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Lead Us Not Into Penn Station:Provocative Pieces

National Convention

October 7-9, 2016



Published by FFRF

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Lauryn Seering

Lauryn Seering

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FFRF legal victories

Fire department takes down sign

A fire department in the state of Washington has agreed to stop posting religious messages on its outdoor marquee, following an FFRF complaint.

Grays Harbor Fire District #1 in Oakville had put up a sign last holiday season reading: "Unto us a savior is born, Merry Christmas." It was temporarily taken down after a citizen complained, but was then put back up. FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler pointed out its inappropriateness and unconstitutionality in a letter to Oakville Fire Chief Kevin Witt in December. The department recently responded that it has complied with FFRF's request.

"I am pleased to inform you that at the commission's meeting in January 2016, it is noted in the minutes that there will not be any more religious messages on the Fire Department reader board," replied Deanna Lindholm, secretary of the Oakville Fire Department. "It reads in the minutes that the Fire Department will uphold the laws of the state of Washington and the Constitution of the United States of America."

Nevada school to end violations

A Nevada school district has agreed to halt several constitutional violations at a local high school after being alerted by FFRF.

Mojave High School Principal Antonio Rael and Grace Point Church Pastor Ty Neal were seen chatting in a video about the church's "partnership" with the principal. Rael said he felt there was a "kingdom-moving opportunity inside the walls of Mojave." Rael also spoke about bringing the Young Life organization (a Christian youth outfit) into the school to mentor the students, a move he claimed was "totally legit legally."

"Principal Rael's comments in this video raise many constitutional concerns," FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler wrote late last year to Carlos McDade, legal counsel for the Clark County School District (with a follow-up letter in April).

FFRF had requested that the School District (headquartered in Las Vegas) make certain that Rael abides by the restrictions that the U.S. Constitution places on him as the administrator of a public school. In addition, it asked that Mojave High School no longer permit Young Life or other such groups to preach to students, and ensure that Rael was not involved with student religious groups.

In a recent response, Clark County School District indicated that it had heard FFRF loud and clear.

"At the principal's request, Grace Memorial Church has removed the video from," McDade replied. "The Young Life organization no longer accesses the school during instructional time/schooldays but instead rents out space as an outside group. The district has also recently amended its regulation regarding student-led clubs and organizations."

School district halts proselytizer access

FFRF and its Kentucky chapter have blocked a Christian organization's infiltration into athletic programs throughout a Kentucky school district.

The Fellowship of Christian Athletes had embedded itself into athletic programs all over the Jefferson County Public Schools system (located in Louisville), including in elementary schools. The group sent adult representatives to lead "voluntary" chapel or religious services during athletic practices at district schools, in some cases with the role of an officially designated "team chaplain."

In a letter to Jefferson County Public Schools Superintendent Donna Hargens, FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert requested that the school district investigate the matter immediately and put a stop to such behavior.

In response, Hargens outlined in a letter to the head of the local chapter (Edwin Hensley) a number of steps it has put into place to curtail Fellowship activities in local schools.
Religious school message removed

A large religious message in an Oklahoma public school was taken down after an FFRF complaint.

One of the walls in the teachers' lounge in East Side Elementary School in Chandler, Okla., had a 5-foot-by-5-foot stenciled message that read: "Miracles alter flow unseen through our lives, so let us remember to thank God for our daily blessings."

FFRF reminded school officials that this was a violation of the First Amendment.

"As you know, public schools may not advance, prefer or promote religion," FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to Wayland Kimble, superintendent of Chandler Public School District.

FFRF asked that the message be removed and the School District reacted swiftly and affirmatively.

"Thank you for informing me of this," Kimble replied in an email within a day of receiving Seidel's letter. "We have taken it [the message] down."

School 'chaplaincy' makes changes

A California school district has taken a number of steps to conform with the U.S. Constitution following an FFRF complaint.

The Turlock Unified School District had a partnership with the Turlock Chaplaincy, a group of ordained ministers. Some of these ministers and other volunteers were labeled "school chaplains" and permitted to work with elementary school kids on school property during the school day.

FFRF raised objections to the partnership.

"It is inappropriate and unconstitutional for the School District to offer religious leaders unique access to befriend students during the school day on school property," FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler wrote to Turlock Unified School District Superintendent Dana Salles Trevethan.

An attorney for the school district promptly phoned Ziegler after receiving the letter. He informed FFRF that the training for the program was completely secular, but acknowledged that the name of the program needed to be changed and that the volunteering opportunity needed to be available to everyone, not just religious people.

Trevethan replied in writing to inform FFRF that the School District is making several alterations to the program to make sure that it does not violate the First Amendment. This includes changing the branding (including on volunteers' shirts) to "Character Coach" from "School Chaplain." The district will also issue a new Religion in the Schools policy to emphasize neutrality in religion and will provide details of all these changes to the staff and community. Trevethan also assured FFRF that no religious affiliation would be required to participate.

Creationist movie removed from school

An FFRF complaint about a creationist movie has made sure that it will not be shown again in a Colorado public school.

Carl Christianssen, a science teacher at Dakota Ridge High School, showed a video in class called "Unlocking the Mysteries of Life" that has been endorsed by the Campus Crusade for Christ. The video unequivocally endorses the false opinion that the natural universe "can only be explained by intelligent design."

Teaching creationism or any of its offshoots, such as intelligent design, in a public school is unlawful, because creationism is not based in fact, FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel reminded the Jeffco Public Schools system.

