In the News (October 2020)

Congressional Freethought Caucus

Rep. Rashid Tlaib joins Freethought Caucus

Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, a first-term representative and Muslim, has joined the Congressional Freethought Caucus.

The Freethought Caucus was formed in 2018 by Rep. Jared Huffman, who is the only openly non-religious member of Congress, and Rep. Jamie Raskin. It now has 13 members:

Rep. Sean Casten, D-Ill.

Rep. Steve Cohen., D-Tenn.

Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif.

Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash.

Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif.

Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Calif.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C.

Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis.

Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich.

Rep. Susan Wild, D-Pa.

The Freethought Caucus “promotes public policy formed on the basis of reason, science, and moral values; protects the secular character of our government by adhering to the strict Constitutional principle of the separation of church and state; opposes discrimination against atheists, agnostics, humanists, seekers, religious and nonreligious persons, and to champion the value of freedom of thought and conscience worldwide; and provides a forum for members of Congress to discuss their moral frameworks, ethical values, and personal religious journeys.”

Nigerian atheist, arrested for blasphemy, is missing

Mubarak Bala, head of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, was seized by the police and has disappeared in custody.

On April 25, he logged on to Facebook and typed a post calling the Prophet Muhammad a terrorist.

Three days later, he was arrested by the state police after being accused of violating anti-blasphemy laws, which can carry a death sentence. He has not been seen since.

“We are concerned that he may be prosecuted under anti-blasphemy laws that provide for capital punishment in Nigeria,” wrote a group of U.N. experts who have called for his release.

Other nonbelievers are worried that other Nigerian atheists will be prosecuted and that more arrests may be coming.

FFRF is urging the Nigerian authorities to release Bala and has contacted the Trump administration to do the utmost to ensure Bala’s well-being.

Nigerian teen gets 10 years for blasphemy

Omar Farouq, a 13-year-old boy, was convicted of blasphemy in a Sharia court in Nigeria and sentenced to 10 years in prison in September.

Farouq was accused of using “foul language” toward Allah in an argument with a friend. He was sentenced on Aug. 10 by the same court that recently sentenced Yahaya Sharif-Aminu to death for blaspheming Prophet Mohammed, according to lawyers.

Farouq’s punishment is in violation of the African Charter of the Rights and Welfare of a Child and the Nigerian constitution, said his counsel Kola Alapinni, who told CNN they filed an appeal on his behalf on Sept. 7.

NYC banquet halls host large Jewish weddings

Three banquet halls in Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood hosted Hasidic Jewish wedding parties less than a week after Mayor Bill de Blasio warned that a similar gathering there led to an increase in coronavirus cases, the Washington Post reported. Celebrations were witnessed involving as many as 200 people at three different sites along a 10-block stretch.

At Torah Vyriah and Ateres Chaya, the windows were covered with paper to prevent anyone from looking in, but witnesses saw dozens of people getting out of cars and entering through side or rear doors.

Study: Nonbelievers more likely to sleep better

A new study shows that Americans who don’t believe in God are more likely to get the recommended amount of sleep each night than those who do believe in God.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends seven to nine  hours of sleep a night.

In the journal Sleep, it says, “The psychology of religion literature indicates that religious engagement is beneficial to physical and mental health,” the study’s authors wrote. They anticipated that this might be reflected in better sleep.

The co-authors surveyed 1,501 participants in the Baylor Religion Survey on how many hours they slept each night and how easy they found it to go to sleep. Contrary to expectations, they found 73 percent of atheists and agnostics usually got the recommended sleep quotient. By contrast, only 65 percent of people who considered themselves religious got the same. The figure was just 55 percent for Baptists.

Medically assisted death can proceed, court rules

On Sept. 9, a Nova Scotia Court of Appeal judge denied a request to shelve a lower court decision that effectively allows a man to go ahead with a medically assisted death, in spite of his longtime wife’s efforts to stop him.

The 83-year-old man from Bridgewater, Nova Scotia, was approved for medical assistance in dying (MAID) earlier this year, but his wife of 48 years filed for an injunction with the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia, forcing him to cancel his plans.

