In memoriam: Harold Mann was 35-year member

Longtime FFRF Member Harold Mann died in his Atlanta home on Nov. 20, 2018.

Born in 1928, he was raised and educated in Charleston, S.C. He left in 1950 to become an Army paratrooper.

His obituary in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution states: “Except for those Army years, he had a series of delightful and well-loved dogs, dear companions who adored him. He had an eclectic career from Wall Street to Cox Enterprises. He spent much of his life haunting libraries and recording many books for the blind. A life-long religious skeptic and agnostic, he found a spiritual home among Unitarians and secular humanists, many of whom he admired for their efforts to build a better world for us all.”

He is survived by his wife of 43 years, Sally Mitchell. Sally and Harold were instrumental in the forming of FFRF’s Alabama chapter and have been members of FFRF since 1984.

Harold Mann

Cheryl Kolbe: ‘Protect all nonbelievers’ from discrimination

The following is the testimony given by Cheryl Kolbe to the Portland, Ore., City Council on Feb. 13 regarding an ordinance that would protect nonbelievers from discrimination.

At the Feb. 13 Portland, Ore., City Council meeting, FFRF – Portland chapter President Cheryl Kolbe speaks about the need for a nondiscrimination ordinance for nonbelievers.

Good morning, my name is Cheryl Kolbe, president and founder of the Freedom From Religion Foundation — Portland area chapter and I am a director on its national board. FFRF is a nonprofit organization of nonbelievers that works to promote the constitutional principle of separation of state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism. It has more than 31,000 members. In Oregon, there are over 1,000 members, including many who live or work in Portland.

I am like all of you in many respects. I value freedom and my family. I believe in compassion, public service, kindness and consideration of all. I believe all communities should be welcoming to all people. I differ from many in that I simply lack a belief in a god or gods. What I don’t believe is that this one factor, being a nonbeliever, is justification for discrimination. The ordinance before you would protect all nonbelievers in the city of Portland.

At present, neither the city or the state expressly prohibits discrimination based on nonbelief, leaving it open to the courts to determine if nonbelief is protected. Even though existing Oregon courts have thus far ruled that nonbelief is protected, some courts across the country have ruled in the opposite direction. In the real world, opinions change, judges are replaced. This should not be left to the interpretation of the courts.

I wish to be very clear. The question isn’t about which is right or better — religion or nonbelief. It is about protection against discrimination.  We are not asking for any special rights or privileges. We are merely asking for the same protections against discrimination in housing, employment and accommodations that are afforded to those in a religion.

I own my own home, am retired, and am fortunate to not need any accommodations. So why am I passionate about this? For me, this change is a validation that I am a human being of the same value to society as my fellow Portland community members. It says: My city values me and affirms that it is unacceptable for others to discriminate against me and others like me. Validation matters to me.

What does it mean to others? It means they would have the backing of the law. They will know their rights. Legally, they cannot be rejected for a job, fired or treated any differently than other employees solely based on their nonbelief. Their rental application or request for accommodations can’t be rejected simply because they are irreligious.

As a nonbeliever, I am not alone. According to a 2015 study, Portland is the most religiously unaffiliated metro area in the nation. This will positively impact many people in Portland.

This change is supported by Freedom From Religion Foundation, Humanists of Greater Portland, Secular Coalition for Oregon, Center for Inquiry for both Portland and Southeast Portland and Protect Our Children.

This action will show Portland as a leader. To the best of my knowledge, Portland would be the second city in the country to make this clarification. This change says that Portland chooses to make certain that nonbelievers receive the same protection from discrimination as those in any form of religion. This is very affirming for those of us who are atheist, agnostic or any other form of nonbelief. It is the right thing to do.

I wish to express my deep appreciation to all who have been involved in this project — the ACLU for partnering with FFRF, Commissioner Fritz’s office for taking up this issue and for the excellent work by the Human Rights Commission. And I thank the City Council for taking the time today for this issue.

