Ex-Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards to speak at FFRF’s convention

Cecile Richards
Ensaf Haider

Cecile Richards, the longtime president of Planned Parenthood who recently stepped down, has agreed to speak at FFRF’s 41st annual convention in San Francisco, which runs Nov. 2-4.

Richards will receive FFRF’s “Forward” award, recognizing work to move society forward.

She is a national leader for women’s rights and social and economic justice, and the author of the New York Times bestseller, Make Trouble. As president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America and Planned Parenthood Action Fund for more than a decade, Richards has worked to increase affordable access to reproductive health care and to build a healthier and safer world for women and young people.

After starting her career as a labor organizer, working with women earning the minimum wage, she went on to start her own grassroots organizations, and later served as deputy chief of staff to House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. In 2011 and 2012, Richards was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World.

Other featured honorees and speakers at FFRF’s annual gathering include eminent writer Salman Rushdie, television host Adam Savage, actor John de Lancie (of “Star Trek” fame), ex-Muslims of North America co-founder Sarah Haider, irreverent actress Julia Sweeney and stand-up comedian Leihann Lord.

Also appearing at the convention will be Ensaf Haidar, the activist wife of a Saudi freethinker whose persecution has caused global outrage.

For the supposed crime of “apostasy,” Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was shockingly sentenced in 2013 to 600 lashes and seven years in prison, which was unbelievably increased to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison the following year (along with a hefty accompanying fine). Haidar, his wife, will receive the third annual Henry Zumach Freedom From Religious Fundamentalism Award of $10,000.

Shortly before Badawi was jailed, Haidar fled with their children to Quebec, where she was granted political asylum. Haidar has become a secular activist in her own right, establishing the Raif Badawi Foundation for Freedom to spread progressive values in the Middle East and working tirelessly for Badawi’s release.

Badawi’s real “crime” seems to have been his attempt to engender social discussion on the intrusive role of religion, the clerical establishment and the moral police in Saudi society. “Raif Badawi’s trial for ‘apostasy’ is a clear case of intimidation against him and others who seek to engage in open debates about the issues that Saudi Arabians face in their daily lives,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s director for the Middle East and North Africa.

Badawi was subjected to 50 lashes in 2015. A global movement sprang up in his defense, which, thankfully, made the Saudi government pause. But Badawi is still in prison — and reportedly in deteriorating health.

Badawi (often along with Haidar) has been given several international honors, including the prestigious Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, awarded by the European Union. Badawi’s writings have been collected in a book that serves to inspire all of us. The work is evocatively titled, 1000 Lashes: Because I Say What I Think.

“Freedom of speech is the air that any thinker breathes; it’s the fuel that ignites the fire of an intellectual’s thoughts,” Badawi has said.

Raif Badawi is a secular icon, and Ensaf Haidar is an international freedom fighter. FFRF is pleased to be honoring them at its get-together in San Francisco.

Convention registration is only $60 per member, $65 per companion, $110 non-member, and free for students and children. Sign up for the discounted package that includes the two group meals on Saturday and save $20.

The convention is being held at the downtown Hyatt Regency, 5 Embarcadero Center, which has the world’s biggest hotel lobby and rooms featuring floor-to-ceiling windows. Rooms can be reserved for Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights at $235 plus tax. Phone directly to make your reservations: 1-888-421-1442 and use the code “Freedom From Religion Foundation.” Or go online at ffrf.org/convention2018 for full convention information or reserve hotel rooms directly at bit.ly/FFRF2018. Don’t delay, as rooms are going fast!

Photos and cartoons from May 2018

Check out the lively ‘Freethought Matters’ TV show

Larry Shapiro, left, professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, was a recent guest on FFRF’s TV program, “Freethought Matters.” Hosting the show are FFRF Co-Presidents Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker. (Photo by Chris Line)

If you haven’t had a chance yet, check out FFRF’s new television program, “Freethought Matters.” The half-hour show has a talk-show format and includes notable freethinkers from around the country and world.

It airs Sunday nights at 11 p.m. in Madison, Wis., on CBS affiliate Channel 3. But if you’re like most of FFRF’s members and don’t live in the Madison area, the shows are available to watch free on FFRF’s YouTube channel (youtube.com/ffrforg) after broadcasting.

You can also watch FFRF’s other video offerings on that channel, including the weekly “Ask an Atheist” and “Newsbite.”

The first “Freethought Matters” show aired Jan. 7 with hosts Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF’s co-presidents.

“We consider ‘Freethought Matters’ partly as an antidote to the Sunday morning church hour,” Gaylor says. “But, mostly, we want to acquaint the community with the range of fascinating nonreligious authors and activists.”

The guests have included heavyweights such as Harvard evolutionary psychologist and bestselling author Steven Pinker, FFRF’s honorary president; the New York Times’ newest columnist Michelle Goldberg; comedian Julia Sweeney; Iranian-born secular London-based activist Maryam Namazie. Other guests have included science journalist and Los Angeles-based TV host Cara Santa Maria; well-known atheist blogger Greta Christina of San Francisco; renowned sculptor Zenos Frudakis and American Indian composer Brent Michael Davids.

