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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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FFRF state/church complaints

FFRF supports denial of grant to church

FFRF has co-filed a brief before the U.S. Supreme Court supporting the denial of a Missouri grant to a church.

The Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Mo., is appealing the refusal of a state grant for the upgrading of a playground at a preschool it runs. FFRF joins the brief filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Missouri.

The brief reminds everyone that the use of taxpayer dollars to aid churches was one of the greatest concerns of the framers of the U.S. Constitution and, in large part, animated the passage of the Establishment Clause. Madison was adamant that even "three pence" in aid was too much of a threat to religious liberty.

Tying houses of worship financially to the state also undermines religious freedom by inviting the government to scrutinize and oversee their operations. Despite any short-term gain for the government-funded religious institution, in the long run, religious liberty is corroded, and, in the case of direct aid to a church, church autonomy is impeded, the brief asserts.

District should cut ties with churches

FFRF is urging the San Diego school district to end a summer partnership with local churches.

The San Diego Unified School District has reportedly formed a partnership with area churches that involves these churches opening up their doors to children to be tutored by volunteer teachers for the summer. The sessions will also include "character education," according to media accounts. Superintendent Cindy Marten met with church leaders to promote the partnership at St. Stephen's Church of God in Christ, which lists one of its visions as to "WIN SOULS FOR CHRIST."

FFRF contends the district should terminate the partnership, since it can't allow its summer school programs to be used as recruiting grounds for churches.

The summer partnership impermissibly advances religion, communicates a message of school endorsement of religion and is marked by the excessive entanglement between the school district and church, FFRF asserts. It asks that the School District cease all involvement with and promotion of church programs and dissolve any formal summer partnerships with the churches.

FFRF protests Ohio judge's sentencing

On May 25, Judge William Mallory of the Ohio Court of Appeals, First Appellate District, sentenced Jake Strotman, who is religious, to attend Morning Star Baptist Church for 12 consecutive Sunday services. Strotman was accused of assaulting a Baptist preacher during a chaotic brawl after a hockey game. Mallory reportedly said, "The thing about religion, I think it is kind of personal and for me I don't try to impose my religious views on other people, except for sometimes in this room." After Strotman suggested being sent to a church of Mallory's choice as his punishment, the judge decided that it would be appropriate to sentence Strotman to attend his victim's Baptist church for 12 Sundays.
FFRF contacted Mallory independently to point out that his actions in this case are a clear violation of the First Amendment.

Mallory's actions in this case also violate Article 1, Section 7 of Ohio's Constitution: "No person shall be compelled to attend, erect, or support any place of worship, or maintain any form of worship, against his consent."

While Strotman suggested and accepted his church-going sentence, his decision wasn't completely free of coercion. In the beginning of the proceeding, Mallory threatened Strotman with up to 90 days in jail, and encouraged his fear by having him look at the bailiff and his handcuffs. Many people would opt to go to church when faced with the fear of jail time, FFRF asserts.

Judge turns away nonreligious couple

In a complaint receiving wide news coverage, FFRF has warned a Kentucky judge about his refusal to marry a nonreligious couple.

Mandy Heath and her fiancé, Jon, were planning on getting married in Trigg County on July 22 at the courthouse of County Judge Executive Hollis Alexander.

Heath requested that the courthouse marriage be secular. After she made those plans with the clerk, Alexander called Heath to inform her that he would not perform the ceremony. When asked why, Alexander apparently responded: "I include God in my ceremonies, and I won't do one without him."

FFRF emphasizes to Alexander that under the U.S. Constitution, he, as a government official, has an obligation to remain neutral on religious matters.

By refusing to provide secular ceremonies, Trigg County sends a message of religious endorsement. However, according to the Constitution, it is illegal to condition a government benefit on a religious test.

FFRF applauds victory on pension plan

FFRF applauds a recent court victory that health care workers have obtained over their religious employers regarding unfair pension plans. FFRF filed a friend of the court brief in the case just decided by a federal appeals court.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on July 26 ruled that the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) does not exempt retirement plans created by supposedly religious entities that are not churches.

The plaintiffs alleged that they had been harmed by the management of a retirement plan run by their former employer, Dignity Health. FFRF submitted an amicus brief in support of the plaintiffs arguing that any religious exemption from ERISA violates the constitutional separation of state and church.

