Oregon officials notified a federal court Feb. 20 that the state will no longer defend a ban on same-sex marriage. Similar switches in Nevada and Virginia were announced recently.
Pennsylvania is still officially defending its ban, but some officials see it as unconstitutional.
The Oregon filing came in one of two consolidated cases challenging the 2004 voter-approved ban that passed by 57% to 43%.
Scotusblog.com reported 17 states and Washington, D.C., now allow same-sex marriage. Federal judges have struck down bans in Oklahoma, Utah and Virginia, but those rulings are on hold pending appeals.
A lawsuit, Wolf v. Walker, was filed Feb. 3 in U.S. District Court in Madison by lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin and the law firm Mayer Brown on behalf of four same-sex couples from Milwaukee, Eau Claire and Madison.
“These families simply want the security and recognition that only marriage provides,” said Larry Dupuis, ACLU of Wisconsin legal director.
The suit also seeks a permanent injunction to block a state law that makes it a criminal offense for a Wisconsin resident to leave the state to obtain a marriage that would be prohibited in Wisconsin. Maximum punishment is nine months in jail and a $10,000 fine.
Also in Wisconsin, Democrats have introduced a bill to repeal the state’s constitutional gay marriage ban. Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos told WISN that he doesn’t expect it to even get a hearing.
“Unfortunately, I think at the end of the session, people are doing this much more based on a political answer than trying to find anything else,” Vos said.
Wisconsin Family Action, a socially conservative evangelical group, is vigorously lobbying against the bill as an assault on “religious freedom.”
Wash. school benches praying ‘All Pro Dad’
FFRF stopped White Bluffs Elementary School in Richland, Wash., from promoting religion. Meetings in the school sponsored by All Pro Dad, a private group focusing on religious programming, were advertised in fliers sent home with students.
The fliers failed to indicate the event was not school-sponsored. The meetings were also noted in the calendar along with official school events.
“The circumstances surrounding ‘All Pro Dad’ events would lead a reasonable observer to view it as school-sponsored,” wrote Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel in his Jan. 14 letter to Superintendent Rich Schulte. “Because of the religious aspects of the programming, Richland School District must take measures to address parental concerns regarding school involvement in this event.”
The district responded in late January, calling the promotion a clerical error and saying it would be removed from the school calendar. Staff will also be informed on the policy barring distribution of religious materials and announcements.
Teachers’ religious symbols removed
FFRF was informed that a teacher at Southside Elementary School in Pulaski, Tenn., prominently displayed several religious images in her classroom. Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter Dec. 17 to Giles County Schools Superintendent Timothy Webb:
“When a teacher puts up crosses and images of Jesus, they have unconstitutionally entangled the school itself with a religious message, specifically a Christian message. To avoid continuing to violate the Establishment Clause, we ask the teacher to remove the crosses and images of Jesus from her classroom.”
Webb responded two days later with a copy of the memo he sent to principals and supervisors: “The situation mentioned in the complaint has been addressed. Please remind your staff of the federal requirements in matters such as this.”
• • •
A teacher in Rusk, Texas, will no longer be displaying religious iconography after FFRF was contacted by a concerned parent of a Rusk High School student. A classroom poster read, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God the salvation of everyone who believes. Romans 1:16.” At the bottom it said, “This poster is illegal in 51 countries.”
Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell wrote the district Dec. 13 to note the constitutional violation while adding that a public school teacher has no free speech or free exercise right to proselytize.
Superintendent Scott David replied Jan. 9: “All campus principals and department directors will be reminded of our constitutional duties as public school employees with regard to the separation of state and church.”
• • •
A local complainant alerted FFRF that a classroom in Bernard Campbell Middle School in Lee’s Summit, Mo., displayed a religious poster prominently on the wall facing students. The poster read, “Blessed are the people who know the joyful Sound! They walk, O Lord, in the light of your countenance. Psalm 89:15.”
Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent a letter Feb. 20 to Superintendent David McGehee about the egregious, obvious violation. “When a school teacher places religious posters in the classroom, she unconstitutionally entangles the school with a religious message. It is also a usurpation of parental authority — parents have the right to direct the religious, or nonreligious, upbringing of their children.”
McGehee called FFRF the next day to say he agreed that the poster shouldn’t be allowed in the classroom and that it had been permanently removed.
