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Lead Us Not Into Penn Station:Provocative Pieces

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September 15-17, 2017

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Lauryn Seering

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FFRF appeals for Saudi atheist’s life

1saudiatheistThe Freedom From Religion Foundation is appealing to the State Department for a Saudi nonbeliever's life.

Ahmad Al-Shamri was arrested on charges of atheism and blasphemy after he uploaded material to social media that allegedly trivialized Islam and the Prophet Mohammed. Leaving Islam, or "apostasy," is punishable by death in Saudi Arabia, where religious extremists have total control of the kingdom's judicial system. Shockingly, Al-Shamri was sentenced to death merely for expressing his views on social media, in a trial that focused on Islamic law. His case was brought before the Saudi Arabian Supreme Court for appeal, which ruled against Al-Shamri on April 25. Typically, these monstrous executions are carried out by beheading or shooting the victim.

"Blasphemy laws shackle an entire people under the mental slavery of one religion," FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor write to the State Department. "Their very existence is an insult to human dignity and intelligence. When a foreign government issues death sentences, jail time or imprisonment for blasphemy, the United States must do everything in its power to challenge that sentence and to champion the ideals of democracy, free speech and freedom of religion."

The State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor uses a wide range of tools to protect fundamental human rights in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The bureau's Office of International Religious Freedom states that it strives to "promote freedom of religion and conscience throughout the world as a fundamental human right" and to "identify and denounce regimes that are severe persecutors on the basis of religious belief." If Saudi Arabia maintains Al-Shamri's death sentence for atheism and blasphemy, the Office of International Religious Freedom should take a number of steps, including recommending economic sanctions on Saudi Arabia and asking Congress to move immediately with an attempt to halt Al-Shamri's execution.

Further, opposing executions on the basis of religious belief and expression furthers at least two core functions the State Department.

First, the State Department is tasked with protecting Americans abroad. While Ahmad Al-Shamri is not an American national, failing to oppose his execution by a foreign government for his atheism would leave nonreligious Americans — almost one-fourth of the population — at risk if they were to visit or do business in Saudi Arabia.

Second, the State Department upholds the National Endowment for Democracy Act, which states, "individual rights and freedoms (including internationally recognized human rights) . . . are essential to the functioning of democratic institutions." The same act urges "cooperation with those abroad dedicated to the cultural values, institutions, and organizations of democratic pluralism." Allowing foreign regimes to execute its citizens based on their religious identity and speech is antithetical to these goals and must be vigorously opposed by the State Department.

Ultimately, if diplomacy does not yield results, and the United States cannot reason with Saudi Arabia, FFRF contends that the Trump administration ought to make clear it will end its special relationship with this theocratic state.

(If individuals wish to contact the State Department, they can do so here.)

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization, with more than 29,000 nonreligious members, whose purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

 

1oconomowoc
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is warning a city in Wisconsin about constitutional concerns raised by religious signs on public property.

A concerned local resident contacted FFRF to report that there are two identical Christian signs on city land in Oconomowoc. They say, "THE CHURCHES OF OCONOMOWOC WELCOME YOU," and there are prominent Latin crosses on top. The displays are easily visible to drivers and anyone visiting a popular public park.

"The First Amendment 'mandates governmental neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion,'" to quote the U.S. Supreme Court, FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne writes to Oconomowoc Mayor David Nold. "Displaying signs that promote Oconomowoc's Christian churches, along with Latin crosses, fails to respect either constitutional mandate of neutrality. It endorses religion over nonreligion and Christianity over all other faiths."

The religious significance of the Latin cross is unambiguous and indisputable, FFRF adds. As a consequence, these signs convey a message to non-Christians in Oconomowoc that they are not "favored members of the political community," to cite the U.S. Supreme Court again. We're talking about a significant proportion that is alienated due to such symbolism. Nearly 30 percent of Americans are non-Christians, either practicing a minority religion or no religion at all, including more than 40 percent of Millennials.

"No matter how innocuous these signs may seem, the social message they send is pernicious," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "Surely, Oconomowoc officials want all residents of the city to feel completely at home."

FFRF is urging the city to remove the signs from its property to avoid further Establishment Clause concerns.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a Wisconsin-based national nonprofit organization with more than 29,000 nonreligious members across the country, including 1,200-plus in Wisconsin. Its purpose is to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church.

