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Lead Us Not Into Penn Station:Provocative Pieces

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October 7-9, 2016

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Lauryn Seering

Lauryn Seering

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Elizabeth Murad

1ElizabethMuradElizabeth Murad
Martin County Board
Stuart, Fla.
May 3, 2016

FFRF Member Elizabeth Murad was a nun for 13 years before leaving the Catholic Church in 1971 and becoming an atheist. She lives in Florida.

On behalf of the Humanists of the Treasure Coast, I would like to thank Martin County commissioners for inviting us to deliver today's invocation.

Let's begin this and every meeting with hope, reason and compassion. Let's put aside our personal differences and work toward the greater goal of building consensus in Martin County. Let's not be swayed by personal biases as to race, gender, politics or any of the things that may divide us.

Let's seek to find areas of agreement and work from there rather than focus on our differences. Let our voices be strong but respectful.

We are a Christian, Jewish, Muslim, humanist and atheist nation of people. We are a secular nation, with plenty of room for all of us in our beliefs and convictions.
So let's avoid the pitfalls that seem to swallow up so many political bodies. Let's envision a county dedicated to the well-being of all of our citizens.

Finally, let's show the world, or at least Florida, that we can disagree without rancor, name-calling or denigration of other views.

Thank you.

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Cheryl Kolbe

1cherylkolbeCheryl Kolbe
Clark County Board
Vancouver, Wash.
April 5, 2016

Cheryl Kolbe is the president of the Portland Area Chapter of FFRF, which she started in 2013. She first learned about FFRF from its billboard campaign in Portland in 2008 and attended her first convention in 2009 in Seattle. In 2012 she was elected an FFRF state representative.

Please be seated during this secular invocation.

Let us think about trust. Trust is the firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability or strength of someone or something.

What do the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and the Constitution say about trust? Trust isn’t mentioned in the Declaration of Independence or in the Bill of Rights. Our Constitution references an office of honor, trust, or profit, a reference to executive branch positions, and trust connotes the idea of a public trust that accrues to the office holder.
Some quotes on trust:

Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator: “The trust of the people in the leaders reflects the confidence of the leaders in the people.”

Our president, Barack Obama: “If the people cannot trust their government to do the job for which it exists — to protect them and to promote their common welfare — all else is lost.” May we treat each other with respect and courtesy. May we listen, not just to give the person their turn, but to hear and think about the value of their viewpoint. It is easier to trust people who are most like us. Yet, in government, the challenge is to build trust in your very diverse community. May we recognize that we have many varying viewpoints, and may we recognize which of those viewpoints are relevant to county business and which are not.

“In God We Trust” reflects the view of many people. Those of us, like me, who do not trust in a god or any gods, are not part of ‘we’ and have a very different view. I encourage Clark County, as you move forward, to be as inclusive as possible.

When conducting Clark County business, let us all demonstrate to each other that we are trustworthy. With trust in each other, may we build a stronger and better Clark County. Note: In February 2015 Clark County councilors voted to prominently display ‘In God We Trust’ in the main hearing room. That display is now on the wall.

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Justin Scott

1justinscottJustin Scott
Waterloo, Iowa, City Council
May 2, 2016

FFRF Member Justin Scott, also a member of the Cedar Valley Atheists and Eastern Iowa Atheists, delivered the first secular invocation in Waterloo, Iowa, City Council history. He also accepted the mayor's issuance of a "Day of Reason" proclamation for May 5, 2016, for the city. See page 19.

Thank you, mayor and council members, for this opportunity to hopefully provide an inspirational start to your meeting tonight and do so from a minority point of view. My name is Justin Scott. I am a proud atheist here in Waterloo and I stand before you all humbly representing the Cedar Valley Atheists, the Eastern Iowa Atheists and the growing and vibrant secular community across Waterloo and Iowa.

