FFRF, others win Florida atheist invocation case

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on July 8 unanimously ruled that the Brevard County, Fla., commissioners’ policy of using religious beliefs to determine who can offer invocations at public meetings is unconstitutional, discriminatory and a violation of religious freedom.

The ruling came in the case Williamson v. Brevard County, which was brought by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Florida on behalf of several nontheists whom commissioners have barred from offering invocations.

“The discriminatory procedure for selecting invocation speakers followed in Brevard County is unconstitutional and it must be rejected,” writes Judge Stanley Marcus in the opinion. “We need go no further today than to say this: In selecting invocation speakers, the commissioners may not categorically exclude from consideration speakers from a religion simply because they do not like the nature of its beliefs.

“The commissioners have favored some religions over others, and barred those they did not approve of from being considered,” adds Marcus. “This plainly violates the principle of denominational neutrality found at the heart of the Establishment Clause.”

FFRF is obviously pleased at the ruling.

“We’re delighted the appeals court has asserted that such blatant discrimination against nontheists cannot stand,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Governmental bodies that open their meetings with invocations must not turn believers into insiders, and nonbelievers into outsiders, by excluding dissenting points of view.”

The other litigating organizations agree.

Americans United Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser, who is lead counsel in the case, says: “Brevard County Commissioners were using religion as the basis for discrimination by allowing only people of preferred faiths to offer invocations. Religious minorities and nonbelievers are equal members of society and they must be treated equally by their elected officials. The court’s decision today made clear that no one should be excluded from civic affairs because of their beliefs about God.”

Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, says: “There should never be a religious litmus test for participation in local government meetings. The Brevard County Commissioners have been playing favorites with faith, and we’re pleased that, once again, the courts have told them that enough is enough.”

Williamson v. Brevard County was filed in 2015 to challenge the Brevard County Board of County Commissioners’ unconstitutional policy of

Standing outside the Brevard County (Fla.) Government Center are plaintiffs, from left, Ronald Gordon, David Williamson, Chase Hansel, Keith Becher and Jeffery Koerbel.

excluding nontheists from delivering invocations at board meetings — an opportunity that is offered only to citizens with favored monotheistic beliefs.

The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida in September 2017 agreed that the commissioners’ practice of excluding nontheists violated the U.S. Constitution.

The plaintiffs in the case include the FFRF chapter Central Florida Freethought Community and its director, David Williamson; the Space Coast Freethought Association and its president, Chase Hansel; the Humanist Community of the Space Coast and its president, Keith Becher; Brevard County resident Ronald Gordon and Jeffery Koeberl.

The lawsuit is being litigated for FFRF by Legal Director Rebecca S. Markert and Director of Strategic Response Andrew L. Seidel; Americans United by Luchenitser, Legal Director Richard B. Katskee and Legal Fellow Alison Tanner; for the ACLU of Florida by Daniel Tilley; and for the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief by Daniel Mach.

Bladensburg ruling a shameful legacy for the Supreme Court

It should have been an easy call, but the U.S. Supreme Court blew it. The government-owned, government-maintained, 40-foot-tall Christian cross dominating the landscape in Bladensburg, Md., does not violate the First Amendment, seven justices inexcusably decided on June 20.

One would expect to find a Christian cross — the pre-eminent symbol of Christianity — on government property in a Christian theocracy, not in a country that was first among nations to separate religion from government.

The decision was fractured into seven separate opinions, concurrences and dissents over 87 pages, with seven justices eventually voting in favor of the cross. The majority opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito and joined by four other justices, declares that the Bladensburg cross, originally erected on private ground to commemorate some World War I soldiers, does not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Alito argues that World War I history, community and sacrifice can obscure the religious sentiment of the Christian symbol, changing the purposes of the monument over time.

Ominously, instead of focusing on legal principles, Alito looks to “history for guidance,” trotting out typical Religious Right examples — such as legislative prayer, the day of thanksgiving George Washington declared (which the court erroneously called a “National Day of Prayer”), some religious language in the Northwest Ordinance, and reference to “religion and morality” in President Washington’s Farewell Address. The central test for determining these violations, known as the Lemon test, was set aside in favor of the argument from history, though not explicitly overturned by a majority of the justices.

