Freethought Today · Vol. 28 No. 3 April 2011

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

State/Church Bulletin April 2011

Lawyers scotch judge’s bible-based sentences

Judge John Clinton, who presides over Harris County Criminal Court in Houston, has agreed to stop substituting bible study as an option to community service.

Clinton, a retired police sergeant, sentenced nine defendants in March to read “The Heart of a Problem” and come back later and discuss it with him. Attorneys blew the whistle on Clinton because the workbook touts its “insights for victorious Christian living.”

“That is illegal, unconstitutional and unfair,” defense lawyer Dan Gerson told KHOU News. “We are offended, as far as preaching from the bench, especially by requiring people, or asking people that they perform religious study in lieu of serving their sentence.”

Clinton said he’s stopped the practice and will “regroup and find the right thing to try and fit what I’m trying to do.”

Judge: Florida atheist suit can proceed

U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich ruled March 15 that an Atheists of Florida lawsuit to stop prayer at Lakeland City Commission meetings can proceed. The judge’s order states the major issue to be determined in the lawsuit is whether the city used a prayer policy to “proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other, faith or belief.”

The suit alleges that 33 of 34 speakers invited to pray at meetings after May, 18, 2009, were Christians. The other speaker, a Jewish cantor, was asked to pray after AoF sent a letter of complaint to the city, the Lakeland Ledger reported.

Mayor: Swear on your own bibles

WTAE News in Pittsburgh reported March 9 that Pennsylvania taxpayers spent $7,300 on bibles that were given to House members to be sworn into office on. Each time a legislator gets reelected, he or she receives a new bible.

“If they need a bible, they should bring their own bible,” said Forest Hills Mayor Marty O’Malley.

Jehovah Witness fights Santa outfit and wins

Charlotte, N.C.-based Belk Inc. will pay $55,000 and furnish other relief to settle a discrimination lawsuit filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Commission, the EEOC announced March 16. The EEOC alleged Belk failed to accommodate a Jehovah Witness’s beliefs and fired her due to her religion.

During the 2008 Christmas holiday season, Belk required Myra Jones-Abid to wear a Santa hat and apron while working at its Raleigh store. She refused and was fired.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires employers to make reasonable accommodations to sincerely held religious beliefs of employees as long as they pose no undue hardship. Belk was ordered to provide annual training on religious discrimination to all supervisors at the Raleigh store.

Belk has more than 300 fashion department stores in 16 Southern states.

MRFF skeptical about Air Force review

Retired Air Force Gen. Patrick Gamble, now University of Alaska president, was appointed to take an “independent, subjective look at the overall climate at the U.S. Air Force Academy relating to free exercise of religion,” the Air Force said in a statement March 11.

The Air Force said the review is not an investigation and no detailed report is expected.

Mikey Weinstein, president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, criticized the scope of the review as outlined in the Air Force statement, reported The Associated Press.

The problem is not restrictions on religion but unwanted proselytizing by fundamentalist Christians, Weinstein said.

Insincere prayers = low test scores?

Principal Jael Yon’s call for prayer the second year in a row at Baltimore’s Tench Tilghman Elementary/Middle School drew fire for mixing religion and public education.

A flier for the March 5 event in advance of the Maryland School Assessments, a standardized test for third through eighth grades, promoted it as a way to “come together, as one, in prayer and ask God to bless our school to pass the MSA.”

After investigating, school officials said in a statement that, “[W]hile we as a district understand that prayer plays an important role for many in our school communities . . . it is not appropriate for public institutions of education to promote any particular religious practice.”

FFRF staff attorney Rebecca Markert wrote the superintendent: “You have an obligation under the law to make certain that subsidized teachers do not inculcate religion. Baltimore City Public Schools must take immediate action to ensure that prayer events organized by school officials do not occur in the future.”

The 30-minute, voluntary prayer service culminated Saturday classes the school held to prepare students for the test. The flier, which included images of praying hands and bible verses, was distributed to staff to give to the school’s 400 students and their families.

