FFRF: Records reveal link between the Trump White House, Capitol Ministries

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has recently acquired records confirming that senior officials in the Trump administration used taxpayer-funded time and resources to organize extremist weekly bible studies, including a large event at the Museum of the Bible.

Although Capitol Ministries fortunately appears to no longer be active in the White House, it has not gone away. The group’s founder and president, Ralph Drollinger, remains active on Capitol Hill and at the state level haranguing lawmakers to legislate according to his homophobic, misogynistic, xenophobic version of Christianity.

The stated mission of Capitol Ministries, a Christian nationalist organization, is to “evangelize elected and appointed political leaders and lead them toward maturity in Christ.” Drollinger was the likely inspiration for the citation of Romans 13 by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to justify the Trump administration’s egregious family separation policy, literally putting kids in cages after separating them from their parents.

Capitol Ministries held a December 2019 event at the Museum of the Bible, where it said attendees “heard from White House cabinet members, U.S. senators and representatives about the importance of teaching God’s word to people in political power and how the Washington, D.C., bible study they regularly attend impacts their lives personally and professionally.” 

FFRF sought public records related to this event from all the departments involved, and the records, although they took well over a year to arrive, confirm several high-level officials’ involvement and the use of staff time to organize and promote the religious event.

The records further reveal details of the event, including an email describing the event as having a panel of “100 new ministry leaders and their wives.” This casual sexism is par for the course for Drollinger, who has said mothers who work outside the home are sinners: “Women with children at home who either serve in public office, or are employed on the outside, pursue a path that contradicts God’s revealed design for them. It is a sin.”

Disgraced former Texas Gov. and ex-Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who resigned his cabinet position in shame after Trump blamed Perry for setting up the infamous Ukraine call that led to the former president’s first impeachment, is now “spearheading CapMin’s nationwide effort to recruit ministry leaders across America to teach the bible in weekly studies to local government public servants in their neighborhoods,” according to Capitol Ministries. FFRF has had a long history of challenging Perry’s improper use of his public offices to promote fundamentalist Christianity, including suing him for initiating an evangelical prayer rally in 2011.

FFRF disappointed in Fulton decision

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is disappointed in the U.S. Supreme Court’s narrow decision in favor of taxpayer-funded discrimination by a religious group, but is relieved that it isn’t worse.

In Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, the Supreme Court in a unanimous decision on June 17 ruled that the city infringed on a Catholic charity’s free exercise of religion. However, the court issued a narrow ruling that focused only on the contract language used by the city.

The city of Philadelphia stopped contracting with Catholic Social Services because it refused to work with same-sex couples for foster care screening services, in violation of the city’s anti-discrimination policy. The Catholic entity lost before both the district court and the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Unfortunately, the increasingly activist Supreme Court took the case.

“Though this ruling was limited to the facts of this specific case, it still demonstrates an alarming trend among justices of the court in their willingness to expand privileges to Christians.” says FFRF Legal Director Rebecca Markert. “Under this ruling, Catholic Social Services is still eligible to participate in the foster care program certifications, and still allowed to discriminate against same-sex couples. We’re glad the decision wasn’t worse, but the LGBTQ community deserves better.”

The court had exhibited worrisome signs in  November during oral arguments that it could issue a sweeping decision in favor of the Catholic charity and its ability to discriminate against same-sex couples while participating in a government foster care program. Those arguments highlight that the decision could have been much more unwelcome.

“It is distressing that a unanimous Supreme Court would seemingly bless the Catholic group’s brazen demand to be funded with tax dollars to carry out invidious discrimination,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “However, it is a relief to see that this narrow decision is likely to have a limited impact.”

Chief Justice John Roberts, joined by five other justices, found that the city’s contract could not survive constitutional review because it provided an option for “discretionary” exceptions to the city’s nondiscrimination rules. From a practical standpoint, the city may be able to change its contract so that it is clear that the nondiscrimination rules apply to all providers and that there aren’t individual exceptions.

