Freethought Today · April 2013

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

State/Church Bulletin

Atheist officer sues religious supervisors

The American Civil Liberties Union of Puerto Rico filed a suit March 9 on behalf of Alvin Marrero Mendez, 38, an atheist police officer who refused to take part in Christian prayers at his precinct. Defendants are four top police officials.

Marrero alleged his supervisors once led a prayer in a mall parking lot during an incident. The 14-year department veteran was demoted after filing a complaint, stripped of his gun, made to wash patrol cars and act as a messenger.

The line between state and church can get blurred in Puerto Rico. Two years ago, the Treasury Department organized a Catholic Mass, complete with altar, in the building’s lobby. Prayer circles have been held at the Supreme Court, and in March 2012, former Police Chief Emilio Diaz Colon promoted more than 470 officers at a ceremony in a church.

Judge to library: Unblock websites

U.S. District Judge E. Richard Webber ruled March 5 that the Salem [Mo.] Public Library must stop blocking access to websites related to Wicca and other minority religions.

“Even libraries that are required by federal law to install filtering software to block certain sexually explicit content should never use software to prevent patrons from learning about different cultures,” said Tony Rothert, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri.

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the suit said the library’s Netsweeper software blocked sites such as the official webpage of the Wiccan church, the Wikipedia entry for Wicca, and the Encyclopedia on Death and Dying, which has entries on death and death rituals for several cultures and religions.

Rapists blame women for Egypt assaults

On the two-year anniversary on Jan. 25 of the Egyptian revolution, at least 18 women were sexually assaulted during a demonstration against the government in Tahrir (Liberation) Square in Cairo, the symbolic heart of the 2011 revolt against former President Hosni Mubarak.

The New York Times reported March 25 that due to the 18 attacks on women documented that day by human rights groups, six women were hospitalized, one was stabbed in her genitals and another needed a hysterectomy. Hania Moheeb, 42, a journalist, said in a TV interview that a group of men surrounded her, stripped off her clothes and violated her for 45 minutes.

Yasmine Al Baramawy said she was circled in November by attackers who stripped her clothes off with knives in the square and drove her around for an hour. “They told people I had a bomb on my abdomen to stop anybody from rescuing me,” she said.

The victims got no sympathy from hardliners. “Sometimes,” said Adel Abdel Maqsoud Afifi, a lawmaker and ultraconservative Islamist, “a girl contributes 100% to her own raping when she puts herself in these conditions.”

“You see those women speaking like ogres, without shame, politeness, fear or even femininity,” said Sheik Abu Islam, a TV preacher. Such a woman is “like a demon,” he said, wondering why anyone should sympathize with those “naked” women who “went there to get raped.”


Dawkins cancellation lawsuit settled

Wyndgate Country Club of Rochester Hills, Mich., agreed to an undisclosed settlement Feb. 26 with the Center for Inquiry for breach of contract and violating civil rights laws by canceling a CFI event in October 2011 at which atheist biologist Richard Dawksin was to appear.

“We’re very pleased with the outcome of this case, which we regard as an unqualified vindication of the rights of nonbelievers,” said Ronald Lindsay, CFI president. “We are confident it will send a strong message that as much as this country now rejects discrimination based on race, sexual orientation and religion, so must we reject just as strongly discrimination against those with no religion.”

CFI believes it may be the first time that federal and state civil rights laws have been successfully invoked by nonbelievers in a public accommodations lawsuit.

The club justified breaking the contract by stating “the owner does not wish to associate with certain individuals and philosophies.” A club representative cited concern over Dawkins’ appearance on “The O’Reilly Factor” a few days before.

County board ordered to stop prayers

U.S. District Judge Michael Urbanski ruled March 27 that the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors violated the First Amendment rights of ACLU of Virginia client Barbara Hudson by opening meetings with exclusively Christian prayers.

“This ruling sends a clear message to localities that government officials may not impose their own religious beliefs on the entire community by leading sectarian prayers at public meetings,” said ACLU of Virginia Legal Director Rebecca Glenberg. “The Supreme Court and the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals have ruled repeatedly that our right to religious liberty precludes the government from expressing favor for one set of beliefs over others.”

