Many of you have contacted FFRF, angry and worried that governors or other officials across the country are exempting churches and religious worship from the “safer at home” orders necessary to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
If you’re stuck at home, perhaps feeling a little helpless, isolated and angry that these churches are risking your life and the lives of your loved ones, we want to help you fight back.
In response to the overwhelming and heartening volume of requests for advice on how best to hold our elected officials accountable during this turbulent time, FFRF has created a set of resources for your use. FFRF’s website now has a page specifically dedicated to secular activism in the time of coronavirus. You can access it here: ffrf.org/legal/covid-resources.
FFRF has already sent a letter to every governor explaining why church exemptions are unconstitutional and lethal. We’ve also asked each FFRF member to call and email your own governor. That action alert has basic talking points. We’ve sent other letters of complaint, too. We’ve written op-eds. We will continue to challenge these inappropria
te religious exemptions. And we know you want to fight them, too.
Please continue to report (ffrf.org/legal/report) any state/church violations happening in your community. While the Religious Right continues to exploit this global public health crisis as an opportunity to peddle their beliefs, we in the secular community must use all the resources at our disposal to ensure that reason-based solutions drive our public policy responses and solutions to this pandemic.
Thank you for your activism. We hope you are staying home and staying safe.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has won its case at the appeals court level against censorship of its display in the Texas Capitol by Gov. Greg Abbott.
The unanimous opinion by the three-judge court panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on April 3 granted FFRF additional relief. The judgment, written by Judge Stephen A. Higginson, sent the case back to the district court that previously ruled in FFRF’s favor, to issue a more expansive remedy to protect FFRF’s right to place displays in the future and to ensure a similar constitutional violation cannot happen to other organizations.
FFRF, with the help from members and the requisite sponsorship by a legislator, had placed a Winter Solstice display in the state Capitol in December 2015 as a response to a Christian nativity scene there. FFRF’s whimsical display depicted the Founders and the Statue of Liberty celebrating the “birth” of the Bill of Rights (adopted Dec. 15, 1791). Abbott, as chair of the Texas State Preservation Board, ordered FFRF’s display taken down only three days after it was erected, lambasting it as indecent, mocking and contributing to public immorality.
In a judgment issued June 2018, U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks, for the Western District of Texas – Austin Division, declared that Abbott had violated FFRF’s free speech rights and “engaged in viewpoint discrimination.”
Abbott appealed that ruling on narrow technical grounds, arguing that the district court lacked the power to rule in FFRF’s favor. The 5th Circuit disagreed — and ordered the district court to issue broader relief that will ensure FFRF’s free speech rights are protected in the future.
“It’s highly gratifying to win our court battle in FFRF v. Abbott,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Free speech — even for the atheists Abbott reviles — is alive and well in Texas, despite the governor’s attempts to malign, censor and exclude nonbelievers.”
The district court is now tasked with deciding whether Texas’ rules governing displays in the Capitol leave so much room for discriminatory censorship that they must be scrapped altogether. Citing prior decisions, the 5th Circuit warned that any government regulations on speech must “provide adequate safeguards to protect against the improper exclusion of viewpoints.”
Higginson’s opinion was joined by Judges James E. Graves Jr. and W. Eugene Davis. The case was argued before the 5th Circuit by FFRF Attorney Sam Grover. Outside counsel Richard L. Bolton and FFRF Attorney Patrick Elliott also represent FFRF in the case.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation successfully settled a federal lawsuit April 23 over the denial of its Freedom of Information Act request by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
FFRF teamed up with Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a governmental watchdog, after HUD Secretary Ben Carson dodged records requests related to the White House bible study.
FFRF and CREW filed suit in January 2018 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, alleging HUD’s pattern and practice of denying fee waivers on FOIA requests where disclosure of the documents was “likely to cast the agency or HUD secretary in a negative light.”
FFRF and CREW have subsequently received the desired documents. In the settlement, HUD has agreed to address the remaining issues by offering two sessions of in-person mandatory fee waiver training for the FOIA office, issuing updated fee waiver guidance for employees, and paying costs and attorneys’ fees to the plaintiffs ($14,400 to CREW and $3,400 to FFRF).
“One of the major benefits is that the updated training and guidance will ensure that citizens and groups will have access to agency records,” explains FFRF Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott. It is FFRF’s information and understanding that HUD had been illegally rejecting requests to waive fees. The lawsuit has remedied that situation by forcing the agency to give FFRF and CREW the records without charge and by promising to hold trainings to update staff.
In addition to seeking records that were related to the White House bible study, FFRF had asked for records related to Carson’s attendance at an event at the Museum of the Bible.
