Alito’s speech shows need for court reform

Theocracy cartoon by Steve Benson

Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito consummated the unholy union between the federal judiciary and the Federalist Society in a one-sided speech on Nov. 12.

“It’s shocking to hear a supposedly impartial Supreme Court justice speak in such a hyperpartisan, reckless and entitled manner,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor, “Alito didn’t sound like a principled jurist, but a Christian Nationalist trading talking points with Sean Hannity on Fox News.”

It’s no secret that Donald Trump let the ultraconservative Federalist Society select nominees: “We’re going to have great judges, conservative, all picked by the Federalist Society.” Nearly all of President Trump’s 200-plus judicial nominees, including his three Supreme Court justices, have had ties to the conservative group.

Alito’s speech was the screed of an embittered, embattled minority fighting against the overwhelming majority. It highlights a central problem this country will face moving forward. Most Americans are not so conservative. Alito’s views are increasingly unpopular. He espouses the views of the conservative white, male, Christian Nationalist demographic. A shrinking demographic; a dwindling minority. But Alito is part of a 6–3 majority on the Supreme Court. He’s an unpopular minority but empowered for life on a packed court.

This speech was an admission, a confession. Alito admitted that we are a nation governed by minority rule and confessed that, although their grasp on legislative power is slipping, Alito and his five buddies will solidify that minority rule with their judicial power.

Alito’s words have alarming implications for FFRF’s work. FFRF has been racing to fight against a radical attempt to redefine religious freedom, and Alito made it clear that this push is only going to get stronger. In Alito’s fantasy, religious liberty requires that laws exempt Christians who disagree with the law, that Christians be allowed to discriminate as they see fit, and that Christian views on same-sex marriage and reproductive rights must be forced on the entire legal system.

Shockingly, he did this while condemning public policy based on science and reason, even in the middle of a lethal pandemic: “Just as the COVID restrictions have highlighted the movement toward rule by experts, litigation about those restrictions has pointed up emerging trends in the assessment of individual rights. This is especially evident with respect to religious liberty. It pains me to say this, but in certain quarters, religious liberty is fast becoming a disfavored right.”

Alito talked about a famous religious liberty case, a Supreme Court decision called Employment Division v. Smith authored by Justice Antonin Scalia, which Alito claimed “cut back sharply on the protection provided by the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.” He added, “Congress was quick to respond. It passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), to ensure broad protection for religious liberty.” Just eight days before this speech, Alito participated in oral arguments in Fulton v. Philadelphia, a case in which a Catholic organization is asking Alito and the other justices to overturn the very decision Alito just maligned.

Alito also opined on the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, which was heavily cited by the parties in Fulton, leaving no doubt which way he will vote. He could not have been more clear: “For many today, religious liberty is not a cherished freedom. It’s often just an excuse for bigotry, and it can’t be tolerated, even when there is no evidence that anybody has been harmed.”

“I’ll wager a year of my nonprofit salary that he finds for the Catholic organization and against the city,” says FFRF’s Director of Strategic Response Andrew Seidel.

Alito inappropriately discussed cases that have already been ruled on an interim basis, but that are continuing to work their way to the high court, such as pandemic “restrictions,” specifically discussing cases in Nevada and California, and snidely making his loathing for such orders clear: “Take a quick look at the Constitution. You will see the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, which protects religious liberty, you will not find a craps clause or a blackjack clause or a slot machine clause.” He also spoke of a pharmacy case out of Washington, in which a business meant to provide care for people refused a prescription. In Alito’s biased retelling, this was about “so-called morning-after pills, which destroy an embryo after fertilization.”

FFRF has no faith that Alito will do the right thing in these instances precisely because his speech smacked of an entitled man above the law, not a man of the law.

Alito certainly did not mean for his speech to be a clarion call for court reform, something he condemned in his speech. But it is. If America fails to heed this call, we’ll pay a dear price. It’s time to expand the Supreme Court and the federal judiciary.

Biden administration must prioritize judiciary

The Freedom From Religion Foundation and dozens of other national organizations are advising the incoming administration on how to effectively prioritize judicial appointments, in the wake of court packing by the Trump administration.

Senate Republicans have confirmed over 200 extremist judges to lifetime seats on the federal courts at a breakneck pace that will damage our laws and civil liberties for decades to come, warns their joint statement, signed by the American Constitution Society, League of Conservation Voters, National Education Association and People For the American Way, to name just a few other signatories.