School Good News Club gets bad reviews
After Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel’s Jan. 24 letter of complaint, FFRF was informed that an elementary school secretary in Sanford, Fla., will no long-er be involved with Good News Club permission slips.
Child Evangelism Fellowship of Central Florida had distributed registration forms to Geneva Elementary students to promote the club. The form told students to return forms to the secretary.
Seidel said, “Despite the appropriate disclaimer, students might presume that Good News Club is sponsored by the school because of the apparent role of school personnel in facilitating the club’s activities by collecting registration forms. While the Child Evangelism Fellowship of Central Florida is entitled to host meetings, there are limitations on adult involvement.”
The Seminole County School Board’s attorney responded Jan. 28 that the district agreed that the club, not public school employees. was responsible for collecting forms,
Charter school’s church graduations end
The Academy for Academic Excellence in Apple Valley, Calif., will no longer hold its graduation ceremony in a church. According to the complainant, AAE, a K-12 public charter school operated by the Lewis Center for Educational Research, held graduation in churches where crosses, bible verses and other religious symbols were displayed.
AAE reportedly held a baccalaureate at a second church, advertising it on AAE’s calendar and listing the school’s vice principal as “coordinator.” Many school officials, including the principal, attended.
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a November letter to Superintendent Thomas Hoegerman: “Religious faith and worship are an intensely personal choice. The government cannot make attendance at a secular school’s graduation ceremony contingent on entering the holy ground of a particular religion.” He also lodged objections to mandatory baccalaureate attendance.
Gordon Soholt, chief academic officer, responded Nov. 20: “It is anticipated that both ceremonies will be held in the new gymnasium in the future, thus removing any potential First Amendment issues. The previously named ‘baccalaureate’ has been renamed to reflect its intent, which is issuance of senior awards and scholarships.”
No more forced pledge for Florida student
A student at Southwest Middle School in Orlando, Fla., will no longer be coerced into reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
After refusing to stand for the pledge, the student was taken aside by a teacher and was told by the school’s attendance dean to stand and recite it or face reprimand.
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote a letter Nov. 20 to object: “Faced with the choice of either reciting the pledge or being punished by the school, this student has relented, but now only recites the pledge out of fear of being punished. Students should not be singled out, rebuked, told they must stand, or otherwise penalized for following their freedom of conscience. It is illegal to reprimand a student for choosing not to stand during the recitation of the pledge.”
The student sent an email response on Jan. 25, “I am so thankful for your help. Thanks to you, I’m now able to sit during the pledge without punishment!”
FFRF has a lawsuit against the Orange County School District regarding literature discrimination.
To make things worse, the accuser claims Burrell used anointment oils during the act. After the incident, they then worked on [installing bathroom] tiles for a few hours before Burrell took him back to the home, saying, “What happens at the church stays at the church.”
Teen’s testimony at the trial of Pastor Bobby Burrell, whom he accused of masturbating in front of him in Lawton, Okla.
I am facing my imminent death. [Why are people in other states] able to die with dignity and I am not? This should be a basic human right.
Robert Mitton, 58, a Denver man with a terminal cardiac condition, favoring a proposal to authorize prescriptions for lethal doses if two doctors agree a patient will die within six months
New York Times, 2-8-14
At present the Religious Right has a tremendous amount of power, but they are getting older. Surveys show young Americans are rejecting institutional religion because they identify it with the Religious Right and values that they find off-putting, and frankly, immoral.
Dan Linford, Virginia Tech Freethinkers president and graduate student in the philosophy of religion
The Telegraph, 2-10-14
An ordained psychotherapist who has treated many pedophile priests in Britain wrote to me: “In all those cases of clerical abuse I dealt with, the sacrament of confession was used by the molester to discover vulnerability and groom candidates for abuse.”
John Cornwell, author of The Dark Box: A Secret History of Confession
The Daily Mail, 2-8-14
Not all prisoners are religious, and I wanted them to know that to turn your life around and be a good and productive member of society does not require a belief in God.
Leslie Zukor, Seattle, founder of the Freethought Books Project, which distributes reading material to inmates across the U.S.
USA Today, 1-25-14
Just as gay marriage is not a threat to straight marriage, atheism is not a threat to religion.
