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Lead Us Not Into Penn Station:Provocative Pieces

National Convention

September 15-17, 2017

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Lauryn Seering

Lauryn Seering

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Are one-quarter of Americans atheists?

New study puts number of nonbelievers much higher than previously thought

Trying to figure out how many Americans who don't believe in God is a tough undertaking for any researcher.

Asking people simply if they are atheists doesn't generate a correct number, researchers say, because many people think the word "atheist" is too negative and don't want to be associated with it. But even asked if they don't believe in God, the number of respondents is still likely highly under-representative of the actual number, because people, in general, aren't willing to divulge that information openly.

But two psychologists from the University of Kentucky think they have found a better method. And their results are surprising.

Will Gervais and Maxine Najle have determined, with a somewhat high margin of error, that 26 percent of Americans are atheists.

"We can say with a 99 percent probability that it's higher than 11 percent," Gervais said.

Most reputable polls have shown that about 10 percent of Americans don't believe in God, and that number has been growing every year. But no poll has ever made the leap to say that a quarter of the population are atheists, although a quarter identifies as "nonreligious."

"There's a lot of atheists in the closet," Gervais said. "If they knew there are lots of people just like them out there, that could potentially promote more tolerance."

Gervais and Najle have submitted their results to the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

To get a more accurate reading on the number of atheists, Gervais and Najle set up a test of 2,000 people.

Half of the participants were asked to read through a list of statements such as "I am a vegetarian" or "I own a dog." Instead of answering yes or no to each, the participants only had to write down the number of statements that were true for them. Using this method, participants don't have to directly acknowledge any specific condition.

The other half of participants got the same list, but with one statement added: "I believe in God."

By comparing the responses between the groups, the researchers could then estimate how many people don't believe in God. (Because both groups should, in theory, have a similar number of vegetarians, dog owners, etc., any increases in the number of agreed-to statements from the first group to the second should be reflective of the number of people who don't believe in God.)

Gervais and Najle replicated the study with a second sample of 2,000 participants, and got similar results to the first study.

As for the veracity of this research, the psychologists admit that it does have a wide margin of error, but they do stand by their contention that the number of reported nonbelievers around the country has been continually underreported.

"In time, we'll hopefully be able to refine our methods and find other indirect measurement techniques," Gervais says.

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FFRF protests NASA religious grant

FFRF is again protesting a wrongful NASA grant of more than $1 million in taxpayer money that was largely used for religious purposes.

In May 2015, NASA's astrobiology program awarded $1.108 million to the Center of Theological Inquiry for "an interdisciplinary inquiry on the societal implications of astrobiology, the study of the origins, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe."

Center Director William Storrar stated at the time, "The aim of this inquiry is to foster theology's dialogue with astrobiology on its societal implications, enriched by the contribution of scholars in the humanities and social sciences."

FFRF sent a letter last year questioning the grant. The principal thrust of the grant was theological. The grant was patently unconstitutional, FFRF asserted, since government-funded scientific studies of theology create state-church entanglements.

As part of its investigation, FFRF requested records from NASA. After several denials by the agency and many appeals by FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel, FFRF finally obtained about 550 pages of records. Combing through these pages, Seidel and FFRF's legal interns made two startling discoveries: First, there was damning evidence confirming that the grant was indeed unconstitutional, violating the separation of state and church. And, second, NASA Technical Officer Mary Voytek, the official managing the grant, has had a questionable and likely unethical relationship with Storrar.

With the NASA money, the Center of Theological Inquiry hired 11 theologians — 10 of them Christian — and only one actual scientist. That wouldn't be problematic if they were doing secular work, but they weren't. The work proposed for the grant included:

  • Formulating a "Christian response" to scientific studies on morality,
  • Developing a new model of biblical interpretation.
  • Relating themes from First Corinthians, a book in the Christian bible, to astrobiology.
  • Reconciling a potential astrobiology discovery with Christian theology.
  • Looking at how astrobiology would affect the Christian doctrine of redemption.
  • Examining Christian ethics and Christian doctrines of human obligation.
  • Looking at societal implications of astrobiology with "theological ethics."
  • Writing a monograph on Christian forgiveness.

"We are informing NASA that it cannot constitutionally fund theology," Seidel writes to NASA Astrobiology Institute Director Penelope Boston

in his recent letter. "The Supreme Court has explicitly held that refusing to fund scholarships for theology is not religious discrimination under the First Amendment."

FFRF applauds the courage of two local Ohio officials who sacrificed their positions to uphold the First Amendment.