Catholic Social Services had asked the Supreme Court to overturn Employment Division v. Smith, which provides that generally applicable laws do not violate the Free Exercise Clause if they have a rational basis. The group also claimed that the nondiscrimination rule violated its “free speech” rights. The high court refused to address these questions and said that it “need not” revisit the Smith decision in this case.

“Catholic Social Services seeks only an accommodation that will allow it to continue serving the children of Philadelphia in a manner consistent with its religious beliefs; it does not seek to impose those beliefs on anyone else,” the decision concludes. “The refusal of Philadelphia to contract with CSS for the provision of foster care services unless it agrees to certify same-sex couples as foster parents cannot survive strict scrutiny, and violates the First Amendment.”

The court’s judgment has a perplexing logic, FFRF emphasizes.

“The Supreme Court’s narrow decision may allow nondiscrimination provisions to stand if governments do not provide for individual exceptions,” says FFRF Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott. “The city of Philadelphia may have a simple fix to this issue by deleting the exception language from its contracts.”

FFRF filed an amicus brief in the case (with Elliott as the counsel of record) opposing the contention of Catholic Social Services that it can discriminate as a government contractor. “If CSS is permitted to discriminate in this case, the rights of religious minorities and the nonreligious would be put in peril,” FFRF observed in its brief.

FFRF’s Jayne testifies against anti-trans bills

FFRF Attorney Ryan Jayne speaks to the Wisconsin state Senate on May 26.

FFRF Attorney Ryan Jayne testified May 26 in front of two Wisconsin legislative committees in opposition to Assembly Bill 196 and Senate Bill 323, which would prohibit trans girls from playing in female sports.

Jayne submitted written testimony to Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt and Sen. André Jacque, chairmen of the committees, in advance of the meetings. If passed, the companion bills would force schools to segregate all athletic events based on “sex assigned to an individual at birth by a physician.” Jayne argues that this is the wrong body to address these concerns, with the wrong rule, and for the wrong reasons.

Jayne wrote:

“Let’s be honest about this bill’s motivation. After trying to pass trans bathroom bans around the country, anti-trans legislators have not suddenly discovered a love for women’s sports. It wasn’t about bathrooms then, and it’s not about women’s sports now. Trans athlete bans, in Wisconsin as in so many other states this year, are about demonizing trans kids, sending a clear message that they are outsiders in order to score some cheap political points.”

This bigotry, and nearly all organized opposition to rights for LGBTQ individuals, is rooted in religion’s interpretations of biblical gender stereotypes and immorality, rather than science and humanity. Trans children must not continue to be scapegoats for the tyranny of this religious dogma.

FFRF is always pleased to share its expertise with legislative bodies and represent its membership at important hearings such as these.

FFRF excoriates U.S. bishops for weaponizing communion

Roman Catholic higher-ups in the United States have outrageously announced that they will draft guidance to deny President Biden communion because of his support of abortion rights.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, by 73-23 percent, voted that Biden should be denied the “Eucharist,” known as holy communion. The proposal must still be drafted and then approved by a two-thirds majority vote in November.

Biden recently showed integrity and backbone in omitting the Hyde Amendment, which denies low-income women on Medical Assistance abortion care, from his budget. Now the Catholic hierarchy in the United States is out for blood, or rather the communion wine (same thing?). How ironic, given that Biden makes continual display of his faith, crossing himself at the drop of a hat and even inflicting that debasing dirge, “Amazing Grace,” on the nation as part of his Inaugural.

But this is about politics, not piety. The Catholic upper hierarchy is declaring war, for partisan reasons, against a seated president — and such conduct is anathema.

It’s reassuring that 60 Catholic Democrats in Congress immediately condemned the announcement. The action was also over the objections of the Vatican, making for strange bedfellows.

In fact, while the Catholic Conference can inveigh and rant, only the local bishop in charge can actually deny communion. Cardinal Wilton Gregory, archbishop of the D.C. Archdiocese, does not support the effort, and the bishop-elect in Biden’s Delaware Diocese has not committed. A slim majority of Catholics are pro-choice (shouldn’t they all be denied communion, too?), and their views are divided by party line, with 55 percent of Catholic Republicans concurring that Biden should be denied communion, and 87 percent of Catholic Democrats opposing such retribution. A 2019 Pew study found, to the credit of American Catholics, that only about a third believe communion bread and wine literally become the blood and body of Jesus during Mass.

