Freethought Today · Vol. 28 No. 6 August 2011

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

State/Church Bulletin August 2011

4th Circuit: County prayers are out of bounds

In Joyner v. Forsyth County, North Carolina, the 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 on July 29 that the County Commission’s prayer policy violates the Establishment Clause.

While the policy is purportedly neutral, all the invocations were delivered by Christians, and about 80% invoked Jesus’ name. Thus, the policy “resulted in sectarian invocations meeting after meeting that advanced Christianity,” the court said.

The decision noted a pastor’s 2007 prayer the plaintiffs objected to: “Heavenly Father, tonight we are so grateful for the privilege to pray that is made possible by Your Son and his intercessory work on the Cross of Calvary. And Lord, we think about even a week from tomorrow, Lord, we’ll remember that Virgin Birth, and how He was born to die. And we’re so grateful tonight that we can look in the Bible and see how You instituted government.” The prayer ended with, “For we do make this prayer in Your Son Jesus’ name, Amen.”

That prayer “clearly crossed the constitutional line,” the majority ruled. “Taken together, the principles set forth by the Supreme Court in Marsh and Allegheny and by this circuit in Wynne and Simpson establish that the Board’s policy, as implemented, cannot withstand scrutiny.”

Six of the seven county commissioners are on the record as favoring an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Court: School boards can’t pray either

The 3rd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals reversed a Delaware lower-court decision Aug. 5 and ruled the Indian River School District’s practice of opening board meetings with prayers led by a board member is unconstitutional.

The three-judge panel overturned a ruling by U.S. District Judge Joseph Farnan Jr. that sectarian prayers invoking the name of Jesus are permissible, the Wilmington News Journal reported.

The appeals court said the operable Establishment Clause precedent for prayers at school board meetings is Lee

v. Weisman, not Marsh v. Chambers. The latter applies to invocations before legislative bodies.

Attorney Thomas Allingham, who represented the anonymous “Doe” plaintiffs, said the ruling was a clear victory for separation of state and church.

Suit seeks end to Utah bigamy law

Attorney Jonathan Turley filed a lawsuit July 13 that seeks to strike down Utah’s bigamy law. Turley represents the polygamous family — Kody Brown and his four wives — from the TV reality show “Sister Wives.”

“We can’t embrace privacy as a principle and pick and choose who can enjoy it,” Turley said at a press conference in Salt Lake City. “Now, this family doesn’t look like a lot of families in Utah, but it’s not your family. It’s their family.”

The Browns haven’t been prosecuted and have moved to Nevada, so it’s questionable whether they have standing. Judge: Council can pray to Jesus

U.S. District Judge Dale Fischer ruled July 11 in favor of the Lancaster [Calif.] City Council’s invocation policy that permits sectarian prayers.

Plaintiffs Shelley Rubin and Maureen Feller had challenged the prayer that opened an April 2010 council meeting in which reference was made to Jesus Christ. But U.S. District Judge Dale Fischer sided with the city, ruling the plaintiffs failed to prove there was a violation of the constitutional separation of state and church.

“Lancaster takes immense pride in winning this case and defending the fundamental right to pray, not only for our citizens, but indeed for all people across this nation,” Mayor R. Rex Parris said in a statement. He reiterated he has “never faltered from wanting to grow a Christian community.”

The city put the 2009 policy before the voters in April 2010, when it passed by a margin of 3 to 1.

Texas board votes against creationism

The Texas Board of Education voted 14-0 on July 22 to approve scientifically accurate high school biology textbook supplements instead of creationist-backed supplements.

“This is a huge victory for Texas students and teachers,” said Josh Rosenau, National Center for Science Education programs and policy director. At least four times as many people testified in favor of the mainstream supplements versus those opposing them.

Minnesota mayor says prayer is divisive

The Litchfield [Minn.] City Council has stopped starting meetings with prayer. Mayor Keith Johnson informed clergy in the city of 6,700 people of the decision in June, the Litchfield Independent Review reported: “The decision stemmed from the city’s growing diversity, the need to separate state and church and fallout from Pastor Bradlee Dean’s politically charged and controversial prayer in the state House of Representatives in May.”

