Citizens can now opt out of
‘so help me God’ on Alabama’s form
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has attained a huge constitutional victory for secular voters in Alabama.
FFRF sued the Alabama secretary of state last October on behalf of four Alabama citizens who encountered and objected to a religious test to register to vote.
Now that the state of Alabama has amended all its voter registration forms to allow citizens to opt out of the religious oath, both online and in printed forms, FFRF has voluntarily dismissed its federal lawsuit challenging the uniquely Alabamian mandatory religious voter registration oath.
“The Alabama secretary of state excludes Alabama citizens from being able to vote if they are unable to swear a religious oath,” stated the suit. “The secretary of state’s official policy is to hinder the registration of voters who are unable to swear ‘so help me God.’ This policy violates the rights of the plaintiffs and others under the First and 14th Amendments to the United States Constitution.”
As part of a settlement, Alabama Secretary of State John H. Merrill has amended all of the voter registration forms to allow voters to avoid swearing a religious oath. The new “mail in” form provides a check box that says, “Optional: Because of a sincerely held belief, I decline to include the final four words of the oath above.”
Shortly after the suit was filed, the secretary of state began implementing other changes. In November, the office adopted a new administrative rule that allows voters to strike out “so help me God” and provided guidance to county registrars (who add voters to the
rolls) saying that voters could cross out the language.
The lead plaintiff, Randall Cragun, an atheist, had sought to register to vote in Alabama since November 2019. However, voters submitting this registration form in Alabama had to sign the voter declaration, beginning “I solemnly swear or affirm” and concluding with “so help me God.” The director of elections informed Cragun: “There is no legal mechanism to register to vote in Alabama without signing the oath as it is stated.”
The state of Alabama has dramatically changed its posture, thanks to FFRF’s lawsuit.
FFRF’s plaintiffs Chris Nelson and Heather Coleman (who are married) were able to register using the new form in March. Both of their registrations were accepted by the Shelby County registrars. “We are glad that the state has — at least, begrudgingly — made some concessions to support state-church separation, and that freethinkers in Alabama will continue to push for these reforms,” they say.
The other plaintiffs have expressed their appreciation for no longer being forced to pose as religious in order to exercise such a basic right.
“Because of this suit, I will finally be able to register to vote in Alabama,” says Cragun. “It is disappointing that the state prevented me from voting in the 2020 elections, but I am looking forward to participating in the future, and I now have a better appreciation of the value my voice and other individual voices contribute to shaping the state.”
Adds co-plaintiff Robert Corker, “I am proud to have been a part of this effort to secularize voting in the state of Alabama. I relish more opportunities to foster inclusiveness for nonbelievers in this state.”
Cragun thanked FFRF for stepping in where others wouldn’t.
“I am so grateful to FFRF for pursuing this case,” he said. “Before FFRF took on the case, I spent a few months contacting attorneys and made no progress. I became discouraged by the idea that the state could infringe on my rights without me having any hope of doing something about it. I have heard people accuse FFRF of coming in from out of state to interfere with local matters, and I think anyone who has taken that rhetoric seriously should know that FFRF is helping protect the rights of its members like me. I never thought that I had much power to protect my rights until FFRF helped give me a voice.”
FFRF is honored to play its part of securing voting access for all Alabama residents.
“The secretary of state was consciously discriminating against nonbelieving voters,” says FFRF Senior Litigation Counsel Patrick Elliott. “We obtained our goal of ensuring equal voting rights.”
The lawsuit had been filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama, Southern Division. Steven P. Gregory of the Birmingham-based Gregory Law Firm was serving as co-counsel. FFRF Senior Litigation Counsel Patrick Elliott and FFRF Associate Counsel Liz Cavell were also attorneys in the case. The defendant was Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill.
FFRF litigation to correct state/church entanglements is made possible thanks to kind donations designated to FFRF’s legal fund.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is delighted to announce the FFRF Secular Studies Endowment at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., the trailblazing home of the country’s first Secular Studies program.
The $300,000 gift, made possible thanks to a bequest by FFRF member and ardent atheist Kenneth L. Proulx, will help the Secular Studies program fulfill its mission to increase understanding of — and disseminate knowledge about — secularism, atheism, agnosticism, humanism, naturalism and freethought in societies and cultures, past and present.
