2008 Freethinker of the Year
To listen to this speech, click here.
Dan Barker’s introduction:
Kay Staley, our 2008 Freethinker of the Year, is an attorney and a real estate broker from Houston. She graduated from Baylor University in Waco, earned her JD from the University of Houston Law Center, and ran into a strange display at the civil courthouse there in Harris County, Houston. She decided to challenge it. It was a very complicated case, long and difficult, but late last year, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Kay’s favor that a bible monument does not belong on the steps of the Harris County Courthouse.
Now, it’s really difficult to win a state/church lawsuit, but it’s even more difficult to win a lawsuit on the separation of church and state before the Fifth U.S. Court of Appeals. This is a major victory, and a fascinating case.
Kay flew here from Houston, where she’s been without power for several weeks following a hurricane. She flew here to tell us the story about this bizarre bible monument, and how she got Harris County to remove it.
On behalf of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, we wish to bestow upon Kay Staley our Freethinker of the Year Award, which is given to litigants who do what is increasingly difficult in America: win a lawsuit which remedies a violation of the separation between church and state. Our congratulations to you, Kay.
This speech was delivered on Oct. 10, 2008, at the 31st annual national convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation at the Hyatt Regency Chicago.
By Kay Staley
I thought since it was mentioned I’m here from Houston, where Hurricane Ike hit, I would start with a little hurricane humor. This is an article from the Houston Chronicle, and I thought you all would be interested in it. It is HoustonBelief.com Faith Forums. A participant, Jeff, invited users to share how they experienced God in the midst of Hurricane Ike.
Of his own encounter with God, he wrote, “God kept us safe through the storm. We experienced minimum damage, and I can testify God was in our midst at 3 a.m. We were at peace despite 70 mile per hour winds hammering our doors,” and on and on. Then he asked for readers to respond to, “How did you sense God in the midst of this storm?” Tex Rick wrote his area had experienced billions of dollars in destruction; in fact his 87-year-old mother had been without power for ten days, and he had lost hundreds of dollars due to lost work. He added, “And you pray to this God?”
Pro Jock wrote, “I always wondered why God gets the credit when things go well, but never gets the blame when they don’t.” And BostonWMB wrote, “I always find it incredible how people can pray to this god after a natural disaster, thanking him or her for the people who were saved by his grace. Are you stupid, people? What about the poor sods that were not saved? How dense do you have to be to realize there is no force out there except nature?” I thought this was great for Houston, and that’s why I thought of my talk as “We Are Not Alone.” I can see, right here, we’re not alone. I’m going to talk a few minutes about this case. It was called the Harris County Bible Case, and we started this in August 2003. I had been after this ever since I was in law school and saw it in front of the Harris County Courthouse. Now, Harris County Courthouse is on a full city block, and it’s about seven stories high, with a big rotunda, very visible.
The bible monument is in the front of the courthouse. There was a large stand, then on the top was glass, and under the glass was an open bible. The pages were turned. Different people turned these pages, and locked it back up.
In 1956, a man named Carlos Morris decided that he would honor his friend, William Mosher, who started the Star of Hope, which is still going now. It feeds and houses homeless people. So he decided that he would have a monument in his honor, so he had this idea of the monument because Mr. Mosher was a Christian. On the front of this bible display, it says “Star of Hope Mission. Erected in loving memory of husband and father William S. Mosher AD 1956.”
When it was dedicated in ’56, there were all kinds of prayers and songs about this monument. It was vandalized several times, and the bible was stolen, and then in 1988, a group of atheists decided they would go challenge Harris County, and ask them to remove it. At that point, the Star of Hope decided they would get out of the picture, and let Harris County do whatever, because they didn’t want to get into any litigation. So from 1988 til 1995 it was used as a trash can.
But in 1995, with the rise of the Religious Right, and with all of our Democratic judges out of office, we got a bunch of new judges. One of them, John Devine–isn’t that an appropriate name?–ran on the platform of putting Christianity back in government. That was his deal. So the minute he got into office, he decided that he would redo this bible display. He went to Harris County and asked their permission, and they told him fine.
Not only did he get it refurbished, but they took these tacky red purplish neon lights and put them around it. Oh, it was just something. Of course, Houston is humid, so the humidity would get under the glass and the condensation would drop, you know. It was just gross. It was so gross I don’t know why anybody would want to look at it. It was terrible. Anyway, Devine’s court reporter would take care of turning the pages and whatever. When Devine first put the bible back, there was this large rally where they sang Battle Hymn of the Republic, and had all kinds of Christian prayers from Christian ministers.