The wife threatened to sue health-care providers who help her husband access a medically assisted death. She has also expressed a religious opposition to MAID.

The husband says he’s suffering and near the end of his life because of advanced chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), but his wife says his wish to die is not based on physical illness, but rather anxiety and mental delusions.

Sudan government agrees to state-church separation

Sudan’s transitional government agreed to separate religion from the state, ending 30 years of Islamic rule, according to a report on Bloomberg.com.

Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and Abdel-Aziz al-Hilu, a leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North, signed a declaration on Sept. 3 adopting the principle.

“For Sudan to become a democratic country where the rights of all citizens are enshrined, the constitution should be based on the principle of ‘separation of religion and state,’ in the absence of which the right to self-determination must be respected,” the document states.

Charlie Hebdo terror trial under way in Paris

Fourteen people have gone on trial in Paris over their alleged involvement in the deadly terrorist attack, which began in the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, and ended at a supermarket two days later.

The suspects are accused of having provided logistical support to the perpetrators — brothers Said and Chérif Kouachi, and their accomplice Amedy Coulibaly — and face charges of participating in a terrorist criminal association.

Charlie Hebdo was targeted over the magazine’s publication, in 2006, of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. Depictions of Islam’s prophet are considered blasphemous by many Muslims. At the beginning of the trial in September, the magazine republished the same cartoons about the Prophet Muhammad.

Eleven of the suspects will appear in court — 10 of them from behind bulletproof glass. Three others, who traveled to Syria in the days before the attacks began, will be tried in absentia.

A total of 17 people were killed in the attacks, which took place in the French capital over three days in January 2015. Twelve of those who died were shot in the Charlie Hebdo building.

N.C. county won’t say pledge at meetings

The Orange County (N.C) Board of Commissioners voted on Sept. 1 against a resolution to open its meetings by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

The board voted 5-2 against a resolution proposed by Commissioner Earl McKee, according to Chapelboro.com. McKee brought forth the resolution as the result of a petition that pushed for the pledge to be recited, which circulated around Orange County earlier this year.

Several of the commissioners said the manner it was brought forth to the board, by a county resident who described himself as a “nationalist,” felt like a move to shame the county officials for not regularly reciting it.

Chair of the Board Penny Rich said she has not said the Pledge of Allegiance for years, citing the addition of “under God” in the 1950s as a lack of separation between church and state.

Religion helps push pandemic

Religion has a lot to answer for when it comes to the spread of COVID-19.

There are many political and sociological reasons why the United States is leading the world in coronavirus deaths and new cases, but the finger must also be pointed at religion and the role it is playing in making the pandemic even more deadly. Deference to religion by federal, state and local public officials is literally killing Americans. As professor Juan Cole has put it, “In the U.S. and abroad, leaders are putting faith before good science.”

That bad faith in religion is exemplified in two ways. One is the favoritism religion expects and often gets, such as the exemption of church gatherings from safety mandates. The other, more insidious, is religion’s role in spreading another dangerous “virus”: science denial. As the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s bumper sticker puts it, religion is the original “alternative fact.” Religion sets the stage for denial of science by rewarding belief without evidence or even against the facts.

As countless studies and news articles have shown, church services are a hotbed for coronavirus infection, due to difficulty in social distancing, by the singing and chanting and extended indoor contact. Yet President Trump has used his authority to often deprecate scientific advice — and to pander to his religious base. In late May, he called churches “essential” operations — telling every governor to open up “essential places of faith . . . right now for this weekend” or he would override them. When he added, “In America, we need more prayer, not less,” he further signaled his devaluation of the role of science.

The Justice Department has thrown its support behind churches that have sought exemption from stay-at-home orders. Religion-based pressure was put on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, partly accounting for its less-than-stellar advice, delaying a guidebook on safety measures and tampering with CDC’s guidelines for churches.

Trump has muzzled the voice of reason that is Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who, by the way, is not a “man of faith” but a humanist. Notes Fauci: “One of the problems we face in the United States is that unfortunately, there is a combination of an anti-science bias that people are — for reasons that sometimes are, you know, inconceivable and not understandable — they just don’t believe science and they don’t believe authority. . . . Science is truth.”

