Sergeant Davis is a member of FFRF and the Inland Northwest Freethought Society, FFRF’s chapter in eastern Washington and northern Idaho.
I’m originally from New York and have been in the military 16 years. My family was mainly secular. My parents never forced me to hold any of their personal philosophies while I was growing up. They left that for me to figure out on my own.
After college and entering the Air Force, I came to a balanced general understanding of everything theological but have since stopped wasting my time on theology. I focus more on a humanist and scientific approach to matters with practicality and reason. So I’ve been a freethinker for as long as I can remember, probably around when I found out Santa wasn’t real.
During my deployment in 2010, my oldest Air Force friend, Rick Hamelin, established the first “official” freethought group in the Middle East, the Southwest Asia Freethought Association. SWAFA (swafreethought.jimdo.com/) was recognized by the base as a private organization. When I arrived, I helped Rick run it.
To our surprise, it grew quite fast, from about five people to 30 or so, including freethinkers, Buddhists and a Wiccan, who had no support groups. We welcomed everyone. Our group was first met with some doubt and confusion, even some hostility. People took down our signs on the public boards and threw out business cards that we handed out.
We asked for space in the chapel to hold our meetings, but Rick had Pascal’s Wager pulled on him and was pretty much told “no.”
We were soon holding two meetings a week and a movie night every other Thursday. Our growth got the chapel’s attention. They even sent a chaplain’s assistant to one of our meetings. We wore PT [physical training] uniforms to remain anonymous. Rank would not be an issue for anyone, so we were free to speak our minds.
The chaplain’s assistant came in uniform. I asked her if she was on duty and attending by direction of her boss. My suspicions were correct. But, all in all, she was most likely proved wrong if they assumed we just sat around bashing religion. She left actually liking how our group discussions went and how respectful we were of others’ diverse opinions.
Religion didn’t come up much unless it was part of another topic. Otherwise, it was opinions on general and miscellaneous science news — unless we had a new member, who would typically unload on us. People were just coming out as nontheist or had endured years of frustration.
Speaking up for others
I went to the Equal Opportunity Office in September 2013 with a complaint about an inappropriate display of a religious symbol on government property (civilian office in the hospital). I showed them that it was incompatible with Air Force Culture/AFI 1-1 and actually won one for once. The head chaplain went over and told them the display was not allowed. They removed it.
I have been battling with the base over miscellaneous things for the past few years and have met several times with the base chaplain. We discussed and debated a bit back and forth about policy and a little philosophy, but mainly about what’s right in a government setting. Most of these things I did by myself, since many people here at Fairchild AFB who are Freethinkers choose to remain silent about many things. They have their reasons, so I ask them to tell me and I’ll do it for them.
I’ve never asked for help on these matters because I believe that most of them can be solved at the lowest level, with tactful dialogue and understanding gained throughout. Also, I guess I like the challenge. I have talked with one of the attorneys at FFRF for advice on a complaint and, for another case, I sought advice from Mikey Weinstein, head of MRFF.
As far as the Oath of Enlistment topic which came up while talking with FFRF Co-President Dan Barker in February, I have always thought that the little injected “God” word at the end of “So help me” was pointless. To me it’s ludicrous to have to swear an oath on behalf of myself and some “Cosmic Being,” so I decided to do things differently before others really started to publicly challenge it.
On one of my enlistments, I left “God” out of it. I had an officer staring at me with hand still raised because I left that word out, like he was waiting for me to say it. I didn’t and just gave a nod to signal I was done.
This last enlistment, I used “gods” plural, just to get a funny look. Most people at work know me well enough and so they expected it. However, it would have been neat to add a random “god” of my choice (Zeus, Thor) at the end of each of my enlistments. At one of them, I almost said “Odin,” but couldn’t bring myself to do it.
Sgt. James Davis is on his sixth deployment and is headed to Afghanistan after completing combat adviser school. SWAFA membership is open to all personnel currently assigned to the base hosting the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing, including military, DoD civilians and contractors.
(Atheist journalist Jamila Bey spoke to attendees at FFRF’s 36th annual convention. The speech was edited for print.) Photography by Brent Nicastro.
Thank you one and all for coming. Thank you for the work you do. Thank you for showing up and showing up the fact that we heathens exist, that we enjoy community and we come together.
I’m a journalist and reporter and a radio show host in Washington, D.C. I’ve been a hellraiser since before I was allowed to cross the street by myself. As a journalist, I really take issue with a lot of what’s happening in this country.
I really take issue with the fact that, frankly, in this modern era, reporters are people who like to be on television, talking in this weird voice, flipping their “helmet hair” and asking questions that a really smart 22-year-old intern has written for them. There is not much critical thought to what they do. They don’t understand history, and they certainly don’t understand science. They don’t understand politics, yet they’re informing our population.
I’m really happy to be talking to you now because this morning built upon what I want to explain to you. We got to see how the local reports about FFRF’s work are kind of skewed. Nobody wants the picture of our lord and savior Jesus Christ taken down. Why would anyone ever object? Use a different stairwell if you don’t like it.
My show, the “Sex, Politics and Religion Hour: SPAR with Jamila,” is on the radio in D.C., New York, Chicago and Miami. After January, the Voice of Russia radio network is going to broadcast me in English to 166 different countries. I’m really excited about that because voices like mine were not heard for way too long.
The minute I hit 18, I was like, “Yes, it’s happened. I can say what I want,” and that’s what I’ve really been working to do. I am a student of democracy. I’m a student of this great American experiment. We’ve got it right — this is a nation formed by secular ideals, where everyone is valued, but we have to be able to go to the public square and put forth our ideas.
At least that’s the way it was supposed to be. The problem and the opportunity is that in this modern era, anybody can get up and say anything and if you have money behind you, your money equals speech. I’ve got a huge, huge problem with that.
It’s my obligation as an American to try my damnedest to advance the principles upon which this great nation was founded. I understand that we’re not perfect. I can give you a whole lot of reasons why I take issue with the founders, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water.
So I get to be loud and obnoxious and cheeky and I have the coolest job in the world. But I need some help from smart folks like you. I need you to go back to your respective hamlets and townships and big cities and I need you, when you see reporting like we saw [in a video] earlier, I need you to call up those stations. I need you call up those news directors. I need you to write letters to the editor and say, “Why was it that you didn’t — there’s a university here! Why didn’t you ask anyone from the biology department? Why would you only interview . . . ?
We all have to take responsibility for this democracy in which we live and raise our voices. I love the fact that we’re here, in the heartland, where you know, this is Jesus country. And it don’t look too Jesus-y ’round here [in this room] to me. That makes me smile.
Each of us has to do a better job. We’re doing a lot, but we’re outnumbered at the moment. However, I love to point out, we own the Internet, folks under 30, who are less inclined to be religious. They’re more inclined to be pro-same gender marriage.
