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FFRF wins court case vs. Texas Gov. Abbott

FFRF’s Bill of Rights nativity

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has been granted relief in its six-year lawsuit challenging Gov. Greg Abbott’s censorship of its Winter Solstice display in the Texas Capitol.

On May 6, U.S. District Court Judge Lee Yeakel ruled in favor of FFRF in its federal challenge of censorship of its freethought display in the Capitol in 2015. Yeakel ordered declaratory and injunctive relief to ensure that Abbott and the State Preservation Board will not violate FFRF’s free speech rights in the future.

“This is a great victory for free speech rights, especially of minority viewpoints, including nonreligious citizens whose voices must be equally respected,” says FFRF Legal Director Rebecca Markert.

The court, after officially rendering its verdict in favor of FFRF’s First Amendment freedom-of-speech claim, granted it protection from future viewpoint censorship and issued an injunction and this declaration: “It is further ordered and declared that defendants violate the Foundation’s First Amendment rights and engage in viewpoint discrimination as a matter of law when they exclude the Foundation’s exhibit based on the perceived offensiveness of its message.”

FFRF, with help from members and with requisite sponsorship by a legislator, had placed a Winter Solstice display in the state Capitol in December 2015 as a response to a Christian nativity. FFRF’s whimsical display depicted the Founders and the Statue of Liberty celebrating the “birth” of the Bill of Rights (which was adopted on Dec. 15, 1791). 

Abbott, as chair of the Texas State Preservation Board, while permitting the Christian exhibit, ordered FFRF’s display removed only three days after it was erected, lambasting it as indecent, mocking and contributing to public immorality.

FFRF initially won its lawsuit at the district court level, which ruled that Abbott and the State Preservation Board had violated FFRF’s free speech rights. In April 2020, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that FFRF was entitled to more permanent, lasting relief than the district court initially awarded, and sent the case back to that court. On May 6, the district court granted FFRF prospective relief by enjoining Abbott and the board from censoring FFRF’s speech in the future.

Gaylor notes that the fastest-growing segment of the population are the “Nones” — religiously unaffiliated Americans. FFRF has almost 1,500 members in Texas.

FFRF’s relief was greatly delayed, thanks to a stunt pulled by the State Preservation Board. 

Two weeks before the parties’ briefs were due to the district court, the board made slight adjustments to its exhibit policies, including a dubious declaration that all future exhibits in the Capitol would be considered “government speech.” In its subsequent briefing to the district court, FFRF successfully argued that these surface-level changes did not alter the true nature of the forum for citizen speech in the Texas Capitol. The court rejected the state’s argument that FFRF’s lawsuit no longer involved a live controversy and that the case was thus moot.

FFRF is represented by Associate Counsel Sam Grover and Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott, with attorney Rich Bolton of Boardman and Clark LLP serving as litigation counsel.

FFRF wins lawsuit against praying Texas judge

Wayne Mack

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has won its court challenge to stop a Texas judge from conducting courtroom prayer.

U.S. District Judge Kenneth M. Hoyt ruled May 21 in favor of plaintiffs FFRF and local attorney “John Roe.” They had sued Montgomery County Judge Wayne Mack over his divisive and unconstitutional practice of opening each court session with chaplain-led prayer. Mack, as a justice of the peace, has jurisdiction over minor misdemeanor offenses and lesser civil matters. Montgomery County is north of Houston, and its county seat is Conroe.

The decision reads: “The court is of the view that the defendant violates the Establishment Clause when, before a captured audience of litigants and their counsel, he presents himself as theopneustically inspired, enabling him to advance, through the chaplaincy program, God’s ‘larger purpose.’ Such a magnanimous goal flies in the face of historical tradition, and makes a mockery of both religion and law.”

FFRF welcomes this judgment declaring at long last that Mack cannot continue abusing his authority to coerce attorneys, litigants and other citizens into participating in his courtroom prayers.

“A courtroom is not a church, and a judge’s bench is not a pulpit,” comments FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Today’s ruling is a victory for the constitutional rights of all Americans and for equal justice under the law.”

