Rep. Raskin’s remarks — ‘Thought crimes that have no actual victims’

U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin

The Freedom From Religion Foundation cheered the U.S. Senate’s and House’s approval in December of a resolution seeking the global repeal of blasphemy and related laws. Both resolutions specifically note that “secularists” are frequent victims of such laws.

Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., co-chair of the Congressional Freethought Caucus, spoke on the floor of the House in support of the anti-blasphemy resolution on Dec. 7, 2020. The following is a slightly edited version of that speech.

By U.S. Rep Jamie Raskin

Mr. Speaker, in this age of partisan division, one of the foundational American values still has the power to bring us together across the aisle — the defense of every human being’s freedom of religious conscience and freedom of thought against government persecution.

With House Resolution 512, we act today to stand up for religious and intellectual freedom in a world gone mad with religious discrimination, religious oppression and religious violence. H.R. 512 calls for global repeal of laws punishing blasphemy, heresy and apostasy — three religiously defined thought crimes that have no actual victims and thus no place in the criminal law of free nations.

And, yet, governments in 84 countries — from Saudi Arabia and Iran and Somalia to China and Russia and Bangladesh — still use laws like these to intimidate, arrest, prosecute and incarcerate members of minority religions, disfavored faiths and freethinkers. Putting them in jail or even condemning them to death for religiously subversive speech was not unknown in the American colonies. In Massachusetts, Puritan governors hanged Quakers for their heretical lectures in town squares. But our enlightenment Constitution, especially our First Amendment’s Free Exercise and antireligious Establishment clauses, put us squarely on the path of rejecting blasphemy laws and these other relics of the Inquisition, holy crusades and New England witchcraft trials.

Our law has gotten rid of obsolete offenses like blasphemy and apostasy because they have a purely religious character and do not refer to empirical social harms. Blasphemy is making impious or sacrilegious statements about established churches or doctrines. Heresy is taking religious or intellectual positions at odds with an established religious orthodoxy. Apostasy is breaking away from a religious orthodoxy or church. As offensive as we might consider other people’s religious views and utterances, in America today, people’s thoughts and words about religion are absolutely protected by the First Amendment. But in many parts of the world where religion is still actively weaponized by theocratic and authoritarian governments, these imaginary offenses can still get you thrown into jail, harassed and executed, or simply stopped and torn from limb to limb by state-sanctioned lynch mobs.

Religious people of the wrong faith are the most common victims of blasphemy and heresy laws.

You might be a practicing Christian or Hindu in an officially Muslim state like Libya or Afghanistan or a devout Muslim in a Hindu society like India. You might be a nonreligious person targeted by your enemies or state authorities.

You might be a 22-year-old Nigerian gospel musician like Yahoo Sharif Aminu, who is convicted of blasphemy in his state Sharia Court in Kano State on Aug 10, and has been sentenced to death by hanging for something that he said on a WhatsApp group on the Internet.

You might be a Sudanese Christian like Meriam Ibrahim, who was jailed for apostasy because, although she’d been a devout Christian for her entire life, government officials demanded that she follow her absent father’s Muslim faith. She was held in jail with her 20-month-old son and forced to give birth to her daughter in prison while her legs were shackled to the floor.

You might be a 13-year-old Muslim boy in Nigeria, like Omar Farouk, who was sentenced to 10 years at hard labor for blasphemy when he said something about Allah in an argument with friends — a brutal miscarriage of justice condemned by UNICEF and child advocates all over the world.

You might even belong to the wrong sect of the official state religion. In the Islamic State of Pakistan, for example, people belonging to the Ahmadiyya Muslim faith are being persecuted as heretics and apostates as if this were the Middle Ages. At least five Ahmadi Muslims have been killed in Pakistan this year [2020] alone because of their faith.

Mr. Speaker, the global assault on religious and intellectual freedom today is taking place in many of the world’s largest countries. China confines millions of Muslims in miserable re-education camps and forces them into slave labor. Russia has decreed that Jehovah’s Witnesses are an extremist group and confiscated their property, jailed their members and even allegedly tortured some of them. India recently passed draconian laws burdening the rights of disfavored Muslim minorities.

With this resolution, Mr. Speaker, against the new wave of global religious oppression and persecution, America can once again take the lead in defending the basic human rights of religious and intellectual freedom all over the world.

Let us share this principle with the nations of the world with this resolution.

Raskin family creates fund

Following the death of U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin’s 25-year-old son Tommy in late December, the Raskin family announced the launch of the Tommy Raskin Memorial Fund for People and Animals. The fund will distribute money to causes and charities championed by Tommy Raskin, including Oxfam, Give Directly, the Helen Keller Institute and Animal Outlook. The fund was launched with an initial contribution of $50,000 and FFRF has made a donation.

Condolences or donations can be sent to Jamie.Raskin@mail.house.gov or by mail to his district office at 51 Monroe Street, Suite 503, Rockville, MD 20850.

FFRF earns perfect charity rating score

The country’s premier nonprofit charity rating organization has yet again affirmed that the Freedom From Religion Foundation belongs to an extremely select club.

“We are proud to announce Freedom From Religion Foundation has earned our 11th consecutive four-star rating. This is our highest possible rating and indicates that your organization adheres to sector best practices and executes its mission in a financially efficient way,” Charity Navigator President and CEO Michael Thatcher has recently informed FFRF. “Attaining a four-star rating verifies that Freedom From Religion Foundation exceeds industry standards and outperforms most charities in your area of work. Only 2 percent of the charities we evaluate have received at least 11 consecutive four-star evaluations, indicating that Freedom From Religion Foundation outperforms most other charities in America. This exceptional designation from Charity Navigator sets Freedom From Religion Foundation apart from its peers and demonstrates to the public its trustworthiness.”

FFRF is proud to win such a generous rating.

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

FFRF is delighted at the confidence placed in it by Charity Navigator.

“We consider ourselves responsible custodians of our members’ dues and donations, and we’re elated that Charity Navigator has, yet again, confirmed this,” remarks FFRF Co-President Dan Barker, to whom the Charity Navigator letter is addressed.