While not addressing the substantive argument that FFRF put forward, the court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs on statutory grounds. The ruling joins similar decisions handed down by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in December and the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in March. FFRF had filed amicus briefs in these cases, too. Last month, FFRF also filed an amicus brief before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in a similar case.

Two choir students at SDSU punished

FFRF is protesting the penalization of two San Diego State University students for refusing to participate in a choir performance at a church service.

A choir course that Patrick Walders teaches at San Diego State University is mandatory for certain degrees. In May, Walders asked his students to perform during a service at College Avenue Baptist Church. Two students demurred. The professor told them he would fail them if they didn't participate. The students stayed away, and Walders did flunk them, offering them no alternatives. The choir members who showed up reportedly had to sit through the sermon after their performance.

"As a state-run institution, San Diego State University is bound by the Constitution's Establishment Clause, which 'mandates government neutrality between religion and religion and between religion and nonreligion,'" as the U.S. Supreme Court has noted, FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler writes to San Diego State University President Elliot Hirshman.

The selection of a Baptist church as the site for a San Diego State choir performance demonstrates the school's preference for religion over nonreligion and for Christianity over other faiths, FFRF asserts. San Diego State is a secular university and should not be mandating religious choir performances. It is obligated to provide its students an advanced education free from religious endorsement.

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FFRF objects to sermonizing prof

FFRF is raising objections to a Wisconsin community college professor who tells students that life is about creating a personal relationship with God.

Madison College Professor Hiep S. Van Dong, an instructor in the School of Business and Applied Arts, has encouraged students in his Leadership, Ethics and Development course to add religion to their lives, both verbally in class and via email.

Van Dong explained to a student in an email that he has "discovered it isn't about do's and don'ts, it is about a personal relationship with a living God. It is not about earning my way to heaven or God's grace; however, it is about seeking a personable Creator and sustainer of my life."

Van Dong also uses "Sometimes You Win, Sometimes You Learn," a religion-promoting tome by John C. Maxwell, an evangelical pastor, as a textbook. Van Dong has reportedly solicited the entire class to contact him personally about the "truth" in the book, stating that he "could not say it in class, given it is a public university."

Van Dong's promotion of religion constitutes an official endorsement and advancement of religion in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

"Federal courts have upheld public universities' restrictions on a professor's religious expression in the classroom and other like settings," FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne writes to Madison College School of Business and Applied Arts Dean Bryan Woodhouse. "These restrictions do not abridge the professor's free speech rights."

Madison College's interest in avoiding the appearance of official endorsement of Van Dong's religious beliefs overrides his free speech rights in this matter, FFRF contends.

"Such blatant religiosity has no place in a public institution," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "Madison College needs to put a check on Van Dong's religious activities in class."

FFRF is asking Madison College to take immediate action to ensure that Van Dong is not misusing his position.

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FFRF state/church complaints

N.H. House should discontinue prayer

FFRF is urging the New Hampshire House of Representatives to end its tradition of starting sessions with a prayer.

On Feb. 4, Peter Chamberland, pastor of Granite State Baptist Church in Concord, prayed, "Lord, through every situation, that You would protect our children through the great drug crisis that goes across our state, both those that are born and the unborn, that You would watch over them."

However, when the prayer was published in the House Journal, the portion of the prayer dealing with abortion was redacted. House Clerk Paul Smith stated that prayers were not supposed to be political and that prayers printed in the House Journal were edited for such content. But New Hampshire law requires clerks of the House of Representatives to "keep a true and fair record of all proceedings."

Even nonsectarian prayer excludes the 23 percent of Americans who identify as nonreligious, FFRF emphasizes. The exclusion is compounded when a majority of prayers are sectarian (to Jesus) or a majority of the officiants are of one religion (Christianity). Such prayer creates acrimony, turns believers into political insiders and minorities into political outsiders in their own community, and confers unconstitutional governmental preference not just for Christianity over other faiths, but also for religion over nonreligion.

FFRF asks that Chamberland's prayer be published in the House Journal in its entirety. Additionally, the organization urges the House leadership to take this opportunity to discontinue the practice of scheduling prayers to open sessions.

FFRF objects to religious school logo

FFRF is protesting a blatantly religious school district logo in North Carolina.

