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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

A Ten Commandments mural at O'Donnell (Texas) High School was covered with dark paper after the school got a letter from FFRF challenging the constitutionality of the painting.

Shortly thereafter, the paper covering was torn down by the students. School staff then placed an American flag over the mural, hoping no one would rip that down. So far the flag remains up, but students have been posting sticky notes around the flag with bible verses and faith-based messages.

O'Donnell School District Superintendent Cathy Amonett even went so far as holding a school assembly that day so she could explain that the covering was due to fear of a lawsuit by FFRF.

While a lawsuit is an option, it's is not the preferred choice and is normally a last resort. FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover sent the letter Sept. 7 to the school, asking for a written response on what steps it will take next. "By displaying a religious message in its entryway, O'Donnell ISD infringes on its students' constitutionally protected religious freedom," he wrote in the letter.

"The whole point is to educate the school district on why this is illegal and ask that they voluntarily remove the display," Grover said. "At this point, we're very hopeful the school district will do the right thing."

But Amonett isn't sure yet what the school will do.

"The next step is I'm going to do some more investigation," she said, "and get with the school leadership, and the community, and the students, and we will decide what we need to do to protect the school, while also honoring it."

Texas state Sen. Charles Perry even got involved, stating, "I am proud of the hundreds of students at O'Donnell that are standing up for their faith and starting a movement to save the Ten Commandments at their school. Our office is working to ensure the school is in touch with the necessary experts to explain their rights and determine a plan of action."

So far, the school is not taking further action. At a public forum on Sept. 13, all of the speakers (students and residents) were in favor of keeping the mural up. But, as Grover points out, "Everyone's not happy with it. First of all, because someone locally contacted us . . . Our constitutional rights in this country are not subject to majority rule. The Constitution protects from the tyranny of majority rule."

While pleased that a live nativity pageant in an Indiana public school has stopped for now, the Freedom From Religion Foundation is disappointed following a federal ruling Sept. 14 saying a school may employ mannequins in a Christian manger scene during a Christmas celebration.

U.S. District Judge Jon E. DeGuilio for the Northern District of Indiana issued the 37-page ruling in a case brought by FFRF and the American Civil Liberties Union, with parent and student plaintiffs. The federal suit challenged a live student tableau of students as part of Concord Community Schools' annual "Christmas Spectacular."

The ACLU and FFRF won a preliminary injunction Dec. 2, 2015, against the live nativity. The nearly 50-year violation involved students reenacting the supposed birth of the Christian savior, as school officials read passages from the New Testament and devotional Christmas hymns dominated the musical program.

The district responded to the lawsuit by adding one Chanukah song and one Kwanzaa song to its program. After the preliminary injunction, it replaced the student actors in its nativity scene with mannequins, but kept the usual 20 minutes of devotional Christmas songs performed by students during four public concerts.

The decision held that the 2015 change from a live nativity enactment to a static nativity display did not violate the Establishment Clause. The ruling left untouched the court's earlier decision enjoining the live nativity.

The court's ruling was predicated on what it saw as significant changes to the school district's program, brought on by the litigation. The judge called the changes sufficient to avoid any constitutional problem with the 2015 concert.
FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said, to the contrary, that in fact the unannounced inclusion of a manger scene was a disturbing shock and offense to the plaintiffs observing the concerts.

FFRF and the ACLU note that staging a nativity scene, live or otherwise, during a school event has no secular or educational purpose.

"The nativity scene and the concert's heavy focus on the religious aspects of Christmas send an exclusionary message to our clients and others that the school prefers Christians over nontheists and people of other faiths," noted ACLU Senior Staff Attorney Heather Weaver.

The case is still ongoing. Judge DeGuilio has asked the parties to submit supplemental briefing on how to remedy the violations to plaintiffs' rights occurring in 2014 and earlier. Those issues should be fully briefed by the end of October.
FFRF thanks its local plaintiffs, who are under a protective order, for their willingness to challenge this longstanding violation despite community uproar and threats delivered against anyone perceived to be involved in the case.

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FFRF state/church victories

Unconstitutional tie-up in preschool ends

An unconstitutional tie-up between a Wisconsin school district and a parochial preschool has been nixed following an FFRF complaint.

In Beaver Dam Unified School District, 3-year-old public school students with developmental delays were often being sent to private preschools. FFRF's complainant, who has an eligible child, was offered only one choice: a Catholic school, St. Katharine's, whose preschool is named God's Little Miracles. To quote the school itself, its "program is based on the theme 'Thank you, God.' "

"It is wildly inappropriate for the School District to send 3-year-old public school students to private schools for religious instruction," FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote in June to Stephen Vessey, superintendent of the Beaver Dam Unified School District.

