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No Graven Images and Other Reflections

This speech was delivered on September 16 at the twenty-third annual national convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, St. Paul, Minnesota.

Mayor Richard Daley of my hometown of Chicago is not particularly known for his eloquence, but in August of 1992 he made a pronouncement on faith that was striking for its pith and profundity. Addressing some now long-forgotten local church-state wrangle, the mayor said:

"Everybody believes in some kind of God, if they want to . . . or they don't."

Well, how true that is.

I don't expect to see it replacing "In God We Trust" as our national motto any time soon, but to me it sums up the proper governmental attitude toward all things religious:

Firm. Declarative. But ultimately indecisive: "Everybody believes . . . or they don't." "In God Some Trust, Though Some Do Not. Whatever."

This is probably the last gathering in America that needs to hear this message. Those in this room tonight don't need to be persuaded that it may well be the singular genius of the American experiment that through our history we have made a comparatively decent effort to keep the grubby paws of government off of religion and the grubby paws of religion off of government.

My collected writings on this subject--not that anyone has yet thought to collect them--make this point in a variety of ways for an audience of those who do need to be persuaded. If I bring any particular expertise to this subject at all it's my experience in attempting to promote separation periodically and insistently to an audience that doesn't want to hear about it and that thinks I'm going to hell.

I'm not promising any kind of winning strategy here, just some of the arguments that have worked for me in advancing this and similar positions as positive and plausible affirmations to a public that tends to think this should be a Christian nation or maybe a Judeo-Christian nation or at least, certainly, a God-centered nation.

Because we need to keep scoring points. Because just when you start to feel a little complacent, along comes the major political party that has most reliably defended the separation of church and state--the Democrats--nominating for vice president a man who tells us it's time to "renew the dedication of our nation . . . to God and God's purposes" and ominously reminds us that, "John Adams, second president of the United States, wrote that our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people," and that "George Washington warned us never to indulge the supposition 'that morality can be maintained without religion.' "

In the same speech, Joseph Lieberman said that without the Jewish and Christian traditions, the phrase "all men are created equal" in the Declaration of Independence "could never have been written."

At which my mind reeled with responses, most of them salty, the cleanest of which was, "Well, it sure took 'em long enough."

After centuries of sectarian bloodshed, human slavery and unspeakable cruelties in the name of the Judeo-Christian God, then they found--in between the lines--oh, gee, all men are created equal . . . how did we miss that before?

Then it took this same tradition roughly 100 more years to begin to extend this equality to black men and 150 to begin to extend it to white and black women and the disabled.

Whenever I make observations like that in print, I receive a flood of angry responses making two points.

1. Lots of blood has been spilled by nonbelievers in the service of nonreligious ideology. Stalin, Pol Pot and the like.

2. Abolition of slavery, the civil rights movement and the anti-war protests of the 1960s were driven in large part by Christians.

I don't deny that. All it does is underscore for me the fundamental principle behind the First Amendment---that religion, whatever its other merits, is an unreliable basis for a free and democratic society. Far from being a source of absolute moral truth, religion and scripture are a source of absolute conflict and confusion. Mr. Jones finds in his scripture passages to prove that God believes gays, women and blacks are sub-human and should be treated accordingly. Mr. Smith finds in his scripture passages to prove that God wants us to love one another equally. And you already know the punchline. They're holding the same book.

I've titled my remarks tonight: "No Graven Images and Other Reflections."

The reference, of course, is to the third of the Ten Commandments taken from Exodus 20, "You shall not make for yourself a graven image"--in the Revised Standard Version, a graven image being a physical object of worship usually made of wood or stone, sometimes called an idol. And the Ten Commandments being the list of precepts that God is said to have revealed to Moses on Mt. Sinai; they also appear in Deuteronomy 5, if you're keeping score.

I know this not because I'm a particular student of the Old Testament. I mean, why bother to read it closely? Every time you find a nice juicy passage--if "the tokens of virginity (are) not found in the young woman, then they shall bring out the young woman to the door of her father's house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death," or "whoever does any work on the Sabbath shall be put to death;" or God's threat to unbelievers in Leviticus 26: "you shall eat the flesh of your sons and your daughters"--you're told no, those don't apply anymore or those weren't meant literally or Jesus erased those passages that we now find appalling.

I know my citations on the Commandments because they're so often in the news these days and have frequently given me an opportunity to argue for two points I consider very important.

The first being that separation of church and state is not a burdensome abstraction but a source of our nation's strength.

The second being that George Washington and Joe Lieberman have it wrong: Even though moral behavior and religious belief sometimes go together, they are independent concepts.

One of my earliest Ten Commandments columns concerned His Egregiousness Judge Ray Moore of Etowah County, Alabama, who several years ago refused a higher court order to remove the Decalog he'd posted in his courtroom. The ever weak-minded populists in the U.S. House of Representatives then passed a resolution by a 295-125 vote supporting and encouraging him in that refusal.

The argument favoring Judge Moore's position went something like this: The American system of laws is rooted in absolute moral truths as handed down by the Judeo-Christian God in the Ten Commandments. Therefore a display of the commandments is, like a relief statue of the blindfolded Dame Justice above the courthouse door, simply a symbolic reminder of the principles upon which all this jurisprudence is, ultimately, based.

My answer to this was, in so many words . . . Like hell it is.

Taken as a whole, the Ten Commandments are explicitly based upon and reflect a particular--and, I might add, not very widely practiced--religious belief.

How many of the Ten Commandments reflect actual laws that Judge Ray Moore is charged with enforcing in his courtroom?

Seven? Five? Four?


You shall not steal. You shall not murder. You shall not bear false witness.

Another four--honor your folks, stay faithful to your spouse, don't be covetous and refrain from profanity--are simply good ideas, not generally matters of law anymore.

I try to live by them myself, though I have to admit my belief that they were composed by men for men. Good ideas are good ideas and I give the authors credit, though, I'm bound to say, they were not a stretch.

The remaining three--keep the Sabbath holy, make no graven images and have no other God before the Judeo-Christian God--are religious proscriptions, plain and simple.

"Making graven images may or may not be a good idea," I wrote in one column, "but unless I misread my Constitution, we're all free to do so and risk the consequences. Any sign in any courtroom or public school classroom that implies otherwise is in serious error."

I would add to this that making graven images, or at least the freedom to do so, is precisely, exactly what America is all about.

Freedom of conscience.

The pilgrims came here from England to escape the tyranny of governance that told them how to worship. And okay, granted, they were hypocrites. Their ideas of religious liberty were narrowly confined and they simply practiced their own brand of religious persecution once they got over here. But still. The nugget of the idea survived.

By endorsing no one faith government endorses every faith. What a person believes about the highest things--the deepest and most profound questions there are---is not at all the business of the lawmakers.

The fact that quite a few Americans, in their hearts, don't seem to believe this doesn't obscure its fundamental success: We may have our problems in this country, but widespread sectarian strife isn't one of them. Never has been.

It's my guess that never in the history of the world have so many faiths and so many different and competing franchises of these faiths flourished in one nation at one time with so little bloodshed.

And bloodshed is what you get when the graven image-makers are compelled by their government to stop making graven images by a ruling power that thinks it has the inside line on what God wants people to do.

When a society or system decides that the making of graven imagery is to be outlawed as a particularly pernicious form of blasphemy, there becomes no principled reason why it cannot outlaw, say, the display of a crucifix, the wearing of a star of David, or the reading of particular religious or anti-religious texts. Under such a system, only popularity protects religious expression. And this is exactly what the Constitution intended to guard against--a point I hope Mr. Lieberman appreciates.

What Judge Ray Moore of Alabama and the stubborn half-wits in the House clearly fail to realize is that posting the Ten Commandments in a courtroom is actually offensive to our concept of justice.

The sign in Moore's courtroom should say, "Make all the graven images you want, you pickpockets, you drunk drivers, you check bouncers, you shoplifters. This is the land of the brave and the home of the free. Rank the Gods in the order of your choice. Go to Kung-Fu movies or hold Tupperware parties on the Sabbath. Just don't break the law!"

The first columns I wrote on church/state issues were in the mid-1980s, after I got a call from a local office-supply salesman who also happened to be a leading member of the American Atheists. He'd been driving through Zion, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, on business and had noticed Christian crosses on the water tower, the police cars and other civic property. He thought it was wrong and he wanted me to help him make an issue of it. Which I did.

Public response was swift, angry and condescending: How dare he demand the removal of the historic symbol so cherished by the pious, God-fearing people of a town founded by a preacher? How dare he flout the will of the vast majority of residents? Weren't there enough real problems in the world?

To me, it marked a tragic though common failure of imagination: What if you lived in Zion and you weren't Christian? Or what if you were a Christian househunting in a suburb and saw, say, Stars of David on virtually every government-owned sign? Respect for tradition and history aside, wouldn't you feel just that much less welcome? That much more like an official outcast?

Truth is, many Americans who give lip service to religious liberty still think it means something like, "The government shall make no laws discriminating among various forms of mainstream Christianity and it will tolerate certain other forms of monotheism as long as the adherents don't dress too funny."

This is where we get back to graven imagery, Sabbath breaking and all the other dogmatic prohibitions in the Ten Commandments.

Ever ask yourself why in the name of all that is putatively holy do these zealots insist on posting the Commandments instead of, say, a nice solid list of Principles of Good Behavior?

I mean, if you've got room in your classroom or courtroom for ten rules, why would you spend one telling people not to make graven images? And another telling them to keep the Sabbath holy?

These are not big problems.

And when it comes to actual problems, does anyone really need a sign to remind them not to murder people?

Of course not. The content is not critical.

The messenger is the message: As a whole, the Ten Commandments on the wall say that God, a divine and all-powerful being, is the source of morality; that, just as Joltin' Joe Lieberman says in so many words, without God telling us what is moral and what isn't moral and defining the absolutes of right and wrong, there can be no right and wrong.

This is a perfectly fine belief for an individual to hold to regulate his own conduct.

I'd neither endorse it or criticize it as a matter of personal conscience. It's not my business, as long as no one tries to make it my business.

But as a civic belief, the notion of God as the source of morality is not benign--it's dangerous.

It's dangerous because it removes questions of law, customs and morals from the arena of human logic and reason.

Am I saying that all the moral teachings of religious leaders are therefore bad, illogical and unreasonable?


What I'm saying is that God, by definition, is the highest trump card--the ultimate argument-ender. If Jones and Smith want to contest whether it should be legal to make graven imagery, Jones can play the freedom card, Smith can play the weakened authority of the church card, Jones can play the what-business-is-it-of-yours card . . . but as soon as Smith plays the God card---as soon as he says, "It is wrong because God says it is wrong," ---then the discussion is either over or they increase the stakes dramatically when Jones plays his God card.

God does not say that, Jones might insist. According to my scriptures, which are true and holy, God says just the opposite of what he says in your scriptures, which are errant and profane.

And now they're into it big time. Not only have they escalated dramatically the rather small question of public policy regarding the crafting of idols, but they've made the question all but irresolvable.

One version of God says No, another version of God says Yes.

And, frustratingly enough, there's no physical evidence either way to help decide the question. They're left, instead, to do battle by proxy, dueling with scripture and text---scripture that is in places dramatically contradictory yet supposedly written by those who have taken dictation from the master and creator of the Universe.

Talk about an ugly battle.

But, again, at its core is the belief of the theist that without absolute standards as established by God, there can be no standards whatsoever---that without God, all of morality becomes personal opinion, whims that ride upon fashion, caprices of convenience. Everything is relative. Nothing is fixed. Chaos ensues.

I've tended to answer this by posing again the old riddle: If you behave well strictly because someone tells you to behave well, are you acting morally? Or simply obediently?

Is a moral result the same thing as a moral act?

If, to put it another way, you don't commit adultery because you think God says not to commit adultery, have you really put into that decision the sort of ethical reflection that we commonly think of as a moral thought process?

I mean, there are a number of reasons not to commit adultery I can think of.

One is fear you'd get caught and get tossed out of your home and endure seemingly endless recriminations from your spouse and children and probably neighbors.

Another is fear of eternal punishment from an angry God.

Another is because God says not to commit adultery and God is good and you love God.

Another is the belief that we should respect and honor the commitments we make to one another because that is the basis for a stable and productive personal life, a stable and productive society and the strong family that gives each member the greatest happiness and opportunity.

Yet another, along those same lines, might be the belief that we should treat others--particularly those closest to us--as we wish to be treated by them. The Golden Rule.

Each reason, and I don't mean the list to be exhaustive, leads to the same result: Fidelity. But is each reason equally admirable? Equally "moral"?

I say no.

And the Commandment waver agrees with me.

But the Commandment waver says that following the absolute dictates of God is more admirable, more moral, because it abides by unchanging principle. Whereas, he adds, all my squishy, interpersonal reasons are subject to change as social values change. And any morality that you make up as you go along is no sort of morality at all.

But the opposite is true. Anyone who follows rules without thinking is simply a good soldier. A good soldier follows orders--he's taught that it's not the role of the soldier to question orders or to doubt them or examine them; that to do so risks grave consequences.

In contrast, the person who acts well in a situation by following the dictates of conscience must reason in a way that draws from larger concepts of good. Behaving ethically in that sense is a habit of mind that is applicable not just to adultery, but to theft and murder and bearing false witness and honoring your mother and father as well as situations that may not be specifically covered in some purportedly sacred text or even the lawbooks.

Believers and I agree when it comes to the Golden Rule. It appears not only in Luke 6:31 and Matthew 7:12, but we also hear it from Aristotle, Confucius and Muhammad and learn of it in the Talmud, the Hindu tradition, the American Indian spiritual tradition and, of course, the ethical humanist philosophy.

But, again, I would contend that the Golden Rule is not Golden because Jesus or any other wise person, prophet or incarnate God said it, but because it resonates so perfectly with our human experience.

As to the criticism that such morality is baseless, adaptable and non-absolute . . . I ask the Judeo-Christian culture how it was that slavery, mentioned repeatedly and in an offhand way in the Bible, endured on this earth with the sanction of Christian people until just the last century? I would ask that, if "thou shalt not steal" and "thou shalt not murder" reflect absolute rocks to which we can cling, how was it that so many new Americans rooted in that Judeo-Christian ethic sanctioned the genocidal treatment of American Indians and their land?

And the Salem witch trials. And the Inquisition. And the Crusades. If these are not examples of moral relativism and make-em-up-as-you-go principles, I don't know what is.

I don't mean this as a criticism of all believers of all scripture.

I agree with the argument that says no number of wicked acts by professed Christians necessarily refutes propositions in Christian scripture. I ask only in return for an acknowledgment--seldom granted, by the way--that no number of good acts by professed Christians validates the Gospels.

Another acknowledgment that I'm slow to receive is that a belief in God is neither necessary nor sufficient for morality. You don't need to believe in God to have a strong, principled moral backbone. And simply believing in a higher power and his rules doesn't give you that backbone. Either way you have to work at it, use your reason and your intuition.

I get questioned rather often about my own religious beliefs--particularly after I write columns that may seem rather harsh on practitioners of faith. What is your religion? What do you believe? Are you an atheist?

I actually shy from the term atheist. To me, the connotations are too blunt, the implied level of certitude too great and the association with the shadowy, strident Madalyn Murray O'Hair a bit too close.

Though etymologically someone who is A-theistic lives without theism, without a belief in God as part of his life--and that would define me--"atheist" seems like a fightin' word to me, one that carries a sense of rejection and denial: One that professes a strong conviction that there is no God.

But I have no such conviction: In thinking, writing and debating these questions I've concluded that we don't know what other forces might or might not exist in the universe.

How life came to be as it is on this planet, what it all means, where it's all going? . . .

I don't know. I don't know if there's no God, one God or a million gods--good, bad, alive, dead, caring or as unconcerned with our lives on earth as we are unconcerned with the lives of the dust mites under our beds.

I don't know if we are the only planet in the universe with sentient beings on it, or one of a million such planets. I don't know if this is the first time that an intelligent human race has evolved on a small, watery satellite hurtling through space, or if, in uncounted contractions and expansions of the universe through untold eons, it is the ten thousandth or ten billionth. I don't know if we are an early, discarded experiment of an intelligent creator, that creator's ultimate work, or just a fluke combination of carbon molecules.

And I'm persuaded that none of those who claim to know have any idea either, no matter how sincere they are.

And I believe a lot of them are sincere. I believe a lot of them are guided by hope and by the sense--I would call it the vanity--that they themselves and human beings in general are vastly more important and long-lasting in this vast creation than actually they are.

And I'm tempted by that thought. Who wouldn't be?

I'm as tempted as the next person with the alluring ideas that our spirits live on after our bodies die, that there are psychics and astrologers and mystics who can tap into paranormal forces and tell us important secrets.

But in the end, research and reason suppress these temptations. Almost every time I get the chance as a journalist I ask readers of the Chicago Tribune to consider the evidence.

In January 1997 the Chicago Sun-Times printed this correction: "The Sydney Omarr horoscopes in Thursday's editions of the Sun-Times were incorrect. The horoscopes Friday were correct."

My column, in response, said that in the spirit of accuracy, the paper should have said, "The Sydney Omarr horoscopes in Thursday's editions of the Sun-Times were incorrect. The horoscopes Wednesday were incorrect, too, actually, as have been Omarr's horoscopes every day for many, many years. The forecasts were equally valid for both days or for any other day of any other year, which is to say not valid at all."

I went on to point out that astrologers always fail in simple laboratory experiments. For instance, they can't do any better than random guessers in blind attempts to match astrological charts with people.

Sydney Omarr wrote me a blistering, indignant letter and enclosed two of his books. I posted these letters on the Internet along with a challenge. I said, tell you what, Omarr, I'll give you the time, date and place of the birth of ten people, then you try to match their horoscopes with their identities. Then, I said, we can all have a good laugh at how you can't tell serial killers from social workers. I must be clairvoyant, because I knew he wouldn't write back and he never did.

Just last month a suburban Chicago police department announced it was consulting a psychic to try to find a missing and allegedly murdered woman, and the psychic had given them a detailed description of the burial site.

"She's guessing," I wrote. I noted that objective analyses of these so called "psychic detectives" reveal them as frauds who build their reputations through trickery and by advertising the luckiest of their guesses.

And then I made note of a fact that relatively few people are aware of but bears constant repetition: "Since 1968, magician James Randi has offered a sizable cash award--it's now $1 million--to anyone who 'can demonstrate any psychic, supernatural or paranormal ability of any kind under satisfactory observing conditions.' " Several hundred hopefuls have applied. All have failed.

All have failed. Not most. Not nearly all. 100 percent. For 32 years.

Does this mean there are no psychic or paranormal forces at work in the universe? A careful person, aware of the difficulty of proving a negative, would never say such a thing. What he would say, though, is that those who claim to be able to harness or usefully understand such forces have, to date, proved to be, well . . . mistaken.

Like the psychic detective now working our western suburbs, they're guessing.

So what label for me? Skeptic? Freethinker? Perhaps agnostic--someone who says he doesn't know or that the answers to these questions are fundamentally unknowable? But I go a step further--I call myself an "indifferent agnostic"--and I say that whether God exists is not just unknowable but irrelevant. It doesn't matter.

Look, if there is a living God who created and cares about this world, I think the best one can say about him and his moral sense is that it is utterly impenetrable. Take a walk around a children's hospital. Look at the videos of starvation in the Sudan. Read the stories about the just-passed 100th anniversary of the hurricane that devastated Galveston, Texas. Six thousand, some say 10,000 people, dead. Or visit the Holocaust museum.

The moral code of an almighty power that allegedly created and presides over such horror is, to put it charitably, ambiguous.

The Bible certainly suggests that as well. One of the most controversial columns I ever wrote touching on this subject dealt with how, in all Passover seders I've ever attended, the participants have glossed over the gruesome, inexplicable injustice wreaked by God upon the young, the innocent and the hapless of ancient Egypt.

"Passover" refers to the story in the 12th chapter of Exodus in which God, one night at midnight, kills all first-born creatures in Egypt except the children of the enslaved Jews, whose houses he passed over. This was the tenth and worst of the plagues God is said to have visited upon the Egyptian people, the one that finally persuaded Pharaoh to liberate the Jews.

I wrote: "Why, given limitless options, would an all-just, all-powerful God resort to such a ghastly device?

"The pile of Egyptian corpses that next morning had to include huge numbers of infants and toddlers, not to mention non-Jewish slaves and their children.

"Everyday Egyptians with no power over their monarch awoke to lifeless kids and spouses and farmyards littered with carcasses--this after having previously endured a horrific series of plagues, including boils, locusts and a B-movie infestation of frogs."

I went on, "At a time when many people are wringing their hands over what to tell children about allegations the President has behaved in a tawdry manner, what are we supposed to tell the kiddies about a biblical God who slaughtered children in their beds by the thousands instead of working a less devastating miracle to free the slaves?"

Then I quoted the executive director of the Chicago Rabbinical Council: "We don't always understand God's ways."

The question remains and is larger than the simple problem of evil: Whether or not all or some of the kill-'em-all stories in the world's scriptures are literally true (the destruction of Jericho and the Biblical flood also come to mind), and what implications have we drawn from them?

These stories tell us that violence is a favored way to resolve disputes, even when there are more peaceful options; that others--other tribes, nations, races, faiths--have lives of diminished value and are therefore candidates for wholesale extermination; that punishing the innocent to achieve a desired end is not incompatible with the ideals of justice.

This is by no means a uniquely Jewish legacy. We see it everywhere in history, including in the Holocaust and in the "many forms of violence perpetrated in the name of (Christianity)--wars of religions, tribunals of the Inquisition and other forms of violations of the rights of persons," in the words of Pope John Paul II.

This legacy is nurtured by the common idea that those who are otherwise virtuous but do not believe in the literal truth of the miraculous stories and assertions of given faiths--such as the account of the resurrection of Christ--deserve to suffer an eternity of misery.

I got a lot of mail after that, most of it filled with the sorts of theological hand-waving that I find unpersuasive to the point of being objectionable. This same crowd that points the finger at "moral relativists" puts more qualifiers on their "absolute" ideas than you find in a common apartment lease.

Here's my sense: If there's an intelligent force that created our world, what he wants--or wanted, if he's still around--and all he wants, if anything at all, is for us to do right by his creation. To honor the creator, in other words, by honoring that which he made---others, the land, the air and so on. And, further, this God, if he exists, gave us the impressive capacity for reason--so that we could figure out, on our own, how to live right.

Life and reason may well be God's only gifts to us. "Use Them Wisely" is certainly his only commandment.

What's striking about this is that it's exactly what's incumbent upon us if there is no intelligent creator. Nothing changes. It doesn't matter.

Every society, every civilization ever unearthed or studied has had codes of right and wrong. No matter which God or gods people have prayed to, they have ordered their existence---almost always with individual, cultural and political survival in mind.

When I objected to the Ten Commandments in the courtroom, I heard from those who said that the Commandments are an appropriate display because they reflect the fact that the morality and law of our western culture are so rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition as to be inseparable.

I don't deny the importance of the Bible in shaping our culture. Nor do I deny that it has inspired great people to do great things and behave well. I do deny, though, that without God as a starting point it is impossible to formulate a coherent morality.

If we could be sure there is no God, would it then be right to murder? If we could be sure there is no God, would our prohibitions against stealing disappear? Would lying be any less wrong?


And to illustrate this I ask my critics to perform the following thought experiment:

Say you get a surprise visit this evening from all the major religious leaders of the world, the top people in every faith, the major leaders of the Protestant denominations . . . all of them, even the Scientologists. And they say, "We have a problem. We have each come across evidence--incontrovertible evidence--that the stories, the legends, the prophets, the miracles, the received wisdom of our belief systems are all massive frauds. They were perpetrated by leaders who were simply attempting for various reasons, good and bad, to control and inspire the uneducated masses. But they made it all up. Every last word. And we know it and we've not been able to agree on what to do about it."

They say to you, "We can't just announce this. People would not be ready for it. Too many of them believe that without God, anything is allowed, nothing is forbidden. And we can't agree on how to reconcile some of the differences in our belief systems.

"So what we've decided," they say, "is to select a random, decent person--you--and ask that person to create a set of moral guidelines for human beings. To write your own commandments, as many as you wish---you can leave adultery out this time, if you want---in an effort to shape or reshape the world for good."

They say they will then employ a master archeological forger to create some sort of tablets or scrolls onto which this moral code will be inscribed---along with several devastatingly corroborative prophecies---after which they will arrange for a miraculous discovery of your precepts in some cave in the Middle East. At that point, they say, they will renounce their old dogma and encourage their adherents to follow yours.

In short, what if they made you God?

And without giving you time here to ponder this, let me suggest that what you would come up with, as the decent, ethical person you are, would look a whole lot like a best-of, greatest hits list of the common highlights of the finest faiths.

Somehow, with no help from any where, you'd come up with prohibitions against stealing, murdering and lying. One can hardly imagine a sustainable society where such things were not considered wrong. You'd probably want to discourage infidelity and disrespect of parents--not much good can come of that. You'd probably see the wisdom in keeping greed and covetousness in check and asking people to watch their language.

Because at this level, morality is common sense. It enforces itself through reason.

The contrary assertion, that without God we would feel free to kill and steal and sleep with anyone because we could not possibly find a reason not to, is absurd. We have an instinctive interest in preservation . . . of ourselves, of our kin, of our community and our culture.

Peace, health and stability are essential to that preservation, and the common sense guidelines that lead to that form the bedrock of a strong moral system.

A moral system that does not refer primarily to human reason---a morality that relies on some hypothetical externality to validate it---runs the risk of being arbitrary.

Further, as Robert Ingersoll observed, God, as defined, has always shown an uncanny penchant for hating and loving exactly what his human interpreters have hated and loved, and has been "invariably on the side of those in power."

How do we test these allegedly divine commands for plausibility? With our own reason, of course, and our own instincts.

If Holy Man A says it is an abomination to God if man makes a graven image and Holy Woman B says, no, God demands that we worship idols, how do we settle this?

I mean the legal question, not the theological question. How do we, a society comprised of followers of Holy Men and Women A through Z and followers of no holy people at all, decide which of God's purported pronouncements ought to carry the weight of law?

Most societies through history have operated on the principle that the majority belief or the belief of those who hold power should rule, should carry the weight of law. And, quite obviously, most societies through history have been inferior to ours by any number of modern measures.

This is not a coincidence.

Those who have taken issue with my stance on the Ten Commandments often use the "majority rules" argument. It appears to be a very easy weapon to deploy when you're in the majority.

What these majoritarians fail to understand is that the legal cudgel they would use to reinforce their own faith today could very well be used to deny or ban that same faith tomorrow. Christians who complain about being discriminated against and persecuted in America whenever they are denied the opportunity to use tax dollars, legislation and public land and schools to advance their sectarian views don't have any idea what persecution means.

The separationist creed--and I stress this--is ultimately pro-religion because it is so staunchly pro-conscience.

I'm not bothered by what goes on in the sanctuaries and grottoes, at the altars or in houses of worship. And I'm glad when beliefs, however implausible or unproven to me, prompt people to behave well and to find comfort and happiness in this often weary world.

But it almost never stops there, with the personal, with the inner life, does it? It's not enough that they find in their faith rules to live by. They want to make you live by them too. The ban on graven imagery in the Ten Commandments is a reminder--set in stone, so they say--of the inevitable pitfalls of using the received words of God as the source of morality and law.

Posting them as officially sanctioned statements of the government is an attempt to codify the five words that sum up the Ten Commandments: GOD WANTS YOU TO BEHAVE, and the implicit threat behind it: OR ELSE.

I'd like to close tonight with a hymn.

I was raised in a secular home--we weren't church people, God never came up--except in songs. We sang religious songs all the time--my dad and I had a huge repertoire of country gospel tunes and I've always taken every chance I can to sing from the sacred harp hymnal with people who know how to read shaped notes.

I mean, no matter what you say about religion, its musical bona fides are the best--and singing hymns in a large group is a magnificent experience.

So I thought I'd like to lead you in such an experience, but of course "How Great Thou Art" might catch in some throats here, I don't know. So I have selected one of the lesser-known Monty Python songs written in the style of a hymn and I believe borrowing heavily in the melody from a genuine hymn. It occurs near the beginning of "The Meaning of Life" movie and is sung as a devotional by British schoolboys, and it follows up on the implicit OR ELSE that's so important to certain concepts of morality. The title, I believe is, "Oh Lord, Please Don't Burn Us."

To paraphrase Mayor Daley, "Everyone will enjoy singing this song. If they want to . . . or they won't."

Oh, Lord, Please Don't Burn Us

O Lord, please don't burn us.
Don't grill or toast your flock.
Don't put us on the barbecue
Or simmer us in stock.
Don't braise or bake or boil us
Or stir-fry us in a wok

Oh, please don't lightly poach us
Or baste us with hot fat.
Don't fricassee or roast us
Or boil us in a vat,
And please don't stick thy servants, Lord,
In a Rotissimat

Eric Zorn has written a metropolitan news column for the Chicago Tribune since September 1986. His father is Prof. Jens C. Zorn, professor of physics, University of Michigan, and his mother, Fran Zorn, is lecturer in English composition and medical careers there. He met his wife, Johanna Wolken, WBEZ-FM executive producer, while doing a radio column 1982-85. They have a son (1989) and fraternal twins (1997) and live on Chicago's Northwest side. He is co-author of Murder of Innocence: The Tragic Life and Final Rampage of Schoolhouse Killer Laurie Dann (Warner Books, 1990).

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Challenging Denver Scout Policy

I live in a nice, quiet residential area in southeast Denver. Two blocks away is a middle school and, next door to that, an elementary school. Both are public schools. Almost every evening I walk my dog in the neighborhood. We have a tradition of sitting on the steps of the elementary school for a brief respite before returning home from our journey.

One evening late last summer I noticed a sign in front of the elementary school. It had an arrow pointing to the main entrance which read "Vineyard Church." There were several other signs scattered around the neighborhood saying the same thing that had arrows pointing in the direction of the school. All the signs were on public property.

I called the police department to complain and was advised that the signs violated a City Ordinance. I was told to remove them if they bothered me. I did so and took the signs to the local police station. I walked inside, put the signs down, and asked for a form to file a complaint against the Vineyard Church. I was met with resistance from the female officer behind the desk who finally warned me that I would be placed under arrest if I continued to insist on filing a complaint.

In due course, I was put in touch with a police officer who handles community relations. Despite repeated assurances that the Vineyard Church would be told to cease and desist, the same signs continue to appear. Thankfully, though, the church has now changed the location of its services to a High School several miles away so my dog and I don't have to look at these eyesores anymore when we take our walk.

When I received no satisfaction from the police, I decided to contact the Denver School Board to see whether it would help. One of the things I wanted to know was whether the Vineyard Church paid a rental fee for use of the school. After the usual "Why do you want to know?" exchange, a School Board official sent me a document spelling out the various fees for use of the public schools and school facilities.

I have always objected to the use of public schools for religious purposes. However, in recent years, the courts have made it clear that the equal access laws guarantee that, if a school is opened to noncurricular activities, religious groups may use the schools the same as anyone else.

The School Board's document containing fees and charges was lengthy and complex. There were several categories including one for nonprofits and churches. A fee schedule set forth the hourly rates plus janitorial services.

As I reviewed the document, I noticed that there was a category which provided for the use of school facilities free of charge. For the most part, this category included groups like the PTA and local government and community groups. But there was one organization that stuck out--the Boy Scouts of America!

