Like all of you, we at the Freedom From Religion Foundation are adapting to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. We hope this message will find you well and want to assure you that FFRF is committed to working on your behalf to keep religion out of government and promote freethought. After all, one of FFRF’s purposes is fighting the virus of religion.
To keep employees safe while also maintaining services, FFRF staff are officially working remotely for the foreseeable future. Other measures we’ve taken:
Travel. We have canceled or postponed all travel and events through the spring.
Modified operations and services. Although staff are working remotely, you may still phone the FFRF office at 608-256-8900. Please leave a clear message and call-back number. Your email to[email protected] will continue to be routed to the appropriate staff person.
If you have a complaint about a state/church violation, use the online form at ffrf.org/legal/report. Please be patient about results: Many schools and public services are closed or operating at reduced capacity.
To donate or renew (thank you for helping to keep our nonprofit going!), please use the online forms at ffrf.org/renew or ffrf.org/donate if possible to reduce the need to process mail at FFRF.
Note: Our online store is closed for the time being.
Keeping our community in touch. In these uncertain times, it’s more important than ever to maintain a sense of normalcy and community. Production of the Freethought Today newspaper continues on schedule; it also remains an online publication (freethoughttoday.com). We plan to continue producing the weekly Freethought Radio (broadcast and podcast, ffrf.org/radio). “Freethought Matters” TV show will continue to broadcast on Sundays through the end of May and be posted on YouTube (google “Freethought Matters playlist”). Wednesday’s Facebook Live! “Ask an Atheist” may be affected. FFRF’s social media continues, along with press releases and action alerts (check out at ffrf.org/news) and Friday’s Weekly Wrap email.
National events. We are “full steam ahead” on planning FFRF’s 43rd National Convention (ffrf.org/convention2020) in San Antonio, Nov. 13–15. If conditions warrant cancellation, FFRF will refund registration fees in full. Guests may cancel hotel reservations without penalty at least 48 hours prior to arrival.
Office closed to visitors. For obvious reasons, FFRF’s Freethought Hall office in downtown Madison, Wis., is not open until further notice.
We sincerely wish for you to take all precautions to keep yourself, your family and your community safe. Rest assured, that while the theocrats are not stopping their activities during this time, neither will we.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a federal lawsuit on Feb. 27 against Puerto Rico’s education secretary and a principal on behalf of a family subjected to forced prayers and bullying in a public primary school.
Since September 2019, in direct contradiction of well-established constitutional law, officials at the Luis M. Santiago School, a public school in Toa Baja, have reportedly organized, led and coerced students to participate in 50-minute prayer sessions on school property every other Monday during the school day.
FFRF is representing two of these children and their mother at the U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico along with Humanistas Seculares De Puerto Rico, a leading Puerto Rican secular humanist organization that the mother belongs to.
The parties have entered into mediation to resolve the lawsuit, but due to the coronavirus pandemic, Puerto Rico schools are closed at least through March 30. Until the public schools reopen, FFRF cannot ensure that the prayer practice has stopped and that teachers at the school have been properly trained on the separation of church and state. But based on the mediation thus far, FFRF is optimistic that the lawsuit will end quickly and favorably.
As far back as 1962, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that “the constitutional prohibition against laws respecting an establishment of religion must at least mean that in this country it is no part of the business of government to compose official prayers for any group of the American people,” FFRF points out.
The family brings this action under pseudonyms to protect the mother and her two minor children from social ostracism, retaliation and even physical harm. Eligio Hernandez Perez is being sued in his official capacity as the secretary of the Department of Education. Luz Ramos is the principal of the Luis M. Santiago School and is being sued in both her official and individual capacities, since the complaint alleges she developed the school prayer practice at issue.
According to the filed complaint, while dropping off her children at school on Sept. 3, 2019, the mother observed staff collecting all students in the school’s front yard in order to participate in a Christian prayer. The initial part of the prayer was conveyed by a schoolteacher with use of a microphone and speakers. Upon observing this prayer, the mother immediately confronted the first available school official, who was also taking part in the prayer, to protest and to request that her children be exempted from participating.