The secular community is made up of atheists, agnostics, humanists, secularists and skeptics predicated on community without the aid of the supernatural. It is also committed to defending and strengthening the separation of church and state while promoting positive non-theism and critical thinking. Regardless of the label they identify with, these are happy, compassionate and productive members of our society and I am proud to be representing them in this chamber tonight.

Tonight, as our elected officials work to make the best decisions for the city of Waterloo and the residents who call it home, instead of closing our eyes and bowing our heads in prayer, let us instead keep focused on the serious issues that our city government faces. And as our elected officials take on these issues in their thankless positions, let us all embrace the indelible words of some of the most influential freethinkers, past and present, starting with one of the leading astronomers of our time, Dr. Carl Sagan.

And I quote: Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious. End quote.

Regardless of the issues that get deliberated by this body tonight and in the future, regardless of the accomplishments and shortcomings of this chamber, it's with the sentiment of Dr. Sagan's comment that this chamber should conduct its business tonight and going forward. Each of us in here and across this city is precious; no citizen is more important than any other.

Let this chamber keep in mind that with every yay or nay vote, precious lives of Waterloo citizens will be affected, hopefully for better, but some for worse. While coming to their decisions, this chamber should rely solely on reason, observation and experience, or what Robert Ingersoll, "The Great Agnostic" of the mid-1800s, referred to as the "holy trinity of science."

Let this chamber deliberate with the understanding that not everyone in the room shares the same values, the same life experiences or same religious beliefs. These differences can help to enrich these governmental tasks but only when they aren't used to limit or censor free speech, denigrate or treat certain groups as second-class citizens or promote religious belief over nonbelief or one religious belief over all the others.

Let this chamber keep in mind that, in every circumstance, the minority viewpoint is just as valuable as the majority one. The rights and dignity of all Waterloo citizens should be respected regardless of their race, gender identity, sexuality, religious belief or lack thereof, for the future and well-being of our great city is enriched only when its diversity is embraced and equality for all is held as a guiding principle. With this said, I appeal to this chamber to follow one of the many tenets of humanism that reads, "We are concerned with securing justice and fairness in society and with eliminating discrimination and intolerance."

Let this chamber never forget that even though their beliefs often inspire their decisions, many decisions have real-world implications so they should never be made in haste. Every decision made in this chamber should be the product of informed reason, inquiry and skepticism. As the 18th-century philosopher David Hume reminds us, "Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them."

Just as you've welcomed an atheist to take part in this invocation process for the first time, you are encouraged to build on tonight to make your government even more open and accessible to more people, which will help make it as inclusive as possible. Open your arms to other Waterloo citizens living in the shadows of a certain minority group; together we truly will achieve more and the experience will be much more rewarding.

In closing, I'd like to leave you with a thought from Thomas Paine, Founding Father of the United States and English-American political activist: "The world is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion."
Thank you.

1turlocklogoA California school district has taken a number of steps to conform with the U.S. Constitution following a Freedom From Religion Foundation complaint.

The Turlock Unified School District had a partnership with the Turlock Chaplaincy, a group of ordained ministers. Some of these ministers and other volunteers were labeled "school chaplains" and permitted to work with elementary school kids on school property during the school day. The chaplaincy website displays a badge with a cross and a Star of David on it. Even though the chaplaincy's executive director has claimed that the organization doesn't preach, he has also admitted that chaplains have talked to kids about religion, and has said, "We are faith-based, and we don't want to run away from that. It's our strength."

FFRF raised objections to the partnership.

"It is inappropriate and unconstitutional for the School District to offer religious leaders unique access to befriend students during the school day on school property," FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler wrote to Turlock Unified School District Superintendent Dana Salles Trevethan. "No outside audience should be provided carte blanche access to minors—a captive audience—in a public school. It is well settled that public schools may not advance or promote religion."

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

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

FFRF appreciates these measures.

"The fact that the Turlock Unified School District realized the need to make these changes shows how constitutionally afoul the program originally was," says FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. "We're glad that the district has seen fit to remedy these transgressions."