Jeffco Public Schools proved to be responsive to FFRF's concerns. School officials confirmed FFRF's account and stated that they're making certain the video is removed from the classroom.

"The district staff members develop approved list of videos for curriculum content," McMinimee replied to Seidel. "The video was not on our approved list, and, therefore, we have taken remedial actions designed to ensure that this video is not shown again."

Indiana religious sign taken down

A religious public school marquee was quickly taken down after an FFRF complaint.

Morristown Jr./Sr. High School in Morristown, Ind., posted "MAY GOD BLESS YOU" as part of its 2016 congratulatory message for its graduating students. Public schools may not endorse a religious message, FFRF reminded the Shelby Eastern Schools Corporation.
FFRF asked that the message be removed from the school marquee. The school district responded immediately to FFRF's request.

"Thank you for bringing this to my attention," Evans emailed the day after receiving FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne's letter. "The marquee will be changed promptly."
School will move ceremony venue

After FFRF contacted Cincinnati Public Schools, Covedale Elementary School will no longer hold its annual awards ceremony at a local church.

FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert contacted the school district on May 12 to complain about the civil-rights violation. "The selection of Western Hills Church of Christ as the site for the commencement ceremony demonstrates the school's preference for religion over nonreligion, and more specifically, Christianity over all other faiths," Markert wrote.

On May 24, FFRF received word that the Covedale principal was advised to identify a different venue for the awards ceremony in future years.

FFRF stops prayer events in Kansas

The Sylvan-Lucas Unified School District will no longer allow prayer at school-sponsored events following a complaint from FFRF.

A student at Sylvan-Lucas High School contacted FFRF after the class president read a pre-written prayer at prom and a teacher gave an invocation at the school's award night. The prayer at prom ended with "through Jesus, our lord, we pray. Amen," and the invocation referenced "our lord Jesus."

"The district has a duty to remain neutral toward religion," wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel. "By including prayers at school-sponsored events, the district abridges that duty and alienates the 35% of millennials–born after 1981, i.e., your students–that are nonreligious."
The superintendent replied to FFRF on June 6 saying the principal, teacher and sponsors would no longer allow prayer at school events.

FFRF ends multiple violations in Kansas

Chisholm Public Schools in Kansas will no longer permit teacher-led prayer and has terminated an elementary school bible class thanks to objections from FFRF.

A student notified FFRF that a history teacher at the high school led all the students in praying for a different teacher who had fallen ill.

FFRF also noticed a fourth-grade teacher listing a bible class on his schedule. Seidel asserted, "These bible classes are unconstitutional. Public schools may not provide religious instruction.... The district may not take away from instructional time to indoctrinate students in Christian dogma."

On June 7, FFRF received a response admitting that the prayer "was not handled appropriately." The district said it has discontinued the class "to prevent any further confusion."

Religious decals removed from cop cars

A Kansas police department has removed religious decals after FFRF complained about them.

The police department in Harper, Kan., had placed a decal on the back of patrol cars stating: "Romans 13:4." The New Testament verse in question reads as follows: "For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil" (King James Version).

Displaying a decal referencing this ominous Christian threat violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, FFRF had maintained. The Harper Police Department's choice of verse to display was particularly disturbing. There was something alarming about an official allusion to a verse that talks about "revengers," "bearing swords" and "executing wrath," when the job of the Harper Police Department is to protect and serve, not to mete out biblical punishments or divine anger.

"Placing decals referencing biblical quotes on the back of a law enforcement vehicle fails to respect either constitutional mandate of neutrality," FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to Harper Police Chief Doug Murphy.

With FFRF's letter generating a flurry of media coverage, the city of Harper swiftly backed down.

Michigan roadside cross removed

Thanks to an FFRF complaint, travelers on Interstate 69 near Bath Township, Mich., will not have to view a memorial with a Latin cross along the road.
The change proceeds from a letter from FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler in which she wrote, "It is unconstitutional to allow a religious symbol like a Christian cross to be displayed on a public roadside. The cross . . . unabashedly creates the perception of government endorsement of Christianity."

The Michigan DOT replied on June 17, notifying FFRF that the cross would be removed in a timely manner.

School cuts ties to baccalaureate service

The North Mac Community Unit School District in Illinois has promised not to promote or fund a religious baccalaureate service for graduating high school seniors. A letter written by FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover prompted the move.

FFRF first contacted the district back in 2014 to complain about the district's promotion of a religious baccalaureate service. At the time, the district replied that the service was organized by the North Mac Ministerial Association and assured FFRF that "no high school staff or administrators attended or participated in the event."

In June 2016, FFRF again contacted the district after a complainant notified FFRF that the district was promoting yet another baccalaureate service on both its website and Facebook page. The service included school-approved speech that quoted from the bible multiple times.

After the service had already occurred, the superintendent informed FFRF that the promotions were taken down.

California council nixes huge grant

A California city council nixed a multimillion-dollar grant to a private religious school after FFRF objected.

The Santa Ana City Council was considering a $2.5 million grant to Mater Dei High School, a Catholic institution, for construction of a new building and parking garage. FFRF called attention to the fact that the funding would have been a violation of the U.S. Constitution, as well as the California Constitution.

"The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits the government from supporting religious activities with public funds," FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote to Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido and City Council members. "The city of Santa Ana violates this principle when it funds the expansion of a private parochial school."

Jayne additionally detailed how the California Constitution prohibits such funding and urged the Santa Ana City Council not to disburse any money to the Mater Dei High School.

After receiving FFRF's missive, the Santa Ana City Council had second thoughts.

