By Sydney Kelly
Each year, Elkin High School in North Carolina recognizes students ranked in the top 10 percent of the senior class. As graduation approached, these top seven students (including me) met with a teacher and guidance counselor to discuss the speaking honors at the commencement ceremony. We were told to each write down our top two preferences out of the possible speaking roles, which included: invocation, special recognitions, a poem, three speeches and benediction. Most of us wanted to deliver a speech. To determine who got the parts, higher class rank got higher priority for their choice and the rest was up to the teachers to decide.
I listed “speech” as my first choice. Knowing that several of the students in the group are not religious, or would not be comfortable with an invocation, I picked that as my second choice. As it turned out, I was assigned the invocation and another student, who is not religious, was assigned the benediction.
At first, I thought that if I was going to be forced to deliver a prayer, I would try to make it as inclusive to all faiths as possible. Our school tends to include prayer — and very obviously Protestant Christian-style prayer — in places where it shouldn’t be, including graduation, assemblies with guest speakers, or the singing of traditional hymns at choral concerts. A lot of our school’s students are Protestants, but the majority of the others are agnostic, atheist or unreligious. The prayers always make people uncomfortable, myself included, and I’m a practicing Catholic who had gone to a Catholic elementary school where school prayer was commonplace and expected. I’ve always wondered how our public school system was able to get away with including group prayer in so many places — meetings, assemblies and sporting events — and why no one complained. I’ve been frustrated with our school system for this reason for a long time and I’m certain others have been, as well. I was tired of our school getting away with things like this just because we are in the Bible Belt.
Invocation is wrong
I decided that giving an invocation was wrong, and no matter how religiously inclusive I could make it, it would still be wrong. I was no longer comfortable delivering something that would infringe on others’ rights, make others uncomfortable at a school function and violate a clause that is so essential to the ideals that this country was founded on. I wanted to do something about it. But I had no idea how to report something like this or who to report it to. I thought that if I talked to my teachers, they would just tell me that I couldn’t speak at graduation and simply hand the part to another student.
After my brother heard of my situation, I received a text from him wondering if I had really been asked to lead a prayer at a public school graduation. I said, “Yeah. Where is the separation of church and state?” He told me that I could forward any documentation I had to the appropriate legal defense teams, sent me a few links discussing the legality of graduation prayer and then directed me to FFRF. I immediately took out my laptop and wrote the report.
A few classmates who heard what I was doing thought this wasn’t a big deal. “Yeah, but it’s Elkin. No one cares,” one girl told me. Another said, “Oh, but you’re Catholic, I thought you’d be fine with school prayer.” To which I responded, “Yeah, but I’m not fine with violating the Constitution and infringing on others’ rights.”
FFRF Attorney Chris Line emailed me shortly after I made the report and we spoke on the phone about potential ways to go about the invocation. He offered to send a letter to the school, but he thought we could do something more, since I was the one who was to deliver the speech and reported the incident before it happened. He did suggest delivering a secular speech and addressing my motive, if I still felt comfortable speaking. I knew that by reporting this I could potentially get thrown under the bus and not be able to speak at my graduation. Because it was reported beforehand, it would be quite obvious to the faculty that I was the one who reported it. I had never heard of a secular-style speech before, but I did like that it would have a similar sentiment to a prayer and thought it would be nice if I was able to deliver a secular speech as an alternative to invocation.
I spoke with my English teacher about the invocation during a meeting with the top seven. I told her that I didn’t think an invocation should be delivered at graduation and explained why. She didn’t seem to agree and didn’t think that the reasoning mattered because it’s always been that way in this area. She was also confused: “But you chose to do the invocation.” She suggested that I could not change that or I would be forfeiting my speaking part if I refused. “I know, but I don’t think it should be done at all,” I said. She gave me a dirty look and said, “Well, you can take that up with [Principal] Hoyle.” I told her that the school would be contacted soon.
A secular speech
I began researching secular speeches. Many I read were openings for meetings rather than a graduation ceremony. But I was able to get a feel for what a secular speech should be. I wanted to write something that would express the same sentiment that would be behind a prayer without it being religious in any way. I feel like most prayers delivered at ceremonies like this work to express feelings of gratitude and sometimes ask a higher power for protection, safety or good fortune in the future, so those are the feelings I tried to convey in my secular speech. It was a little difficult to start writing something like this, but looking at how secular speeches were worded to avoid mention of a higher power or suggestion of prayer, I got some ideas. I was actually working on other homework when I thought of a line that would lead well into my speech. I opened a Google doc and began typing. After the first sentence, the rest of the speech came together fairly quickly.