In August 2011, Hudson notified the ACLU that the board started each meeting with a Christian prayer delivered by board members on a rotating basis. Hudson sued after the board said it wouldn’t change its practice.

In February 2012, Urbanski granted a preliminary injunction to Hudson and ordered the board to stop “invoking the name of a specific deity associated with any one specific faith or belief in prayers given at Board meetings” while the lawsuit was pending. The board has since opened meetings with silent prayer.

After mediation ordered in December failed, Urbanski issued his opinion.

• • •

By reciting only Christian prayers to open meetings, the Brentwood, Md., Town Council violated the U.S. Constitution, Americans United for Separation of Church and State said in a federal lawsuit filed Feb. 26. Plaintiffs are local residents Dolores Pomerleau, a Catholic, and Anne Christine Warden, a Buddhist.

According to the complaint, Mayor Roger Rudder usually opens council sessions by leading the Lord’s Prayer. Those in the audience are asked to stand and join in.

Since AU first protested, the council agenda was changed to call the invocation a “moment of silence and/or prayer,” but the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer stayed.


Indiana high court
OKs voucher scheme

The Indiana Supreme Court voted 5-0 on March 26 to uphold the broadest school voucher program in the U.S. A family of four with an annual income of $64,000 a year is eligible for vouchers worth up to $4,500 per child.

Opponents had sued to block the program because almost all of the voucher money has gone to religious schools. That doesn’t matter as long as parents decide where to use the tuition vouchers, the court said.

“Whether the Indiana program is wise educational or public policy is not a consideration,” Chief Justice Brent Dickson wrote. The program is constitutional because it doesn’t directly benefit religious schools, wrote Dickson, “but rather directly benefit lower-income families with school children.”

The U.S. Supreme Court used similar reasoning in a 2002 ruling upholding a voucher program in Cleveland. “Just because the Indiana Supreme Court said it’s OK by our constitution doesn’t mean this is a good idea,” said plaintiff Teresa Meredith, Indiana State Teachers Association vice president. “It’s still, at the end of the day, funding religious instruction” with tax dollars, she said, according to Reuters.

The New York Times reported March 28 that 17 states offer 33 programs that let parents use taxpayer money to send their children to private schools, according to the American Federation for Children, which advocates for vouchers and tax-credit scholarship programs.

Earlier in March, Alabama Republican Gov. Robert Bentley of Alabama signed tax-credit legislation similar to Arizona’s law.

“This movement is doing more than threaten the core of our traditional public school system,” said Timothy Ogle, executive director of the Arizona School Boards Association. “It’s pushing a national policy agenda embraced by conservatives across states that are receptive to conservative ideas.”


Split appeals court approves vouchers

A Colorado appeals court ruled 2-1 on Feb. 28 that a voucher plan adopted by the Douglas County School District is constitutional. The “Choice Scholarship Pilot Program” offered vouchers worth $4,575 to 500 students at religious and other private schools.

To be eligible for state per-pupil educational funds, Douglas County still counted these children as “public school students,” attending an imaginary school that exists only on paper, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, which sued along with Americans United for Separation of Church and State on behalf of parents.

When the suit was filed, 18 of the 23 approved voucher schools were religious.

Judge Steve Bernard dissented, writing, “[The Colorado Constitution] prohibits public school districts from channeling public money to private religious schools. I think that the Choice Scholarship Program is a pipeline that violates this direct and clear constitutional command


Employer’s religious preference illegal

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reported settlement on March 19 of its lawsuit against Voss Lighting in Tulsa, Okla. Pending court approval, Voss will pay $82,500 to Edward Wolfe and “undertake specified companywide actions designed to prevent future religious discrimination.” Voss has 21 locations in 12 states.

According to the suit, Voss advertised for an “operations supervisor” on the website of a Tulsa-area church attended by a company supervisor. Wolfe, who had relevant experience but didn’t attend the church, applied and had two interviews, one with the incumbent supervisor, who recommended hiring Wolfe.

The suit alleged that most of a second interview, with the branch manager, dwelled on Wolfe’s religious activities. He was asked to name every church he’d attended, where and when he was “saved” and if he “would have a problem” coming into work early for bible study before clocking in. He was not hired.

