A new Freedom From Religion Foundation report issued on Dec. 15 exposes the Christian Nationalist takeover of the federal courts and the damage this is causing to the separation of state and church.
Over the past four years, President Trump has stacked the federal courts with ultraconservative judges, thanks to the blocking of President Obama’s judicial appointments and the holding open of vacant seats by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Trump has made three Supreme Court appointments, 53 appellate court appointments and 170 district court appointments, drastically outpacing his predecessors. In fact, the outgoing president vowed to continue nominating judges through the end of the lame-duck 116th congressional session.
The capture of the courts is alarming, given the power the courts hold over the interpretation of the Constitution and its impact on our rights, FFRF underscores in its report. The judges on the federal bench are appointed for life, which may be up to four or five decades. Their influence often lasts even longer.
To make matters worse, political calculations have dictated Trump’s judicial appointees. In 2016, 81 percent of white evangelical Christians voted for him, and in return they’ve gotten a federal judiciary willing to codify religious privilege while stripping the rights of minorities. That’s why the federal judges that have been appointed by Trump are religious ideologues who are dramatically redefining religious liberty and undermining core, cherished constitutional principles that keep religion out of government.
“We are only seeing the early stages of the coming radical changes to how religious liberty is defined in America,” the report warns. “As Trump appointees continue to decide cases in the decades to come, we will continue to see ‘religious liberty’ used to undermine the laws that keep us all safe and protect us from discrimination. We will continue to see courts give their ‘blessings’ to government favoritism of religion.”
For instance, in a 5-4 decision in July, the Supreme Court allowed public health state-level pandemic restrictions on church services to stand. Just four months later, thanks to newly appointed Justice Amy Coney Barrett, the court flipped on this issue. The Constitution did not change — just personnel. The court ignored the legitimate public health reasons for state and local governments to place restrictions on church services that are commensurate with restrictions placed on events posing similar risks. For the Christian Nationalist justices, religion must occupy a place of privilege. This ruling clearly signals that the new Christian Nationalist majority is ready to move full steam ahead to weaponize and redefine religious liberty, with dangerous consequences.
The report places a spotlight on some prominent Trump appointees, such as Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Barrett and Judges Kevin Newsom, David Stras and James Ho — and their misbegotten judicial philosophies.
“Our godless Constitution separates church from state, and federal courts have long defended that founding American principle,” the report concludes. “Our nation has always understood religious freedom is a protection, not a weapon. The conservative Christian Nationalists who’ve captured the courts have turned these and other hallowed principles on their head.”
Read the full report, principally authored by FFRF Attorney Elizabeth Cavell with research and assistance from FFRF Legal Fellow Joseph McDonald, at ffrf.us/judicial.
Evangelist Franklin Graham has started off the New Year with a doozy of a warning.
In a pair of tweets on Jan. 1, he wrote: “Joe Biden has warned of a ‘dark winter’ for our nation. But the dark winter we’re facing is not just due to Covid-19, it’s due to the moral decline and political corruption we see throughout the U.S.” and “We could face a dark period of history as God turns his back on our nation because of its sins and our politicians embracing, and even flaunting, sin.”
Biden, of course, predicted a “very dark winter” if pandemic mitigation measures dictated by science, such as mask-wearing and social distancing, continue to be politicized. But isn’t it theocratic leaders who have led America astray, who should be “repenting” their science-denying, religion-embracing ways?
Graham has also unctuously praised President Trump’s sanctimonious remarks on Dec. 31 that “a society without religion cannot prosper.”
Shouldn’t the question instead be whether a society with religion — at least the kind of theocratic influence on government and social policy besetting the United States — can prosper? The entanglement of religion and politics arguably is, if not the cause, then a major contributing factor of so much that has gone wrong with the pandemic response in the United States.
And the buck stops with the former president — and those who elected him.
Whether Trump believed what he was saying or was engaging in purely cynical political pandering, as was widely assumed, is not relevant. What is relevant is that Trump — in denying the pandemic, ridiculing masks, undercutting his administration’s own scientists, holding superspreader events, in short, golfing while America is burning up with Covid — was playing to his base. That base is white evangelicals and Christian fundamentalists, 81 percent of whom voted him into office (with Trump also winning the lion’s share of Protestant and Catholic votes in 2020). It can be argued that religion and its dumbing down of America got us into this political nightmare in the first place.
These evangelicals and fundamentalists — many of them Christian Nationalists inimical to the constitutional principle of separation between religion and government, as well as to individual liberties — themselves are the products of their anti-science, anti-intellectual faith.
They reject evolution, so is it any wonder they are “skeptical” of the science of infectious diseases? They’ve been taught to equate their beliefs and wishful thinking, e.g., “alternative facts,” with reality. They’ve been indoctrinated to bow down to a male authority figure. A chilling poll showed that 29 percent of white evangelicals believe that Trump was “anointed by God.”
And their unlikely messiah never stopped playing to his base, regardless of the consequences. One of the most symbolic moments of 2020 was when Trump triumphantly displayed a bible in front of a D.C. church after ordering military police to terrify and scatter peaceful citizens to clear a path for his pandering photo-op.
In the earliest days of the pandemic, while Trump was being briefed on its true nature, he promised, “One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear.” He has made so many statements asserting the pandemic will “just disappear” that CNN created an interactive “Covid disappearing Trump comment tracker”! In October, less than a week after contracting Covid-19, Trump was terming it “a blessing from God.”
Trump unrelentingly attacked science, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the front-line medical profession and the media for its objective coverage of the pandemic and his role in botching the administration’s response. Trump undercut testing, endlessly claiming “We have more cases because we have more testing!” Trump’s religious base, including QAnon supporters, was encouraged to embrace conspiracy theories against the vaccination.
The anti-science policy was set prior to the pandemic, not only by the Trump administration’s dismantlement in 2018 of the federal unit responsible for pandemic preparedness established by Obama, but by its disparagement of climate-change science.By November 2020, the administration, driven by fundamentalist “dominion” theory, had not only withdrawn from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, but had rolled back more than 100 environmental rules and regulations.
It was a small step, then, during the pandemic to attack science-based health and safety policies. Trump appointees in the Department of Health and Human Services began editing weekly reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about the coronavirus. U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, of South Carolina, said his investigators found a “political pressure campaign” to “cripple the nation’s coronavirus response in a misguided effort to achieve herd immunity.”
Extremist governors and legislators took their cue from Trump, greatly delaying social distancing and masking orders, including deferring to churches wanting to hold in-person worship services. The Freedom From Religion Foundation legal team has been kept busy contacting public officials over pandemic prayer proclamations, including one by Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt. He largely failed to use his civil authority to enact pandemic mitigation measures, yet felt it his right to direct constituents to set aside a day of prayer and fasting to respond to the pandemic!
