FFRF is taking issue with Tazewell County (Va.) Sheriff Brian Hieatt, who recently decided to put "In God We Trust" bumper stickers on county vehicles, declaring, "We want the public to know that we have strong Christian men and women serving their community."
"Our department feels very strongly about having In God We Trust on our vehicles," Hieatt said. "We know there is nothing we can do for our community without the guidance of our Lord."
FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler sent Hieatt a letter on Jan. 27 in response to complaints from several Tazewell County citizens. "The United States Supreme Court has held that public officials may not seek to advance or promote religion," she wrote. Ziegler said that Hieatt's statements disturbingly "imply a religious test for employment, which is unconstitutional."
Ziegler pointed out that court acceptance of "In God We Trust" has been based on courts ludicrously claiming the phrase lacks "religious significance." The sheriff's admission that his use of the motto is meant to be a mark of the "strong Christian men and women" employed by the sheriff's department undercuts any attempt to argue that the "In God We Trust" stickers are in any way "nonreligious."
"It's hard to imagine that any non-Christian — whether atheist, Jewish or Muslim — would feel welcome in this sheriff's department, with Hieatt so openly favoring Christianity and misusing his authority to promote religion on the job," said Dan Barker, FFRF co-president.
The Phoenix City Council voted 5-4 on Feb. 3 to stop pre-meeting prayers and move to a moment of silence. The move comes after FFRF sent a Feb. 1 letter backing the Satanic Temple's bid to give a prayer before the City Council's Feb. 17 meeting.
In that letter, FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel, who's been working on behalf of Phoenix members to stop prayers in their city since August 2012, wrote, "If this council is unwilling to listen to prayers from all citizens, regardless of their belief, the solution is to not have prayers at all." Seidel explained the law simply: "Government prayers are an all or none proposition."
Hundreds filled the seats for the Feb. 3 meeting. Several FFRF members testified. The meeting dragged on for hours with more than 50 citizens giving public comment, some of them shouting in defense of the "one true God." A few prayer supporters held a prayer circle outside after the meeting, tears in their eyes.
The Phoenix City Council's choice to get rid of prayers appears to be another example of "Lucien's Law." The law is named after the Satanic Temple founder Lucien Greaves but the phrase was coined by FFRF member and Florida chapter President David Williamson. Lucien's Law states that governments will either 1) discontinue starting official sessions with prayer when the Satanic Temple asks to lead or 2) censor the Satanic Temple, thereby opening themselves to legal liability. In this case, the Phoenix City Council fortunately decided to go with option #1.
Michelle Shortt, the Satanist who was scheduled to pray, delivered her invocation to the media. FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor commented, "We're delighted to see that reason and the Constitution has prevailed in Phoenix."
After receiving a complaint letter from FFRF, the Okaloosa County School Board in Florida in May 2015 ended the practice of opening with a prayer and went to a moment of silence instead. However, on Jan. 11, the board opted to resume prayer before meetings, according to the Northwest Florida Daily News.
"The resolution is put together by following court cases and research on other resolutions," said board attorney Jeff McInnis. "It's not a resolution that will advance a particular religion over another."
The Daily News writes, "Before coming to a conclusion, Dr. Lamar White and Melissa Thrush, the two opposing votes, again voiced their concerns for the resolution, insisting that a moment of silence was the best course of action."
"For me, this vote is not about my personal needs," Thrush said. "This vote is about . . . an added burden to the superintendent and school board staff and the need to establish a budget to effectively address this resolution. This resolution potentially exposes us to future lawsuits."
By PJ Slinger
A large banner reading "God Bless America" has been taken down from the Pittsburg Post Office in Kansas, eliciting outrage from many residents of the town who don't understand the difference between private and government displays of religion.
FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler originally wrote to the post office on June 3, 2015, about the unconstitutionality of the banner on government property. The Constitution prohibits government sponsorship of religious messages, and "United States postal regulations prohibit the display of religious materials, other than stamp art, on postal property," she noted. In addition, the regulations ban all signs other than official notices.
But many residents and others, interviewed by several media outlets, made it clear they were upset with the post office's decision.
After the banner came down, a local retailer began to distribute "God Bless America" yard signs and banners, and ended up handing out more than 1,000 signs and 400 banners.
"This is a subject that makes people angry," resident Pittsburg resident Cheryl Brooks told Sarah Okeson of the Joplin Globe. "People have the right to express how they feel."
"I'm so mad about it I can't even think straight," Lane Brant told Okeson. "I just don't get it. You have freedom of speech."
"Of course we have no objection to religious slogans and symbols on private property," responded Dan Barker, co-president of FFRF. "But we think Pittsburg residents would be surprised to know that Irving Berlin, who wrote the song 'God Bless America' for a character in a musical, was not himself religious."
Even U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins, R-Kansas, weighed in on the removal of the banner, showing her ignorance of the Constitution and the post office's own regulations. Her statement reads, in part, "I find it sad that our local post office would be forced to bend to the whims of an outside organization, such as the Freedom from Religion Foundation. Seeking the removal of this patriotic banner is a classic solution in search of a problem and I urge the United States Postal Service to rethink their decision, as this banner means more than just words to our veterans and community members."
And Janet Butler, a Pittsburg resident, told the Joplin Globe: "It's ridiculous. If someone doesn't like it, don't look at it."
But would Butler feel the same if there were a sign on a government building that said "Allah Bless America"?
For a second time, FFRF member Michael Newdow is trying to get "In God We Trust" off our U.S. currency.
Newdow, an attorney and physician, filed his latest complaint in Akron, Ohio, on Jan. 4. In 2013, he, along with FFRF, sued the U.S. Treasury over the printing of "In God We Trust" on currency. That lawsuit was dismissed by New York Judge Harold Baer, who ruled the argument was unfounded.
This time, Newdow is planning to base his suit on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) rather than on the First Amendment protection from the governmental establishment of religion, as he did in the prior lawsuit. The RFRA is what Hobby Lobby used in its successful arguments to get out of covering contraception for its employees.
But will Newdow's case stand up in court?
"I think the case is incredibly powerful from every aspect," Newdow wrote in an email response to FFRF. "All we need is two Court of Appeals judges willing to uphold the Constitution. Under the Establishment Clause, we cannot lose.
"Unfortunately, federal appellate judges are often willing to ignore the Constitution and come up with cockamamie excuses to avoid actually following the Establishment Clause and doing what the Constitution requires," he continued. "And, of course, they have a lot of Supreme Court precedent behind them. So this time, we are pushing the RFRA angle. That's a statute, not a constitutional command, and, to date, every Supreme case heard on that statute has come out in favor of the complainant(s)."
Newdow is joined by 41 plaintiffs, including 10 members of FFRF (Nancy Dollard, Marni Huebner-Tiborsky, Holly Huber, Mitch Kahle, Bernie Klein, Tracey Martin, Michael Martinez, Sarah Maxwell, Dennis Rosenblum, Sam Salerno).
"There is obviously no compelling government interest in having 'In God We Trust' on our money," Newdow wrote last year on The Friendly Atheist blog. "We did fine for the 75 years before the phrase was ever used at all, and continued to do fine for the subsequent 102 years before such inscriptions were made mandatory on every coin and currency bill. Similarly, the vast majority of nations manage to function without religious verbiage on their money."
Newdow, in 2004, also sued to have "under God" removed from the Pledge of Allegiance. That case made it to the Supreme Court, although it ruled that he did not have standing to sue, so the court never tackled the topic itself.
Newdow's current lawsuit, which is 112 pages in length, makes the claim that the presence of the motto on coins and dollars offers an unfair advantage to Christians, thus minimizing atheists.
"Imagine if Christians had to carry on their body something they disagree with religiously, like 'Jesus is a lie' — how long do you think that would stand?" Newdow recently told ThinkProgress. "But atheists are so denigrated in this society that people accept this without a second thought."