Yon was asked by parents at the school to hold the Saturday classes, as well as the prayer service, according to Gittings. He said Yon “was doing what she thought was right.”

Yon, in her second year as principal, declined to comment.

Court: Get thee to a public school

The New Hampshire Supreme Court upheld on March 16 a lower court that ordered an 11-year-old girl to attend public school after her father claimed his ex-wife’s strict Christian teachings socially isolated her.

“While this case has religious overtones, it is not about religion. While it involves home schooling, it is not about the merits of home versus public schooling,” the court wrote in its unanimous ruling. “This case is only about resolving a dispute between two parents, with equal constitutional parenting rights and joint decision-making responsibility, who have been unable to agree how to best educate [their] daughter.”

The parents divorced when the girl, who lives primarily with her mother but regularly visits her father, was 2 months old. The lower court ordered her to attend Portsmouth public school after her parents couldn’t agree on an alternative to home schooling.

Court upholds Italy’s crucifixes in school

Crucifixes in Italy’s public school classrooms don’t violate a student’s freedom of conscience, the European Court of Human Rights ruled March 18 in a verdict praised by the Vatican. The case was brought by a Finnish-born woman living in Italy with two children in school.

Initially, the Strasbourg, France-based court sided with the mother but Italy appealed. The reversal has implications in 47 countries, opening the way for Europeans who want religious symbols in classrooms to petition their governments to allow them.

Massimo Albertin, the students’ father and an atheist, expressed disappointment. “Freedom of religion, freedom from discrimination, freedom of choice are fundamental principles, and in this case they weren’t respected.”

Jewish judge ordered to bear a cross

Italy’s highest court of appeal on March 16 upheld the firing of a judge who refused to hear cases with a crucifix in the courtroom.

Luigi Tosti, 62, appealed to the Cassation Court after the Italian judiciary’s self-governing body, the Supreme Council of Magistrates, removed him last May. He is Jewish. Tosti said he’ll appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. “I was hired to serve a secular court, not an ecclesiastic one. Should my appeal fail, my battle for secularity and freedom will continue in the appropriate courts.”

Creationist teacher keeps his job

Beau Schaefer, a science teacher at Libertyville [Ill.] High School who espoused creationism in the classroom, was warned to stop but won’t be fired, the school announced March 22.

FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote a letter of complaint that same day to School District 128 in Vernon Hills.

In a statement, Superintendent Prentiss Lea said “the United States Supreme Court and several other federal court decisions have found that creationism may not be referenced or taught in public school science classrooms.’’

Lea said the teacher “cooperated fully’’ with officials investigating the allegations, and he has been told not to discuss creationism in the future.

Alabama school bible probe underway

Superintendent Barry Carroll said he’ll investigate bible distribution at Blue Springs Elementary School in Athens after getting a letter March 22 from ACLU of Alabama.

“A parent had expressed concern and we are going to investigate it,” Carroll told the Huntsville Times. “We have a policy that all outside materials, not just bibles, are placed in a designated area at a school, and if a student wants to take any of the materials, fine.”

The ACLU letter also said that a fifth-grade teacher who refused to teach evolution had admitted endorsing creationism.

The parent alleged that a teacher put bibles in several classrooms and told students to “come get it.”

Australians challenge religion in school

A Melbourne law firm has lodged a legal challenge against the way religion is taught in Victoria public schools, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported March 23.

Attorney Andrea Tsalamandris filed the complaint with the Equal Opportunity Commission against the state of Victoria Education Department. She alleged that students who opt out of religious education classes are sometimes left unsupervised and that forcing children to opt out of the classes is discriminatory.

“For them to identify themselves as nonbelievers and walk out of the classroom is distressing for them, and these are the kind of stories we are hearing from the parents.”

Army chaplains deal with DADT repeal

CNN reported March 25 that the U.S. Army is training its 2,900 chaplains as it implements repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that let gays serve in the military if they kept quiet about their sexual orientation.