“At the time of their confirmations, Trump’s nominees already had records posing a severe threat to the rights of women, workers, people of color, LGBTQ communities, immigrants, consumers, and the environment,” states the letter. “Now on the bench, their rulings have more than justified our concerns. Trump-appointed justices have already rolled back hard-won rights and legal protections so critical to everyday Americans, while expanding the power of those at the top.”

That is why the Biden administration must immediately and explicitly prioritize judicial appointments, the statement urges, and advises on how to repair the damage.

• First, the statement counsels, the Biden administration must nominate demographically and experientially diverse judges with a demonstrated commitment to equal justice. It should prioritize candidates who are demographically diverse, including from communities of color, women, LGBTQ communities, people with disabilities, and other underrepresented groups; and who come from a range of professional backgrounds, including public interest lawyers, civil rights lawyers, labor lawyers, plaintiffs’ lawyers and public defenders.

• Second, the Biden White House needs to prevent procedural roadblocks from delaying expeditious confirmation of outstanding jurists. The administration must be ready not only to nominate but to fight for nominees even in the face of opposition. So, rules put in place by Senate Republicans to fast-track the confirmation of Trump-appointed judges must remain in place for the Biden administration. This means no supermajority vote for Supreme Court nominees; two hours of post-cloture debate for district court nominees; hearings with multiple nominees; and no blue slip veto for appellate nominees, at a minimum.

• Third, the incoming executive team must support legislation to create new judgeships. Historically, Congress routinely expanded the number of district and circuit court judgeships to keep up with population and increased caseloads. Since 1990, however, the number of judges has not significantly increased. The Judicial Conference, the policymaking body for the federal court headed by Chief Justice John Roberts, has recommended creating new judgeships to help address the significant increase in cases.

• Last, but far from the least, the statement recommends, the staff at the White House and Justice Department after Inauguration Day need to be committed to prioritizing judicial selections. The administration must consist of qualified and sufficient staff, committed to expeditiously vetting and marshaling nominees through Senate confirmation. Moreover, staff involved in judicial selection should have experience and deep connections within civil rights and public interest communities and be committed to, and representative of, a judiciary made up of judges from a wide range of legal, demographic and experiential backgrounds.

With the steps outlined in the statement, the Biden administration will, hopefully, be able to undo the judicial wrongs that the Trump administration has committed in the past four years.

Ryan Jayne: Vatican abuse report is too little, too late

Don Addis cartoon
Ryan Jayne

By Ryan D. Jayne

It’s becoming a story as old as the church itself: A young sexual assault survivor courageously reports his or her abuser, only to be shunned and abused again, while the abuser escapes punishment and rises in the ranks of the church. Decades later, we learn far too late that there were scores of victims. These stories are so common with the Catholic Church that they most often make up the lion’s share of the Black Collar Crime section in Freethought Today. But it’s still hard to keep track of them all.

The Vatican recently released a 445-page report detailing myriad allegations of sexual assault against former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, to date the highest-ranking Catholic priest to be defrocked for assaulting children and young adults. The report reveals a rampant pattern of abuse, dating back at least to the 1980s, during which church officials not only ignored allegations, but actively helped protect McCarrick and even joined in the abuse themselves.

The report comes more than two decades too late for the survivors. At this point, few could be surprised by yet another such report. Few were; the report has barely made a splash. We’ve been desensitized and are inured to the fact that the Catholic Church has regularly covered up sexual abuse. That alone should convince Roman Catholics around the world that it is finally time to quit the Catholic Church. Even with a popular and supposedly reformist pope, the church has not changed and will not change.

According to the report, Pope John Paul II knew of credible allegations against McCarrick at least by 1999. Rather than investigating or referring the case to local authorities, he decided to promote McCarrick, in large part because they were friends. After the McCarrick report came out, most news outlets rightly condemned the then-pope’s actions (and Pope Benedict’s inaction when he succeeded John Paul II), but then pivoted to the conclusion that Pope Francis, the current pontiff, was unaware of the allegations until 2017, at which point he took decisive action to remove McCarrick.

Even if you believe that, the claim that the Vatican only heard allegations against McCarrick in 1999 is deeply misleading. The report actually details individuals who alerted the church to McCarrick’s crimes far earlier. One survivor reported McCarrick to a church official as early as 1985, when a future priest informed Monsignor Anthony Gambino, a senior official at the Diocese of Metuchen (New Jersey), that McCarrick had assaulted him at an overnight beach house trip.

