$300K secular studies endowment made by FFRF

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is delighted to announce the FFRF Secular Studies Endowment at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., the trailblazing home of the country’s first Secular Studies program.

The $300,000 gift, made possible thanks to a bequest by FFRF member and ardent atheist Kenneth L. Proulx, will help the Secular Studies program fulfill its mission to increase understanding of — and disseminate knowledge about — secularism, atheism, agnosticism, humanism, naturalism and freethought in societies and cultures, past and present.

Pitzer College, which is part of the Claremont Colleges, was the first college in the United States to inaugurate a Secular Studies program in 2011. Annually, more than 200 students take a secular studies course. Initiated by Phil Zuckerman, professor of sociology and secular studies, the program has six affiliated faculty members representing the fields of history, philosophy, religion, science and sociology. Course offerings include “Sociology of Secularity,” “God, Darwin and Design in America,” “Fundamentalism and Rationalism” and “Anxiety in the Age of Reason.”

Pitzer’s Secular Studies program has an outsized reach, thanks to Zuckerman, founder of the program and an associate dean at Pitzer. Zuckerman has written a number of popular and academic books and papers on secularity, including Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment (2008), Atheism and Secularity (2010), Living the Secular Life (2014), The Nonreligious: Understanding Secular People and Societies (2016), The Oxford Handbook of Secularism (with John Shook) (2017) and What It Means to Be Moral (2019). He’s a frequent contributor to Salon, the Los Angeles Times, Free Inquiry and Freethought Today.

“This amazing grant aligns perfectly with the goals of both FFRF and the Secular Studies program: to support education around secularism, atheism, and humanism,” comments Zuckerman. “It will help generate more course offerings, student and faculty research and campus programming. I am both thrilled and honored.”

The purpose of the endowment is to broaden, develop and innovate the study of nonreligious people, groups, movements, thought and cultural expressions and increase the canon of scholarship and scope of visibility of secularity.

A wide range of activities and initiatives supported by FFRF’s endowment are envisioned over the years, including course development, research stipends, student travel, distinguished speakers and panelists, symposia or conferences. The college envisions FFRF’s endowment as a lead gift in a goal to someday establish a Center of Secular Studies at Pitzer College.

“FFRF is so pleased to support the critical work of Pitzer’s Secular Studies program,” says Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president, “because it values the study of the impact of freethought and skepticism here and worldwide. We consider Phil Zuckerman to be a national freethought treasure.”

FFRF: SCOTUS church ruling signals trouble ahead

The Supreme Court’s series of rulings in favor of science-denying religious litigants signals serious trouble ahead for the principle of separation between state and church, warns the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

Near midnight on April 2, the U.S. Supreme Court issued yet another emergency decision striking down Covid-19 restrictions as applied to religious gatherings by the state of California, in this case affecting those in private homes. As the majority itself noted, “This is the fifth time the court has summarily rejected the 9th Circuit’s analysis of California’s Covid restrictions on religious exercise.” That’s five times too many.

Here’s what the case was about. Rev. Jeremy Wong and Karen Busch, who are holding religious services in their Santa Clara County homes, sued the state of California for restricting any gatherings in private homes to three households. A federal judge ruled against them, noting that the law applies equally to all private gatherings, not singling out those for religious purposes. When the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals refused to block the ruling, the plaintiffs asked the Supreme Court to intervene — and the damage was done.

The unsigned Supreme Court majority in its ruling renewed its theme of alleged ill-treatment of religion, charging: “California treats some comparable secular activities more favorably than at-home religious exercise, permitting hair salons, retail stores, personal care services, movie theaters, private suites at sporting events and concerts and indoor restaurants.”

This, of course, is comparing apples to oranges — or “apples and watermelons,” as dissenting Justice Elena Kagan put it. The majority — Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Brett Kavanaugh, Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett — is continuing to indulge in what veteran court observer Linda Greenhouse has labeled “grievance politics.” Joining Kagan’s dissenting opinion were Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayer. Although he did not sign Kagan’s opinion, once again Chief Justice John Roberts dissented on this issue.