I later submitted my speech to my English teacher and principal for approval. They asked me to change the title from “Graduation Address” to “Inspirational Message” and omit one line at the end of the first sentence that said a religious prayer would be “divisive and unwelcoming” because it “had a negative connotation,” but approved the rest. I believe the school had already received the letter from FFRF at this time, but I was not confronted, and they were now cooperative in dropping the invocation and benediction from the ceremony. The benediction was replaced with a “Welcome.”
Here is the speech I delivered at my high school graduation ceremony:
“Out of respect for all gathered here to celebrate our graduates this evening, I will not deliver a religious prayer at this ceremony. Recognizing our diversity in beliefs, values and faith traditions, but honoring our unity in gratitude, I invite you to reflect quietly on all that the future holds for the Class of 2019, while expressing thanks for all that have helped this year’s graduates to this point: the gift of intellect, the opportunity and initiative to learn, the goals we have set and met for ourselves and the support of our faculty, family, friends and mentors.
“Continuing to reflect with gratitude, ask that good fortune, safety and the desire to perpetual learning be always with this graduating class. As we journey forth filled with knowledge, dreams and hopes for the future, let us continue to learn from those around us, from our diversity and from our world, with compassion and gratitude.”
I’m truly thankful to FFRF for helping resolve this issue. I’m happy with the outcome and that I was able to deliver a speech that honored everyone’s faith traditions (or lack thereof) and set up our graduation ceremony to be inclusive and respectful to all. I know that what I did actually made a difference for the students in our school system and the surrounding community, even though the students and teachers I spoke with didn’t think it was a big deal. Some thought it was brave of me, others thought it was excessive to call out school prayer in my speech, but I thought it was important and needed to be done.
Sydney Kelly is a recent graduate of Elkin (N.C.) High School and now attends the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where she plans to major in German and business. “I’m passionate about several social issues, especially those concerning equal rights and upholding the rights of others,” she writes. “Last year, my friend and I started a much-needed Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) at my school that my younger sister has now taken charge of. Some of my hobbies include weightlifting, hiking, volunteering and pursuing my passion for language learning.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation thanks FFRF Member Al Luneman for making possible this scholarship.
what is past, or passing, or to come
— W.B. YEATS
You know that from day one you start
to lose a little of your heart;
your mother, with a world to save,
has given birth beside a grave,
and time, relentless surgeon’s knife,
year by year trims off your life.
But moments teach you not to be
deceived by immortality:
it’s far too little, far too much.
What you have is what you touch;
passion feeds on bread and bells,
a chime of sounds, bouquet of smells,
someone’s arm around your waist,
the best desire you’ll ever taste;
and every glance is one step of
the pilgrimage that leads to love —
silver voices, golden bough:
the immortality of now.
From New and Selected Poems, 1956-1996
Dennis Ray Bower, FFRF Lifetime Member and past president of the Inland Northwest Freethought Society, died of bladder cancer on April 4 at the age of 63.
Dennis was born in Mt. Clemens, Mich., but as an infant moved to Spokane, Wash., where he lived the rest of his life. He attended West Valley schools and was a Boy Scout. He was also an accomplished drummer and formed his own rock band in the 1970s. He worked for Kaiser Aluminum and retired after 43 years as a boiler-house operator.
Dennis strongly espoused the principle of separation of church and state and was a committed voice for freethought through FFRF and the FFRF-affiliated Inland Northwest Freethought Society (INFS) for more than 20 years.
In INFS, Dennis served as an elected officer in several capacities and took the helm of INFS president twice. One of the earliest members to join in the 1990s (when the group still went by the name of the PAINE Society, named after Thomas Paine — People Actively Into Non-Theistic Ethics), he was directly involved in lobbying for a brass plaque to be placed on the Centennial Trail in downtown Spokane, which reads: “Preserve America. Keep Church and State Separate. INFS 1998.”
Although his family never recognized his secular world view — he lost friends and family members because of it — Dennis remained an outspoken and ardent atheist. He attended several FFRF conventions and encouraged other INFS members to join him. As president, he initiated the rule that only FFRF members would have voting privileges in INFS, and even offered half-price FFRF memberships to new members, with Dennis personally providing the matching funds, to encourage them to join FFRF.