“McCarrick dictated the sleeping arrangements” such that there were insufficient beds, so McCarrick and the young man he was interested in would have to share, says the report. Then, “when McCarrick noticed that [the young man] was wearing pajamas over his underwear, he was displeased” and encouraged him to remove his pajamas. Next, McCarrick pressured the young man into exchanging back rubs and, when they were under the covers, “wrapped his body around [him].” The young man “described himself as being ‘ensnared’ and could feel that McCarrick was sexually aroused,” at which point he rebuked the advance, which “pissed off” McCarrick, and then ran out of the room.

Rape and sexual assault are crimes that should be reported to the police. That apparently never happens in the Catholic hierarchy. At most, the crimes are reported to someone higher up in the chain. But even that didn’t happen here. Instead, Gambino admonished the young man for speaking up and arranged for a counseling session with another priest, Edward Zogby. After taking his confession, the report says Zogby “wanted to give [the survivor] a hug, and then tried to kiss him and grabbed his crotch.” The next year, McCarrick was promoted to Archbishop of Newark.

And this horrifying story is just 10 pages of the 445-page report.

In 2019, the Vatican finally conducted an “administrative penal process” and concluded that McCarrick was culpable, although the pedophile priest’s only punishment is house arrest. It appears McCarrick, now 90, will never serve a day in prison. If not for a whistleblower in 2017, McCarrick’s crimes likely never would have become public, and he would have maintained his position as a senior cardinal, and his reputation as a “pastoral, intelligent and zealous bishop,” despite his career of rampant abuse.

The Catholic Church silencing victims and covering up sexual abuse is nothing new. A 2018 grand jury report in Pennsylvania found that two bishops covered up “the sexual abuse of hundreds of children by more than 50 priests and other religious leaders over a 40-year period.” An independent inquiry report, released on the same day as the McCarrick report found that “child sexual abuse was swept under the carpet” in the United Kingdom, as the church prioritized its reputation above all else. No one could rationally deny that the church, for decades, if not centuries, has facilitated and perpetuated sexual abuse at an almost unimagineable scale.

It would be naive in the extreme to think that the church’s assembly line of abuse and cover-up will not continue. Outlets that praised Pope Francis for publishing the McCarrick report note that he did so despite fierce internal resistance in the upper echelons of the church. Even presuming that the current pope sincerely wants to fix the church’s systemic promotion of abuse, the institution does not want to be fixed.

Powerful church officials will undoubtedly conceal reports of sexual misconduct from Pope Francis in the future — they almost certainly already have — to protect the reputations and bank accounts of the church, their friends, and themselves.

And there is little to no discussion on the one thing that would most work to fix the problem: justice. Even “Pope Fluffy” has not instructed the Church hierarchy and its adherents to report these crimes — and they are crimes — to the police or law enforcement. Defrocking a 90-year-old serial abuser, and sentencing him to house arrest, is far too little, far too late.

The church is not going to change anytime soon, and anyone deluding themselves into thinking otherwise is complicit in widespread, institutionally protected sexual abuse.

Ryan Jayne is a staff attorney for FFRF.

They Said What? (December 2020)

For many today, religious liberty is not a cherished freedom. It’s often just an excuse for bigotry, and it can’t be tolerated. . . . You can’t say that marriage is a union between one man and one woman. Until very recently that’s what the vast majority of Americans thought. Now it’s considered bigotry.

Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, in a speech given to the Federalist Society, where he claimed that liberals pose a growing threat to religious liberty and free speech.

The New York Times, 11-13-20


The Church cannot support the acceptance of objectively immoral relationships.

Bishop Thomas Tobin of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence following Pope Francis’ support of same-sex unions.

New York Post, 10-23-20


We have a vaccine. The name is Jesus Christ.

John Hagee, the senior pastor of Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, in a sermon.

YouTube, 11-15-20


GOD IS IN CONTROL

Kayleigh McEnany, President Trump’s press secretary, early in the evening on Election Day.

Twitter, 11-4-20


God has already sealed the results of this election. He has sealed it in Heaven.

Former U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, speaking during an election special airing on televangelist Kenneth Copeland’s Victory Channel.

The Friendly Atheist, 11-4-20

FFRF Victories (December 2020)

Joey Ballard, head coach for Jasper High School’s boys football team, had regularly led his team in prayer until FFRF intervened.

By Bailey Nachreiner-Mackesey

FFRF puts a stop to Missouri coach’s prayers

A Missouri school district has ended its football coaching staff’s practice of praying with the student-athletes after FFRF got involved.