I’m going to surround myself with people who aren’t hateful, who understand the way things are. I’m really excited that we have a legislator here [Arizona Rep. Juan Mendez]. We need to take a page out of that Christian Right handbook. We need to be running candidates. We need people to get in there at town halls and wear our flair and T-shirts: “I am secular and I vote,” that’s an important one. We need to be asking questions of our politicians.
I can’t remember, if you can help me on this? The Louisiana legislator who was all pro-voucher and then realized, “Oh my God, a Jew could get this money too, oh no! I’m not for that!” She didn’t want it to go to a Muslim school, but Christian schools, it was just fine. [Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Watson, said later she regretted her vote.]
I guess I’m a radical. I’m very glad that today we recognize what will happen if we continue to be silent, if we continue to be hidden. I need to see us on more news programs. I need to see us on more editorial pages, and I certainly need to see more of us having lunch at various places wearing shirts! I love the shirts, please buy some shirts and wear them.
I am delighted to be here. FFRF is doing some amazing work and it’s getting noticed. I’m honored that you had me here today. Thank you very much!
Q. I know that you’re funded by the Russians. How do you feel about Vladimir Putin and the “homosexual propaganda” situation?
A. Yes, the station that I work for is funded in part by the Russian government. The reason I was hired is because I’m an expert in American politics. I’m trained as a health reporter. I’m good in live, breaking news situations. They hired me for my particular skill set. I of course don’t support [Putin’s anti-gay views] or that members of Pussy Riot were jailed for blasphemy.
My bureau is three blocks from the White House. I defend the First Amendment. When Chelsea Manning announced to the world who she was, I had two experts from the Human Rights Campaign on my show to talk about how we talk about transgender issues and rights. My employer is never going to dictate or mandate my ethics or morals to me.
Q. Last night, we went to dinner and as we walked out of the hotel, there was a man there with a sign that said, “God loves you atheists.” I wanted you to share with the audience your response when he asked, “What state are you from?”
A. Hah! I have a firm policy. I do not engage with the idiots until after I’ve done my speaking. I need my intellect and energy for the crowd, but it just flew out! I just couldn’t stop myself, so I said, “I live in the state of reality!”
Q. Do people have a right to pray in schools and at work?
A. Can the satanist pray? If the [public board] is going to have prayer, we’re going to have a Wiccan come and have a whole celebration. Nudity is optional. Wait, wait, wait, they say. Whoa, they say. What’s your problem, they ask? And I say, prayers for all!
But I like conflict. I love confrontation. I love “going there,” because there is where the fun happens for me. But yeah, it’s madness.
Q. I would imagine you must have come from a religious background. The question is then, what did you have to go through to become the person you are?
A. I started doing stand-up comedy by talking about my family, and people thought I was doing material, and I going “I’m not being funny, I’m telling you the truth.” My father was raised as a Black Muslim, a follower of Elijah Muhammad in Pittsburgh in the mid-1950s. My mother was a Southern Baptist, “submit unto your husband, Jesus will stop him from beating you when it’s appropriate” type.
She converted to Catholicism about when it was time for me to go to Catholic school and get that discount. Many of my friends in school were Jewish. I went to a scholars program where there were a couple of Orthodox Jewish kids. By the time I was 7, I realized that nobody knew what the hell they were talking about, and they were making up crap as they went along.
I’ve always been loud and obnoxious, I cannot have a thought that I don’t express, and if it’s a question, it burns until I get it out. It was hard, growing up. I have a second-grade teacher, who’s still friends with my mom, who swears that the only difference in me then and now is that now I’m taller and have a baby.
Yeah, I’ve been pissing people off since I was embryonic. According to Mom.
Q. I’m wondering how we can get more politicians who are on our side in Washington?
A. I can’t answer that in the time I have. But, I had a lovely exclusive interview last week with Sen. Ernie Chambers [1983 Supreme Court victor in Marsh v. Chambers]. Give it up for Ernie Chambers! He’s been called the scariest man in Nebraska. They changed the state constitution and instituted term limits after his 38th year of service. It’s been two years and now he’s back. He says there’s no way that anybody who speaks honestly the way he does, and who believes in the rights of his constituents to be served as he does, can get on the national stage. There’s too much money.
The way elections happen, I fear that Mr. Chambers is right. I think that the political system would do well with somebody like me. No way in hell can I be elected as things stand today. No way, no way. We need to change that.
Jamila Bey also writes for The Washington Post blog “She the People” and worked as a producer and editor for a decade at National Public Radio. She’s currently writing a book on the role religion plays in the lives of African-American women.
Every great idea starts out as blasphemy.” (Bertrand Russell)
“Where there is no belief, there is no blasphemy.” (Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses)
“Blasphemy is a victimless crime.” (FFRF T-shirt issued to condemn a 1989 fatwa on Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses)
Indonesian civil servant Alexander Aan was freed Jan. 27 after serving a year in prison and being fined $8,000 for committing blasphemy. He posted words on Facebook that at least 75 million humans around the globe agree with: “There is no god.”
Aan was released “on license,” meaning he’s required to report regularly to authorities. He’s also vulnerable to vigilante retribution.
In December, two members of the Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot were released from prison for committing “hooliganism and inciting religious hatred.” Their crime? Singing a one-minute protest song on the altar of Moscow’s main cathedral to condemn the Russian Orthodox Church’s social repression and its ties to President Vladimir Putin.
Internationally, blasphemy prosecutions are chillingly on the rise. It’s not just places like Pakistan and Iran. Ireland passed a law in 2010 punishing blasphemy with a €25,000 fine ($34,000).
While such laws clearly violate the First Amendment, America has also seen its share of persecutions. Blasphemy laws turn thoughts objectionable only to some religionists into “crimes,” thereby clearly violating the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of conscience.
Robert Ingersoll captured the injustice of blasphemy statutes marvelously while defending C.B. Reynolds of New Jersey in 1887:
“By making a statute and by defining blasphemy, the church sought to prevent discussion — sought to prevent argument — sought to prevent a man giving his honest opinion. Certainly a tenet, a dogma, a doctrine, is safe when hedged about by a statute that prevents your speaking against it. In the silence of slavery it exists. It lives because lips are locked. It lives because men are slaves.”
The few antiquated blasphemy laws still on the books in the U.S. discriminate against non-Christians. By definition, blasphemy must discriminate. Any profession of faith in favor of one sect is blasphemy against another (i.e., you either believe that Jesus was the son of God, or not; that the angel Gabriel spoke to Muhammad, or not; that a dry cracker is the body of a noncorporeal being, or not).
Establishing a religion
Blasphemy statutes place the religious sensibilities of the chosen sect on a pedestal. As Bertrand Russell observed of the English common law, “[C]learly no one ought to speak ill of Christianity in such a way as to be likely to promote a breach of the peace. Those who use this argument do not, however, propose to extend the same protection to other religions. If you abuse Lenin to a Communist until he gets so angry that he hits you on the nose, the Communist is sent to prison. If the Communist abuses Christ to you until you get angry so that you hit him on the nose, it is again the Communist that is sent to prison.”