FFRF’s student essay competitions offer $72K

Essay contest

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is pleased to announce its five 2019 essay competitions for freethinking students, including a brand new one this year for law school students. Total prizes to be awarded will be more than $72,000! This year, FFRF has increased both the number of major prizes and the scholarship amounts.

“There have never before been so many ‘Nones’ and nonreligious students, and we at FFRF are delighted to offer these contests to reward independent thinking,” says FFRF Co-President Dan Barker.

The four contests, not including the one for law students, now have 10 prizes: First place — $3,500; second place — $3,000; third place — $2,500; fourth place — $2,000; fifth place — $1,500; sixth place — $1,000; seventh place — $750; eighth place — $500; ninth place — $400; and 10th place — $300.

The prizes for the law school students’ competition are: First place — $4,000; second place — $3,000; third place — $2,000; fourth place — $1,000; fifth place — $750; sixth place — $500.

FFRF also offers optional honorable mentions of $200 for all five contests. To encourage student activism, Florida FFRF members Dean and Dorea Schramm are providing a $100 bonus to any winner who’s a secular student club member.

William J. Schulz Memorial Essay Contest for College-Bound High School Seniors: High school seniors graduating this spring and attending college in the fall are asked to discuss the topic: “Why we must rely on ourselves, not God, to solve the world’s problems.” Word limit: 300-350 words. Deadline: June 1.

Michael Hakeem Memorial Essay Contest for Freethinking College Students: Currently enrolled college students (up to age 24) may write on: “Living in the here and now — with ‘no hell below us, above us only sky.’” (FFRF thanks Phil Zuckerman, author and professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College, for suggesting the topics for this and the high school competition.) Word limit: 450-650. Deadline: July 1.

The David Hudak Memorial Contest for College Students of Color: Students ages 17-21 (including college-bound high school seniors or currently enrolled college students) may write on the topic of: “How has being free from religion enhanced your life?” They are also asked to reflect on how the secular community can better engage people of color. (Thanks to Black Nonbelievers President Mandisa Thomas for this year’s topic.) This contest is offered to provide support and acknowledgment for freethinking students of color, as a minority within a minority. The three other contests are open to all students. Students may only enter one FFRF contest. Word limit: 450-650. Deadline: July 15.

Brian Bolton Essay Contest for Graduate/“Older” Students: Graduate students (through age 30) and “older” undergrads (ages 25-30) will ponder the topic: “The bible’s continuing harm to civil liberties and U.S. society.” They are asked to select at least one destructive or erroneous biblical passage whose influence continues to cause harm today to individuals, civil liberties or society. Brian Bolton is a retired professor who not only endows this contest, but is underwriting a new Bible Accountability Project with FFRF. Word limit: 550-750. Deadline: Aug. 1.

Essay Contest for Law School Students: This contest is open to all ongoing law school students up to age 30 already attending a North American law school. You remain eligible to enter this contest if you will graduate from law school by spring or summer of 2019. You are not eligible to enter if you will be starting law school for the first time in the fall of 2019.

The essay topic is “What’s wrong with ‘Religious Exemption or Refusal’ laws?” State legislatures across the country are considering or enacting a slew of “religious exemption” or “religious refusal” bills. Such bills, often misleadingly described as “conscience clauses,” may allow providers to refuse services based on the provider’s personal religious beliefs.

Pick a religious refusal bill, in any state, under consideration or enacted in the current legislative session and evaluate whether the bill strikes an appropriate balance between the religious rights of service providers and the civil and equal protection rights of members of the public most likely to be refused services. Include some analysis of what’s wrong generally with any “religious exemption or refusal” proposal.

Word limit: 850-1,000 words. Deadline: July 1.

Additional prompts on the topics and other important information and contest rules can be found at: ffrf.org/studentessay.

Students are required to submit their essay via the online application, and should carefully review all contest rules. All eligible entrants will receive a digital year-long student membership in FFRF.