FFRF and Roe, who originally challenged the courtroom prayers in March 2017, due to various technical reasons, refiled the case against Mack in 2019.

Mack, a formerly ordained minister who attended Jackson College of Ministries, made the unprecedented decision to solicit chaplains to open his court sessions with prayer, a practice not replicated by any other court in the country. Despite numerous complaints regarding the practice, Mack insisted on opening his court session with chaplain-led prayer. Attendees have reported Mack surveying the courtroom during prayers, causing concern that their cases would be affected if they did not participate. Mack’s bailiff announced the prayers, stating that anyone could leave during the prayer, but then locked the courtroom doors. Mack entered, talked about his chaplaincy program, introduced a chaplain, and gave the name and location of the chaplain’s church. While everyone in the courtroom remained standing, the chaplain, who was almost always Christian, delivered a prayer, with no guidelines regarding permissible content.

Since entering the lawsuit, Roe has regularly declined business in order to avoid appearing in Mack’s courtroom. On some matters, where a district court has concurrent jurisdiction with Mack’s court, Roe elected to bring claims in the district court instead of Mack’s court, despite the higher filing fees, higher service fees and the generally slower docket, in order to avoid Mack’s prayer practice. These decisions, motivated by a desire to avoid government-prescribed prayer, are not choices that any attorney or private litigant should have to make, FFRF argued in its briefings.

FFRF’s suit asserted that Mack’s prayer practice is unconstitutionally coercive, with a primary purpose and effect of promoting religion. FFRF noted that Mack’s practices cannot be compared to legislative prayer. Unlike legislative prayer, Mack’s courtroom chaplains directed their prayers to the audience, not the judge. And in the courtroom setting many of the audience members are compelled, under threat of a warrant issuing for their arrest or other ordered penalties, to appear in the courtroom. Judge Hoyt agreed that the prayers were coercive.

While this latest decision resolves the case, the court issued a ruling on March 25 granting FFRF and its plaintiff Roe default judgment against Mack in his official capacity as a judicial officer. Because the state of Texas elected not to defend the lawsuit, plaintiffs Roe and FFRF moved for, and were granted, a default judgment declaring: “Judge Mack’s courtroom prayer practice violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.” Plaintiffs plan to seek recovery of their attorneys’ fees and costs against the state.

“In a time where the wall of separation between state and church is continually chipped away, this decision is welcomed for its straightforward and accurate interpretation of the Establishment Clause, noting the prayer practice ‘flies in the face’ of our traditions,” comments FFRF Legal Director Rebecca Markert.

FFRF and Roe are being represented by FFRF Associate Counsel Sam Grover, with FFRF Associate Counsel Elizabeth Cavell and Attorney Ayesha Khan of Washington, D.C., serving as co-counsel.

FFRF, others make history with White House meeting

FFRF Co-Presidents Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker and FFRF’s Director of Strategic Response Andrew L. Seidel participated in an online meeting with members of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships on May 14.

In a first for secular organizations, the Freedom From Religion Foundation and five other groups met with the Biden White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships on May 14.

Representatives from FFRF, the American Humanist Association, American Atheists, Center for Inquiry, Ex-Muslims of North America and the Secular Coalition for America, which set up the meeting, met with Executive Director Melissa Rogers, Deputy Director Josh Dickson and Program Specialist Ben O’Dell.

“With more than a quarter of the population identifying as a ‘None’ (no religion), it’s vital that our community, our voices be heard in favor of reason in social policy and upholding our secular government,” FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said, who was present along FFRF Co-President Dan Barker and FFRF Director of Strategic Response Andrew Seidel.

The cordial meeting, which included discussions of secular priorities, marks a break from the previous administration, where Paula White ruled the roost and meetings began with prayer.

The current meetings have no prayer, no bragging about how religion is being inserted into the federal government. There has been no attempt to funnel government funds to these groups, and much of the emphasis has been messaging on the importance and availability of vaccines. FFRF representatives have been attending and monitoring all of the calls.