Good News Club gets bad news from FFRF
Good News Club meetings will no longer take place during the school day in the Lincoln County School District in Newport, Ore., after FFRF got involved in December 2015.
The Good News Club, an evangelical Christian children's ministry, was previously allowed to meet at several elementary schools during lunch. FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler informed the superintendent, "It is illegal for the district to allow the Good News Club to meet at schools during the school day."
Ziegler pointed to the McCollum Supreme Court case holding that bible classes in public school were unconstitutional, in which the court said, "Here not only are the state's tax-supported public school buildings used for the dissemination of religious doctrines. The state also affords sectarian groups an invaluable aid in that it helps to provide pupils for their religious classes though use of the state's compulsory public school machinery. This is not separation of Church and State."
On Dec. 15, Superintendent Steve Boynton told Ziegler the School Board had revised its rules on community use of school district facilities, and would restrict access to schools by non-school groups during school hours. FFRF's parent complainant confirmed that Boynton presented the changes at the January School Board meeting.
FFRF halts prayers by coach in Minnesota
The Albany High School football team in Minnesota will no longer be subjected to prayers led by their coaches, following a complaint lodged by FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott.
Elliott wrote to Albany Area Schools on Dec. 21, 2015. Citing a litany of cases, Elliott noted that the Supreme Court had repeatedly "struck down school-sponsored prayer because it constitutes a government advancement and endorsement of religion, which violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment."
Superintendent Greg Johnson responded promptly to notify FFRF he was looking into the matter. On Jan. 11, Johnson thanked Elliot for the letter and assured FFRF that the school district had investigated and "taken appropriate steps to ensure that any coach involvement with prayer activities will not occur."
Thou shalt not post the Ten Commandments
Officials in Itawamba County, Miss., removed a courthouse display of the Ten Commandments in response to a recent letter from FFRF.
"The Ten Commandments display violates the Establishment Clause of the Constitution," FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott stated in the Jan. 27 letter. "The religious message of the Ten Commandments is obvious. By placing this display directly inside the county's governmental offices, the county is unmistakably sending the message that it gives the display its stamp of approval."
Elliott added that the government's biblical display was striking a blow against religious liberty, forcing taxpayers of all faiths—and of no faith—to support a particular expression of worship.
On Feb. 1, county supervisors agreed to modify the presentation, according to news reports.
FFRF appreciates the supervisors' decision to get rid of the Ten Commandments, but voiced concerns about the substitution.
"We're pleased that the county's unconstitutional Ten Commandments display will be removed from the courthouse," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "But it's regrettable that the county supervisors sought out another religious statement to replace the Ten Commandments. Elected officials should not use their government position and government buildings as a place for promoting their religious views."
• • •
FFRF has gotten the Ten Commandments and other religious displays removed from the walls of Mansfield High School in Mansfield, Ark.
In addition to the decalogue, pictures with bible quotes lined classrooms and hallways. "Courts have continually held that school districts may not display religious messages or iconography in public schools," wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott on Jan. 13.
The Mansfield School District's attorney wrote back the next day, saying simply, "The objects you identified have been removed."
Meals on Wheels tells proselytizer to stop
FFRF was able to stop an employee of Meals on Wheels from proselytizing, which then prompted a permanent policy of non-proselytization for California's Contra Costa County division of the group.
FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote to the organization's CEO on Jan. 19 to report a Meals on Wheels employee who "aggressively promotes religion while in [a] recipient's home, despite being repeatedly asked to stop because the recipient is not religious."
Jayne pointed out that Meals on Wheels receives federal funding, which means it is subject to regulations prohibiting "inherently religious activities, such as . . . proselytization." Jayne also pointed out that program recipients "are in a vulnerable position and should not be forced to endure religious proselytizing in order to receive benefits."
Meals on Wheels CEO Elaine Clark called FFRF on Jan. 26 and said she was supportive of FFRF's concerns and that proselytizing is very much against the group's policy. Clark placed a disciplinary note in the employee's file, and pledged to fire her if she continued to proselytize. In addition, after noticing that the handbook given to drivers doesn't specifically address proselytizing, Clark said she would update it right away.
Bible readings, posters removed from school
After FFRF stepped in, Alabama's Blount County Schools has stopped having students read a bible verse over the PA each morning.
"A daily bible reading, even by a student, violates the Constitution," said FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel in his Jan. 7 letter to the school district's attorney.
In addition, religious messages were regularly posted on the school walls. In response, some freethinking students put up posters saying "God's not real," which were torn down and replaced with further religious posters. "Given the law, and the acrimony caused by this poster battle, the prudent course is to remove all religious and irreligious posters from the school," wrote Seidel.
FFRF's complainant reported on Jan. 13 that the bible readings had stopped and all religious posters were removed. In addition, after students proposed a secular club, the school took the drastic move of banning all non-curricular clubs. In response, students started a science club.
FFRF teaches school a history lesson
Sunset Elementary School in Anadarko, Okla., has taken down a framed picture titled "The First Prayer in Congress" from the school office after receiving a letter from FFRF. The portrait showed members of the Continental Congress with heads bowed in prayer during a September 1774 session.
"This picture depicts an obscure historical event, which makes it seem likely that it was chosen for display because of its religious significance and not its historical significance," wrote Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel. "This is especially true if one understands the actual history: that the preacher, Jacob Duché, was a traitor to the revolution who fled to England after slandering the Congress he led in prayer."
Seidel pointed out that the prayer was opposed by the first two chief justices of the Supreme Court because, as John Adams said, "We were so divided in religious sentiments." By Adams' admission, the prayer was approved for its political value, Seidel wrote. In addition, Duché was opposed to American independence, vilifying the Continental Congress and calling soldiers cowards. "Is this really a man to be venerated in a public school or ought he to rank with the other traitor of that era, Benedict Arnold?" Seidel asked.
An Anadarko School District representative informed FFRF on Jan. 12 that the district decided to remove the print.
FFRF stops distribution of bibles by Gideons
After FFRF complained, Wichita Public Schools is taking steps to ensure no further inappropriate bible distributions will happen on its grounds.
On Nov. 1, 2015, several members of the Gideons, a Christian men's group, handed out bibles to East High School students as they got off their buses. "The district may not allow Gideons, or any other religious groups, to enter school property to distribute religious literature," wrote Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel in a Dec. 3 letter. "In allowing Gideons to distribute bibles to students, the district is impermissibly endorsing religion by placing its 'stamp of approval' on the religious messages contained in the bible."
Seidel acknowledged that the district may have had no prior knowledge of the distribution because Gideons "operate by deliberately avoiding superintendents and school boards. They advise their members to seek permission at the lowest level of authority." In a response on Jan. 22, the district's attorney said that this was the case, and acknowledged that "neutrality commands that the Gideons not be permitted to distribute bibles on school property."
• • •
FFRF has ensured that Gideons will not be allowed to distribute bibles to West Side Elementary School students in Woodbury, Tenn.
In response to a parent's complaint that a teacher invited the Gideons to distribute bibles and speak to students about the book, FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote to the Cannon County School District on June 8, 2015. "When a school distributes religious literature to its students, or permits evangelists to distribute religious literature to its students, it entangles itself with that religious message," said Markert.
FFRF followed up with the district in September, but did not receive a response until Jan. 27, when the director of schools e-mailed a reply saying, "The Gideon bible distribution complaint has been addressed. I am sure there will be no further concerns with this issue."
Sheriff's Office drops 'death book' sponsorship
The Lee County Sheriff's Office in Alabama will no longer be part of the sponsors page of a Christian memorial book titled "Lift Up Thine Eyes," thanks to FFRF.