Boyscout Badge
Even as the Boy Scouts of America is acquitting itself well on LGBT equality, it still has a blind spot regarding another marginalized group: atheists and nonbelievers.

The civic organization's repeal of its ban against gays recently incurred the wrath of the Mormon church, which announced that it's breaking off most ties to the Scouts. While the Freedom from Religion Foundation applauds the Boy Scouts for lifting its anti-gay ban, it decries the fact that the group still formally discriminates against nonreligious boys and their families, officially excluding atheists, agnostics and nonbelievers. Currently, the organization maintains "that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing his obligation to God."

"The Freedom From Religion Foundation maintains instead that no one who discriminates can grow into the best kind of citizen," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.

"It's what you do — not what you believe — that makes you a good person," adds FFRF Co-President Dan Barker.

FFRF has come up with a creative way to address the Boy Scouts' prejudicial attitude toward nonbelievers. At the urging of its member Richard Kirschman, it has produced a badge similar to the Boy Scouts' merit badges, which are typically sewn on uniforms or sashes. The badge, featuring a red "A" based on a symbol of atheism and agnosticism popularized by distinguished scientist and atheist Richard Dawkins, is being issued in collaboration with the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science.

At Dawkins' suggestion, the Scout or youth seeking a badge need only send FFRF a short essay addressing the Boy Scouts of America's claim that nonbelievers can't be good citizens. FFRF will not charge Scouts money for the badge.

"By excluding boys from nonreligious families, the Boy Scouts of America is practicing the same kind of baseless prejudice it exhibited for so long against gay Scouts," comments Robyn E. Blumner, president and CEO of both the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science and the Center for Inquiry. "There is no doubt that a young man can be honorable, diligent, wholesome and represent the best that America has to offer while not subscribing to a religious faith. For the association to suggest otherwise is to perpetuate ugly stereotypes and open millions of boys up to exclusion and bullying."

The badge is intended to reward Boy Scouts who have persevered in an organization that basically has instituted a "Don't ask, don't tell'" policy about atheist and agnostic participants, but has regularly expelled open nonbelievers.

"If any young person fulfills the requirements, we'd be delighted to reward them with this badge," adds Gaylor. "Many nonreligious students who might otherwise wish to join the Boy Scouts Association, knowing of its bigoted policy, don't try. This is their chance to be rewarded for critical thinking and to earn a keepsake at the same time. We hope someday very soon that Boy Scouts of America itself will change policy and adopt its own official merit badge rewarding critical thinking."

The requirements, paralleling typical merit badge requirements, ask Scouts to learn about secularism and the rich history of dissent from religion. The full requirements can be found at FFRF's website: ffrf.org/freethought-badge

 

1nationofnones
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is appalled at President Trump's extreme pandering to evangelicals and his degrading treatment of nonbelieving Americans at his weekend commencement speech at Liberty University.

Trump repeated tired tropes meant to show this is indeed a Christian nation at the evangelical stronghold founded by Jerry Falwell and now run by his son Jerry Falwell Jr., an early Trump endorser. On Saturday, during his third visit to the campus, Trump managed to pander to evangelicals, denigrate nonbelievers as un-American, and fail history class in the span of a few sentences:

America has always been the land of dreams because America is a nation of true believers. When the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, they prayed. When the founders wrote the Declaration of Independence, they invoked our creator four times, because in America we don't worship government, we worship God. That is why our elected officials put their hands on the Bible and say, "So help me God," as they take the oath of office. It is why our currency proudly declares, "In God we trust," and it's why we proudly proclaim that we are one nation under God every time we say the pledge of allegiance.

Liberty University is a place where they really have true champions and you have a simple creed that you live by: to be, really, champions for Christ. Whether you're called to be a missionary overseas, to shepherd a church or to be a leader in your community, you are living witness of the gospel message of faith, hope and love. And I must tell you, I am so proud as your president to have helped you along over the past short period of time. I said I was going to do it, and, Jerry, I did it. And a lot of people are very happy with what's taken place, especially last week, we did some very important signings. (emphasis added.)

Let's parse Trump's disinformation point by point:

• "America is a nation of true believers."