FFRF blew the lid off a series of secretive calls the Trump White House held to reassure churches that they could and should request forgivable loans under various SBA programs, including the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). In one call, Trump-allied faith leaders were assured by the federal government that even a discriminatory fly-by-night “church” that provides absolutely no secular social services, and of which the owner is the sole employee, could have its wages covered by taxpayers during the PPP time period. These assurances were made a full two weeks before the SBA released its final rule on eligibility, showing that it had no interest in considering public comments.

Another call was even more explicit, with churches urged to apply for PPP funds before the deadline. Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, a member of Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Council, reported that the Dr. James Dobson Family Institute, which took in $350,000–$1 million, “has literally been kept solvent . . . by the Paycheck Protection Plan (sic).” Dobson noted with obvious glee that in 43 years of leading two faith-based ministries, he had “never asked for, nor received, one cent from the federal government,” expressing his surprise that taxpayer funds could now flow to his ministry.

While FFRF maintains that it is inappropriate for any government action to turn religious Americans into an “in” crowd while secular Americans are “outsiders,” the current White House faith-based office has turned a blatantly Christian nationalist outfit into an office that explicitly acknowledges the separation between religion and government. That’s a step in the right direction.

Meet a member: Life Member Marian Wiggins went from faith to reason

Marian Wiggins

Name: Marian Wiggins

Where I live: Bremerton, Wash.

Where and when I was born: Tulsa, Okla., in 1949.

Family: Sister, age 68; younger brother died at 60, four years ago.

Education: Speech-language pathology at Oklahoma State University and postgraduate studies at University of California at Santa Barbara and University of Washington. Deaf studies and American Sign Language at Seattle Central Community College.

Occupation: Retired speech-language pathologist; former senior editor at Gospel Light Publications.

How I got where I am today: As a speech-language pathologist (SLP), I worked in clinics, hospitals, private practice and the public schools. Due to my professional background as an SLP and as an editor, I have skills that allow me to volunteer as an English tutor at Kitsap Immigrant Assistance Center, edit blog posts for the atheist-activist Valerie Tarico (, and sit on the Kitsap County Developmental Disabilities Advisory Council Board of Directors.

Where I’m headed: I’m headed where we’re all headed (and it isn’t heaven or hell). In the meantime, I maintain a healthy diet and do some form of exercise daily in my home gym (which includes stretch bands, several pairs of hand weights and a BodyBlade, currently in a corner of my study).

I’m learning (and loving) t’ai chi and I’m in a book club and a dinner group. The plan is to stay healthy and helpful and connected for as long as possible, and then to die with a heart full of gratitude for all who helped me have a life well-lived.

Person in history I admire and why: This one’s so difficult to answer; I can add new people to the list almost every day. Today I choose Darnella Frazier, the young teen who bravely filmed the police officers who knelt on George Floyd, even after being told by one of them to stop. I don’t know that I would have been so brave at that tender age. Her footage marked a turning point in our understanding of the depth and breadth of the fears of Black Americans.

A quotation I like: “Nothing fails like prayer.” — Anne Nicol Gaylor. (I doubt a week goes by that I’m not reminded of this quotation.)

Things I like: Sunshine, walks, books, coffee, friendships, classical music, books, good wine, dark chocolate, a gentle Pacific Northwest rain, and — need I say it again? — BOOKS!

Things I smite: Meanness, racism, xenophobia, misogyny, bullying.

My doubts about religion started: The seed of doubt was planted in 1984 by Dan Barker (yes, that one) while I was at Gospel Light Publications, trying to locate him so that we could start our annual collaboration on the Vacation Bible School Mini-Musicale. No longer in L.A., he’d moved to Madison, Wis., and had announced that he was an atheist, of all things! That revelation, coupled with my near-daily work with the bible while developing children’s Sunday School and VBS curricula, enabled me to understand how someone could make that long and tangled journey. I had no idea I’d soon be making a similar journey, myself. Or did I? Denial is a mysterious force.

Before I die: I want to conduct a “Swedish death cleaning” of my closets, files, cupboards, garage (shudder!) — meaning that I want my heirs not to hate me for leaving loads of sorting to them.