As stated by former Associate Justice Abe Fortas in Epperson v. Arkansas: “Government in our democracy, state and national, must be neutral in matters of religious theory, doctrine, and practice.”
Speech and blasphemy
Freedom of speech is not absolute. Fighting words, threats, defamation and libel are included in prohibited speech. Merely uttering a phrase that would once have been considered a sin against God must now fall into one of those categories if it is to be punished.
In a case challenging a Michigan law that made “profanely curs[ing] or damn[ing] or swear[ing] by the name of God, Jesus Christ or the Holy Ghost” a crime, the court held that “God damn” was not speech justifiably prohibited by law. The court referenced a Supreme Court holding that states may not make a “single four-letter expletive a criminal offense” and found “no principled distinction between the expletive in [that case] and the milder profanity in this case.”
In a challenge to a Pennsylvania law prohibiting corporate names containing “[w]ords that constitute blasphemy, profane cursing or swearing or that profane the Lord’s name” another court found the statute violated the First Amendment because it restricted speech on the basis of viewpoint.
The Supreme Court summed it up, “from the standpoint of freedom of speech and the press, it is enough to point out that the state has no legitimate interest in protecting any or all religions from views distasteful to them which is sufficient to justify prior restraints upon the expression of those views. It is not the business of government in our nation to suppress real or imagined attacks upon a particular religious doctrine, whether they appear in publications, speeches, or motion pictures.” Joseph Burstyn Inc. v. Wilson (1952).
From blasphemers’ mouths
American colonial punishment was severe. Massachusetts had the death penalty until 1697, with the later sanction of branding the blasphemer’s tongue with a hot iron. With the adoption of the federal and state constitutions, these laws dropped into disuse. But before that happened, brave American freethinkers paid a price.
Thomas Jefferson Chandler of Delaware was found guilty in 1837 of declaring that “the virgin Mary was a whore and Jesus Christ was a bastard.” Another blasphemer, a Mr. Ruggles, was convicted in 1811 for observing “Jesus Christ was a bastard, and his mother must be a whore.”
A tamer utterance by Abner Updegraph in Pennsylvania in 1824 was condemned: “The Holy Scriptures were a mere fable, that they were a contradiction, and that although they contained a number of good things, yet they contained a great many lies.”
Abner Kneeland of Massachusetts was convicted in 1838 of uttering the following:
• “The Universalists believe in a god which I do not; but believe that their god, with all his moral attributes, (aside from nature itself,) is nothing more than a chimera of their own imagination.”
• “Universalists believe in Christ, which I do not; but believe that the whole story concerning him is as much a fable and a fiction as that of the god Prometheus, the tragedy of whose death is said to have been acted on the stage in the theatre at Athens, five hundred years before the Christian era.”
• “Universalists believe in miracles, which I do not; but believe that every pretension to them can be accounted for on natural principles, or else is to be attributed to mere trick and imposture.”
• Universalists believe in the resurrection of the dead, in immortality and eternal life, which I do not; but believe that all life is mortal, that death is an eternal extinction of life to the individual who possesses it, and that no individual life is, ever was, or ever will be eternal.”
The aptly named Michael X. Mockus was found guilty in 1921 for saying:
• “Mary (meaning the Virgin Mary) had a beau. When her beau called one evening (both being young) he seduced her. He brought her a flower and put her in a family way. No woman can give birth to a child without a man.”
• “Look how the priests teach you, the falsifiers, thieves. It is not possible that he could be of the Holy Ghost, there must be a man. A young Jew was the father of the Christ. No woman can have a child without a man; that never happened and never can happen.”
• “The father of Christ was a young Jew and was no Angel Gabriel. Any girl who wants a child can call a Gabriel or some John.”
• “All religions are a deception of the people.”
• “There is no truth in the Bible; it is only monkey business.”
If you’re accused of blasphemy, you’re in good company. Throughout history, some of the greatest artists and writers have been accused of (though perhaps not criminally tried for) blasphemy. Among them are James Kirkup, author of the poem “The Love that Dares to Speak Its Name,” Monty Python for “The Life of Brian,” John Steinbeck for “The Grapes of Wrath,” H.L. Mencken (pretty much constantly from 1899-1956), Charles Darwin for “On the Origin of Species,” Percy Bysshe Shelley for “Queen Mab,” Thomas Paine and his publisher Richard Carlile for “The Age of Reason,” Shakespeare contemporary Christopher Marlowe, arrested for atheism and blasphemy, Galileo Galelei, Aesop (born c. 620 B.C.E) and Socrates (died 399 B.C.E).
According to the “Encyclopedia of Unbelief,” Charles Lee Smith, in 1928, was the last person in the U.S. to be convicted of blasphemy as a crime. Smith had moved to Arkansas to protest the anti-ex`xvolution statute that was about to be passed. (It was overturned 40 years later by Epperson.)
Smith had rented a storefront and distributed leaflets such as “The Bible in the Balance,” “Godless Evolution” and “The Ape Ancestry of Man.” What got him into trouble was the sign he put in his window, “Evolution is True. The Bible’s a Lie. God’s a Ghost.” He was arrested for selling literature without a permit, even though he was giving the pamphlets away. In court, he refused to swear an oath, wishing to affirm instead. The judge, appalled at his atheism, refused to let him testify and fined him for distributing obscene literature.
After numerous threats, arrests and an attack on his storefront, Smith was charged with blasphemy. Again he was not permitted to testify and was convicted, although the conviction was overturned.
In the most recent U.S. case, George Kalman wanted to name his film company “I Choose Hell Productions.” His choice was rejected by Pennsylvania because corporation names were not allowed to be “blasphemous.” In 2010, the court held that the blasphemy statute violated the First Amendment.
Despite the numerous cases overturning blasphemy laws and the fact that “it is proper to regard the statute before us not only as obsolete, but as repealed by implication in such essential parts as an advanced and enlightened civilization justifies with due regard for the personal liberties of the citizen,” several states still have them, although they’re rarely enforced and would fall to a constitutional challenge. The following are still on the books:
Massachusetts: “Whoever wilfully blasphemes the holy name of God by denying, cursing or contumeliously reproaching God, his creation, government or final judging of the world, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching Jesus Christ or the Holy Ghost, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching or exposing to contempt and ridicule, the holy word of God contained in the holy scriptures shall be punished by imprisonment in jail for not more than one year or by a fine of not more than three hundred dollars, and may also be bound to good behavior.”
Michigan: “Any person who shall wilfully blaspheme the holy name of God, by cursing or contumeliously reproaching God, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.”
Oklahoma: “Blasphemy consists in wantonly uttering or publishing words, casting contumelious reproach or profane ridicule upon God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Ghost, the Holy Scriptures or the Christian or any other religion.”
South Carolina makes it a crime to “use blasphemous, profane or obscene language at or near the place of [religious worship].”
Blasphemy prosecutions are still rampant in many other countries, and not just places like Pakistan and Iran. Ireland passed a blasphemy law in 2010 punishing the crime by a €25,000 fine. The United Nations debates a “defamation of religion” resolution every year.