The logo of Madison County Schools (headquartered in Marshall) contains a triangle with the word "God" at the top and a surrounding square that includes "spiritually" as one of four traits.

Former Superintendent Ronald Wilcox designed the logo more than a decade ago and told the Asheville Citizen-Times in 2014, "It just sums up the culture here and what we believe." The logo is widely used throughout the district and is prominently featured on the official website. FFRF had earlier written to the school district two years ago about the logo but did not receive a reply.

It is no defense that religion is just one element on the logo, FFRF asserts, citing past court rulings on the issue. It warns Madison County Schools that continuing use of the logo poses a serious liability problem for the school system, since earlier this year FFRF won a judgment against the Chino Valley Unified School Board in California in a challenge to its unconstitutional religious practices that resulted in an award of more than $200,000 in costs and attorney fees.

Christian university scholarships decried

FFRF is challenging an Ohio town's scholarship program for a Christian university.
Grove City is offering its residents scholarships to attend Ohio Christian University's local campus, at the Grove City Church of the Nazarene, as part of the Grove City Higher Education Investment Program.

The campus is located inside a megachurch and many of the institution's degrees and courses are heavily infused with Christianity. But even seemingly secular options have a lot of religion in them. Students who pursue a B.S. in nursing are taught to deliver "holistic Christian care," while students who pursue an associate's degree in business or human services must take a core of "Bible/Christian worldview classes."
City-funded scholarships from Grove City for attending Ohio Christian University thus violate both the U.S. and the Ohio Constitutions.

"The Ohio Constitution prohibits compelling taxpayers to fund religious education," FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne writes to Grove City Council President Roby Schottke. "And the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment strictly prohibits the government from advancing religion."

The U.S. Supreme Court has struck down grants to parochial schools when there is a possibility that the funds will be used to advance religion, FFRF informs Grove City. The Supreme Court has also upheld statutes that prohibit public aid to students pursuing degrees in theology. Private universities that offer no truly secular degrees are not entitled to participate in government funds, FFRF asserts.

FFRF wants cross removed from park

FFRF is asking a Texas town to remove a huge cross from a public park.

A large Latin cross is displayed at the entrance to Swenson Park in Spur, Texas. It overlooks the town and can be seen by passersby.

The government's permanent display of a cross on public land is unconstitutional, FFRF informs the mayor. It unabashedly creates the perception of government endorsement of Christianity and conveys the message to non-Christians, including the 23 percent of Americans who are not religious, that "they are not favored members of the political community," to quote the U.S. Supreme Court. The cross has an exclusionary effect, making non-Christian and nonbelieving residents of Spur political outsiders.

FFRF is requesting the city of Spur to immediately take steps for the removal of the cross or its relocation to a private site.

This year alone, FFRF has twice gone to court over similar violations. In April, it sued the city of Santa Clara in California to remove a large cross from a public park. And in May, it filed a suit against Pensacola, Fla., to challenge a 25-foot-tall cross in a public park.

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Police chief gets lessons in Constitution

FFRF unfortunately had to help teach a Florida police chief the U.S. Constitution.

In June, FFRF sent a letter to Oviedo Chief of Police Jeffrey Chudnow regarding an Oviedo Police Department Awards Ceremony and Career Track Recognition held in March at the Reformed Theological Seminary, a church and religious school. The program included a religious invocation.

"It is a fundamental principle of Establishment Clause jurisprudence that the government cannot promote, advance or otherwise endorse religion," FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to Chudnow. "Allowing prayer at an awards ceremony sends the message that the police department not only prefers religion over nonreligion, but also Christianity over other faiths."

FFRF has asked him to discontinue the practice of opening Oviedo Police Department ceremonies with invocations and holding official events at facilities that are religious in nature.

Chudnow replied last month, asserting that the Oviedo Police Department had no "intention of establishing any religion." Anyway, he said, as a man practicing the Jewish faith, he wasn't "offended" by the invocation and didn't receive any complaints.

FFRF quickly responded. In a follow-up letter, FFRF contended the fact that the OPD did not "have any intention of establishing of any religion" is irrelevant. The inclusion of an invocation at an official ceremony gives the impression that the department — and, hence the government — endorses religion.