Column by atheist journalist Cindy Hoedel, “Let 2014 be the year we start accepting atheists”
Kansas City Star, 1-18-14
Just as there are laws guaranteeing the division between church and state, there must be national guidelines to separate education and religion.
Op-ed by Veronica An, sophomore narrative studies major, “Prayer should be left out of public schools”
USC Daily Trojan, 1-27-14
I feel very sorry for teachers when the children who come here start guessing if what they’re being taught is wrong.
Phil Jardine, a paleobiology graduate student touring the Creation Museum, Petersburg, Ky.
This is exactly what I was concerned about. Maybe the only thing that hasn’t happened yet is any particular group saying, “We haven’t been represented here and now we want to sue you.” That’s the only thing that hasn’t gone wrong yet.
Mark Senmartin, Marathon [Fla.] City Council, refusing to stand for pre-meeting prayer and objecting to a pastor’s “creationist” invocation
Florida Keys Keynoter, 2-5-14
The new generation of Iraqis are tired of religious extremists and politicians, who are responsible for the ongoing sectarian divide in the country.
Nawaf Al-Kaabi, 23, Basra, on how violence is turning young Iraqis away from religion
Al Bawaba, 2-5-14
Holly Huber and Mitch Kahle at the 2011 FFRF annual convention in Hartford, Conn., where Kahle received the Freethinker of the Year Award.
New Hope Church agreed to pay $775,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by Hawaii FFRF members Holly Huber and Mitch Kahle. Three branches of the international megachurch apparently were getting sweetheart deals for years on rentals of school space from the state.
The suit was filed under the state’s False Claims Act, which rewards whistle-blowers for exposing fraudulent billing.
The payments were disclosed in court filings by New Hope’s parent organization, the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, Hawaii News Now reported in early February.
Most of the money will go to the state Department of Education, but as much as $200,000 will go to the plaintiffs, who allege that New Hope shortchanged the state $4.6 million over six years.
Kahle noted that state rules setting rent amounts were undermined by Board of Education Chairman Donald Horner.
Honolulu Civil Beat reported Feb. 14 that Horner declined to comment except to say the board was not a party to the case. Horner is a licensed pastor with ties to New Hope, the paper reported.
The plaintiffs’ attorneys plan to file an amended suit against One Love Ministries and Calvary Chapel Oahu, alleging that the two churches’ underpayments total about $1.1 million. An earlier claim was dismissed in January.
Attorneys representing the city of Eureka, Calif., and Eureka resident Carole Beaton (an FFRF Lifetime Member) are working on a settlement of Beaton’s prayer lawsuit against the city.
At a case management conference Feb. 18 at the Humboldt County Courthouse, City Attorney Cyndy Day-Wilson told Judge Bruce Watson that she and Beaton’s attorney Peter Martin are “currently negotiating a settlement,” which is expected in about 60 days, the Times-Standard reported.
Martin filed the suit on behalf of Beaton in January 2013, asking the council to stop holding invocations before meetings and for Mayor Frank Jager to stop promoting the annual Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast.
Watson ruled Dec. 24 that nonsectarian invocations at council meetings are legal but said Beaton can still pursue her claim against Jager’s prayer breakfast.
Neither party is discussing potential settlement details. ”I want to say that the lawsuit was not against prayer and was not against religion,” Beaton told a reporter. “It was against the mixing of church and state. A city or any other government entity should not be sponsoring a religious event.”
The suit alleges use of city resour-ces in promoting the breakfast. Jager downplayed the city clerk’s involvement.
The next case management conference is set for April 30.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has asked the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals to overturn a federal district court decision approving a shrine to Jesus on public land near Whitefish, Mont.
“A permanent Catholic shrine on public land is prohibited by the Establishment Clause, every bit as much as a Catholic church would be,” asserts FFRF’s appeal brief, filed Jan. 28.
The 6-foot-tall shrine sits on a 7-foot pedestal on Big Mountain in the Flathead National Forest, which is owned by the U.S. Forest Service. Since 1953, the Forest Service has issued a permit at no cost allowing the Knights of Columbus, a conservative Catholic men’s group, to place a “Shrine overlooking the Big Mountain ski run,” whose purpose is “to erect a Statue of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
In response to initial objections to the shrine, the Knights of Columbus claimed “that our Lord himself selected this site.”