The debut guest was Chris Johnson, a photojournalist who produced the book, A Better Life: 100 Atheists Speak Out on Joy & Meaning in a World Without God, with a film version of the same name.

The director of the program is FFRF Videographer Bruce Johnson and the producer is FFRF Communications Coordinator Lauryn Seering.

FFRF extends thanks for camera help to FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line, and pinch-hitters Marian Herzog, Mike Remington, Mike Foley and Veronica Plum, Monica Schwartz and Kristina Daleiden.

Jibon Ahmed: After deadly attack, fear still consumes me

Jibon Ahmed stands at the site where militants killed Avijit Roy and attacked Avijit’s wife, Bonya Ahmed, on Feb. 26, 2015. (Photo by Kamran Reza Chowdhury)
Jibon Ahmed (Submitted photo)

Jibon Ahmed is a photojournalist who helped atheist blogger and activist Avijit Roy and Bonya Ahmed get to a hospital after the machete attack that killed Roy in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 2015. This column has been translated from Bengali. Nonbelief Relief has offered Jibon a stipend.

By Jibon Ahmed

Three years have gone by with little notice. During these years, I have spent many sleepless, terror-filled nights. This fear will chase me around as long as I live. I do not wish this day to occur in anybody’s life. Every day, fear chases me. Before this, I never had a fear of death — ever.

To this day, it appears often before me like a movie. When this fear wakes me up at midnight, I wonder about what I am seeing in front of my eyes. I cannot hide. It is as if I still feel the warm brain of a dying man on my palms. Then I cannot control myself. I had never experienced such a brutal scene before.

Nobody was with me. Everybody left me. I understood, in this big city, if you are in danger, nobody stands by you. I cannot ever forget this memory.

It was 8:30 p.m. on Feb. 26, 2015. At that time, I worked for the photo agency Banglar Chokhe. After the day’s work, I was relaxing and conversing with friends at a tea stall situated just next to the entrance gate where a book fair is held.

Suddenly, a woman’s intense scream caught my attention. Through the bars of the fence, I saw a motorcycle lying on the road. A woman was lying right on the motorcycle with her head touching the ground. As soon as I saw this, I immediately came out of the enclosure. After getting through the main gate and proceeding a little further, I saw a congregation of people. When I pushed my way through the crowd, I saw the bloodied body of a man, wearing a red kurta, lying on the sidewalk. Blood was oozing out of his head and trickling down to the road.

I did not know what to do. I looked around and saw that the assembled people were looking at the scene silently. But they were not coming forward to help. There were few policemen there too, but they were also there as silent spectators.

I built up my courage and proceeded toward the woman who lay fallen on the road. I shook her shoulder a few times to get her up, but she was unconscious. She eventually responded, and looked at me with fearful eyes, imagining me as an attacker.

The woman had injuries on her head, with blood oozing out and streaking down to the corners of her two eyes. I became afraid looking at her eyes and took a few steps back. I cannot forget her terrible gaze. Then, the woman stood up and asked me what had happened there. Pointing with my fingers, I showed her the man lying on the sidewalk.

The woman cried out “Avi!” and embraced him. She kept saying, “Avi get up, nothing will happen to you. Avi, get up.” At some point, she stood up and raised her hands to plead with the assembled crowd for its help.

When the woman was crying for help, the people were stepping back. At that moment, I brought out my camera and took a picture of the bloodied couple. As nobody came forward, I pushed through the crowd to get a motorized vehicle. We put them in there with the help of one or two onlookers.

As we were traveling to the hospital, the woman, Bonya Ahmed, held the body of her husband. I sat holding Avijit’s head. His skull had been hacked by a machete, and I suddenly realized that parts of his brain had come out and were touching my palm. I moved my hand and pushed those parts inside.

By that time, my body was wet from the blood that drained from Avijit’s head. I didn’t know human blood could be so warm. I can feel that heat to this day.

As we proceeded from the incident site to the hospital, Bonya was afraid that I had kidnapped them. She was pleading with me to release them; in exchange she would provide as much money as I would demand. Raising my camera, I repeatedly tried to assure her that I was a photojournalist, but she did not believe me.

On our way, there was a police checkpoint where the traffic stopped. As soon as Bonya saw the police, she shouted for help saying that I had kidnapped them. I was afraid that I would be the victim of police harassment. To my surprise, I saw, behind us, a policeman on a motorcycle. This man was at the incident site and had seen the entire event. He signaled the check-point police to let us go and we arrived at the hospital.

Their treatment was arranged in the emergency ward of the Dhaka Medical College Hospital. My photojournalist friends called me to advise me that I shouldn’t have entangled myself in this incident. My job was to take pictures. Why did I get involved with this trouble? Even though I was a bit afraid after hearing this, my answer was that my first job was to take pictures, which I had done, but then I came forward to help them as a common man, forgetting that I was a journalist.

I cleaned my bloodied T-shirt in the hospital and went back to my office. There I saw their names — Avijit Roy and Bonya Ahmed — on TV. I did not know them before. My boss advised me to hide in a place away from Dhaka for a few days. I did not agree with him and left the office.