When INFS sponsored its first booth at the Spokane County Fair, Dennis decided that it needed a large scrapbook to place on the booth’s counter for fairgoers to peruse. INFS members met at his house to complete the ardurous task of cutting out hundreds of pages from back issues of Freethought Today that Dennis had saved for years and gluing them into a thick scrapbook — nearly 12 years of “Black Collar Crime.” He wanted to have something visual and substantial to present when someone contended that religion did a lot of good in the world.
An avid outdoorsman, Dennis enjoyed hiking, camping, climbing and kayaking. He biked the Hiawatha Trail several times with other INFS members and climbed Mount Rainier. In 2008, he climbed Mount Maude in the Cascades with fellow INFS members David Roeder and Kurt Wyant and Dennis’s dog, Rowan, for the first freethought mountain climb. David and Kurt took pictures holding a copy of Freethought Today at the summit, but Dennis had to retreat earlier because of an injury to his dog’s foot. Dennis decided that the second INFS mountain climb would surpass the first.
He immediately sent FFRF an announcement inviting all FFRF members across the nation to join him in tackling the 9,082-foot peak Mount Maude again in July 2009. This time, Dennis and five other INFS members made the climb. When the group successfully reached the summit, they held up a large yellow banner with words from John Lennon’s song “Imagine”: “Above us only sky” and the words “Team FFRF.”
In 2009, as president of INFS, Dennis lobbied for the creation of a special recognition award “for the advancement of Enlightenment values, selfless community service, and radiant good humor.” Called the INFS Achievement Award, it has been awarded to just eight people, including Dennis, posthumously.
“True to his own example, we celebrate his devotion to truth, his strength without insolence, his courage without ferocity or anger,” reads his INFS Achievement Award. “He was an honorable man, who looked at the world objectively, fearlessly, but trying always, in an empathetic way, to understand all things as part of nature.
“Few individuals can match Dennis’s stalwart support for advancing the ideals of rationalism and freethought in the Inland Northwest. In recognition of a lifetime of unwavering commitment to truth, science, calm reason and non-theistic ethics, we honor Dennis Ray Bower as the eighth recipient of the Inland Northwest Freethought Achievement Ward, this 8th day of September, 2019.”
Editor’s note: FFRF thanks Elizabeth Rose of INFS for providing the information for this obituary.
FFRF would like to thank and welcome its 26 newest Lifetime Members, two new After-Life members, one new Beyond After-Life Member and one new Immortal.
The two new Beyond After-Life Members are Marjorie R. Devereaux and David W. Hall. The Beyond After-Life category is a $10,000 membership designation. The most recent After-Life Member is Mike Spurlino. The After-Life category is a $5,000 membership designation for those who want their donation to live on after them.
The new $1,000 individual Lifetime Members are: Anonymous, James L. Amspacher, Robert U. Anderson, Paul Baenen, Robyn Baxendale (gifted by Dave Kinsey), Ian W. Bell (gifted by Rita E. Bell), Bradley Boyd (gifted by Philip Sine), Ryan Dearing, Keith Dricken, Ann Furek, Marcia L. Goodman, Larry G. Hay, J. Rene’ Herber, Kevin B. Judd, Michelle King, Kelly Kirkland, Eric Krebs, Larry Krueger, Konrad Kummli, Rebecca J. Martinez (gifted by Dave Kinsey), John Pedersen, Kathryn Smyly, Glenn Sullivan, Alicia Vande Ven, Gloria Trunk (gifted by Stephen D. Trunk) and William K. Wenger.
States represented are Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Texas, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin.
The newest Immortal is Carll Peterson. That category is a designation for those generous members who have contacted FFRF to report they have made provisions for FFRF in their estate planning.
The nation’s highest court has sided with the Freedom From Religion Foundation and let stand an important ruling ensuring that parents can bring suit over religious instruction in public schools.
The U.S. Supreme Court declined Oct. 7 to hear a case by a West Virginia school district that sought to overturn a resounding victory for FFRF and a parent of a public school student. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled last December that Elizabeth Deal, the parent, had standing to challenge bible classes in the Mercer County, W.Va., school system. The Supreme Court formally declined to hear the case by issuing a denial of the school system’s petition for review.
The Mercer County Schools system had argued before the Supreme Court that Deal’s decision to send her child to a neighboring school system meant that she could no longer challenge the bible classes. Attorneys affiliated with the anti-LGBTQ legal group First Liberty Institute are representing the school system in the case.
