FFRF welcomes 17 new Lifers

FFRF welcomes and thanks its 17 new Lifetime Members. The newest $1,000 Lifetime Members are John Bocek, Linda Bocek, Dr. Richard R. Crowder, Carol Cubbage, Mary Duchinsky, Christopher Grove, Mary Hand, Cathi Harding, Kathy Hudson, Joseph R. Irvine, Judith Johns, Candelaria Leyvas, Meg Mahoney, Jason Massey, J.M. Nelson, Todd Shreve and Stephen Warren.

States represented are Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Texas, Virginia, Washington as well as British Columbia, Canada.

Heads Up poetry column: Nobody Dies in the Spring

Nobody Dies in the Spring

By Philip Appleman

Nobody dies in the spring

on the Upper West Side:

nobody dies.

On the Upper West Side

we’re holding hands with strangers

on the Number 5 bus,

and we’re singing the sweet

graffiti on the subway,

and kids are skipping patterns through

the bright haze of incinerators,

and beagles and poodles are making a happy

ruin of the sidewalks,

and hot-dog men are racing

their pushcarts down Riverside Drive,

and Con Ed is tearing up Broadway

from Times Square to the Bronx,

and the world is a morning miracle

of sirens and horns and jackhammers

and Baskin-Robbins’ 31 kinds of litter

and sausages at Zabar’s floating

overhead like blimps—oh,

it is no place for dying, not

on the Upper West Side, in springtime.

There will be a time

for the smell of burning leaves at Barnard,

for milkweed winging silky over Grant’s Tomb,

for apples falling to grass in Needle Park;

but not in all this fresh new golden

smog: now there is something

breaking loose in people’s chests,

something that makes butchers and bus boys

and our neighborhood narcs and muggers

go whistling in the streets—now

there is something with goat feet out there, not

waiting for the WALK light, piping

life into West End window-boxes,

pollinating weeds around

condemned residential hotels,

and prancing along at the head

of every elbowing crowd on the West Side,

singing:

Follow me—it’s spring—

and nobody dies.

Hemant Mehta: ‘Friendly Atheist’ gets his chance on ‘Jeopardy!’

Hemant Mehta poses for a photo with longtime “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek.

By Hemant Mehta

Hearing “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek say, “Congratulations, young man” after I unexpectedly won was the shocking culmination of a year-long journey.

After auditioning a year earlier by taking an online test, I was invited to an in-person audition where the casting folks could chat with me and watch me take part in a mock game. They told me they would give me a call if they wanted us on the show, but that I should keep my expectations low.

Approximately 80,000 people take the online test each year, of which about 3,000 are selected to come to an in-person audition. Of those, only around 400 actually get invited to be on the show. I was shocked to get The Call a few weeks later.

They gave me six weeks to prepare before the day of filming. So, I started cramming. I was always a decent student, but it’s not easy studying for an exam when you don’t know the subject, much less the clues!

On the plus side, writing about religion and politics full-time for my “Friendly Atheist” blog, I felt I had an advantage on those topics. While some people may dread the broad scope of political trivia, I spend every day writing about what politicians are doing, what constitutional concerns are raised in new laws, and how religious beliefs get in the way of public policy. As narrow a scope as that might be, doing it well requires understanding quite a bit of U.S. history and legalese. (Also, how pleasantly ironic would it be if they asked an atheist about the bible? I felt confident I could hold my own against any Christian.)

Beyond that, I also knew the topics they tend to ask about regularly: world capitals, Shakespeare, history, geography. So, I memorized those capitals, brushed up on the outlines of Shakespeare plays (thank you, Wikipedia), and did my best to re-learn as much of that high school history as I could. I also took advantage of J-Archive.com, a fan-created, text-based collection of every question asked on the show, stretching back several years.

“Jeopardy!” records five episodes on each filming day, so when I arrived at the studio and met the other contestants, none of us knew which “day” we would be playing or who we’d be up against. It was incredible, really, being surrounded by people who are all about to have their dreams come true, knowing that most of those dreams would be dashed within hours.

Waiting to go on

We got to practice on stage with the buzzers. Later, I took my spot in the studio audience and waited for them to call my name. And waited. And waited. They filmed two full episodes before finally telling me I would be taping the “Wednesday” game. I went in for a quick touchup on my makeup, stood behind my assigned podium, and within minutes, the filming began. Alex Trebek was only a few feet away! But there was no time to think about that, because he immediately read off our first categories.

It was a nightmare. One category, about world languages, was nearly swept by the defending champion. Another one, about alcoholic drinks, was no good for a guy like me, whose liquid intake boils down to various kinds of Diet Pepsi. At the end of the first break, I was in a distant third place. I barely improved by the end of the “Jeopardy” round.