The village of Carey's Mayor Armand Getz and Law Director Emily Beckley took the initiative to stop the Lord's Prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance from being recited at Village Council meetings.

Shockingly, the pair received so many threats for their admirable actions that they resigned on April 1. And, sadly, the Village Council passed a resolution on March 20 to again introduce the Pledge, as well as a moment of silence, before each meeting.

Getz has served our nation with four years of active duty, saying his military background "serves to strengthen my resolve." He said, "If I thought for one minute that someone could conscientiously object to one or both the prayer and Pledge of Allegiance and not suffer any adverse consequences, I would have left it alone." Beckley had wisely given a legal opinion that the council dispense with prayer to avoid any potential lawsuit.

"It's stirring to actually find examples of public officials jeopardizing their positions for the sake of the Constitution," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "We are in awe of Mayor Getz and Law Director Beckley."

Getz and Beckley had the correct perspective; the Carey Village Council is mistaken.

"Reciting the Lord's Prayer at each Village Council meeting is unconstitutional," FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote in a March 30 letter to the Carey Village Council.

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FFRF sends rebuttal to Air National Guard

After a concerned guardsman informed FFRF that ceremonies at the Pease Air National Guard Base regularly schedule chaplains to deliver Christian invocations at mandatory gatherings, FFRF urged the base to remove prayers from the ceremonies.

However, even after FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover noted that such practices are unconstitutional, the New Hampshire Air National Guard commander responded that religious promotion would continue.

"While base chaplains have the right to freely exercise their religion, they do not have a constitutional right to a government-sponsored microphone or to impose their religion on guardsmen attending a mandatory event," wrote Grover to Commanding Officer Colonel James Ryan. "Halting chaplain-led prayer at base events should offend no one. Guardsmen and military chaplains will remain free to practice their religion on their own time, in their own way."

Absurdly, 17 members of Congress signed an ill-informed letter penned by Rep. Doug Collins and Sen. James Lankford in support for the Air National Guard's constitutional violation.

Grover wrote to Collins condemning the congressional advocacy for government endorsement of Christianity. The decision to continue mandatory prayers contradicts the original purpose of military chaplains, Grover wrote, which is to accommodate the free exercise of religion by creating opportunities for service members to voluntarily participate in religious exercises.

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FFRF & Denver chapter place 12 billboards

FFRF and its Metro Denver Chapter placed a dozen timely billboards throughout the Denver area for a month-long run in March.

The billboards proclaim, "The only wall we need is between church and state."

"We want the people of Denver and Colorado to know that there is an organization that will stand up and fight for the constitutional principle of the separation of church and state," says Denver Chapter Director Claudette St.Pierre. "At no time in the history of the United States have our First Amendment rights possibly been more threatened than they are today."

FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor cites newly confirmed Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch as a threat to secular government and individual liberties, given his "natural law" philosophy derived from religious principles.

Denver residents are particularly familiar with Gorsuch and his judicial leanings, since he sat on the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which is based in the city.

However, Gorsuch is not in harmony with the sentiments of his fellow Coloradans. He is out of step with voters in his state, who last November overwhelmingly passed Proposition 106 — the End of Life Options Act — making it one of six states to pioneer rational and compassionate death-with-dignity legislation.

In one of his most egregious verdicts, Gorsuch ruled in 2013 that Hobby Lobby had a religious right to deny women workers forms of contraception that its founder opposes. The U.S. Supreme Court went on to uphold that ruling, giving Hobby Lobby, a for-profit corporation, a religious exemption from following the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive mandate.

Gaylor calls Gorsuch's position "untenable," saying "religion cannot be allowed to trump women's rights."

The famed "wall of separation" phrase harks back to a letter that President Thomas Jefferson wrote the Baptists of Danbury, Conn., on Jan. 1, 1802, explaining that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution "erects a wall of separation between church and state." Jefferson wrote the letter knowing it would become precedent, first clearing it with his attorney general. The U.S. Supreme Court has used the phrase for more than a century as a metaphor to explain the Establishment Clause.

"We hope that this billboard campaign will highlight the need to keep that 'wall of separation' impermeable to the threats we will continue to face," adds St.Pierre.

FFRF's charitable arm gives to UNICEF to help efforts in Somalia

Nonbelief Relief, a nonreligious humanitarian agency, is giving $10,000 to UNICEF for famine relief efforts in Somalia.

International aid officials recently announced that they are facing one of the biggest humanitarian disasters since World War II. Both drought and war have devastated Somalia. Up to four famines — in Somalia, South Sudan, Nigeria and Yemen — are breaking out at once, endangering more than 20 million lives, according to The New York Times.