“The passage of time gives rise to a strong presumption of constitutionality,” writes Alito.

In an elegant and thoughtful dissent joined by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg gets it right. (See page 7.)

“Using the cross as a war memorial does not transform it into a secular symbol, as the Courts of Appeals have uniformly recognized,” the dissent states.

“By maintaining the Peace Cross on a public highway, the [Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning] Commission elevates Christianity over other faiths, and religion over nonreligion.”

Ginsburg persuasively lays out how such public crosses alienate a large and fast-growing segment of the U.S. population.

“To non-Christians, nearly 30 percent of the population of the United States, the state’s choice to display the cross on public buildings or spaces conveys a message of exclusion: It tells them they ‘are outsiders, not full members of the political community,’” she writes.

FFRF has been making this exact argument for years, using the same wording and statistics, and has met with success suing over religious symbols that treat non-Christians as outsiders.

Most disappointingly, Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan joined in a concurrence that Breyer took the lead in writing: “I have long maintained that there is no single formula for resolving Establishment Clause challenges.”

The pair argued that the 40-foot-tall concrete cross now on public property “cannot reasonably be understood as ‘a government effort to favor a particular religious sect’ or to ‘promote religion over nonreligion.’”

Breyer and Kagan did reject the idea that the majority opinion adopted a “history and tradition test.” Justice Brett Kavanaugh, however, concurred to add that “the court today applies a history and tradition test.”

It is a troubling sign that the Supreme Court even agreed to review the cross case because an appeals court had properly ruled the cross unconstitutional. “Watch out,” we had warned. FFRF was aware, for instance, that Kavanaugh, the court’s newest justice, had dismissed the Jeffersonian metaphor describing a “wall of separation between state and church” as “wrong as a matter of law and history.”

As FFRF wrote in February, “The constitutional wall of separation has long been chipped away at, bored through, tunneled under, climbed over. But it still stands.” The question is how much damage this ruling has inflicted on that revered wall?

The Supreme Court abandoned its sacred duty: Its duty to uphold the secular principles in our Constitution. The justices seem to have forgotten that when they took their oath of office, they placed their hand on the bible and swore to uphold the Constitution — not the other way around.

What a shameful legacy for the Roberts Court.

Bladensburg cross

‘Jesus’ sign removed from Hawkins, Texas

In 2015, the city council of Hawkins, Texas, agreed with the Freedom From Religion Foundation and voted to remove a sign saying “Jesus welcomes you to Hawkins” from city property within 30 days.

Four years later, it was finally removed.

Why did it take so long? FFRF Associate Counsel Sam Grover, who, along with FFRF Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott, has been working on the case since 2013, said “things got weird” after the city voted to take it down.

But things were weird all along.

Back in 2015, before the council ever voted on the sign, Hawkins Mayor Will Rogers defended the sign with statements to the media such as, “Jesus is not a religion, Jesus is in every religion across the globe. He’s in Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism,” and “If you don’t believe that Jesus existed, then he would be fiction. If he’s fiction, and you want to remove his name from everything, then you need to remove every fiction name that there is across the country. That means we couldn’t say ‘Superman welcomes you to town.’”

Rogers composed the wording prior to becoming mayor, but had public school students paint it, magnifying the state/church entanglement.

Then, after FFRF got involved with the sign, a coffee shop in Hawkins owned by Rogers was set on fire. Rogers claimed it was for anti-religious reasons, though this was far from the only controversy Rogers faced as mayor.

He sued eight city officials and a several other residents for, he claimed, resisting his attempts to root out corruption when he became mayor. He later settled the lawsuit but lost his re-election bid, 239-41.

As for the sign itself, after the council voted to have it removed, a group of sign supporters claimed that the sign was on private property, while the city claimed it was city-owned. A private business called “Jesus Christ Open Altar Church, LLC” brought a lawsuit against the city after claiming to have bought the land. FFRF backed off while the suit was under way.

The city then won that lawsuit on appeal and recently removed the sign.

Freethought Today caption contest winner!

Congratulations to Jack Sale for winning FFRF’s caption contest from the June/July issue. For his winning entry, he receives an FFRF T-shirt.

The winning caption is: Nailed it!

