Letterbox (December 2017)

Taking your bumper sticker to the next level

Your bumper stickers have inspired me to take it to the next level. I had a graphics shop print up some colorful “poop” emojis to get people’s attention and then I put some thought-provoking sayings on my back window that get changed out monthly! Keep up the good work at FFRF!
Dan Vogel
Wisconsin

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A secular invocation for FFRF members

Here is a variation on your fine idea of secular invocations. This isn’t for the general public or your Nothing Fails Like Prayer competition, but for us, the members of FFRF.

Nonbelievers Invocation

“Let us bow our heads today to no gods or goddesses. Instead, let us look to ourselves and each other for the courage to continue advocating for the cause of reason in this world, where oppression and intolerance still hold sway over the fearful and superstitious. Let us also be kind in our efforts to educate and lighten, and not succumb to the misguided practices of the Religious Right. For though the price of intellectual liberty, to echo Jefferson, may be eternal vigilance, it needn’t be righteous or rude. And finally, whatever the outcome of our efforts, know that our work will be taken up tomorrow by those we reached today.”

John Pidgeon, Wisconsin

 

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Freethought Today like an amazing dinner party

I love you guys! Reading the paper is like going to an amazing dinner party, making friends, making discoveries. Good on you!

Dierdre Petree, Washington

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Nonbelief Relief gives aid without expectation

I am donating $1,000 to FFRF’s Nonbelief Relief fund.

I’m glad to hear that the aid is given without any expectations from the organization — secular giving makes sense. “Quid pro quo” gifts don’t pass the test of “gift.”

Wayne Varner, Minnesota

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FFRF must press ahead with defense of freedom

The possible ascension of Roy Moore to the Senate is a bellwether of things to come. His avowed aim to reform society by coercion is well known; and impeachment of the five Supreme Court justices who made same-sex marriage legal is high on his to-do list.

My purpose here is to encourage your continued zealous defense of church-state separation. In these times, it is destined to fail, but that effort must be driven forward, and to alert as many people as possible to the crucial issue. Other groups like the ACLU, Americans United and Interfaith Alliance have only a sense of the magnitude of the disaster at hand. They are confident in their ability to stem the tide of the assault on liberty facing us. But reason is a weak weapon in the face of inflamed passions. Even if its opponents have no real argument, it doesn’t get a hearing.

The disrupter-in-chief, and others like Steve Bannon or Richard Spencer, will foment such disorder. The time for pussy-footing is rapidly disappearing. We need not fear the future, but must press ahead with the defense of freedom.

Richard Burns, Tennessee

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Geese are proof of being good without God

It was nice to read the student essays on the subject of “Being Good Without God” in the October issue. But I have conclusive proof that one can indeed be good without God. My home is on a large corner lot at an intersection. Often, flocks of geese fly over the neighborhood. One morning, as I looked out my patio doors, I saw a large flock of geese flying over the area. Suddenly, one goose dropped from the flock and onto my front yard, and lay dead on the lawn. In a couple minutes, the entire flock landed on my yard and formed a large circle around the dead goose. Why had they done that? Obviously, they wanted to protect their fallen partner who had collapsed on the lawn. Now that was one of the kindest and best acts I had seen, but I am sure there was no God in their goose brains that urged them to land and perform that act. Isn’t that conclusive evidence that one can be good without God?

Ted Utchen, Illinois

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I’m taking a knee next time prayer is given

I’m taking a knee, thanks to Colin Kaepernick and all those who bravely kneel during the national anthem to protest injustice. I now have a wonderful alternative to standing mute at holiday family dinners and special occasions when prayer is launched. In some cases, it’s often not as much about summoning God as it is about humiliating me.

From now on, I’m following suit and will take a knee on behalf of all those suffering injustice in the name of religion. And should I ever get the opportunity to lead the ritual, here it is: Dear God, we give thanks this day for giving us brains, which, when applied, we find that you are a myth, amen.

Dennis Coyier, Wisconsin

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Movie gives false impression of Vatican II

The movie “Novitiate” got great reviews and one side of my family line is Catholic, so I went to see it.

The acting, scripting, directing and photography are all top notch, but the movie tells a great lie when it presents The Vatican II manifesto as a change toward tolerance of other religions and human behavior.

In real life, the Catholic Church teaches that if Catholics do not marry Catholics, their children will be nothing.

In Ontario, the Catholic separate school system, which is subsidized with government money, was deemed unfair in an official United Nations report.

