FFRF lawsuit gets Puerto Rico to stop school prayer

A lawsuit by the Freedom From Religion Foundation has persuaded Puerto Rico’s education secretary and a proselytizing school principal there to halt unconstitutional school prayer.

FFRF had filed a federal court challenge in March against Secretary of Education Eligio Hernandez Perez and Principal Luz Ramos 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, had organized, led and coerced students to participate in mandatory 50-minute Christian prayer sessions on school property every other Monday during the school day. The prayers were broadcast over a microphone and speakers.

FFRF represented two of these children and their mother before 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. As a secular humanist, she “does not engage in prayer or believe in the power of prayer or . . . want to force any religious ideology” on her children, the legal complaint noted. When she objected to the religious practice, she was told if she removed her children from the prayer, they would be marked for cutting class, which could lower their grade point average. One child was told by a classmate, after a teacher outed the family as nonreligious, that “If you don’t believe in God, like your mother, you will go to hell.”

The plaintiffs sought an injunction prohibiting the defendants from continuing to schedule and host school 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.

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 had pointed out.

At a mediation session held on March 9, the defendants said they would immediately and permanently prohibit school-led prayers at Luis M. Santiago School and would undertake all reasonable efforts to ensure an academic school environment free from harassment of the students and their parents. They also consented to remove negative academic marks related to the plaintiff students’ nonparticipation in the prayer sessions.

And importantly, they indicated they would circulate a memorandum on the policy of nondiscrimination and nonsectarian education in public schools to Department of Education employees and conduct a training for all employees of the school regarding their constitutional obligations.

The plaintiffs and FFRF agreed that these actions would resolve the issues raised in their complaint and that upon completion of these actions by the defendants, the lawsuit would be dismissed. On Aug. 7, the court-appointed mediator declared that the mediation process had been completed to the satisfaction of all the parties involved.

This was FFRF’s first court challenge in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. FFRF thanks the brave family for coming forward to fight for freedom of conscience, Secular Humanists of Puerto Rico for its invaluable assistance and Attorney Cintron Garcia for representing the plaintiffs throughout the litigation and mediation process. Toa Baja is a suburb of San Juan with about 89,000 people.

The family brought this action under pseudonyms to protect the mother and her two minor children from social ostracism, retaliation and even physical harm. FFRF Attorneys Samuel Grover and Madeline Ziegler represented the Freedom From Religion Foundation, while local counsel Carlos A. Cintron Garcia represented Humanistas Seculares De Puerto Rico and the plaintiff family.

FFRF to challenge religious voter test

The late Roy Torcaso, an FFRF honorary director, won a unanimous Supreme Court decision in 1961 affirming the government may not impose a religious test.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation plans to file a federal lawsuit by October to challenge a religious test to register to vote that is unique to the state of Alabama. Alabama is the only state in the country requiring voters to register on a form that mandates that they swear “so help me God.”

In all other states, voters are provided a completely secular registration form or are not required to submit an oath or affirmation at all. FFRF expects to file on behalf of at least one Alabama resident and possibly others who have encountered this religious test when trying to register to vote. The defendant will be Alabama Secretary of State John H. Merrill.

The primary complainant, an atheist, has sought to register to vote in Alabama since November 2019, using a mail-in form downloaded from the secretary of state’s website. The bottom of the voter declaration section warns, “Read and sign under penalty of perjury,” and adds: “If you falsely sign this statement, you can be convicted and imprisoned for up to five years.” Voters submitting this registration form in Alabama must sign the voter declaration, beginning “I solemnly swear or affirm,” and concluding with “so help me God.”

The complainant contacted the secretary of state’s office to ask about the process to register to vote without swearing an oath reading, “so help me God.” The following day, the director of elections at that office informed the complainant that there was no legal mechanism for him to register to vote: “If you cross out a portion, the board of registrars in your county will reject the application and ask you to re-submit.”

The secretary of state maintains that the registration forms are “prescribed by statute” and “that any changes would require legislative action.” FFRF’s lawsuit will point out that the secretary of state has the authority to create and amend voter registration forms.

