FFRF condemns Ohio’s ‘fetal heartbeat’ law

anners at the Ohio Capitol that correctly proclaimed: “This is not a house of worship” and “This is not a doctor’s office.” That did not stop Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine from signing one of the nation’s strictest anti-choice bills into law, though.

The so-called “heartbeat” bill bans abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected (as early as five weeks). Most women do not even know they are pregnant that early, which is, of course, the point. Doctors who perform an abortion after this point, even in the case of rape or incest, would be felons.

The bill codifies into law beliefs not based on science or morality, but on religion and so-called holy books. The Christian Right has been and remains the primary opponent to women’s reproductive rights. Indeed the “architect” of the “fetal heartbeat” bill runs an organization called “Faith2Action.” It’s about imposing one religious viewpoint on all citizens. This is theocracy, and FFRF condemns it in the strongest terms.

The ACLU has, we’re glad to report, already promised to sue over the law. Concern over the cost of litigation to defend this supremely unconstitutional law was reportedly one reason previous Gov. John Kasich — himself a bit of a Christian nationalist — had vetoed the bill twice, to his great credit.

DeWine has had a track record since day one of imposing his religion on his state. He nearly overdosed on scripture when he put his hand on nine bibles to take the gubernatorial oath, during a highly religious inauguration ceremony in his home that included Christian hymns and prayers.

The Ohio law comes on the heels of the Trump administration’s “domestic gag rule” to bar organizations that provide abortion referrals from receiving federal family planning money, and other draconian provisions that would essentially defund many Planned Parenthood clinics. That rule, which is already being challenged in court, took effect on May 3.

The “fetal heartbeat” bills are being introduced as part of a campaign to overturn Roe v. Wade at the U.S. Supreme Court level. As more and more states pass these bills (such as Kentucky, Iowa, Mississippi and North Dakota), the traditional slogan on many a woman’s protest sign is more relevant today than ever: “Keep your theology off my biology.”

Missouri city moves cross off public land

This illuminated cross has been moved from public property in Ozark, Mo., to privately owned land after FFRF intervened.

A Missouri town has followed through on relocating a cross that FFRF had convinced it to transfer from public land.

“In response to a complaint from a national group called the Freedom From Religion Foundation, employees of the city of Ozark relocated a large metal cross-shaped structure from city property to a piece of land in Finley River Park owned by the Christian County Agricultural and Mechanical Society,” the local paper reports.

FFRF had persuaded Ozark officialdom to do the constitutionally right thing this year after many twists and turns.

“Ozark officials said April 19 they will move a cross that is part of a holiday display in a city park,” the Springfield News-Leader reported then. “The issue was raised when the city received a letter in late November from a separation-of-church-and-state group demanding the cross be removed.”

That “separation-of-church-and-state group” was FFRF.

As FFRF mentioned in its initial letter on Nov. 30 last year, an illuminated cross is not a permissible city holiday decoration.

Soon after, it seemed that that Ozark had listened to FFRF’s advice. Early on Dec. 11, the city issued a remarkable statement indicating that a cross displayed in its Finley River Park indeed violated the Constitution. But later the very same day, much to FFRF’s dismay, the city reversed course under immense pressure from the community, stating that “the cross in the Finley River Park will remain in place until a further due diligence can be completed regarding this matter.”

In its subsequent letter taking city officials to task for their reversal, FFRF emphasized its original legal point.

“In ACLU v. St. Charles (1986), the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals prohibited the city of St. Charles from displaying an illuminated Latin cross on the top of the city’s fire department as a part of its annual Christmas display,” FFRF Legal Director Rebecca Markert reminded City Administrator Stephen Childers. “The court stated matter of factly that ‘the cross is not in fact a common Christmas symbol.’”

After FFRF’s second round of persuasion, the city heeded FFRF’s counsel — and finally performed its constitutional duty.

“We’re so pleased that Ozark officials ultimately did the right thing,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “We are not a Christian nation, Ozark is not a Christian town, and moving the cross to private property demonstrates that the town is welcoming to all its citizens.”

FFRF’s ‘Night of Prayer’ case to get hearing in Kentucky

This screenshot from a video by WKYT shows inmates and jail employees at the Laurel County Correctional Center.

FFRF’s litigation to protect government transparency and the separation of church and state in Kentucky will carry on a little longer.

FFRF, which sued the Laurel County Correctional Center in 2018 for intentional evasion of the Kentucky Open Records Act after inquiring into its “Night of Prayer,” had asked for attorney fees, costs and statutory penalties.

In April, Laurel County Circuit Judge Kent Hendrickson signed an order asking instead for an evidentiary hearing. He indicated that there was not enough evidence in the record to prove that the jail acted “wilfully” when it withheld public records from FFRF — at least not yet.

The legal challenge was prompted by a “Night of Prayer” at the jail in August 2017, during which Laurel County Jailer Jamie Mosley invited Christian clergy to lead community members in prayer to supposedly rid the county of drugs and crime. During the event, inmates were taken from their cells and were prayed upon by the crowd. Attendees also formed a “prayer chain” throughout every floor of the facility, praying over inmates in their cells.

FFRF sent Mosley an open records request in October 2017 seeking records related to the planning and promotion of the “Night of Prayer.” After Mosley denied the lion’s share of the records request, FFRF reached out to Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear for an advisory opinion on lack of compliance with the Open Records Act. Beshear issued a formal opinion on Dec. 21, 2017, essentially stating that Mosley had violated the act numerous ways.