Trump’s thousands of irresponsible tweets and comments gave many evangelical ministers a green light to defy public health orders. Among countless megachurch leader deniers is Pastor John MacArthur, who maintains “There is no pandemic” as he openly defies public health rules at his Los Angeles church every Sunday, even though congregants have fallen ill and a visiting pastor died of Covid-19. County health inspectors seeking to monitor the church have been blocked by security guards claiming it’s “a Jesus Life Matters protest.”
Fortunately, many religious leaders, especially those in mainstream churches, synagogues and denominations, have done the right thing in the pandemic. Yet all too many ultraorthodox synagogues and churches, including several Catholic dioceses, continue to sue over state restrictions limiting gatherings. In December, four churchgoers refiled a previously settled lawsuit against Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, challenging his generous executive order allowing church attendance so long as churches practice basic distancing and hygiene practices. They should be thanking Northam for protecting parishioners.
That lawsuit is one of many citing a grievance that “secular work is favored” while “religious activities are disfavored.” At root, church officials appear to be smarting over the realization that they are not “essential.” The U.S. Supreme Court, remade by Trump’s three appointees, issued a shocking Thanksgiving decision to enjoin New York’s pandemic policy to limit church gatherings in high-cluster areas. Unfortunately, with Trump having appointed more than a quarter of the federal judiciary based on Religious-Right qualifications, there will be many more such rulings, long after Trump is gone.
For fundamentalists of whatever stripe, unfortunately, science remains an enemy. Since fundamentalists never admit they’re wrong, it does look as if our nation is indeed headed for “a very dark winter.”
On the bright side, we’ve seen widespread adoption by the general public of pro-science slogans, such as “Science works!” “Operation Warp Speed” is proof. Last year, the House passed the Scientific Integrity Act as part of the Heroes Act, which would require science-based federal agencies to adopt a scientific integrity policy. The Freedom From Religion Foundation will be working to help ensure it passes the 117th Congress.
Annie Laurie Gaylor is co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
FFRF speaks out
In the wake of the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, a direct consequence of President Trump’s encouragement, the Freedom From Religion Foundation called on Congress to take immediate action against him.
In a Jan. 6 press release, FFRF said: “There must be consequences for any U.S. president who behaves like a strongman dictator and who continually voices his refusal to honor election results and our nation’s unbroken history of peaceful succession. Congress needs to take action now.”
FFRF also called on President Biden to eschew the bible during his swearing-in ceremony on Jan. 20 and to refrain from saying, “So help me God.”
FFRF has made several statements about the unparalleled threats to our democracy and secular Constitution, which may be found under news releases and blogs at ffrf.org/news.
FFRF’s Legal Department has been busy ensuring the wall of separation between state and church is high despite all the obstacles thrown our way in 2020. The pandemic changed how and where we work, but it hasn’t changedwhat we do. Last year, as our homes became our offices, we still continued to advocate for your rights and work to keep our government free from religion through litigation, persuasive letters to government agencies asking them to resolve violations, and education on the importance of state/church separation.
There were some staffing changes in 2020. Our legal team bid farewell to our legal fellow, Dante Harootunian, whose fellowship ended in August.
We welcomed a new legal fellow, Joseph McDonald, who recently graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a dual degree: a Juris Doctorate and a Master’s in Public Health. Our team welcomed a new intake legal assistant, Stephanie Dyer, who is also a recent graduate from the University of Wisconsin. Both Joseph and Stephanie were onboarded remotely and have adapted to our “work from home” office environment well.
• In 2020, FFRF secured two court victories and finalized a victory in another case. FFRF, together with Humanistas Seculares de Puerto Rico (HUSE) filed a lawsuit against Puerto Rico’s education secretary and the principal at Luis M. Santiago School challenging an hour-long Christian prayer practice led by teachers at the school every other Monday that students were required to attend. Because of her secular humanist beliefs, our plaintiff mother had been keeping her children home during the school-led prayers. The children were threatened with tardy marks for arriving late to class in order to avoid the prayers. At a mediation session in March, the defendants agreed to permanently prohibit teacher-led prayers at the school and to remove any tardy marks from the students who avoided school during the prayers. And importantly, the secretary of education agreed to circulate a memo on nondiscrimination to Department of Education employees and to conduct a training for all employees at the school on avoiding religious endorsement.
• FFRF favorably settled a case it filed with Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) against Secretary Ben Carson’s Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD had a pattern and practice of denying fee waivers on Freedom of Information Act requests “where disclosure of the requested documents is likely to cast the agency or HUD Secretary Ben Carson in a negative light.” The agency had denied waivers in FFRF’s requests over records relating to the White House bible study. In April 2020, we settled the case after it agreed to issue guidance to employees on fee waivers, provide mandatory training, and to pay the attorneys’ fees to both groups — which totaled nearly $18,000.
• In April, FFRF won its case at the appeals court level against censorship of its Bill of Rights “nativity” display in the Texas Capitol by Gov. Greg Abbott. The unanimous opinion by the three-judge court panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted FFRF additional relief. The judgment sent the case back to the district court that previously ruled in FFRF’s favor, to issue a more expansive remedy to protect FFRF’s right to place displays in the future and to ensure a similar constitutional violation cannot happen to other organizations.
• In May, a year after FFRF won a resounding victory halting millions in tax dollars flowing unconstitutionally to repair churches in Morris County, N.J., a judge ruled that FFRF and its attorneys are entitled to attorneys’ fees. The Superior Court of New Jersey ordered a total of $217,949.15 to FFRF’s attorneys, including $124,687.50 to outside counsel Paul Grosswald and $28,875 to constitutional scholar Erwin Chemerinsky, who defended FFRF at the Supreme Court level. FFRF was reimbursed the remainder for the work of its staff attorneys Andrew L. Seidel and Ryan Jayne.
• FFRF, along with the ACLU and AU, finalized the victory in a case against the Brevard County Board of County Commissioners. The board agreed not to resume its past practice of discriminating against people who do not belong to mainstream, monotheistic religions when selecting invocation speakers to open board meetings.
• Right before the election, FFRF filed a lawsuit on behalf of four Alabama citizens, challenging a mandatory voter registration oath that concludes, “so help me God.” Alabama is the only state to require voters to sign a religious oath in order to register to vote. In all other states, voters are provided a completely secular registration form or are not required to submit an oath or affirmation at all. Our suit seeks a declaratory judgment that mandating the oath, without a secular option, is unconstitutional and a permanent injunction prohibiting the secretary of state from requiring voters to swear “so help me God.” It also asks for an order to the secretary of state to provide forms that permit voters to register without swearing a religious oath.