The School District investigated the situation and told St. Katharine's what it would have to do to comply with the law and district policy. St. Katharine's decided to stop participating altogether in the 3K program rather than make any changes, revealing that religious instruction was its primary goal.

"After being advised of the changes that would have to be made to the 3K program, [St. Katharine Drexel] School indicated it no longer wished to provide the Early Childhood (3K) program to district students, and the district has accepted the school's withdrawal from participating in the program," Vessey recently replied. "Any students who were enrolled in the school's Early Childhood program by the district for the coming school year have since been moved to a program offered at a different site."

Elementary school bible club shut down

FFRF has caused a religious club to be disbanded at a California elementary school.

Club Monarch, an afterschool bible club, was run in part by teachers and routinely given preferential treatment at Mariposa Elementary School in Brea, Calif. The club was mentioned in the weekly newsletter and listed in the school calendar. There were posters around the school exclusively advertising the club. At a back-to-school night, the principal effusively praised and recommended the club.

FFRF reminded the school that this sort of collaboration was unconstitutional.

"It is a well-settled principle of Establishment Clause jurisprudence that public schools may not advance, prefer or promote religion," FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler wrote to Brea Olinda Unified School District Superintendent Brad Mason back in March.

After reviewing school records obtained through an open records request, including over 2,500 pages of emails about Club Monarch going back only two years, FFRF wrote a follow-up letter in May stating that its apprehensions had been confirmed.

FFRF has now received confirmation that its advice has been followed. "Club Monarch has ceased to operate at Mariposa Elementary School and does not operate at any other district school sites," the school district's legal firm has written to FFRF.

FFRF ends religious film screenings

The Christian movie "Facing the Giants" won't be shown to Medina Middle School's seventh-graders in the future, FFRF has ensured.

A parent of a student at the Dyer, Tenn., school brought the issue to FFRF's attention. The film follows a struggling high school football coach who inspires his team to believe in the God and to use faith to win football games.

Showing "Facing the Giants" in a public school "promotes Christianity over all other religions and nonreligion and violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment," FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert informed the Gibson County Special School District.

Eddie Pruett, the district's director of schools, replied that the teacher was reminded that multimedia must be approved by the principal, and was told that "Facing the Giants" was not an appropriate movie to show the class.

FFRF gets religious group to pay fees

FFRF has made certain that a Wisconsin religious organization will pay full rental fees at local public schools.

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

FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote earlier this month to Waupaca School District Superintendent Greg Nyen. FFRF's complaint was taken seriously and received an appropriate response.

"I understand your concern regarding the need for separation of church and state," wrote Nyen. "I am hereby providing you said assurance that in the future, charges for facility usage will be applied to Mission of Hope as it would any other outside organization."

Prayer discontinued at N.D. graduations

After including multiple prayers to Jesus at its 2016 graduation ceremony, Watford City High School in North Dakota has assured FFRF that the constitutional violation will not be repeated.

"High school graduations must be secular to protect the freedom of conscience of all students," FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliot wrote to McKenzie County School District Superintendent Steven Holden. "It makes no difference how many students wouldn't want prayer or wouldn't be offended by prayer at their graduation ceremony. As the Supreme Court has said, 'Fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.' "

Holden responded on Aug. 2, explaining that, after consulting with the school board and school district attorney, the district would ensure prayer would not be part of future ceremonies or other school-sponsored events.

No more pastors at school bible club

A bible club at a Nevada middle school will no longer be led by pastors, thanks to FFRF. A parent of a Bob Miller Middle School student contacted FFRF after reading the club's description in the yearbook: "Pastors come to the club every Tuesday and teach the students morals mentioned in the bible."

"It is illegal for public schools to allow adults to lead religious instruction on school property during the school day," wrote FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler in a July 21 letter to the Clark County School District. The Equal Access Act forbids adult participation in student religious clubs.

General Counsel Carlos L. McDade told FFRF on Aug. 2 that administrators were "reminded that the bible club must be student-led and that the club must not be directed, conducted, controlled, or regularly attended by nonschool persons."

Teacher instructed to stop praying

The Academy for Scholarship and Entrepreneurship in the Bronx, N.Y., will stop including teacher-led invocations in its graduation ceremonies.

The decision was prompted by a July 14 letter from FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert, who pointed out that the Supreme Court has specifically struck down prayers at public school graduations. "The district has a duty to remain neutral toward religion," Markert wrote. "By scheduling prayers at graduation, the district abridges that duty and alienates the 35% of young Americans who are not religious."