Pitzer College, which is part of the Claremont Colleges, was the first college in the United States to inaugurate a Secular Studies program in 2011. Annually, more than 200 students take a secular studies course. Initiated by Phil Zuckerman, professor of sociology and secular studies, the program has six affiliated faculty members representing the fields of history, philosophy, religion, science and sociology. Course offerings include “Sociology of Secularity,” “God, Darwin and Design in America,” “Fundamentalism and Rationalism” and “Anxiety in the Age of Reason.”
Pitzer’s Secular Studies program has an outsized reach, thanks to Zuckerman, founder of the program and an associate dean at Pitzer. Zuckerman has written a number of popular and academic books and papers on secularity, including Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment (2008), Atheism and Secularity (2010), Living the Secular Life (2014), The Nonreligious: Understanding Secular People and Societies (2016), The Oxford Handbook of Secularism (with John Shook) (2017) and What It Means to Be Moral (2019). He’s a frequent contributor to Salon, the Los Angeles Times, Free Inquiry and Freethought Today.
“This amazing grant aligns perfectly with the goals of both FFRF and the Secular Studies program: to support education around secularism, atheism, and humanism,” comments Zuckerman. “It will help generate more course offerings, student and faculty research and campus programming. I am both thrilled and honored.”
The purpose of the endowment is to broaden, develop and innovate the study of nonreligious people, groups, movements, thought and cultural expressions and increase the canon of scholarship and scope of visibility of secularity.
A wide range of activities and initiatives supported by FFRF’s endowment are envisioned over the years, including course development, research stipends, student travel, distinguished speakers and panelists, symposia or conferences. The college envisions FFRF’s endowment as a lead gift in a goal to someday establish a Center of Secular Studies at Pitzer College.
“FFRF is so pleased to support the critical work of Pitzer’s Secular Studies program,” says Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president, “because it values the study of the impact of freethought and skepticism here and worldwide. We consider Phil Zuckerman to be a national freethought treasure.”
Several members of Congress, led by U.S. Jamie Raskin, co-chair of the Congressional Freethought Caucus, are championing a resolution proclaiming May 7 as an annual National Day of Reason. Other sponsors include Reps. Jared Huffman, Mark Pocan, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Jerry McNerney and Pramila Jayapal, all CFC members.
The National Day of Prayer occurs on the first Thursday in May (May 6 this year) as proclaimed by an unconstitutional congressional law requiring the president to encourage citizens to “turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups, and as individuals.” FFRF won a historic federal court ruling in 2010 declaring the law unconstitutional, which was later thrown out by an appeals court based on standing, not the merits.
Raskin’s resolution reads:
“Whereas the application of reason has been the essential pre-condition for humanity’s extraordinary scientific, medical, technological, and social progress since the modern Enlightenment;
“Whereas reason provides the vital catalyst for confronting the crises of our day, including the civilizational emergency of climate change, and for cultivating the rule of law, democratic institutions, justice, and peace among nations;
“Where irrationality, magical and conspiratorial thinking, and disbelief in science have undermined the national effort to combat the Covid-19 pandemic, contributing to the death of more than 555,000 people in the United States;
Whereas reason and science are fundamental to implementing an effective coordinated response to beat the Covid-19 virus, which includes improved social confidence in the safety and efficacy of vaccinations and evidence-based solutions to the inequities exacerbated by the pandemic, and involves the federal government, the states, and the scientific and medical communities;
“Whereas America’s Founders insisted upon the primacy of reason and knowledge in public life, and drafted the Constitution to prevent the official establishment of religion and to protect freedom of thought, speech, and inquiry in civil society;
“Whereas James Madison, author of the First Amendment and fourth president of the United States, stated that ‘The advancement and diffusion of knowledge is the only guardian of true liberty,’ and ‘Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives’ and
“Whereas May 7, 2021, would be an appropriate date to designate as a ‘National Day of Reason’: Now, therefore, be it Resolved, that the House of Representatives supports the designation of a ‘National Day of Reason;’ and encourages all citizens, residents, and visitors to join in observing this day and focusing on the central importance of reason, critical thought, the scientific method, and free inquiry to resolving social problems and promoting the welfare of humankind.”
“We are grateful to Rep. Raskin and other co-sponsors for working so that reason and our secular Constitution will prevail,” FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is very saddened to announce the death of Marjorie Appleman. Margie was believed to be in her early 90s.