Joey Ballard, head coach for Jasper High School’s boys football team, regularly led team prayer, a concerned parent of a player had informed FFRF. During these prayers, student players gathered around Ballard on bended knee, with additional coaching staff surrounding the students while Ballard delivered a Christian prayer and then led the students in reciting the Lord’s Prayer.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Jasper R-5 School District Superintendent Christina Hess, reminding the district that it is illegal for public school athletic coaches to lead their teams in prayer.

FFRF’s constitutional advice has been heeded.

“In response to your letter dated Oct. 6, 2020, we write to advise you about the actions the district,” the district’s legal counsel stated. “Employees of the district were reminded of the district’s board policy regarding religion at school and were also instructed not to lead students in, or promote, prayer. This matter has therefore been resolved.”

No more meeting prayers at Alabama school

Employees of Shelby County School District in Columbiana, Ala., will no longer be subjected to prayer at staff meetings.

A district employee informed FFRF that during a recent mandatory professional development meeting, one teacher began the meeting by delivering a prayer. The complainant reported that the teacher told staff he would make a motion when he began and ended his prayer so that anyone who was offended could mute him.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to the district to ensure that it no longer includes prayer as part of any employee meeting or events. The reported teacher has been counseled that this was not permitted and the district has initiated additional refresher training for its principals on this subject.

School board prayers ended in Pelham, Ala.

School board prayer in Pelham City Schools in Alabama has been stopped.

A district community member reported that the Pelham City Schools Board of Education opened each of its meetings with prayer. FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to School Board President Rick Rhoades, informing the district of the impermissibility of such prayer at school board meetings.

FFRF received a response from the school board’s attorney. “Please be advised that in a good faith effort to accommodate the various points of view, interests and legal considerations that are implicated by the practice of opening public meetings with invocation, the Board of Education has elected, effective as of its meetings on Oct. 26, 2020, not to include an invocation on its meeting agendas or set aside time for that purpose as part of its official proceedings.”

School church question now more charitable

A homework question promoting religious donations has been removed from the curriculum in Paradise Valley Unified School District in Phoenix.

A concerned district parent alerted FFRF that their student’s personal finance class included an assignment that asked students to evaluate certain personal finance choices and rate them as being either good or bad. The assignment included the statement: “I give $2 at church every week.” The assignment reportedly considered the only correct answer to this statement to be “good,” and that if a student were to rate it as “bad” they would not receive any points for the answer.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent of Schools Jesse Welsh, pointing out that the suggestion that giving money to a church every week, without any additional context, does not promote a “good money habit” but instead encourages students to partake in a common religious practice. Many students, FFRF reminded the district, do not attend church, and suggesting that it would be wise for them to give their money to a church is an advancement and endorsement of religion on the district’s behalf.

The district has changed the question in the assignment to state “charity” instead of “church.”

U.S. Rep. Eshoo stops prayer requests

U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo has stopped including prayer requests in constituent emails in Palo Alto, Calif.

A constituent from California’s 18th congressional district reported that her office regularly sent out prayer requests. One communication said, “Let’s pray for each other, all the firefighters, and all those who have had to evacuate their families.” For a few weeks, her office was also sending a weekly newsletter that also ended with a prayer request.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Eshoo’s office noting that, while the California wildfire crisis is putting immense pressure on leaders to respond to and comfort constituents, as a U.S. representative she represents a diverse population including atheists, agnostics and other nonbelievers. FFRF encouraged Eshoo to stand up for the precious constitutional principle of separation between state and church by refraining from sending prayer requests through official government channels.

FFRF was informed by the complainant that Rep. Eshoo’s more recent weekly newsletters did not include a call for prayer by constituents.

Georgia coach will no longer lead team prayer

Administration in the Fannin County School System in Blue Ridge, Ga., has committed to meeting with all district coaches to address First Amendment obligations.

FFRF was informed that the Fannin High School football coach was regularly leading his team in prayer. FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent Michael Gwatney informing the district that it is illegal for public school athletic coaches to lead their teams in prayer as it constitutes a government endorsement of religion.

The district’s attorney sent FFRF a letter of response with assurances that Gwatney “has met with the high school principal and a plan is in progress to meet with all coaches to discuss issues related to the First Amendment, including the Establishment and Free Exercise Clause.”

FFRF ends constitutional violations in Kansas

Pratt USD 382 in Kansas has remedied multiple constitutional violations in its district following a letter of complaint from FFRF.