A school official informed the mother that participation in the school-led prayer was mandatory for all students. The mother subsequently requested an urgent meeting with the school principal, but this still hasn’t taken place. The mother next discussed the school prayer incident with her child’s homeroom teacher and the school social worker, who suggested that the mother could request that her children be exempted from participation in future prayers. However, the teacher subsequently informed the mother that if her children, both excellent students, did not participate in the prayers, marks would be made in their student records indicating that they had cut class.
Since last September, staff-led prayers have taken place regularly at the school on alternating Mondays, starting at approximately 9 a.m. and lasting for approximately 50 minutes. Every prayer delivered during these school prayer sessions has been a Christian prayer. In an effort to avoid these prayers, the mother has brought her childen in late on these days. Teachers for both the students have threatened to punish the children for unexcused absences or for being tardy as a result of the mother’s efforts to avoid the school-led prayers.
Moreover, Doe 2’s teacher publicly outed the family as non-Christian to the father of one of Doe 2’s classmates, whose son told Doe 2 that, “If you believe in God, you go to Heaven, if you don’t believe in God, like your mother, you will go to Hell.”
The plaintiffs are seeking an injunction prohibiting the defendants from continuing to coerce student participation in school-led prayer, as well as a declaration that the defendants’ conduct violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and the free exercise rights of the individual plaintiffs.
“We look forward to ending these egregious practices and upholding the right of this American family to a public education free from religious indoctrination and divisiveness,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.
FFRF Attorneys Samuel Grover and Madeline Ziegler are representing the Freedom From Religion Foundation, while local counsel Carlos A. Cintron Garcia is representing the Humanistas Seculares De Puerto Rico.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling on Feb. 19 upholding the constitutionality of a massive Latin cross on city property in Pensacola, Fla.
Circuit Judge Kevin Newsom, writing for the unanimous three-judge panel, wrote that the 40-foot-tall Christian cross in Bayview Park “has evolved into a neutral” symbol.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, the American Humanist Association and their plaintiffs won at the district level and before the 11th Circuit. However, the case was remanded back for reconsideration following the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2019 American Legion v. American Humanist Association cross decision. In the Bladensburg case, the Supreme Court ruled that the government-owned, government-maintained, Christian cross war memorial dominating the landscape in Bladensburg, Md., did not violate the First Amendment.
Taking its cue from the Supreme Court, the 11th Circuit ignored the religious significance of the Bayview Park cross, holding that because it’s been there a long time, and secular community events have been held in the park nearby, it is constitutional.
Newsom wrote: “American Legion itself demonstrates that an ‘undoubtedly . . . Christian symbol’ — in particular, a Latin cross — may nevertheless pose no Establishment Clause concerns.”
The Pensacola cross stands in popular Bayview Park, serving solely as the centerpiece of annual Easter Sunrise Christian worship services. It was first challenged in a 2016 lawsuit filed by FFRF and AHA.
The district court sided with the national secular organizations in a June 2017 decision. In September 2018, the 11th Circuit upheld the decision, agreeing that the government-funded, freestanding cross unconstitutionally entangled the government with the Christian faith. Both the district judge and the appeals court panel grudgingly ruled in FFRF’s favor. The city petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the ruling. The Supreme Court waited until after ruling in Bladensburgto remand it to the 11th Circuit for reconsideration in light of that ruling.
This ruling said: “Removal of the Bayview Park cross at this point . . . could well, in the Supreme Court’s words, ‘strike many as aggressively hostile to religion.’”
“It is not ‘hostile to religion’ to uphold government neutrality over religion. Bayview Park is not a Christian park, Pensacola is not a Christian city and the United States is not a Christian nation,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Tax-exempt church property abounds where this cross belongs.”
Education: I have a B.A. from Hamline University in history and a minor in legal studies.
Family: One younger brother and two wonderful parents.
