Overheard (Jan/Feb 2019)

If you’ve used your religious beliefs to justify the condemnation of an entire group of people based on who they love, then your religion is unjustifiable. Homophobia is a willful act of hate.

Cheryl Strayed, in her advice column “Sweet Spot,” regarding a closeted teenager stuck in a conservative town.

The New York Times, 10-23-18


This isn’t the Religious Right we thought we knew. The Christian nationalist movement today is authoritarian, paranoid and patriarchal at its core. They aren’t fighting a culture war. They’re making a direct attack on democracy itself.

Katherine Stewart, in the op-ed, “Why Trump reigns as King Cyrus.”

The New York Times, 12-31-18


Not a lot. I mean, um, no. No. I went to Catholic school and grew up Catholic, but I am not Catholic. I am of no religion. I’m a humanist. 

Actress Kristen Bell, after podcast host Conan O’Brien asked: “You have a great moral compass. How much of that do you credit to Catholicism growing up?”

“Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend” podcast, 11-25-18


I do not see how placing the motto ‘In God We Trust’ is going to protect us from someone coming down the hallway and shooting students and teachers.

Greg Pittman, teacher of honors U.S. history at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, the Florida school where 17 people died in the February shooting, in response to an “In God We Trust” law passed in the state.

The Washington Post, 12-1-18


Our assimilationist answer to Christmas [Hanukkah] is really a holiday about subjugating assimilated Jews.

Michael David Lukas, in the column “The Hypocrisy of Hanukkah.”

The New York Times, 12-2-18


Black churches are often oppressive spaces for black women. . . The black church would not exist without black women. However, for far too long, black men have forced them to be second-class citizens. It’s time for black churches to do better.

Lawrence Ware, minister and co-director of the Center for Africana Studies at Oklahoma State University

The New York Times, 12-2-18


Some people think the enemy is death, and some people think the enemy is suffering. That’s a very personal decision. People are in charge of their own lives and that means being in charge of their own death. If that means continuing to fight to live, fantastic. If you want hospice and palliative care, that’s your decision. But many people reach a time when the suffering is so severe, suffering is the enemy and death is comfort.

Maine state Rep. Patricia Hymanson, speaking about the state’s “death with dignity” legislation, modeled after Oregon’s landmark 1997 law.

Fosters.com, 12-2-18


It is my opinion that we as an all-inclusive board do not need an invocation prayer each meeting.  . . . This is the right thing to do on behalf of our Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, agnostic, et cetera, constituents.

DuPage County (Ill.) Board member Dawn DeSart, on the board’s plan to evaluate its tradition of beginning meetings with a prayer. 

Chicago Tribune, 12-15-18


The scale of the [Catholic] Church’s complicity was clear previously, from revelations heaped upon revelations. The conviction of [Cardinal] Pell, though he is the highest-ranking Church official so implicated, is simply the latest, among countless pieces of evidence, that argue for broad, deep and painful reforms — precisely the sort of overhaul that the pope has so far resisted.

Newspaper editorial titled, “The No. 3 ranking official in the Catholic Church has been convicted of sex abuse. Where is the reckoning?”

Washington Post, 12-17-18


In order to be constitutional policy, it cannot be promoting or favoring a religious set of beliefs. And it cannot overly involve the government with religion. 

Gig Harbor, Wash., Council Member Jeni Woock, who was the only one to vote against reversing a decision from 2016 that prevented a resident from putting up a nativity scene on public property (after FFRF threatened to sue).

The Peninsula Gateway, 12-20-18


When officials make statements like this, it poses a threat to the fundamental American values of freedom, democracy and security. Our nation’s diversity is to be celebrated — not feared.

Clarke Tucker, who ran an unsuccessful campaign for Arkansas’s 2nd Congressional District, after state Sen. Jason Rapert posted on Twitter a quote from another article, which stated, “95% of Muslim voters participated in this year’s midterm election. Do you want them ruling everything in America?”

THV11.com, 12-5-18


I think it’s a shame that “Nones” mostly shrug while white evangelicals throw themselves into elections. . . . I wish that the booming secular movement could find ways to motivate nonreligious voters. Until that happens, I simply hope that the steady retreat of  religion in America will reduce white evangelicals to an ever-smaller fringe, a petty clique unable to sway elections.

James Haught, in the column “Evangelicals vote, Nones falter.”

Patheos.com, 11-28-18

FFRF welcomes 39 special members

FFRF thanks and welcomes our 38 newest Lifetime members and new After-Life member!

Robert Hanner is FFRF’s newest After-Life Member. An After-Life Membership is a $5,000 membership level for those who want their donation to “live on” after them.

The latest $1,000 Lifetime Members are Gregory L. Baskin, Geoffrey L. Braden, Jace Browning, Richard Burnham, Barbara F. Clark,  Jonathan C. Comer, Maria Converse, Thomas P. Creswell, Linda L. Currington, Keith R. Dearborn, Frank Dowding, Alix Fargo, Corey Fields, Bill Fritch, Edward Gogol, Albert Gouyet, Dennis L. Jackson, Roger T. Johnson, Armin Kamyab, William Kannengiesser, Peter K. Lathrop, Derek J. McCleary, Andrew McPhate, Jr., Mary M. McPherson, Wayne Norton, JoAnn Papich, Duane E. Polzien, Kenneth E. Presley, Elena Rae, Mohan Rao, Bruce H. Rockwell, Kenneth Rubin, Henry David Schlib, Robert Short, Bruce G. Sweet, Barbara P. Walker, Brian Weinstein and Elisa Wolfe. Individual Lifetime Memberships are $1,000, designated as membership or membership renewal, and are deductible for income-tax purposes. 