“California . . . has adopted a blanket restriction on at-home gatherings of all kinds, religious and secular alike,” Kagan noted, ably pointed out the logical fallacy of the majority opinion: “The First Amendment requires that a state treat religious conduct as well as the state treats comparable secular conduct.” 

FFRF has to ask: Why the drama? Where’s the emergency requiring a late-night ruling at the start of the weekend? The restrictions were due to be modified the week of April 12 to allow as many as 25 persons. Once again, SCOTUS has gone out of its way to undercut secular Covid-19 mitigation policy, in order to privilege religious litigants.

A Reuters news analysis about the increasing number of shadow docket rulings warns: “Decisions can come in the middle of the night, with no public discussion and no guidance to lower-court judges on how to analyze similar cases.”

A legal study released in April troublingly reveals that “the Roberts court has ruled in favor of religious organizations more frequently than its predecessors” — in fact 81 percent of the time.

The latest ruling is yet another sign of big trouble to come for the Establishment Clause.

FFRF condemns evangelical role in voter suppression

The Religious Right and its political allies are busy depriving citizens perceived to be Democratic — especially Black Americans — of their voting rights.

Tony Perkins, a leading evangelical and president of the Family Research Council, brags: “We’ve got 106 election-related bills that are in 28 states now. So here’s good news: There is action taking place to go back and correct what was uncovered in this last election.” This is perpetuating the Big Lie that Donald Trump won the presidential election. 

Michael P. Farris, president of the Christian nationalist Alliance Defending Freedom, responded to Perkins’ remarks with a hearty “Amen.”

These groups mean business — and have the resources to inflict real damage. ADF, a frequent nemesis of FFRF, brought in $51.5 million in 2015-16.

The New York Times reports that another big player on the Christian nationalist scene, the Heritage Foundation, has pledged to spend millions of dollars to restrict voter access, including laws requiring identification for voters and limiting absentee ballots.

The hugely wealthy Susan B. Anthony List and the American Principles Project are other ultraright groups expanding their activities to include voter suppression.

“The Susan B. Anthony List and the American Principles Project recently announced a joint ‘election transparency’ campaign and set a fund-raising goal of $5 million,” reports the Times. “They hired a top conservative activist who is a former Trump administration official to lead it. They have organized conference calls for activists with other social conservative groups across the country, and say they have found participants to be enthusiastic about getting involved even if election law is entirely new to them.”

FFRF has called for passage of the For the People Act, H.R. 1, already noting that its enemies include many enemies of secularism. The Times’ exposé on these machinations by deep-pocketed theocratic groups makes crystal clear why H.R. 1 is indeed a secular issue.

Adding to the threats to absentee voting (also a secular issue), is the grim announcement by the United States postmaster of a proposed huge rollback on consumer mail services. Louis DeJoy, one of the “foxes in chicken coops” appointed by President Trump still remaining in D.C., brings no joy with his 10-year plan to slow down and cripple mail delivery and, thereby, also cripple the right to vote by mail.

It should be possible for the Biden administration to end DeJoy’s reign of terror at the U.S. Postal Service. But the threats to voter rights are even more daunting — and with many more players on the attack.

FFRF celebrates demise of Pompeo’s Commission on Unalienable Rights

Pompeo rapture

FFRF is toasting the demise of a Christian nationalist commission imposed on the nation by Mike Pompeo, President Trump’s secretary of state.

FFRF was among the first groups to criticize and oppose Pompeo’s pet project, the so-called Commission on Unalienable Rights. FFRF was sure that the true goal of the commission was to turn the concept of religious freedom into a “God-given” super-right that trumps other rights — a fear that was confirmed by the commission’s egregious report. We had early information on the commission and immediately launched an investigation, using the Freedom of Information Act to seek records. In a joint letter, FFRF charged that Pompeo’s attempt to create a hierarchy of rights was an attack on human rights as they’ve been understood for decades and urged him “to immediately disband the body.”