How I came to work at FFRF: My significant other was a legal intern at FFRF last summer and had an amazing experience. When I found out there was going to be an opening for a legal assistant, I knew I had to apply.
What I do here: Whatever the attorneys need done, such as filing with the court, organizing, doing research on anything and everything.
What I like best about it: I like knowing that I’m making a real difference. I get to come in every day and see the outcome of all of our hard work.
What gets old about it: Putting physical files away. I’m willing to take those papercuts for FFRF though.
I spend a lot of time thinking about: Politics and whatever comic I last read.
I spend little if any time thinking about: Being petty or mean. I like to stay positive as much as I can.
My religious upbringing was: Kind of intense. I went to a religious elementary school and was a regular churchgoer with my family.
My doubts about religion started: In middle school, when I realized I had little worth as a woman to the church. It was hard not to question everything else after that.
Things I like: Reading DC comics, going for hikes, free samples and taking road trips to random states.
Things I smite: People who litter and bigots.
In my golden years: I’ll be relaxing on the shores of Lake Superior and yelling at the youth to get off my beach.
What’s your favorite podcast?: I religiously listen to the “NPR Politics Podcast,” “Stuff You Missed in History Class,” and “This American Life.”
The Declaration of Independence noted that the power of the government is not from God, but from the people. I think it’s important to understand what the Founding Fathers believed when they had the clause that there must be a separation of church and state. This also protects religion from interference by government in their beliefs.
Indiana state Sen. Mark Stoops, in voting against having an “In God We Trust” sign in every public school classroom. The bill was amended without the requirement.
The abortion law is much more than the right to perform an abortion. It recognizes women as independent people who have the right to decide over our own bodies. The church is never going to be in favor of this.
Maria del Valle, speaking about Argentina’s bill that would have legalized abortion in that country.The bill failed.
The New York Times, 2-23-20
As a science advocate, I take strong issue with the nonscience [Ken] Ham peddles to families and students. His parody of the scientific method does real harm, bleeding inexorably into education and public policy. The wholehearted embrace of “alternative facts” and the rejection of plain evidence are making our society more and more polarized. Yet Ham’s treatment of Williamstown [Ky.] is a reminder that these sorts of cult-like organizations have impacts that go much farther than the foolish ideas they promote.
David MacMillan, a self-described “former creationist” and now paralegal and law student in Washington, D.C., in an op-ed about the Ark Encounter in Kentucky.
If this bill passes, it’s only fair that the abuse of the church-state line go in both directions.
If public schools must carve out mandatory periods to facilitate prayer, then houses of prayer should carve out mandatory periods to facilitate academics.
Frank Cerabino in an op-ed, “Mandatory math in church is my pi-in-the-sky plan” which was in response to a Florida bill that would require public schools to have a mandatory period of silence each day to permit “the study of the bible and religion.”The bill did not pass.
Palm Beach Post, 2-22-20
This is the real meaning of “religious liberty”: the privilege enjoyed by certain favored groups to hold special status in our society, to claim public money and resources for themselves, and to identify a despised other and organize around their contempt of that enemy. Through the unlikely person of President Trump, the Christian Nationalist movement has seized the levers of power at the heart of government. This is just the beginning.
Katherine Stewart, from an excerpt of her new book The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism. Stewart will be speaking at FFRF’s convention in November in San Antonio.
The New York Review of Books, 2-28-20
My husband Avijit [Roy] once wrote: “We risk our lives the moment we start wielding our pens against religious bigotry and fundamentalism.” Today, I ask you to take up the cause of those armed only with pens. We all must have the right to examine, question, criticize, oppose, express ourselves, demonstrate, and write free from the culture of fear propagated by blasphemy accusations and other forms of religious persecution.
Rafida Bonya Ahmed, in testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives in a joint hearing on “Ending Global Religious Persecution” on Jan. 28.
The Humanist magazine, March/April 2020
No one should be made to feel wrong for who they are — especially not a child. Conversion therapy is not only based in discriminatory junk-science, it is dangerous and causes lasting harm to our youth.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, after signing a bill that bans conversion therapy for minors. Virginia is the 20th state to enforce a ban on the practice, but the first Southern state.