One of the most impressive accomplishments in 2020 was the number of amicus briefs (or “friend of the court” briefs) FFRF was able to submit in state and federal courts across the country. FFRF submits these briefs to help guide the court in decision-making and are invaluable in contributing the voice of freethinkers and the nonreligious in cases involving religious liberty. Our attorneys submitted a record number of 10 amicus briefs in 2020! Four of these were filed at the U.S. Supreme Court for cases involving religious exemptions and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Two were filed in our home state at Wisconsin’s Supreme Court and involved religious exemptions to the restrictions involving the pandemic. Others involved other exemptions to stay-at-home orders, prayer at school, a nativity scene on public property and the Muslim travel ban.
In 2020, our intake team processed over 2,000 contacts from members of the public over state/church concerns. Our staff attorneys and legal fellows sent nearly 600 letters of complaint to government agencies over state/church violations. FFRF also sent over 350 letters in “mass mailings” educating government officials on state/church violations, including letters to governors regarding the constitutionality of prohibiting in-person worship services during a pandemic.
Our final achievement for 2020 was publishing a report on Trump judges entitled, “Religious Liberty Under Threat: The Christian Nationalist Capture of the Federal Judiciary.” (See summary on Page 1.) This report exposes the Christian Nationalist takeover of the federal courts and the damage this is causing to the separation of state and church. The report describes in alarming detail how over the past four years, President Trump stacked the federal courts with ultraconservative judges who will now hold their positions for life.
As you can see, the pandemic has not slowed our legal team. As we enter 2021, we will continue to fight for you and for our right to have a secular government.
Rebecca Markert is FFRF’s Legal Department director.
For the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the results of the U.S. presidential election mean the Christian Nationalist takeover of the federal government should end. The Joe Biden/Kamala Harris administration will mean a renewed chance to advocate for secularism and a return to rational debate.
“We the People” have spoken. Unfortunately, the Senate is unlikely to flip (barring two positive outcomes inGeorgia seats up for runoff elections), which will complicate recovery from a Christian Nationalist executive. However, the results overall look like a victory for science over faith, for reproductive and individual rights over theology, and for reason over ideology.
After years of playing defense, FFRF can now push forward.It appears there is a path cleared to achieving gains for FFRF’s movement to keep religion out of government and public policy.
Donald Trump was carried into office on a crest of Christian Nationalism four years ago, a wave that was hostile to everything FFRF works for. We trust the relentless religious assault we’ve been beating back for four years will diminish — and we’ll do everything in our power to ensure that.
FFRF is poised for the opportunities ahead. Our team of attorneys and 30-some staff, and our 33,000 members, are the watchers on the wall separating state and church. We’re the largest U.S. association of freethinkers (atheists and agnostics) and the third-largest association of nonbelievers in the world. We’ve added a strategic response campaign, a D.C. lobbyist, and our educational efforts have played a major role in the secular surge. We’ll continue to fight and remain vigilant no matter which party is in the White House or controls Congress.
FFRF has been working with our allies to develop a common secular agenda that Congress and the new administration can quickly implement. We look forward to repairing damage inflicted on secularism and its values. This will entail repealing many Trumpian executive orders, regulations and extrajudicial bodies (such as the Religious Liberty Task Force), but must also include major judicial reform.
Unprecedented obstructionism in the Senate blocked President Obama not only from nominating Merrick Garland to replace Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court, but also from filling more than 100 seats on the federal bench. The Trump administration has since packed the courts with more than 200 individuals handpicked by the Federalist Society, including unqualified zealots who do not reflect the American people, trampling Senate rules and norms along the way. An illegitimate process allowed Trump to make his third Supreme Court appointment in the midst of the national election — an appointment that clearly endangers abortion and LGBTQ rights, as well as decades of First Amendment precedent separating religion from government.
FFRF has a talented legal team, and it believes that any legal defense of the First Amendment — of the cherished American principle of the separation of state and church — must necessarily mean reforming our federal courts. We face a hostile federal judiciary, more dedicated to Christian Nationalism than the rule of law.
Regardless of the Supreme Court, we’re gaining in the court of public opinion — reflected in the increasingly secular U.S. demographics. But we can’t let theocratic court-packing jeopardize civil rights, the Establishment Clause and our nation’s future. Even with the election results, it is clear that for reason, humanistic values and our secular Constitution to prevail, our nation will need to unpack, correct and rebalance the judiciary.
Members of the Freedom From Religion Foundation associated with the military have a message for the Department of Defense: Acknowledge their existence and quit proselytizing.
Following national protests against systemic racism, the DoD announced a multistep process to address diversity and inclusion concerns. This included an anonymous “crowdsourcing” brainstorm of the problem and possible solutions. FFRF invited its qualifying members to submit comments — and the response was overwhelming.
These true “atheists in foxholes” provided dozens of thoughtful examples of how the military could better accommodate and acknowledge nonreligious service members. About 20 percent of FFRF’s 33,000 members around the country are either active service members or veterans, dispelling the tired myth that there are “no atheists in foxholes.”
The Defense Department’s presumption of religiosity begins with the required paperwork when individuals enter the armed forces: “There was no box to check under ‘religious preference’ for ‘atheist,’” one nonreligious veteran wrote. “Instead, I checked the box ‘None,’ which was read by the clerk as ‘None of the above,’ rather than my preference being no religion.” This vet described representatives of Gideons International being invited onto federal property to distribute bibles, and being forced to sit through a Christian church sermon just before beginning basic combat training. “I vividly remember the pressure to attend religious services,” wrote another.
Enlistment oaths typically include the religious phrase, “So help me God.” “I find it almost humorous,” a service member wrote, “that the oath taken to defend the Constitution, which expressly prohibits a religious test, includes religious wording.” The proposed fix was to remove religious language from all Defense Department regulations and to return to the nation’s original motto, “E Pluribus Unum.”
Some went for church services only because the alternative was a work detail for those who didn’t attend. Recalled one nonreligious vet: “I chose to do the work detail instead of repeating the church nonsense. . . . Peeling potatoes allowed me to sit alone and avoid the circus at the church. It was much better.” Others noted that bibles were placed in drawers at military temporary housing.
Another FFRF veteran made the alarming disclosure that he did not re-up because “there was so much Christian Nationalist evangelism [in my branch of the U.S. military] that I was often scared for my own safety. There was always pressure to toe the line to keep the military nonsecular. It was for this reason that I could not continue serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.”
In addition to cataloguing myriad examples of the military’s mistreatment of nonreligious service members, respondents offered many concrete, constructive suggestions on steps the military could take to address this widespread problem. The most common ones were regarding religious chaplains in the military.