Top runners-up include: They spelled “scars” wrong. — Rob Twohy.

Jesus scares us, this I know, for the bible tells us so. — Robert Hubbard-Van Stell.

We’re not sure where this image originated from, but it was too good to pass up.

This photo really needs no caption. — Joan Reisman-Brill.

A pastor while swigging vermouth, flubbed the words on a cross — how uncouth!

But it must have been fate, that he couldn’t see straight, for what he spelled out was the truth. — Catherine MacLeod.

Thanks to all who participated. If you’ve taken any photos that you think would be good for a caption contest, please email them to caption@ffrf.org.

Meet a Member: Chris Kramer wants to ‘spread the secular gospel’

Name: Chris Kramer.

Where I live: Central Missouri.

Where and when I was born: Louisiana, 1967.

Family: Married to Stacy. We have three wonderful kids, plus cats, goats and a dog.

Education: A bachelor’s and master’s degree in geology, plus numerous military and other educational and training opportunities. Informally, I have a lifetime of dedicated self-education in the sciences and many other subjects, plus I have traveled to multiple states and countries while in and out of uniform.   

Occupation: Retired military officer, still defending the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic, as a Department of Defense civilian employee, FFRF Lifetime Member and aspiring freethinking writer and warrior for the truth. 

Military service: Served 23 years in uniform. 

How I got where I am today: Favorable genetics and a mother who showed what true humanism really is. She also expected me to work to my potential and set the conditions for me to do it. I was fortunate to always have a supportive family and great co-workers and friends.  Plus, lots of hard work and some plain old good luck. I was also very fortunate to not have been born female under the Taliban, as a freethinking heretic during the Inquisition, as a slave, into a religious cult, into a totalitarian nation or into any group targeted by the faithful for persecution or pogrom. 

Person in history I admire and why: Among many, it would be Charles Darwin for his global and permanent impact. His insights revolutionized biology and many other sciences, had a massive impact on philosophy and struck religion a blow from which it will never truly recover.

A quotation I like: “All logical arguments can be defeated by the simple refusal to reason logically,” by Steven Weinberg. This summarizes religion and uncritical thinking.

My doubts about religion started: Shortly after conception. My DNA requires that I see actual evidence before accepting a proposition, so I could never be religious.

These are a few of my favorite things: Being a husband and father, learning more every day, helping other people improve themselves, spreading humanism and performing overt and covert acts of kindness. Using the written and spoken word to “spread the secular gospel” far and wide and guiding the faithful and uncritical thinkers to the nirvana of secular humanism and true enlightenment.

These are not: Ignorance, stupidity, evil, intolerance, bigotry, misogyny, hypocrisy, uncritical thinking.

Where I’m headed: Hopefully to a place where my writing has armed large numbers of current and future freethinkers with massive amounts of quickly usable information and also inspired them to do their part in the fight against religion and for secular humanism. Also, to a place where my words and those assisted by my words have converted large numbers of the faithful to freethought and mental independence. I am writing under the pen name Max Humana, which is intended to convey the idea of “maximum humanism.” 

Before I die: I want to have been a successful husband and father, to have added another massive brick in the wall between church and state in the United States, to have added to the global reduction of religion, and to have furthered the causes of humanism and the betterment of life on this planet. 

Ways I promote freethought: After two decades of being constrained by the buttoned-down, religiously inclined and dogmatic military machine and its formal and informal rules, I am now far more free to act.

After retiring from the military, I dedicated myself to fight for truth, science and freethinking, and have written hundreds of thousands of words in that campaign. Finishing my first and forthcoming book, Thank god For Eve, which I subjectively believe is the most antitheistic and practically applicable freethinking book ever written, was like finally crossing the finish line after five long years of research and writing. 

I am strong and persistent, taking the Winston Churchill vs. the Neville Chamberlain approach to defending our freedom from those who would take it away in the name of their god. You really can change some people’s minds; it just sometimes takes a different approach, as I describe in Thank god For Eve.

I ran for the local school board and will continue to do so, because critical thinking and a positive role model do much to foster freethinking in young people. I’ve reached out to a local college freethought group and offered mentoring. I participate in a local “intellectual social group” and use that forum to win hearts and minds. I engage with local religious lay leaders to teach them reality and show them a better path. I frequently interact with elected officials from the local to national levels regarding constitutional violations and religiously inspired legislation.