Carron Staple, superintendent of Bronx High School Districts 8, 9 and 11, responded that the teacher's actions were against New York City Department of Education regulations. Staple said the prohibition had been discussed with the school's administrative staff, who understood the invocation could not recur.

Principal won't pray with students

Bakersfield High School Principal Connie Grumling will not pray with students in the future. Grumling had met with students to pray at the flagpole.

FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel lodged a complaint with the Kern High School District in Bakersfield, Calif., in August 2015. "Federal courts have held it is unconstitutional for public school employees to participate in the religious activities of their students," he said. This is "to avoid any perception of government endorsement of religion."

On Aug. 9, Seidel spoke with the district's general counsel, who said that the prayer was an "isolated incident" that had been addressed by the administration.

FFRF downs religious signs at Florida school

The Osceola County School District is now limiting church advertising on its property.

The My Grace Fellowship Church holds its services at the Westside K-8 School, and previously was permitted to leave lawn signs promoting the services on the school's grounds. FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel objected to this practice in a June 13. "Advancing, preferring, and promoting religion is exactly what a school does when it allows a church to prominently place a permanent advertisement for students, parents, school employees, and anyone passing by to see," said Seidel. "[The church] must put up the signs no earlier than when the rental time begins and take them down when the rental time ends."

An attorney for the school district reported the matter resolved on Aug. 24.

Softball coaches leave prayer circle

After receiving a letter from FFRF last year, West Virginia's Putnam County Schools has finally instructed softball coaches at Buffalo High School to stop praying with students. A photo from the state championship game showed players, coaches and fans holding hands in a circle around the field for a post-game prayer.

"While students may engage in prayer on their own, school staff, including coaches, cannot lead, direct or participate in such religious activities," FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert reminded the district in June 2015.

After FFRF followed up several times, the district replied on Aug. 11 that the incident was addressed by administrators and that the district was obtaining legal training on the Establishment Clause.

Elementary school graduations secularized

FFRF has put a stop to several egregious constitutional violations at a kindergarten graduation ceremony at Valley Elementary School in Pikeville, Ky.

The school's 2016 ceremony included a teacher-led prayer and the students singing, "Jesus Loves Me," which they had reportedly been singing in their music classes for most of the school year. "It is coercive and inappropriate for a teacher to lead a prayer at a school function, and then to order the performance of 'Jesus Loves Me' by the students," wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert in a June 9 letter to the Pike County Schools.

General Counsel Neal Smith wrote back to FFRF on Aug. 23, saying he "cautioned our administration that open prayer at school-sponsored events should not take place and that faculty-led singing of hymns, such as 'Jesus Loves Me,' should also be avoided."

FFRF quashes Utah school board prayer

The Wasatch County Schools in Heber City, Utah, have reluctantly agreed to stop praying at School Board meetings.

Previously, meetings regularly included Mormon-style prayers delivered by the superintendent, School Board members, and other district employees. FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to Superintendent Terry Shoemaker and School Board President Mark Davis on May 3. "Federal courts have struck down school board practices that include this religious ritual," he said, citing several cases, including FFRF's recent victory against the Chino Valley (Calif.) Unified School District's praying school board.

Superintendent Paul A. Sweat replied Aug. 23 that he believed the cases FFRF cited were "wrongly decided," but said the board had stopped conducting prayer for the time being. Sweat concluded by expressing his hope that the Supreme Court would soon extend the Greece v. Galloway decision approving of some prayers at meetings of legislative bodies.

School district cuts religious presenter

Staff in the Little Rock (Ark.) School District won't be subjected to religious lessons at staff meetings in the future.

At Mabelvale Middle School's Aug. 9 teaching staff meeting, the school invited a Baptist pastor to give a presentation, which included retelling biblical stories and other religious remarks. FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott called out this unconstitutional presentation in an Aug. 18 letter. "By imposing religious messages on its employees at district-sponsored events, the district is violating constitutional limits on government religious endorsement," he wrote.

Replying promptly on Aug. 23, an attorney for the school district acknowledged that part of the presentation could be perceived as an endorsement of religion, and said the superintendent would send a written notice to all district principals "to remind them not to allow presentations at mandatory teacher meetings or in-service training which endorse a particular religious position or message."

Lunchtime religious school group disbanded

FFRF has gotten an outsider-led lunchtime religious group at an Illinois public school disbanded.