Under the Open Records Act, an attorney general’s opinion has the force and effect of law after 30 days. FFRF sued on Jan. 29, 2018, to enforce the opinion, seeking a declaratory judgment stating that Mosley had violated the Open Records Act and asking that the court award reasonable costs and attorney’s fees.

“We’re confident that we will prevail in this protracted tug-of-war with the jail,” says Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF Co-President. “The ‘Night of Prayer’ at this jail, involving hands-on proselytizing of a literally captive audience of prisoners, was inappropriate and should not have happened.”

FFRF is grateful for the tireless advocacy on its behalf by Michele Henry and Aaron Bentley of Craig Henry, PLC, who represent FFRF in this case.

Crankmail (May 2019)

Here is this month’s supply of correspondence to FFRF from those who don’t quite understand logic, punctuation, grammar or reality. Printed as received.

Read this: You are supposed to follow God. Ever hear of the first commandment of the 10 commandments? Read the book “Jesus Is No Excuse by Gregory St. James”. It will explain all, remember the only time Jesus talked about Heaven is when he told the rich man, you must obey the 10 commandments and give to the needy. Jesus remember also told the rich man…Don’t call me good master for there is none good but God. True, he later said that he was the way and the light, and you could get into Heaven through him, but that was after he allowed himself to be tricked by SATAN when he went upon the mountain top with him. The book explains all of this and much more. Google It. — Greg Mundy

Get educated: Knowledge is progressive. Trump is the best Christian the world should follow! Don’t be mistaken without morality we will all perish. Hell hasn’t got a drop of water for the Atheists! — Mark Anthony

Disgusting!: YOU WORRY ABOUT MISUSE  OF MONEY TO SUPPORT CHRISTIANS, . BUT IT IS A WILLING CONTRIBUTION, UNPLANNED PARENTHOOD USES MY TAXES TO COMMIT MURDER.  I AM    FORCED TO FUND IT. OR TO MAKE EWE YOU FEEL BETTER WE WILL CALL IT FETUS SUICIDE.

EWE YOU DISGUST ME. EWE KNOW, EWE SHOULD REALLY SHOULD PULL YOUR HEAD OUT AND LOOK AROUND SOMETIMES. EWE ARE EXACTLY WHAT IS WRONG WITH THE WORLD. — Marvin Wirth

Go away: You can stay out of Mississippi business! See you in court! Apparently you’ve never read the declaration of independence! See you in court! — John Spurgeon

DIE: You come around my neighborhood, You will most likely be carried out in Hearse. YOU COCKSUCKERS NEED TO DIE, SOONER THE BETTER. — Robert Clemons

You are worthless: YOU IDIOTS CAN GO TO HELL, WE HATE ATHIEST IDIOTS LIKE YOU YOUR A WORTHLESS WASTE OF AIR — Dottie Benedict

FFRF: Cannot wait for all of you to go to hell. We’ll be watching with a smile. Liberal trash who are disgusting and deserve the worst in life. — Fred Turstine

Devil worshipers!: NO! Not until today did I know an organization like this existed. You are part of the problem we are facing in the world today. When they took GOD out of everything, all respect for anything was lost. There is no reason to have separation of church and state. Those who do not believe in GOD and Jesus are just plain ignorant. When the end does come and God sends Christ, I bet all you unbelievers will wish you never denied the love of God and would rather spend eternity in heaven. You will reap what you sow, you devil worshipers. You are one bunch of scary people. — Joette Tilbury

Leave us alone: You can be of assistance, if you stop with this bullshit. If an individual wishes to display a cross, thenit is their right to do so. Who the fuck are you to force them to conform to your beliefs? Why do you ass bags feel it is anyway appropriate, to destroy the ability for individuals to believe as they see fit? Basically you fucksticks should play a rousing game of hide and go fuck yourselves. — Bryant Hunt

You’re wrong: I am a current student at Hamilton Community Schools, you are barking up the wrong tree you fucked up on this one we do not care about your fucking lawsuits it is a christian community me as well as other people enjoy talking to the youth leader we have never once saw him preaching to anyone that he does not know personally, and regarding Colorado Challenge it is a group of people that go voluntarily with them to talk about the teachings of the bible, when you try to sue a school with literally 3 satanists out of 800 people you will lose, more students are organizing against you the more this news gets out. — Spencer Braeckeveldt

What about Muslims: How about picking on Muslims for a while. Did you know that Muslims don’t believe in atheists either? So, when you finish wiping out the Christians in America, either you will have to become a Muslim, or they will wipe you out. Take your choice. — Don Vanderhoof

Religion taken off health curriculum in Arkansas

The Arkansas Department of Education has followed a recommendation from FFRF in ensuring the removal of religious promotion from its online health curriculum.

FFRF wrote a letter of complaint to the district expressing the concerns of a parent of an Arkansas public high school student that their child’s curriculum, administered through Virtual Arkansas, contained explicit religious proselytization.

In one assignment titled “Healthy Habits for Mental Wellness,” students were presented with “20 suggestions for healthy habits we can practice in five different dimensions, which integrate to enhance mental health.” One of these dimensions was “spiritual,” which was designed as “establishing a relationship with the Giver and Sustainer of life and health.” The program suggested students should tend to said “spiritual dimension” through, among other things, “daily devotionals” and “praying for others.”