Charity Navigator has a stellar reputation in its field. As its letter to FFRF points out, Forbes, Business Week and Kiplinger’s Financial Magazine have favorably profiled the organization. “Our data shows that users of our site donated more than they planned to before viewing our findings, and in fact, it is estimated that last year Charity Navigator influenced approximately $10 billion in charitable gifts,” the letter states.

FFRF seeks summary judgment against Texas judge

Montgomery County Judge Wayne Mack

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has filed a motion for summary judgment in its federal case against a Texas justice of the peace who regularly foists prayer upon his courtroom attendees.

FFRF originally challenged the courtroom prayers in a lawsuit filed in March 2017, and due to various technical reasons refiled the case against Montgomery County Judge Wayne Mack in 2019 with an anonymous local attorney acting as co-plaintiff. The state/church watchdog and attorney “John Roe” are now asking for a swift decision to halt the unconstitutional practice.

The plaintiffs assert that Mack has abused his authority as a judge to illegally coerce attorneys, litigants and other citizens into participating in his courtroom prayers.

“Judge Mack’s courtroom-prayer practice is unconstitutionally coercive of those who appear in his courtroom,” the motion says. “Because Judge Mack’s court sessions coerce court participants into a religious practice, he has violated one of the strongest, most fundamental commands of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.”

Mack, a formerly licensed minister who attended Jackson College of Ministries, where he planned to major in theology, made the unprecedented decision as a judge to solicit chaplains to open his court sessions with prayer, a practice not replicated by any other court in the country. By spring 2015, after receiving scrutiny from FFRF, which lodged a formal complaint to the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, Mack began revising his courtroom prayer practice.

Now, after attorneys have indicated their presence in the courtroom and after the docket has been called, but before Mack has entered, the bailiff gives a brief introductory statement describing the prayer protocol. This announcement is supposed to include a statement that those opposed to prayer may leave the courtroom without affecting the outcome of their cases, although it’s been inconsistently incorporated. Mack then enters the courtroom, mere moments after the bailiff’s announcement, and after his introduction, the chaplain leads a prayer. Anyone leaving the courtroom becomes conspicuous and the courtroom doors are often locked during the prayer.

FFRF’s motion makes several arguments, including that plaintiffs have standing to pursue their claims, that Mack’s prayer practice is unconstitutionally coercive and that its primary purpose and effect is religious.

FFRF seeks a judgment declaring that Mack’s prayer practice violates the Establishment Clause and awards to plaintiffs reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs.

FFRF and Roe are being represented by FFRF Associate Counsel Sam Grover, with FFRF Associate Counsel Elizabeth Cavell and Attorney Ayesha Khan of Washington, D.C., serving as co-counsels.

FFRF Victories (Jan/Feb 2021)

By Bailey Nachreiner-Mackesey

Religious quote removed from Army signatures

Employees of Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri have been instructed not to include religious messages in email signatures from their official Army accounts.

A technical support specialist for Fort Leonard Wood had been including the bible verse “‘With GOD all things are possible’ Matthew 19:26” in the signature block of his official U.S. Army email address.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Fort Leonard Wood Garrison Commander Colonel Jeffrey O. Paine and Command Inspector General Lt. Colonel Mary M. Smith asking that this email signature be changed so as not to create the impression of official military endorsement of Christianity over all other religions or religion over nonreligion.

Employees were instructed, per Army policy, to remove all religious references from their official email signatures.

School staff won’t join in religious event

In Illinois, Roxana Community Unit School District #1 staff have been reminded they may not partake in religious observance during school events.

A local community member informed FFRF that district personnel, including staff and school board members, attended and participated in a “See You at the Pole” event last fall.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent Debra Kreuztrager, reminding the district that staff must not plan, promote or participate in any future “See You at the Pole” events nor encourage students to put on such events.

Kreuztrager sent a letter of response with assurances that “expectations will be communicated to ensure that staff remember to serve only in a supervisory role as needed for this event in the future.”

Daily school prayers stopped in La. school

Morning prayers have been stopped in the Washington Parish School System in Louisiana.

A local resident alerted FFRF that Franklinton High School’s student chaplain had been leading the school in prayer each morning before the Pledge of Allegiance.

FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson sent a letter to Superintendent Frances Varnado asking that the district immediately cease scheduling this prayer as it constitutes illegal religious endorsement on the part of the school.

The complainant has informed FFRF that the daily prayers have stopped.

Boise State downgrades chaplaincy program

One of Idaho’s most prominent educational institutions has listened to the Freedom From Religion Foundation regarding its unconstitutional football chaplaincy.

The national state/church watchdog had written to Boise State University about the football program’s official chaplain, Mark Thornton. Thornton has arranged for post-game prayers on the field with players, led them in chapel the night before games and prayed with players individually before games.

Public schools may not advance or promote religion, FFRF emphasized.

“Government chaplains may only exist as an accommodation of a public employee’s religious beliefs when the government makes it difficult or impossible to seek out private ministries,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Boise State University President Marlene Tromp.

Abolishing the team chaplaincy would not alter student athletes’ ability to pray, but it would prevent some student athletes from feeling coerced into participating in prayers to a deity they may not believe in, FFRF added.

FFRF’s reasoning seems to have scored many points with Boise State, which has pledged to significantly downgrade its chaplaincy program.

“We have been in communication with the Athletic Department to provide some education about this issue and to ensure measures are taken now and in the future to resolve the issue and establish appropriate constitutional boundaries,” the university’s legal counsel recently responded via email. “Mr. Thornton did not travel with the football team to our recent game in Wyoming and the university will no longer include a chaplain in its travel party. Written references to Mr. Thornton as the chaplain of the football team have been or are in the process of being removed and no future references will be made in writing or otherwise.”

Prayer no longer part of fire academy graduation

Kansas City Fire Department staff in Missouri will no longer schedule prayer as part of fire academy cadet graduation ceremonies.

FFRF was made aware that the department scheduled invocations as part of its cadet graduation ceremonies and posted videos of these ceremonies on its official Facebook page. The 2020 winter ceremony prayer, led by one of the department’s firefighters, called on attendees to “bow [their] heads and come together now in prayer.”