“Begin commissioning humanist chaplains,” recommended one respondent. This was echoed by another individual who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and had “nobody to talk to” other than religious chaplains. “Consider something else besides preachers!” they urged the department.
Yet another FFRF member who is a veteran exhorted more bluntly: “Do away with the chaplains.” A nonreligious vet asked rhetorically, “If we are going to spend the kind of money required on salaries for military chaplains who are officers, why not just spend it on better, formally trained counselors?” He suggested that lay members for various faiths within the military community could attend to most religious functions during off-duty hours.
Many urged that atheism be destigmatized in the military. “Commanders should establish command policy letters that not only prohibit discrimination against other protected categories, but also expressly prohibit harassment or criticism of agnostics, atheists and freethinkers,” they opined.
Other suggestions included ensuring that officers avoid religious speech when addressing subordinates, promoting “the importance of science as a resource to understand our challenges,” “supporting inclusion and diversity whenever you can,” and “elevating minorities, as they have a significant contribution to make to our society and tend to be marginalized, which reduces their impact.”
FFRF has erected two monuments to atheists in the military, one in front of its national office in Madison, Wis., and the original at Lake Hypatia, Ala., both of which read:
“In memory of ATHEISTS IN FOXHOLES and the countless FREETHINKERS who have served this country with honor and distinction. Presented by the national Freedom From Religion Foundation with hope that in the future humankind may learn to avoid all war.”
This column first ran on Nov. 16 in The New York Times and is reprinted with permission.
By Katherine Stewart
Will President-elect Joe Biden’s victory force America’s Christian Nationalists to rethink the unholy alliance that powered Donald Trump’s four-year tour as one of the nation’s most dangerous presidents? Don’t count on it.
The 2020 election is proof that religious authoritarianism is here to stay, and the early signs now indicate that the movement seems determined to reinterpret defeat at the top of the ticket as evidence of persecution and of its own righteousness. With or without Trump, they will remain committed to the illiberal politics that the president has so ably embodied.
As it did in 2016, the early analysis of the 2020 election results often circled around the racial, urban-rural, and income and education divides. But the religion divide tells an equally compelling story. According to preliminary exit polls from Edison Research (the data is necessarily rough at this stage), 28 percent of voters identified as either white evangelical or white born-again Christian, and of these, 76 percent voted for Trump. If the numbers hold, these results indicate a continuation of support for Trump from this group.
The core of Trump’s voting bloc, to be clear, does not come from white evangelicals as such, but from an overlapping group of not necessarily evangelical, and not necessarily white, people who identify at least loosely with Christian Nationalism: the idea that the United States is and ought to be a Christian nation governed under a reactionary understanding of Christian values. Unfortunately, data on that cohort is harder to find except in deeply researched work by sociologists like Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry.
Most pollsters shoehorn complex religious identities into necessarily broad labels, so they fail to separate out the different strands of Trump’s support. There are indications that the president in fact expanded his appeal among nonwhite evangelical and born-again Christians of color, particularly among Latinos. Biden, on the other hand, who made faith outreach a key feature of his campaign, appears to have done well among moderate and progressive voters of all faiths.
Conservative voters of faith “came in massive numbers, seven and a half million more above the 2016 baseline, which was itself a record,” Ralph Reed, head of the Faith and Freedom Coalition and a longtime Religious Right activist, said at a postelection press briefing. “We believe they’re the reason why Republicans are going to hold the Senate.”
Toeing the Trump line
In their responses to the election outcome, some prominent Religious Right leaders have enabled or remained true to the false Trumpian line of election fraud. Michele Bachmann, the former Minnesota congresswoman and 2012 presidential candidate, said, “Smash the delusion, Father, of Joe Biden is our president. He is not.” In Crisis Magazine, a conservative Catholic publication, Richard C. Antall likened media reporting on the Biden-Kamala Harris ticket’s victory to a “coup d’état.” Mat Staver, chairman and founder of Liberty Counsel, added, “What we are witnessing only happens in communist or repressive regimes. We must not allow this fraud to happen in America.”
Even as prominent Republican figures like George W. Bush and Mitt Romney slowly tried to nudge Trump toward the exit, leaders of the Religious Right continued to man the barricades. The conservative speaker and Falkirk Center fellow David Harris Jr. put it this way:
“If you’re a believer, and you believe God appointed Donald J. Trump to run this country, to lead this country, and you believe as I do that he will be re-elected the president of the United States, then friends, you’ve got to guard your heart, you’ve got to guard your peace. Right now we are at war.”
Others stopped short of endorsing Trump’s wilder allegations of election fraud, but backed his right to challenge the results. Reed told the Religion News Service, “This election will be over when those recounts are complete and those legal challenges are resolved.”
The Rev. Franklin Graham tweeted that the courts will “determine who wins the presidency.” The conservative pastor Robert Jeffress, who gave a sermon before Trump’s inaugural ceremony in 2017, noted that a Biden win was “the most likely outcome.”
After processing their disappointment, Christian Nationalists may come around to the reality of Biden’s victory. There is no indication, however, that this will temper their apocalyptic vision, according to which one side of the American political divide represents unmitigated evil. During a Nov. 11 virtual prayer gathering organized by the Family Research Council, one of the key speakers cast the election as the consequence of “the whole godless ideology that’s wanted to swallow our homes, destroy our marriages, throw our children into rivers of confusion.” Jim Garlow, an evangelical pastor whose Well Versed Ministry has as its stated goal, “Bringing biblical principles of governance to governmental leaders,” asserted that Biden and Harris are at the helm of an “ideology” that is “anti-Christ, anti-biblical to its core.”
A political movement
The comments pouring in from these and other figures may be forgotten when Biden takes office. But they are worth paying attention to now for what they say about the character of the movement. While many outsiders continue to think of Christian Nationalism as a social movement that arises from the ground up, it is in fact a political movement that operates mostly from the top down. The rank-and-file of the movement is diverse and comes to its churches with an infinite variety of motivations and concerns, but the leaders are far more unified.
They collaborate in a densely interconnected network of think tanks, policy groups, activist organizations, legal advocacy groups and conservative pastoral networks. What holds them together is not any centralized command structure, but a radical political ideology that is profoundly hostile to democracy and pluralism, and a certain political style that seeks to provoke moral panic, rewards the paranoid and views every partisan conflict as a conflagration, the end of the world. Partisan politics is the lifeblood of their movement.
If one considers the movement from the perspective of its leaders, it is easier to see why it is unlikely to change in the new political circumstances we find ourselves in. The power of the leadership is the function of at least three underlying structural realities in America’s political and economic life and those realities are not going to change anytime soon.
