August 5

    Ellery Schempp

    Ellery Schempp

    On this date in 1940, Ellery Schempp was born in Philadelphia. He started protesting morning devotions as a 16-year-old junior in Abington Senior High in Pennsylvania in 1956. State law then required 10 bible verses to be read in every classroom at the beginning of each school day, followed by students standing to recite the Lord’s Prayer and flag salute. Twenty to 30 states had similar laws. He protested by bringing a copy of the Quran to school to show that the bible was not unique and read that silently instead of standing for the Lord’s Prayer. He ended up in the principal’s office.

    Schempp then wrote a letter to the ACLU asking for help. The ACLU filed a lawsuit. After he graduated in 1958 he was no longer a plaintiff, but his family, including his father Ed Schempp, his mother Sydney, and younger siblings, carried on the celebrated case, Abington School District v. Schempp, which resulted in a landmark 8-1 decision in 1963 declaring devotional bible reading and prayer rituals in schools unconstitutional.

    “We received about 5,000 letters, roughly a third supporting us, a third opposing in reasonable terms, a third hateful and vituperative,” Schempp said. The decision has stood as a bulwark against the coercive proselytization of  schoolchildren and has stood the test of time. Steven Solomon at New York University documented the landmark case in the book Ellery’s Protest, published by the University of Michigan Press (2007).

    Schempp attended Tufts University, where he graduated cum laude in physics and geology. He earned a Ph.D. at Brown in physics. He worked on fiber optics research, joined the staff of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in 1980 and worked on the development of MRI systems. A member of the American Physical Society, he has traveled widely, including to Greenland, the Canadian Arctic, Antarctica, the Alps, the Himalayas, the Sierras and New Zealand.  A Lifetime Member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, he was named a Champion of the First Amendment in 2007.

    “The Supreme Court’s recent decisions are all about eclipsing the Etablishment Clause in favor of the Free Exercise Clause. I’ve gotten to the point where I say I don’t believe in freedom of religion anymore. It’s become so ridiculous. People today are saying, ‘I have a very sincere belief, I don’t believe in red lights, and where is my freedom?’ ” (Washington Post interview, June 23, 2023) Schempp added, “It’s getting worse because of Donald Trump and MAGA types, but it’s been brewing for a long time.”

    “Public prayer is not intended to promote religious values, but to enhance the authority of some churches and some political views over others. Similarly with the posting of the Ten Commandments. It is about power, not about religion. … And the Constitution clearly intends that there should be freedom from religion.”

    —Schempp, Champion of the First Amendment acceptance speech to FFRF (Oct. 13, 2007)
    Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor; photo by Brent Nicastro

    Clara Bewick Colby

    Clara Bewick Colby

    On this date in 1846, Clara Dorothy Bewick (later Colby) was born in Cheltenham, England. She moved with her parents when she was 8 to a farm near Windsor, Wis. As an early reader, she liked to memorize and recite and churned butter by keeping time to fearful hymns threatening “the hells of fire,” she recalled in a lecture. At 19, she moved to Madison and enrolled at the University of Wisconsin. Graduating in 1869 as valedictorian, she was instrumental in opening admission of the UW to women.

    She taught history and Latin at the UW, then married Leonard Wright Colby in 1871 and moved to Beatrice, Nebraska. She served for 16 years as president of Nebraska’s Woman’s Suffrage Association. She founded The Woman’s Tribune in 1883 and published that organ of the National Woman Suffrage Association for 25 years, including daily editions through the suffrage conventions. As editor she also set type, was compositor and sometimes ran the press.

    Legendary for her energy and work ethic, Colby and her husband adopted two children, including a Lakota Sioux infant, “Lost Bird,” found by Leonard in the arms of the girl’s slaughtered mother after Wounded Knee. Her husband later abandoned the family with the child’s nursemaid and they divorced in 1906. Colby raised the child by herself.

    Colby was the first woman designated as a war correspondent during the Spanish-American War. She lectured in nearly every state for suffrage, as well as England, Ireland and Scotland. Colby belonged to the Congregational Church but introduced and defended resolutions denouncing patriarchal religious dogma, notably at the 1885 woman suffrage convention. She routinely featured her friend Elizabeth Cady Stanton‘s critiques of religion on the front pages of The Woman’s Tribune.

    She died In Palo Alto, Calif., in 1916 and is buried in the Congregationalist cemetery near her childhood home in Windsor, Wis.