States represented are Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Vermont, Washington and Wisconsin.

And FFRF also got word that four members have become Immortals: Joe Annino, William Cabell and Harvey and Bettye Gossard. 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. 

Special thanks to all!

Brian Bolton: Who is history’s greatest abortionist?

By Brian Bolton 

Christian fundamentalists constantly invoke their favorite definition of abortion: “the murder of unborn children.” They often refer to advocates of women’s reproductive rights using the epithets “baby killer” and “abortionist.” 

In the Austin, Texas, area, the Heidi Group claims that “God loves the unborn,” the Georgetown Life Chain asserts that “Jesus forgives and heals,” Texas Right to Life is “prayerfully building the Kingdom of God,” and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick proclaims that “God forgives women who have aborted children through the blood of Jesus Christ.” 

These anti-abortion zealots claim that scripture is the God-breathed, verbally inspired, perfect word of God, absolutely accurate in every verse and passage. In other words, everything in the bible comes straight from the mouth of God.

With this foundation, we can now ask: Who really is history’s greatest abortionist? To answer the question, this summarizes God’s declarations and behavior taken directly from Holy Writ, which is properly regarded as God’s personal diary. 

• I declare that unborn children are property, not living persons (Ex 21: 22-25). 

• I will not cause pregnant mothers-to-be to abort their unborn children, if they worship me exclusively (Ex 23:26). 

• I will abort your unborn children as just punishment for committing adultery (Num 5:11-31). 

• I assert that human lives are not sacred and will be destroyed as punishment for disobedience (Deut 28:18-24). 

• I will murder your children and rip open pregnant mothers-to-be as punishment for disobedience (2 Kings 8:12). 

• I will authorize leaders of my people to rip open pregnant mothers-to-be (2 Kings 15:16). 

• I attest that the dead are happier than the living and those never born are the most fortunate (Eccl 4:2-3). 

• I will murder the unborn children, infants, and living children of sinful Babylon (Isa 13:15-19). 

• I reject all claims of sanctity of human life and will destroy my people for worshipping other gods (Jer 44:4-14). 

• I will murder unborn children in their mother’s wombs, as well as living children, for Israel’s sinful deeds and wickedness (Hos 9:10-16). 

• I will rip open pregnant mothers-to-be and dash infants to the ground for Samaria’s sin of worshipping other gods (Hos 13:16). 

• I require the death penalty for 60 violations, but not for murdering an unborn child. 

• I intentionally omitted the command “Thou shalt not abort an unborn child” from the Decalogue (Ex 20:1-17). 

• I drowned all living people on Earth, including pregnant mothers-to-be and their unborn children, except for eight adults (Gen 6:7, 17; 7:21). 

• I incinerated all living inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah and nearby cities, including pregnant mothers-to-be and their unborn children, except for the residents of Zoar (Gen 19:24-25). 

• I massacred all people living in the hundreds of cities ruled by 33 kings during the Conquest of Canaan, including pregnant mothers-to-be and their unborn children (Josh 10, 11, 12). 

• I annihilated all living people, including pregnant mothers-to-be and their unborn children, in 20 major slaughters (Judges, 1 Sam, 1 Kings, 2 Kings, 2 Chron). 

• I murder millions of unborn “persons” every year in the United States, because two-thirds of conceived embryos fail to implant or are spontaneously aborted after pregnancy is verified. 

Four conclusions

The basic findings that emerge from the 18 scriptural statements and one contemporary fact about abortion create four irrefutable conclusions. 

1. God does not love unborn children, or their pregnant mothers-to-be, or living children, or adults. He is the greatest murderer of unborn children and the pre-eminent mass murderer of living people in human history. 

2. The bible does not support the attack on women’s reproductive healthcare. The fundamentalist anti-abortion crusade is a dishonest political campaign that is thoroughly refuted by God’s holy word. 

3. God causes all abortions, spontaneous and elective, as well as the destruction of fertilized ova or “persons,” because he is omnipotent and therefore is the cause of everything. 

4. The anti-abortion zealots’ favorite epithets — “murderer of unborn children,” “baby killer” and “abortionist” — apply accurately to their biblical God. He is history’s greatest abortionist. 

FFRF Life Member Brian Bolton is a retired psychologist living in Georgetown, Texas. 

Mya Nunnally: Atheist characters in fiction hard to find

Mya Nunnally
Tina’s Mouth
Heretics Anonymous
A Fraction of the Whole
Darius the Great is Not Okay
The Curious incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Neal Stephenson – Anathem

This article first appeared on BookRiot.com on Dec. 10, 2018, and is reprinted with permission.

By Mya Nunnally

As someone whose religious identity fluctuates between labels like atheist, agnostic or just plain spiritual on a daily basis, I enjoy books that explore atheist characters. It’s always nice to see someone like you represented on the page.

But wow, they are hard to find.

Until I decided to specifically seek out fiction with atheist characters (specifically main characters), I assumed there were plenty. There is a whole genre dedicated to Christian fiction, of course, so why not atheist fiction? But I found barely enough to make a dent in my to-be-read list. After further searching and reading and recommendations, I found the six below that I enjoyed the most.

These works approach atheism in different ways. Some are a little didactic, some are incredibly nuanced, and some are subtle in their discussion of faith. But all of them feature atheist characters without having them eventually convert to Christianity, or die horribly and burn in hell. So, in my book, it’s some good representation. For all my atheists, agnostics, humanists, nonbelievers, questioners, skeptics or those just looking to explore the life of someone unlike themselves: Enjoy!