Biden communion

FFRF cheers removal of Hyde Amendment

The Freedom From Religion Foundation applauds President Biden for notably excluding the Hyde Amendment from his budget proposal.

The religiously rooted amendment, first introduced in 1976 by the ultra-Catholic Rep. Henry J. Hyde, restricts federal funding for abortion care. This means that low-income women on Medicaid (one in five women in the United States), in the Indian Health Service Plan or Peace Corps are essentially denied abortion care unless their state of residence uses its own funds to pay for such care. Currently, only 16 states provide such coverage. And since the procedure can cost anywhere from $500 to $2,000, the Hyde Amendment exacerbates health care and economic inequalities for low-income women.

Biden’s action is historic: The Hyde Amendment has been included in every congressional appropriation act since 1980. Hyde described his religious intent for enacting this amendment: “I believe in a merciful God, I believe in a just God, and I would be terrified at the thought of having to explain at the final judgment why I stood unmoved while Herod’s slaughter of the innocents was being re-enacted here in my own country.”

The amendment’s only exceptions are for instances of rape, incest or life-threatening illness of the pregnant woman — and while such circumstances are unfortunately all too common, individuals in such situations rarely end up with coverage due to red tape, reporting barriers and lack of enforcement. The Hyde Amendment does not even cover an abortion when the patient’s health is at risk and an abortion is medically recommended.

The Religious Right’s attack on abortion has become more amplified than ever. The year 2021 is already setting records for the number of abortion restrictions introduced at the state level. And now the ultraconservative Supreme Court has agreed to hear an abortion case that could dismantle Roe v. Wade and create abortion-care deserts across the country.

That’s why FFRF is celebrating Biden’s decision to uphold his campaign promise and exclude the Hyde Amendment from his budget proposal. Biden is a faithful Catholic as an individual but he importantly recognizes his duty as the top public executive not to use his civil office to inflict his personal dogma on other citizens. In excising the Hyde Amendment from the budget, he further demonstrates a commitment to equal protection under the law for women.

While we celebrate this development, it’s still vital to call your members of Congress to approve this budget proposal with its exclusion of the Hyde Amendment. And while you’re at it, ask them to support the EACH Woman Act, which would prohibit federal and state governments from restricting insurance coverage for abortion in public and private health insurance programs.

There’s a long road ahead even after Biden’s welcome move.

FFRF decries new abortion law in Texas

FFRF castigates Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Legislature for making it a law to ban abortion care as early as six weeks of gestation. 

Abbott is a Christian nationalist whom FFRF recently successfully prevailed over his bigoted censorship of FFRF’s freethought view at the Texas Capitol (see page 1).

This follows alarming passage of sweeping anti-abortion legislation in April severely restricting abortion care and signed into law in Montana, Arizona, South Dakota, Wyoming, Oklahoma and Idaho. 

Texas is following the actions of nearly a dozen other states that have passed the so-called “heartbeat” bill — a medically inaccurate misnomer. Dr. Ted Anderson, president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, explains that this labeling is incongruent with the “anatomical and clinical realities of that stage of pregnancy” because the so-called heartbeat is simply “electrically induced flickering of a portion of the fetal tissue.”

It has been upheld by the Supreme Court that it is unconstitutional to impose a previability abortion ban. Pregnancies are considered viable around 24-26 weeks of gestation. Therefore this anti-abortion bill is Texas is completely unconstitutional.

Shockingly, the bill also allows anyone to sue a doctor for providing abortion care or anyone else who helped someone get an abortion. Perhaps the most startling aspect of this bill is that the person filing the lawsuit would not need any personal connection to the abortion, at odds with all legal precedent. 

Bad sign: Supreme Court to hear abortion case

Graham Sale cartoon

“A chill wind blows,” as the late Justice Harry Blackmun once proclaimed to warn against the initial erosion of Roe v. Wade in the 1980s.

