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FFRF fights back over Big Mountain Jesus

The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a brief on Feb. 15 fighting the federal government's motion in support of a permanent shrine to Jesus in the Flathead National Forest, leased at no cost since the 1950s to the Knights of Columbus.

The statue is near Kalispell, Mont.

"A permanent Catholic shrine on public land is prohibited by the Establishment Clause, every bit as much as a Catholic church would be," begins the brief by attorney Richard L. Bolton, on behalf of FFRF.

"The suggestion that a permanent shrine with a six-foot statue of Jesus Christ, standing by itself in the forest on federal land, does not convey a religious impression is unsupported by evidence or common sense."

The Forest Service permit itself notes the permit is "for the purpose of erecting a religious shrine overlooking the Big Mountain ski run."

"Enforcement of the Establishment Clause does not evince hostility to religion," FFRF points out.

The brief details how local FFRF members have come into unwanted exposure, conferring associational standing upon FFRF. FFRF member William Cox, previously noted he has skied past the shrine many times and continues to ski on Big Mountain. During a fall 2012 deposition, Cox called the statue "religious in nature and offensive."

Two other FFRF Montana members coming into contact with the shrine submitted declarations, including Doug Bonham, who lives close to Big Mountain and first encountered it about seven years ago while skiing past it.

"My immediate reaction was that the statue was grossly out of place and an oppressive reminder that Christians are a controlling and favored group in the Flathead Valley." His daughter, 15, now regularly skis on Big Mountain and also considers it "ridiculously out of place."

The statue "literally and figuratively looms over the Valley" and is "perceived as a reminder of the Christian religious values that the majority in the Valley promote," Bonham declared.

Read Bonham declaration

Pamela Morris, a third-generation Montanan and daughter of the founder of Showdown Ski Area, first encountered the shrine in 1957 at age 15 as a member of a ski team. Although she was then part of the Methodist Youth Fellowship, "the statue felt startling out of place: instrusive. Since then I have avoided the area: I backpack, fish and camp where nature has not been so violated in Montana."

Morris noted she would enjoy skiing Big Mountain again, "if it were a welcome site for all who love nature." A Unitarian and FFRF member, she added: "I would support any religious group's efforts to build on private land, including a mosque in my neighborhood, but I oppose any building on public land."

Read Morris declaration

FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor notes in her declaration the "number of vitriolic" phone calls and threatening emails received by the FFRF office after its complaint over the Jesus Shrine went public and each time the case gets publicity. Many messages warn, "Don't come to Montana."

"As a co-founder who has been an active part of FFRF since the beginning and who became co-president in 2004, I have personally observed that the public reaction to requests to end Establishment Clause violations often devolves into ad hominems, hostility and veiled or unveiled threats to FFRF and members who are state/church separation advocates."

Federal officials are alleging "no one" ever complained about the Big Mountain Jesus before. Gaylor noted, "It is my experience that, over the years, government officials often ignore or may fail to keep or hold onto complete records of Establishment Clause complaints."

She gives as an example the claim in the Supreme Court decision in Van Orden v. Perry that no one except Mr. Van Orden had ever complained to the government about a Ten Commandments monument at the Texas Capitol.

Gaylor entered into the record her personal knowledge that both Madalyn Murray O'Hair, as head of American Atheists, and Anne Nicol Gaylor, as FFRF president, had previously complained.

One of FFRF's several complaints asking for removal of the religious edicts, a letter Annie Laurie Gaylor herself wrote to Texas Gov. Rick Perry in 2001, is entered into the record.

Read Gaylor declarationExhibits

The federal government and the Becket Fund, a Roman Catholic legal society representing the Knights of Columbus, claim the Jesus statue and setting are similar to the facts in Van Orden, in which the Ten Commandments monument on the Texas statehouse grounds was approved by the high court, because they likened it to a "museum."

FFRF's legal brief puns: "Treating a ski slope as a museum would be a dangerously slippery slope."

The case, FFRF v. Chip Weber and U.S. Forest Service, CV 12-19-M-DLC, is in the courtroom of President Obama appointee U.S. District Judge Dana L. Christensen.

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Poor Little Me

The multitudes mumble mythologies without end.
But me, I have trouble with "ologies" that pretend
to show what can't be shown,
to know what can't be known.

Lutherans have liturgies. Calvinists have creeds.
Muslims have their minarets. Catholics have their beads.
Methodists have methods, Holy Truth to ascertain,
But poor little me, I only have a brain.

Bishops transubstantiate. Shintos ring their bells.
Transcendentalists meditate. Wiccans weave their spells.
Hindus chant a mantra when they can't relieve the pain,
But poor little me, I only have a brain.