Marjorie was a playwright and After-Life Member of FFRF, who was married to Philip Appleman, a renowned poet, ardent freethinker and Darwin scholar. FFRF had been informed belatedly of Phil’s death, which occurred at age 94 on April 11, 2020, and was told that Marjorie had survived him.
We have since learned that Marjorie died just a few days before Phil, as is so often the case with longtime couples. They had been together for nearly 67 years. Phil had been Marjorie’s primary caretaker for many years after she was afflicted by cancer and other illnesses.
They were the quintessential devoted couple and their love story was immortalized in many of Phil’s poems. He read some of these on “Bill Moyers” in 2015, when he was 88. Google “Bill Moyers Philip Appleman” to watch that interview and bonus poetry readings. They were a beautiful, glamorous, witty couple who retired permanently to New York City, after giving up wintering in Florida, when climate change was battering their home.
Poets & Writers Directory lists that Marjorie wrote a book of poetry, Against Time (Birnham Wood, 1994) and her fiction was published in such journals as Confrontation, Kentucky Poetry Review, Long Island Quarterly, Poetry Pilot, Poetry Review, Sojourner and Wind. She was fluent in French.
She often accompanied Phil on his poetry readings, including to three national FFRF conventions. Marjorie read the female parts of Phil’s epic, humorous poem “Noah.” They gamely recorded this for FFRF in a New York studio, where it is included on FFRF’s DVD, “Beware of Dogma” and can be found on YouTube.
FFRF’s memorial tribute to Phil from the November 2020 Freethought Today may be viewed at bit.ly/32aooWd.
FFRF was recently informed that the Applemans left a bequest of more than $150,000 to FFRF.
“We treasure their memory and their words. Their photograph adorns the walls of the editorial wing of FFRF’s office, Freethought Hall, in Madison,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “And now we are indebted even more to them for their posthumous support of FFRF and our work. We honor their legacy.”
Theodore M. (Ted) Utchen, a former director-at-large of FFRF’s Executive Board, died on March 4 at the age of 91.
He was born in St. Paul, Minn., on June 25, 1929, to Joseph and Lillian Utchen. Ted grew up in Hibbing, Minn., Petersburg, Va., and Oshkosh, Wis., where he graduated from high school in 1946, and Topeka, Kan. In 1950, he graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Kansas with a degree in political science. Ted served as 1st Lieutenant in the U.S. Army during the Korean Conflict and was discharged from service in 1955. He received his J.D. and his LLM in constitutional law from the University of Michigan School of Law where he was elected to the Order of the Coif Honor Society.
Ted engaged in trial practice in Wichita, Kan., before becoming a trust officer with the National Bank of Tulsa. In 1964, he and his wife Esther moved to Chicago when Ted joined The Northern Trust Company as a trust and probate officer. Ted and his wife made their home in Wheaton, Ill., where Ted lived until his death. Ted and his wife had two children, Frank and Kathy.
In 1968, Ted left the Northern Trust Company to join the law department of Miami Corporation, where he worked until retiring from his position as vice president and general counsel in 1990. After retiring from Miami Corporation, Ted served as an arbitrator for the Cook County and DuPage County Circuit Courts. He was an active member a several Chicago Bar Association committees.
In 1991, because of his interest in constitutional law, Ted became a member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, emphasizing the separation of church and state. He was a member of the Executive Board from 2008-2012. He became a Lifetime Member in 2016.
Ted was also a member of the American Humanist Association, as well as The Theosophical Society of America.
Ted’s favorite charitable activity was his annual dictionary project where he would donate and bestow a dictionary upon every third-grade student at 32 suburban elementary schools. In presenting the dictionaries, Ted would teach the children that learning word choice and correct spelling at an early age would be a lifelong benefit. Ted was a self-proclaimed library addict; he called libraries his second home and he was pleased to support public libraries across many Chicago western suburbs.
Stephen F. Uhl, 91, a Beyond After-Life Member and major donor to FFRF, died on Feb. 10 at his home in Oro Valley, Ariz.
“Steve and his wife Diane have been such boosters of freethought, humanism and FFRF,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. “We feel so privileged to have known Steve and worked with him on many fronts. Steve was an important part of FFRF.”