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is dedicated to the separation of state and church, with 24,000 members nationwide, including more than 3,000 in California.

 

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Nonbelief Relief aids imperiled activists

Nonbelief Relief has recently aided seven nonbelievers whose lives have been threatened in Bangladesh.

Nonbelief Relief, a charity founded by FFRF last year, wired stipends of $5,000 each to each of the seven activists, who have been typically described as "Bangladeshi bloggers." They include three students, an employee in a local business, and professionals with diverse backgrounds. They range in age from teens to mid-30s. As of this writing, none is yet safely out of the country, so identities cannot be divulged.

All seven are on a "hit list" believed to be produced by Muslim extremist groups. All have publicly stated their nonbelief, whether on Facebook, blogs or other social media. All have been tailed or followed by as many as three men at a time with "radical" appearance and received online threats. The stalking of one blogger in the past few weeks has escalated to the point where he's gone into hiding until he can emigrate.

"Dhaka now feels more dangerous than a war zone to me, after a spate of machete attacks by Islamist groups," one of the Bangladesh nonbelievers wrote recently to Annie Laurie Gaylor, administrator of Nonbelief Relief and co-president of FFRF.

Another told Gaylor she is stalked from time to time as "an open atheist feminist writer," who calls herself an "online activist" and who uses Facebook as "my medium of choice to express my opinions and perspectives online with the world."

Another writes that since 2010, he has openly opposed "ongoing social problems like the killing of innocent people, rape and other evils," including blogging on women's rights and atheism. "I realized after the brutal murder of blogger and freethinker Avijit Roy that none of us is safe. The Islamic extremists are ready to kill us all."

Some of them have transferred offices, or moved around from relative to relative to evade stalkers. All were vetted and referred for help for Nonbelief Relief by Taslima Nasrin, the noted author forced to seek asylum in the early 1990s, following death fatwas pronounced by Bangladeshi imams. Nasrin is near the top of the hit list and was helped last year by FFRF's early Nonbelief Relief project to leave India, when death threats there escalated.

Since 2013, more than 13 nonbelievers have been slaughtered by Muslim terrorists in Bangladesh. The machete attack of U.S. citizen Avijit Roy in February 2015 — and attempted murder of his widow Rafida Bonya Ahmed, who was grievously injured — was the beginning of a series of six cold-blooded daytime murders of freethinkers, most on the streets of Dhaka, through this April. Also hacked to death in April was Xulhaz Mannan, the first editor of an LGBT publication in Bangladesh, along with his friend. A third man was injured. Mannan worked at the U.S. embassy. A Bangladesh professor, Rezaul Karim Siddique, was hacked to death in late April by suspected Islamic extremists, who issued a statement accusing him of "calling to atheism," although his daughter told the BBC her father believed in God.

"Freethinkers around the world cannot sit on our hands while those carrying the torch of the enlightenment are viciously picked off on the streets of Bangladesh," says Gaylor.
"It's imperative we offer what assistance we can to save lives."

Unfortunately the travel/relocation stipends are just the beginning of many hurdles facing these seven bloggers. They must obtain visas and either enroll in foreign schools or find employment. It's difficult to get permanent visas in India for Bengalis, so professionals in particular face so many challenges. Nonbelief Relief is making overtures to the State Department, which at this time has no policy to aid those on the hit list (numbering about 300).

Nonbelief Relief was organized to "remediate conditions of human suffering and injustice on a global scale, whether the result of natural disasters, human actions or adherence to religious dogma. Such relief is not limited to, but includes assistance for, individuals targeted for nonbelief, secular activism or blasphemy," reads Nonbelief Relief's statement of purpose.

You may donate to campaigns like this by earmarking "Nonbelief Relief" in your FFRF donation. FFRF's online donation form also has a designation for Nonbelief Relief, making your donation deductible for income-tax purposes.