We’re delighted that our advice was followed by President Biden’s secretary of state, Anthony Blinken. He has announced, in a statement accompanying the annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, that the commission has been disbanded. Blinken also reiterated a vision of human rights that FFRF defended in the face of Pompeo’s attacks:

One of the core principles of human rights is that they are universal. All people are entitled to these rights, no matter where they’re born, what they believe, whom they love, or any other characteristic. Human rights are also co-equal; there is no hierarchy that makes some rights more important than others. Past unbalanced statements that suggest such a hierarchy, including those offered by a recently disbanded State Department advisory committee, do not represent a guiding document for this administration.

FFRF is keeping track of all the various executive orders, commissions and other Trump-created bodies that were open attacks on our secular government or an effort to privilege conservative Christians over other Americans. The national state/church watchdog will keep pushing until all of them join Pompeo’s pet project on the ash heap of history.

FFRF cheers decline of church membership

Church membership declined in every single demographic group that Gallup measured.

FFRF hails a report from Gallup that shows formal church membership among Americans has dropped below 50 percent for the first time in Gallup’s 80-year history of asking the question.

“Americans are waking up,” says FFRF Co-President Dan Barker, a former evangelical preacher and author of several books on “losing faith in faith” and leaving religion behind.

Gallup noted that this is likely not an anomaly caused by the pandemic and quarantine, but part of a long-term trend. “U.S. church membership was 73 percent when Gallup first measured it in 1937 and remained near 70 percent for the next six decades, before beginning a steady decline around the turn of the 21st century.”

The “decline in church membership is primarily a function of the increasing number of Americans who express no religious preference,” explains Gallup. In 1999, 70 percent of Americans belonged to a church, so the drop to 47 percent in 2020 is a massive loss of one-third.

Perhaps the most important finding was that church membership declined in every single demographic Gallup measured: age, gender, marital status, education level, geographical region and race. For instance, the number of non-Hispanic white adults who belong to a church dropped 16 points (from 68 to 52) in the last two decades, while non-Hispanic Black adults dropped 19 points (from 78-59) over that time.

FFRF notes two factors that make the findings even more exciting. First, this is self-reported church membership. Demographers and sociologists have long known that survey respondents overreport their church attendance. Actual church attendance is about one-quarter to one-half what is self-reported.

The Gallup datapoint is slightly different, seeking to determine formal membership with specific houses of worship, but is still likely overreported for similar reasons.

Second, America appears to be returning to its irreligious roots. At the time of our nation’s founding, most Americans — the vast majority — were unchurched. This fact cuts against the popular and misguided Christian nationalist narrative that our Christian nation was founded for and by Christians. According to U.S. historians and religion scholars, Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore, “The highest estimates for the late eighteenth century make only about 10-15 percent of the population church members.”

FFRF has long sought to educate the public about freethought (using reason to judge religious claims) and to provide a community and soft landing for people leaving religion. “It’s working,” notes FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.

FFRF applauds Supreme Court expansion bill

FFRF welcomes a significant congressional proposal to add four seats to the U.S. Supreme Court, a necessary court correction.

Rep. Mondaire Jones, D-N.Y., on April 15 introduced a bill, the Judiciary Act of 2021, to increase the number of justices. Joining Jones as sponsors are Rep. Jerry Nadler, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Hank Johnson, a member of the Congressional Freethought Caucus. Jones, an attorney who worked at the Department of Justice under President Obama and who was seated this year, ran in part on a platform of court reform: “We have to restore balance and preserve our democracy,” he said.

“We applaud Rep. Jones for his vision and initiative in introducing a proposal to rebalance and expand a court that has been politicized, homogenized and captured by special interests,” says Dan Barker, co-president of FFRF.