They should instead listen to Dan Barker, sage and FFRF co-president: “You cannot be convicted of a victimless crime.”
FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel graduated cum laude from Tulane University with a B.S. in neuroscience and environmental science and magna cum laude from Tulane University Law School. Go online to see the complete Blasphemy FAQ:
How can I politely attend the Episcopal wedding of a close friend’s daughter? The friend and I get along because we don’t talk religion, she knows my facts and I am aware of her beliefs. However, whenever we dine at their house, we are invited to bend our heads and say grace. My husband and I just stare silently at each other.
The wedding will be heavy on God, and my friend has told me I will have to suck it up and take communion. I don’t even know what communion is! I do know I don’t want to take it.
At other church weddings, I’ve sat quietly during prayer time and changed the words to songs, even using “dog” for the mythical one.
I don’t think my quiet protests will go unnoticed at this wedding though. I am also afraid I might shout out something inappropriate or start shushing people. Maybe I should just go to the after-party, where my discomfort is less likely to be noticed.
What would Ann Landers say?
— Linda in Virginia
P.S. We’re also invited to a Church of England wedding in the U.K. My friend, who is the only religious one in her family, is planning a wonderful party for after the service. She excitedly told me we were on the A-list.
I wondered what she meant until she explained this meant we were invited to both the service and the party. The lucky (in my opinion) B-listers only get invited to the party!
Scott Colson, production editor:
I think it’s more offensive to eat the Jesus cracker because that’s their god, or for Episcopals, a supposedly adequate representation of him. A cracker is better than the scary carving of Jesus with nails and thorns at some of the more graphic churches I’ve seen. Crackers any day.
The reception is more fun and a chance to interact with the lucky couple and their family without the formalities and incense (unless it’s a Baptist reception — then, run).
Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president:
I vote for the party! There you can truly celebrate the newlyweds, not the religion, without artifice or feeling like a hypocrite. No one is likely to notice your absence at a church wedding, and you can circulate and truly enjoy the reception.
I no longer attend religious weddings (with exception of Unitarian). I vowed “never again” after being a “captive” bridesmaid in my 20s in a Catholic wedding for a friend, as the priest went on for two hours about “sin.”
Even firmer is my resolve not to attend religious (“fill in the blank”) funerals, typically more about “sin” (again) than the loved one.
Funerals, especially with open casket, are a relic of religion. Emotions are too raw, families are too upset and have too much to do to force upon them a burial funeral. A memorial service at most, which can be held when everyone has a chance to make travel arrangements and adapt to grief, is far more humane and civilized.
Joan Reisman-Brill, “The Ethical Dilemma” columnist:
You have to politely but firmly tell your friend you will not suck up anything, whether it’s wine and wafers, or just your own values. If that demotes you to the B-list (or off all lists), so “B” it.
If you were Jewish or Muslim, would she expect you to take communion? Even if you were Episcopal, it’s out of line — and perhaps even a sin in the eyes of the faith — to command anyone to perform a sacred ritual against their own conscience.
It’s fine (even fun) during prayers to keep your head up, eyes open and lips not moving (or moving to alternative words that amuse you). But it would be inappropriate for you to register anything that others read as disrespect or protest.
If you really do fear you might lose control, beg off the ceremony and say how much you want to attend the party. Explain to your friend you just aren’t comfortable at a religious service and don’t want to make anyone else uncomfortable, but you would want to be there to celebrate.
A friend who isn’t willing to accept you on these terms is not a true friend. (If you weren’t such a VIP, you could just show up too late for the vows but in time for the kiss; but that’s not an option in this case.)
You can do the same for the U.K. event. This will make room for someone on the B-list who’s eager to get promoted to your spot on A. And again, if this friend says not to bother coming at all, she’ll have saved you a long expensive trip just for a party, however nice.
Even if your friends dump you in a huff, you would do well to leave the door open. Many lovely ladies turn into Mother-of-the-Bridezillas. It could take time, but maybe they’ll one day see things differently and want to reconnect (and perhaps beg forgiveness), which is easier if at least one of you didn’t do any slamming.
Patrick Elliott, staff attorney:
Weddings are supposed to be enjoyable for those getting married and their guests. If the religious ceremony is too much for you to handle, than it may be best to just attend the reception. The people actually getting married will not worry about whether the bride’s mother’s close friend is at the ceremony. You can let them know you care by giving them a personal card and nice gift. Your friend may not fully grasp why you may not want to attend a church service, but there is not much you can do about that.
On the other hand, attending a wedding ceremony is not the end of the world. As an atheist, I have never declined to attend a wedding service. My curiosity won’t allow it, and I don’t want to miss out on the main event. I stand and sit when told but do not otherwise participate by singing or taking communion.
In the Episcopal Church, only baptized Christians may take communion. That means it is more respectful of the church for you to remain in the pew rather than to take communion as your friend told you.
Finally, so what if people notice that you are not taking communion or singing hymns? My Roman Catholic extended family has never approached me and asked about it even though they know I took the sacraments of first communion and confirmation. It may be noticed, but people are there to see a marriage, not to observe who is eating symbolic human flesh.
Of course, if your blood sugar is running low, there are no gods that will smite you for eating a piece of bread.
Name: Andy Shernoff.
Where I live: Greenpoint, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Family: My beautiful fiancée Carla Rhodes and my rescue dog Duchess.
Education: P.S. 148, Flushing High School, State University of New York at New Paltz.
How I got where I am today: I was raised in a safe, supportive environment by parents who nurtured an appreciation for art, music and different cultures. They provided me with the solid foundation to pursue my dreams. Probably the only issue in which religion and I are in accord is the importance of a strong family structure. The world would be a better place if every child was born from love. Of course, that doesn’t require the supernatural, just sensible birth control.
Where I’m headed: We come from stardust and we will return to stardust.
Person in history I admire: John Lennon, for inspiring me to become a musician and setting a high artistic standard. Neil deGrasse Tyson, the smartest man in the room and a noble warrior for science, reason and logic.
Quotations I like: “With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” -— Steven Weinberg
“One man’s theology is another man’s belly laugh.” — Robert Heinlein
I love to hear Christian apologists try to squirm their way out of this one, and why does an almighty god need an apologist anyway? “However, you may purchase male or female slaves from among the foreigners who live among you. You may also purchase the children of such resident foreigners, including those who have been born in your land. You may treat them as your property, passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance. You may treat your slaves like this, but the people of Israel, your relatives, must never be treated this way.” — Leviticus 25:44-46, New Living Translation
These are a few of my favorite things: Music, wine, barbecue, travel to exotic locales, Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show,” focusing on the process not the destination.
These are not: Faith, original sin, people who call themselves “spiritual.”
My doubts about religion started: As a child, I found that no matter how hard I prayed, I never got a response. I eventually realized I was simply talking to myself.