A number of evangelical governors likewise refused to issue stay-at-home orders until it was too late, such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. Even after seeing the light, both have given dispensations to religious gatherings from safety mandates. DeSantis, in a state with growing cases, still refuses to order mask-wearing in public. Church-going Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp even tried to sue Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms over her responsible actions, such as a city requirement to wear masks.

Many governmental officials either blinded by faith or seeking to propitiate the Religious Right, have perpetuated attacks on the scientific method and scientific knowledge. Polls are showing that, thanks to irrational anti-science views, only half to two-thirds of Americans say they would even get the vaccine once it is developed. This anti-science attitude has encouraged QAnon, the fringe conspiracy theorists who are spreading dangerous misinformation.

The base that many public officials are pandering to includes umpteen churches and worshippers who’ve filed lawsuits clogging the courts demanding to be considered above the law and to be exempted from stay-at-home and, now, masking orders. Behind many of these lawsuits are Christian Nationalist outfits, working to destroy the constitutional principle of separation between state and church.

Church officials who ignore stay-at-home orders (and the biblical admonitions to “Love thy neighbor” and “do unto others”) and public officials who politicize or flout medical science are enabling the coronavirus curve to keep rising. The religion-inspired anti-science backlash is increasing infections and deaths, sowing ignorance about the potential of a future vaccine and jeopardizing the economic and educational recovery of our nation.

Pompeo’s report is Christian Nationalism

Benson cartoon

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s Commission on Unalienable Rights produced a report on July 16 asserting that religious beliefs are more important than other peoples’ rights. The Freedom From Religion Foundation condemns this report and its flagrant attempt to elevate the rights of believers above the rights of others.

The report is Christian Nationalism in print and stamped with government authority, granting the State Department permission to conduct a Christian Nationalist foreign policy. That means not supporting the rights of the LGBTQ community, giving Christian Nationalists a blank check to proselytize, restricting access to HIV/AIDS medications and abortion, and permitting the direct funding of houses of worship abroad.

For instance, the report argues, “Protestant Christianity, widely practiced by the citizenry at the time, was infused with the beautiful biblical teachings that every human being is imbued with dignity and bears responsibilities toward fellow human beings, because each is made in the image of God.” Of course, the idea that all humans have worth and value cannot be claimed by one religion and is repudiated with disturbing regularity in the bible this commission seems to have failed to read. The bible condones and justifies slavery, subjugates women, and mandates death for LGBTQ people and anyone who exercises their right to religious freedom. Religion, Christianity and the bible are not bastions of human dignity. Rather, they favor adherents above all others — belief in the “correct” god is all that matters.

The report also claims that a belief in God is a prerequisite for religious freedom, mistakenly attributing this belief to the Framers: “The Madisonian view of religious liberty — like the view to which Jefferson gave expression in his Virginia Bill for Religious Freedom — proceeds from a theistic premise about the sources of human dignity even as it denies the state the power to dictate final answers about ultimate matters.”

Pompeo once described politics as “a never-ending struggle . . . until the rapture.” This report is both political and highly religious. The report’s dangerous conclusion is based on the flawed premise that all human rights “came from our Lord,” as Pompeo told a group of conservative women last fall. This common Christian Nationalist talking point is based on a misreading of the Declaration of Independence, which states that “all men” are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” Pompeo’s name for this commission tipped his hand from the outset, showing his intent to misuse this phrase to justify trampling others’ rights in the name of his religion.

In fact, the above phrase from the Declaration of Independence was nothing more than a rhetorical flourish. And it wasn’t even penned by Thomas Jefferson, the declaration’s primary author. The famous Deist wrote in his draft, later altered by others, that “all men are created equal & independent.”

More important, the Declaration of Independence is the wrong place to look for the source of our rights. America’s Founders made their views on fundamental rights perfectly clear in the document that provides those rights: the U.S. Constitution. In the world’s first godless national charter, the U.S. Framers invented the formal separation of religion and government. The Constitution’s only references to religion in government are exclusionary, including bars on religious tests for public office (in Article VI) and on any law “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; . . .” (in the First Amendment).