A federal lawsuit filed by FFRF and two local plaintiffs over Latin cross decals on a Texas county's patrol vehicles has been settled in FFRF's favor.

Brewster County has officially consented to remove the religious decals (and not display them in the future) and to reimburse legal fees for the attorneys.

"We are very delighted that our lawsuit has been resolved so quickly and amicably," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "The five Latin crosses on the sheriff's vehicles were taken down almost immediately, which was a good faith effort by Brewster County to make sure they were not proselytizing the public through the Sheriff's Department. We knew very early in March that reason and the U.S. Constitution would prevail."

The two local plaintiffs — Kevin Price and Jesse Castillo — were each awarded nominal damages of $1. FFRF was represented by its Staff Attorneys Sam Grover and Patrick Elliott and by Texas litigator Randall Kallinen. Gaylor said it's believed the county judge would sign a settlement awarding FFRF approximately $14,000 to cover its legal fees.

The suit was precipitated by Brewster County Sheriff Ronny Dodson's announcement last December that he "wanted God's protection over his deputies" in deciding to place the prominent crosses on at least five county law enforcement vehicles. The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court, Western

District of Texas, Alpine Division, on March 2.

Prior to the lawsuit, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott defended Dodson's actions and even submitted a legal memo to state Attorney General Ken Paxton erroneously insisting that Christian crosses may be legally displayed on sheriffs' vehicles.

Brewster County is located in the western part of the state, with a population of less than 10,000. Its county seat and only city is Alpine. According to the Texas Observer, the county is the largest in the state—"five times the size of Rhode Island, three times the size of Delaware and 500 square miles larger than Connecticut."

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Meet a staffer by Amit Pal

Name: Amit Pal

Where and when I was born: Emden, Germany, where my father worked as a naval architect. We moved to the United States when I was a toddler and a decade later to India. I returned to the United States as a young man, and so here I am!

Education: I double majored in geology and chemistry at Lucknow University in India. I then completely switched tack, getting a master's in journalism from UNC-Chapel Hill and a master's in political science from North Carolina State University.

Family: I have a lovely and loving wife, Deepa, to whom I've been married for more than a decade. We have two wonderful daughters, Sagarika, age 13 (already freethinking in all sorts of ways!), and Devika, who is 11.

How I came to work at FFRF: I was with The Progressive magazine for a long time here in Madison, and was familiar with FFRF and its work. When I transitioned out of the magazine and saw a job opening here, it seemed a natural fit.

What I do here: As the communications director, I write press releases, communicate with the media, send out weekly reports to members, and help with staff writings, other mailings, and, with lots of delight, Freethought Today.

What I like best about it: Getting my writing and editing creative juices flowing; the niceness of my colleagues.

What gets old about it: Having to fight similar state/church battles over and over again. In my few months here, I'm already noticing a recurrence of the same sorts of violations, with minor variations.

I spend a lot of time thinking about: How this world should be a more just, rational and reasonable place.

I spend little if any time thinking about: What awaits us in the afterlife.

My religious upbringing was: Hindu.

My doubts about religion started: When I couldn't make myself believe even as a kid that a religion supposed to be taken seriously would have such awfully silly priests as its guardians and interpreters.

Things I like: Good books, good movies, good music and a good game of squash.

Things I smite: Typos, ill-informed opinions and a refusal to see reason.

In my golden years: I hope to travel around the world AND catch up on all my reading. (Is it possible to do both simultaneously?)

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FFRF runs 2 new ad campaigns

FFRF ran a pair of full-page newspaper ad campaigns recently on the need to vote for candidates who'll get religion out of government and on what the bible says about abortion.

The first ad campaign asked the question, "What does the bible really say about abortion?" The answer is (as the ad puts it): "There is no biblical justification for the assault on women's reproductive rights."

Those ads ran in the Austin American-Statesman, Tulsa (Okla.) World, Houston Chronicle and Wichita (Kan.) Eagle on Sunday, May 22, and earlier in the Austin American-Statesman. See the ad on the outer wrap of this issue of Freethought Today.