"Please be aware that the City Council agenda item referenced in the letter from Mr. Ryan Jayne has been removed," Daniel Soto from the city manager's office responded in an email. "City staff has not suggested that the item be placed back on any future City Council meeting agenda for consideration."

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FFRF wins suit over school censorship

FFRF has prevailed in a court battle over a school district's censorship.

In a legal settlement signed by U.S. District Judge Manuel Real, the Antelope Valley Union High School District in California consented to distribute scholarship opportunities offered by FFRF and Antelope Valley Freethinkers. It also agreed to reimburse $10,000 in attorneys' fees.

The district had claimed announcements for essay contests on nonreligious themes would upset parents and even rejected offers to modify the wording. Yet the district listed scholarships offered by religious organizations.

FFRF is satisfied that the Antelope Valley Union High School District will not engage in invidious viewpoint discrimination in the future or censor scholarship programs catering to nonreligious students.

"We're sorry it took a lawsuit to get the school district to agree to equal treatment of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and Antelope Valley Freethinkers," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "But we were confident we would prevail. It's also heartening to get a victorious settlement so quickly."

The lawsuit was filed in April in the U.S. District Court, Central District of California, Western Division. The case was litigated for FFRF by California attorney David J.P. Kaloyanides, with FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel and FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler serving as co-counsels.

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Pharmacy’s religious claim rejected

The U.S. Supreme Court on June 28 denied an appeal by a Washington pharmacy that cited Christian beliefs in objecting to providing emergency contraceptives to women.

The justices kept in place a July 2015 ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that upheld a state regulation requiring pharmacies to deliver in a timely manner all prescribed drugs, including contraceptives.

Three conservative justices (Samuel Alito, John Roberts and Clarence Thomas) argued that the court should have agreed to hear the appeal by the Stormans family, which owns Ralph's Thriftway grocery store and pharmacy in Olympia.

"When a woman walks into a pharmacy, she should not fear being turned away because of the religious beliefs of the owner or the person behind the counter," said Louise Melling, the deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Washington allows a religiously objecting pharmacist to deny medicine as long as another pharmacist on site provides timely delivery. The rules require a pharmacy to deliver all medicine, even if a pharmacist or pharmacy objects.

In 2014, the Supreme Court allowed certain businesses to object on religious grounds to the Affordable Care Act's requirement that companies provide employees with insurance that pays for women's contraceptives. The court in May sent a similar dispute brought by nonprofit Christian employers back to lower courts without resolving the main legal issue.

The Stormans family is made up of devout Christians who associate "morning after" emergency contraceptives with abortion. Thirty-eight state and national pharmacy associations had urged the court to take up the case, saying pharmacies generally get to choose what products they stock.

The appeals court said the rules further the state's interest in patient safety, as speed is particularly important considering the time-sensitive nature of emergency contraception.

Actress and FFRF Honorary Director Julia Sweeney spoke at the June 4 Reason Rally in Washington D.C. Here is the edited transcript of her speech.

By Julia Sweeney

Hello Reason Ralliers, I'm so happy to be here.

Who are we? What unites us here? We are people who use reason to make sense of the world, and use reason to advocate for the laws of the land. We resist superstition and supernatural explanations. We enjoy these things in art, in stories and in fantasy, but we understand the difference between our creative fictional imagination and the world as it really is. We are a big part of the citizenry, and we are people who want our voice heard here in the capital.

The religious fundamentalists and religious conservatives who base their worldview on the bible have a ridiculously outsized influence on the laws of this land. Part of the reason we're here is to correct that.

I was born in Spokane, Wash., and was immediately baptized a Catholic. I loved being a Catholic. I loved the ritual of the Mass, I loved the priests and the nuns. (I always wanted to be a nun, and now, here I am, finally, a None!) And I loved the music of the church. (Bach probably is responsible for at least 10 years of my Catholicism.)

But then, as an adult, I decided to take a bible study class. And frankly, everything went downhill from there. We all know the Old Testament is a crazy jumble of legends, a grab-bag of myths that reinforce the tribalism of the Jewish people. But not that many people know that the New Testament often portrays Jesus as anti-social, obtuse and shockingly mean.

Jesus' parables are often foggy, meaningless and even offensive. For example, Jesus helps us understand God's relationship with humans by telling us a story about how God treats people the people treat . . . their slaves. They beat some more than they beat others.
In fact, the bible refers to slavery all over the place. And not only does the bible not say slavery is wrong, the bible actually gives lots of advice about how you're supposed to keep your slaves and how slaves should behave obediently at all times to their masters. I thought the son of God would say that slavery was wrong. But no. Jesus does not say that. In fact, he uses slavery as an example of how God treats his people.

Here are some of Jesus' words in the New Testament: In Luke, Chapter 19, Jesus says that he is like a king who says, "Anyone who does not recognize me, bring them here and slaughter them before me." Or, in John, Chapter 15, Jesus says, "Anyone who does not believe in me is like a withered branch that will be cast in the fire and burned." In Matthew, Jesus says, "I come not to bring peace, but a sword." And in Luke, he says, "If you don't have a sword, sell your clothes and buy one."

Christians who find the Koran filled with murderous and hateful language would do well to look at their own bible. Sometimes the stone in your own eye is so enormous you are completely blind.

It's ironic that the "family values" Christian Coalition, which has much political clout, bases its morality on a religious leader (Jesus) who discouraged his converts to have any contact with their own families, who did not marry or have children himself, and explicitly told his followers not to have children, and that if they already had families, they should just abandon them.

