FFRF welcomes 28 new Life, After-Life Members

FRF is proud to announce and recognize our 25 newest Life Members, two After-Life Members and five Immortals.

The two After-Life Members are Brooke Adams and Zef Fessenden. After-Life Membership is a tongue-in-cheek donation category of $5,000 for those who want their donation to “live on” after them. 

FFRF’s newest Life members are: Marvin Brodie, Stephen Bartlett, George J. Clark, Barrie Fairley, Jesse Forjan, Anthony Herman, Jere Hinman, Theo Kahle, David Kronen, Daniel R. Landry, David Larson, Chuck Maurer, John P. Musselman, Kristin Pedersen, Gareth Richards, Mark Rosenberg, Udo Schmidt-Sinns, Karen Shallcross, Don Smith, Sharon Stanley, Everett L. Vincent, Bill Wasinger, Wynn Wasinger, David Weitman and Stephen Zenker.

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

States represented are Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Iowa, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, North Carolina, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Washington and Wisconsin.

The latest Immortals are Jehnana Balzer, Thomas Good, Leon and Kate Krier, and Douglas Reynolds.

The Immortals category is 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!

Congratulations to Kai Bird for winning FFRF’s caption contest from the January/February issue.

The winning caption is: None of it was true. I had my fingers crossed the whole time.

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

• Walking on water was nothing. Watch me smoke this invisible joint, then juggle this single ball!
Jim Luke

• Got a cigarette? ­— John Alexandr

• If you turn this globe over and shake it there will be snow. If you shake it just right, there will be wine.
Mike Wortz

• Auctioneer Jesus: “Do I hear three shekels for this beautiful orb?”
Julie Fausette

Thanks to all who participated.

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

Da Vinci’s Salvatore Mundi

Head’s Up poetry column: Maxims for Diverse Occasions

A Poetry Column By Philip Appleman

Bedeviled by malaise and moral cancers,

Everyone is hot for easy answers:

What this country needs, before cremation,

Is two cents’ worth of Instant Meditation.

So, little rhymes, go spread your moral jargon:

Wisdom’s rare, but preaching is a bargain.

Education

Education is whatever you cannot forget:

Answers are easy, questions are always a threat.

Ignorance hurts, in surgeons and taxi drivers.

When truths drop dead, paradox whips the survivors.

Religion

Creeds are easier to learn than unlearn:

Fanatics end with sainthood or with sunburn.

Theology’s the sport of the upper classes.

Masses are the opiate of the masses.

Art

Art is what’s left if you burn away the fact:

A poem, like prayer, is an unnatural act.

Brick is forever, marble is frightfully fickle.

Without symbolism, two dimes would buy a nickel.

Style

Style is what keeps bread from being cake:

Hamburger is the very quintessence of steak.

Strong views, like strong eggs, need a pinch of salt.

Mold is an accident, Roquefort is somebody’s fault.

Civilization

Civilizations depend on garbage men:

Progress can turn a lake into a fen.

To own a tree is shameless imprudence.

Good fences always make good arguments.

Platitudes come easy, silence hard.

Advice is always simple to discard.

So go, little rhymes, but don’t be in a hurry:

When chaos whispers, men say, “What, me worry?”

Most prefer hot cures to cool prevention.

Wisdom shrugs when no one pays attention.

From Karma, Dharma, Pudding & Pie

© Philip Appleman.

Philip Appleman is a Dis­tinguished Pro­fessor Emeri­tus at In­dia­na Uni­ver­si­ty. He is editor of the Norton Critical Edition of Darwin. He and his playwright wife, Marjorie Appleman, are both “After-Life” Members of FFRF. Phil’s books: ffrf.org/shop.

Freethought Today website launches

(Editor’s note: Obviously, since you are reading this on the Freethought Today website, you are aware of this.) 

FFRF is excited to announce it has launched a new website for those who want to read Freethought Today on their mobile devices or computers.

FreethoughtToday.com includes all of the great articles, columns, legal news and other content you see in the print edition.

As an FFRF member, you are given access to all the content for free; just log in and browse away!

The new site has been built with responsive design to work on all of your handheld digital devices, as well as desktop computers and laptops. Give it a look!

But FFRF has more than just a new website to keep you informed about the latest in state-church separation and news about freethinking.

Read blogs from several of FFRF’s staffers on a variety of topics at the Patheos website. Go to patheos.com/blogs/freethoughtnow.