Everywhere I have worked, the Catholic Church has run employment subscriptions lists and manipulated law enforcement agencies.

In practice, the Vatican II manifesto is really an edict for hiding the old ways, while continuing to practice them with better public relations and more unsuspecting victims.

Charlie McKay, Ontario, Canada

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Convention was great; CD a fun companion   

Thanks for a wonderful convention. I have been to four national conventions of atheists, but this was the best of all. I loved hearing the stories of your victories against people who put up religious symbols in public places. I love your headquarters, too!

Thanks to all the staff of FFRF.

To Dan Barker: We have your CD, “Beware of Dogma,” of songs that make sense and the War Prayer by Mark Twain and the so-true song by Philip Appleman about how ridiculous the story of Noah’s ark is. We have it in our car and listen to it two or three times a month while stuck in traffic.

Ann Morris-Cockrell, Colorado

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Texas GOP’s manifesto full of ignorance, hate

It is incumbent to confront ignorance, intolerance and dishonesty. The following 12 claims and proposals are taken directly from the Texas Republican manifesto:

• The U.S. Constitution is based on the bible.

• Separation of church and state is a constitutional myth.

• There is a God-given right to carry a firearm.

• Religious liberty laws should overrule public accommodation laws.

• Implementation of foreign law should be prohibited.

• Only Christian observances should be public holidays.

• Climate change is a political agenda promoted to control Americans’ lives.

• There is a right to produce and sell raw milk.

• Homosexual couples do not constitute a family.

• Bathroom use should correspond to biological sex.

• Texas should refuse to enforce all laws that permit abortion.

• Women who have abortions should be criminally prosecuted.

Each of these dozen assertions is false, irresponsible, illegal, prejudicial, hateful or laughable. They represent Republican “alternative facts” and “post-truth.”

Brian Bolton, Texas

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We should all work to normalize word ‘atheist’

John Morgan’s letter urging us to reject the word “atheist” and define ourselves as rationalists or naturalists is too politically correct.

“Atheist” only means that we have no theology. The “negative light” comes from those who think that their own theology has some kind of lock on morality.

To surrender “atheist” to that opinion is to accept their claim that theology is necessary for morality.

Theists have no qualms about engaging in in-your-face evangelism. I have no qualms about letting them know, in equally blunt terms, that I am an atheist, and will not be persuaded by anything less than credible, objective evidence.

Instead of hiding from the word “atheist,” we should be working toward normalizing it.

Lee Helms, Michigan

FFRF welcomes 42 Lifers, 4 Immortals, 1 After-Lifer

FFRF is excited and proud to announce its 45 new Lifetime Members, one new After-Lifer and four Immortals.

Alfred Johnson is our newest After-Life Member, a tongue-in-cheek donation category of $5,000 for those who want their donation to “live on” after them.

Our newest Life Members are: Anonymous, Richard Andersen, Cyndi Barthel, Elliott Berenson, Anne Brading, Robert Butler, Becky Carpenter, Matt Carpenter, Fred Drennan, James Farrar, Melissa Geiger, Brad Gelineau, Ori Gottlieb, Robert C. Hailey, Eric Hall, Carlos Hernandez-Torres, Vincel Jenkins, Karl Johnson, Brian Kalman, Stephen King, Stephen Magowan, John La Marre, Rodney Miller, Marilyn Morgan, Stefanie Moritz, Ann Morris-Cockrell, Nikki Nash, Marilyn Nienkerk, Peter Nothnagle, Marc Orenberg, Gregory Page, Robert Poeschel, Nancy Saeger, Ron Saeger, Mel Schehlein, Dorothy Sedley, Debra Spear, Kenneth Veto, David Weitman, Audrey Wennink, Ted Warne and Jeffry Wujek.

Individual Lifetime Memberships are $1,000, designated as membership or membership renewal, and are deductible for income-tax purposes. 

States represented are: Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, Maine, Minnesota, North Carolina, North Dakota, Nebraska, New Mexico, Nevada, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Washington and Wisconsin.

Jeffrey Davies Bricker, Judi and Howard Frinstein, and Betty S. Waterhouse are our latest Immortals, a donation designation for those members who have contacted FFRF to report they have made provisions for FFRF in their estate planning.

Caption contest winner (December 2017)

Congratulations to Joe Todaro for winning FFRF’s caption contest from the November issue.