The case for high court expansion includes the fact that the number of justices on the high court was historically tied to the number of circuit courts of appeals — and there are now 13 such circuits. “Jones’ proposal simply brings the court seats back to where they should be,” Barker adds.

Court expansion and reform are in order, FFRF notes, for many compelling reasons. The nation’s highest court should better represent the U.S. population, not only by sex and race, but by diversity of legal background and other life experiences. The current nine-member court is dominated by seven white justices, six Roman Catholics and six men.

Additionally, FFRF points out the otherwise irreversible harm inflicted by the unprecedented manipulation of the filling of recent high court vacancies. That includes the blocking of Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to replace Justin Antonin Scalia in 2016 and the confirmation of archconservative Amy Coney Barrett in the midst of a presidential election only days after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Civil and individual liberties have been endangered because of these maneuverings. Rich and powerful interests helped confirm justices opposed to equal rights under the law, state/church separation, women’s rights, access to health care — and more.

“Justices Neil Gorsuch and Barrett essentially occupy stolen seats,” observes Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. “These two appointments to the high court will tilt its balance to extremist positions opposed by most Americans for generations.”

That’s why Rep. Jones’ bill provides a much-needed rectification.

“If anything, Congress could go further, because this court has a legitimacy problem,” says FFRF Director of Strategic Response Andrew Seidel, an attorney. “Our courts have already been packed and all the amazing policy solutions in the world are meaningless if they cannot survive a challenge in a rigged federal judiciary.”

FFRF’s report shows how the courts have indeed already been “packed” by extremist jurists handpicked by the Federalist Society and documents the poisonous influence of extremism and Christian nationalism resulting from those appointments, threatening reproductive rights, Establishment Clause law and voting and civil rights. The report warns: “The Trump administration had the rare opportunity to fill three Supreme Court seats in one term, and Trump’s choices were all religious extremists pushed by Christian nationalist lobbying outfits because of their reactionary views. Their pre-Supreme Court records on the Establishment Clause were alarming, and now that they are sitting on the court, we are already seeing the disastrous results.”

The number of Supreme Court justices is set by Congress, not the Constitution, and has changed in size seven times, from a low of five to a high of 10.

President Trump, who lost the 2016 popular vote by almost 3 million votes, appointed one-third of the Supreme Court and about a third of the lower federal judiciary. FFRF looks forward to supporting bills expanding the lower courts, beset by huge delays, swamped judges and ballooning federal criminal law. 

“Rep. Jones’ bill is a great step toward better representation and equal justice on the Supreme Court,” says FFRF Legal Director Rebecca Markert. “But FFRF is working to make sure it’s just the first step.”

FFRF’s NY Times ad examines religious roots of insurrection

The Freedom From Religion Foundation ran a full-page ad in the national news section of the April 6 New York Times, calling the storming of the Capitol a “faith-based initiative.”

The ad features a large photograph of Jan. 6 insurgents in prayer before a wooden cross at the U.S. Capitol. FFRF warns that the assault is what “One Nation, Under God” looks like and urges a return to “E Pluribus Unum” and “One Nation, Indivisible.”

The ad documents the Christian nationalist nature of the mob attack. “This political identity movement, embraced by a number of public officials who insist ‘America is a Christian nation,’ poses a continuing threat to civil liberties and our secular republic,” warns FFRF.

The ad concludes, “Freedom depends on freethinkers. Join FFRF in our essential work so that reason and our secular Constitution will prevail.”

“I truly believe that ‘E Pluribus Unum’ is the answer to Jan. 6,” says Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. “‘From many, [come] one’ encapsulates the ideal that diverse citizens and states can embrace our differences while coming together as ‘We the People’: one people and one nation under a secular Constitution.”

The ad language plays on the Pledge of Allegiance, which originally ended, “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,” until a McCarthy-era Congress tampered with it by inserting the words “under God.”

A similar full-page ad appeared in the Wisconsin State Journal.

The educational ad was made possible thanks to the generosity of FFRF members donating to FFRF’s Advertising Fund.