Heretics Anonymous 

(by Katie Henry)

This book puts forth one of the finest discussions about faith and organized religion that I’ve seen in literature. In Heretics Anonymous, Michael finds himself in a new town, going to a new school. A Catholic school, that is. For a staunch atheist like Michael, it seems like hell. But then he stumbles upon a secret group called, you guessed it, Heretics Anonymous. Students who don’t quite fit into the school’s mold come together and find friendship in their outcast status.

There’s Avi, who’s Jewish and gay. Eden practices paganism. Max breaks the dress code. And there’s Lucy, a headstrong feminist who wants to be the first female Catholic priest. Everything Michael knows about faith will come into question as he learns about friendship and connection. He might even have feelings for Lucy, despite his lack of faith and her infinite commitment to God.


A Fraction of the Whole 

(by Steve Toltz)

While Toltz’s prose
gets a bit didactic at times, it’s always beautiful. This is the story of Jasper Dean and his father, who was a constant source of chaos and turmoil. Now that his father’s dead, Jasper can recollect and retell their history and journey across the globe. Both Jasper and his father are atheists, and this element of their personalities comes through throughout the novel.

Side note: I read this book first when I was in high school, and it was the first explicit depiction of an atheist main character I’d ever found.


Darius The Great is Not Okay 

(by Adib Khorram)

A lot of Darius the Great is Not Okay is subtle in a beautiful way. This is a quiet but sincerely powerful novel. Darius’ sexuality is left in a grey area, there isn’t much loud or fast action in the book, and Darius’ atheism is barely mentioned. But, it’s on here for a reason.

This book is a shining example of someone who doesn’t believe in God but revels in the culture and familial practice that comes with some religions. Darius doesn’t identify as Zoroastrian like much of his family in Iran, but when he takes a trip to the country for the first time, he finds a community and connectedness that he never felt at home.


Tina’s Mouth: An Existential Comic Diary 

(by Keshni Kashyap & Mari Araki)

This award-winning graphic novel explores high-schooler Tina M.’s exploration of existentialism. Existentialism is, of course, a philosophy created by an atheist and founded on a premise of individuality and free will as opposed to some religions who believe in the opposite. We see how this impacts Tina’s relationship with her Indian intellectual family and the world around her.

While the art of Tina’s Mouth is sparse and not the best I’ve seen in graphic novels, the narrative is compelling and great for teens exploring philosophy.


Anathem 

(by Neal Stephenson)

In the world of the epic novel Anathem, the monks and priests and others who live in convents study not theology, but empirical knowledge, like math and science. They barely have contact with the outside world, and spend their time figuring out the answers to the universe through physics and philosophy. Naturally, the question of belief in a higher power comes up. Most of the monks in the convent are atheists, but they engage in mind-blowing philosophical discussions with the outsiders once they make their way into the strange new world outside the convent.


The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time 

(by Mark Haddon)

Fifteen-year-old Christopher is one of the most well-known examples of a character on the autism spectrum in recent literature. He detests the color yellow, knows all the prime numbers up to 7,057, and has a hard time understanding human emotions. He just so happens to be an atheist, as well. Curious Incident tells the story of Christopher as he tries to unravel the mystery of the death of a neighbor’s dog. This is a heart-warming, colorful story with a sweet atheist boy (contrary to popular atheist stereotypes) at its center.

Mya is a writer and poet who attends Barnard College of Columbia. Her poetry has received national acclaim and has appeared in literary magazines such as The Legendary and The Raven’s Perch. She writes a blog for BookRiot.com.

Catholic clergy abuse roundup: Top cardinal guilty of abuse of minors

Cardinal George Pell of Australia, the most senior Catholic Church official to stand trial for sexual abuse, was found guilty Dec. 11 by a Melbourne court.

Cardinal George Pell

After nearly four full days of deliberations, a jury rendered unanimous guilty verdicts on five charges related to the abuse of two choirboys in 1996.

“The conviction provides one of the clearest examples of how the sexual abuse scandal has eroded the church’s credibility while ensnaring figures in the upper echelons of power,” the Washington Post reported.

Pell, 77, is the most powerful Catholic in Australia, and the third-highest ranking in the Vatican.

The trial had been subject to a media blackout at the request of the prosecution, and follows a first trial in September ended after a jury failed to reach consensus.

He is on a leave of absence from his post as the Vatican’s secretary for the economy.

In June 2017, Pell was charged by Australian police with “historical sexual assault offenses,” forcing him to leave Rome and return home vowing to “clear his name.”

In May 2018, after a four-week committal hearing, an Australian magistrate struck down some of the more serious charges against Pell, but ruled he must stand trial on five charges related to sexual abuse of minors. The allegations, however, are from two separate periods in the 1970s and the 1990s. Therefore, the decision was made for two separate trials.

The first trial centered on the alleged sexual assault of two choirboys at Melbourne’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral during the late 1990s.

Pell has been a key point of reference in English-speaking Catholicism for at least the last two decades, and he was appointed by Pope Francis to his “C9” council of cardinal advisers from around the world in 2013. On Dec. 12, the Vatican announced that at the end of October, Pope Francis had removed Pell, along with two other cardinals, from his council of advisers.

He served as the archbishop of Melbourne from 1996 to 2001, then as the archbishop of Sydney from 2001 until his appointment to his Vatican position in 2014.