In a brief filed with the Supreme Court, FFRF attorneys contended that Deal and her daughter could continue to pursue their case against the unconstitutional bible classes. The brief said, “The 4th Circuit’s conclusion — that a mother has standing to challenge a religious program that she is taking ongoing measures to avoid — is consistent with this court’s Establishment Clause jurisprudence.”
FFRF commends the Supreme Court’s move.
“This decision will stand as precedent ensuring that people who are harmed by religious indoctrination in their community can pursue legal action to end those illegal practices,” says FFRF Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott.
Bible indoctrination classes were taught in Mercer County Schools for more than 75 years until this lawsuit. The original legal complaint has examples of the blatantly religious curriculum. One lesson promoted creationism by claiming humans and dinosaurs co-existed. Students were asked to “picture Adam being able to crawl up on the back of a dinosaur! He and Eve could have their own personal water slide! Wouldn’t that be so wild!”
Following the lawsuit, the classes were suspended by the district — a major victory for FFRF. However, the federal court then dismissed the case on jurisdictional grounds due to the suspension, even though the bible classes could resume.
Deal filed an appeal before the 4th Circuit. The appellate brief filed by Attorney Marc Schneider and Elliott argued that Deal and her daughter could continue to pursue claims against the school district even though her daughter was attending a neighboring school system.
The 4th Circuit agreed with the plaintiffs’ perspective.
“If the district court were to enjoin the county from offering the Bible in the Schools program to students in the future, Deal would no longer feel compelled to send Jessica to a neighboring school district to avoid what Deal views as state-sponsored religious instruction,” the appeals court stated.
The district court’s decision was reversed and remanded. Now, with the Supreme Court refusing to hear the case, it is proceeding before Judge David Faber in the Southern District of West Virginia.
“The country’s topmost judicial authority has rightly let this decision stand,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “There can’t be a bigger boost to our secular Constitution.”
New billboards are up near the campuses of Stanford University and the University of Tennessee as part of a nationwide campaign by FFRF featuring young freethinkers of color who have overcome discrimination in heavily religious communities.
“I was raised as a Baptist Christian, but I put God to the test with my scientific thinking — and he didn’t survive,” says Therrin Wilson, a University of Tennessee senior who is featured on the billboard that sits on the campus in Knoxville. “I’ve had to overcome friends, family, and relationships all shutting me out, but overcoming that adversity is what made me as proud to be an atheist as I am to be an African-American. Organizations such as the Secular Student Alliance and Freedom From Religion Foundation all contribute to the atheist sense of belonging, so it’s like a second home to me.”
Anissa Foster, a Stanford University sophomore who grew up attending Islamic schools and mosques before breaking with tradition, is featured on the billboard that is up in Palo Alto, which is adjacent to Stanford.
“Throughout the world, women are oppressed and oversexualized by misogynistic religions,” Foster says. “We as Muslim women can’t keep living under a veil anymore; we have to demand rights and we have to demand equality. For me, that means speaking out about the oppression of women in my religion and all religions.”
This year, for the first time, FFRF featured some of its essay contest award winners in billboards and digital video ads shown across the country. Wilson and Foster were a couple of its recent honorees and selected for the billboard because of their strong messages. FFRF pays out more than $80,000 in scholarship award money annually in five separate essay competitions (high school, college, students of color, grad school, law school).
“FFRF is committed to helping young freethinkers like Anissa to come out of the closet and speak up,” says Annie Laurie Gaylor, who co-founded FFRF with her late mother, Anne Nicol Gaylor. “FFRF came into existence after our realization that the battle for women’s rights would never be won until we got to the root cause of that oppression — religion and its influence over our laws. Anne would have loved seeing strong freethinkers like Anissa taking the reins of leadership.”
The billboard near Stanford is not FFRF’s first foray into the Bay Area. FFRF held its national convention in San Francisco in 2018, featuring freethinkers, humanists and nonbelievers from across the country and world. It was keynoted by author Salman Rushdie and U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman, the only “out” nonbeliever in Congress, who spoke and received an award.
Lifetime Member and FFRF donor extraordinaire Brian Bolton of Texas reminded FFRF that it is the 10th year of the graduate/‘older’ student essay contest. Bolton has been underwriting the competition since its inception in 2010. This year’s prize money totaled nearly $18,000 and the winning essays are printed in this issue.