“Every religious system promotes a time of prayer and meditation, preferably at the beginning of the day,” the program read. “The devotional session is a time to render worship and express gratitude for life, which you acknowledge that you have no ability to sustain. The sense of connection with God, the Supreme Being, boosts your mental awareness that supernatural support is available throughout the day. You worry less and praise more.”

Under the “Praying for Others” heading, the suggestions continued: “Praying for others provides an opportunity for you to forget your own troubles. It is an exercise which helps you become interested in someone else, whether to request compassion on their behalf, or to share their expectations. Praying for others underscores your personal belief in a God who cares.”

FFRF’s Robert G. Ingersoll Legal Fellow Colin McNamara wrote to Department of Education Commissioner Johnny Key, informing him that including proselytization as part of a public school curriculum was completely inappropriate and demonstrated an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.

“It is well settled that public schools may not advance or promote religion,” McNamara wrote. “Assigning students reading materials that encourage them to pray and worship a monotheistic god violates this basic constitutional stricture.”

The Department of Education’s general counsel responded to FFRF’s request with assurances that the troubling elements of the curriculum would be deleted.

“The Department of Education reached out to Virtual Arkansas and learned that the materials at issue will be removed on Monday, March 25, by Virtual Arkansas’ design and development team,” the letter reads.

FFRF commends the Arkansas Department of Education for taking such swift action to correct this violation and bring its health curriculum in line with constitutional standards.

“Public schools cannot be used as recruiting grounds for religious indoctrination,” comments FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “We welcome the removal of this unconstitutional content from the state’s online health program.”

Georgia on our mind

At Peach County Schools in Georgia, administrators have pledged to educate coaches on expectations regarding First Amendment requirements, thanks to a letter from FFRF.

A local resident reported that the Peach County High School football coach had been praying with his team. FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line wrote to the district to object to this unconstitutional school-sponsored prayer and ask that the district interfere to stop this practice.

The district’s counsel responded to FFRF’s complaint with assurances that the superintendent of the district “intends to meet with high school personnel, including all coaches, to discuss issues related to the First Amendment, including the Establishment and Free Exercise Clause.” The district also noted that it is “confident that all of its schools make good faith efforts to fully comply with the requirements of the Constitution and protect the rights of all parties.”

Scheduled prayer ends

Scheduled prayer has ceased at Lowndes County (Ga.) School Board meetings after persistent pressure from FFRF.

A concerned Lowndes County Schools parents first reported more than a year ago that the Lowndes County Board of Education begins all of its meetings with a scheduled prayer. FFRF stepped in to remind the district that it is beyond the scope of a school board to schedule or conduct prayer as part of its meetings.

“Calling upon board members, parents, students and members of the public to pray is unconstitutional,” wrote Line. “It is coercive, embarrassing and intimidating for nonreligious citizens to be required to make a public showing of their nonbelief (by not rising or praying) or else to display deference toward a religious sentiment in which they do not believe, but which their school board members clearly do.”

After diligent follow-up with the district, the complainant has informed FFRF that the agenda no longer shows scheduled prayer for the school board meetings.

Baccalaureate removed

A concerned Henry County (Ga.) Schools employee reported that Union Grove High School organizes, endorses and advertises a baccalaureate for its seniors each year. Faculty members reportedly often speak at the event and met with students during the school day to organize it. The event was advertised on both the school’s website and on a calendar of senior events.

Line wrote to the district, expressing FFRF’s constitutional concerns about the public school-sponsored baccalaureate programs.

“The district’s role in advertising and promoting these baccalaureate programs, along with official teacher and administrator participation in organizing these events, would cause any reasonable graduating senior or parent to conclude that the district endorses the religious messages espoused at these services,” Line wrote in his letter to Superintendent of Henry County Schools Mary Elizabeth Davis.

The district’s legal representation discussed the issues with school officials and the event has been removed from the list of senior events for graduation.

Mississippi school district removes religious displays

A Mississippi school district has removed unconstitutional religious iconography from its schools, following a recommendation from FFRF.

A Lee County Schools community member reported to FFRF multiple displays promoting religion in areas of Saltillo Elementary School frequented by students and community members on school business. One such exhibit featured a Christian cross hung above the door to an administrator’s office. Multiple school administrators were displaying similar crosses and other religious items, including a sign reading “why worry when you can pray,” at their desks. Additionally, a painting was exhibited at the school that includes a quote from the bible verse, Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you . . .”

It is well-settled law that public schools may not endorse religion, FFRF reminded the district in a letter of complaint.

“We write to ensure that district employees cease impermissibly endorsing their personal religious beliefs through religious displays on district property,” FFRF Associate Counsel Sam Grover wrote in his letter to the district’s attorney. “Any Latin crosses or other displays promoting religion must be removed from areas of the school frequented by students or members of the public.”

Lee County Schools has since indicated that the displays will be removed from school property. FFRF commends the district on taking swift action to remove these displays and for providing guidance to teachers on their constitutional obligations to remain neutral on matters of religion.

The district’s pledge to take down the religious iconography has subsequently invited overblown criticism from some members of the community who interpret the district’s enforcement of the law as an attack on faith. Some have conflated FFRF’s citing of legal precedent barring these sorts of displays with the protected individual rights of teachers to wear a cross necklace.