FFRF continues its weekly “Freethought Radio” show and its new weekly TV show, “Freethought Matters.”

Plus, there is the weekly Facebook Live program called “FFRF’s Ask an Atheist!” and shorter quick hits of news in our News Bites programming. You can access them all on FFRF’s YouTube channel.

Colin McNamara: Preparing to deal with judges can be trying

Photo by Shutterstock

Back in mid-November, when I first received a state-church complaint about a judge from a mostly rural county in eastern Tennessee, I confess that I didn’t exactly jump for joy that I’d been tasked with “setting him straight.”

The complainant reported that this judge, who presides over juvenile delinquency cases, was also regularly teaching bible classes at the county’s juvenile detention facility. The county only has two juvenile court judges, meaning that a child sentenced to juvie on a Monday could hear “the Good News” the following Sunday from the very same judge who put him there.

As a lawyer who’s done a smattering of juvenile defense practice in my nascent career, I know that it’s very rare for a child to have only one hearing before a juvenile court judge. Rather, they often have to come before the bench time and again so the judge can evaluate their progress and adjust their sentence accordingly. You see, juvenile court judges are fundamentally different than your garden variety black robes. Their mission (at least in theory) is to reform, not to punish. To that end, they are given much broader discretion to craft sentences that serve “the best interests of the child.”

You see the problem here, right?

The complainant’s concern — which I fully shared — was that the kids in this juvenile detention facility would feel pressured to “play Christian” in order to curry favor with the judge. Children can’t be reasonably expected to distinguish between an authority figure acting in their personal vs. official capacity — there’s an entire line of Supreme Court cases striking down religious promotion by school teachers built on that very principle. At this exceptionally vulnerable point in their young lives, the judge is the apex authority figure to these kids. It can be said, without exaggeration, that he holds their futures in his hands.

I knew I had to tell him this was coercive; I knew I had to tell him this was unethical; I knew that someone had to tell him to stop, and that it would have to be me.

But I’ll level with you, dear reader: I really don’t like writing to judges. If you follow FFRF’s usual caseload, you know that half of the letters we send are to school district superintendents who are either completely ignorant of the law or just don’t give a damn, with their responses ranging from conciliatory to cold silence at either end of the spectrum. But when it comes to judges, three critical distinctions collude to make them particularly hot potatoes to handle:

1. It is literally their job to know and apply the law.

2. They have an image of themselves as fair and impartial arbiters of justice, and tend to not appreciate suggestions to the contrary.

3. They really don’t like it when lawyers try to upend the usual power dynamic and tell them what to do.

Suffice it to say that the responses we get from judges often veer on the, shall we say, pricklier side. So, when I found out (after a bit of digging) that this judge also happened to sit on the Board of Judicial Conduct, I set to work on the letter with all the urgency of a man preparing his last meal.

I spent two days twisting myself in knots over every comma, testing the patience of my colleague Sam Grover by asking him to review at least four different drafts. Finally, on Nov. 30, I sent it out — and patiently waited for the return volley. And waited . . . and waited. Silence.

After almost two months passed without a reply, I sent a follow-up letter. I’d begun to suspect that this judge, rather than choosing to spew venom at me for daring to question his ineffable grasp of both the Constitution and the rules of judicial ethics, had simply elected to give me the brush-off.

And then my phone rang.

Kristina, who helps field our incoming calls, told me that she had a gentleman from Tennessee on the line calling for Colin McNamara. Oh, wonderful, I thought. I guess smiting me in a letter wasn’t personal enough for him. I turned down the volume on the handset and readied myself for the tongue-lashing of a lifetime.

“Put him through.” Deep breath. “Good afternoon, this is Colin McNamara with the Freedom From Religion Foundation. How can I help you?”

A warm, rich voice with a pleasant touch of Tennessee twang came through the phone.

“Hi, Mr. McNamara. How are you today?”

Lead with a smile — follow with a switchblade. Here it comes . . .

“I’ve received your letter,  and I wanted to let you know that I thought you expressed yourself very well and had some very good thoughts. I’ve always been a great believer in separation of church and state, and I’ve even taught some constitutional law courses, so we probably have similar thoughts on many matters.”

Wait, what? Is this a trap?

“I just wanted to touch base with you, person to person, and let you know that it’s taken care of. Back when I first got your letter, I made a couple of calls to my church and others and let them know that, as far as any input from me goes in any of the [juvenile detention] services, I will no longer be doing that.”