I called the School Board and asked why the Boy Scouts were given special treatment over other non-profits. The person with whom I talked wanted to drop the subject like a hot potato. He suggested that I write the President of the School Board, Elaine Berman. I did so and made sure to send a copy of the letter to a friend of mine who writes for the Denver Post.

In the letter I pointed out that the Boy Scouts discriminate on the basis of religion. That is, if a boy refuses to take the Scout oath which includes a statement of allegiance to God, he is not eligible to be a member. Also, shortly before I got involved in this issue, the United States Supreme Court had held that it was not unconstitutional for the Scouts to prohibit gays from becoming members. The court held that the Scouts are a private organization and are, therefore, entitled to set their own membership criteria. This is interesting in view of the fact that the Boy Scouts have a special charter granted by the United States Congress which would seem to say that they are anything but a private organization.

In any event, the Denver Post covered our story. Ms. Berman, the School Board President, was interviewed by the Post and was quoted as saying that the public schools had no right to prohibit the Boy Scouts from using their facilities under the equal access laws. She did not address the issue of the Scouts, unlike most other nonprofits, being able to use the schools free of charge nor did she respond to the criticism of the schools actually chartering Scout troops and allowing school facilities to be used during classroom time to recruit members. My letter was written on September 26 and, as of the date of this writing (November 13), I have not received a reply.

Only days after our story appeared in the Denver Post, a prominent local rabbi, Stephen Foster, turned in all his Boy Scout medals. Foster had been an Eagle Scout, one of scouting's highest ranks. He said he was turning his badges in to protest the Scouts' refusal to allow gays and atheists to become members. This story was prominently covered in both Denver dailies and was carried on the local TV and radio news.

Shortly after that an article appeared in the paper to the effect that gay groups intended to pressure public officials not to allow the Boy Scouts to use public facilities to recruit members and to persuade charitable organizations such as the United Fund not to support the Scouts financially. This effort is taking hold. I understand that, recently, a United Fund chapter in Connecticut decided to exclude the Boy Scouts from its giving program. I also understand that the Boy Scouts have initiated a legal action against the United Fund on the theory that it in illegal for them to be excluded from the Fund's giving.

There seems to be no small amount of hypocrisy here. On the one hand the Scouts argue that they have the right to engage in exclusionary practices because they are a private organization but, on the other, that the United Fund, which is also a private organization, does not.

The Boy Scouts are a very entrenched part of the establishment in this country. The battle to unseat them from their favored position with government promises to be difficult. However, as time passes and as the American public sees the Scouts for the hypocrites they are, public support is bound to wane. It will be interesting to see whether the leadership of the Scouts is intelligent enough to bring the organization into the twenty-first century or whether they will go the way of the dinosaurs which they surely will if they do not change their practices.

Oh, yes--we haven't forgotten about the signs of the Vineyard Church. That promises to be one of the Denver, Colorado Chapter's next projects.

Attorney Bob Tiernan is a Foundation member who directs the Foundation's Denver-area chapter.

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State/Church Bulletin

ICLU Sells Out Again?

For the second time, the Indiana Civil Liberties Union has "settled" a lawsuit challenging the presence of Ten Commandments in a courthouse by agreeing to permit the biblical listing alongside other "historic" documents.

The display at the Washington County Courthouse in Salem, Indiana, will include King John and the Magna Carta, Thomas Jefferson and the Bill of Rights, and Moses with the Ten Commandments.

The Nov. 30 settlement was reached after 400 people, including Reform Party vice presidential candidate Ezola Foster, rallied outside the courthouse in October. A state law took effect July 1 allowing local governments to post the commandments with displays of "other historical documents."

Still in court is an ICLU lawsuit to prevent the placement of a decalog on state capitol grounds. U.S. District Judge Sarah Evans Barker issued a preliminary injunction in July barring placement of the monument. In mid-November Barker also ordered the removal of the capitol monument from the courthouse lawn in Lawrence County, where bible backers had placed it temporarily.

The Utica Town Council is in the process of approving the biblical decalog for its town hall.
Moment of Silence Upheld for Now

Virginia's controversial new law mandating a moment of silence in public schools was upheld by a U.S. District judge in October, and remains in effect while opponents appeal the ruling. Ten students and their parents are challenging the law. Virginia Attorney General Mark L. Earley, a gubernatorial candidate, vows to defend the law before the Supreme Court if necessary.
Reason Prevails in West Virginia

West Virginia State Superintendent David Stewart announced in early November that the state Board of Education is not likely to consider Gov. Cecil Underwood's request for a resolution to post Ten Commandments in West Virginia schools.

In September, Underwood, facing re-election, wrote a letter to the Board demanding that it "immediately" consider the proposal. Underwood was defeated by U.S. Rep. Bob Wise.

The superintendent said such a resolution would only invite a lawsuit, not "assist the learning process."
Scouts Sue Broward County Over Cut-off

The Boy Scouts filed a lawsuit on Dec. 4 against Florida's Broward County School Board for barring the group from school property due to the Scouts' ban on gays.

The South Florida Council and national headquarters asked the U.S. District Court in Miami for an injunction to keep the district from evicting 57 Scout troops and Cub packs. The Board voted unanimously on Nov. 14 to give the Scouts 30 days' notice, contending the Scouts breached a contract.
Expelled Girl Settles Lawsuit

A teenage girl expelled from Orchard Street Christian School in Elsmere, Ky., last year for being sexually active reached an out of court settlement announced in December. Her lawsuit argued that the school discriminated against the 15 year old because "boys are not expelled . . . for being sexually active, nor does [the school] improperly and voyeuristically make inquiry of male students regarding their sexual activities."
Important 9th Circuit Rulings

--- A 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco overturned a death sentence for convicted murderer Alfred Sandoval in November, ruling the prosecutor's argument to the jury that the death penalty is sanctioned by God denied him a fair trial.

--- In October, the court rejected an appeal by Christian students to fuse a valedictory speech with an invocation at graduation ceremonies in Oroville High School, California. Upheld was a June ruling by Judge Lawrence K. Karlton saying the Constitution gives no one a right to proselytize before a captive school audience.
Oregon School Abuse Halted

Oregon school officials in Molalla put a stop in November to regular cafeteria visits over the past year by a youth pastor involving up to 100 students a week in its middle and high schools.

They posted police guards at the entrance of the middle school to keep out Church of the Nazarene pastor Jason Rhoads, telling him any attempt to enter the schools would be trespassing. The action was taken after parents of a middle school student complained recently that their child was pressured to participate in a youth group affiliated with the Church of the Nazarene.

A critic noted that if ministers are given carte blanche visitation rights, then the schools would have to allow equal access to a communist, a gay rights organizer or a Scientologist.
Religious Concert Nixed in Illinois

Religious songs are being limited in an upcoming holiday assembly at the high school in Fenton, Illinois, after objections last year by a Muslim senior to the program of mostly Christmas carols and religious music.

"Our holiday assembly cannot be predominately religious and it cannot advance any particular religion. We have to be sensitive to our diverse student population," Superintendent Alf Loan told the board of education in late November.

After student Sabina Navsariwala wrote a letter to her school newspaper saying she felt hurt and alienated by the music, she was harassed at school, according to the Daily Herald.
No Faith in These Police

The Providence police department in November announced a new program to bring a "nondenominational, faith-based" approach to community relations, dubbed PRAYER.

The notion came to patrolman Gregory W. Bolden in a dream, reported the Providence Journal, and gained the support of the police chief and scandal-ridden Mayor Vincent A. Cianci, Jr.

"I think it's about time that somebody in government recognized that there is a God and that He is in charge," said a supporter, Rev. Marlowe V.N. Washington.
Texas School Violations Multiply

--- Jewish parents charged in November that two Texas middle schools in the Fort Bend School District are illegally promoting religion. Frank Levy and Hillary Goldstein said the district promoted after-school prayer meetings this fall, posting flyers featuring crosses. They noted that one teacher's computer screen saver displays the words "Jesus Christ" and that Jewish students were required to bring notes from rabbis in order to miss school Oct. 9 to observe Yom Kippur.

--- Duncanville High School is permitting a retired pastor and former bible college professor to teach bible studies. At least 200 Texas schools offer such classes. The Freedom From Religion Foundation sent detailed objections of the proselytizing nature of such classes to the TEA in the past.
Teachers Banned at Prayer Service

Teachers at Murrieta Valley High School in Riverside, Calif., will no longer be allowed to participate in the annual "See you at the Pole" September prayer observance.

The principal in late November barred the teachers from attending future student worship services, after the Anti-Defamation League complained that the teachers' presence gave the impression of school endorsement.
Religious Visas Fraudulent?

Three government agencies have criticized a special immigration program for religious workers as a fraud-ridden mechanism for ministers to get green cards for congregation members. The religious worker visa was established in 1990 to provide 5000 special admission visas a year for ministers and those in religious vocations. Congress voted twice to extend the program.

In a summer hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on Immigration, Congress' General Accounting Office (GAO) testified it found the program rife with abuse. In one case, a pastor had filed 450 visa petitions covering more than 900 people, falsifying records.

"Evidence uncovered by the INS suggests that some of these organizations exist solely as a means to carry out immigration fraud," said Jess Ford of the GAO.

John Brennan, director of visa services for the State Department, testified that "consular officers are presented with claims that a variety of seemingly mundane jobs with no clear traditional religious function are religious occupations because they are somehow related to the overall work of a religious organization."
"You Will Go to Hell"

"If you lie, you will go to hell," a Cook County judge warned two little girls testifying in his courtroom, according to a Chicago Sun Times expos? on Nov. 2.

Judge James T. Ryan once detained a woman in court until she soiled herself, and fined a woman giving birth for speeding to a hospital.

Diane Tuzzolino, a Mount Prospect mother, said the judge told her children Karyn, 12, and Kara, 8, who were testifying on a small claims dispute, that "You realize if you lie, you will go to hell."
Faith-Healing Parents Convicted

The State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, in a 7-0 decision issued on Nov. 28, upheld an involuntary manslaughter conviction of Dennis and Lorie Nixon of Altoona, who let their 16-year-old daughter die in 1996 from complications of untreated diabetes. Shannon died at home of severe dehydration with a blood sugar level that was 18 times normal, as her family prayed, read from the bible and coated her body with oil.

The Nixons, who were sentenced to two and a half to five years in prison in 1997, have been free during their appeals. They belong to a Blair County branch of the Faith Tabernacle Church, and have 11 other children. Another child, Clayton, died at age 8 in 1991 from a treatable ear infection.
Canadian Creationist Lampooned

The contrast between theopolitics in the United States and Canada became evident in October, when conservative Stockwell Day, who unsuccessfully challenged Canadian Prime Minister Jean Cretien, was lampooned in the Canadian press for being a creationist.

"Day Admits Creationist Views" was the page 1 headline of the Montreal Gazette in October. The nation was shocked that Day believes humans were planted full-grown in the Garden of Eden and that, if dinosaurs existed, they ambled around with Adam and Eve.

"It's kind of freaky, being in denial about fossil evidence and carbon dating," Phillis Rosseau, a Canadian pharmaceutical researcher, told the Boston Globe.
"Fathers Count" Masks Religion

The U.S. House, by a 238-93 vote, passed the "Fathers Count" bill in November, ostensibly to promote fatherhood in low-income families by expanding job training and supportive programs.

Although a lengthy debate over the separation of church and state took place, the bill passed without an amendment barring federal funds from going directly to churches.
Cleveland Voucher Program Struck

A three-judge panel of the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 on Dec. 11 that a Cleveland voucher program using tax money to support religious schools is unconstitutional.

Nearly 4,000 Cleveland students attend private schools, most of them religious, using publicly funded vouchers worth $2,250 each.

"To approve this program would approve the actual diversion of government aid to religious institutions in endorsement of religious education, something 'in tension' with the precedents of the Supreme Court," the appeals panel wrote.

The Ohio Supreme Court initially invalidated the voucher program because of the way it was passed by the Ohio legislature, but upheld the program itself as constitutional. After the Ohio legislature approved the program in compliance with the Ohio Supreme Court, the voucher scheme was declared unconstitutional by a federal judge.

Voucher watchers are speculating that the Cleveland case is headed for a showdown at the U.S. Supreme Court, which thus far has not accepted appeals on the issue. There are currently only four expected votes against it: Souter, Stevens, Ginsberg and Breyer, with O'Connor considered a (very dubious) swing vote.

The only other ongoing voucher programs in the country are in Florida and in Milwaukee, where the Catholic-dominated Wisconsin Supreme Court basically ruled that the state constitution was dead when it approved a scheme siphoning up to $5,236 per voucher to poor students in Milwaukee. Currently, 9,936 students are receiving vouchers there to attend private schools, two-thirds of them religious. In Florida, fewer than 100 students are enrolled in a voucher program that is also the subject of continuing legal challenge. The Cleveland program is expected to continue for at least the rest of this school year.
Student-Led Prayer Litigated

The Louisiana affiliate of the ACLU plans to file a federal lawsuit against the Beauregard parish school board for allowing student-led prayer. The district sent letters to parents asking their children to participate in a "Partners in Prayer for Schools" program in which churches adopt classrooms to pray for.
Nebraska Antigay Action Litigated

The ACLU Nebraska will challenge the constitutionality of Initiative 416, approved by 70% of Nebraska voters on Nov. 7, amending the state constitution to prohibit legal recognition of same-sex marriages or civil unions. A coalition of religious denominations, including fundamentalist Protestant, Mormon and Catholic, funded the campaign to enact the antigay measure.
Religious Freedom for Parking Lot?

A Catholic church ordered by a borough to shut down a parking program because it was an illegal business in an area zoned for private residency is now appealing that ruling under the newly passed federal Religious Land and Institutionized Persons Act of 2000.

St. Martin of Tours Roman Catholic Church, New Hope, Penn., was raking in up to $50,000 a year by offering weekend tourists parking for a "$4 donation" in its 88-car lot.

"Our ability to praise God through the good works of our fellowship and stewardship programs has been shackled by the denial of the use of our parking lot," the church maintains.

A lawyer representing neighbors who oppose the scheme questioned how "sending patrons of the parking lot to the bars and restaurants at all hours of the night in New Hope is a religious freedom unless they're going into the bars to pray."
Too Little, Too Late?

A libel suit has been filed by State Sen. Lewis Long, a Democrat, against the Oklahoma Christian Coalition for falsely claiming that he voted to repeal laws against sodomy and bestiality. Long lost his election by 270 votes.

In 1994, the Legislature updated its criminal code, removing sodomy and bestiality from certain sections, although both acts remain crimes under other sections. The Christian Coalition and a coalition of GOP legislative candidates have since used the issue to slam opponents. In Long's case, the Christian Coalition compounded the error because Long actually voted against the criminal code update.

After the Christian Coalition issued a belated apology, the Tulsa World editorialized on Nov. 22:

"The Christian Coalition's after-the-fact apology is as phony as its voter guides."
Eugene Bars Xmas Trees

Eugene, Oregon's city manager is adhering to a ban on Christmas trees in most city work places, based on the fact that Christmas trees are symbolic of a religious holiday. The Statesman Journal reported that Jim Johnson has affirmed his decision that Christmas trees not be displayed in public lobbies, break rooms and other space shared by city employees.
Scouts Hurt United Way

City employees in Tempe, Arizona, contributed less than half of what they gave last year to United Way, after a controversy about the antigay policy of Boy Scouts of America. Tempe workers donated $42,794 this fall, compared to $89,400 last year.

Interim City Manager John Greco proposed in late September to remove Boy Scouts from the city's United Way pledge forms. In October, Tempe's openly gay mayor, Neil Giuliano, backed off after the proposal created a firestorm of protest. The city's volunteer coordinator told the Arizona Republic in December that the Scout controversy "kind of soured" city workers on the campaign.
Catholic Chair Bad Precedent

The University of California at Santa Barbara has approved a $4.2 million fundraising goal to endow a ""Catholic chair" for Catholic studies at the public school.

About 20 local Catholics are raising private money to endow the chair in the name of Virgil Cordano, a Franciscan priest who pastored the Santa Barbara Catholic Mission.

If successful, the scheme would make the Santa Barbara university one of the few in the country with a Catholic chair.
Making Religion the Villain

Looking for solstice gifts for children?

Try a trilogy by British children's author Philip Pullman ("The Man Who Dared Make Religion the Villain: A British Author's Trilogy, Great Adventures Aren't Pegged to the Great Beyond," New York Times, Nov. 6).

Pullman espouses a "radical view of religion that may well hold the most subversive message in children's literature in years," says the Times.

Pullman has just completed The Amber Spyglass (Knopf), the last in a trilogy, following The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife. The story is about a boy and a girl from different worlds "who grapple with profound philosophical questions of existence while having amazing adventures," according to Sarah Lyall of the Times.

The 53-year-old former school teacher, Lyall writes, "has created a world in which organized religion . . . is the enemy and its agents are the misguided villains."

Pullman explicitly views his books as an alternative to C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia.

"When you look at what C.S. Lewis is saying," Pullman told the Times, "his message is so anti-life, so cruel, so unjust." Pullman, raised Protestant in Wales, became an atheist as a teenager.

Washington Post reviewer Michael Dirda favorably compared Pullman's second book to children's classics in the genre, adding: "Pullman's book is more sheerly, breathtakingly all-stops-out thrilling than any of them."

Pullman has also written a quartet of adventure stories set in Victorian London for older children.
Going to God

The New York Times (Nov. 1) reported on the plight of "Turkish Women Who See Death as a Way Out" of religion-inspired repression, citing the following cases:

--- A 22-year-old woman throwing herself from the roof of a 7-story building after being beaten by her parents for wearing a tight skirt.

--- A 20-year-old woman hanging herself after giving birth following an arranged marriage.

--- A mother of five, age 30, hanging herself in the family barn. Her 65-year-old husband shrugged off the suicide by saying: "It was her time to go to God.

Published in Back Issues

The Freedom From Religion Foundation placed its Winter Solstice sign in the Wisconsin Capitol rotunda, Madison, for the entire month of December for the fifth year in a row. In 1995, Gov. Tommy Thompson removed a Foundation banner saying "State/Church: Keep Them Separate," although the Foundation had a legal permit, and ruled that messages must be restricted to 30 x 40" signs. The Foundation first placed its gilt sign in 1996. Capitol tour guides have told reporters the sign is a "tourist attraction." The Foundation placed its message in response to public complaints about the Christian nature of songs at the annual tree-lighting ceremony, the presence of a lighted menorah during Hanukkah, and an annual nativity pageant taking place in the Capitol.

Published in Back Issues

The Freedom From Religion Foundation's two and a half year court battle over a shrine to Jesus in a public park in Wisconsin concluded in November, with the erection of a 4-foot wrought-iron fence around the statue.

Two signs are posted on the gated fence surrounding the statue signifying that it is located on private property, as ordered by U.S. District Judge John Shabaz.

The Foundation, with Clarence Reinders of Marshfield as plaintiff, filed suit in 1998 after receiving complaints by residents and motorists about a Jesus statue dominating a public wayside park, reading "Christ Guide Us On Our Way." The statue had been given to the town by the Knights of Columbus in the 1950s.

The Foundation's lawsuit was initially dismissed by Shabaz after the city sold a prime parcel of the park to a group formed expressly to save the statue.

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago agreed with the Foundation that the sale did not remedy the violation, because there was no wall or sign indicating the statue is now on private land.

The Appeals Court upheld the prearranged sale as legal, however. A three-judge panel ordered Shabaz to oversee the erection of a wall or fence with a visible disclaimer.

"How unfortunate for Marshfield taxpayers that its officials did not choose to move or isolate the Jesus shrine when we first asked," said Anne Gaylor, Foundation president.

Occasional irate letters from religionists are still appearing in Marshfield's daily paper, whose editor supported the presence of the Catholic shrine on public property.

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Father, Son Sue School Over Scout Bigotry

Foundation member John Scalise, a former city commissioner in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, and his young son Benjamin, filed suit against the Boy Scouts of America and Mt. Pleasant Public Schools for discrimination on religious grounds on Oct. 20.

In November 1997, when Benjamin was nine, he brought home a recruiting notice for Cub Scouts distributed in his third-grade class at Fancer Elementary School. John, a former Scout himself, and his son were excited about the invitation, and attended the recruiting meeting in December. When no one else volunteered to be a leader, Scalise stepped forward, only to discover the application required him to sign a "Declaration of Religious Principles."

Scalise, in his lawsuit, charges that Scouts are a "national and international private religiously oriented youth organization" that "expressly and openly discriminates against atheists, secular humanists, agnostics and other minorities."

Scalise alleges Boy Scouts and Mt. Pleasant schools are violating Michigan's constitution and the state's Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act by unlawfully discriminating on religious grounds.

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Take the State/Church Quiz

Since the Freedom From Religion Foundation debuted a state/church quiz at its website (Church/State Separation Quiz) in October, more than 7,000 people have taken the test. [More than 12,000 as of March 2001]

The Foundation sent out an October news release prescribing its state/church separation quiz as "an antidote to election-year piety" and what it deemed "an orgy of gratuitous pandering" by political candidates.

The 21-item quiz, made up of multiple choice and true/false questions, is automatically scored and graded. Correct and up to three wrong answers summons high praise for being a "First Amendment scholar." Twelve to fifteen wrong prompts the rebuke, "Did you attend parochial school? Try again!" And sixteen to 21 wrong is rewarded with a skeptical: "Are you sure you are not a member of the religious right?"

Publicity about the quiz included a column by Stephanie Salter of the San Francisco Examiner (Nov. 10, 2000) that was widely syndicated around the country. Salter reported that "the feisty, funny and well-informed Freedom From Religion Foundation" had devised a quiz challenging assumptions about the religious basis of U.S. government.

She added, "Based in Madison, Wis., the foundation publishes a terrific and entertaining monthly newsletter called 'Freethought Today' . . . If you're like me, [by taking the quiz] you'll learn how ignorant you really are about how much God-ness our country's founders wished upon us."

Contestants are scored on such questions as the date when "under God" was inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance, how many times the word "God" appears in the U.S. Constitution, if the Constitution requires a religious test for public office, and the religious affiliation of the students who contested school football prayers before the Supreme Court last summer.

"Would the typical candidate for public office pass our basic quiz? We doubt it!" commented Foundation spokesperson Dan Barker. "Public officials take an oath of office to uphold our secular Constitution but do they even know what's in it?"

If you're not on the 'Net but are interested in obtaining the written quiz and answers, please send your request with a self-addressed, stamped envelope to: Quiz, FFRF, PO Box 750, Madison WI 53701.

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While a ministerial student at old Howard College, I heard a piece of wisdom that has stuck with me: Be wary of preachers whose sermons never stray far from the sins of adultery and fornication. They have illicit sex on the brain.

--History Prof. Wayne Flynt

Auburn University

"Are you voting with me, Jesus?"

Birmingham News

(Feb. 13, 2000)


To see the gods dispelled in mid-air and dissolve like clouds is one of the great human experiences.

--Wallace Stevens

"Two or Three Ideas," 1951

Charles Norman's Poets on Poetry

(Free Press, 1962)

(Submitted by Dudley Duncan)


Our conviction about what is natural or right should not inhibit the role of science in discovering the truth--rather it should inform our judgment about the implications and consequences of the truth science uncovers.

--Tony Blair, British Prime Minister

European Bioscience Conference

(Associated Press, Nov. 18, 2000)


The laws about why discrimination [against gays and lesbians], even revulsion and hatred, are justified have begun to fall away. What remains is largely inchoate, or biblical.

--Columnist Anna Quindlen

(Sept. 10, 2000)

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The Facts vs. "The O'Reilly Factor"

The day after Joseph Lieberman's now-infamous remarks on religion to a black congregation in Detroit, I got a call from Fox TV network inviting me to appear on "The O'Reilly Factor."

As I had never heard of this show, I couldn't help asking the polite assistant: "The host isn't one of these 'hate radio' types, is he?" I was assured that Mr. O'Reilly belonged more in the "devil's advocate" category.

I was the only guest interviewed via satellite hook-up at a local studio for a five-minute opening segment, taped that afternoon and airing that night. The taping started with Bill O'Reilly's opening editorial, called "Talking Points."

He called it "ridiculous" and "madness" to contend it is "dangerous" to "talk about God and to pray in public," attacking the recent court decision against student-led football prayers in public schools. "Spirituality is a positive in our selfish society and if that opinion hurts somebody's feelings, I'm not sorry at all." Then he introduced me, and the fireworks began.

Although I felt brow-beaten during the quick interview, I left the studio mostly bemused.

At 7 p.m. we turned on the TV to watch how it came off. A teaser on Lieberman, O'Reilly's editorial and my interview started the show. When an increasingly excited O'Reilly proceeded to call me "crazy" for correctly stating there were no prayers at the Constitutional Convention, my shocked 24-year-old stepdaughter Kristi loyally exclaimed, "Dad, you shouldn't let him treat her that way!" Even cool and collected Dan shook his head in amazement.

I have to admit I was surprised when my November Brill's Content informed me that O'Reilly appears on its list of this year's top 50 influential members of the media, and that his book is on the New York Times bestseller list. I thought readers might be interested in what O'Reilly's "influential" views are. Here is the transcript from the interview:


O'Reilly: Now our story tonight: Senator Joseph Lieberman's spirituality on the campaign trail. Some people don't like the fact that he often talks about God.

(Videotape of Lieberman in a church, saying, "I hope that it will reinforce a belief, that I feel as strongly as anything else, that there must be a place for faith in America's public life.")

(Different cutaway of Lieberman: "The profound and ultimately most important reality is that we are not only citizens of this blessed country, we are children of the same awesome God.")

O'Reilly: Joining us now from Madison, Wisconsin, is Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-founder of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. So you have a beef with Senator Lieberman?

Gaylor: We certainly do, because Senator Lieberman is saying that there is no freedom from religion under our Constitution, and that is implying that there is no right to reject religion, and that freethinkers--atheists and agnostics--are somehow "less equal" than believers.

O'Reilly: I didn't hear him say that, Ms. Gaylor.

Gaylor: Yes, he said there is freedom of religion but no freedom from religion.

O'Reilly: But I didn't hear him say that nonbelievers were less equal than believers, did you?

Gaylor: This is certainly the implication--

O'Reilly: Oh, the implication? Okay. All right, go ahead.

Gaylor: And he's also courting and sparking a very divisive public debate on religion, saying things like morality is based on a belief in God, and our nation is based on a belief in God, and it makes me wonder if Senator Lieberman is running for Vice-Rabbi rather than Vice-President.

O'Reilly: All right. But if 90% of the population of America believes in God, as they do, the polls show that, and if the founding fathers based the legal system on Judeo-Christian tradition--

Gaylor: No.

O'Reilly: --which they did--

Gaylor: No, they certainly didn't.

O'Reilly: Oh, yes they did. I mean, look. Anybody who reads history, who reads the letters of Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, knows that the framers of the Constitution took into account the Ten Commandments and basing the religious aspect of the government, in the sense that they say this is right, this is wrong, this is what they do and this is what they don't do.

Gaylor: No, I think that Senator Lieberman and you, possibly, have never read our U.S. Constitution--

O'Reilly: Yes, I have.

Gaylor: It is a godless Constitution, and the only references to religion in it are exclusionary. And if you contrast our Bill of Rights, which is couched in positives, the rights we have, versus the Ten Commandments, which are all negative, I think you can see no comparison. There is no religion in our Constitution, and we should be proud of the fact that we were the first country to adopt a secular Constitution.

O'Reilly: Well, look. In every meeting of the framers they had a prayer.

Gaylor: No, that was--

O'Reilly: Yes, they did!

Gaylor: No.

O'Reilly: Yes, they did! In the records of the meetings there is the prayer, Ms. Gaylor.

Gaylor: No, no. Ben Franklin said that they should pray and there was nobody else who wanted to and it's in his records--

O'Reilly: That's not true, that's absolutely not true.

Gaylor: You're confusing the Articles of Confederation with--

O'Reilly: George Washington, in George Washington's letters--the Articles of Confederation I'm not confusing with the Constitution. I know the difference. In George Washington's letters about the formation of the government, God is mentioned all the time.

Now, Senator Lieberman. We may disagree on this and I'm not saying that you're not entitled to your opinion, but I'm quoting historical documents, and if you're going to say that I'm wrong, I'm going to say you're crazy.

But, in this case, Senator Lieberman is basically saying, exercising his freedom of speech, by giving his opinion of what America is and should be. What's wrong with that?

Gaylor: He has crossed the line, not only of what is proper for a politician but what is good manners. I mean we've all been told you don't bring up religion at a party or social gathering, and he's simply pandering. And he's running as Mr. Holier-Than-Thou--

O'Reilly: Wait a minute, wait a minute.

Gaylor: --to pander to voters.

O'Reilly: Let's make it a little personal. If I run for office and I say, you know, one of the reasons I want to be in a position of power is to help other people, because I'm a follower of Jesus Christ and that's what he did, am I wrong?

Gaylor: Well, I think that is what George Bush has said, and many people are very alarmed--

O'Reilly: Are you? Would you say I would be wrong to say that?

Gaylor: I think that if you, at every opportunity, would preach at people who are basically a captive audience, using--

O'Reilly: No, I'm not preaching, I'm just saying I want to help people, because Jesus Christ did.

Gaylor: You are a public servant. You are running for an office that is paid with tax dollars--

O'Reilly: Yah.

Gaylor: --and you have no business telling people what religion they should--

O'Reilly: I'm not telling people anything. I'm telling you what I believe, and you're trying to deny my freedom to do that.

Gaylor: And I think that everyone should beware of pious politicians--

O'Reilly: Well, that's fine.

Gaylor: And it does raise the question, why does Senator Lieberman--

O'Reilly: But you take it further, Ms. Gaylor. You take it further.

Gaylor: What?

O'Reilly: You say they shouldn't be able to say that, and that's wrong.

Gaylor: No, I'm saying it's inappropriate. And I think that he has crossed the line, and it is time for the public to say enough of this! We want to hear your views on politics. We don't need to hear your views on--

O'Reilly: Well, Ms. Gaylor, we respect your opinion. I think you're absolutely dead wrong about your history and I hope you'll go back and read it, and perhaps we'll have another discussion.

Gaylor: Read the Constitution!

O'Reilly: I have, many times. Thank you very much for appearing.


For the record, of course I think candidates may express, but should not campaign on, their views on religion, although I prefer the Bill Bradleys of the world who keep it to themselves.

After the show aired, I went out for some errands. When I got back, Kristi informed me a woman had gone to the trouble of hunting me down and calling long distance to argue. When Kristi told her I wasn't home, she tried to argue with Kristi, saying I was too ignorant to be allowed on "national TV," and concluding her rant with this clincher before slamming down the phone: "You tell that Annie Laurie Gaylor for me that she gives blondes a bad name!" (Which is a neat trick, considering I'm not blond.)

I was surprised how many acquaintances caught the show. We also heard from people around the country who wanted to learn more about our group, and received an email from Nat Hentoff, who kindly faxed his column to us on the Lieberman matter.

Liz Uhr, a longtime volunteer at our office (and one of the smartest and best-read women of my acquaintance), had the moxie to tune in the show the following day, convinced O'Reilly would have to retract. She turned out to be right in her hunch, although the "retraction" left something to be desired.