By this time, my photos had gone viral on social media. Hundreds of comments were pouring in that accused me of taking pictures instead of helping them. I was being criticized in the TV talk shows also. Meanwhile, the police interrogated me a few times.

Under pressure from my bosses, I had to leave my job. They told me that they were not going to be responsible for my life. After Bonya got better, she told the investigating authorities that I had played no part in the incident, rather I had saved them that day. Still, nobody from the government contacted me.

Our first identity is that we are journalists. But we are also human beings. We have the sense of humanity and love for fellow humans. During our professional work, we encounter various incidents. Sometimes we have to risk our lives to do our job. Many times, notwithstanding our wishes, we cannot fulfill our humanitarian responsibility. This is because of some ethical rules that we need to follow. People still misunderstand us.

On that day, I helped the couple inspired by my humanitarian responsibility. I could have left the place after taking pictures, but my conscience would not let me do it. I did not know who they were, but I felt that I should step forward as a human being and that is what I did.

On Dhaka roads, many lie dead like Avijit, and nobody looks at them. We can understand, from this, how low our humanity and social responsibility have descended.

Meet a Staffer: FFRF’s IT director fosters positive tech experiences

James Phetteplace (Submitted photo)

Name: James Phetteplace.

Where and when I was born: Southern Wisconsin in 1971.

Education: Attended Ripon (Wis.) College, Madison Area Technical College, and University of Wisconsin-Madison; sociology. I have many certifications, including professional trainer, project management, Leadership for Inclusivity, and as a trauma-informed parenting instructor. I’m a lifelong learner!

Family: Wife (Tiffany) and one child.

How I came to work at FFRF: Previously I was the director of IT for the Willy Street Co-op in Madison, and was employed there for 11 years. After accomplishing many career milestones, I was ready for a new challenge! The most important aspect of the workplaces I choose is the mission and vision, and FFRF fit the bill for me.

What I do here: I am the director of IT, so it’s my duty to make sure that the technology needs of the organization are met.

What I like best about it: There are so many aspects of working for FFRF that I love. It’s hard to choose one! I would have to say it’s the people that I work with — they are kind, intelligent and very dedicated to the mission and vision of FFRF. I look forward to coming to work every day, which is such a privilege.

What gets old about it: Sometimes, in technology, you come across problems that are truly baffling! I enjoy being a problem-solver, but I get frustrated when I can’t immediately resolve an issue and it prevents a co-worker from getting their work done. I happen to be as tenacious as a bull terrier when faced with these challenges — I never give up.

I spend a lot of time thinking about: In the workplace, I spend a lot of time thinking about how I can make the experience of technology so excellent that my co-workers don’t even notice the tech. Additionally, I think about equity, diversity and inclusion in the workplace and have dedicated myself to that cause. This includes regular self-reflection about my own social identities and how it relates to others. I strive to become interculturally competent, and to deepen my skills with communication and adaptation, and to seek out (and value) difference. One of my social identities is as an atheist, and I use my experience of being considered “different” to better understand and empathize with those who have nondominant social identities.

I spend little if any time thinking about: Sports. Imagine that, a tech nerd who isn’t a sports fan.

My religious upbringing was: Messy. We were raised as Christians off and on. We attended some United Methodist and Catholic churches over the years.

My doubts about religion started: When I was 12. Up until the age of 12, I was a devout Christian. I have an all-or-nothing personality, and I was all-in with Jesus, even more so than my immediate family. I was also obsessed with science, particularly astrophysics (stars, black holes, galaxies, big bang theory, etc.) In sixth grade, I came across an anthology of Greek mythology, read it cover to cover, and I had an epiphany — no one could argue that Yahweh is any more “real” than Zeus, so I was free to make up my own mind on the matter! Immediately, all of the contradictions between religion and science evaporated. I didn’t have to tie myself in knots to reconcile faith and reason if I eliminated faith from the equation. Some months later, I was in the backseat of my parents’ car, and they asked me point blank: “James, do you believe (in God)?” I confidently said “No,” and that was the end of the conversation. I feel lucky that they accepted me in that moment, and didn’t try to indoctrinate me any further.

Things I like: My family and friends, traveling, hiking/camping, kayaking, creative writing, music, reading, technology and science.

Things I smite: Willful ignorance. Stereotypes. Inequality and injustice. Coconut flakes (literally).

In my golden years: I hope to travel a lot with my wife Tiffany. We have a long bucket list of places to see when we retire.

What is it like to be a foster/adoptive parent?: I added this question, as it comes up all the time! People tend to be very curious about our experience. It can be very rewarding, but it is a big sacrifice and it comes with many challenges. If anyone is considering becoming a foster parent, here’s my advice: Learn as much as you can about trauma and how it impacts children, and take your time exploring the possibility before you start the certification process.

John Compere: Clergy Project fills void after losing faith

The Clergy Project
John Compere (Submitted photo)

FFRF Member John Compere is a former member of the ministry who is now the vice president of the Clergy Project, a group “for current and former religious professionals without supernatural beliefs.”

By John Compere

couldn’t possibly identify the actual time when I became a believer.