So I came into the picture then with the suit. We asked Harris County to take it down, and they refused. When the suit was first filed, as you probably saw with the Ten Commandments coverage of Judge Roy Moore, we just had numerous people come in, and they were lying around the courthouse praying, and all the things they do. And with all of this, here comes our county attorney, our county judge, our county officials to address the rally.
They testified in court that they really didn’t know there was going to be this big rally; they just kind of walked out of their office, and there was a rally, and they stepped up to the podium and started talking. That’s what they told the judge! They didn’t know, they just ran into it. But they all got up and talked about how they would defend the bible, it wouldn’t be taken away, and they were sure that it wasn’t illegal. So we had for the court all this TV footage of these speeches, and how they would defend it. The judge didn’t take too kindly to their explanations of things.
It turned out that Carlos Morris, who was responsible for getting it there initially, was still alive! Ninety-some odd years old, and we hadn’t known of his existence. Well, the county called him to the stand, and he just walked very slowly. He could hardly make it. He got up on the stand, and he started to tell about how he was responsible for having the bible monument erected there, and that it represented Mr. Mosher’s Christian beliefs, and also it showed that we were a Christian nation, and if everybody would be a Christian, we would not be sending foreign aid to India! (We weren’t aware we did that.) The county called him–we did not know of his existence–so he was just a great help to us.
Then, the county commissioner got on the stand, and my lawyer, Mr. Kallinen, asked him if he knew Mr. Mosher. He said, well, yeah, he thought he’d met him several times. And so my attorney said, “Did you know he died in 1946?
” That was before the commissioner was born! Anyway, we had a lot of breaks. The county just flubbed around a lot. The county really tried to contend, number one, that it was not a religious display. Their whole case was based on that it was a monument, not a religious display. I don’t know where they figured they were going to go with that.
I won’t bore you with the legal arguments, but the judge decided that a reasonable observer would think that the county was endorsing this display, and so he thought that made it unconstitutional. And when the county argued that they were not appearing at the rally in their official capacities, the judge said they were in their official capacity attending a rally during business hours.
We got a wonderful opinion in the district court. We had to go to the Fifth Circuit twice–we went the first time before a three-judge panel, and won. The county appealed it, and as we were leaving on the morning of the appeal to get on the plane to go to New Orleans, we were informed that the bible monument had been removed the night before. They told the justices that it was just very coincidental, that plans had been in the works to remodel the courthouse, and so they were taking it out the day we were leaving for New Orleans.
The judges at the Fifth Circuit didn’t take too kindly to that, either. (I’m sure some of them did, but some didn’t like it too much.) We had discussed the night before that if the court were to moot this case, would we be willing to go along with it? We decided that we would, because, first, we’d get attorneys’ fees. We were awarded just under a half a million dollars. And second, the district court’s ruling (which was just wonderful) would be the established law, and so they certainly wouldn’t try to put it back up again. So that’s the story of the Harris County bible case. Does anybody have any questions?
Q: What happened to the first ruling, with the atheists in the mid-80s?
A: What happened was a bunch of people destroyed it, so the Star of Hope mission (by the way, that was just down the street from the courthouse; I don’t know why they couldn’t have put it there) was afraid that they would get into litigation, and they didn’t want to keep it. So it just stayed there for those years as a trash can, until John Devine got involved to bring Christianity back in government.
I thought I might tell you a few things that happened prior to that case, if I have any time left. Well, I had been working toward this a long time, and had gotten a little more militant about people, organizations particularly, that were praying, when they knew that there was a diversity of opinion.
So, one of the first things I did was join a group. It was called ROAD Women (River Oaks Area Democratic Women). The purpose was to fight the religious right, to try to see if we couldn’t do something about quieting them a little bit. We went to fundraisers for candidates, and one of the fundraisers we went to was one for Ken Bentsen, and you’ll probably recognize Lloyd Bentsen who was a senator for a long time–Ken was his uncle. I went to this fundraiser, and it was more like a prayer meeting–there were all kinds of preachers there, there were flags, there were Boy Scouts. It was just the worst thing I ever saw.