"True believers" is, of course, a euphemism for Christians. (Given the setting, it's not a stretch to conclude Trump is employing "true believers" as code for evangelical Christians, 81 percent of whom voted for him.)

Calling America "a nation of true believers" is as patently false as it is exclusionary to us nonbelievers. Overall, nearly a quarter of adult Americans identify as nonreligious — making the "Nones" the fastest-growing identification in America. Another 7 percent are non-Christians (and one assumes would not qualify as "true believers," practicing a minority religion). Over a third of Millennials are nonreligious.

That's an unforgiveable number of Americans for our president to ignore, dismiss, deny and shut out.

• "When the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, they prayed."

Fewer than half of the 102 Mayflower passengers in 1620 were "Pilgrims" seeking religious freedom. The first colony of English-speaking Europeans was Jamestown, settled in 1609 for trade, not religious freedom. The secular United States of America was formed more than a century and a half later, and the founders adopted a godless Constitution. If tradition requires us to return to the views of a few early settlers, why not adopt the polytheistic and natural beliefs of the Native Americans, the true founders of the continent at least 12,000 years earlier?

• "When the founders wrote the Declaration of Independence, they invoked our creator four times ..."

The references to "Nature's God," "Creator," and "Divine Providence" in the Declaration do not endorse Christianity. Thomas Jefferson, its author, was a Deist, opposed to orthodox Christianity and the supernatural and a target of his day's Religious Right. The declaration's purpose was to "dissolve the political bands," not to set up a religious nation. Its authority was based on the idea that "governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed," which is contrary to the biblical concept of rule by divine authority. It deals with laws, taxation, representation, war, immigration and so on, never discussing religion at all.

• "... because in America we don't worship government, we worship God."

This is the most odious of Trump's pandering statements. "We" Americans include many citizens who eschew any worship. But what is so dismaying is Trump's implication that America is — or ought to be — a theocracy. We don't want or expect Trump to "worship" the U.S. Constitution, but he ought to realize it sets up an entirely secular government.

• "That is why our elected officials put their hands on the Bible and say, 'So help me God,' as they take the oath of office."

FFRF wrote Trump as president-elect, as we write all presidents-elect, urging him not to place his hand on a bible or recite "So help me God," thereby following the dictates of the Constitution he would take an oath to uphold. The framers of the Constitution believed the wording of the oath of office for the president was important that they included it in the Constitution itself. Article II, Section I makes no reference to a bible or holy book. It's tampering with the oath to add the words "So help me God," which are not part of the dictated oath. The framers conscientiously provided for the option of affirming, cognizant that for many unorthodox, the word "oath" would be distasteful.

• "It is why our currency proudly declares, 'In God we trust.'"

Likewise, Congress mandated at the height of the Cold War that "In God We Trust" appear on all currency only in 1955, and it was absent from paper currency prior to 1957. (It appeared on some coins earlier, as did other sundry phrases, such as "Mind Your Business.") "In God We Trust" was belatedly adopted as our national motto in 1956.

The original motto, "E Pluribus Unum," celebrating diversity, not theocracy, was chosen by a distinguished committee of Franklin, Adams and Jefferson, and was entirely secular.

• "... it's why we proudly proclaim that we are one nation under God every time we say the pledge of allegiance."

The words "under God," did not appear in the Pledge of Allegiance until 1954, when Congress, under the spell of McCarthyism, inserted them. Piety should not be considered synonymous with patriotism. Citizens should not be subjected to a religious test.

• "And I must tell you I am so proud as your president to have helped you along over the past short period of time. ... I said I was going to do it, and, Jerry, I did it. ... we did some very important signings."

Trump is bragging about his recent executive order on "religious freedom," in part greenlighting church politicking, which was designed to reward those evangelical votes. Trump made this clear repeatedly during the campaign, as FFRF laid out in our lawsuit over the order. (Now it's our turn to "brag.")

As FFRF's lawsuit over the executive order made clear, Trump is purposefully working to give evangelical Christianity unrestrained power to use its tax-exempt coffers, programs and property to buy votes and undermine elections — and, ultimately, our secular republic.

That is why the work of the Freedom From Religion Foundation is more important than ever.

 

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

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