FFRF is appreciative of FFRF members who make the effort to contact local high schools, colleges and universities to help publicize its competitions. (See “ads” on the back inside cover of the Freethought Today wrap that may be copied or cut out and sent to your local schools or student acquaintances.) Or pass along this link: ffrf.org/studentessay.

Jim Curtis: The problem with ‘sincerely held religious beliefs’

Jim Curtis
Don Addis cartoon

By Jim Curtis

A recent claim being made by litigants and lawmakers as a legal justification to deny rights to certain minorities is that the claimants’ “sincerely held religious beliefs” give them an exemption from equal-opportunity laws. Two of the most visible cases in the public eye involve denial of services to gays and denial of health care to females by their employers.

Thus far, courts have accepted claims of “sincerely held religious beliefs” on their face without any challenge to the sincerity of the belief, any examination of what beliefs in particular are so offended as to warrant legal exemptions, and whether such beliefs are reasonable.

During the draft for the war in Vietnam, many targeted inductees applied for Conscientious Objector status. In order to have the application granted, the U.S. government required that the applicant’s reasoning was sincerely religious, and instituted standards of evidence for such a claim. The standards were biased toward the self-described religious, and made a fallacious correlation between sincere beliefs and membership in a popular religion and a history of public displays of piety. The government required evidence for a religious claim, and did not accept claims of sincerity without challenge. That is precedent.

The claims that participating in a gay wedding would violate a cake baker’s religious beliefs is perhaps the most famous case where this claim of sincerely held religious beliefs was made to excuse the baker from equal opportunity laws. This claim and the case of Kentucky County Clerk Kim Davis over the issuing of a marriage license for a gay couple are coming almost exclusively from self-proclaimed practitioners of Christianity. They cite as the basis of their beliefs an ancient book larded with contradictions, errors and absurdities (or fictions) called “The Holy Bible.”

What makes the baker’s claim so dubious is the indisputable fact that the same book (and chapter!) that forbids the “laying of a man with a man as one would a woman” (Leviticus) has at least another dozen “abominations to the Lord” that are not enforced by the baker or doesn’t bother the county clerk enough to motivate them to be fastidious enforcers of morality.

Do the baker or clerk violate any of the other written rules in Leviticus? Do they eat shellfish? Wear mixed-fiber clothing? Work on their Sabbath? Have they been divorced? Further, do the baker or clerk bother to question all their customers on their eating habits, wardrobe choices, work schedule or marital status?

Actions follow beliefs

If you believe a snowball is headed for your face, then you will likely duck. If you believe there may be a coyote or mountain lion lurking in your shrubs, then you will likely take some precaution. If you believe your significant other is cheating on you, then you will likely investigate. Actions follow beliefs, and most beliefs are usually backed by some sort of evidence, unless the believer is prone to delusions. Religious believers actually do use logic, despite popular skeptics’ claim they have abdicated their power to use it. However, fallacious logic is still logic of a kind.

If there were a malicious all-powerful judge who would sentence your afterlife self to an eternity of torture if you didn’t follow the rules, then it would be logical to always behave as if violation of these rules would have that result. A person who claims that baking a cake for a gay person would doom his or her afterlife existence should behave consistently and avoid enabling any action that would brand him or her as an accomplice to “sin.” He or she would not “participate” (their term) in adultery, divorce, fraud, lust, greed or envy (coveting, the lubricant of capitalism) or offenses against their claimed deity, including blasphemy. He or she would never serve a customer who exclaimed, “Oh, my God!” (“taking the Lord’s name in vain”).

If there truly was a place of eternal torture where fatuous infractions such as a failure to believe a dubious proposition was actually true, then it would be the moral obligation of every compassionate believing person to try their utmost to convince everybody they encountered to accept the same proposition. It would be as if one of their neighbors was about to drink a glass of poison. A moral person would expend every effort trying to stop a potential poison drinker.