The book, which a funeral home provides for the grieving, features colored illustrations of iconic bible stories. "We write to ensure that the Sheriff's Office ceases its sponsorship of this Christian book, which creates the appearance that the office endorses Christianity over all minority faiths and over nonreligion," said FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover in a letter to the Opelika, Ala., law enforcement agency.
Sheriff Jay Jones phoned FFRF on Jan. 26, informing Grover that the wording in the book had been changed to reflect that the sponsorship was made by him personally, and not by the department.
FFRF ensures Michigan festival's secularity
In response to an FFRF complaint, North Township, Mich., will be careful to avoid all religion in future events it sponsors with religious entities.
On Sept. 11, 2015, the Northfield Township Police Department sent an e-mail to local residents promoting a Kids' Day event. A local church that co-sponsored the event wrote the content of the e-mail, which included religious sentiments like "Christ wishes to save all of us."
"The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits government sponsorship of religious messages," wrote FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne in the letter. "The government violates this principle of neutrality."
The township manager responded on Jan. 27, saying that he typically tells the church that co-sponsored events must be free from religion, and would speak with the police chief to make sure it would not happen again.
This speech was delivered on Oct. 9, 2015, at FFRF's 38th annual convention at Monona Terrace Convention Center in Madison, Wis., where Rita Swan was presented with FFRF's Lifetime Achievement Award. She and her husband Doug founded Children's Healthcare Is a Legal Duty (CHILD) in 1983.
By Rita Swan
Thank you for inviting me to speak to FFRF again. You've done so much good. It's heartwarming to see how you've grown.
My husband and I were devout, lifelong Christian Scientists until 1977, when we lost our only son Matthew to a treatable illness because we followed the church's beliefs against medical care. We left the church right after his death and have become nationally prominent advocates for protecting children from abuse and neglect related to religious beliefs and other strongly held belief systems.
Thirty-eight years and scores of national media appearances later, we remain the only people willing to speak publicly about the loss of their child because of Christian Science beliefs.
Before the Internet, it took us years to figure out that states had identically worded religious exemptions from child neglect charges, which appeared to give parents the legal right to deprive a child of medical care on religious grounds.
We learned that in 1975 the federal government had enacted a requirement that if states wanted federal money for child protection programs, they had to enact a religious exemption from child neglect statutes.
We fought this federal policy with over 50 letters to Congress and the administration. We went to Washington three times for meetings. The feds admitted to us that the Christian Science Church was the only party that asked for this remarkable policy.
In January 1983, the federal government rescinded the policy but didn't require states to repeal their laws. By 1983, every state except Nebraska had a religious exemption to neglect either in the civil or criminal code or both.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) initially tried to require states to reduce the scope of the civil exemptions so that they didn't prevent investigation or court orders, but even that was soon quashed by Christian Science lobbyists.
The Louisiana Legislature passed a resolution condemning HHS and claiming that faith healing was twice as effective as medical care in healing diseases of children. When HHS withheld money to force change in California, the state sued rather than lifting a finger to change the laws.
Congress passed a temporary moratorium that stopped HHS from requiring any changes in neglect laws and then in 1994 passed this incredible law: "There is no federal requirement that a parent or guardian provide a child any medical service or treatment against the religious beliefs of the parent or guardian."
Actually, that's a masterpiece of political doublespeak because there's no federal requirement that parents do anything for children. Child abuse and neglect laws are state laws, and the federal government influences state laws only by the power of funding. But HHS has not raised any concerns about religious exemptions since the federal law was passed in 1994.
State by state
So we have been left with the herculean task of repealing religious exemptions state by state. When we first started, we thought we'd get all the religious exemptions repealed and could then work on other social justice causes. But as this frustrating and laborious work dragged on for decades, we reduced our expectations.
For the last several years, we have placed the highest priority on repealing religious defenses to negligent homicide and manslaughter. Even that looks like it will take a great many years. There are eight states that have religious defenses to negligent homicide or manslaughter.
The state of Washington, reputed to be the most secular state in the nation, has this religious defense to felony child endangerment and second-degree murder: "It is the intent of the Legislature that a person who, in good faith, is furnished Christian Science treatment by a duly accredited Christian Science practitioner in lieu of medical care is not considered deprived of medically necessary health care or abandoned."
Let me back up for a minute and explain what Christian Science treatment is. Founder Mary Baker Eddy envisioned her religion as a health care system. She called her faith healers "practitioners," their prayers "treatments" and those they pray for their "patients." Practitioners send bills for these treatments, and the church is constantly trying to get reimbursement from third-party payers.
The church also has other workers called "nurses," who are not licensed by the state, have no medical training and do not work under supervision of state-licensed personnel. These nurses cannot take a pulse or use a thermometer. They will not do even simple nonmedical procedures to relieve suffering or discomfort, such as using heat or ice on a painful area.
So with no discussion, the Washington Legislature enacted this law saying that a child sick with any disease whatsoever is not deprived of health care if a Christian Science practitioner is praying for him. Washington has declared that prayers by one religion are medically necessary health care for a child with type 1 diabetes, bacterial meningitis or cancer.
Frustrated in Iowa
Our most frustrating work was in our home state of Iowa, where we lived for 29 years. We lived where the Missouri River meets the Big Sioux River, where South Dakota, Nebraska and Iowa come together. We got five religious exemptions repealed in South Dakota, but Iowa was just impossible.
Although Iowa had a religious defense to manslaughter and felony child endangerment, we could not persuade the majority of legislators there was anything wrong with that.
One year, I made nine trips to Des Moines to lobby for repeal. We were greatly handicapped by living 200 miles away and being a one-car family. On Sundays, I would ride to Des Moines with a legislator, trudge up and down the hill to the Capitol in snow and bitter cold and on Thursday catch an all-night bus back to Sioux City with a several-hour layover in Omaha. My husband would meet me at 6 a.m. with a pillow and I would sleep in the car the rest of the way home.
It was hard for legislators to understand our position, and most prefer to avoid work if they can. Why did I want to make criminals of parents who had done what I did? "Your son didn't die in Iowa, did he?" one asked. One could rephrase that: "We don't have bacteria in Iowa, do we?" "Your experience is unlikely to happen in Iowa," another said.
While Iowa had several outbreaks of vaccine-preventable disease because of religious exemptions, we knew of only two deaths in faith-healing sects. Both were newborns. One died of a cerebral hemorrhage, probably preventable with a vitamin K shot, the other of Rh factor incompatibility, preventable with the RhoGAM shot. The bereaved grandparents were CHILD members whom I persuaded to go public.
Even they could not persuade enough legislators to get a bill passed. The deaths of these infants shortly after birth were not dramatic enough to motivate legislators.
It was very emotionally painful for me to carry around the story of our son's death and have legislators be indifferent, evasive and break promises.
More than anything else, I regretted putting the grandparents through the ordeal of going public. It was very hard on them. It wrecked their relationships with their children and grandchildren in the faith-healing sect. One son and his wife hid their next pregnancy and birth from them, preventing them from intervening to save the baby if there had been a health emergency.
Shining star Nebraska
But there was always Nebraska to lift my morale. Just across the Missouri River was the one state that had never had a religious exemption from medical care of sick and injured children. Nebraska's only religious exemption relevant to children is from immunizations.
As many of you already know, the reason Nebraska is the shining star on this issue is Sen. Ernie Chambers. He is a predictable, consistent, tenacious opponent of religious exemptions. He filibusters for hours and threatens filibusters. During the eight years when the federal government coerced states through the power of funding to enact a religious exemption to child neglect, Ernie managed to stall the Legislature and administration until the feds abandoned their policy.
Ernie has brought the administration in a conservative state along with him. The Health Department strongly supports requiring preventive and diagnostic measures for all newborns without exception. Thanks to Ernie, Nebraska is one of only four states to require metabolic testing of all newborns and the only state to have an enforcement mechanism. The other three — Montana, West Virginia and South Dakota — have laws requiring the test for all newborns but no penalty for breaking the law.
