Church must pay property tax on downtown lot in Madison, Wis., that is assessed at $4 million
A Dane County judge has ruled that the Catholic Church must pay taxes on a multimillion–dollar lot it owns in downtown Madison.
Dane County Circuit Court Judge Rhonda Lanford decided on Oct. 4 that a 1.3-acre lot in Madison owned by the Catholic Church is not exempt from property taxes. The Church sued the city last year to recover taxes it paid on the lot, which amount to nearly $100,000 per year.
FFRF filed an amicus curiae brief in June supporting the city of Madison. FFRF's brief questioned how St. Raphael's could retain an exemption while it was really just holding on to the lot as a future site of a $50 million cathedral.
"All Madison taxpayers should not have to pay more taxes while St. Raphael's invests in its other property holdings in Madison and holds the St. Raphael's lot for future development," FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote. "It is precisely for this reason that property must be used to maintain an exemption."
The court granted summary judgment in favor of the city of Madison, holding that land that is tax exempt must be "necessary for the location and convenience of buildings" under Wisconsin law. Since there are no church buildings on the lot, it is taxable.
While the church may some day develop the property, the court found that tax exemptions do not "extend to pre-construction planning of a building." The Church also failed to demonstrate that it was "readying" the property for construction. Judge Lanford noted, "While plaintiff has acquired property in preparation for construction of the new cathedral, it has not submitted plans of any kind into this record."
FFRF is delighted at the ruling.
"This is a victory for taxpayers," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "Churches cannot be allowed to abuse tax exemptions by holding on to valuable real estate and expecting local governments to look the other way when they fail to actually use the property for exempt purposes."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a Madison, Wis.-based national state/church watchdog organization with more than 23,000 nonreligious members all over the country, including 1,300-plus in Wisconsin.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is renewing its objection to several public university football chaplaincies.
FFRF initially contacted the schools in August of last year to complain about their respective chaplaincy programs as part of a broad national report titled "Pray to Play."
This August, FFRF contacted five major universities still not in compliance with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Those schools are Georgia Tech, the University of Wisconsin, Virginia Tech, the University of Missouri and the University of South Carolina. FFRF plans to contact more noncompliant universities throughout the fall.
Most of the schools involved try to get around the unconstitutionality argument by claiming that any religious services or activities are purely voluntary. But the idea that such religious activities are truly optional is questionable, at best.
FFRF's "Pray to Play" report concluded that "athletes do not view coaches' suggestions as optional." Moreover, "coaches add to this pressure by sending chaplains to talk with players going through difficult times, instead of allowing players to seek out their own religious or professional counseling."
"Courts have summarily rejected arguments that voluntariness excuses a constitutional violation," FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor wrote in a letter to Georgia Tech President G.P. Peterson.
Additionally, these schools employ only Christian chaplains, showing an unconstitutional preference for Christianity. This is in spite of the fact that 44 percent of college-aged Americans are non-Christian and fully a third of millennials identify as nonreligious, according to the Pew Research Center.
In order to aid these universities in protecting their students from religious discrimination, FFRF is also recommending the adoption of a model policy, which includes the maintenance of complete official neutrality in matters of religion. If adopted, this model policy would not only bring the schools into compliance with the law, but would send the message that the universities value the right of every student athlete to hold his or her own religious or nonreligious views, free from direct or indirect coercion or contrary endorsement.
At Georgia Tech, it appears that Derrick Moore continues to serve as its football chaplain and receives compensation from the school for his religious services. Moore prays with the team before games while wielding a sledgehammer at times.
"Apparently, we need to sledgehammer Georgia Tech officials in order to get any meaningful response," Barker adds.
The University of Missouri last year quickly replied to FFRF's letter, stating that it had no intention to change its program.
As with the other schools, it contended that Mizzou's football chaplaincy is acceptable because it is voluntary. Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin wrote that "interaction with the chaplain and attendance at these services is strictly voluntary." But former coach Gary Pinkel invited a chaplain to deliver prayers for the whole team in the locker room.