Earlier this year, the Australian Catholic Church unveiled its official response to Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, the nation’s highest form of inquiry.

The Royal Commission revealed last year that 7 percent of Catholic priests were accused of sexually abusing children in Australia over the past several decades, and in response, the Catholic Church accepted 98 percent of its 80 recommendations, deciding only against the recommendation that the Church eliminate the seal of the confessional.

Report: Cardinal Wuerl knew of McCarrick allegations

Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., knew of sexual misconduct allegations against ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and reported them to the Vatican in 2004, church officials confirmed Jan. 10, despite Wuerl portraying himself as unaware of any complaints surrounding the disgraced ex-cardinal, the Washington Post reported.

Robert Ciolek, a former priest who reached a settlement with the church in 2005 after accusing clerics including McCarrick, told The Post he recently learned that the Pittsburgh Diocese has a file that shows that Wuerl was aware of his allegations against McCarrick. The file includes documentation that Wuerl, who was bishop of Pittsburgh at the time, shared the information with then-Vatican ambassador Gabriel Montalvo.

The content of the document, which Ciolek told The Post he saw in December, clashes sharply with Wuerl’s public statements about McCarrick since the older cleric was suspended in June due to a complaint that he groped an altar boy decades ago.

The allegations against McCarrick, which include two other accusations of abusing minors, as well as those of harassment of seminarians, began a full-blown crisis in the Catholic Church in the United States. Wuerl has rejected allegations that he played a role in it.

Church withholds names of 500 accused of abuse

The Catholic Church in Illinois withheld the names of at least 500 priests accused of sexual abuse of minors, the state’s attorney general said Dec. 19 in a report that accused the church of failing victims by neglecting to investigate their allegations.

The report by Attorney General Lisa Madigan determined that the Catholic dioceses in Illinois are incapable of investigating themselves and “will not resolve the clergy sexual abuse crisis on their own.”

The report said that 690 priests were accused of abuse, and only 185 names were made public by the dioceses as having been found credibly accused of abuse.

“The number of allegations above what was already public is shocking,” said Madigan.

At least 16 state attorneys general have initiated investigations of varying scope since August, when a grand jury report in Pennsylvania accused more than 300 priests of sexual abuse over 50 years, and accused bishops of covering up.

L.A. bishop resigns after misconduct allegations

A Los Angeles auxiliary bishop who served as an ethics cleric resigned after “credible” allegations surfaced of prior sexual misconduct with a minor.

Pope Francis accepted Bishop Alexander Salazar’s resignation on Dec. 12. Salazar most recently was vicar for the Office of Ethnic Ministries of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

“I regret to inform you that in 2005, a year after he had been ordained a bishop, the Archdiocese was made aware of an allegation against Bishop Salazar of misconduct with a minor,” Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gomez said in the statement.

Gomez said the accusation against Salazar stemmed from alleged misconduct in the 1990s when he was a parish priest and not an ordained bishop.

“Although the allegation was never directly reported to the Archdiocese, it was investigated by law enforcement in 2002, and the district attorney did not prosecute,” the archbishop said. It was not immediately clear why the case wasn’t prosecuted.

11 predator priests names to be kept secret in Pennsylvania

The names of 11 priests cited in the bombshell Pennsylvania grand jury report on child sex abuse will be kept secret to protect their reputations, the state’s Supreme Court ruled Dec. 3.

The grand jury report, released in mid-August after a two-year investigation, identified records of more than 1,000 children being abused by 301 priests in six of the eight Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania. The 11 priests were kept anonymous because they contested the allegations against them as false. The Supreme Court decision said identifying these priests would raise due process issues.

“In our prior opinion authored by Chief Justice Saylor, we stressed that an individual’s right to his or her personal reputation was regarded by the framers of our organic charter as a fundamental individual human right — one of the ‘inherent rights of mankind,’” the court decision reads.

The majority of the disclosed crimes took place years ago and were covered up, making it difficult to hold the perpetrators accountable, since victims of child sex abuse in Pennsylvania only have until their 50th birthday to file criminal charges and until their 30th birthday to file civil lawsuits.

Proposals would require clergy to report sexual abuse

Lawmakers in Washington, D.C. and Virginia say they plan to propose legislation that adds clergy to the list of people mandated by law to report child abuse or neglect.

The efforts hit at the hot-button intersection of child protection and religious liberty, but lawmakers are expected to give them an open reception at a time when recent sexual abuse scandals in churches and others involving athletes have prompted conversation about broadening legal responsibility to extend beyond positions such as teachers and doctors.

The ideas under consideration by D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine include not exempting confidential conversations for any mandatory reporters, possibly including those that occur in the Catholic Church’s confessional. Texas, West Virginia and a few other states do not exclude the confessional in mandatory reporting laws, but it has been a stumbling block in many other places.

French cardinal, 5 others, on trial for cover-up of abuse

A French Catholic cardinal and five other people went on trial Jan. 7, accused of covering up for a pedophile priest who abused Boy Scouts — France’s most important church sex abuse case to date, the Associated Press reports.

The case poses a new challenge to the Vatican, amid growing demands in overwhelmingly Catholic France for a reckoning with decades of sexual abuse by the clergy.

Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, 68, appeared in a Lyon court along with other senior church officials accused of failing to protect children from alleged abuse by the Rev. Bernard Preynat. The top Vatican official in charge of sex abuse cases, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, is among the accused — but won’t appear in court because the Vatican invoked his diplomatic immunity.