School administrators at Harrisburg Middle School were allowing a Baptist minister to lead a religious session during lunch hour. He offered free pizza and soda to students who joined the group.

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

After waiting for months for a response, FFRF Legal Fellow Jayne sent a reminder letter, and this time Harrisburg School District Superintendent Michael Gauch responded.

"Following the school board's directive, school administration instructed the local minister that he would no longer be allowed to come onto school property and meet with students during the lunchtime or anytime during the instructional day," Gauch wrote.

Ohio commissioners to find secular inspiration

The Lorain County Board of Commissioners in Ohio is replacing invocations with secular quotations at its meetings after hearing from FFRF.

Christian prayers and bible readings by the commissioners were prior staples of the meetings. "It is coercive, embarrassing, and intimidating for nonreligious citizens to be required to make a public showing of their nonbelief (by not rising or praying) or else to display deference toward a religious sentiment in which they do not believe, but which their Board of Commissioners members clearly do," FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert said in a letter to the board.

Markert explained that unlike the prayers by outside religious leaders approved by the Supreme Court in Greece v. Galloway, federal courts have struck down prayers led by commissioners themselves.

A county attorney said the board disagreed with FFRF's position, but had decided to discontinue the prayers anyway, replacing them with a secular "quote of the day."

FFRF ends Louisiana prayer violations

Thanks to FFRF, the Calcasieu Parish Public Schools have resolved two constitutional violations. Westlake High School will no longer broadcast prayers at football games. Vinton Elementary School will not repeat an incident that occurred on Aug. 7, when the community was invited to come to the school for prayer and a tour of the facilities.

FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover first wrote to the school district in September 2015 about the football prayers, receiving no response despite several follow up letters. Grover wrote again on Aug. 26 about the elementary prayer event. "Hosting a prayer event at a public school alienates non-religious students and families, as well as those who practice a minority religion," he said. "A public school district should seek to be inclusive of all students and families, not just those in the religious majority."

Gregory Belfour, the school's attorney, responded just a few days later this time. He said the superintendent would communicate the "constitutional limitations" on government-sponsored prayer to the Vinton principal, and school administrators at Westlake had been advised to stop promoting prayers at football games.

Florida police prayer event canceled

The Ocoee, Fla., Police Department will no longer host a "Prayers for Police" event after FFRF sent a letter of complaint.

The department put on the event in May at a church, listing the purpose on a flier as "a period of unity as police chaplains, community leaders and members of the community join together to pray for the police profession." The event was advertised on social media and hosted on police property. FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel notified the department that this entanglement with religion was unconstitutional. "Although we fully support remembering fallen police officers, it is OPD's constitutional obligation to find a religiously neutral means of doing so," said Seidel.

An Ocoee City Attorney responded on Aug. 2, saying the city would no longer host the event.

FFRF stops school's Christian music

Students in the weight room at Tecumseh High School in Tecumseh, Mich., won't be forced to listen to Christian music, thanks to FFRF.

FFRF received a report from a local resident that a physical education teacher played the religious music during workout sessions in the weight room during the summer. "Playing Christian music to an audience of students using the weight room is a violation of student and parental rights," wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert in a letter to the Tecumseh Public Schools superintendent. "It is illegal for a district employee to promote Christianity through religious music while acting in his or her official capacity."

Superintendent Kelly M. Coffin thanked Markert for bringing the matter to the school district's attention and said that the school principal reminded the teacher of "his constitutional duty to remain neutral toward religion while in a public school setting."

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College Essay Contest winners announced

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is delighted to announce the 2016 Michael Hakeem Memorial College Essay Contest winners.

The list of awardees has seven top places and 13 honorable mentions from colleges located all over the country. Students were asked to write 700 to 900 words on the topic of "Why I am a freethinker." FFRF has offered essay competitions to college students since 1979, high school students since 1994 and graduate students since 2010.

The winners of the competition are listed below and include the award amount, age and college or university they are attending. Students who are a member of a secular student group received $100 bonuses.

Adam Simmons, 19, University of Tennessee ($3,000)

Alex Reamy, 21, Arizona State University ($2,000)

Katherine Gramling, 19, University of Minnesota ($1,000)

Leah Kennedy, 22, New York University ($750)

Karl Yee, 19, University of Maryland ($500)

Elias Rodriguez, 22, University of Texas-Dallas ($500)

Adrick Tench, 21, Northwestern University ($400)

Cheyenne Barger, 19, Gannon University
Savannah Flusche, 23, Texas Woman's University of Denton
William Gardner, 24, University of Delaware
Syd Gettier, 21, Notre Dame of Maryland University
James Harder, 23, Athabasca University
Camille Kaiser, 19, University of New Mexico
Jonathan Ortiz, 18, University of Florida
Fallon Rowe, 19, Utah State University
Aiden Sorge, 20, Arizona State University
Elizabeth Turovsky, 19, Barnard College
Manon von Mil, 24, Queen's University
Camille Sanchez, 19, Pomona College
Alexis Serra, 20, Drexel University

Next to be announced will be the winners of FFRF's graduate student essay competition.