Government officials routinely allow attorneys, jurors, witnesses and many others who must take an oath to make a secular affirmation instead when they are unable to swear “so help me God” as a matter of conscience.

FFRF Attorney Chris Line previously sent a letter to the secretary of state, noting that any requirement for religious oaths violates the First Amendment of the Constitution, which bars religious tests. In Torcaso v. Watkins, the Supreme Court held that neither a state nor the federal government may force a person to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. “The prohibition on mandatory religious oaths is a well-settled issue,” Line added.

“The secretary of state has willfully excluded nontheist citizens from registering to vote,” says FFRF Senior Litigation Counsel Patrick Elliott, “and is coercing a statement of belief in a monotheistic god by requiring nontheists to swear a religious oath.”

Vote like your rights depend on it . . .

. . . because they do!

More than 98 percent of FFRF members are registered voters (see Page 3), something FFRF is very proud of! Nevertheless, in this unprecedented election year in the midst of a pandemic, FFRF urges you to make a voting plan.

Three-quarters of the nation can vote by mail. (Exceptions: As of press-time, if you live in New York, Indiana, Tennessee, South Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana or Texas, an excuse is required for absentee voting.)

Since there is great concern over delivery by the U.S. Postal Service, be sure to request your mail-in ballot now, if you have not done so. (If you live in Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Jersey. Vermont,Hawaii and D.C., registered voters should automatically receive a ballot by mail.)

Fill out and return your mail-in ballot at the earliest time permitted (and at least eight days before Nov. 3, to be sure your ball

Atheists vote

ot is received in time). Or hand-deliver it to an early polling site if permitted in your area. If you can’t vote by mail, or can’t vote early in your location, please put on that mask and vote in person on Nov. 3.

P.S. Encourage healthy young colleagues or family members to consider being a poll worker as there is a shortage this year due to COVID-19 concerns. It’s paid, may include bonus pay, takes an hour of training and will help ensure all votes count.

Check out rockthevote.org/how-to-vote/ for info on voting in your state and area.

Meet a member: Radiologist seeks to increase activism

Steve Solomon and his wife Pam take a break during the Climate March in St. Louis.
Steve and Pam Solomon hold signs at the March for Science.

Name: Steve Solomon.

Where I live: Wildwood, Mo.

Where and when I was born: Chicago, 1959.

Family: My wonderful wife Pam and three great kids, Mike (and wife Kelsy), Brad and Cindy.

Education: B.A. in biochemistry and molecular biology from the Integrated Science Program at Northwestern University. MD from University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine; Diagnostic Radiology Residency at Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology, Washington University.

Occupation: Radiologist.

How I got to where I am today: I grew up in a conservative Jewish family (medium “strength” Judaism, between Reform and Orthodox) on the north side of Chicago. I received an excellent early education in an enlightened Chicago public school during the Apollo era with a strong emphasis on math and science. It was there that my sense of awe and wonder of the cosmos was born along with my driving curiosity to understand it. After repeatedly finding answers in science and reality, religion faded from my mind. I was fascinated with the rapidly developing technology of that time, happily trading in my slide rule for a hand-held calculator and punch cards for a personal computer. I relished a good mystery, in fiction and in reality. I also loved the feeling I experienced when helping others. These factors led me to a career in medicine and, specifically, radiology, which combined cutting edge technology, image guided detective work, and helping patients. To date, I have had an enjoyable and rewarding 35-year career in radiology.

Where I’m headed: My medical career has occupied the lion’s share of my time, but it has been impossible to ignore disturbing changes in our country. The growing denial of science, experts and reality and the ever-increasing encroachment of religion on our secular government at all levels, especially in my Bible Belt surroundings. I became progressively alarmed by the lack of action on global warming, the anti-vax movement, and the scarcity of science-based governmental policies, to name but a few. When I could, I marched for science, climate action and justice, reproductive rights, and other important issues. I wrote letters and emails to elected officials and called their offices. As I wind down my radiology career over the next several years, I plan to dedicate much more time to activism for all the humanistic, state/church separation, and science/reality-based issues that are important to me. This includes in-person lobbying, penning letters to editors, and running for office, such as the local school board.