Seidel also addressed the chief's second point: "Those offended by the invocation, marginalized by the display of state-sanctioned religion at a secular awards ceremony, would not seek redress from the OPD and risk making themselves targets for ridicule or persecution. Also, we complained."

Chudnow seems to have missed the point. In a second response dated July 18, he claimed that the interpretation of the First Amendment by the courts was fluid and unsettled. Besides, he stated, he had seen a copy of the Ten Commandments hanging in the chambers of the U.S. Supreme Court during a 2009 visit.

FFRF has attempted to lay his misconceptions to rest in another letter.

It agreed with Chudnow that the First Amendment protects the right of private citizens to freely exercise religion, but informed him this protection does not extend to a government agency or to a person acting in his or her official capacity.
And, FFRF said, his contention about First Amendment law is dubious.

"Your statement that the religion clauses of the First Amendment are 'fluid and dynamic' is problematic," Seidel writes to Chudnow. "Regardless of the composition of the Supreme Court, the justices have referred time and again to the words of Thomas Jefferson in interpreting the Establishment Clause and will likely continue to do so well into the future. Jefferson's 'wall of separation between church and state' has been repeatedly noted as the central organizing principle presented by the Establishment Clause."

As for the Ten Commandments display that Chudnow thought he saw hanging on the wall inside the U.S. Supreme Court building, that wasn't really the Ten Commandments. The single tablet (not two, as in the Ten Commandments stories) bearing Roman numerals that appears in the East Courtroom frieze is actually a representation of the Bill of Rights. Tablets bearing only the Roman numerals I-X appear on the support frame of the courtroom's bronze gates, on the lower interior panel of the courtroom doors, and held by a figure in the woodwork of the library, again, signifying the Bill of Rights, not the Ten Commandments.

"We are delighted that we have contributed to the edification of a police chief," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "We hope that this education will get him to acknowledge that he has been constitutionally wrong."

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FFRF state/church victories

District to stop showing religious films

FFRF has convinced a Texas school district to take a harder stance against showing Christian propaganda and anti-evolution movies to students.

In Central Heights High School in Nacogdoches, Texas, two teachers showed their students questionable films. In a ninth-grade health class, an instructor screened "God's Not Dead," a movie blatantly Christian and proselytizing in nature. And in a ninth-grade science class, another teacher, remarking to his students that he didn't believe in evolution, played "Expelled: Intelligence Not Allowed," an intelligent design propaganda work that the New York Times described as "a conspiracy-theory rant masquerading as investigative inquiry."

FFRF contacted the Central Heights Independent School District in May to alert school officials that the teachers were out of line. FFRF received a letter stating that district staff members will be trained on First Amendment issues to educate them better on the separation of state and church.

Lord's Prayer removed from ceremony

A long-standing tradition of reciting or singing the Lord's Prayer at Ohio's East Liverpool High School's graduation ceremony has been corrected.

A complainant informed FFRF that the prayer has been recited at graduation for the past 70 years. In 2015, the school choir sang the prayer as part of the event's program.

"It is wholly inappropriate to put on performances of songs of worship in a public school setting," said FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert in a letter to the district. "The song has a devotional, biblical message, and thus would be appropriate in a church setting, but not in a public school. There are a multitude of secular songs that would be far more appropriate."

The Board of Education president shared his view with a news reporter in May. "When I was first on this board I expressed a concern about us singing. The comment made was that 'we know we are breaking the law, we will do it until we get caught.' Well, ladies and gentlemen, we got caught."

On May 16, the superintendent told FFRF that the prayer would not be included in this year's ceremony. Although the valedictorian then led the prayer of his own accord, the prayer was not school-sanctioned or on the ceremony program.

Apology given for denial of service

A regional freethinkers group has received an apology for discriminatory denial of services during a recent protest at a religious theme park after FFRF sent a letter of complaint.

On June 30, Five Star Septic and Portable Toilet Rentals agreed to send portable toilets to a July 7 demonstration against the Ark Encounter park put on by the Tri-State Freethinkers. But when the company's office called Tri-State Freethinkers to get directions to the site, it asked whether the portable toilets were for the protest. Upon learning that they were, the office denied service, indicating that this was partially because it did not want its name associated with the atheists' protest.

It is unlawful for legitimate businesses to discriminate on the basis of religion, FFRF contended in a formal letter of complaint.