The college contest is named for the late Michael Hakeem, a sociology professor who was an FFRF officer and active atheist known by generations of University of Wisconsin-Madison students for fine-tuning their reasoning abilities.

FFRF also thanks Dean and Dorea Schramm of Florida for providing the $100 bonus to students who are members of a secular student club or the Secular Student Alliance. The total of $11,450 reflects bonuses.

FFRF congratulates the 20 college students who won this year's essay competition and wishes them all the best for their future endeavors.

The opening night of the Freedom From Religion Foundation's upcoming convention in Pittsburgh has a major revelation in store.

After years as a closeted atheist in the Bible Belt, a former conservative pastor will be coming out publicly on Friday, Oct. 7. "Adam Mann" (a pseudonym) is a co-founder of The Clergy Project, a group for current and former religious professionals without supernatural beliefs.

Adam was featured on ABC News in 2010, interviewed by Dan Harris, now host of "Nightline." An ABC TV producer will be present to record Adam's unveiling, who will for the first time be declaring his nonbelief in public and entering a new phase of his life as a former minister.

The FFRF Pittsburgh convention will begin on Friday evening with Linda LaScola, a co-founder of The Clergy Project, introduced by noted Tufts philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, another Clergy Project co-founder. (Dennett will again address the convention Saturday night in the keynote speech.) Shortly afterward, FFRF Co-President Dan Barker, a former minister and also a co-founder of The Clergy Project, will introduce Adam. The quartet will take questions for 15 minutes. At the evening's conclusion, following an award and speech featuring noted physicist and atheist Lawrence Krauss, Dennett and LaScola will sign copies of their book, "Caught in the Pulpit," with Adam on hand for the book signing, too.

"Adam was clandestinely moonlighting as an atheist for too long," says Barker. "We're pleased he's free at last."

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national organization dedicated to the separation of state and church, with more than 23,000 nonreligious members all over the country, including 700-plus in Pennsylvania.


FFRF awarded Adam $3,000.

By Adam Simmons

I remember staring at it. The moon lay shrouded behind a trail of clouds, which cast streaks across the grey stone as they passed. On either side, towers loomed over the face of the courtyard. I remember looking up at its broad, Gothic windows and fixing my attention on what appeared to be a single candle that flickered on one of the upper floors. It reminded me of my youth — the days where I would sit quietly in church, listening to the pastor deliver his sermon on the grace of God and crucifixion of his son.

I never liked church as a boy; I could never wrap my head around the concept of salvation. In truth, there was little to nothing I could wrap my head around. It all seemed so foreign and complex. God creating man, setting up the perfect scenario for him to sin, then condemning all of his progeny to eternal damnation, saving only those few whom he had predestined. Why punish them for something they had no control over? Better yet, why create a hell in the first place and why make it eternal? But as the mind of a child is vulnerable to the slightest impressions, I became the mold of my parents' desires.

I was sent to a Christian "school," where I was limited to Christian "science" and was forced to attend daily chapel services and take bible classes. Like a rat in a glorified Skinner box, I was taught what to say, what to do, and, most importantly, what to think. And when the evil demon of rationality came in to "test my faith," I was warned of the fire and brimstone that was to face me if I continued to question The Almighty.

So, with the threat of hell always at my side, I took it upon myself to understand the bible. Sure, my parents had me read through all 66 books of the Old and New Testaments by the time I was 9, but I had yet to learn of the philosophy. In consequence, I read everything from Aquinas to Kierkegaard, still driven by Pascal's Wager to elude my fate. Yet even this was not enough to convince me. The arguments were unsound, and the evidence was as solid as the communion wine.

A few weeks later, as the pastor began one of his polished sermons that I had heard at least 20 times before, I came to a realization. I recognized that even if I spent my whole life going to the seminary and the most prestigious divinity school in the United States trying to rationalize a belief in God, it would always be just that — a rationalization stemming from nothing more than a fear of hell. It would be a life founded upon confirmation bias and voluntary ignorance.