Why aren’t all Christians totally hyperaggressive about trying to convince nonbelievers not to poison their souls? Wouldn’t that be a requirement of any “good Christian?” Wouldn’t that crusade never end until all nonbelievers are convinced otherwise?

The evidence shows that most Christians are lackadaisical in regard to their evangelism, even the ones who specifically call themselves “evangelicals.” Do their actions comport with what they claim to believe? Since actions follow beliefs, we can conclude that a fair percentage of people who claim to believe certain things actually don’t.

Under “Delusional Disorder” in the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-5 (the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), many of the behaviors described are in line with claims and actions of the religious. However, it’s worth noting that the APA gives religious adherents a pass because religion is popular. That’s a shameful professional breach, but peer pressure can be immense, even to those who study peer pressure. The fears, flights of imagination, beliefs in zombies, magic, ghosts and other-dimensional worlds would scrupulously lead to a diagnosis of “delusion,” the antithesis of “reasonable.” The political pandering by psychiatrists is also practiced by judges who’ve abandoned objectivity because they’re also indoctrinated members of a religion. Resultingly, having a delusion currently may qualify one for a legal exemption. That is pernicious, offensive and invidious.

What can be done?

I have some suggestions for the government. It could quiz the applicants on which specific beliefs they’re claiming to get the legal exemption, why they think that belief is justified, and whether is it reasonable. For example: “Explain how it is reasonable to conclude that baking a cake for a gay couple is likely to land you in a place of post-life eternal torture. Describe why it’s reasonable to believe in a post-life place of eternal torture. Establish a pattern of evidence that shows you act consistently in accordance with your claimed beliefs along a range of doctrines. Show that the beliefs you are citing to get a legal exemption are exclusively religious, and not in any way based on ignorance or bigotry.”

Do we award exemptions for sincerely held racist, flat-Earth, anarchist or libertarian beliefs? Religious beliefs should not get treated differently from any other fringe beliefs. Until such a time that anybody can provide conclusive scientific evidence of a deity or any other uniquely religious claims, they reside in the domain of fringe, and, no matter how popular, do not deserve a scintilla of special treatment.

Lawyers engaging in litigation should challenge claims of sincerely held religious beliefs in cases and on appeals. The Supreme Court made a huge error by accepting Hobby Lobby’s claim of corporations having sincerely held religious beliefs without a single challenge to its sincerity, what beliefs specifically were offended, how that offense squared with other prohibitions (imagined or specified in their book of magic) to which it managed to avoid offense, or most importantly, how any corporation can have religious beliefs. In an egregious instance of judicial delinquency, the Supreme Court erred in Hobby Lobby by not reversing the ludicrous finding of a previous court that corporations are people. An insightful joke goes, “I won’t accept that corporations are people until Texas executes one.” Courts ordinarily respect stare decisis, but have made notable exceptions for rectifying prior mistakes.

Since litigation and prosecution hinge on “reasonable doubt,” “reasonableness” and “reason,” we must ask whether it’s reasonable to believe in zombies, virgin birth, magic, demons, talking flora and fauna, all powerful super-beings, otherworldly dimensions, and indecisive, inconsistent and ambiguous rule-makers, and whether the book that contains these elements is reliable enough to cite as justification for those beliefs and the rules it conveys, and whether a self-claimed role of public enforcer is ever justified or reasonable.

Jim Curtis is an FFRF member who lives in Texas.

In the News (April 2019)

Cardinal Pell sentenced to 6 years in prison

Australian Cardinal George Pell, 77, was sentenced to six years in prison in March for molesting two 13-year-old choir boys while he was archbishop of Melbourne in 1996. A jury found him guilty in December of sexual penetration of a child and four counts of committing an indecent act with a child. He will be eligible for parole after serving three years and eight months.

Pell, who headed the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy — the third-highest Vatican post — is the most-senior Catholic cleric ever to be convicted of child sex abuse.