"Well, I hope you saw our report last night about politics and religion," O'Reilly said. "I was so steamed after the segment that I decided to make it the subject of this evening's Talking Points memo. My guest was Annie Laurie Gaylor, the co-founder of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Ms. Gaylor's contention is that the founding fathers wanted no spirituality whatsoever associated with the governance of America. I said she was flat out wrong.

"Now after the program I went home and hit my library." What followed was self-serving, but O'Reilly did sneak into the middle of it a semi-mea culpa: "The Constitution itself is a secular document. . ."

Sometimes, in this business of educating about the separation of church and state, we have to be content with tiny victories.

Annie Laurie Gaylor is editor of Freethought Today, and lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

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Mormons, Mormons Everywhere?

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has grown tenfold since World War II, making it one of the fastest growing U.S. sects. Although it only has a worldwide membership of 11 million--more than half outside the United States--Mormons outrank Presbyterians and Episcopalians combined in North America.

According to a cover story ("The Mormon Way: How a Utah-based church became the world's fastest-growing religion," U.S. News & World Report, Nov. 13), unnamed "experts say Latter-day Saints could number 265 million worldwide by 2080, second only to Roman Catholics among Christian bodies."

Journalists Richard N. Ostling and Joan K. Ostling in their 1999 Mormon America: The Power and the Promise estimate the church's assets at $25-$30 billion, with annual revenue approaching $6 billion. The required tithing of 10 percent of followers' incomes accounts for about $6 billion a year. Its real estate holdings, including more than 12,000 churches and opulent temples, are valued in the billions.

In his book The American Religion (1992), Harold Bloom wrote that "Mormon financial and political power is exerted in Washington to a degree far beyond what one would expect from one voter in 50." That political influence includes killing chances to pass the Equal Rights Amendment in the past, and vociferous antigay and antiabortion lobbying today.

In Salt Lake City, the church finagled the acquisition of a public plaza next to its headquarters, which the ACLU is challenging, saying Mormon repression there is "a little bit of Beijing." Through complicated corporate takeovers, the church is trying to kill off the independent Salt Lake Tribune, a competitor with its poorly-faring afternoon daily.

"The nation will not always be only 2 percent Mormon. The Saints outlive the rest of us, have more children than all but a few American groups, and convert on a grand scale, both here and abroad. . . . Their future is immense," prophesies Bloom.

If this sounds grim, just remember: there are, at the moment, more nonreligious in the world than Mormons.
Priest and AIDS Update

In a follow-up to its January report on Catholic priests dying of AIDS, the Kansas City Star in November reported that the AIDS-related death rate among priests "exceeds earlier estimates."

In its three-part January series, the Star had reported that "hundreds of priests had died of AIDS-related illnesses and that hundreds more were living with the virus that causes the disease." The Star reported that follow-up research based on family interviews and death certificates found an additional 300 AIDS-related priest deaths.

The newspaper was stymied in its research by the fact that nearly two-thirds of states do not disclose death records. In the 14 states allowing the Star access, the newspaper found the rate of AIDS-related deaths by priests was "more than double" the rate among adult males in those states, and six times the rate among the general population.

"There is no longer any question that hundreds of priests have died of AIDS and that many bishops were aware of their plights," the newspaper concluded.

The Church of England revealed this year that at least 25% of its priests had died of AIDS-related illnesses, mandating in September that all Anglican bishops in southern Africa undergo HIV testing.

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Nativity Scene Moves Where It Belongs

A complaint last year by the Freedom From Religion Foundation is being credited with the absence of a nativity scene from the lawn of the courthouse in Batavia, New York.

The nativity display has been erected by the Jaycees, who, without going through administrative channels, placed the large scene on the public lawn for many years, with the city providing lighting. A councilwoman last year objected to the display, but was overruled by other council members.

After being contacted by area Foundation member Walter McBurney, the Foundation wrote Batavia officials, pointing out the obvious: the display "is in direct violation of the U.S. Supreme Court decision specifically barring nativity scenes from city hall entrances and property."

The Foundation cited the U.S. Supreme Court decision of County of Allegheny v. ACLU-Greater Pittsburgh Chapter (1989), which held:

"The government may acknowledge Christmas as a cultural phenomenon, but under the First Amendment it may not observe it as a Christian holy day by suggesting that people praise God for the birth of Jesus."

"The City of Batavia needs to obey the highest law of the land, honor the constitutional principle of separation of church and state, and respect the rights of conscience of all its citizens by telling the Jaycees to place the display where it belongs--on private property," Annie Laurie Gaylor wrote Batavia officials on behalf of the Foundation and its complainant.

The Daily News reported on Dec. 1 that the Jaycees had done just that, placing the Christian worship display in front of Oliver's Candies.

The same paper editorialized on December 7 that the "Creche move is a good move": "Its new home has better lighting, and it is more visible than it was at its previous home. And there's no possibility of confusing state and church."

It pays to complain!

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Send in the Clones

Whether you want to admit it or not, there are times when you just have to feel sorry for god. Consider, if you will, that since the creation the almighty has been trying to establish some type of delivery system, some form of reliable communication whereby he can get "the word" out to his clones here on planet earth. But to date all attempts have met with unlimited, unqualified and unrelenting failure.

Poor god. It has got to be nothing but pure unadulterated, exhausting and overwhelming frustration on his part. Can you imagine how totally mortified and humiliated he must feel? Here he is this all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful superbeing with all the resources of the cosmos at his disposal and he can't even get a few simple laws and commandments through one quarter of an inch of human skull. Nothing penetrates. No matter what he tries, no matter how routine or how elaborate the plan of attack the result is always the same--complete and abject failure.

Poor god. Look, for example, at the number of times he has tried to communicate via the written word. No matter if he pens his message on stone tablets, gold plates, papyrus, parchment, leather, paper or what have you the end result is always the same--misunderstanding, confusion, contradiction, uncertainty and frustration.

Poor god. Over the centuries he's put his moniker on everything from epistles, encyclicals, gospels, journals, letters, missiles, parables, poems, tracts, treatises, short stories, long stories, holy books and sacred books. He's even written, or inspired madmen to write, different books for different people and different religions in different countries using different languages, different dialects and even different terminology. To add to the continuing chaos every one of his words, each and every inspired work, has been altered, amended, annotated, changed, compiled, copied, corrected, edited, interpreted, revised, transcribed, transformed, translated, cleaned-up, touched-up, updated and sanitized to such a degree that even god himself doesn't know what he said, if he did indeed say it, when he said it or even if he meant what he said when he supposedly said it.

Poor god. Now, because this omnipotent being, this great communicator in the sky, has had such a dismal and disappointing experience with the written word, the spoken word is now, once again, the latest wrinkle in the communication gambit. There was a time when only those of a status of a Moses or a Mohammed ever conversed with god. Face to face encounters were truly miraculous. But now the number of pious parasites has multiplied and holy hucksters of every ilk routinely speak to god, with god and for god.

Today it has degenerated to such a low point that anyone and everyone, regardless of which side of the asylum wall they happen to be standing on, is having a running conversation and a one-on-one relationship with their very own personal savior. But much like before, not surprisingly, everyone is hearing and receiving a different and conflicting message. Currently it's just one big funny farm--the only thing missing are the rubber rooms and the canvas kimonos. Today the din of the deluded is deafening and all-consuming.

God has created a monster in his own image and likeness and the monster is not only out of control and running amok but is reproducing and replicating like a virus--and because god can't effectively communicate with it he can't control it.

Poor god. He's made such a mess out of everything. But then he always does. Fortunately for god, however, when he gets tired and fed up with the messes he makes he just finds himself a new sandbox and starts the process up all over again. While we, on the other hand, have to stay behind and put up with his repeated and never-ending failures. Poor us.

The writer is an artist and Life Member from Florida.

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Who's Who in Hell?

A 1,237-page compendium, Who's Who in Hell: A Handbook and International Directory for Humanists, Freethinkers, Naturalists, Rationalists and Non-Theists, has been edited by Warren Allen Smith, a 79-year-old Foundation member from New York City, and published by Lyle Stuart's Barricade Books.

Smith labored for 50 years to compile a reference on skeptics and nonbelievers, according to an Aug. 14 article in the New York Observer.

The book lists more than 10,000 names, including director Woody Allen, the late Steve Allen, billionaire Warren Buffett, Microsoft chief Bill Gates, actors Paul Newman, Bruce Willis and George Clooney, artist Frida Kahlo, writers Joyce Carol Oates, Harold Pinter, Gore Vidal, New York Times owner Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr., columnist Russell Baker, musicians Billy Joel and Barry Manilow, and a roster of more ordinary folk.

Serving in the Army during World War II, Smith had the word "none" next to religion on his dog tag. After the war, he founded the first humanist club on any college campus in 1948 at the University of Northern Iowa. He founded his second humanist club at Columbia University, signing up John Dewey as his first member.

As for his special "Who's Who in Hell" club, he says: "Don't worry, registration is still open."

The book is available for $99 from Rationalists NY, 31 Jane St. (Box 10-D), New York NY 10014. Why not ask your library to order it?

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Is There A God?

Below are excerpts of a survey of 52 celebrities asked "Is there a god?" by The Onion newspaper. The responses appeared in The Onion's (bonafide) "A.V. Club" section, 7-13, September 2000).

Isn't believing in God like wearing chain mail? . . . In that you just don't do it anymore.

--Paul Barman

EP It's Very Stimulating


I'm dyslexic, so I hear dog when you say God.

--Director Robert Altman


If there is a God, He's definitely a rock star.

--Trey Anastasio

"Phish" vocalist, guitarist


If there is a God, all evidence shows that He hates me

--Matt Groening

Simpsons creator


I'm an atheist.

--Musician Momus


No, there is no god. Period. End of story.

--Tom Leykis

Radio talkshow host



--Director Steven Soderbergh

"Erin Brockovich"


No. I don't think there's a God like the God everybody's taught about. As a concept, I think it exists in terms of nature and the greater forces of things. I believe in nature instead of God.

--Pop singer Matthew Sweet


No. No, there's no God, but there might be some sort of an organizing intelligence, and I think to understand it is way beyond our ability. It's certainly not paternalistic and all these qualities that have been attributed to God. It's probably a dispassionate. . . . That's why I say, "Suppose He doesn't give a shit? Suppose there is a god but he just doesn't give a shit?" That's the kind of thing that might be at work.

--Comedian George Carlin


. . . It's possible that there's some kind of life spirit or life force or something; not an old man sitting on a tree. If there's an old man sitting on a stump way up in the sky, 1) he's stupid, and 2) he's somewhat diabolical, you know? He's giving babies diseases, and bombing villages for no good reason, and killing people in airplanes.

--Singer Mojo Nixon


. . . There doesn't need to be a God for me. . . .

--Actress Angelina Jolie


No, I don't think She exists.

--Director Alex Cox


God is, to me, pretty much a myth created over time to deny the idea that we're all responsible for our own actions.

--Actor Seth Green

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Gideon Distribution Halted

Superintendent Della Jones of Keystone Public Schools in Sand Springs, Oklahoma, notified the Foundation on Dec. 12 that "Gideons will not be allowed on campus to distribute bibles or any other religious materials."

The Foundation complained on Dec. 5 on behalf of a Sand Springs family offended that their fifth-grader received a New Testament Bible from the Gideons in a classroom this fall.

The Foundation pointed to more than 40 years of legal precedent against distribution of Gideon bibles on public school property.

Della Jones phoned the Foundation office to advise that the school district would change its policy and faxed a letter to that effect.

It pays to complain!

Published in Back Issues

This acceptance speech was delivered on Sept. 16 at the FFRF national convention in St. Paul. Gabe and the Foundation extend their thanks to Foundation Board member Richard Mole for generously underwriting the annual $1,000 student activist award in memory of the late Dixie Jokinen.


Wow, there's a lot of you out there--and you're all going to hell! [laughter]

I'm really honored and excited to get this award, and not just because the award comes with money (with a philosophy degree that's always a good thing). I'm excited that I'm getting this from the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

When I was in high school and was first realizing I was an atheist, I, as many of us did, felt like I was alone and that there wasn't anyone else who thought like me. The Freedom From Religion Foundation was the first organization I found out there for freethinkers or atheists.

I was impressed that not only were there other people who thought like me, but they were organized and they were active--they were out there doing things, writing letters to the editor, filing lawsuits, putting out publications, and it really encouraged me. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that I probably would not have been into atheist activism had it not been for the Freedom From Religion Foundation. So it's great to be getting an award for student activism from the Foundation.

My history of activism is a string of acronyms . . . we love acronyms here in the freethought movement, it seems. I started with the FFRF, then I moved to "aol" for the rest of my high school activism. I did a lot of online debating. I would go into fundamentalist chatrooms and say, "hey, I don't believe in god," and watch the sparks fly. I'd pick out the people who were less likely to just stick their caps lock on and swear at me in Christian-speak, and get into extended email debates with them, which I made available through the web. It was an interesting time.

Then I went to college and got involved with the University of Minnesota Atheists and Humanists, which is a great campus group. I was elected the president of that group and served for two years. I got involved with the Campus Freethought Alliance, which at that time was the only national freethought student organization, and was elected vice-president of that group.

While working with them I came to believe that the student movement and thus the movement in general really needed an independent student organization that wasn't part of just one national organization. So several of us resigned our positions with the CFA and started the Secular Student Alliance, of which I'm now the executive director. We just had our first annual conference right next door in Minneapolis about a month ago, which was a really big success.

We had about 90 students coming from around the country, more than double the previous record for a national freethought student convention. Not only did we have more people, we had a lot of programs. We had about seven nationally-known speakers come, including Dan Barker, who gave a great talk. We had a panel discussion, a big Intelligent Design debate, and filled up a huge physics auditorium advertised to the public. It went really well.

I have graduated from college, but I'm still doing student activism and I plan on doing that as I go bald and start to stoop over, even though I won't be a student anymore, because I think campus activism is really vital to our movement.

You've probably heard of the greying of the movement. It's a phrase that's come up repeatedly in publications lately like the AHA's magazine The Humanist. Basically it's just the concern that a lot of the activists in our movement right now are well beyond retirement age and there aren't many middle-aged and younger people coming up behind them to replace them. People look at the demographics, look at the movement, and worry that it's dying out. For this reason I think campus activism is very important. These are our future leaders, our future activists, the people who are going to take over when we're all gone or are in the nursing home.

I also think campus activism is very important because of its potential. Campuses have a concentration of people and potential you don't see anywhere else. You have all these students packed together at a university when they're at their most open-minded stage in their entire lives. It's after they've gotten away from their parents, they've started thinking for themselves, they're away from being forced to go to church every day and it's before they've settled into a rut. This is why you see, statistically, most religious conversions happen on the college campus. Campus Crusade for Christ and groups like that trumpet that. They really focus on this: this is the time to strike, you get these campus kids.

I think it's important for us to get our ideas out there so college students hear about us, know we're out here. Even if we don't get everyone in the world to turn into an atheist--which I don't think is a reasonable hope although it's a nice one--the religious people we deal with who will never be atheist will be much more tolerant of our point of view and know where we're coming from, and will be less likely to equate atheism with amorality and things like that. These students we have on college campuses today are the future politicians, journalists, lawyers, judges, voters, parents. It's important to focus on them.

As I mentioned, the Religious Right is very aware of that. In terms of contrast, the Campus Crusade for Christ, one of many national student organizations on the other side of the "culture war," has an annual budget that is in the hundreds of millions of dollars. It's over $200 million a year and they have literally thousands of full-time paid staff members. On our side of things, we currently have one or two staff members and I don't even want to estimate how much money we have; it's not much. We'll never have as many people as they do, I'm sure. We don't need to have that many because we've got the better arguments. I think if we get there on the campuses we'll really be able to have a major impact in the "culture war."

I think the Secular Student Alliance will be able to make a difference. We're working on building a strong network of durable, active and effective campus groups around the country and around the world. This means that in the years to come, the Freedom From Religion Foundation is going to have a harder and harder time choosing which activist to honor at conventions like this, because there's going to more and more of us, and the scope of our activities is going to get wider. But hopefully the extra difficulty will be dwarfed by the positive results of the heightened student activism.

In closing, I would like to thank Richard Mole for making the generous donation that made this award possible, and I would like to thank the Freedom From Religion Foundation not only for the award itself, but also for getting me started down the road into student activism in the secular community in the first place.

Gabriel Carlson is a recent graduate of the University of Minnesota, where he earned a degree in Religious Studies, Philosophy and Rhetoric. A "student activist" awardee, he lives in Minneapolis, enjoys urban spelunking and punk rock shows.

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You Won't Believe You're Reading This

Send in the clones. The Second Coming Project in Berkeley, Calif., is preparing to obtain DNA from a "holy relic" in order to clone Jesus: "If all goes according to plan, the birth will take place on December 25, 2001." You read it here. Source: New York Times, 10/20/00

Like a bad penny. Peter Popoff, the faith healer caught red-handed by James Randi using electronic signals from his wife to hoodwink followers, is back on the air. Source: Charlestown Daily Mail, 10/13/00

Like a bad penny, Part II. Evangelist Oral Roberts told a Ventura congregation to hold up their purses and wallets and shout, "God, fill it up," because if they invest in God (e.g., give Roberts money), they will reap returns. Some 13 years ago, Roberts warned followers that God told him unless donors gave $8 million in a year so Roberts could found a university, Roberts would be "called home" (die).
He previously related a vision of a 900-foot-tall Jesus who assured Roberts that donations would pour in for the evangelist's hospital, which later closed. Source: Ventura County Star [CA], 9/17/00

Strange bedfellows. Iranian feminists and conservatives are both endorsing "temporary marriage," in which a couple registers a marriage with a cleric that can last a few minutes or 99 years, circumventing laws that punish unmarried couples who have sex, date or even hold hands. While some call it legalized prostitution, Shahla Sherkat, editor of the feminist monthly Zanan says: "First, relations between young men and women will become a little bit freer. Second, they can satisfy their sexual needs. Third, sex will become depoliticized. Fourth, they will use up some of the energy they are putting into street demonstrations. Finally, our society's obsession with virginity will disappear." Source: New York Times/Seattle Post Intelligencer, 10/27/00

Nothing fails like prayer rugs? Federal authorities busted a drug ring using Muslim prayer rugs to smuggle heroin from Lebanon into Detroit, arresting 17 conspirators. Source: Associated Press, 9/13/00

Safer to be a freethinker. A woman driver from Dearborn Heights, Michigan, who obligingly honked when she approached a car with a bumpersticker requesting "Honk If You Love Jesus," had her car bashed in by the enraged driver, who wielded a sawed-off baseball bat. Source: Detroit News, 10/15/00

Not that hard-up for money. The Defense of Marriage Amendment Committee, which worked to put an anti-gay marriage amendment on Nebraska's ballot, turned down an offer of $600,000 from out-of-state Mormons. Never fear--a new coalition of Mormons, Family First and the Nebraska Catholic Conference, soon put the money to work on the initiative, which won overwhelmingly. Source: Lincoln Journal Star, 10/1/00; Daily Nebraskan, 11/8/00

Needed: Rabbi-free markets. Top-ranking Israeli rabbi Shalom Elyashiv ruled this fall that farmers must obey the Levitical law and let fields go fallow every seventh year. Farmers--threatened with financial ruin for defaulting loans if they follow the injunction or by raising unsalable nonkosher food if they don't--were rescued by the leader of the secular political party, who promised to set up rabbi-free markets. Source: AP/Lexington [Kentucky] Herald Leader, 9/30/00

Israel-dot-com? Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, vowing to drag his country into the 21st century by expanding transport on the Sabbath, abolishing the Ministry of Religious Affairs, permitting civil marriages and improving technology, has outraged ultra-Orthodox sects, which denounced cellular phones for women because they "encourage harlotry." Source: [London] Times, 9/20/00

Virgin makes plywood appearance. According to the faithful, an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared when carpeting was removed from a sheet of plywood by a laborer during construction at St. Anthony's Catholic Church, Robstown, Texas. Source: Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, 10/17/00

Virgin turns into window splotch. Hundreds made a pilgrimage to see a splotch on a second-floor window of a home in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, which believers think bears a miraculous resemblance to Our Lady of Guadalupe, who gets around. Source: Knight Ridder, 10/15/00

People in glass houses. . . The world's top celibate, Pope John Paul II, marked the 3rd anniversary of celibate Mother Teresa's death by denouncing couples who decide to remain child-free, also somewhat inconsistently attacking in vitro sterilization methods. Source: AP/Asbury Park Press, 9/6/00

But it's not a Catholic issue. . . Catholic priest John Earl, 32, smashed his car into an unopened abortion clinic on Oct. 11 in Rockford, Illinois, then chopped at the building with an ax, threatening the building's landlord. The priest, after arrest, was almost immediately freed on recognizance bond. Source: AP/New Haven Register, 10/12/00

Intelligent design? The leader of a conservative Christian group in Wisconsin instructed 50 parents for 2 1/2 hours at an Eau Claire meeting on how to spank children: "You spank them right here on the gluteus maximus, which God made for that purpose," insisted Marvin Munyon, demonstrating how to use a paddle and switch. Source: AP/Asbury Park Press, 9/25/00

Talk about bad sports! Afghanistan's ruling Taliban Islamic party on Oct. 17 ordered a ban on all sports played in the late afternoon or early evening, because it might disturb Muslim prayers. Source: Reuters, 10/19/00

Death doesn't become them. The Christian Coalition voter guides handed out the Sunday before the Nov. 7 election in Christian churches nationwide listed the death penalty as one of its top Christian goals. Source: Charleston Gazette, 10/21/00

Published in Back Issues

We're all made uncomfortable by prayers blaring on the PA or crucifixes hanging in the halls during lunch, but that isn't the fundamental reason why we should be concerned about religion in public schools. There are, of course, the usual arguments against it--its obvious unconstitutionality, the likelihood of social alienation, the potential for browbeating preaching--but the problem runs much deeper. At issue in the long and tedious efforts by misguided rightists to place state-sponsored religion in schools is not just educational quality or constitutional law; rather, these efforts jeopardize the quality of both religion and education, producing a debased admixture of no use to anyone.

Consider first what happens to religion when placed in an institutional public setting. Religion at its best is not a public activity. It is rather that singular spiritual aloneness that was and is sought after in deserts and high places ever since we evolved a metaphysical need for explanation. This is the state of mind described by thinkers from Buddha to Christ as enlightenment, a sudden and deep sense of spiritual well-being and understanding. This sense, experienced as a keen edge of beauty to everyday things, as a private awareness of connection and order, is what is being sought in churches and temples--is why, in fact, they are designed as places for personal contemplation amid objects of beauty. The core of the self for many religious people, this feeling of a personal relationship with the infinite, is not something that can readily be developed in a moment of silence before lunch or while listening to a crackly prayer over the PA before a football game. It is a private emotional state that grows from and requires solitude.

To nonetheless push for enforced and perfunctory displays of religious piety then is fundamentally misguided. It is an insistence on the form of the thing rather than its substance. Is this really what proponents of religion in the schools want? A prayer that touches no hearts, a moment of silence that inspires no contemplation--this slapdash devotion in classrooms, with children forced to sit silently staring at their school supplies, makes a mockery of the very reason for religion. It dismisses the internal peace sought by the founders of faiths in favor of the external show of it taken up by rushed followers who don't bother with belief. This is transmuting private devotion into another period like lunch or math, and kids will view it that way. If religion, then, does manage to force its way into public schools, it won't be religion. It will be the forms of it, waded through by bored school kids who can't wait for recess. Religion, which has its roots in private spirituality, will not survive the forced transition into public secular space.

Nor will that public activity survive the mandated inclusion of spiritual activities. Education, fundamentally, is about rigorous ordered discovery, both of the self and of the world. It rests on a simple but profound premise: the world is fundamentally understandable and can be understood by investigation. This is the idea that produced the scientific and industrial revolutions with which we have ratcheted ourselves out of the mystical haze of the middle ages into the modern age. It is the ecstatic realization that the human mind can contain the pattern of the universe, that humankind is, as Shakespeare puts it, "noble in reason . . . infinite in faculties . . . in apprehension how like a god" (Hamlet, 2.2.327-330). Here we have, in supremely confident prose, the discovery of our own capacities, made with a wild joy at the full height of the renaissance. It is the same discovery of the self that education seeks in every child. The long process of a public education, for all its flaws, is largely an attempt to create a human being fully aware of his or her abilities as a thinking creature. We wish to create a sense of discovery and capability, of continually using the mind to pry open the secrets of the world.

This is the antithesis of the quiet spirituality and revealed truth of religious faith. Religion is about epiphany and knowledge external to the self. Abraham, about to slay Isaac on the mount, is not held back by a sudden burst of thought but by divine action. Buddha's enlightenment comes in a flash of divine understanding. The faith-based tradition is just that: one where faith and the divine take the place of empirical reasoning and self-confident exploration. The God who thunders down abuse at Job until the poor man admits that "man is vile" is not one who belongs in a school whose entire purpose is the development of a self in the model of the Enlightenment West.

Even laying aside the obvious problem of scriptures that contradict established scientific and historic facts, this is clearly an irreconcilable conflict of interests. Are teachers to tell their students that they should believe in the power of their minds to comprehend the universe except during a moment of silence at the start of the day when the exact opposite is true? This is an intellectual puzzle a bit beyond the scope of most students (or metaphysicians for that matter): a complete shift of world views for part of every day clearly demands a great deal of mental gymnastics. Ultimately, these gymnastics will make education philosophically and practically impossible--revealed truth for a moment then back to empiricism, a messy hodgepodge of faith and reason warring for young minds and classroom time. It's hard enough to understand the world anyway; understanding two entirely different worlds at the same time is an even stranger trick.

Educators are seeking to glorify the questioning mind, priests the believing, feeling mind. One curriculum cannot accommodate both goals. If we wish to create believers, we cannot shoehorn faith into a five minute passing period. If, instead, we wish to create empirical thinkers, faith, even the debased faith that advocates of religion in school want, has no place. We need to accept that education and religion don't mix and that, as their logical underpinnings are entirely contradictory, they can't mix without debasing each other. Both have important gifts to offer--education, the development of the confident mind; religion, if kept in the proper context, a more textured personal moral understanding. But put them together, as well-meaning people keep trying to do, and you end up with nonsense, self-righteous posturing, and confusion. For the sake of both religion and education, that can't happen.

Craig Segall graduated from New Trier High School and is attending the University of Chicago. Although quivering in a state of near-chronic uncertainty over his major, he is currently leaning toward a double major in English and genetics or neuroscience. He hastens to add, however, that this is highly open to change. Segall reads far more than is healthy and spends the rest of his time either at Lake Michigan or haltingly seeking out some form of social contact.

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Clarity of Thought: Why We Are Free

Religion does not belong in public schools in the United States. Its inclusion in public life leads to prejudice, divisiveness, muddle-headed thinking, and--ultimately--to loss of freedom. America, settled by those escaping religious and civil persecution, is governed through a secular system, detailed by the founding fathers in the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. By keeping religion and government separate, the Constitution attempts to ensure that neither religious persecution nor favoritism occurs in this country, and that citizens are free to pursue their beliefs privately, without infringing on anyone else.

Although the U.S. is a country founded in part by "religious" individuals, including Quakers like William Penn and Catholics like Lord Baltimore, plus Anglicans, Huguenots, and Deists, there is no assumption in the Constitution that all Americans must practice a religion, and it explicitly forbids any religion sanctioned by the state. In fact, the clear-sighted freethinkers and freemasons who were instrumental in articulating the shape of the nation--Jefferson, Madison, Washington and Franklin, for example--agreed that there is simply no place for religion in public schools and other state-sponsored and -regulated areas in a democratic society. Thus, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states "Congress shall make no law regarding an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Consequently, any school that is "public" must remain secular.

Unfortunately, the constitutionally guaranteed right to practice religion--or not--freely as one chooses, has been under attack. Some attacks are subtle, some overt. For example, my grandfather was an Air Force officer who was stationed in Brazil after World War II. My father recalls that when he left the U.S. as a child in 1949, the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag ended with "one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." When they returned in 1954, he and his dad were stunned; the pledge had been changed to "one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." Who would undermine the Constitution? Is this a (horrors!) "communist plot"? Hardly. The insidious Constitutional borers are Americans, often patriotic, who tend to hold Christian religious beliefs and feel that all "right thinkers" should believe and act as they do. Many of them continue to advocate institutionalized prayer and religious activities within the public schools, no matter who is made uncomfortable, ostracized, or singled out.

Two words--"under God"--disenfranchised every agnostic, every atheist, and any Moslem, Buddhist or Hindu who did not subscribe to the idea of a unitary Judeo-Christian deity. The intent of this bit of rhetoric may have been to unify the people after a difficult war, but the effect was to stifle free expression and free thought. Worse, since "flag salute" and "morning prayer" were a daily staple in most U.S. public schools until the landmark Supreme Court decisions in Engel v. Vitale (1962) and Schempp v. Abington/ Murray v. Curlett (1963), an entire generation of students grew up believing that public prayer during opening exercises was normative behavior, instead of an insidious assault upon the freedom from religious proscription guaranteed in the First Amendment.

The pressure on public school students to conform to a sanctioned religious practice is growing again. During the past year, in the public school I attended, we had "Prayer Rally at the Flagpole" in front of the school, the Bible Club as a school-approved student activity, and an assembly at which Franklin Graham (Reverend Billy Graham's son) was the "inspirational" speaker--all on school grounds, the latter two during school time. The principal exhorted the students to attend the flagpole prayer rally for a whole week during morning announcements on the public address system. Students who declined to participate were viewed with suspicion and concern by faculty members and some peers.

According to national news reports, this kind of repressive, polarizing behavior is becoming typical, in spite of the recent Supreme Court ruling rejecting "student-led and student-initiated" public prayers at public school activities, including football games. Justice Stevens, writing the majority opinion, reaffirmed the necessary separation of church and state. How ironic that the same public school whose principal asked me to pray to Jesus at the flagpole and listen to Franklin Graham's pious spoutings also provides "diversity training" to students and staff, so that they may "learn to respect others' points of view"!

What is wrong here? Beyond the obvious legal contradiction between the secular basis of American government and religion in public schools, other factors argue against allowing religious practice and proselytizing during school time. Here in Kansas, where evolution has stopped and the State Board of Education is run by monkeys, there is interference with the curriculum because creationists have gained control of the policy board. Additionally, those who seek to place prayer in the school schedule assume that the public, religious exercises will be "quiet and non-disruptive." It is certainly disruptive to my day to miss calculus to be a "captive audience" for Franklin Graham. And, though private conversations' content is protected under the free speech portion of the First Amendment, it is disrupting to my flow of thoughts to be proselytized by some sweet Christian girl in the hall or cafeteria or school library.

Any attempt to persuade me that religious proselytizing at school is "all right" because it is the majority practice abridges my personal freedom of thought and action. Besides, it makes me angry and uncomfortable and disagreeable; and my reactions are usually offensive to the pietists. Whether I move away silently, argue vociferously, or simply affirm my right to be left alone, I end up ostracized and draw unwanted attention from staff adults. Though I abhor violence, I can almost understand what triggers tragedies like the high school murders in Littleton, Colorado: a sense of hopeless frustration with regard to social divisions that becomes fury. Pressure to conform to some particular religious norm at school is one of the big divisive forces among teens today.