On May 17, that wind got far chillier, with the announcement that the Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal of a Mississippi statute that bans most abortions after 15 weeks. The case, Dobbs v. Jackson Health Organization, will be the first significant abortion case heard by the high court since extremist Amy Coney Barrett replaced Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Barrett is one of the three anti-abortion justices appointed to the high court by former President Trump, whose stated goal was to overturn Roe. Barrett, an outspoken anti-abortion proponent who has received widespread praise from anti-abortion groups and organizations, makes the Supreme Court a securely anti-abortion majority. For example, when asked about the future of abortion access in 2016, Barrett replied, “I think the question of whether people can get very late-term abortions, how many restrictions can be put on clinics — I think that would change.”

And that’s just what is on the line in Dobbs v. Jackson Health Organization. In 2018, Mississippi legislators passed a bill that would ban abortion at 15 weeks of gestation, except in rare cases of severe fetal abnormality or medical emergency. The law was struck down by lower courts. As Mississippi only has one abortion clinic, women already face many obstacles in obtaining timely care. The women of Mississippi are not the only ones whose reproductive rights are in danger.

The Supreme Court has long established that it is unconstitutional to impose a pre-viability abortion ban. Viability is around 24-26 weeks of gestation, but even then the Court has acknowledged that each specific pregnancy necessitates its own medical determination. If the court rules that a state may ban abortion at 15 weeks, it will be overturning much of the precedent of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that itself is based on the established constitutional right to privacy. With countless burdensome obstacles, like the religiously-rooted Hyde Amendment and TRAP laws that target clinics and care providers, women’s constitutional right to an abortion may be gradually erased.

As Nancy Northup of the Center for Reproductive Rights notes, “The consequences of a Roe reversal would be devastating. Over 20 states would prohibit abortion outright. Eleven states — including Mississippi — currently have trigger bans on the books which would instantaneously ban abortion if Roe is overturned.”

Abortion access and care is unnecessarily divisive due to the ideological motivations of the few. In fact, a new Pew study found that the majority of Americans believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Additionally, 82 percent of religiously unaffiliated people support legal abortions. Beyond public opinion, there is no science that supports abortion restrictions or bans. Evidence-based research has shown that abortions are safe and effective and that serious complications are extremely rare — less than 1 percent. Rather, studies have shown that women are about 14 times more likely to die as a result of childbirth and pregnancy than from an abortion. There is simply no governmental interest or business in obstructing abortion care. The only organized opposition to abortion is religious in nature.

The Supreme Court is expected to hear the case in the beginning of October with a decision to likely come by June 2022.

As we anxiously await this verdict, we must take swift action to ensure that reproductive rights are protected by encouraging legislators to pass the EACH Act, which would reverse the draconian Hyde Amendment and guarantee abortion coverage in federal health insurance programs. This Christian nationalist campaign to dismantle abortion care in the United States also signals an urgent need for court reform.

The future of abortion rights in the United States hangs in the balance and our secular activism is needed more than ever.

Good to see in Tennessee

Tennessee 1
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Tennessee 3

FFRF’s East Tennessee Chapter hosted a rally to celebrate the National Day of Reason on May 6 in downtown Knoxville, Tenn., at the Krutch Park Extension. Members of the chapter were joined by other local freethinkers, including members of the Rationalists of East Tennessee and the Atheist Society of Knoxville, according to Aleta Ledendecker, president of FFRF’s East Tennessee Chapter.

Ledendecker writes: “By far the most popular sign among participants and passers-by stated: ‘Atheists — The friendliest neighbors you didn’t know you had.’ Several people among the public expressed gratitude for finding the local chapter of FFRF as they were either new to the area and looking for fellow freethinkers or planning on moving to the area and happy to discover there was a vibrant secular community. Of course, there were some religious folks who offered to pray for rally participants. But that was nothing to worry about since reason ruled the day.”