Person in history I most admire and why: Carl Sagan. Not only was he an accomplished scientist in many disciplines, including astronomy, astrophysics, cosmology, and astrobiology, and a respected author, he was also the first, best science communicator I had encountered. He argued the now accepted hypothesis that the high surface temperature on Venus was due to the greenhouse effect and made known the implications for our fossil-fueled “Pale Blue Dot.” His book, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, was my primer for critical and skeptical thinking and holds up well to this day. He narrated and co-wrote the award-winning 1980s television series “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage,” the most widely watched series in the history of American public television, introducing the joy and wonder of science to hundreds of millions of people around the world. If it’s one thing that has become abundantly clear to me, our shared acceptance and understanding of science is necessary for our future survival.

A quotation I like: “There is no God, and that’s the simple truth. If every trace of any single religion were wiped out and nothing were passed on, it would never be created exactly that way again. There might be some other nonsense in its place, but not that exact nonsense. If all of science were wiped out, it would still be true and someone would find a way to figure it all out again.” — Penn Jillette

Things I like: Humanism, science, music, exercising, reading (especially science fact, science fiction and fantasy), electric cars, renewable energy, my solar panels, and a good bourbon or single malt scotch.

Things I smite: Anything that tears away at the wall between state and church, “religious freedom” (in the backward perverted sense that my religion is free to trump your rights), racism, gender discrimination, loss of body autonomy, science denial.

My doubts about religion started: My doubt began in Hebrew school. As was the norm in the time and place I grew up, all Jewish children attended Hebrew school to learn about Judaism and to prepare for an eventual Bar or Bat Mitzvah. In my case, that was a wonderful mistake. Four days a week after school during fifth through eighth grade, I spent two additional hours in a “wholly” untenable reality which started me on my path to becoming a first-generation freethinker.

Before I die: There are places I’ve wanted to travel to and haven’t yet, although I’m limiting their number to reduce my carbon footprint. New Zealand is high on my list, along with the Galápagos Islands. I’d love to see a glacier while they still exist. I aim to learn a new language and the culture of the people that speak it. I especially yearn to catch up on my ever-enlarging Kindle library!

Ways I promote freethought: I am an After-Life and Immortal member of FFRF as well as a Missouri State Representative and belong to and support many other organizations that promote science, rationality and state/church separation. When asked, I admit to being an atheist and am always willing to engage in conversation about my beliefs or lack thereof. In my conversations and social media posts, I promote science, critical thinking, secularism and the simple truth that you can be good without a god.

2020 membership survey results: Who are FFRF members?

Based on FFRF’s survey, it seems most FFRF members are as excited to be members as Don Ardell was at the 2017 national convention in Madison, Wis. FFRF has a 98 percent satisfaction rate among it members! (Photo by Ingrid Laas)

We asked you, our 32,000 current members of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, more about you, and you answered — more than 12,000 of you, which is an amazing response. (A standard response rate is 10-15 percent.)

Want to know more about yourselves? Here’s the scoop: The typical FFRF member is a retired, married man and self-described atheist, with a four-year college degree who left Protestantism because “religion doesn’t make sense,” and is a first-generation freethinker. The typical member has spoken out about state/church entanglements and speaks out freely about his lack of religion.

The typical FFRF’er is most likely 50 or up, with an average age of 64.7. In fact, 83 percent of FFRF members are 60 or older, with those in the 70-79 age range the most popular age bracket at 28.36 percent (compared to 28.29 percent who are 60-69). In tandem with these age brackets, 61 percent are retired or semi-retired.

Seventy percent of you are male, 29 percent female and the rest non-binary or preferred not to say. Ninety-five percent of respondents identify as white, a reason why FFRF’s board has embarked on a concerted diversity/inclusion plan. Only 10 percent have a child or children under the age of 18 in their household.