The New York Times, 3-3-20
We respect people of the Christian faith and the importance of the bible to their beliefs. But the place for biblical instruction is in the Sunday school classroom, rather than the public school classroom. It’s in the home and in church. Public school is the place to live out the values of one’s faith, rather than the place to learn it.
Editorial speaking out against the bill to allow teaching the bible in school that is now waiting to be signed by the governor into law.
FFRF welcomes and thanks its 23 new Lifetime Members, one new After-Life member, one new Beyond After-Life member and four Immortals.
The new Beyond After-Life member is Randy B. Bachman and the After-Life Member is Harold “Hal” Saferstein. Beyond After-Life is atongue-in-cheek-named membership category of $10,000 for those who want their donation to “live on” after them. After-Life is a $5,000 membership category.
The newest $1,000 Lifetime Members are Mark Benussi, William Blancato, Linda Blight, John Bouvier, David Burkhart, Jeanette Carter, Brian J. Freeman, Dr. Donald M. Hayes, Jose I. Hernandez, Thomas A. Kent, Valerie G. Lacey, Leo Luzcando, Cassidy Maxson-Jones (gifted by Gerald C. Cummings), Janet Nye, Alap Patel, Jack Sunday, Bert Van Gorder, Barbara Walden, Gary G. Welch, David Williamson, Jocelyn Williamson, George Bradley Wolbert and one who wishes to remain anonymous.
The four Immortals are Astrid Falkenberg, Dan Fregin, Donato Lindi and Rick Stravinsky. Immortal is a category where a member has made arrangements in their estate planning to include FFRF.
States represented are: California, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Texas and Wisconsin.
Where and when I was born: I was born in Baltimore in 1951 (but you shouldn’t be asking a “lady”!) I now live just outside Knoxville, Tenn., where we polish the buckle of the Bible Belt without even trying.
Family: I’ve been married for over 50 years to my best friend, Carl. We have a wonderful freethinking daughter, plus three grandchildren. We bought a copy of Women Without Superstition as a college graduation gift for our daughter when we first met Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor in Cincinnati (a long time ago). Annie Laurie inscribed it: “To Meagan, the pagan.”
Education: I have a master’s degree in education, plus training as a Montessori teacher for early childhood and elementary levels. Despite all that formal education, I discovered that I learned far more during my teaching years than I did when I was the student.
Occupation: Carl and I ran a small private Montessori school until we retired about five years ago. That necessitated our being “in the closet” about our atheism. Carl always joked that the door was open if anyone wanted to look. In addition to teaching children, I was a Montessori teacher trainer and the director of Montessori Educators International, Inc. I still continue to teach graduate classes in Montessori philosophy for William Howard Taft University.
How I got where I am today: One day at a time. More seriously, I found myself in the right place at the right time in so many ways. I consider myself very fortunate to have lived the kind of life I have had and to have been as successful as I have been.
Where I’m headed: Into the future.
Person in history I admire and why: Stephen Hawking. Despite overwhelming health issues, he lived his life on his terms and made a huge contribution to the world of science.
A quotation I like: “It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” J.K. Rowling, as spoken through the voice of Dumbledore.
Things I like: Traveling and the ocean (preferably fitting in both at the same time.)
Things I smite: Project Blitz, especially how it brings religion into public education.
My doubts about religion started: When I was in grade school. The idea of a god watching all the kids in the world do unimportant forbidden stuff was hard to comprehend.
Before I die: I want to make the world a better place in whatever ways I can.
Ways I promote freethought: I am active in numerous freethought groups in the Knoxville area and throughout Tennessee. I am also the head of our local chapter of FFRF. When separation of state and church issues arise in our area, I am willing to be the voice for those who cannot speak out for fear of reprisal.