“Refusing to hire a qualified job applicant because his religious beliefs do not comport with those of the employer’s leadership is illegal, even if the for-profit company purports to have a religious mission or purpose,” said Barbara Seely, regional attorney for EEOC’s St. Louis District Office. “The evidence in this case suggested  widespread religious discrimination throughout the company, not just its Oklahoma locations.”

Seely said if Voss doesn’t change its hiring practices, “we  will be back in court again.”

Courts dismiss suits challenging ACA

U.S. courts have dismissed for lack of ripeness 16 out of 18 religious challenges to the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive coverage mandate. In a March 22 ruling, an Ohio federal court denied challenges by Franciscan University of Steubenville and the Michigan Catholic Conference.

The court concluded: “The ‘safe harbor’ provision, which protects Plaintiffs from enforcement presently, coupled with ongoing process to amend the ACA regulations to address Plaintiffs’ concerns, which is substantiated by the recently published NPRM, makes the harm Plaintiffs allege unlikely to ever occur.”

In Eternal Word Television Network v. Sebelius, an Alabama federal district court dismissed a similar challenge March 25. 

U.S. District Judge Audrey Fleissig struck down a Missouri law March 14 that exempts so-called moral objectors from providing mandatory contraceptive coverage. Fleissig cites a provision in the U.S. Constitution declaring that federal laws take precedence over contradictory state laws, according to The Associated Press.

The anti-abortion group Campaign Life Missouri denounced the ruling as “a radical departure from America’s tradition of religious freedom.”

The state’s Republican-led Legislature overrode Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto in order to enact the law. Our Lady’s Inn, a St. Louis Catholic group that provides homes and counseling for pregnant women, supported the bill.


9th Circuit upholds city’s Jesus prayers

In Rubin v. City of Lancaster on March 26, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit appeals court unanimously struck down a challenge to the California city’s practice of opening council meetings with sectarian prayer.

The court ruled that Christian references aren’t prohibited by the Establishment Clause as long as a governing body hasn’t affiliated itself with Christianity. That most of the prayers are Christian is merely due to demographics, wrote Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain for the court: “The City cannot control which religious congregations settle within its limits.”

The court added that asking judges to decide what amounts to a sectarian reference “not only embroils judges in precisely those intrareligious controversies that the Constitution requires us to avoid, but also imposes on us a task that we are incompetent to perform.”

Editor’s note: What part of “in Jesus’ name” did the judges not understand?

N.D. abortion laws severest in nation 

Arkansas lost its No. 1 ranking for least-friendly state for reproductive choice after only three weeks on top. On March 26, North Dakota Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple signed a bill banning abortion once a fetal heartbeart is detectable, which occurs at about six weeks. Arkansas’ new law cut the Roe v. Wade guideline of 24 weeks in half to 12 weeks.

Fetal heartbeats are detectable at six weeks only by using an invasive, transvaginal ultrasound. Heartbeats can be heard at 10 to 12 weeks with an abdominal ultrasound.

Dalrymple also signed a bill requiring abortion providers to get admitting privileges at a local hospital, which could force the closing of the state’s only abortion clinic in Fargo.

He also signed a third bill to ban abortion for purposes of sex selection (the first such law in the U.S.) or because of genetic defects such as Down syndrome.

The New York Times reported the reaction of Republican state Rep. Bette Grande, primary sponsor of the “heartbeat” bill. “This is just a great day for babies in North Dakota,” said Grande, a Methodist director of Christian education and co-chair of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in the state. Law critics say it has no chance of withstanding a federal court challenge.

The newspaper also reported that Arkansas state Sen. Jason Rapert, who pushed his state’s ban, runs a Christian missionary society and preached at local churches. Liberty Counsel, affiliated with Rev. Jerry Falwell, has offered legal help to defend the North Dakota and Arkansas laws.

Lawmakers also gave final approval in March to a proposed “personhood” amendment to North Dakota Constitution. The resolution states: “The inalienable right to life of every human being at any stage of development must be recognized and protected.”

It will be on the 2014 general election ballot. 

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