Pell didn’t testify at his five-week trial and continues to deny he assaulted the boys after he caught them drinking sacramental wine in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The victim identified as “J” gave video testimony seen only by the jury about how Pell forced him to perform oral sex. The second alleged victim died of a heroin overdose in 2014 at age 31.

Michael Advocate, who’s an abuse survivor, told reporters “may Pell rot in his cell” and said the sentence was too lenient. “Less than four years’ jail time for destroying the lives of two innocent young boys? Is their life only worth two years each?”

Trial details were suppressed in the press until February because Pell faced a second trial in April on charges he assaulted two other boys as a young priest in the late 1970s in a public pool in his hometown of Ballarat.

Those charges were dismissed after a judge ruled out two key prosecution witnesses.


45% of GOP: God wanted Trump to be president

A recent Fox News poll shows 45 percent of Republicans believe God wanted Donald Trump to be president. Another 18 percent indicated that they weren’t sure.

In addition, according to the poll, a majority of white evangelical Christians, 55 percent, believe that God endorsed Trump for president. Only three in 10 evangelicals said categorically that they didn’t think Trump had God’s explicit support in the election.


West Virginia sues bishop, diocese

The West Virginia attorney general filed a lawsuit against a retired top bishop and the state’s only Catholic diocese on March 19, saying that they “knowingly employed pedophiles.”

The civil suit also alleges that the diocese of Wheeling-Charleston and Bishop Michael J. Bransfield “failed to conduct adequate background checks” for employees of Catholic camps and schools, and that they did not disclose “the inherent danger to parents who purchased its services for their children.”

The lawsuit claims that the diocese and the bishop violated the state’s Consumer Credit and Protection Act. Criminal prosecutions of individual abuse cases have often been hampered by statutes of limitation, but the West Virginia lawsuit is a civil action, and is directed at the church’s handling of the problem, according to The New York Times.


Six charged in murder of atheist blogger Avijit Roy

Six people have been charged with the gruesome murder four years ago of atheist blogger Avijit Roy in Bangladesh.

Roy, a Bangladesh-born U.S. national, was hacked to death on a busy road outside Dhaka University in February 2015. His wife, Bonya Ahmed, was critically injured in the attack.

Police investigators said 11 of the 12 militants from the outlawed Ansar al Islam group implicated in the murder took part in the street killing.

Dhaka police spokesman Masudur Rahman said of the six, two are currently on the run.


Calif. bill would force priests to report abuse

On Feb. 20, California state Sen. Jerry Hill said he would file a bill to remove clergy members from a list of those exempt from reporting child abuse.

As it stands, if someone walks into a confessional booth and admits to molesting a child, the priest doesn’t have to do anything with that information.  Compare that to public school teachers, who are required by law to tell a social worker if they learn about (or suspect) a child being abused.

The Church, of course, doesn’t want to play by those rules. Vatican officials claim the “seal of confession” is sacrosanct. Anything said in a confessional booth must be kept secret no matter what.


Boy dies after punishment for not knowing verses

A 7-year-old boy in Manitowoc, Wis., was beaten, forced to carry around a 44-pound log and was buried in the snow before he died last year. A 15-year-old boy and two adults have been charged with the murder of Ethan Hauschultz.

The boy was being punished for not knowing 13 bible verses

Damian Hauschultz, 15, is charged with first-degree reckless homicide and six other charges.

Damian’s father, Timothy Hauschultz, 48, is charged with felony murder and five other charges.

Tina McKeever-Hauschultz, 35, is charged with failing to prevent bodily harm, and intentionally contributing to the delinquency of a child.


Abstinence sex education on the rise in schools

From 2000 until 2014, the percentage of schools that required education in human sexuality fell to 48 percent from 67 percent. By 2014, half of middle schools and more than three-quarters of high schools were focusing on abstinence. Only a quarter of middle schools and three-fifths of high schools taught about birth control. By contrast, in 1995, 81 percent of boys and 87 percent of girls reported learning of birth control in school.