For years, Litchfield Area Ministerial Association members have prayed before the council’s first meeting of every month.

Noting a “letter-writing furor” on both sides about the mayor’s decision, Independent Review columnist Brent Schacherer said, “Those sentiments also prove why a public prayer should not be used to open Litchfield City Council meetings.”

Courthouse decalog will be history

Dixie County, Fla., was given 30 days to remove a 6-ton granite Ten Commandments monument from the county courthouse in Cross City, where it has sat since 2006. The ruling came July 15 from U.S. Senior District Judge Maurice Paul.

Along with the Commandments, “LOVE GOD AND KEEP HIS COMMANDMENTS” is inscribed on the momument.

Paul awarded the ACLU of Florida nominal damages of $1, the Gainesville Sun reported. “Local governments can’t wink and nod their way around the highest law of the land just because they agree with the religious message they are supporting,” ACLU of Florida Executive Director Howard Simon said.

“In fact, that’s exactly what the Constitution prohibits — government sanctioned, promoted or enforced religion. It is sad that a federal judge had to order the county to honor the limited role of government required by our Constitution.”

USAF ponders when would Jesus nuke

The U.S. Air Force withdrew and is reviewing materials that used biblical passages and a quote from a former Nazi to teach missile officers about the ethics of launching nuclear weapons. The review came after the materials were revealed in a Truthout story.

Officers who train to be “missileers” were required to attend the ethics course, which discussed St. Augustine’s “Qualifications for Just War,” used other religious passages and images and included a statement from Wernher von Braun, who came to the U.S. from Nazi Germany to head the U.S. space program.

Von Braun was not cited as a scientific expert but as a moral authority, which Truthout called remarkable, considering von Braun’s collaboration with Nazis in using forced prison labor to build weapons.

Mikey Weinstein, Military Religious Freedom Foundation president, said more than 30 missile officers contacted MRFF to complain about Christian imagery and biblical passages in the ethics training. He said the decision by the Air Force to pull the material is a “great victory for the Constitution.”

Canadians don’t like Islamic school prayer

Valley Park Middle School in the Toronto School District is allowing Islamic prayer services in the cafeteria on Fridays.

“It is a safety issue,” School Board spokesperson Shari Schwartz told the Toronto Sun. “Students were leaving for the mosque during the day and some weren’t returning.”

Imams lead a 40-minute service with about 400 students in which the boys sit in front of girls in the lunch room. Girls who are menstruating are told to sit at the very back. Non-Muslims are banned from the room during prayers.

Hindu, Jewish and Christian groups picketed the board’s office in protest July 25.

Religious vaccination exemption denied

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York denied a Great Neck mother’s request July 23 for a religious exemption from vaccination requirements for her child to attend public school.

Martina Caviezel, a professed pantheist who said she saw “God in everything,” didn’t want to immunize her 4-year-old daughter for fear of injecting diease into the girl’s “perfect” and “divine” human form.

Louisiana churches’ free ride over?

The city of Mandeville, La., is looking into charging churches and parochial schools for water and sewer service, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported July 26. Mayor Donald Villere and some City Council members weren’t aware until recently that many religious facilities weren’t paying for utility services and hadn’t for perhaps as long as 50 years.

Councilwoman Trilby Lenfant said, “The question is: Who knew this practice was going on and how long? I don’t see how this would be a legitimate use of public funds,” she said.

The practice may well end, Villere said, depending on input from the city attorney and the state attorney general.

Will ‘Bible Buck’ get on ballot?

Charlie “Bible Buck” Hatchko is running as an American Independent Party candidate for the 11-member Luzerne County Council in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. The election is Nov. 8.

Hatchko, 66, is a retired corrections officer who for years has been a presence at county government meeting. He’s known as “Bible Buck” for his frequent quotation of scripture. the Hazleton Standard Speaker reported July 28.

A determination hasn’t been made if he’ll be able to be listed on the ballot that way.

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