With such short notice, Tri-State Freethinkers had to hastily organize a shuttle caravan to a nearby gas station for the nearly 200 attendees needing to use toilets.
Arwood Waste & Demolition, with which Five Star Septic has been a subcontractor, said sorry to Tri-State Freethinkers and made a pledge that the inappropriate behavior will not recur.

Email signature now in compliance

FFRF has persuaded an Ohio county commissioner to remove religion from her official email signature.

Crawford County Commissioner Jenny Vermillion used two inappropriate signature lines in her county email address. The first of these was a reference to an Old Testament verse, Jeremiah 1:5, along with the politically charged commentary "Choose LIFE!!" (The actual verse reads: "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.") The second was a President Eisenhower quote that promotes religion and disparages atheists.

FFRF requested that Vermillion delete all these references from her email signature.

And she indeed did. In a terse but to-the-point letter a few days ago, Vermillion replied: "Dear Sir or Madame, It has been removed."

FFRF gets religion off of fishing team

The Cherokee County School District in Centre, Ala., has addressed several church/state violations occurring on the fishing team, after receiving a complaint from FFRF.

A concerned parent informed FFRF that the team's coach had shirts printed depicting an ichthys (Jesus fish) with a Christian cross inside. The school raised funds by selling the shirts, and students had to wear the shirts at competitions. The coach also encouraged students to pray and attend religious events.

The superintendent of the district called FFRF on June 26. He stated that the fishing coach "understands" her constitutional obligations and that the fishing team was approving new, religiously neutral competition shirts and that the problematic shirts would no longer be sold to the public.

Teacher won't show Christian film again

A physical education teacher in the Tattnall School District in Georgia will not show "Woodlawn" or other Christian films to his class again after hearing from FFRF.

The film was shown at Reedsville Middle School over two class periods. The movie, produced by a Christian film production company, follows a struggling football team that unites over faith to make a run at the playoffs. It features quotes such as "This is what happens when God shows up," and "I'm asking you to choose Jesus. Can you do that? Will you do that? Right now."

In a letter of complaint, FFRF Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell wrote, "When the district allows teachers to show Christian propaganda to middle school students, the district becomes complicit in an egregious constitutional violation and breach of trust."

The superintendent responded on July 5, saying that she had met with the relevant teachers and administrators and that the district would review its procedure for approving classroom-appropriate media.

Band won't return to Ark Encounter

Williamstown High School will not be returning to the newly opened Ark Encounter in Kentucky.

FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel complained to the district on July 7 after the school's marching band performed at the ribbon cutting ceremony for the Ark Encounter on July 5.

"There are . . . serious constitutional issues with public schools helping a private religious ministry to launch a park meant to convert people and collect a fair bit of money in the process," wrote Seidel. "It is unacceptable to expose a captive audience of impressionable students to the overtly religious atmosphere of Ham's Christian theme parks."

The attorney for Williamstown School District spoke with FFRF on July 18, stating that the there are no current plans for the band or any school group to visit the park in the future and that he would notify FFRF if any came up.

Proselytizing ends in school district

After an FFRF complaint, the Payson (Ariz.) Unified School District has directed teachers not to promote their personal religious beliefs to their students.

FFRF was notified of the situation by the parents of a local kindergarten student. The student had shared that his music teacher was telling the story of baby Jesus being born and that his homeroom teacher showed a movie about "baby God saving people" and that "he died doing it."

Multiple other issues were also addressed. The school promoted its winter concert with a flier that repeatedly referenced Christmas as "Christ"mas. Additionally, at the end of the concert, all of the teachers sang the hymn "Silent Night" on stage together.

On March 17, the district responded to FFRF that the principal had spoken to the music teacher and that they would amend future district-wide staff training to prevent teachers from promoting religious beliefs to their students.

FFRF sees end to school prayer club

Yucca Valley Elementary School in the Morongo Unified School District in California does not plan to continue its after-school prayer club.

FFRF received a complaint from a local parent that a fourth-grade teacher was leading a Good News Club in her classroom directly after school, having her daughters encourage other students to pray, and using a whiteboard in the staff lounge to advertise her search for finding a new club leader. Additionally, FFRF received reports of teachers participating in the National Day of Prayer at the "old flagpole" on campus. Good News Club is a Christian program for 5-12 year olds with various bible-related activities.