A concerned school staff member reported several concerning incidents of religious promotion at Liberty Middle School. The school’s vice principal had been using his position to promote and endorse his personal religious beliefs to students. The complainant reported that on “See You at the Pole Day,” the vice principal announced the event over the intercom, personally invited students to the event and then led students in prayer. He also apparently included religious messages and bible quotes in his official district communications. Recently during morning announcements, he said, “we need to remember to give all the glory to God, whether others agree with it or not, and I don’t care if I offend anyone by saying that.” The vice principal also reportedly played Christian music during class and made religious statements to students, including telling a group of students that “God is sad when you don’t tuck in your shirts. You are disrespecting God.”

The complainant additionally reported that the school’s principal has directed staff members to arrange for the school to participate in “Operation Christmas Child,” which is a charity project sponsored by Samaritan’s Purse (led by Franklin Graham), which describes the program as a “shoebox ministry.”

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote a letter of complaint to Superintendent Tony Helfrich requesting that the district investigate these serious violations and take immediate action.

Helfrich informed FFRF in a letter of response that the district has investigated and addressed the issues and will see that “the actions in questions are discontinued.” The district has also discontinued its partnership with “Operation Christmas Child.”

Kentucky football team ends religious promotion

Lewis County Schools in Vanceburg, Ky., has addressed concerns regarding promotion of a biblical message by a district coach.

FFRF was made aware that Lewis County High School had chosen an explicitly religious theme, directly from the bible, for its football theme this year. According to an official press release on the school’s Facebook page, “Our team motto this year comes from the story of Nehemiah and the rebuilding of Jerusalem and its wall.” The story, which comes from the Old Testament, uses “the sword and the shovel” as metaphorical imagery. The school had adopted this imagery for the boys’ football team logo and promotional poster included a student wearing the football team’s jersey while holding a sword and shovel.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent Jamie Weddington to ensure that the district no longer impermissibly promotes religion through its football program.

Weddington informed FFRF in an email response that “the post has been removed and your concerns have been addressed.”

Email signatures now standardized at college

A religious message has been removed from a staff email signature at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich.

FFRF was informed that one staff member had a bible verse in the signature block for their official university email address. The signature included: “Faith does not make things easy, it makes them possible.”

FFRF’s then-Legal Fellow Dante Harootunian wrote to Grand Valley State University President Philomena Mantella urging the university to see to the email signature being changed so as not to create the impression of university endorsement of Christianity over all other religions or religion over nonreligion.

FFRF was informed by the university that administration has standardized email signatures for all staff free from any mention of religion.

Black skeptics uplift through social justice

Darrin Johnson, a member of Black Skeptics Los Angeles, says his atheism is linked to social justice activism. Photo by Alejandra Molina)

This article was first published in Religion News Service on Oct. 15 and is reprinted with permission.

By Alejandra Molina

Darrin Johnson would like nothing better than to rid the Black community of organized religion.

The way Johnson sees it, Black people “don’t need outside beliefs or higher powers.”

“We have power,” Johnson said. “We are powerful entities. We just need to use that power.”

As an organizer with his local Black Lives Matter chapter, Johnson, an atheist, has sometimes felt a bit uneasy meeting in churches and working alongside pastors, who, like him, are calling for Black liberation.

For Johnson, Christianity has been the source of homophobia that shunned LGBTQ members in his family and has been used to “protect people that don’t deserve to be protected.”

But, he doesn’t let that deter him.

“My atheism is not a thing of ‘I know better than you and so I’m better than you.’ I love my people be they religious or not,” said Johnson, of Moreno Valley in Riverside County. “I’d rather work with a Black religious person working for Black liberation, than a Black atheist who’s in it for social climbing.”

Black nonbelievers like Johnson have for years been working to redefine what it means to be atheist, a word too often linked to white spaces mostly concerned with creationism and the separation of church and state. Many Black nonbelievers identify as humanists and challenge Christianity for being linked to racism, capitalism and sexism.

That can make Johnson and other Black nonbelievers feel out of place. About 80 percent of Black Americans identify as Christian, according to the Pew Research Center, and the church has played a key role in Black life since the Civil War.

Johnson learned of a Black atheist community about eight years ago as a graduate journalism student at Cal State Northridge. He was a self-described “baby atheist” back then, and for a documentary project, sought to interview other Black secular people.

That’s how he found Black Skeptics Los Angeles.

The first time he visited, Johnson recalls approaching the South Los Angeles home of a group member and hearing voices of people having a good time.