I realized that even if I "devoted my life to Him" and at the end of it all I still felt that I didn't actually believe — that the holy spirit had never entered me — then I would just end up in hell anyway. After relating these thoughts to my pastor, he told me that I simply had to wait for the Lord to reveal himself to me.

"So," I said, "all I have to do is wait until I am so desperate that I begin to tell myself that he has shown himself to me and eventually, through self-fulfilling prophecy, become so deranged that I actually come to believe it." I broke out in a loud laugh and continued. "And even if I could convince myself through years of self-abuse and conditioning, the faith would still be false and I would still be destined for hell." The laugh turned into a cathartic cry. I had finally disencumbered myself of religion.

The flame had grown a little dimmer now in the cathedral, and I wondered if it would ever die out. What has kept it alive for so long? After years of thought, we are no closer to proving the existence of God. All the arguments — cosmological, teleological, ontological, moral — merely derive God as a necessity from false premises and circular claims. Yet the flame burns on a brittle wick.

Adam, 19, was born in Nashville and attends the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. He enjoys reading and writing poetry, short stories, aphorisms, novels and philosophical treatises.

FFRF awarded Alex $2,000.

By Alex Reamy

Religious believers like to pretend that atheism is the result of personal trauma orfrustration with God, but this was not the case with me. I have had heterodox opinions concerning religion for as long as I can remember.

When I was 7, I decided that Christ was most likely an ordinary rabbi and not a god in human form. My reasoning was as follows: "Jesus said he was the son of God, but he also said that we are all God's children. So, maybe Jesus was not the literal son of God; maybe he was just a mortal man." The next year, I discarded the doctrine of hell, since I could not believe in a just God who sentenced his creations to eternal damnation.

Gradually, my criticisms of religion became more refined. I observed that thousands of religions have existed throughout history, each with its own pantheon and set of moral teachings.

While studying history, I learned that the bible, which Christians consider a divinely inspired text, contained passages that condone slavery and the subjection of women. I wondered why a loving and all-powerful God would allow millions of innocent people to die of disease and natural disasters. If God created human beings knowing in advance that they would commit evil actions, is he not partly responsible for that evil?

In my junior year of high school, I examined all the common arguments for the existence of God, and saw that they all contain serious faults. Religious apologists claimed that only God could be responsible for the elegant design of the universe; but where, I thought, was the evidence for this design?

Most of the universe is indifferent, if not hostile, to human life.

Yet we are expected to believe that this vast cosmos was created for the sole purpose of fostering human life? If God exists, he must be extremely wasteful or indifferent.
There is also the First Cause argument, which states that everything in the universe has a cause, therefore there must be a first cause, which we label God. There are two objections to this line of reasoning.

First, particle physics has shown that "nothingness" is unstable, therefore it is plausible to imagine a universe in which "something" arose from nothing due to purely mechanical processes.

Second, the argument is obviously self-contradictory. You cannot start from the assumption that everything has a cause and obtain the result that there exists an uncaused cause (i.e., God). If it is true that everything has a cause, then God must also have a cause. If there is something without a cause, then there are no logical grounds for believing that this so-called "First Cause" is the vengeful, jealous God described in the bible. It is equally likely that the universe had multiple first causes, or that the universe was set in motion by some impersonal, natural force.The First Cause argument has several other fallacies, but these are the most blatant.

Casting aside my religious belief was not a slow or painful process, as it is for someatheists. I was raised in a secular household, so I was not punished for questioning the validity of a 2,000-year-old sacred text. If children were taught to value logic and skepticism rather than obedience and blind credulity, religion would quickly become obsolete. This is a goal we should strive toward, since dogmatic religious belief is one of the primary causes of hatred and suffering in the world.

In order to guarantee the survival of the human race in a postnuclear age, we must be willing to confront hard truths, instead of surrounding ourselves with comfortable lies. We must abandon ancient superstitions, and rely on our own intelligence in creating a more rational, humane world.

Alex, 20, lives in Hilton Head Island, S.C., but spends most of the year in Tempe, where he is studying mathematics at Arizona State University. He is a member of the ASU chapter of the Secular Student Alliance and enjoys reading classic literature and swimming with the local masters team.

FFRF awarded Katherine $1,000.

By Katherine Gramling

Growing up in the Deep South, I was expected to be an observing, unquestioning Christian. As a young freethinker, I was criticized for my nonbelief. This social norm of Christianity is a large reason I traveled north and went to college in Minnesota.

