now identifies with the moniker "spiritual," told me shortly after Jackson died that she felt peaceful when she thought about Jackson as he moved through the universe, sensing his presence wasn't lingering, trapped and waiting to be released into a new form. "If that helps you to feel better," she added. It didn't. Her boyfriend conveyed the message that Jackson had done here (meaning on Earth) "all that he needed to do." Hmmm. So, two weeks out of high school, he was done with this world and had nothing left to contribute? Presumably "the universe" knew this and snapped him up. Never mind his plans for college, for the Peace Corps, or his enthusiasm for life.

These kinds of remarks feel just as offensive to me and for all the same reasons as their religious counterparts. Ultimately, the message is the same: Some force "up there" consciously decided my son should die. Again, what sense does this make?

To all the well-meaning people of any religious or spiritual faith, organized or not, who feel the need to dab your ridiculous convictions like salve on the wound of a broken heart belonging to someone you know shares your convictions, have at it. But if that broken heart belongs to someone you don't know or who hasn't invited your beliefs, please don't. And if that broken heart belongs to the parent of a child who has died, bite your tongue not once but twice. People die. Nobody can live forever, and the planet certainly couldn't accommodate us all if we did. If we had to bury only our grandparents when we were young and our parents when we were middle aged, hearing some religious panacea, even in the face of our sorrow at losing someone we love, might be tolerable. But in the face of the death of our child, when we have become something that there is not even a word for in the English language because it is so unspeakable, when we are absolutely shattered beyond repair, it is intolerable.
Here are some things that you might say to someone of any or no religious convictions who is grieving:

1. I'm so sorry.

2. I wish I could change what happened.

3. I remember when (insert a happy memory here that you have of the one who died).
4. Is there something I can do for you?

5. I've been thinking about you a lot.

6. Please call me if you need anything, like groceries, or your house cleaned, or you just want to talk.

If you can't say any of these things, it's OK to say nothing. You can even say, "I realize there is nothing I can say." That is profoundly more helpful, honest and comforting than the empty, "God has a reason for everything." Life is random. Death is random. And unless you die painlessly in your sleep at a ripe old age, it rarely makes sense. Nothing you can say to me in the wake of my child's death is going to have it make sense.

The bottom line is you can't fix me, no matter what you say or do. There are no magic words that will ease my sorrow. If I'm lucky, the passage of time and the loving, happy memories I have of my son will rise to the surface of my heart and crowd out the anger at the man who killed him, the guilt for not being able to protect my child from harm, the remorse for not doing something I might have done that could have changed the course of events that day. If you really want to help, then offer to help, or say something that draws on your humanity, my humanity, and the fact that we are all in this thing called "life" together.

And one last thing. If you want to pray for me, go right ahead. Pray to your heart's content. But don't tell me about it and expect me to be grateful.

Julie Stahl is a writer and lives on the central coast of California.

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Meet a staffer: Whitney Steffen

Name: Whitney Steffen.

Where and when I was born: Madison, Wis., in 1988.

Education: B.A. in English from UW-Madison; paralegal post-baccalaureate diploma from Madison College.

Family: One mom, one dad, one sister.

How I came to work at FFRF: I found the job posting in mid-May and talked to my good friend Bill Dunn (former Freethought Today editor) about FFRF.

What I do here: I'm the legal assistant. I make sure things run smoothly on the legal floor.

What I like best about it: People here are pretty cool. We get lots of interesting and occasionally weird complaints in our legal intake.

What gets old about it: Organizing and sending follow up letters can get really dull.
I spend a lot of time thinking about: My cats.

I spend little if any time thinking about: Quantum physics.

My religious upbringing was: I was raised Catholic. I went to a parochial school in Madison from second through eighth grade.

My doubts about religion started: At some point in eighth grade and definitely more after I graduated. A lot of not-so-fun things were happening to people in my family and I questioned why God would put us through that. I wasn't very good at being Catholic, either.

Things I like: Cats.

Things I smite: My little kitty's cancer.

In my golden years: I plan to retire early and rely on one of my kitties to provide for me. He will become a model and bring in lots of money. He'll do it because he loves me (and because he knows he's pretty).

FFRF is calling attention to a publicly funded Texas charter school chain's multiple violations of the U.S. Constitution.