When it comes to the topic of women, the New Testament is offensive. St. Paul writes, "Man is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or have any authority over a man. She must be silent. If there is anything a woman desires to know, let her ask her husband at home."

This is in the bible. The bible. The Good News.

And yet, much of our political culture is based on these archaic myths. This has translated itself into law — laws that negatively affect millions of people.
Because I come from the Catholic tradition, I'm going to use an example from that religious tradition.

About 20 percent of Americans are Catholic. Conservative Catholic organizations, such as The Catholic League and the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference, lobby hard and have an outsized influence in U.S. politics and law. But most Catholics themselves are not conservative, at least when it comes to issues like birth control and abortion. In fact, 60 to 65 percent of American Catholics are pro-choice, about the same as the rest of America.

But conservative Catholics have a big influence on American law. Five of eight Supreme Court justices are Catholic, and it was six out of nine when Scalia was alive.
While the Hobby Lobby case was filed by evangelical Christians, it was the Catholics Conference of Bishops who engineered the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court case to block contraception as a standard health care insurance benefit by employers who object, regardless of the desires of their employees.

This has enormous impact. Seventeen percent of people who work at a hospital are working at a Catholic hospital.

You may say the new lovable Pope Francis is leading the Catholic Church toward sanity. Not exactly. At least not when it comes to women and reproductive control. With the Zika virus spreading, and many urging the pope to relax his views of contraception, he said that abortion was absolutely evil and that contraception is slightly less evil. Then he offhandedly referred to a special dispensation argued for by John Paul in the 1960s where he claimed it was permissible for nuns in the Congo to use birth control pills because they were being raped so often by the local militias that they were becoming pregnant and unable to continue their work.

Just let that sink in a moment. That's the only case where the Church, or Pope Francis, can possibly imagine where contraception could be ethical. He seemed to halfheartedly and even blithely imply that might also be the case for women trapped in the Zika virus tragedy.

My mind boggles over that one. But then the pope did nothing to clarify, let alone codify, these sentiments. In the meantime, millions of poor women in South America who are Catholic, where abortion is illegal (mostly because of the Catholic Church) are at risk for bearing Zika babies that will, among other things, surely keep them and their children condemned to poverty. Not only that, the Zika virus is making its way here, and our own government is making birth control choices for women more and more limited. This is because of the Religious Right, including the Catholic Church.

Many of my Catholic friends tell me privately that they are nonbelievers — atheists — but they are still going to church for cultural and sentimental reasons. I get that. I really do. Some are even part of great groups like Catholics for Choice. But most are silent. Because of this, they allow themselves to be counted among the number that the conservative Catholic organizations say they represent.

I think conservative religious influence does not represent the American public. I think there are a lot of people out there, formally part of one religion or another, and by their silence they lend themselves to a very insidious political pressure toward fundamentalist, patriarchal, superstitious laws. As Edmund Burke said, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing."
This needs to change.

We here today, just by showing up at this rally, are counting ourselves among those without gods or masters, but as freethinking individuals, free from superstition and supernaturalism. Let our voices be heard. We are the Nones, and our voices are loud and clear. We want a separation between the church and state, just as our forebears envisioned. Let's succeed at this great American experiment.

Michael Nugent is a co-founder of Atheist Ireland and campaigns for the right to assisted dying for terminally or seriously ill people. He has previously campaigned against terrorism in Northern Ireland, including founding and chairing the peace group New Consensus.

Michael's speech, edited for space, was delivered on May 3, 2014, at FFRF's regional convention in Raleigh, N.C.

He was introduced by FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor:

Dan and I have been privileged to attend several events in Ireland with Atheist Ireland and Atheist International. It was a valuable perspective to see that, although half of our nation believes Jesus is in our Constitution, in the Republic of Ireland Jesus really is in their constitution. So it's a different kind of battle between church and state. We're very pleased to have Michael Nugent here.

By Michael Nugent

Thanks to everybody here for being part of the growing international movement for what we at Atheist Ireland describe as promoting atheism and reason and secularism. As individuals move from survival values toward self-expression values, societies move toward secular rational values and away from traditional religious values. So we are swimming with the tide of history with the work that we are doing.

Until very recently, Ireland was a monolithic Catholic state. Northern Ireland is different, but south is a monolithic Catholic state, dominated by two institutions: the Catholic Church and the Fianna Fáil, which is a populist political party infested with corruption.

For most of the last century, those two institutions have worked to keep Ireland Catholic. We have a clause in our constitution that says that the state acknowledges that the homage of public worship is due to almighty God. If you think about it for more than a second, it's not even a clause vindicating the rights of citizens to worship a god, it's a clause vindicating the right of this god to be worshipped by the citizens. As if the creator of the universe needs the Irish Constitution to vindicate his rights.

I was born in an Ireland in the 1960s where, in the first census after I was born, 95% of people said they were Roman Catholic; 99.5% said they were Christians of some variety. Less than half of one-tenth of one percent said that they had no religion. Divorce was illegal, abortion was and still is illegal, contraception was illegal. The Catholic Church, in the meantime and in the background, was covering up the rape and abuse of children with the active complacency of the Irish state in many cases.

But Ireland has changed a lot.

The most recent surveys in Ireland showed that 47% of Irish people say they are religious. That's less than half, which is a massive, massive change in a short period of time. And that's compared to 59% internationally.

Ireland is now one of the least religious countries in the world. So the Catholic Church has lost the moral influence that it had claimed and pretended to have for so long. Fianna Fáil is also out of power. Ireland, once a Catholic country, is a pluralist country, but unfortunately still has Catholic laws.