FFRF’ers are an educated bunch, with 80 percent having at least one four-year degree (compared to 34 percent of the general population), 25 percent a Master’s degree or multiple Master’s degrees (compared to 13 percent of the U.S. population), and 17 percent with a J.D., Ph.D., or M.D./VET/DDS-DMD.

Twenty-one percent are retired U.S. military, compared to 8 percent of the general population. Eighteen percent are in the teaching profession or retired from it, compared to 2 percent of the general population currently teaching.

FFRF members, when asked “Which single term best describes your nonreligious views,” chose “atheist,” with 70 percent so identifying, followed by humanist at 9 percent, freethinker at 8.9 percent and agnostic at 7 percent (with a smattering of “other”).

Three-quarters identify as a first-generation freethinker, 19 percent as second generation, and only 4 percent third-generation.

Almost 12 percent consider yourselves to be part of the LGBTQ community, compared to 4.5 percent in the general population.

Slightly more than half indicate “My spouse/companion is also a nonbeliever,” 24 percent agreed “Most of my immediate family members are also nonreligious,” and 42 percent with “Most of my child(ren) are nonbelievers.”

But your responses also told a story of the continuing lack of acceptance for nonbelievers in the United States, with more than a quarter “wary of letting others know I reject religion,” 21 percent who “feel like the only ‘infidel’ in my area,” and 22 percent experiencing social stigma or other reprisal as a nonbeliever.

The upset question was: “Do you live with a cat or dog?” Those with dogs (35.6 percent) slightly outnumbered those with cats (32 percent) but the “no pet” category won overall (39 percent). (Forty-four percent of Americans in general have a dog and 29 percent have a cat.)

The number of vegetarians or vegans continues to climb in FFRF, to almost 13 percent compared to about 4 percent of the general population. More than 33 percent of you engage in regular volunteer work, higher than the average 25 percent generally.

We found that 43 percent of you have been members for at least 2-5 years; in fact, 75 percent have been members at least that long including 20 percent for 6-10 years.

And we were very pleased that 60 percent of you rate your overall satisfaction with FFRF as “very satisfied” and 38 percent as “satisfied” (that’s a 98 percent satisfaction rate!).

We’re still going through the optional comments left by more than 4,000 of you with great interest and analyzing your responses over in-house items.

“And something that makes FFRF very proud is that 98 percent of our members are registered voters, thus confirming our slogan: We’re secular and we vote!” says Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president and co-founder.

Thank you, dear members, for telling us more about yourself and for completing the section on your views on the other timely matters of our day. (See story this page on secular voters.)

FFRF’s poll: ‘We are the real values voters’

What do nonreligious American voters want?

The Freedom From Religion Foundation just released a major new secular poll of nearly 12,000 registered voters who are atheists or agnostics (and members of FFRF), which provides a fascinating profile of American nonbelievers and their views on the major social issues of the day.

Major surveys consistently show that 26 percent of the adult population are either atheists, agnostics or identify as “Nones,” having no religious identification, a demographic that now outnumbers Catholics (at 20 percent), once the single-largest religious denomination.

“We Nones — religiously unaffiliated adults in America — are now the largest ‘denomination’ by religious identification,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Yet most candidates and media outlets focus their time on traditional religious groups, and ignore this major demographic. We’re releasing this voter poll so that our views will be heard, too.”

Fully 98 percent of the respondents are registered voters, 70 percent identify as atheist, 9 percent as humanist or freethinker, and 7 percent as agnostic (with 4 percent preferring another term).

The data show with startling clarity that nonbelievers embrace a humanistic social policy in vastly higher numbers than the general U.S. population, e.g., are ahead of the curve when it comes to social progress.

Their support for women’s rights, reproductive rights and LGBTQ rights is overwhelming, as well as death with dignity rights:

• 99 percent support women’s rights (compared to 79 percent of all adults).

• 98 percent or more support legal abortion and Roe v. Wade (compared to 75 percent of all Americans).