Before I die: Life is simpler when you know what makes you happy, and I know that every day I make music is a good day. I hope to continue to enjoy its healing power as long as I am on this planet.
There’s a reason why many churches open their services with a band and sing-along. The magic in the music gives the congregation a high, which is then misconstrued as being closer to god. I strive to get that feeling without delusion.
Ways I promote freethought: I recently released a CD of songs about religion and faith. I felt the need to take a musical stand and “come out of the closet.” I resent the stigma attached to atheism. The nonsense that we lack morals and can’t be trusted is appalling. According to a recent poll conducted by University of British Columbia and the University of Oregon, atheists are trusted less than rapists!
In my lifetime, I’ve seen blacks and gays improve their status by demanding equal and fair treatment. I think it is time for atheist liberation!
I wish you’d have asked me: What’s the story behind your song “Are You Ready to Rapture?”
I come from New York City, where nobody thinks Jesus is actually returning to Earth. I grew up completely unaware of “the Rapture.” A few years ago, I was surprised to learn that evangelical Christians were offering financial support to settlers on the West Bank of Palestine in an attempt to destabilize the tense situation and accelerate the End Times prophecy. It could all be dismissed as the rantings of religious fanatics, except there are powerful people in government who believe this implicitly. It used to be just nutjobs standing on a street corner in Times Square screaming about the end of the world, now they are running for president.
I would never mock somebody’s religion, but if it’s going to affect public policy, then I have a right to satirize it. And if I can get a good laugh out of it, even better.
‘Are You Ready to Rapture?’
Andy Shernoff modestly omits his decades-long musical influence as a rock journalist and co-founder of the early punk bank the Dictators in the mid-1970s, predating the Ramones by a year. He later collaborated with Joey Ramone and several other groups. Shernoff played at the March 2012 Reason Rally in Washington, D.C., the nation’s largest secular gathering ever.
He released his first solo EP “Don’t Fade Away” in 2012 and his second solo EP “On the First Day Man Created God” in 2013. The latter features “Are You Ready to Rapture?” “Skeptical,” “Fisher of Men” and “Get on Your Knees for Jesus.” Check out
andyshernoff.com and cdbaby.com/cd/
andyshernoff3 for more. Google “shernoff rapture” too see the “Ready to Rapture” video.
He wrote “Rapture” to poke fun at the late Pastor Harold Camping’s predictions of Armageddon. Shernoff told Dangerous Minds online: “I had the phrase Jewish zombie rolling through my brain and wanted to incorporate it into a song. I developed a fascination with Christian eschatology and researched it extensively. I wanted everything in the song to accurately represent what these knuckleheads believe. It took a few months, and I probably wrote 25 verses until I had the right combination of drama, truth and sarcasm.”
Are You Ready to Rapture?
The skies part
as a light shines through
guess who’s back
it’s the zombie Jew.
He’s really pissed
at the unmarried fornicators
the stem cell crusaders
and the butt hole invaders.
So the towers fell
and the earth did quake
just a little taste of his vengeance
America prepare for your fate.
’Cause when the trumpets sound, he will astound
watch the rivers turn to blood
the sinners cry and the dead will rise
judgment day has come.
Are you ready to rapture?
The savior that you spurn
Loves you forever
But the unbelievers must burn
When the zombie Jew returns. . .
USAF Freethinkers Club wins validation
The Freethinkers Club at the U.S. Air Force Academy, which sponsored “Ask an Atheist” days, did not violate any rules and can maintain display tables and offer information to interested persons at its annual fair, academy officials announced March 19. The group is an authorized cadet club.
Military.com reported the school’s announcement came after seven cadets, faculty and staff members contacted the Military Religious Freedom Foundation.
Religious plates win Wisconsin vote
Both houses of the Wisconsin Legislature approved a bill to issue special “In God We Trust” license plates. The bill passed 91-0 in the Assembly and 30-2 in the Senate (opposed by Democratic Sens. Fred Risser and Mark Miller. Risser, 86, of Madison, is the longest-serving legislator in the U.S., first elected in 1956.)
FFRF has taken issue with the godly plates since September and sent an action alert to Wisconsin members. Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott noted in his testimony at a public hearing: “Legislators are elected to represent all citizens, including those who do not believe in a monotheistic god or any gods. Both supporters and opponents of the bill recognize that ‘In God We Trust’ is a religious statement.”
Gov. Scott Walker hadn’t signed the bill at press time.
Judge’s religious bias hit again
A unanimous three-judge panel of the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals on March 21 reversed a decision by Oklahoma County District Judge Bill Graves that denied a name change from James Dean Ingram to Angela Renee Ingram after Ingram’s gender reassignment surgery.
The Associated Press reported it’s the second name-change case in the last two years in which the appeals court has reversed Graves. He earlier rejected a change from Steven Charles Harvey to Christie Ann Harvey. In both cases, he cited specific bible passages as justification for denial.
Graves, a former Republican state lawmaker, told the AP he’s very disappointed. “We can’t change our sex, the way God made us. These things are really counterfeit.”
After being term-limited, Graves was replaced by current GOP Rep. Sally Kern, who has called homosexuality a greater threat to the U.S. than terrorism.
Ingram was represented by the ACLU of Oklahoma.
Salvation Army to pay $450,000 in suit
The New York Civil Liberties Union announced court approval March 18 of a settlement in Lowe v. The Salvation Army in which the plaintiffs will receive $450,000 in damages and attorneys’ fees to two plaintiffs.
Reuters reported that the decade-old federal suit involved now-former employees who alleged the charity pressured them to follow its religious mission while they worked on government-funded projects.
The Salvation Army’s Greater New York division also agreed to provide employees of its government-funded services with a document saying it won’t ask about their religious beliefs or make them adhere to religious policies.
The suit was filed in 2004 after the administration of former President George W. Bush made it easier for churches to get federal money for so-called faith-based initiatives. The greater New York division currently has more than $188 million in government contracts to provide social services and nearly 300 employees are paid with public money.
Board backs veto of church subsidy
Milwaukee Common Council members voted 13-1 on March 4 to sustain Mayor Tom Barrett’s veto of a resolution giving up to $5,000 to the Retail Christian Network for a breakfast at the International Council of Shopping Centers convention in May in Las Vegas.
The Journal Sentinel reported that Barrett felt there was no public purpose to spend tax dollars to finance RCN’s year-round ministry or to support Higher Call, its parent organization based in Franklin, Tenn.
Idaho kills bill on faith healing
Idaho House leaders denied a hearing on a bill to address the number of children who die because their parents choose faith healing and not medical assistance for religious reasons, The Associated Press reported.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Rich Wills said Feb. 26 he was told by House Speaker Scott Bedke that the bill wouldn’t be brought up.
Democratic Rep. John Gannon had proposed changes to state law in the wake of dozens of deaths of children whose parents belong to the Followers of Christ in southwestern Idaho. Similar deaths from treatable conditions have occurred in Oregon, the Followers’ home base.