"Those of us who are not religious care deeply about this world, our only world," says Nonbelief Relief Director Annie Laurie Gaylor. "We appreciate UNICEF's work in Somalia and nearby nations, and we want to help it save lives."

Other donations made by Nonbelief Relief in 2017 include:

  • $5,000 to the International African American Museum being built at the site of the Charleston, S.C., wharf where more than 100,000 enslaved Africans were brought through at the main port of entry in North America. The museum, expected to be completed by 2019, will illuminate their lives, history and descendants.
  • $10,000 to Open Doors for Refugees (via Center for Community Stewardship), which has a $100,000 fundraising goal for 2017 to aid displaced Syrians and other refugees in Madison, Wis.
  • $10,000 to the World Food Program (USA), affiliated with the United Nations, "where needed most to ameliorate starvation, hunger and malnutrition." Many of the starvation "hot spots," such as Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Nigeria and Yemen have religion-based terrorism, warfare or disruption contributing to starvation, notes Nonbelief Relief. Last year, the charity gave the agency $20,000 for Syrian relief and $10,000 for relief in Sudan.
  • $25,000 to the Women's Medical Fund, co-founded by the late Anne Nicol Gaylor, who was the FFRF's principal founder. The Women's Medical Fund is an all-volunteer nonprofit based in Wisconsin and is believed to be the longest continuously operating abortion rights charity in the nation.

Nonbelief Relief was incorporated in 2015, with the Freedom From Religion Foundation as its sole member, and a board created to carry out the donations. It 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.

Donations to Nonbelief Relief, which are deductible for income-tax purposes, may be made via FFRF by designating Nonbelief Relief in the donation dropdown. Your donation will enable Nonbelief Relief to continue to make humanitarian donations in the name of nontheism and freethought.

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FFRF Victories By Molly Hanson

FFRF gets police station prayer display removed

A huge prayer display has been removed from a Wisconsin police station thanks to FFRF intervening on behalf of the Constitution.

A concerned area resident contacted FFRF to report that the Onalaska Police Department had a large religious display on the wall of a public room in a local police station.

It is laudable for the police department to recognize the challenges officers face and to promote compassion and courage in law enforcement. But these sentiments should not be couched in the religious message that a god should be the officers' "guide" in their work, and is responsible for their success and safety, FFRF asserted.

"Displaying 'A Police Officer's Prayer' in the police station demonstrates a preference for religion over nonreligion on behalf of the Onalaska Police Department," FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote to Onalaska Police Chief Jeffrey Trotnic in January. "By endorsing belief in a god, the Onalaska Police Department sponsors a religious message, which is 'impermissible because it sends the ancillary message to . . . nonadherents'" that they are not full members of the political community, to quote the U.S. Supreme Court.

Citizens interact with and rely on law enforcement officers during some of the most urgent and vulnerable times of their lives, FFRF reminded Trotnic. The Onalaska Police Department's religious display conveyed a message to nonreligious citizens that they weren't favored members of the political community. Law enforcement must be even-handed and avoid any appearance of bias toward some citizens or hostility toward others.

FFRF requested that the prayer display be removed immediately. The Onalaska Police Department recently informed FFRF that it has acceded to the organization's request.

"Dear Mr. Jayne: The item in question has been removed," Trotnic wrote back.

Florida teacher stops praying with students

Florida's Walton County School District put an end to classroom prayers in its public elementary school after FFRF got involved.

A concerned district family informed FFRF that a teacher at West DeFuniak Elementary was imposing prayer on her third-grade class. The year before, the teacher had been doing the same with her second-grade class. FFRF was told that she was lining her students up against a wall to sanitize their hands and then praying with them before lunch. When the family addressed the concern with the school principal, she failed to take action.

FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter Feb. 28 to WCSD Superintendent Russell Hughes.

Hughes responded on March 3 that he would begin the recommended investigation. FFRF was later informed that classroom prayers had ended.

FFRF shuts off Colorado school's marquee

Thanks to FFRF, a Colorado public high school's digital marquee will no longer display advertisements for Orchard Church.

Since 2012, Prairie View High School has permanently displayed the sign promoting a Christian message. It was donated by the church as a way of showcasing the unconstitutional partnership between the school and Orchard Church.

For years, the high school has allowed the church to use its building for religious services, and now the church plans to strengthen this alliance by building its own facility next door.

FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to School District 27J Superintendent Chris Fiedler on March 1.

District General Council Janet K. Wyatt responded on March 20 that the sign listing Orchard Church activities would no longer be displayed starting in March and that all references to Orchard Church would be removed from the sign once the school year ends in May.

