‘IM GOD’: Federal court OKs license plate

Ben Hart shows off his Ohio “IM GOD” license plate. When he moved to Kentucky, the state would not allow him to use that phrase because it was deemed “obscene or vulgar.” But on Nov. 13, a federal court ruled that the state “went too far” in censoring him.

A federal court on Nov. 13 cleared the way for a Kentucky man, backed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the ACLU of Kentucky, to obtain a personalized license plate reading “IM GOD.”

In November 2016, FFRF Member Ben Hart filed a lawsuit after he was denied the personalized license plate. Kentucky Division of Motor Vehicle officials, who have approved several religious personalized plates, refused Hart’s request, initially calling his “IM GOD” license plate message “obscene or vulgar.” Later, the state said the plate was rejected because it was “not in good taste.” While residing in Ohio, Hart had a similar license plate (pictured below).

The lawsuit, filed on Hart’s behalf by FFRF and ACLU of Kentucky, challenged the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet’s denial of his plate based on statutory viewpoint restrictions that govern religious, anti-religious or political messages.

“The Commonwealth [of Kentucky] went too far,” the U.S. District Court for the Eastern Court of Kentucky resoundingly ruled in favor of Hart.

“To allow such plates as ‘IM4GOD’ and ‘LUVGOD’ but reject ‘IM GOD’ belies viewpoint neutrality,” the court stated. “Regardless, the court concludes that in this case, [the statute governing such license plates] is an unreasonable and therefore impermissible restriction on Mr. Hart’s First Amendment rights.”

FFRF celebrated the ruling.

“As the court affirmed, the denial of Ben Hart’s choice of a license plate was pure discrimination,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “We are delighted that the court realized the bias the state of Kentucky was displaying toward nonbelievers.”

The ACLU of Kentucky also welcomed the judgment.

“Today’s ruling makes clear that Mr. Hart’s personalized plate request was denied based on reasons that violate the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. In light of the court’s ruling, we expect the Transportation Cabinet’s license plate review process will respect the First Amendment moving forward,” says ACLU of Kentucky Legal Director Corey Shapiro.

FFRF and ACLU of Kentucky member Ben Hart is a Postal Service retiree and married to his middle- school sweetheart. Although raised in a religious family, he began to question religion as a child and now identifies as an atheist.

“I’m thankful to finally have the same opportunity to select a personal message for my license plate just as any other driver,” says Hart. “There is nothing inappropriate about my view that religious beliefs are subject to individual interpretation.”

ACLU of Kentucky Attorneys Corey Shapiro and Heather Gatnarek represent Hart alongside Rebecca Markert, Patrick Elliott and Colin McNamara of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

FFRF saves Wisconsin county $50K a year

Racine County in Wisconsin has nixed its funding of a Christian youth group after the Freedom From Religion Foundation objected to taxpayer money going to an unambiguously sectarian organization.

Racine County had been bestowing its largesse on a group called Youth For Christ since 2013 to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars each year ($100,000 from 2013 to 2016 and $50,000 per year since then). In July of this year, FFRF contacted the county to raise constitutional concerns about the funding and to ask for all relevant records pertaining to the religious boondoggle.

In its initial response to FFRF, the county defended its funding of Youth For Christ because it stated that “Racine County believes in a comprehensive and holistic approach to rehabilitation and knows that individual success is based upon all seven dimensions of wellness — spiritual wellness being one of those components.” This response was unacceptable to FFRF, since it’s unconstitutional for Racine County to fund religious activities, even if it was describing them as providing “spiritual wellness.”

The county recently seems to have had a change of heart, however. It has finalized its 2020 budget and will not be handing out money to the Christian group.

FFRF praises the county’s adherence to constitutional principles, albeit a tad belatedly.

“We commend Racine County’s realization that it wasn’t being a good steward of taxpayer funds,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “The tens of thousands of dollars that was being given away to a Christian group can now be used for the benefit of all Racine County residents.”