“Teachers are allowed to wear personal religious necklaces. Neither FFRF’s letter nor the district’s communication to its employees said otherwise,” Grover points out. “It appears that the district, like FFRF, is concerned about government employees using their official positions to promote religion to students and members of the community. Religious displays like the ones complained of in FFRF’s letter violate the religious freedom of each and every Lee County Schools community member.”

FFRF Victories (May 2019)

By Bailey Nachreiner-Mackesey

Alabama

FFRF resolved multiple constitutional violations in Jefferson County Schools after a district community member alerted FFRF to ongoing violations in the district.

The complainant reported that Clay-Chalkville High School promoted a “See You at the Pole” event to its students. The school reportedly included a teacher-led advertisement for First Priority, a religious club operating at the school, in one of its daily announcement videos for students. The event was also promoted in the school’s newsletter.

FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line pointed out the unconstitutional nature of allowing a teacher to promote a religious club at the school, as well as the school’s endorsement of the “See You at the Pole” event.

The district has addressed both issues. “Clay-Chalkville High School will not promote the See You at the Pole event in the future,” the district confirmed in a response letter. Additionally, the district will make sure that, moving forward, the First Priority Club will be entirely student-initiated and neither the school nor its employees will lead, participate in or promote any meetings or club events.

Colorado

Christian music will no longer be played in a public recreation center in Denver after objection from FFRF.

A concerned Athmar Recreation Center patron reported that the recreation center frequently played Christian music over the facility’s PA system. The complainant reported that multiple patrons have requested that the center choose more appropriate music, but that these requests were ignored.

The station reportedly being played was KLove 91.1 FM, which describes its mission as: “To create compelling media that inspires and encourages you to have a meaningful relationship with Christ.”

FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor wrote to the center’s management with a reminder that its job is to serve all citizens of varying faiths or none at all. It is therefore inappropriate to endorse religion through Christian music, FFRF contends.

The Denver Parks and Recreation Department thanked FFRF for bringing this matter to its attention and took swift action to correct the violation. The department has established a new policy regarding the music played over the PA system and will only allow one neutral station to be played over the course of the day.

Kentucky

The Webster County School District in Dixon, Ky., has instructed school administrators to contact the school board and discuss any requests regarding religious materials following a visit by the Gideons to the district.

A Clay Elementary School parent reported that on Nov. 28, the school allowed the Gideons to enter classrooms at the school and distribute bibles to students.

FFRF Legal Fellow Colin McNamara wrote to the district regarding this unconstitutional distribution of religious materials, acknowledging that the district may not have even known about the distribution, as the Gideons operate by deliberately avoiding superintendents and school boards.

The district informed FFRF in a response letter that school administrators have been instructed to contact the school board before approving any request regarding dissemination of religious material. Additionally, the school board has pledged to discuss any such request with its legal counsel.

Missouri

Wrestling coaches in Jackson County R-II School District have been instructed to cease praying with students, after receiving a letter from FFRF.

A concerned citizen contacted FFRF to report that Jackson Senior High School wrestling coaches regularly pray with their team. Photos shared on the “Jackson Wrestling” Facebook page showed coaches kneeling and bowing their heads along with students praying in a circle.

FFRF Legal Fellow Colin McNamara wrote to the district, asking that it investigate the complaint and take action to stop any and all school-sponsored prayers occurring within district athletic programs.

The district’s attorney responded to FFRF’s complaint with assurances that “the coaches at issue were reminded of the district’s board policy regarding staff members praying in school, and were also instructed not to lead students in prayer, initiate a prayer with students or cause a student to initiate prayer.”

New Mexico

Following a complaint by FFRF, a Latin cross has been removed from a county building in Carlsbad, N.M. 

A local resident reported that a cross was displayed prominently in the Eddy County Clerk Office, a location that was used for early voting in October of 2018. FFRF Legal Director Rebecca Markert swiftly intervened.

“The inherent religious significance of the Latin cross is undeniable and is not disguisable,” Markert wrote in her letter to County Clerk Robin Van Natta. “No secular purpose, no matter how sincere, will detract from the overall message that the cross stands for Christianity and the overall display promotes Christianity.”

This violation of the civil liberties of non-Christian residents by the presence of this cross is further exacerbated by the fact that the location is used as a polling place, Markert added.

The county confirmed in a letter to FFRF that the cross was removed following the complaint.

Ohio

Dalton Local Schools has been instructed by its attorneys to hold future events at secular locations, thanks to FFRF.

A local resident reported that the Dalton High School Choralation group performed at Cornerstone Community Church and previously performed at the Dalton United Methodist Church during its worship service.

FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line wrote to Superintendent Jim Saxer urging the district to respect the rights of conscience of all families and no longer hold events at churches and instead select public facilities for all future events.

The district’s attorney assures that the superintendent has “instructed the employee that school related performances should take place in secular venues.”

Pennsylvania

A Pennsylvania school district has removed a godly broadcast tagged on to the Pledge of Allegiance after hearing from FFRF.

A concerned Springfield School District parent informed FFRF that Sabold Elementary School had been proclaiming “God Bless America” over the loudspeaker following the Pledge of Allegiance each morning.

FFRF asked that the school’s practice of decreeing “God Bless America” each day immediately stop.

