Katherine Stewart: Don’t let Trump pay back evangelicals like this

This article first appeared in The New York Times on March 6 and is reprinted with permission.

By Katherine Stewart

M

Katherine Stewart

any Americans know by now that when Christian nationalists talk about “religious freedom” they are really asking for the privilege to impose their religion on other people. What Americans may not yet understand is that they are also demanding money from taxpayers to do so.

Long before Donald Trump hitched his political fortunes to the Christian Right, previous Republican administrations had primed the pumps that would send public money flowing toward religious organizations.

In 2002, the George W. Bush administration increased the flow of federal money to faith-based organizations providing services on behalf of the government. Bush himself insisted that these organizations would not be permitted to discriminate. But, in fact, the new method of faith-based funding invited the risk of discrimination and the erosion of church-state separation.

The Obama administration, responding to these concerns, put in place provisions to ensure that members of the public were not subject to discrimination on the basis of religious belief or unwanted proselytizing. The provisions also required that users of church-sponsored social programs be made aware of nonsectarian options.

The Trump administration is now proposing to eliminate these Obama-era safeguards. And true to form, they did so earlier this year, on the increasingly Orwellian-sounding annual Religious Freedom Day in January.

One purpose of the new proposed regulations is to make sure that organizations receiving taxpayer money are exempt from the kinds of anti-discrimination law by which nonreligious organizations must abide. If that sounds like a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, that’s because it is — or at least it should be.

Under the proposed regulations, faith-based aid organizations that receive public money are free to hire and fire their workers and subcontractors on account of their religion, sexual orientation, or any other behavior or characteristic that the organization finds religiously appealing or objectionable. Organizations that receive their money through vouchers and other forms of indirect aid can now proselytize, require that recipients participate in religious activities or ask that recipients pledge their loyalty to Jesus. And the government itself is no longer required to offer a nonsectarian option for those whose beliefs or conscience make it impossible for them to accept aid on these terms.

Why is the Trump administration so determined to tear down the wall of separation between church and state? The long game is clear: because that’s the way you “take back America” and make it a Christian nation.

But the short game is more relevant now. There is a pile of public money on the other side of the wall that separates church and state, and Christian Nationalists are determined to grab it (and to hold on to what they have already grabbed).

These kinds of pro-discrimination rules are bound to cause harm. There may be a woman who loses her job at a faith-based service provider because she is “living in sin” with her partner. There may be people seeking counseling services who will forgo the help they need because it is offered only in conservative Christian health care settings and is staffed with Christian-only providers, all of whom claim to be living in conformity with a “bible lifestyle.”

There will be some minority-religion providers — a Jewish soup kitchen here, a Muslim job-training initiative there — that will defend the new rules and claim to benefit from them. But they will serve, in effect, as strategic cover, lending the appearance of diversity to a movement that ties the idea of America to specific conservative religious and cultural identities.

Legitimizing these forms of discrimination is itself a grotesque violation of whatever it is that we actually mean by religious freedom. But that’s the point, as far as Trump and his Christian Nationalist allies are concerned. The religious rights of the larger American public are collateral damage in a war of conquest aimed squarely at the public coffers.

To grasp the motivation for the Trump administration in promulgating “religious freedom,” it helps to review a little Supreme Court history. In 2017, the Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Mo., brought a case in which the church claimed that it had an equal claim to government grants for purchasing materials to upgrade its playground.

Lawyers from conservative Christian legal organizations, including the Alliance Defending Freedom, argued that refusing to allocate public money to religious institutions amounted to discrimination against religion. This theory, if it takes hold in law, significantly weakens the Establishment Clause. If withholding taxpayer money from religious institutions amounts to discrimination, then the taxpayer has no choice but to fund religion.

Some important things to know about today’s Christian Nationalist movement: It doesn’t believe in the First Amendment as we usually understand it and as our Founders intended it. It doesn’t believe that the government should make no law respecting an establishment of religion. It also takes a dim view of government assistance — unless the money passes through churches first. Politically connected religious leaders like Ralph Drollinger of Capitol Ministries, whose White House bible study has been attended by at least 10 current and former members of Trump’s cabinet, maintains that social welfare programs have no basis in scripture. “The responsibility to meet the needs of the poor lies first with the husband in a marriage, secondly with the family (if the husband is absent), and thirdly with the church,” Drollinger has written. “Again, nowhere does God command the institutions of government or commerce to fully support those with genuine needs.”

These ideas are shared by David Barton, a historical revisionist who sits on the boards of an array of Christian Nationalist legislative and data initiatives, pastoral networks and other influential groups. Barton has argued that the bible and God himself oppose progressive income taxes, capital gains taxes and minimum wage laws.

While these activists rail against direct government aid to the poor, they are eager to increase the flow of government handouts to churches and religious groups who may then provide the aid themselves, but without adherence to nondiscrimination law. As a further bonus, when the money gets funneled to religious organizations, some of it then can then be pumped back into the right-wing political machine through religious organizations and the policy groups they support, which act as de facto partisan political cells.

In order to understand the game that Christian Nationalists are playing, it’s important to remember that the First Amendment has two clauses concerning religion: one that guarantees the freedom to exercise religion and one that prohibits the government from establishing any religion. What the framers understood is that these two come as a pair; they are necessarily connected. We are free to exercise religion precisely because the government refrains from establishing religion.

At present, the Christian Nationalist movement has substantial sources of support in the form of access to wealthy donors and robust donor-advised charities. It also has a large base of supporters who make large numbers of small contributions. But leaders of the movement know that their bread will have a lot more butter if it comes from the government. They already receive significant funding indirectly from taxpayers in the form of deductions and exemptions. They are determined to secure these extra funds, and they are immensely fearful of losing them, especially if a pluralistic society decides to do something about the fact that its tax dollars are being used to fund groups that actively promote discrimination against many citizens and support radical political agendas.

In the future, if the Trump administration has its way, the current flow of taxpayer money to religious organizations may well look like the trickle before the flood. Religious nationalists dream of a time when most or all social welfare services pass through the hands of religious entities. They imagine a future in which a young woman seeking advice on reproductive health care will have nowhere to turn but a state-funded, church-operated network of “counseling” centers that will tell her she will go to hell if she doesn’t have the baby.

The discrimination against individuals and the misuse of public money that the Trump administration’s proposed regulations would allow is bad enough. But these are far from the worst consequences of this kind of assault on the separation of church and state. The most profound danger here is to the deep structure of American society and politics.

In 1786, when Thomas Jefferson and James Madison pushed through the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom that Religious Freedom Day commemorates, the issue that motivated them and that brought evangelical Christians at the time over to their side was a detested tax imposed on all Virginians to pay for the church services demanded by the established church. “To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical,” Jefferson wrote. “No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever.”

It is ironic, then, that the Trump administration’s religious freedom initiative seeks to fund religious organizations with taxpayer money. But what makes this particularly dangerous is that the same money in many cases goes to churches and religious organizations that are increasingly and aggressively asserting themselves in partisan politics, and that happen to support Trump. As Jefferson and Madison understood, the destruction of the wall that separates church and state corrupts politics just as surely as it corrupts religion.

Katherine Stewart is the author of The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism.

In the News (April 2020)

‘In God We Trust’ to be in all OK state buildings?

The Oklahoma House has backed a bill that would require hundreds of public buildings in the state to display the national motto, “In God We Trust.”

The House voted 76–20 on March 2 in favor of the bill, sending it to the Senate. House Bill 3817 would require the Office of Management and Enterprise Services to display “In God We Trust” in a prominent place in all state buildings, except for those owned by school districts.

The size and placement of the phrase would match how the motto is displayed in the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center.

The bill could cost the state an estimated $85,000 to place the signs in 342 state buildings.

Coach loses lawsuit over praying on field

The former high school assistant football coach in Washington who sued the school district after he was ordered in 2015 to stop praying on the field after games lost his lawsuit on March 5. FFRF had written an amicus brief in the case siding with the district.

U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Leighton ruled that Joe Kennedy’s religious rights were not violated when he was coaching at Bremerton High School.

Kennedy’s attorney said he would appeal.

In 2015, the district placed Kennedy on administrative leave after he repeatedly violated the district’s directive to stop praying on the field immediately after games

Appeals court upholds rules involving abortions

A U.S. appeals court on Feb. 24 upheld Trump administration changes that include additional hurdles for those seeking abortions through a federal program that helps low-income women.

The 7–4 ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned decisions issued by judges in Washington, Oregon and California. The court had already allowed the administration’s changes to begin taking effect while the government appealed those rulings.

The rules ban taxpayer-funded clinics in the Title X program from making abortion referrals and prohibit clinics that receive federal money from sharing office space with abortion providers — a rule critics said would force many to find new locations, undergo expensive remodels or shut down.

More than 20 states and several civil rights and health organizations challenged the rules in cases filed in Oregon, Washington and California. Judges in all three states blocked the rules from taking effect.

Religious ‘extremists’ target pregnant women

A global network of “crisis pregnancy centers,” backed by anti-abortion groups linked to the Trump White House, has been condemned by lawmakers, doctors and rights advocates for targeting vulnerable women with “disinformation, emotional manipulation and outright deceit,” according to a report by openDemocracy.