Ways I promote freethought: Supporting Valerie Tarico’s atheist-activism by editing her articles and by daily curating the news for her; sharing with others articles of hers and of those in Freethought Today; talking to others about my journey from faith to reason.

I wish you’d have asked me: Who has had the greatest impact on your life? My paternal grandfather was a self-taught man, having dropped out of school in eighth grade (1908) to help support his family. He was a voracious reader, an entrepreneur, a leader in his community (Tulsa, Okla.), and a kind and loving grandfather. Luckily for me, he lived next door. He taught me the value of study, the wisdom of both saving and sharing money, the undying necessity of truth, and the importance of a strong and a gentle character. I think of him — and am so grateful for him — every day.

Congress members join panel: Insurrection’s ties to Christian nationalism

A gallows and noose were brought onto the grounds of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. The inscriptions included religious-based themes, including “In God We Trust,” “God Bless the USA,” and “Amen.”
(Tyler Merbler via Flickr )
An insurrectionist held a sign saying, “I am with you — God” on the U.S. Capitol grounds on Jan. 6.
(Screenshot via ProPublica Parler video archive)

FFRF’s Andrew L. Seidel moderated a recent panel discussion of Jan. 6.

Members of Congress attended a private panel discussion on March 23 about “Christian Nationalism and the January 6th Attack.” The panel was organized by the Congressional Freethought Caucus, which was founded by Rep. Jamie Raskin and Rep. Jared Huffman, who asked FFRF’s Director of Strategic Response Andrew L. Seidel to moderate the discussion. The panelists included Robert Jones, CEO and founder of PRRI, author of White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity and The End of White Christian America; Amanda Tyler, executive director of Baptist Joint Committee and organizer of Christians Against Christian Nationalism; and Juhem Navarro-Rivera, political research director and managing partner at Socioanalitica Research and senior fellow at the Institute for Humanist Studies. At least 10 other members of Congress participated in the panel and many asked questions.

To “set the stage,” as he put it, Seidel recounted some of the imagery from that day. Here’s how Seidel kicked off the panel discussion:

Thank you, Rep. Huffman.

Christian nationalism ripped off its mask on Jan. 6 and the conversation that some of us had been having on the margins entered the mainstream in the wake of the attacks. Amanda Tyler and the Baptist Joint Committee had been warning about it for more than a year. Robert and Juhem have been studying it and other demographic changes that are driving the fear and possibly the rise of Christian nationalism. I wrote a book saying that Christian nationalism was un-American and called it “an existential threat to our republic.” Since Jan. 6, I’ve been scouring the photos, videos and court cases, and I am more convinced than ever about the role Christian nationalism played. But I want to set the stage a bit, to remind us all of just some of the Christian nationalism from that day, especially since some of you experienced it from a very different perspective.

Paula White began the day with a prayer; one that added “the United States of America” to the Lord’s Prayer written in Matthew 6. The rally ended with Trump calling on his mob to march to the Capitol. His last words were “God bless you and God bless America.” On their march to the Capitol, the Proud Boys were hailed as “God’s Warriors” and knelt for a prayer that was full of typical Christian nationalist rhetoric about restoring the nation. 

One attacker carried a Christian flag on the floor of the Senate. The absurdly self-proclaimed “QAnon Shaman,” who led a prayer in the Senate about patriotism, Jesus, and restoring the nation — ended the prayer in Jesus’ name. One of the praying insurrectionists gave an interview later and said of the Senate prayer: We “just consecrated it to Jesus. . . That to me was the ultimate statement of where we are in this movement.” A third praying insurrectionist posted a video saying “I just wanted to get inside the building so I could plead the blood of Jesus over it. That was my goal.” He said he would start a prison ministry when he was sent away for his crimes. Another insurrectionist told her social media followers why she did it: “To me, God and country are tied — to me they’re one and the same. We were founded as a Christian country.”

The imagery is now infamous. The huge wooden cross, juxtaposed with the gallows from which they wanted to hang you. They signed the gallows as if it were a yearbook writing “Hang them high,” “In God We Trust,” “God Bless the USA,” “Hang for treason” and “Amen.” 