So I told the board–I was on the board–we ought to write Ken Bentsen and tell him we don’t appreciate this. Nobody would go for it. So I wrote him a letter, and told him I wanted my money back. I didn’t get it, which is all right. I asked him, What if there were some Wiccans there, you know? This just isn’t fair.
So one of the next fundraisers was the Harris County Democratic dinner, which was a James Carvell dinner, and was going be a big affair.
I said, I am not going, and I’m not getting any tables together, unless I get assurances there are not going be any prayers there. So one of the other ladies says, Well, I’ll check that out; I’ll check with the Democratic Party chair. She didn’t get an answer. So I wrote; I didn’t get an answer. I phoned; I didn’t get a call back. So I figured they were going to have prayers, right?
So I went to the dinner, which was at the Hyatt downtown. There were probably 600 to a thousand people. It was a big, huge room, and a big dinner. I took some things with me. I had these picket signs made saying: “Practice Pluralism: Pray In Private.”
My colleagues who were fighting the religious right didn’t want to hold them. So I was the only one holding my sign.
Well, I went up to the person who was the assistant to the party chair, and said, “What is this deal about a prayer tonight?” And she says, “I don’t know. All my papers are in my room.” Well, now, you know she knew, and I knew she knew. So I went back to the table and I said, “You know, ladies, they’re going to try to do a prayer here tonight, and I am not in favor of this. Let’s all go up to the podium and stand there (like I am right now) and let’s say that we think its inappropriate to have a prayer.” I started walking up. They were following me. About halfway up, they went back to their table, and I was left alone. The MC was there, and he said, “Are you on the program?” I said, “Yeah. Now I am.” I said I thought it was very inappropriate that we were having prayers at a Democratic dinner, where we were supposed to be practicing toleration of all people, and we were pluralistic, and supported separation of church and state, and I thought it was inappropriate. Well, there was a kind of silence. Then the lady who was going to do the devotional came up. I did not know before who that would be, but when she walked up, I did recognize her. She’s a very lovely lady. She said, Well, you should’ve asked me first, because I wasn’t going to do the usual thing. Well, of course I didn’t know that ahead of time. They could have told me, but they ambushed me! And so she did a non-prayer prayer, and I became very well known at that time for not liking this.
I really think these things are more important than court cases, because court cases don’t reach too many people.
As a result of that, there was no more praying at local Democratic events. I had so many people come up to me and say, I’m so glad you did that, because at every event they were having a prayer.
This one lady came up to me who was very active in the Party, and in the office there, and I’d known her for a long time. And she said, “Kay, I really never thought about this.” And I believed her. I believe she never really thought about the prayer, because it has just become so entrenched. Maybe you all will have an opportunity to do something like this. Because people are afraid to stand out. They just want to be a part of the whole group, and they don’t want to cause any conflict.
The other example I have is the Rotary Club. Is anybody here in the Rotary Club? Well, our Rotary Club was notorious for praying. I didn’t like that much, either. I made a few comments, didn’t get too far with it, so finally I decided that wasn’t going to work. So I wrote the president and three ministers who were in the group, and said that I thought that it was inappropriate. It’s actually against the Rotary bylaws because it’s international. They call it Rotary International. I got a copy of that e-mail from the president to the vice president: “Well, now that Kay has kicked over the bucket of worms, I guess we’re going to have to do something.”
I didn’t take too kindly to that, either, so I wrote back to him, and said that I was trying to be as cultured and dignified as I could, but I thought that it was very important that we get this resolved, and my solution was that we have a meeting at the Holocaust Museum. I would be able to arrange that–we could have a breakfast meeting, or we could have an evening meeting there. That way, maybe some of the people could get a feeling as to why religious pluralism was important. And, by the way (this was Rotary Club of West University, which was a little city inside of Houston), did you know our deed restrictions say no blacks and no Jews? It’s true. That is in the deed restrictions.
He said, I’ll get back to you, and the next week he was out of town, and he had the vice president announce we wouldn’t have any more prayers. Q: I wonder if you’d considered joining a Republican party and trying the same thing?
A: I don’t think I’d get very far. Not the Republicans I know. But I want to thank you all so much. I really appreciate it. I appreciate the opportunity to be here, and thank you for all you do.
Thank you so much! This is such an impressive crowd. In Houston, we’re doing good to get maybe a hundred people together. I really look forward to getting acquainted with this group, and meeting you all, and I appreciate it a lot.