Home schoolers lose but stay anyway
The U.S. Supreme Court denied certiorari March 3 in Romeike v. Holder. The 6th Circuit earlier denied asylum to a German evangelical Christian family seeking to stay in the U.S. because of Germany’s ban on home schooling, reported Religion Clause.
The appeals court ruled in May 2013 that the Romeikes didn’t have a “well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion,” as U.S. immigration law requires.
However, on March 4, the Department of Homeland Security granted the family “indefinite deferred status” to stay in the U.S., according to Fox News.
The Romeikes moved to Morristown, Tenn., in 2008 after facing fines and risking loss of custody of their children for refusing to send them to a state-approved school in Germany. The family was granted asylum in 2010 based on religious freedom grounds, but the Obama administration appealed the decision and won.
Soledad cross groups seeks certiorari
In Mt. Soledad Memorial Association v. Steve Trunk, the association announced March 4 it will seek Supreme Court review of a lower court ruling that the 29-foot-tall cross must be moved out of a public park in San Diego, Calif. Trunk is an FFRF “foxhole atheist” member and award recipient. The cross has been the subject of litigation since 1989.
The association, which is represented by the evangelical Liberty Institute, contends a Christian cross looming over the 1954 war memorial has no religious significance and somehow honors all of the 3,300 veterans whose names are on memorial plaques, even non-Christians and nonbelievers.
State pushes bible as ‘official’ book
Louisiana Rep. Thomas Carmody, R-Shreveport, introduced HB 503 in the House to declare the bible as the official state book, KTSB reported. FFRF has formally complained about the constitutional violation to state officials.
“The official state book shall be the Holy Bible, published by Johannes Prevel . . . which is the oldest edition of the Holy Bible in the Louisiana State Museum system,” the legislation says. The Prevel bible was published in the early 16th century.
The legislation also proposes that the state’s motto should be changed to read: “A state, under God, united in purpose and ideals, confident that justice shall prevail for all of those abiding here.”
The session started March 10. In a March 3 online Times-Picayune poll, 62% of respondents said the bible should not be the state’s official book.
on governor’s desk
The Georgia Senate gave final passage March 12 to a bill that authorizes placing a Ten Commandments monument at the Capitol. The bill passed the House 138-37 and the Senate 40-10.
The bill prescribes placement of a “historic granite monument” depicting the preamble to the Georgia Constitution, a line from the Declaration of Independence and the Ten Commandments. Private funds would be used.
Some Democrats said they voted “no” because such a law won’t survive a constitutional challenge. “The state doesn’t necessarily need to endorse private individuals and their expenditure of money in supporting their own religion,” Sen. Steven Henson told a television reporter.
Gov. Nathan Deal hadn’t signed the bill as of press time. FFRF sent an action alert to members March 14 urging them to tell Deal to veto the bill.
Arguments heard in commandments case
A federal judge heard arguments March 11 on whether a 6-foot-tall, 3,000-pound Ten Commandments monument in front of City Hall in Bloomfield, N.M., is constitutional. The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico filed the suit against the city on behalf of two plaintiffs who practice the Wiccan religion.
Attorneys for the city contend that “private parties” paid for the monument under a 2007 city resolution that lets members of the public “erect historical monuments of their choosing,” reported the Albuquerque Journal.
The Alliance Defending Freedom, which calls itself a “legal ministry,” is defending the city.
“This is not a free speech case,” plaintiffs’ attorney Andrew Schultz said during opening arguments. “It is a case of government speech.”
wins relief in court
A federal district court on March 14 ordered the Sabine Parish School District to refrain from unconstitutionally promoting or denigrating religion. The consent order came after the ACLU of Louisiana sued on behalf of C.C., a sixth-grader of Thai descent and a practicing Buddhist.
School officials allegedly told C.C. that Buddhism was “stupid,” suggested he transfer to a school with “more Asians,” incorporated prayer into class and nearly every school event, hung a portrait of Jesus over the main entry and participated in a number of other activities that blatantly violated the separation of church and state, said the ACLU’s Heather Weaver.
In February, C.C.’s mother was accosted while doing yard work, Weaver said. “Three people wearing KKK-type white hoods drove by her and shouted, ‘You fucking nigger Asian-loving bitch.’ ”
According to the ACLU, C.C.’s science teacher, Rita Roark, repeatedly told students that the Earth was created by God 6,000 years ago, that evolution is “impossible” and that the bible is “100 percent true.”
The court order also mandated in-service training for school staff on their First Amendment obligations.
Jail won’t stop her
The Carroll County commissioners in Baltimore must stop opening meetings with sectarian prayers, a federal judge ruled March 25 in granting a preliminary injunction, reported the Baltimore Sun.
U.S. District Judge William Quarles Jr. said commissioners can continue to pray at meetings but can’t refer to deities linked to any specific faith.
Plaintiff Bruce Hake, a Catholic immigration attorney, sued last May after commissioners started taking turns saying a prayer. “It’s un-American to impose one flavor of religion on people,” Hake said.
Local resident Neil Ridgely and the American Humanist Association were co-plaintiffs with Hake.
Two days later, reported the Carroll County Times, Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier opened the board’s budget meeting with a prayer containing references to Jesus Christ, Lord, our Father, merciful Father and the Holy Spirit. She said she’s willing to go to jail to fight the injunction.
“If we cease to believe that our rights come from God, we cease to be America,” Frazier said. “We’ve been told to be careful. But we’re going to be careful all the way to communism if we don’t start standing up and saying ‘no.’ ”
Tenn. bill boosts
The Tennessee Legislature on March 24 passed the Religious Viewpoints Anti-Discrimination Act requiring schools to let students express their religious views in class, at assemblies, over the school’s P.A. system and at public events such as graduation, the Baton Rouge Advocate reported.
The legislation, which passed 90-2 in the House and 32-0 in the Senate, must be signed by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam to become law.
“An evangelical student, for example, could preach the gospel during a science class, or ‘witness’ during English,” said David Badash of the New Civil Rights Movement, an online journal. “Attacks on LGBT people and same-sex marriage are automatically protected under this bill, offering anti-gay students a state-sponsored license to bully. And of course, a student could claim they worship Satan and subject their classmates to that ‘religious viewpoint’ as well.”
Oklahoma state Rep. Sally Kern has co-sponsored a similar bill with the same title. It received unanimous House passage (with 13 absentions) in February and was referred to the Senate Education Committee as an “emergency” bill.
Millennials quit church over LGBT issues
In a Public Religion Research Institute survey released Feb. 26, about a third of millennials who left organized religion said “negative teachings” or “negative treatment” related to gays and lesbians played a significant role.
Of adults between age 18 and 33, 17% said negativity about religion’s LGBT issues was “somewhat important” to leaving, and 14% said it was a “very important” factor.
A majority of the 4.500 Americans polled (58%) also said religious groups are “alienating young adults by being too judgmental on gay and lesbian issues.” Among millennials, that percentage jumped to 70.
The polls was conducted in November and December 2013.