“You would think you were going to a church function,” he said.

“They were welcoming and willing to answer my questions. They gave me their time,” Johnson said. “It made me start to realize there are different kinds of atheism.”

Sikivu Hutchinson, an atheist activist and author, founded Black Skeptics Los Angeles in 2010.

The group started by simply offering space for Black and secular people of color to meet and later expanded to resources for nonbelievers. It now offers scholarships for graduating seniors and aid for secular people of color — especially during COVID-19 — as an alternative to religious and faith-based institutions. Funding has come from secular organizations like the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

“What’s been a constant is our focus on social and gender justice,” Hutchinson said.

Hutchinson said Black atheists have made strides over the last six or seven years in regard to the overall perspective of the secular movement. People of color appear in more humanist and secular publications and are present in conferences that are sponsored by white-dominated organizations.

And, she said, there’s now greater recognition of the specific struggles that Black, Latino and other secular people of color experience around accessing equitable housing and education and public spaces without being profiled by policies such as stop and frisk.

“There’s no longer the presumption that the white atheist movement can just float by without considering their white supremacy, their white privilege and entitlement,” Hutchinson said.

“We’ve made it known.”

Hutchinson’s recently released book Humanists in the Hood: Unapologetically Black, Feminist and Heretical highlights the group’s mentorship of middle and high-school-age women of color, helping them think critically about feminism, rape culture and sexual harassment.

“You just do not see those kind of lived experiences being integrated into secular humanist discourse and representation,” Hutchinson said.

Hutchinson, who grew up in a secular household, recognizes she’s somewhat of an outlier in the Black Skeptics group. Her parents were freethinkers who protested during the Black Power and civil rights movement in the ’60s. Her atheism, she said, is a reflection of her upbringing.

That’s not true for many group members.

“Most folks are coming from a religious family upbringing,” she said. “There’s a lot more trauma with rejecting organized religions, those networks and the dogma and ideology.”

Liz Ross, a secular humanist who grew up Catholic, agrees.

Born and raised in the Caribbean, Ross attended a Catholic boarding school and was in the church choir.

“We had a sense of community,” she said.

Things changed after college when she moved to the Bay Area, where she met a UC-Berkeley professor and students who exposed her to issues surrounding social justice, white supremacy, patriarchy and LGBTQ issues.

“My movement into becoming a secular humanist was trying to reconcile the conflict between the claim that there was an omnipotent, omniscient God while at the same time the reality showed there was senseless suffering,” said Ross, who is a member of Black Skeptics Los Angeles.

Ross is also bisexual, and with the church deeming homosexuality a sin, that was something she had to work through.

“I realized that the church itself was not a space that helped me empower myself, particularly as a Black woman and someone in the LGBTQ community,” she added.

To Ross, the mainstream image of atheism and whiteness can alienate people of color who need “people who look like them to feel a sense of community,” she said.

“This is why we try to be vocal through social justice work,” Ross added. “What resonates with the community is ‘How am I going to deal with police violence? How am I going to deal with racism on the job? How am I going to deal with sexual assault?’”

Johnson believes that creating a secular space can be a boon for Black nonbelievers, who often feel they don’t fit in among atheists.

A 2019 study from Pew Research found that among Americans who identify as atheist, 81 percent are white, while only 3 percent are Black.

“I’d like to uplift us and show that you can be Black and atheist because there’s still this idea that being atheist means that you are not Black or that you are trying to work your way into the good graces of white folks,” Johnson said. “My goal overall is just for us to realize how much power we have and how we do matter.”

Alejandra Molina is a national reporter covering Latinos and religion on the West Coast. She is based in Los Angeles.

2020 Students of Color essay contest winners

In the November issue, the Freedom From Religion Foundation published the essays of the top five winners (including ties) of the 2020 David Hudak Memorial Students of Color Essay Competition for College Students.

Because of space limitations, not all of the top 10 (and honorable mention) winners could be published at one time. As promised, the sixth- through 10th-place winners’ essays are published in this issue.

FFRF has paid out a record total of $28,150 in award money for this contest this year.

College students of color were asked to write a personal persuasive essay about “Living and thriving without religion.” FFRF received 342 entries for this contest.

FFRF has offered essay competitions to college students since 1979, high school students since 1994, grad students since 2010, one geared explicitly for students of color since 2016 and a fifth contest for law students since 2019. All contests are open to any students attending a school in North America meeting the age/grade level eligibility, except the students of color contest, which is reserved for students of color to offer special support for a minority within a minority.