South Dakota requires ‘IGWT’ in all schools

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem signed into law a bill requiring public schools to prominently display “In God We Trust.”

Beginning in the 2019-20 school year, every public school will be required to prominently display the national motto. The bill requires the display to be easily readable and no smaller than 12 inches tall and 12 inches wide. A prominent location is defined as a school entryway, cafeteria or other common area where students are likely to see it.


More Catholics thinking about leaving the church

A growing number of Catholics are reconsidering their loyalty to the church as more and more cases of clerical sexual abuse and cover-ups become known.

A Gallup poll published March 13 shows that 37 percent of Catholics in the United States have questioned whether they will remain part of the church this year amid recent news about sexual abuse of young people by priests. This is up from 22 percent who said the same in 2002, the last time Gallup conducted polling on this question.

Over the past year, the Roman Catholic Church has experienced a renewed reckoning, as lay Catholics questioned whether the church’s secretive, self-protective culture has really changed since 2002 (when the Boston Globe’s investigation into clerical abuse and the church’s cover-up in the Boston area helped expose the scandal nationwide).


Michigan AG: Hiding sex misconduct is over

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel delivered a strong message to Catholic churches in Michigan: The era of hiding sexual misconduct is over.

Since Michigan launched an investigation into Catholic abuse in August 2018 under her predecessor, Bill Schuette, Nessel said law enforcement received more than 300 tips of alleged sexual abuse.

Michigan is among 44 states that have opened investigations into alleged misconduct in the Catholic Church after Pennsylvania’s landmark state grand jury probe uncovered more than 300 “predator” priests accused of sexually abusing more than 1,000 victims. In October, law enforcement raided all seven Michigan dioceses, becoming one of the first states to execute statewide warrants.


Democrats reintroduce RFRA Do No Harm Act

Congressional Democrats reintroduced on Feb. 28 an amendment to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) that aims to ensure the 1993 legislation is not used to permit discrimination in the name of religion.

The Do No Harm Act states that RFRA “should not be interpreted to authorize an exemption from generally applicable law that imposes the religious views, habits, or practices of one party upon another.”

Reintroduced by Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III, D-Mass.; Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va.; and Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif. — it was first introduced in 2017 in response to the Supreme Court’s 2014 Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores decision.


Poll: Trump signing bibles is inappropriate

A poll released March 18 shows nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of Christians in the United States found it inappropriate when President Trump signed the covers of at least two bibles earlier in March at a Southern Baptist church in Alabama while visiting a community recovering from a deadly tornado outbreak.

Videos show people holding out their bibles to the president and first lady Melania Trump to sign. Photos show the president’s signature scrawled in large writing across the covers of a pair of bibles.

Trump voters were the least likely to report they found the current president signing bible covers to be inappropriate, almost evenly split between 43 percent who approved the action and 42 percent who disapproved, the Morning Consult poll showed.

Family-planning programs under assault by directive

The Trump administration’s announcement barring organizations that provide abortion referrals from receiving federal family planning money is an assault on women’s health care intended to funnel millions of dollars toward religious, anti-abortion groups.

The new federal directive, a domestic gag rule, in essence, will go into effect in late April and is expected to be immediately tied up in court. The theocratic intent behind the new federal rule is clear. House Republican Whip Rep. Steve Scalise boasted: “Importantly, faith-based health organizations will no longer be forced to compromise their pro-life principles to receive government funding.”

Under assault are the rights of the largely low-income population served by the federal family planning program known as Title X. Under Title X, organizations such as Planned Parenthood that get funds through the federal family planning program were already prohibited from using those funds for abortion services. Trump’s new rule, however, orders separate books and requires any clinic receiving Title X federal funds to perform abortions in distinct facilities, which is, of course, intended to shut down abortion care or contraceptive services — or both — by Planned Parenthood. Medical staff working in facilities receiving Title X support now will not even be able to refer patients for abortions.