FFRF received a reply from the district's attorneys on July 14. They informed FFRF that the teacher in question was no longer an employee of the district and that administrators across the district had been informed of "the limitations imposed on district employees by the Constitution."

Coach prayers to end in Minneapolis

Athletic directors across the entire Minneapolis Public School District have been reminded not to lead, initiate, require or facilitate prayer with students at any school athletic events.

FFRF lodged its complaint with the district in response to reports that the North Community High School football coach regularly gathered the team for prayer and participated in the prayer.

After more than five months, FFRF finally received a reply. The district sent a memo to all building athletic directors reminding them of their constitutional obligations promised to address the issue at a district-wide preseason coaches meeting.

Jehovah's Witnesses won't be at post office

The United States Postal Service has responded to an FFRF complaint by promising to prevent Jehovah's Witness literature distribution at the Bay City Post Office in Texas.

A local complainant requested that FFRF take action to end the proselytizing practice. The Witnesses set up chairs, an umbrella and a stand with pamphlets next to the post office entrance.

FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler objected to the situation as a violation of both postal regulations and the United States Constitution. She pointed out that regulations prohibit "tables, chairs, freestanding signs or posters, structures, or furniture of any type... on postal walkways, . . . driveways, parking lots, or other exterior spaces."

FFRF was notified on July 12 that postmaster of the Bay City Post Office has reviewed regulations and that the regulations "will be adhered to in the future."

City removes itself as ChristFest sponsor

The city of Muncie, Ind., is not listed as a sponsor of ChristFest 2016 after FFRF complained about sponsorship of the 2015 event.

ChristFest is an all-day event meant "to give praise, worship, and honor to the Lord Jesus Christ." It features "praise & worship teams, drama teams, and Christian comedians."

The event, which occurred on Aug. 15, 2015, at the Canan Commons, had the city of Muncie seal and the city's name listed as gold level event sponsors. Gold level sponsors must give a donation of at least $1,500.

"Even if the city of Muncie did not donate funds to ChristFest, it is improper to allow the city seal to appear on the ChristFest website," FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to the city.

The city replied that it had not given any money to the event and were already attempting to have the seal removed. The city's name and seal are no longer on the 2016 event website.

Church land transfers stopped for now

FFRF has persuaded a Tennessee county to stop giving away land to churches.

The Shelby County Board of Commissioners had repeatedly transferred land to churches for nominal sums under a Tennessee provision that permitted this for nonprofits. For example, the county conveyed eight parcels of land to Memphis' Kingdom Fellowship Baptist Church in 2012 and a further four parcels to the same church in 2015.

FFRF informed the county that it was violating both the U.S. and Tennessee Constitutions by its actions, no less than if it directly transferred taxpayer money to churches.

FFRF advised Shelby County that county property should never be transferred to religious institutions for less than fair market value, since this sort of action forces taxpayers of all faiths and of no religion to subsidize a particular expression of worship.

Shelby County heeded FFRF's advice. In a recent response, Kennedy acknowledged that FFRF's letter had made it reassess its actions and that as a result, Shelby County was suspending the land transfers for the time being.

Post office removes religious literature

The post office in Morristown, Tenn., removed its Sign of the Times magazine rack after FFRF complained to the postmaster.

The rack was placed just outside the building on the post office's property.
According to its website, the magazine "encourages readers to lead joyful Christian lives as they await the soon return of Jesus."

Seven weeks later, the postmaster replied that "an investigation was made" and that "proper steps were taken to remove the rack and signage from postal property.

FFRF has complained to other Tennessee post offices about Sign of the Times magazine racks, most recently in Harrison.

Nativity scene won't be redisplayed

The Porum Police Department in Oklahoma has agreed not to redisplay a nativity scene in front of the department's building.

The scene, erected on public property, was displayed in November 2015 and faced Main Street.

"Displaying an inherently Christian message unmistakably sends the message that Porum Police Department endorses the religious beliefs embodied in the display," wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel in a letter to the police chief.

After nearly six months, FFRF received a reply denying that the holiday display was solely a nativity scene but agreed not to display it in the future.

Publicly run hotel rids itself of bibles

Following an FFRF complaint, the Thunderbird Executive Inn in Arizona has removed the Gideon bibles that resided in all of its rooms.

