Freethought Today · September 2016

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

FFRF state/church complaints

FFRF supports denial of grant to church

FFRF has co-filed a brief before the U.S. Supreme Court supporting the denial of a Missouri grant to a church.

The Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Mo., is appealing the refusal of a state grant for the upgrading of a playground at a preschool it runs. FFRF joins the brief filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Missouri.

The brief reminds everyone that the use of taxpayer dollars to aid churches was one of the greatest concerns of the framers of the U.S. Constitution and, in large part, animated the passage of the Establishment Clause. Madison was adamant that even "three pence" in aid was too much of a threat to religious liberty.

Tying houses of worship financially to the state also undermines religious freedom by inviting the government to scrutinize and oversee their operations. Despite any short-term gain for the government-funded religious institution, in the long run, religious liberty is corroded, and, in the case of direct aid to a church, church autonomy is impeded, the brief asserts.

District should cut ties with churches

FFRF is urging the San Diego school district to end a summer partnership with local churches.

The San Diego Unified School District has reportedly formed a partnership with area churches that involves these churches opening up their doors to children to be tutored by volunteer teachers for the summer. The sessions will also include "character education," according to media accounts. Superintendent Cindy Marten met with church leaders to promote the partnership at St. Stephen's Church of God in Christ, which lists one of its visions as to "WIN SOULS FOR CHRIST."

FFRF contends the district should terminate the partnership, since it can't allow its summer school programs to be used as recruiting grounds for churches.

The summer partnership impermissibly advances religion, communicates a message of school endorsement of religion and is marked by the excessive entanglement between the school district and church, FFRF asserts. It asks that the School District cease all involvement with and promotion of church programs and dissolve any formal summer partnerships with the churches.

FFRF protests Ohio judge's sentencing

On May 25, Judge William Mallory of the Ohio Court of Appeals, First Appellate District, sentenced Jake Strotman, who is religious, to attend Morning Star Baptist Church for 12 consecutive Sunday services. Strotman was accused of assaulting a Baptist preacher during a chaotic brawl after a hockey game. Mallory reportedly said, "The thing about religion, I think it is kind of personal and for me I don't try to impose my religious views on other people, except for sometimes in this room." After Strotman suggested being sent to a church of Mallory's choice as his punishment, the judge decided that it would be appropriate to sentence Strotman to attend his victim's Baptist church for 12 Sundays.
FFRF contacted Mallory independently to point out that his actions in this case are a clear violation of the First Amendment.

Mallory's actions in this case also violate Article 1, Section 7 of Ohio's Constitution: "No person shall be compelled to attend, erect, or support any place of worship, or maintain any form of worship, against his consent."

While Strotman suggested and accepted his church-going sentence, his decision wasn't completely free of coercion. In the beginning of the proceeding, Mallory threatened Strotman with up to 90 days in jail, and encouraged his fear by having him look at the bailiff and his handcuffs. Many people would opt to go to church when faced with the fear of jail time, FFRF asserts.

Judge turns away nonreligious couple

In a complaint receiving wide news coverage, FFRF has warned a Kentucky judge about his refusal to marry a nonreligious couple.

Mandy Heath and her fiancé, Jon, were planning on getting married in Trigg County on July 22 at the courthouse of County Judge Executive Hollis Alexander.

Heath requested that the courthouse marriage be secular. After she made those plans with the clerk, Alexander called Heath to inform her that he would not perform the ceremony. When asked why, Alexander apparently responded: "I include God in my ceremonies, and I won't do one without him."

FFRF emphasizes to Alexander that under the U.S. Constitution, he, as a government official, has an obligation to remain neutral on religious matters.

By refusing to provide secular ceremonies, Trigg County sends a message of religious endorsement. However, according to the Constitution, it is illegal to condition a government benefit on a religious test.

FFRF applauds victory on pension plan

FFRF applauds a recent court victory that health care workers have obtained over their religious employers regarding unfair pension plans. FFRF filed a friend of the court brief in the case just decided by a federal appeals court.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on July 26 ruled that the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) does not exempt retirement plans created by supposedly religious entities that are not churches.

The plaintiffs alleged that they had been harmed by the management of a retirement plan run by their former employer, Dignity Health. FFRF submitted an amicus brief in support of the plaintiffs arguing that any religious exemption from ERISA violates the constitutional separation of state and church.

While not addressing the substantive argument that FFRF put forward, the court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs on statutory grounds. The ruling joins similar decisions handed down by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in December and the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in March. FFRF had filed amicus briefs in these cases, too. Last month, FFRF also filed an amicus brief before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in a similar case.

Two choir students at SDSU punished

FFRF is protesting the penalization of two San Diego State University students for refusing to participate in a choir performance at a church service.

A choir course that Patrick Walders teaches at San Diego State University is mandatory for certain degrees. In May, Walders asked his students to perform during a service at College Avenue Baptist Church. Two students demurred. The professor told them he would fail them if they didn't participate. The students stayed away, and Walders did flunk them, offering them no alternatives. The choir members who showed up reportedly had to sit through the sermon after their performance.

"As a state-run institution, San Diego State University is bound by the Constitution's Establishment Clause, which 'mandates government neutrality between religion and religion and between religion and nonreligion,'" as the U.S. Supreme Court has noted, FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler writes to San Diego State University President Elliot Hirshman.

The selection of a Baptist church as the site for a San Diego State choir performance demonstrates the school's preference for religion over nonreligion and for Christianity over other faiths, FFRF asserts. San Diego State is a secular university and should not be mandating religious choir performances. It is obligated to provide its students an advanced education free from religious endorsement.

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