“The repeated recitation of a religious message in the school setting violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits public schools from advancing, supporting or promoting religion,” FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line wrote to Superintendent Anthony Barber. “‘God Bless America’ is a prayer. The song that the phrase originates from begins, ‘As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer.’ A prayer hosted by a publicly supported school does not pass constitutional muster.”

FFRF’s message met with receptive ears from Springfield School District officials.

“After the school district’s receipt of your letter, Sabold Elementary School has ceased its practice of announcing the slogan ‘God Bless America’ over the loudspeaker immediately following the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance,” the school district’s legal counsel recently wrote back. “None of the schools in the school district currently engages in this practice.”

Convention speech — Debra Deane Olson and Dr. Craig Wilkinson: Culbert Olson, a freethinking governor

Debra Deanne Olson speaks about her grandfather, Gov. Culbert Olson, during FFRF’s national convention in San Francisco on Nov. 2, 2018. (Photo by Chris Line)
Dr. Craig Wilkinson talks about Culbert Olson’s youth as Debra Deanne Olson laughs at his side. The two paired to write Culbert Olson’s biography. (Photo by Ingrid Laas)
Debra Deanne Olson and Dr. Craig Wilkinson show off the plaques they received from FFRF at the national convention. Standing with them is FFRF Board Member Stef Moritz, who handled their introduction to the crowd. The plaque pictures Gov. Olson refusing to put his hand on a bible as he took the oath. (Photo by Ingrid Laas)
Culbert Olson was featured on the cover of Life magazine on Nov. 7, 1938.
Debra Deanne Olson and Dr. Craig Wilkinson sign copies of their book, The Honorable Culbert Levy Olson: California Governor 1939 to 1943, Humanitarian, Ex-Mormon, and Atheist. (Photo by Ingrid Laas)

This is an edited version of the speech given by Debra Deanne Olson and Dr. Craig Wilkinson on Nov. 2, 2018, at FFRF’s national convention in San Francisco. They were introduced by FFRF Board Member Stef Moritz:

Our next speakers have co-authored a book about the Honorable Culbert Levy Olson, who served as the 29th governor of California.

Debra Deanne Olson is uniquely qualified to write this biography, since she is Gov. Olson’s granddaughter. She inherited her love of politics from her grandfather and has worked on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaigns. She is the founder of Peace Solutions, an organization dedicated to building a just, sustainable and peaceful global society in the 21st century.

Dr. Craig Wilkinson, an ex-Mormon, has been a vascular surgeon for 30 years. He combines his interest in science with humanitarian ideals. He is involved with Citizens Climate Lobby, working on the pressing problem of climate change. After Mormonism’s recent aggressive stance against the LGBT community, he sent in his letter of resignation.

The title of the biography written by Olson and Dr. Wilkinson is The Honorable Culbert Levy Olson: Governor of California 1939 to 1943, Humanitaria, Ex-Mormon, Atheist.

We have an award that we are presenting to these two that reads: “Courage to Tell the Truth Award from the Freedom From Religion Foundation 2018.”

Debra Deanne Olson: Craig and I would like to thank the Freedom From Religion Foundation for presenting us with this amazing award.

We’d like to start by asking the question: Does truth really matter anymore? In fact, wisdom can only be found in the truth. Here is a man who told the truth — my darling grandfather. He never compromised. He always, despite all his adversaries, was never afraid to stand up for what he believed was best for all Americans. He was a great humanitarian, an atheist and a visionary 80 years ago. He told the truth about politics and religion every time he spoke. His life story is a good example of how we can all be good without having God in our lives.

Craig Wilkinson: Because I’m an ex-Mormon, Debra and I thought I should present the Mormon side of his heritage.

Culbert was born to Mormon parents in the frontier town of Fillmore, Utah, in 1876. The Mormons had come to Utah to practice their religion in private. All the children in Fillmore were taught the Mormon origination story, which has to do with seeing visions.

Culbert listened to this story, like all the kids did, and here’s what he said later in life: “I didn’t share in the emotionalism of the other children when they heard these amazing stories of visions and angels. I must have been born a skeptic because at a young age I had doubts.”

Not seeing angels

Here’s a story that caught my interest about Culbert. He attended a little one-room schoolhouse in Fillmore. All eight grades were in this school, so you had 6-year-olds to 14-year-olds. One day, a Miss Crane recounted the Mormon story of Joseph Smith’s vision of the angel Moroni and the gold plates. She did it in such an intense and emotional way that several of the school children reported seeing angels. The teacher noticed that Culbert seemed disinterested. He was 10 years old, so he was in fourth grade. She asked him: “Culbert, did you see any angels?” Culbert knew he was at the gallows now, because if he said “yes,” he was off scot-free. If he said “no,” it might be a real problem. But he didn’t want to lie. He calmly said he didn’t see any angels and didn’t think the other children did, either. We can only imagine the long silent pause that must have befallen that schoolroom.

Well, anyone who knows about Mormons knows that all the young men are obligated to go on a mission for the church. There are some who don’t go on missions, but back then, when you turned 19, you went. Despite this obligation, Culbert refused to go on a mission and he soon became a social outlier in the community.

So, he left town, went to college and graduated with a degree in journalism. And then he moved to Ogden, Utah. He got a job as a reporter for the local newspaper, the Ogden Standard Examiner, and quickly advanced to associate editor.