Still a ways to go

We still have that constitution that I was telling you about. And there are other things in that constitution, including the offense of blasphemy. The president, judges and members of the council of the estate, which includes the prime minister, are required by the constitution to swear a religious oath in order to take office. Which means that a conscientious atheist cannot legally hold those offices in Ireland.

The Catholic Church officially runs 90% of the primary schools in Ireland, funded by the state. Teachers' salaries are paid by the state, run by the Catholic Church with an official Catholic ethos that is not restricted to the religious instruction classes, but permeates the entire curriculum. So you cannot even opt your child out of the formal religious instructional elements because in nature study they'll be taught that God created the birds and the bees and in the music classes they'll be singing hymns. That's just a really difficult situation to deal with.

We also have a clause that was largely influenced by the Catholic Church, put into our constitution in the 1980s making abortion unconstitutional. The situation in Ireland with abortion is that the government has been forced by a combination of legal factors to bring in the most restrictive version of abortion laws that they could get away with and that the citizens could respect. Even in cases like rape and incest and fatal fetal abnormalities, abortion is still illegal in Ireland. We still have such a long way to go.

Also in Ireland, assisted dying is illegal, and I know that's the case in a lot of parts of America, as well. But that's a campaign particularly close to my heart because my wife died a few years ago of cancer. And she had made preparations to take her own life if she needed to, to avoid unnecessary suffering. And what's really important for people to understand is that it's portrayed as if it's about people wanting to die. But it's not about people wanting to die, it's about people wanting the peace of mind that they can have from knowing that they have the option to avoid unnecessary suffering. And when you're talking about people who are terminally ill and it is purely a question of when and how they die, rather than whether they die, the only argument against that is theological. And it is a purely secular issue to have assisted dying in those circumstances made legal.

Atheist Ireland

So that's the context in which Atheist Ireland was founded five years ago. We campaign to promote atheism and reason over superstition and supernaturalism. We campaign for an ethical secular state where the state doesn't give any support or preference to either religion or to atheism. We involve ourselves in political lobbying both of the government and opposition political parties. We provide briefing documents to parliamentarians when bills are going through that are relevant to secularism. We regularly make submissions to and appear before both parliamentary committees in Ireland, but also international human rights regulatory bodies like the United Nations and the European Union.

As Annie Laurie was saying earlier on, we are kind of like in the opposite position to what you have here. You have secular laws that you are trying to have enforced. We are still trying to get secular laws implemented.

One of the most serious is the blasphemy law. Ireland passed a new blasphemy law in 2009, and on that day, Atheist Ireland published 25 blasphemous statements on our website. What we said is, "One or two things will happen: Either we will be prosecuted, in which case we could challenge the constitution, or we won't be prosecuted, in which case that strengthens the political case for appeal of the law, because if they are not going to implement it, then it brings the Parliament and the laws into disrepute."

We take a human-rights-based approach to all of the political positions that we argue for, particularly in terms of blasphemy laws. Our position is that we can respect their right to hold their beliefs, but we don't have to respect the content of their beliefs. And a slogan that we used to articulate: "You have rights, your beliefs do not."
Rights infringed

It's astonishing how fundamental the infringements of human rights are, particularly in Islamic states. I'll give you one quick example, which is a woman named Aasia Bibi, a middle-aged mother who is currently in jail in Pakistan awaiting execution by hanging for allegedly blaspheming Muhammad. And two politicians in Pakistan who spoke up for her — the Muslim governor of Punjab and the minority's Christian minister in the government — were murdered.

In Aasia Bibi's case, as is the pattern for most blasphemy cases, it was because of a trivial dispute — a goat broke a trough in a neighbor's garden. That had created tension between this woman and her neighbors. And then when she was out working in the fields picking fruit, she went to get some water. But because she had drunk from the water bowl and she was a Christian, they said she had contaminated the water. And when she said something about Jesus doing more good for people than Muhammad, she was accused of blasphemy. A mob gathered to attack her. The police were called, and instead of dispersing the mob or arresting the mob, the police arrested her. So this is really important.
Normalizing 'atheist'

I've had a lot of discussions just over the last few days here with people from the Triangle Freethought Society about the work that they're doing, work that atheist groups are doing similarly in Ireland. I'm going to suggest that we need to normalize the use of the word "atheist."

I think that we need to be seen to be doing good things while self-identifying as atheists. And that's the only way and practice that we are going to chip away at the prejudice about the word "atheist" that exists. Because if we retreat from the word atheist while we are doing good things, then people never see self-identifying atheists do good things. The prejudice continues.

In theory, atheism can be any position on a scale from passively not believing in gods to actively believing that there are no gods. I believe that atheism in real life is necessarily more than a dry disbelief in an assertion about gods. If you don't believe in gods, then it necessarily follows that you don't believe that morality comes from gods.
That is a significant position to take. It's a significant worldview in a world where the majority of people do believe that morality comes from gods. Morality does not come from supernatural commands, it comes from our natural compassion and empathy and cooperation and reciprocity and sense of fairness and sense of justice. Atheism doesn't guarantee that you will reach the right decisions morally, but what it does do is it removes a significant obstacle.

That obstacle is not actually religion. It's an underlining obstacle — faith. Faith and dogma. By "faith," I mean believing something disproportionally to the currently best available evidence. And by "dogma," I mean believing in things without questioning them.
Those faiths and dogmas can be applied just as easily to secular projects as they are to religious projects. But the difference between religious faith and dogma and secular faith and dogma is that with secular faith in dogma, eventually it bumps into reality. And you notice that it's not working and you notice the consequences, whereas religious faith and dogma hides its testability in an imaginary afterlife. And so you don't get to notice whether it's working and can perpetuate itself more easily.