Religious bills draw vetoes in Virginia
Virginia Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s March 27 veto of a bill giving military chaplains wide latitude to proselytize brought predictable howls from conservatives.
The Family Foundation said in an e-mail that McAuliffe denied “good sense and the General Assembly’s voting record” in favor of acquiescing “to the ACLU’s wishes.” Bill sponsor Sen. Dick Black, R-Loudoun County, said the veto reflects a “sort of unspoken antagonism to Christianity that’s based on gay marriage and abortion,” the Virginian-Pilot reported.
In his veto message, McAuliffe said the bill “would seriously undermine the religious freedom of National Guard members by potentially exposing them to sectarian proselytizing.”
Chaplains can minister as they choose at voluntary services or in private settings but don’t “have the right to use official, mandatory events as a platform to disseminate their own religious views,” McAuliffe wrote.
The governor’s office said he intends to veto a student religious expression bill that passed 20-18 in the Senate and 64-34 in the House of Delegates. Religion Clause reported that the bill would protect voluntary student prayer and prayer gatherings before, during and after school; wearing of clothing or jewelry displaying religious messages; and expression of religious viewpoints by neutrally selected student speakers at graduation and similar events.
The Roanoke Times reported that McAuliffe’s office said he’ll veto the bill out of concerns about its constitutionality and unintended consequences.
Religion trumps rights in Mississippi
The Mississippi Legislature has approved a “turn away the gays” bill to let businesses and individuals refuse services to LGBT people on religious grounds. The Republican-controlled House and Senate both passed a conference report April 1 on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The House vote was 78-43. The Senate vote was 38-14.
Gov. Phil Bryant has not said if he’ll sign it. A similar bill was vetoed by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer.
The Washington Blade reported that the bill also adds “In God We Trust” to the state seal.
Church ousts Scouts but keeps money
Fr. John De Celles, pastor of St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church in Springfield, Va., ended parish support for Cub and Boy Scout groups because of Scouting’s new policy on gays. De Celles took the popcorn money and another $1,200 that Pack 683 had raised to sponsor a unit of Trail Life USA, founded in 2013 to offer “Christ-centered” Scouting, reported the Washington Post on March 1.
While De Celles had authority to transfer the money, that didn’t sit well with some. “He hurt these children for no reason so that he didn’t have to fund his own new program,” said Pack 683 parent Stephanie Curb.
“I don’t think it was the moral thing to do,” parent Melanie Frola said. The Frolas are leaving the parish because of the decision. Their son sold $84.66 worth of popcorn.
The Disney Co. announced Feb. 28 it will stop supporting the Boy Scouts of America in 2015 over the Scouts’ ban on gay leaders. Disney does not contribute directly, but employees can do volunteer work in exchange for donations to organizations of their choice.
One Florida Scout leader said some troops were getting up to $6,000 a year through Disney’s VoluntEARS program.
SCOTUS hears Hobby Lobby challenge
The Supreme Court heard arguments March 25 on challenges by Hobby Lobby Stores and Conestoga Wood Corp. to the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate. The firms are Christian-owned and claim the law abridges their religious freedom.
Reuters speculated a majority could rule that corporations have a right to make religious claims, but that the contraceptive mandate does not merit one. The AP called the court “divided.”
The Wall Street Journal said:
“Chief Justice Roberts appeared to tip his hand when he told [Solicitor General Verrilli] that the parade of horribles — all kinds of religious exemptions being claimed by all sorts of employers, punching holes in the uniform application of the laws — could be avoided by a ruling limited to closely held enterprises, like S corporations that pass their earnings through to their shareholders. That would leave the issue of, say, an Exxon claiming religious freedom rights to another day. Later, Justice Breyer suggested he might be open to that type of resolution.”
Mother Jones reported April 1 that Hobby Lobby has invested millions in companies that manufacture contraception and abortion-inducing medication.
The report said several of its retirement plan mutual funds are invested in Teva Pharmaceutical and Actavis.
Seek salvation, take home a weapon
The Kentucky Baptist Convention is leading “Second Amendment Celebrations” in which churches give away guns, which the Baptists are billing as “outreach to rednecks” to “point people to Christ,” said a March 1 story in the Louisville Courier-Journal.
Chuck McAlister, the convention’s team leader for evangelism, said 1,678 men made “professions of faith” at about 50 such events last year. In Louisville, he said, more than 500 people showed up one January day for a gun giveaway at Highview Baptist Church, and 61 made decisions to seek salvation.
“How ironic to use guns to lure men in to hear a message about Jesus, who said, ‘Put away the sword,’ ” said Rev. Joe Phelps, pastor at Independent Highland Baptist Church.
Setback for abortion rights in Maryland
In Centro Tepeyac v. Montgomery County, a Maryland U.S. District Court on March 7 enjoined enforcement of a 2010 county resolution that requires each “limited service pregnancy center” to post to post a sign in English and Spanish in its waiting room that reads:
(1) “the Center does not have a licensed medical professional on staff” and (2) “the Montgomery County Health Officer encourages women who are or may be pregnant to consult with a licensed health care provider.”
The resolution expressed concern that “clients may be misled into believing that a center is providing medical services when it is not. Clients could therefore neglect to take action (such as consulting a doctor) that would protect their health or prevent adverse consequences, including disease, to the client or the pregnancy.”
So-called “crisis” pregnancy centers are typically operated by religious groups that try to talk women out of having abortions while misleading them about its risks. The court ruled the reolution was content-based and violated the First Amendment.
Scottish priests decline in Glasgow parishes
A March 12 report in the Scottish Herald estimated that within 20 years, the Catholic Archdiocese of Glasgow will have only 45 priests, less than half the number needed to staff current parishes.
Between 1991 and 2012, attendance at funerals in the archdiocese dropped 14%, along with a 39% decline at baptisms and declines of 41% at Sunday Mass and 54% at weddings.
Sentenced to hang on blasphemy charge
A Pakistani judge sentenced a Christian to death for blasphemy, Reuters reported March 27. Sawan Masih was sentenced to hang after a Muslim said Masih insulted the prophet Muhammad a year ago in Lahore. The accusation against Masih sparked a riot during which than 100 Christian homes were torched.
At least 16 people are on death row in Pakistan for blasphemy and at least 20 others are serving life sentences. No one has yet been executed for blasphemy.
The Secular Coalition for America, of which the Freedom From Religion Foundation is a member organization, is holding its 2014 Lobby Day and Secular Summit in Washington, D.C., on June 12-13. It will include lobbying training, visits with legislators and staffers on Capitol Hill and a policy conference.
Registration is $50 for students and $99 for others and includes breakfast, lunch and lobbying training Thursday morning, lobbying visits Thursday afternoon and a pool party and reception Thursday night. Friday includes breakfast, lunch and a variety of panels and workshops.
A discounted room rate of $159/night at the Liaison Capitol Hill expires May 19.