“It’s hard to believe that this is the 10th anniversary of the graduate student essay competition,” Bolton writes. “The cash awards for the first contest totaled $5,000, indicating just how much this contest has grown. And how appropriate that the second-place winner in the inaugural competition published a book on the subject of his award-winning essay.”
That second-place winner back in 2009 was none other than Andrew L. Seidel, who is now FFRF’s director of strategic response and author of the new book, The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism is Un-American. Seidel’s essay back in 2009 was titled, “The wall of separation requires vigilance.”
“I was so interested in the topic that I began writing a law review article on the myth that the Ten Commandments influenced the American founding,” Seidel said recently. “It got out of hand. That law review eventually became my book — eight years later. But an outline of that article became my award-winning FFRF essay. Nearly
all its themes are reflected in my book. Indeed, some of its central themes are right there in the essay: ‘The idea that patriotism requires religious belief is revolting. To truly love freedom, to support the Constitution, to honor our founding generation and our nation is to strive to build up the ‘wall of separation,’ not tear it down.’”
Seidel added that doing the research for the law review and essay made him want to become personally involved.
“The more I researched and wrote, the more I wanted to work on state-church separation, not just write about it,” he says. “I began volunteering to do legal work for FFRF, took Dan Barker out to breakfast when he was in Denver, and eventually, after a damn good letter full of begging and pleading on my part, received an offer from Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan. Was I going to abandon my promising career in environmental law and a lovely salary at a private firm to pursue the dream of fighting to uphold the First Amendment, of battling bullies who want to use government offices that belong to ‘We the People’ to promote their personal religion? Damn right! But my sister actually made the most convincing argument. When I was contemplating the offer, she said, ‘Andrew, there are thousands of talented attorneys working to save the environment, one more may not make a difference. But how many are fighting for the atheist or Jewish or Buddhist kid whose Christian teacher is ostracizing him in his public school classroom?’ Very few, and now, I know them all. I accepted the job after we hung up the phone.”
Name: Eric Krebs.
Where I live: Highland Park, N.J., and New York City.
Where and when I was born: Danbury, Conn., in 1944.
Family: Married to Suzanne for 47-plus years. Children: Arielle, who runs Get in the Game voter registration at professional sporting events, and Justin, who works MoveOn.org and founded Living Liberally.
Education: Rutgers, B.A. in English in 1966, master’s degree in 1973. Informal education: Living life among fellow humans.
Occupation: Professor of theater for 37 years at Rutgers and 13 years at City University of New York. Retired this summer after my 100th semester. Also, I have been a theatrical producer for over 50 years — Broadway, off-Broadway, regional theater — and more than 150 productions.
How I got where I am today: I quit playing football during college and found a wonderful community in theater production. I wrote plays, performed plays, started theaters (including George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, N.J., which has just begun its 45th season in a brand new performing arts center), produced on and off Broadway and even continue to perform occasionally my own one-person shows.
Where I’m headed: Oblivion . . . but until I get there, I will do the best I can for those around me.
Person in history I admire and why: Walt Whitman. He understood life and compassion and empathy as well as anyone I could ever imagine. He celebrated all humanity.
A quotation I like: “I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no ‘brief candle’ for me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future
generations.” — George Bernard Shaw
These are a few of my favorite things: Reading poetry, often aloud. The Catskill Mountains in New York, where I hang out in the woods in a stone cabin that I built 45 years ago. The response of an audience at a theater event
coming together as a joyous community.
These are not: Organized religion in all its iterations, greed in all of its forms, lack of compassion and empathy for less fortunate.
My doubts about religion started: My great-grandfather was a major rabbi in New York City. My father was a German communist who fought the Nazis. My mother was a sometimes Unitarian. Happy to say, I never “got religion” . . . just humanism.
Before I die: I would like to believe that science and rationalism will save humanity, but I doubt it. I have come to peace with the word “vanish.”
Ways I promote freethought: I recently commissioned and produced a play called “God Shows Up.” What happens when God shows up at the broadcast studio of a televangelist and, in so doing, demolishes most elements of religion?
Also, I love to ask people when we get close to religious topics: “Are you a person of faith?” I get a lot of interesting answers, but few out-and-out statements of belief.
I wish you’d have asked me: What are you working on now? I have just produced three very successful weeks of a comedy festival called Laughing Liberally: Make America Laugh Again. Based on this success, during the coming 2020 election cycle I will be mounting a much grander production in New York in order to make America laugh again.