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Fire Chief Donna Lake, pointing out that in addition to violating the Establishment Clause, calling on attendees to pray at fire department events is coercive, embarrassing and beyond the scope of a fire department. FFRF’s letter encouraged the department to respect its pluralistic class of firefighters and cease from including prayer at future official ceremonies and events.

Lake informed FFRF via email that department staff have been directed to “discontinue sponsoring or scheduling an invocation or any other prayer at Fire Academy cadet graduation ceremonies.”

Mo. district nixes prayer from future graduations

A staff prayer issue was resolved in Kirksville R-III School District.

A district community member reported that during a Kirksville High School graduation ceremony, Superintendent Richard Webb included a prayer in his remarks to students.

He said: “And today, which is the Sabbath Day, I pray also that you won’t let memes or social media define the truth for you, but that you’ll instead see you as God sees you. That you will listen to Him when He whispers the truth of a variety of things to you.”

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Webb requesting that he refrain from abusing his position as superintendent to proselytize. Line pointed out that it is particularly concerning that, as superintendent, Webb is charged with ensuring constitutional compliance in the district, but instead used his position to promote his personal religious beliefs to students.

The district’s attorney informed FFRF in a letter of response that “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 or religion.”

Religious displays taken down at public workplace

Religious displays have been removed from government property in Macon County, N.C.

A concerned employee in the Macon County Solid Waste Department reported that religious materials were on display in the workplace at Otto Center. These displays included the Ten Commandments, as well as various other religious postings.

FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to Recycling Coordinator Shaun Cribbs requesting that these materials be removed.

Cribbs responded via email to inform FFRF that the religious materials have been taken down and that a memo was sent to all staff to ensure this does not happen again in the future.

Texas school district gets social media lesson

Pine Tree Independent School District in Texas will train teachers on appropriate usage of the district’s social media pages following its impermissible promotion of a religious event.

A local resident reported that Pine Tree Elementary School used its official Facebook page to promote a “See You at the Pole” event. The post described the event as a “national day of student prayer” and indicated that the event was being hosted by the school.

FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to Superintendent Steve Clugston to request that the district refrain from endorsing religious events.

The district sent a letter of response indicating that it recognizes this as an “opportunity to educate [its] staff while continuing to support the rights of [its] students and will develop a training for district staff who have control over district social media pages addressing this issue.”

Jesus picture taken down at W.Va. school

An impermissible religious display has been removed from Harrison County Schools property in West Virginia.

A community member informed FFRF that a picture of Jesus was on display at Robert C. Byrd High School.

FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to Superintendent Dora Stutler reminding the district that it may not advance, prefer or promote religion and therefore must remove this religious photo.

Stutler confirmed in a letter of response the photo has been taken down.

Andrew L. Seidel: Megachurches abuse PPP funds

This article first ran on Religion Dispatches on Dec. 15 and is reprinted with permission.

By Andrew L. Seidel

“The federal government can’t take our money and give it to Joel Osteen or Robert Jeffress or Paula White — even in the wake of a pandemic,” I wrote back in May 2020. But that’s exactly what Trump’s Small Business Administration has done by giving Paycheck Protection Program funds to churches. Paula White’s church took in between $150,000 and $350,000, Jeffress’s church grabbed between $2 million and $5 million and, now we know that Osteen’s megachurch pocketed $4.4 million. Other megachurches snagged millions of taxpayer dollars. As time passes, the inevitable abuses are coming to light. One megachurch televangelist even bought a private jet two weeks after receiving $4 million in PPP funds.

None of this should ever have happened.

The CARES Act extended eligibility for loans from the Small Business Administration to nonprofits, something new. But the law did not give the SBA the power to extend this eligibility to churches, nor could it — the Constitution prohibits government funding of religion. In fact, the CARES Act only mentions religion once, to prevent universities from using taxpayer funds for “capital outlays associated with facilities related to athletics, sectarian instruction or religious worship.” However, the SBA ignored that language, along with the centuries-old bar on taxpayer-funded religious worship, and instead issued rules and guidance declaring that the forgivable loans distributed under the CARES Act’s Paycheck Protection Program “can be used to pay the salaries of ministers and other staff engaged in the religious mission of institutions.” To do this, SBA had to suspend numerous rules that, correctly, prevented taxpayer funds from flowing to churches.

These discarded rules embody the separation of state and church, one of America’s founding principles. Taxation without representation sparked the American Revolution and the revolutionaries later set up a system that barred the government’s coercive taxing power from being wielded to force citizens to support a religion. One of this country’s first religious freedom laws warned that taxing citizens and giving the money to churches is “sinful and tyrannical.” The right to be free from that compulsion is religious liberty as we have always understood it.

SBA’s constitutional violation — if such violations are to be measured in economic terms — is massive.

American churches took in as much as $10 billion in taxpayer funds through PPP loans. More than 400 evangelical churches received loans of at least $1 million. The Catholic Church might have taken in as much as $3.5 billion.

Osteen’s Lakewood Church is probably the biggest church in the United States, with 50,000 or so members. One estimate puts its annual budget at $90 million, with more than $25 million going to the television ministry. Osteen’s net worth is hard to pin down, but it’s probably around $50 million or $60 million. This isn’t a church that’s hard-up for cash. And with sensible Americans worshipping at home, its massive televangelism empire probably only grew. Osteen received millions of dollars meant for small businesses.

Osteen’s church claimed that it used $4.4 million in taxpayer funds “to provide full salaries and benefits, including health insurance coverage to all of its employees and their families.” But we’ll likely never know. Many of the safeguards that apply to SBA loans and that applied to other nonchurch entities through the PPP didn’t apply to churches. It’s not just special treatment under PPP that’s problematic, but other laws too. Combined, this was a recipe for fraud and abuse.

For instance, unlike every other 501(c)(3) and charity, churches file no annual financial disclosures with the IRS. They are financial black holes. As part of their public trust, all other 501(c)(3) nonprofits are required to file an annual report, the Form 990, with the IRS that details specific financial information, tracking every penny donated and spent. Because they entirely lack financial transparency and accountability, churches are already rife with fraud and abuse. Yet, according to the SBA’s guidance, churches qualify for CARES Act funds even if they’ve never registered as a church with the IRS. Receiving these taxpayer funds could be literally both the first and last time the government ever hears of such churches.