The first is the growing economic inequality that has produced spectacular fortunes for the few, while too many ordinary families struggle to get by. Leaders of the movement get much of the support for their well-funded operations from a cadre of super-wealthy individuals and extended families who are as committed to free-market fundamentalism as they are to reactionary religion. The donors in turn need the so-called values voters in order to lock down their economic agenda of low taxation for the wealthy and minimal regulation. These donors include, among many others, the Prince-DeVos family, the fracking billionaire Wilks brothers, and members of the Green family, whose Hobby Lobby fortune helped build the Museum of the Bible. The movement gets another big chunk of its funding from the large mass of people who are often in the middle rungs of the economic spectrum and whose arduously cultivated resentments toward those below them have been turned into a fundraising bonanza.
The second structural reality to consider is that Christian Nationalism is a creation of a uniquely isolated messaging sphere. Many members of the rank and file get their main political information not just from messaging platforms that keep their audiences in a world that is divorced from reality, but also from dedicated religious networks and reactionary faith leaders.
The fact that Trump was able to hold on to a high percentage of the vote in the face of such overwhelming evidence of malfeasance is proof enough that the religious-nationalist end of the right-wing information bubble has gotten more, not less, resistant over time.
The third critical factor is a political system that gives disproportionate power to an immensely organized, engaged and loyal minority. One of the most reliable strategies for producing that unshakable cohort has been to get them to agree that abortion is the easy answer to every difficult political policy question. Recently, Religious Right leaders have shifted their focus more to a specious understanding of what they call “religious freedom” or “religious liberty,” but the underlying strategy is the same: make individuals see their partisan vote as the primary way to protect their cultural and religious identity.
Republicans have long known that the judiciary is one of the most effective instruments of minority rule. Trump’s success in packing the federal judiciary — as of this writing, 220 federal judges, including three Supreme Court justices — will be one of his most devastating legacies. The prospect of further entrenching minority rule in the coming years will keep the alliance between Republicans and the Religious Right alive.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the Christian Nationalist response to the 2020 election is that we’ve seen this movie before. The “stolen election” meme won’t bring Trump back into the Oval Office. But then, the birther narrative never took President Obama out of office, either. The point of conspiratorial narratives and apocalyptic rhetoric is to lay the groundwork for a politics of total obstruction, in preparation for the return of a “legitimate” ruler. The best guess is that religious authoritarianism of the next four years will look a lot like it did in the last four years. We ignore the political implications for our democracy at our peril.
Katherine Stewart is the author of the recently published book, The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism.
President Trump’s newly confirmed Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett is going to be a disaster for the constitutional principle of separation between state and church and will complete the Christian Nationalist takeover of the high court for more than a generation, the Freedom From Religion Foundation asserts.
Barrett’s biography and writings reveal a startling, life-long allegiance to religion over the law. The 48-year-old Roman Catholic attended a Catholic high school and a Presbyterian-affiliated college and then graduated from Notre Dame Law School, where she taught for 15 years. She clerked for archconservative Justice Antonin Scalia, and significantly, like the late justice, is considered an “originalist” or “textualist” who insists on applying what is claimed to be the “original intent” of the framers. She and her parents have belonged to a fringe conservative Christian group, People of Praise, which teaches that husbands are the heads of household. Barrett’s nomination hearing for a judgeship on the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where she has served for less than three years, documented her many controversial and disturbing positions on religion vis-à-vis the law.
Barrett is now the sixth Catholic on the nine-member court. (This count does not include Justice Neil Gorsuch, who was raised Catholic but describes himself as Episcopalian.) Throughout her career and personal life, Barrett has made it clear that everything, including the law, is a means to promoting her personal religion and the “Kingdom of God.”
“Barrett will unquestionably eviscerate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment,” warn FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Many of our other hard-won freedoms will also likely be gutted.”
During her rushed confirmation hearings, Barrett refused to answer any questions regarding Roe V. Wade, the Affordable Care Act and climate change.
“I will not express a view on a matter of public policy, especially one that is politically controversial,” Barrett told Sen. Kamala Harris in response to a question on whether climate change is a fact.
However, Barrett lied when she testified that “I have never discriminated on the basis of sexual preference.” She recently served as trustee of Christian schools which barred gay teachers and children of same-sex parents.
Crucially, Barrett replaces Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — a brilliant legal mind and defender of vital constitutional and secular values, including separation of state and church, women’s equality, reproductive justice, voting rights, LGBTQ equality and environmental justice. In 2015, Barrett publicly pledged to support Catholic teachings against death with dignity legislation, against contraception and abortion, against LGBTQ rights and marriage equality and even against divorce.
Alarmingly, Barrett has been critical of the principle of stare decisis or precedent, writing that a justice’s duty is to “enforce her best understanding of the Constitution rather than a precedent she thinks clearly in conflict with it.” This signals she would have no compunctions overturning Roe v. Wade or the more than 70 years of clear Supreme Court precedent protecting the rights of conscience and keeping religious ritual out of our public schools.
During her confirmation hearings, Barrett said that Roe V. Wade is not a “super-precedent” that can’t be overturned.
Even more alarmingly, Barrett wants to use the law to make a “Kingdom of God.” For Barrett, her “legal career is but a means to an end . . . and that end is building the Kingdom of God,” according to her 2006 commencement address to Notre Dame Law School. She added: “Keep in mind that your fundamental purpose in life is not to be a lawyer, but to know, love and serve God, you truly will be a different kind of lawyer.”
Nearly 200 faculty of Notre Dame signed letters opposing her confirmation.
And yet more alarming, Barrett has made statements indicating that her religion would trump her oath of office. Barrett co-authored an article in 1998 about the conflict of Catholic dogma and the law, which, she wrote, can put “Catholic judges in a bind.” The article was couched in terms of judges recusing themselves from death penalty cases, but she added: “The prohibitions against abortion and euthanasia (properly defined) are absolute; those against war and capital punishment are not.”
When such a conflict arises, Barrett has recommended that judges should “conform their own behavior to the [Catholic] Church’s standard,” rather than upholding their secular oath. When invited to repudiate this statement at her confirmation hearing in 2017, Barrett declined to do so.
A cause for concern is Barrett’s membership in a Charismatic Catholic group. Barrett is part of People of Praise, a “Charismatic Christian parachurch organization.” Former members call it “a cult.” The group was founded in South Bend, Ind., where Barrett was a professor. “Members are in spiritual bondage,” an ex-member has said. In 2005, People of Praise’s official magazine described Barrett’s own mother, Linda, as a “handmaid.” The group seems to require loyalty oaths of its members, which could conflict with her oath of office.