Most of my classmates do not recognize the term "freethinker." They equate agnostics with communists and other "undesirable influences." Their parents look with suspicion upon our local Masonic lodge, adamantly and publicly advertising its support for separation of church and state. Any appreciation of the freedom of diversity raises questions. For example, where does the religious domination of public education leave Native American ceremonies? Who represents the interests of the Wiccans in the overt displays of religion in public schools? The secular humanists? Shintoists? Hindus? Nobody. Yet people with all of these beliefs and more live in my town and attend public schools.

Finally, there is another message in the First Amendment. If freedom of religion is guaranteed, then "freedom from religion" is also a natural expectation. Atheists, agnostics, and others uninterested in formal religion are forced to endure religious timeouts every day. Sometimes they are disguised as a "moment of silent reflection"; sometimes they are more perniciously inescapable. At my graduation ceremony, the principal (in control of the microphone) said "I know there's been a lot of controversy about prayer in schools, but I feel that there are times when prayer is absolutely acceptable, and this is one of them," and she offered a lengthy prayer to "our heavenly father," "in Jesus' name."

For the true believers to dictate what is acceptable practice allows far too much religion in school for the freethinkers and doubters of our country. Our forebears would spin in their graves if they were aware of the ever more forceful push to integrate Christian religious displays into the public schools on a daily basis. The founding fathers' clarity of thought and vision demanded church-state separation, to keep us free. We should be vigilantly guarding that freedom of--and from--religion by barring religion from our public institutions, especially the public schools.

Will Page graduated from Wichita High School East at age 17 and now attends the University of Southern California, to study political science and computer science. Other interests include dancing, films, and maintaining/restoring his '68 Ford Mustang.

Published in Back Issues
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I am a Jewish atheist . . .

My faith is in the Constitution.

Nat Hentoff

September 2000 column(September 2000 column)

* * *

My father was an agnostic.

Jane Fonda

Oprah interview

O Magazine, July-Aug. 2000

* * *

I'm a total atheist. . .

Novelist Myla Goldberg

New York magazine, Aug. 7, 2000

* * *

. . . I suppose I am an infidel. They might call me a Nothingarian--the name regular churchgoers in the nineteenth century sometimes applied to those who weren't. . . . If a friend were to mention Jesus Christ in a serious way, I would probably assume that he or she was about to have a breakdown.

Author Ian Frazier

Family (1994)

Submitted by Philip Appleman

* * *

Can we start to agree that flagrantly public displays of purported religious belief and practice have no place in sports? . . .

I am no theologian, but I know this. Some of the most moral people I've met are non-churchgoers. Some of the biggest sleazebags I've run across are Bible-thumpers. Knowledge of Scripture, envelopes in the offering plate, fanny in the pew--they can mean everything or nothing. Acts, behavior toward others over a lifetime, are what counts.

Staff writer Bonnie DeSimone

Chicago Tribune, Feb. 7, 1999

* * *

This [protective custody placement of pregnant cultist Rebecca Corneau, whose first child died from lack of medical care] is not about religious freedom. No acceptable religion allows a child in its immediate care to starve to death. No acceptable religion hides corpses from authorities. . . .

Columnist Brian McGrory

"Stop the rhetoric, save the child"

Boston Globe, Sept. 10, 2000

* * *

Europe is the cradle of institutional Christianity, but today, institutional religion in Europe is on the point of collapse. Fewer than one French person in 10 goes to church even once a year, and the Roman Catholic church has never been less influential in the life of the nation.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft

"Politics Without Piety"

New York Times, Sept. 9, 2000

* * *

When Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris put up the money to buy the guns they used to terrorize Columbine Country, they paid with cash, U.S.

. . . And on every coin and bill that crossed their palms, there was this phrase: IN GOD WE TRUST. . . .

If it doesn't make a difference on the coin-of-the-realm of murder, carried in every kid's pocket every day, how is it going to make a difference posted on the wall of a gymnasium, surrounded by slogans of school spirit?

Columnist Chuck Green

" 'In God We Trust' won't help"

Denver Post, July 10, 2000

* * *

Those children should be alive today, would be alive, but for the actions of a man who thought he was Jesus Christ.

J. Michael Bradford, U.S. attorney

Re: 80 Branch Davidian deaths

Newsweek, July 24, 2000

* * *

Mixing religion and politics here [in Mexico] is like making a nitroglycerine cocktail.

Humberto Lira Mora

Mexican interior ministry official

Wall Street Journal, June 15, 2000

* * *

Unfortunately for those who consider the invisibility or intimidation of nonChristians a worthy goal, the United States is not--the bleating of hardcore conservatives notwithstanding--a "Christian nation." Christianity is the majority religion, yes, but this isn't a theocracy. It is, rather, a nation of laws, many of them written specifically to protect the despised minority from the tyrannical majority.

Columnist Leonard Pitts

Miami Herald

Sept. 5, 2000

* * *

This is what I don't understand about those high school football prayers: Why do they have to be said aloud? Is God hard of hearing?

Cynthia Tucker

Editorial Page Editor

Atlanta Constitution, Sept. 2000

* * *

Once he [William Jennings Bryan] had one leg in the White House and the nation trembled under his roars. Now he is a tinpot pope in the Coca-Cola belt and a brother to the forlorn pastors who belabor half-wits in galvanized iron tabernacles behind the railroad yards.

H.L. Mencken

* * *

I really feel that being a submissive wife is a highly esteemed position for a woman to be in. --Former attorney Kelly May, 39 . . .

. . . The ultimate danger of the interpretation of Scripture [as counseling female submissiveness] is domestic violence.

Dr. Hada Stotland, Illinois Masonic Medical Center

"To love, honor and obey"

Chicago Tribune, Sept. 27, 2000

* * *

We're unsure, we don't want to say the wrong thing, and we don't want to stir interest inappropriately.

Dr. Stephen Lamb, Mormon gynecologist

Author: new sex handbook for Mormons

AP, July 30, 2000

* * *

God is not some Sugar Daddy up there just constantly pouring out blessings. There are times when God says, "Enough is enough! I'm going to give you a whuppin.' "

Dallas evangelist Stephen Hill

Dallas Observer, Aug. 24-30, 2000

* * *

After the game, ESPNews interviews Damien Anderson, whose touchdown run clinched it in overtime for Northwestern. "I just thank the Lord for giving me the opportunity to blah blah blah," Anderson drones. Look, if Jesus wants to intervene in football games instead of the latest African famine, then mysterious are His ways, and mine is not to question. From a journalistic perspective, however, testifying athletes are long past being news. Now, if Bollinger implicates the Prince of Darkness for that insane interception, then go ahead and roll tape. If Vitaly Pisetsky blames the Virgin Mary for screwing up his extra point or field goal, you've got a tease, my friend. Otherwise, keep these guys off my TV.

Dan Seiter

"Out of Bounds"

Isthmus [Madison, WI], Sept. 29, 2000

* * *

Give particular attention to their gods. It has been my policy always to support those religions that are truly popular. Once you pretend to honor the local deity, the priesthood is immediately on your side. Once you have the priests, you don't need much of a garrison to keep order.

Gore Vidal

Character in Creation (1981)

Submitted by Carole Kowaleski

Published in Back Issues
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How We Threw the Bums Out

This talk was presented on Sept. 16 to the twenty-third national convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Adrian Melott, a physicist, astronomer and cosmologist, is Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Kansas. He has also served as a Unitarian minister.

His research interests are large-scale structure in the universe and dark matter. In 1996 he was elected a Fellow of the American Physical Society, for "groundbreaking studies of the origin and evolution of cosmic structure."

He was a founding director of Kansas Citizens For Science in 1999.


You people have an image problem!

When I checked in here I told the desk clerk why I was here and who I was with, and she said, "Oh yes, you're with the church conference." I have a conflicted relationship with religion--being here, being a minister--a church one weekend, an atheist meeting the next!

Physicists always have had that conflict. There's a story about two of the prominent physicists of the mid-20th century, Neils Bohr and George Gamow. Bohr invited Gamow to his cottage in Denmark one weekend. He arrived. Gamow looked up and saw a horseshoe over the entrance to the cottage. This is supposed to be a good luck charm in Denmark.

Gamow allegedly said to Bohr, "Surely you don't believe that stuff."

Bohr then said, "Well, no, of course not, but they say it works even if you don't believe it."

I have a semi-autobiographical story to tell, hopefully with some lessons in it. It's partly about the rebirth of my activism, which had stopped in the 1970s and has come alive again recently.

In Kansas, as you know, we've had this struggle over creationism and the state science standards. We could see this coming like a freight train long before the publicity started. Two things happened in the spring of 1999--one of them was that creationists began shadowing the hearings of the science committee of the state board, going around the state and objecting to their draft science standards.

Simultaneously with this, in Lawrence, Kansas, a group called POSH formed--Parents for Objective Science and History. POSH was nucleated by a minister's wife when she found her child learning about long time-scales for dinosaurs in a first grade class, went nonlinear and organized POSH, lobbying our local school board in Lawrence for creationist changes.

Some people got together and decided how to respond to this. We decided to do an experiment in not really taking them seriously as we struggled against them. We had a brainstorming session about how to do this and someone had the idea of organizing FLAT--Families for Learning Accurate Theories.

As I thought about this, I thought we could call ourselves "flatheads." This wasn't such a good idea maybe because I looked up "flatheads" and we have these definitions: A type of large catfish found in southern rivers; Indians who bound their children's heads producing a flattened skull; an Indian tribe in Montana that never did that; a lake and river in Montana named after the Indian tribe that never did that; and the first mass-produced V-8 engine introduced by Henry Ford in 1932.

So we didn't use Flatheads but we did have a press conference. Two people, I and a religious studies professor named Paul Mirecki, who were judged to have nothing to lose, were the people who represented FLAT and its platform. We sent out press releases and read our statement. Here are some excerpts:

"We wish to stress that we are a secular organization. We respect good science and good scholarship and have confidence that when properly done, the results will always agree with the Bible. Thus, we are interested in promoting good standards.

"The 'round-earth' theory is being taught in Lawrence, contrary to the Bible. Of course, having the four corners does not mean the earth is a square or rectangle. It could be a tetrahedron. Our group is divided on this matter. We agree that careful experimentation will determine the outcome. You might ask about the astronauts who have gone out into space and why they haven't reported about the true shape of the earth. Or how about those space satellites that go all around the earth. (Notice the use of the word 'round.' The subtle brainwashing.)

"Ask yourself, have you ever seen a satellite? Did you ever talk to an astronaut? Sure, they told you those moving lights were satellites right back to the atheistic Sputnik. Ask yourself: If young Americans did go out into space and reported the truth, what would happen to them at the hands of the scientific establishment?

"Scripture, 1 Kings 7:23, clearly declares that the value of pi is 3, not the secular humanist value of 3.14 taught in every school in Lawrence. FLAT supports the teaching of the Biblical value on an equal footing with the secular value. Are these abstract ideas about pi?

"No, they have economic implications. Think, for example, about all the potential savings on tires, ball bearings and anything else that rolls.

"Remember that at the Tower of Babel God punished the human race for its pride by creating many languages so that peoples could never cooperate in building such a structure again. FLAT believes that the study of foreign languages is therefore unBiblical and seeks the removal of such courses from the curriculum at all levels."

We did this straightfaced. Along with our press release we bought radio time and we bought ads in the newspaper. The radio station we chose was an A.M. station, Lawrence's only A.M. station. I only listen to it during tornado warnings. It's referred to as "the radio station that the other kind of white people listen to." We also ran a newspaper ad, shown here. [See ad copy, next page.]

Our efforts got international attention focused on Kansas. We had commentary in Nature, an international science journal. We had interviews from all around the country.

Of course we got hate mail--three kinds: we got hate mail from fundamentalists because they didn't like the way we were portraying them; we got hate mail from liberal Christians who resented being lumped in with the fundamentalists; and the best hate mail we got came from parody-impaired irate atheists.

Here are some examples:

"You people are retarded. You are all stupid. Do you have televisions? Have you ever seen the pictures of space beyond the earth where the earth is a sphere? To think the earth is square is moronic. You people need to get your heads checked."

From an atheist chat: "It's just this kind of religious fanaticism that is so dangerous. How can anybody in their right mind think that kids should be taught the world is flat?"

The reply from someone else: "I believe we're seeing something called parody. In any case, I'll bet dollars to donuts this is someone's idea of a joke and a pretty darn funny one, too."

Lastly, "Since you are so convinced that the earth is flat why don't you just march and jump off."

You get the idea.

Meanwhile, all this happens and people send email bouncing around the world about all this, and simultaneously we have the state school board events. The state school board is having hearings and we can see what's coming. There's testimony going on. It's like a freight train. We know it's going to happen but we can't wake people up.

(This freight train is now heading toward Nebraska. Those of you who are from Nebraska--right now: there are creationists running for the state school board in Nebraska. Kansas creationists are now touring Nebraska giving talks, trying to drum up support for this. People who are working on this issue in Nebraska can't get anyone to pay attention to them. They can't get it into the newspapers. So watch Nebraska, it's next. If anyone wants to email me, I can put you in touch with people in Nebraska who are trying to begin to develop some opposition to this.)

We began to organize since we saw the freight train coming. The particular thing I did was to use the Internet to monitor newspapers all over the state of Kansas. I watched the letters to the editor in all the major newspapers and every time someone wrote a letter I approved of, I used a search engine to find them, get in touch with them, get their name, address, phone number, email, on a list. And after a couple of months I had a few dozen people on a list, all of whom had taken the time and who had the brains and ability to write a good letter. It was a very selective list. I recommend that form of electronic organizing. Especially in big decentralized states, it works well.

What the Kansas School Board passed, by the way, didn't outlaw evolution, it merely deleted it from the standards. It also removed things to do with the Big Bang, with the environment, with changing the description of science. It also inserted hooks so that at certain times creationist classroom materials would be called upon. Deep behind it are the young earth creationists.

To get a flavor of their work, I recommend the website www.christiananswers.net, especially their sections on dinosaurs. You can see things like smiley-faced T-Rex, whom we find out was a friendly vegetarian in the Garden of Eden.

Some pressure had been building and a number of teachers were anxious about possible pressure on their science teaching. After our press conference, newspaper ad campaign, and radio ad, the pressure went off. POSH was perceived pretty much as a joke.

On a Kansas statewide level, young earth creationists were behind the changes, although the extent of their involvement had never been made public. They were portrayed as being something for local choice, local control. All through this the creationists' campaign was, "we didn't forbid evolution, we simply put this in the hands of local school boards."

This is a NCSE map of Kansas: we have old earth, young earth, intelligent design, survival of the fittest, germs cause disease, demons cause disease, storks bring babies, the moon is made of green cheese, you get the idea--local control of science education. Notice they don't want local control of anything like English or math. They never discuss local control except for this sort of thing.

As a result of the State Board Science Standards, we had another media blitz. Why? Why did Kansas get all this attention? After all, the same thing had been done elsewhere. It happened in Illinois. If you're from Illinois, go look at your state science standards in biology. I think the reason was that FLAT drew attention to Kansas and then the media were primed and ready and interested. Then there was this noisy group of people beginning to make opposition to what happened. Newspapers like conflict, so they became interested in Kansas.

A few months after this, Kansas Citizens For Science (KCFS) was born. We now have a couple of hundred paid members and another few hundred who monitor us for information, mostly via email. We kept going back to the state school board testifying. Every month we would go during public comment time. My favorite thing was to sign up late so that I would be the last person to speak, never plan a speech, and simply rebut something that some creationist would say. Believe me, there was plenty of butt to re-butt. We had a circus atmosphere at times. One month the Hare Krishnas showed up and profusely thanked the creationists for what they had done to put good science back, and gave Linda Holloway, the fundamentalist chair of our state school board, a consciousness-expanding brownie, which they claimed was completely legal.

Meanwhile outside, one of our friends was picketing in a gorilla suit. We had three or four organizations. So I really like previous speaker Woody Kaplan's comment about having lots of alphabet soup--we have FLAT to do parodies and Save Our School for the gorilla suit thing, Kansas Citizens For Science for a very serious, studious approach--that worked well. We had a broad coalition. I can't say how important that is. There are many Christians and others who support good science and this counters the wedge strategy that the fundamentalists have which is: you're with us or you're an atheist (or you're with us or you're supporting atheism implicitly).

People have done careful analyses of possible theological responses to the interplay between science and religion and identified at least seven different possible responses one can have to the relationship between religion and scientific understandings. One of the best people, one of the most effective members Kansas Citizens For Science has, is an evangelical Christian geologist who goes around to fundamentalist churches and talks about how silly the whole creationists' program is, and he has exactly the credentials to deal with them. He knows their literature, he knows the scientific literature, he even knows the history of fundamentalism. The first fundamentalists even didn't seem to have a problem with evolution, most of them--it's a modern phenomenon.

Another thing we did was emphasize economic effects, effects on education in Kansas, effects on whether or not corporations would want to relocate to Kansas, effects on the Kansas schools which, after all, do typically have standardized test scores well above the national average and climbing. We appealed to the prospect that children from Kansas might have trouble getting into good universities, even the ones in their own state. We think that these pragmatic appeals to self-interest work better than abstract appeals to some kind of truth. We think they have a bigger effect on the electorate.

KCFS is also a 501(c)(3) organization, and the organization worked to educate the public about evolution and to let the public know what the positions of the various candidates were. KCFS never endorsed candidates. That's the way it has been working and will continue to work in Kansas.

We have many kinds of people in the organization: many scientists but also ministers, advertising people, labor organizers.

Result: we have a primary and then an election. We already had the primary, and the election, as I speak, is yet to come. We had been losing 6-4 in the school board; we needed to knock out two of these people and we had two rounds to do it. Five of the ten are up for vote and we needed to knock out two. We knocked out three in the primary. There are two races left in the general election where a creationist is opposing another person.

If I could guess what will happen there, I'd say the incumbent will win both races and that means that one creationist and one noncreationist will win. My prediction is then we will have a school board that's 7-3 against the creationists come November. The best they can have is four, no matter what happens, and in two more years we get a chance to go after the rest of them. By the time the you read this the answer will be known.

There are remarkable events here. First of all, in a couple of races the creationists outspent their opponents 3-1 and still lost by large margins. The second thing is that they lost by these large margins at the same time that other conservative Republicans were winning primaries by large margins in the very same district. This means that our wedge strategy worked--we managed to split off the religious radicals from the other rightwing conservative Republicans. At least a third to a half of the conservative Republicans realized these people are nuts. It's the only way you can explain the victory.

We had some help. People for the American Way came in the state, did some things and left. There was a joint statement by the presidents of all six universities; that helped. But I think the grassroots efforts were what did it: many, many letters to editors all over the state, public speakers, people going and asking tough questions of candidates, emphasizing pragmatic issues.

I want to look briefly at their strategies and the strategies we used, and the ones that I think might win and might help. One, again, is their wedge strategy: you're with us or you're an atheist. We belie that by having a range of people making statements and explaining that science doesn't have any position on religious issues. It's very simple to say that, but it's very hard to get it across to the public. The creationists have lots of ways of trying to make it appear that science makes judgments about religious things. They tried a double strategy of simultaneously broadening and narrowing their attack. They produced some documents that attacked all of science, believe it or not, even including gravity! One draft standard referred to Newton's theory of gravity as something that had not been tested very well. At the same time they did that, they put forth other documents that only attack evolution or other things about origins, cosmology, etc.

The second group of documents then look like compromises. That's one of the things that gave them their early victory. One person on the state school board took that to be a compromise and gave it his vote.

Part of this broadening and narrowing strategy is something called Intelligent Design Theory that I want to draw your attention to very strongly. The strategy here is for the creationists to shut up about things like the age of the earth and so on and make a big deal only about one thing--evolution. Intelligent Design Theory has a few people who write for it who have reasonable scientific credentials, in particular, one information theorist and one biochemist. Their arguments aren't very good, but they know enough to dress them up and make them sound good. Michael Behe is a biochemist whose arguments are convincing to all but biochemists. Dembski does information theory and physics which seem very erudite to all but information theorists and physicists.

KU Natural History Museum director Leonard Krishtalka said, "Intelligent Design is creationism in a cheap tuxedo." I agree. What they're doing, what they're having success with, is broadening their demographic base. Intelligent Design is attracting new kinds of people. Engineers and medical doctors are really susceptible to this stuff. I don't know what it is about doctors and engineers, but ID gets lots of them. Maybe it's because these people deal primarily with applied science; they generally don't create new knowledge. At any rate, Intelligent Design Creationism is largely a middle-class phenomenon and to some extent an academic phenomenon. That makes it dangerous. The danger it has is that it will split off the biologists from the rest of science and then they'll be able to attack only the biologists and the rest of us will let it go.

Philip Johnson is a Berkeley lawyer. He's an Intelligent Design advocate from the point of view of philosophy as opposed to science. He's a very good speaker, a very congenial person. He came to Lawrence to give a talk about Intelligent Design, so we went after him in a bi-pronged attack. Kansas Citizens For Science produced some very serious pamphlets that critiqued his positions, which are available to download on our website by the way, www.kcfs.org. About 20 people hit all entrances to this auditorium, and we leafleted and reached about half the audience of about a thousand people. We let them know what he'd say (he's very predictable) and then provided critical comments.

FLAT also leafleted from a particularly different point of view. This is the tract FLAT produced: "Philip Johnson doesn't believe in the Bible. The Bible says the earth is flat but Philip Johnson thinks it's round. The Bible says God made foreign languages so people couldn't understand each other, but Philip Johnson supports foreign language teaching. The Bible says pi equals 3 but Philip Johnson thinks pi equals 3.1416. The Bible says the earth is about 6,000 years old but Philip Johnson won't say that. Philip Johnson is a liberal." That was a wedge strategy!

There are two kinds of Intelligent Design. One kind has come out of Physics. I call it type I ID. People like Paul Davies are representative of this. It's about the fine-tuning of the universe. It's a bunch of arguments about how the values of various physical constants are in a very narrow range which allows life to exist. These people typically think of the universe as something which was constructed so that we could evolve, could be here. I'm not a particular fan of this point of view, but I think it's mostly harmless. That is, it may be a theological position that doesn't appeal to me, but I have not yet seen any attempt to compromise science teaching from this.

Type II ID, on the other hand, is the kind associated with Dembski, Behe and Johnson, which seeks to undercut evolution and the whole naturalistic approach to science, the wedge strategy. The Discovery Institute, which you can find on its website and its sub-organization, the Center for Renewal of Science and Theology, has the avowed purpose of turning this country into a theocracy within 20 years. They're upfront about it. There's a document you can find on the web called The Wedge Strategy that basically describes this. Getting people to talk about Intelligent Design a lot in public is their first goal. Here I am doing it--I'm spreading the virus. See how insidious it is!

The second strategy is to get it into the public schools. Eventually the naturalistic methodology of science becomes compromised, and then on to the rest of the culture. It's hard to combat this stuff. I think it's really useful to watch their methods more than their content. This is very hard to do, because we're intellectually oriented. We tend to pay attention to what people say. I think it can be more important to pay attention to how they operate.

Example: In a confrontation between a creationist and someone else, you may see claims and counterclaims about carbon dating, etc., but you might notice that the creationists will perhaps attack science without making any assertions of their own. So there's a hidden assumption: If B is wrong, then A must be right. And he'll just attack B, but that will never be explicit. It might help, for example, to ask for positive evidence for his point of view. Or perhaps to point out the hidden assumption.

In his attack on science, you may find that he'll attack science and the person he's dealing with may be able to respond to all his claims, but he'll keep changing the subject until he finds an area that his opponents don't know anything about. Then he's home free--because he knows his opponent will shut up when he doesn't know about things, but he doesn't observe that constraint, so he's won.

These are the kind of tactics that you have to be really aware of and watch closely; some of them have been written up in an essay in the Spring 2000 issue of Physics and Society, which can be read online at:


For a great deal of other useful information on this and other topics related to combating creationism and supporting good science education, I commend the websites of the National Center for Science Education, (www.ncseweb.org), and of Kansas Citizens for Science, (www.kcfs.org). By the way, if you buy books from Barnes and Noble via the link on the KCFS website, we receive a donation. Both the KCFS and NCSE websites are rich with links to useful resources. I like TalkOrigins, which examines creationist pseudoscience in detail.

Remember that it's a political struggle and small numbers of people can have very large effects. I think that probably about 20 people taken together are responsible for about half of the political activity around this issue in Kansas, counting both sides. I would say that if you count 200 people, you've probably got 90% of the activity solely around the science standards issue. I'm urging you to get involved and saying you don't have to be an expert to get involved. They're not experts. They're mostly just very slick liars.

I thought in passing I'd make a couple of comments about religion and about belief. One thing I've seen widely, and I think I've seen here, is the assumption that the definition of religion is believing things. That's one way of thinking about religion; that's a very western intellectual way of thinking about religion. And even in that there are different kinds of responses. The Dalai Lama is reported to have said something like, "If the Tibetan Buddhist religion is found to be in conflict with modern science, then the Tibetan Buddhist religion would have to change." Whether you believe certain things is not central to many religions.

It's not entirely accurate but there's a grain of truth in saying that Buddhism is an atheistic religion. It's not explicitly atheistic but it's a religion in which psychological effects of behavior are much more important than any kind of mythological beliefs. Similarly with Islam and to a lesser extent Judaism, obedience to the law is the important thing, not intellectualizing beliefs, etc.

Whatever you think about that, if you want to win these battles you have to be willing to make broad coalitions with as many people as you can muster on whatever the issue may be. That worked extremely well for us in throwing out the creationists.

I worked with an early childhood education expert and we developed curricula aimed at first to fourth-grade level that deal with modern cosmology and to some extent with evolution, and this can be found on my website:


The curricula were field-tested with young children with a great deal of success in developing their interest in the origins of the universe and of life on this planet. The children have been enthusiastic about it. There are two versions: one's a public school version, one's a Sunday school version of the curriculum kit.

So, this is really a battle. Do we continue to learn new things about our Universe and the life on this planet? Does the United States become an enclave of narrow, ignorant people?

That's how we kicked ass; go thou and do likewise.

Published in Back Issues

I am a recently completed product of public education. As I type this essay, my newly-acquired diploma rests in its place of honor among what little I've kept as reminders of my high school career: Prom pictures, dried flowers, a What Would John Denver Do? bracelet, old movie and concert stubs, art projects, a saran-wrapped Brownie for Buddha, my Highest Honor sash, and my Homecoming Queen tiara.

When I look at the artifacts on my dresser, I remember the triumphant feeling of scoring 10 tickets to the sold-out eight o'clock showing of Titanic on its Opening Night, also my birthday. I remember writing my speech to be given at Commencement and cringing in pain when last year's Homecoming Queen, Miss Mindi Wright, slammed the tiara onto my head and thrust a bouquet of roses into my arms.

I remember passing out What Would John Denver Do? bracelets in the courtyard and the subsequent trip to the principal's office regarding the matter. I remember all too vividly the bake sale held by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, in which Cookies for Christ were sold. Never a fan of oatmeal raisin, I found this fund-raiser only increased my distaste for the cookie. I also remember the bake sale held by my friends and me in which Brownies for Buddha, Yogurt for Yahweh, Apples for Allah, Grapes for Ganesh, Tiramisu for the Talmud, and a wide selection of Pies for Pagans were sold.

Whether it was our cause or the quality of our cooking that allowed every item to be sold remains to be seen. Regardless of our customers' motives, the profits financed a field trip for the Theory of Knowledge class to listen to a professor from Arizona State University speak on various religions, as well as atheism and humanism.

The memory that comes to mind most frequently is walking into the cafeteria to grab some breakfast before first period, only to be met with stares, silence, and the shaking of many, many heads. In the morning hours, the cafeteria doubles as the informal meeting place for anyone with a belief in God and a need to validate this belief through the means of mass prayer. While I don't particularly enjoy being stared at like a leper, nothing comes between me and my prepackaged Fruit Loops, not even a higher deity.

Contrary to the popular belief of school administration and students, I am not an activist or a rebel in any way, shape, or form. I am a student. I go to school to learn, and I like to learn in peace. Whatever I do that can be considered a protest of religion in public schools is the result of a simple desire to have my Mormon and Christian peers cease their extracurricular campaign to convert me and other "heretics." The Advanced Placement curriculum at Chandler High School is a rigorous, time-intensive ordeal and, like most Honor students, I cherish my lunch period as the one time of day when I don't have to be "mature" or "intelligent" or even "attentive." I'd rather spend my lunch hour with my friends, devout Christians, Muslims, and Jews alike, than nod politely and attentively at a total stranger who is telling me about his experiences with the glory of God in excruciating detail.

When I "antagonize" members of religious clubs or youth groups, I do it not out of intolerance for their beliefs or to prove that they're "wrong"; I do it in defense of my lunch and sanity. I cannot be more honest when I say that if there is one reason why religion should not pervade public school campuses, it is to keep people like myself from completely losing it and inciting a lunchtime jihad.

Thankfully, logic and rational thought are also on the side of religion-free public schools. Prayer is an entirely personal experience; it is a person communicating directly to God. Why does anyone, even a kindergartner, need a middleman such as a teacher to relay his or her thoughts to God? Instead of devoting their energies to changing part of the foundation of the United States Government as well as the educational system, Christians should concentrate on encouraging prayer before or after class, in one's free time, and in places where it would be welcome by everyone.

The bumper sticker that claims that "as long as there are tests, there will be prayer in school" is exactly right, though it also makes the critical point that prayer needn't be a public ritual. I know for a fact that teachers do not allow a "moment of silence" for students to offer the last-minute prayer, "Dear God, I didn't study for this test, but if you help me pass it I'll study extra hard for the next one." Nor do teachers publicly lead the class in pleading for a passing grade. Yet, I also know for a fact that many desperate students find the time to pray for a miracle nonetheless. This leads me to wonder why the basic school-wide prayer that the Religious Right is calling for can't be done privately and on one's own time, as well?

From my experience as a student, the answer to this is that there are things on their minds like unfinished homework or whether the demi-Gods of the Yale Admissions Office have deemed their applications worthy of acceptance. From this answer stems another question: If the typical red-blooded student, whether 8-years-old or 18, is largely preoccupied with matters more crucial to his or her immediate well-being than school-time prayer, who is it that is advocating the introduction of prayer into public schools? Obviously not students; they're too busy trading PokŽmon cards and staring at the cute girl two rows over.

There is an infamous group of people known to use American youth as the pawns that keep their business booming: tobacco manufacturers. Their exploitation of youth has led to continually stratospheric profits, and these profits have enabled them to yield considerable control in legislative issues by monetarily supporting politicians. As the slick rhetoric and objectives of Christian groups promoting religion in public schools become more apparent through their media organizations and the cases before the Supreme Court, I cannot help but see similarities between the "marketing" campaigns of Christian organizations and tobacco companies.

By introducing school prayer and other religious activities to the captive, often gullible, audience of American youth, the Religious Right exponentially increases its power in the political and cultural arenas of American society. Through peer pressure and the constant barrage of Christian rhetoric, students will no longer have access to the liberal, secular, and diverse education that has played such a key role in the lives of society's most productive members. Instead, they will learn to be judgmental of those who differ in ideology, and they will not question the ways of the world, as they will have learned that the answer of "That's the way God wanted it" will suffice.

I am not an atheist or an agnostic or a Catholic or Deist. I'm not sure what group I fall into, if any. What I can say for certain is that I am neither a devout believer nor a staunch non-believer. My best friend will attend the Moody Bible Institute next year; she's as fundamental as they come. Though she would have nothing to do with my heated theological debates with lunchtime proselytes or my John Denver bracelet enterprise, she baked the Brownies for Buddha and attended the field trip on world religions. My friend and I are friends because we can put our differences aside and because we know that diversity and individual rights are absolutely crucial to a free society, whether or not we like some of the diverse elements. Diversity strengthens one's personal beliefs and value systems, as it allows for the entire picture to be seen and analyzed; there aren't any "missing pieces" that nag at a person's conscience.