Nine people who said the priest abused them in the 1970s and 1980s brought the case to court. The victims say top clergy were aware of Preynat’s actions for years, but allowed him to be in contact with children until his 2015 retirement.

At least six California priests named in child sex abuse report

At least six Catholic priests who worked in parishes throughout San Luis Obispo County in California were among those named in a recently released Diocese of Monterey report on clergymen accused of sexually abusing children.

Some of the priests were defendants in sex abuse lawsuits filed in the early 2000s, while others had never been accused publicly. The diocese oversees parishes in San Luis Obispo, Monterey, Santa Cruz and San Benito counties.

The report was released weeks after California Attorney General Xavier Becerra began soliciting information about clergy sexual abuse incidents in the state in November.

The Diocese of Monterey report names 30 “credibly accused” clergymen — a term that includes priests, deacons, religious men and candidates for ordination — as part of a list compiled by the law firm Weintraub Tobin.

In the News (Jan/Feb 2019)

Sinema gets sworn in on law book

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., began her first term as a U.S. senator by holding her hand on a law book for her ceremonial oath of office.

Sinema openly identifies as religiously unaffiliated, according to the Pew Research Center for Religion and Public Life, which is why she did not use the bible as a prop for her oath.

During the ceremony, Vice President Mike Pence concludes the oath by saying, “So help you God?” to which Sinema answered, “I do.” 

A spokesperson for the senator confirmed to The Arizona Republic that the book was from the Library of Congress and contained texts of the U.S. and Arizona constitutions.

“Kyrsten always gets sworn in on a Constitution simply because of her love for the Constitution,” Sinema’s spokesman John LaBombard told the Republic.

Sinema became Arizona’s first female senator and the first Democrat to win a Senate race in the state since 1988. Sinema is also the second openly LGBTQ person to be elected to the Senate, joining Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., who is lesbian.

Einstein’s ‘God letter’ auctioned for $2.9M

Albert Einstein’s so-called “God letter,” written in 1954, sold for nearly $2.9 million at an auction in New York on Dec. 4.

The Nobel Prize-winning scientist, then 74, wrote the one-and-a-half page note to German philosopher Eric Gutkind in response to one of his works.

It fetched almost double the auction house’s predicted price of between $1 million-$1.5 million.

In the letter, written in his native German, Einstein takes issue with the belief in God.

“The word God is for me nothing but the expression and product of human weaknesses,” he writes. “The bible is a collection of venerable but still rather primitive legends. . . . No interpretation, no matter how subtle, can [for me] change anything about this.”

Montana strikes down tax-credit program

The Montana Supreme Court on Dec. 12 struck down a state-run program that gives tax credits to people who donate to private-school scholarships, saying the program violates a constitutional ban against bestowing state aid to religious organizations.

The justices ruled 5-2 that the program giving tax credits of up to $150 for donations to organizations that provide scholarships to private-school students amounts to indirect aid to schools controlled by churches. There is a ban in the Montana Constitution on any direct or indirect state aid to such schools, regardless of how large or small the amount is, the opinion by Justice Laurie McKinnon said.

Poll: Americans trust clergy less than ever

The level of trust Americans have in members of the clergy has dropped to a record low, a recent Gallup survey suggests.

Gallup found that only 37 percent had a “very high” or “high” opinion of the honesty and ethical standards of clergy. Forty-three percent rated the clergy’s honesty and ethics as “average,” while 15 percent had low or very low opinions.

The 37 percent positive rating is the lowest Gallup has recorded for the clergy since it began examining views about religious leaders’ ethical standards in 1977.

Currently, only 31 percent of Catholics and 48 percent of Protestants rate the clergy positively, according to Gallup.

John Fea,  a professor of American history at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, said he thinks the prominence of the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandal this year may be contributing to a lack of trust in the clergy. 

Record low says religion can solve problems

A record low number of Americans says religion can serve as an answer to “all or most of today’s problems,” according to a Gallup poll.

The Gallup survey found that just 46 percent of respondents said religion can solve all or most of the world’s problems. It marked the first time in more than six decades of polling that less than half of Americans responded that way.

Meanwhile, 39 percent said that religion is “old-fashioned and out of date.” 

Americans’ perspectives on that issue are predictably divided based on how frequently they attend church, according to the poll. The poll found that 81 percent of people who attend church weekly say religion can answer today’s problems, while 58 percent of people who attend infrequently called church old-fashioned. 

‘In God We Trust’ now on Mississippi plates

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant introduced the state’s new “default” license plate, one that will automatically be given to anybody who needs it, which includes the state seal emblazoned with the phrase “In God We Trust.”

Those plates are now replacing the old plates that featured the guitar, a symbol representing blues legend B.B. King.

Bryant is the reason the religious phrase is on the state’s seal at all, the result of a bill he signed in 2014.

Nones rising, religion declining for many

More than one-third of Americans identify as atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular, according to a 2018 study by the American Family Survey.

This group, known collectively as Nones, make up 35 percent of the population, up 1 percent  from 2017.

“Though the change from year to year is small, there is a clear upward trend,” said Chis Karpowitz, one of the authors of the survey and a professor at Brigham Young University.

For Millennials and GenXers, the most common religion is no religion. The Nones claim 44 percent of the 18–29 age group, and 43 percent among those who are 30–44.

Also, less than half of Americans consider religion to be an “extremely” or “very” important part of their identity, according to a study by the American Family Survey. 

Judge blocks opt-outs for contraception coverage

A federal judge on Jan. 13 blocked Trump administration rules that would allow most businesses to opt out of covering contraception for their employees if they have moral or religious objections.