In 1895, Ogden was a major junction town for the Transcontinental Railroad, so it attracted a diversity of people from all over America, thus becoming the least Mormon city in Utah. Then, in 1890, the Mormons in Utah gave up, or were forced to stop, polygamy. This allowed Utah to apply for statehood, and it was admitted to the union in 1896. William King was elected as Utah’s first representative in the U.S. Congress in 1897. Culbert’s mother, Delilah King Olson, was William King’s aunt. So, William King and Culbert Olson were both from Fillmore, Utah.  King asked his cousin Culbert to be his personal secretary in Washington, D.C.

Culbert had heard that the “The Great Agnostic” Robert Ingersoll would speak in D.C. Ingersoll gave over a thousand speeches in the late 1800s on topics like the myth of Moses, the devil and an agnostic’s view of Christmas. Anyway, he was considered by many to be an evil man. And I think it took some courage for Culbert, especially with his Uncle William, who stayed active in the church, to just tell his uncle, “Hey, I’m going to see this guy speak.”

After that speech, Culbert said, “As I listened to the bold fearless public declaration of this great agnostic’s honest convictions, so clearly based upon reason and so clearly supported by historical and scientific facts, the last cloud of doubt was removed from my mind. I became a confirmed freethinker.”

Culbert attended and graduated from Columbia Law School and then moved to Salt Lake City. He met and married Mary-Kate Jeremy and they had three children. Mary-Kate happened to be a bit of a freethinker. They were kind of like two agnostic birds in a flock of devout Mormons. Culbert was then elected and served as a Utah state senator from 1916 to 1920. He was a very progressive Democrat and he actually wrote and passed the first child labor laws in Utah. But then he lost an election to Milton Welling, a devout Mormon.

Debra Deanne Olson: When we decided to write this book, Craig found me because I had spoken at the California state Capitol. I was invited there by the historians and librarians because they knew nothing about my grandfather. Afterwards, Craig called me and said, “Oh my god, your grandfather is my hero. I’ve been studying him and I’m an atheist and, hey, would you like to write a book together?”

So, we spent two years doing research and making sure that all the facts were correct. It’s a really cool book, and it’s about 400 pages with 80 photos. When you don’t know about your family and you have all these pictures in your garage, every picture tells a thousand words.

Progressive politics

Now, let me tell you about his political life. Culbert didn’t really participate in California politics until the catastrophe of the 1929 stock market crash. The unfairness of the Great Depression was so disturbing to him that he re-entered politics with a vengeance. The previous 40 years, California politics had been controlled by the Republicans. In 1934, there were three Republicans to every Democrat in California. Progressive politics began with socialist-turned-Democrat Upton Sinclair and his End Poverty in California campaign. My grandfather was a strong supporter of Upton Sinclair and helped run his campaign for governor in 1934 as chairman of the California Democratic Party.

In 1938, Culbert entered the race for governor of California. He was featured on the front cover of Life magazine. The article reported, “Culbert Levy Olson advances the progressive agenda in California and is known as the ‘people’s candidate.’ Mr. Olson is well dressed, urbane, an elderly idol of Western politics, and he looks like a movie star’s projection of a governor.”

He’s been called the godfather of progressive politics. He had a very strong opinion on income inequality, which he felt was the underlying cause of the Great Depression. He said in his inauguration speech: “Social problems are created by economic maladjustments, continued concentration of the wealth, and control of the national economy in the hands of a small percentage of the population.” Does that sound familiar? Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks the same language.

Olson was the first political figure in California’s history to include Latinos in his campaign. Dolores Huerta, who’s very involved in the women’s movement, ran into me on a bus. We were doing something for Sen. John Kerry and she saw me. She said, “Oh my god, you’re Gov. Olson’s granddaughter. Whenever I speak about Latino politics around universities, I always talk about him. He was totally there for us.” It’s great to hear that stuff. I’m proud of him.

On Nov. 8, 1938, Democrat Culbert Olson defeated Republican Frank Miriam with 54 percent of the vote. Gov. Olson was the first Democratic governor in California for over 40 years.

‘I affirm’

Now this takes courage: Gov. Olson was sworn in with his hand in his pocket [not on a bible] and said, “I affirm” instead of “so help me God.” Needless to say, for three or four days, everybody went insane in Sacramento. When asked why he did this, he replied, “Because God can’t help me. And anyway, there is no such person.” It’s important to note that no other high government official in America before or since has had the courage to do the same thing during their inauguration.

During his inaugural speech, he showed us his sense of fair play and defense for the average American citizen. He stated, “There must be measures calculated to eliminate every form of special privilege or class control in our economic system.”

In the back of our book, we have the entire inaugural speech and his speech as the first president of secularist Americans. They’re long, but they’re brilliant. He was just so smart. I think you’d enjoy reading them.

Olson’s grand vision for California became known as “Olson’s New Deal for California.” President Roosevelt and Gov. Olson shared the same political ideals. They were personal friends and did a lot of correspondence. When I wanted to find out how deep his relationship was with FDR, I talked with the Hyde Museum in New York. They sent me 180 documents of conversations and policies they discussed over the years.

In 1940, President Roosevelt had Gov. Olson on his short list to become vice president, but then he went with somebody else because they needed the rural farmers’ votes.

Gov. Olson fought for public ownership of public utilities. He was the first governor west of the Mississippi to appoint an African-American, a woman and a Latino to the California judiciary. It’s amazing. This also took tremendous courage and foresight in 1940 because all three appointments shook up the racist and sexist sentiments of the times, naturally.