He was born in rural southern Indiana in 1930, the sixth of nine children. At 14, he entered the boarding seminary at Saint Meinrad [Ind.] Archabbey, a Swiss order of Benedictine monks, where he stayed for six years. His major seminary studies (also for six years) were at Marmion Abbey in Aurora, Ill. He was ordained in 1956 as a priest, after which he was sent to Catholic University in Washington, D.C., where Steve earned an S.T.L. degree (Sacrae Theologiae Licentia).
“My serious doubts [about religion] started one morning in the monastery chapel in 1964 when I was 34 and was meditating on the intellectual proofs of God’s existence,” Steve wrote in a 2011 “Meet a Member” profile in Freethought Today. “I had a ‘lightning bolt’ insight in which I clearly saw how St. Thomas Aquinas’ supposedly strongest proof (his causality proof) fell far short, because it was based on an unwarranted assumption.”
After he left the priesthood in 1967, he earned a Ph.D. in psychology from Loyola University in Chicago. He married Diane on the Winter Solstice in 1968.
Steve taught high school religion and mathematics and counseled at the Benedictine Marmion Military Academy for 10 years.
Once freed from the priesthood, he taught public high school math and became a certified school psychologist. He opened a private practice as a psychologist in 1976, from which he eventually retired.
In 1999, Steve and Diane joined FFRF. Over the years, they became major benefactors and were among the most generous donors to FFRF’s building expansion in 2014, giving $250,000 to the Building Fund. Since then, they have been honored in several places in FFRF’s Freethought Hall: The Stephen Uhl Friendly Atheist Studio, the Diane Uhl Steinway Grand Piano and the Diane and Stephen Uhl Legal Wing.
“Steve paid for one of our major ‘Out of the Closet’ personalized billboard campaigns in Phoenix and Tucson,” Gaylor says. “Not only is the legal wing of our office named for the Uhls, but they have given other major support for FFRF’s Legal Fund. It’s thanks to the Uhls that FFRF started our ‘Educate Congress’ campaign, culminating in the hiring of our D.C.-based director of governmental affairs.”
Steve told FFRF of his transition from believer to atheist.
“The superstitions learned in early childhood came into conflict with my adult learnings,” he wrote. “The common sense I had learned from my father (a farmer) drove me to follow my reasoning conscience and break the bonds of traditional superstition.”
In 2009, he wrote Out of God’s Closet (a few copies remain for purchase at ffrf.org/shop).
“This book started out to be an intimate letter to my 31 nieces and nephews,” Steve writes in the preface of the book. “I had just recently learned that I had prostate cancer. My love would not let me die before trying to help my large family avoid some of the more serious errors of my earlier ways. So, I began to write to that large family to share some of the important lessons I had learned over seven decades.
“It was not any sense of guilt that drove me to undo the fallacies and superstitions that I had taught so effectively as a naïve young priest. It was more a sense of responsibility for mopping up after my earlier mistakes. Then, as the book developed, it became a joyful sense of sharing that drove me to develop my message for all the planetary neighbors.”
“His influence will live on, but he will be very missed,” FFRF Co-President Dan Barker says. “We send our condolences to Diane, his life partner in all his endeavors.”
A letter to
from Diane Uhl
Feb. 10, 2021
To my friends at FFRF,
Steve, my best friend in all the world, died here in our home in Tucson.
Steve was granted peace from the physical pain which had taken over his body. After 90 years, he had finally come to the time which we all must, and as Steve would say, when, “It is better not to be than to be.”
We thought he was going to have hip surgery, but while waiting for that surgery date, the prostate cancer went rampant and metastasized into the bones and other vital organs, causing excruciating pain.
Steve went to ER on Feb. 3 and on Feb. 5 he came home, with our decision being that we would do home hospice care, since our emphasis is on quality of life, not quantity. As per his (and our) personal philosophy, he gave up eating and drinking, with the goal being to bring about death in as peaceful and pain-free a manner as possible.
We worked to keep the pain under control with medication and tried to make him as comfortable as possible.
I was ever so fortunate to have the support of family and friends, near and far, to help me through this journey.
I had just sat at his bedside to read him Chapter One of the book that he authored, Imagine No Superstition, and two friends had stopped by. Fortunately, I was able to be there as Steve took his very last breath.
So, as I write this, I am looking at Steve’s final sunset, which I will toast with a glass of wine from our sunlit patio.
I am feeling very, very grateful for all the love, the adventures, the accomplishments and the fun that we have shared. Much of that was shared with many of you.