None of this is new. The Freedom From Religion Foundation made all these points in a formal comment to the SBA rule proposing the Paycheck Protection Program — the SBA knew of these dangerous loopholes and forged ahead anyway.

The potential for government audits was supposed to curb some abuse, but given how favorably the Trump administration treated churches — even hosting secretive White House calls for Trump’s closest faith leaders and church supporters to encourage them to apply for the forgivable loans — churches were unlikely to worry about enforcement or audits. In any event, later rule changes mean the government forgives loans of less than $2 million after a one-page form is filled out. Loans over $2 million face an audit. So maybe, just maybe, years from now we’ll know if We the People were defrauded.

We’ll know sooner if journalists start digging. Chris Mathews, a reporter from the Houston Business Journal, broke the Osteen story.

Lisa Guerrero of Inside Edition has been digging too, and she discovered a private jet likely financed with PPP money. Marcus Lamb runs Daystar Television, which may have as many as 2 billion viewers and is valued at a quarter of a billion dollars. Two weeks after it took $4 million in taxpayer PPP funds, it bought a private jet, a Gulfstream V, valued at between $9 million and $10 million.

Lamb denied using taxpayer funds to get the private jet two weeks after it got the loan: “We had our own money.” If so, why didn’t it use that money for their employees? But you know why. Like any kid caught with their hand in the cookie jar, they denied it and then paid the money back. But only because Guerrero caught them.

There are no safeguards in place to prevent churches from defrauding taxpayers. That’s not a bug, but a feature. Trump’s SBA designed the PPP program that way. The Fourth Estate needs to hold the churches accountable, because the government won’t.

Andrew L. Seidel is FFRF’s director of strategic response and attorney. His first book is The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism Is Un-American.

Justices ‘play a deadly game’ in church ruling

A statement from FFRF:

A 5–4 Supreme Court decision enjoining New York state’s pandemic policy that limited some church gatherings is wrong, unnecessary and portends big trouble ahead for our secular laws and policies.

As dissenting Justice Sonia Sotomayor warns: “Justices of this court play a deadly game in second guessing the expert judgment of health officials about the environments in which a contagious virus, now infecting a million Americans each week, spreads most easily.”

Earlier in 2020, the court had upheld health restrictions on church services in Nevada and California, but the vote in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Andrew M. Cuomo, Governor of New York flipped. The opinion was a rebuke for Chief Justice John G. Roberts, who’d voted with the majority in the earlier rulings, but dissented in this case. The addition of archconservative Amy Coney Barrett on the court last month, replacing Ruth Bader Ginsburg, has “dealt the chief justice a body blow,” as the New York Times put it. (Not that we should give Roberts, who indicated in his dissent that he thought the New York rules had gone too far, too much credit.)

The Archdiocese of Brooklyn and Agudath Israel of America, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish congregation, were situated within the red and orange zones in Brooklyn and Queens with high COVID infections, and had been restricted to 10- and 25-person capacity limits by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. But in response to a lessening spread, Cuomo had already lifted the restrictions by the time the request to enjoin the governor reached the high court. With the litigants now in a “yellow zone,” they can hold services at up to 50 percent of capacity. As Roberts pointed out in his dissent, this is more relief than their suits sought. The case is due to be heard by a court of appeals, and hasn’t been fully argued or considered, making the action by the high court especially irregular.

Decision was wrong

The majority of ultraconservatives on the court — Justices Barrett (widely speculated to have written the unsigned decision), Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito — was clearly eager to act on its newfound power to squelch what it misguidedly saw as a case of “religious discrimination.” But stay-at-home orders treated religious worship more favorably than movie houses, lectures, plays or indoor sporting events, which were entirely banned. The five justices absurdly treated the temporary limitations like a national emergency — dramatically issuing a ruling minutes before midnight on Nov. 25, the eve of Thanksgiving. “Even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten,” the majority chided. President Trump almost immediately tweeted the decision, adding “HAPPY THANKSGIVING.”

The heavy lifting was done by Gorsuch, whose sarcastic concurring opinion lit into the dissenters. He claimed the governor deems that “it may be unsafe to go to church, but it is always fine to pick up another bottle or wine, shop for a new bike, or spend the afternoon exploring your distal points and meridians [acupuncture].” Gorsuch decried the “burden on the faithful who have lived for months under New York’s unconstitutional regime unable to attend religious services.” [emphasis added]

The majority’s true grievance — umbrage that governments are not labeling church services as “essential” — is revealed in Gorsuch’s concurrence: “The only explanation for treating religious places differently, seems to be a judgment that what happens there just isn’t as ‘essential’ as what happens in secular places.” Church officials and theocratic public officials have deeply resented that church gatherings have not been deemed “essential” by executives trying to stop the spread of the coronavirus. The majority opinion, voted on by a bloc of practicing Catholics with the exception of Gorsuch (who was raised Catholic, but now attends an Episcopalian church), goes so far as to claim that those who can’t attend Mass are at “risk of suffering further irreparable harm in the event of another reclassification.” Most of us would consider, when comparing the harm of missing in-person Mass to risking death from COVID-19, the latter to be the “irreparable harm,” but not the high court’s coterie of true believers.

Dissenters urge caution

In his temperate dissent, Roberts (also a practicing Catholic) responded to the majority and Gorsuch’s charges: “To be clear, I do not regard my dissenting colleagues as ‘cutting the Constitution loose during a pandemic,’ yielding to ‘a particular judicial impulse to stay out of the way in times of crisis,’ or ‘shelter[ing] in place when the Constitution is under attack.’” The chief justice said that no injunctive relief is needed given the changing facts, pointed out the court could act quickly on a renewed application if the shutdowns begin again, and noted that the Constitution entrusts “the safety and health of the people” to politically accountable officials.

In his dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer underlined that New York’s regulations treat church services more favorably than gatherings with comparable risks, such as public lectures, concerts or theatrical performances.