But the “Double Jeopardy” round was glorious. Planets! Theater! Crossword clues beginning with the letter “J”! Those were my sweet spots and I was able to capitalize on them, finishing the game with a solid $14,200. But with the very last clue, the defending champion took the lead by the slimmest of margins: $14,400.

With the other contestant at a mere $1,000, my fate depended on the “Final Jeopardy” category: Canadian Geography. (Two things I knew virtually nothing about.)

This is where strategic thinking came into play, since contestants have to wager before seeing the clue. I figured that if I got the answer right and bet everything, the champion would surely know it, too, and have enough money to beat me. My only hope was both of us missing it, with her wagering a lot of money on the assumption that I would go all in.

So, I made a tiny bet: $201. It would be enough to overtake her if I got it right, but more realistically, it was small enough that it might not hurt me if she also got it wrong. 

Then came the clue: “Canada’s Four Corners Monument marks the junction of the Northwest Territories, Nunavut & these two Prairie Provinces.”

Which provinces were the Prairie Provinces? I had no clue. So, I took a wild guess that was, as expected, incorrect. (Sorry, Canada!) I sat there, resigned to my fate, just waiting to hear what the champion did. To my shock, she also got it wrong. After a few tense seconds during which Alex told us the answer (Saskatchewan and Manitoba), the champion’s wager was revealed: She bet nearly everything she had!

“Hemant, congratulations, young man! You’re the new champion,” Alex said. Or at least that’s what I saw later on TV. In the moment, it was a complete blur. Somehow, I backpedaled my way into becoming a “Jeopardy!” champion!

Once the taping ended, and after a pre-scheduled lunch break, the producers shuffled me back into the green room, where I had a few minutes to change clothes before we filmed the very next episode.

This time, despite missing a “Daily Double,” I felt much more confident. And in “Double Jeopardy,” I felt like the nonexistent gods were on my side when Alex read off the name of a category called “Books of the Bible.” Without knowing it, I had been preparing for this for years.

Here was the first question: “Verses like ‘The Shuhamites . . . were threescore and four thousand and four hundred’ explain this book’s name.” (I buzzed in a split second too late and got beaten to “Numbers.”)

The next one: “St. John experienced this in a cave on the isle of Patmos and is said to have written the bible book of the same name.” The same contestant beat me to it and said “Revelations.” Damn! Alex responded in the affirmative, before the judges quickly ruled it was incorrect!

I caught the mistake within moments and jumped on it: “What is Revelation?” That was it. The pluralization was a common mistake, Alex said.

The questions got harder for me from there: “In the 4th chapter of this book, Peter and John are imprisoned in Jerusalem for preaching the Gospel.” I didn’t think “Jeopardy!” would ask about subtle differences between the first four books of the New Testament, so I buzzed in with the book right after those: “What is Acts?” That was right! I pushed my luck a bit more and went to the $1,600 clue.

“The bible book named for this woman is read during Shavuot, the holiday observed 50 days after Passover.” The second half of that clue meant nothing to me. A bible book named for a woman? It had to be Ruth or Esther, I thought, but which one? I knew Esther was always associated with the holiday of Purim, so I picked the other one. “What is Ruth?” It was right. I exhaled. Lucky break.

Those clues helped me go into “Final Jeopardy” with a slight lead over both my opponents, but I knew I would have to bet most of it to win again.

This time, the category was more to my liking: Classic American Novels. But the clue sent me into a daze: “Lady Duff Twysden was the basis for a character in this 1926 novel set partly in Spain.”

None of those hints rang any bells for me, so I took another random guess. It was wrong. This time, however, another contestant got it right and bid everything she had. (Her answer: What is The Sun Also Rises?)

Hey, if you lose on the show, that’s the way to go. I was perfectly content ending my one-game streak to someone who actually knew the right answer.

Emotional rollercoaster

The entire experience was an emotional rollercoaster. Yes, there was the incredible high of winning a game, but there were also (many) moments of frustration, wondering why I missed something I felt I should have known. But I got to meet Alex Trebek. I met these incredibly smart contestants from such different walks of life. It’s hard for me to imagine any other situation where I’ll casually become friends with an opera singer, attorney, screenwriter, political activist and journalist within a few hours, only to be bonded forever through this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

(In case you’re wondering, I didn’t tell the producers exactly what I did for a living and they never asked for specifics. I told them I was a blogger who wrote about religion and politics — which is accurate, if not specific — and left it at that.)

With the show now fully in my rear-view mirror, I would also share a few lessons that hit home for me.

Every contestant had plenty of opportunities to shine. It didn’t matter what our background was — the nature of the show meant we all had areas of expertise. No one should ever be counted out.

I’m also glad I auditioned even though I never expected to get picked. The experience of trying out would have been a memorable experience by itself. Everything else was just a bonus.