Oh. Your. God.

“I think it’s important in handling any case — I’ve always thought this through all my years — that you don’t differentiate between people who may be atheist, may be of different religions — that those are not factors in making decisions.”

AMEN-er, sorry. Caught in the moment.

What followed was a pleasant conversation about his interest in the welfare of these troubled young people. He explained that there was a bit more to the story. It wasn’t just church services that he led, but also secular educational classes to make sure that these kids stayed up to date on their schooling. For the few minutes that we spoke, I got a fuller picture of this man — a good, kind-hearted, Southern gentleman who I sincerely believe really did want to see these kids succeed.

Nevertheless, he understood my concern that involving himself in the church services risked children feeling pressured into participation, so out of respect for their individual beliefs, he would no longer be a part of it. We exchanged a few laughs about “that disgrace we had down in Alabama” (his words, referring to Roy Moore — in case you couldn’t guess) and then we went our separate ways.

As any enthusiast of FFRF litigation knows, we are currently engaged in a lawsuit against Judge Wayne Mack, a Texas justice of the peace who just can’t help himself from foisting his Christian beliefs onto every soul who enters his courtroom. There are few things that inflame my ire more than seeing those who are granted the public’s trust abuse that power to strong-arm others into their religious beliefs. Religious bullying, especially from the bench, should turn the stomach of any liberty-loving American.

Oh, how I wish the Wayne Macks of the world would take a page out of this judge’s gospel.

Public officials are welcome to their religious beliefs and practices. They may pray to whomever or whatever they wish; they may burn their candles and drink their wine; they may believe in one god, 100 gods, or no god — “it neither picks my pocket, nor breaks my leg,” to quote the scholar of Monticello.

To every public servant out there, I say: Keep your religion and hold it close to your heart — it is yours to have and to hold, inviolate, forever. Our First Amendment secures your right to believe as stalwartly as my right not to believe. But recognize also that the machinery of government must be wielded responsibly. By virtue of your office, your actions carry an inherent risk of coercion that has to be rigorously managed to respect individual autonomy. When you allow your personal religious beliefs to bleed into your official actions, you strike a blow to the most sacrosanct of our basic freedoms: the freedom of conscience.

To those who get it, good on you. To those who don’t, shame on you. Looking at you, Judge Mack.

Colin E. McNamara is FFRF’s Robert G. Ingersoll Legal Fellow.

Meet a Member: Atheist ‘library lady’ speaks volumes

Name: Dianne M. Centa.

Where I live: Kent, Ohio, since 1973.

Where and when I was born: I was born in Wadsworth, Ohio, in 1946, and raised in Norton, Ohio.

Family: Mom and dad are deceased, as is my oldest brother. I have two younger brothers, two daughters (both Life Members of FFRF, as is my son-in-law), four grandchildren and a great-grandson.  I’ve been a widow for some years, so there is no husband in the picture.

Education: I attended the public schools in Norton, then went to college for two years at what is now called Ohio Dominican College. I eventually finished my bachelor’s degree at Kent State University in 1972. I’ve taken occasional classes since then, but, like all of us, I’ve learned a lot from life, too.

Occupation: I work at Kent State as a senior library associate. I like to say that I play with books for a living. I like it enough that I’ve been there for more than 40 years.

Military service: None. But I will mention that I was married to a GI and lived overseas with him for a year when he was stationed in Germany. Later, I was married to a decorated Marine Corps Vietnam veteran.  (One of those “mythical” atheists in a foxhole.) One learns a lot from those experiences!

How I got where I am today: I’d like to say that it was through hard work and perseverance and all those grand things, but I’m not sure that’s true. I’m an old civil servant who has gone through my share of life’s ups and downs — haven’t we all?

Looking at my college experience, I started out thinking that I’d major in biology. Well, through events, choices and probably natural inclination, I wandered off into being what I’ll call a generalist. I had to scramble during my last quarter to put together enough hours in one field (English) to actually receive my degree. Hence, the library career and lifelong love of learning. Another thing that has helped shape me is that I’ve taken advantage of many travel opportunities. It started with two trips sponsored by The Mother Earth News magazine. We went to China before it was open to regular tourism and then to Nepal to trek in the mountains. I’ve since traveled with the Kent State Geography Department to Cuba, India and Thailand. I often refer to myself as an opportunistic traveler because most of my ventures have been with groups that are interested in learning something, not just seeing the touristy sights. I’ve seen Iceland, Antarctica and the Galapagos. (OK, now I’m just bragging.) And I attend conferences across the nation (and beyond) sponsored by FFRF and other groups. 