As usual, the strongest dissent was by Sotomayor, who wrote, “Amidst a pandemic that has already claimed over a quarter million American lives, the court today enjoins one of New York’s public health measures aimed at containing the spread of COVID-19 in areas facing the most severe outbreaks.” Citing the earlier majority opinions upholding church service restrictions, she noted they provide a “clear and workable rule”: “They may restrict attendance at houses of worship so long as comparable secular institutions face restrictions that are at least equally as strict.”

Cuomo’s policies are more lenient to houses of worship than similar activities, Sotomayor wrote, and Gorsuch “does not even try to square his examples with the conditions medical experts tell us facilitate the spread of COVID-19: large groups of people gathering, speaking and singing in close proximity indoors for extended periods of time.” She added: “The Constitution does not forbid states from responding to public health crises through regulations that treat religious institutions equally or more favorably than comparable secular institutions, particularly when those regulations save lives.”

Trouble ahead

As New York Times Supreme Court reporter Adam Liptak points out, the ruling is “almost certainly a taste of things to come.” When Ginsburg was alive, Liptak writes, “Roberts voted with the court’s four-member liberal wing” in a number of major cases. This ruling clearly signals that the new SCOTUS majority is ready to move full steam ahead to weaponize and redefine religious liberty at the expense of the protections of the Establishment Clause separating religion from government. And the consequences, in this case, may be deadly.

The ACLU’s Daniel Mach puts it aptly, “The freedom to worship is one of our most cherished fundamental rights, but it does not include a license to harm others or endanger public health.” As FFRF has been emphasizing since the pandemic began, Americans have the right to free exercise, but not to risk other peoples’ lives.

FFRF’s Strategic Response Team making waves

Photo by Shutterstock

By Andrew L. Seidel

FFRF’s Strategic Response Team’s third full year was a success, despite going fully virtual.

The SRT handles FFRF’s rapid response, legislation and lobbying work. Specifically, the team is tasked with:

• Federal lobbying; tracking, analyzing, and educating about pending legislation around the country; and mobilizing FFRF’s membership with action alerts.

• Responding to current events with statements, letters, and articles.

• Shaping public opinion with articles, editorials and letters to the editor.

• Working to stop imminent violations with legal letters.

The team has three full-time members: Andrew L. Seidel, Ryan Jayne and Mark Dann. Also attached to SRT are Annie Laurie Gaylor, communications team members Amit Pal and Bailey Nachreiner-Mackesey and FFRF’s legal team. SRT has leveraged new resources (including powerful software) and alliances, to work more effectively on FFRF’s dual missions.

Here’s a look at what SRT accomplished in 2020.

In Congress

In 2019, SRT began crafting a legislative agenda for FFRF, and in 2020 it was implemented. A key part of the agenda was to make FFRF a vital partner in advancing the Congressional Freethought Caucus’ agenda. The caucus had numerous victories with FFRF’s urging and assistance such as:

• Effectively using the appropriations process to deny funding for regulations and entities that seek to discriminate using the guise of religious liberty.

• Opposing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s Commission on Unalienable Rights’ and its Christian Nationalist report.

• Hosting speakers such as Bonya Ahmed and Katherine Stewart.

• Supporting key pieces of legislation.

FFRF has been recognized by the caucus as one of the main thought leaders in the secular movement. Caucus members, including Reps. Jared Huffman, Jamie Raskin, Mark Pocan and Eleanor Holmes Norton have appeared on “Freethought Matters” and Freethought Radio.

Legislative wins

FFRF worked closely with the Congressional Freethought Caucus to endorse key pieces of legislation. The Do No Harm Act, our highest priority piece of legislation, which ensures that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act can’t be used to discriminate, continues to move forward. The bill had a hearing in the House, and FFRF was a leading organization to obtain its 200-plus co-sponsors. The Do No Harm Act is primed to move in the next Congress.

Most of FFRF’s key bills have all passed out of the House or House committee and have been endorsed by the Caucus. We have seen progress on:

• The STOP FGM Act of 2020, which prohibits Female Genital Mutilialtion (FGM) on a minor, was unanimously passed by the House and the Senate in a voice vote.

• The Equality Act, which prohibits discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation and gender identity, passed 236–173.

• The Scientific Integrity Act prevents political appointees from meddling in publicly funded scientific research. It passed, as part of the Heroes Act (COVID Relief Bill), 208–199.

• The No BAN Act eliminates the Muslim Ban (which could be turned against atheists abroad seeking a safe haven), limits presidential authority to suspend or restrict immigration and prohibits religious discrimination in immigration-related decisions. It passed 233–133.

• The Blasphemy Resolution, which calls on the president and the State Department to prioritize the global repeal of blasphemy laws, passed out of the House and the Senate.

Expanded our allies

Lobbying progress is impossible without allies. We need allies in Congress and in the broader progressive movement. We held 72 meetings with congressional offices, many dedicated to deepening our work with the Congressional Freethought Caucus.

We also strengthened our relationships with our secular partners and built new strategic relationships with civil rights and LGBTQ organizations. We joined the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, which is the primary coordinating body of civil and justice minded organizations.

We teamed up with a huge coalition to fight Amy Coney Barrett and other Christian Nationalists. A highlight of our work on judicial nominations was during the fight on Christian Nationalist Judge Justin Walker.

Tracked legislation

In 2019, SRT launched Quorum, powerful legislative software that helped us track legislation. We tracked 493 separate bills in 2020.

Of those bills, the most common state/church-adjacent bills were threats to LGBTQ rights. The next most common were bills that threatened reproductive rights, such as so-called “heartbeat” abortion bans that are unconstitutional, often deliberately so, and are passed with the hope that they will be challenged to give Christian Nationalist judges the chance to change overturn Roe v. Wade.

At both the federal and state level, we used 116 action alerts to mobilize FFRF members. More than 15,000 FFRF members have made more than 175,745 connections with legislators, including spending more than 27 hours on the phone on 1,181 calls with those offices. The total number is actually much higher because this only includes calls and emails to legislators made through our system, not those which people made on their own.