Judge Haywood Gilliam blocked the rules, which were set to go into effect Jan. 14, in 13 states and Washington, D.C. Gilliam granted a request for a preliminary injunction from those states, but limited the ban’s scope to only the case’s plaintiffs.

Saudi woman granted asylum in Canada

An 18-year-old Saudi woman who fled from her country and family, saying she feared for her life, has been granted asylum in Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said.

Rahaf Alqunun initially fled to Thailand to escape her family. When she arrived in Bangkok, she was at first denied entry, but then allowed to stay. But there were growing fears over her security as she remained in Bangkok, so she was taken to the Canadian embassy. 

Trudeau said the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees had asked Canada to take in Alqunun, who grabbed international attention this week after she barricaded herself in a Bangkok airport hotel room to resist being sent home to her family, which denies any abuse.

Victories (Jan/Feb 2019)

By Bailey Nachreiner-Mackesey

No more religion at Wisconsin city’s events 

The city of Baraboo, Wis., affirmed its commitment to inclusion of nonreligious citizens after receiving a letter from FFRF. 

In November, a shocking photo of Baraboo High School students giving a Nazi salute was circulated by the media, receiving international condemnation. In response, the city held a series of events aimed at helping the Baraboo community heal from the harm the photo caused. Local media reported that “religion played a central role” in one of the events, which were reportedly co-sponsored by local “faith leaders.”

While endorsing the anti-hate programs, FFRF Staff Attorney Ryan Jayne sent letters to the superintendent of Baraboo School District and the mayor’s office, reminding them of their constitutional obligation to keep public events secular and asking for assurance that future events would be free from government religious endorsement.

FFRF received responses from both the mayor’s office and the district, assuring that the future events were poised to remain free of religious proselytization. 


FFRF’s ‘pole’ position: No teachers allowed

Teachers in a California school district have been instructed to stop promoting religious events to their students following a letter from FFRF Associate Counsel Elizabeth Cavell.

A concerned parent contacted FFRF to report that a Cosumnes Oaks High School teacher encouraged students to participate in “See You at the Pole,” an on-campus prayer event. The teacher reportedly showed a graphic promoting the prayer event on the overhead projector in his classroom.

The district sent a response to FFRF, detailing the course of action it took to remedy this violation. The district discussed the issue directly with the teacher and corrected the behavior and is taking action to “engage in a broader discussion with the entire faculty emphasizing the importance of the separation between church and state [its] constitutional obligation to refrain from promotion religion in public education.” 


FFRF says away with the manger in N.Y. school

A nativity scene was removed from a New York elementary school after FFRF intervened. 

A concerned parent of a Harvey C. Fenner Elementary School student in Falconer, N.Y., reported that the school had placed a nativity scene near its main entrance. A picture of the nativity scene showed it sitting by the front desk, such that any student or guest to the school had to walk by it. 

FFRF Robert G. Ingersoll Legal Fellow  Colin McNamara wrote district Superintendent Stephen Penhollow to request that the scene be removed. 

FFRF received a prompt response from the superintendent informing us that the display was removed. 


No more religion in school’s holiday program

A Michigan school district removed religious messaging from a holiday program, thanks to FFRF. 

It was reported to FFRF that Fairview Area Schools’ kindergarten, 2nd-, 4th- and 6th-grade students were scheduled to present “Christmas is Coming,” a holiday-themed concert that contains a number of Christian elements. While the program was set to include some secular holiday music, it also was supposed to contain narration that treats the biblical story of the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem as historical fact. 

“The ‘Christmas is Coming’ program contains narrative passages and songs with a distinctly devotional message that would be appropriate in a church, but not in a public school,” wrote FFRF Legal Fellow Colin McNamara to district Superintendent John Sattler. 

Sattler responded quickly, saying that the religious narration had been removed from the program. 


Coaches, teachers won’t pray with team anymore

A school district in Missouri has instructed coaches and teachers on their constitutional obligation to refrain from participating in student prayers. 

FFRF received a complaint that coaches and teachers in a Palmyra school district joined players in an on-field prayer at a football game held on Oct. 23, 2018. Staff from both the Palmyra R-1 School District and Monroe City R-1 School District reportedly participated in the prayer. 

Legal Fellow Colin McNamara sent a letter to the district requesting that all employees, including teachers and coaches, cease praying with students. 

Superintendent Kirt Malone responded, affirming the district’s commitment to upholding its constitutional responsibilities to honor its students’ religious liberty. 


Teachers refrain from joining religious event

An Oklahoma public school has instructed staff on their obligation to refrain from participating in religious events. 

A concerned parent reported that Adams Elementary School was sponsoring a “See You at the Pole” event in September. A Facebook page for the event indicated that it was organized and promoted by a teacher at the school.

The district’s attorney sent a reply to FFRF Legal Fellow Christopher Line, noting that district officials took swift action to resolve the issue prior to the event. 

“The school district’s superintendent Nick Migliorino has assured me that relevant individuals and groups were counseled regarding the district’s expectations that future events would not include references to the district as if the district or its employees were the sponsor of a religious events,” the attorney’s letter read. “Similarly, district resources including its contact information cannot be used to advertise non-school related activities.”


Religious favoritism taken off café’s menu 

A restaurant in Virginia has discontinued offering a religious discount after FFRF alerted the establishment that it was in violation of state and federal civil rights laws.