Also, chaplains Shay Roush and Nathan Tiemeyer are not uncompensated or purely "volunteer." As FFRF's report details, both have received per diem payments for their services, as well as Mizzou-sponsored flights for themselves and their families to bowl games. Such benefits send a clear message to players and the community that these chaplains are working for Mizzou.
FFRF is pleased to report the departure of Chaplain Adrian Despres, about whom it complained last year.
However, it appears that the new University of South Carolina football head coach, Will Muschamp, has decided that he wants "multiple voices available to assist with the spiritual development of student-athletes," as he was quoted in an official statement on Despres' exit. Furthermore, he told a Rotary Club meeting earlier this year, "There's no question being a Christian is very important to me. . . . That's not something I push on our players. It's something I make readily available for our players."
As an initial matter, it is improper for a public university program to "assist with the spiritual development" of students. This cannot be a task of the government under the First Amendment, which excludes government entities from sponsoring religious activity. Whether or not to engage in religious activity is squarely left to private individuals.
Virginia Tech's Director of Athletics Whit Babcock's response to our letter, dated Oct. 15, 2015, indicated that Virginia Tech has taken positive steps regarding its chaplain, but that the program continues.
Following FFRF's exposé, money was repaid to the university after team Chaplain Dave Gittings and his family traveled with the team and stayed in team hotels, received per diem payments for bowl games, and received complimentary season tickets.
However, Virginia Tech appears to have retained its chaplaincy program as a whole. Gittings continues to serve as the team chaplain, and he apparently provides "weekly large group meetings open to the student athletes, small group team bible studies, one on one discipleship, coaches bible studies and a ministry to the ladies who love and support the coach called Behind The Bench."
According to Virginia Tech's Gobbler Connect Organizations Directory, there are more than 60 religious organizations for students to choose from. There is no need for the Virginia Tech football program to provide Christian chaplains in order for the student-athletes to freely exercise their religions.
FFRF has been badgering the University of Wisconsin about its chaplaincy program for many years, however, it has yet to issue a formal response to FFRF's newest concerns.
Father Michael Burke, a Catholic priest, continues to serve as the UW football chaplain. For decades, Burke has traveled with the team, led team prayers and provided religious services, among other chaplain duties. He has access to team facilities and has even participated in recruiting.
Burke has a history of leading the team in pregame prayers. These prayers are coercive. A former Jewish player told a reporter that he had to opt to sit with the group while it was praying and listen silently so as to not appear socially out of place.
FFRF is particularly concerned that the UW football program has been subsidizing Burke's travel with the team. FFRF first exposed the subsidization in the early 1990s. Recent public records that FFRF requested revealed that in the past couple of years UW again paid for Burke's hotel rooms for bowl games, which totaled nearly $2,500. Following FFRF's request for records of Burke's reimbursement, UW belatedly submitted an invoice to Burke for such travel.
We're just days away from the 2016 FFRF annual national convention in Pittsburgh the weekend of Oct. 7-9!
If you haven't registered already, you may still sign up at the door, although you cannot order meals.
Join us for a weekend of great speakers, food, music and more! FFRF has pulled together an exceptional lineup of speakers, including Daniel Dennett, Lawrence Krauss, Susan Jacoby and Jerry Coyne. Many of the other speakers have intriguing, interesting and/or heartbreaking stories to tell about their personal battles or fighting state/church separation. You'll learn a lot and be entertained. What more can you ask for?
Because of the popularity of this year's convention (and the fact that's there's a Steelers game in town that Sunday), hotel rooms at the Wyndham Grand Downtown, site of the convention, are now sold out for that weekend. To find a place to stay nearby, go to hotels.com or your favorite online booking site.
We hope to see you in Pittsburgh! For more information, go to ffrf.org/outreach/convention.
Raihan Abir lived in a constant state of fear that he would be killed.
And for good reason. Which was for bad reasons.