I go to worship services to see what messages are being spread that we freethinkers need to know about. I wear freethought-type clothing, especially when traveling through airports or at large events. I donate to freethought organizations like FFRF and defend their actions to local politicians and citizens. I give freethinking and science books to those who are starting down the path from religion to freethought. I started a publishing company, Reality Publishing, as a vehicle to foster freethought and critical thinking. I never let an opportunity go by to correct or educate someone who is wrong about freethinking, religion, morality and reality, and I encourage everyone to do the same!

What are your thoughts on religion?: The best way to express this is through some of the things I wrote in my forthcoming book, Thank god For Eve:

• “When a person feels his god is on his side, nothing is sacred.”

• “Absolute power corrupts absolutely, which is why god is absolutely corrupt.”

• “Religion doesn’t have the courage of its convictions. Like an insecure bully, it has a compulsive need to plaster itself all over, to unconstitutionally place its statues and signs and teachings in public property and in schools. Secularists wouldn’t have to go around putting up statues of freethinkers or signs saying, ‘Thank Science There Is No God!’ if religion would just leave people alone.”

• “We humans are nothing more than extremely evolved microorganisms, but at the same time so much more. We are animated collections of dead stars, shining with an internal light which expresses itself in the form of wondrous creations of art and architecture, prose and poetry, the exultation of the pursuit of knowledge, the love we feel for our families and the acts of kindness bestowed on others.”

• “The lack of knowledge of their own and of other faiths is why the devotees of religion are called ‘believers’ and not ‘knowers.’ They believe quite a lot, but don’t actually know very much.” 

• “Religion is not a fact-based belief system; it is a belief-based belief system.”

• “The average person living in the ancient Middle East during biblical times knew about as much about physics, chemistry, psychology and other sciences as did the flint-knapping prehumans of a million years ago. And we should treat their books accordingly.”

• “We again return to the astronomical arrogance of the believer who says that he personally knows the mind of his god so unbelievably well that he can personally say which words from the holy book are to be taken as literal, which ones are metaphor or allegory and which ones can be safely ignored.”

• “To the secularist, nothing is holy or sacred, particularly religious superstition, and for a bunch of woman-hating sexless semi-evolved mostly hairless aged male primates to gather around ancient mythology and use it to come up with the story that a magic cracker is a reincarnated piece of a two-millennia-dead Israeli demigod preacher who’d already been resurrected once is an invitation in thousand-cubit high flaming letters in the sky for scorn of the highest degree.”

John Irving: The cruel history of anti-abortion crusade

This article first appeared in The New York Times on June 23 and is reprinted with permission.

John Irving
What to Expect

By John Irving

Amid the anti-abortion measures being pushed through state legislatures, consider the mazy history of abortion in the United States. Women, capable of determining and managing their reproductive rights, have been undermined by men in power before.

Prior to the 1840s, abortion was widespread and not illegal in our country. In the time of the Puritans, America’s deeply religious Founding Fathers, abortion was allowed until the fetus was “quick” — when the woman could feel the fetus move. Before modern diagnostic ultrasound, abortion was permissible beyond the first trimester — up to four or five months. Our Founding Fathers got this right; the choice to have an abortion or a child belonged to the woman.

Beginning in the 1840s, and continuing over decades, abortion was outlawed state by state, becoming illegal everywhere in the United States by 1900 — until 1973, when the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision held that a woman had a constitutional right to an abortion. For more than two centuries, after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, abortion was largely permitted. Why was it prohibited for almost a century?

In the 1830s, women having babies at lying-in hospitals ran a far greater risk of dying from puerperal sepsis than women having babies at home. With the help of midwives, women had been having babies and abortions at home — since colonial times. Had midwives been as busy performing abortions as delivering babies? Beginning in the 1840s, doctors sought to gain control of the reproduction business. Doctors were establishing their new profession; midwives and homeopaths were their competition. But why did doctors lobby for abortion to be illegal? What was their logic? Did doctors underestimate how great the need for abortion was? We know what the doctors wanted, and they achieved it; they became the arbiters of women’s reproductive health care. We don’t know the doctors’ reasons for making abortion illegal. In the 1840s, the fetus wasn’t yet sacred. Fetal life was still defined by “quickening” — when the woman felt the fetus move, not before the fourth or fifth month. From the 1840s to 1900, we know the results of what the doctors did — not their thoughts.