Where I’m headed: A presidential answer: We’ll see.

Person in history I admire and why: So many worthy choices, but I’m going to go with Stephen Jay Gould. The columns he wrote over the years and collected into books expressed evolutionary ideas with a unique flair. He could begin with baseball or Hershey bars and lead us to further understanding of big ideas. (I say this despite his “non-overlapping magisteria” idea.)

A quotation I like: Again, too many choices! But I like this spoken by a character in Edward Abbey’s Fool’s Progress: “‘God,’ he would say, always putting the name in quotes, is a noise people make when they’re too tired to think anymore.”

But, as a traveler who also likes to be silly: “Confucius say, ‘Man who run through airport going to Bangkok.’” Even Freethought Today needs a bit of humor.

These are a few of my favorite things: Reading; puttering around in my little-bitty garden; Sudoku puzzles; pop TV shows like “NCIS New Orleans,” “Law and Order,” “Kal Penn’s The Big Picture,” “Tyson’s Star Talk”; craft beers; good wine; good food (especially “ethnic” foods).

These are not: Some small: Misuses of the language, e.g., putting a modifier with “unique,” or muddying a sentence by using “they” as a singular pronoun.

And dogs. Do you really have to bring them everywhere with you? Can’t they stay home while you buy a tomato at the market? (That’s not going to win me many friends!)

Some big: The enthusiastic embrace of ignorance by some religious believers and politicians.

The misunderstanding and characterization of liberals as, as . . . well, I can’t really get what “they” are saying.

My doubts about religion started: Pretty early on, including, ironically, during instruction allowing us to be confirmed in the Catholic Church.  Even though my parents* were not enthusiastically religious, I did go through a spasm of religiosity when I was in high school (even toying with the idea of becoming a nun!) and chose to attend a Catholic college. Catholic college might have been the beginning of the end. We had to take a theology class (which included proofs for the existence of God) and a course in logic. These two things do not go together! It was, however, not until a few years later that I reached that moment of clarity: Standing and reciting the Apostle’s Creed and realizing that I didn’t believe a word of it.

*A footnote about my parents, Mom particularly. I think I could sense her doubts early on even though she didn’t openly admit to being a nonbeliever until much later in life. She was in her 80s when she said, “It’s all bullshit, isn’t it?” (I could have used that as my favorite quote.)

Before I die: I hope to be around for the next total eclipse of the sun. The last one I tried to view was eclipsed by a thunderstorm.

Ways I promote freethought: I give money to several organizations which promote separation of state and church. I also had our FFRF signs put on the local buses in Portage County, Ohio.

There is the occasional letter to the editor; I sign mine, unlike commentators in the anonymous “Sound off” column. I reported a couple of violations, including writing directly to a local mayor, who seemed to respond favorably.

Another thing which is rather fun and informative (for me and others) is that I wear my irreverent T-shirts very often and very openly. I wear them to work; I wear them to the farmers’ market and other downtown events. This sparks conversations and, frequently, positive comments. I recently had a woman ask for a photo — she gave me a cookie in return. There is, of course, the occasional negative comment or stink-eye look, but still it raises awareness that we are here.

I strike out “God” on my money. A small, almost silly gesture, but I did have a cashier ask me about it when I mentioned it. I told her I did it because “In God WE trust” is a false statement.

As the “library lady,” I work with our liaison to the philosophy department. I feed him book reviews and suggestions; he is very good about purchasing books that help to add a nontheistic point of view to our collections. He even agreed to accept my donation of the complete backrun of Free Inquiry, plus an ongoing subscription. Since the library’s budget is limited, I also donate books that I purchase, sometimes from obscure authors like Dan Barker.

Life Member Dianne Centa, a longtime library associate in Kent, Ohio, enjoys wearing irreverent clothing, such as FFRF’s “Unabashed Atheist” T-shirt.

Ben Carson posts Facebook statement against FFRF

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson has recently posted a very revealing statement against FFRF.

Carson’s Facebook message deals with the federal lawsuit that FFRF and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) have filed over violations of the Freedom of Information Act involving Carson and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Our groups are suing over illegal denial of public information and fee waivers in two unrelated investigations.