• 98 percent support marriage equality (compared to 61 percent of all Americans) as well as civil rights in general for the LGBTQ community (compared to nearly 70 percent of all Americans).

• 98 percent support the right to die with dignity (compared to 78 percent of Americans).

Nonreligious voters in far greater numbers support policies like gun control, police/prison reform, universal health care and free college:

• 95 percent support police/prison reform (compared to 69 percent of all Americans).

• 94 percent support universal health care coverage (compared to 66 percent of all Americans).

• 94 percent support “rational gun control” (compared to approximately 60 percent of all Americans).

Nontheists also show far more support than the general population for some hotly debated reform, such as:

• 84 percent support reduced or free public college tuition (with 11 percent undecided and only 6 percent opposing) compared to 58 percent of all Americans

• 70 percent support a guaranteed minimum income, while 54 percent of Americans as a whole oppose it.

• 84 percent of secular voters support universal vote by mail, compared to 69 percent of all Americans.

• Over half oppose the death penalty (with 17 percent undecided, and 15 percent supporting it) compared to 39 percent of all Americans who oppose capital punishment.

The disparities continue on the hot button topic of racial justice:

• 95 percent of secular voters believe racial and ethnic discrimination is a big problem in the United States (compared to approximately 76 percent of Americans).

• 45 percent support reparations for slavery (a plurality of seculars, with 31 percent undecided) compared to only one in five Americans overall.

One of the greatest disparities between nonbelieving Americans and Americans in general is found in the response on statehood for the District of Columbia:

• 77 percent of those in the survey support statehood for the District of Columbia (with 17 percent undecided) compared to only 29 percent of all Americans.

• A higher percentage of atheist/agnostic voters also supports statehood for Puerto Rico: 75 percent, compared to 66 percent of all Americans.

Some other results are not surprising, coming from a minority sector that is particularly supportive of the separation between state and church:

• 98 percent support public education and 94.5 percent oppose tax vouchers to public schools.

• 98 percent of secular voters believe “churches should play by the same rules as secular organization.”

• 97 percent believe humans are causing climate change (compared to 50 percent to 71 percent of all Americans, depending on polls) and 90 percent of secular voters believe religious denial is harming response to fight climate change.

• 93 percent believe asylum seekers and immigrants should not be banned based on religion (up-to-date comparison data was not available).

• 93 percent oppose churches receiving COVID-19 bailout money. (Maybe it’s surprising it wasn’t 100 percent!)

• 68 percent believe “Congress should take action, such as by enlarging the U.S. Supreme Court, to correct the blocking of Judge Merrick Garland’s Supreme Court nomination in 2016 (with 23 percent undecided).  (No comparison data available.)

These secular voters put their money where their mouths are, with 49 percent financially supporting civil rights and/or racial justice-equality organizations, 48 percent financially supporting reproductive rights, 52 percent supporting environmental issues and 50 percent charities to help the needy. About a third financially support women’s rights organizations, animal rights, education and the arts.

Overwhelming numbers support legislative initiatives such as the proposed Scientific Integrity Act (99 percent) and repealing or amending the Religious Freedom Restoration Act or other bills making Christians and religious Americans a favored class (96 percent). Secular voters also overwhelmingly support requiring religious organizations to follow the same financial disclosure requirements as secular organizations (99 percent), to pass the No Ban Act barring religious discrimination in immigration (93 percent), and to create secular parity in addiction recovery programs (95 percent).

More than half identify their political voting pattern as Democratic, 17 percent as progressive and 16 percent as independent (with 1 percent Libertarian, 1 percent Republican and 3 percent Socialist).

They also overwhelmingly have written and emailed their elected officials (77 percent) and more than a third have protested at a rally or picketed.

“Overall, nonbelievers are obviously caring, compassionate, involved and engaged individuals,” notes Dan Barker, FFRF co-president, “who clearly recognize that this world is what matters. Not believing in a god doesn’t mean you don’t believe in values. We are the real values voters.”