New Mexico museum film to be properly replaced

Starting this spring, the Bradbury Science Museum in New Mexico will show a new film to replace a movie that unnecessarily endorsed religion and distorted historical fact.

FFRF was informed by several concerned citizens across the country of religious imagery in a movie being shown at the Bradbury Science Museum, which is a part of a government-run laboratory. The movie, "The Town that Never Was," displays religious iconography and prayers to Catholic deities in its first two minutes, apparently to contrast Catholicism with the Nazi regime.

"The clumsy attempt at contrast is a distraction that happens to endorse religion in an inappropriate manner," wrote Co-Presidents Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker to Bradbury Science Museum Director Linda Deck in November 2016.

FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a follow-up letter to Linda Deck on Feb. 21 asking for the religious imagery to be edited out. Deck responded on March 14 that a more appropriate history film would replace "The Town that Never Was."

Soccer coach to stay hands and prayer-free

A California high school soccer coach will be keeping his hands and blessings off athletes after FFRF blew the whistle on the constitutional foul.

It was brought to FFRF's attention by a concerned community member that the coach was leading his players in prayer before games, which involved the "laying of hands" ritual.

FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler wrote to Los Banos Unified School District Acting Superintendent Dean Bubar on March 24. After receiving Ziegler's letter, the district looked into the matter and discussed the First Amendment violation with the coach. Bubar wrote to inform FFRF on March 30 that the coach assured the district he would refrain from promoting or participating in religious rituals during the next soccer season.

California schools'religious promotion ends

Two instances of unconstitutional religious promotion by staff in California's Del Norte County Unified School District were brought to FFRF's attention.

A weekly bulletin distributed to staff at Del Norte High School and put on display in the school's hallway contained a religious saying at the end which read: "Your talent is God's gift to you. What you do with it is your gift back to God." FFRF was also informed that at the district's Bess Maxwell Elementary School, a cafeteria worker had handed out pencils to students on Valentine's Day with notes attached reading "Jesus [heart]'s You and I Do Too!"

FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler wrote to Del Norte County USD Superintendent Jeff Harris on March 17.

Harris wrote back that day, informing FFRF that the high school principal had dealt with the religious wording in the bulletin and that the district administration was addressing the inappropriate gift given out on Valentine's Day.

Prayers silenced by FFRF in Georgia school

Two teachers at Jones-Wheat Elementary School in Georgia's Decatur County Schools District will no longer be teaching students to pray after FFRF got involved.

A concerned parent contacted FFRF to report that their child had recited prayers at home that they had learned in school. It was discovered that multiple teachers at the school had been engaging in the prayer practice resulting in the indoctrination of schoolchildren.

FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler contacted Decatur County Schools Superintendent Tim Cochran on January 18.

After receiving Ziegler's letter, FFRF was informed that Cochran held a meeting with all district administrators to remind each employee of the prohibitions on religious expression set forth by the Establishment Clause.

Michigan town removes religious memorial

FFRF and the Center For Inquiry were informed by a local resident of Alto, Mich., of an unconstitutional cross memorial monument at Alto Veterans Park.

The memorial displayed a black cutout of a soldier kneeling and a Christian cross.

FFRF Managing Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert and CFI Vice President Nicholas Little wrote to the Alto Downtown Development Authority to express concern over the religious display to honor all veterans, especially when 25 percent of military personnel identify as atheist or agnostic.

Markert and Little pointed out that the memorial sent out a message that the government only cares about the deaths of Christian soldiers and not non-Christian or nonreligious soldiers.

The organizations were informed on March 29 that the memorial had been removed and would not be reinstalled.

Montana youth minister deterred from schools

Religious leaders will no longer be permitted to prey upon school children for proselytization in Montana's Missouri's Forsyth R-III Schools after FFRF raised alarm.

It was brought to FFRF's concern that a youth minister, Jeffrey Barrikman, from First Baptist Church, was given special access to students at Forsyth Middle School. Barrikman had been allowed onto school grounds as a "visitor," a privilege he used to sit and speak with children during lunch. Back in 2015, the district had been put on notice of similar recruitment tactics by First Baptist Church.

On March 31, FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott cautioned the school district against its unconstitutional endorsement of First Baptist Church and allowance of evangelization during the lunch period.

"This predatory conduct is inappropriate and should raise many red flags," Elliott wrote to Superintendent Jeff Mingus.

Mingus responded on April 7 informing FFRF that adjustments had been made to ensure that school visitors do not violate the separation of religion and school.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has filed for a protective order in an ongoing FFRF case that challenges his censorship.