One job of a society with a social conscience is to rescue its citizens who are trapped, who are painted into a corner. I see my job as a fiction writer with a social conscience as the opposite. As a storyteller, I look for worst-case scenarios; my job is to trap my characters. I began The Cider House Rules, my sixth novel, in the early 1980s. I purposely wrote a historical novel, beginning in the 1920s, when abortion was illegal, unsafe and (for the most part) unavailable. Maine was one of the first states to make abortion illegal; I put the orphanage I called St. Cloud’s in Maine. I purposely painted my protagonist, Homer Wells, into a corner. Homer is an orphan; his several adoptions don’t work out. Homer keeps coming back to the orphanage — St. Cloud’s is his only home. Dr. Larch, the orphanage physician (and abortionist), teaches Homer to be a doctor. In Larch’s opinion, Homer has near-perfect obstetrical and gynecological procedure. But Homer doesn’t want to perform abortions. He’s an orphan; his mother let him live.

Homer has no argument with Larch’s decision to give women what they want, but Homer has a personal reason (and a good one) not to perform abortions. Here’s the corner Homer is painted into: How can Homer not feel obligated to help women, when women can’t get help from anyone else? If women have no choice, how can doctors have a choice? Homer will leave St. Cloud’s; he refuses to perform abortions. What he will encounter, in the world outside the orphanage, is a woman who can’t get help from anyone else. The death of Larch will bring Homer back to the orphanage — this time, to be the physician (and the abortionist) at St. Cloud’s. In a no-choice world, Homer is trapped.

It took 14 years to make the film of The Cider House Rules. I won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay. Over time, it’s more meaningful to me that the movie also won a Maggie Award — named after Planned Parenthood’s founder, Margaret Sanger, in recognition of “exceptional achievement in support of reproductive rights.”

I respect your personal reasons not to have an abortion — no one is forcing you to have one. I respect your choice. I’m pro-choice — often called pro-abortion by the anti-abortion crusaders, although no one is pro-abortion. What’s unequal about the argument is the choice; the difference between pro-life and pro-choice is the choice. Pro-life proponents have no qualms about forcing women to go through childbirth — they give women no choice.

Before the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision in 1973, the opposition to abortion wasn’t widely referred to as right to life. Pope Pius XII used the “right to life” term in a 1951 papal encyclical — an “Address to Midwives on the Nature of Their Profession.” “Every human being, even the child in the womb, has the right to life directly from God and not from his parents, not from any society or human authority,” the pope told the midwives. Poor midwives — first doctors stop them from helping women, then the pope. I must remind the Roman Catholic Church of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In other words, we are free to practice the religion of our choice, and we are protected from having someone else’s religion practiced on us. Freedom of religion in the United States also means freedom from religion.

The “pro-life” term was adopted by anti-abortion crusaders after the Roe v. Wade decision. The anti-abortion cause didn’t promote itself as “pro-life” until the more punitive-sounding “anti-abortion” label failed. In 1976, with the passing of the Hyde Amendment, prohibiting the use of federal funds for most abortions, opposition to abortion gained support among Republicans. The Christian Right was on the rise; their socially conservative policies are inseparable from today’s Republican Party. In 1980, aided by the Baptist minister Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, the pro-life zealots took control of the Republican Party’s platform committee. Four anti-abortion presidents followed — Ronald Reagan, George H. W. and George W. Bush, and Donald Trump. Isn’t it as clear now as it was in the Reagan years? Aren’t the same people who sacralize the fetus generally opposed to any meaningful welfare for unwanted children and unmarried mothers?