Charity rating group: FFRF is tops

Charity certificate

The country’s premier nonprofit charity rating organization has just attested that the Freedom From Religion Foundation belongs to an amazingly exclusive club.

“We are proud to announce Freedom From Religion Foundation has earned our 10th consecutive four-star rating,” Charity Navigator President and CEO Michael Thatcher recently informed FFRF in a letter. “Only 2 percent of the charities we evaluate have received at least 10 consecutive four-star evaluations, indicating that Freedom From Religion Foundation outperforms most other charities in America. This exceptional designation from Charity Navigator sets Freedom From Religion Foundation apart from its peers and demonstrates to the public its trustworthiness.”

That’s not all. Charity Navigator has placed FFRF in the tiny fraction of charities attaining a 100 percent accountability and transparency score. “Less than 1 percent of the thousands of charities rated by Charity Navigator have earned perfect scores,” says the organization’s website. FFRF is, in fact, only one of three charities in the human and civil rights category with a 100 percent rating.

Even in comparison with other reputable charities, FFRF emerges ahead. For instance, it has a better score than either the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence or the Electronic Privacy Information Center, both highly regarded nonprofits.

FFRF is elated at this mark of confidence.

“We consider ourselves responsible stewards of our members’ money, and we’re delighted that Charity Navigator has confirmed that,” says FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. “It’s affirming to have this assurance for our supporters about how careful FFRF is in utilizing their contributions for important work.”

Overheard (December 2019)

A sincere religious belief against vaccination should have the same weight as a sincere belief in whatever Jenny McCarthy says. Discrimination bolstered by bible verses is just like the regular kind. And when those beliefs conflict with laws that protect other people’s health or civil rights, the believer shouldn’t get to wave a magic wand to make the law disappear.

Kate Cohn, in her op-ed, “What’s so special about ‘religious belief’?”

Washington Post, 10-6-19

Knowledge is always power. If you’re afraid to take a course because you’re worried it’ll change your beliefs, that’s not a very good sign.

Nadia Muraweh, outreach director for the Muslim Students Association of Arizona State University, on some students not wanting to take courses on religion. 

The State Press, 10-4-19

Consider for a moment how inappropriate it is for [William] Barr, of all people, to have given such a speech. The Constitution guarantees freedom of religion; the nation’s chief law enforcement officer has no business denouncing those who exercise that freedom by choosing not to endorse any religion.

Columnist Paul Krugman in his article, “God Is Now Trump’s Co-Conspirator,” writing about how, in a speech, Attorney General William Barr denounced “the threat to America posed by ‘militant secularists,’” whom he accused of conspiring to destroy the “traditional moral order,” blaming them for rising mental illness, drug dependency and violence.

The New York Times, 10-14-19

It has always struck me as strange that a narrative about genocide — Noah and the ark — should be employed as a children’s story. As the other boys and girls in Sunday school focused on the cuteness of the rescued animals, I remember thinking about the mass of humanity desperately clawing to get into Noah’s boat.

Michael Gerson, in his column, “White evangelical Protestants are fully disrobed. And it is an embarrassing sight.”

The Washington Post, 10-29-19

Instead of doing something substantive and helpful, we’re trying to politicize a tree.

Wisconsin Democratic state Rep. Jonathan Brostoff, commenting on how the Republican-majority Legislature spent time voting to call the holiday tree in the state Capitol rotunda a Christmas tree rather than using that time to pass gun control bills.

Washington Post, 11-12-19

Church was never part of our relationship. And we found that we really enjoyed our friends’ weddings not held in churches.

Janet Belland, in the article by Jean Hopfensperger, “Weddings a less religious affair.” According to The Knot, a national wedding planning website, religious institutions hosted only 22 percent of weddings in 2017, which is down from 41 percent in 2009.

Minneapolis Star Tribune, 6-29-19

As long as evangelicals continue to install and celebrate religious bigotry in power out of fear, portraying all nonbelievers as threats coming to get them, things are going to get much, much, worse.