Secular display returns to Chicago

Shane Stapley and Steve Foulkes of FFRF’s Metropolitan Chicago Chapter helped put up this display in Daley Plaza on April 3.

FFRF’s local chapter again put up a secular display in downtown Chicago on Easter weekend to counter a Catholic shrine there.

On April 3, FFRF’s Metropolitan Chicago Chapter (FFRFMCC) placed in Daley Plaza two colorful 8-foot banners on a 12-foot structure promoting the secular views of the Founding Fathers. The display was on public view until April 10.

One banner reads, “In Reason We Trust,” and pictures Thomas Jefferson, highlighting his famous advice to a nephew: “Question with boldness even the existence of a god.” The other side proclaims, “Keep State & Religion Separate,” and pictures President John Adams, who signed the Treaty of Tripoli, which assured that “the government of the United States is not in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”

The FFRF display is designed to balance a period of prayer and evangelism that occurs annually in Daley Plaza by a Catholic group, the Thomas More Society, that has preached in the plaza every Easter since 2011. The group’s aim, through its “Divine Mercy Project,” is to seek the “conversion of Chicago, America and the whole world.”

The Thomas More Society’s Catholic shrine, including a large wooden Latin cross, a 9-foot banner of Jesus, and “kneelers” for people to pray, also returned. 

FFRF warmly thanks FFRFMCC Executive Director Tom Cara for securing a permit for the display and two board members of the active local chapter, Shane Stapley and Steve Foulkes, for their assistance in putting it up.

Join the 2021 Thomas Paine Day event

Famed sculptor Zenos Frudakis, second from right, shows off the Thomas Paine statuette he created. Standing with Zenos are FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF Director of Strategic Response Andrew L. Seidel and Freethought Society’s Margaret Downey.

Please join the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the Freethought Society, the Thomas Paine National Historical Association, the Center for Inquiry and the American Humanist Association as we celebrate the 2021 Thomas Paine Day via Zoom on Tuesday, June 8.

Register at this site: bit.ly/2OLPG2a.

The program begins at 6:45 p.m. Eastern time with a 15-minute Thomas Paine-themed concert by songwriter and recording artist James Klueh. 

Melissa Myers (representing Center for Inquiry) and Margaret Downey (representing Freethought Society) are the event co-hosts.

After an introductory statement from U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin, a welcome message will be given by co-sponsors’ representatives Annie Laurie Gaylor, Robyn Blumner, Mandisa Thomas, Gary Berton and Downey.

A summary of the life and work of Thomas Paine will be presented in sections by Mandisa Thomas of AHA, Tom Flynn of CFI, Andrew Seidel of FFRF, Downey of FS and Berton of TPNHA.

Sculptor Zenos Frudakis will show the progress of the Thomas Paine statue project and Dan Barker, co-president of FFRF, will perform his original song “The World is My Country.” 

After a short break, there will be a question-and-answer session to conclude the festivities.

FFRF: N.D. law unconstitutional

A new North Dakota law that seeks to impose the Ten Commandments on the state’s public schoolchildren is unconstitutional, declares FFRF.

The bill originally permitted Ten Commandments stand-alone displays “in the school and in a classroom.” The final version that Gov. Doug Burgum signed was changed to only allow schools to place the biblical displays “with a display of other historical documents in the school and in a classroom.” The Supreme Court has explicitly barred any Ten Commandments display in a public school.

Knowing that such Ten Commandments displays violate the law, legislators are including a provision that purports to remove all legal damages from school districts, administrators and board members for erecting such displays. This provision is misleading, since schools could still be subject to injunctions that would lead to the school paying for legal fees, and schools and school officials would still be subject to legal liability under federal law.

This law would open districts up to expensive and unnecessary legal liability.

FFRF will challenge any displays that go up in schools. Any families in schools where these Ten Commandments displays go up should reach out to FFRF at ffrf.org/legal/report.