The prevailing impetus to oppose abortion is to punish the woman who doesn’t want the child. The sacralizing of the fetus is a ploy. How can “life” be sacred (and begin at six weeks, or at conception), if a child’s life isn’t sacred after it’s born? Clearly, a woman’s life is never sacred; as clearly, a woman has no reproductive rights. The Roman Catholic Church, and many evangelical and fundamentalist churches, willfully subject women to mandatory childbirth and motherhood — procreation is deemed a woman’s primary purpose and function. I’m not overstating. In his 1951 “Address to Midwives,” Pope Pius XII states that “the procreation and upbringing of a new life” is the primary end of marriage.

When The Cider House Rules was published, some of my younger friends and fellow feminists thought it was quaint that I’d written a historical novel about abortion. They meant: now that abortion rights were secure, now that Roe v. Wade was the law of the land. At the time, I tried to say this nicely: “If you think Roe v. Wade is safe, you’re one of the reasons it isn’t.” Not surprisingly, my older women friends — women who were old enough to have had sex before 1973 — knew better than to imagine that Roe v. Wade would ever be safe. Men and women have to keep making the case for women’s reproductive rights; women have been making the case for years, but more men need to speak up.

Of an unmarried woman or girl who got pregnant, people of my grandparents’ generation used to say: “She is paying the piper.” Meaning, she deserves what she gets — namely, to give birth to a child. That cruelty is the abiding impetus behind the dishonestly named right-to-life movement. “Pro-life” always was (and remains) a marketing term. Whatever the anti-abortion crusaders call themselves, they don’t care what happens to an unwanted child — not after the child is born — and they’ve never cared about the mother.

John Irving is writing his 15th novel, and is adapting his fourth novel, The World According to Garp, for television.

Heads Up poetry column: Gertrude


Gertrude Appleman, 1901-1976

God is all-knowing, all-present, and almighty.

— A Catechism of Christian Doctrine

I wish that all the people

who peddle God

could watch my mother die:

could see the skin and

gristle weighing only

seventy-nine, every stubborn

pound of flesh a small


I wish the people who peddle God

could see her young,

lovely in gardens and

beautiful in kitchens, and could watch

the hand of God slowly

twisting her knees and fingers

till they gnarled and knotted, settling in

for thirty years of pain.

I wish the people who peddle God

could see the lightning

of His cancer stabbing

her, that small frame

tensing at every shock,

her sweet contralto scratchy with

the Lord’s infection: Philip,

I want to die.

I wish I had them gathered round,

those preachers, popes, rabbis,

imams, priests – every

pious shill on God’s payroll – and I

would pull the sheets from my mother’s brittle body,

and they would fall on their knees at her bedside

to be forgiven all their faith.

From Perfidious Proverbs and Other Poems:

A Satirical Look At The Bible

Overheard (August 2019)

The Catholic Conference hired 39 lobbyists to work 50 senators and made sure our bill failed. They’re spending millions and millions, shutting down victims who they have damaged, they have destroyed.

Democratic Pennsylvania state Rep. Mark Rozzi, a survivor of priest abuse, talking about how the state Senate was inundated by lobbyists after the House voted to abolish the statute of limitations for child-sex-abuse crimes and expand the legal window for victims to file lawsuits against their abusers.

Pennsylvania Post, 6-8-19

Now, our party doesn’t talk about that as much, largely for a good reason which was, we are committed to the separation of church and state and stand for people for any religion and people of no religion.

But we should call out hypocrisy when we see it. And for a party that associates itself with Christianity, to say that it is okay to suggest that God would smile on the division of families at the hands of federal agents, that God would condone putting children in cages, has lost all claim to ever use religious language again.

Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg during the first Democratic debate.

CNN, 6-27-19

The term “heartbeat bill” and all that it conjures — the image of a baby with a beating heart — is misleading and unscientific, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Which is why the pick up feels so insidious — we use the language because it’s what’s in front of us, and no number of “so-called”s in front of the term “heartbeat bill” can distract from the fact that it’s still a narrative shorthand meant to weaken abortion rights. But it’s time to take the narrative back, to stop describing these bans as “heartbeat bills” and describe them as what they are — arbitrary and punitive six-week abortion bans.

Writer Esther Wang, in her article “Anti-abortion extremists are controlling the narrative on ‘heartbeat bills.’”