FFRF has requested that the Texas Education Agency investigate Advantage Academy in Duncanville and take action to prevent its four schools from endorsing Christianity to its students. If Advantage Academy is unwilling to operate as a public school in a manner consistent with the Constitution, FFRF asks that all of its current charters be revoked.

"The Texas Education Agency has an obligation to make certain that publicly funded schools and government subsidized teachers 'do not inculcate religion,' to quote the U.S. Supreme Court," FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote to Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath.

Allen Beck is a Christian evangelist and the founder of Advantage Academy. He is also an outspoken zealot who has placed his religious responsibility to proselytize and evangelize ahead of his responsibilities to the state of Texas, the Constitution and his students. Beck founded Advantage Academy in 1998 in order to bring Christianity and the bible "back" into public schools.

Here are some of the unconstitutional ways Beck has been trying to get religion back in schools:

• He admits that his academy is teaching the bible to students, encouraging students to pray, and spreading misinformation about the foundations of American history.

• Beck continually flaunts how he has deceived the state and the Texas Education Agency for years by claiming that Advantage Academy is not promoting Christianity.

• He says that everyone, no matter their position within the public school system, needs to be incorporating religion into their work and evangelizing.

• When Advantage Academy advertises its schools, it uses language and imagery to suggest that its students will receive a religious education.

• Advantage Academy regularly promotes religious, and specifically Christian, events to students. For example, the school endorses the National Day of Prayer and displays it on the school calendar, endorses a religious baccalaureate service that takes place on the school's campus, and observes the exclusively Christian holiday Good Friday as a school holiday.

The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits the state, and by extension any state-funded public or charter schools, from endorsing religion. All of these above actions violate the Constitution.

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FFRF state/church complaints

FFRF supports denial of grant to church

FFRF has co-filed a brief before the U.S. Supreme Court supporting the denial of a Missouri grant to a church.

The Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Mo., is appealing the refusal of a state grant for the upgrading of a playground at a preschool it runs. FFRF joins the brief filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Missouri.

The brief reminds everyone that the use of taxpayer dollars to aid churches was one of the greatest concerns of the framers of the U.S. Constitution and, in large part, animated the passage of the Establishment Clause. Madison was adamant that even "three pence" in aid was too much of a threat to religious liberty.

Tying houses of worship financially to the state also undermines religious freedom by inviting the government to scrutinize and oversee their operations. Despite any short-term gain for the government-funded religious institution, in the long run, religious liberty is corroded, and, in the case of direct aid to a church, church autonomy is impeded, the brief asserts.

District should cut ties with churches

FFRF is urging the San Diego school district to end a summer partnership with local churches.

The San Diego Unified School District has reportedly formed a partnership with area churches that involves these churches opening up their doors to children to be tutored by volunteer teachers for the summer. The sessions will also include "character education," according to media accounts. Superintendent Cindy Marten met with church leaders to promote the partnership at St. Stephen's Church of God in Christ, which lists one of its visions as to "WIN SOULS FOR CHRIST."

FFRF contends the district should terminate the partnership, since it can't allow its summer school programs to be used as recruiting grounds for churches.

The summer partnership impermissibly advances religion, communicates a message of school endorsement of religion and is marked by the excessive entanglement between the school district and church, FFRF asserts. It asks that the School District cease all involvement with and promotion of church programs and dissolve any formal summer partnerships with the churches.

FFRF protests Ohio judge's sentencing

On May 25, Judge William Mallory of the Ohio Court of Appeals, First Appellate District, sentenced Jake Strotman, who is religious, to attend Morning Star Baptist Church for 12 consecutive Sunday services. Strotman was accused of assaulting a Baptist preacher during a chaotic brawl after a hockey game. Mallory reportedly said, "The thing about religion, I think it is kind of personal and for me I don't try to impose my religious views on other people, except for sometimes in this room." After Strotman suggested being sent to a church of Mallory's choice as his punishment, the judge decided that it would be appropriate to sentence Strotman to attend his victim's Baptist church for 12 Sundays.
FFRF contacted Mallory independently to point out that his actions in this case are a clear violation of the First Amendment.

Mallory's actions in this case also violate Article 1, Section 7 of Ohio's Constitution: "No person shall be compelled to attend, erect, or support any place of worship, or maintain any form of worship, against his consent."