So, if you’re thinking about doing something challenging, go for it. Whether it’s a political campaign or a new career, you won’t know unless you try. Have confidence in yourself and make the most of any opportunity that comes your way.

At a time when everything around us seems bleak, it’s all the more reason to pursue those dreams. Who knows where you’ll end up?

FFRF Member Hemant Mehta, who spoke at FFRF’s national convention in 2019, writes “The Friendly Atheist” blog on Patheos.com.

In the News (June/July 2020)

Steeple

Trump tells states to let churches open

President Trump on May 22 called on states to allow places of worship to open immediately and threatened to “override” any governors who do not comply with his demand, although legally that is doubtful.

Trump said places of worship are “essential services,” much like grocery stores.

Restrictions in place in some states have become a point of contention for conservative religious leaders, an important constituency in Trump’s political base.

“If they don’t do it, I will override the governors,” Trump said of states that do not allow churches, synagogues and mosques to open on that weekend. “America, we need more prayer, not less.”

Public health officials continue to warn against mass gatherings or settings in which people will be in close quarters, and note that religious gatherings have been the source of several outbreaks.

Supreme Court: It’s OK to  restrict church services

The Supreme Court denied a request from a church in California to block enforcement of state restrictions on attendance at religious services.

The ruling on May 29 was 5 to 4, with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. joining the court’s four liberal members.

It allowed California Gov. Gavin Newsom the right to restrict attendance at religious services in the state to 25 percent of the capacity because of the coronavirus.

“Although California’s guidelines place restrictions on places of worship, those restrictions appear consistent with the free exercise clause of the First Amendment,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote in an opinion concurring in the unsigned ruling. “Similar or more severe restrictions apply to comparable secular gatherings, including lectures, concerts, movie showings, spectator sports and theatrical performances, where large groups of people gather in close proximity for extended periods of time.”

Turkish government site lets citizens change religion

Turkey’s e-State government website portal has a new feature that allows citizens to change their religion on official identification and government records.

Those looking to change their religion on official records are required to fill out a short information form and submit an e-signature, it said.

Turkey is country with a 98 percent Muslim population, but studies suggest that the country’s young population is increasingly distancing itself from religion.

Hospital seeks to end Catholic partnership

Hoag Memorial Hospital of Newport Beach, Calif., has sued to get out of a partnership with a Catholic hospital system, stating that it doesn’t agree with the Catholic Church’s restrictions on health care.

Hoag, which started as a Presbyterian institution in 1952, has been in a partnership with Providence St. Joseph Health since 2012. “The deal was controversial from the start, in part because the Catholic partners imposed an abortion ban on Hoag’s doctors even though they’d been promised that the deal would have no impact on their practices,” the Los Angeles Times reports.

However, just weeks after the deal was made final in early 2013, abortions were banned at Hoag.

The lawsuit was filed May 4 in Orange County Superior Court, after it became clear that Providence would resist the hospital’s efforts to dissolve the partnership.

Survey of nonreligious Americans released

A 2019 survey by American Atheists and CFI shows that of people who consider themselves nonreligious or secular, 57 percent of them consider themselves strong atheists, while almost 95 percent consider them atheists to some extent.

Participants in the survey also cited their priorities for what secular organizations should focus on. The three top priorities were to maintain secular public schools, oppose religious exemptions that allow for discrimination, and allow access to abortion and contraception.

On the downside, 29 percent of the nonreligious participants had negative experiences in education due to their nonreligious identity, and nearly 22 percent had negative experiences at work.

On the plus side, 22 percent of participants were involved with a local secular organization.

The survey included nearly 34,000 people and can be accessed at secularsurvey.org. (FFRF is planning its own membership survey later this summer. Please take part in it to have your voice heard!)

Coronavirus kills more than 70 clergy in NYC

At least 75 New York City congregations have had clergy who have been killed by the coronavirus.

Rabbis, Catholic priests and Christian ministers, ranging in age from 42 to 96, have succumbed to COVID-19 in the past two months, and dozens more have been confirmed ill, according to a survey of religious orders, media reports and obituaries.

The dead include Holocaust survivors, pastors of some of the city’s largest churches, and clergy who preached through their final days. At least 60 rabbis have died, according to a tally of Jewish media reports, with at least 20 deaths in the Hasidic enclave of Borough Park, where the NYPD had broken up several large funerals for violating social-distancing rules.

Nigerian humanist held for blasphemy

A prominent Nigerian humanist accused of blasphemy has been arrested and taken to Kano.

Mubarak Bala, the president of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, was taken from his home on April 28 in  Kaduna state and brought to Kano, where a warrant for his arrest was issued.

Sharia law is applied in 12 states across the predominantly Muslim north of Nigeria, including Kano, where blasphemy is punishable by death.