The first liberty guaranteed by the Bill of Rights — the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment — is the right to a secular government. This guarantee is an American original and directly undercuts the Chrstian Nationalist assertion that our rights rely on a deity. The idea of God-given rights is un-American and is dangerous, as the Freedom From Religion Foundation has championed repeatedly.

“God-given rights are fragile,” says FFRF’s Director of Strategic Response Andrew L. Seidel, one of the attorneys who has written about this fallacy. “God-given rights can be taken away by humans claiming to speak for that god, while human rights — rights that we possess by virtue of our shared humanity — are much stronger.”

Rights are not given by supernatural beings; they are asserted. Not only is our freedom not a gift from God, it is guaranteed by a godless document, the U.S. Constitution. The report from Pompeo’s commission is antithetical to this American principle, and is thus un-American in its quest to give government sanction to favored religious beliefs. Our country was founded in large part to reject exactly this notion, and this report must be given the same treatment.

Reps. Huffman, Raskin denounce commission’s report

U.S. Reps. Jared Huffman and Jamie Raskin, founders of the Congressional Freethought Caucus, issued the following statement on July 17 after the State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights unveiled its review of American human rights policy:

“We founded the Congressional Freethought Caucus to promote public policy based on reason, science and moral values, to protect the secular character of our government and to champion the value of freedom of thought and conscience worldwide. The State Department’s meandering new report only confuses these founding American principles and continues this administration’s retreat from clear and coherent world leadership for human rights.

“As we feared, this report does not enshrine essential human rights, but rather confuses the whole field by downgrading political and civil rights and promoting a muddled and airily abstract interpretation of religious freedom. While invoking ‘Protestant Christianity’ first as a founding ethos for America, Secretary Mike Pompeo’s report cautions against ‘new claims of human rights,’ and warns that ‘the tendency to fight political battles with the vocabulary of human rights risks stifling the kind of robust discussion on which a vibrant democracy depends.’ We fear that such slippery, equivocating language is intended to devalue LGBTQ+ rights and women’s reproductive rights and relegate them to mere ‘claims.’ While often pretending to some kind of abstract universal ambition for the rights of people, the authors cannot resist throwing rhetorical bones to the Religious Right and its war on personal freedom in America.

“Moreover, this report may lend credence to a foreign policy that disregards our international human rights framework in favor of a narrower interpretation of fundamental property and majority religious rights, one that allows for increased discrimination against political dissidents, women, and minority groups. The Congressional Freethought Caucus will continue to closely watch the impact of Secretary Pompeo’s curious commission and to hold this administration responsible for repeatedly walking away from mainstream American values.

“In short, at a moment when authoritarianism, racism and anti-scientific magical thinking are on the march, there is not much in here to make the dictators, despots, kleptocrats, racists, anti-Semites and strongmen of the world quiver in any way. On the other hand, the authors do finally get around to criticizing human rights violations in Putin’s autocratic Russia, a detail buried deep in the report — perhaps with the hope that Donald Trump might not notice it. We are happy to bring it to his attention and to suggest that a first order of business should be to aggressively defend the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia and the Uighurs in China, two minority groups ruthlessly persecuted by these authoritarian governments that Donald Trump has worked hard to befriend.”

US. Rep. Jamie Raskin
U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman

In the News (September 2020)

S.C. to allocate $32M to pay for private tuition

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster announced July 19 he is allocating $32 million for grants to pay for private school tuition.

The grants, called Safe Access to Flexible Education (SAFE), will come out of the $48 million McMaster’s office received in discretionary funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.

McMaster said the money will go to private schools to distribute, and it is intended for current private school students or those who wish to transfer to a private school.

The announcement received immediate backlash from state teacher organizations, two state senators and FFRF.

Opponents of the plan filed a lawsuit, which was heard by an Orangeburg circuit judge, who temporarily enjoined the funding.