That overwhelming response helped us defeat many of these bad bills. In California and Wisconsin, we helped to stop bills that would have treated churches more favorably than secular nonprofits. And in Oklahoma and elsewhere, Project Blitz bills to plaster In God We Trust on government buildings, including classrooms, were soundly defeated.

At the state level, SRT focused on fighting Christian Nationalism, specifically Project Blitz, a nationwide campaign to insert Christian Nationalism into state law. Since its inception, we’ve tracked and opposed 123 Project Blitz bills and only 16 have been enacted.

Stopped violations

Often, FFRF will hear about a violation happening in the immediate future. SRT works to stop these violations before they occur. SRT also wades in when fast action can change the typical media narrative. SRT’s ordinary response time on these letters, from notification to mailing, is less than an hour.

Shaped public opinion

SRT published 39 op-eds, articles, blogs and letters to the editor.

Outlets that published FFRF pieces include Religion Dispatches, Friendly Atheist, the Wisconsin State Journal, Kentucky State Journal, The Cap Times (in Madison), the Salt Lake Tribune, the Miami Herald and Rewire News. Shaping public opinion is not just about writing op-eds and articles. SRT is also building relationships with reporters.

Responded to news

Since the last convention in 2019, we sent 58 statements for FFRF on a variety of issues from Paula White calling for all Satanic pregnancies to miscarry to the coronavirus and churches violating health regulations. Other statements include denouncing Trump’s Twitter assault on nonbelievers, protesting a worship service at White House that Pence attended, attacking nine new rules implemented by executive agencies, condemning Washington Rep. Matt Shea and his Christian Nationalist terrorism rhetoric, exposing Trump’s school prayer guidance, decrying Trump’s voucher plan, and condemning Trump’s State of the Union religious allusions.

SRT took the lead in opposing taxpayer money flowing to churches under the Paycheck Protection Program and when it became clear that even our congressional allies had no appetite to oppose the measure, we began to focus on transparency and accountability. The media responded and we were often the go-to organization for comment and information. We even broke a big PPP story, publishing a report and audio for two secretive phone calls the Trump administration held with evangelical supporters before the PPP process was public, helping to funnel money in their direction.

One of our op-eds for Religion Dispatches about churches, especially megachurches, abusing the taxpayer-funded Paycheck Protection Program went viral. The article, “Inevitable megachurch abuse of PPP funds is coming to light—private jet included,” had people seeing red as these megapreachers were pulling in the green.

Perhaps one of our biggest jobs was also one of our most fruitless and thankless: opposing Trump’s judicial nominees. From Barrett down to Walker, we put countless hours into this fight. We shifted public opinion and, we hope, have shown the need for judicial reform.

Increasingly, as with our work on PPP, we are looked at as an authority on issues of religion and the law, putting us on a level with the ACLU.

By the numbers

In 2020, SRT completed:

• 42 statements for FFRF on a variety of issues.

• 39 articles, op-eds, blogs and letters to the editor.

• 58 press releases for FFRF on legal and legislative issues.

• 52 rapid response letters written to prevent impending violations.

• Comments on 20 formal rule changes the Trump administration proposed.

• 72 meetings with legislators on Capitol Hill.

• 121 action alerts that connected FFRF supporters and legislators 175,745 times and nearly 1,200 calls.

• 493 bills analyzed and tracked.

• Nearly 800 separate SRT projects, a 60 percent increase over 2019.

Andrew L. Seidel is director of strategic response for FFRF.

Mark Dann: FFRF’s 2021 legislative plan needs your backing

By Mark Dann

I

FFRF logo
Mark Dann

t is clear that following the 2020 elections, we’re in a far better place than we were before. The Christian Nationalist in the White House was not re-elected, while all members of the Congressional Freethought Caucus were. With Democrats winning the Georgia Senate races in January, the balance of power in the Senate changes. The House results may make for a relatively cautious chamber that could diminish the legislative opportunities available to us. Yet the Biden administration opens up lots of opportunities to undo damage and to strengthen the separation of state and church, especially in regulations, executive orders and guidances.

Here’s the plan:

Engaging the new administration and undoing harm from the outgoing one

The Trump administration enacted over three dozen rules, regulations, guidances and commissions designed to take away your civil and secular rights. We will be working to encourage the new administration to reverse and remove harmful regulations and shut down some of Trump’s extrajudicial commissions: the so-called Religious Liberty Task Force at the Department of Justice, the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division at the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Commission on Unalienable Rights at the Department of State.

Judicial nominations

The good news is that the pain of court packing from the Trump administration will stop after the presidential inauguration. We don’t know how long it will take to rebalance and correct the courts that have been packed with Christian Nationalist judges.

We’re working with our friends in the Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights to help advocate for and nominate high-quality judges who support the separation of state and church.

Key pieces of legislation

In the 116th Congress, FFRF worked hard to add co-sponsors to the Do No Harm Act. We also worked to advance the Equality Act, which adds LGBTQ as a protected class to the Civil Rights Acts and prohibits discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation and gender identity, and the No BAN Act, which eliminates the Muslim ban, limits presidential authority to suspend or restrict immigration and prohibits religious discrimination in immigration-related decisions. The Equality Act and the No Ban Act did pass out of the House in the 116th Congress.

In addition, the Scientific Integrity Act, which prevents political appointees from meddling in publicly funded scientific research, passed the House as part of the HEROES act (COVID Relief Bill). The STOP FGM Act of 2020, which prohibits female genital mutilation (FGM) on minors, was just signed into law on Jan. 11. The Blasphemy Resolution, which calls on the president and the State Department to prioritize the global repeal of blasphemy laws, just passed Congress.

We’re looking forward to making gains with these pieces of legislation. However, the entire legislative process starts again. We will have to work with our allies to build co-sponsor lists and get all of these bills moving in their committees, in the legislative chambers and onto the president’s desk.

Expanding the Congressional Freethought Caucus

The Congressional Freethought Caucus, first established with three members in October 2018, has now expanded to 14 with the recent addition of Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va. We’ll be working diligently to encourage more members of Congress to join the caucus. Look for more opportunities to engage your member of Congress and encourage them to join the caucus.