    Guy de Maupassant

    Guy de Maupassant

    On this date in 1850, Henri René Albert Guy de Maupassant was born near Dieppe, France. After fighting in the Franco-Prussian War, he started writing short stories. Considered a master of that literary form, Maupassant wrote more than 300 short stories, as well as novels and travel books. One of his most famous, “Ball of Fat” (1880), was said to have inspired the plot line in John Ford’s 1939 movie “Stagecoach” about the hypocritical treatment of a prostitute by travelers.

    Pierre and Jean (1889), a psychological study of adultery between a wife and two brothers, was turned into a film in 1951 by Luis Bunuel. Many of his stories have been adapted as movies in France. Among his 39 horror stories is “The Inn,” a predecessor to Stephen King’s “The Shining,” involving a plot about madness afflicting an isolated mountain caretaker. Freethought biographer Joseph McCabe noted, “His works sufficiently reflect his disdain of religion.” (A Biographical Dictionary of Modern Rationalists.D. 1893.

    “There is only one good thing in life, and that is love.”

    —"The Love of Long Ago," "The Complete Short Stories of Guy de Maupassant, Vol. VII" (1903)

    Alfred, Lord Tennyson

    Alfred, Lord Tennyson

    On this date* in 1809, Alfred Tennyson was born in England. By the time his volume of Poems was published in 1833 (including “The Lady of Shalott”), Tennyson had established his literary acumen. By 1850 he had earned the title of poet laureate. Tennyson, a deistic pantheist, was not entirely unorthodox but he routinely trumpeted freedom. He alienated freethinkers of his day when he wrote an agnostic hero in Promise of May (1882) was an “unworthy character.”

    Tennyson made up for such an undiplomatic lapse in other writings. In “In Memoriam A.H.H.” (1849), he famously wrote, “There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.” In “Maud” (1855) he wrote, “The churches have killed their Christ.” In “Locksley Hall Sixty Years After,” Tennyson wrote, “Christian love among the churches look’d the twin of heathen hate.”

    Tennyson married the poet Emily Sellwood, a friend since childhood, in 1850. They had two sons, Hallam, born in 1852, and Lionel, born in 1854. Queen Victoria named Alfred the Baron Tennyson in 1884 and he took his seat in the House of Lords.

    Tennyson recorded in his “Diary” (p. 127): “I believe in Pantheism of a sort.” His son’s biography confirms that Tennyson was not Christian, noting that Tennyson praised Giordano Bruno and Spinoza on his deathbed, saying of Bruno: “His view of God is in some ways mine.” (D. 1892)

    * Tennyson’s birthdate is given as Aug. 5 by some sources. According to one, his baptismal records said Aug. 5 but his mother preferred to celebrate his birthday on the 6th, her wedding anniversary.

    “It is inconceivable that the whole universe was merely created for us who live in this third-rate planet of a third-rate sun.”

    —Tennyson, quoted in "Alfred Lord Tennyson: A Memoir, Vol. 1" by Hallam Tennyson (1897)

    Robert Taylor

    Robert Taylor

    On this date in 1784, Robert Taylor (later dubbed “the Devil’s Chaplain”) was born in England and became a member of the College of Surgeons in 1807. Undergoing a religious conversion, he was ordained an Anglican priest in 1813. He lost his faith about five years later when a parishioner exposed him to rationalist writings. Resigning with a splash, he took out an advertisement seeking employment, which spelled out his loss of religion. Bowing to his mother’s pleadings, he briefly returned to the ministry but was expelled for giving deistic sermons.

    In 1826 Taylor opened a deistic chapel. He flouted church authority by wearing his episcopal garments when giving his deistic lectures. That year he was sentenced to a year in jail for one of his sermons. He and oft-jailed freethought publisher Richard Carlile paired up and distributed a handbill inviting Cambridge students to hear them “present their compliments as Infidel missionaries, to … most respectfully and earnestly invite discussion on the merits of the Christian religion.” This made a deep impression on student Charles Darwin, who, in later delaying the release of his theory of evolution, took into account their treatment at the hands of Cambridge authorities.

    Taylor and Carlile were thrown out of town and authorities even revoked the license of the landlord who had rented to them. After writing a pamphlet called “The Devil’s Pulpit” (1831), an energetic denunciation of New Testament dogma in which Taylor complained of “this tax-burthened and priest-ridden country,” he was nicknamed “The Devil’s Chaplain.” In 1831, he was again convicted of blasphemy, was sentenced to two years in prison and was fined £200. D. 1844.

    “[Christianity] is a system of the grossest hypocrisy, a fashionable villainy, a licensed swindle, cheat, and trick.” 