The plaintiffs then filed a petition to take the case directly to the South Carolina Supreme Court.

It’s something attorneys on both sides support, saying that reaching a resolution to the case is critical as the start of school approaches.

Survey: Do you need to believe in God to be good?

A new Pew Research Center survey showed that people’s thoughts on whether belief in God is necessary to be moral vary by economic development, education and age.

Across the 34 countries in which residents were surveyed, 45 percent said it is necessary to believe in God to be moral and have good values. But there are large regional variations in the answers.

Less than half of those surveyed in both Canada and the United States say belief in God is necessary to be moral (26 percent and 44 percent, respectively).

There is an inverse relationship between GDP per capita and the percentage of the public that draws this connection between belief in God and morality.

In most European and North American countries surveyed, individuals with more education are less likely to say that belief in God is necessary to be moral.

Transgender man sues Catholic hospital

Jesse Hammons, a 33-year-old transgender man, had his hysterectomy canceled by the University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center because it conflicted with the medical center’s Catholic beliefs, according to a story in the Washington Post.

So, on July 17, Hammons filed a lawsuit against the medical center, claiming the hospital’s denial violated the 14th Amendment’s equal-protection clause and discrimination protections in the Affordable Care Act.

The Post reported that a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing Hammons, stated that “The case follows a pattern of Catholic hospitals across the country denying care to transgender patients as Catholic medical systems have continued to expand nationwide and as the Trump administration has removed nondiscrimination protections for transgender people in health care.”

Photo forces Falwell to take leave at Liberty

Jerry Falwell has taken a leave of absence as president of Liberty University, an evangelical Christian college, after posting a photo of himself and a woman, both with their pants unzipped.

The university said in a statement on Aug. 7: “The Executive Committee of Liberty University’s Board of Trustees, acting on behalf of the full Board, met and requested that Jerry Falwell Jr. take an indefinite leave of absence from his roles as president and chancellor of Liberty University, to which he has agreed, effective immediately.”

The college has a strict code of conduct for student behavior at the university, including barring premarital sex and the consumption of media either on or off campus “that is offensive to Liberty’s standards and traditions.”

Christian Nationalists less likely to wear masks

A new study shows that those who embrace Christian Nationalist ideology are more likely to flout measures intended to slow the spread of COVID-19, such as wearing a mask or social distancing.

    According to the study, published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, “Christian Nationalism is the leading predictor that one engaged in more frequent incautious behavior related to COVID-19” and the “second strongest predictor that Americans took fewer precautions like wearing a mask or sanitizing/washing one’s hands.”

     The authors of the study, Samuel Perry, Andrew L. Whitehead and Joshua B. Grubbs, concluded that “Christian Nationalism ideology is positively associated with Americans’ frequency of engaging in incautious behaviors.”

Chicken-killing ritual faces legal challenge

In New York, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish chicken-killing ritual is a major health risk during the coronavirus pandemic, animal advocates write in new legal papers.

The Alliance To End Chickens as Kaporos has waged a five-year battle against the Kaporos ritual, which takes place on public streets in Brooklyn and elsewhere prior to Yom Kippur. Up to 100,000 live chickens are brought in packed crates and sacrificed to “cleanse the practitioner of sins.” In new papers filed in Manhattan Supreme Court on July 6, the group seeks to revive a lawsuit against the city Health Department in light of the pandemic.

“A pandemic-causing virus, such as COVID-19, can be caused by a live animal wet market, which involves uncontrolled and poorly understood interactions between humans and intensely confined filthy, sick and diseased animals, which is what Kaporos is and does,” attorney Nora Constance Marino writes in the suit.

FFRF has written the city of New York several times over this animal cruelty issue in the name of religion.

Murder prompts criticism of blasphemy laws

On July 29, Tahir Naseem, 57, of Illinois, was on trial for blasphemy in the Pakistani city of Peshawar. A man walked into the busy courtroom and shot Naseem multiple times at close range, killing him.

Video showed the murderer saying that the Prophet Muhammad told him to kill Naseem in a dream.