“There are serious and deep concerns about Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s affiliation with People of Praise and her past comments about the conflict between faith and law,” as FFRF Director of Strategic Response Andrew L. Seidel told ABC News. “Not only is her connection to this community and her previous writings fair to ask about, but senators have a duty to the Constitution to ask those questions.”
Her short time on the bench has been marked by a series of objectionable votes that predict how calamitous her appointment to the high court would become: Barrett believes that women should not be permitted to obtain an abortion even in cases of severe fetal abnormality. Even if a judge finds that a pregnant minor is mature enough to exercise her right to choose to terminate the pregnancy, Barrett believes that the minors’ parents must be told. Combine that with her view that health care should be stripped from Americans (a position she has not publicly repudiated even in the midst of a pandemic) and it reveals a supremely cruel vision of the law — a total betrayal of Ginsburg’s ethos. People will die and families will go financially and emotionally bankrupt under Barrett’s medieval jurisprudence.
During the pandemic, Barrett has ruled that religious services should be exempt from a general ban on large gatherings in Illinois, even though the ban applied to other large gatherings, such as political rallies, and even though the sweeping exemption undermines the entire point of the emergency health order. This dangerous decision put the 7th Circuit at odds with the vast majority of federal courts, which have correctly concluded that religion does not entitle a believer to flout public health laws.
Barrett’s writings, statements and affiliations attest to her conviction that Catholic lawyers are on a religious mission to serve their God and build that deity’s kingdom — clearly conflicting with the oath Supreme Court justices must take to uphold our secular Constitution. Barrett’s lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court will have far-reaching and ruinous effects on a woman’s right to choose, the right to die with dignity, the death penalty, and the collision of Catholic health care and our secular law.
This article first appeared in Le Devoir (from Quebec, Canada) on Sept. 28 and is reprinted with permission. Special thanks to FFRF Board Member Steve Salemson and Joan Wallace for translating the text from French.
In the United States, religion occupies such an important place in society that atheism has now become a real political movement, with its own lobbying effort, demands, and, recently, representatives in Congress. This article features a portrait of Ronald Reagan Jr., son of the former president and a major figure in this growing movement, which is becoming more mainstream among Americans.
By Isabelle Porter
Ronald Reagan Jr. is one of the best-known faces in the atheist movement in the United States. In a TV spot, the son of the former president declares with a sly smile that he is “not afraid of burning in hell.”
“Hello, I’m Ron Reagan, an unabashed atheist, and I’m alarmed by the intrusions of religion into our secular government,” he says in the understated ad. How could the son of one of the most conservative presidents in modern American history have ended up here? Partly by chance, he told Le Devoir.
“It started about 40 years ago, when my father was elected president. The New York Times asked me in an interview whether I was going to get into politics, too. You know, I had been asked this question all my life, and I used to answer that it wasn’t for me, that I didn’t like politics . . . But there, I had an even better answer. I told them that I wasn’t interested and that, in any case, I could never be elected because I’m not a believer.”
As he had hoped, this reply put an end to the conversation, but it also caused a scandal. “The response was incredible,” Reagan said. “It made many people angry. I received indignant letters from some friends who wanted to know why I had said that, what I was hoping to achieve . . . It was the first time I realized just how much people really care about what other people believe. I found that interesting.”
Born in 1958, Ron Reagan was the youngest child of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, who also had a daughter together. The other two Reagan children are from a previous marriage.
Ron was 22 when his father was elected president, but only 8 when Ronald Reagan Sr. was first elected governor of California. In family photos from that time, the couple often posed only with their young son, as the other children were already grown.
It was at this time that he came to the conclusion that God did not exist. “By 10 years of age, I had already moved away from most Christian beliefs,” he says. “Then, when I was 12, I told my parents that I wouldn’t go to church with them anymore because it would be hypocritical. After all, if they were right about God, he himself would know that I was faking it!”
Where did these early convictions come from? Perhaps from his passion for prehistory. He remembers that his mother was not sure what to say to him when he wanted to know whether Adam and Eve were “cavemen.” Santa Claus didn’t help, either. “When you’re little, your parents tell you that there is a Santa Claus at the North Pole, that he has a big white beard, and that he knows whether you’ve been naughty or nice. That sounds a lot like God, but then you find out that Santa doesn’t exist.”
Ron can’t recall much about his father’s reaction to his rejection of the Church. But one thing is certain: Ronald Reagan Sr. was not the type to meddle in the faith of others. “He was a religious man, but he never made the mistake that many politicians do who use their faith for political gain,” Ron said at his father’s funeral in 2004. “It’s true that after being the target of an attempted assassination, he came to think that God had spared him to do good. But he accepted it as a responsibility, not a mandate.”
Despite being a well-known Democrat, Ron Reagan insists his father would have disapproved of what the Republican Party has become, even before Trump’s accession to power. “My father signed a law legalizing abortion, he raised taxes after having reduced them, and gave amnesty to 3 million immigrants,” he recounted on Bill Maher’s show in 2015. “And when a hole formed in the ozone layer over the South Pole [. . .] he didn’t decide it was a leftist plot to deprive us of cold beer, and he acted!” He concedes, however, that it was also during his father’s time that Republicans began approaching the Evangelical lobby. “The party wanted to woo the Evangelical vote, and it was pretty simple to do: My father was a Christian; he could claim he was on their side. “
Then it got out of hand. “Now we end up with a Donald Trump who is clearly not a believer, but who has sought the vote of the Evangelicals. Why? Because he hates or claims to hate the same people that they do: all those progressives who want to allow homosexuals to marry, have black friends, want to deprive them of their white privilege, threaten their way of life, and so forth,” he said.
Reagan is never at a loss for words and wields sarcasm with relish. He is also occasionally invited on television as a political commentator, especially on MSNBC. He even had his own show, “The Ron Reagan Show,” before Air America Media went bankrupt. He splits his life between Seattle and Italy with his second wife.
Despite his numerous public statements on atheism, he does not consider himself an activist. After his interview in The New York Times, he became “the atheist who had a famous father,” he recounts, amused. “After that, I could allude to it, they would ask me the question again and I would confirm it. Eventually, the Freedom From Religion Foundation heard about it and asked me to make the TV spot.”
That was in 2014, and the ad is still running and continues to generate strong reactions. During one of the televised Democratic debates, commentators even said that it stole the show from the debate itself by sparking a surge of positive comments on Twitter. Conversely, some major national TV networks still censor the message, because of the passage where Reagan says that he is “not afraid of burning in Hell.”