I know that I went down to the front of the church when I was 8 or 9 years old to shake my father’s hand (he was the minister) and say I was giving my heart to Jesus, but that was just what I had learned I was supposed to do.

This was the moment when I supposedly became a Christian, a new person, a born-again believer. I was baptized soon thereafter by my minister father. But nothing really changed.

You see, religion was not just a part of my life in my family of origin. It WAS my life. Everything revolved around the church. I didn’t mind. It was all I knew.

I think I was 11 or 12 when I again made a trip down the church aisle to say that God had called me into ministry. I preached my first sermon when I was 15. It was on something like “God, Man, the Universe and the Meaning of Love,” a subject I, as a 15-year-old boy, knew a lot about!

People were kind and supportive and talked about what a wonderful representative of God I would turn out to be. But again, nothing changed.

I had imbibed deeply, from my earliest upbringing, in the notion, regularly pronounced in our home, that our only purpose for being in this world is to glorify God.

When I was ordained at age 18 while I was in college and began serving as pastor of a small rural church on the weekends, I was the fifth-generation Southern Baptist minister in my family. It was what I was “supposed” to do. As I wrote, I couldn’t possibly say exactly when I first began to believe in religion.

Doubts arise

But I know precisely when I first began to doubt. It was in my sophomore year in college. I had been asked to fill the pulpit in a large First Baptist church. The minister was a friend of my father. I got another student minister to go to my little country church for that Sunday so I could fill this “prestigious” pulpit at this big city church.

Before the service started, I was walking back and forth in the luxurious pastor’s study, going over the sermon I was to deliver. As I often did, I was practicing by saying the sermon out loud. I heard myself delivering a standard line about how “if anyone didn’t accept Jesus as savior, s/he was doomed to spend an eternity in hell.” Suddenly, out of the blue, it occurred to me, “Can that possibly be true? Are all the folks who were unfortunate enough to have been born in a non-Christian country (or family or area) simply destined to have to suffer torture forever?”

Oh my! I couldn’t let myself dwell on that at the moment. I had to go deliver my sermon.

But that night, as I was driving back to campus, the question returned. Don’t ask me why I had not ever asked that question before. I don’t know why I was so late asking such an obvious question.

Probably, as I said earlier, this was because religion was not just a way of life for me; it was my life!

In any event, I set out to try to find answers to this and other questions. I talked to my dad, to my religion professors, to my ministerial student friends. I got no satisfactory answers.

The essence of most of the answers I received was, “Doubt is natural, John. Go ahead and kick the rock. When you are finished kicking it, you’ll know it’s truly the Rock of Ages.”

But that didn’t turn out to be true for me. I kicked the rock, and I discovered it to be a huge pile of mythological mush!

Nevertheless, I continued on my predestined path as a young minister, serving two different rural churches while I was a college student. I even interrupted my studies to spend two stretches as a student missionary in Alaska (which was not yet a state, only a U.S. territory, in the 1950s), helping build church buildings in small Eskimo towns above the Arctic Circle.

While in seminary, I served as youth minister at the campus church and got to know my professors personally because their children were in my youth programs. I tried talking to many of them about my increasing doubts, without getting much help. I frankly think most of them were at least agnostics, if not closet atheists. But no one admitted it.

I often filled the pulpit at that campus church, which was very liberal for a Baptist church. At one point, I told the senior minister to please not ask me to fill the pulpit for a while.

The common phrase about effective sermons was to “preach from an overflowing cup.” I told the minister that if I preached at that time, I would only be banging an empty cup against the lectern. For sure, my cup was not overflowing!

After receiving my seminary degree, I served two different churches for a total of seven years. I continued my study of religion, and my doubts about its authenticity grew apace.

I concluded that if I continued in ministry, I would become like so many other well-educated clergy: publicly phony and privately cynical. Not a smart way to live out your life.

Kept nonbelief a secret

When I finally resigned my last church, I didn’t tell the congregation that I was no longer a believer. I thought that would be too cruel. I only told them that I was doing a lot of pastoral counseling and that I realized I needed to become a more effective change agent. And to do that, I was going back to graduate school to get an M.A. and Ph.D. in clinical psychology. That was the truth.

It just wasn’t the whole truth.

Five years later, at age 37, I had my doctorate in psychology and began teaching at Wake Forest University and Medical School, having a private clinical practice, and occasionally speaking on psychology you can use!  My years in the pulpit helped me turn that professional speaking into a full-time career.

I learned about FFRF long after I had left the ministry and joined as soon as I learned about it. That led to my being among the first 44 members accepted into The Clergy Project as it was formed on March 20, 2011. By then I was retired and had written a book about my deconversion, Outgrowing Religion: Why a Fifth-Generation Southern Baptist Minister Left God for Good.

The Clergy Project was the brainchild of FFRF Co-President Dan Barker and Richard Dawkins, along with help from Daniel C. Dennett and Linda LaScola. The Dawkins Foundation provided the money to get the project online, and FFRF took us under its wing until we became our own 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.

We are currently at around 850 participants, all of whom must be either currently a religious professional or a former religious professional. All must also have experienced their own deconversion, since we are not in the business of trying to get anyone to leave the faith or her/his ministry.