“He is the enemy of Islam . . . the enemy of Pakistan,” the gunman said.

The murder of an American standing trial for blasphemy in Pakistan has sparked renewed pressure on Islamabad to reform laws that human rights groups say target minorities.

The State Department said Naseem was a U.S. citizen and called in a tweet for “immediate action” in response to his killing.

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have long been the target of fierce criticism from international human rights groups. 

Satanic Temple suit moves forward against city

A lawsuit filed by the Satanic Temple over its efforts to erect a monument in a Minnesota park is moving forward, despite a federal court’s dismissal of most of the counts outlined in the complaint.

U.S. District Judge Wilhelmina Wright dismissed nine of the 10 counts in the suit against the city of Belle Plaine, several of which alleged violations of free speech and the free exercise of religion.

The suit alleged the city broke what amounted to a promise by rescinding the permit to let the temple place a monument in Veterans Memorial Park. The temple had already paid to have the monument built, at a cost of $40,000, its lawyer said.

The group has been fighting with the city for more than three years after city leaders accepted a steel silhouette of a soldier kneeling at a cross in the park.

Arizona ‘Nones’ advance to November election

Three Arizona “Nones” advanced to their respective November general elections. 

Arizona state Rep. Athena Salman won her primary on Aug. 4. She had the most votes in the three-way race, where the top two advance to the November ballot. Salman is a two-term representative and serves as Minority Whip.

Arizona state Sen. Juan Mendez easily won his primary against a more moderate Democrat. Mendez, one of only a few openly atheist state senators, is in his second term as state senator following two terms as a state representative.

Delina DiSanto won the Democratic primary in Arizona’s Fourth Congressional District. DiSanto, who is a registered nurse running in her first race, is a self-described “recovering Catholic,” according to the Freethought Equality Fund PAC.

Supreme Court neo-voucher ruling blasted by FFRF

The U.S. Supreme Court handed down an alarming decision June 30 on school voucher programs that imperils true religious liberty, asserts the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

“The ruling eviscerates a founding principle of our secular republic — that citizens must not be taxed to support religion, including religious schools,” comments FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. She adds that the ruling would appear to severely undercut specific safeguards in state constitutions prohibiting the union of state and church.

In Espinoza v. Montana Dept. of Revenue, the Supreme Court overturned a ruling by the Montana Supreme Court, which held that a neo-voucher school funding scheme violates the “No Aid” to religion clause of the state Constitution. The state court struck down the entire neo-voucher scheme as it applied to all private education, religious and secular. Nearly 90 percent of Montana’s private schools are affiliated with religion. Christian parents, represented by the pro-voucher Institute of Justice, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, asking it to declare that No Aid clauses violate the federal Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

In The New York Times, reporter Adam Liptak wrote: “Montana’s Constitution, like those of many other states, restricts government aid to religious groups. Those provisions, often called Blaine amendments, were initially adopted in the 19th century and often had the goal of restricting funding for Catholic schools. Of the 37 states with Blaine amendments, 14 have strict prohibitions on the participation of religious schools in state programs.”

But, the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision written by Chief Justice John Roberts, illogically ruled that religious schools were indeed being singled out.

“A state need not subsidize private education,” the majority judgment states. “But once a state decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.”

The absurdity of the majority decision is laid bare in a dissenting opinion. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, joined by Justice Elena Kagan, points out that the Montana Supreme Court had made no distinction between religious and nonreligious schools in a previous ruling.

“Because Montana’s Supreme Court did not make such a decision — its judgment put all private school parents in the same boat — this court had no occasion to address the matter,” the dissent states. It adds: “The state court struck the program in full. In doing so, the court never made religious schools ineligible for an otherwise available benefit, and it never decided that the Free Exercise Clause would allow that outcome.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor has a stinging dissent of her own.

“Today’s ruling is perverse,” she writes. “Without any need or power to do so, the court appears to require a state to reinstate a tax-credit program that the Constitution did not demand in the first place. [The court] rejects the Religion Clauses’ balanced values in favor of a new theory of free exercise, and it does so only by setting aside well-established judicial constraints.”