The hotel is part of the Thunderbird School of Global Management, recently made a unit of Arizona State University. A concerned citizen contacted FFRF.

"Permitting members of outside religious groups the privilege of placing their religious literature in public university guest rooms also constitutes state endorsement and advancement of religion," explained FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler. "Individuals, not the state, must determine what religious texts are worth reading."

The hotel's director informed FFRF on July 19 that religious materials would be removed from guest rooms.

FFRF is pleased to announce that it has awarded $10,000 in scholarship awards in memory of Catherine Fahringer to four students chosen by the Black Skeptics of Los Angeles, an African-American atheist community-based group.

The scholarship is part of the First in the Family Humanist Scholarship program, which focuses on undocumented, foster care, homeless and LGBTQ youth who will be the first in their families to go to college.

"We are excited and proud to offer these four students $2,500 each in the name of Catherine Fahringer," said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.

Fahringer was a San Antonio feminist and freethinking activist who ran a long-lived FFRF chapter and served on the executive board for many years. She was especially interested in nurturing the next generation of freethinkers. She died in 2008.

Faith is something that has stayed on people's minds for millennia. Something about belief — belief in a higher power, belief in a superior leadership position, or belief in the environment itself — ensnares our minds.

I not only identify as a secular person but as an African-American, which brings into play two different cultural aspects that contrast with mainstream society's view of who is secular. Secular people are rarely seen in media as people of color, let alone a young black man raised by an African-American mother and a Nigerian-American father in a nonreligious household. One of the biggest lessons I learned while being raised in this secular household is to question everything. Everything was up for debate, even the idea of not believing in religion.

I was never convinced to personally believe in a religious system. Even so, exploring the significance of religious systems sparked my interest in the reasons why people decide to believe in a higher power, and the various ways people express their belief. These questions have kept me interested in learning about religion for years, and I incorporate these questions heavily in my fictional writing. Most of my fiction takes place in a unified fictional universe. A central conflict stems from debates about the differences between "good" and "bad" faith, how religion can be used to advance personal agendas and the influence of religion on the making of civilizations.

In my next few years at Amherst College, I plan on continuing to ask questions concerning religion and religion's role in peoples' lives. Creative writing will be a great outlet for this process, and I hope to publish the trilogy of Afro-Asian inspired fantasy novels that I am developing while I am in undergrad. I also want to give underprivileged students the opportunity to prove their scientific assumptions like I do and come to their own conclusions. I will attempt to achieve this through creating a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving STEM education of communities lacking in educational resources worldwide.

Kola graduated from North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics and will be attending Amherst College in the fall.

When you grow up in the Caribbean, there are certain traditions and teachings that no one is allowed to escape. From the way you dress to the food you eat to the number of times you attend church services, there is an explicit list of things you must do. Wrong!

Contrary to popular belief about atheists, freethinkers and other secular identifying persons like myself, I am not without faith. My faith, however, does not lie within an intangible, imaginative being who punishes, kills and loves at his/her discretion. It lies within the tangible and remarkably enigmatic and beautiful creation that are human beings. I believe in humankind.

I didn't identify as atheist or a freethinker until recently. In addition, I was also slow to self-identify because on top of being a "radical thinker" and an "anarchist," as my family has so courteously classified me, I am a black gay female. My life has been centered around criticisms just for thinking the way I do and being who I am. Now that I am older and more mature, I've come to the realization that these groups, these minorities, these cultures that I belong to, are empowering. A lot of the achievements and strides I have made are owed to the strength and support I have garnered from others like me.

I take pride in saying I'm a nonbeliever. I take pride in saying I'm black. I take pride in saying I'm a lesbian. I take pride in saying I'm a woman. I don't conform to societal norms, and that's OK.

As it stands right now, there is an enormous issue within the young colored LGBTQ community in Iowa. LGBTQ youth, colored youth and youth in general tend to struggle independently with self-acceptance, but from experience and observation, the magnitude to which self-love and acceptance becomes obscured is heightened when adequate resources and opportunities for support and connection are limited.