Approximately 25 percent of our applicants are still in active ministry when they apply to join The Clergy Project. Many of these participants find a way to leave ministry after becoming a part of The Clergy Project, so their membership status changes from “active” to “former.” The number of Clergy Project members who are still active as religious professionals is 146.

We conduct an extensive phone (or Skype) interview before admitting anyone to our group, specifically to be sure the person is or has been an actual religious professional, not just active like a deacon or Sunday school teacher. Plus, all applicants must be comfortable identifying themselves as no longer believing in the supernatural.

Difficulty of change

The difficulty of changing out of a ministerial career to a secular one can hardly be overstated, perhaps the most difficult career transition ever. Religious believers have a terribly difficult time with the fact that a trusted religious leader no longer believes.

So, former religious professionals often not only lose their jobs and salary; they often lose their marriage, their family, friends and community respect.

One of the few Muslim imams who applied for membership in The Clergy Project said, “If it were to become public knowledge that I no longer believed, I would not only lose my career; I’d lose my head — literally!”

Now about to complete the seventh year of our existence, The Clergy Project has participants from all 50 states plus Puerto Rico. Although most of our group lives in the United States, we have members from 42 different countries.

By far the majority are males (86 percent), but this is not the result of any discrimination on our part against female applicants. Rather, it is the result that most religious communities have restricted “ordained” religious professionals to males throughout the centuries.

The Clergy Project is an all-volunteer organization. We have no paid staff. In fact, many of us make a monthly financial contribution so we’ll have enough funds to keep our operation going. Plus, we are happy to receive donations from people (like members of FFRF) who support our work.

The Clergy Project’s mission is to “provide support, community and hope to those current and former religious professionals who no longer hold to supernatural beliefs.” We do not actively seek new members; rather we are there to respond to the needs of those who seek us out.

If you go online to read about The Clergy Project, you will find a post by the current president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Albert Mohler. The post is titled, “The Sad Charade of The Clergy Project.” In this post, he says, “The Clergy Project is a magnet for charlatans and cowards who, by their own admission, openly lie to their congregations, hide behind beliefs they do not hold, make common cause with atheists.” He then goes on to claim there are two kinds of doubt — faithful doubt and pernicious doubt, with faithful doubt leading to a deeper understanding of the truth, while pernicious doubt leads to, among other things, cynicism and despair.

It’s OK to doubt if . . .

In other words, it’s OK to doubt if you know where you’re going to come out before you begin questioning what you’ve been led to believe. That’s hardly a genuine freedom to question long-held assumptions. “Charlatans and cowards,” he says.

Compare that accusation to this heart-felt excerpt from the bio of one of our Clergy Project members, whose identity is not revealed for obvious reasons:

“All my life, I tried everything to get God to love me. I prayed, fasted, attended church, and continued to try to convince God I was worth loving. I became a Methodist clergy because I was very good at public speaking and wanted to help the poor. I still miss that. I went to seminary while my three sons were teenagers . . .

The day I was told I was accepted for ordination I thought I had achieved the pinnacle of all that I had wanted and spent 10 years working on. Now, at last, I would experience God in a way that would prove to me it was real.

“What happened blew my world apart. You see, I was ordained two weeks after my oldest son was killed in a car accident. I had asked to hold off and wait a year to be ordained, but I was told I’d have to rewrite all of my papers if I waited. There was no allowance or ‘grace’ made for me in my horrible situation. My spiritual beliefs and searching for proof of God exploded, and I was left with empty darkness. I was sitting on a pile of rubble that was my life. I did all that work and gave my life to a God I only wanted to love me, and this is how I was repaid? People said that God must have loved my son to take him that way. They said it was God’s will, and he needed another angel. I kept wishing God didn’t love him at all, and I’d still see his smile and feel his loving arms around me.

I left ministry for good after having served for five years. I loved my parishioners and in my last act of service, I stepped down and never returned to ministry. On top of that, my 15-year marriage ended. I filed bankruptcy and lost everything I owned. The one good thing? After having lost my son, losing everything else didn’t matter.

“As I wandered around lost, voicing my unbelief, I suffered extensive shunning. I felt I was crawling on the ground, bleeding, trying to find a place to voice all my doubt and pain. I cried a lot, watching people I loved step over me, as I hurt, and act like they never cared at all. My putting doubt into words terrified them.

“I am very happy today and hoping to connect with others so that I can see I am not alone and grow in my love for myself and learn new ideas. I can’t wait to talk to you as I thought I was alone in my leaving ministry and no longer believing in God.

“Life is short. Let’s dance along the shores and enjoy the sunshine together.”

Does that sound like a “charlatan and coward” to you?

So, we at The Clergy Project will just continue to do our quiet work, trying to be available to current and former clergy who are honest enough to say that the evidence for their former faith simply doesn’t withstand scrutiny.

All the objective evidence suggests that religion is a man-made construct. Which is to say, God didn’t create man — man created God.

Meet an Intern: Editorial intern inspired by activism

Tolu Igun (Photo by Chris Line)

Name: Tolu Igun.

Where and when I was born: June 28, 1998, in Detroit.