The winning caption is: “It looks like our prayers have been answered.

The top runners-up, in no particular order, are:

• I pity the poor bastard who had to deliver the eulogy. — Wayne Stafford

• This is why we haven’t heard from God in 2,000 years. — Robert Kerr

And these two, which are similar:

• So, Nietzsche was right! — Tom Drolsum

• I always thought that Nietzsche quote was metaphorical. — Jacob Dowd

Thanks to all who participated. We will have another contest in an upcoming issue. If you have any non-copyright-protected images (most likely that you took yourself) that you think would be good for a caption contest, please send them to [email protected].

Illustration by Kati Treu

Head’s Up poetry column: God’s Grandeur

God’s Grandeur

By Philip Appleman

“God will laugh at the trial of the innocent.”

-Job, 9:23

When they hunger and thirst, and I send down a famine,

When they pray for the sun, and I drown them with rain,

And they beg me for reasons, my only reply is:

I never apologize, never explain.

When the Angel of Death is black wind around them

And children are dying in terrible pain,

Then they burn little candles in churches, but still

I never apologize, never explain.

When the Christians kill Jews, and Jews kill the Muslims,

And Muslims kill writers they think are profane,

They clamor for peace, or for reasons, at least,

But I never apologize, never explain.

When they wail about murder and torture and rape,

When unlucky Abel complains about Cain,

And they ask me just why I had planned it like this,

I never apologize, never explain.

Of course, if they’re smart, they can figure it out—

The best of all reasons is perfectly plain.

It’s because I just happen to like it this way—

So I never apologize, never explain.

From Karma, Dharma, Pudding & Pie

© Philip Appleman.

This poem has been set to music by Dan Barker. The song is available on FFRF’s CD, “Beware of Dogma,” available at ffrf.org/shop.

Philip Appleman is a Dis­tinguished Pro­fessor Emeri­tus at In­dia­na Uni­ver­si­ty. He is editor of the Norton Critical Edition of Darwin. His published volumes of poetry include New and Selected Poems: (1956-1996), Perfidious Proverbs and Other Poems: A Satirical Look at the Bible (2012), Darwin’s Ark (new 2009 edition) and Karma, Dharma, Pudding & Pie (2009). His newest book is The Labyrinth: God, Darwin and the Meaning of Life. He and his playwright wife, Marjorie Appleman, are both “After-Life” Members of FFRF. Phil’s books: ffrf.org/shop.

FFRF files brief against baker

FFRF has filed an amicus brief in the famous case currently before the U.S. Supreme Court about whether a baker can refuse a cake to a gay couple.

Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission seeks to radically redefine “religious freedom” as the right to impose one’s religious beliefs on others. Commercial businesses seeking exemptions from anti-discrimination laws are a prime example of this alarming argument. A Colorado baker refused to bake a cake for a gay marriage, contending his rights under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment let his place of public accommodation discriminate against gay customers.

The Supreme Court has historically rejected free exercise challenges to neutral laws that regulate action, especially actions that harm other citizens.

There is no logical or practical way to draw a line between religiously motivated racial discrimination and racial discrimination motivated by nonreligious beliefs.

The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment does not mean that anyone with a religious objection be permitted to disregard this religiously neutral anti-discrimination law.

Elevating religion and actions based on religious beliefs above the law by granting them exemptions to general and neutrally applicable laws will create chaos and have far-reaching effects, FFRF maintains.

Discrimination against atheists will increase. The bakery admits that its owner refuses to design custom cakes that “promote atheism,” along with those that promote “racism, or indecency.” Given that the company regards selling any wedding cake to a gay couple as “promoting gay marriage,” it’s easy to see how a desire not to “promote atheism” might similarly result in a refusal of service based on a customer’s atheism.

FFRF’s interest in this case arises from the fact that most of its members are atheists or nonbelievers, as are the members of the public it serves

FFRF’s Managing Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert is the Counsel of Record on the brief, with principal writing by FFRF Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell.

Judge orders Lehigh County to abandon seal

A federal judge has ordered a Pennsylvania county to get rid of its seal that prominently features a Latin cross. The order follows up on a major court victory the FFRF obtained against Lehigh County in September.

“The Lehigh County seal adopted by the Lehigh County Board of Commissioners on Dec. 28, 1944, and all subsequent adaptations and versions of it that are currently being used or displayed and that feature the Latin cross (collectively the ‘Lehigh County Seal’) violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution,” says the order issued by U.S. District Judge Edward G. Smith.