From June through August 2020, FFRF surveyed its 32,000 current members, with 12,290 total respondents participating across the nation. The social policy questions were answered by 11,904 of the overall respondents. Since the last membership survey in 2015 (with 8,000 responses), FFRF found that the numbers of registered voters in its ranks grew from 96 to 98 percent (which compares to 79 percent of all Americans).

FFRF is a nonpartisan educational nonprofit that does not endorse candidates for office.

(For documentation on general population polls, see FFRF’s online news releases and analyses about the secular voter poll at ffrf.org/news.)

Caption contest winner announced!

Congratulations to Joe Barcroft of Missouri for winning the September caption contest. Joe wins an FFRF T-shirt.

The winning entry is: . . . and they will know we are Christians by our love.

Runners-up are: Give Jesus your best shot. — Joe Hardesty

Yes, we welcome adherents of America’s two most powerful religions! — Michael Skolochenko

Relocate the “R” in “range” and you have “INDOOR ANGER.” — Darrell Barker

Also, there were numerous entries for “Praise the Lord and pass the

Caption contest

ammunition.”

Thanks to all who sent in captions. If you’ve taken any photos that you think would be good for this contest, please email them to [email protected].


Regarding the caption contest photo, FFRF received this note from Terry Sunday of El Paso:

“A couple of years ago, when I applied for a Concealed Handgun Carry License, I had to take the practical shooting part of the state-mandated test on this very range. If you think the signs on the outside of the building are bad, the inside was worse. There were crosses, religious murals, bible verses, statues and other Christian paraphernalia on the walls, at the checkout counter, all around the store and everywhere I looked. Simply being in such a place gave me the willies. I had to buy an annual pass just so I could use the range one time for the test. I hated to give them a penny, but I had no choice if I wanted my license. Needless to say, I’ve never been back.”

In memoriam: Educator Otto Link dies at 91

Otto Link

Longtime FFRF Life Member Otto Paul Link died at his assisted living facility in Palo Alto, Calif., on May 9 at the age of 91.

Otto was born in St. Paul on June 12, 1928, to Otto Link and Julia (Pfeiffer) Link. Otto was the youngest of five children.

Otto played baseball and the trumpet and performed in small dance groups.

Otto worked several jobs as a youth, carrying ice at age 13, working in a refrigerator factory, and at Swift’s packing-house with his father. He put himself through college at the University of Minnesota by working as a mail sorter in the Minneapolis Post Office, where he met his lifelong friend Elmer Zoff. Both were avid freethinkers.

Otto graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in education and later a master’s degree in elementary reading. At the university, Otto met his future wife of 67 years, Jeanette (Weiss) Link. Otto taught fourth and fifth grade in the Minneapolis Public School system, and in summer school taught profoundly deaf children to read.

He later held positions as vice principal and principal in the Minneapolis public schools. As a vice principal in the 1970s, Otto was instrumental in the historic desegregation efforts integrating Hale and Field schools.

He retired from the Minneapolis Public School system after over 30 years of dedicated service, focusing on the importance of early literacy for children.

Otto enjoyed boating, canoeing, motorcycle riding, reading, reading to his children, dinner parties with friends, working on his home in Brooklyn Center, family trips by car and coaching baseball.

Otto was a member of the ACLU, Freedom From Religion Foundation and the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis. He enjoyed repairing almost anything, camping, current events, and debating with others.

A lifelong learner and a history buff, Otto was intrigued by words and language and always had a dictionary nearby. After Jeanette broke her hip in 2017, she and Otto left their Brooklyn Center, Minn., home of 63 years and moved to an assisted living facility in Palo Alto to be near their son.

Otto was a freethinker, humanist, feminist, educator, civil rights advocate and lovingly dedicated to his family.

Otto is survived by his wife Jeanette Frances Link, son John Otto Link, daughter Barbra Frances Link, daughter-in-law Sophia Green, son-in-law Patrick Selmi, grandson Benjamin Link Selmi and his sister Jewel Ecklund.