Tyler Broker, in his article, “A religious bigot in power plays the victim,” regarding Attorney General William Barr’s statements about religion and secularism. (See page 23.)

Above the Law, 11-5-19

It is, simply, bigotry enshrined in law; cruelty written into statute. Church and state are currently the very opposite of separated; they are dancing a delirious tango, with LGBTQ rights trampled underfoot. . . . This is the new way of expressing anti-LGBTQ prejudice. Without explicitly stating that you hate LGBTQ people, or wish to deny them equality, you can say that you’re upholding your religious liberty or freedom instead.

Tim Teeman, in his column “Let’s call ‘religious freedom’ by its real name: poisonous, anti-LGBTQ bigotry.”

Daily Beast, 11-5-19

If nothing else, government-sponsored Christianity creates a caste system based on religion. For the government to align itself with one and only one religion is to send a message that (a) there is one true religion and (b) adherence to that religion is the approved way be a true citizen of the polity. All those who do not bow their heads with the government do not belong in the same way (or at all). . . . This encouragement of Christian nationalism is completely avoidable. There is no need for government-sponsored Christianity.

University of Miami School of Law student Caroline Mala Corbin, in her article “The Supreme Court’s facilitation of white Christian Nationalism.”

Alabama Law Review, 10-20-19

I suspect that one of the reasons we’re not hearing much from Democratic operatives about dealing with the God gap in this election cycle is because they think it matters less and less. Sure, frequent attenders continue to vote Republican, but there are fewer and fewer of them — and more and more Nones.

Mark Silk, in his article “Do the Democrats have a religion problem?”

Religion News Service, 10-31-19

Heads Up poetry column: New Year’s Resolution

A Poetry Column By Philip Appleman

New Year’s Resolution

Well, I did it again, bringing in

that infant Purity across the land,

welcoming Innocence with gin

in New York, waiting up

to help Chicago,

Denver, L.A., Fairbanks, Hon-

olulu—and now

the high school bands are alienating Dallas,

and girls in gold and tangerine

have lost all touch with Pasadena,

and young men with muscles and missing teeth

are dreaming of personal fouls,

and it’s all beginning again, just like

those other Januaries in

instant replay.

But I’ve had enough

of turning to look back, the old

post-morteming of defeat:

people I loved but didn’t touch,

friends I haven’t seen for years,

strangers who smiled but didn’t speak—failures,

failures. No,

I refuse to leave it at that, because

somewhere, off camera,

January is coming like Venus

up from the murk of December, re-

virginized, as innocent

of loss as any dawn. Resolved: this year

I’m going to break my losing streak,

I’m going to stay alert, reach out,

speak when not spoken to,

read the minds of people in the streets.

I’m going to practice every day,

stay in training, and be moderate

in all things.

All things but love.

(New and Selected Poems, 1956-1996)

FFRF welcomes 24 new Life Members, four After-Lifers

FFRF would like to thank and welcome its 24 newest Lifetime Members and four After-Life Members.

The four new After-Life Members are Bapu Arekapudi, Kirk L. Jacobson, John Lopez and Kenneth A. Schmidt. 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 Alexander Alexiou, Noral Baughman, Dr. Fred O. Butler, Dennis T. DeDomenico, Dr. James R. Flowers, Brian S. Fouse, Jon Galehouse, Diane Eigsti Gerber, Joseph R. Giganti, Thomas L. Johnson, David C. Kloss, Peter Larsen, Pam LeMay, Barbara Miller, Louise S. Montgomery, David Osher, Edwin Rogers, Patrick Rollins, Melissa Shepherd, Rebecca Vecoli, Lissa Walter, Lindsay D. Wheeler (gifted by Dr. Jim H. Wheeler), Dr. Tyler H. Wheeler (gifted by Dr. Jim H. Wheeler) and Dan C. Yarbrough.

States represented are Alaska, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin.