FFRF had filed an 18-page friend-of-the-court brief in November cogently arguing that true religious liberty would be endangered if the court strikes down the provision of Montana’s Constitution that prohibits funding religious education.

“Religious liberty is imperiled in this case,” its brief asserted. “This case is not about discrimination [against religion]; it is about government-compelled support of religion. Every Montana citizen has the right not to be taxed to fund religion. If this court abandons this basic principle, we will have reached a disastrous moment in American history: the era of government-compelled tithing.”

Also in her dissent, Sotomayor added that the decision by the court “weakens this country’s longstanding commitment to a separation of church and state beneficial to both.”

FFRF agrees with Sotomayor, as this misguided decision deals a great blow to the separation of state and church, as well as the sovereignty of states to govern according to the will of their citizens. It virtually guarantees that citizens of the more than 30 states whose constitutions included No Aid to religion clauses may be taxed in order to support religious schools at some point in the near future, regardless of their own views on religion or which religious denomination they may belong to. The 26 percent of nonreligious taxpayers will be injured the most.

James Madison, later the architect of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, famously defeated a Virginia proposal in 1785 to pay the salary of Christian teachers, calling even a three-penny tax on citizens supremely immoral. The No Aid language in many state constitutions dates to the Virginia Statute for Religious Liberty of 1786, written by Thomas Jefferson, who deemed it “sinful and tyrannical” to tax citizens to support ministries or religious schools.

The Supreme Court’s decision does not address whether some restrictions placed on funds going to religious schools would pass constitutional muster. States may still be able to restrict funding on the basis of “religious use.” For example, a restriction on direct funding of religious education classes may be permissible.

An ironic additional consequence of such a ruling may be to bring down regulation on churches and religious schools due to the flow of public money into religious schools. In short, the judgment in favor of the plaintiffs will negatively and fundamentally alter the state-church relationship in place since the nation’s founding.

FFRF decries the high court’s blow to our secular public school system in order to fund religious institutions.

In the News (August 2020)

‘Nones’ more accepting of homosexuality

Nones, the group of nonreligious, have a much higher tolerance for acceptance of homosexuality than religious believers. In the United States, 72 percent of people now say being gay should be accepted, but that number is even higher for the Nones, at 86 percent, according to a Pew Research survey.

However, among those in the United States who said religion was “very important” to them, only 57 percent said homosexuality should be accepted by society.

In the Pew analysis, it said, “Those who are religiously unaffiliated, sometimes called religious Nones, (that is, those who identify as atheist, agnostic or ‘nothing in particular’) tend to be more accepting of homosexuality. Though the opinions of religiously unaffiliated people can vary widely, in virtually every country surveyed with a sufficient number of unaffiliated respondents, Nones are more accepting of homosexuality than the affiliated.”

Humanist weddings in Scotland more popular

Humanist weddings, which have been legal in Scotland for 15 years, are more popular than Christian ones, according to data from the National Records of Scotland.

In 2019, there were 5,879 Humanist weddings compared to 5,812 Christian weddings. In 2018, there were 6,117 Humanist weddings, but 6,258 Christian ones.

A 2017 survey found that more than 70 percent of Scottish people said they were not religious.

Southern Baptists see big drop in membership

Total membership in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination fell at a historic rate between 2018 and 2019, according to an annual report.

The Southern Baptist Convention said it had 14.5 million members in 2019, down about 287,655 from the previous year. Membership dropped 2 percent, the largest single-year drop in more than 100 years, according to a survey from LifeWay Christian Resources, the denomination’s publishing and research arm.

The decline reflects a larger trend of Americans leaving Christianity at a rapid pace. According to the Pew Research Center, 65 percent of Americans describe themselves as Christians, down 12 percentage points during the past decade.

Southern Baptist baptisms, a key metric in measuring new members of the faith, fell by more than 4 percent.

1 in 4 Americans see Trump as a man of faith

Only 27 percent of registered voters in a Politico/Morning Consult poll said they somewhat or strongly agree that President Trump is religious, while 55 percent somewhat or strongly disagree. Just over a third of all Christians view the president as religious (50 percent do not), while 23 percent of Catholics and 18 percent of independents see him that way.