Family: Parents Denny Igun and Lola Are and sister Moji (24).

Education: I am currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree, studying psychology and philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I intend to graduate in the spring of 2019.

My religious upbringing was: Christian. I grew up attending a non-denominational church.

How I came to work as an FFRF editorial intern: I attended a Freethought Speaker Series at UW that featured Andrew Seidel, FFRF’s director of strategic response. His talk fostered my interest with the organization and I reached out to become an intern.

What I do here: Primarily, I write entries for Freethought of the Day, a compilation of biographies and quotes from freethinkers around the world and throughout history. I also help out wherever extra assistance may be needed.

What I like best about it: I enjoy learning something new every day about groundbreaking freethinkers that I most likely would not have heard about otherwise. I am also inspired by the activism that these people do in whatever career or life path they have chosen, which allows me to ponder more about other potential goals I can strive for.

My interests are: Art, history, journalism, social justice reform — really anything that gets me thinking.

My heroes: The individuals who have proven that they are willing to stand up for what they believe in and fight for positive change for others.

These three words sum me up: Positive, honest and intrigued.

Things I like: Music, traveling, reading books, research, writing, and meeting new people.

My loftiest goal: To start my own nonprofit organization.

Fun fact: I am on the figure skating team at UW-Madison and have been skating since I was 4 years old.

‘IM GOD’ Kentucky license plate case moves forward

Ben Hart shows off his “IM GOD” license plate he had while living in Ohio. Now in Kentucky, Hart is suing because he was turned down for that plate by the DMV.

A federal lawsuit in Kentucky over the denial of an irreverent license plate has been given the green light by the presiding judge.

FFRF and the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky filed a lawsuit in November 2016 on behalf of a Kentucky man denied a personalized license plate reading “IM GOD.” U.S. District Court Judge Gregory F. Van Tatenhove on March 31 rejected the state’s argument that the Kentucky transportation secretary is immune from a lawsuit and that the case should be dismissed because personalized plate messages are “government speech.”

In briefing the court, the plaintiff’s attorneys contended, “For more than one hundred years, it has been clearly established that plaintiffs may bring official-capacity claims against state officials to enjoin those officials from committing future violations of individuals’ federally protected rights, such as the claims asserted in this case.” Van Tatenhove agreed.

Kentucky Division of Motor Vehicle (DMV) officials, who have approved religious personalized plates, first refused Ben Hart’s request in early 2016, calling his license plate message “obscene or vulgar.” Later, the state said the plate was rejected because it was “not in good taste.” The lawsuit challenges certain portions of the regulations governing personalized license plates as unlawful, specifically denial of plates based on vague notions of “good taste.” It also contests viewpoint or content-based restrictions on personalized plates that communicate religious, anti-religious or political messages.

Hart had the same personalized license plate issued by the state of Ohio for 12 years prior to moving to the commonwealth.

The ACLU-KY/FFRF lawsuit argues that Hart’s proposed license plate is fully protected individual speech, which Kentucky DMV officials may not suppress using content-based, viewpoint-based, vague or overboard standards.

FFRF keeps up fight for state-church separation

Dillard Drive Middle School players bow in prayer with their coach. FFRF was able to get the coach to stop praying with the team.

By Molly Hanson

Here is a roundup of FFRF’s legal victories since the last issue of Freethought Today. 

Alabama

Where: West Point High School in Cullman.

Violation: The school was scheduling prayers before assemblies and ceremonies. The prayers were typically led by the principal or student.

Outcome: Superintendent Shane Barnette responded on March 22, informing FFRF that he discussed the issues with the responsible staff members.

FFRF attorney who handled the case: Christopher Line.

Alabama

Where: Snow Rogers Elementary School in Birmingham.

Violation: A kindergarten teacher led her class in prayer.

Outcome: An attorney representing the district responded on April 17 to assure FFRF that the principal had discussed the situation with the teacher and that there would not be a similar occurrence in the future. 

FFRF attorney who handled the case: Christopher Line.

Arkansas

Where: Crossett High School in Crossett.

Violation: School staff had been scheduling prayer as a part of the annual pre-homecoming pep rally. School faculty were also involved in “See You at the Pole,” a Christian-oriented prayer rally.

Outcome: A legal representative of the district responded on April 5, informing FFRF that prayers during pep rallies would end and that school faculty would not be participating in “See You at the Pole” events on school property.

FFRF attorney who handled the case: Colin McNamara.

Colorado

Where: North Arvada Middle School in Golden.

Violation: The school, which rents its auditorium to a local church on Sundays, posted a sign that stayed up throughout the school week on its property that advertises the church’s services.

Outcome: The district responded on April 11, assuring FFRF that it had informed the church that it may display the sign advertising its church services on school grounds only on Sundays.

FFRF attorney who handled the case: Christopher Line.

Illinois

Where: Okaw Valley High School.

Violation: Coaches of the high school basketball team were participating in prayers with their students.

Outcome: “We have shared your concern with the athletic director,” Superintendent Kent Stauder wrote to FFRF in response. “We reinforced that this type of activity could be viewed as an endorsement of religion. The athletic director was further directed to share this information with the coaching staff.”