FFRF calls on Garland to probe Catholic abuse

Don Addis cartoon

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is urging the U.S. Justice Department to initiate a nationwide investigation into the Roman Catholic clergy’s serial sexual abuse and cover-up.

“The Church’s claim of divine authority gives it coercive power over its congregants that allows it to get away with widespread crimes,” FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor write to Attorney General Merrick Garland. “Under Catholic Canon law, adherents are required to give a ‘religious submission of the intellect and will’ to their church. For millennia, the Church has used that power to suppress questions, doubts and dissent. This leads to frequent unprosecuted crimes against child victims who are forced to remain silent by their parents under pressure from, and fear of, the Church.”

Twenty-one states, as well as Washington, D.C., have investigated or are launching investigations of these crimes since 2002. Most recently, FFRF’s home state of Wisconsin announced its own investigation following a survivor’s suicide after the church reportedly stopped paying for his medication and therapy following years of abuse.

It is time, FFRF noted, for the U.S. government to follow the lead of states like Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts and Illinois — not to mention Ireland and Australia — and investigate this massive and coordinated abuse of minors throughout the country.

FFRF cites the widely covered 1,400-page Pennsylvania grand jury report detailing thousands of instances of sexual abuse by clergy in six of the state’s eight dioceses published in 2018 as evidence that the Catholic Church’s secretive and imposing structure allowed hundreds of offenders to escape prosecution for decades.

A federal investigation is in order because the Church’s “musical chairs” history of deliberately moving offenders to new locations — shielding them from local outrage and providing them with fresh victims — creates an interstate crisis that requires federal action. Even the Catholic Church itself has admitted that this is a global problem, with Pope Francis having referred to a “culture of abuse” inside the Church. However, the pope’s failure to provide any meaningful action to correct the problem confirms what FFRF and many victims’ rights groups have asserted for decades: The methodical, organized sexual abuse in the Catholic Church will not stop until secular authorities intervene.

To add to the problem, undue deference has not only been shown by the faithful, but all too often also by police, prosecutors and justices who have turned the other way when confronted with evidence of abuse. Compounding the cover-up is the Catholic Church hierarchy’s active lobbying to suppress reform of statutes of limitations in many states. In New York state alone, the Church has spent close to $2 million to lobby over civil actions and to fight statute of limitations reforms.

FFRF asks that the Justice Department not sit by while a hyperwealthy tax-exempt organization facilitates the sexual abuse of thousands of children, cites divine authority to silence victims, and works vigorously to protect both the abusers and the Church’s coffers. For the sake of national safety and justice for our nation’s children, FFRF is urging Garland to immediately commence an inquiry into the Catholic Church’s crimes.

Mayday event raises $25K

Mayday for Humanity

Five national nontheist organizations, including the Freedom From Religion Foundation, hosted an event of action to counter the National Day of Prayer on May 6 — raising $25,000 earmarked for five homeless shelters or food banks.

As those in prayer beseeched the heavens, thousands of atheists, agnostics and freethinkers participated in a three-hour fundraising event: the National Day of Reason Mayday for Humanity. The extravaganza (available to watch) included celebrities, comedians, musicians and poets.

“We believe in the Robert Ingersoll maxim, ‘The hands that help are better far than lips that pray,’” comments FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. “Think of the good that would come if our nation stopped hyping prayer and focused on improving this world.”

The nonprofit secular groups are directing the proceeds to regional “helping hands.” FFRF will be donating its share of the donations to Second Harvest in Wisconsin. Recovering from Religion will be donating $5,000 to eStart in Missouri, and the Secular Coalition for America will direct $5,000 to Capitol Food Bank in Washington, D.C. Each benefiting organization operates in a nondiscriminatory, secular manner.

Margaret Downey, the Mayday for Humanity event coordinator and president of the Freethought Society, which is delivering $5,000 to Safe Harbor of Chester County, says, “Thanks to the nonbelievers who generously donated during the event, humans, not prayers, answered the Mayday for Humanity emergency call to help end homelessness and hunger.”

It’s all part of the secular notion of doing and acting — instead of praying and hoping in vain.