In a statement, Humanist UK, said: “We condemn in the strongest terms the arrest of our humanist colleague Mubarak Bala by the Nigerian authorities, who have accused him of ‘blasphemy’, which can carry the death penalty.”

McCorvey: I was paid to speak against abortion

Norma McCorvey, the anonymous plaintiff in the 1973 Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade, says in a Netflix documentary that she became an anti-abortion activist because she was being paid.

The documentary, “AKA Jane Roe,” shows her journey from abortion rights plaintiff and advocate to anti-abortion campaigner. Before her death in 2017, McCorvey told the director that she hadn’t changed her mind about abortion, but said what she was paid to say.

“I was the big fish,” McCorvey says in the documentary. “I think it was a mutual thing.  I took their money and they’d put me out in front of the cameras and tell me what to say.”

McCorvey became well-known as Jane Roe in the case that legalized abortion in the United States. She was pregnant when the case was filed and gave birth to a girl who was given up for adoption.

Texas mayor: Women can’t lead prayer at meetings

The mayor of Wylie, Texas, told a fellow City Council member in an email that women shouldn’t be allowed to lead prayer at public meetings because he believes it goes against biblical teachings, according to a report by the Associated Press.

Wylie Mayor Eric Hogue quoted two New Testament scriptures in the email sent to council member Jeff Forrester in which he suggested that the council instead select young men to give the invocation.

“All I ask is that those leading the public prayer be young men,” Hogue, who has been mayor for 12 years, wrote on May 17. “As a preacher for the Cottonwood Church of Christ, we take the two verses below literally.”

He then cites a passage in 1 Corinthians that, according to his email, says: “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law. And if they will learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.”

He follows up with a passage from 1 Timothy: “Let the women learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.”

Wisconsin county won’t let atheist couple marry

The Center for Inquiry reports that Wisconsin has discriminated against a nonreligious couple by denying them the right to marry by mutual declaration, which is a privilege granted to those who are religious.

The county clerk in Winnebago County refused permission to marry by mutual declaration because they were not religious, CFI states. “Federal courts have ruled that excluding secular celebrants from solemnizing is unconstitutional under the First Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of Equal Protection,” writes CFI in its news release. CFI and American Atheists sent a warning letter to the clerk, along with a request for public records involving self-solemnization and how state officials implement this law.

Ignorant churches sue over COVID-19 closures

Social distancing

Litigious churches and churchgoers — mostly of the evangelical persuasion — have filed legal challenges against stay-at-home orders in at least 19 states.

Shockingly, the Justice Department is intervening on behalf of some of the churches, in accordance with Attorney General William Barr’s memo signaling support for church gatherings during the pandemic shutdown. On May 19, the department sent a letter chiding California Gov. Gavin Newsom, subject of two church-related lawsuits, for delaying resumption of in-person services.

There is growing evidence about the spread of COVID-19 through church services. CNN reports that one worshipper later found to have the coronavirus, who had defied California’s order to attend a religious service on Mother’s Day, exposed 180 other people. In a case in Sacramento County in April, CNN reports that 71 people connected to a single church were infected. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced in mid-May that two persons with COVID-19 unknowingly spread the virus to more than 30 people during church gatherings in early March in Arkansas before any case was diagnosed in that state. And in another such instance, the CDC identified a “superspreading” event on March 17 involving a member of a church choir in Skagit County, Wash., who spread the coronavirus, resulting in 32 confirmed cases, 20 other likely infections, three hospitalizations and two deaths.

“Wouldn’t you think churches would want to protect their congregations during the pandemic and help them stay safe?” asks Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. “Instead, this is a dismaying continuation of the religious war against science with life-and-death consequences.”

Nevertheless, many righteous pastors or churchgoers are suing government officials over state-at-home orders. Here’s a roundup by state:

California

Two California churches filed separate lawsuits in May alleging Gov. Gavin Newsom’s stay-at-home orders have illegally deprived them of religious freedom because the orders prohibit communal services. The South Bay United Pentecostal Church of Chula Vista sued in early May, alleging that the order has “criminalized all religious assembly and communal religious worship.” The lawsuit states: “To be blunt, California’s present regime, which mandates that Californians who need the Spirit of Almighty God settle for the lesser spirits dispensed out of California’s liquor stores, is demeaning and denigrating to all persons of faith.” Abiding Place Ministries and other congregations around the state previously filed a separate suit in April.

Colorado

A federal judge denied a Denver churchgoer’s challenge, filed on March 30, seeking a preliminary injunction to bar enforcement of the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders restricting the gathering of more than 10 people at a time. The plaintiff complained his parish ceased conducting weekly mass, offering the eucharist, or hearing confessions. U.S. District Judge Daniel Domenico upheld the government’s authority and duty to control the spread of disease in an April decision.