Jezebel, 6-5-19

The death penalty has been applied to at least 222 crimes in the Anglo-American legal system, including marrying a Jew and stealing a rabbit. For a time in America, stealing grapes was punishable by death. So was witchcraft, as we know from the Salem trials . . .  Some day, I believe, Americans will look back to today’s executions just as we now look back at witch burnings and public hangings, and they will ask, What were they thinking?

Columnist Nicholas Kristof in his column, “When we kill.”

The New York Times, 6-16-19

The language of wellness isn’t just coded diet culture. It’s also encoded with religious promise.

Wellness culture may not have an established creed, but it has an implicit metaphysic. Energy — nebulously defined — runs through all things. This energy can be good or bad, depending on a variety of factors, but it’s definitely more than a little supernatural.

Tara Isabella Burton, in her column, “There’s more to wellness than looking pretty.”

Religion News Service, 6-14-19

The science is clear and conclusive: sex is not binary, transgender people are real. It is time that we acknowledge this. Defining a person’s sex identity using decontextualized “facts” is unscientific and dehumanizing. The trans experience provides essential insights into the science of sex and scientifically demonstrates that uncommon and atypical phenomena are vital for a successful living system.

Simón(e) D Sun, in the column, “Stop using phony science to justify transphobia.”

Scientific American, 6-13-19

Unfortunately, because conservatives have politicized the highest courts and turned them into rubber stamps for the GOP, the biggest factor when filing major lawsuits has to be the political makeup of the courts, not the legitimacy of your arguments. It’s too bad. . . . The government is actively discriminating against atheist groups with this law even if lawmakers never intended for that to be the case.

Hemant Mehta, on FFRF’s decision  not to challenge the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision regarding the parsonage exemption (see Page 9). 

The Friendly Atheist blog, 6-15-19

I would think Christians would rebel at the characterization of this deeply religious symbol as “secular.” Certainly, as a Jew, I do not see the cross ever as a secular symbol. It is the quintessential symbol of Christianity.

Erwin Chemerinsky, dean and professor of law at the University of California Berkeley School of Law, in his column on the Supreme Court’s Bladensburg decision, calling out Justice Samuel Alito’s comment about the cross where “there are instances in which its message is now almost entirely secular.”

Sacramento Bee, 6-30-19

Most of them admitted what they did wrong, [however] there were a couple of innocents that actually died. But the public don’t care. The public’s mentality in the South is, “Kill ’em all and God will sort ’em out.”

Gary Drinkard, a member of Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty, which is the only anti-death-penalty organization run by death-row prisoners. Drinkard won his freedom in 2001.

The Nation, 4-4-19

If someone is not a believer, this is not helping their needs.

U.S. Circuit Judge L. Felipe Restrepo, in response to a comment by attorney Karl Myers that “This policy is intended to accommodate the spiritual needs of legislatures.” The policy in question, in front of the 3rd Circuit Court, would reverse a ruling from a year ago when a federal judge found that guest chaplains and opening invocations for the Pennsylvania state House of Representatives violated the Establishment Clause.

Courthouse News, 6-17-19

FFRF welcomes 10 new Lifetime Members

FFRF thanks and welcomes our 10 latest Lifetime Members and five new Immortals.

The new $1,000 Lifetime Members are Jack E. Church, Norman Dudziak, Sandi Haines, Carol Koester, Thomas Koester, Margaret R. Mahoney, Robert L. Mueller, Martin Stern, Carroll Thoms and Maxine Triff.

States represented are California, Florida, Iowa, Nebraska, Rhode Island, Texas Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin.

Our new Immortals are Amy Bocaner, Carol and Mike Fahle, and Pam and Steve Solomon. The Immortals category is a donation designation for those generous members who have contacted FFRF to report they have made provisions for FFRF in their estate planning.

Student activist award: Parents stand up for son’s right to sit

Thomas Jendrock Student Activist Award

Alex McDaniel sits with his St. Bernard dog, Charlie.
Alex shows off his hockey stick.

By Hannah McDaniel

Our son, Alex, started kindergarten the way most children do — full of energy and excitement. Unfortunately, that feeling quickly went by the wayside and turned into anguish at the hands of his principal and our public school district.

The problem was that Alex did not want to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance at his school in Illinois. My husband and I are atheists, and we supported our son’s decision to not participate in the pledge. We’ve always raised Alex with full personal autonomy, as long as it didn’t harm him or anyone else. What that means to us is that he has a right to choose his actions and that all his thoughts/questions/feelings are valid. So, we supported him.