Abir is co-author of Philosophy of Disbelief, a book promoting atheism that became a bestseller in Bangladesh in 2011. He is now the latest Bangladeshi nonbeliever aided by Nonbelief Relief, which serves as the charitable arm of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
Abir's co-author, Avijit Roy, was hacked to death in February 2015 on a street in Dhaka by religious extremists.
Rafida Bonya Ahmed, Avijit Roy's wife, survived the assault and is a prominent voice at global forums and the United Nations, calling on the Bangladeshi government to do more to protect atheist writers. She will be speaking at FFRF's convention in Pittsburgh on Saturday, Oct. 8.
On May 12, 2015, Abir's book editor and friend, Ananta Bijoy Das, had stepped out of his home for the daily commute to his job when men wearing masks and carrying machetes chased him and killed him.
"When he was killed, I said there is no way I'm not next," Abir told the Toronto Globe and Mail. "They will target me, of course."
Three people involved in the publishing of the book have been brutally murdered.
Three others have been seriously injured, as religious extremists in Bangladesh target atheist and secular writers. Since 2013, religious extremists have killed more than 50 bloggers, secularists and LGBT activists, according to Human Rights Watch.
"Whenever we started out of the house, he used to ride the motorcycle and I used to look backward all the time to make sure no one's following us or going to do anything to us," his wife Samia Hossain said.
Even as he got off the bike and walked to his job at the university, Abir would leave his helmet on because he feared an attacker would target his head with a machete.
"At least I'll survive the first attack," Abir told the Globe and Mail.
What got Abir into this dangerous predicament began in 2007, when he found comfort in the online world with places like Mukto-Mona — meaning "free thinking" — a website started by Avijit Roy that became a gathering spot for atheist and secular writers.
The people he met through Mukto-Mona became his co-authors, publishers, editors and fellow bloggers. He and others tried to debunk parts of the Quran, bible and Hindu sacred texts. They said religion was a virus that breeds extremism and threatens freedom.
But, in recent years, Islamic extremists began targeting those writers and, in 2015, the violence increased dramatically. Abir would get death threats by text message and email.
"It's not uncommon for Islamic extremists to attack writers and secular people, so I was keeping myself away from going to public meetings and rallies so people don't track me," he told Michael Petrou of Maclean's magazine. "I was taking these kind of precautions because we have to. But in 2015, it got out of control."
It was so bad that Abir decided he had to get out of the country.
Leaving for Canada
Abir went to Canada in June of 2015 to attend a biomedical engineering conference, leaving behind his wife, who was six months pregnant. Neither had any idea when they would see each other again. "I knew that I might not be able to see her for three or four years," Abir told The Guardian.
But, according to The Guardian, Hossain was pleased to see him leave Bangladesh. "When the plane left and was in the air, I knew he would be alive. I was so happy," she said.
It wasn't long before she was able to join Abir in Canada. She applied for a visa to attend an architect's conference and within two months — by then eight months pregnant — she was on a plane to Toronto.
"I thought it would be the happiest day of my life," Abir told The Guardian.
But while his wife was traveling to Canada, he learned that another of his friends, blogger Niloy Neel, had been hacked to death in his home on Aug. 14, 2015.
"It was a really stressful time," Abir said. "We were losing the brightest minds of Bangladesh one by one."
Then, shortly after finding a home to live in, their daughter Sophie was born. His family was then given refugee status in November.
"I kept it very secret that I was in Canada, but somehow they knew," he told Maclean's. "I can't say 100 percent that I am safe. But I feel safe. In Dhaka, I used to wear a helmet all the time and look back while walking forward, but here I don't do that."
Won't give up the fight
He continues to write and edit Mukto-Mona from his Toronto home. He plans to complete his Ph.D. in biomedical engineering. He says he won't give up the fight for secularizing Bangladesh.
"Because this dark side, this kind of thing, never [wins]," he told Maclean's. "Maybe they do atrocities, maybe they will kill us. But they won't be winning in the long run. So we'll have to keep on doing what we do — keep informing people about science, about reason, about humanism."
Abir also is focused on helping the many Bangladeshi writers who are still hiding and fearing for their lives.