Religious objectors have sued Nebraska in state and federal courts. One family had religious beliefs against withdrawing any blood from the body. Church of Scientology parents believed in what they called "silent birth." The baby should not be exposed to any discomfort, noise, language or other strong sensory data for at least 10 days because it will get recorded in what Scientologists call the reptilian brain. The individual will have strong fear and tension when he encounters those words or other triggers throughout the rest of his life. Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard claimed that silent birth is necessary to save the "sanity" of mother and baby.
Scientology parents were willing to have the blood drawn for metabolic testing after the baby was 10 days old. Every other state would have thought that was fine, but not Nebraska. The optimal time to do the test is before the baby is 48 hours old. That was Nebraska's law, and the state attorney general did not hesitate to defend it in federal court. The law was upheld.
After losing in the courts, the religious objectors went to the Legislature. Our handful of Nebraska CHILD members and I made trips to Lincoln to testify against bills creating a religious exemption for metabolic screening. Nebraska has a one-chamber Legislature in which bills can move pretty fast. Once an exemption bill had passed committees and was scheduled for a final vote on the floor, I called Ernie Chambers. Fortunately, he still had not been term-limited out of office. Within a few hours, his staff called back and said not to worry — it had been taken care of. Ernie threatened a filibuster the next day and the bill was withdrawn.
Criminal penalties needed
We don't regard our work to repeal religious exemptions as intrinsically punitive. To us it's a simple matter that parents have a duty to provide a child with the necessities of life, and the only way society can establish a duty in law is to provide a penalty for not performing a duty.
That's true for everything from running a red light to murder. Few of us would put money in the parking meter if there weren't a penalty. The ultimate purpose of the criminal code is deterrence. It is our hope that clear laws which apply to everybody will change behavior.
Though it would seem like madness to you, many parents in the faith-healing sects do not comprehend the risk they're taking with their child's life when there's a state law allowing them to withhold medical care. They perceive exclusive reliance on religious ritual to be not only legal but safe when the state endorses their behavior.
The Christian Science Church in particular has told its members that legislators give them religious exemptions because legislators agree that Christian Science heals disease just as well as medical science does.
Followers of Christ
The power of the law to change religiously motivated behavior is most dramatically illustrated by our work in Oregon. In Clackamas County, there's a group called the Followers of Christ opposed to medical care. Year after year, they buried children, but the county coroner didn't refer the deaths to law enforcement and barely even examined the children.
Later, a medical examiner system was established. The medical examiner's staff did forensic autopsies on children that would stand up in court. He always took their findings to the district attorney, but the DA did nothing with them, citing religious freedom and the laws that Christian Scientists had lobbied to get passed. By 1997, the church had gotten religious defenses to homicide by abuse or neglect, manslaughter, criminal mistreatment of dependents, criminal nonsupport, neglect and failure to provide necessities.
In 1998, I spoke at a national conference about Oregon laws. A new district attorney came up, saying she wanted to do something about the faith-healing deaths in Clackamas County. In a seven-month period, three Followers of Christ children had died of readily treatable illnesses: sepsis from a strangulated hernia, kidney infection and diabetes. The district attorney concluded she could not file any charges, but she did alert the press.
Media went to the Followers of Christ cemetery and found 78 children buried there. The public was outraged. One of our Oregon CHILD members asked his legislator to sponsor a repeal bill. The legislator introduced a bill in 1999 to repeal all nine religious exemptions pertaining to medical care of sick and injured children.
The Christian Science Church fought us tooth and nail for seven months. Some 75 amendments were proposed. We finally got a bill passed that repealed five of the nine.
We hoped that would be enough to change the Followers' behavior, and for several years it seemed that it had. But in 2008, the deaths started up again.
We decided to try to get the remaining four exemptions repealed. The legislator again agreed to sponsor the bill. Because it had been such an exhausting fight in 1999, we decided to move to Salem to help him. When the church found that we were living in Salem, they gave up and said they would not oppose our bill because the deaths in Oregon had reached "a critical mass." Seventy-eight dead children were not a critical mass, but 82 were.
Our bill sailed through almost unanimously, and there has not been a Followers of Christ child die of medical neglect since 2009, not even in one of their unattended home deliveries. Oregon is one of six states with no religious exemption for care of children.
Many Idaho deaths
The most urgent need for legislative reform now is Idaho, which has four or more Followers of Christ congregations. State law allows parents to withhold lifesaving medical care from children, so criminal charges are never filed. One coroner doesn't even do autopsies on Followers' children because Idaho law requires autopsies only when a crime is suspected. Some families have reportedly moved from Oregon to Idaho since Oregon eliminated its exemptions.
In the Peaceful Valley Cemetery owned by the Followers of Christ, 35% of the graves are of minor children or stillbirths. Statewide, only 3% of Idaho deaths are of minor children or stillbirths.
Though the deaths go back as far as 1924, 149 of the 206 graves of minors occurred after Idaho enacted religious defenses to criminal injury and manslaughter. This death sentence for so many was passed by the Legislature with no discussion.
We are working hard for repeal in Idaho but to date haven't gotten even a committee hearing.
Turning to another subject, we want to thank the Freedom from Religion Foundation for co-signing our petition to the Internal Revenue Service asking that they stop recognizing bills for rituals and prayer as a deductible medical expense. Since 1943, the IRS has allowed bills that Christian Science practitioners submit for their prayers to be deducted from income taxes as a medical expense.
The amount of money at issue is not as significant as the fact that the policy has been used to bolster lobbying for religious exemptions from child neglect laws. Two states even have laws explicitly allowing those whose prayers are deductible medical expenses to deprive their children of medical care. We hope to hear something from the IRS about this early next year.
Finally, we would be grateful if you would write or call your U.S. House and Senate members to state your opposition to bills that give religious objectors an exemption from purchasing health insurance. The House bill, H.R.2061, recently passed the House by voice vote. A companion bill, S.352, sponsored by Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., is in the Senate Finance Committee.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates these bills will cost the government $1.24 billion over 10 years. The more people exempt from insurance pools, the more premiums will go up for the rest of us. We believe that at least some of those children in Idaho would have gotten medical care if their parents had been required to buy health insurance for them.
Go to childrenshealthcare.org and to idahochildren.org for more information.
This speech, edited for print, was delivered Oct. 10, 2015, at FFRF's 38th annual convention at Monona Terrace Convention Center in Madison, Wis.
By Kevin M. Kruse
The concept of "one nation under God" is one most Americans take for granted. But the story of how the phrase was coined and how it came to occupy such a central role in the national imagination has never really been explored in full.
Its rough origins are clear, with the words rooted in the almost sacred text of the Gettysburg Address. When he delivered that famous speech, President Abraham Lincoln inserted a spontaneous but still solemn prayer that "this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom." After Lincoln, however, that phrase largely disappeared from political discourse for decades.
In the traditional telling, it suddenly reappeared in the 1950s, plucked out of obscurity and inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance in a sudden burst of religious revival. According to the standard story, as America fell under the thrall of the anti-communist panic of the McCarthy era, the nation's leaders sought to emphasize America's religious traits as a means of distinguishing it from the "godless communists" of the Soviet Union. In this telling, the religious nationalism of the era was little more than a bit of Cold War propaganda that could be cast aside as international relations evolved.
My current work, however, argues that the postwar religious revival in general — and mobilization of the phrase "under God" in particular — were rooted not in the foreign policy of the 1950s but rather in the domestic politics of the 1930s and 1940s. During that earlier era, corporate titans enlisted conservative religious leaders to create this new era of religious nationalism. Together, they advanced an ideology of "freedom under God" that was meant as a contrast, and a challenge, to the state power that its architects feared most. The government they feared was not the Soviet regime in Moscow but the New Deal administration in Washington.