Delaware

Rev. Christopher Allan Bullock of Canaan Baptist Church, New Castle, filed a federal lawsuit on May 19 challenging gubernatorial stay-at-home restrictions. Under threat of being sued, Gov. John Carney had already changed an order that restricted gatherings to 10 persons or fewer, to permit places of worship to reopen on May 20 at 30 percent capacity. Bullock still filed suit, stating, “It appears the state is saying that you have to have an appointment to go to church, and that’s not what the bible says nor is that practical.”

Illinois

Two Illinois congregations are taking a lawsuit to the Supreme Court after being shot down once by U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman and once by a three-judge panel in the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The original lawsuit was filed against Gov. J.B. Pritzker, claiming his stay-at-home rules were unconstitutional. Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church and Logos Baptist Ministries asked for a temporary restraining order against the governor’s plan. The suit says “plaintiffs are threatened with becoming criminals for merely having 11 people at church.”

Kentucky

A federal court ruled on May 8 that Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear cannot temporarily ban mass gatherings at church services. Maryville Baptist Church and its pastor held in-person services in Easter in defiance of the pandemic restrictions, and sued to block enforcement. In Louisville, U.S. District Judge Justin Walker on April 11 ruled that “on Holy Thursday” the mayor had “criminalized the communal celebration of Easter” by discouraging large social gatherings, including at churches. Walker, 37, whom the American Bar Association rates as “unqualified,” has been nominated by President Trump to the powerful Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

Louisiana

A federal judge in Louisiana turned down a minister’s request on May 15 to halt Gov. John Bel Edwards’ stay-at-home order. The notorious Rev. Tony Spell, pastor of the Life Tabernacle Church in Central, La., had sought a temporary restraining order. Spell had been charged with multiple misdemeanors and was placed under house arrest for continuing to flout the shelter-in-place order by holding large church services amid the pandemic. Spell was arrested for aggravated assault on April 21 for driving his church bus toward a protester. Although mandated not to leave his residence to go to the church, he defied the order by holding a church service on April 26 (wearing an electronic device on his ankle). Spell told several hundred worshippers: “God gave you an immune system to kill the virus.”

Maine

Calvary Chapel of Bangor filed a federal lawsuit in early May against Gov. Janet Mills and her stay-at-home orders prohibiting in-person and drive-by worship services. The pastor, Ken Graves, charged that “the Christian church is, in fact, being targeted and discriminated against.”

Michigan

Several churches, pastors and churchgoers filed a lawsuit in federal court on May 7 against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive order. “We have to physically distance people 6 feet apart. That means what we’d have to do is instead of having our usual service, we’d have to have multiple services,” complained plaintiff and Minister Andrea Simpson of Word of Faith International Christian Center in Southfield, representing a 6,000-member congregation.

Minnesota

Two churches have filed suit in federal court on May 3 against Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order, claiming he is “treating religious organizations as second-class citizens” by limiting services to 10 people. The lawsuit was filed by the newly formed Upper Midwest Law Center, representing Northland Baptist Church of St. Paul and Brooklyn Park megachurch Living World Christian Center.

Mississippi

In mid-May, Gov. Tate Reeves announced social-distancing and cleaning guidelines that will allow churchgoers to attend in person, but advised citizens to follow his example and worship at home. Still, two lawsuits were filed against local stay-at-home rules.

Missouri

A federal judge on May 17 dismissed a lawsuit filed by a group of Christians alleging that St. Louis County’s stay-at-home order violates their religious freedom by banning large in-person church services. U.S. District Judge Ronnie White said they did not have standing, although a group of Christians filed notice to appeal. One of the plaintiffs, Frank O’Brien of O’Brien Industrial Holdings, has previously sued the Obama administration over the requirement that company health insurance cover birth control.

New Jersey

A New Jersey Catholic priest filed suit on April 30 challenging Gov. Phil Murphy’s COVID-19 order, which has led to the closure of all Catholic churches in the state. A rabbi in Lakewood joined the suit after being arrested on May 11 for hosting a gathering of more than 10 people in his backyard in a tent. When police arrived, about 20 men began yelling at the police and Rabbi Yisrael A. Knopfler was arrested for making physical contact with an officer. Police had made similar citations for two secular backyard events.

North Carolina

A federal judge in North Carolina on May 16 sided with what Associated Press termed “conservative Christian leaders” and blocked Gov. Roy Cooper’s stay-at-home orders as it affects indoor religious services. Two churches and an organization representing other churches filed suit, saying the order violated their constitutional rights because certain stores could reopen at 50 percent capacity but not churches. The state allowed religious gatherings under 10 individuals and had begun easing restrictions on May 8 under a three-phase reopening plan, with no limits on outdoor worship services. “We don’t want indoor meetings to become hotspots for the virus, and our health experts continue to warn that large groups sitting together for long periods of time are much more likely to cause the spread of COVID-19,” said a Cooper spokesperson.