There are thousands of these centers in the United States and many have been criticized for posing as neutral health facilities for women while hiding their anti-abortion and religious agendas.

In its investigation, openDemocracy sent undercover reporters posing as vulnerable women with unwanted pregnancies to centers affiliated with Heartbeat International in 18 countries. It found that women were falsely told abortion increases risks of cancer and mental illness; that a woman needs consent from a partner to access abortion; and that hospitals will refuse to treat medical complications from abortion.

Heartbeat International has close ties to the White House. Vice President Pence has spoken at its events and President Trump applauded a 2018 Supreme Court decision in favor of crisis pregnancy centers.

Blasphemy resolution passes House committee

A bipartisan resolution calling for the worldwide repeal of blasphemy laws unanimously passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee on March 4.

Res. 512 calls for the Department of State to work toward the global repeal of criminal laws against blasphemy, apostasy and heresy.

The bill was introduced on July 23, 2019, by Rep. Jamie Raskin, co-founder of the Congressional Freethought Caucus, along with Rep. Mark Meadows.

Poll: Dem candidates not seen as very religious

Americans don’t consider the Democratic candidates to be particularly religious, according to a Pew Research Center survey that asked about four candidates (prior to Pete Buttigieg dropping out of the race): Joe Biden, Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

Sanders is described as “not too” or “not at all” religious by 60 percent, while a third of respondents say Sanders is at least “somewhat” religious.

Biden is the only candidate who is considered at least “somewhat” religious by more than half of U.S. adults (55 percent), though only 9 percent describe him as “very” religious.

Opinions about all four candidates are divided along party lines: Respondents who identify as Democrats or say they lean toward the Democratic Party are much more likely than Republicans and GOP leaners to say that Biden, Buttigieg, Sanders or Warren are at least somewhat religious.

While some Democrats are highly religious — especially black and Hispanic Democrats — the party has become increasingly unaffiliated in recent years. The share of Democrats and Democratic leaners who identify as Christian declined by 17 percentage points between 2009 and 2019 (from 72 percent to 55 percent), while the share who are religiously unaffiliated jumped by 14 points, from 20 percent to 34 percent.

Bible bill heads to W.Va. governor’s desk

The West Virginia state Senate passed and sent to Gov. Jim Justice a bill clarifying that county school boards may offer elective courses on the bible.

HB 4780 passed March 4 30–3–1, but not before warnings about the constitutionality of the bill.

“I’ll bet you a Holy Rosary that this is going to be declared unconstitutional,” said Sen. Mike Woelfel, moments before he reluctantly voted for it, according to MetroNews.

Sen. Patricia Rucker defended the bill when asked if it had provisions for other sacred texts to be studied.

“No, it does not,” Rucker responded. “It says Hebrew Scriptures, Old Testament or New Testament.”

Rolls-Royce and $112K? You can meet the pope

According to a Rolls Royce app, if you own a new Rolls Royce and have $112,000 to donate to the Catholic Church, you can have a private audience and Mass with the pope, the Religion News Service reports.

The Whispers app, which was unveiled in February and is only available to owners of new Rolls-Royce cars, features “an offer that promises a one-hour private audience and Mass with the pope, followed by an ‘exclusive’ tour of the Vatican and other sites around Rome,” according to screenshots from the app that a Religion News Service reporter viewed.

Applicants are also told that a minimum “fully deductible” donation to the Catholic Church of 100,000 euro (about $112,000) is requested and will be “hand delivered to the pope himself.”

Study: Just 1 in 4 now a practicing Christian

Christianity in the United States has undergone dramatic change in the last few decades, with the number of practicing Christians now only about half as common as in 2000.

The Barna Group, which has survey data over several decades, found that currently, just one in four Americans is a practicing Christian. A practicing Christian is identified as a Christian who says that faith is very important in their lives and who has attended church within the past month.

In 2000, 45 percent of all those sampled qualified as practicing Christians. That share has consistently declined in the past 20 years, and now is at 25 percent. 

Trump has stacked courts with arch-conservatives

The New York Times published an analysis of the more than 185 federal judgeships so far appointed during the Trump administration. These lifetime appointments include 51 to appeals courts, who now make up a quarter of the entire appellate bench. Trump has made these appointments in only three years, contrasting with the total of 50 appeals court judges confirmed under the Obama administration in eight years.

The stacking of the appeals court with arch-conservative appointments is very significant, because, in the words of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, “the court of appeals is where policy is made.”

“Perhaps most telling,” the Times reports, “all but eight of the new judges have had ties to the Federalist Society.” Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, has called Trump’s appellate nominees “far outside the judicial mainstream.”

Christian poll didn’t get results it wanted

After getting results diametrically opposed to what it assumed it would get, the National Association of Christian Lawmakers blamed Satanists and atheists for the results.

The poll, sponsored by their own organization, showed 95.8 percent of the 16,000 respondents do not want to see Christians hold more elected offices.

“View the comments on this thread to see what religious persecution and anti-Christian bigotry looks like in America,” it said on the group’s Twitter page. “Satanists and atheists piled on this poll and have begun leaving vile messages as well.”

The organization was founded by Arkansas state Sen. Jason Rapert, who earlier claimed Christianity is in decline and warned of “the rise of the occult in our nation.”

FFRF’s Reagan ad gets plaudits on Twitter

FFRF’s “unabashed atheist” commercial with Ron Reagan that ran twice during the March 15 Democratic debate between Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders on CNN had Twitter all atwitter.

Kathy Griffin, the actress with more than 2 million followers on Twitter, remarked, “Gets me every time. [Reagan]’s so smart and legit funny.”

Reagan says in the ad: “Hi, I’m Ron Reagan, an unabashed atheist, and I’m alarmed by the intrusion of religion into our secular government. That’s why I’m asking you to support the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the nation’s largest and most effective association of atheists and agnostics, working to keep state and church separate, just like our Founding Fathers intended. Please support the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Ron Reagan, lifelong atheist, not afraid of burning in hell.”

CBS, NBC, ABC and Discovery Science networks have refused the ad since 2014, but it has previously run periodically on CNN, Comedy Central and Rachel Maddow’s show on MSNBC.

FFRF thanks members who have donated to FFRF’s Advertising Fund for making possible this major campaign.

Attached

is a small sampling of other reactions on Twitter to FFRF’s ad.

Project Blitz stands defeated on East Coast

Project Blitz

As legislative sessions across the country came to a close, FFRF celebrates the defeat of several Christian Nationalist bills.

In Florida, H.B. 341 and its Senate counterpart, S.B. 746, both died, ensuring that public schools will not be forced to offer bible classes. H.B. 7103, a proposal that would have permitted prayer over the loudspeaker at state-sponsored athletic competitions, has also died.

Meanwhile, a similarly problematic bill has been defeated in New Hampshire. H.B. 1148 sought to place the theocratic motto “In God We Trust” in public schools. This is similar to other “In God We Trust” bills that have popped up in states across the country over the past year.

While politicians claim that these laws are intended to showcase the national motto or inspire patriotism, it is clear that their true purpose is to peddle religiosity to a captive audience. These laws are about advancing the Big Lie that the United States was “founded on God” or Christianity, dismantling the wall of separation between religion and government. It is a victory for state/church separation and our secular education system that New Hampshire students will not be subject to this religious pandering.

Florida’s bible class bill and New Hampshire’s “In God We Trust’’ bill were both the creation of the Christian Nationalist legislative push called Project Blitz. It seeks to inject state legislatures with a whole host of religious bills, imposing the theocratic version of a powerful few on We The People. Their proposals signal an unvarnished attack on American secularism and civil liberties — those things we cherish most about our democracy and now must tirelessly defend.

FFRF members and supporters in New Hampshire and Florida sent hundreds of messages to their lawmakers urging them to oppose these Project Blitz bills and defend the secular institutions in their state. FFRF will continue to call out these sinister legislative agendas for what they are — a calculated, discriminatory Christian Nationalist push fundamentally at odds with the principle of religious liberty for all Americans.

FFRF stops public prayers all over country

By Bailey Nachreiner-Mackesey

From Virginia to Louisiana to Arizona and Utah and numerous points in between, FFRF has ended public prayers by school or city officials. Here’s a rundown of the most recent prayer cases FFRF has been successful in stopping.

Arizona

Yuma Union High School District has taken exemplary action to address a state/church violation in its school.

A Kofa High School student contacted FFRF to report that the 2019 Kofa High School graduation ceremony included an invocation. This invocation was scheduled in advance by the school and listed in the graduation program.

FFRF Legal Fellow Dante Harootunian wrote to Superintendent Gina Thompson, asking that the district take action to ensure that religious rituals are not part of graduation ceremonies or any other school-sponsored events. Thompson sent a very positive letter of response to FFRF outlining the district’s commitment to remedying this violation.

“First, I will meet with individual employees who may have been responsible for the inclusion of an invocation in the Kofa High School graduation ceremony to educate them about the importance of separating church and state and preventing school sponsored prayer in school activities,” Thompson wrote. “Second, I will be distributing a statement of policy to all district employees, which will refer in part to the prohibition of the use of district resources for the promotion of religion in school activities. Third, we plan to add a component to our training for new employees reminding them of the importance of separating religious matters from state public school functions.”