“Government needs to work in sunlight,” comments FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. “Our lawsuit has ensured that should be happening in the future at HUD.”
The case was before U.S. District Judge Carl J. Nichols. Anne Weismann, chief FOIA counsel for CREW, and Patrick Elliott, senior counsel for FFRF, represented the plaintiffs.
Roger Wade Schempp, who testified in the Abington v. Schempp First Amendment case, died March 29 at age 77.
He was born Feb. 28, 1943, to Edward and Sidney Schempp. He was the husband of the late Mary Lou “Lucy” Zimmerman, to whom he was married for 40 years (until her death in 2009). He is survived by his elder brother Ellery, younger sister Donna, brother-in-law Tom Rute, and sister-in-law Ellen (Bitsy) Zimmerman.
Lucy and Roger first met in Nebraska at Hiram Scott College where Roger graduated. Roger went on to work at the Public Works Department of Pennsauken Township, N.J., as an inspector at the landfill.
His place in history is secured as he was part of a landmark U.S. Supreme Court First Amendment case — Abington v. Schempp (1963). At the age of 17, he testified to uphold the “separation of church and state” rights of children in U.S. public schools. Due to his family’s and his efforts, the case terminated the exercise of mandated bible reading in public schools throughout the country.
Roger set up the family’s scrapbook of newspaper articles and letters, thus establishing a historical archive.
Roger loved trains, not only the family’s Lionel model trains, but also riding on them. Several times he would travel across the country coast to coast to visit his parents.
He volunteered for years at a Pennsauken food pantry and was energetic in his support of the Unitarian-Universalist Church in Cherry Hill, N.J. Roger loved animals, particularly cats, and volunteered at PetSmart.
Tom Cara, FFRF Metropolitan Chicago Chapter’s executive director, wrote the following about FFRF Member Bob Love:
With a deep heart, I am very sorry to announce the death of one of our dedicated chapter members. Bob Love died Feb. 24 at the age of 91 after battling pneumonia for many weeks.
As one of FFRF Metropolitan Chicago Chapter’s founding members, he always looked forward to participating in our events. But, due to his recent need to take care of his ailing wife Lily, Bob could not join in with us as much as he would have liked. He had always been a tremendous financial supporter of the chapter since its inception, and was very much a champion of the mission of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. He had also been very hopeful of having the opportunity to visit Freethought Hall one day, which was something we had talked about doing together. I feel badly this was not something we were ever able to arrange.
Bob was an avid tennis player and was always ready to offer a good joke, particularly those which poked fun at religion.
He served in the military after World War II, and always recounted how servicemen had to provide a declaration of religious faith. At that time, there was no choice for those who had no religious affiliation, so his only option was to indicate “Jewish,” which was the religious identification of his birth family. But identifying as Jewish presented its own problems during his years in the military, as all were compelled to participate in Christian worship services. This was something that always troubled him for the 70 years after he finished his duty, as he had been a staunch atheist for most of his life.
Last spring, he and Lily needed to sell their condominium when it became clear she needed greater assistance in her daily living. They moved to an assisted living community, from where Bob had contacted me last fall with the news that a secular group had formed at their facility. This was something he was very excited about since, prior to that, it was primarily those of religious faith who were provided with activities and services catering to their beliefs. He had invited me to attend their first meeting, which took place in November, and I was pleased to join with the group to provide an FFRF perspective.
My wife Erin and I had the pleasure of having dinner with Bob and Lily on occasion. That became more difficult to do once Lily’s health began to deteriorate. Sadly, Lily is now without him, but Bob left her in good hands when they moved to Sedgebrook Retirement Community, which provides wonderful care.
It is always a sad day when we lose a fellow freethinker. Bob’s devotion to nontheism and state-religion separation will be missed. Let us carry on that work.
Humanist activist and freethought advocate Barbara Smoker, 96, died April 7.
She was president of the United Kingdom’s National Secular Society from 1972–1996, chair of the British Voluntary Euthanasia Society (now known as Dignity in Dying) from 1981–1985 and an honorary vice president of the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association in the United Kingdom.
Barbara is featured in the anthology, Women Without Superstition, edited by FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.
She was born in London on June 23, 1923. She served in the Women’s Royal Naval Service from 1942–1945 in Southeast Asia.
The National Secular Society wrote the following in her obituary: “Barbara, who at one stage had herself considered becoming a nun, claimed she became an atheist at precisely midday on Nov. 5, 1949, when she concluded that the Catholic claim of papal infallibility was impossible. This was no sudden conversion, rather a tipping point for a young woman harboring increasing doubts.”