FFRF attorney who handled the case: Ryan Jayne.

Illinois

Where: Central Grade School in Effingham.

Violation: Effingham Community School Board President Jeff Michael arranged for Christ’s Church, where he is a pastor, to give a presentation about dinosaurs to students. Elementary-aged students were handed flyers promoting a weekend event, a presentation was hosted by the Creation Truth Foundation, a creationist group, which was not disclosed in the flyer.

Outcome: District President Mark Doan has promised to implement a policy making certain that students will not be given flyers advertising religious events during school presentations.

FFRF attorney who handled the case: Ryan Jayne.

Florida

Where: Cape Coral Police Department.

Violation: A story titled “When God created police officers” was posted to the department’s Facebook page. The fictitious story described a conversation between “the lord” and an angel and was meant to mimic the biblical creation story portrayed in the book of Genesis.

Outcome: On March 22, Chief of Police David Newlan informed FFRF that the department had removed the story from its Facebook page and all other department social media accounts.

FFRF attorney who handled the case: Andrew L. Seidel.

Georgia

Where: Woodbine Elementary School in Kingsland.

Violation: A Black History Month assembly held for students at Woodbine Elementary School in Kingsland, Ga., this February opened with a preacher leading the children in prayer. The preacher had been introduced by the school principal.

Outcome: On March 23, Camden County Schools Superintendent William Hardin informed FFRF that he addressed the violations with the principal.

FFRF attorney who handled the case: Christopher Line.

Georgia

Where: Youth Elementary School in Monroe.

Violation: A kindergarten teacher had been teaching her students that God lives up in heaven, that Christmas is God’s birthday and that Jesus is the boss of everybody.

Outcome: Superintendent Nathan Franklin responded to FFRF on March 12, writing that the violation had been resolved.

FFRF attorney who handled the case: Christopher Line.

Kentucky

Where: East Carter and West Carter high schools.

Violation: Basketball coaches from both schools joined hands in a prayer circle with their teams and cheerleaders after a basketball game. An image of the two teams praying with their coaches was posted on the West Carter High School official Facebook page.

Outcome: Superintendent Ronnie Dotson responded on April 17, informing FFRF that the coaching staffs at both schools have been reminded that they are not permitted to organize, sponsor or participate in student initiated prayer.

FFRF attorney who handled the case: Colin McNamara.

Kentucky

Where: University of Louisville.

Violation: The women’s basketball coach, Jeff Waltz, was leading his players in the Lord’s Prayer.

Outcome: On March 14, the university responded assuring FFRF that the coaches and staff had been reminded that team prayer must be voluntary and student-led.

FFRF attorney who handled the case: Rebecca Markert.

Missouri

Where: Viburnum Police Department.

Violation: The department placed a bumper sticker on a government patrol car reading, “2 Chronicles 7:14.”

Outcome: The city responded on April 23 informing FFRF that the department had removed the sticker.

FFRF attorney who handled the case: Patrick Elliott.

Missouri

Where: Bolivar High School.

Violation: The high school had invited Bob Holmes to give a presentation to its student body during school hours at the school. Holmes took several opportunities to preach his Christian faith to the students. He was also accompanied by representatives of the Agape Baptist Church of Stockton, Mo., who took pictures and video of the event and publicized it on the church’s Facebook page.

Outcome: “I have been assured by the superintendent that [Holmes] will not be invited back for any future engagements,” the legal counsel for the Bolivar R-1 School District recently informed FFRF.

FFRF attorney who handled the case: Colin McNamara.

New Hampshire

Where: Milford High School in Milford.

Violation: A science teacher had been guiding her students in prayer.

Outcome: On April 16, Superintendent Robert Marquis reported to FFRF that the principal reiterated the seriousness of the accusation to the teacher and reminded her to refrain from having any conversation with students that involved prayer.

FFRF attorney who handled the case: Colin McNamara.

North Carolina

Where: Dillard Drive Middle School in Raleigh.

Violation: The boys basketball coaches had instituted team prayers.

Outcome: An attorney representing Wake County Public Schools responded to FFRF on April 20, writing that it addressed the violation.

FFRF attorney who handled the case: Patrick Elliott.

Tennessee

Where: Wayne County High School.

Violation: The high school was broadcasting prayer over its public announcement system to students during the morning announcements.

Outcome: Superintendent Marlon Davis responded to FFRF to inform it that the principal of Wayne County High School has been directed to cease the prayer broadcasts.

FFRF attorney who handled the case: Christopher Line.

Texas 

Where: Houston Independent School District.

Violation: The principal of the district’s Energized for STEM Academy adopted a policy of including a bible reading during the morning announcements each day. The chosen bible passages were read directly by either the principal or another school employee over the school’s intercom.

Outcome: FFRF was informed that the practice was ended on March 20.

FFRF attorney who handled the case: Sam Grover.

Texas

Where: Leadership Academy in Tyler.

Violation: Teachers within the school had established a prayer practice that was taking place each day before lunch. Allegedly, every day a teacher was selecting a student to lead the prayer or else a teacher was leading the prayer.