While Strotman suggested and accepted his church-going sentence, his decision wasn't completely free of coercion. In the beginning of the proceeding, Mallory threatened Strotman with up to 90 days in jail, and encouraged his fear by having him look at the bailiff and his handcuffs. Many people would opt to go to church when faced with the fear of jail time, FFRF asserts.

Judge turns away nonreligious couple

In a complaint receiving wide news coverage, FFRF has warned a Kentucky judge about his refusal to marry a nonreligious couple.

Mandy Heath and her fiancé, Jon, were planning on getting married in Trigg County on July 22 at the courthouse of County Judge Executive Hollis Alexander.

Heath requested that the courthouse marriage be secular. After she made those plans with the clerk, Alexander called Heath to inform her that he would not perform the ceremony. When asked why, Alexander apparently responded: "I include God in my ceremonies, and I won't do one without him."

FFRF emphasizes to Alexander that under the U.S. Constitution, he, as a government official, has an obligation to remain neutral on religious matters.

By refusing to provide secular ceremonies, Trigg County sends a message of religious endorsement. However, according to the Constitution, it is illegal to condition a government benefit on a religious test.

FFRF applauds victory on pension plan

FFRF applauds a recent court victory that health care workers have obtained over their religious employers regarding unfair pension plans. FFRF filed a friend of the court brief in the case just decided by a federal appeals court.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on July 26 ruled that the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) does not exempt retirement plans created by supposedly religious entities that are not churches.

The plaintiffs alleged that they had been harmed by the management of a retirement plan run by their former employer, Dignity Health. FFRF submitted an amicus brief in support of the plaintiffs arguing that any religious exemption from ERISA violates the constitutional separation of state and church.

While not addressing the substantive argument that FFRF put forward, the court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs on statutory grounds. The ruling joins similar decisions handed down by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in December and the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in March. FFRF had filed amicus briefs in these cases, too. Last month, FFRF also filed an amicus brief before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in a similar case.

Two choir students at SDSU punished

FFRF is protesting the penalization of two San Diego State University students for refusing to participate in a choir performance at a church service.

A choir course that Patrick Walders teaches at San Diego State University is mandatory for certain degrees. In May, Walders asked his students to perform during a service at College Avenue Baptist Church. Two students demurred. The professor told them he would fail them if they didn't participate. The students stayed away, and Walders did flunk them, offering them no alternatives. The choir members who showed up reportedly had to sit through the sermon after their performance.

"As a state-run institution, San Diego State University is bound by the Constitution's Establishment Clause, which 'mandates government neutrality between religion and religion and between religion and nonreligion,'" as the U.S. Supreme Court has noted, FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler writes to San Diego State University President Elliot Hirshman.

The selection of a Baptist church as the site for a San Diego State choir performance demonstrates the school's preference for religion over nonreligion and for Christianity over other faiths, FFRF asserts. San Diego State is a secular university and should not be mandating religious choir performances. It is obligated to provide its students an advanced education free from religious endorsement.

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FFRF objects to sermonizing prof

FFRF is raising objections to a Wisconsin community college professor who tells students that life is about creating a personal relationship with God.

Madison College Professor Hiep S. Van Dong, an instructor in the School of Business and Applied Arts, has encouraged students in his Leadership, Ethics and Development course to add religion to their lives, both verbally in class and via email.

Van Dong explained to a student in an email that he has "discovered it isn't about do's and don'ts, it is about a personal relationship with a living God. It is not about earning my way to heaven or God's grace; however, it is about seeking a personable Creator and sustainer of my life."

Van Dong also uses "Sometimes You Win, Sometimes You Learn," a religion-promoting tome by John C. Maxwell, an evangelical pastor, as a textbook. Van Dong has reportedly solicited the entire class to contact him personally about the "truth" in the book, stating that he "could not say it in class, given it is a public university."

Van Dong's promotion of religion constitutes an official endorsement and advancement of religion in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

"Federal courts have upheld public universities' restrictions on a professor's religious expression in the classroom and other like settings," FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne writes to Madison College School of Business and Applied Arts Dean Bryan Woodhouse. "These restrictions do not abridge the professor's free speech rights."

Madison College's interest in avoiding the appearance of official endorsement of Van Dong's religious beliefs overrides his free speech rights in this matter, FFRF contends.

"Such blatant religiosity has no place in a public institution," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "Madison College needs to put a check on Van Dong's religious activities in class."

FFRF is asking Madison College to take immediate action to ensure that Van Dong is not misusing his position.

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

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