In his decision, the judge noted that the Christian cross, which both parties agree is “the pre-eminent symbol of Christianity,” dwarfs other symbols on the seal and therefore shows unconstitutional county endorsement of a particular religion.

The seal is on documents, letterhead, many official county forms and reports, the county’s website, in a display in the Board of Commissioners meeting room and even on flags displayed prominently at the entrance of county buildings.

The board adopted the imagery that appears on the seal in 1944. Allentown, the third-largest city in Pennsylvania, is located in Lehigh County, with a population of about 350,000.

Smith prohibited any use or display of the seal by Lehigh County after 180 days. However, the 180-day timeline will not start until any appeal by the county has concluded.

The judge also awarded nominal damages to each plaintiff in the amount of $1. During the appeal, the county is prohibited from implementing any new uses of the seal beyond those that are currently being practiced.

The litigation is being handled by Marcus B. Schneider of Pittsburgh, with assistance from FFRF Staff Attorneys Patrick Elliott and Elizabeth Cavell.

FFRF thanks its four local plaintiffs who made possible the lawsuit: John Berry, Stephen Meholic, David Simpson, and Candace Winkler.

School board prayer case enters a new stage

FFRF’s lawsuit against the Chino Valley Unified School District board for regularly praying is entering a new stage.

On Nov. 8, the case was heard before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Pasadena, Calif. FFRF is asking the appeals court to sustain a lower court ruling in its favor.

A district court in February 2016 granted summary judgment in favor of FFRF and its 22 plaintiffs, declaring the school board’s prayer an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion. The decision also ruled that the school board policy and custom of reciting prayers, bible readings and proselytizing violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. After FFRF’s victory, the school board voted to appeal the decision in a controversial 3-2 vote at a contentious meeting.

Chino Valley board meetings feature adults — board members, staff or clergy, nearly always Christian — delivering a prayer.

For example, board member James Na told the audience at one meeting that “God appointed us to be here.” Another board member, Andrew Cruz, told the audience at a meeting that the board had a goal: “And that one goal is under God, Jesus Christ.” Cruz then read from the bible, Psalm 143:8.

The school board argues that it is similar to a legislative board, invoking two decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court that permit, under narrow circumstances, governmental prayer. But, FFRF contends in its brief, “The meetings of the school board can only be seen as school functions.”

FFRF asserts that the board’s conduct clearly violates the Constitution — and that the judicial system will concur.

“We hope the 9th Circuit will agree with our contentions,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Public school boards can’t engage in such outrageously religious behavior and get away with it.”

David Kaloyanides is representing FFRF and the individual plaintiffs. The judges are Circuit Judges Stephen Reinhardt and Kim Wardlaw as well as Judge Wiley Daniel, a senior district judge of the U.S. District Court for Colorado.

Judge should ‘nullify’ housing allowance

After FFRF’s historic victory against the clergy housing tax allowance, the judge’s next move is eagerly awaited. U.S. District Judge Barbara B. Crabb, who in October ruled the clergy privilege unconstitutional, now must decide how to implement her ruling.

Crabb, seated in the Western District of Wisconsin, ruled in favor of a tax-code challenge by FFRF, saying it demonstrates “a preference for ministers over secular employees.”

In a fascinating twist, both FFRF and the government are urging Crabb to nullify this provision, rather than extend the benefits to others.

That provision, enacted in 1954 to reward “ministers of the gospel” for carrying on “a courageous fight against [a godless and anti-religious world movement],” permits churches to pay ministers with a “housing allowance.” The unique allowance is not a tax deduction but an exemption, allowing clergy to subtract major portions of their salaries from taxable income.

While ruling in FFRF’s favor, Crabb left open the remedy, giving FFRF, the U.S. government and religious intervenors the opportunity to file supplemental briefs.

The options include an injunction requiring the IRS to extend the benefits to FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor, who have been designated a housing allowance by FFRF, or to nullify the entire statute. The IRS has denied the pair a housing allowance. FFRF argues that allowing clergy this benefit while denying it to similarly situated heads of a nonreligious group is discriminatory.

FFRF is asking Crabb to prospectively nullify the statute, to order the IRS to refund the plaintiffs’ housing allowance and to award plaintiffs legal costs. Nullifying the law would mean that Section 107(2) could no longer be used to provide favorable tax treatment to clergy and churches.