"We're trying to make connections with the outer world and get them to safe places," he told The Guardian. "We don't have any resources, we're just trying to do what we can. But it is really difficult to fight off machetes with a pen."
The goal of getting back to Bangladesh is on Abir and Hossain's minds. But they know it won't be soon. Abir hopes to go back in two years, while Hossain thinks it will be closer to five years. But they both agree that the murders will have to end before they go back.
"It's not over yet," Abir recently told the Globe and Mail. "Because within this month we'll wake up one day in the morning and say, 'That's our friend. He has been killed.' "
We're only weeks away from the November election and this means many of us are finalizing our voter registrations and pinning down where we're supposed to go to vote. You may be surprised to find that your polling location is in a church. Every election year, FFRF receives questions about the legality of houses of worship being used as polling places.
Only three courts in the entire country have spoken on this issue, and those three have found it to be a permissible practice so long as there are reasonable alternatives available for those who object to voting in a church, such as early voting or absentee voting. However, because only a minority of courts have deemed the practice permissible, it's not well-settled law.
In many places, one-third to one-half of all polling locations are churches. In Rockford, Ill., churches constitute an incredible 80% of the city's polling locations. In Eau Claire, Wis., 53 of 66 wards use houses of worship. In Fayetteville, Ark., churches are used for 16 of the 17 polling places!
FFRF takes the position that this practice is objectionable on many grounds.
There are a whole host of problems with churches being used as polling sites. First, many of these sites are utilized for Christian worship. Religious imagery is pervasive in a lot of these venues and oftentimes are in direct view of voters. FFRF receives complaints of voting booths being underneath paintings of Jesus, large Christian crosses and nearby bibles and posters with biblical verses on them. A church in Eau Claire put the voter registration table at the foot of an 8-foot tall Christian cross. Wisconsin has same-day registration, allowing voters to register on Election Day. Our complainant described his experience as "disconcerting, as if that was the focus of the event, instead of the primary election." As our country becomes more religiously diverse, Christian images and iconography are seen by many as symbols of political intimidation.
At a minimum, if churches are going to be used as polling locations, religious imagery should be removed or covered in voting areas.
Furthermore, there are numerous cases across the country of churches exploiting their position as polling sites to promote their churches or causes. We've received reports of churches handing out literature about their services and posting sign-ups for their bible studies.
In the 2008 election, Shawnee Tabernacle Christian Church in Tobyhanna, Pa., used its status as a polling place to hand out "goodie bags" for voters. These bags were distributed to voters as they were entering or exiting the polling place. Bags contains religious literature included a "Welcome" pamphlet that listed worship services and prayer meeting times, a magazine entitled "PoconoParent," which described a charter school opened and run by the pastor; and an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner sponsored by the church. Following a letter of complaint by FFRF, the Monroe County director of elections indicated they would not use the Shawnee Tabernacle as a polling location in the future.
Just this year, FFRF sent a complaint to Lehigh County, Pa., over its use of churches as polling places. Voters reported that, along with religious imagery, there were tables with displays of church activities. In a partial victory, the county agreed to place portable walls and dividers to cover up some of the religious images voters encountered in the polling area.
The takeaway from these stories is this: churches should not be able to exploit their positions as a polling place in order to advertise themselves and distribute proselytizing materials.
The most egregious abuses, however, come when churches used as polling places also take the opportunity to speak out on ballot initiatives at issue in the election, or take the time to endorse or oppose a candidate. This came up frequently in the past as same-sex marriage bans were considered in states across the U.S.
Using houses of worship as polling places is particularly problematic knowing the psychological consequences of voting in a church. Where you vote can affect how you vote. In a 2008 study, "Contextual Priming: Where people vote affects how they vote," professors Jonah Berger, Marc Meredith and S. Christian Wheeler found that those voting in a school were more likely to support a measure that increased sales tax to fund education. A similar study in 2010, "Deus ex machine: The influence of polling place on voting behavior," by Abraham Rutchick, found that 83% of those voting in churches supported a measure defining marriage as between one man and one woman, while 81.5% of voters in secular locations supported the same measure.