The ad features a compelling portrait of birth control crusader Margaret Sanger, and her quote: "No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her body." It documents that the bible does not condemn abortion and, in fact, "shows an utter disregard for human life." The ad reminds the reader: "We live under a secular Constitution that wisely separates religion from government, and protects women's reproductive rights."

Lydia Todd was so excited when she saw the ad in the newspaper, she wrote to us telling about her reaction: "Thank you so much for that ad in the Tulsa World. My mother had left it on the kitchen counter for me to see. I was so thrilled by it that I woke everyone in the house yelling about it. I learned that my sister had the same reaction — complete with waking others. I must become an official member now, and so must the rest of the household. Thanks on behalf of my fellow godless Oklahomans! That ad means a lot and is truly comforting for atheists living in a backward Southern hellhole."

The ad is funded and was largely written by Brian Bolton, a retired professor and Life Member of FFRF, in memory of FFRF's principal founder Anne Nicol Gaylor (1926-2015), who was propelled into freethought activism by her experiences working to legalize abortion in the late 1960s and early '70s.

FFRF warmly thanks Bolton, who lives in Texas, for his generous support and commitment. Bolton also sponsors FFRF's annual graduate student essay contest. Brian urges other members to help place ads promoting FFRF in Anne Gaylor's memory.

National ad blitz

Timed with the June 4 Reason Rally in Washington D.C., the second set of full-page ads — featured in three of the country's foremost newspapers — to promote FFRF's groundbreaking "I'm Secular and I Vote" campaign. The ad appeared in The New York Times on June 2, USA Today Weekend on June 3–5 and the Washington Post on June 5. View the ad on Page 19 in this issue.

The ad also focuses on the new lawsuit that FFRF has brought against the U.S. Congress for denying its Co-President Dan Barker a chance to give an atheist invocation.

As the ads point out, congressional prayers are extremely sectarian, with Christians comprising 96 percent of officiants, even though a quarter of the American population is nonreligious. "Shouldn't the House of Representatives be Representative?" the ads ask.

Congressional prayer also costs U.S. taxpayers a good-sized bundle. Approximately $800,000 of tax dollars maintain a staff for two Christian chaplains whose major purpose is to open the House or the Senate with a prayer.

Nonbelievers took over the transportation system in the nation's capital for two weeks leading up to the June 4 Reason Rally.

Capitol Hill employees rode to work in commuter buses wrapped with a giant message stating, "I'm an Atheist and I Vote." Downtown commuters who drove or rode Capital BikeShare were greeted by illuminated kiosk ads featuring young, millennial atheist voters. FFRF placed ads on 40 bikeshare kiosks and 20 Metro Light street signs, plus two D.C. commuter buses.

The ads were part of FFRF's campaign to highlight the exploding secular voting demographic in advance of the Reason Rally and the June 14 presidential primary in the District of Columbia. The ads ran from May 23 through June 6.

"We blanketed the District with images of young secular voters, to show the faces of the fastest-growing voter demographic in America," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "While the Religious Right is hemorrhaging numbers and influence, secular support is skyrocketing, with 20 million new people on our side of the aisle since Barack Obama was first elected. Our leaders needed to see our presence and hear our priorities."

The bus and kiosk ads were part of FFRF's campaign to engage millions of nonreligious voters and ensure the voices of the fastest-growing minority group in America are heard in the 2016 presidential election.

FFRF has been working with its 23,800 members, 20 chapters across America and through secular student alliances to encourage supporters to register to vote, participate in influencing public policy and make a secular voice heard.

FFRF recently released a survey of nearly 8,000 members that showed 96 percent are registered to vote — more than 20 percent higher than the population at large. Respondents listed abortion rights, civil rights, women's rights, environmental protection and marriage equality among their top concerns, in addition to separation of state and church.

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

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