FFRF wrote the Forest Service in 2011 to object to permit renewal. When Chip Weber, forest supervisor, agreed, determining it was “an inappropriate use of public land,” he faced blistering criticism and renewed the permit in January 2012.
FFRF is suing on behalf of its 100 Montana members, including three who have come into unwelcome contact with the shrine. William Cox, who has long been personally opposed to the shrine, has frequent and unwanted exposure to it when he skis on Big Mountain many times each winter. FFRF member Doug Bonham found the shrine “grossly out of place” when first encountering it, and his 15-year-old daughter, who often skis on the mountain, considers it “ridiculously out of place.”
Likewise, FFRF member Pamela Morris, a third-generation Montanan, first encountered the shrine as a teenager in 1957 at age 15 as part of a ski team, when she found the statue “intrusive” and “startlingly out of place.” She has since avoided the area, choosing to backpack, fish and camp where nature has not been violated.
The record shows a decision by the Forest Service to emphasize the shrine’s “historic” ties to development of the ski hill over its religious nature. The government argues that because the violation is longstanding, the shrine has become “historic.” FFRF counters that if courts followed such logic, segregated public schools and bans on interracial marriage would still prevail.
“The Government’s argument, reduced to its essence, otherwise would mean that religious iconography on public land is acceptable if supported by popular interest groups. The Establishment Clause, in other words, would be subject to majoritarian or popular demand. That, however, is not the lesson of our Constitution — nor a paradigm for historical success, as worldwide religious conflict attests. Religious icons on public land cannot be constitutionally salvaged by local celebrity status.”
Richard L. Bolton, of Boardman and Clark, Madison, Wis., is litigation attorney, with Martin S. King and Reid Perkins of Worden Thane, Missoula, serving as local counsel.
A court decision allowing an obscure Milwaukee-area church to intervene in FFRF’s nationally significant lawsuit against the Internal Revenue Service over church politicking has placed the litigation “on the front line,” said FFRF’s litigation attorney, Richard L. Bolton.
“This will put everything in play, including the churches’ argument that the politicking restriction violates the First Amendment — using the Citizens United argument,” he added.
Although FFRF and the government defendants opposed the intervention, U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman in Milwaukee ruled Feb. 3 that Fr. Patrick Malone and the Holy Cross Anglican Church of Wauwatosa, Wis., could intervene. (The congregation left the Episcopal Church in 2008 in reaction to a series of decisions, most prominently the ordination of a gay bishop, and joined the more conservative Convocation of Anglicans of North America.)
“The intervention by the clergyman and church, which openly admit in their brief that they don’t obey the electioneering restrictions applying to tax-exempt organizations, puts all the cards on the table,” said FFRF Co-President Dan Barker.
The church argues it has a “legal right to participate in political campaigns without forfeiting their tax-exempt status,” and cites the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, as well as the free speech, free exercise and establishment clauses of the First Amendment. Incidentally, FFRF calls RFRA unconstitutional in its amicus brief, written by attorney Marci Hamilton, in the Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
FFRF filed its suit in November 2012, taking the IRS to court over its failure to enforce electioneering restrictions that require 501(c) tax-exempt entities to refrain from endorsing political candidates.
FFRF recently prevailed in its federal challenge to an IRS policy that benefits clergy. The government has appealed that ruling on the parish exemption to the 7th Circuit.
FFRF has a third challenge of the IRS in federal court over the fact that churches are exempt from filing the same financial accountability reports, the Form 990, required of all other 501(c)(3) nonprofits.
Building on its success removing bibles from University of Wisconsin hotel rooms in December in Madison, the Freedom From Religion Foundation scored another victory for secularism on an Iowa public college campus.
The Memorial Union at Iowa State University in Ames agreed to remove Gideon bibles from its hotel rooms on March 1.
FFRF received a complaint about the religious propaganda on state property. “If a state-run university has a policy of providing a Christian religious text to guests, that policy facilitates illegal endorsement of Christianity over other religions and over nonreligion,” said Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott in a Jan. 29 letter to the university. “Permitting members of outside religious groups the privilege of placing their religious literature in public university guest rooms also constitutes state endorsement and advancement of religion.”
Elliott added, “Individuals, not the state, must determine what religious texts are worth reading.”