In the News (December 2019)

In U.S., decline of Christianity continues

In the past decade, the number of people who describe themselves as Christian has dropped 12 percentage points, according to Pew Research Center polling from 2018 and 2019.

Currently, 65 percent of American adults describe themselves as Christians, down from 77 percent a decade ago. Meanwhile, the religiously unaffiliated share of the population, consisting of people who describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular,” is at 26 percent, up from 17 percent in 2009.

According to the survey, 43 percent of U.S. adults identify with Protestantism, down from 51 percent in 2009. And one-in-five adults (20 percent) are Catholic, down from 23 percent in 2009. Meanwhile, all subsets of the religiously unaffiliated population (the “Nones”) have seen their numbers swell. Self-described atheists now account for 4 percent of U.S. adults, up modestly but significantly from 2 percent in 2009; agnostics make up 5 percent of U.S. adults, up from 3 percent a decade ago; and 17 percent of Americans now describe their religion as “nothing in particular,” up from 12 percent in 2009.

Bangladeshi court indicts 8 in publisher’s death

A court in Bangladesh indicted eight men for the murder of Faisal Abedin Deepan, a former publisher of atheist author Avijit Roy’s works. (Roy was hacked to death in 2015.)

Deepan was found dead in his office in October 2015. He was killed by members of the group Ansar al Islam. Another publisher of Roy’s books was also attacked that day, but survived.

Judge Majibur Rahman read out the charges to six of the suspects, who pleaded not guilty. Another two remained fugitives, and the judge issued arrest warrants for them.

Religious discrimination case settled for $565K

San Diego is paying out $565,000 in a religious discrimination case in which a supervisor allegedly urged workers to attend church, said nonbelievers will “go to hell” and said supporters of same-sex marriage aren’t “children of God.”

Rasean Johnson claimed in a 2017 lawsuit that he was demoted in retaliation for complaining that his supervisor Sheila Beale pressured him to become more religious and criticized him to others for being a “nonbeliever.”

The lawsuit claims the city and his supervisor violated Johnson’s right to freedom of religion under Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act.

Attorneys for the city have agreed to pay $298,000 to Johnson and $267,000 to his attorneys in the case, Smith Steiner Vanderpool of San Diego.

A key claim in the lawsuit is that city officials retaliated against Johnson for filing a grievance in 2015. An investigation prompted by the grievance determined that his complaints about his supervisor had merit.

Survey: Americans want religion out of politics

Adults in the United States are clear in their belief that religious institutions should stay out of politics. Nearly two-thirds of Americans in the new Pew Research Center survey say churches and other houses of worship should keep out of political matters, while 36 percent say they should express their views on social and political questions. And three-quarters of the public expresses the view that churches should not come out in favor of one candidate over another during elections, in contrast with efforts by President Trump to roll back existing legal limits on houses of worship endorsing candidates.

In addition, Americans are more likely to say that churches and other houses of worship currently have too much influence in politics (37 percent) rather than too little (28 percent).

China leads world in percentage of atheists

From World Population Review, the six countries with the highest percentage of populations identifying as atheists are, in order: China, Japan, Czech Republic, France, Australia and Iceland.

Approximately 40-49 percent of China’s population says that they’re atheists. Confucianism, which is one of China’s oldest philosophical systems, is notable for its lack of a belief in a deity.

In the United States, approximately 10 percent identify as atheists or agnostics, which is an all-time high. Approximately 40 percent of those atheists/agnostics are ages 18-29, and 37 percent of them are ages 30-49. Millennials and Gen Z are the most racially, ethnically and religiously diverse generation. Out of the 96 countries ranked, the United States ranked 32nd for highest percentage of atheists.

Ohio students’ beliefs may usurp science facts

The Ohio state House of Representatives has passed legislation critics say will allow public school students to get full marks on science tests if their answers reflect “sincerely held religious beliefs,” even if they’re factually wrong.