Heads Up poetry column: Ars Poetica

ARS POETICA

Think of it, nine thousand

breakfasts together, and now

coffee again for the first time: what

a virginal movement it is, this

silvering together, every day

the very first day, every night

the first night, not a film replayed, more

like pages in a long book, strata

in these limestone hills we live in,

two billion years old.

We’re not yet as old as the limestone,

but we’re catching up—or rather,

reducing the proportion, like a kid brother

gaining on his elders; we’re gaining

on the limestone and

beginning to see

it’s an art, like Cellini’s, this

silvering—like poetry, reminding us

in its earnest, nagging way,

that every new minute we risk

immortality, surviving

for nine thousand days by luck or cunning;

but at the end we’re sent to press

with all our typos intact, fossils, captive

in the ancient rock. Meanwhile,

we’re all such fumblers, gauche,

all thumbs: maybe

poems and marriages deal

mostly in failures—on the way to shape,

nine thousand blemishes hitching a ride. Maybe

only a poem or a silver bowl

will tell us as well as love: that

these are the only raw

materials we have—the painful

moments of wonder,

the small, well-meant betrayals, rain

in the limestone hills.

Well, we’re not finished yet;

the revisions are still in process, a line here,

a day there, the whole thing

taking on a kind of polished

mutilation, a scarred silver florin,

a weathered hill,

an epic fragment.

There’s time yet to get it—not right,

of course, but anyway revised,

emended, more mature

in its lumpy way. Think of it,

two billion years of shaping:

it’s a beginning.

In the News (October 2020)

Congressional Freethought Caucus

Rep. Rashid Tlaib joins Freethought Caucus

Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, a first-term representative and Muslim, has joined the Congressional Freethought Caucus.

The Freethought Caucus was formed in 2018 by Rep. Jared Huffman, who is the only openly non-religious member of Congress, and Rep. Jamie Raskin. It now has 13 members:

Rep. Sean Casten, D-Ill.

Rep. Steve Cohen., D-Tenn.

Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif.

Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash.

Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif.

Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Calif.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C.

Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis.

Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich.

Rep. Susan Wild, D-Pa.

The Freethought Caucus “promotes public policy formed on the basis of reason, science, and moral values; protects the secular character of our government by adhering to the strict Constitutional principle of the separation of church and state; opposes discrimination against atheists, agnostics, humanists, seekers, religious and nonreligious persons, and to champion the value of freedom of thought and conscience worldwide; and provides a forum for members of Congress to discuss their moral frameworks, ethical values, and personal religious journeys.”

Nigerian atheist, arrested for blasphemy, is missing

Mubarak Bala, head of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, was seized by the police and has disappeared in custody.

On April 25, he logged on to Facebook and typed a post calling the Prophet Muhammad a terrorist.

Three days later, he was arrested by the state police after being accused of violating anti-blasphemy laws, which can carry a death sentence. He has not been seen since.

“We are concerned that he may be prosecuted under anti-blasphemy laws that provide for capital punishment in Nigeria,” wrote a group of U.N. experts who have called for his release.

Other nonbelievers are worried that other Nigerian atheists will be prosecuted and that more arrests may be coming.

FFRF is urging the Nigerian authorities to release Bala and has contacted the Trump administration to do the utmost to ensure Bala’s well-being.

Nigerian teen gets 10 years for blasphemy

Omar Farouq, a 13-year-old boy, was convicted of blasphemy in a Sharia court in Nigeria and sentenced to 10 years in prison in September.

Farouq was accused of using “foul language” toward Allah in an argument with a friend. He was sentenced on Aug. 10 by the same court that recently sentenced Yahaya Sharif-Aminu to death for blaspheming Prophet Mohammed, according to lawyers.

Farouq’s punishment is in violation of the African Charter of the Rights and Welfare of a Child and the Nigerian constitution, said his counsel Kola Alapinni, who told CNN they filed an appeal on his behalf on Sept. 7.