The creators of the Constitution had such diversity in mind when they wrote and adopted the Constitution and Bill of Rights as the guidelines of American society. Every member of this society has a civic responsibility to uphold and defend these guidelines of the United States, including the section that refers to the separation of church and state. I don't support the presence of religion in public schools for personal reasons and for civic reasons, thus making me a responsible citizen. Yet, I am a pariah in certain circles of my high school's social arena. Ironically, these very groups of people that find me irritating and heretical and meddlesome claim their undying patriotism and love of country; they flaunt their status as law-abiding citizens and keepers of the American Dream. When it comes to the issue of respecting the rights of others, however, the rampant hypocrisy found in these people never ceases to boggle my mind. Principals devoted to the mental and social development of American youth refuse Atheist clubs and Gay Pride clubs, indirectly encouraging students not to bother with all the sides of an issue, to narrow, not expand, their minds. Pastors and ministers who preach compassion, love for self and others, and non-judgment in one breath, encourage their youth groups to look down upon non- believing peers with pity and disdain in another. On the opening page of Catholic monthly missalettes there is a paragraph devoted to the Roman Catholic community's "fervent prayer" that one day all sects of Christianity will resolve their differences and join together in the name of Jesus Christ. It goes on to say that until that day comes, they'd prefer only Catholics to celebrate the Holy Communion with them. It is my most fervent prayer that one day all sects of American culture, religious and otherwise, can resolve their differences and become united by the common bond of individuality and respect for personal liberty and the law. Until that day arrives, however, I'd rather you not interrupt my lunch. Amen.

Kacie Hengel is a freshman at Rice University in Houston, Texas, this fall. She graduated with Highest Honors from Chandler High School in Chandler, Arizona. Kacie plans to major in Philosophy, with the long-term aspiration of becoming a fiction writer. Due to an almost nonexistent job market for philosophers, Kacie is looking to marry into wealth to support her artistic inclinations. She spends her spare time cooking, singing showtunes, swing dancing, and reading voraciously.

Published in Back Issues

Cassie Gootee, a recent high school grad, gave this acceptance speech after being presented with a $1,000 freethought student activist award at the Year 2000 national convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation in St. Paul on Sept. 16.

Cassie and the Foundation extend their thanks to Foundation member Alan Snyder, who generously underwrote Cassie's monetary award.


Thank you for giving me this opportunity to share my story. It's been a great honor to be invited here to receive this award.

Probably one of the reasons for what I did is because almost everybody in my high school class was a Christian. Whenever I voiced a different viewpoint like saying "Happy Winter Solstice" instead of "Merry Christmas," people basically ignored it. Although I didn't broadcast it, my family has chosen much of the Native American path so I didn't relate to any of the Christian viewpoints.

I was President of the Student Body. The other Senior Officers and I were approached to talk about graduation preparations. We watched a video from the previous year to get an idea of what we were to do. I noticed that the graduation program had a "Benediction" and "Invocation" and that the video contained prayer and several references to God.

I went home and told my parents that I was concerned about prayer in the graduation ceremony. My parents said that this wasn't right and that gave me encouragement to question it.

At the next meeting of the Senior Officers I asked if it was necessary that we have prayer in the graduation ceremony. Nobody there said prayer really mattered to them but, because it was such a family gathering and a tradition, they would put in a prayer. Rather than confronting the officers, I decided to take the issue to the principal.

The next day I made an appointment to see the principal and told his secretary my purpose for wanting to see him. A few days went by and I didn't hear back from him. This was strange to me seeing how we had a pretty good relationship since I was Student Body President. So I went back to his office and he was there. I knocked on his door and walked in. I asked him if he had gotten my message about wanting to see him and he said "yes," but that he was busy and couldn't get back to me as soon as he wanted.

I told the principal that I was concerned that there was prayer in the graduation program and that they were using religious words like "benediction" and "invocation" instead of "opening" and "closing" in the program. Right away he took the defense. He said that this was tradition and that students are free to choose what they want to say. He said that it wasn't his responsibility to tell students not to say prayer at graduation.

I said that this wasn't fair because it is a public school and there shouldn't even be a question about prayer at a public school ceremony. He kept repeating that students were free to say what they liked and that he had no control over what they said. He told me to go to the girls who were preparing the benediction and invocation and to ask if they would please not put in anything religious. This still didn't settle the matter at hand because they shouldn't even have it as an option. I got the feeling that he was trying to "blow me off" and that just made me more determined.

I didn't talk to the girls because I didn't want to get them involved. It was between me and the Administration. Plus, I felt strongly that prayer was wrong and that it was simply nonnegotiable. So there wasn't any reason to try striking a compromise with the other students.

I went home and told my parents about the meeting and how unsuccessful it was and they became just as angry as I was. The next day I talked with the teacher who was advisor to our student government to see where I should go from this point. I explained to her the measures I had already taken. She said I was making too big a deal of this, that it was a tradition, and that the majority seemed to want prayer. Like the principal, she told me to talk with the other Senior Officers about it.

After no success with my adviser, I went to talk to the principal again. I told him that I saw no reason to talk to the other Senior Officers and that prayer should be removed from the program this year and all years to come. He repeated himself saying that he wasn't responsible for what other students said and that he didn't have the right to censor students' remarks. I told him that it was one thing for a student to blurt out a prayer or invocation to God unannounced. However, statements by students on the program were to be reviewed by four of our English professors and two of our administrators. To me, this meant that the school administration was directly involved and, therefore, was sanctioning prayer. The principal responded by repeating that he wasn't free to censor students.

After that meeting, I knew that I couldn't carry this forward without some outside help because the principal didn't want to stick his neck out by making a public decision that wouldn't be popular with everyone. So, I asked Bob Tiernan [an attorney who heads the Denver FFRF chapter] to go to our next meeting. Before we went to the meeting, Bob and I talked about the different legal cases and the Supreme Court rulings in this area. This was before the 6-3 decision in the Texas school prayer case so things were not absolutely crystal clear.

We met with the principal and brought out the cases that we felt supported our position. He argued against us by saying that the students were in charge of the program and, therefore, could say what they wanted. However, he did agree to take the words "Benediction" and "Invocation" out of the program.

I then went back to the Senior Officers and brought the subject up directly. They agreed not to say any prayers. However, because I had to bring it to the Senior Officers, it circulated throughout the school. A number of students came up to me and screamed directly in my face telling me how majority rules in this country, and that I had no right to take away tradition. They said that all their families were going to be there and would be disappointed with no prayer. I was thinking how they would react if I was to get up and start the ceremony off with a Native American drum chant. Other students told me that I had gone too far and couldn't understand why I was making such a big issue out of this.

What my classmates didn't understand was that it was my graduation too, and that I shouldn't have to feel like an outsider at my own graduation. I had to go through school putting up with Christian views my whole life, but this was too much. My family was going to be there too. Even taking out the emotional reason for my action, this was still against the law and could not be permitted under any circumstance.

In the middle of all that was going on, I attended my Senior Awards. My family was watching from the audience, as I received my award from the Elks Club as "Teenager of the Year." They were seated behind a group of parents that my family had known for years. These parents are all very conservative Christians, and knew from their kids what I was trying to do at the graduation ceremony. When I got up to receive my award, my family seemed to be the only ones clapping. We had known these parents for years, and they clapped for every student but me.

Well, I graduated and am happy to say that there was absolutely no prayer and that everything went well except, of course, there was a noticeable lack of applause when I received my diploma and an award that was presented.

Would I do this again? I sure would. It was painful and frustrating in many ways but I learned a lot from the experience and I learned that persistence can pay off. Hopefully, one day people will realize that their Christian viewpoint is not the only one.

Cassie Gootee graduated from Englewood High School, Colorado, this year. She was inducted into the National Honor Society and was president of the student body. She represented Colorado at the National Young Leaders Conference in Washington, D.C. Throughout high school, Cassie served as an active volunteer. Cassie plans to major in political science and government. She is receiving a "student activist award" for successfully objecting to organized prayers at her graduation.

Published in Back Issues

Public funding of a pervasively sectarian Milwaukee program called "Faith Works" was challenged in a federal lawsuit filed on October 11 by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national First Amendment watchdog group based in Madison, Wisconsin.

Milwaukee's Faith Works program receives at least two-thirds of its $700,000 yearly budget from tax dollars. During a campaign stop at the Faith Works office in July, Gov. George W. Bush, seated by a wall hanging covered in crosses, pledged $185 million in federal funding for similar faith-based groups to "strengthen fatherhood" if he becomes president.

The Foundation's lawsuit has generated substantial media interest as it is believed to be only the second explicit challenge of "charitable choice," a perilous provision in the 1996 Welfare Reform Act routing welfare reform money to overtly religious groups.

In order to receive public funding in the past, religious social service providers had to start secular arms, keep separate accounts, remove religious symbols and promise not to proselytize clients.

Under the Welfare Reform Act's limited charitable choice provision, no such requirements are imposed. Religious groups receiving public funding under charitable choice provisions may also force religious requirements upon employees.

Bush has pledged to expand charitable choice to all federal social service programs; Gore endorsed a more limited expansion. Significantly, charitable choice's leading proponent, U.S. Sen. John Ashcroft, R-MO, was defeated in the Nov. 7 election.

The first charitable choice challenge was filed in July by the American Jewish Congress and the Texas Civil Rights project in Texas, challenging a yearly grant of $8,000 in public funds to churches running a local proselytizing jobs program.

The Foundation's lawsuit challenges tax expenditures totaling about $675,000 to date to the Faith Works program, which touts a "faith-based approach" in providing services to some 28 men with addiction problems who have not been paying child support.

The lawsuit names Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, who has allocated $450,000 so far to Faith Works in discretionary funds under a Welfare-to-Work grant at the request of a former legislator, the Rev. Susan Vergeront. Faith Works in Milwaukee had no established track record when it sought government funds, the complaint notes.

"Faith Works was established in 1999 as a demonstration model, intended to show the effectiveness of using government money combined with a faith based institution, whereby success is measured by securing ongoing government funding sources," the complaint alleges.

Also named as defendants: Jennifer Reinert, Secretary of the Department of Workforce Development; Richard Gartner, Administrator, Division of Workforce Excellence; George Lightbourn, Secretary of the Department of Administration, and Jon E. Litscher, Secretary of the Department of Corrections.

Litscher has agreed to appropriate at least $75,000 to Faith Works to provide faith-based addiction recovery services to individuals under the control of the Department of Corrections.

Faith Works, whose bylaws describe it as "inherently Christian," and seeking to "put a holistic, faith-based approach to bring healing to mind, body, heart and soul," rents the Queen of Apostles Convent in Milwaukee for $100,000. In addition to its mostly public grants, Faith Works has received money from the ultra-rightwing Bradley Foundation.

Clients apparently numbering fewer than 30 are interviewed about their attitudes toward faith, are required to participate in a faith-enhanced version of the 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous program, are evaluated on spirituality, and attend bible studies, prayer and chapel services.

"State appropriations to Faith Works convey a message that the Christian religion is favored, preferred and promoted over other beliefs and nonbelief, and Faith Works' mission is clothed in traditional indicia of government endorsement," according to the Foundation's complaint.

"The advancement of Christian indoctrination is an integral component of the program provided by Faith Works, which indoctrination is directly funded by appropriations from the State of Wisconsin." The complaint notes there are no provisions, restrictions, standards or oversight to prohibit use of tax money to advance, endorse and promote the establishment of religion.

The plaintiffs--the Freedom From Religion Foundation and staff members Anne Gaylor, Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor--seek to enjoin further appropriations, to obtain a court declaration that the appropriations violate the establishment clause, and an order requiring the defendants to establish rules, regulations, standards and oversight to ensure future appropriations are not given to pervasively sectarian providers.

Judge Barbara Crabb, U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin, has drawn the case. The Foundation's attorney is Richard L. Bolton, of Boardman, Suhr, Curry & Field, Madison.

See Legal Complaint on Internet at: www.ffrf.org/legal/fwcomplaint.html

Published in Back Issues

I remained seated. I, and a few of my friends, endured the nasty comments from other students. I actually called some of those other students friends. I did not always remain seated for the Pledge of Allegiance. Honestly, I had trouble ignoring other students telling me that I had to stand up.

So I developed several versions of the Pledge, for example: "I pledge allegiance to the Republic of El Salvador, and to the dictatorship for which it stands, one nation under Me, with liberty and justice for about six people," or, "I pledge allegiance to the Iron Fist of America, and to the corporate oligarchy for which it stands, one nation under Pat Robertson, with liberty and justice for Fundamentalists." In other words, I was destined to never be the Homecoming King. But my smallish act of defiance got me thinking: Why should I have to skip over a part of the pledge to my country? Why should there be a de facto establishment of the existence of a god (which everyone assumes to be the Christian one) every day in my public school?

The clear answer is that I should not have to skip a part of the Pledge any more than I, or anyone else, should have to have a government-sponsored deity shoved down our throats each morning at school. What is worse than having to either remain seated or skip over parts of the Pledge of Allegiance is that most students have no idea that they cannot require other students to stand up and pledge to the flag. In my AP English class, one fundamentalist student was almost screaming at me for not doing so. I had never seen someone get so close to a self-induced coronary. Lucky for both of us we were good friends and had been so since grade school. I replied to his beseeching that there was no law saying one had to stand for the Pledge and that the Supreme Court had actually ruled against any such laws. Because we respected each other, this tit for tat never amounted to anything, but most people do not have the luxury of growing up with someone who turns out to be an opponent. Many people, otherwise lacking any common interests, view those of another faith, a different version of one's own faith, or of no faith, as enemies. Healthy discussions degenerate into vituperative attacks and disgusting rumors. Enmity emerges from the ashes and we soon have another holy war, Inquisition, Crusades, or Salem under humanity's proverbial Bible Belt.

First, religion does not belong in public schools because it is divisive. It engenders a smug, holier-than-thou attitude that makes students, teachers, and administrators believe it is okay to violate the rights of others. And what hasn't been done in the name of God? Hitler based his anti-Semitism on the Bible, even going so far as to state that killing the Jews would make him a doer of the Lord's work. The website of the Ku Klux Klan is so blatantly Christian that I'm waiting for them to get Pat Robertson's Pious Award. Osama bin Laden seems like a religious individual. Maybe Congress should ask him to open the legislative sessions with a non-sectarian, non-proselytizing prayer. Perhaps the Catholics and Protestants of Northern Ireland could teach us a few things about church/state separation. What about Waco or Jonestown?

All this may seem out of proportion to having to say the Pledge every morning. But think about it: The goal of Pat Robertson, James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, et al., is not to force people to say "under God" each day, or to keep "In God We Trust" on our money. Their goal is a Christian version of Iran. Total theocracy. In no uncertain terms the Religious Right does not care about the family, liberty, freedom, the Bill of Rights, the Constitution, the free market, or anything remotely ensconcing the rights of man above the rights of a god. They crave souls. Like any addict, any path to the drug is acceptable. Saying "under God" now means one may be under someone's version of God's iron fist later. Step up the dose little by little. Tax exemptions, Blue Laws, post office closings, ceremonial deism (God on coins, Pledge, etc.), vouchers, "faith-based partnerships," political meddling, blasphemy laws, direct funding of churches, and finally our nation becomes the Religious Right's wet dream: Welcome to the Christian States of America.

That is why it is important to say that religion most certainly does not belong in public schools. That is why church/state violations of any kind must be fought. Students should not have to skip over the words "under God"; those words should not be there. Period.

In addition, religion should not be in public schools because it is false. As atheists, we frequently ignore or do not even consider that point. Religion is false. Evolution should be taught in biology classes, creationism in humanities. Evolution is a fact, creation is a myth. Public schools should be neutral about the existence of a god, even if everyone were to agree that a god existed. This is not to say that lively debate should not occur in public schools. Far from it, I discussed the non-existence of God as part of a presentation I did in my AP English class on Dante's Inferno. I argued with my fundamentalist friend in class as well. But the government did not sponsor my presentation, nor my discussions with my friends. I did not borrow the band's sound system and announce during football games that God was a fiction. I did not force people to remain seated during the Pledge of Allegiance or tell everybody to say, "one nation, without God . . . "

When someone asks me the greatest reason for not having government-sponsored religion in public schools, perhaps the best answer would be because there should not be government indoctrination in something as important a topic as God. Would a Christian want government-sponsored atheism? Then I say get the State out of the metaphysics business all together. Religion is divisive, false, and far too important a topic to trust to the government. Forget the metaphysical, it can't even fix the physical. That sounds like a ringing endorsement for keeping religion out of public schools.

Eric Breitenstein graduated at the top of his class (out of approx. 330) from Gulf High School in New Port Richey, Florida. He attends the University of Florida in Gainesville and will major in journalism. He enjoys photography, biking, writing, and reading. His favorite author is Bertrand Russell.

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You Won't Believe You're Reading This

Pizza Extremists. The Ava Maria School of Law, MI, bankrolled with $50 million by Domino's Pizza founder Tom Monaghan, opened for biz in August with 77 students. Combining legal theory with staunch Catholic theology, the law school--whose governing board includes Henry Hyde and Catholic officials, and whose staff includes Robert Bork--is expected to train a cadre of antiabortion lawyers. Source: Associated Press, 8/25/00

Making Gays Latter-day Lepers. At its 170th Semiannual General Conference in Salt Lake City, tens of thousands of Mormons twirled handkerchiefs and gave a "Hosanna Shout" at the dedication of a new church conference center, as LDS Church officials promised to continue active anti-gay lobbying attacks. Source: Salt Lake City Tribune, 10/9/00

Not A Good Day. Police arrested the parents of a 17-year-old Bronx youth for severely beating their gay son with a lead pipe while yelling, "God will punish you for your lifestyle." The parents' answering machine greets callers with the salutation: "God bless you. You have a good day." Source: New York Daily News, 8/13/00

Muslim Wife-Beating Urged. A Spanish Koranic scholar's book Women in Islam describes how to bring rebellious women into line: hit without leaving marks. Blows should be administered to feet and hands with a rod that "is not too thick," writes Mohamed Kamal Mostafa. Source: The Telegraph [UK], 7/23/00

Ditto, Turkish Handbook. The Muslim's Handbook by cleric Kemal Guran, published by a state-funded religious foundation in Turkey, prescribes wife-beating and polygamy, shuns contraception and even music, which is sinful because it "arouses sexual desire." It advises readers "not to strike the woman's face" but to hit her "gently" elsewhere "just as a warning." Source: The Telegraph [UK], 8/12/00

Bishop Blames Rape Victims. As a Mexican state debated a proposal to jail rape victims who have abortions, Guadalajara Bishop Juan Sandoval Iniguez blamed women for rape "because the way they dress is provocative. Women must be more decent and not encourage it." Source: Reuters, 8/17/00

Polygamy USA. It is not unusual for a single family in Colorado City, AZ, home to the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to have 50 members, according to Ben Bistline, a local historian. Prophet Rulon Jeffs, 92, whose recent order caused a mass exodus from public schools this fall, reportedly has 16 wives and as many as 90 children. Source: Los Angeles Times, 10/10/00

Muscular Christianity. A grandmother, 63, was the second person in her parish to be arrested in connection with homophobic harassment of Rev. Neil Follett, the vicar of St Paul's, Knightsbridge, who fled in fear of his life last summer. Source: [London] Times, 8/18/00

One Can Believe This. Arizona's House Chaplain, the GOP-appointed Rev. Charles Coppinger, 36, explained he realized he is gay last spring, but it took him half a year to work up the courage to tell lawmakers. Source: Arizona Republic, 10/11/00

Published in Back Issues

Rodney Lyle Scott is a thirty-four-year old mechanic who works for United Airlines. He travels daily to and from Denver International Airport on Interstate 70, which is the main east-west highway in Colorado. Rodney is divorced and has joint custody of his three-year-old daughter.

In recent years, private citizens have erected a number of Christian crosses and other religious memorabilia along the median strip of Interstate 70. These displays mark the spots where loved ones died in traffic accidents although, in one case, a cross marked the area where a murdered woman's body was thrown from her assailant's car. So many crosses have been erected that Rodney Scott has likened it to driving through a graveyard. This phenomenon has not been restricted to Interstate 70. Crosses are cropping up on other highway rights of way all over Colorado and, we understand, in other states.

With all due respect to the grieving families, about two years ago FFRF's Colorado Chapter asked the Colorado Department of Transportation, commonly known as "CDOT," to stop this use of State highways to promote Christianity. This led to a program whereby CDOT, upon receiving a complaint, would first offer the family which had erected the memorial an opportunity to remove it. If that was not successful, CDOT would remove and dispose of the display itself.

Although a number of religious objects were removed under this program, it proved to be unsatisfactory primarily because, usually within days, the object would reappear at the same location. For this reason, the Colorado Chapter filed a written request with CDOT asking (1) that fines be assessed against the party or parties who erected a display and (2) that CDOT's maintenance crews routinely remove these objects regardless of whether their presence had been brought to official attention by the Colorado Chapter.

Ironically, just about the time this request was made, a Colorado State Trooper noticed Rodney Scott's pickup truck sitting in the median strip one evening alongside Interstate 70 about 25 miles east of Denver. He also noticed some religious paraphernalia in the back of the truck and questioned Scott. Satisfied that nothing was wrong, the Trooper left but not until he had made a note of the license plate number on Rodney's truck.

Things get a bit fuzzy after that. However, it appears that several people complained to the authorities that their Christian crosses had been removed from the Interstate 70 median strip and an investigation was initiated by the local sheriff's department. The State Trooper who had taken Scott's license number heard about the investigation and contacted the sheriff, who then questioned Scott. In the course of this questioning, Scott was not advised that he had a right to say nothing, that anything he said could be used against him and that he had a right to consult with a lawyer. This is the Miranda warning that is so often ignored by the authorities.

It was determined that Scott was probably the culprit who removed the crosses. An effort was first made to charge Scott in Arapahoe County because that was where he was originally spotted by the State Trooper. However, the Arapahoe County District Attorney refused to file charges, so Scott was charged in Adams County. The District Attorney in Adams County is a mean-spirited, politically ambitious person and undoubtedly saw this case as a career stepping-stone.

Curiously, Scott was not charged with theft of a roadside memorial. Instead, he was charged under a little-used law making it a crime to "desecrate an object venerated by the public." This has all the indicia of a crime against religion. The word "desecrate" means to destroy the sacredness of, and "veneration" is synonymous with worship. Our legal system has a long history of rejecting crimes such as blasphemy and heresy, so a major issue in the case will be whether the law violates the Constitutional principle of church/state separation.

At the arraignment, Scott was offered a plea bargain whereby he would only be fined $50 if he pled guilty. Scott refused and the case has been set for trial in early December.

We are now in the "discovery" phase of the case. This means that Scott is entitled to receive all documents relating to the case that are in the hands of the prosecution. One such document is a letter written by CDOT about two years ago advising a private citizen to remove a roadside cross which he complained about. On the basis of this, we asked that Scott's case be dropped, but the District Attorney refused. The prosecution's position on this issue is that the authorization was limited to the person to whom the letter was written and no one else. Odd, to say the least.

We are now in the "discovery" phase of the case. This means that Scott is entitled to receive all documents relating to the case that are in the hands of the prosecution. One such document is a letter written by CDOT about two years ago advising a private citizen to remove a roadside cross which he complained about. On the basis of this, we asked that Scott's case be dropped, but the District Attorney refused. The prosecution's position on this issue is that the authorization was limited to the person to whom the letter was written and no one else. Odd, to say the least.

The trial promises to be interesting. Assuming for the sake of argument that Scott did remove the roadside crosses, does this constitute "desecration"? What is an "object venerated by the public"? Will a survey be taken to establish this? What about those people who find roadside crosses repulsive? Will this be taken into account in determining whether the public venerates them? How can CDOT give one citizen authority to remove a roadside memorial and then have the government turn right around and file criminal charges against another person who did the very same thing? What gives people the right to erect private memorials on property owned by all the taxpayers? And what recourse does a citizen have if the government does not fulfill its responsibility by seeing to it that public property is not used to promote religion? If the government refuses to take a patently unconstitutional display down, doesn't the public have the right to do so?

At the arraignment, the presiding Judge insisted that the trial should not take more than one day. He reluctantly set it for a two-day trial but we believe that it will take the better part of a week. This could create some friction with the Judge so, thankfully, under our system of justice, Scott is entitled to a jury trial. Empanelling the jury to make sure that there are no jurors who are biased in favor of religion or opposed to separation of church and state could take an entire day.

Meantime, we have filed a motion with the Judge to dismiss the case on two grounds: first, that the criminal statute has the effect of unconstitutionally endorsing religion and, second, that the statute is unconstitutionally vague because it does not set an objective standard against which an alleged wrongdoer's actions can be measured. That motion is pending before the Judge and we are not optimistic that it will be granted. The usual response from a Judge is to allow the case to go to trial and let the jury decide.

After the case has been tried or in the unlikely event the Judge dismisses it, we shall do a follow-up on the results.

Attorney Robert R. Tiernan is a Foundation member who directs the Denver FFRF chapter. He is representing Rodney Scott pro bono.

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Tennessee Schools At It Again

On behalf of a family in Dayton, Tennessee, the national Freedom From Religion Foundation is protesting pervasive religious influence in the town's public schools, including:

bible study in the classroom, conducted during school hours by an outside group of fundamentalist Christians from Bryan College
distribution of bibles in classrooms by the Gideon Society
morning bible reading over the intercom followed by a moment of silence; and
the posting of overtly religious messages by some teachers on the walls and doors of classrooms

The school board more than a year ago voted not to stop the bible classes.

Dan Barker, a spokesperson for the Foundation, which has members in the Dayton area, as well as throughout Tennessee, and in every state, sent an official letter of complaint to Superintendent Susan Porter, Rhea County Schools, enumerating the various prevailing Supreme Court decisions which the practices violate.

Under McCollum v. Board of Education, 333 U.S. 203, 212 (1948), religious instruction in the public schools is unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court has let stand two lower court rulings barring distribution of Gideon Bibles on school property: Tudor v. Board of Education of Rutherford, 14 J.N. 31 (1953), cert. denied 348 U.S. 816 (1954), reaffirmed in Berger v. Rensselaer, 982 F.2d, 1160 (7th Cir.) cert. denied, 124 L.E. 2d 254 (1993). A moment of silence with religious intent was halted as unconstitutional in Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 U.S. 38, 72 (1985). Stone v. Graham, 449 U.S. 39 (1980) outlawed the posting of the Ten Commandments in public schools because they are religious.

The Tennessee Constitution also forbids such entanglements, stating that: ". . . no human authority can, in any case whatever control or interfere with the rights of conscience; and that no preference shall ever be given, by law to any religious establishment or mode of worship." (Article I, Declaration of Rights)

In his letter, Barker noted that the family complainants object to "the indignity that their children (as young as kindergarten!) experience while being forced to sit through the indoctrination of someone else's religion in their own public school system."

The Foundation called for assurance that these blatantly illegal practices will be halted immediately.

"Seventy-five years after the Scopes Trial, is this where the Dayton public schools want to be--illegally promoting religion and violating the law?" Barker asked.

"The Dayton schools need to evolve," Barker added.

Chattanooga radio stations have been covering the story, as well as the Chattanoogan. After a story about the issue ran in the Dayton Herald-News (which is editorializing in favor of the bible classes), a second family with children in the Dayton schools contacted the Foundation to join the complaint.

As of press time, no formal answer to the Foundation's September 27 letter has been received from the school board, although Superintendent Porter has reportedly told the media that she is not afraid of a lawsuit, asserting that 99.9% of the community supports religion in the schools.

Bryan College is the bible school in Dayton that was founded in the name of William Jennings Bryan, who debated Clarence Darrow during the famous 1925 Scopes trial in that town.

Published in Back Issues
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Tennessee Schools At It Again

On behalf of a family in Dayton, Tennessee, the national Freedom From Religion Foundation is protesting pervasive religious influence in the town's public schools, including:

bible study in the classroom, conducted during school hours by an outside group of fundamentalist Christians from Bryan College
distribution of bibles in classrooms by the Gideon Society
morning bible reading over the intercom followed by a moment of silence; and
the posting of overtly religious messages by some teachers on the walls and doors of classrooms

The school board more than a year ago voted not to stop the bible classes.

Dan Barker, a spokesperson for the Foundation, which has members in the Dayton area, as well as throughout Tennessee, and in every state, sent an official letter of complaint to Superintendent Susan Porter, Rhea County Schools, enumerating the various prevailing Supreme Court decisions which the practices violate.

Under McCollum v. Board of Education, 333 U.S. 203, 212 (1948), religious instruction in the public schools is unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court has let stand two lower court rulings barring distribution of Gideon Bibles on school property: Tudor v. Board of Education of Rutherford, 14 J.N. 31 (1953), cert. denied 348 U.S. 816 (1954), reaffirmed in Berger v. Rensselaer, 982 F.2d, 1160 (7th Cir.) cert. denied, 124 L.E. 2d 254 (1993). A moment of silence with religious intent was halted as unconstitutional in Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 U.S. 38, 72 (1985). Stone v. Graham, 449 U.S. 39 (1980) outlawed the posting of the Ten Commandments in public schools because they are religious.

The Tennessee Constitution also forbids such entanglements, stating that: ". . . no human authority can, in any case whatever control or interfere with the rights of conscience; and that no preference shall ever be given, by law to any religious establishment or mode of worship." (Article I, Declaration of Rights)

In his letter, Barker noted that the family complainants object to "the indignity that their children (as young as kindergarten!) experience while being forced to sit through the indoctrination of someone else's religion in their own public school system."

The Foundation called for assurance that these blatantly illegal practices will be halted immediately.

"Seventy-five years after the Scopes Trial, is this where the Dayton public schools want to be--illegally promoting religion and violating the law?" Barker asked.

"The Dayton schools need to evolve," Barker added.

Chattanooga radio stations have been covering the story, as well as the Chattanoogan. After a story about the issue ran in the Dayton Herald-News (which is editorializing in favor of the bible classes), a second family with children in the Dayton schools contacted the Foundation to join the complaint.

As of press time, no formal answer to the Foundation's September 27 letter has been received from the school board, although Superintendent Porter has reportedly told the media that she is not afraid of a lawsuit, asserting that 99.9% of the community supports religion in the schools.

Bryan College is the bible school in Dayton that was founded in the name of William Jennings Bryan, who debated Clarence Darrow during the famous 1925 Scopes trial in that town.

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Clarence Reinders: Freethinker of Year

Foundation Life Member Clarence R. Reinders was named "Freethinker of the Year." He was unable to attend the Foundation's 23rd Annual Convention in person, but sent this acceptance speech.


I wish to thank the Freedom From Religion Foundation for naming me "Freethinker of the Year." I am delighted to accept this award. It is like receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor for fighting and being wounded in a fierce war in defense of the First Amendment to the Constitution. After all, that's what I really am, a defender of the first clause of the Bill of Rights, i.e., the separation of church and state.

I am honored to have fought and prevailed in keeping the church and state separate because it is between these two powerful governing forces, one "sacred" and the other secular and profane, that freedom of the individual is given a chance to survive and thrive, where free men and women can think and believe and act freely. What a privilege to have been given the opportunity to be a foot soldier in service to such a noble cause.