What has been your most difficult challenge?: I contracted Lyme disease in 2012. It took several years of intense treatment to regain my quality of life and be able to function fully again. I must continue to be vigilant about my health to keep it from returning. But I praise modern medicine and antibiotics (not god), without which I might not be here today.
While the coronavirus pandemic has affected everyone in some way, it’s interesting to look at how religious institutions are dealing with it. While there have been some logical responses, there is certainly no shortage of irony to go around.
Perhaps the most ironic case is straight from Our Lady of Lourdes, the French shrine that features the “healing pools,” in which sick pilgrims bathe and hope for healing. The shrine’s pools have been closed temporarily because of coronavirus fears. It appears the shrine’s higher-ups are flat-out admitting that the healing pools do not work as advertised.
And, Bethel Church, a prominent faith-healing megachurch in Northern California, has ceased its hospital visits in order to protect the faith-healers from the coronavirus.
“Though we believe in a God who actively heals today, students are not being encouraged to visit healthcare settings at this time,” Aaron Tesauro, a church spokesman, said, according to Robyn Pennacchia of the Wonkette.
“So, with all of this, with the fact that they’re basically now admitting that they can’t magically heal coronavirus . . . will Bethel be ceasing its faith-healing practices?,” Pennacchia writes. “Probably not, because that’s where all the money is.”
And then, of course, you have the preachers and ministers who make outlandish claims.
Pastor Brian Tamaki, New Zealand’s popular Destiny Church leader, says the coronavirus pandemic is a sign the world has “strayed from God,” but that those who continue to tithe will be protected.
“The prince of the power of the air, Satan, has control of atmospheres unless you’re a blood-bought born-again, Jesus-loving, bible-believing, Holy Ghost-filled, tithe-paying believer,” he said in a sermon. “You are the only one that can walk through atmospheres and has a, literally a protection — the Psalm 91 protection policy around you.”
Of course, a pandemic wouldn’t be a pandemic without some religionists blaming it on the gays.
Pastor Steven Andrew of the USA Christian Church claims that the coronavirus is punishment for “LGBT sin.”
“God’s love shows it is urgent to repent, because the bible teaches homosexuals lose their souls and God destroys LGBT societies. Obeying God protects the USA from diseases, such as the coronavirus,” Andrew wrote in a press release. “Our safety is at stake, since national disobedience of God’s laws brings danger and diseases, such as coronavirus, but obeying God brings covenant protection.”
Rabbi Meir Mazuz, an Orthodox Israeli rabbi, blames the coronavirus on the existence of gay pride parades. At a talk, Mazuz said a pride parade is “a parade against nature, and when someone goes against nature, the one who created nature takes revenge on him.”
Christian evangelical pastor Rick Wiles claims the coronavirus is God’s “death angel” seeking justice for those “transgendering little children,” according to an article in the New York Post.
“God is about to purge a lot of sin off of this planet,” Wiles said. “Look at the United States, look at the spiritual rebellion in this country — the hatred of God, the hatred of the bible, the hatred of righteousness. There are vile, disgusting people in this country now.”
And, of course, there are the preachers who say the pandemic takes political sides.
Televangelist Jonathan Shuttlesworth claims God will spare conservative red states from the coronavirus, but will use the pandemic to punish pro-choice blue states that favor abortion rights. He also claimed that “America will be minimally affected” by the global coronavirus outbreak because of President Trump’s support for Israel, according to a report by Right Wing Watch.
Hemant Mehta writes on his “Friendly Atheist” blog about the Church of Cyprus, an independent Greek Orthodox church, and how it will continue to serve wafers and wine during communion. “They’re not afraid because they insist God would never let the virus transmit that way,” Mehta writes.
“Regarding the offering of the Holy Communion, the position of the Church is known,” the Orthodox Times said in a statement. “The Holy Communion does not symbolize but it is the body and blood of Christ. It would be blasphemous to think that Christ’s body and blood could transmit any disease or virus.”
Monsignor Charles Pope, the pastor of Holy Comforter–St. Cyprian Church in Washington, D.C., writing in the National Catholic Register, is not happy that churches have been canceling Mass because of the pandemic.