The flags and signs were clear: Jesus is my savior, Trump is my president; one nation under God; in God we trust; Jesus saves; Jesus 2020; bible verses and crosses. One sign simply said, “I am on your side, signed, GOD.” A bible was seen raised above the crowd as it surged through one of the entrances. One of the people who entered the Capitol was a Catholic priest who admitted on camera to exorcising the demon named Baphomet. Another was a youth pastor from Florida. 

They sang the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” (“Glory Glory Hallelujah, his truth is marching on . . .”) and prayed in the Rotunda. One group, the Jericho March, had been founded by two federal workers who were sent visions from their god to “let the church roar,” they named their rallies after a biblical genocide and re-enacted it by blowing shofars and declaring that the “this is one nation under God,” alongside the “Stop the Steal” charlatans. It wasn’t just imagery and rhetoric, it was a devout belief that this is a Christian nation that God chose Donald Trump — Trump himself said “I am the Chosen One” while looking up to the heavens — and that God was on their side. The attacker who kicked in Speaker Pelosi’s door, hoping to tear her “into little pieces,” was an attorney. His rantings were recounted at one of his hearings after being charged, “God is on Trump’s side. God is not on the Democrats’ side. And if patriots have to kill 60 million of these communists, it is God’s will.”

From there, Seidel, the panel and the congressional members had an engaging discussion about the role Christian nationalism played in the insurrection.

Amitabh Pal: India’s government brought Covid-19 crisis on itself

Amit Pal

This article was first sent out by the Progressive Media Project, an op-ed service, and has been published in several newspapers nationwide. 

By Amitabh Pal

The Indian government is primarily responsible for the Covid-19 pandemic now ravaging the nation.

I am hearing daily accounts from my mother in India about relatives falling sick, getting hospitalized and worse. (My mother, thankfully, is among the tiny percentage of Indians who are fully vaccinated.)

Since mid-April, India has been leading the world in new cases and deaths, with around 400,000 infections and 4,000 fatalities reported on a daily basis. Both categories are undercounted.

The media reports are almost unbearable, with accounts of patients literally gasping to death due to lack of oxygen supply. A huge portion of the blame for all this suffering lies with right-wing populist Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the administration he has helmed for the past seven years.

The Modi government was so busy engaging in triumphalist self-congratulation for the relatively low toll the first wave took on India that it neglected to prepare for the second one. The prime minister actually boasted to the World Economic Forum in January that India was showing the world how to deal with the virus. Indian Health Minister Harsh Vardhan assured everyone in early March that the country was “in the endgame” of the pandemic. The government dismantled treatment facilities set up during the first wave.

A national Covid-19 task force did not meet a single time between mid-January and mid-April. And warnings from a scientific panel in early March that a second wave was imminent were ignored.

Incredibly, from April 2020 to January of this year, India doubled its exports of oxygen, leaving it ill-prepared for this second wave. And despite being a major global vaccine manufacturing hub, India under Modi placed astonishingly low orders for the vaccine with domestic vaccine makers.

India’s vaccination drive lost steam due to governmental mismanagement and complacency. And tens of millions of vaccines were given away or sold to other countries, in good part due to the government’s desire to be seen as a major global player.

Then there were the officially blessed superspreader events. The top official from Modi’s party in charge of a mountainous state allowed a massive Ganges bathing religious festival to proceed in the middle of the pandemic — one year ahead of schedule due to astrological reasons. Millions of Indians took a dip and disseminated the virus all over India.

A pliant Election Commission decided to hold polling in the politically crucial state of West Bengal in multiple stages, reportedly to provide Modi’s party a fighting chance to oust a regional entity in power there. The result, again, was a surge of Covid-19 cases.

In keeping with its Hindu nationalist ideology, the Modi administration has a fondness for junk science that extoll the cow and the traditional Hindu medicinal system called Ayurveda. Two cabinet ministers were present at the launch of a medicine (named Coronil) that a godman known as Baba Ramdev, with a medicinal empire, is peddling as a Covid-19 cure.