Ohio House Bill 164, known as the Ohio Student Religious Liberties Act, includes a clause that reads: “Assignment grades and scores shall be calculated using ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance, including any legitimate pedagogical concerns, and shall not penalize or reward a student based on the religious content of their work.”

That potentially means that students can’t be marked down for an answer that is in line with their religious beliefs, even if it contradicts the best science.

The Ohio Senate has a Republican majority and the governor is also Republican, so its chances of passage are high.

Foreign aid to be based on religious freedom?

Aides to President Donald Trump are drafting plans to condition U.S. aid to other countries on how well they treat their religious minorities, according to an exclusive report in Politico.

The proposal is expected to cover humanitarian and development assistance and could also be broadened to include American military aid to other countries. Politico writes: “If the proposal becomes reality, it could have a major effect on U.S. assistance in a range of places, from Iraq to Vietnam. Its mere consideration shows how much the White House prioritizes religious freedom, an emphasis critics say is really about galvanizing Trump’s evangelical Christian base.”

Report: Pence’s office favored Christian groups

Over the last two years, political pressure, particularly from the office of Vice President Mike Pence, had “seeped into aid deliberations and convinced key decision-makers that unless they fell in line, their jobs could be at stake,” according to a report by ProPublica.

The efforts to influence USAID funding sparked concern from career officials, who worry the agency risked violating constitutional prohibitions on favoring one religion over another. They also were concerned that being perceived as favoring Christians could worsen Iraq’s sectarian divides.

USAID regulations state that awards “must be free from political interference or even the appearance of such interference and must be made on the basis of merit, not on the basis of the religious affiliation of a recipient organization, or lack thereof.”

Televangelist White joins Trump administration

Paula White, a “prosperity” televangelist based in Florida and personal pastor to President Trump whom he has known since 2002, has joined the Trump administration in an official capacity.

White will work in the Office of Public Liaison, the official said, which is the division of the White House overseeing outreach to groups and coalitions organizing key parts of the president’s base. Her role will be to advise the administration’s Faith and Opportunity Initiative, which Trump established last year by executive order and which aims to give religious groups more of a voice in government programs devoted to issues like defending religious liberty and fighting poverty.

Pastor burns copy of The Founding Myth

Pastor burns book

Oblivious to the disturbing connotations of his act, a pastor on Oct. 23 on social media burned a copy of a FFRF attorney’s new book on Christian Nationalism.

After Pastor Greg Locke vehemently denounced FFRF’s freethinking ad featuring Ron Reagan during a Democratic primary debate, Seidel sent Locke a copy of his book The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism is Un-American for his edification. Locke chose to respond to Seidel’s gesture by denouncing it in an ignorant video rant (“there is no history of America without God,” he opined). He then torched the book in a perhaps inadvertent homage to the dystopian classic Fahrenheit 451. The final shot in his video is that of The Founding Myth burning on the gravel in, presumably, his driveway.

FFRF is appalled but not completely surprised at Locke’s over-the-top act.

“Locke fails to understand something that FDR explained some 80 years ago: ‘Books cannot be killed by fire,’” says Seidel, FFRF’s director of strategic response. “Locke may have burned a copy of The Founding Myth, but he admitted that he cannot comprehend the basic history and facts in the book.”

Seidel’s new book asks a simple question: Did Judeo-Christian principles positively influence the founding of the United States? Seidel argues that America was not founded on Judeo-Christian principles and that this is a good thing because Judeo-Christian principles, especially those central to the Christian Nationalist identity, are thoroughly opposed to the principles on which the U.S. was built.

“Seeing my book burned — a book I spent eight years researching and writing — brought on an odd mix of feelings,” adds Seidel. “Certainly, I experienced the revulsion and horror any thinking person has when witnessing a book burning, but I’ll also admit to a touch of pride. I set out to write a book that destroys the Christian Nationalist identity, and this Christian Nationalist recognized the threat . . . without even reading it.”