Planned Parenthood receives about $60 million a year of Title X’s $286 million budget to provide contraception, breast and cervical cancer screening and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases. Currently, 1.6 million people receive coverage through Planned Parenthood — often the only such provider in many areas of the nation.

President Reagan in 1988 also barred Title X clinics from referring or counseling about abortions. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the domestic gag order in 1991, but, fortunately, the George H.W. Bush administration did not implement it, and President Clinton rescinded the rule in 1993.

“The domestic gag order will egregiously interfere with a woman’s rights of conscience and privacy, and is unconscionable,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “And it’s also unconscionable that the federal rule is intended to fund overtly religious groups seeking to miseducate, judge and deny women true health care and choices.”

Nothing could be more irrational than for anti-abortion groups or politicians to oppose contraception. To state the obvious, contraception, however imperfect, is the best way to avoid unwanted pregnancies and the need for abortion. Yet thanks to a cabal of Catholic bishops and Protestant fundamentalists, Obamacare’s contraceptive mandate has been in the theocratic crosshairs since it was unveiled. The right of women workers to receive insurance coverage for prescription contraception of their choice was seriously eroded by the Supreme Court when it “blessed” a corporation’s “religious” right to deny women workers insurance coverage if the corporation disapproves of their contraception choice.

As Margaret Sanger, the freethinker who founded Planned Parenthood, observed, “No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her body. No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother.”

FFRF’s electronic marquee on the side of Freethought Hall in Madison, Wis., recently backed Planned Parenthood.

FFRF feature piece airs on PBS affiliates

A short first-of-its-kind feature spot, “Spotlight on Freethought and the First Amendment,” produced in conjunction with FFRF, has begun re-airing on select national public television af-filiates.

The spot is guaranteed to broadcast 500 times through April and reach 3 million people. When and where the short program, used as filler, will run cannot be announced beforehand. Public TV affiliates decide which fillers are needed the very day they are used. If you catch one of the spots on your local public TV affiliate, please be sure to thank it promptly and encourage it to rebroadcast “Spotlight on Freethought and the First Amendment.”

Larry Cohen was senior producer of the “Spotlight On” series, which airs short informational documentaries as filler on public television affiliates. This is still believed to be the first such segment featuring discussion of freethought, atheism — and the dangers of mixing state and church.

“More wars have been waged, more people killed, in the name of religion than by any other institutional force in human history,” says the narrator. “So, with such wildly contrasting beliefs in this country, why aren’t we at each other’s throats? Here’s why. It’s our Constitution and its very core of freedom from religion. Our country was founded in part by refugees seeking freedom, seeking to escape centuries of religious persecutions, holy inquisitions, witch hunts.”

The show description sent to affiliates reads: “America has more diversity, faiths, religions, and cultures than any other country in the world. And yet we all seem to get along pretty well. Only in a country where we can be free of religion in our government can we then be free to practice our own or choose not to follow any faith. This segment focuses on our freedom to practice our faith, or no faith — exactly as we want.”

The message talks about the benefits of the secular U.S. form of government, defines “freethought” and includes brief interviews with FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor.

Watch for little “cameos,” including appearances by Darwin, Einstein, Susan B. Anthony, and shots of some mementos at FFRF’s office, Freethought Hall, a powerful quote by Mark Twain, and photographs by FFRF Director of Strategic Response Andrew Seidel of the Reason Rally crowd, and of then-FFRF Staffer Katie Daniel giving the Westboro Baptists the thumbs down when they picketed an FFRF event.

“We warmly thank FFRF members who contributed to FFRF’s advertising/PR fund, whose generosity made possible the filming and airing of this first-of-its-kind segment,” says Gaylor.

Only the first three months of airing are monitored by Nielsen Ratings, but “Spotlight On” segments often run far longer. The program is not offered as a part of any PBS national program service.

South Dakota should rescind endorsement of the bible

FFRF has urged South Dakota to rescind permission to print the official state seal on bibles.