‘No Religion 4’
set in B.C. in May
Rational thought comes to Kamloops, British Columbia, May 16-18, when Humanist Canada and BC Humanists sponsor the fourth annual Imagine No Religion conference.
FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor will speak, along with Jerry Coyne, professor of biology, author of Why Evolution Is True and an FFRF honorary officer and Emperor Has No Clothes honoree.
Other speakers include Eugenie Scott, who is stepping down as executive director of the National Center for Science Education; “The Thinking Atheist” video producer and Blog TalkRadio podcaster Seth Andrews; Jerry DeWitt, first graduate of the Clergy Project, who left Pentecostalism after 25 years in ministry; Margaret Downey, founder of Freethought Society; Friendly Atheist blogger Hemant Mehta, author of I Sold My Soul on eBay and The Young Atheist’s Survival Guide; Wanda Morris, executive director of Dying with Dignity Canada; and Carolyn Porco, leader of the imaging science team on the Cassini mission currently orbiting Saturn, and a popular science writer.
Sign up to attend and make travel and accommodation arrangements at imaginenoreligion.ca/. The event begins Friday, May 16, at 7 p.m. and continues through Sunday. Beautiful Kamloops is in south-central British Columbia.
First off, I want to thank God, because that’s who I look up to. He has graced my life with opportunities that I know are not of my hand or of any other human hand.
Matthew McConaughey, accepting the Best Actor Oscar for his role in “Dallas Buyers Club”
The Daily Beast, 3-3-14
You know what? You’re an ass. I’ve had enough of you. You’re a real punk. You know that? You have contributed nothing to this program in 10 minutes, zero. And you’re not that smart. You may think you’re smart, but you talk in circles. . . . The problem that some of you atheists have is you’re intolerant. And you’re a punk. So get lost. Get out of here.
Radio talk show host Mark Levin, after a caller disagreed that atheism should disqualify a person from being president
FFRF stops bible ads on school marquee
A high school in North Carolina no longer displays church advertisements on its marquee because of FFRF. Several proselytizing ads, including “1 Peter 5:7” (“Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you”), were featured on the marquee at South Caldwell High School in Lenoir, N.C. These ads were purchased by “Day 3 Church.”
Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent a letter to the district on Jan 8, explaining why displaying religious messages are an egregious violation on public school property:
“Messages on the South Caldwell High School sign are prominently featured and are intended to directly reach students. These messages have the imprimatur of the school and are subject to the Establishment Clause. Advertising on the sign may be properly limited to serve the school’s objectives.”
FFRF requested that if the school would not remove the church ads, FFRF would also purchase ad space itself.
The school district’s attorney promptly responded that the school had removed all ads, which a photo sent by a local complainant verified. The district has changed its policy to ban all nonschool ads on the marquee, the attorney told FFRF.
Lamb of God off Minn. school menu
A public high school in Fertile, Minn., will no longer place a nativity scene in the cafeteria, as it did last December. According to local news sources, the display was temporarily removed, then put back up after a vote of the school board late last year.
Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent a letter to the Board of Education in December, explaining that the school may not lawfully maintain, erect, or host a nativity scene:
“The placement of a scene of the legendary birth of Jesus in a public school places the imprimatur of the school district behind Christian religious doctrine. Endorsements of Christianity in public schools are disturbing for those parents and students who are not Christians.”
On Feb. 28, the district’s attorney replied in writing that the board “rescinded its previous directive, which would allow ‘religious symbols as part of holiday decor as long as it is accompanies by other holiday decor.’ ”
The letter added, “The school district is fully aware of the current status of the applicable federal and state statues as well as court decisions regarding the issues at hand and intends to proceed in a fashion consistent with the law.”
School pulls Christian film after letter
A school in New York will no longer show the Christian film “How to Save a Life” in a sophomore health class. FFRF received a complaint from a parent of a high school student in the Jamesville-DeWitte Central School District, DeWitt, N.Y.
Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent a letter to the district to point out the constitutional problems with showing Christians films to a captive audience of students:
“The film tells the story of a high school basketball star named Jake who loses a former friend to suicide, and Jake’s path to saving another friend from committing suicide by joining a church group and thus reforming his ways. The film also involves acts of premarital sex, drug and alcohol use, cutting, discussion of abortion and so on. Other films these companies have been involved with have had overt Christian messages, primarily involving accepting Jesus Christ and the Christian religion.”
On March 14, the district responded that although the film had indeed been shown during the school day, it was an “isolated incident” that does not represent and is not consistent with school policy.
The district added, “After speaking with the teacher in question, be assured that this film will not be used as a resource in the future.”
FFRF helps nonbeliever become citizen
The Freedom From Religion Foundation helped nonbeliever Adriana Ramirez, a native Colombian living in California, become a U.S. citizen after her naturalization application was initially rejected by the San Diego office of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Ramirez had refused to swear an oath “to bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law,” asking for an exemption because, she wrote, “The strength of my moral and ethical convictions in this matter is greater than any religious training or indoctrination that I may have had in my upbringing.”
She also objected to the phrase “so help me God,” saying, “I do not hold such religious beliefs.”
The agency, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, responded by writing that “the oath of alliegence [sic] must be based on religious training and belief. . . . [Y]our unwillingness is not based on religious training and belief.”
On Feb. 21, Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote USCIS a forceful complaint letter, noting Supreme Court precedent. “It is shocking that USCIS officers would not be aware that a nonreligious yet deeply held belief would be sufficient to attain this exemption. This is a longstanding part of our law, and every USCIS officer should receive training on this exemption.”
On March 20, FFRF was informed that Ramirez received a letter stating her application had been accepted and giving information on attending a naturalization ceremony.
In 2013, FFRF helped Margaret Doughty become a U.S. citizen, surmounting a nearly identical situation at the Houston USCIS office. The office relented and let her take the oath without the “bear arms” requirement.
The repeated violations led FFRF to write a comprehensive letter to USCIS Director Alejandro Mayorkas. Seidel asked Mayorkas to issue a clarifying policy memorandum to prevent future nonreligious citizens from going through similar ordeals. He also took issue with prayers at citizenship ceremonies and ceremonies occurring in Catholic institutions.
“We thought this discriminatory policy was dropped, and here another applicant encounters the same barrier. The U.S. government must resolve this problem permanently,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.
FFRF letter assures Gideon-free school
An FFRF letter of complaint ensured that bibles will no longer be distributed by Gideons International in a Tennessee high school.
A concerned parent informed FFRF that the Gideons were allowed to distribute bibles at Madisonville Intermediate School. A parent reported that at different times during the day, teachers took their classes to the guidance counselor’s office where Gideons preached to students and handed them each a Christian bible.
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter in December to the district, explaining the constitutional violation: “The district may not allow any religious groups to enter school property to distribute religious literature. Even if the students are not forced to accept these bibles, the school sends a clear message to the children in its charge who are nonadherents ‘that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community.’ ”
On Feb. 21, the Monroe School District responded that it would not allow further bible distribution and would “work diligently to ensure student rights under all laws are upheld.”