Tom Mooney was a major political activist and labor leader. The nation was deeply divided over Mooney’s guilt or innocence concerning the bombing at the July 22, 1916, Preparedness Day Parade in San Francisco.

Gov. Olson knew that Mooney was not guilty and this guy spent 22 years in San Quentin. Gov. Olson reviewed all the records and one of his campaign promises was that he would pardon him, which he did. And there were 25,000 people standing in San Francisco to honor him when he came out of prison. It was a big deal.

Against racism

During “Race Relations Day” at the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition, Gov. Olson spoke loud and clear about racism. “Anyone who generates racial hatred and social misunderstanding is a demagogue of the most subversive type. He becomes an enemy of society, just as truly as a tax evader, an embezzler or even a murderer. In fact, he does infinitely more harm.”

He always stood up for the rights of the working people and the underserved. They returned the favor by labeling him the “people’s governor.” He was really loved.

Craig Wilkinson: After Olson lost the 1942 election to Earl Warren, he never sought public office again. He turned his attention and energy to one of his lifelong passions, which was bringing public awareness to secular humanism, the idea of living a meaningful life without depending on religious superstition. He wrote numerous letters to the editor defending separation of church and state.

In 1945, the United Nations was formed. It was a big deal. Olson was a pacifist, an advocate of human rights, so he felt kind of a duty to be present at the formation of such a great international peace idea. He demonstrates a spirit of the United Nations with this statement, which he repeated a lot: “We should be concerned with the brotherhood of man, not the fatherhood of God.”

In 1952, the first secular society of America was formed in the United States. It was called the United Secularists of America, and Culbert Olson was elected president in 1952. He contributed his time and a lot of money to the organization. The Progressive World Magazine was the principal publication of the United Secularists of America and Olson wrote many articles for it, consistently opposing religion.

Referring to the recently ended World War II, he wrote: “People’s prayers to God for protection against the evils of this world have always been in vain.” Olson didn’t believe that God existed somewhere in space. He thought God was only in the human mind. “I believe all gods man has fanatically worshipped in fear, for his own creation, born of his imagination.”

Later in life, he was once again asked about his religion. He couldn’t put it in any more candid language. He said: “The emancipation of the mind from religious superstition is as essential to the progress of civilization as is the emancipation of the body from physical slavery.”

One year before his death, when he was 84, he was interviewed on television, which was a new thing at that time. He was asked again about his religion, and he said, “I’m an atheist.” The next obvious question was: “Are you afraid of death?” Culbert replied calmly, “I’m not.” Culbert Olson died on April 13, 1962.

Debra Deanne Olson: California Supreme Court Justice Stanley Mosk was my grandfather’s personal secretary before Olson appointed him to the California Supreme Court. Mosk told me that he thought my grandfather was the most honest person he had ever known. And that’s actually also in his oral dissertation.

In conclusion, I think we should quote Mahatma Gandhi, who said: “There is no higher god than truth.”

Convention speech — Victor Harris: ‘Oh God, You Devil’: Poetry for secularists

Photo by Ingrid Laas
San Francisco-area poet Victor Harris performs a few of his poems for the FFRF audience on Nov. 3, 2018, at FFRF’s national convention.
Photo by Chris Line
Victor Harris (right) chats with his mother, Gwendolyn Olson (center), and actress Julia Sweeney during a break in the convention.

Here is an edited version of Victor Harris’ “Poetry for Seculars” speech, given Nov. 3, 2018, at FFRF’s 41st annual convention in San Francisco. He was introduced by FFRF Director of Operations Lisa Strand:

Victor Harris has been a staple on the Bay Area poetry scene since 1999 and was on the Poetry Slam Finals stage for Team Oakland in 2003. He is the recipient of the 2001 Frederic C. Fallon Award for poetry from Chabot College, and a 2006 graduate of Cal State University Hayward. Victor has been writing and performing atheist/skeptical/rational/science themed poetry since 2007 and has performed at conferences around the country. When he’s not writing, or performing or DJing, he is the talent behind Reuschelle’s Cheesecakes and won a Best of the Bay award from the East Bay Express in 2009.

By Victor Harris

Good morning, skeptics.

Everything I’m about to perform can be found on my album, “In Reason I Trust.” This one is called, “Oh God You Devil, Pt. 1.”

‘Oh God You Devil, Pt. 1’

Dear God, I’d like to thank you for this body you’ve given me, but I do have one or two issues with its layout and capabilities. If we are, as your adherents would have me believe, your favorite species, created in your image, then your imagination must have been exhausted after creating sunrises, sunsets, the ocean, its floor and the majestic mountains.

Those are beautiful works of art, after all, but your imagination must have been expended after creating creatures that swim in the deep, birds to decorate the skies and animals to populate the Earth. They’re awe-inspiring in every iteration, so I can only assume that your imagination was taxed when it came to creating my kind.

Or perhaps the parts bin was empty because these eyes you’ve endowed in me are nice. I mean, don’t get me wrong, they’re serviceable, but they are nowhere near your best work. Sharks have clear covers to keep their eyes safe when attacking prey, the eyes of the octopus don’t have the same blind spot as those of mammals and the images aren’t flipped. Hawks can see greater distances with more clarity, and insects have compound eyes that allow them to see in six directions at once, while we, your favorite species, will stub toes in poorly lit rooms. Our rods, struggling in low-light situations, can only see in black and white and our peripheral cones can only perceive a limited number of colors in the spectrum, and unnecessary nerves and veins occupy the ocular surface leaving them vulnerable to irritation and damage by the tiniest of your insects.