On his Facebook page, Carson mockingly notes: “They are fearful that a hot beverage or a bagel may b

Ben Carson posted this image on Facebook.

e consumed at the expense of taxpayers, or that staff may be coerced to participate in religious activities against their will.”

Carson denies any coercion, adding that “taxpayer funds are not used to support the ministry, and secondly, no staff are involved in the bible study.” It is reasonable to ask why, if this is the case, Carson is denying FFRF public documents that would prove this. FFRF is simply engaging in due diligence under FOIA and has a right to public information.

Carson’s Facebook posting then continues: “More importantly, I refuse to be intimidated by anti-religious groups into relinquishing my spirituality or religious beliefs.”

Carson’s continues: “I will not stop being a Christian while in service to this country, in fact, it is my faith that helps me serve the nation even better. The relentless attacks on the spirituality of our nation must be resisted.”

Carson also accuses nontheists of a plot to “destroy morality” by keeping religion out of our secular government. Carson himself is being accused of using his governmental position for his son’s gain.

Related: FFRF sues Ben Carson’s Dept. of HUD

FFRF sues Ben Carson’s Dept. of HUD

Ben Carson, secretary of Housing and Urban Development, speaks with the press outside the White House recently. (Official White House Photo by Evan Walker)

FFRF is suing Secretary Ben Carson’s Department of Housing and Urban Development for dodging records requests relating to a White House bible study.

FFRF has teamed up with Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a government watchdog, to bring the federal suit.

It was filed Jan. 18 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The lawsuit alleges that HUD has a pattern and practice of denying fee waivers on Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests “where disclosure of the requested documents is likely to cast the agency or HUD Secretary Ben Carson in a negative light.”

According to reports, the Trump administration holds weekly bible study sessions at the White House. FFRF is seeking the records to determine whether or not the bible study uses government resources, whether staffers may feel coerced into organizing or even participating in the religious event, and to ascertain government access granted to Capitol Ministries, a group that seeks to evangelize elected officials.

The pious affair is apparently co-sponsored by Vice President Mike Pence. The list of bible study attendees includes officials whose appointments FFRF objected to because of their inability to keep their personal religion separate from their public office: Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, and, of course, Secretary Ben Carson, the neurosurgeon whom President Trump tapped to run Housing and Urban Development.

Every department that FFRF has requested records from has dragged its feet, but Carson and HUD have thrown up additional arbitrary and illegal barriers. When FFRF asked for the records in August, it requested, as is typical with 501(c)(3) groups, a fee waiver. HUD denied that fee waiver the day of the request because the records were allegedly not in the public interest. FFRF filed a lengthy appeal and HUD again refused the waiver because the records FFRF was seeking supposedly did not relate to HUD operations or activities.

“If this bible study is legal and aboveboard, as the Trump administration and Fox News have argued, what are they trying to hide by torpedoing the FOIA process?” asks FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.

FFRF’s Director of Strategic Response Andrew L. Seidel began looking into the bible study and the possible waste of government resources in early August. Seidel appeared on Fox & Friends to explain the concerns with the bible study.    

“We’re still waiting on records from all the various departments involved in this bible study, but HUD has been particularly secretive and obstinate,” says Seidel of the lawsuit.

The records are important because the pastor leading the bible study is an extremist with access to the highest levels of our government. According to reports: “the man leading these sessions, Ralph Drollinger of Capitol Ministries, is a conservative Christian who has called Catholicism the ‘world’s largest false religion,’ declared homosexuality an ‘abomination,’ and said it’s ‘sinful’ for women with children to serve in Congress.”

HUD also denied FFRF a fee waiver on a second request, filed in October, over Carson’s daily schedule and appearance at “Revive Us 2,” an event at the new Museum of the Bible. HUD refused the wavier the day after the FOIA request and denied FFRF’s appeal.

CREW’s fee waiver requests were also rejected. CREW sought a fee waiver and records, including emails, relating to the role Carson’s son and wife play in HUD, where they are “omnipresent” fixtures.  HUD denied another of CREW’s waivers, this time for records relating to Carson’s use of private planes to travel.

The allegations of this pattern and practice are topped off with other waiver denials HUD issued to ASPCA and Public Citizen, neither of which is a party to the lawsuit.

Related: Ben Carson posts Facebook statement against FFRF