On June 19, 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court, by a vote of 6 to 3, handed freethinkers everywhere a huge victory. Like the successful appeal, by a 3 to zero vote, of the Jesus idol in the Marshfield Park, it was a strong decision in upholding the first clause in the First Amendment of the Constitution which bars government from establishing religion.

The Santa Fe Independent School District in suburban Houston, Texas, had a policy which allowed an elected student representative to deliver a public prayer before home high school football games. The Supreme Court banned this student-led prayer. You all probably remember reading about this. But what you may be unaware of is that this suit was not brought to the court by a bunch of us "immoral" atheists attacking religion in public life. Irony of ironies, it was brought by a Catholic family and a Mormon family, two Christian minorities bobbing in a sea of the majority Southern Christian Baptists in the very hostile buckle of the Bible Belt.

But what most people are unaware of is that these two families--one Catholic and one Mormon--had their identities sealed by the courts. That fact speaks volumes about their fear of reprisals from their loving Southern Baptist Christian friends and neighbors and the courts' concern to protect their lives, limbs and property from the depredations of their fellow Christians. So much for Christian love.

Yet in order to challenge the statue of Jesus in a Marshfield public park a named citizen of Marshfield had to step forward, identify himself and sign his name on the dotted line of the legal complaint.

Freedom From Religion needed someone with legal standing, a foot soldier on the frontline to be shot at and I gladly agreed to be that sitting duck. In fact I volunteered. My Christian wife who had supported me in my beliefs, i.e., disbelief of all religious belief systems, had died. My career as a motel owner/operator in Marshfield was near its end. I was in my late sixties. If I didn't finally take a stand for liberty of conscience and do it now, when?

Anne Nicol Gaylor had asked me many years ago when I first became a member of Freedom From Religion to sue the city regarding the Jesus shrine in the Marshfield park. But I could not do it at that time and she understood. I was fearful about how this basically Christian community and my Christian wife would react. But conditions change and become ripe for ideas whose time has come. And we as atheists, agnostics, skeptics and humanists--our time has finally come.

I knew it wasn't going to be any cake walk and that I would be the target of much Christian hate. So I bought a telephone answering machine and a tape recorder to record the calls and settled in for the inevitable hostile reaction to the lawsuit. I knew it wasn't going to be pretty but was totally unprepared for the violent and vitriolic ad hominem attacks on me as the mere messenger. After all, I only said, "The emperor has no clothes." And the good loving Christian community was really steamed at me for having said it. They never addressed the issue of the unconstitutionality of a religious statue in a public park.

Instead I was called all kinds of names and invited to leave this god-fearing country if I didn't like it here. One fellow knew of an island in the ocean where I could go. A doctor's wife from the Marshfield Clinic said I would be lucky if I didn't get my house egged. And so on. All recorded on tape. I even had a news reporter and a policeman together listen to some pretty nasty threats. Naturally after it was reported in the Marshfield News-Herald that their phone messages were being recorded the volume of phone calls trailed off.

I did however receive three anonymous phone calls from supporters who were fearful of giving their names and phone numbers. Two upfront outspoken supporters called, one of whom was Bernie Ehrman, a Freedom From Religion member who has since died. The other was a very sharp local lady. I also had three or four supporters drop by in person at the motel to give me encouragement, one of whom was my doctor from the Marshfield Clinic. So we as atheistic and agnostic individuals are not so alone as we may seem. Definitely a despised minority but definitely not alone.

Whenever there would be some report in the newspaper as the lawsuit progressed there would be a flurry of letters to the editor. Sometimes four or five letters on this issue dominated the comment section. I clipped and saved them all. The vast majority of them, like 20 to 1, were in favor of keeping the idol in the park. They thought that the majority in Marshfield should rule and that I as part of the minority should just accept it and when I drove by the idol I should just look the other way. They just didn't get it that the Bill of Rights is not about majority rule but about the protection of the minority within the majority.

They thought that Anne Gaylor and that atheistic organization in Madison should keep their noses out of the way they ran the parks in Marshfield. They just didn't understand that to protest an egregious violation of the First Amendment is everyone's secular civic duty and that the benefits of the defense of the First Amendment accrue just as well to them. The day is fast coming when, because of projected future demographic multicultural changes, the Christian majority will become the Christian minority and then they will be most thankful for the religious protections secured by the First Amendment.

As soon as the lawsuit had been filed against the city of Marshfield, the city immediately knew that it was in an indefensible position and was in violation of the First Amendment. First it put up a disclaimer sign saying that it did not endorse any particular religion. Then it quickly sold 15 hundredths of an acre of the public park to the Praschak Memorial Fund and smugly thought it was off the unconstitutional hook. Then Freedom From Religion sued the city and the Praschak Memorial Fund as still being in violation of the separation of church and state because the shrine would still appear to be in a public park. Judge Shabaz found otherwise and the case was appealed to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago where, to my wonderment and surprise, it found 3 to zero in our favor.

I never in my wildest dreams ever thought we would get more than one vote on our side. Three to zero! What a victory! The Jesus idol was found to be in violation of the First Amendment. We were vindicated. That's what we had claimed all along and we were right. The emperor did indeed have no clothes.

Now a final delicious irony. The Praschak Memorial Group in collusion with the City of Marshfield fought to keep the statue in its present high visibility and prime location on Highway 13 as a welcoming figure to travelers entering and exiting Marshfield on the south side. All north and south traffic is funneled on that one road only. You had to drive by the idol unless as a native of Marshfield you knew of one back street to avoid it. I was several times counseled to use this detour since I was so offended by the sight of their precious Jesus. What a juicy propaganda location to display their cherished idol for all to see.

Even with a fence around it and two disclaimer signs, the city and the Praschak Memorial Group think that they have nevertheless won. After all, they did not have to move the idol which still commands its high visibility location. For, as they say in real estate, the three most important features of a property are location, location and location.

However, the State of Wisconsin is building a bypass around and through the city. Guess what? That bypass will become Highway 13. And the street ahead of the idol will no longer be the official Highway 13 but just plain South Central Avenue. The upshot will be that the vast majority of the traffic that enters and leaves the city will no longer be forced to travel past the idol. What delicious just deserts!

We did not succeed in moving the religious statue out of the public park but benevolent and capricious fate intervened and moved the highway away from the shrine, thus effectively negating the propaganda value of its prized location.

And they say there is no god!

Published in Back Issues
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Overheard - Religion & Politics

"Holy Joe," get out of the pulpit and come back to earth.

That's the message for Joe Lieberman, the religion-drenched Democratic veep candidate who talks as though God were his campaign manager.

And it goes for George "Dubya" Bush, Al Gore and any other tub-thumping pols who hammer their religion as a cheap campaign ploy.

Cool the gospel singing, guys, and climb off the sawdust trail.

Sandy Grady
Philadelphia Daily News, Aug. 31, 2000

This is a presidential campaign. Not a holy war.

If it doesn't stop soon, the Constitution doesn't have a prayer.

Philadelphia Daily News Editorial
Aug. 30, 2000

The time has come for all the candidates on the national tickets to reaffirm their belief in the constitutional separation of church and state. . . .

When it comes to religion and the campaign, one might ask: "Which side is God on?"

The same question might be asked of the defiant students and parents, urged on by some pastors and Christian broadcasters, who stood in the bleachers in high school stadiums across the South last weekend to recite the Lord's Prayer before the opening kickoff.

All the candidates have to do is look around the world to see how well religion and politics mix.

The Founding Fathers certainly knew and protected us from the combination.

Reporter Helen Thomas
"Keep the Wall Between Church and State"
New York Times, Aug. 30, 2000

The president is not the moral leader of his people, no matter how often he prays or mentions God's name. He was never intended to be the moral leader, and it is unhealthy when candidates for president present themselves or are regarded in this way, especially when they think they have a pipeline to God. . . .

Religifying politics tempts politicians to messianic delusion. And politicizing religion cheapens and corrupts the spirit. If we return to the wisdom of the founders on this point, excessive public expressions of religious piety will be regarded with suspicion. Our motto should be: 'By their deeds shall we know them.'"

Former Senator Eugene J. McCarthy & Keith C. Burris
"The Singular Piety of Politics"
New York Times, Aug. 31, 2000

When religion controls government, it is not a pretty sight. . . . When the government gets involved [in religion], someone's rights inevitably are going to be trampled.

Rev. Brian Harbour
Oct. 1, 2000 D.C. sermon (President Clinton in audience)

Those who would use government to push religion on their fellow citizens dishonor their political heritage as Americans, and belittle the freedom of conscience granted to each and every one of us. They need to go into a nice quiet closet and think about that.

Columnist Jay Bookman, Atlanta
New York Times, Sept. 1, 2000

For a man with one divorce under his belt, Lieberman [has shown] a distressing tendency to cast stones at a man whose marriage lasted.

I am reminded of President Truman's warning about people who pray too loud in church. The old Missouri Baptist said that loud prayers always made him think "you'd better go home and lock up your smokehouse."

Robert Reno, Newsday
Arizona Republic, Sept. 1, 2000

I believe Lieberman slept through his Yale Law School classes on the First Amendment. Americans as individuals are among the most religious people on Earth. But America as a country has no religious mandate. . . . And the First Amendment does indeed protect us from government-fostered religion.

Columnist Lars-Erik Nelson
N.Y. Daily News, Aug. 30, 2000

. . . Lieberman's words suggest that the doubters, skeptics and old-fashioned village atheists are somehow less worthy than others in what has become a faith-based democracy. . . . They may not be a potent voting bloc, they may not be targeted by the Democratic ticket, but nonbelievers have an equal claim to the First Amendment.

Columnist Walter Shapiro
"Freedom isn't only for the believers"
USA Today, Sept. 1, 2000

Politicians who invoke God's name insult those of us who recognize no establishment of religion in our personal lives. . . .Lieberman, Gore and Bush aren't likely to become ayatollahs, but I wish they would give us some freedom from religious sermons.

Columnist Rob Morse
"Let those without sin cast votes"
San Francisco Examiner, Aug. 30, 2000

One danger of piety on the campaign trail is that it equates faith with good citizenship. . . . The argument that religion is essential to moral behavior is insulting and dangerous. A second danger is that this campaign will make religion a credential for public office.

Minneapolis Star Tribune Editorial
"Holier than thou"
Aug. 31, 2000

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The Host and Hostess with the Mostes'

Early in August I received a phone call from an FFRF member in Brownsville, Texas, telling me that the big news down in the valley was that a German high school exchange student had been booted out of the host family's home. The reason? The German student was an atheist. Horrors!

The weird thing about the story was that the student had plainly filled out the required papers and had put a-t-h-e-i-s-t in the space for religious preference. The host family (C-a-t-h-o-l-i-c) was given that information before the student was assigned to them and had expressed no alarm or displeasure.

The coordinator for the local chapter of SHARE! High School Exchange Program had been quoted as saying, "We exist so that we can help people from other countries learn about Americans, to develop an understanding and a tolerance."

It wasn't quite clear to me who was to develop the tolerance, but the American family certainly flunked it bigtime. As for learning about Americans, the German student learned very quickly that "tolerance" meant control. When invited to attend Mass with them, Martin demurred politely. The host family quickly called Yvette Coffman, Texas State Director of SHARE! High School Exchange Program, and told her that things were not working out because the German boy would not attend Mass with them, thus exhibiting a distinct disinclination on his part to partake in the exchange of tolerance.

Of course I do not know the full story of what was said, or how much time elapsed between the opening of the door of the Catholic family's home to the exchange student, and the slamming of it behind him (about a week, I think). Nevertheless, it put Ms. Coffman in a terrible fix, but, in her unflappable manner, she found the student a temporary home until she could find a more stable host family for this sixteen-year-old pariah.

News of this act of American tolerance reached the ears of a reporter at the McAllen newspaper. He wasted no time in spreading the story, which resulted in Ms. Coffman being bombarded with offers from families wanting to take in the homeless student. He was placed . . . take a deep breath . . . with another Catholic family! However, they had read the whole sad tale and were eager to remove the stain of intolerance from the Catholic escutcheon. So far as I know, the family and the exchange student are getting along peacefully.

On September 20, I received a phone message from Ms. Coffman, requesting I return her call so that we could discuss something that was on her mind. I wasted no time in doing so. She had been delightful when I had called her last August to express concern from the freethought community, and our wish to help with the placement of the evicted student.

I was now further delighted when she said that she had been thinking about foreign students and host families and realized that the program's contact for these families was largely through the churches. Since many of the foreign students were atheists, she felt that they were not given a wide enough option regarding host families. Did my heart jump for joy? Right out of my mouth.

Ms. Coffman suggested that perhaps atheist groups should be informed of this fact and would be inclined to volunteer as hosts. I assume that terms such as freethinker, humanist, rationalist, etc., would also be welcome designations. However, do remember that the word atheist is not, in more enlightened countries, the big scary horned beast that it is here in the United States.

Knowing many freethinker folk, of one designation or another, I feel confident that many of them have hosted a foreign exchange student at one time or another. This program is the sort that would be appealing to them. However, I think that, possibly, these nontheist families never registered their true religious nonpreference in the space provided, maybe daring to go so far as writing the word "none" as a response. I know that in civic activities we have all learned that it is better not to advertise.

I am aware that British and European citizens do not regard religion with the same adolescent fanaticism as do a vast number of Americans, but it never entered my mind that in one mainstream activity, the exchange student program, our nonbelief category would be wanted, needed and welcomed!

There's a big push here in Texas for host families for the 2001 spring semester. Wear your religious dis-preference proudly and print your preferred freethinker designation on the forms you may request from:

The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs
United States Department of State
475 Washington Blvd. Ste. 220
Marina del Rey, CA 90292
Tel: 1-310-821-9977 or
Fax: 1-310-821-9282
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

In Texas, contact:

Yvette Coffman
TX State Director
1-972-727-7966 or 1-800-941-3738

Waste no time; go for it

The writer is a long-time Foundation activist and officer who lives in San Antonio, Texas.

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"Exorcism" in the News

Chicago Archdiocese Hires Exorcist

The Archdiocese of Chicago secretly appointed a fulltime exorcist nearly a year ago, whose task is to "heal those afflicted by the Evil One," according to a page one story in the Sept. 19 Chicago Sun-Times.

The archdiocese's "spokesman on exorcisms," the Rev. Robert Barron, told the newspaper there is a "world of angels and devils, fallen angels."

The Rev. James LeBar, an exorcist for the Archdiocese of New York, appointed by the late Cardinal John O'Connor, says there has been a "large explosion" of exorcisms (from zero to 300) over the past decade in New York.

"As people lose their respect and reverence for life, spirituality and human beings, the devil can move in," LeBar warned.

Among the Catholic Church's ten warning signs of possession: "aversion to all things spiritual" and "hidden insights into a person's private life, or past sins."

Both LeBar and the Chicago exorcist agreed the newly re-released 1973 movie, "The Exorcist," accurately portrays the exorcist ritual. LeBar added: "In one or two cases, there was an extraordinary amount of gagging."
Pope Fails in Exorcism

Pope John Paul II carried out an impromptu exorcism in September upon a teenage girl, after the church claimed she began "screaming insults in a cavernous voice" during a general audience in St. Peter's Square.

The pope's chief "Satan-buster," Father Fabriele Amorth, told Italian media that when Vatican guards restrained the 19-year-old, she displayed "a superhuman strength" in trying to free herself. The pope then "exorcised" and prayed over her, but later admitted failure.
"She Was Possessed"

Police found the lifeless body of seven-year-old Aaren Dunn, who had been baking cookies with her sister, on the kitchen floor of her home in Manitou Springs, Colorado, after her father sliced her throat from ear to ear, slashed her carotid artery, stabbed her chest and fractured her left upper arm.

Robert Walter Dunn, 51, who faces first-degree murder charges for the June 26 killing, turned himself in to police, his hands soaked in blood, saying: "I killed the devil. She was possessed; I killed the devil."

The Denver Post (June 28) reported the little girl liked to play dress-up, read books, eat macaroni and cheese, and would have entered the third grade this fall.

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Foundation Protests Court's Catholic Bias

Divorcing parents in Washington County, Wisconsin, are being ordered by the Court Commissioner to take a seminar conducted by Catholic Charities, and to pay a $25 fee to the Catholic organization. The court describes the program as "nationally licensed" and in use in Milwaukee and other counties.

"Divorcing parents should not be compelled by our courts to go to a Catholic organization and pay them for a seminar," said Anne Nicol Gaylor, Foundation president. "This program should be conducted by a neutral facilitator with payment, if necessary, to the county or the state.

"This particular state/church entanglement is especially troubling for parents who regard the Catholic Church as destructive in its attitudes toward women's equality, reproductive rights and divorce," Gaylor said.

On Oct. 4, the Foundation, on behalf of a local complainant, wrote the Honorable Jeffrey Jeager, Assistant Family Court Commissioner, State of Wisconsin Circuit Court, Branch II, Washington County, asking that he halt this "illegal, unconstitutional abuse."

"The Wisconsin Constitution (Art. I, Sect. 18) says that no person shall be compelled to support religion. Yet this is what is what is happening as your court is now administering the program," Gaylor wrote.

The Washington County complainant who contacted the Foundation was given no comparable secular counseling alternative. Parents must attend the seminar under penalty of contempt of court.

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Foundation Calls Foul Over Coach

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is charging officials at the University of Wisconsin-Madison with stonewalling the Foundation's request to investigate a religion question posed to prospective UW Women's basketball recruits.

Among the facts collected for a dossier on each prospective recruit by the UW women's basketball program is "Religion." Foundation president Anne Gaylor said she believes this may be unlawful, and, at minimum, considers it "certainly inappropriate."

This is the third major complaint the Foundation, a national watchdog group based in Madison, has made to the UW-Madison about coach Jane Albright, a self-described born-again Christian.

The Foundation protested when the coach arranged an exhibition game with the Christian Athletes-in-Action in November 1995, permitting religionists to distribute proselytizing material to the crowd during halftime, and to hold a religious postgame service. The Foundation also notified the UW that the coach was using campus mail to proselytize, and had instituted regular pre-game prayers.

The Division of Inter-Collegiate Athletes responded to the Foundation's complaint with a June 14, 1996 "policy clarification," saying it will maintain an environment "free of harassment or intimidation based on religion beliefs or practices." The statement concludes: "The mission of the Division does not include sponsoring religious events or activities."

However, the very month the clarification was issued, the Foundation was contacted by the family of a young girl enrolled at the coach's summer basketball camp for 4th to 12th graders, reporting Albright included proselytizing sessions. Following the Foundation's request that this be investigated, UW-Madison Chancellor David Ward wrote the Foundation on June 26, 1996, promising that "future camps will not include any policy violations."

"It does appear that Coach Albright is uneducable on this issue," Gaylor noted. "Wouldn't she be happier working at a Christian college?"

Gaylor also expressed dismay at the "prying" quality of the questions in the dossier, which records personal information on the prospect's "boy friend," "best friend," and "kind of car," as well as religion.

Albright told the Capital Times (Oct. 4) that if a "girl" would mention that she attends church every Sunday, Albright would arrange a visit to church if the recruit visited campus.

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Backlash Begins Over Bigoted Boy Scouts

A backlash against the discriminatory policies of Boy Scouts of America is sweeping the nation, following the 5-4 ruling on June 28 by the U.S. Supreme Court affirming the club's constitutional right to exclude gays as members and troop leaders.

Over the past 20 years, BSA has aggressively denied memberships both to gays and to boys whose families are not religious. Gay groups are joining the call of freethinkers to lobby school districts to stop sponsoring Boy Scout troops. Associated Press reports that schools, which give Scouts many special perks, sponsored 10,653 Boy Scout and Cub Scout troops last year--about 9% of all troops.

According to USA Today (Oct. 9), Boy Scouts of South Florida just lost nearly $350,000 in public money and charitable aid, after a "domino effect" of denial of funds from traditional supporters. United Way of Broward County, the Broward County government and the cities of Miami Beach, Manors and Fort Lauderdale have severed ties with Boy Scouts.
The state of Connecticut has dropped Boy Scouts from the list of charities state employees can contribute to through payroll deductions, prompting a retaliatory lawsuit by Boy Scouts.
A community school district in Manhattan has withdrawn support of Scouts. The Minneapolis school system in early October voted to stop sponsoring two dozen troops with almost 900 members.
School Board member Joann Elder, Madison, Wisconsin, who has a gay son, is asking to re-examine a district policy charging Scouts the same low rental fee charged to nondiscriminatory groups. Following a complaint by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the school board in 1994 started charging rent to Scout troops.
The United Way of Evanston, Illinois, voted in September to stop its $5,000 annual donation.
The school district in Framingham, Massachusetts, voted in September to end Scout recruitment through its schools. "It may be that the Scouts won the battle but end up losing the war," town manager George King told USA Today.
City Council members in Tucson, Arizona, voted on Sept. 25 to cut public funding to Boy Scouts and any other organization deemed discriminatory. That will cost Catalina Council $20,000 next year. The city may also withhold its $1.7 million contribution to the local chapter of United Way. But a policy change banning employee donations to Boy Scouts via the city of Tempe caused such an uproar it was reversed on October 5.
The ACLU filed suit in August to revoke a 50-year lease with the city of San Diego, which rents Balboa Park to the Scouts for $1 a year.
About 24 chapters of United Way, whose 1,400 chapters contribute more than $8.7 million to Scouts, have ended or redirected donations.

A backlash against the backlash is also occurring. U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-CO, introduced the Scouts Honor Act to protect Scouts from punitive measures by any entity receiving federal funds. Several conservative Arizona lawmakers vowed to support legislation to penalize cities that "discriminate" against Scouting.

Youth Today recently published an article by Patrick Boyle claiming that BSA's stance against gays is a "case of money and Mormons." Boyle notes the Mormon Church sponsors about 31,000 Scout units--more than any other group, accounting for 12% of all troops and involving 400,000 boys. The Mormon church filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court supporting the Boy Scout anti-gay policy. In total, 65% of all Scout units are sponsored by religious organizations, according to the BSA.

"If the Boy Scouts stand for discrimination, they should stand alone," the Freedom From Religion Foundation reiterated in letters to public officials, the United Way, and various school organizations following the June decision.

"We urge freethinkers to continue pressuring school districts and government to sever ties with Boy Scouts, based on the group's religion-based bigotry against both freethinking boys and gays," said Foundation president Anne Gaylor.

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Atheist Under Siege Starts Atheist Club

This speech was delivered on November 6, 1999, before the 22nd annual convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, St. Anthony Hotel, San Antonio.

Micah was named the 1999 recipient of the "Ruth Jokinen Student Activist Memorial Award," underwritten by Foundation Life Member Richard Mole of Louisiana. The award is a $500 cash grant in recognition of special achievement.


Before I begin let me just say, I am extremely happy to be here. It is quite an honor to get this opportunity to speak to this organization, and I am also honored to receive this award.

I just got back from the Americans United for Separation of Church and State conference in D.C. When I first arrived there I was wearing the coat I always wear around school, and in public--a coat which has a patch that says, simply, "Atheist." When I met one of my friends from the Council for Secular Humanism outside the hotel, he told me that most people within the AU conference wouldn't enjoy it. I was surprised to find that there were only a few atheists within the conference, and while writing my acceptance speech, for an award I got there, I realized the strain I was under not to offend any theists! Well, here I am at the Freedom From Religion conference, and I have no doubt that I don't need to worry about offending any theists.

I am in the unique position of being one of the few high schoolers to start an atheist club, so I'd like to give you a breakdown of what happened to me, and what I have learned. It is my hope that after this speech you will have an intimate view of how I formed a high school atheist club, what sort of things a club like mine does, the responses of the community and my idea of what the future holds for teen atheists.

But first let me tell you a little background about myself. I was raised a very liberal Catholic. Both my parents have had extensive education in the Catholic faith. My mom attended Catholic schools for 16 years, and my dad joined the seminary with the intention of becoming a priest when he was a teenager.

However, religion was never a big part of my life, and I would say I never had very strong beliefs in god, in fact I don't think I invested much thought in god at all.

What started me on the path to atheism was probably Ayn Rand. My brother suggested I read Fountainhead when I was in 9th grade, and I did. I went on to read as much of her philosophy I could. Luckily with my brother's urging, I also went on to read other philosophy--preventing me from becoming an objectivist.

So my so-called conversion to atheism wasn't very eventful. It was the end result of my inquiries into the basic assumptions by which I lived. When I came to my assumption that god existed, I realized I had no reason to believe so, and it was discarded.

Our family moved two years ago to a conservative city in Michigan--Grand Blanc. During 10th grade I was new, so I didn't talk much. But near the end of the year a student wrote an op-ed asking for creationism to be taught in science class. I responded with a well-written critique of her argument, and in turn became interested in exposing people to a nonreligious way of life.

It was in 11th grade that I formulated the idea to form a high school atheist club, in response to the already established student bible club. My first step was to find out what the laws were concerning student clubs, since I knew that my club would most likely face opposition from the administration.

While surfing the internet I stumbled across a guide for students who wanted to form bible clubs. The site referred to the Equal Access Act, which reads: "It shall be deemed unlawful for any public secondary school which receives Federal financial assistance and which has a limited open forum to deny equal access or a fair opportunity to, or discriminate against, any students who wish to conduct a meeting within that limited open forum on the basis of the religious, political, philosophical, or other content of the speech at such meetings."

This was exactly what I was looking for. Since my school already had a bible club it would be illegal for them to stop my club simply because it was atheist. Armed with this information I approached my principal and asked what I had to do in order to start a student club.

He told me to find a teacher sponsor, and to talk to our vice-principal. I approached the most liberal teacher I had and asked him if I could use his room in order to hold the atheist club meetings. He agreed.

This would later become a sort of controversy because the school tried to convince him that by allowing us to meet in his room, it would be his name on the club, which is untrue.

I approached my vice-principal that week, but after showing his immediate distaste for the idea he told me that our club could meet within the school but we wouldn't be able to solicit members. Meaning, we would not be able to use the PA system or put up signs--two options the bible club used quite often. I showed my immediate objection, and told him about the Equal Access Act. At which point he told me: "Stop worrying so much about the law, and worry about what Grand Blanc High School allows." I was so shocked that I sort of laughed. He then told me he was busy and I'd have to come back on Monday. Luckily, two months later my principal did confirm in the local paper that American law applied to Grand Blanc High School.

On Monday, I went to the office to see my vice-principal, Mr. Chittle, about four times. Each time he avoided me, each time I left my name and each time the office said I would be called down when Mr. Chittle was free.

However, I was never called down--his administration made it completely impossible for me to talk with them. However, after coming into the office all day long, I lucked out at the end of the day. I walked in, and he was standing there, right behind the front desk behind some people. I looked directly at him, and he said something to the effect of "damn," when he saw me. I don't remember the exact word but I remember I was shocked, and thought for a second that he might be talking about something else. I mean why would the vice-principal show obvious unwillingness to meet with a student--shouldn't he at least pretend?

So he comes around the desk, and is about to leave, completely ignoring me. I am standing at the door and I say, Mr. Chittle, can I speak with you?

I am being sure to be respectful because I assumed that he would just take me into the office and reject me there, then I could show my evidence. That isn't what happened. Instead he said, you need to come here with your sponsor, before I will speak with you.

The following is the dialogue that occurred.

Chittle: "All three of us need to talk and we will set up some restrictions."

Micah: "Restrictions? What kind of restrictions? You can't set up restrictions."

Chittle: "I can set up any restrictions I want."

Micah: "Well, can I at least show you my evidence?"

Chittle: "What evidence?" (he begins to walk out of the door)

Micah: "Evidence why an atheist group should be allowed."

Chittle: "No, you need to get your sponsor down here and we will talk then. This isn't a club, you haven't done the official process."

Micah: "What process? What do I need to do?"

Chittle: "You haven't signed a contract . . ." (voice trails off) "Also you aren't a religious group.

He begins to move down the hall.

Micah: "All I want is equal access, can't we talk about this!"

Chittle: (speeds up, slides in between people, slipping away) "Talk to your sponsor!"

I stop, I'm upset, I just got completely blown off, he wouldn't listen to anything I said. Monday was supposed to be a meeting and instead I chase him down the hall. I'm frustrated, my hands are shaky.

I will stop the story here. By now I am sure that you realize it was going to be impossible for me to form the club without help. In the following month that I continued to try and establish the club, more meetings were canceled and I was even told I would be suspended if I continued to try and schedule such meetings. I refer to these appointments as meetings, but before I made each appointment he said it was only on the condition that I would not argue about anything--in other words he would only meet with me if I did what he said. One of the points I could not argue about was the name of the club. Mr. Chittle wanted to force me to change the name from "Atheist Club" to "Alternative Religions Club."

While all this was happening I was keeping a journal, and after I had had enough I sent it to both the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Americans United responded promptly.

They agreed to help me form the club, and two letters were sent to my school threatening to sue on my behalf. Our case was simple. One, changing the name would be a change to the actual nature of the club. And two, we didn't need a teacher-sponsor because to require one would limit equal access. It is, of course, impossible to find a teacher sponsor for such a controversial club.

The second letter set a deadline of two weeks after it was received as the deadline after which we would be filing a lawsuit. A few days before the deadline I was called into my principal's office, and told I would be allowed to form the club--I had won!

The first meeting of the club was covered on the front page of the local paper with the headline: "Student wins fight for atheist club."

Response from the community was quick. The paper was flooded with letters to the editor, and the debate concerning my club lasted around a month. During this time the Religion section of the paper ran a column asking two Protestant pastors the question of whether atheist clubs hurt the faith of students within a school.

Although both answers were pretty much what you'd expect from fundamentalists, one pastor did give these words of wisdom: "This is the time for Christians to arise and not be intimidated. The facts are atheism does not work. It is failing in Russia, China, North Korea, Cuba and many other places, because the spirit of man longs for its creator. The Bible declares in Psalms 14:1 and 53:1, 'The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.'

"The word fool means one who lacks sense or judgement, an idiot. God made man to be an intelligent being, but Satan does his best to belittle the creation of God. To say you are atheist is to say you are a fool or idiot. That is not a name tag to boast about."

Based on that response which was printed in the paper, it's pretty easy to see the mindset of the community in which I live. Signs announcing atheist club meetings were ripped down within the school, and those that were left up were written on with such nice things as "burn in hell."

However, I ignored all these behaviors and instead continued to run the atheist club until the end of the year.

Let me tell you a little bit about some of the things my atheist club does. My main mission in running the club is to educate its members and the school body. To do this the club has donated a dozen philosophy and science books to the school library with the help of supporters nationwide. Also, every week I hand out a packet of about 10 pages containing atheist philosophy, such as Dan Barker's "Dear Theologian"--which is very popular, or god debates. This has been a pretty successful way to educate members, and keep the atheist club from becoming simply a "rag-on-religion club."

Finally I'd like to talk about what I see as the future of atheism in America. Based on my experiences I truly feel that the atheist movement in America must be firmly grounded in youth. As a teen I have been given amazing access to the media, such as my New York Times op-ed, an appearance on "Politically Incorrect," several radio shows, and even a profile in an issue of Teen People Magazine.