If you have to vote in a church, complain! Usually your city or county representative has the authority to suggest changes to polling places. A local rep is more apt than a bureaucrat to respond to a citizen complaint. Suggest secular alternatives (particularly those with access to persons with disabilities): libraries, public schools (it's educational for students to witness Election Day), fire stations, malls, etc.
If you are forced to vote in a church, take notes or photographs (if allowed by law), especially if you are forced to walk by signs, brochures or posters which would influence voters on issues such as gay rights or abortion. You have the right to vote in an auditorium or hall free of religious messages, crucifixes, etc. Document such violations when you complain to local officials.
FFRF members have been successful in getting officials to choose secular over religious sites. Being a "squeaky wheel," doing homework about available alternatives, and working with local government representatives can yield results.
FFRF does not have the resources to complain about every church used as a polling site, but if the circumstances you encounter are extreme, we can do a backup complaint.
Rebecca S. Markert is FFRF senior staff and managing attorney.
Name: Bernard (Ben) Barwick.
Where I live: Madison, Wis.
Where and when I was born: Milwaukee, Wis., 1945.
Family: Wife, Marie Barwick.
Education: Finance degree, self-taught sculptor.
Occupation: Accountant for 27 years, sculptor for 15 years, and took more than 100 volunteers to teach spoken English in China for 11 summers between 2002 and 2013.
Military service: Three years in the Army as records clerk in Alaska and Colorado.
How I got where I am today: It was 90% luck and 10% perspiration.
Where I'm headed: A long and adventurous retirement.
Person in history I admire and why: Lord Bertrand Russell. He was instrumental in clarifying my thinking on religion and the purpose of life. He was also one the most brilliant and prolific writers in history, on everything from mathematics and science to philosophy and ethics and morals.
Quotations I like: "Live to experience, experience to live." — myself
"To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance." — Oscar Wilde
"There is no sin except stupidity." — Oscar Wilde
These are a few of my favorite things: Non-material things: love, experience and knowledge. Material things: art. I practiced sculpture as a hobby for about 28 years. I was passionate about it. I read many books, studied many styles and went to very many museums, galleries and exhibitions. I got to be a pretty good sculptor of various materials. When I turned 50, and believed that I was financially OK, I quit accounting and became a professional sculptor. I could not wait to get up in the morning and often worked late into the night, seven days per week. By this time, I was tired of lifting stone and breathing stone dust, so I switched from stone sculpture to clay sculpture and cast my work in bronze and high tech resins. During the course of my sculpture career I obtained relative success, won many awards, exhibited and sold in several countries. It was a great journey.
These are not: Arrogance, ignorance and procrastination.
My doubts about religion started: I was raised a strict Catholic. When I was 20 years old, I was confined to a hospital bed for 1 1/2 years. I had a lot of time to read and learn. When I left the hospital, I was an atheist. I had questions about my faith before that, but this was an opportunity to really study and challenge what was taught to me.
Before I die: Experience, experience, experience! I have had a very fortunate and wonderful life. I experienced and accomplished a thousand times more then I ever thought that I would. But there is so much more to experience and challenge and enjoy.
Ways I promote freethought: I'm a Life Member of FFRF. I live my beliefs, defend them and support FFRF.
I wish you'd have asked me: Am I afraid to die? Absolutely not!
Name: Timothy Nott.
Where and when I was born: Milwaukee, Gen X.
Education: UW-Madison, B.A. in English with an emphasis in creative writing.
Family: Wife Michelle and daughter Violet.
How I came to work at FFRF: I was looking for a change in career when I heard about an opportunity for a technologist at FFRF. Days later, evangelist Franklin Graham came through town on his "Decision America" tour. I don't believe his speech had the desired effect where I am concerned.
What I do here: I'm here to make sure our digital efforts are as effective as our legal team, our support of community activists and our print publication.
What I like best about it: I believe strongly in making decisions based on data and feel very at home at an organization brimming with people who favor proof over fantasy.