Union Director Richard Reynolds responded Feb. 13: “The concern you raised about the availability of bibles in the guest rooms of the Memorial Union has been taken under advisement and, effective March 1, 2014, the bibles will be removed from the hotel rooms.”
“We’re delighted to see reason and the Constitution prevailing. We can all sleep easier knowing secularism is being honored at our public universities,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.
“Many nonbelievers greatly object to its primitive and dangerous instructions to beat children, kill homosexuals, atheists and infidels and that it sanctions the subjugation of women, who are scapegoated for bringing sin and death into the world,” Gaylor added.
“Imagine the uproar if someone found a Quran or atheistic literature such as Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion in their state-supported hotel room. Government can’t take sides on the religious debate.”
FFRF’s victory received widespread Iowa and national coverage. Elliott appeared on national Fox News coverage and Gaylor was invited to debate Sean Hannity on Fox. (View the video on YouTube with the search terms “Gaylor FFRF Hannity.”)
John McCarroll, executive director of university relations, told WCCI News 8 in Des Moines: “It’s a public institution and we do have certainly responsibilities on the separation of church and state. We thought it was appropriate to put the bibles in the browsing library.”
Gaylor noted that as long as there are a variety of books of varying views, and the library is not solely religious, that is a satisfactory resolution. FFRF, which has more than 20,000 members, represents nearly 150 in Iowa.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is once again calling out an Ohio town for the constitutional violation of putting Christian crosses on public property.
FFRF, a state-church watchdog based in Madison, Wis., complained April 8 in a letter to village of Stratton attorney Frank Bruzzese about crosses on the Municipal Building.
FFRF, which has 20,000 nationwide members and about 560 in Ohio, successfully got the village to earlier remove crosses from the building and the water tower, but had to threaten to sue to accomplish that.
Mayor John Abdalla recently ordered crosses to be put back on the Municipal Building, which has happened, according to a photo and story in the Steubenville Herald-Star and a local complainant.
In FFRF's April 8 letter, Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert cited legal precedent and took on Abdalla's false claim that it was constitutional to display religious imagery during holidays such as Easter: "While the permanent display of these crosses by the village is indisputably unconstitutional, the seasonal display of the crosses in recognition of Easter, the Christian celebration of Jesus' resurrection, is no less illegal."
FFRF wants immediate removal of the crosses from the front of the building and for village officials to "be reminded of their constitutional obligation to remain neutral toward religion."
Stratton, an Ohio River town with a population of about 300, already has its name on one U.S. Supreme Court case, Watchtower Society v. Village of Stratton. In 2002, the court ruled 8-1 that the village couldn't make door-to-door canvassers or solicitors get a permit. The ruling applied to religious proselytizing, anonymous political speech and handbill distribution.
Allen Korbel, 82, a Wisconsin member of FFRF since 1991 and later a Lifetime Member, died Dec. 17, 2013.
Born in Milwaukee on April 16, 1931, he was an accomplished race car driver and downhill skier with “a passion for life,” noted his friend Paul Wild. “He was a rare individual, a longtime libertarian, secular humanist and freethinker.”
He is survived by two daughters who have carried on his tradition of independent thought.
Allen most generously included a $5,000 bequest to FFRF in his estate.
His daughter, Mary Plautz, noted that he once told her, “if anything has to be written about me, I’d like it to be this” — “his creed,” which was part of a picture frame hanging on the wall. He felt this exemplifies a moral and cultural attitude not only about entrepreneurship, but about the self determining, fulfilling values in human life”:
I do not choose to be a common man
It is my right to be uncommon. . . if I can.
I seek opportunity . . . not security.
I do not wish to be a kept citizen,
humbled and dulled by having the state look after me.
I want to take the calculated risk,
to dream and build, to fail and succeed.
I refuse to barter incentive for a dole.
I prefer the challenges of life to the guaranteed existence;
the thrill of fulfillment to the stale calm of Utopia.
I will not trade freedom for beneficence
or my dignity for a handout.
I will try to never cower before any master
nor bend to any threat.
It is my heritage to stand erect, proud, and unafraid;
to think and act for myself;
enjoy the benefits of my creations;
and face the world boldly and say;
“This I have done.”
— Dean Alfange (1897-1989)