Arkansas

The Springdale School District has committed to working with local partners to ensure that community events are not promoting religion.

A district staff member informed FFRF that each year the district requires staff members to attend a back-to-school event sponsored by local businesses and held on school property. This event apparently begins annually with an invocation given in the name of Jesus and including proclamations exclusive to Christianity.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent Jim Rollins, asking the district to ensure that future events do not unconstitutionally endorse religion. Rollins said in a letter of response that the district has discussed FFRF’s concerns with Chamber of Commerce staff and “will continue to work with them to ensure that Chamber of Commerce-sponsored district staff meetings are both inclusive and constitutional.”

Illinois

Washington Park School District has taken steps to make sure that school-sponsored events no longer start with prayer.

A local resident alerted FFRF that multiple recent Washington Park District-sponsored events had begun with prayer. According to the complainant, the district promotes, schedules and staffs local monthly lunch events for seniors at Five Points, a facility operated jointly by several local government agencies, including the Washington Park District. FFRF was informed that the Park District partners with local senior living facilities and other similar organizations to provide food for the events. At least some of the organizations that the district have partnered with to provide food for these events have taken advantage of this partnership to pray over attendees. On at least one occasion an attendee who protested was told they would either sit down and be quiet during the prayer or leave the event.

FFRF Legal Fellow Dante Harootunian wrote Washington Park District Executive Director Brian Tibbs, asking that the district refrain from partnering with organizations that will use their status as co-hosts of a government-sponsored event to require attendees to sit through their prayers.

Tibbs informed FFRF via email that the district has “taken the necessary steps to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

Louisiana

Lafayette School District administrators have been reminded of district legal policies governing religion in schools after a student was scheduled to lead an invocation.

A district member reported to FFRF that Broussard Middle School scheduled a student to lead an invocation at its end-of-the-year ceremony. This student was apparently listed as the “master of ceremonies” on the event program and delivered a prayer that was Christian in nature, directed to “God” and ending with “Amen.”

FFRF Associate Counsel Sam Grover wrote to the Interim Superintendent Irma Trosclair, urging the district to discontinue scheduling religious invocations at any future school-sponsored events.

The district’s Chief Administrative Officer Jennifer W. Gardner sent a letter of response to FFRF with assurances that the district has taken action to address the complaints.

Texas

Prayers before the annual homecoming parade have been stopped in the Conroe School District.

A Conroe community member reported that last year’s homecoming parade began with a prayer being read over the loudspeaker in Moorhead Stadium. This prayer was reportedly overtly Christian as it involved multiple invocations of the Lord. Some students were apparently required to attend this event.

FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to the district’s general counsel and reminded the district that prayer at school-sponsored events is against the law. In a letter of response, the school’s attorney assured FFRF that it will forgo prayer at future parades, which historically had been held off campus by the parent booster club.

“Next year there will be no prayer at the Homecoming Parade, regardless of whether it occurs on or off school property,” the letter says. “If the booster club wants to solemnize the event, they can begin the event with a moment of silence.”

. . .

The San Antonio International Airport has removed scheduled prayer from its volunteer event schedules.

A member of the airport’s Ambassador Program reported to FFRF that Christian prayer had continually preceded volunteer appreciation luncheons at the airport. The airport apparently regularly scheduled an invocation before these luncheons began. On at least one occasion, this was reportedly led by a Catholic priest who gave a prayer and requested a response from attendees.

FFRF Associate Counsel Sam Grover wrote to the program’s coordinator, pointing out that these prayers unfairly alienated non-Christian and nonreligious volunteers and urged the program to continue without such prayers in the future.

Chief Customer Experience Officer Karen W. Ellis responded to FFRF’s complaint with assurances that scheduled prayer had been canceled and would not occur in the future.

Utah

Prayers at public works employee meetings in the city of Provo have been stopped.

A city employee alerted FFRF that government meetings routinely featured a prayer before meals, always on city property and always at the request of management, who are all Mormons.

FFRF Staff Attorney Madeline Ziegler wrote to Provo City Attorney Robert West, urging the city to discontinue the practice of impermissibly subjecting employees to prayer at government meetings. West informed FFRF that these prayers will stop.

“Having had your complainant’s concerns called to his attention, the director does not want your complainant to feel unwelcome at department lunches and has decided not to make prayer at these lunches a routine practice,” West wrote in a letter of response.

Virginia

A high school in the Wythe County Public School District in Max Meadows has removed a large prayer display from its lunchroom.

A concerned community member reported that Fort Chiswell High School was displaying a religious prayer on a large placard in its cafeteria that read: “Our Father: We thank thee for this food. Bless it to the nourishment of our bodies and our lives to thy service. Amen.”

FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to Wythe County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Jeffries, urging him to remove this sign. The school’s general counsel informed FFRF the placard had been removed in response to the complaint.

West Virginia

Mineral County Schools in Ridgeley has committed to addressing complaints of coach-led prayer in the district.

A concerned district parent contacted FFRF to report that Frankfort High School Football coaches prayed with their players on the field after a game. FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to Superintendent Troy Ravenscroft reminding him that this conduct is unconstitutional and that the district has an obligation to remain neutral on religion.

Ravenscroft sent a letter of response, thanking FFRF for informing him of this violation and alerting FFRF that the district views this “as an opportunity to work with staff and athletic coaches on observing and upholding the First Amendment, its boundaries and its requirements.”

. . .

Prayer before government-sponsored training sessions has been stopped in Martinsburg.

A local community member reported that the poll worker training class led by Berkeley County Council began with the Lord’s Prayer. FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson alerted Doug Copenhaver, the council’s president, of this unconstitutional government-endorsed prayer.

Copenhaver informed FFRF in a letter of response that the council was unaware this meeting began with prayer, but has since dealt with the issue.

FFRF Victories (April 2020)

By Bailey Nachreiner-Mackesey

Arkansas

Bible-distributing Gideons will no longer be allowed in Mountain View School District schools.

A concerned parent reported to FFRF that members of Gideons International were allowed into Mountain View Middle School to pass out bibles to students during class. FFRF’s complainant reported that their child’s teacher welcomed the Gideons into the class, thanked them for being there, and took a bible before letting them distribute bibles to students. The complainant’s child reportedly felt very uncomfortable and felt pressured to take a bible because everyone else in the class did.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent Brent Howard informing him that it is unconstitutional for school districts to permit the Gideon Society to distribute bibles as part of the public school day. Howard responded to FFRF’s letter by email, informing FFRF that the district’s attorney was made aware of the issue and the matter has been handled.

California

An annual winter concert program in the Merced City School District will be moved to a non-church location in future years.

A district parent reported that last year, Burbank Elementary School held a Christmas concert at a nearby church. According to the parent, the church contained religious iconography including a large cross and a nativity scene, as well as a banner outside the building advertising worship services.

FFRF Legal Fellow Dante Harootunian wrote to Superintendent RoseMary Parga Duran, pointing out that the use of a church for public school programming is inappropriate and unconstitutional because it sends the message of approval of the church to impressionable students.

In a response letter, the district’s attorney informed FFRF that in consideration of the complaint, the district will “seek out alternative, non-church venues to host such events in the future in order to avoid any misinterpretation that the district is endorsing or promoting any particular religion, or religion in general.”

Colorado

The Vanguard School, a charter school in the Cheyenne Mountain School District in Colorado Springs, will refrain from advertising for and affiliating itself with religious organizations in the future.

A district parent reported that each year, the school holds a “Thanksgiving Baskets” fundraiser for St. Joseph Catholic Church and a “Christmas Blessings Store” in partnership with the Calvary Baptist Church.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote a letter of complaint to the district pointing out that, while it is laudable for the district to encourage students to become active, charitable and involved in their community by volunteering and donating, the school cannot use that goal as an avenue to support churches or religious organizations.

Superintendent Walter C. Cooper sent FFRF a response letter which noted that “Vanguard understands the optics and perception that advertising the events in this manner could be construed as a message of religious endorsement, and will refrain from doing so in the future.”

Florida

A religious sign has been removed from the Orange County Tax Collector’s office inside the West Oaks Mall, which was previously on display to the public.

This sign read, “Faith — it does not make things easy it makes them possible — Luke 1:37.” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line asked the county to remove this sign from county property in recognition that it represents an unconstitutional endorsement of religion over nonreligion.

Orange County Tax Collector Scott Randolph confirmed the sign was removed in response to FFRF’s complaint.

Illinois

Outside adults, including religious leaders, will no longer be allowed to attend student club meetings in Arcola School District #56.

A student contacted FFRF to report that the Arcola High School Students with a Testimony club’s Tuesday meetings were regularly attended by an outside pastor who came in to spread his religious beliefs to students, promising pizza and soda to attendees. These meetings apparently take place during the school day.

FFRF Legal Fellow Dante Harootunian informed the district that public schools are not an appropriate place for outside adults to proselytize to children. FFRF asked that the district ensure this club is truly student-led, and not facilitated by religious leaders.

FFRF received a letter of response from the district, assuring that only school staff will be allowed to attend student meetings in the future, and that staff will “be present only in a non-participatory capacity.”