Big business backers
From the earliest days of the New Deal, corporate America mounted a major campaign to restore the image of big business and to roll back what they called the "creeping socialism" of the welfare state. Corporate leaders resolved to change that situation through a massive campaign of what they called "public relations" but what critics characterized as "propaganda." They did this by transforming older institutions they ran for the new task and by creating wholly new organizations for the purpose.
In 1934, for instance, a new generation of conservative industrialists took over the leadership of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) with promises of "serving the purposes of business salvation." The powerful industrial association now dedicated itself to spreading the gospel of free enterprise. As late as 1934, NAM devoted a paltry $36,000 to its public relations efforts.
Three years later, it spent nearly $800,000 — a sum that represented more than half of its total funds that year. NAM used that money to sell free enterprise through a wide array of films, radio programs, paid advertisements, direct mail, a speakers' bureau and a press service that provided premade editorials and news stories for 7,500 newspapers.
But in the end, NAM's self-promotion efforts were seen as precisely that. As a chronicler of NAM noted, its arguments were so clearly self-serving that "it was easy for critics to dismiss the entire effort as mere propaganda."
While traditional business lobbies like NAM were unable to sell free enterprise effectively, neither were the new advocacy organizations that were created specifically for that purpose.
The most prominent of these new groups, the American Liberty League, was created in 1934 to "teach the necessity of respect for the rights of persons and property" and "the duty of government to protect individual initiative and enterprise." It benefited from the financial backing of major corporate figures, particularly from the upper ranks of companies like DuPont and General Motors. But the prominent role of such men in the group essentially crippled its effectiveness, as the Liberty League, much like NAM, was easily dismissed as an organization of tycoons looking out for their own interests.
Enlisting the clergy
Realizing that they could never effectively make the case for free enterprise on their own, these businessmen made the shrewd decision to outsource the job. But they chose a rather unlikely group to serve as their new champions: the clergy.
While it was an unorthodox decision, the reason was simple. As the oil tycoon J. Howard Pew noted in a private letter to a fellow CEO, corporate leaders needed to enlist clergymen in their cause "because recent polls indicated that of all the groups in America, the ministers had more to do with molding public opinion" than any other segment of society. They were much more popular than business leaders, to be sure, and as men of God, they could advance corporate criticism of the New Deal without the suspicion that they were motivated by self-interest.
But it was one thing to want to enlist the clergy and another to actually do it. As early as 1940, NAM had worked to educate ministers about "the spiritual concept that underlies our American way of life." But its efforts once again came off as little more than self-serving propaganda.
In 1945, a consultant explained why the effort to recruit clergymen as defenders of free enterprise had failed. He had interviewed dozens of priests, ministers and rabbis, but ultimately found them, almost to a man, repulsed by the organization's efforts at outreach.
'Apostle to millionaires'
Accordingly, the industrialists decided that they needed a go-between, a single sympathetic minister whom they could use to reach his fellow clergymen, win them over to the cause of free enterprise and convince them to join him in its defense. They found him in Rev. James W. Fifield Jr.
Fifield had been ministering to the needs of the rich and powerful since 1935, when he became pastor of the posh First Congregational Church in Los Angeles. Located on a palm-shaded drive in the heart of the residential section, the church had an imposing physical structure, including a massive cathedral of concrete with a 176-foot-tall Gothic tower, wedding chapel, gymnasium, three auditoriums and 56 classrooms.
The church included so many of the city's leading businessmen that one observer said "its roster reads like the Wall Street Journal." Fifield warmly embraced his new flock, becoming, in the words of one admiring profile, the "Apostle to Millionaires." To be sure, he was the perfect match for the millionaires in his pews. In the apt words of one observer, Fifield was "one of the most theologically liberal and at the same time politically conservative ministers" of his era.
Theologically liberal, he had no patience for fundamentalists. Reading the bible, he reasoned, should be "like eating fish — we take the bones out to enjoy the meat. All parts are not of equal value." Accordingly, he dismissed Christ's teachings on wealth and poverty to embrace more recent theories about the compatibility of Christianity and capitalism.
"The blessings of capitalism come from God," he argued. "A system that provides so much for the common good and happiness must flourish under the favor of the Almighty."
While Fifield took a loose approach to the bible, he was a strict constructionist with the Constitution. He believed that the New Deal expansion of the federal government was wholly unconstitutional. As it fought the "restricting trends" of "pagan statism," the church would find natural allies in corporate America because "business, like the church, is naturally interested in the preservation of basic freedom in this nation. Goodness and Christian ideals run proportionately high among businessmen," Fifield said. To lead this crusade of churches and corporations in defense of freedom, Fifield created an organization he called Spiritual Mobilization. Its credo: "Man, being created free as a child of God, has certain inalienable rights and responsibilities; the state must not be permitted to usurp them; it is the duty of the church to help protect them."
Spiritual Mobilization was founded in 1935, but its influence remained fairly small until it attracted the notice of the nation's leading businessmen. By the mid-1940s, its board resembled, in the words of an observer, "a who's who of the conservative establishment."
Not surprisingly, top corporations donated generously, as did many executives from their personal accounts. They also pressured friends, competitors and employees to do the same. Spiritual Mobilization had a budget in 1947 of $270,000. Adjusted for inflation, that would be about $3 million today.
A decade earlier, organizations that these industrialists formed and financed to challenge the New Deal had been easily dismissed. But now the tables were being turned. Spiritual Mobilization argued, quite explicitly, that the New Deal had broken most, if not all, of the Ten Commandments. It asserted that the Roosevelt administration had made a "false idol" of the federal government, leading Americans to worship it rather than the Almighty.
Above all, Spiritual Mobilization insisted that the welfare state was not a means to implement Christ's teachings about caring for the poor and the needy, but rather was a perversion of his teachings. In a forceful rejection of the public service themes of the "social Gospel," it argued that the central tenet of Christianity remained the salvation of the individual. And for any political and economic system to fit with Christ's teachings, it would have to be rooted in a similarly individualistic ethos. Nothing better exemplified such values, they insisted, than the capitalist system of free enterprise.
Gospel of capitalism
Thus, throughout the 1940s and early 1950s, Fifield and like-minded religious leaders advanced a new blend of faith and free enterprise that one observer aptly anointed "Christian libertarianism." A critic noted that Fifield and his allies "do as much proselytizing for Adam Smith and the National Association of Manufacturers as they do for Christianity," but these figures would have welcomed the gibe as a fair description of their work, even a compliment. They believed, rather sincerely, that spreading the gospel of one required spreading the gospel of the other.
Fifield soon reduced Christian libertarianism to a short, catchy phrase: "freedom under God." Scholars would later assume that the phrase was coined to contrast the democratic and religious foundations of the United States and the godless communism of the Soviet Union. But the private correspondence between Spiritual Mobilization's religious leaders and its corporate financiers shows quite clearly that the main that to the American way of life, as they saw it, came from Washington, not Moscow.
In 1949 they launched a radio program called "The Freedom Story." The free, 15-minute program was fairly simple — a dramatic presentation followed by a brief commentary by Fifield. Importantly, the broadcasts were marketed to stations as a way to fulfill their public service requirements in a way that would attract listeners. This decision allowed the organization to secure free airtime, but it also dictated changes in its content.
In the original scripts, Fifield made blunt attacks on the policies of the Truman administration, but his legal counsel warned that getting involved in partisan politics would disqualify the program as a public service feature. Instead of directly attacking the Democrats, the lawyer said, they should use "a horrible example from current experience in the socialist and communist countries of Europe and Asia" and then later "make it plain enough to your radio audience that we are heading for the same kind of situation here."