The chaplain corps training stresses that those who cannot “reconcile” the change in policy can ask for voluntary separation.

Lt. Col. Carlton Birch of the Army Chief of Chaplains office said chaplains won’t be asked to change their beliefs on homosexuality. “Chaplains will be able to continue to preach and teach according to the dictates of their faith.” He said he’s never heard chaplains inveigh against gays.

Voucher push takes nation by storm

Voucher proposals, which mostly benefit religious schools, are taking the nation’s legislatures by storm, especially in states with GOP control of executive and legislative branches. Besides the proposal in Wisconsin , others are:

Pennyslvania: Senate Bill 1 would let parents use state-funded vouchers to send children to parochial, private or charter schools outside their public district. The scheme initially would limit vouchers to low-income students in 144 “persistently failing” schools (91 of them in Philadelphia). By the third year of the plan, eligibility would expand to any low-income child, including those already attending private schools.
Introduced as part of the $27.3 billion budget proposed by Gov. Tom Corbett, the bill would eventually cost $1 billion a year, slightly less than the amount Corbett wants to eliminate from the state’s 2011-12 subsidy for public schools.

New Jersey: The Assembly Commerce Committee approved a bill to create a voucher plan for 40,000 students in 13 “failing” districts, offering $8,000 per elementary student and $11,000 per high school student. It would grant tax credits to businesses that donate to a scholarship fund for religious and other private schools. According to the Newark Star-Ledger, by the fifth year, the state’s loss of tax revenue would be $800 million.

Indiana: Gov. Mitch Daniels and prayerful House Speaker Brian Bosma are promoting HB 1003 to establish a radical statewide voucher scheme. Families with incomes as high as $105,000 would be eligible. The bill passed the House 56-42, opposed by four Republicans and 38 Democrats, the last week in March. It’s expected to pass the Senate.
“Why would you want to vote for a bill that siphons money away from public schools, that does not improve student achievement and entangles the government with religious and private schools?” asked Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington. After Democrats conducted a five-week walkout, Republicans agreed to limit the number of vouchers to 7,500 the first year and 15,000 the second. The cap would be removed the third year. As originally written, the bill would give money to students from families of four making more than $100,000.

Ohio: Gov. John Kasich wants to expand Ohio’s private/religious voucher program, currently enrolling 14,000 students, to 60,000, while cutting public school education. The state runs two voucher programs, the 14,000 EdChoice program, and a smaller program only for students in Cleveland.

Colorado: The Douglas County School District in February passed a contentious proposal to begin vouchers, including to religious schools. Thirteen of 14 eligible private schools in the district are religious.

Muslims take revenge for Quran burning

Angry Muslims upset at a Quran burning in Florida stormed a United Nations compound April 1 in Mazar-I-Sharif, Afghanistan, and killed at least 12 people and wounded 20 others.

The dead included at least seven U.N. workers — four Nepalese guards and three Europeans from Romania, Sweden and Norway — and five Afghans, reported The New York Times. The mob also lit fires, toppled guard towers and heaved cement blocks. Victims were killed by weapons taken from U.N. guards.

Pastor Terry Jones burned a Quran with about 30 people watching after a mock trial March 20 at his church in Gainesville. He’d threatened to do so last Sept. 11 but didn’t. At the time, Gen. David Petraeus warned that doing so could provoke Muslim violence.

The riots were set off after President Hamid Karzai publicized the book burning in a March 31 speech calling for Jones’ arrest.

An estimated 20,000 people took to the streets after Friday prayers at which mullahs in Mazar-I-Sharif called for Jones’ arrest.

On April 2 in Kandahar Province, government officials reported to CNN that at least nine additional civilians were killed and 73 injured in similar protests.

In a statement, Jones said, “Islam is not a religion of peace. It is time that we call these people to accountability.”

The protests spread over the weekend to Jalalabad, Parwan, Laghman, Kabul, Takhar and Heart. At least 30 people have been killed and more than 100 wounded at press time.

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