Reporters love reporting on controversies, but they will only do it if it seems like the student is intelligent. That is why, I think, my story has gotten so far. It is impossible for the local community to simply write me off as a quack, or a bad kid--because I visibly am not. So to gain wider access to American media I think it is paramount that older atheists begin to cultivate younger ones. Find a way to meet up with high school atheists in your community, and talk with them. Have them form clubs, and encourage them to write op-eds for the paper. If the average American is never exposed to young atheists, they will slowly begin to think that good kids are Christian, and the bad kids are not. One way in which I have tried to help support teen atheists nationwide was to co-found the Young Freethinkers Alliance, an organization supported by the Council for Secular Humanism.

The Young Freethinkers Alliance, or YFA, is an organization which hopes to unite high school atheist clubs across the country. Currently we have about half a dozen high school atheist clubs. It is difficult to find students who are willing to spend so much time on something that may leave them with fewer friends. It was easier for me because I was a new student the year before I formed the club.

The only way to balance the social stigmatism students may receive for being an "out" atheist is to really show your support. The awards, emails, and donations I have received really keep me going. If you hear of teen atheists in your community write them a letter or call. Even if they don't respond it means a lot.

I'd like to finish this talk by reading my June 21st New York Times op-ed ("Atheists Under Siege" by Micah White):

"We hear it everywhere, from churches to Congress: we need to allow religion back in the schools if we want to avoid another tragedy like the one at Columbine High School.

"Groups like the Christian Coalition say there has been a moral decline ever since the Supreme Court banned school prayer. They were disturbed by the story of Cassie Bernall, the Columbine student who was killed after saying she believed in God. [Micah noted that this story was later debunked.] And they make demons out of all atheist students, as if they had anything in common with Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.

"As a high school junior in Michigan, I am very concerned with the national trend of blaming 'godless teenagers' for school violence. As an atheist, I feel I have endured persecution for my beliefs. I believe that the only outcome of any increase of religion in the schools would be an increase in anger directed against those students who are either not of the dominant religion or lack religion at all.

"Last fall, I tried to form an atheist club in my high school as an alternative to a Bible study group that already existed. The school made it difficult for me to do so, saying I didn't have a teacher-sponsor. I threatened to sue the school with legal help from Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. Only then did the school say I could not be prevented from forming the club.

"The reaction of some of my fellow students to the club was even worse. Immediately after I formed the group, a few of them seemed to take it upon themselves to intimidate me. Signs promoting the club were torn down, and people scribbled insults like "Burn in Hell" on them. Students would come to our meetings and yell, simply to be disruptive. And after the shootings at Columbine, a friend told me that a teacher had told his class that my club was the same thing as the trenchcoat mafia.

"All this negativity directed at my atheist group would seem to indicate that we do evil things. But all we do is meet weekly to discuss philosophy and talk about how to keep our school as secular as possible. We face opposition not because we are bad people but because our ideas are unpopular.

"If prayer in schools is allowed, what will happen to those students who are not Christian, but are Jewish or Muslim? What about atheists like me? Even though no law could require us to participate, this would further ostracize the nonreligious students.

"Countless students may already be feeling religious pressure as the school year comes to a close, since many districts still have prayer in their graduation ceremonies. I read about one student in Maryland who was detained by the police after he tried to re-enter his own graduation, which he had left because he was offended by the prayer.

"I have spent a lot of time thinking about how I can show America that atheist students are not the source of the nation's ills. Through my club, I feel a lot of people have learned there is nothing to worry about. And if we can learn to accept all students, perhaps then we can find a way to bring an end to the violence and ostracism instead of increasing it."

On a final note let me say something about courage. A lot of people tell me that what I have done is quite courageous. But I take a sort of different look at it. It is by far easier to be a bold and vocal atheist, then one who seems ashamed. I have gone to school many times with shirts that say "God is dead" or "Sin is myth." Why? Because I am able and willing to defend my atheism. Christians may disagree, but in a way I think they respect that. I remember one time I was in the library talking to a kid about atheism, and a big jock stood up, looked at my friend and said "Hey! Are you that kid who started an atheist club?" My friend shyly responded and I raised my hand and said "No, I am." Who do you think they picked on? Of course my friend.

In other words never be afraid to stand up and say what you believe. Atheism is defensible and logical.

Micah White was born in Milwaukee in 1982, and lived in Columbia, Maryland through his 9th grade year, before his family moved to Grand Blanc, Michigan, where he is a senior at Community High School. Micah's op-ed piece, "Atheists Under Siege," was published by the New York Times last June, recounting the opposition he faced in starting an Atheist Club at his school. His first meeting was attended by more than 40 students. He had since done a series of media appearances, including ABC's "Politically Incorrect."

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Denver "Public Forum" Only For Religion

The Foundation's motion for a temporary court order to put its holiday solstice display on the steps of Denver City Hall alongside the City's Christmas display was denied by the Colorado Federal District Court on Thursday, December 23.

The Foundation display states: "May reason prevail, there are no gods, no devils, no angels," etc., refers to the Christ child as a religious myth, and concludes with a quote from the late President John F. Kennedy that "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute."

The Foundation made a very good case for a preliminary injunction, we believe, in the written memorandum of law. However, it was apparent from the moment District Court Judge Zita Weinshienk stepped into the courtroom that she had already made up her mind to rule against us.

Our position was that Denver City Hall is a "public forum" (an allegation not denied by the City) and that we have a right to place our message on the steps of City Hall just like Coors Beer, King Soopers, and the others whose names are emblazoned on a huge sign that is part of the City's Christmas display.

The City's position was that we do have a right to display our sign at City Hall but that it must be placed at the foot of the steps and, unlike the Nativity scene, be attended by a person at all times.

Our individual plaintiff, Julie Wells, testified that the Colorado Chapter does not have the man (woman) power for round-the-clock attendance and, that she is afraid of a violent confrontation by radicals of the religious right if she has to attend the sign personally.

Judge Weinshienk's response was truly astonishing. She ruled that the City has the right to pick and choose who can use the steps of City Hall and who cannot. Her ruling on Julie's concern for her physical safety was that she needs to get two strong men to protect her and, besides, she is free to display the sign almost anywhere else in the metropolitan area. It's little wonder that there is a diminishing respect for the judiciary.

A decision has been made to appeal this ruling to the Federal Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. Maybe we'll get a panel that has some understanding of and respect for the Constitution although previous decisions of this Court on the subject of religion make that open to question. Status reports on this case will be carried in future editions of Freethought Today.

Robert Tiernan, an attorney, heads the Denver, Colorado chapter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation

Published in Back Issues

The typical member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation is a 58-year-old male who grew up in a Catholic or Methodist household where both parents were religious, attended secular schools, strongly supports population control, abortion rights, environmental protection and death with dignity, has at least one college degree, and feels somewhat alone in his disbelief.

The level of higher education pursued by Foundation members is one of the more striking findings. Nearly three-quarters (72.97%) have one or more college degrees, while this is true of less than a quarter of the population at large.

More than a third (38%) have one undergrad degree (compared to 14.9% of the general population), more than a third (36.6%) have a Masters (compared to 4.7% of the general population), and 9% have a Ph.D. (compared to .9% of the general population), meaning Foundation members are ten times more likely to have earned a doctorate. More than a quarter (29%) of the membership have at least two degrees. Two members reported having earned five degrees. Of course, "self-education" is an essential factor for many Foundation members of whatever level of education.

In keeping with the higher level of education, 16% are in the teaching profession--the highest single profession listed including 57 professors. The second highest profession listed was engineering, followed by "computer," and physicians, comprising 4% of the Foundation membership.

Foundation members represent a diversity of professions: nurses, government and postal workers, psychologists, dentists, pilots, artists, actors, farmers, scientists, factory workers, editors, journalists, secretaries, accountants, musicians, professional photographers, homemakers, students, truckers, attorneys, librarians, and seven identifying as "minister or former minister."

Nearly half of Foundation members (48.12%) are retired and nearly 40% do regular volunteer work.

Foundation members are twice as likely to be male as female, but two-thirds actively support organizations working for women's rights.

Two-thirds belong to environmental causes and population control groups.

Of the nearly three-quarters with religious backgrounds, the highest number (nearly 30%) were raised Roman Catholic (consistent with the Catholic Church being the single largest U.S. denomination). Protestant sects and splinters would outnumber Catholic if combined, as is also true of the general population. Runner-up rejected religions: 19% Methodist, 14.5% (unspecified) Baptist, 12% Lutheran, 9% Presbyterian, 7% Jewish, 6.7% Episcopalian. Former Southern Baptists comprised only 4%, "Pentecostal" a lowly 1.14%, Mormon 1.03% and Jehovah Witness 0.8%.

A significant minority, 17%, were raised in "freethought homes." Also significant is the fact that slightly more than a third who considered themselves raised in religious homes said one parent was religious and the other was not, suggesting some healthy cognitive dissonance and role modeling.

Freethinkers, according to this survey, tend to be fairly feisty but lonely. Although 56% agree "I speak out freely about my lack of religion," one-third concur with such statements as "I am wary of letting others know I reject religion," and "I often feel like the only 'infidel' in my area." Only a third report that their "immediate family members are also freethinkers." Two-thirds feel they do not have "an adequate freethought 'support system.' "

A question about the primary catalyst prompting rejection of religion provoked a wide variety of responses. Some lighter responses included: "learning to read," "having an IQ of 135," being "miffed by the statements in my confirmation certificate."

Several members put prayer to the test, including one whose awakening came after "praying to pass a spelling test at about 10 years but flunking anyway."

Most raised serious issues: "Birth control was not allowed. After 10 children I began to think. Enough!"

"At age 13," wrote another member, "I overheard a description of a brutal rape and figured out that Jesus didn't suffer as much as that woman."

Although a few cite such a life experience ephiphany, most common catalysts were reading, education, intellect, science and other thought processes. Four percent of members credit "reading the bible" with their deconversion! Reading in general was cited by another 9%, many of whom named secular authors (Bertrand Russell the most influential, followed by Robert Ingersoll, Thomas Paine, and the Foundation's own Dan Barker). "Education" was listed by 9% and science and evolution by 7%.

Feminist issues and religious sexism were the final straw for 3%. Some 10% cited various other disillusionments with religion and the harm it causes, such as religious hypocrisy, black collar crimes, wars and divisiveness, and even the observed conduct of religious people. Twelve presumably ex-Catholic freethinkers cited "Catholicism" as the main reason for their nontheism. Others simply credited maturity.

Freethought is very strongly correlated with the wisdom of age. People in their seventies comprised the single highest grouping by age (at 22%), closely followed by those in the 60-69-year subset (19%); 50-59 year-olds (18%); 40-49 year-olds (16%); 11% "thirtysomethings," and 3.4% "twentysomethings." This appears to coincide with lower participation in memberships and causes in general by young adults, who don't tend to be joiners.

Several "in house" questions were asked. The membership overwhelmingly (93%) indicated satisfaction with the current policy of alternating national annual conventions between the Midwest and other regions. Top vote-getters of the 701 convention sites promoted by members: Seattle; Washington, D.C.; Portland, OR; San Francisco; Atlanta, and Florida in some location or another.

A whopping 79% of membership responded "yes" to the following question:

"The world has reached 6 billion in human population. Do you think the Foundation should be more vocal in working for population control since the major opponent is organized religion?"

Foundation members are definitely activists. Asked which of the Foundation's two functions is most important--challenging abuses of separation of church and state, or education regarding nontheism--more than two-thirds called them of "equal importance." Of those preferring one purpose over the other, 28% chose challenging First Amendment violations, compared to only 6% choosing "education about nontheism."

More than a third (1,328 so far) of the Foundation's 3,800-plus Foundation membership, ranging in age from 10 to 97, returned a questionnaire, which was enclosed last year with the Foundation's newsletter "Private Line." Surveys are still trickling in. A national survey of 1,000 people is considered significant.

The general population educational statistics used for basis of comparison come from the Digest of Education Statistics, published by the National Center for Education Statistics, Department of Education, 1997.

Published in Back Issues
%914 %America/Chicago, %2013

Religion, Spirituality & Medicine

This speech was delivered on November 6, 1999, before the 22nd annual convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, St. Anthony Hotel, San Antonio.

Richard Sloan is the lead author of a recent article in the prestigious medical journal Lancet cautioning physicians not to prescribe religion as medicine.


Thank you very much for inviting me to join this group of risk-takers. I was unaware of how much a group of risk-takers you were. It's one thing to support atheism--but that breakfast! I mean, bacon, eggs, cheese, and fried tomatoes!

I want to tell you a little bit about why I became interested in this, and what we've done. You can't go a week without finding some article in the popular press or in the popular broadcast media about a new study demonstrating that religious activity promotes health. Sometimes it's mental health outcomes, sometimes it's physical health outcomes. But it's ubiquitous in the press.

It's an interesting question. Is it really possible that religious activity could be associated with better health outcomes? Inundated by this media deluge, my colleagues and I became interested in whether or not it was actually so, and so we started to look at the literature.

The literature is enormous. There is an enormous number of papers published in the scientific and medical literature in one way or another assessing the relationship between religious activity and health outcomes.

You will hear proponents of this point of view say there are thousands of studies, and three-quarters of them, as one of them says, indicate beneficial outcomes of religious activity. In fact, there are thousands of studies, but at least half of the studies don't look at religion as a factor influencing health outcomes, but rather look at religion as a consequence of health conditions. So, for example, someone mentioned earlier the old folk wisdom, "There are no atheists in foxholes." Well, in a medical foxhole, presumably that may be true as well. An enormous number of studies supposedly about religion and health actually look at whether people become more religious when confronted with health crises. Whether or not that's so, I don't know. We didn't look at that literature.

What we were interested in was looking at the literature that purports to show that being religious or engaging in religious activities in one way or another promotes better health. Because there are still hundreds and hundreds of papers about this topic, we restricted our analysis only to cases in which physical disease outcomes--which are more easily measurable--were the supposed outcome of religious activities. I can't speak to the literature on mental health outcomes because I haven't reviewed that literature.

Interest in religion is widespread in this country. There are national newspaper articles all the time about the substantial fraction of people in the United States who profess a belief in God, and attend religious ceremonies on a regular basis. Within the medical community, there is also a considerable and growing interest. There are NIH-funded seminars and meetings sponsored by the National Institute of the Aging, which is one of the National Institutes of Health, on religion and spirituality and medicine. Other national medical meetings also have focused on this topic.

A survey conducted by the American Academy of Family Physicians in 1996 indicated, astonishingly, that 99% of the participants professed strong religious belief--these are physicians. And 75% of them believe that prayers of others could promote a patient's health. Harvard cardiologist Herbert Benson, who is most noted for his work on the relaxation response, has written in one of his popular books, Timeless Healing, that humans are "wired for God." That's what he said, "wired for God," meaning it is hardwired somewhere in the brain that we believe in God.

Physicians like Dale Matthews of Georgetown and David Larson, who has an adjunct appointment at Duke and is the director of a misleadingly named organization, the National Institute for Healthcare Research, have written that it is time for us to "tear down the wall of separation between the twin traditions of medicine and religion." Matthews has gone even further to say, in an article in the New York Times magazine section about 18 months ago, that the future of medicine is "prayer and Prozac." Matthews and his colleagues recommend asking patients who respond favorably to whether religion is helpful in handling their illness: "What can I do to help support your religious faith or commitment?" There is a concerted effort on the part of a relatively small number of well-funded researchers to bring religion into medicine.

To address this, you have to look at two aspects of this problem. One: You have to look at the state of empirical evidence--is the evidence good that religion is associated with better health outcomes? Two: Irrespective of the answer to that question, you have to consider the substantial ethical issues raised by bringing religious activity into medicine. We sought to do that.

To begin with the empirical evidence, you need to understand there are typically two kinds of studies done in medicine research. There are epidemiologic studies in which you look at large populations and attempt to determine associations between characteristics and outcomes. So, for example, you might look at the association between frequency of attendance at religious ceremonies and health outcomes. That's done all the time in this literature.

The problem with that kind of study is that it takes people who are already inclined to be religious, and compares them to people who are not inclined to be religious. Those two groups of people may differ in fundamental ways, in addition to whether or not they're religious or not. It may be that those other, fundamental ways in which they differ influence the outcome. Nonetheless, for example, the epidemiologic studies demonstrating that smoking is associated with increased rates of cancer and heart disease were central and fundamental to understanding how smoking affects health, and led to our current approach to smoking within medicine.

So epidemiological studies are very important, but without experimental studies of one sort or another, they are only part of the picture. By an experimental study, I mean taking a group of research subjects and randomly assigning them to different conditions. Typically, intervention trials in medicine take the form of experiments in which people are randomly assigned to either receive a medication or not receive a medication, to receive a surgical procedure or not receive a surgical procedure, receive certain kinds of advice or not receive certain kinds of advice. Then you examine the difference between those two groups after some interval to determine whether that treatment has an impact.

So, for example, you could, in the case of smoking cessation, conduct a very simple experiment. You could take a group of physicians and have them on a random basis, either give or not give their patients the following advice: "I, as your physician, recommend that you stop smoking, because the health consequences of smoking are very serious." That's the intervention.

You could determine whether patients who receive that intervention stop smoking at a higher rate than patients who don't receive that intervention. That seems like a very simple thing, but in fact study after study has demonstrated that simply telling your patients that you recommend that they do not smoke doubles the quit rate. That's an intervention. We can assume, because the groups are randomly assigned, that there's no difference between the groups and that therefore, it is the "intervention" that has the impact.

The problem with most of the studies in the religion and health literature is that they are not intervention studies, rather they are epidemiologic studies which look at associations between variables, between church attendance, or frequency of prayer, or self-reported reading of the bible, and then health outcomes. Of course, the people who read the bible on a regular basis, or the people who report that they pray or go to religious activities on a regular basis, differ in that respect from people who don't, but they may differ in many other respects. So it's essential for these studies which purport to show relationships between religious activity and health to look for the other possible confounding variables that may account for the relationship.

Here is a hypothetical example of an egregious case of failing to account for confounders. There is no doubt that people who carry matches in their pockets develop lung cancer more frequently than people who don't. [laughter] How many of you believe that it's the matches? [more laughter] Obviously, there is another factor at work. Matches are associated with smoking cigarettes and it's cigarettes that are the active agent.

We want to know if it is true that people who are regular attenders of religious services, for example, show increased longevity and better health. Is that what the operative factor is, or is there something else? What you must do as a methodologist is to attempt to identify other factors which may contribute to this outcome. In fact, most of the studies in the literature simply fail to do that. I don't mean to be critical of studies that were conducted 20, 30 or 40 or more years ago, because our methodological standards today are different from those of an earlier era. But nonetheless, studies that fail to control for confounders and covariates cannot be taken--despite the fact that there are hundreds of them, maybe even thousands of them--as seriously as evidence that religion is associated with better health outcomes.

Here's an example. In 1971, George Comstock, a very senior epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins, published a paper showing that attendance at church was associated with reduced mortality at a follow-up seven years later. This study is cited over and over by proponents of this position. What these proponents never report is that seven years later, in 1978, Comstock retracted that finding, on the following basis. He said that he failed to account for the fact that by looking at people who go to church and contrasting them with people who don't go to church, he missed the effect of previous illness. That is, people who are already too sick, i.e., are functionally incapacitated, can't go to church, and people who are already too sick die at a higher rate than people who aren't so sick. So the effect of church attendance on mortality was entirely wiped out by considering functional status. Comstock publicly retracted this finding in a paper published in a major journal in 1978.

That 1978 paper is never ever cited by the proponents of this point of view, which leads me to another issue. There are differences between primary and secondary sources in science. A primary source is the account of the actual experiment, the paper itself. Then there are reports and reviews, which are the secondary sources. Problems exist in both arenas. In some of the primary sources, studies are very poorly conducted, and the reviews often are selective, even when people review their own work. It's quite astonishing!

I recently reviewed a manuscript in this general area submitted to the journal Psychosomatic Medicine. One of the authors also was an author of a well-conducted paper published last year in the journal Demography. It showed that religious attendance was associated with reduced mortality. The paper I was reviewing asserted that this effect of religious attendance on health outcomes pertained to all causes of mortality. For example, it would pertain to heart disease, cancer, respiratory diseases, infectious diseases, diabetes, etc. But that wasn't true, despite the fact the same author appeared on both papers. The author of the Demography paper had, in the manuscript under review, misreported his own findings, published only a few months earlier! The effect was barely true for cardiovascular diseases, wasn't true at all for cancer, wasn't true at all for diabetes. In fact, the strongest effect was only for respiratory diseases. This is a particularly graphic example of how secondary sources often misreport what is published in previous papers.

One of the most important things to consider when you hear reports of association between religious activity and health outcomes is to ask whether potential other variables--confounders and covariates--actually can account for the findings. In the best studies, the most recent studies with very large databases and thousands of subjects, you can statistically control for the possibility that other factors may account for the findings. When you do that, sometimes you see an effect, and sometimes you don't. But there is by no means an overwhelming evidence base that religious activity is associated with better health outcomes. So one of the major problems in the literature is the failure to control for these other factors which may account for the findings.

Another problem in the literature is what we have referred to as the problem of multiple comparisons. Science operates not out of certainty, but out of probability. So when you conduct an experiment, when you report a finding, you indicate the degree to which you are certain that it is not attributable to chance, or the degree to which you are certain that the effect is due to what you say it's due to. Science typically takes as its criterion 95% certainty. If you say that A is greater than B, it's to the degree that you are 95% certain that A is greater than B. But every time you make a comparison, you increase the likelihood of discovering that A is greater than B merely by chance.

The group at Duke which publishes a lot in this area typically fails to address this problem. And in fact, they report that they fail to do this. For example, they published a study in 1997 in the International Journal of Psychiatry and Medicine, ranked as the 41st most prestigious journal within the field of psychiatry [laughter], but nonetheless gets a lot of press, showing that even after controlling for relative covariates and confounders, that subjects who regularly report going to church have lower levels of Interluken-6, an index of immune function. This finding was statistically significant at the 95% certainty level. But what the authors also report is that they measured eight different measures of immune function. Basically, what they were doing was fishing until they found something that was significant. Then they reported it. If you're going to measure eight variables, then you have to adjust what constitutes an adequate level of statistical significance by the fact that you are making eight different comparisons, and you are increasing by eightfold the possibility of finding something significant purely by chance. They actually reported that they did this but the paper was published nevertheless. This is the second problem with the empirical literature.

The third problem is that the findings are all over the map. In some cases, you find that church attendance is associated with reduced mortality and increased longevity, and in other studies, equally large, equally well-conducted, you find that it's not. If there is any regular effect, you should expect some consistency of result. Sometimes you find self-reported frequency of prayer is associated with beneficial outcomes and sometimes you don't.

A paper recently published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine showed that among elderly patients undergoing coronary artery bypass surgery, those who reported feeling increasing levels of strength and comfort survived three times longer than those who didn't. That's interesting. However, the authors also reported that church attendance did not predict, and frequency of bible-reading did not predict, and all the other indices of religious activity did not predict any differences in mortality. Only the finding about strength and comfort provided by religion made the popular press.

For there to be any basis whatsoever in making religious activity an adjunctive medical treatment, there has to be solid and consistent evidence of the sort you see from the smoking literature. We can demonstrate that smoking is associated with health outcomes both at the epidemiologic level but we can also do it at the tissue level, the animal level, the cellular level. We can show in many different ways how smoking is associated with poorer health outcomes.

We cannot do that with religion, because there is no consistency of findings and moreover we can't conduct animal studies or cellular studies, because you can't make monkeys religious or not religious. [laughter] And of course you cannot conduct an experiment because you cannot randomly say, "Okay, this group is going to become religious, and this group is not going to become religious." So we are stuck with the problem that there are pre-existing differences between those who practice religion and those who do not.

Those are the three general problems of the scientific literature in the area: the failure to control for confounding variables; the failure to control for fishing for the data and making multiple comparisons, and the inconsistent findings.

I want to talk for a moment about the study that was published two weeks ago in the Archives of Internal Medicine on the impact of intercessory prayer in the coronary care unit. This is actually not an epidemiologic population study; it was a real experiment in which half of the patients in the coronary care unit in a Kansas City hospital were assigned to receive prayer from Christian intercessors, and half were assigned not to receive prayer from these intercessors. Patients did not know that they were receiving prayer, or even that they were in an experiment--which raises some ethical issues in and of itself.

They reported, and I'm sure most of you saw it in the news, that there was about a 10% advantage in the medical course these patients had in the coronary care unit, compared to those who didn't receive prayer. Most of the work on religion and health is published in lower level journals, but this is the Archives of Internal Medicine, an esteemed, AMA publication and--at least until this publication--deservedly so. [laughter]

Here's what did not receive attention in the press. The Christian intercessors who were to pray for the subject in the study were instructed to pray for a speedy recovery and no complications. The authors themselves pointed out that the two groups, those who received prayer and those who didn't, did not differ in length of stay in the coronary care unit, and they didn't differ in length of stay in the hospital. In other words, there was no difference in the speed of recovery! They didn't even comment. It's an astonishing omission and the reviewers apparently didn't pick it up either.

The only difference between the two groups was in the scale that they constructed to assess the course in the coronary care unit. Now, scale construction, in the medical sciences, is not only an art, it's a science. You don't just make up scales that purport to measure things.

The scale consisted of the following. All of the patients were given values if they had certain events. So, for example, if they were in CCU and they required an antibiotic, they got 1 point. If they required an antianginal agent, like nitroglycerine, they got another point. If they required cardiac catheterization, they got 3 points, and if they died they got 6 points. [laughter]

Presumably, there is a relationship between the events and the values. Presumably, catheterization, valued at 3 points, is three times as bad as requiring an antibiotic, valued at 1 point. How do we know that it's three times as bad? Maybe it's four times as bad. Maybe it's six times as bad. We have no evidence, so the scale fails on that ground. The most astonishing aspect of the study is that the authors reported the difference between the two groups in two ways: first, using the weighted scale, meaning that the different values from different events were summed, and second, using the unweighted scale, i.e., simply counting the number (but not the weights) of the events. That is, they counted how many bad events the prayer group had and compared it to the number the control group had. This is completely ridiculous! It means somebody who died--one bad event, but a bad one [laughter]--is better off than someone who required antianginal agents, antibiotics, and cardiac catheterization! [laughter] Now I suppose we could give patients the choice of which they would prefer. [laughter] As soon as the paper came out, we sent a letter to the editor of the Archives pointing this out.

Those are the empirical issues. It's very clear there is nowhere near enough evidence to justify tearing down the wall of separation between religion and medicine, and there is nowhere near enough evidence to support Matthews' assertion that the future of medicine is going to be "prayer and Prozac."

But forgetting about the empirical issues, there are significant ethical issues that are raised by attempts to bring religion into medicine. We focus on three. There are certainly more.

The first one is the physician-patient relationship, and the power physicians have, even in these days of consumerism in medicine. You see a physician because you seek medical expertise, in the same way you would go to a tax attorney because you seek expertise in tax law. That means that the physician is, by the nature of the relationship, entitled to assume that you will follow his or her recommendations. That's the whole point. The patient seeks expertise and the physician wants the patient to follow the medical recommendations. That's all well and good, and appropriate, in the context of medicine. But when physicians depart from a medical agenda to pursue a nonmedical one, then they abuse their relationship as experts. That raises the risk of religious coercion.

If people want to be religious, they ought to have the opportunity to be so, and if they don't want to be religious, they ought to feel free to do so as well. We don't need physicians telling us whether we should do that or not. It's just not appropriate. One of the ethical problems is this implicit coercion and it is certainly not hard to imagine that that occurs.

The proponents of this point of view--Koenig and Larson and Matthews--all say that they probe first, as part of taking a history: "Do you smoke? drink? how much exercise do you get? what's your prayer life like?" I think it's important for physicians to know about all aspects of patients, including whether or not they're deeply religious. It's important to understand. There's a very big difference between taking into account religious factors, and taking them on as objects of intervention.

I want to come back to one point about the logical problem that proponents of this point of view find themselves in, although they don't realize it, of course. They say--although I'm not sure that we should believe it--that they would not force religion onto anybody. They will only recommend religious activity, or engage in religious activity, with their patients, if the patients clearly indicate a willingness to do this. But then they also assert that the evidence is overwhelming that religious activity promotes health. It seems to me that by taking the former stance, that they will only engage in religious activity if their patients are open and receptive to it, they are derelict in their duties as physicians. It's like saying to a patient: "You've got pneumonia. What's your feeling about antibiotics? Are you in favor of them, or not?" [laughter] Physicians don't do that. They say: "I recommend that you take antibiotics," because there's a consensus that antibiotics are an appropriate treatment for pneumonia. Nobody disputes that. If they're saying the evidence is so strong that religion is associated with good health outcomes, then they're derelict in their duty by not recommending religious activity to every patient, regardless of their feelings!

The second ethical problem, which in some ways is the most interesting, is the limits of medical intervention. There is no end to the number of factors, personal and socioeconomic, that influence health outcomes. For example, it is well-established that marital status confers benefits to health. While this marital effect may be stronger for men than for women, in general people who are married live longer and they are more healthy than people who are not. If you as a single person were to visit a physician, what would you say if the physician said, "You know, Bob, there's this massive amount of evidence suggesting that marital status is good for your health, so I as your physician recommend that you get married." [laughter] You all laugh. Why do you laugh? It's as consistent as expecting that if people who are religious live longer, that you should engage in religious activity. The reason physicians don't do it in the case of marriage, and in the case of financial and socioeconomic status, which are also associated with good health, is because we believe there are certain aspects of our lives that are private and personal, and even if they have an impact on health, are out-of-bounds from medicine.

The third ethical problem, and perhaps the one that is most serious, is the possibility of actually doing harm. Patients, even in these days, confront the age-old folk wisdom that illness is due to moral failure. Let me give you an example that comes from my own experience as a researcher.

I was visiting a research patient in an oncology unit. The patient was in a semi-private room, and she had just had a biopsy, and she was waiting for the biopsy results. The other patient, at that time surrounded by her family, also was waiting for her biopsy results. While I was there, the biopsy for the second patient came back, and it was negative. I'll never forget this. Her father said, "We're good people. We deserve this." Now how was the patient I was visiting supposed to feel when her biopsy came back positive? Was she supposed to say, "I'm not a good person, that's why I got cancer? Am I insufficiently devout, am I insufficiently faithful?" When you suggest that religious activity is associated with better health, you implicitly suggest quite the opposite: that poor health is a product of insufficient devotion, insufficient faith. It's bad enough to be sick. It's worse still to be catastrophically ill. To add the burden of guilt and remorse on top of that is simply unconscionable. And that happens all the time.

So for a variety of ethical reasons, it seems clear to me, regardless of what the empirical evidence is, that bringing religion into medicine not only makes no sense, it's simply wrong to do, even if there were solid evidence--which, of course, there isn't.

So . . . there's just no solid evidence, and the ethical problems are so serious they have to be addressed. We should simply not tolerate attempts to bring religion into medicine until these matters have been resolved.

Audience Questions

Do a lot of failed studies not get reported?
That's usually referred to as the "file-drawer effect" in science. It's impossible to know, because the bias in scientific publications is toward studies that show effects. Every once in a while you do see publication of studies in which the findings are negative or at least counter-intuitive. I did just come across a paper in Social Science in Medicine, published in May of this year, following 250 hospitalized patients in London who were identified as either having spiritual beliefs or not. Those who had spiritual beliefs, nine month later, were worse off than those who didn't. That didn't make the national news, but did make Salon.com, on the internet. It wasn't on ABC, I can tell you that.