Obviously, another issue is that religious faiths and dogmas promote these kind of fantastic rewards for eternity that atheism doesn't. It can seem like a negative thing, and it's one of the things that portrays atheism as a negative concept. But I don't think it is. That argument is largely based on etymology. I believe that it is reasonable to say that atheism is a positive concept.

Four principles

Now, I'll briefly go over four principles that I think we should use to promote ethical secularism.

The first is promoting reason and science over faith and dogma. If I was to wander around the town of Raleigh today and tell people I had good news for them, that I had just been talking with Bill Gates, who said he's going to give every person $10 million if they do what I say, they would apply their critical thinking skills and probably wouldn't believe me.

But if I was to go to the same random group of people, tell them I have good news for them, that I was talking to the creator of the universe and that he has promised an eternity in paradise if they do what I say, a significant proportion of those people would actually believe me.

That's because religion corrupts our sense of reality. Normally, when we are asked to believe something, we weigh it against the evidence: What is most consistent with the evidence? And as the claim becomes more implausible, we raise the bar of the evidence that we need in order to satisfy ourselves that it is true.

But with religion, we do the exact opposite. As the claims become more implausible, we lower the bar of evidence. Religion encourages us to believe not only implausible claims, but literally untestable claims. And then it insists that we live our lives on the basis of those untestable claims. And that corrupts our sense of reality.

That leads into the second principle that I think we should promote: our sense of morality.

Morality is a natural function of our brains. We have evolved morality in order to live together as social animals, as have other non-human animals. Cooperation and competition are useful in terms of survival. So we feel empathy for each other, we feel compassion for each other, we cooperate, we feel a sense of fairness and a sense of justice. It's not something that is just unique to humans. We increasingly respect the rights of the non-human animals. We just generally refine and increasingly nuance our sense of morality.
It's a difficult enough thing to do. What religion does is add in a corrupting factor to that which is already a difficult task. What religion tells us is that even if this is the compassionate thing to do, even if this is the fair thing to do, even if this is the just thing to do, you shouldn't do it . . . because somebody wrote something down in a book 2,000 years ago.

And so many Catholics use that to justify denying condoms to potential AIDS victims in Africa. And many Muslims use that to justify the command in the Koran that husbands can beat their wives. In Surat 24-2, it says: "The woman and the man guilty of adultery or fornication, flog each of them with a hundred strikes, let not compassion move you in their case, in a matter prescribed by Allah."

So clearly the reason that this is in there is they were having a problem with people who were supposed to be flogging adulterers, but those people were allowing their compassion to prevent them from doing it to the satisfaction of the people that were making the rules. And so they had to add in another rule that they said was supposedly sent from Allah saying, "Don't let your compassion prevent you from doing what we are telling you." So not only is religion not necessary for morality, but religion actively corrupts morality.

The third of the four principals I want to talk about is promoting exclusive and caring and supportive atheist groups. This is one of the things that the Triangle Freethought Group is doing very effectively.

We should try to communicate with each other as respectfully as people. We can disagree with principles and we can disagree with each other. But we can respect each other as individuals while disagreeing with the content of our beliefs. I think that we've got to start treating each other with respect.

The final point I want to make is that I think we should be promoting fair societies with secular government, working in terms of improving our own ethical behavior within our organizations, but also tackling specific injustices within society that are relevant to religious dogma.

And also we should campaign actively to separate church and state. That should continually be the basis of what we are doing politically.

However implausible the claim I made earlier — the one about Bill Gates and the $10 million — surely it's even more implausible to suggest that the creator of the universe — with a hundred billion galaxies, each of which consists of a hundred billions stars — created it so that he could tell one member of one species on one planet to stone a man to death for gathering sticks on the Sabbath and then impregnate a virgin in order to give birth to himself.

On the basis of absurd claims like that, Aasia Bibi is currently languishing in prison in Pakistan awaiting execution by hanging for allegedly blaspheming against Muhammad. So I think we have to redouble our efforts to challenge blasphemy laws.

We should promote reason and science over faith and dogma. We should promote natural ethics over religious commands. We should promote inclusive caring support of atheist groups. We should promote fair societies with secular government and in doing that we should be optimistic about what we are doing. We live in an era where in my lifetime there have been massive changes in world geopolitics that we would have never thought would happen.

We can be optimistic that we are swimming with the tide of history in promoting atheism and ethical secularism.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation congratulates the 16 college-bound high school seniors who won this year's essay competition.

FFRF has offered essay competitions to college students since 1979, high school students since 1994 and graduate students since 2010.

Seniors were asked to pick from two topics: "The challenges of growing up a freethinker," or "Why Boy Scouts of America should welcome atheists and nonbelievers."
After carefully reviewing 140 submissions, FFRF awarded seven top prizes (including a tie for sixth place) and nine honorable mentions.

"FFRF is proud to offer these scholarships to deserving freethinking students," FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said. "We are glad to support them as they head off to college and begin this new chapter in their lives."

Winners are listed below and include the award amount and the college or university they will be attending this fall.