Building the movement as Christian Nationalism regroups

In 2021, we’re going to be offering some new advocacy tools to make your civic engagement more impactful. We are planning to better connect you to lawmakers to make your secular voices heard. We’ll be providing you with the tools to evaluate legislators with a new dynamic legislative scorecard that rates members of Congress on votes and sponsorship or co-sponsorship of bills, and it will also consider their social media messaging, press releases and media mentions on FFRF issues, as well as whether they’ve joined the Congressional Freethought Caucus. You’ll be able to identify who are the true champions of the First Amendment and who we need to better engage.

Plus, FFRF has been working with our secular allies to develop a common agenda for Congress and the new administration to implement. We’re dedicated to undoing much of the harm inflicted on this nation in the last four years and to working to safeguard the secular future. The legislative agenda focuses on judicial nominations, engaging the new administration and undoing harm from the Trump administration, and advancing key pieces of legislation.

Final thoughts

We are going to need a lot of help to make sure our collective voice is heard during this legislative session, and to keep Christian Nationalism on the back foot. While the Freedom From Religion Foundation is the nation’s largest membership organization of nonbelievers, with about 33,000 members, a larger base would mean more power, more engagement and visibility with Congress and the administration, and more holding legislators accountable. The best thing you can do today is to renew your FFRF membership and tell friends about FFRF, or better yet, sign them up for a gift membership.

Yes, we need your dues, but more than that, we need members. We need numbers.

Membership equals power. Politicians listen to their constituents. They might not do exactly what you want, but when citizens speak up, politicians prioritize. Members in the upcoming Congress and in statehouses across the country are trying to figure out what must be prioritized and what can wait. Let’s make some “good trouble” together and get moving.

Mark Dann is FFRF’s director of governmental affairs.

Secular groups offer agenda for new administration

The Secular Coalition for America, in partnership with its 19 member organizations (including the Freedom From Religion Foundation), has issued a blueprint for the new administration and Congress.

The “Secular Agenda for the 117th Congress and Biden Administration” includes strengthening and supporting the Congressional Freethought Caucus, repealing harmful executive orders, supporting the nomination and appointments of judges and other government officials who adhere to and actively promote and prioritize the separation of religion and government, and a slew of legislative priorities. These include the Do No Harm Act, the Scientific Integrity Act and the CORE Act.

“We are excited to put forth this ambitious plan for the new administration and Congress,” states Casey Brinck, director of policy and government affairs for the Secular Coalition for America. “As we move forward into the first session of the 117th Congress, we can expect a flurry of legislative actions to be undertaken, and want not only our community to understand what we are working for on their behalf, but also for Congress and the new administration to have a better understanding of what our very large and quickly growing constituency expects of them.”

FFRF fully concurs.

“Our partnership with the Congressional Freethought Caucus has allowed us to advance the secular agenda in ways once unimaginable,” says FFRF Director of Governmental Affairs Mark Dann. “By coordinating with members of the caucus and their staff, we have been able to fight back against the erosion of the wall that separates religion and government and elevate the discussion of our common secular values in Congress. The entire coalition is thankful for the work the Congressional Freethought Caucus does, and we are excited to continue to work with it in the 117th Congress.”

Other secular groups agree.

“We have made significant progress during the past few Congresses on many of our legislative priorities, and we look forward to seeing them pass the finish line in the 117th,” Rachel Deitch, director of policy and social justice for the American Humanist Association, remarks. “While there still will be a difficult fight in Congress, bills like the Do No Harm Act have consistently gained support over the past few years, and we believe now is the time to see them on President-elect Biden’s desk.”

The coalition will also be working to strengthen and aid the Congressional Freethought Caucus in its mission to promote public policy formed on the basis of reason, science, and moral values, while opposing discrimination against atheists, agnostics, humanists, seekers, religious and nonreligious persons.

The 19 member organizations that make up the Secular Coalition for America will, in addition, be working to repeal the numerous harmful executive orders issued over the past four years. Listed in the agenda, too, are Trump administration commissions that have been utilized to blur the lines between religion and government and advance the Christian Nationalist agenda. These include the Religious Liberty Task Force, which is dedicated to allowing religious institutions and individuals to continue to receive special treatment under the law, and the Commission on Unalienable Rights, led by well-known Christian Nationalist ally and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

“The Trump Administration has used constitutionally suspect regulations and flagrant misinterpretations of U.S. Supreme Court decisions to promote religion, attack civil rights, and undermine the separation of religion and government,” says Alison Gill, vice president for legal and policy at American Atheists. “We look forward to working with the new administration to reverse these dangerous policies and to restore religious freedom for every American.”

The Center for Inquiry emphasizes the importance of the joint secular agenda.

“The assault on secular values reached an unprecedented level during the Trump administration,” says Jason Lemieux, director of government affairs at the organization. “Trump and his religious extremist allies used every trick in the book to impose Christian Nationalism upon every aspect of public life. The secular agenda is a step toward true separation of church and state.”

Lamar Hankins: Our final freedom — The right to decide how, when, where we die

Right to die

By Lamar Hankins

FFRF’s new secular poll results reported in the October Freethought Today included one result that got my attention — 98 percent of nonbelievers support the right to die with dignity.  That figure corresponds with my impressions working in the right-to-die movement for almost 30 years.

In the early 1990s, I joined about a half dozen others in the Austin, Texas, area to form a local chapter of the Hemlock Society, created in 1980 by Derek Humphry. Our purpose was to learn how to take charge of the end of our lives to avoid suffering, should we be unfortunate enough to be stricken with a debilitating illness from which we would not recover.

We were not a morbid group in the least. In fact, we were jovial, yet thoughtful and determined to make the best of whatever time we had left. The group — the Austin Hemlock Society — met regularly until 2004, when the national Hemlock Society changed its name to End-of-Life Choices, and then was merged into Compassion in Dying, finally changing its name to Compassion & Choices. 