FFRF received a state-issued permit to place, in response to a Christian nativity scene, an exhibit in the Texas Capitol in December 2015 honoring the Bill of Rights and winter solstice.

Abbott ordered the exhibit removed, calling the display "tasteless sarcasm" and claiming that FFRF was seeking to "mock our nation's Judeo-Christian heritage."

The motion, filed April 17, seeks to prevent Abbott from being deposed in the lawsuit that FFRF filed after its freedom of expression was muzzled.

Abbott's motion for a protective order asserts that as a high-ranking government official, he is protected from having to testify. The motion also asserts, "Governor Abbott has no unique personal knowledge of any fact that is in any way relevant to this dispute."

Last year, U.S. District Court Judge Sam Sparks ruled that FFRF's case against the governor in his official and individual capacity could proceed.

After initially issuing the censorship letter, Abbott tweeted, "Mocking the Capitol Nativity Scene is Offensive. I Demand Removal of Satirical 'Nativity Scene' from Capitol."

FFRF will file a response to the protective order motion, asserting that Abbott is subject to a deposition in the case. The case is scheduled for a trial in October 2018.

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Supreme Court leans over slippery slope

Missouri preschool case could be bad news for state-church separation

In what could be a dangerous precedent, the Supreme Court of the United States appeared to lean toward breaking down a portion of the state-church wall that has prevented religious institutions from receiving public money.

A Missouri day care and preschool owned by Trinity Lutheran Church had requested a grant from a state fund to help refurbish a playground's blacktopped surface with rubber particles. Missouri's Constitution, like those in 38 other states, prohibits sending tax money to churches and church schools. When the state denied the funds, the school sued.

On April 19, most of the Supreme Court justices showed signs that they would be willing to allow funds to go this project, contending it is not specifically religious in nature and would therefore be discrimination based on religion. Only Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg indicated they felt it was a slippery slope that should not be crossed.

Sotomayor said she did not see how the state's refusal to fund a playground violates the First Amendment. "No one is asking the church to change its beliefs," she said. "If the issue is discrimination based on religion, what about the benefits that go to churches? There's plenty of people who would think the tax exemption goes too far."

When Ginsburg asked the church attorney if it could "demand as a matter of federal constitutional right that the playground be funded, even though they have an admission policy that favors members of their church?" he said, "Yes."

Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank thinks the lawsuit is another attempt by conservatives to chisel away at the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

"It was about interest groups whose business model depends on perpetuating the culture wars trying to frighten people into thinking Christianity is under siege," he wrote. "It was a springtime version of the annual 'war on Christmas.'"

The case could lead to a major shift in the law on church schools and public funding. Lawmakers in many states have been pushing hard for vouchers and scholarships to allow public funds to support religious schools.

It was unclear from the argument whether the justices would rule broadly in favor of church schools or focus narrowly on the playground because it had nothing to do with worshiping or teaching religion.

It initially appeared that the case might resolve itself when Missouri's new Republican governor, Eric Greitens, announced that the state would no longer deny grants to church schools, thereby making the case seemingly moot. But the justices proceeded as if the case were still under the previous state policy.

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Church may form own police force?

Despite FFRF objection, Alabama Senate OKs bill

The Alabama Senate has voted to allow a church to form its own police force.

Lawmakers on April 12 voted 24-4 to allow Briarwood Presbyterian Church in a Birmingham suburb to establish a law enforcement department. The measure now goes to the House, and if it passes there, as expected, it will go to Gov. Kay Ivey for her signature.

The church says it needs its own police officers to keep its school and 4,000-person congregation safe.

Critics of the bill argue that a police department that reports to church officials could be used to cover up crimes.

FFRF has notified Alabama Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee Chairman Allen Treadaway and other members of the major problems with the bill.

"Our Founders sought to move away from this violence by relegating government and religion to separate spheres," FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote. "Authorizing a church police force is precisely the unconstitutional unification of religious zeal and secular power they sought to avoid."

The state has given a few private universities the authority to have a police force, but never a church or non-school entity.

Experts have said such a police department would be unprecedented in the United States.

"The Alabama Statehouse is hurtling down an extremely slippery slope," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "A constitutional wreck is in the offing unless it changes course."

The ACLU of Alabama also urged lawmakers to vote no to the Briarwood police force.

"Vesting state police powers in a church police force would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment," Randall Marshall, the ACLU's acting executive director, wrote in a memo. "These bills unnecessarily carve out special programs for religious organizations and inextricably intertwine state authority and power with church operations."

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

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