When my family moved to Georgia in 2006, we started attending church, which was something we had never regularly done before. I became very involved in the Methodist church, eventually attending multiple Christian youth groups a week, participating in a Christian club at my high school, and even working in the church nursery for two years. This intense exposure to the Christian faith was at first fulfilling, but as I grew older I started questioning the things I once accepted as truth. I began on a freethinking journey that would end in atheism, all the while finding more certainty and happiness along the way.

Since I had been very involved with the church in my younger years, I had ample exposure to modern Christian theory. As I got older, I started questioning several biblical themes that preached misogyny, genocide and slavery. I could not rationalize these atrocities. Christians are supposed to love and rejoice in the fellowship of all people, yet I often felt there was an undercurrent of distaste and misunderstanding toward nonbelievers. My feelings were greatly intensified as I started to identify less with the church and more with nonbelief.

There were several times throughout my high school experience when I felt ostracized for being a freethinker. At one point, I was completely excluded from my high school swim team for declining to pray with them before a meet. It was an extremely public display. Bleachers of parents and friends watched as one girl sat alone, apart from her team, while everyone else participated in a communal prayer that blurred the line between church and state. These exclusionary practices repel not only nonbelievers, but everyone who is not a Christian, and therein lies a huge problem with religion in general.

When I look at our world today, I see a world in which religious affiliation merely serves to divide our people and extend modes of power and historical conflicts. Because of this destructive legacy, it was important for me to find a moral compass that does not carry thousands of years of hurt. I found that moral code within myself. Many religious people ask us atheists how we can be moral humans without a religious canon to abide by. I always answer that it is quite simple: We are rational beings who are able to distinguish right from wrong. Even when there are infinite shades of grey in the moral spectra, each person learns through both nature and nurture how to act in society, regardless of religious affiliation.

Religious concern for morality culminates in another common question, this one regarding the afterlife. As an atheist, I don't believe in an afterlife. As a person of science, I know chemistry answers our questions on eventuality. Our very beings decompose to replenish the Earth in a natural cycle that allows humanity to sustain itself.

Yet many will ask how I operate without hope for an afterlife. I do not need the looming promise of an afterlife in paradise to be a good person. I do not need the threat of eternal damnation to act humanely. I also do not need either of these promises to ease my fears of death. When nothing is there, there is nothing to be afraid of, and that's a freeing feeling.

Despite the comfort I have found in atheism, atheists are labeled as one of the most distrusted minorities in America. As a happy freethinker, this is a sobering thought. Therefore, my goal is to enlighten others so that they may see that we are not immoral beings, but simply those who have found a moral compass outside the divisive reigns of religion.

Katherine, 19, grew up in Warner Robins, Ga., and is a student at the University of Minnesota. She is a member of Campus Atheists, Skeptics and Humanists (CASH) at the U of M and enjoys walking, movies, swimming and science.

FFRF awarded Leah $750.

By Leah Kennedy

When I was in second grade, my teacher gave the class the following journal prompt: "If you had three wishes, what would you do?"

I wrote that I would use the wishes to ask for more wishes until I had as many wishes as there are people in the world. Then, I would wish for each individual person to be "saved," I stated.

In other words, as a 7-year-old, I wanted to make the entire world Christian. As I was in a conservative Christian school located in the South, my teacher wrote a note on the assignment about how sweet my thoughts were.

I was raised as a nondenominational evangelical Christian, and prior to the age of 16, I never would have imagined that one day I might question the beliefs that I had been taught. I considered my faith to be the foundation of everything I knew. It was my duty to bring nonbelievers to the light of Christ.

I'm embarrassed to admit that each atheist, agnostic and gay person I knew was put on a list that I read in my prayers every night. My intentions were never evil; I simply hated the idea of any person going to hell and wanted to prevent it through prayer.
Midway through high school, my perspective unexpectedly shifted. I was struggling with depression, and rather than finding me the help I needed, my mother insisted that it was a spiritual problem and told me I was influenced by demons.

My relationship with my parents began to crumble, and during a philosophy class, I found myself faced with alternate ways of thinking for the first time. As I began to think more critically, however, I realized that I did not know for certain that God existed. I struggled with my doubts for months, until finally, I began to call myself agnostic, first in private and then publicly.

At first, I thought this was a temporary "crisis of faith." I had realized that my beliefs came solely from indoctrination. Surely God was real, and by wiping my slate clean and entering the world with no beliefs, I was giving God a chance to reveal himself to me. I figured that God would send me a sign that would lead me back into the faith stronger than before. No signs ever appeared to me, however, and I have now been an atheist for six years.

In truth, I like myself better as an atheist than I ever did as a Christian. As a Christian, I constantly felt inadequate. I was raised to be humble, but this translated to denying any sense of self-esteem as pride. My straight-A report cards and artistic achievements were brushed aside as gifts from God rather than the result of my hard work.