Oregon

On May 18, the Oregon Supreme Court reinstated enforcement of Gov. Kate Brown’s statewide coronavirus restrictions, after a lower court overturned the order, in a suit brought by 16 churches and other plaintiffs. One of the churches, the Peoples Church in Salem, normally has an audience of 3,700. A lower court judge had ruled that Brown’s precautions were not required for “larger gatherings involving spiritual worship.”

Texas

Pastors of three Houston-area churches sued over Harris County’s stay-at-home order. The Texas Supreme Court dismissed a challenge on April 8. The same group filed a similar lawsuit that same week over church restrictions, even though the county judge revised the county order to align with Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order deeming churches “essential businesses.” The church plaintiffs are joined by Tom DeLay, former House majority leader. They have also challenged Montgomery County’s stay-at-home order in a different state district court.

Virginia

Lighthouse Fellowship Church of Chincoteague Island, Va., supported by the Justice Department, in April sued Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam over his stay-at-home order. Northam filed a response in May saying that lifting the order “would seriously undermine Virginia’s efforts to resist a once-in-a-century pandemic and threaten irreparable harm to an unknown (and unknowable) number of people. Time and again, large gatherings — including in-person religious services — have provided fertile ground for transmitting this deadly virus.” He said the order doesn’t require places of worship to close, nor does it prevent public access to churches or block services “with a limited number of attendees.” The state noted there’s no evidence the governor singled out religious organizations or political speech when he banned all gatherings.

Wisconsin

A churchgoer filed a lawsuit against Gov. Tony Evers’ stay-at-home order (which allowed religious gatherings under 10 persons). The Wisconsin Supreme Court on May 13 knocked down the entire order in a related challenge, thus not ruling on the churchgoer’s legal action. FFRF had filed an amicus brief against the churchgoer’s suit.

‘Freethought Matters’ on summer break

“Freethought Matters” is taking a summer hiatus and will be back broadcasting on Sunday, Sept. 6.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t watch previous episodes at your leisure! In fact, if you haven’t seen it already, watch the final episode of the spring season with special guest Julia Sweeney.

The “Saturday Night Live” alum is currently co-starring in the TV shows “Shrill” on Hulu and “Work in Progress” (of which she’s also a producer) on Showtime. She’s creator of the plays “God Said Ha!” and “Letting Go of God.”

“Freethought Matters” co-hosts Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor speak remotely on the program with the cheery comedian from her Los Angeles home, show some clips from her current TV shows and talk to her about her life during the pandemic. There’s a big teaser for viewers, too: Sweeney announces a juicy new role on a hit series with freethinking themes to begin this fall.

You can watch this show (and all the others) on FFRF’s YouTube channel at: youtube.com/user/FFRForg.

Actress and author Julia Sweeney is the guest on the final episode of the spring season of “Freethought Matters.”

The first guest of the season was U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman, founder of the Congressional Freethought Caucus. Huffman’s appearance on the show made media waves due to his remarks about his colleague Rep. Liz Cheney’s dogmatic stance on the religious oath.

Others on the show include freethought icon Ron Reagan, world-renowned philosopher Daniel Dennett, acting legend Ed Asner, U.S. Reps. Jamie Raskin and Mark Pocan, intellectual power couple Steve Pinker and Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, Katherine Stewart, the leading expert on Christian Nationalism, and agnostic bible scholar Bart Ehrman.

The show is produced by FFRF’s videographer Bruce Johnson, a public television veteran.

Science works, stay home, FFRF urges

“Science Works” billboard

FFRF on April 27 placed a timely digital message on a billboard in Melbourne, Fla.: “Science works! Please stay home.”

The large billboard was on Interstate 95 at Pineda Causeway, Melbourne.

The message is the brainchild of a lifetime member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Dwayne Free, who lives in Melbourne and was prompted to take action by the intransigence of Florida’s governor.

“I did this in response to Gov. [Ron] DeSantis exempting churches from following social distancing requirements which endangers ALL of us. It is absolutely unconstitutional to force companies out of business and allow churches to continue theirs,” says Free, a businessman.

FFRF had previously written DeSantis a firm letter, objecting to his reckless endangerment of health and life by explicitly exempting churches and religious gatherings from his very belated stay-at-home order. FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor wrote the governor on behalf of FFRF’s 33,000 nonreligious members, including the 1,600 members in Florida (as well as a central Florida chapter).

DeSantis specifically did not apply his social distancing order to those “attending religious services.” What is particularly egregious about his actions, avers FFRF, is the fact that this exemption “shall supercede” measures taken by local officials. DeSantis’ order appeared to be crafted to propitiate his evangelical religious base, who objected to the lawful arrest of a preacher in Hillsborough County for flouting orders. The notorious Rev. Rodney Howard-Browne called the pandemic a “phantom plague” and claimed 13 machines in his church would kill the virus. The governor’s order apparently allowed him to continue to endanger his parishioners and the public by holding church services.