Apologists for Modi’s government offer several defenses: The Indian health infrastructure has always been woefully deficient; health is largely a state-level responsibility; and the cavalier attitude of the people explains the skyrocketing infections.

But Modi was elected seven years ago with the promise of transforming the country. While India is much less federal in practice than the United States, Modi’s party or its allies in the governing National Democratic Alliance rule 18 of India’s 28 states. And if Indians started taking things lightly in recent months, wrong messages from the government are at least partly to blame.

The Modi-led government’s deeds of commission and omission have led to India’s cataclysm. That fact should be recognized and remembered long after the current pandemic is gone.

Amitabh Pal is FFRF’s director of communications.

In the News (June/July 2021)

Atheists have lowest coronavirus death rate

Data on Covid-19 death rates in England has revealed that atheists, as a group, were the least affected, experiencing 336.6 deaths per 100,000 among men and 218.2 among women.

Muslims are by far the worst-affected religious group, with death rates twice as high as among Christians, and nearly three times higher than the atheists.

Data from the UK’s Office of National Statistics showed that, up to the end of February, 4,191 Muslims had been killed by the virus.

Muslim men had a death rate of 966.9 per 100,000 people, while that of women was about 519.1 per 100,000.

Muslims were followed by Hindus — 605.2 among men and 346.5 for women; Sikhs — 573.6 and 345.7; Jews — 512.9 and 295.4; and Christians — 401.9 and 249.6.

However, after factoring in other risk indicators such as age, wealth and location, it said: “After adjustments, the Hindu population and Muslim men were disproportionately affected throughout the pandemic.”

Experts have suggested that ethnic minorities are more likely to have low incomes and work in public-facing jobs that increase their exposure to the virus. 

Bishops may push Biden to stop taking Communion

At the national meeting in June of U.S. Catholic bishops, they may decide to tell President Biden, a Catholic, to not take communion if he continues to advocate for abortion rights, according to a report by Religion News Service.

Such a stance by a public figure is “a grave moral evil,” according to Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, who chairs the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Pro-Life Activities.

Wis. AG announces probe of clergy sex abuse

Attorney General Josh Kaul on April 20 announced an investigation into clergy sexual abuse across Wisconsin. 

The state Department of Justice will lead the probe and focus on abuse allegations against Catholic clergy and other faith leaders — many of which date back decades and involve religious officials who are now dead. Prosecutors will request documents from the dioceses and religious orders as part of the investigation. 

Wisconsin is home to five dioceses and religious orders such as the Norbertines. 

45 dead in stampede at Israeli religious event

At least 45 people were killed and 150 more injured in a crush April 30 at a religious festival of ultra-Orthodox Jews in northern Israel, where tens of thousands of faithful had convened in one of the country’s largest events since the pandemic began.

The event, at Mount Meron, is the festival of Lag BaOmer, which features bonfires and dancing around the Galilee tomb of a second century rabbi.

According to witnesses, in an area of the complex where the ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community of Toldos Aharon was holding its celebration, participants were pushing through a slippery staircase. Suddenly, a row of people fell to the floor, piling atop  one another. People were asphyxiated or trampled in the tightly packed corridor.

Evangelicals are losing their climate skepticism

White evangelicals have become more willing to acknowledge anthropogenic climate change over the past decade, according to a Climate Nexus poll, as reported by Religion News Service.

In 2014, the Pew Research Center reported that just 28 percent of white evangelicals attributed global warming to human activity. In October 2020, though, 44 percent of them said climate change was due “mostly to human activities.” 

While they remain less concerned about the issue than other major American religious communities, the poll showed them to be closer to mainstream opinion than previously.

Abortion bills on huge upswing in U.S.

In the first four months of 2021, state lawmakers have introduced an incredible 536 abortion restrictions, including 146 bans, with 61 of those bills being signed into law.

The Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health research organization that tracks abortion bills in the states, assessed the situation in a report.  

Previously, 2011 was the most brutal year for abortion rights in recent history. In the 12 months after the 2010 midterm elections, Republicans enacted 92 abortion restrictions across 24 states, kicking off a “war on women” that shut down dozens of abortion clinics across the country and dominated the national political conversation through 2014.