So fearful of the netherland, believers band together.
Unhappy with the weatherman, the Zunis wave a feather—
They dance in circles to demand: "Great Spirit, send some rain!"
But what do you do if you only have a brain?

Quakers quake and Shakers shake. Jews eat kosher food.
Rastafarians wear their hair in pious gratitude.
They all boast of miracles that no one can explain,
But poor little me, poor little me,
I only have a brain.

© Copyright 2012 by Charles Strouse and Dan Barker

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Dan Barker teams up with Charles Strouse

Freedom From Religion Foundation’s Dan Barker has teamed up to write a song with Broadway icon (“Annie,” “Bye Bye Birdie”) Charles Strouse, and their irreverent collaboration debuts in FFRF’s newly-released third musical CD, “Adrift on a Star.”


Cover: Seymour Cwast                                                Barker and Strouse

The album’s showpiece is “Poor Little Me,” a collaboration between FFRF Co-President Dan Barker, who wrote the lyrics, and Charles Strouse, composer. Strouse received FFRF’s Emperor Has No Clothes Award in 2011. The award, which features a golden statuette depicting the fairy-tale emperor, is reserved for public figures who make known their dissent from religion.

“I had the pleasure of sitting next to Charles at the 2011 FFRF convention dinner,” says Dan. “We chatted about music, the many Broadway and other composers who are nonreligious, and he said if I sent him some lyrics, he would put them to music. So I did and he did. It’s truly a collaboration, because Charles threw away about half of my lyrics, and it’s a much better song for it!”

What’s left are subtly humorous lyrics and rich music blended into a memorable song. Read the tongue-in-cheek lyrics. Click here (or the play button) to listen to a sample of the song.

Strouse is not the only Broadway icon featured on the CD. Dan recorded “Experiment,” a little-known paean to science and critical thinking by Cole Porter, another of the Great American Songbook songwriters who was nonreligious.  The title song is Barker’s arrangement of a poem by nonbeliever E.Y. (Yip) Harburg, lyricist of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” “It’s Only a Paper Moon” and many enduring classics. FFRF collaborated with the Yip Harburg Foundation in reprinting Harburg’s Rhymes for the Irreverent. Collecting Yip’s light verse, FFRF's reprint adds additional illustrations by the noted Seymour Cwast, who illustrated Yip’s original books in the 1960s and 1970s. Cwast also designed the cover for “Adrift on a Star.”

To showcase many of Harburg’s witty rhymes about religion, Dan set them to music in “Somewhere Over the Paper Moon,” which he performs as a duet with talented Madison vocalist Susan Hofer. A sample:

Lead Kindly Light

Where Bishop Patrick crossed the street
An “X” now marks the spot.
The light of God was with him,
But the traffic light was not.

Dan also performs Harburg’s song “One Sweet Morning,” a lovely but rarely recorded peace anthem with a freethought perspective. The music is by Earl Robinson (“Joe Hill”).

 Barker, who had a musical ministry as an ordained minister before “seeing the light” and is still receiving royalties for his Christian musicals for children, has now written scores of freethought songs in what he calls “reverse penance.” Other new songs in the album include “Get Off Your Knees (And Get to Work),” dedicated to “Gov. Rip Van-Perry Winkle, who has slept not 30 but 2,030 years,” “Reason,” inspired by the D.C. Reason Rally, and Dan’s humorous “Unfaithful.” Dismissing belief in a deity, the lyrics say: “I want you to know it isn’t me — it’s you.”

Hofer performs Dan’s jazz ballad, a love song, “It’s Only Natural,” inspired by Richard Dawkins’ book Unweaving the Rainbow, which makes a plea to integrate science and art.

Dan set plaintive music to poet and lyricist Philip Appleman’s cautionary “In a Dark Time,” written in the mid-2000s.

By popular request of FFRF’s staff, Dan recorded a G-rated version of “Merry F&*#ing Christmas” from “South Park.” Cameo appearances include Australian freethought/feminist troubadour Shelly Segal, who graciously gave FFRF permission to include her haunting song “I Don’t Believe in Fairies,” and Joe Taylor, formerly a Christian rocker, who recorded his first freethought song, “Be Still My Child,” for the album.

Also included is “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” by the nonbelieving Gershwin brothers, sung by Hofer and arranged by Dan with a local band. Bonus tracks include a few extras.

“Adrift on a Star” joins FFRF’s two previous CDs, featuring Barker and friends. “Beware of Dogma,” and the 34-song “Friendly Neighborhood Atheist,”  with many contemporary and historic freethought songs, also featuring Kristen Lems.

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