This is FFRF’s second time in front of Crabb over this particular inequity in the tax code. Crabb ruled in FFRF’s favor in 2014, creating near hysteria by the clerical press.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, however, ruled that Gaylor and Barker lacked standing to sue because they had failed to apply for a refund.

FFRF to hoist flag in New Hampshire to protest religious display

FFRF is expected to raise a first-of-its-kind flag — honoring atheism and freethought — to protest a New Hampshire town’s Ten Commandments display.

FFRF will sponsor the raising of an “A” flag in Somersworth, N.H. The flag will be up in the “Citizen’s Place” traffic island Jan. 2 through January to honor freethinkers. It was supposed to fly in December, but the city has postponed the date.

This year, the city installed two flagpoles near a contentious Ten Commandments monument at the traffic island for community groups to celebrate events. The addition of something other than a Judeo-Christian symbol is an attempted gesture by the city to get around legal precedent against stand-alone Ten Commandments markers on public property.

Two City Council members rightly objected to the entire concept.

“This plot of land can’t truly be a place for all citizens as long as it exclusively focuses on a religion not shared by all citizens,” Jessica Paradis said. “That is why we have laws that are supposed to separate church and state.”

Jennifer Soldati reinforced her fellow council member’s assertion.

“The optics of that little traffic island when you drive through now, especially since we have flagpoles, are further poking the eye of the Constitution,” Soldati said. “According to eight out of 10 court decisions, it does promote Christianity and it is in violation of the Constitution.”

FFRF agrees with the council members’ eloquent reasoning and has asked for several years that the Ten Commandments monument be removed. Meanwhile, FFRF wants to even it out with a freethought perspective.

“We believe the town needs to ‘honor thy First Amendment,’” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “With such a religious shrine glaringly on display, we have to present our viewpoint.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation

FFRF gets legal backing in Florida cross case

This 34-foot tall cross sits in Bayview Park, a public park, in Pensacola, Fla.

FFRF’s legal action to remove an unconstitutional and massive Christian cross from a Florida city park has received a major boost.

More than a dozen organizations have filed an amicus brief in support of FFRF’s lawsuit to remove a 34-foot Latin cross towering over Pensacola’s Bayview Park. Americans United for Separation of Church and State is the main group writing the brief, with 13 other organizations joining in, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Anti-Defamation League, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, the Center for Inquiry, Muslim Advocates and the Sikh Coalition.

On the opposing side, 14 states previously filed a friend of the court brief siding with the city of Pensacola in its appeal to keep the Bayview Park cross. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi joined 13 other state attorneys general in signing on to a brief written by Alabama Attorney General Steven Marshall’s office.

FFRF and the American Humanist Association earned a major legal victory this past summer when Senior U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson ruled that “the Bayview Cross can no longer stand as a permanent fixture on city-owned property.” Vinson ordered the cross removed within a month.

Regrettably, the city appealed the case to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. FFRF and AHA and their co-plaintiffs in November filed an appeals brief asking the appeals court to affirm the lower court’s decision. The  amicus brief — and the heft of the 14 other organizations behind it — greatly bolsters the secular case with its persuasive arguments.

“When government displays a towering symbol of one religion on public land, it communicates an impermissible message of favoritism and exclusion that stigmatizes nonadherents while also demeaning the faith of many adherents,” the brief states.

The brief powerfully lists the many problems with the cross.

“The official display of the Latin cross — the pre-eminent symbol of Christianity — sends divisive and harmful messages that are directly contrary to this fundamental objective: It tells members of other religions, or of no religion, that they are excluded, second-class citizens,” it says. “It co-opts the Latin cross’s spiritual content for governmental purposes, offending many Christians. And it divides communities along religious lines.”

It compellingly concludes, “The judgment here is thus not only doctrinally compelled but also historically justified and critically important to prevent religiously based civil strife that would intrude on our fundamental commitment to religious freedom for all.”

The other groups signing on to the brief are: the ACLU of Florida, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, the Jewish Social Policy Action Network, the National Council of Jewish Women, the Union for Reform Judaism, and Women of Reform Judaism.

The plaintiffs in the case are Amanda Kondrat’yev, Andreiy Kondrat’yev, David Suhor and Andre Ryland. The case was brought by both FFRF and AHA, and handled by FFRF staff attorneys Rebecca Markert and Madeline Ziegler and AHA’s senior counsel Monica Miller and legal director David Niose.