FFRF has noted that Florida already regularly limits worship gatherings that jeopardize public health. It called the exemption “unconstitutional and deadly.” The organization heartily welcomes the initiative of its member to remind his fellow Floridians to follow the dictates of science and common sense, instead of religion and superstition.

Clergy far from ‘essential,’ FFRF informs DHS

FFRF has objected to the Department of Homeland Security’s designation of the clergy as “essential” in securing critical infrastructure.

A recently issued guidance by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (under DHS oversight) on critical infrastructure workers during the COVID response includes a new addition: “clergy for essential support.” This is unjustifiable and should be rescinded, FFRF demands.

Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf discussed this change in a radio interview with Tony Perkins of the Christian Nationalist Family Research Council, who then basically claimed credit for the addition of clergy to the essential category. In the same interview, Wolf explained the purpose of guidance on essential personnel. That description reveals precisely why clergy are not, in any sense, essential:

Our Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency or CISA, as you indicated, created what we call the Essential Critical Infrastructure Workers Guidance or list. And so this is a list of industries in our critical infrastructure sectors that need to go to work every day, need to keep the economy running, the supply chain full. And as governors put in place shelter-in-place procedures, we need to make sure that certain individuals can still come and go and to do their job so that the lights turn on, the water keeps running, there’s gas in the trucks to deliver the PPE, and the like.

“Clergy do none of those things,” FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor write to Wolf. “Their role does not remotely touch on infrastructure, energy, transportation or medicine. The collapse of any of these could threaten the security or welfare of the United States, which is why maintaining infrastructure is a DHS issue.”

Version 3.0 of the guidance inadvertently illustrates this point by listing, immediately after clergy, as essential those “workers who maintain digital systems infrastructure supporting other critical government operations.” Recognizing this disconnect, Wolf in his interview with Perkins later attempted to justify the addition of clergy, claiming: “We did include clergy in there recognizing that they provide a supportive and essential service, particularly in a number of hospitals, funeral homes, and the like.”

Hospitals will function just fine without chaplains, who are often intrusive toward nonbelieving patients, the state/church watchdog responds partly tongue-in-cheek. More seriously, it points out that without clergy roaming the halls, there will be fewer people likely to spread the virus and more personal protective equipment for medical professionals.

And of central importance here, FFRF asserts, is that there’s no valid reason for declaring clergy essential, which suggests that this was a political, not a practical decision. Perkins was seeking unwarranted privilege for himself and fellow Christians — and it’s disappointing and constitutionally suspect that the DHS has caved to Perkins’ ridiculous demand.

FFRF underwrites virtual law symposium

FFRF is proudly underwriting a scholar-studded virtual symposium by the Roger Williams University School of Law focusing on the separation between state and church.

The one-day online seminar (“Is This a Christian Nation?”) will be held Sept. 25. (The symposium was initially slated to be held in March in Bristol, R.I, but was postponed because of the coronavirus pande

“Is This a Christian Nation?” symposium

mic.)

Some of the nation’s foremost First Amendment specialists are assembling in an attempt to grapple with the timely subject.

Among them is Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of the University of California Berkeley School of Law. Chemerinsky is considered one of the most prominent legal scholars and public intellectuals in the nation.

Other notables include University of Pennsylvania Professor Marci A. Hamilton; John A. Ragosta, historian at the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello; Teresa M. Bejan, associate professor of political theory at Oxford University; and Steven K. Green, director of the Willamette Center for Religion, Law and Democracy.

FFRF, which is underwriting the symposium’s costs, thanks its Legal Director Rebecca Markert, a graduate of the Roger Williams University School of Law, and FFRF Strategic Response Director Andrew Seidel, as well the Roger Williams University School of Law itself, for their work and initiative in making possible this symposium.

For more information, go to law.rwu.edu/events/christian-nation.

The Clergy Project: We are all we’ve got

Lon Ostrander

By Lon Ostrander

To quote Chance the Rapper, “Music is all we got, so we might as well give it all we got.”

While many participants of The Clergy Project are doing fine, others are not. For so many of us, when we finally grasp the inescapable truth that there isn’t any god and when we die we’re just dead, we become at risk of losing everything we hold dear. Self-identity, family, friends, income, homes and community are often all at risk of being lost. For many of us, they are all lost, some things for a time and others for all time.

We at The Clergy Project help to build new lives by providing an online community, renewing self-identity, making new friends, preserving relationships, transitioning to new vocations, and offering crisis counseling through the Secular Therapy Project.

It is said that love is two imperfect people stubbornly refusing to give up on each other. The Clergy Project is a multitude of imperfect people stubbornly refusing to give up on each other.