Indiana

A constitutionally inappropriate partnership within the Lakeland School Corporation in LaGrange will not continue.

A community member reported that Lakeland Middle School organized a field trip to pack meals for Feed My Starving Children, an overtly Christian charitable organization. During the trip, the group’s staff asked students to pray over the meals they packed, and overtly Christian music was played over the loudspeakers for the duration of the trip.

FFRF Legal Fellow Dante Harootunian alerted the district that this proselytizing partnership is not acceptable for a public school district. Lakeland Superintendent Eva G. Merkel informed FFRF via email that the district’s partnership with this Christian organization will “simply have to cease.”

Kansas

A “See You At The Pole” event will not recur in the Coffeyville Public Schools.

A concerned district staff member reported that other staff organized and endorsed a “See You at the Pole” event. The complainant reports that an email was sent from two district staff members to the rest of the staff promoting the event.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line reminded Superintendent Craig Correll that public schools have a constitutional obligation to remain neutral toward religion. Furthermore, Line points out, it is unconstitutional for the district staff to plan, promote or participate in “See You At The Pole” events because doing so alienates non-Christian students, teachers and parents whose religious beliefs are inconsistent with the message being promoted by the school staff.

Craig informed FFRF that “this was an obvious oversight from the teacher and is against board policy.” He has notified the principal to instruct the employee that this cannot happen again in the future.

Kentucky

Religious posts have been removed from the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office official social media page.

A concerned area resident reported that a recent post on the office’s Facebook page concluded with the bible verse Galatians 6:9 — “So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up.”

FFRF Legal Fellow Dante Harootunian asked the office to remove all social media posts promoting religion and refrain from uploading such posts in the future. Sheriff Mark Moore informed FFRF in a letter of response that this post has been removed.

. . .

Numerous religious displays have been removed from Letcher County Public Schools property after the school district received letters of complaint from FFRF.

A concerned Whitesburg resident reported to FFRF that Letcher Central High School had a bible verse on display in its locker room. The display said: “But the Lord is with me like a Mighty Warrior. Jeremiah 20:11.” FFRF wrote a letter of complaint to the district, pointing out that this display violated the constitutional principle of state/church separation.

FFRF had first contacted the district after an area resident reported multiple instances of the district promoting and endorsing religious messages. The complainant reported that Fleming Neon Middle School had a display in its hallway that said, “Jesus is my savior. You can’t scare me!” and that Martha Jane Potter Elementary School posted a prayer on its official Facebook page.

In both letters of complaint, FFRF asked the district to remove all religious messaging and iconography from public school property in recognition of its constitutional obligation to remain neutral toward religion.

Letcher County School District has removed each of these religious displays.

“The bulletin board has been replaced, the Facebook post has been removed, and the locker room has been repainted,” Superintendent Denise Yonts informed FFRF in a response letter.

. . .

Ludlow Independent Schools has deleted religious posts on its official district social media pages.

A district parent informed FFRF that a teacher at Mary A. Goetz Elementary School had been using her official position as a district employee to promote her Christian youth group to students. According to the complainant, the teacher invited students to her youth group on a daily basis, included information on the youth group in a newsletter to parents, and posted flyers promoting this group around the school. The teacher also reportedly organized a prayer walk on school property which the school promoted on its official Facebook page. The Christian youth group and the prayer walk appeared to be affiliated with a local church.

FFRF Legal Fellow Dante Harootunian asked the district to make certain that none of its employees are unlawfully and inappropriately indoctrinating students in religious matters by encouraging them to pray, recruiting them for religious organizations or activities or otherwise using the district to promote religion.

In a response letter, the district’s attorney informed FFRF that the administration has addressed these matters with the teacher involved and deleted the social media posts corresponding to the event.

Maryland

Staff at Frederick County Public Schools have been reminded of district policy and their legal obligation to refrain from impermissibly endorsing religion.

A district community member informed FFRF of on-field prayer after an October football game between Walkersville High and Catoctin High and what appeared to be the coaches leading and participating in prayer.

FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to the school’s attorney, informing the district that public school coaches must refrain not only from leading prayers themselves, but also from participating in students’ prayers. He urged the district to stop any and all school-sponsored prayers occurring at any district athletic programs.

The district’s attorney has directed principals and the supervisor of athletics and extracurricular activities to remind coaches that, as the board policy states, “school employees, when acting in their official capacities, are representatives of the state and are prohibited by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment from soliciting or encouraging religious activity and from participating in such activity with students.”

Michigan

A Sparta Area Schools coach has been instructed to cease religious proselytizing to his team.

A district parent reported that a Sparta High School football coach used his position to promote a religious event to students and their families. According to the parent, this coach sent a mass Remind App message encouraging students and families to attend a worship event called “FAITH…FIGHT…FINISH!”

This event was listed as taking place at Sparta High School and organized by “The Big Idea — Sparta Elementary School.” The district’s website also had a section entitled “Sparta area churches” that lists the names, addresses, phone numbers, worship times and Sunday school times for several local Christian churches.

FFRF Legal Fellow Dante Harootunian informed Superintendent Pete Bush that the district cannot allow its schools to be used as recruiting grounds for churches.

Bush informed FFRF in a phone call that the football coach has been instructed to refrain from promoting religion and that the church directory on the school’s website was removed.

Missouri

FFRF has prompted Hogan Preparatory Academy in Kansas City to address complaints of a teacher handing out rosaries as “prizes” to students.

A concerned Hogan Academy parent reported to FFRF that, after handing out rosaries, this teacher told students that, if they carry the rosary, nothing bad will ever happen to them. He also reportedly told students a story about two students who were shot while walking home from school. The student not wearing a rosary was killed, while the student who had a rosary survived. Our complainant also reports that he told students that he is followed by “spirits,” and that he has a device that will beep when spirits are near.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent Jayson Strickland that he should no longer be allowed to distribute religious items or promote his personal religious beliefs to students.

Strickland sent a letter of response, assuring FFRF that the issue has been addressed.

. . .

FFRF scored a constitutional win against the Missouri attorney general after a school district ignored his advice about football team prayers.

FFRF had sent a letter in October to Cameron R-1 School District Superintendent Matt Robinson about Cameron High School’s head football coach, Jeff Wallace, and assistant coach, David Stucky, holding religious “chapel” services for players before and after football games. The coaches prayed with players and read and discussed bible verses.

In reaction to FFRF’s complaint, Attorney General Eric Schmitt dispatched a missive to the district urging it to disregard FFRF’s concerns, mischaracterizing FFRF’s arguments, even advising the district that the coach’s actions are lawful.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line urged Cameron R-1 School District to take immediate action to stop school-sponsored prayers or religious worship occurring within the district’s athletic programs. The school district recently sent FFRF a note indicating that it is heeding FFRF’s counsel.

“Employees of the district were reminded of the district’s board policy regarding prayer at school or at school-sponsored events and were also instructed not to lead students in prayer, initiate a prayer with students or cause a student to initiate prayer,” stated Robinson. “This matter has therefore been resolved.”

Montana

The Libby School District’s Veteran’s Day assembly will no longer include religious language as part of a flag folding ceremony.

A district community member reported that during last year’s ceremony, student participants were provided with a script that claimed to explain the meaning of each of the 13 folds in the flag. According to the complainant, the script attributed religious meaning to the majority of the folds. This includes assertions that Americans rely on God and his guidance, “glorify the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit” and that one fold “in the eyes of a Hebrew citizen represents the lower portion of the seal of King David and King Solomon.”

FFRF Legal Fellow Dante Harootunian wrote to Superintendent Craig Barringer, asking the district to end promotion of religion at official school events. Barringer responded to FFRF’s complaint with assurances that the script would not be used again in the future.

New Jersey

Multiple signs for church parking have been removed from Matawan city property.

FFRF Staff Attorney Maddy Ziegler wrote to Mayor Joseph Altomonte, after FFRF received a local complaint that three signs, reading “Second Baptist Church Parking Only, 9 a.m.–2 p.m. Sun. & Religious Holidays,” were placed along a public road. FFRF requested that the city remove the signs and ensure that parking enforcement is in compliance with constitutional requirements going forward.

Matawan’s attorney responded to FFRF’s letter with assurances that the signs have been removed and that they had been “posted by entities other than the municipality.”

New York

Holland Patent Central School District has remedied a serious state-church violation.

A concerned district parent recently reported to FFRF that a Holland Patent High School biology teacher began a lesson on evolution by undermining the theory of evolution, denigrating those who understand and accept the fact of evolution.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line sent a letter to Holland Patent Central School District Superintendent Jason Evangelist, pointing out that this teacher’s anti-scientific rant was both unconstitutional and pedagogically deplorable.

The district has taken swift action to address FFRF’s concerns and ensure that Holland Patent students are no longer subject to religious proselytization in its schools.

Ohio

A free concealed-carry permit program has been extended to include all nonprofits rather than just churches in Butler County.

A Hamilton citizen reported to FFRF that the Butler County Sheriff’s Office was offering free concealed-carry weapons training to churches. The classes were reportedly only intended to be open to church security teams in Butler County.