Sixth place (tie): Students of color essay contest — Mahum Haque

FFRF awarded Mahum $1,000.

By Mahum Haque

I have grown up in an extremely religious Muslim family. I believe that this is a core reason why I am not religious. I have all too many times seen religion being used as a way to make excuses for unjust behavior. Bombings, murders and wars have all been accepted and encouraged under the premise of religion and the idea that this is God’s plan. The “words of God” in holy books are so easily misconstrued into justification for these horrible acts. 

This is why not being religious benefits me. I am able to step back from the cloud of religion that blinds everyone and look at the facts. And, most often, the facts are that one group of people has opposed the words of a supposed “book of God,” and for this reason they must be killed. Who is to say what is truly the word of God? Who is to say that there even is a God?

Religion is a pathway to justify and execute horrible tragedies. 

As a girl living in a Muslim family, I am told that the Quran says that my job is to serve my husband and my family. The sexism in our religion has become cultural. Even today, mothers-in-law and husbands want wives who can cook and clean. A woman’s education only serves as a way to make her family look better because education equates to money. However, after marriage, she is expected to only cook and clean — her one true Islamic purpose. After hearing this my entire life, I cannot imagine supporting a religion that does not support me. 

Muslim countries say that this idea that I have — of women’s freedom and individual development — is an idea that has been imposed upon me by America’s “Western thinking.” I do not believe this is true. Western thinking is not why I believe in values that disagree with Islamic values. I hold these ideas because I am separated from the cloud of religion that captivates everyone’s mind. With the ability to think with a clear head, I have become my own woman with morals who values all lives, regardless of their religion. 

The secular community must find ways to offer its support. Oftentimes, when a girl like me renounces her religion to her entire family and community, she is marked as an outcast and even kicked out of her home. We have no support or freedom to share our beliefs. The Asian-American community, especially South Asian communities, are extremely protective of their image. If someone does something to tarnish their name, they can be killed or kicked out of the family. I have heard so many stories of young Muslims who are gay but cannot come out to their family because they would be disowned. It is against Islamic beliefs to be homosexual. One of the great embarrassments of the family is having a gay son or daughter. How can we tell our families that we do not believe in our religion’s principles if they are willing to disown or even kill us over the supposed words of God? 

For this reason, I think that organizations should help young South Asian teens like me, who have no way of leaving their religion. We need a community of like-minded people that will be able to support us. For many people who have been kicked out, getting a good education, food, and even a place to stay, can be a struggle. The secular community needs a better forum from which we can discuss all of these issues.

Mahum, 19, attends the University of Iowa, majoring in finance and on the pre-pharmacy track. “I am involved in the Women in STEM Ambassadors organization on campus and the Pakistani Student Alliance,” Mahum writes. “I will also work as a peer mentor to other business students on campus and join the executive board of the Business Student Ambassadors.”

Sixth place (tie): Students of color essay contest — Tina Wen

Tina Wen

FFRF awarded Tina $1,000.

By Tina Wen

grew up in the small, unassuming suburbs of Pittsford, N.Y.,  with a population that was 95 percent Caucasian. My parents and I attended church on Sunday mornings in an attempt to fit in with our community.

As I got older, Sunday morning sermons evolved into month-long summer camps. I diligently listened to what my camp leaders said, bowing my head before each meal and thanking God for his blessings. The church’s teachings of compassion and acceptance made me feel as though I belonged to a community that allowed me to fit in with my peers and be seen as normal. 

In eighth grade, I had a best friend who came out as gay. What I saw in the next few weeks horrified me. The love and acceptance that I had seen for years disappeared, with adults and children alike shunning my friend. I felt confusion, shock and betrayal. How could the church turn on something that my friend could not control, something given to him by the God they claimed to believe in?

When I chose to stand up for my best friend, the people I placed my trust in also ostracized me. I lost friends and my youth group refused to speak to me, forcing me to choose between standing up for my friend’s sexuality and obeying the word of God.

The blatant disregard for compassion and humanity I saw changed my perspective on religion. I could no longer have blind obedience and unquestionable faith in a God that would allow such awful treatment of another human. I could no longer follow a bible that taught kindness to one’s neighbors on the same pages where it justified hate and bigotry.

Looking back on my time as a Christian, I realized I initially joined the church for its community. In my town, I felt alienated as a person of color and conformed to the beliefs of the people surrounding me.