Within a year, Fifield's weekly programs about the danger of "creeping socialism" were being aired on over 500 stations. At the same time, Spiritual Mobilization launched a new monthly magazine titled Faith and Freedom. The magazine printed and promoted the work of an expanding network of libertarian and conservative authors.
'Freedom under God'
Spiritual Mobilization's leaders struck upon their greatest idea yet in the spring of 1951. To mark that summer's 175th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, they proposed a massive series of events for the Fourth of July week, using the theme of "Freedom under God." According to Fifield's longtime ally William C. Mullendore, president of the Southern California Edison Co., the idea originated from the belief that the "root cause of the disintegration of freedom here, and of big government, is the disintegration of the nation's spiritual foundations, as found in the Declaration of Independence. We want to revive that basic American credo, which is the spiritual basis of our Constitution."
Spiritual Mobilization announced in June the formation of the Committee to Proclaim Liberty to coordinate the events. The committee's name, they explained to a crowd of reporters, came from the 10th verse of the 25th chapter of the Book of Leviticus, in which God instructed Moses that the Israelites should celebrate the anniversary of their arrival in the Promised Land and "proclaim liberty throughout all the land and to the inhabitants thereof." This piece of scripture, organizers noted, was inscribed on the crown of the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia.
The committee's main thrust was to advance conservatism. The committee members whose presence was most emphasized were prominent opponents of Democratic administrations: former President Herbert Hoover, who had been driven from the White House by Roosevelt two decades earlier, and Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who had been removed from his military command by Truman only two months before.
They were joined by military leaders Gen. Mark Clark and Lt. Gen. A.C. Wedemeyer, the heads of veterans groups such as the American Legion and conservative media stars like newspaper columnist George Sokolsky, radio broadcaster Fulton Lewis Jr. and Human Events founder Felix Morley. Also joining were conservative voices in law like Clarence Manion and Dean Roscoe Pound of Harvard and conservatives from the entertainment world like Bing Crosby, Cecil B. DeMille, Walt Disney and Ronald Reagan.
The dominant presence on the committee, however, came from the corporate world. J. Howard Pew, whose family had donated a tenth of the committee's $100,000 operating budget, served as a founding member. He was joined by Conrad Hilton of Hilton Hotels, B. E. Hutchinson of Chrysler, James L. Kraft of Kraft Foods, Hughston McBain of Marshall Field Department Stores, Eddie Rickenbacker of Eastern Airlines and Charles E. Wilson of General Motors.
Business interest in the endeavor was so strong that the committee had to expand its ranks to make room for the others clamoring for a spot, including notables like Harvey Firestone, E. F. Hutton, Fred Maytag, Henry Luce and J.C. Penney.
Reframing the preamble
As the Fourth of July drew near, the committee focused its attention on encouraging Americans to mark the holiday with public readings of the preamble to the Declaration of Independence.
The decision to focus solely on the preamble was in some ways a natural one, as its passages were certainly the most famous and the most lyrical in the document. But doing so also allowed organizers to reframe the Declaration as a purely libertarian manifesto, dedicated to the removal of an oppressive government. Those who read the entire document would have discovered, to the consternation of the committee, that the founders followed the high-flown prose of the preamble with a long list of grievances about the absence of government and the rule of law.
In the end, the Declaration was not a rejection of government power in general, but rather a condemnation of the ways in which the British crown had deprived the colonists of the government they so desperately needed. In order to reframe the Declaration as something rather different, the committee had to edit out much of the document they claimed to champion.
Indeed, the committee offered its own interpretation, which was spelled out clearly by its corporate sponsors in full-page newspaper ads. The San Diego Gas & Electric Co., for instance, encouraged customers to reread the preamble, which it presented with its editorial commentary running alongside:
• ". . . all men are created equal . . ." That means you are as important in the eyes of God as any man brought into this world. You are made in his image and likeness. There is no "superior" man anywhere.
• ". . . they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. . ." Here is your birthright — the freedom to live, work, worship, and vote as you choose. These are rights no government on earth may take from you.
• ". . . that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men. . ." Here is the reason for and the purpose of government. Government is but a servant — not a master — not a giver of anything.
The ad urged readers to make their own Declaration of Independence in 1951: "Declare that government is responsible TO you — rather than FOR you. Declare that freedom is more important to you than 'security' or 'survival.' Declare that the rights God gave you may not be taken away by any government on any pretense."
Clergy join attacks
The committee involved the clergy in a variety of ways, most importantly with a national sermon contest. The roughly 17,000 pastors who belonged to Spiritual Mobilization were encouraged to compete for cash and other rewards by writing an original sermon on the theme of "Freedom under God" and then preaching it to their own congregations on "Independence Sunday," July 1, 1951. Thousands did.
"The effort to establish socialism in our country has probably progressed further than most of us fully realize," asserted a Lutheran minister in Kansas. "It would be well to remember that every act or law passed by the government which promises to 'give' us something is a step in the direction of socialism."
First place went to Kenneth Sollitt, pastor of First Baptist Church in Mendota, Ill. Appropriately, his sermon was titled "Freedom Under God: We Can Go on Making a God of Government, or We Can Return Again to the Government of God."
The individual sermons were then linked and amplified by a program broadcast that same evening on the CBS national radio network. The national advertising agency of J. Walter Thompson handled promotion for the program, which lived up to organizers' expectations. A longtime friend of Fifield's, Cecil B. DeMille, met with him to plan the production and stock it with an impressive array of Hollywood stars. Jimmy Stewart served as on-air master of ceremonies, while Bing Crosby and Gloria Swanson each offered short messages of their own. The preamble to the Declaration of Independence was read by Lionel Barrymore.
The keynote came from Gen. Matthew Ridgway, who interrupted his duties leading American forces in Korea to offer a live address from Tokyo. In keeping with the "Freedom under God" theme, Ridgway insisted that the founders had been motivated in large part by their religious faith: "Theirs was a deep and abiding faith in God, a faith which is still the great reservoir of strength of the American people in this day of great responsibility for their future and the future of the world."
Let Freedom ring!
Three days later, the festivities concluded with local celebrations on the Fourth of July. The committee coordinated the ringing of church bells across the nation, timed to start precisely at noon and last for 10 full minutes. As the bells chimed, residents were encouraged "to open their doors, sound horns and blow whistles and ring bells, as individual salutes to Freedom." After 10 minutes of ringing, groups gathered in churches and homes to read the preamble together.
That night, 50,000 people attended a rally at the Los Angeles Coliseum. It featured eight circus acts, a jet plane demonstration and a fireworks display that a local American Legion chapter promised would be the largest in the nation. Fifield gave the invocation, and actor Gregory Peck delivered a dramatic reading of the preamble.
In the end, the Committee to Proclaim Liberty believed, rightfully, that its work had made a lasting impression on the nation. "The very words 'Freedom under God' have added to the vocabulary of freedom a new term," the organizers concluded. Citing an outpouring of support for the festivities, the committee resolved to make it an annual tradition and, more importantly, work to keep the spirit of its central message alive in American life.
The entire nation, they hoped, would soon think of itself as "under God." And indeed, the nation soon did.
President Dwight Eisenhower did even more to cement the phrase in the national consciousness. Shortly after taking office in 1953, he presided over the very first Presidential Prayer Breakfast, an event whose official theme was "Government under God."
The next year, Congress followed his lead by formally adding the phrase "under God" to the previously secular Pledge of Allegiance. Two years later, Congress made a similar phrase — "In God We Trust" — the country's first official motto.
As a political culture of public religion moved to center stage during the Eisenhower era, the new religious nationalism eroded the underlying arguments of the New Deal, precisely as its architects had originally intended. It successfully recast capitalism in a favorable light, while encouraging Americans to question the validity and the value of the welfare state.