Iowa is a majority white state, with very low percentages of minorities. It also has a largely religious population. This causes many LGBTQ minorities to feel misplaced, misrepresented and underrepresented. What I want to do is to create an outreach in my community where young colored LGBTQ persons can participate in events that will grant them a sense of involvement. I want to use the principles behind humanism as my platform. Humanism proselytizes human equality and value, and that is something these youths need to be reminded of. It teaches us there is beauty in idiosyncrasy. I believe that I can and should be a beacon for change in this world, and that it begins at home.

Makeda will be attending the University of Iowa.

I remember the day that I told my family that I had doubts about religion. Doubts, not vehement opposition. Not affirmative rejection, not an outright refusal to participate in religious activities, but doubts. Reasonable doubts.

I told my family that I did not find it reasonable to have to accept without question any fact of life. Even before I finished telling them how I felt, I could feel the dynamic shift from one of love and warmth to outright rejection. After I saw what my mere expression of doubt could do, I was not the same.

I grew up in a family of Jehovah's Witnesses, going three generations back to my great-grandmother. It didn't sit easy with me that I had to automatically accept an Earthly hierarchy connected to a mystic, ethereal creator. I didn't like the communal peer pressure to follow a preset life pattern, nor did I appreciate the full devotion to some texts, but lenience toward other beliefs. As I grew, I told myself that I owed it to my well-being and my conscience to not maintain this façade for the emotional comfort of those halfway vested in me. So I didn't.

The thing that affected me the most in my experience was the power of doubt and the importance of human experience. Religions are meant to be pre-ordered courses of life and explanations for real phenomena that better the believer. But when this goal actually materializes, the believer falls by the wayside, leaving an institution that only focuses on surviving. The institution does not care for the long-lasting well-being of the believer. Religion operates like a pharmaceutical company; it creates dependent customers rather than healthy, happy people. And the rejection I faced validates this claim.

For a while, I beat myself up over the emotional distance in the family. But I then realized that it was not my fault. I don't reject the religious mindset altogether, since the human race needs dialogue over experience. But in that same breath we need experience-based dialogue, not ideological ramblings. Civil rights have only progressed so far because we used the rationale "God created us with rights and made us equals" instead of "People are suffering and we must respect their struggles." We reached a legislative equality, which is only equality in theory, and thus felt that the fight was over. Experience says otherwise, and that should be valued more.

Humanism helped me to value myself and my experiences, and that is the only reason I need. It gave me confidence and it helped assuage my anxiety. It can do the same for others when they learn their true power is based on the sole fact that they exist. Humanism builds confidence, it fosters independence and it tells the disenfranchised exactly what they need to hear: that they matter.

Jorge graduated from Wichita High School and now attends Carleton College.

Discrimination is the one thing all religions have in common. Whether it's Christians against homosexuality or other religions discriminating against each other, all try to exclude people based off of something they cannot help. This is part of the reason I don't have a religion.

Having a religion is having faith in something that can't be proven or explained scientifically. While others choose to believe in "God," I choose to believe in myself and the tangible reasons for the things that happen in our lives. The greatest technological innovations, and basic everyday occurrences were not created by faith, but by things physically and scientifically seen and proven. Believing in anything more is not only irresponsible and unrealistic, but also dangerous. Religions create more problems than they could ever solve.

I live in a community where Caucasian Catholics are the norm. Living in one of the very few black households in the neighborhood, I have noticed many of my neighbors are either ignorant or inattentive to the issues of the black community. That is something I would like to change.

Many black issues, such as increasing incarceration rates, unequal pay and representation in companies and blatant racism, are being ignored due to the lack of awareness and support in my community. If we simply educated our communities, we would not only increase support in numbers, but also increase the support of races that objectify African-Americans. If those who commit the racist acts see their peers supporting black causes, point of views could change, racism and violence could end, and the world would be a better place.

I know it isn't that simple, but it is a place to start. By fixing discrimination and racism, we can fix the issues of today, and those to come.

The equality of all, no matter what race, sexual orientation or gender, is an ideology that should become part of our way of life. Humanism is a practice that could fully address social issues, and make the world stronger as a whole. It could eliminate all faults within our society economically, socially and politically. Black CEOs would be common, and women would get the same wages as men. There wouldn't be a need for the Black Lives Matter movement because everyone would know that all lives matter.

Humanism is the key to fixing us and making our society the best it can possibly be.

Sabria graduated from Milikan High School in Long Beach, Calif., and now attends UC-Berkeley.

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