I believe if there was a community for the nonreligious, I would have gladly joined such a group. If the secular community were to raise awareness for issues they believed in, providing help to the community, I would have found a community built around supporting causes I believed in. From summer camps to teach children about leadership, science, and technology, to helping the town alleviate poverty by providing aid for the homeless, the secular community can provide resources to better engage people of color.   

Since the moment I turned 13, I have chosen to live my life without religion. I chose to reject religion because I believe all people deserve the right to be respected, regardless of what the bible says. I believe firmly that one’s morality should be decided by their experiences in life and their own critical thinking, not the mandates of an ancient text that holds little relevance to our world today. Without religion, I am more compassionate toward those around me, instead of blindly rejecting their perspectives simply because they believe in different gods. 

Today, I make choices based on how they benefit the people around me, instead of hoping to please a higher power. I am the person I am today because of how my friends and family have educated me, not because God created me to be who I am. I am free to donate to causes dear to my heart, such as organizations that support women’s bodily autonomy and the LGBTQ+ community. Rejecting religion freed me to make my own choices and take responsibility for them, instead of attributing the results to a higher power.

Tina, 18, is a freshman at Rice University, double majoring in computer science and economics. In high school, Tina was an intern at Microsoft, working on the Minecraft team. After college, Tina hopes to work on projects emphasizing the use of artificial intelligence and data visualization in solving everyday problems.

Seventh place: Students of color essay contest — Praneel Bonthala

Praneel Bonthala

FFRF awarded Praneel $750.

By Praneel Bonthala

I grew up on a bronze chariot, watching Krishna and Arjuna rush into battle against the Kauravas. I gazed upon the ape warrior, Hanuman, as he pushed the Himalayas to Sri Lanka. I shuddered upon the mention of Bakasura, the insatiable demon that devoured the people of Ekachakra.

Even my name — in Sanskrit — means Lord Shiva.

The epics of Hinduism have been a cornerstone of my childhood. I consumed the legends of the Mahabharata and Ramayana, memorizing mantras and prayers. Spending parts of my youth living in Southern India, I was surrounded by devout Hindus, all expecting me to pour milk over Shiva’s linga (or light sandalwood) during Puja. And, so, it became difficult for me to detach myself from a religion my entire family was devoted to. 

All my life, religion has been something told to me, but never explained. It has been something expected of me, but not something I was meant to understand. Religion nurtured me when I was a baby, alongside food and drink. It grew to loom over me every day of my life.

All I had, however, were stories of gods and warriors performing supernatural feats, accomplishments one would never believe. I had songs praising the raw power and beauty of these beings I would never lay eyes upon. I had texts like the Bhagavad Gita that told me how to live my life. I had a moral compass constructed out of scattered religious lessons and tales instead of my own humanity.

So, I made the decision to turn away from religion. It grew into a crutch for me, preventing me from truly understanding what was happening around me. I grew tired of participating in rituals and pujas I didn’t understand. I couldn’t accept that the Goddess Saraswati was responsible for my success in school and that kneeling in front of Ganesha would bring me eternal prosperity. I felt that my existence didn’t belong to me — it belonged to supernatural beings that I would never even have the opportunity to meet.

Tearing myself away from something that had been an integral part of my life wasn’t easy. I was scared. I couldn’t muster the courage to tell my parents, so I continued to accompany them on their weekly temple excursions once we moved to California.

Nevertheless, I felt that I had more control over my own life. I grew to become more confident, finding myself more freely expressing my atheism. I finally began to dedicate myself to other pursuits: Science Olympiad, public speaking and tennis. Religion no longer governed what I chose to do. I didn’t spend hours reciting mantras or sitting in front of an idol. I began building my own understanding of the world, not an idealistic one constructed by religion. I became more motivated in school — simply praying to a goddess every day wasn’t going to guarantee an “A” on the next exam. By detaching myself from religion, I grew closer to both myself and the world around me.

There is, however, an assumption that lies within the secular community. The assumption that every brown person must be Muslim or Hindu, or that every Latinx is a devout Catholic. To foster a secular environment that welcomes people of color, it becomes necessary to crush these stereotypes and expectations — anyone can choose to express any religion, or lack of one, they wish. 

Freedom of expression is something that should be encouraged and cherished by any community, not just the secular one. It’s a necessary tool to encourage people of color to become involved. Then maybe others like me can push their boundaries to discover even more about the world.

Praneel, 18, attends the University of California- Los Angeles, and hopes to pursue medical school and work in immunology or global health.