More fundamentally, this movement of "under God consciousness" succeeded in convincing a wide range of Americans that the country was, at heart, an officially Christian nation. The prayers of corporate America had been answered, but in ways that went beyond their wildest imaginations.
Kevin M. Kruse is a professor of history at Princeton University whose newest book is One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America. He's also the author of White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism (2005) and three collections on modern U.S. history. He earned his M.A. and Ph.D. in history at Cornell University.
Thomas Sheedy's speech, edited for space, was delivered on Oct. 10, 2015, at FFRF's 38th annual convention in Madison, Wis. He was introduced by FFRF Legal Fellow Maddy Ziegler:
I'm here to introduce student activist Thomas Sheedy. He is 17 years old and a senior at the Ward Melville High School in East Setauket, New York. He's the very recent founder of the school's Secular Student Alliance, the vice president of the Gay Straight Alliance and the event organizer for the Long Island Atheists.
Thomas reached out to FFRF this summer asking for help to start his Secular Student Alliance after being given the run-around by his school for over a year. I wrote to the school district telling them that denying the club's formation was against the law. I worked with its attorney to ensure the club was finally approved. All the while, Thomas was very diligent about phoning me for updates and making sure that I was on top of things. It was that diligence that led to his ultimately winning the almost two-year battle to found the Ward Melville High School Secular Student Alliance.
So it is my pleasure, on behalf of generous FFRF members Richard and Beverly Hermsen, to announce Thomas Sheedy as the winner of a student activist award of $5,000.
By Thomas Sheedy
While I am excited to be around famous heroes such as Dan Barker and Taslima Nasrin, I wish we could live in a country where the fight for secularity on the domestic front was nonexistent. Because in my vision of America, there would be fair treatment of all, regardless of belief, and we would quote the sensible statement by President Kennedy where he said, "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute."
When I decided to abandon my Roman Catholic faith in the spring of 2013, I began to research and observe the array of viewpoints in the secular movement and just what we are fighting against.
What I saw was appalling. I witnessed a rejection of reason in our political system because politicians want to win votes instead of revealing facts. I saw a promotion of ignorance cultivated by a history of childhood indoctrination and deliberate brain-washing where kids look to fairy tales for answers. Most of all I witnessed the scorning of sons and daughters and the separation of loved ones, because those sons and daughters did not believe in God.
This appalling shock happened to a 15-year-old kid in a suburban town on Long Island. As a young atheist, I had a thirst to be with like minds, to communicate with those who respected my viewpoints and to work with those who wanted to educate others on the pleasure of sanity.
So what did I do that was so special? I decided to start a Secular Student Alliance at Ward Melville High School in East Setauket, New York.
During the summer preceding my first day of high school, I educated myself on the emergence of nonbelief. On my first day of high school, I was eager to make friends with those who had a similar disclosure on religion. By my sophomore year, I wanted to start an after-school club for atheists and agnostics. At that time, I did not know of anyone who might be interested in joining. I held on to my hopes because I knew that the facts outweighed my lack of patience — a third of millennials consider themselves to be nonreligious.
Then I came across a struggle that caught my eye: A junior named John Raney wanted to start a Christian club called Students United in Faith. Like any students who want to start a new club, Raney sent in an application to the vice principal. After his application was ignored for two months, his mother contacted the school district and found that his club was denied because it was apparently religious in nature.
Once he heard the bad news, he contacted a group called the Liberty Institute, which is basically the Christian version of FFRF. The Liberty Institute sent a letter to the district administration demanding that the club be allowed. Raney also got in touch with the media and received extensive news coverage. The administration did not understand that under the Equal Access Act, Raney could have his club.
John Raney and the Liberty Institute knew of the school's lack of knowledge on that issue, and took the Christian persecution battle to my school's doorstep. Christians will not find a speck of dust on our nation's soil where they are persecuted as a group. They face no opposition to their rights in the South. On the coasts, they are only met with officials who did not know that there were laws made in the latter half of the 20th century, thus creating loopholes against Jefferson's wall of separation.
As a result of Raney's threats, he got his club. However, in the aftermath of his victory, I saw his club doing more harm than good. When I went to one of his meetings, I was met with evangelical rhetoric and a feeling of discomfort.
A club for secularists
In 2014, a teacher named Ira Sterne, who was the adviser to our school's model Congress, explained that if the Christians can have their club, students who conduct their lives in a secular manner can have their club. I told Mr. Sterne about my idea from September and we got to work. We envisioned a forum where students could talk about religion in an open setting without any backlash or bigotry.
In June, I took this idea to the vice principal's secretary and, the day after we filled out the application sheet, we lost it. The school then decided not to hand out new applications. Why? They said it was because the school year is ending. These excuses from faculty and school officials did not end there, unfortunately.
At the start of my junior year, I faced a rude awakening. Before the first period bell even rang on the first day of school, Mr. Sterne came up to me and said that he was transferred to another building in the district. That meant I had to find another faculty member to be the adviser for the club, so I made one of the same mistakes I did in June — I gave in. I succumbed to the forces working behind my back and behind the backs of my supporters.
About a week later, Raney told me that Students United in Faith was denied for a second time, but it's not what you think. The school administration, as well as a few members of the School Board, agreed with Raney's views. However, to not seem controversial in front of a few suspected skeptics, the district told Raney that he did not have the required 20 student signatures for the club to be official. But he knew that the Equal Access Act of 1984 did not respect local club minimums, so he contacted the Liberty Institute, and they began to plot again.
On Oct. 3, 2014, I overheard Raney telling a student that he had to leave the meeting early for an interview with Fox News. I politely jumped into the conversation and asked if his statement was true. He flat out denied it. Three days later I received links to an article saying, "School bans Christian club again" by Todd Starnes. Raney got the attention that he wanted and, even though the laws are in his favor, he wanted to push his agenda. He got his club approved again by means of force. There was barely any proper education to the local populace on the situation. The schools, which were mainly on Raney's side, were blinded again and fooled once more, first by their lack of knowledge and then by their unwillingness to take action.
A day after Fox published the article, Raney came up to me and said, "Yeah, I lied, I did have an interview with Fox News."
Ladies and gentlemen, why would John Raney, the conservative Christian, lie to Thomas Sheedy, the liberal firebrand atheist? Well, because he is afraid that I will stop his agenda. He would get his club, but he would not get as much media recognition and would not be able to move his agenda further to the right. By November 2014, Raney's agenda has influenced much of the religious freedom debate across the religious and political communities on Long Island.
Adviser search continues
After September 2014, I made it my top priority to find a suitable teacher to be our adviser for my club. From October to March, I asked many teachers from various departments, and they all turned me down. At this point, I wanted to see if the school would be willing to help me out. I submitted a club application and I got called down to the vice principal's office in March, where I was told that the district sent out an email to all teachers and faculty in the district asking for volunteers. No one volunteered.
When it was announced in the spring of my junior year that new applications for the next school year were being distributed, I quickly filled one out and found an adviser who had some spare time and submitted the application. Fifty-one students said that they were interested. We had a teacher who was willing to be our adviser and we labeled our goals.
We wanted to create a safe haven for nonreligious students. We wanted to get kids involved with the secular movement. We wanted an open forum for enlightening discussion. We wanted to protect the separation of church and state. We wanted to become an engaging partner in the Three Village community through charitable work and public service.
When I submitted that application I had no doubt that the school would not give me any problems since we met their guidelines. On July 12, 2015, I was notified that the Ward Melville Secular Student Alliance was not included on the new list of clubs for the school year.
Remember how I said that the school's administration was more in line with Raney's ideas? There were kids at Ward Melville who were struggling with coming out as atheists to their parents. There were students and teachers who were sick of the religious right's agenda to turn Long Island into a battleground, and there were students who wanted an excuse to be anywhere but home so they could be with those who cared about their well being.