First place
Avery Boltwood, Duke University ($3,000)
Second place
Mahad Olad, Ithaca College ($2,000)
Third place
Mary Breeden, Illinois Wesleyan University ($1,000)
Fourth place
Kaylor MacLaughlin, Oregon State University Honors College ($750)
Fifth place
Bethany Wasilik, College of William and Mary ($500)
Sixth place (tie)
Erin McCoskey, Wichita State University ($400)
Sixth place (tie)

Elizabeth Robbins, Tisch School of Arts ($400)
Honorable mentions ($200 each)
Niha Ahmad, University of Illinois-Chicago
Christian Beveridge, University of Pittsburgh
Kristian Harrell, Missouri Southern State University
Matthew Joy, Chapman University
Alexandra Lauria-Daley, Northeastern University
Brody McNutt, Dartmouth College
Noelle Shaw, San Diego State University
Kayla Spitzer, Northwest Arkansas Community College
Conrad Wright, California Polytechnic State University

The high school contest is named for William J. Schulz, a Wisconsin member who died at 57. He was a mechanical engineer and cared deeply about FFRF's work, leaving a bequest that funds the awards.

FFRF also thanks Dean and Dorea Schramm of Florida for providing a $100 bonus to students who are members of a secular student club or the Secular Student Alliance. The total of $9,950 reflects bonuses.

The college student essay winners will be announced in the September issue and the grad student essay winners will be announced in the October issue.

FFRF awarded Avery $3,000.

I was 14, and my religion was on an IV drip. While my friends sang proudly at Sunday service, heads upturned and eyes closed in reverence, I stared straight ahead, reading the lyrics in silence. These hymns were nothing new. After all, I had been home-schooled in the faith. But by now, the melodies were losing their hold on me. Even the Christian apologia that I'd been subjected to over the years now seemed out of tune. The watchmaker argument, the cosmological argument, the supporting chords of intelligent design — for years I belted these hymns to unbelievers and whispered them to my own doubts.

After 14 years, I stopped whispering.

For the time, I believed in a god, but the god I now saw defied religion. This god was unprovable. Though he may have heard our hymns, the hymns themselves were hollow arguments, fumbling at an untouchable truth. Yet, the crowd expected me to sing them. As an assignment for my "Christian worldview" class, I was to give a speech and argue that unarguable question: Does God exist?

My friends answered the same way I had for years. They rejected evolutionary theory and the Big Bang, while claiming the cosmos, the Earth and the soul as God's fingerprints. They chorused those familiar arguments, voices lit with certainty and, in that certainty, comfort that their childhood beliefs still stood unbroken. But their hymns were no longer my hymns, and their god was no longer my god. I had to give my answer, and so I did.
"There are no fingerprints," I said. "We can't prove God."

The room offered up polite applause and awkward glances, but words would wait until Sunday. Then, in a quiet hallway, between the sermon and lunch, the pastor's wife had to talk to me for a moment. She told me that my speech was inappropriate, that I should not have played "devil's advocate." Others told me that I was rebellious, wrongheaded, just looking for a fight.

For years, my religion had been the heartbeat of my friendships. Now, that heartbeat flatlined. Since then, I have become familiar with that voice of reprimand, the voice that says, "Sing the hymns. Stay the path. Do not wander." The voice comes from well-intentioned friends and from the back of my head — a voice that tells me the worldview I was born into is the only one I will ever need.

But this same voice tells Galileo to forget his telescope for the sake of his church, and tells French revolutionaries to forget their ideals for the sake of their king. It is the voice of a stagnant world, whose countless ideas are left unexplored, like a field left uncultivated, all to preserve a more familiar ignorance. I ignore this voice when it calls for me, the so-called prodigal son. When I was 14, I left myself to wander, to disown comfort, to sing my own hymns and find my own truth. And today, I am still wandering.

Avery Boltwood, 19, lives in The Colony, Texas, where he recently graduated from The Colony High School. He will be attending Duke University in Durham, N.C., with plans to pursue a degree in public policy. Avery's interests include writing, debate, music composition and "Star Wars."

FFRF awarded Mahad $2,000.

My journey away from Islam began in the slums of Eastleigh, a suburb of Nairobi, Kenya. During my walk home from the mosque one morning, I heard a thunderous eruption off in the distance. Petrified, I sprinted to a relative's compound to seek refuge. A grenade had been thrown into a local church in the midst of a Sunday school session by Al-Shabaab. The explosion killed a child and wounded nine others.

That evening, a local religious leader delivered an energetic speech sanctioning the grisly attack. He cited numerous verses from the Quran and scads of reportings from the Hadith (deeds and sayings attributed to prophet Mohammed) as divine sources of inspiration for the jihadists.

I realized I couldn't overlook the fact that today's Islamic extremists are driven by a political ideology, an ideology derived from Islam's most sacrosanct texts. That event, including the imam's speech, propelled me to critically examine my faith, eventually leading me to renounce Islam altogether. It was a traumatizing experience to reject a religion whose doctrines I'd been conditioned to believe as the literal truth.

My mere existence as an ex-Muslim is radical and controversial. Many Muslim-majority nations retain laws that criminalize apostasy — the renunciation of Islam by a Muslim. Even in the secular West, where the freedom to change religions is recognized, ex-Muslims like me continue to fear for their lives. While I have not explicitly acknowledged my atheism to loved ones, they've figured out my disbelief due to my lack of observance of Muslim rituals. As a result, my older siblings no longer speak to me. My parents believe that by turning my back against the religion, I've turned my back against them. To them, I will always be a great disappointment.

There's this paradoxical challenge I face whenever I speak up about my experiences as a former Muslim. Well-intentioned liberals often label my criticism of Islam as racist or Islamophobic. These views stem from a place of genuine concern for Muslims who are victims of Islamophobic crimes. However, I can't help but feel a sense of betrayal whenever I'm silenced by liberals when I advocate for ideas we cherish: freedom, justice and equality.