What gets old about it: Stairs. This place is riddled with stairs.
I spend a lot of time thinking about: How we can use technology to allow our members to make a bigger impact on their communities.
I spend little if any time thinking about: Wondering whether I might be drinking too much coffee.
My religious upbringing was: A fairly liberal — and therefore conflicted — brand of Catholicism.
My doubts about religion started: I started to question religion as a child once I realized all people didn't believe the same thing. How could we all be right in our methods of telling others that they are wrong?
Things I like: Science fiction — I need a break from hard data once in a while. Coffee. My wife. My daughter. My pets. In no particular order.
Things I smite: Things that beep. Why does every electronic device have to beep and have LEDs that don't turn off when not in use?
In my golden years: I intend to be an unappreciated artist of some sort. Retirement seems like the optimal time to do something that pays nothing.
Nonbelief Relief, a charity established last year by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, recently gave a $5,000 stipend to a prominent Bangladeshi writer who has found asylum in Canada. (See story on front page.)
Nonbelief Relief's aid will tide over Raihan Abir and his family as they establish themselves in Canada and obtain visas for study and work. He received previous aid from the Center for Inquiry to help in his first year in Canada.
Abir is the 11th Bangladeshi nonbeliever or blogger aided to date by Nonbelief Relief in the face of hit lists going after atheists. Most of them are still in transition and cannot be named. The Islamic State and al-Qaida have claimed credit for recent vicious executions of those targeted for nonbelief.
Nonbelief Relief is working with a loose international coalition, including Center for Inquiry and Rafida Bonya Ahmed, to vet those needing assistance.
Nonbelief Relief exists as a humanitarian agency for atheists, agnostics, freethinkers and their supporters to improve this world — our only world. Nonbelief Relief seeks 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.
The charity this year has now spent about $50,000 in grants to individuals whose lives have been imperiled because of public atheist activism.
To help Nonbelief Relief help others in the name of the community of nonbelievers and replenish its coffers, please make tax-deductible donations to Nonbelief Relief via FFRF. Indicate "Nonbelief Relief" in the memo of your check payable to FFRF (mailed to FFRF, PO Box 750, Madison WI 53701) or use the handy drop-down designation on FFRF's website donation page (ffrf.org/donate), to ensure your gift goes to the charity. (If you wish, you may further designate your gift for endangered nonbelievers in Bangladesh.)
Aid for flood relief
On behalf of nonbelievers, Nonbelief Relief gave $10,000 in flood relief to a hard-hit school district in Louisiana.
FFRF has asked that it be used for the repair or rebuilding of Livingston Parish Public Schools infrastructure or buses.
On the same day $10,000 was funneled to help the Livingston public school district, which suffered loss of many school buses and other major flooding damage, FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor also sent a polite but pointed letter to Superintendent Rick Wentzel.
The letter says, "It has come to our attention that the parish public schools website has a banner message reading in part, 'Praying for all of our Livingston Parish people – Superintendent Rick Wentzel.'" FFRF, extending "sincerest sympathies for the tragedy facing the school district" and greater area, notes that the school district has an obligation to concentrate on secular, not religious, needs.
"A famous freethinker of the 19th century, Robert Green Ingersoll, once wrote, 'The hands that help are better far than lips that pray,'" Gaylor adds. "To that end, Nonbelief Relief is very pleased to provide the practical assistance of $10,000 in flood relief to the Livingston Parish Public Schools."
In the United States, diversity has generally been considered an asset. It is frequently cited by public figures as both a source of national pride and a worthy ambition. It is an oft-stated goal of Fortune 500 companies, private colleges and entire sectors of the U.S. economy. And even if Americans don't claim much diversity in their own social networks, few believe that our differences are not something to be celebrated. At one point it was even argued that America's religious vitality hinged on its diversity — greater competition between places of worship would contribute to a more vibrant religious culture. However, new evidence suggests that religious pluralism could work in the opposite direction — undermining the vitality of America's religious communities.