In the specific brand of Christianity in which I was raised, there was a sense of impending doom that seemed to justify inaction. Although I felt passionate about many issues of social justice, I rarely took action because I thought that Jesus would soon return and end this "broken" world.

As an atheist, however, I have assumed the responsibility to fight for social justice.

In college, finally away from my family, I took on projects to fight human trafficking, labor rights violations, sexism and homophobia. I became empowered and passionate about empowering others.

Because I am all too familiar with evangelical mindsets, I do not try to convert those around me to atheism. I do, however, try to set a good example of what an atheist is by working with people of diverse beliefs in order to bring about social change.

I have met Christians who are empowered by their faith. I have also met atheists who do harm to the label through their rudeness to those who are religious. Although my experiences led me to atheism, I ultimately believe that a person's worldview, whether secular or religious, should empower them. That is my only wish.

Leah, 22, was born in Baton Rouge, La., and attended the University of Oklahoma, where she graduated as the Outstanding Senior of the Weitzenhoffer Family College of Fine Arts. She is now studying at NYU's prestigious Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program. She is active in labor rights, LGBTQ+ advocacy, anti-human trafficking and women's rights.

FFRF awarded Karl $500.

By Karl Yee

I was raised by parents who, during my childhood, were trying to find their religious identity.

They were both born in China and exposed to some Buddhist teachings, although not enough for them to declare themselves Buddhists. Eventually, they immigrated to Maryland. Moving to America, a largely Christian nation, was a major culture shock for my parents; they did not expect religion to be so influential here. Given the ubiquity of Christian churches in America, it is no surprise that my parents began exploring Christianity.

As a child, I had no choice but to follow my parents' religious journey. At the height of their involvement with Christianity, I was enrolled in a Sunday school. My enrollment was short-lived, as my parents decided to turn back to Buddhism. While I did not understand the concept of religion, I knew that they made a change and chose one thing over another. I simply could not rationalize their decision; I could only follow in their footsteps. Despite choosing Buddhism, my parents did not become religiously active and only practiced quietly.

Parents are undeniably the major force behind spreading religion. Children rarely find religion on their own; their parents introduce them to religion. According to research by the National Study of Youth and Religion, 82 percent of children raised by highly religious parents were religiously active as young adults. In contrast, only 1 percent of teens raised by nonreligious parents were religiously active as young adults. Parents are authority figures, and children do not know any better but to listen and follow their parents uncritically. If my parents stayed with Christianity, I have little doubt that I would have become a Christian.

My confusion with religion continued to grow throughout middle school. My middle school was a melting pot of religions — there were Christian, Hindu, Muslim and Mormon students. Ironically, the exposure to many different religions is what caused me to question the entire institution. I could not help but to wonder why there were so many religions and different deities. Mormons believe in their worldview just as much as Catholics believe in theirs. What makes one religion more likely to be true or valid than the other? Is there evidence to support the claims theists make?

I asked my middle school friends why they believed in their religions, but their answers were unsatisfactory. The most common answer was a reference to a religious text, like the bible or the Quran. Children are taught to believe extraordinary claims — such as turning water into wine — without any concrete evidence, leaving them unable to justify their "beliefs."

The problem with teaching children religion is that they are taught what to think instead of how to think. Using a religious text as evidence is nonsensical because theists try to support claims made in a book with the same book, a prime example of circular reasoning.

Religious texts are not accepted as credible or authoritative because theists have yet to satisfy the burden of proof. For example, many of the stories in the bible are purely fantastical, and there is no credible evidence supporting supernatural events that happen in the bible. Some theists try to shift the burden of proof on atheists, but atheists, by definition, do not make any claims about the existence of deities. A common misconception and important distinction to make is that atheism is not the belief that deities do not exist, but rather the lack of belief in deities. Theists, conversely, claim the existence of a deity and are thus responsible for satisfying the burden of proof.

No religion is more valid than another, as no theist has provided the necessary evidence to substantiate his or her claims. Despite the lack of evidence, religion remains a powerful force throughout the world. Unfortunately, many children are born into their parents' religion and are taught that questioning their faith is a sin, creating an endless cycle of credulous believers.

The primary mechanism through which religion continues to survive is indoctrination. If religion were as infallible as some theists claim, there would be no need to involve children with religion while they are still impressionable.

Karl, 19, was born in Silver Spring, Md., and is attending the University of Maryland, College Park. His interests include solar energy, control systems and electrophysics.

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