What I saw as a beginner in the movement was now coming back to me and I did not want to let these people down, but I could not do it alone. I contacted the Freedom From Religion Foundation and I explained my situation. Soon enough, FFRF sent a letter to the Three Village Central School District demanding that training on the Equal Access Act is encouraged and that this mess — these games that were started by Raney and the school board — had gone on long enough. The law firm representing the district stated that the issue would be discussed at the legal emergency meeting on Aug. 11.
A few days after the meeting, FFRF received a reply stating that while the club was never denied, the superintendent was in favor of recommending approval of the club. On Sept. 8 I was notified that the Ward Melville Student Secular Alliance had finally been approved.
The following day, I threw out my original speech and I thanked the superintendent for making the right decision for approving the club, not only because the law required her to do so, but because it was the right thing to do.
As of two days ago, we have had three official meetings and we intend to make our group not just a club, but an institution as well. After working hard for over a year and a half, after seeing local Long Islanders taken advantage of, was it all worth it?
I think so. I managed to get through the hardships and problems in the struggle, but this fight is not over yet.
We have to protect secularism in every state. What's happened in Rhode Island and Long Island is just the beginning. Every state in the country is under threat from the losing majority, even in places that are quiet and Catholic. Thank you.
Listen to an interview of Thomas Sheedy on FFRF's Freethought Radio, ffrf.org/news/radio (Jan. 2, 2016, podcast).
Thousands of scholarship programs reward students for blind faith and orthodoxy, but hardly any reward students for using reason. Therefore, the Freedom From Religion Foundation is proud to announce its 2016 high school, college and graduate/mature student essay scholarship competitions, which offer more than $30,000 in total cash prizes.
FFRF offered its first student competition in 1979, added a separate contest for college-bound high school seniors in 1994, and then in 2010 launched a contest for graduate/"older" students (ages 25-30). This year, FFRF will be sponsoring two parallel contests for college students — one to engage freethinking students of color, the other with a general topic open to all.
Awards are: $3,000 first place, $2,000 second place, $1,000 third place, $750 fourth place, $500 fifth place and $400 for sixth place. Several $200 "honorable mentions" may be awarded at judges' discretion.
A bonus of $100 from FFRF members Dean and Dorea Schramm will be given to any winner who is also a student member of FFRF, a secular student club (or who joins Secular Student Alliance online, which is free).
Please publicize FFRF's important outreach to the next generation at your local high schools, colleges and universities, and to the students in your life. See handy ads in the back wrap or visit: ffrf.org/outreach/student-essay-contests/.
William J. Schulz High School Senior Essay Competition
Choose one of the two topics below:
"The challenges of growing up a freethinker"
Write a personal (first-person) essay about challenges or problems you have faced as a young freethinker. Did you grow up in a home with devout parents? Were you forced to attend a private religious school or church? Were you ever bullied or put down for your freethinking? Did you have to hide your true thoughts from others for fear of repercussions? Explain how you overcame the prejudices of others, and why you are free from religion, including at least a sentence or two about why you reject religion.
"Why Boy Scouts of America should welcome atheists and nonbelievers"
Write a persuasive open letter to Boy Scouts of America from a personal (first person) point of view about why the Boy Scouts should revoke its bigoted policy officially barring nonreligious boys and their families from membership. The organization recently lifted its homophobic membership ban, but continues to "maintain that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing his obligation to God." Explain why believing in a god is not synonymous with being moral, and why you as a nonbeliever consider yourself a good person and citizen. You may wish to cite the examples of nonbelievers who have contributed to society. Include at least a short paragraph explaining why you are a nonbeliever. (If you were a member of the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, you may wish recount your experiences.)
Word length: 350-500 words.
Eligibility: North American high school senior who graduates in spring 2016, going on to college in fall 2016.
Deadline: Postmarked no later than June 1, 2016. Winners announced by August.
This competition is endowed by a bequest from William J. Schultz, a member of FFRF who died at 57 and cared deeply about FFRF's purposes. He was a farm boy who became a chemical engineer and built paper-producing mills around the world.
Michael Hakeem Memorial College Essay Competition
Choose one of the two topics below:
"Why I am a freethinker"
Write a personal (first-person) persuasive essay about why you are a nonbeliever (freethinker, atheist, agnostic, skeptic) and your experiences as a young nonbeliever. Please write about what was the most compelling or instrumental catalyst for you in becoming an atheist, or what confirmed your nonbelief, such as a philosophical argument, book or experience. Include some intellectual reasons for your rejection of religion, and the best arguments you would enlist to win over or respond to those who frown on atheism.
"Why I am a freethinker of color"
Write a personal (first-person) persuasive essay about why you are a nonbeliever (freethinker, atheist, agnostic, skeptic), and your experiences as a young nonbeliever of color. Please include some intellectual reasons for your rejection of religion, and the best arguments you would enlist to win over or respond to those who frown on atheism. You may wish to include advice on how the secular movement can become a more welcoming and inclusive place for young freethinkers of color.
Word length: 550 to 700 words
Eligibility: Ongoing undergraduate college student through age 24, including, but not limited to, college seniors graduating in spring/summer 2016, attending a North American college or university. Note: If you have graduated from high school but have not yet started college, you must enter the high school senior contest.
Deadline: Postmarked no later than June 15, 2016. Winners announced by September.
The late Michael Hakeem, a sociology professor, was an FFRF officer and active atheist known by generations of University of Wisconsin-Madison students for fine-tuning their reasoning abilities.
Brian Bolton Graduate/"Older" Student Essay Competition
"Why God and Politics/Government Are a Dangerous Mix — Especially in an Election Year."
Write a persuasive essay about the dangers of religion and politics/government mixing in this election year. Analyze current examples of religious pandering, church politicking or political religious litmus tests that concern you and threaten the Establishment Clause. You may wish to use examples of the harm created by religion in politics and government from a legal, topical or historic perspective, or discuss how it makes you feel excluded as a young secular voter.
Word length: 600 to 800 words.
Eligibility: Currently enrolled graduate student including up to age 30, or undergrads ages 25-30, attending a North American college or university, including, but not limited to, someone graduating or earning degree in spring/summer 2016.
Deadline: Postmarked no later than July 15, 2016. Winners announced by October.
The competition is endowed by Brian Bolton, an FFRF Lifetime Member who is a retired psychologist, humanist minister and university professor emeritus at the University of Arkansas.
Rules applying to all competitions
Submit essay both by mail and email by postmark deadline. No faxes. Essay must be typed, double-spaced, standard margins and stapled. Include word count. Place name and essay title on each page. Choose own title. Attach a one-paragraph biography on separate page at end of essay including name, age and birth date, hometown, university or college, year in school, major or intended major, degree being earned and interests. (High school students should include high school's name, city, state and date of graduation as well as intended college.) Do not include a résumé.
For a chance at an additional $100 bonus, indicate the name of the secular school or college club you belong to (including a student membership in FFRF) or Secular Student Alliance (free at www.secularstudents.org/studentmember and mention it in your bio). Provide both summer and fall 2016 addresses (campus and home), phone numbers and email addresses for notification. Winners may be asked to send verification of student enrollment.
Students will be disqualified if they do not follow instructions. FFRF monitors for plagiarism. You may not re-enter the same contest for your student group if FFRF has previously awarded you for an essay.
By entering, students agree to permit winning essays to be printed in full or in part in Freethought Today, FFRF's newspaper, and posted online at FFRF's website. Winners agree to promptly provide a photograph suitable for reproduction with their essay and will not receive their prize until they do so. Winners will receive a school-year membership to FFRF, which includes a school-year subscription to Freethought Today. All eligible entrants will be offered a school-year membership or a freethought book or product.
Email essay as indicated above; also mail by required deadline to:
______ (fill in) Essay Contest
PO Box 750
Madison WI 53701