    “Go to church and chapel, you fools — listen to the parson, and shut your eyes, and open your mouths, and see what God will send you.”

    —Taylor, "The Devil's Pulpit" (1831)

    Lizz Winstead

    Lizz Winstead

    On this date in 1961, humorist and women’s health advocate Lizz Winstead was born in Minneapolis to “Reagan Republicans” Ginny and Wilbur Winstead, the youngest by six years of their five children. On her website she describes herself as “Comedian. Writer. Producer. Troublemaker.” On X (formerly Twitter) she’s Lizz “Insufferable Wench” Winstead.

    Her mother was devoutly Catholic, and when Winstead was 12 she decided she wanted to assist her parish priest, Fr. Hansen, during Mass, mainly as a way to get cash tips from families at weddings and funerals so she didn’t have to baby-sit to make money. She told Hansen how she had practiced the tasks required, later remembering how he turned pale and turned down her request. Only boys could serve Mass, he said, “Because it’s called altar boy, not altar girl.” He told her to write the archbishop, which she did but never heard back.

    Pregnant as a high school senior at 17, she ended up at a “crisis” pregnancy center masquerading as a women’s health clinic. “I asked about abortion and what they said to me [was] ‘Abortion is not an option; your only options are mommy or murder.’ … I realized that those people weren’t out to help me, they were out to control me.” (“Freethought Matters,” May 18, 2023) About her eventual abortion, she said, “It didn’t traumatize me. I was just happy I could have one and move on.”

    After high school she enrolled at the University of Minnesota but dropped out before graduating, instead embarking on what turned out to be a very successful career in comedy — doing stand-up and on radio and TV into her 20s. Her forte: outspoken, often satirical humor to expose hypocrisy, educate and effect social change. The Daily Beast website later termed her “the Queen of Calling Bullshit.”

    With her foot in the door at Comedy Central in 1993, she produced “The Jon Stewart Show,” which led to her co-creating with Madeleine Smithberg “The Daily Show” hosted by Craig Kilborn. She left the show in 1998 after Kilborn made sexist remarks about her. In 2003 she co-founded Air America Radio with Al Franken and served as program director, also co-hosting “Unfiltered” With Rachel Maddow and rapper Chuck D.

    Winstead left Air America in 2005 for various projects, including “Shoot the Messenger,” a live show with a comedy troupe. In addition to touring, she continues to make numerous TV appearances and commentary on MSNBC, The Guardian, the Wall Street Journal and Huffington Post. Her memoir in essay form, “Lizz Free or Die,” was published in 2012.

    In the summer of 2011, Winstead set out across America to raise awareness about what the Internet Movie Database called “the nation’s leading health provider for low-income women — Planned Parenthood of America.” The tour raised over $2 million to benefit Planned Parenthood and NARAL and was made into a 27-minute documentary film titled “Smear Campaign” that won Best Documentary Comedy Short at the Atlanta Documentary Film Festival.

    As the founder in 2015 and chief creative officer of the Abortion Access Front, Winstead and her comedic team focus on destigmatizing abortion. She calls it “part Habitat for Humanity, part USO for abortion care.” It was originally named the Lady Parts Justice League after the male speaker of the Michigan House moved to eject a female House member from the floor for saying “vagina.” He suggested using something “less offensive” like “lady parts.”

    No one should judge another for undergoing the procedure or say that no one is pro-abortion, contends Winstead. “Because I am pro-abortion. I don’t find anything morally wrong with abortion. … It’s like, why are you purporting that there are good abortions and there are bad abortions? There aren’t. There’s only the abortion someone needs.” (Crooked Media, Sept. 24, 2021)

    While accepting FFRF’s Emperor Award in 2023 for “plain speaking” by public figures on religion’s shortcomings, Winstead mentioned the difficulty of maintaining activism during the pandemic. Idaho anti-vaxxers in Boise in July 2020 burned the city-provided free masks outside City Hall and picketed at Mayor Lauren McLean’s home because she and the council had mandated masks. One woman held a sign saying “I will not mask my unborn child.”

    Winstead accepted her Emperor with a smile and with tongue firmly planted in cheek: “It’s thrilling to be given an award from people who believe in nothing. I really just want to thank you from the bottom of my believe-in-nothing heart.”

    “I just kept thinking your god sucks. Get a new god. Get something new. Because this thing that you’re worshipping is not making you a better person, and isn’t that weird?”

    —Winstead, on how she was misled by people at the "crisis" pregnancy center ("Freethought Matters," May 18, 2023)
    Compiled by Bill Dunn; Chris Line photo

Freedom From Religion Foundation