FFRF Legal Fellow Dante Harootunian wrote to Butler County Sheriff Richard K. Jones, pointing out that extending a free government benefit only to churches, or even solely to houses of worship, is unconstitutional.

The department, along with local media reports, confirmed these classes will now be offered free to all nonprofit organizations.

Texas

The Mesquite Independent School District has conscientiously redressed a serious state/church violation.

A community member reported that Frasier Middle School football players were required to attend a religious meeting in the gym after practice. The meeting was led by an outside group, Men of Honor. Speakers encouraged students to read the bible, pray and join their overtly Christian organization. The meeting then ended with an outside pastor who came in to lead the students in prayer.

FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson asked the district to refrain from sponsoring inappropriate and unconstitutional religious meetings in the future, and ensure no future assemblies from outside groups contain a proselytizing message or agenda.

Assistant Superintendent Karyn Cummings responded to FFRF with assurances that the district “fully investigated” this matter and that “the employees in question have accepted full responsibility and completely understand that their actions were not acceptable.”

. . .

Staff in the Goldthwaite Independent School District have been reminded of their obligation not to use school resources to promote religion.

A community member reported that the Goldthwaite Lady Eagle Basketball Facebook page was used to promote two religious events — See You at the Pole and Field of Faith. Additionally, the Fields of Faith promotional material listed a school coach as the event contact, suggesting that she was involved in coordination of the event. 

FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to Superintendent Ronny Wright, informing the district that district staff may not plan, promote or participate in events like See You at the Pole or Fields of Faith.

Wright informed FFRF that he has “spoken with the employee referenced in [FFRF’s] letter and both district athletic directors, in order to remind them that school resources cannot be used to advertise such events and the appropriate role for school employees in such events.”

Virginia

Religious reading materials have been removed from Arlington National Cemetery’s Administrative Building.

A local resident reported that Arlington National Cemetery had a kiosk displaying Christian material in its administration building where families meet prior to burial. According to the complainant, the administration building only displayed books from the American Bible Society, and did not contain secular grief guides.

FFRF Legal Fellow Dante Harootunian asked Arlington National Cemetery Chairman Lt. Gen. James Peake to respect and honor the wishes of our nation’s minority religious and nonreligious military personnel and veterans by removing the Christian literature from displaying in the ANC administrative building.

Officials informed FFRF that the team at Arlington National Cemetery has removed the display case.

Convention speech: Amber Scorah — The challenge of leaving Jehovah’s Witnesses

Amber Scorah (Photo by Ingrid Laas)
At FFRF’s convention in Madison, Wis., on Oct. 19, 2019, Amber Scorah tells the story of why she left the Jehovah’s Witnesses. (Photo by Ingrid Laas)
Amber Scorah signs copies of her book, Leaving the Witness, for FFRF members after her speech. (Photo by Chris Line)

This is an edited version of the speech Amber Scorah gave at FFRF’s national convention in Madison, Wis., on Oct. 19, 2019. She was introduced by FFRF Programs Manager Kristina Daleiden:

Amber Scorah is the author of the moving memoir Leaving the Witness, which details her experience growing up as Jehovah’s Witness, moving to China to become a missionary and coming to question the beliefs that she had been taught and eventually leaving that religion. After suffering the tragic loss of her 4-month-old son, Amber became a parental leave advocate, bringing this issue to the forefront of the 2016 presidential campaign. She also penned an op-ed in The New York Times titled “Surviving the death of my son after the death of my faith.” “Oprah” magazine said that Leaving the Witness was one of the best books of summer and The New York Times called it one of 12 new books to watch. Amber is a Canadian writer living in Brooklyn.

Please join me in welcoming Amber Scorah.

By Amber Scorah

First of all, it’s amazing to be here. I was raised a Jehovah’s Witness and women were never allowed to give talks. It’s my guess that everyone in this room either has known a Jehovah’s Witness or has had one approach them to preach to them.

But so many people feel like they don’t really understand what the Jehovah’s Witnesses are about and why there isn’t more information from ex-members out there.

Jehovah’s Witnesses fly under the greater cultural radar, in many ways, because of the way its own culture is set up. As a Jehovah’s Witness, you are raised to believe that you must keep separate from the world.

This is why Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t vote, don’t get involved in charity work, are told not to go to college or pursue any kind of career, don’t get too close to people or have relationships with anyone who is a nonbeliever. Any person who is not a Witness is considered “worldly” and a bad association. The outside is Satan’s world.

Growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness, I was taught I was different. And this was reinforced by many of the arbitrary things the Witnesses pull out of the bible and pronounce as necessary for salvation. No blood, which obviously meant that if you were dying and needed a blood transfusion, you’d have to accept death. No Christmas, no singing carols. We’d have to sit outside. When someone had a birthday in the classroom, we weren’t allowed to eat the cake. We couldn’t date or marry a non-Jehovah’s Witness. Our time was to be used for preaching, to save as many as we could before Armageddon.

No dirty laundry

You don’t see many books by people like me, who leave the religion, because the leaders of the group strongly forbid anyone from airing any of the organization’s dirty laundry.

This applies to very minor issues. For example, we were told constantly that even if a brother cheats us, we shouldn’t take him to court. And it extends to very serious issues, where parents are told not to go to the police when their child has been sexually abused by someone within the congregation. The idea behind this is that the most important thing is that God’s chosen ones be protected. They don’t want God to look bad.

Of course, you might think, if you leave, then you’re no longer bound by this rule, right?

But what happens when you leave the Jehovah’s Witnesses, like I did, is that you are shunned. This is quite a severe punishment for people who have been taught to build their entire lives around an organization, and who, as a result, have very few ties anywhere else.

This shunning is bad enough, but if a person takes it one step further and speaks out about the organization, or their doubts, or anything that they feel is wrong within the organization, in any kind of a public way, that person is labeled an apostate.

This is a very scary brand to receive. Apostasy, according to Jehovah’s Witnesses literature, is the one sin God will never forgive. “Apostates” like me would be described in very terrifying terms. They were “mentally diseased,” “criminals,” “lower than a snake” with “characteristics like the devil.”

Even after I wrote my book and didn’t believe in the religion anymore, you feel the power of that community lasts even after you’ve left. The last thing I wanted to be was that horrible apostate character we’ve been warned about. I didn’t want to be seen that way, even by people who no longer spoke to me. I didn’t want to be “mentally diseased”!

Yet here I am, out here in Satan’s world!

Path to freedom

The path to finding my freedom happened in one of the most restrictive countries in the world: China.

When I was in my 20s, after spending years knocking on doors in my home city of Vancouver, Canada, to not much in the way of results — you all know what you do when a Jehovah’s Witness calls! — I decided to learn Mandarin Chinese and travel to China to preach. China was the one place that had not received a Witness, and I wanted to give them a chance to convert before Armageddon came and God killed them for being nonbelievers.

Ironically, it was in China that, for the first time in my life, I had some freedom, which should have told me something, since most people who go to China don’t feel more free.

Because my preaching work was done underground in China, the structure of meetings and community I had had my whole life at home as a Witness was gone. Our religion was illegal there, so there was no structure.

Of course, my aim was to preach, and I took that mission seriously. But that, too, looked different. Back at home, rarely would a Witness ever have a friend who was not a Witness. The only interaction was for the sake of conversion. Non-Witnesses were to be always kept at bay, as they were a worldly influence.

Yet here in China, we were told by the leaders of the organization that the way to go about our preaching work was to spend a lot of time getting to know people before we preached to them. This would allow us to vet them, to make sure they weren’t Communist Party members, or people who would turn us in to the authorities. Often that vetting process took a long time, because you were trying to “be casual” and get information from people naturally, before bringing in the bible or our literature and possibly endangering ourselves.

A byproduct of this, of course, was that I began to make “worldly friends” for the first time. I got to know people who weren’t Jehovah’s Witnesses on a pretty intimate level before I ever even tried bringing up the bible.

Preaching in a language like Mandarin, too, was so different, it felt like my mind was being excavated. As I sat teaching my Chinese bible students “the truth,” telling them to throw away their thousands of years of cultural history for my 100-year-old religion in this new language, it was almost as if I could hear what I was saying for the first time. I started to realize my beliefs sounded a bit crazy.

Cracks in my faith

Eventually, the mild disorientation of being in this new culture and speaking this language so different than my own opened up cracks in my faith, and the physical distance from my community gave me a mental break from the constant meetings and indoctrination. Slowly, a “worldly” friendship I began to engage in with a client at my workplace ended up with me questioning everything I had been raised to believe.

A lot of people who have never been religious wonder why in the world anyone would stay in a group like this that is so obviously, to those on the outside, wrong and “culty.”

Here’s the thing: No one who is in a cult ever thinks they are in a cult. You think you are living the best life, and in some ways it IS a great life. You have no angst, you don’t worry about climate change, you don’t have to have a retirement fund because Armageddon and God are going to solve all those problems. Plus, you have many wonderful friends and family who believe in it with you. You have a warm community.

You are constantly told about how awful people’s lives are on the outside, and because you are only allowed to be close with other Witnesses, you have no way of verifying. Of course, the world can be a scary place, so it’s an easy message to sell. Sure, you see people who seem happy and fulfilled, you meet nice people at work and such, but you know that they are going to die at Armageddon, so really, how great can that be?