Florida expands private school voucher program 

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on May 11 signed into law a $200 million school choice plan that will allow about 61,000 new students to become eligible for taxpayer-funded vouchers that will help families pay for private tuition and other education expenses.

The measure is a continuation of a decades-long push to expand school choice in Florida, a move Republicans support and most Democrats have fought as they advocate for more oversight and accountability for private schools that get state-funded vouchers.

The law, which takes effect July 1, will allow families of four with an income of nearly $100,000 to qualify for awards, up from the current $79,500 threshold. And students will no longer need to attend a public school before receiving a state voucher.

Christian school seeks ‘ministerial exception’ 

A 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel on May 11 took up a case to test the limits of an exemption from anti-discrimination laws for religious schools.

Faith Christian Academy in Colorado claims the exemption should apply broadly to “teachers, chaplains and other leaders,” according to a report by Reuters.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty will urge the panel to rule that the “ministerial exception” shields the school from a former faculty member’s claims that he was fired for organizing a chapel service focused on combating racism.

A federal judge in Denver earlier had said a jury should decide whether the exception applied to Gregory Tucker, who was the director of student life at Faith Christian Academy, and denied the school’s motion for summary judgment in his 2019 lawsuit.

German Catholics bless gay unions despite ban

Germany’s Catholic progressives openly defied a recent Vatican ruling that priests cannot bless same-sex unions by offering such blessings at services in about 100 different churches all over the country in mid-May, according to a report by Religion News Service.

The blessings at open worship services are the latest pushback from German Catholics against a document released in March by the Vatican’s orthodoxy office, which said Catholic clergy cannot bless same-sex unions because God “cannot bless sin.”

Pope Francis, who has championed a more decentralized church structure, reminded the German hierarchy that it must remain in communion with Rome during its reform process.”

Study: Young Jews are moving to opposite views

A new survey of U.S. Jews shows the group’s youngest adults are increasingly dividing in polar-opposite directions: secularism and orthodoxy, according to a report by Religion News Service.

The study from Pew Research Center is a follow-up to its 2013 study, and many of the trends outlined have remained constant. U.S. Jews represent 2.4 percent of the U.S. population, a slight rise from 2.2 percent in 2013.

Nearly three-quarters of Jews identify as Jews by religion (73 percent), but a growing number do not consider themselves religiously Jewish (27 percent), instead identifying as Jewish ethnically, culturally or by ancestry. 

This group is particularly large among Jews ages 18 to 29, where 40 percent consider themselves Jews of no religion. While Orthodox Jews represent 9 percent of the overall American Jewish population, the survey found, they represent 17 percent among the 18 to 29 age group.

Conviction overturned in ‘holy spirit’ case

A federal appeals court on May 5 overturned the conviction of former Florida Rep. Corrine Brown, ruling that a judge was wrong to remove a juror in her trial who said the “holy spirit” told him Brown was not guilty.

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, in a 7-4 decision, said that Brown, who was found guilty in 2017 on 18 felony counts connected to using a phony charity as a personal slush fund, deserved a new trial on the corruption charges.

Chief Judge William Pryor, writing for the majority, said the decision of a district judge to remove the juror after deliberations had already begun in the trial was wrong because there was no evidence that the juror had engaged in misconduct or would have ultimately held out against a conviction.

“Corrine Brown was entitled to the unanimous verdict of a jury of ordinary citizens,” Pryor wrote. “The removal of Juror No. 13 — a juror who listened for God’s guidance as he sat in judgment of Brown and deliberated over the evidence against her — deprived her of one.”

FFRF decries new abortion law in Texas

FFRF castigates Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Legislature for making it a law to ban abortion care as early as six weeks of gestation. 

Abbott is a Christian nationalist whom FFRF recently successfully prevailed over his bigoted censorship of FFRF’s freethought view at the Texas Capitol (see page 1).

This follows alarming passage of sweeping anti-abortion legislation in April severely restricting abortion care and signed into law in Montana, Arizona, South Dakota, Wyoming, Oklahoma and Idaho. 