I left Islam around the age of 13 and thought I was alone. Then I stumbled upon an internet forum catering to ex-Muslims. We discussed our experiences, vented to one another and sought advice on how to deal with issues often faced by ex-Muslims, such as family abandonment, loneliness and persecution. This virtual community served as my support group and helped me cope during rough times. A year after joining the online forum, I began attending local meetups through a nonprofit organization called the Ex-Muslims of North America. There, I've formed lasting bonds with members who understand the struggles I go through. This organization has had a tremendously positive impact on my life. I finally feel as if I belong.

Mahad Olad, 18, is a recent graduate from Brooklyn Center Secondary in Brooklyn Center, Minn. He will be attending Ithaca College with plans to double major in political science and journalism. He enjoys running, reading nonfiction books and spending time with friends.

FFRF awarded Mary $1,000.

Imagine you don't care for milk. You don't have anything against it, you just prefer not to drink it. You live sans lactose without mentioning it, thinking about it much, or persuading others to adopt your milk-less ways.

But some kid in your class really wants you to drink milk. "It's good for you," he says. "Milk will help you find yourself, because you're clearly living a life devoid of purpose by avoiding it. You'll keep others from drinking it and ruin their lives, too! Are you vegan? Are you morally opposed to milk? Have you tried it and seen how much it can change your soul?"

Imagine your classmate heckling you like this about religion.

It started in middle school. Apparently, being a nonreligious person who generally minded her own business was unacceptable to Jake, a devout Christian who would badger me into livid arguments during our lunch period. He would go on and on about how I was going to hell and how I still had time to repent. If I changed my mind and converted right then, he said, I'd be saved from my "sinful ways."

By my first year in high school, it got to the point where I couldn't sit with my friends at lunch because Jake was there, too. If I so much as approached the table to ask someone a homework question, he would promptly launch into a one-sided "friendly discussion" about Christianity. It usually devolved into him lamenting how desolate my life must be without any spiritual influence. I told him I found my life very fulfilling, thank you very much, and that I didn't feel I was morally depraved at all.

That summer, Jake began sending letters to my house and filling my inbox with long-winded Facebook messages.

Jake was an extreme case; our interactions felt almost like a sitcom — satirical, even. Most of my friends were religious to some degree, and completely respected my atheism, but after receiving what was essentially hate mail disguised in flowery words, I found it very difficult to voice my stance on religion. Religion simply didn't make sense to me. How could anyone devote themselves so fully to an entity that likely didn't even exist? Why was spirituality often synonymous with moral adjustment? Who was Jake to declare he was right about something that had been adamantly debated for centuries?

Thankfully, my family was supportive. I grew up in a house that encouraged freethought and celebrated autonomy. My parents let me navigate spirituality at my own pace and arrive at personal conclusions independently. Ultimately, I learned to climb above petty arguments and dead-end discussions to move on with things more worth my time.

I know that in the future my lack of religion will inevitably and repeatedly be challenged. However, when that time comes, I will stand tall. I have no reason to apologize for my nonbelief.

Mary (Amanda) Breeden, 18, recently graduated from Normal Community West High School in Normal, Ill. She was the leader of her school's Pride Club, and enjoys painting, playing violin and piano, and doing humanitarian work. She will be attending Illinois Wesleyan University and plans to major in women's/gender/sexuality studies.

FFRF awarded Kaylor $750.

I am not the homogenized, upper-middle-class, Republican, Christian city I come from. I once was, though.

Sucked in by the death grip of organizations like Young Life and Youth for Christ, I succumbed to the path of my peers. At 12 years old, I was indoctrinated into a church of people who refused to ask any real questions. At first, it was lovely. It was the first time in my life I had ever felt such a strong sense of community. I thrived in the church: I made friends, I understood biblical ideas, I knew how to speak the language.

Then, the fear came.

It didn't matter how many nights I stayed up with a flashlight on my bible or prayed, at the end of the day, I just couldn't believe it. I was told it's sinful to deny God. I had tried so hard, pushed myself to every extreme, but it wasn't real to me. So, I was going to hell. How is a 15-year-old supposed to take eternal damnation? I, for one, didn't take it well.

When I reflect on the Christian season of my life, I can only see one thing: shame. I was shameful about everything. I was ashamed that I like to kiss girls, even though I am one. I was ashamed of my sexual desires. I was ashamed of my forward personality. I was ashamed of my anger, my feelings, myself.

When I left the church, I found myself. I found my passion for science. I found my political opinions. I found real friends. I even found love. It was so liberating, to just simply be — without footnotes or guidelines or guilt.

Looking back on it now, I am angry. I am angry with the brainwashing, the lies, the carefully perfected techniques of sugarcoating. I am angry with the people who are caught up in it all. I want to shake them free of it. I am angry with people who refuse to take control of their own lives. I am angry with myself for not waking up sooner.

I am not ashamed of my anger. I'm not angry because I think it's an ideal state of being; I'm angry because I'm paying attention.

I am an atheist because I am not going to take the easy way out. I want to ask the hard questions. I want to experience all of my feelings and wishes, simply because they're mine. I am an atheist because anything else would be a lie.

Kaylor MacLaughlin, 18, graduated from West Linn High School in West Linn, Ore. She was born in Marietta, Ga. She will be attending Oregon State University Honors College after spending a term in Southeast Asia. She hopes to get a degree in biology with a minor in social activism.

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