Yes, it isn’t until you try to leave a cult that you start to realize it’s a cult. When the people in your organization and family immediately shun you for questioning even one of the beliefs handed down from the leaders, you know you are in some form of cult.

When I voiced a doubt or two and that got back to the elders, well, that was about when I started to get the inkling that the Jehovah’s Witness organization bore the traits of a cult.

Later, after I left, I found stronger proof: The first boyfriend I had after leaving the religion found on YouTube nearly every documentary ever made about cult members and we watched them together. I was surprised as I watched. Every cult it seemed, from the most extreme (Jim Jones in Jamestown) to the less extreme ones (that didn’t mandate death), well, they were exactly my story.

They are entirely different belief systems, but have the same systems in place to keep people in. My lines of reasoning, my thought patterns, my thought-blocking, the us vs. them mentality, all the things we had been trained to do to stay in the religion were the same things people in all these cults had been trained to do.

And while the Witnesses are not as extreme as some cults, they do mandate that people die rather than take life-saving blood transfusions. So, while they aren’t drinking Kool-Aid, they are mandating death for no reason, which isn’t that different.

It takes a lot of deprogramming to realize the religion you were raised with as “truth” is simply a mythology that has been passed down from generation to generation.

No regrets

Even given all I lost — family, friends, faith, support systems, purpose — I have never once regretted waking up and leaving. And I’ve never heard any other ex-Witnesses saying any different. People have lost their own children to the religion after waking up, have lost their livelihood, everything.

But now that I shed a belief system, it’s a lot easier for me to see culti-ness everywhere, not only in religion. We are, all of us, subject to indoctrination of some form, whether we realize it or not. Obviously, some belief systems are more extreme than others, but we all have blind spots. We are born into a family that teaches us values and ideals from birth. All of us have embedded ideas about how things must be and how we must live (marry, have children, elect a straight white man, whatever it is). This is most obvious in the religious realm, but it’s also the case in the political, social, internet, scientific and any other realm in which people identify with a way of thinking.

This is why cults exist! They are just a manifestation of the extreme end of something that is in us all. We all need to check our thinking, to ensure we aren’t succumbing to our own cult-like tendencies.

How do we do this?

Make friends with people who don’t think like us. That may sound trite, but in my story, the only reason I was able to see my blind spots was because I developed a close relationship with someone “on the outside.” The differences between us were what made it possible for me to see that not everything I had been taught to believe by my culture was absolute truth. Allowing myself to get close enough to someone so different than me was what made me see that. It wasn’t always pleasant, but I’m so grateful I didn’t back away or dismiss him.

I’ve also learned this: When we feel very sure we are right, that’s always a sign to look again, look deeper, question our strongest assumptions, never be dogmatic about anything. Always be willing to listen and readjust. Never let your identity be too stuck to a group, a belief. Step outside our comfort zone and be willing to put ourselves in positions that make us feel off kilter, because that is when we get opened up, that is when we learn.

Great tragedy

There is one postscript to my story. And that is that seven years after I left my religion, I experienced a great tragedy.

My first child, my 4-month-old son, Karl, died. I raise this because many people who know my religious background have asked me if this terrible loss made me want to go back to religion. I think it’s an interesting question.

I don’t think anyone really can be prepared for the loss of a child, but it blindsided me. I was now faced with an entirely foreign landscape: death without hope of an afterlife. Grief without religion.

My father had died when I was a Witness, when I was 18, and I was sad, but I wasn’t that sad, because I was certain that one day I would see him again in paradise. Religion was born for times like this. My faith, I realize now, had acted as a buffer to many of these more devastating aspects of being human.

And now, when I lost my son, without that faith, I experienced this death as nothingness. My child, so full of promise and health and energy, vanished. It was beyond my ability to accept losing him. But it was even farther beyond my abilities to return to any kind of belief in life after death. This was the ultimate test for someone who had once had belief.

But let me tell you what I discovered about grief without religion. It has some surprising byproducts.

I now had no choice but to live with the reality of the loss, and it made me deal with what was in front of me. What was in front of me was utter devastation on every level. But once you have been that close to death, something else happens when you can’t escape it. In the midst of this kind of grief, where you have no escape, you are forced to experience a deeper pain, but you also become more clear-eyed about life. You find you see what is beautiful in life in the midst of all this suffering. And one of those things I experienced was the great care and compassion that we as human beings possess.

When I was in such great pain, so many people, strangers and friends alike, got me through by showing love in so many ways. It was the strangest thing, to experience such an awful thing, yet at the same time, to be touched by such beauty and love.

Now, time has gone by, and without the escape of belief, I have learned a lot. I have learned how to live with everyone’s worst nightmare, I’m still alive, which honestly feels like a feat sometimes.  I have learned patience and endurance and how to tolerate devastating feelings, because that is what living without your child requires.

But since I do not believe that my son is “out there” somewhere or will come back to me, it has also meant that I have kept him alive in the ways in the here and now. By talking about him to his sister, and by holding close the memories I have of him every day.

I also became an activist for a national parental-leave policy in his name. Through this work, I found that death without hope didn’t have to be death without faith.

How so? Activism is an act of faith. A faith that when there are problems, we as human beings can find ways to solve them. A faith that my son’s life and death would show others the value of every child’s life. A faith that others would join me in a fight for what was right, and they did.

In my old religion, we were taught not to put our faith in man. But if humankind is all we have, perhaps this faith, this active belief that we can change the world, is not misplaced. That’s what I learned. I’m not willing to give up hope yet.

And the fact is, once we accept reality and truly live in it, with its full range of emotion, good and terrible, that’s where life lies. Not in some fictional paradise.

The one thing that no one can take away from us is the beauty and love we can find in this world if we look for it. When I am in great pain, I remember that the depth of grief we experience is a reflection of the depth of the love we are capable of.

I don’t have all the answers now, but I can appreciate the deep mystery of it all. I feel the magic of life all around me, the great power of shared humanity. I feel gratitude.

And it’s been so lovely to be here with you today. Thank you.

Convention speech: Andrew Bradley — Evangelicals’ ‘religious freedom’ is neither

Andrew Bradley speaks at FFRF’s national convention in Madison, Wis., on Oct. 18, 2019. (Photo by Ingrid Laas)

This is an edited version of the speech made by Andrew Bradley at FFRF’s national convention in Madison, Wis., on Oct. 18, 2019. He, along with Deven Green, created the comedy act of Mrs. Betty Bowers, America’s Best Christian, which is an award-winning satirical web series. The duo performed an act for the convention crowd, but then Bradley took the stage solo to give this speech. 

By Andrew Bradley

America is lucky it was founded during the Enlightenment. Or, rather, it was lucky that it was the Enlightenment that pushed it to be founded. The Enlightenment meant that the United States was formed during a time of healthy skepticism for religions.

If you read the correspondence of most of the Founding Fathers, it would be almost impossible for any of them to be elected now, even as a Democrat.

They would be destroyed in the primaries by the super PACS: “Why does Ben Franklin hate Jesus so much? Why did Thomas Jefferson desecrate the Lord’s word by calling it a steaming pile of feces?” The Establishment Clause reflects this lull between fits of religious radicalism in this country.

Can you imagine the Bill of Rights written by the Puritans? It would probably look a lot like one that would be written by today’s evangelicals. And would probably have come to be known as the Bill of Wrongs. And only apply to other people.

Evangelicals don’t like — because of our pesky Constitution — that the United States isn’t the Official Sponsor of Christianity. And they’re tirelessly showing their resentment right now.

American theocracy has a new gimmick it’s using to try to work around the Constitution, and to shoehorn a right-wing brand of Christianity into the secular square. It’s called “religious freedom.” Forgive yourself right now if you think religious freedom is about being either religious or free. It is not.

As is the case with most political branding, the words were chosen for their ability to disarm rather than inform. “Religious freedom” is code. It’s anti-constitutional theocracy in constitutional drag. Who could possibly object to freedom? But a peek beneath its benign surface reveals “religious freedom” is really about one thing: Evangelicals using our government to promote their faith. But just an unapologetically selfish and vindictive version of their purported faith.

This very objective was regarded as so inimical to our secular republic that both the Founders and citizens thwarted it twice in the Constitution.

Once, in the body of the Constitution, Article 6, Section 3, banning religious tests for holding office. And then once again, for good measure, in the First Amendment, barring government from promoting any religion. The Founders haven’t been alone at recoiling from theocracy.

“Religious freedom” is not about indulging, much less protecting, non-Christians. It’s not even about protecting Christians who are not right-wing evangelicals. That’s because “religious freedom” is rooted in a lie. Its blandly inclusive title, pretending to protect people of all faiths, is descriptive only of its marketing, not implementation.

If you doubt this, listen to one of “religious freedom’s” highest profile proponents, the anti-LGBTQ president of Family Research Council, the odious Tony Perkins, a man who has selflessly devoted his life to thinking about men licking each other.

[Video of Perkins plays:] “The key to the Muslim community remains Jesus Christ. And that means that we, as Americans, understand the unique nature of this country, its heritage and its government is founded upon Christian truth. And that’s how it works. And the ideas of democracy and individual liberty and self-government are incompatible with what we see in the Muslim world.”