Texas is following the actions of nearly a dozen other states that have passed the so-called “heartbeat” bill — a medically inaccurate misnomer. Dr. Ted Anderson, president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, explains that this labeling is incongruent with the “anatomical and clinical realities of that stage of pregnancy” because the so-called heartbeat is simply “electrically induced flickering of a portion of the fetal tissue.”

It has been upheld by the Supreme Court that it is unconstitutional to impose a previability abortion ban. Pregnancies are considered viable around 24-26 weeks of gestation. Therefore this anti-abortion bill is Texas is completely unconstitutional.

Shockingly, the bill also allows anyone to sue a doctor for providing abortion care or anyone else who helped someone get an abortion. Perhaps the most startling aspect of this bill is that the person filing the lawsuit would not need any personal connection to the abortion, at odds with all legal precedent. 

Bad sign: Supreme Court to hear abortion case

Graham Sale cartoon

“A chill wind blows,” as the late Justice Harry Blackmun once proclaimed to warn against the initial erosion of Roe v. Wade in the 1980s.

On May 17, that wind got far chillier, with the announcement that the Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal of a Mississippi statute that bans most abortions after 15 weeks. The case, Dobbs v. Jackson Health Organization, will be the first significant abortion case heard by the high court since extremist Amy Coney Barrett replaced Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Barrett is one of the three anti-abortion justices appointed to the high court by former President Trump, whose stated goal was to overturn Roe. Barrett, an outspoken anti-abortion proponent who has received widespread praise from anti-abortion groups and organizations, makes the Supreme Court a securely anti-abortion majority. For example, when asked about the future of abortion access in 2016, Barrett replied, “I think the question of whether people can get very late-term abortions, how many restrictions can be put on clinics — I think that would change.”

And that’s just what is on the line in Dobbs v. Jackson Health Organization. In 2018, Mississippi legislators passed a bill that would ban abortion at 15 weeks of gestation, except in rare cases of severe fetal abnormality or medical emergency. The law was struck down by lower courts. As Mississippi only has one abortion clinic, women already face many obstacles in obtaining timely care. The women of Mississippi are not the only ones whose reproductive rights are in danger.

The Supreme Court has long established that it is unconstitutional to impose a pre-viability abortion ban. Viability is around 24-26 weeks of gestation, but even then the Court has acknowledged that each specific pregnancy necessitates its own medical determination. If the court rules that a state may ban abortion at 15 weeks, it will be overturning much of the precedent of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that itself is based on the established constitutional right to privacy. With countless burdensome obstacles, like the religiously-rooted Hyde Amendment and TRAP laws that target clinics and care providers, women’s constitutional right to an abortion may be gradually erased.

As Nancy Northup of the Center for Reproductive Rights notes, “The consequences of a Roe reversal would be devastating. Over 20 states would prohibit abortion outright. Eleven states — including Mississippi — currently have trigger bans on the books which would instantaneously ban abortion if Roe is overturned.”

Abortion access and care is unnecessarily divisive due to the ideological motivations of the few. In fact, a new Pew study found that the majority of Americans believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Additionally, 82 percent of religiously unaffiliated people support legal abortions. Beyond public opinion, there is no science that supports abortion restrictions or bans. Evidence-based research has shown that abortions are safe and effective and that serious complications are extremely rare — less than 1 percent. Rather, studies have shown that women are about 14 times more likely to die as a result of childbirth and pregnancy than from an abortion. There is simply no governmental interest or business in obstructing abortion care. The only organized opposition to abortion is religious in nature.

The Supreme Court is expected to hear the case in the beginning of October with a decision to likely come by June 2022.

As we anxiously await this verdict, we must take swift action to ensure that reproductive rights are protected by encouraging legislators to pass the EACH Act, which would reverse the draconian Hyde Amendment and guarantee abortion coverage in federal health insurance programs. This Christian nationalist campaign to dismantle abortion care in the United States also signals an urgent need for court reform.

The future of abortion rights in the United States hangs in the balance and our secular activism is needed more than ever.