The American religious landscape is transforming rapidly. At one time, religious diversity meant Baptist, Methodist and Episcopalian. Today, it encompasses a multiplicity of religious traditions such as Sikhism, Buddhism, Islam and Hinduism, as well as an increasing variety of noninstitutional belief systems such as humanism, skepticism, atheism and subjective spirituality. Racial and ethnic shifts have also changed the face of Christianity. The U.S. was once a predominantly white Christian country, but fewer than half of Americans (45 percent) identify as white Christian today.
We don't know for sure that America's religious pluralism is causing a drop in religious vitality — there are reasons to think the two might simply be related — but there are a number of different ways diversity might erode commitment. The practical effect of rising religious diversity is to expose Americans to ideas and views that could challenge their religious beliefs. This weakening of America's religious consensus means there is far less social pressure to conform to religious norms. For young people coming of age today, America's Christian heritage is no longer a given, and being Christian is not viewed as a critical component of national identity.
Geographically, states with greater religious variety tend to exhibit lower levels of overall religiosity. No state is more religiously uniform than Mississippi. Half of the state's population identifies as Baptist and 54 percent are evangelical Protestant. It's probably no coincidence that Mississippi is also one of the few states with constitutions that prohibit atheists from serving in elected office. According to Gallup's 2016 rankings of the most and least religious states, Mississippi has the honor of being the most religious state in the country. In contrast, Oregon ranks high in terms of religious diversity — no one religious tradition makes up more than 20 percent of the state's population — and falls near the bottom in Gallup's ranking. Only four states are less religious.
Diversity within our immediate social networks may also serve to weaken our ties to a religious community or strengthen our resolve to remain unattached. Americans who report greater religious diversity in their social networks demonstrate much less regular religious involvement. A new analysis based on a Public Religion Research Institute study of Americans' social networks found that Americans who report greater religious diversity among their close friends and family are less likely to engage in religious activities. Sixty-three percent of Americans who have religiously diverse social networks say they seldom or never attend religious services, compared with only about one-third (32 percent) of those who count coreligionists as their closest friends and family members. This is true for religious Americans as well. In fact, even when controlling for different demographic attributes, including religious identity, Americans with more religiously diverse social networks demonstrate lower rates of religious participation and are less apt to say religion is important in their lives than other Americans.
Religious diversity could even subvert our initial exposure to religion. Religiously mixed marriages are more common than ever, and Americans raised by parents of different faiths report much lower levels of religious activity in childhood than those raised in religiously unified households. Nearly 6 in 10 (58 percent) Americans raised by parents who shared the same religious background say they attended religious services weekly or more often. Only 40 percent of Americans raised in religiously mixed households report attending services regularly as children.
Americans raised in mixed religious households are also less likely to have prayed regularly with their family and to have attended Sunday school.
Of course, it is possible that religious diversity is not directly precipitating a decline in religious identity and engagement. Parents of different faith backgrounds might de-emphasize religious activities in an effort to reduce conflict in the home — a phenomenon supported by social network theory — but it might also be that people who marry outside their particular denomination or tradition care less about their religious identity in the first place. Religiously diverse states might attract more secular residents because they offer a more accepting and tolerant religious climate.
And yet, it is difficult to imagine that weakening social pressure and greater exposure to diverse religious perspectives, including those that are critical of religion, would have no effect on the decisions we make about our own religious lives.
Diversity is now simply a fact of American religious life. It does not signal the end of religion, but it may make it easier for Americans to abstain from religious involvement and encourage other types of spiritual and philosophical explorations. It may also make atheists more willing to "come out," something that can be exceedingly difficult, especially in very religious communities.
Organized religion has never been in jeopardy of dying out due to a single traumatic event. Instead, it is a cumulative series of unanswered challenges that pose the greatest risk. Religious diversity might not represent a dramatic threat to religion, but it may represent another small hole in an already sinking ship.
Daniel Cox writes for Public Religion Research Institute and specializes in survey research, youth politics and religion. He has co-authored several academic book chapters on topics relating to religious polarization and gay and lesbian issues in the black church.