From FFRF’s perspective, his contribution is invaluable, especially since celebrities who dare to publicly call themselves atheists are very rare in the United States. “Having the son of a very conservative president do a promotion for a controversial group like ours, by presenting himself openly as an atheist, has had a huge educational impact. It’s helped show the nation that people of this sort exist, and that they are normal,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.
“This sort of publicity was a huge coup for us,” she added. “He took a short 30-second clip and made it much more effective by force of his personality. He was the one who added the expression, ‘lifelong atheist, not afraid of burning in Hell.’”
Whom does he think he is addressing with this message? “I would like this to be heard by atheists who are still ‘in the closet.’ That would probably be the most useful thing, so that people are less afraid of coming out. I’m not trying to convert anyone to atheism or to lead believers away from their faith. That’s something they have to do on their own.”
But beyond that, it’s a way for him to defend science. “What bothers me the most is the negative effect religion has on stem cell research, for example. People can believe whatever they want, but when it gets into the public sphere and affects everyone’s life, then we have a problem.”
Philip Appleman — renowned poet, friend, avid nonbeliever and After-Life Member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation — died April 11, 2020. Before Richard Dawkins pleaded in Unweaving the Rainbow for more integration of science into the arts, Phil was doing it. His nine books of poetry, three novels (two with explicitly freethinking themes) and six volumes of nonfiction largely examined Darwin, natural selection or skewered religious belief, including the bible.
Although a distinguished professor of English at Indiana University, he was such a Darwin scholar that he was asked to edit the Norton Critical Edition, Darwin. Phil liked to point out that he was conceived the same month that John Scopes was arrested for the crime of teaching evolution in violation of Tennessee law. In his “12 years of education, including a high school course in biology, I never heard the name of Charles Robert Darwin,” he later wrote, which he called the educational equivalent of the Flat Earth Society abolishing gravitation. Phil’s life-altering experience came after serving in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II, when he signed up as a Merchant Marine, and took along for reading material Darwin’s The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man.
“I am sure it is difficult for anyone reared in a more enlightened time and place to imagine the sense of exhilaration in a young person schooled in Midwestern fundamentalism, reading Darwin and understanding evolution for the very first time,” Phil recalled.
Born in Indiana on Feb. 8, 1926, he later earned degrees from Northwestern University, the University of Michigan and University of Lyon, did his dissertation on Darwin, edited an abridged version of The Origin, edited the Norton Critical Edition on Darwin, and wrote a series of Darwin-inspired poems, including Darwin’s Ark. Mourning the fact that about half the American public still doubts that biological evolution occurred, Phil suggested “perhaps poetry and satire can be of some assistance.” Darwin, Phil wrote, finally released him from allegiance to the “incredible creation myths of Genesis,” so he also turned his wit and incisive pen to the bible.
I still remember the moment Dan (Barker) came into my office in the early 1990s, back when I was editor of Freethought Today, holding a small book called Let There Be Light, excitement catching in his voice as he started reading from Philip Appleman’s book of poems, subtitled, “The Bible Retold for Grownups.”
Phil’s spare, ironic voice captured Eve (“I didn’t ask to be cursed with curiosity, I only wanted the apple”), a confused, querulous Noah (“already six hundred years old, more than a little weary from all that virtuous living”), and Sarah, who, after retelling the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, trenchantly concludes about God, “ . . . if there’s a Judgment Day, as some folks think, He’s going to have a lot to answer for.” Phil had reached out to Dan after seeing him on some talk show or another, sending a copy of his 1991 book of poetry on the bible. And then we thankfully reached out to Phil.
While New and Selected Poems,1956-1996, is the most comprehensive overview of his poetry, Phil wrote prolifically and inspiredly into his mid-80s, including some lighter (yet deep) verse in Karma, Dharma, Pudding & Pie (2009) as well as Perfidious Proverbs and Other Poems: A Satirical Look at the Bible (2011). Freethought Today was honored to have been first to publish several of his later poems, and to have featured his regular poetry column, “Head’s Up” for many years.
Phil was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, the Castagnola Award from the Poetry Society of America, a Friend of Darwin Award from the National Center for Science Education and was published in The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, The Nation, New Republic, Paris Review, Poetry, Sewanee Review and Yale Review. Sadly, The New York Times, of which he was an avid reader, has yet to publish an obituary.
What’s some consolation is that we can not only read Philip Appleman’s words and poetry, but see and hear him recite them. Bill Moyers, a fan, invited Phil on his show in 2015, when Phil was about 88, thus lending him a kind of immortality. To experience Phil reading and talking about his views and his poetry, you have only to Google “Bill Moyers Philip Appleman” to watch the interview and many bonus poetry readings. On that show, Phil read “Five Easy Prayers for Pagans,” including the stanza that concludes with this line, one of my favorites: “ . . . and before our world goes over the brink, teach the believers how to think.”
On that show, Phil also read his short, devastating poem, “A Simple Explanation for Everything,” which briefly listed religious violence throughout history, concluding with the refrain: “Why did they kill? They killed for the Lord.”
Dan has set to music several of Philip’s poems, including “Fleas” (on FFRF’s CD, “Beware of Dogma”), Phil’s clever riff on the saccharine poem “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer. Where Kilmer prayerfully declaims, “I think that I shall never see/A poem as lovely as a tree,” Phil rejoins: “I think that I shall never see/a poem as ugly as a flea…” Dan also set to music “In a Dark Time” (on FFRF’s CD, “Adrift on a Star”) written in 2006 at the height of the U.S. war against Afghanistan and Iraq — a poem I have often thought of in the past four years:
The warnings come in whispers and in shadows,
The messages are fire and black contagion
As prophets rise to chant their midnight terrors,
And empires all atremble charge their legions:
The winds are blowing cold above the cities
And lights are going out around the world.
Even as the preachers thunder Treason,
And holy horrors dance with petty scandals,
Even in this dusk, the dream of reason
Beckons with its flickering bright candles.
But winds are blowing cold above the cities
And lights are going out around the world . . .
Dan likewise set to music Phil’s satiric poem, “God’s Grandeur” (on FFRF’s CD, “Friendly Neighborhood Atheist”), a delicious take-down of a deity who, when “they hunger and thirst . . . I send down a famine,” and whose motto is, “never apologize, never explain.” Dan set to music one of Phil’s musings on romance, “Summers of Love” (reprinted by Freethought Today, and on FFRF’s CD, “Beware of Dogma”).
Speaking of love, one cannot memorialize Phil without remembering his love for the women in his life: his mother, Gertrude; his mother-in-law, Martha; and his dear wife, Marjorie. He immortalized his mother in an eponymous, unforgettable poem about the right to die with dignity, beginning, “I wish that all the people who peddle God could watch my mother die . . .” He remembers her “young, lovely in gardens and beautiful in kitchens,” then racked by “thirty years of pain,” followed by stabbing cancer, and her plea, “Philip, I want to die.” He also described the needless suffering of mother-in-law, Martha Haberkorn, a loving individual tormented at the end of her life by religious fear of her “sins.”