“Physical health has its place, but spiritual health does too — and its place is vastly more important. . . I am concerned that we have lost our courage and our faith and subordinated holy things to the state in this matter.”
In New York, state Attorney General Letitia James demanded that televangelist Jim Bakker stop selling his “Silver Solution,” which he claimed was a cure for coronavirus. Bakker said the product is “almost like a miracle” and that “God created it in Heaven.”
The Vatican suspended a clerical sex abuse fact-finding mission to Mexico, saying it was due to the coronavirus. Abuse survivors said they doubted that the virus was the actual reason for the mission being called off, according to a report in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Mattia Ferraresi, writing in The New York Times, sums it up nicely in her column, “God vs. coronavirus.”
“Holy water is not a hand sanitizer and prayer is not a vaccine,” Ferraresi writes.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has announced its four 2020 essay competitions for freethinking students — offering more than $60,000 in total scholarships.
Each of the four contests has 10 prizes: First place — $3,500; second place — $3,000; third place — $2,500; fourth place — $2,000; fifth place — $1,500; sixth place — $1,000; seventh place — $750; eighth place — $500; ninth place — $400; and 10th place — $300. FFRF also offers optional honorable mentions of $200. To encourage student activism, Florida FFRF members Dean and Dorea Schramm are providing a $100 bonus to any winner who’s a secular student club member.
The contests cater to students in different age/class ranges.
William J. Schulz Memorial Essay Contest for College-Bound High School Seniors: High school seniors graduating this spring and attending college in the fall are asked to write about: “Why I’m an unabashed atheist/agnostic/choose your favorite appellation.” Write a persuasive, personal (“first person”) essay about why you reject religion and think others would be better off doing so too. You may wish to include experiences or challenges you have faced as a young freethinker. Word limit: 300–350 words. Deadline: June 1.
Michael Hakeem Memorial Essay Contest for Freethinking College Students: Currently enrolled college students (up to age 24) may write on: “The Necessity of Freethought — Why I Am Not Religious.” Although we are asking for a personal essay (written in “first person”) about why you reject religion, you may also wish to approach this from a philosophical or social science point of view. You may additionally include personal experiences or challenges you have faced as a young freethinker (atheist, agnostic). Word limit: 450–650. Deadline: July 1.
The David Hudak Memorial Contest for College Students of Color: Students of color ages 17–21 (college-bound high school seniors to currently enrolled college students), may write on the topic of: “Living and Thriving Without Religion.” Write a personal essay (in the “first person”) about why you are not religious and its benefits. Please be sure to explain why you reject religion. You may wish to include challenges you have faced in being nonreligious. You may also wish to include recommendations on how the secular community can better engage people of color. This contest is offered to provide support and acknowledgment for freethinking students of color, as a minority within a minority. The other FFRF student contests are open to all students. Students may only enter one FFRF contest annually. Word limit: 400–600. Deadline: July 15.
Brian Bolton Essay Contest for Graduate/“Older” Students: Graduate students (through age 30) and “older” undergrads (ages 25–30) are asked to write on the topic: “Why God has no place in political debate; the growing dangers of Christian Nationalism.” In the context of this year’s presidential and congressional elections, make the case for keeping “God” and religion out of the political debates, and the dangers posed when public officials pander and mix religion with government. Word limit: 550–750. Deadline: Aug. 1.
FFRF thanks Phil Zuckerman, author and professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College, for suggesting the topics for the college and grad school competitions.
Additional prompts on the topics and contest rule requirements can be found at: ffrf.org/studentessay. Students are required to submit their essay via the online application, and should carefully review all contest rules. All eligible entrants will receive a digital year-long student membership in FFRF.
FFRF is appreciative of FFRF members who make the effort to contact local high schools, colleges and universities to help publicize its competitions. (See “ads” on the back inside
cover of the Freethought Today wrap that may be copied or cut out and sent to your local schools.) Or pass on the link: ffrf.org/studentessay.