Freethought Today · November 2012

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

State/Church Bulletin

UW-Madison seculars get landmark funding

Atheists, Humanists and Agnostics (AHA), a secular group at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is on track to receive $67,400 in student fees for staffing and programming next year. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, it appears to be the first such university secular group nationally to get such substantial funding.

“Religious groups have been receiving this type of funding for years,” AHA President Chris Calvey told the Journal Sentinel. “It’s about time that secular students got the support we deserve.”

The university’s Student Services Finance Committee approved the request unanimously. Student fees generate about $39 million annually, and about $1.2 million goes to student organizations.

It appears to be the largest subsidy to any campus group of its kind in the country, said Jesse Galef, spokesman for the Columbus, Ohio-based Secular Student Alliance. “It’s pretty common for groups to have budgets of a few hundred dollars. This is something on a different magnitude entirely.”

In 2007, the student-run Badger Catholic sued the university for rejecting $35,000 of a $253,000 allocation because it had been earmarked for worship activities. The university lost, paying $500,000 in legal fees.

Badger Catholic is getting $116,000 for the current academic year.

AHA’s email list has grown from about 100 to 1,500 over the last three years.


Activists win out over nativity displays

A federal judge on Nov. 19 denied a Christian group’s attempt to force Santa Monica, Calif., officials to reopen spaces in city parks for private displays, including Christian nativity scenes. U.S. District Court Judge Audrey Collins denied a motion for a preliminary injunction to a Religious Right group.

Activists stopped a violation of nearly six decades involving 14 area churches, which dominated Palisades Park by erecting nativity displays in December.

The reform started three years ago when FFRF member Damon Vix put up a sign quoting Thomas Jefferson on one side: “Religions are all alike — founded on fables and mythologies,” and on the other, “Happy solstice.”

By 2011, Vix had recruited a local coalition to apply for display places, and the coalition scored a coup, winning 18 of 21 spaces. FFRF was proud to contribute its “Let reason prevail” solstice sign (which was mutilated but replaced).


Commandments monument at Oklahoma Capitol

A Ten Commandments monument was installed Nov. 15 on the north grounds of the state Capitol in Oklahoma City. It was paid for with $20,000 of private funds, according to the Tulsa World. Made of red granite, it’s 6 feet tall and weighs 2,000 pounds. 

“I think under the very best of circumstances, it is of questionable constitutionality,” said Ryan Kiesel, American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma executive director.

Sabbath is misspelled on the monument as Sabbeth, which will be corrected. 


Hobby Lobby denied religious designation

Oklahoma U.S. District Judge Joe Heaton ruled Nov. 19 that the Hobby Lobby chain must offer its 13,000 employees contraceptive coverage without a co-pay, as mandated by Obamacare.

Hobby Lobby had sued in September, citing conservative evangelical owner David Green’s personal religious objections.

Heaton ruled that “Hobby Lobby and Mardel [its partner company] are not religious organizations. Plaintiffs have not cited, and the court has not found, any case concluding that secular, for-profit corporations such as Hobby Lobby and Mardel have a constitutional right to the free exercise of religion.”


No rush to set up Florida student prayer

Not one Florida public school district to date has pursued plans to set up guidelines that allow student-led prayer. That’s despite passage of a law in March to let students offer “inspirational” messages, including prayer, at school events, even mandatory ones such as assemblies.

“We advised [school districts] against it,” said Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida Association of School Boards. “We told districts they’d be opening themselves up to litigation,” Blanton told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

“If any school districts did, it would essentially be volunteering their time and resources to be a test case,” said Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida.

Personhood initiative dead in Oklahoma

The U.S. Supreme Court on Oct. 29 declined to let a proposed Oklahoma “personhood” initiative that said life begins at conception be placed on the ballot.

Without comment, justices let stand a decision by the state Supreme Court that the proposed ballot question would put an unconstitutional ban on abortion, reported The Oklahoman.


‘Fatwa on your head’ bus ad nixed

The 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled Oct. 25 that the transit authority in Michigan’s four southeastern-most counties could bar a bus ad that read, “Fatwa on your head? Is your family or community threatening you? Leaving Islam? Got Questions? Get Answers!”

The American Freedom Defense Initiative, through its executive director Pamela Geller, tried to place the ad in 2010 and was denied. A federal judge ruled in favor of AFDI in 2011.

The appeals court ruled that the side of the bus, in this case, wasn’t a public forum because the transit authority rejected all political ads.

Geller called the opinion “tortured and twisted.”


Poll: Catholics disagree with hierarchy

In a poll released Oct. 25 by the American Civil Liberties Union and Catholics for Choice, 68% of Catholic respondents said universities shouldn’t be able to deny birth control insurance coverage.

About 77% of Catholics surveyed objected to pharmacies refusing to fill birth control prescriptions.

Substantial majorities also believe Catholics have no obligation to follow their bishop’s recommendation on how to vote and that Catholic politicians don’t have an obligation to follow official church directives.


Jewish colleges top religious Pell grants 

Jewish colleges are among the leading religious institutions receiving federal Pell Grant funding, according to The Forward, a Jewish-American newspaper published in New York City.

Sixty-three of the 152 religious institutions that receive Pell grants are Jewish, U.S. Department of Education data reveals. the data shows. The Jewish schools collectively received 53% of the $84.5 million in Pell grant money that went to religious schools in 2010.

Of the top 10 Pell grant recipients, six were yeshivas, many of which focus primarily on Talmud study.


Judge tosses Muslim’s bacon lawsuit

In Lopez v. Wendy’s International Inc., an Ohio federal district court ruled Oct. 23 in a case in which a Muslim customer at a New York City Wendy’s restaurant sued. The plaintiff claimed he wasn’t adequately warned that the Asiago Chicken Ranch Club Sandwich contained bacon, which he claims the cashier didn’t mention as an ingredient when asked.

Religion Clause blog noted that the court dismissed the plaintiff’s Lanham Act claim on the ground that a one-time answer from a restaurant employee is likely not an “advertisement” and that there was no intent to deceive.

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