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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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Bibles in U.S. Schools

The Freedom From Religion Foundation says the misinformed opinion of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton approving courtroom prayer cannot go unchallenged.

Although Paxton's opinion, issued Aug. 15, was foregone and therefore not surprising, that does not make it any less irresponsible.

FFRF had acted on two complaints it received that Montgomery County Justice of the Peace Wayne L. Mack opens court sessions with Christian-based prayers.

Both complainants felt coerced to participate in the prayers and both participated against their conscience, out of fear of prejudicing the judge.

FFRF contacted the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct in October 2014. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and State Commission of Judicial Conduct Executive Director Seana Willing requested that Paxton issue an opinion on Mack's courtroom prayers. 

FFRF notes the Office of the Attorney General has recently hired two attorneys from First Liberty, which defended Mack's courtroom prayers before the state commission. FFRF, in a brief to the Texas Attorney General's Office, pointed out that this creates the obvious appearance of a conflict of interest.

Contrary to Paxton's ruling, chaplain-delivered prayers in the courtroom cannot be likened to so-called "ceremonial deism" or justified as a natural extension of prayer by legislative bodies.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 1991 that prayers delivered by a judge in his courtroom are unconstitutional. Paxton attempts to distinguish that case from Mack's, because Mack invites a chaplain to deliver the prayers.

The chaplains are part of a volunteer chaplain program in which religious leaders provide counsel to persons in distress. Such programs, legally questionable in their own right, typically do not intrude into the courtroom. Ironically, the chaplain prayers themselves create distress to those present who in good conscience do not wish to participate in religious rituals.

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

The list of awardees has seven top places and 13 honorable mentions from colleges located all over the country. Students were asked to write 700 to 900 words on the topic of "Why I am a freethinker." FFRF, an educational state/church watchdog with 24,000 members nationwide, has offered essay competitions to college students since 1979, high school students since 1994 and graduate students since 2010.

The winners of the competition are listed below and include the award amount, age and college or university they are attending.

FIRST PLACE
Adam Simmons, 19, Freshman at University of Tennessee - Knoxville ($3,000)

SECOND PLACE
Alex Reamy, 21, Senior at Arizona State University - Tempe Campus ($2,100)

THIRD PLACE
Katherine Gramling, 19, Sophomore at University of Minnesota - Twin Cities ($1,100)

FOURTH PLACE
Leah Kennedy, 22, First year graduate student at New York University ($750)

FIFTH PLACE (Tie)
Karl Yee, 19, Junior at University of Maryland - College Park ($500)

FIFTH PLACE (Tie)
Elias Rodriguez, 22, Senior at University of Texas - Dallas ($500)

SIXTH PLACE
Adrick Tench, 21, Sophomore at Northwestern University ($400)

HONORABLE MENTIONS
($200 each) ($300 with Secular Student Alliance bonus)

Cheyenne Barger, 19, Sophomore at Gannon University ($300)
Savannah Flusche, 23, Junior at Texas Woman's University of Denton ($300)
William Gardner, 24, Sophomore at University of Delaware
Syd Gettier, 21, Junior at Notre Dame of Maryland University
James Harder, 23, Athabasca University
Camille Kaiser, 19, Sophomore at University of New Mexico ($300)
Jonathan Ortiz, 18, University of Florida
Fallon Rowe, 19, Junior at Utah State University ($300)
Aiden Sorge, 20, Junior at Arizona State University - Tempe Campus ($300)
Elizabeth Turovsky, 19, Sophomore at Barnard College
Manon von Mil, 24, Senior at Queen's University
Camille Sanchez, 19, Sophomore at Pomona College
Alexis Serra, 20, Drexel University

The winning essays for the college contest will appear in a future issue of Freethought Today. Next to be announced will be the winners of FFRF's graduate student essay competition.

The college contest is named for the late Michael Hakeem, a sociology professor who was an FFRF officer and active atheist known by generations of University of Wisconsin-Madison students for fine-tuning their reasoning abilities. FFRF also thanks Dean and Dorea Schramm of Florida for providing a $100 bonus to students who are members of a secular student club or the Secular Student Alliance. The total of $11,450 reflects bonuses.

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

1LastChanceUPhoto from Netflix

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is asking a Mississippi community college to resolve constitutional violations that a recent documentary has revealed in its football program.

The hit documentary series "Last Chance U" has unearthed several infringements at East Mississippi Community College in Scooba, Miss. Religious endorsement is endemic within the football program. Head Coach Buddy Stephens regularly leads his players in the Lord's Prayer. He prefaces the prayer with "everybody touch somebody," and then the whole team and coaching staff recites the prayer. This occurs in several episodes during the series. Stephens has said of faith: "It is the foundation of our program. We start our practices with prayer [and] end our practices with prayer."

In one episode, Assistant Coach Marcus Wood leads a prayer before a game that says, "Dear God, Thank you for these guys, the way they've worked. Thank you for all of our blessings. Help us to play this game in a violent and vicious manner and play it the way it's supposed to be played." He also apparently leads a weekly bible study for the players. An episode of "Last Chance U" begins with him holding what seems to be a bible while discussing a verse from the Book of Job. In another episode, he says, "Maybe my job is to talk to you a little bit every week about the bible."

"As a state-run institution, East Mississippi Community College is bound by the Constitution's Establishment Clause, which 'mandates neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion,' to quote the U.S. Supreme Court," FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover writes to East Mississippi Community College President Thomas Huebner. "Incorporating religious practices into college football activities violates this basic constitutional principle." 

FFRF points out that many of the activities that the coaches are engaging in have been proscribed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

"The Supreme Court has explicitly held school-sponsored devotional bible reading and recitation of the Lord's prayer unconstitutional," Grover adds. "The constitutional prohibition on school-sponsored prayer and religious endorsement extends to colleges, especially when institutional circumstances create a coercive religious environment."

FFRF contends that the reportedly domineering coaching style of Stephens calls into question whether the players' participation can be considered voluntary. In any event, the courts have summarily rejected arguments that voluntariness excuses a constitutional violation.

FFRF requests that East Mississippi Community College take immediate action to ensure that all future college-sponsored activities, such as football practice and games and team instructional time, do not include religious content. Colleges serve the least religious demographic, since one in three college-aged Americans is nonreligious, according to a recent Pew survey. This makes it even more necessary that East Mississippi Community College have an inviting environment for non-Christian and nonreligious student-athletes.

"Any public institution in this day and age has to be mindful of the diversity of belief among its students," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "It is unconscionable for East Mississippi Community College to act as if its entire football team is made up of devout Christians."

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nontheist organization dedicated to the separation of state and church, with 24,000 members all over the country, including in Mississippi.

2LastChanceU

Photo from Netflix

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