Ms. Girlee’s Kitchen in Richmond was reportedly offering a 15-percent discount to patrons who presented a church bulletin on Sundays. This offer was advertised on the restaurant’s Facebook page. 

FFRF Associate Counsel Elizabeth Cavell sent a letter to Ms. Girlee’s Kitchen’s manager, alerting them that the discount was in violation of the Civil Rights Act and the Virginia Human Rights Act as it showed favoritism based on religion. 

FFRF received an uncommonly conscientious response from the restaurant’s management apologizing for unintentionally discriminating against anyone and assuring that the discount would be discontinued. 


Illinois city cancels five-day religious trip

FFRF was able to get canceled an Illinois city-sponsored religious tour after receiving a report that the Parks and Recreation Department was hosting a five-day trip featuring visits to the Ark Encounter and the Creation Museum, scheduled for fall 2019.

It is unconstitutional for a city government to endorse the religious mission of the Ark Encounter or the Creation Museum by organizing, sponsoring or funding a trip to them, FFRF Staff Attorney Ryan Jayne reminded Charleston, Ill., officials on Dec. 5.

By the next afternoon, City Attorney Rachael Cunningham had alerted FFRF that the event had been cancelled. The trip has been removed from the city’s website and online registration portal.


Indiana coach will no longer pray with team

An Indiana public high school will instruct its coaches to stop participating in student prayer after intervention by FFRF.

A concerned South Gibson School Corporation community member reported that Gibson Southern High School personnel prayed with student athletes after a home game on Nov. 2.

A photo posted on social media shows coaching staff for both teams, as well as other adults, bowing their heads in prayer and placing their hands on students, along with the caption, “This is how two of the best football programs in southern Indiana complete a game . . . the power of prayer — at Gibson County, Ind.”

It is unconstitutional for public school athletic coaches to lead their teams in prayer, participate in student prayers, or to otherwise promote religion to students, FFRF Staff Attorney Ryan Jayne reminded the district in his Nov. 30 letter.

On Dec. 17, FFRF received a response letter from the school district’s attorney addressing the concerns and assuring it that the district would take action to ensure that it adheres to the First Amendment in the future.

“We want to emphasize to our personnel that they may not participate [in] any such student led prayer,” the letter read. “We further plan to instruct the school personnel, including all coaches, that they may not encourage, lead, initiate, mandate, either directly or indirectly, any such student prayer.”


FFRF stops religious teaching at W.Va. school

FFRF received multiple reports that Wood County School District in West Virginia has allowed teachers and outside adults to facilitate religious instruction during the school day in its elementary schools. Representatives from a local church reportedly created bible clubs at the school and recruited students at lunch. The bible club, “Generation NXT,” openly admitted that teachers and principals “have stepped up to either start or join an NXT Club in their school!!!”

FFRF Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott sent a letter to the school superintendent William Hosaflook alerting him to the fact that adults had abused their position to proselytize within Wood County Schools.

Hosaflook directed the two schools reportedly hosting these clubs to immediately cease and desist all “Generation NXT” and other non-curricular clubs throughout the school day. The district is also undergoing the process of establishing a new policy for managing school clubs to ensure they remain in accordance with students’ constitutional rights.


FFRF cleanseth Facebook of city manager’s posts

A Florida city manager has ceased posting religious messages on the city’s social media following intervention from FFRF. 

A concerned Lynn Haven resident contacted FFRF to say that City Manager Michael White regularly posted proselytizing messages to the city’s official Facebook page. One post ended with:

“I would love to leave you with this message from my Lord and Savior:

1 John 1:7

But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.” 

Similar religious messages appeared at the end of numerous posts signed by White.

FFRF Attorney Sam Grover sent a letter to the city, asking that city officials honor its residents’ First Amendment rights and stick to secular messaging on their social media pages.

FFRF received a response from the attorney representing the city and the city has since ceased including religious messages and bible quotes in their Facebook posts.


Religious exhibits moved from Ohio public space

FFRF persuaded the city of Dover, Ohio, to transfer a nativity scene and a Ten Commandments monument from public to private property owned by Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church.

A concerned area resident reported to FFRF last holiday season that each year during this time, the city of Dover was displaying religious exhibits on city property, and FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line contacted Mayor Richard Homrighausen then to let him know of the unconstitutionality of its practice.

The city had informed FFRF that Dover would no longer have such overtly Christian monuments on city property. During the holiday season, the media has been reporting on FFRF’s constitutional victory.


FFRF get church signs removed from school

FFRF has ensured an end to a North Carolina school district’s unconstitutional advertising of weekly religious services at a local church.

Southwest Elementary School in Durham, N.C., was allowing Keystone Church to place a large sign on the school’s lawn to advertise its Sunday worship services. FFRF’s local complainant reports that the sign was up at all times, including during the school week. The school had also allowed the church to store materials visible to students in the gym, including signs advertising the church.

 “Southwest Elementary School may not display messages on school grounds that recruit participants to engage in religious worship,” FFRF Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott wrote to the school district’s legal counsel. “Courts have continually held that school districts may not display religious messages or iconography in public schools.” 

FFRF’s request that the school district remove all church property from school grounds during times when the church was not renting school facilities was heeded.

“The church street sign has been removed and the signs that are stored in the gym have been completely covered,” the school district’s representative replied in an email.

Missouri city relocates cross

Ozark cross

FFRF has at last convinced a Missouri town to transfer a cross from public land.

“Ozark officials said [Jan. 4] they will move a cross that is part of a holiday display in a city park,” the Springfield News-Leader reported. “The issue was raised when the city received a letter in late November from a separation-of-church-and-state group demanding the cross be removed.” 