I shall never, ever regret having him here in our home, as opposed to a hospice facility, for these last hours of his life. Those hours were some of our most loving and most difficult hours of our 50-year marriage.
I want to thank each of you for your sharing and contributing to our lives.
I shall go forward with many of the projects that we had been working on, especially in regard to education. The very morning of the day that Steve went to the ER, he had spent several hours processing requests of teachers here in Arizona for financial support in their upcoming teaching endeavors.
So, Steve would close with a big smile and his wish to all of you to “Live long, die short.”
The Supreme Court’s series of rulings in favor of science-denying religious litigants signals serious trouble ahead for the principle of separation between state and church, warns the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
Near midnight on April 2, the U.S. Supreme Court issued yet another emergency decision striking down Covid-19 restrictions as applied to religious gatherings by the state of California, in this case affecting those in private homes. As the majority itself noted, “This is the fifth time the court has summarily rejected the 9th Circuit’s analysis of California’s Covid restrictions on religious exercise.” That’s five times too many.
Here’s what the case was about. Rev. Jeremy Wong and Karen Busch, who are holding religious services in their Santa Clara County homes, sued the state of California for restricting any gatherings in private homes to three households. A federal judge ruled against them, noting that the law applies equally to all private gatherings, not singling out those for religious purposes. When the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals refused to block the ruling, the plaintiffs asked the Supreme Court to intervene — and the damage was done.
The unsigned Supreme Court majority in its ruling renewed its theme of alleged ill-treatment of religion, charging: “California treats some comparable secular activities more favorably than at-home religious exercise, permitting hair salons, retail stores, personal care services, movie theaters, private suites at sporting events and concerts and indoor restaurants.”
This, of course, is comparing apples to oranges — or “apples and watermelons,” as dissenting Justice Elena Kagan put it. The majority — Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Brett Kavanaugh, Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett — is continuing to indulge in what veteran court observer Linda Greenhouse has labeled “grievance politics.” Joining Kagan’s dissenting opinion were Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayer. Although he did not sign Kagan’s opinion, once again Chief Justice John Roberts dissented on this issue.
“California . . . has adopted a blanket restriction on at-home gatherings of all kinds, religious and secular alike,” Kagan noted, ably pointed out the logical fallacy of the majority opinion: “The First Amendment requires that a state treat religious conduct as well as the state treats comparable secular conduct.”
FFRF has to ask: Why the drama? Where’s the emergency requiring a late-night ruling at the start of the weekend? The restrictions were due to be modified the week of April 12 to allow as many as 25 persons. Once again, SCOTUS has gone out of its way to undercut secular Covid-19 mitigation policy, in order to privilege religious litigants.
A Reuters news analysis about the increasing number of shadow docket rulings warns: “Decisions can come in the middle of the night, with no public discussion and no guidance to lower-court judges on how to analyze similar cases.”
A legal study released in April troublingly reveals that “the Roberts court has ruled in favor of religious organizations more frequently than its predecessors” — in fact 81 percent of the time.
The latest ruling is yet another sign of big trouble to come for the Establishment Clause.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is still waiting to make a determination about the safety and viability of hosting the 2021 convention in Boston, but FFRF is cautiously optimistic as more people become vaccinated from Covid-19.
The convention is scheduled for the weekend of Nov. 19-21 at the Boston Park Hotel.
FFRF hopes to make a decision by mid or late summer to know whether a national conference will be practical and safe. FFRF encourages you to hold that weekend open, and will let you know as soon as we know whether we can hold a post-pandemic “bash” this year!
The roster includes the incredible lineup of authors Margaret Atwood, Gloria Steinem, John Irving, Katherine Stewart and Phil Zuckerman, Hispanic American Freethinkers’ founder David Tamayo, New York Times court columnist Linda Greenhouse and Black Skeptics Los Angeles founder Sikivu Hutchinson. Unfortunately, entertainer John Davidson has backed out due to another obligation that has come up.
Look for updates and announcements in future issues of Freethought Today and on our website, ffrf.org/convo-2021.
We look forward to holding a post-pandemic celebratory bash with these powerhouse speakers and seeing you there, when it’s safe.
Please keep in mind future convention sites and dates: Hyatt Regency San Antonio Riverwalk, Oct. 28-30, 2022, and Monona Terrace Convention Center/Hilton Madison Monona Terrace, Oct. 13-15, 2023.