God, this body you’ve given me suffers from one or two minor deficiencies. For instance, we communicate, eat, drink and breathe using the same faculties, which almost makes it a certainty that we will one day choke in our attempt to acquire sustenance. Did you love the dolphin and whale more than man? Are fishes and amphibians more favored by their creator than the humble mammals from which we descended?

The circulatory and respiratory systems of insects are so simple as to almost be inspired. Did you design them early on in the process? I mean, there are more body plans to the insects than there are people on this Earth. Did you pin them fresh off your first cup of coffee, or whatever your drug of choice may be? I think, after seeing some of your creatures, it is safe to assume that you were on some sort of hallucinogen. And speaking of circulation and respiration, why don’t we use all of the oxygen we take in? And why are we land-based animals on a planet that is two-thirds water?

This spine you’ve hung my mass on contains a curve so complex that at some point I will have back problems. Whereas, if we were in the ocean, that might not be. The same can be said for hips, ankles and knees. And, dear God, why can’t I regenerate limbs? I’m not asking for an arm or a leg such as the salamander is able to do, but if the common lizard can regrow a tail, I don’t think the pinky toe is too demanding.

And, dear Lord, why is my life span so short, only doubling in the last century, thanks to science-based medicine, but still falling far short to the alligator, the crocodile, the tortoise and the parrot? Do these creatures, not purported to be your favorites, have more purpose than man?

And what is the purpose of cancer? Why do our cells suddenly go crazy in an attempt to kill off the body that contains them? And our appendix, which was once necessary to break down such fibrous materials as grass and hearty green vegetables, is now a repository for necessary bacteria, a ticking time bomb, just hanging around waiting to kill us. I’m running out of time, dear God, but not complaints.

My party center. Centrally located, it’s in too close proximity at times, sharing the same facilities as my sewage center. Were there no city planners in heaven for you to consult? Were we given whatever body plan was left lying around? Would that explain the junk DNA that still occupies ourselves? I mean, is your quality control worse than McDonald’s?

Never mind. Don’t answer that last question. There’s no need. I only need to look around at all the different religious denominations that claim to speak your truth to know the real truth. I humbly await your answer, dear God, if you can be bothered, But can you do me one favor? Keep your believers from attempting to speak for you, because they are all offering a different answer, each incompatible with the others and attempting to disprove six billion ideas of you.

It’s really beginning to piss me off.

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This poem is for my nieces, my brother’s daughters. He is in a blended marriage where he is a nonbeliever and she is a believer. They are raising my nieces in a way where they can choose their own directions. This is a poem for my nieces to encourage them to find their own way without stepping on anyone’s toes.

‘Graduation Gift’

To my two nieces, Bryce Elizabeth and Riley Noel, on the occasion of your separate graduations from high school, some words of advice as you prepare to leave us to make your way in this world.

This society will attempt to compartmentalize you, to place you in boxes so they no longer have to consider you, be it the female box, the office worker box or the artist box. Refuse to be boxed because normalcy is a pursuit of the unimaginative. Be the little kid you always imagined you would be. Learn to love life like you used to.

Refuse to reminisce about the joys of childhood and instead work to haul them into your everyday. Get lost in daydreams made reality. Playdates played out is your daily routine. Make friends with someone because they sat next to you. Be the kid you missed. Craft your childhood you never had a chance to experience. Set precedents.

Do something new that you have never included in your list of attributes. Like I never heard of a brother baking cheesecakes, DJing, racing cars and writing poetry. Never met a man that managed to raise three kids, one bicoastal, on a poet salary. Never heard of a radio personality who persistently exceeded expectations in pursuit of his dreams.

Be inspirational. Shun those who would attempt to claim pride in your work without doing work of their own. Don’t apologize.

Be intentional in words and deeds, you will never have to offer another phrase of remorse for the ill-conceived perceptions of others. If they don’t understand you, keep talking. There are those who will. It is for them that you were sharing your voice. Never let “show some respect” be synonymous with “shut up.” Have enough respect for the strength and courage of others to tell them the uncomfortable truth, especially when they’re asking for it. Especially when they are asking for it.

Life is too short to live with regret. Tomorrow may always be a day away. But death is always lurking and society will attempt to convince you that your bucket list can be put on hold, when in reality, your bucket is always with you, waiting to be kicked. It is the uncomfortable truth of our fragile existence, one that we must all come to grips with, old and young alike.

This is the only life you are guaranteed. Live like it. You are the consequence of chances of unimaginable proportions. Take some. Every person you meet is living an equally improbable life and should be treasured with each encounter. Act like it. Awake with the realization that today has the possibility to be the best day of your life and love like it.

End each day by saying there was nothing you would do differently, even when you can’t recall exactly what you’ve done. And sleep like it.

Remember, that she who has the most toys still dies. Live life without clutter. Live life without fear. Live life without surplus, so that when death does finally find you, it will not find you wanting. Find eternity in memory. Turn legendary possibility into manifested reality and never doubt that my love for you comes without condition.

Thank you.