That “separation-of-church-and-state group” is FFRF, and it has been asking the city for months to do the constitutionally right thing.

As FFRF mentioned in its initial letter on Nov. 30, an illuminated cross is not a permissible city holiday decoration. 

Soon after, it seemed that Ozark had listened to FFRF’s advice. On Dec. 11, the city issued a statement indicating that a cross displayed in its Finley River Park indeed violated the Constitution. But later the same day, the city reversed course under immense pressure from the community, stating that “the cross in the Finley River Park will remain in place until a further due diligence can be completed regarding this matter.”

In its subsequent letter taking city officials to task for their reversal, FFRF Legal Director Rebecca Markert emphasized its original legal point.

“In ACLU v. St. Charles (1986), the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals prohibited the city of St. Charles from displaying an illuminated Latin cross on the top of the city’s fire department as a part of its annual Christmas display,” Markert reminded City Administrator Stephen Childers. “The court stated matter of factly that ‘the cross is not in fact a common Christmas symbol.’” 

Finally, Ozark has heeded FFRF’s counsel — this time, hopefully, for good.

“The city said it will move the cross to a private piece of land at the south end of the park,” the Springfield paper adds. “That land is owned by the Christian County A&M Society and is used by the Finley River Saddle Club, according to the city.”

It Pays to Complain

Peter Bates

FFRF Member Peter Bates holds a framed poster created by a group he co-founded, the Sun City Center Freethinkers of Florida. During the holiday season, two of the posters were hung in the largest community centers, the result of over a year’s negotiation with the community association. The group  convinced them that the current Christian display needed balance to reflect the community’s diverse population. The poster promoted a secular message for the holidays. It was seen by several thousand people as they visited the two community centers.


No more nativity scene

FFRF Member Sarah Knopp of Indiana sent us her success story:

“For years, the small town in rural Indiana where I live has had a large, wooden nativity scene on the courthouse square lawn. Of course, being a lifelong freethinker and a member of FFRF, this has always bothered me. Toward the end of last year’s [2017] holiday season, I got up my nerve (motivated by FFRF) and sent an anonymous letter to the county commissioners, explaining very diplomatically why this practice is unfair to many and unconstitutional. 

“I am very pleased to tell you that it is not among the holiday decorations anywhere in town this year! I am somewhat proud of my little town for making things right without a lot of fuss. I hope that the news coverage about small towns and school corporations usually being on the losing side of these types of arguments and lawsuits has helped them “see the light.” Thank you for all that you do!”


Member gets nontheistic affidavit

I’m an FFRF member who’s currently incarcerated in a state prison in Oregon. Recently, I was filling out paperwork for a clemency petition when I was given pause by the affidavit required to be submitted along with it. The legal form included a religious oath (that I “swore to God” the information contained therein was true). Knowing that requiring such a pledge in a government document is unconstitutional, I wrote to the governor’s office asking to be provided with an alternate form, without any theistic language. 

I was heartened to know that, if I had to fight for this, FFRF would have my back. Fortunately, though, the governor did the right thing and promptly sent me an alternately worded (nontheistic) affidavit to use.

While I was grateful for this outcome, the effort it took should not have had to be made. Unless and until all government documents are, by default, nontheistic, we who understand the constitutional separation of church and state have a lot of work to do.

­— Respectfully, David Chandler, temporary guest of the state of Oregon.

Steven Pinker endorses FFRF in new TV ad to air on Colbert

A screenshot from Steven Pinker’s new TV ad for FFRF.

In a new TV ad campaign, Enlightenment Now author Steven Pinker urges viewers to join the Freedom From Religion Foundation in its fight to prevent religion from creeping into U.S. government. Pinker has served as FFRF’s first honorary president since 2013.

The ad will make its television debut on select stations during CBS’ “The Late Show with Steven Colbert” the week of Jan. 21.  FFRF will also be running the ads on digital media outlets.

Pinker’s 30-second spot, as of press time, was scheduled to debut on Monday, Jan. 21 and run through Wed., Jan. 23, during the “The Late Show with Steven Colbert” (at 11:35 p.m. Eastern) in these cities:

Atlanta

Austin, Texas

Charlotte, N.C.

Columbus, Ohio

Houston

Indianapolis

Kansas City

Madison, Wis.

Milwaukee

Nashville, Tenn.

Las Vegas

Phoenix

Portland, Ore.

Salt Lake City

Seattle

St. Louis

Tampa, Fla.

Washington, D.C.

“The world has become a better place as reason has been overcoming superstition and tribalism. But the values of the Enlightenment are under attack,” says Pinker in the ad. “Please join me in supporting the Freedom From Religion Foundation to ensure that our government is driven not by religion, but by reason.”

“We’re delighted and honored to have Steve’s endorsement fresh off the success of his powerful book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “We hope this campaign prompts secular Americans of all stripes to join FFRF at a critical time, as religious zealots are occupying our highest offices and courts.”

Pinker is one of the world’s premier intellects and cognitive psychologists, and serves as the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. He’s been named on the Time 100 list of the world’s “Most Influential People.” Among his other best-selling books are The Blank Slate, The Language Instinct and How the Mind Works

With more than 31,000 members, FFRF, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, works as a watchdog to protect the constitutional principle of the separation between state and church. For 40 years, FFRF has served as a leading voice for freethought in America. For more information, visit FFRF.org.

To order Pinker’s latest book, now in paperback, go to shop.ffrf.org.