NYC banquet halls host large Jewish weddings

Three banquet halls in Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood hosted Hasidic Jewish wedding parties less than a week after Mayor Bill de Blasio warned that a similar gathering there led to an increase in coronavirus cases, the Washington Post reported. Celebrations were witnessed involving as many as 200 people at three different sites along a 10-block stretch.

At Torah Vyriah and Ateres Chaya, the windows were covered with paper to prevent anyone from looking in, but witnesses saw dozens of people getting out of cars and entering through side or rear doors.

Study: Nonbelievers more likely to sleep better

A new study shows that Americans who don’t believe in God are more likely to get the recommended amount of sleep each night than those who do believe in God.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends seven to nine  hours of sleep a night.

In the journal Sleep, it says, “The psychology of religion literature indicates that religious engagement is beneficial to physical and mental health,” the study’s authors wrote. They anticipated that this might be reflected in better sleep.

The co-authors surveyed 1,501 participants in the Baylor Religion Survey on how many hours they slept each night and how easy they found it to go to sleep. Contrary to expectations, they found 73 percent of atheists and agnostics usually got the recommended sleep quotient. By contrast, only 65 percent of people who considered themselves religious got the same. The figure was just 55 percent for Baptists.

Medically assisted death can proceed, court rules

On Sept. 9, a Nova Scotia Court of Appeal judge denied a request to shelve a lower court decision that effectively allows a man to go ahead with a medically assisted death, in spite of his longtime wife’s efforts to stop him.

The 83-year-old man from Bridgewater, Nova Scotia, was approved for medical assistance in dying (MAID) earlier this year, but his wife of 48 years filed for an injunction with the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia, forcing him to cancel his plans.

The wife threatened to sue health-care providers who help her husband access a medically assisted death. She has also expressed a religious opposition to MAID.

The husband says he’s suffering and near the end of his life because of advanced chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), but his wife says his wish to die is not based on physical illness, but rather anxiety and mental delusions.

Sudan government agrees to state-church separation

Sudan’s transitional government agreed to separate religion from the state, ending 30 years of Islamic rule, according to a report on Bloomberg.com.

Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and Abdel-Aziz al-Hilu, a leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North, signed a declaration on Sept. 3 adopting the principle.

“For Sudan to become a democratic country where the rights of all citizens are enshrined, the constitution should be based on the principle of ‘separation of religion and state,’ in the absence of which the right to self-determination must be respected,” the document states.

Charlie Hebdo terror trial under way in Paris

Fourteen people have gone on trial in Paris over their alleged involvement in the deadly terrorist attack, which began in the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, and ended at a supermarket two days later.

The suspects are accused of having provided logistical support to the perpetrators — brothers Said and Chérif Kouachi, and their accomplice Amedy Coulibaly — and face charges of participating in a terrorist criminal association.

Charlie Hebdo was targeted over the magazine’s publication, in 2006, of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. Depictions of Islam’s prophet are considered blasphemous by many Muslims. At the beginning of the trial in September, the magazine republished the same cartoons about the Prophet Muhammad.

Eleven of the suspects will appear in court — 10 of them from behind bulletproof glass. Three others, who traveled to Syria in the days before the attacks began, will be tried in absentia.

A total of 17 people were killed in the attacks, which took place in the French capital over three days in January 2015. Twelve of those who died were shot in the Charlie Hebdo building.

N.C. county won’t say pledge at meetings

The Orange County (N.C) Board of Commissioners voted on Sept. 1 against a resolution to open its meetings by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

The board voted 5-2 against a resolution proposed by Commissioner Earl McKee, according to Chapelboro.com. McKee brought forth the resolution as the result of a petition that pushed for the pledge to be recited, which circulated around Orange County earlier this year.

Several of the commissioners said the manner it was brought forth to the board, by a county resident who described himself as a “nationalist,” felt like a move to shame the county officials for not regularly reciting it.

Chair of the Board Penny Rich said she has not said the Pledge of Allegiance for years, citing the addition of “under God” in the 1950s as a lack of separation between church and state.