FFRF: Don’t ban abortion in Wisconsin

A billboard placed by FFRF at the corner of West Washington Avenue and Park Street in Madison, Wis., calls for protection of abortion rights in Wisconsin. (Photo by Chris Line)

FFRF, based in Madison, Wis., is calling on the Wisconsin Legislature to finally overturn the state’s archaic 170-year-old statute criminalizing abortion.

The 1849 law could go into immediate effect should the U.S. Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade or if it decides to throw the decision-making on abortion rights to state legislatures.

In November, FFRF placed a month-long message on a 12-by-25-foot billboard in Madison about five blocks from the Wisconsin Capitol. The dramatic billboard bears a Handmaid’s Tale-esque likeness of a woman holding a “Help” sign, drawn by Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Steve Benson. The billboard urges, “Don’t let it happen here.” It adds: “Pass Wisconsin’s Abortion Access Protection Act now.”

State Rep. Lisa Subeck and state Sen. Fred Risser have introduced this act in the Legislature, but no further action has been taken on it so far. Wisconsin physicians who perform abortions would go to prison for up to six years under the criminal statute. At least eight other states have retained recklessly outdated statutes on the books also criminalizing abortion.

With the addition of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, replacing the pro-choice swing voter Justice Anthony Kennedy, anti-abortion legislatures are rushing to pass as many restrictions as possible to overturn Roe v. Wade. This year alone, eight states have passed bans based on gestational age (often before the pregnancy has been detected), and Alabama has passed an outright ban. State legislators in Tennessee, Pennsylvania and South Carolina are currently advancing bans on abortion after six weeks of pregnancy.

FFRF says that it’s long overdue for Wisconsin citizens to demand the immediate repeal of Wisconsin’s shameful criminal abortion law. The only opposition to abortion rights is religious in nature, FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor points out, which makes “abortion a state/church issue.”

FFRF started in Madison in the late 1970s, after the experience of FFRF’s principal founder, Anne Nicol Gaylor, in crusading for abortion and contraceptive rights, which opened the eyes of the mother/daughter duo to the dangers of religious control of government.

“We realized that the battle for women’s rights would never end, unless we got at the root cause of the denial of those rights — which is the unwarranted influence of religion over our laws and social policy,” says Gaylor.

Wisconsin Capitol tree should be for everyone

The Wisconsin State Assembly voted to rename the Capitol rotunda holiday tree a “Christmas” tree. (Photo by Corey Coyle / CC3.0)

The Wisconsin State Assembly, by a vote of 64-30, adopted a resolution Nov. 12 declaring the decorated tree in the Capitol rotunda be called a “Wisconsin State Christmas tree.” The same resolution was passed by the Assembly in 2007, but died in the Senate.

Obviously, calling it a “Christmas” tree pins the decoration to one religion’s holiest day. Labeling it a holiday tree, which it was called since 1985 until 2010, signals inclusion. Former Gov. Scott Walker broke with tradition by piously dubbing it a “Christmas” tree. Current Gov. Tony Evers decided that it should go back to being called a holiday tree.

Kudos to the governor for also calling for a “Celebrate Science” decoration theme. Students are invited to make the ornaments, so Evers deserves praise for turning this into an educational moment. In recent years under Walker, cut-out manger scenes had even turned up at the tree.

The legislators piously voting for this resolution should themselves go back to science class. They don’t realize that the real reason for the season is the astronomical event known as the Winter Solstice — the shortest, darkest day of the year, celebrating for millennia in the Northern Hemisphere with festivals of light, tree decorating, yule logs, gift exchanges and other festivities.

They should go back to history class, too. The Puritans actually banned the observance of Christmas Day, knowing full well all the secular trimmings associated with it had pagan roots.

While the Assembly “gotcha” votes may seem laughable, there is a darker side to them. The impetus is clearly Christian Nationalist, with legislators misusing their civil, secular authority to endorse and promote their own religious views and so-called holy book over other religions, and over nonreligion.