Question about any studies on Christian Scientists who rely exclusively on religious treatment as opposed to conventional medical treatment.
I don't know whether they live longer than others. There are certainly celebrated cases of Christian Scientists or their children who have died in pursuit of their religious beliefs.

Could the placebo effect account for many of the findings?
The answer certainly is "yes." I find it ironic though, that that point was made by proponents of this point of view, that it might be the placebo effect. It seems to me that religious people should be deeply offended by the suggestion that religion is a placebo. [laughter]

What can be done when a physician oversteps his or her bounds and intrudes on the realm of the personal and the private?

I don't know that you can report it to any regulatory board. What you can do is find a new physician.

Given the evidence of methodological shortcomings in this literature, is there an agenda behind this?

I don't know the answer to that. So far as I know, there has been no investigation of that. I was actually delighted to be on the bill with Barbara Ehrenreich, because I thought she's the kind of person who could do that, following the money that supports a lot of this research. I think that should be done.

Question about whether medical protocol was violated in the 1988 study by Randolph Byrd published in the Southern Medical Journal on cardiac patients.
I know the Byrd paper very well. It makes all kinds of methodological flaws, but I don't know anything about protocol violations, and haven't seen anything to that effect. When you talk about protocol violations, you are talking about treating patients. And there are relatively few studies that talk about treating patients. Most of the studies are population studies: comparing two groups, one of which is religious, and one which is not, or varying degrees of religion. So the medical protocol is irrelevant. There are very few experiments in which people are randomly assigned to either receive some kind of intervention and not receive some kind of intervention which is religious based.

Are there any different results from religious differences in the people assigned to pray for patients?
Great question! Let's just talk about the intercessors. What would we ever do with a finding that prayers to Allah were more efficacious than prayers to Jesus? [laughter, clapping] That question highlights the absurdity of some of these investigations. Even if you showed an effect, what would you do? We raised the point in the Lancet paper: what if it were unequivocally shown that it was better to be Protestant than Catholic? Better to be Protestant than Jewish? What then? Should physicians counsel conversion?

Comment about it's being almost impossible to go into a doctor's or dentist's office in South Carolina without finding bibles there, and having a doctor who admitted he doesn't believe in evolution.
Find another doctor!

How do the researchers know that the people in the control group, presumably those not receiving the prayers of the intercessors, weren't receiving prayers from anybody else?

After all, there are people who pray every day for all the sick, right? They actually address this question, but don't really give a good answer. But the only answer can be that if the effect is real, there is basically a dose response effect. The more you get, the better! What else can it be? [laughter]

The question is if religion is demonstrably efficacious, if it really influences longevity, morbidity and mortality, and the quality of life, why don't the insurance companies get in on it?

That really cuts to the chase. The answer is obvious!

Richard P. Sloan, Ph.D, is director, Behavioral Medicine Program, Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, New York, NY. He is an associate professor, Department of Psychiatry, at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University. He is also Chief of the Department of Behavioral Medicine at New York State Psychiatric Institute. He received his B.S., Biology, Union College, Schenectady, and his M.A. and Ph.D Psychology, New School for Social Research, New York City. He is a New York State Licensed Psychologist. He and colleagues have explored and criticized the purported links between religion, spirituality and health appearing in popular and medical journals.

Published in Back Issues

This is excerpted from a speech and accompanying slideshow presented on July 31, 1999 to the Northern California FFRF Mini-Convention, Holiday Inn Civic Center, San Francisco.


People are often surprised at how extensive anti-evolutionism is in this country. The Gallup organization has asked three questions for a number of years about evolution and creationism. Question one (young earth creationism): Do you think God created humans pretty much in our present form at one time within the last 10,000 years? Question two (theistic evolution): Do you think we developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process, including our creation? The third question: Do you think we have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, and God had no part in the process?

The answers to these three questions have been consistent over many years. For about the last 12 or 13 years, about 45% of Americans agree with young earth creationism. The theistic evolution question is agreed to by a very substantial proportion of Americans, something in the range of 35%. And the atheist response is around 10%, which of course also reflects the amount of religiosity in American society.

The National Science Foundation has asked a question: Human beings as we know them today developed from earlier species of animals--true or false? Fewer than half of Americans agreed that is true. The National Science Foundation also asked a question: Humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time--true or false? Less than half of Americans know this is false (48% in 1995; 51% in 1997). Basically, less than half or barely half of Americans realize the "Flintstones" was not a documentary!

In general, adult Americans are not very impressive in their understanding of scientific ideas. A number of other polls all come up with similar results. The percentage of Americans which accepts evolution is pretty small. The low acceptance of evolution is specific to America and Canada.

Darwin's Origin of Species was written in 1859. In both Great Britain and the United States, the idea of evolution through natural selection was gradually accepted by the scientific community and, by the way, the theological community. The Church of England very quickly accommodated its theology to the idea of evolution. So did the Catholics and the mainline Protestants (as differentiated from fundamentalist Protestants).

You are familiar with the Scopes trial, which is, of course, the best example but not really the culmination of the effort to ban evolution. Why were there a lot of laws passed in the early 1920s banning evolution? Two things in the United States fostered an anti-evolutionary fervor. First, high school education increased enormously from the turn of the century, with 200,000 attending in 1890 to 1,800,000 by 1920. That meant more students were exposed to that "damnable doctrine," evolution. Also during this time frame was the growth of a particular, maybe peculiarly American religious institution, called fundamentalism. The writing of a series of booklets called The Twelve Fundamentals presented a back-to-basics Christianity that was widely embraced by many Americans. The combination of fundamentalism plus more students being exposed to evolution caused an anti-evolutionary movement that was really not paralleled elsewhere.

This growing exposure to children of the idea of evolution generated a series of efforts by a number of state legislatures to ban the teaching of evolution. The state of Tennessee passed a law, which the ACLU offered to challenge. John T. Scopes in Dayton, Tennessee, was talked into being the plaintiff, and you know the rest of the story. Everybody, particularly on our side of this kind of an issue, remembers the Scopes trial from the eyes of Clarence Darrow and H.L. Mencken. What we tend to forget is that Scopes lost, and those laws stayed on the books.

In fact, they stayed on the books until 1968, when Epperson v. Arkansas, a Supreme Court decision, struck down anti-evolution laws.

Every law since Epperson having to do with creation and evolution has been decided on the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion [the Establishment Clause] or prohibiting the free exercise thereof [the Free Exercise Clause]." Those two clauses can be in conflict with each other. One person's free exercise is another one's establishment.

In Epperson, the justices wrote that "there can be no doubt that the First Amendment does not permit the state to require that teaching and learning must be tailored to the principles or prohibitions of any religious sect or dogma. . . . As Mr. Justice Clark stated, 'the state has no legitimate interest in protecting any or all religions from views distasteful to them.' " Just because a religion disagrees with an idea is no reason to remove it from the curriculum.

The time of the Epperson decision was also a period of revolution in science education, brought about by the scare that the Russians put into us when they got to space first with Sputnik. This resulted in the National Science Foundation investing a lot of money in the production of textbooks, including biology textbooks that were actually written by scientists and master teachers, instead of being written by publishing companies. The scientists who wrote these new textbooks took a look at what was on the market and were absolutely appalled, because since 1925 and the Scopes trial, the discussion of evolution in textbooks decreased rapidly. By the late '50s and early '60s there was virtually no evolution in high school biology books. These NSF-funded programs like the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, BSCS, put evolution back. They also put human reproduction in too, so we had both sex and evolution. These books were really radical, you can tell!

Evolution was back in the textbooks and you couldn't ban it because the Supreme Court had declared that unconstitutional, so what do you do if you want to protect your kids from evolution? Well, what you do is you invent something called "creation science," arguing that this is a legitimate scientific alternative to evolution, with a right to a piece of the curriculum.

The people who wanted to ban evolution, as well as the creation science people, view evolution as an idea that children should be protected against. They think that if evolution is true, therefore there is no God. If there is no God then there's no salvation and Johnny's not going to go to heaven. Worse yet, he'll go to the other place. If there's no God, then there's no reason to be good, there's no God looking over your shoulder and as we all know, all of us who are nonbelievers are out there raping, pillaging and cheating our fellow man anyway, right?

But in all seriousness, this is the point of view held by these people. They cannot imagine how anybody could be good unless you were being told to be good by some higher authority. So because there's no reason to be good, therefore we're headed for social ruin and society will fall apart and we'll descend into a law of tooth and claw, the jungle will reign, etc.

Henry Morris is perhaps the most prominent of the creation scientists of the late 20th century. Henry Morris back in 1963 cowrote a book called The Genesis Flood which really outlined the scientific rationale for biblical literalist creation. Henry Morris has been a very strong proponent of the idea that evolution is an evil idea that will lead to social ruin. He has said that "evolution is at the foundation of communism, fascism, freudianism, social darwinism, behaviorism, Kinseyism, materialism, atheism, and in the religious world, modernism and neo-orthodoxy." The creation science people have been very active in presenting this link between evolution and evil. So you see where the motivation comes to fight against evolution in the schools. Very serious issues are at hand: children's salvation and the survival of society.

Mainline theology for Protestants and Catholics is called theistic evolution, if you remember Gallup's second question; evolution happened but it's the way God did it. In fact, John Paul II issued his second statement that evolution is okay with Catholics in 1996. It's amazing how many people are still surprised to hear that Catholics are not biblical literalists. So within Christian theology there is this very open door.

After Epperson came the strategy that you teach evolution and you teach creation science along with it because this is "good science," and it's "fair." Never underestimate the strength of the fairness argument. Twenty-three states between 1976 and 1981 tried to pass legislation requiring equal time for creation science and evolution. Fortunately, most of these died in committee. Louisiana and Arkansas did pass equal time laws.

Pause for just a moment and think a little about elected political bodies. The job of a political body is to find ways of getting the various diverse elements of society to get along so that things can happen. Compromise is actually the goal, to try to make as many people happy as possible and reach your goal of getting something done.

But sometimes this normally laudable approach backfires. Group A comes along and says, "2+2=4." Group B comes along and says, no, "2+2=6." Now, if you were a politician, a very probable decision that you might make is that "2+2=5." A lot of school boards have done this with equal time: let's teach 'em both. But there are times when 2+2 just has to equal 4, and this is one of them.

Public Agenda conducted a poll asking is the teaching in science class of the biblical view of creation and Darwin's theory of evolution equally valid? A very strong proportion of the American public agreed, hovering close to 40%. Equal time makes sense to them even though the equal time laws were struck down by a decision in 1987, Edwards v. Aguillard.

Unfortunately, Edwards v. Aguillard left a loophole. Justice Brennan wrote that "teaching a variety of scientific theories about humankind to schoolchildren might be validly done with the clear secular intent of enhancing the effectiveness of science instruction." He also wrote that "teachers already possess a flexibility to supplement the present science curriculum with a presentation of theories besides evolution," alternatives to evolution. So you can teach alternative scientific theories to evolution, according to the Supreme Court.

Consider if competing views of the shape of the earth were taught. They can teach the spherical, they can teach that it's triangular, they can teach that it's flat, as long as they present the "scientific evidence" for this. That is true with the case of evolution; they would be absolutely free to present secular scientific evidence for how things got to be as they are today other than evolution--but there ain't any. Things grind to a halt at this point.

I and some others have referred to this loophole as neo-creationism. Part of neo-creationism is to take the old creation science ideas and repackage them in a new format. For example, a school district outside of Minneapolis adopted standards in 1997 saying, "list and explain some of the data and scientific reasoning that tends to cast doubt on the evolutionary theory," in other words, encouraging teachers to attack evolution.

Well, teachers are very confused at this point, because they don't know of any scientific data against evolution. Besides, it makes evolution controversial, and most teachers at this point will say "we're just not going to get around to that topic this year." Teachers do not like controversy. This is a helping profession, right? They didn't get into teaching to fight. If they wanted to fight they could have become lawyers. Making evolution controversial is the best way to see that it doesn't get taught in the district. One of the ways of making evolution controversial is to require that the teachers either read a disclaimer about evolution or that they paste the text of the disclaimer in the textbook.

Next chapter. In Alabama, all of the biology books have a disclaimer which starts out this way: "This textbook discusses evolution, a controversial theory some scientists present as a scientific explanation for the origin of living things, such as plants, animals and humans. [Big misunderstanding coming up now.] No person was present when life first appeared on earth, therefore, any statement about life's origins should be considered as theory, not fact."

I'm sorry I have to use the F-word. I apologize. You are a distinguished and sophisticated audience and I hope you will understand that this is not just gratuitous profanity but it is necessary at this point to use the F-word. Something happens when you say "Evolution is a fact." People just unglue. Letters to the editor just fulminate with rage over the idea that evolution is taught as fact, not theory.

Yes, science talks about facts, but do you know what a fact is? A fact is a confirmed observation. I'm holding a paper clip in my hand; if I do not support this paper clip how many of you think it's going to fly around the room? Not many. It's because we've all noticed and we've made many confirmed observations that unsupported objects that have some sort of weight and mass fall toward the earth. Things fall, they don't fly around the room. We explain that observation that we've made over and over by the theory of gravitation--that the mass of that paper clip and the mass of the earth attract each other. (It so happens that the mass of the earth is a bit bigger than that of the paper clip so that the paper clip moves farther toward the earth than the other way around, but those are details.)

We explain observation, we explain facts, by theories. What is a theory? A theory is a logical construct of facts and hypotheses that explains natural phenomena. Explanation is what theories are all about--which makes theories the most important thing we do in science. There are a lot of theories in science. There's cell theory, the theory that all living things are composed of cells. There's atomic theory, the theory that all matter is made up of atoms and component parts. Heliocentric theory, the theory that the earth and the other planets go around the sun. This is an inference that we made based upon a lot of confirmed observations, but it is a theory.

This is not the way that "theory" is understood in the general public, however. A theory as we use it casually means a guess or a hunch, something that you shouldn't pay much attention to, far from being the goal of all scientific exploration and discovery.

We see a lot of general wimping out on evolution. This year the state of Nebraska considered its state science education standards, and evolution was included within them. These standards were drawn up by a competent group of scientists and teachers. One of the statements said "investigate and understand that natural selection provides a scientific explanation of the fossil record and explains the molecular singularities among the diverse species of living organisms."

That's a good standard to expect high school students to understand coming out of a high school biology class. This did not sit well with the attorney general who is running for governor, but we won't mention that. He forced a modification of this: "investigate whether natural selection provides scientific explanation of the fossil record and explains the molecular singularities." See what I mean about wimping out? There are a lot of these little weasel words that slide into standards, disclaiming evolution, degrading it.

The net effect is to present the idea to students, teachers and the public that evolution is somehow different from all other sciences, that it's not as trustworthy, that you don't have to take it as seriously as other scientific ideas.

If nothing else evolves, creationism does. Certainly if we look at the history of this movement through time, we can see that things have changed through time, which is the definition of evolution. We have gone from trying to ban evolution, to giving it equal time with something called creation science, to these various neo-creationism efforts to disclaim it, to have "alternatives" to evolution taught with it. I don't have time to talk about something called intelligent design theory, but you can read my review of Robert Pennock's book Tower of Babel: Evidence Against The New Creationists, a critique of the new creationism, in the August [1999] Scientific American. Or better yet, read Pennock's book. You'll have a very good introduction to the intelligent design creationism which is becoming quite the thing these days.

What may well happen is that the amount of evolution taught in public schools will even further decrease. This would be a very unfortunate outcome because as the very distinguished Russian-American geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky once said, "Seen in the light of evolution, biology is perhaps intellectually the most satisfying and inspiring science. Without that light it becomes a pile of sundry facts, some of them interesting or curious but making no meaningful picture as a whole."

He could have said the same thing about geology and astronomy. Both of these sciences in addition to biology don't make sense unless evolution happened, unless change through time happened. "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution."

We're talking about a problem of science literacy, but also a problem in church/state separation, because what is motivating anti-evolution is in fact religious ideology, and only one narrow portion of religious ideology, at that. People are sometimes surprised to hear that my best allies are members of the mainline clergy. They do not want creation science or any other kind of creationism taught Monday through Friday in the public schools, and then have to straighten the kids out as to what their theology is on Saturday. So when we get a problem at a local school board where they're trying to present creationism or intelligent design or arguments against evolution or other euphemisms, I tell local people: find yourself a clergyman.

One guy in a funny collar is worth two biologists any day at the school board. The scientists can get up there and say, "This is what science is, this is not science, this should not be taught," and the school board will be thinking "equal time, fairness, 2+2=5, we've got to make all these people happy." If a clergy gets up there and says, "Hey, we have our own ideas about creation, we don't want to have creation taught in the public schools, the public schools should be neutral, we want to teach creation our own way," the school board goes, "Ding!" You've got to prove that creationism is not science--that's necessary, but not sufficient. You also have to diffuse the religious issue. You also have to push church/state separation, the idea that we want the schools to be religiously neutral and that creationism is not a scientific idea, it is a religious idea.

Eugenie C. Scott, Ph.D., has been Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education, Inc., since 1987. The pro-evolution nonprofit science education organization has members in every state. She holds a Ph.D. in biological anthropology from the University of Missouri, has taught at the University of Kentucky, the University of Colorado, and in California State University System. An internationally-recognized expert on the creation/evolution controversy, she has consulted with the National Academy of Sciences, several State Departments of Education, and legal staffs here and abroad.

The NCSE can be reached at: PO Box 9477, Berkeley CA 94709-0477.

Published in Back Issues
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In The News

Religion Gets Charity Bucks

According to Giving USA, which monitors philanthropic giving, a record $175 billion was donated in 1998, but most didn't go to the poor. About 90% went to religious organizations and life enhancement groups (arts, universities). Contributions to human services represented only 9.2% of all giving.

According to the American Association of Fund-Raising Counsel, the largest single benefactor of charitable giving in 1998 was religion, receiving 43.6% of the money.

GOP Gives To Anti-Abortion Lobby

The National Republican Congress-ional Committee, an arm of the party funding U.S. House races, gave what the Scripps Howard News Service called a "seismic" contribution of $250,000 to the National Right to Life Committee.

Normally, lobbies fund politicians, not the other way around. "Many of the party's most stalwart loyalists," according to the news service, were shocked when the news was made public in late December.

Silverman Settles Claim

The ACLU, on behalf of plaintiff Carl Silverman, a Foundation member, settled a dispute with a minor league baseball team in January over the team's illegal practice of discounting tickets for church-goers.

The Hagerstown Suns, Maryland, will offer the discount to families bringing bulletins from civic or nonprofit groups, as well as to those bearing church bulletins. The claim with Maryland Commission on Human Relations was filed in 1998 against the Civil Rights Act violation.

Boy Scouts Booted Out

The public school system in Davis, California, adopted a policy in December barring its schools from sending home solicitations from the Boy Scouts because the group excludes atheists and gays. Parents argued that groups that discriminate should not be given special privileges, including access to student folders, bulletin boards, and parent-teacher association newsletters.

State/Church Worldwide

The House of Lords voted in December not to repeal a nearly 300-year-old law barring Catholics from the British throne.
British officials in December denied the Church of Scientology charitable status, saying it does not provide any public services.
The governor of Zamfara, a rural farming region in Nigeria, stunned the country by proclaiming on Oct. 27 that his state will be ruled by the Koran and Sharia, Islamic law. Five of Nigeria's 35 other states may follow suit.
El Salvador, which changed its penal code in 1998 to prohibit all abortion without exception, even to save the life of the woman, amended its Constitution last year giving fetuses more rights than women. The Central American country's constitution now declares that life begins at the moment of conception. Catholic-dominated Chile is the only other country in the world to ban all abortion.
Case Haunts Community

A 25-year sentence for first-degree murder handed down on Jan. 13 to David Mayer, El Cajon, for starving his toddler son to death does not end the community's horror over the short life of Zechariah. Mayer, diagnosed as deluded and "hyper-religious," had said "God does not like fat babies."

Zechariah, nearly 3, died a grotesquely emaciated 19 pounds last January, in his food-filled family apartment. An uncle said Mayer was so absorbed in prayer he did not see his son was starving, and called consuming belief a hallmark of the family's Baptist traditions.

Physicians, neighbors, jurors and detectives told the San Diego Union-Tribune the case haunts them. Some mentioned how the starved toddler would have smelled his parents cooking. Others are haunted by the fact that the child never crawled or walked, that his diaper rash became ulcerated, and that he was left in lonely pain in his crib in a dark room.

Maryland Good Friday Upheld

The U.S. Supreme Court in January let stand a decision by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upholding the closing of public schools in Maryland on Good Friday. The Associated Press erroneously put a report over the national wire claiming that Wisconsin was one of several states with Good Friday holidays. The Freedom From Religion Foundation won a federal lawsuit in 1996 overturning a Wisconsin Good Friday holiday.

The justices rejected an appeal without comment, from retired Maryland teacher Judith Koenick, who said the law "sends the message to nonChristians that the state finds Good Friday, and thus Christianity, to be a religion worth honoring while their religion or nonreligion is not of equal importance. That message is particularly significant in this case because it is being sent to schoolchildren." A similar challenge out of Indiana is still before the high court.

Voucher Developments

The U.S. Supreme Court on Dec. 13 rejected an appeal by Vermont parents seeking public subsidy of religious high school education, letting stand a state court decision.
U.S. District Judge Solomon Oliver Jr., ruled in December that Cleveland's taxpayer-funded school voucher program is unconstitutional.
Oliver found "the program has the effect of advancing religion through government-supported religious indoctrination." Cleveland's program, beginning in 1996, provided scholarships worth 90% of a private school's tuition (up to $2,500) for low-income students. More than 3,500 students participated, most attending religious schools. The strong ruling is expected to be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat, is considering giving private schools $7 million to buy textbooks, citing budget surpluses and a massive tobacco settlement. The campaign is spearheaded openly by the Maryland Catholic Conference, which originally also demanded $14 million for computer technology, but has put that aside while awaiting a Supreme Court case on federal funding of private (religious) school technology.
Church-School "Partnerships"

President Clinton released guidelines on Dec. 18 promoting "partnerships" between religious institutions and public schools, expanding on guidelines first released through the Department of Education in 1995 on religion in public schools.

". . . I have never believed the Constitution required our schools to be religion-free zones. . ." said Clinton.

Education Secretary Richard W. Riley sent a letter to every principal with a series of pamphlets, including guidelines for school officials on the limits of religious volunteerism. Although the guidelines repeat earlier injunctions against proselytizing, they contain mixed messages encouraging "partnerships." Tax dollars were apparently spent to enclose materials by the First Amendment Center encouraging the teaching of religion in public schools.

A "Clergy in the Schools" program in Beaumont, Texas, similar to what Clinton promoted, was found unconstitutional by a federal district court.

Ten Commandments Ups & Downs

Ashland County, Wisconsin, which displayed a donated Ten Commandments monument on the courthouse lawn since the 1950's, gave the monument to the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion in December. The county board voted to divest itself of the monument, citing a threatened First Amendment lawsuit and periodic vandalism. The decalog had been mothballed since November 1998, when it was last tipped over.
Judge Allen Sharp, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Indiana, issued a recent decision upholding a Ten Commandments monument outside Elkhart's City Hall since 1958. The plaintiffs, William Books and Michael Suetkamp, filed suit in May, 1998.
A Ten Commandments plaque, measuring 8 x 4 feet and weighing 100 pounds, was recently posted in the Sullivan County Courthouse, Bountville, Tennessee, along with presumably paper versions of the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights. The Sullivan Baptist Association raised money for the $4,000 plaque.
School board members in Scott County, Indiana, voted in November to post an "11-point code of conduct" closely resembling the Ten Commandments in schools, with such orders as: "Trust in God," "Respect authority," "Honor your parents and family members" and the modern addition of "Save sex for marriage." The Indiana Civil Liberties Union said it will seek an injunction against the posting.
A recall election on Dec. 7 failed to remove a commissioner who voted for a settlement removing a Ten Commandments from City Hall property in Manhattan, Kansas.
Georgia Nixes Bible Classes

Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker issued an opinion on Nov. 23 to the Georgia State Board of Education warning that bible teaching in public schools might not withstand judicial scrutiny. Georgia's Board of Education on Dec. 9 voted to reject paying for a curriculum produced by the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, an overtly Christian organization.

Board Chair Otis Brumby said, "the net effect of our approval would likely be minimal in terms of student enrollment but massive in terms of costly litigation."

In Florida, where a court had ruled against use of the bible curriculum in Lee County, 14 other counties are unconstitutionally preaching "bible as history," according to People for the American Way Foundation. Some 2,600 students have taken Christian-fundamentalist slanted classes in Clay, Columbia, Escambia, Gulf, Hillsborough, Indian River, Levy, Madison, Marion, Okaloosa, Polk, Santa Rosa, Taylor and Walton counties.

Crosses Galore For Cincinnati

A cross is a cross is a cross . . . whether put up by churches or the Ku Klux Klan, but Cincinnati-area churches smugly filled Fountain Square with their crosses last December, squeezing out the KKK. The Christian-based hate group won a federal ruling in 1997 that it could temporarily put up a 10-foot-tall cross on the city property over the holidays. The city policy is first-come, first-served.

FCC Defines "Educational"

The Federal Communications Commission made a determination in December that religious broadcasters holding noncommercial licenses must devote 50% of their regularly scheduled airtime to educational programs. Programming "primarily devoted to religious exhortation, proselytizing or statements of personally held religious views and beliefs generally would not qualify as 'general educational' programming," the FCC ruled. A footnote added that church services normally would not qualify as "educational."

According to the FCC, about 373 TV stations hold educational reserve licenses nationwide, with about 20 of them religious broadcasters.

Studies Favorable To Freethought

BBC's Top 10 poll of favorite songs, released last October, revealed that John Lennon's "Imagine" ("Imagine there's no heaven," "Imagine there's no religion,") is the nation's favorite. Imagine "Imagine" winning a poll in religion-drenched U.S.A.!
A survey released in December of 1,000 young Brits found Christian superstitions pale to others: only 39% professed any Christian beliefs, while 70% had "some belief" in ghosts and 61% in aliens.
A BBC radio survey announced in late December found that 97% of British church leaders do not believe in the literal biblical account of creation, while 25% do not believe Jesus was born of a virgin. The survey found that a majority of other public figures questioned, including politicians, teachers and scientists, are also skeptical of biblical claims.
In the United States, the probability of people "accepting Jesus Christ as their personal savior" drops off dramatically after age 14, according to Barna Research Group. The Christian researchers took a nationwide representative sampling of more than 4,200 young people and adults, which basically found what religionists have always known: young children are prime proselytizing material, but become less pliable after age 14.

Published in Back Issues

The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a lawsuit on Dec. 20 in U.S. District Court, western district of Wisconsin, challenging an unconstitutional item in the Wisconsin state budget authorizing $210,000 in public money for the purpose of "assisting local members of the clergy to develop community-wide standards of marriages."

The lawsuit, which has been assigned to Federal Judge John Shabaz, names as defendants: Joe Leean, Secretary, Wisconsin Department of Health & Family Services; Susan Dreyfus, Administrator, Division of Children & Family Services, Department of Health & Family Services, and George Lightbourne, Secretary, Wisconsin Department of Administration.

The lawsuit contends that the plaintiffs--the Foundation, its Wisconsin membership and staff members Anne Nicol Gaylor, Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor--are "injured by the impermissible advancement and support of religion caused by the use of state-controlled funds devoted exclusively to members of the clergy."

The lawsuit also lists as co-plaintiff the Rev. Charles Wolfe, minister for Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ, Madison, who is "injured by the state's impermissible interference with his authority to determine the appropriate marriage standards for members of his congregation."

The lawsuit charges that the Marriage Savers budget allotment violates both the Establishment and the Free Exercise clauses of the First Amendment, as well as the 14th Amendment's guarantee of equal protection under the law.

The budget item, submitted by Wisconsin Speaker of the House Scott Jensen, was not subject to public notification or debate. It authorizes $210,000 in federal funds from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program to pay for a two-year salary for a clergy coordinator. That money was intended to pay for such items as childcare for the poor.

Jensen, boasting that Wisconsin would be the first state in the nation to fund such a religious position, openly stated that the position will be promoting the "Marriage Savers" philosophy. Jensen had invited Marriage Savers founder Mike McManus to the State Capitol last year, where he and his wife told a small number of legislators about the church program. They revealed this was the first time they had been invited to talk with any legislators.

Marriage Savers is an exclusively Christian organization with an exclusively Christian board which works exclusively with clergy to inaugurate Scripture-based premarital counseling of at least four months' duration, mentoring by church couples, an extensive "inventory" questionnaire, prayer and similar activities which are required before couples can receive a church wedding.

A "premarital covenant" requires that couples who are sexually intimate or living together forswear such activities before clergy will marry them. It makes grandiose claims of success, and has received much press coverage--aided by Board member George Gallup and the contacts of its founder Mike McManus, a syndicated columnist.

McManus and minions have openly conceded almost none of their would-be recruits is following the program. At the group's annual convention last summer, McManus said he had to conclude that nearly all the clergy in the program "are doing little or nothing to fulfill their pledge in the Community Marriage Policy." A "Wilmington Community Marriage Policy" signed March 1997, also noted: "Candidly, there are not very many Marriage Saver churches in the United States at present. . . . we must report that we know of less than 10 congregations which are full-fledged Marriage Saver churches."

Unfavorable press followed the revelation last November that the religious item had been sneaked into the state budget. The Christian Science Monitor sent a reporter to Madison, Wisconsin, who interviewed Foundation staff among others, and included the Foundation's criticism of the plan in her report. Commentator George Hesselberg wrote a column for the Wisconsin State Journal challenging Marriage Saver assertions, including McManus's outlandish claim that Marriage Savers would cut the Wisconsin divorce rate in half by the year 2010. Hesselberg pointed out "the divorce rate in Wisconsin has been falling steadily since 1990, without the help of 'Marriage Savers.' The rate has fallen nearly 10 percent in the last nine years."

"The state's position as the 13th Disciple may come as a shock to some marriage counselors and to many churches who would rather the government stay the heaven out of religious business," wrote Hesselberg.

The Foundation also drew media attention to an Associated Press story which ran in 1998 showing that the marriage rate dropped precipitately when a born-again judge in Lenawee County, Michigan, persuaded all judges to agree not to marry couples unless they go to a church counselor. The report showed that the divorce rate had remained the same, but marriages in the county had dropped--because couples were "fleeing the county" to marry elsewhere.

Marriage Savers charges churches for training, books and videos, and churches in turn would be expected to charge couples for the premarital counseling.

"Once again, Scott Jensen is saying that the answer to complex personal and social problems, such as divorce, is to throw public money at religion--in violation of our Constitution and despite the evidence. Born agains in fact have a higher rate of divorce," said Anne Gaylor, Foundation president.

Census bureau statistics show that the Bible Belt has the nation's highest divorce rates, 50% above the national average. Statistics from the Barna Research Group, run by born-again George Barna, also show that born-again Christians have a higher divorce rate than nonChristians.

"If individual clergy and churches wish to impose Marriage Savers requirements upon their congregations, okay. But it absolutely is not the business of the state to promote or endorse such requirements--much less to pay someone to coordinate clergy conduct," Gaylor added.

The State, after requesting a delay, has until Feb. 4 to answer the Foundation's legal complaint. No one has been hired to fill the position. The State has not even listed the job.

The Foundation and its plaintiffs are represented by James Friedman of LaFollette & Sinykin

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