Outcome: On March 21, FFRF received a response from a legal representative of the school informing FFRF that the prayer practice would end.

FFRF attorney who handled the case: Sam Grover.

Texas

Where: Rose Garden Elementary in Schertz.

Violation: The school had scheduled an event where the Christian missionary group Samaritan’s Foot would give shoes and socks to students and then wash the students’ feet.

Outcome: On April 3, the Schertz-Cibolo-Universal City ISD responded, informing FFRF that the missionary group would forego the washing of the feet.

FFRF attorney who handled the case: Sam Grover.

Wyoming

Where: Star Valley and Green River high schools.

Violation: Football coaches from both teams knelt with students in the field and prayed for injured players.

Outcome: A legal representative of the district responded on March 14, informing FFRF that all coaches in the district were reminded to avoid involvement in team prayer.

FFRF attorney who handled the case: Christopher Line.

FFRF earns several constitutional wins in Ohio

A nativity scene located on city property in Dover, Ohio, will be relocated in future years.

By Molly Hanson

FFRF Legal Fellow Christopher Line, who handles legal cases in Ohio, has had much success recently in getting schools to stop violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.   

Line has gotten three school districts and one city to end their constitutional violations. Below is a recap of those Ohio victories.

Group washed away

FFRF initially wrote in early March to Indian Creek School District about a March 19 event at Hills Elementary School in Wintersville, Ohio, where representatives from Samaritan’s Feet were scheduled to give shoes and socks to students and then wash the students’ feet.

The washing of feet is a ritual steeped in religious significance, FFRF pointed out. The act is modeled after John 13:1–17 in the New Testament, in which Jesus washes his disciples’ feet and instructs them to wash each other’s feet. Samaritan’s Feet is a Christian missionary organization.

If the district allowed these outside adults to have this “spiritual” interaction with students, then Samaritan’s Feet would have essentially bought access, at a school-sponsored event, to proselytize the children in the district’s care, FFRF underlined.

“It is well settled that public schools may not advance or promote religion,” Line wrote to Superintendent T.C. Chappelear. “In Lee, the Supreme Court extended the prohibition of school-sponsored religious activities beyond the classroom to all school functions, holding prayers at public high school graduations an impermissible establishment of religion. Even if this shoe giveaway takes place outside the normal school day, it still violates the Constitution as a school-sponsored religious activity.”

The district cancelled the event as a result of FFRF’s reasoning.

Evangelism ends

The Indian Creek School District also will not be imposing religion on its students after FFRF received a report on a serious First Amendment violation.

It was brought to FFRF’s attention that Indian Creek Middle School had been allowing a local pastor onto its campus during the school day to proselytize to students. The pastor and president of the Valley Youth Network, which says it seeks “to reach out to area students with the gospel of Jesus Christ,” was proselytizing to students every Friday during lunch. Line wrote to the district on March 9, informing it that it is unconstitutional to offer religious leaders access to befriend and proselytize to students on school property during the school day.

The district responded on March 16, telling FFRF that the district would ensure that the pastor would not lead or attend student group activities or proselytize to students.

Prayer exterminated

FFRF has also ended unconstitutional prayers in the Sidney, Ohio, school district.

After receiving multiple complaints that Sidney City Schools was regularly scheduling and promoting prayer at school-sponsored events and activities, FFRF took action to end the violations.

It was reported that the district’s football coach had been leading his team in prayer for the past decade, and that there is scheduled prayer at graduation and other school events. The local newspaper reported that in March, Sidney City Schools invited a religious leader from Sidney First Methodist Church to lead students in prayer at two school assemblies. Line wrote to the district on March 21 informing it that such conduct is unlawful.

The district responded that day in an email assuring FFRF that future assemblies will not include prayer.

No more coach prayers

An Ohio high school basketball coach will no longer be leading his team in pre-game prayers thanks to FFRF.

It was brought to FFRF’s attention that Unioto High School basketball coach Matt Hoops was leading his team in prayer before games. An article in a local paper detailed how Hoops prayed with his team before a game early in March. Hoops reportedly began the prayer with “Dear Lord,” and closed it in “Jesus’ name.”

Line wrote to Union-Scioto Local School District on March 20 informing the district that it is illegal for public school athletic coaches to lead their teams in prayer.

On March 22, a legal representative of the district responded assuring FFRF that the superintendent contacted Hoops and reminded him of the district’s policy prohibiting coach-led prayers.

Structures removed

A concerned area resident reported to FFRF that each year during the holiday season, the city of Dover, Ohio, was displaying a nativity scene along with a large Latin cross on city property.

FFRF was also informed that there is a Ten Commandments monument that is located on city property near a local church.

“It is unlawful for the city of Dover to maintain, erect or host a holiday display that consists solely of a nativity scene, thus singling out, showing preference for and endorsing one religion,” wrote Line in a letter to the mayor on Jan. 26. “The Supreme Court has ruled it is impermissible to place a nativity scene as the sole focus of a display on government property.”

Line also requested that the Ten Commandments display be moved to private or church grounds.

The city responded on April 3 informing FFRF that Dover will not display the cross as part of its seasonal display and will have the Ten Commandments monument moved from city property.