Now, that doesn’t sound like a guy who’s serious about protecting everyone else’s freedom to practice their religion.

In fact, Perkins has also said the Constitution does not protect Islam. And, according to him, “religious freedom” is even more stingy, as it only protects “orthodox” versions of Christianity. You know, the type that, quite coincidentally, hates the gays just as much as Perkins does.

It’s an ungrateful line in the sand. One of the Family Research Council’s favorite tropes to support its made-up version of “religious freedom” is to cite the statutory version called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The RFRA, which was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1997 as unconstitutional when applied to states, was enacted in large measure to protect the religious freedom of Native Americans. The very people — pagans — the new “religious freedom” excludes.

Even beyond its objective, to have secular courts promote one faith, there are other, fundamental problems with how “religious freedom” attempts to nullify laws that apply to all Americans.

If evangelicals can void a law, ad hoc, by claiming it violates their “deeply held faith,” how do courts define that faith, much less determine whether it is deeply held?

And courts can’t just take someone’s word for it. That would be tantamount to the anarchy of giving everyone a wallet full of “Get Out of Laws Free” cards. Hardly in keeping with evangelicals’ oft-spoken fondness for “law and order.”

Let’s address the first question: What is the “faith” being used to avoid the law of the land?

It may not be the one you think. The Christianity that evangelicals practice is as abrupt a departure from Christianity as Christianity was from Judaism. It is so far removed from the teachings of Jesus, it begs for a new name. Jerry Falwell Jr. makes me think of a few . . . But Christianity 2.0™ is the most polite.

Jesus was beta-tested for centuries and, clearly, found buggy. Too many empathy commands, too few tax cuts for Herod. Too much rendering unto Caesar. And give what to the poor? Er, no. That’s not happening.

If imitation is the highest form of flattery, conservatives have made their lifework not letting it go to Jesus’s head. Because, to conservatives, Jesus’s “help the poor” and “turn the other cheek” elective suggestions sound alarmingly liberal, even suspiciously un-American.

Worse, Jesus neglected to mention evangelicals’ two biggest obsessions: homosexuality and abortion. Something had to go. (Spoiler: It was Jesus.)

This has made “religious freedom” all about making up for Jesus’s carelessness. His inconveniently liberal agenda has been swapped out for evangelicals’ less-Jesusy approach.

If Jesus never had a problem with homosexuals, but you do, saying your voluntary animus is actually compulsory faith is a shrewd way to curry legal deference that would otherwise be curtly withheld. Because it’s not prejudice if you call it religion.

It’s God ignoring civil rights, not you. It’s God being an asshole for no reason, not you. “It’s nothing personal: God told me to hate you.”

Now, let’s address the second problem with this wildly improvised faith: How can it be claimed, much less proven, to be “deeply held”?

If there is one thing that the ascension of Donald Trump has taught us, it is this: The tea party never really cared about deficits. And evangelicals never really cared about “values.”

When it comes to determining what people really believe, actual actions speak louder than pious proclamations. Hardly any evangelical “deeply holds” the faith of traditional Christianity when it comes to what they do. So how can they be allowed to only hold it deeply when it comes time to use it against someone else?

Using “deeply held” religious beliefs as carte blanche to step on the constitutional toes of others is a dangerous precedent.

Do we provide exemptions from hate crime laws to Nazis, the KKK or other toxic flavors of white supremacy? Their “deeply held beliefs” about minorities, slavery and mixed marriages have, after all, been supported, with much success, in the past by the bible.

Whenever Franklin Graham tweets that the bible is a “book of timeless moral truths,” I always turn to Exodus 21:20 for tips on beating humans I own. The helpful Lord tells me I can beat them within an inch of their lives and I can’t be punished if they survive since they are my “property.” Ah, what a timeless moral truth. Glory!

I raise the Lord’s fondness for beating slaves to underscore how dangerous it is to allow rules in the bible to override secular laws about how we treat each other. Our secular laws change as humans become more knowledgeable, more caring. The bible is frozen in a time long before either science or the Enlightenment.

When you peel back the pleasant appearance of the words “religious freedom,” you see that something as fraudulent as it is unworkable is afoot. It was something the Founders tried to protect us from — an American theocracy.

Family Research Council and its ilk, after decades of butting heads against the separation of church and state mandated by the Constitution, have come up with a Trojan horse. They call it “religious freedom.”

They know that if you can’t stop inconvenient civil rights laws, creating an excuse to ignore them is the next best thing.

Cases are popping up around the country where businesses otherwise open to the public exercise their “religious freedom” to demean and refuse service to LGBTQ and other minorities.

But “religious freedom” is never about wedding desserts. It’s about just deserts: retribution against secularism.

It’s about promoting one brand of religion by making life difficult for those who do not promote it. It’s about people preening in the piety of making others comply with a “religion” they don’t even follow. It’s about upending America’s hierarchical relationship between settled law and ad hoc belief. It’s about providing right-wing evangelicals with a pretty costume to cover for their grimy bigotry.

Because “religious freedom” treats something that is just a choice (religion) as more important than immutable characteristics that are not choices (race and sexuality).

When you really look at it, you realize that “religious freedom” is neither.

Convention speech: Jeremiah Camara — White biblical imagery is still with us

Jeremiah Camara (Photo by Ingrid Laas)
Jeremiah Camara, center, poses with Greg Kramer and Granada Higgins outside the main hall at FFRF’s convention. (Photo by Ingrid Laas)
Filmmaker Jeremiah Camara speaks about his latest film, “Holy Heirarchy: The Religious Roots of Racism in America” at FFRF’s national convention in Madison, Wis., on Oct. 19, 2019. Watch the film on Amazon Prime. (Photo by Ingrid Laas)

This is an edited version of the speech given by Jeremiah Camara at FFRF’s convention in Madison, Wis., on Oct. 19, 2019. He was introduced by FFRF’s Director of Operations Lisa Strand:

It is my pleasure to introduce filmmaker Jeremiah Camara. He directed and produced the documentary, “Holy Hierarchy: The Religious Roots of Racism in America.” Those who were here at our convention a few years ago had the pleasure of seeing his other movie, “Contradiction,” also about religion, and it’s on Amazon Prime. Jeremiah is also an author, whose books are Holy Lockdown: Does the Church Limit Black Progress? and The New Doubting Thomas: The Bible, Black Folks and Blind Belief. He is the creator of the widely watched YouTube series, “Slave Sermons,” a mini-movie series addressing the harmful effects of religion. Please welcome Jeremiah Camara.

By Jeremiah Camara

I’m honored to be here. Thanks to [FFRF Co-Presidents] Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker for inviting me to this event, to an organization that’s so important, and not only to this country, but to the world. We definitely need the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

They say that America’s going to hell and going wayward because of the rise of secularism. That is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. It is really crazy. Do you realize that once upon a time there was something in this country called slavery — and religious belief was the driving justification behind slavery? And now they’re saying that we’re going to hell because of secularism.

My film, “Holy Hierarchy: The Religious Roots of Racism in America,” attempts to explain how the beliefs in a biased supreme being during Colonial America led to beliefs in supreme human beings. If you believe in a supreme being, it’s a seamless transition to believe in supreme human beings.

There is a legal component behind racism that we tend to forget, and it ultimately turned racism into an institution. When you believe in a god, you bring your baggage into that belief, you bring your beliefs, your bigotry, your bias, your superstitions, your stereotypes and your ignorance into that belief. And one of the most fundamental beliefs in America since Colonial times and even today, even if it’s on a subconscious level, is the belief that there is a god who created whites to be superior and blacks to be inferior. This was the prevailing precept.

We moved from Virginia, but many of us still have a Virginia state of mind. Virginia is the boss of this country. You can call it the District of Columbia, if you want. That’s Virginia. And I tell people, if you don’t understand early Virginia, it’ll be a challenge understanding racism in this country, because Virginia is the place where the party started. They perfected racism.

You can’t talk about racism without talking about white supremacy. You can’t talk about white supremacy without talking about Christianity. They’re tied. They’re interwoven. And it’s the root of racism. You don’t enslave. You don’t create systems of apartheid. You don’t create systems of Jim Crow. You don’t implement systems of redlining. The prison-industrial complex is for people who you believe are equal to you.

I think one of the least appreciated but most powerful elements that keeps the wheels of Christianity spinning is white biblical imagery and iconography throughout this country and the world. It does three things: It promotes Christianity, it promotes white supremacy, and it ensures and preserves racism. There’s a lot of talk about the separation of church and state, but there’s also the separation of church and the state of one’s mind.

Imagery is more or just as powerful than any speech that any attorney general or any president or vice president can give in promoting Christianity. Iconography is one of the most powerful weapons in support of Christianity. It’s the unnoticed elephant in the room.

Before there was television, there was imagery. Before there were magazines, there was white biblical iconography. I remember when I was about 6, my mother had a picture of a white Jesus in the kitchen and it was sitting on the table and I noticed that everywhere I went, the eyes followed me. So, I knew that there was really something to this religion because I never saw a picture do that, where the eyes actually followed you.