She was managing director of the Rationalist Press Association and editor of The Humanist.
In 1950, Smoker joined the secular humanist movement when she became a member of the South Place Ethical Society, where she was critical of seeking redress on religious grounds. Eventually she became president of the National Secular Society for nearly 25 years. In that capacity, she represented the atheist viewpoint in print, on lecture platforms, speaking tours, on radio and television.
She was in demand to give addresses at secular funerals and eventually officiated at nonreligious funerals, wedding ceremonies, gay and lesbian commitments and baby namings. She was active in various social campaigns, such as the abolition of the death penalty, nuclear disarmament, legalization of abortion and for the Voluntary Euthanasia Society. She financed the manufacture of the first “Make Love, Not War” badges that were popular in Britain during the 1960s.
In 2019, she published her autobiography My Godforsaken Life: Memoir of a Maverick.
FFRF Member Leonard Coleman of Bonita Springs, Fla., died Aug. 8, 2019, at age 84.
He was a clinical psychologist at the VA Hospital. He was preceded in death by his wife Lita Coleman in 2014 and daughter Pamela Coleman in 1979.
Coleman had many hobbies, including ham radio operator and advocacy for veterans in New York. He was raised in Malden, Mass.
Upon his death, he left a bequest to FFRF of more than $40,000.
Congratulations to Chris Watson of Idaho for winning the April caption contest. Chris wins an FFRF T-shirt.
The winning entry is: “Google Maps GPS: ‘You have arrived at your destination.’”
Runners-up are: “We hold this truth to be self evident,” by Mike Chupa of Pennsylvania.
“Don’t say you weren’t warned,” by Dan Nerren of Oklahoma.
“And to think I dragged a cross all the way here,” by Riku Kurki of Wisconsin.
If you’ve taken any photos that you think would be good for this contest, please email them to [email protected].
By Gene Twaronite
It’s not like going into a store and selecting a new sofa or mattress, though, come to think of it, you should look for something comfortable and durable. Most of us never get a chance to choose a god we can live with. We grow up with the religion we’re assigned at childhood, and, by the time we reach adulthood, it’s too late.
Some of us ignore or eventually grow out of it. Others suffer a wrenching existential crisis when they discover that the religion that once sustained them no longer provides answers. And some decide to just go with the flow and settle into a comforting complacency of lukewarm faith.
Too bad we’re not provided at childhood with intensive training on all the many options available in choosing a religion or god. Instead of being brainwashed into the religion of their parents, kids would take comprehensive comparative religion courses, beginning with basic pre-school stuff about the actual meaning of the word “god” and what that entails. As they advance, they would learn what to look for in a god, and how to recognize a good deal when they see it.
To start with, just what is a god supposed to be? An all-powerful being, some would say. But that’s hardly a sufficient answer, not even for a 3-year-old. How powerful? Can it do tricks? Can it make things, like the Earth and stars and planets? At the very least, you want a god that can create everything.
Durability is important. You want a god that goes the distance and won’t crap out on you after five years or 100,000 miles, whichever comes first. Some gods do offer a lifetime warranty, though the price can be steep.
A factor not often discussed is portability. Say you decide to change your religion. Can you take your chosen god with you to your new religion? Sad to say, this is not the case. You’re pretty much stuck with the religion’s own brand of god. Suppose you really dig the Egyptian god Hathor, otherwise known as the Cow Goddess, who is sometimes depicted as having a woman’s body and a cow’s head. You can’t just take her with you if you suddenly convert to Islam or Christianity. It’s a pity, since allowing followers to bring along as many gods as they please would certainly help to liven up religions and make worship more fun.
And how tough is this god? Can it beat the crap out of other gods in a fight? You don’t want a wimpy god. Take the Hebrew god Yahweh of the Old Testament. He doesn’t like what people are doing, so he makes a big flood and wipes out every creature on Earth except for those onboard an ark. Now there’s a tough god!
But I wonder just how tough Yahweh would be if he had to go a round or two with the Hindu god Shiva the Destroyer. Supposedly, he goes around destroying not only all life, but the whole universe just so it can be re-created. He is said to have a third eye, the source of all his wild energy. He wears a cobra necklace and animal skins, and wields a mean-looking trident. Yahweh, on the other hand, appears as a burning bush.
This brings up another problem. Once you have chosen and accepted a god, you can’t help trying to visualize this god. That might work for Greek gods, who are viewed as merely glorified versions of humans. But if yours is a Christian god, it is generally believed to be transcendent, totally incomprehensible, and incorporeal. So just how the hell are you supposed to visualize it?