Many South Dakota state legislators recently received bibles emblazoned with the seal of the state of South Dakota on the cover. These bibles were apparently produced by Capitol Commission, a North Carolina-based Christian ministry that “is committed to making disciples of Jesus Christ in the capitol communities of the world.” According to Jarvis Wipf, Capitol Commission’s “state minister” for South Dakota, the ministry received permission to use the seal from former South Dakota Secretary of State Shantel Krebs.

It is well-settled law that government offices may not endorse religion, FFRF reminds South Dakota Secretary of State Steve Barnett.

“Giving permission for the state seal to be printed on bible covers sends a clear message that the state of South Dakota endorses the messages in the bible,” writes FFRF Legal Fellow Colin McNamara.

FFRF is requesting that the state revoke permission to use its official seal on any religious texts or iconography. Additionally, FFRF is requesting public records relating to the granting of permission for Capitol Commission to use the state seal on the bible.

South Dakota state seal

FFRF co-sponsors freethinking women of color’s gathering

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is proudly co-sponsoring the Women of Color Beyond Belief Conference in October.

Scheduled for Oct. 4-6 at the Marriott Midway Hotel in Chicago, it will be the first national secular forum exclusively focused on the perspectives of women of color who are atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers and skeptics. It will highlight the work of women of color within the secular community and provide a multiracial, feminist vision of leadership and activism in secularism. The panels, presentations, workshops and performances will touch on a range of issues, including church-state separation activism, religion in marginalized communities, violence against women, and feminism, anti-racism and racial justice action.

Black Nonbelievers, the Black Skeptics Group and the Women’s Leadership Project are partnering to put together the event.

“The conference aims to create more inclusive opportunities in secular organizing, policy and practice,” say conference organizers Mandisa Thomas, Sikivu Hutchinson and Bria Crutchfield.

FFRF, the largest event co-sponsor, is joined by Secular Woman and the American Humanist Association.

Scholarship support is available and child care will be provided by Camp Quest. The conference invites everyone to attend, as a prime objective is for women of color to be heard by the rest of the secular community.

FFRF seeks to sustain victory against Texas Gov. Abbott

A historic triumph for free speech — especially for nonbelievers — in the Lone Star State is being defended in appeals court.

FFRF filed its brief Feb. 13 in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to sustain its win last year in federal court against Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s removal of its winter solstice Bill of Rights “nativity” from the state Capitol in 2015.

FFRF had placed a permitted display celebrating the winter solstice and Bill of Rights Day in December 2015 in response to a Christian nativity at the Texas Capitol. The whimsical display, depicting Founding Fathers and the Statue of Liberty celebrating the “birth” of the Bill of Rights (adopted Dec. 15, 1791), had the requisite sponsorship from a Texas legislator. Abbott, as chair of the Texas State Preservation Board, ordered FFRF’s display taken down only three days after it was erected, lambasting it as indecent, mocking and contributing to public immorality.

In a final judgement issued last June, U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks, for the Western District of Texas — Austin Division, declared that Abbott had violated FFRF’s free speech rights. (FFRF had received an initial ruling in its favor in October 2017.)

On appeal to the 5th Circuit, Abbott did not contest the district court’s ruling that he violated FFRF’s free speech rights, explains FFRF Associate Counsel Sam Grover, so there are only a few remaining contested issues.

The first is whether the court should also issue an injunction against the censorship of FFRF’s display in the future. A second issue on appeal, raised by FFRF, is whether the 5th Circuit should reverse the lower court’s rejection of FFRF’s challenge to the State Preservation Board’s standards of review for display applications. FFRF argues that the requirement that displays have a “public purpose” grants government officials unbridled discretion to reject applications for impermissible purposes, such as Abbott’s hostility toward FFRF’s message. The district court ruled that Abbott’s order was illegal, but FFRF is asking the 5th Circuit to ensure that the State Preservation Board cannot abuse the public purpose requirement in the future — by doing away with the requirement in its entirety.

FFRF’s Bill of Rights “nativity.”