To people of color, especially blacks being the antithesis of white, seeing white biblical imagery causes immeasurable psychological damage, which has helped to lead to severe cases of lack of self-worth. And deep illness of Stockholm syndrome, as we witnessed in the Botham Jean-Amber Guyger case. And the humongous statue of a white Jesus in the country of Nigeria.

Since Colonial America, the imagery throughout the land continues to support the notion of white supremacy. We see mythological white biblical imagery every day in the magazine and book sections of Walmart, Kroger, Walgreens, CVS and all throughout Hobby Lobby. We see the iconic biblical imagery in doctor’s offices. We see it in hospitals, airports, billboards. We’ve seen it in schools and, of course, in churches and movies. 

You look at some of the big blockbuster movies that we’ve had, like “The Passion of the Christ,” that took in close to $400 million. Blacks go to these movies, too.

I always tell people that Jesus is white, even though he never existed. Jesus is white and they ask, “Why do you think that he’s white?” Because he’s white in Walmart and Walmart is the largest retailer in the world. My phone is packed with imagery that I just collect everywhere I go. It’s all around. And that’s something that’s really not talked about a lot.

I was born and raised in Cincinnati, and I used to work at a place called Half Price Books. I was a buyer there. People would bring their old books in and I would assess them. I was really the best assessor that they had and I was the only black. A lady came up with her books and she needed them assessed, and said, “I don’t want a black person touching my books,” even though she was giving them up anyway. I was like, “OK, no problem.”

Honestly, I wasn’t offended. I was cool with it, but what really pissed me off was my white co-worker who assessed her books. That’s the problem. If I can’t do them, you, as my co-worker, should say, “Look, take your books somewhere else.” So, if we’re not all offended and all appalled when we go to Walmart, when we go to these places, I don’t care. I was at the Miami airport and there’s white biblical iconography all around. It’s all over, it’s everywhere. It’s ubiquitous. We all should be upset about that.

Let’s not ignore imagery. Imagery is deeper many times than the spoken word. If there’s no legal justification to end the onslaught of white biblical imagery based on the Constitution’s protection of free speech, then the Constitution is flawed. You should not be able to walk into a store and see white images of Moses and Abraham. To a person of color, it does immeasurable psychological damage. There’s no way we can put a measure on the damage psychologically.

Black people don’t even embrace their own culture. We have Stockholm syndrome to the highest degree in Africa. I don’t know how many have been to Africa, but it is amazing the reverence. They have a saying in Africa that if you’re on your way to church and you see a white man, turn around, because you’ve already laid eyes on God.

This is all about imagery. But what is racism? There’s a lot of talk about it. We hear that word all the time, but racism is the legal backing of a group’s prejudices, stereotypes, bigotry, bias and ignorance. It’s when all that is backed legally it becomes racism. We’ve been mentally conditioned to perceive an all-knowing and all-powerful creator as a white male. And no matter what our current beliefs are, our memory, an association of a white Jesus, are permanently locked in our minds. I’ve been this way since I was 22 years old, since I’ve been out of religion. Done with it. But that image when I was 6 years old is still there. It will always be there.

I’ve got a little part in the film that addresses that imagery. Racism actually stems from one group believing to be of more value and more worth than another group. And it’s time to end all of that and I’m glad that I’m here. I wish there were more blacks here. I wish there were more Hispanics here. It’s a long process, but I think we’re headed in the right direction.

Thanks for having me. I appreciate you guys.

Convention speech: Rep. Jamie Raskin — Democracy requires state-church separation

In this screenshot from a video, U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin accepts the Clarence Darrow Award from FFRF. Raskin was unable to be at FFRF’s 2019 national convention in person, so he sent a video to be played to the convention audience. To watch the video, go to ffrf.us/raskin.

This is an edited version of the video speech made by U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin that was shown at FFRF’s national convention on Oct. 18, 2019.

By U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin

Hello to all my friends out at the Freedom From Religion Foundation. I’m thrilled to be here with you, even in absentia.

Freedom from religion means freedom of religion, and freedom of religion means freedom from religion because people aren’t going to be able to exercise the religion of their choice or the philosophy of their choice if you have theocrats imposing a particular religious creed on all of society.

Obviously, we’ve got some important things going on in Washington, D.C., and I’m delighted and honored and gratified to receive the Clarence Darrow award.

I’ve got this right by my desk, so Clarence Darrow can keep a close watch over me. I want to thank you for this award, which means a whole lot to me. It’s important to me for a few reasons.

One is that Clarence Darrow was a great lawyer who thought systematically and logically, and I think that that is the mindset we have to try to bring to public things. The second reason is because he was a very passionate crusader against capital punishment.

I remember when I was in law school reading his famous closing argument in the Leopold and Loeb case, and being so moved by what it was that he had to say. I was honored to have a chance in my life to campaign against the death penalty in my home state of Maryland as a state senator. I led the floor fight to abolish the death penalty, which we did in 2013. I invoked Clarence Darrow and tried to carry on in his spirit.

We had a guy who was convicted of the most brutal, grisly, gruesome, rape-murder you ever could have imagined: Kirk Bloodsworth. But he swore that he didn’t do it and he was on death row and we very easily could have executed an innocent man. He read about the advent of DNA evidence and wrote to his lawyer, begged his lawyer, who is now the chief judge of the District of Columbia Superior Court, Judge Richard Morin. He begged him to let him get a DNA test.

They found that evidence, which actually was supposed to have been disposed of, but the judge in the case had an assistant who never believed that Bloodsworth was guilty, and she’d saved the physical evidence in her desk. They found the evidence.

They performed the DNA test and it came back with more than 99.9 percent certainty that it could not have been Bloodsworth. And they actually found a positive DNA match with someone who was already in prison with Bloodsworth a floor beneath him in Maryland. That guy confessed to the crime.

I said on the floor to our friends across the aisle who were defending capital punishment, that the death penalty is a great system for people who think that the government is perfect and the justice system is infallible.

Usually that’s not what we hear from Republicans about the government. Usually they say government can’t do anything right. And here they are saying government couldn’t do anything wrong. But, obviously, in this most extreme of scenarios, the government could very easily do something wrong and we know has convicted hundreds of innocent people. And that’s one principal reason that the death penalty doesn’t function for us.

So, I was proud to be involved in that work of abolishing capital punishment in the state of Maryland. I’m also proud to receive this award because Clarence Darrow was such a magnificent and eloquent champion for the separation of church and state. And here he drew upon the deepest wellsprings of American constitutional and political thought.

Our Founders were enlightenment liberals who rebelled against centuries of religious conflict and religious war. The wars of religion between the Catholics and Protestants in Europe were every bit as brutal and vicious as the wars between Sunni and Shia today in the Muslim world.

Our forefathers and foremothers wanted to go in a different direction. They said, “We want a break from the religious wars, from the Inquisition, from the holy crusades. We want a break from the witchcraft trials and the blasphemy laws, the apostasy laws and the heresy laws. We want to put government on a secular and rational basis.” And that’s why we got our First Amendment. Thank you, James Madison.

We got a First Amendment, which gave everybody a right to freely exercise religion as they see fit — right of freedom of speech and also no establishment of religion.

I think that is what resonates with the name of your strong and growing organization. No establishment of religion, free exercise of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom to petition government for redress of grievances, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press. All of these freedoms of the human mind go together. That was a great breakthrough victory in our Constitution for progress of human society and human understanding. It allowed us to say that government would be concerned with reason and we would try to govern based on reason and based on a passionate commitment to the rights of everyone.

And that’s basically what our whole history has told us. We have a trajectory of freedom in our Constitution and that’s going to be a central commitment of what it means for us to defend American constitutionalism against attack. This is important to me.

I thought Clarence Darrow obviously had a brilliant and stunning performance at the Scopes trial in 1925, although I think it may have been unnecessary to humiliate William Jennings Bryan in the way that he did. We can say that there should be imposition of no religious creeds or orthodoxies, whether or not those religious creeds or orthodoxies are true. By the way, Clarence Darrow voted for Bryan and supported him in the 1896 election.

But when Bryan died five days after the Scopes monkey trial was over, it led to a kind of breach between the enlightened secular separation of church and state forces that tended to be in the big cities, as Clarence Darrow was in Chicago, and the rural populist forces that were fighting against big business exploitation. I don’t think that we needed that split.

And I think that split has been a tough thing for us politically. That divide has lasted up until this day. We need to defend and uphold the separation of church and state and all the Enlightenment values that Darrow was fighting for.

We should be respectful of other people’s practices of their philosophies and their creeds in their religions, and we should try to join everybody together in working to defend our constitutional democracy. A critical part of our constitutional democracy is the separation of church and state and no imposition of religion through the schools.

The Supreme Court’s ultimate decision in Engel vs. Vitale in 1962 was a great landmark precedent. Some of my colleagues today still walk around Congress saying this was the moral downfall of America, when the Supreme Court banned prayer in the public schools. But, as I like to say, the Supreme Court did not ban prayer in the public schools. As long as there are pop math quizzes, there will be prayer in the public schools.

All the Supreme Court found is that the government cannot impose religious prayer on anyone.

Thank you for this great award. Thank you for giving me a moment to share some of my thoughts with you. And please send me your thoughts and ideas as we move forward in trying to rescue American constitutional democracy today.