We have come to a point in our evolution as a nonprofit corporation where we need to get serious about growing our brand and fundraising in earnest. We are privileged to be able to offer counseling services to our participants in cooperation with Recovering From Religion (recoveringfromreligion.org) and the Secular Therapy Project (seculartherapy.org).

Sadly, we have run short of Secular Therapy Project counselors who are willing to provide counseling services for free. As a result, The Clergy Project has found it necessary to subsidize the psychotherapy services needed by so many of our participants drowning in religious-trauma-related emotional stress. It is also clear that this relatively small financial bump in the road threatens to consume our surprisingly meager flow of funds. However, we are pleased to announce a recent $9,000 donation from FFRF to help tide us over.

Really, there is so much more we can do for apostate religious leaders in need. Our participants often must endure family and marriage break ups, legal complications, loss of income and even the persecution of family members back home for their connection to an apostate religious leader relative. For many of The Clergy Project participants, it’s all we’ve got, so we might as well give it all we’ve got!

In the autumn of 2019 when we reached the milestone of 1,000 participants, it seemed amazing, almost miraculous, that we had grown into such a large community of nonbelieving current and former religious leaders hailing from nearly four dozen countries around the world and from every state in these not so United States of America.

Yet, I would contend that we are but the tiniest tip of an enormous and largely submerged iceberg consisting of current and former religious leaders for whom faith in a benevolent and all-powerful god is little more than a painful and bizarre memory with frightening consequences.

I would conjecture that most religious leaders, believing or not, still have no idea that we exist. For example, one fellow who recently joined The Clergy Project shared that when he “Googled for the first time, ‘Pastors who left Christianity,’ the very first video I saw featured Dan Barker, and from then on, I read Godless, and have probably watched all the Dan Barker and Bart Ehrman videos. And, finally, after watching so many videos, I found The Clergy Project!” Finally, if they persist, they may finally find The Clergy Project.

We are all we’ve got, and most in our situation don’t even know The Clergy Project exists. People need to know that it exists. Everyone, from the person who has already spent over half of one’s life preaching a misanthropic gospel, to the little child whose sadistic pastor piously proclaims that little Johnny or Janie is going to grow up to be a pastor. We’re all they have, and, for the most part, they don’t know we exist. Our mission should not be just to help our apostate few, but to be there for as many who will be ensnared in the quagmire of religious leadership. We don’t need to evangelize for atheism. We need only to be here for those who have invested their lives in a Trojan horse and know it.

There are currently about 7.5 billion humans cluttering up our tiny dust speck of a planet. We can safely venture a wild guess that there are 8 million to 10 million religious leaders among us, and easily several million of them have serious doubts about the existence of an all-powerful god, benevolent or otherwise.

These millions of well-intentioned religious leaders, who now know better, need to know that they are not alone, and there are multitudes of fellow travelers who are anxious to encourage, counsel and help pull them into a community of imperfect flesh and bone friends, who refuse to give up on each other.

The Clergy Project was created through the auspices of The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science and the Freedom From Religion Foundation. We have a secure forum website and a closed Facebook group, both accessible to The Clergy Project participants only. The following are just a few recent testimonials selected from current forum posts:

• As always, it’s a joy to be able to express myself on The Clergy Project. It’s the only outlet I have. Thanks to everyone who makes it possible.

• As one of those newer members, I appreciate the open arms with which I was received into The Clergy Project.

• Thanks for sharing your lives, thoughts, hopes, and struggles here. You’re my heroes, and I’m so glad to know you.

• I’m new to the community & so just reading this post. I wanted to offer my thanks to all who contributed.

• I too am so thankful for The Clergy Project and the great guidance I received here.

• I’m so grateful for all of you.

• I posted about a difficult situation “Danger to Family” and I received tremendous support for which I have no word big enough to say thank you. The Clergy Project made me a better person and I am glad to be a member.

• What a wonderful family I found in The Clergy Project!!!

• This is what makes The Clergy Project great, it puts people into your life who understand your situation.

• I know you will find the answers you seek among these amazing individuals

• I am grateful because The Clergy Project got me some sessions with a therapist who turned on some lights for me.

Many members of our community write blog posts for “Rational Doubt with Voices from The Clergy Project” (patheos.com/blogs/rationaldoubt).

In addition, we have a public website at clergyproject.org, where you can learn more about who we are, our stories, available resources and contact information, and information on how you can donate to help support our cause.

We are inviting all who can, to donate generously to The Clergy Project and help us become known worldwide as a beacon of hope to millions of disillusioned religious leaders struggling to change the direction of their lives. We, who are unencumbered with religious dogma and superstition; we are all we’ve got. We may as well give it all we’ve got.

Lon Ostrander is the president of the board of The Clergy Project.