And he cherished and celebrated his wife Marjorie, who survives him, “all sleep and love, there in the sun with sea birds calling,” as he put it in his 1968 book of poems, “Summer Love and Surf.” He promised in “S*x After S*xty”: “You kids in your fifties, listen, if you think it’s perfect now, just hang around: the best is yet to come.” He honored Marjorie’s beauty and youth in a poem FFRF ran in his poetry column about her endurance through health crises, including a mastectomy, sending us a photograph to run with it showing the two of them, a young, glamorous couple on a beach vacation in Spain, Marjorie impossibly lithe and lovely.
Phil and Marjorie, a devoted couple, attended and spoke at three national FFRF conventions, bringing down the house as they read his classic, humorous epic, “Noah” (I won’t give it away, but it has to do with “termites”). Marjorie, a playwright, read the female parts while gentle Phil, a closet ham, reached convincingly stentorian strains as the vengeful biblical deity. About 10 years ago, they gamely did an audio recording in a New York studio, to which Dan, on piano, and Abigail Cantor, on sax, added appropriate musical interludes. Watch it on YouTube: bit.ly/3khiM3M
Phil’s intellectual curiosity had taken him from Darwin to Malthus, and he became so concerned with overpopulation that he wrote a book about it, called The Silent Explosion, then edited the Norton Critical Edition on Malthus. Phil believed the problem of overpopulation is “deplorably neglected,” as do I. Phil noted that “the continued proliferation of human bodies and human needs, with the resulting competition for limited resources, destruction of natural habitats, growing pollution of the environment, endangering of other species, even the threat of extinction itself: all of these are ultimately Malthusian as well as Darwinian themes.” Phil, 94, died in the midst of a pandemic partly caused by human encroachment on other species’ habitats.
One of my favorite poems (reproduced on the previous page) is Phil’s “Last-Minute Message for a Time-Capsule,” which warns, so truly, “to beware the righteous ones.” (Despite its modern misuse as a new word for “cool” or “excellent,” the primary definition of “righteous” is “acting in accord with divine or moral law: free from guilt or sin.” Phil got that warning right.)
The couple retired to New York City, and were together for nearly 67 years at the time of his death, from unknown causes, which, sadly, was not reported for about six months.
In his last book, The Labyrinth: God, Darwin, and the Meaning of Life, really a monograph, published in 2014, Phil fearlessly wrestled with religion and reality: “People in general have never exhibited much passion for the disciplined pursuit of knowledge, but they are always tempted by easy answers. God is an easy answer.” He wrote that “God” may “soothe some minds temporarily, as an empty bottle may soothe a crying baby; the nourishment from each is the same.”
His writings are studded with secular epiphanies, compassion and yes, a slow-burning indignation over those “easy answers” that unfortunately have led the human race astray. As the FFRF bumper sticker he suggested says: “The truth shall set you free . . . from religion.” Philip Appleman, the person, the freethinker, the poet and the friend, has added immeasurable joy and understanding to our lives. He will be greatly missed. I look forward, when this pandemic is over, to once again walking daily past the framed photograph of Phil and Margie gracing FFRF’s editorial wing.
Here is my epitaph for him:
Philip Appleman decreed: Let there be Enlightenment. And it is good.
Annie Laurie Gaylor is co-founder and co-president, with Dan Barker, of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Most of Philip Appleman’s books of poetry may be found at ffrf.org/shop.
A lawsuit by the Freedom From Religion Foundation has persuaded Puerto Rico’s education secretary and a proselytizing school principal there to halt unconstitutional school prayer.
FFRF had filed a federal court challenge in March against Secretary of Education Eligio Hernandez Perez and Principal Luz Ramos on behalf of a family subjected to forced prayers and bullying in a public primary school. Since September 2019, in direct contradiction of well-established constitutional law, officials at the Luis M. Santiago School, a public school in Toa Baja, had organized, led and coerced students to participate in mandatory 50-minute Christian prayer sessions on school property every other Monday during the school day. The prayers were broadcast over a microphone and speakers.
FFRF represented two of these children and their mother before the U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico, along with Humanistas Seculares De Puerto Rico, a leading Puerto Rican secular humanist organization that the mother belongs to. As a secular humanist, she “does not engage in prayer or believe in the power of prayer or . . . want to force any religious ideology” on her children, the legal complaint noted. When she objected to the religious practice, she was told if she removed her children from the prayer, they would be marked for cutting class, which could lower their grade point average. One child was told by a classmate, after a teacher outed the family as nonreligious, that “If you don’t believe in God, like your mother, you will go to hell.”
The plaintiffs sought an injunction prohibiting the defendants from continuing to schedule and host school prayer, as well as a declaration that the defendants’ conduct violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and the free exercise rights of the individual plaintiffs.
As far back as 1962, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that “the constitutional prohibition against laws respecting an establishment of religion must at least mean that in this country it is no part of the business of government to compose official prayers for any group of the American people,” FFRF had pointed out.
At a mediation session held on March 9, the defendants said they would immediately and permanently prohibit school-led prayers at Luis M. Santiago School and would undertake all reasonable efforts to ensure an academic school environment free from harassment of the students and their parents. They also consented to remove negative academic marks related to the plaintiff students’ nonparticipation in the prayer sessions.
And importantly, they indicated they would circulate a memorandum on the policy of nondiscrimination and nonsectarian education in public schools to Department of Education employees and conduct a training for all employees of the school regarding their constitutional obligations.
The plaintiffs and FFRF agreed that these actions would resolve the issues raised in their complaint and that upon completion of these actions by the defendants, the lawsuit would be dismissed. On Aug. 7, the court-appointed mediator declared that the mediation process had been completed to the satisfaction of all the parties involved.
This was FFRF’s first court challenge in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. FFRF thanks the brave family for coming forward to fight for freedom of conscience, Secular Humanists of Puerto Rico for its invaluable assistance and Attorney Cintron Garcia for representing the plaintiffs throughout the litigation and mediation process. Toa Baja is a suburb of San Juan with about 89,000 people.
The family brought this action under pseudonyms to protect the mother and her two minor children from social ostracism, retaliation and even physical harm. FFRF Attorneys Samuel Grover and Madeline Ziegler represented the Freedom From Religion Foundation, while local counsel Carlos A. Cintron Garcia represented Humanistas Seculares De Puerto Rico and the plaintiff family.