Raised as a Catholic, I had to take the god I was given, the one true Catholic one, or so my catechism said. I was told that god (in fairness to other gods, I am not using capitals) was infinite, mysterious and beyond anything I could possibly imagine. That didn’t stop me from trying.
Fortunately, there were plenty of visual aids. Catholics are big on icons, which can include crosses, statues, carvings, pictures and even little plastic figurines you mount on the dashboard to keep you safe.
As a kid, I would look at a statue or picture of Jesus and imagine that he was actually a long-haired, bearded, white hippie in sandals, like some cool guy at Woodstock. But he always seemed kind of wimpy to me. I couldn’t imagine him chasing the money changers out of the temple. And he had always had a sorrowful face. Didn’t he ever laugh? Paintings of god the father showed an old, gray-haired and fleshier version of a white guy, as if Jesus had just grown up. Who decided that god was white? And it was always a man, not a woman. As for the Holy Ghost, what’s with that? Sounds like Halloween. At least put a sheet on him and show him as a ghost, not some silly white dove.
And while I was stuck with these limited male images of god, other religions had all kinds of cool deities. I especially loved Hinduism, where you have Ganesha, with an elephant’s head and round human body. And it has female gods, too! There’s that divine female known as Devi, and fair-skinned Sarasvati, all dressed in white. Better yet, there’s full-bosomed Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, with her broad hips and warm smile. I can just hear her saying, “Why don’t you come up some time and see me?” Gods don’t have to be limited in their attributes.
You also want a god who doesn’t require too much of you. It’s all right for a god to expect a little acknowledgement and maybe an occasional thanks now and again, when things are going well. But I would definitely draw the line at those Mayan gods who require regular human sacrifice. Now, some people might find this has a certain cachet. Not me. If I have to kill someone to worship you, well, that’s unacceptable. Even a god who says such a thing, but doesn’t really mean it, is not to be trusted.
Whenever I heard that story in the Old Testament about god telling Abraham to kill his only son, I thought, “What kind of god would even suggest such a thing?” It totally creeped me out. Supposedly this was symbolic foreshadowing of the promised son of god to come, who would be sacrificed for the good of humanity, but for me, the damage was done. Then god tells Abraham to just go kill a poor ram instead, and everything’s fine. Well, it ain’t. Killing animals shouldn’t be a requisite, either. As for the son of god metaphor, you’d think an infinitely powerful god would find a better way to communicate with his subjects than staging such a sophomoric act. Downright sloppy.
So, what kind of requirements should you look for? At one end of the spectrum, you have gods who are content with a little chanting and dancing, general detachment, and just going with the flow, with maybe a little meditation thrown in. You can easily fit that in after work and still have the whole weekend free for less divine pursuits.
Watch out, though, for the Mormon god, who demands that you abstain from alcohol, tobacco, coffee and tea, and must marry for eternity (marrying for life is hard enough). The Rastafarian god may insist you wear dreadlocks. The Nation of Islam god requires you to pray five times a day. He also requires that you respect all laws, don’t make war, and not bear arms, the last which some Second Amendment folks might find hard to obey. The Gnostic god requires strict celibacy and asceticism, since all matter is considered evil. This might explain the fact that this religion is pretty much extinct.
For minimal obligation, nothing beats the Deist god who, being totally uninterested in the world, doesn’t require you to do a goddamn thing. He doesn’t want to hear about your whiny needs, either, so don’t bother praying to him.
One final thing to look for. You definitely want a god who is cool. I always had trouble thinking of Jesus as cool. Yeah, he was supposed to have performed all those miracles, like turning water into wine — a neat trick, I must admit. But his mother had to beg him to do it, to which he replied, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” Jesus Christ! You’re talking to your mother, dude. I just couldn’t relate to him.
So, here are a couple of imaging suggestions for a cool god. Imagine her as Lady God, in the form of Billie Holiday, at the top of her fame, singing her divine, jazzy songs “God Bless the Child” and “Strange Fruit.” All she would require of us is that we sing to one another. A case could also be made for Frank Sinatra or Queen’s Freddie Mercury, either of whom would be a lot more fun and inspirational than some wimpy, goody-goody hippie in robe and sandals or that fat old guy on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Personally, I can’t think of a better image than that of Louis Armstrong, or Lord Satchmo, as his followers call him. Just imagine him creating the world with a blow of his sweet trumpet, then singing softly to himself, “What a Wonderful World.”
This is an excerpt from FFRF Member Gene Twaronite’s new collection of essays, My Life as a Sperm: Essays from the Absurd Side.