I suppose I had some naiveté thinking that the process of Alex not participating in the pledge wouldn’t be a huge deal. After all, it has been legally upheld that it is a student’s right not to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools. The law is on our side, and I thought that alone would be enough if we were to run into an issue with a member of the school staff. I never could have imagined the immense struggle and contention that would follow.

When Alex came to us and said that he didn’t like reciting the pledge and he didn’t want to participate, we told him that he didn’t have to and that he could just sit quietly.

But after Alex would come home angry and frustrated, we quickly found out that his principal was making him stand and participate in the pledge. I thought it must just be some sort of misunderstanding, and we assured Alex we’d take care of it.

I spoke with his principal and it was in that moment that I found out she was making him participate. She told me that him not standing and participating in the pledge was disrespectful toward HER! I was baffled. I informed her of the law and contacted the district assistant superintendent. I spoke with her and she told me that this shouldn’t be an issue and she would speak with the principal.

We once again instructed Alex to sit quietly during the pledge. Meanwhile, the fire grew within him like a slow burn. We found out that when he had been trying to sit quietly during the pledge, he was instead sent to the principal’s office each morning.

Alex would seemingly be fine at school because he was able to bottle up the frustration he felt. Then, one day, after this had happened multiple times, the floodgates opened and a steady torrent of pent up anguish poured out of him.

Obviously, this didn’t sit well with us. We wouldn’t allow our son to be sent to the principal’s office for exercising his constitutional rights.

During a meeting with the principal and Alex’s teacher, Alex’s father and I brought up the pledge issue again, but the principal wasn’t letting this go. She wasn’t going to cooperate or follow the law. I knew we were getting nowhere with her and the district. I told her that Alex’s father and I would discuss how we were going to handle it going forward. That was the politest way I could let her know that no, we weren’t going to let this go, either. We have our son’s back, always.

Reached out to FFRF

We chose to reach out to the Freedom From Religion Foundation to see if it might help us. We had seen the work it’s done, particularly with public school districts. We desperately hoped that FFRF might take up Alex’s cause and help us. Thankfully, we received an email from Staff Attorney Ryan Jayne. That email set in motion so many things to follow.

Ryan contacted the district and let them know what it was doing was illegal. He received correspondence from the district superintendent that was callous and, quite frankly, rude. He boldly stated that Ryan was wrong, that we were wrong, too, and that our son had never been sent to the principal’s office. We were told in this first letter from the superintendent that an internal investigation would be done. To my knowledge, this investigation never happened.

Days passed, and Alex was still sent to the principal’s office every morning for attempting to sit quietly during the pledge. It got to a point where he would try very hard to make himself late to school, so that he could go to breakfast once he got there and conveniently not have to join the rest of the school population for the pledge because he was still eating breakfast. He can be quite clever for a 6-year-old.

We waited to hear from the district’s legal department, but each day Alex was still being sent to the office. Ryan and Sam Grover, another FFRF staff attorney, spoke with us about the possible next step of suing the district. Thankfully, shortly thereafter, Ryan received correspondence from the superintendent. While the superintendent disputed several factual details about the school’s pledge policy, in the end he did concede that students must be allowed to opt out of the pledge.

Since then, things have gone well for Alex. He sits quietly for the pledge every day and is no longer sent to the principal’s office because of it. It’s no big deal to him anymore to be able to sit, which is a wonderful improvement! Our family is so thankful that the final chapter in this saga ended happily.

We would like to encourage anyone experiencing a separation of church and state issue to please, speak up! We know that it can sometimes be a long and difficult road to be on the right side of history, but know that it is worth it. You can do it, though it might seem insurmountable at times. There is support. Reach out to others, reach out to FFRF. There is a community of like-minded individuals who will band beside you and rally against injustice.

We would like to extend our deepest gratitude to FFRF in its continued support in our efforts to advocate for our son. Ryan and the entire FFRF team have worked tirelessly with us as we went up against the school district. We are honored that Alex will be the recipient of FFRF’s $500 Thomas Jendrock Student Activist Award.