Humphry’s 1991 book Final Exit, in a later edition, explains how to use inert gas to have a peaceful, effective and reliable hastened death. The most readily available inert gas at the time was helium, but nitrogen is now most often used. In 1999, at the urging of psychologist Faye Girsh, then the president of Hemlock, the group started a program called “Caring Friends,” which provided trained volunteers to meet with an applicant and teach the person how to hasten their death using inert gas so that they could avoid suffering from a terminal illness or avoid a deteriorating quality of life. The volunteer also was available to be at the person’s side when they died to provide emotional support — a caring friend.

After the mergers, the new organization discontinued the Caring Friends program to focus on promoting legislative solutions to aid in dying for terminal patients (defined as six months or less to live).  When that happened, several longtime Hemlock leaders formed Final Exit Network (FEN) to continue the work of Caring Friends under the name Exit Guide Program. Volunteer medical doctors, psychologists, social workers and others from all walks of life joined together to establish the program, develop procedures, start a volunteer-training regimen and build a new organization dedicated to instructing and educating those who wanted to hasten their death because their quality of life had become, or soon would become, unacceptable to them as a result of deteriorating health.

My death, my choice

For the last 40 years, the idea of a right to die has been widely debated in the United States. Most people claim this right by refusing ultimately futile medical treatment or procedures, sometimes through advance directives. Often, they are aided by hospice, which focuses on palliative care of a terminally ill or dying patient’s symptoms, whether physical, emotional or social. For some people, however, palliative care is ineffective or does not meet their other needs, and they seek to end their lives rather than continue suffering. Many people are surprised to learn that ending one’s own life is not against the law. What is prohibited in most, but not all states, is actively assisting someone to end their own life.

Perhaps the most important aspect of ending one’s life is that it is the individual’s decision to proceed in such a fashion. And that focus on each individual’s decision is made clear by Final Exit Network’s early billboard campaign “My Life, My Death, My Choice,” which was intended to promote autonomy in such decisions and encourage thoughtful discussion about the end of life.

The “Guiding Principle” of the nonprofit, volunteer-directed Final Exit Network explains its philosophy: 

“Mentally competent adults have a basic human right to end their lives when they suffer from a fatal or irreversible illness or intractable pain, when their quality of life is personally unacceptable, and the future holds only hopelessness and misery. Such a right shall be an individual choice, including the timing and companion, free of any restrictions by the law, clergy, medical profession, even friends and relatives no matter how well-intentioned. We do not encourage anyone to end their life, do not provide the means to do so, and do not actively assist in a person’s death. We do, however, support any [individual] who requests it when medical circumstances warrant their decision.”

Volunteers help implement the FEN Exit Guide Program in several ways:

• Producing its newsletter.

• Serving as senior and associate Exit Guides.

• Conducting interviews with program applicants.

• Serving as coordinators to answer questions from applicants and those seeking information about the program.

• Participating on FEN’s Medical Evaluation Committee (MEC), which consists of volunteer doctors who determine whether the applicant satisfies FEN’s requirements for exit guide educational and training services.

• Providing training to those interested in becoming guides.

• Serving on FEN’s board and providing other organizational services.

In 2017, FEN began an edited blog about end-of-life and right-to-die issues. The Good Death Society Blog is searchable and discusses a wide range of issues relevant to FEN’s mission.

Eligibility criteria

Although FEN does not require a client to have a terminal illness to be eligible for its educational services, it does require mental competency at the time of application and at the time the person chooses to exit, as well as the physical ability to do so.  In addition to the mental competency criterion, FEN requires that applicants

• Have “existing or reasonably anticipated unbearable suffering or an unacceptable or intolerable quality of life with no reasonable hope of improvement.”

• Demonstrate that they have informed or expressed “a willingness to inform close family members and intimate associates of the applicant’s intent.”

Submit a personal statement describing how their “medical condition meaningfully reduces or will reduce the applicant’s quality of life, including examples of current physical or mental decline, the applicant’s values as they pertain to end-of-life choices, and a statement of what the applicant wants from Final Exit Network.”

In addition to meeting all the general criteria, an applicant must have serious physical disease; chronic, severe, somatic pain as demonstrated in medical records; dementia (prior to mental incompetency); or a constellation of irreversible medical conditions.

FEN educates about one other method of hastening death — voluntarily stopping eating and drinking (VSED). It is another way to have a good death that is often assisted by hospice.  VSED frequently occurs naturally near the end of a disease, or it can be intentionally pursued to avoid lingering, sometimes for years. With VSED, dehydration causes the body to shut down.  Death usually occurs within seven to 10 days or so after VSED begins.

FEN has developed a special supplemental directive using VSED and designed for those who have dementia, but who want to live only as long as the disease leaves them with some enjoyment in living or recognition of who they are. More information about VSED can be found at finalexitnetwork.org.

Obviously, not everyone will need or want to end their own life before it comes to a natural end. We won’t all need medical assistance in dying or inert gas to have a good death. But many of us who have had a family member or friend with dementia or Parkinson’s or ALS or cancer or some other condition which makes a good death difficult or impossible, often remark that we don’t want our own lives to end that way. Most of us will die quickly of a heart attack, or in our sleep, or by misadventure. Still others will find the help of hospice essential to having a good death. But many of us may want to take matters into our own hands, with the help of a clinician or the advice and counsel of FEN.

Unlike medical assistance in dying (MAID), which is available in 10 U.S. jurisdictions (Montana by judicial decree, and by law in California, Colorado, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Maine, New Jersey, Oregon, Vermont and Washington), FEN operates throughout the country, responding to the suffering of people who have a debilitating illness from which they will eventually die. FEN’s application process is comprehensive, and yet available to far more people than MAID, and is requested often even in those jurisdictions that have MAID laws.

The work that FEN does demonstrates that, with appropriate safeguards, it is possible to take control of one’s life to avoid additional suffering when facing a debilitating or irreversible illness. Helping people in distress at the end of their lives is often challenging for both FEN’s volunteers and their clients, but it has been among the most rewarding work I have ever done, and the people who are helped are invariably grateful.  Their gratitude seems tied to their desire to exercise that final freedom — the freedom to control the quality of their lives, avoid suffering, and determine the manner and timing of their deaths.

FFRF member Lamar Hankins lives in Texas with his wife, June.