Evangelicals were more likely to view Trump as religious: 40 percent said they agreed that he is, while 33 percent disagreed.

Ideological conservatives and Republicans were the only demographics in which a majority of respondents characterized the president as religious — 55 percent and 60 percent, respectively.

South Korean church sued for $66M over virus

The city at the epicenter of South Korea’s coronavirus outbreak has filed a $83 million suit against the religious group that has been linked to nearly 62 percent of the 6,900 cases in the city.

Officials of the Daegu city government are demanding compensation for losses suffered by the local authority as a result of the leaders of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus refusing to cooperate with initial efforts to halt the spread of the virus.

The church’s refusal to cooperate with regional health authorities hampered the initial response to the crisis and worsened the outbreak in the city, an official said.

Investigators also reported that the church went ahead with services and events in defiance of an order from the local government banning mass gatherings.

Survey: Most not yet OK going back to church

A study in May examining Americans’ response to COVID-19 shows that with the exception of white evangelicals, a majority of Americans are not comfortable returning to in-person religious services.

The results of the survey suggest that despite political pressure to reopen houses of worship — from President Donald Trump as well as leading conservative Christians and religious liberty advocates — Americans aren’t quite ready to take a seat in a sanctuary.

The survey from the American Enterprise Institute showed that 64 percent of Americans said they were “somewhat uncomfortable” or “very uncomfortable” attending in-person worship.

Even among those who reported their congregations offered in-person worship, 56 percent of respondents said they chose not to go.

“We’re seeing among lay people a significant amount of discomfort in going back to formal in-person religious practices,” said Daniel Cox, a research fellow at AEI who led the study. “People are equivocating and uncertain about whether they feel comfortable attending.”

20% in Northern Ireland identify as nonreligious

The proportion of people in Northern Ireland who identify as “nonreligious”  has reached 20 percent, according to the latest Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey.

It was an increase of 3 percent over the previous year. The proportion of nonreligious people in Northern Ireland now exceeds that of every other religion or belief group except Catholics — 36 percent, with Presbyterians accounting for 18 percent and those who identify as Church of Ireland/Anglican/Episcopal at 14 percent.

Greek church: Yoga not for Christians

Yoga has no place “in the life of Christians,” the governing body of the Greek Orthodox Church has ruled.

The Church intervened after Greek media recommended yoga as a way to combat stress during the pandemic.

“[Yoga] is a fundamental chapter in Hindu religion. It is not a ‘kind of physical exercise,’” the Holy Synod said in its statement.

The church’s opposition is based on the “experience of those who practiced yoga,” Father Michael Konstantinidis said, explaining that “if yoga offered what man wanted, we would be happy.”

Evangelicals still strongly support Trump

President Trump’s approval rating has dropped among a wide range of religious groups, including white evangelical Protestants — though they remain strongly supportive.

About seven-in-10 white evangelical Protestants say they approve of the way Trump is handling his job, according to a Pew Research Center survey, but that’s a 6 percentage point drop from 78 percent recorded in April.

The same survey found that if the 2020 presidential election were held today, 82 percent of white evangelical Protestant registered voters would vote for Trump or lean toward voting for him. By comparison, a Pew survey that was conducted just after the 2016 presidential election among those who were identified as having voted found that 77 percent of white evangelical Protestant voters backed Trump.

Catholic clergy sex abuse complaints jump

The Washington Post reported that the number of allegations of Catholic clergy sex abuse of minors more than quadrupled in 2019 compared to the average in the previous five years.

The yearly audit report by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said the 2019 report counted 4,434 allegations of clergy sex abuse against minors. That number was 1,451 in 2018, 693 in 2017, 1,318 in 2016 and 903 in 2015.

About half of the 2019 allegations  were deemed credible by the church.

There are about 37,000 diocesan and religious order priests in the country.

In the 2019 audit, the Catholic Church paid out a total of $282 million related to those allegations, including child abuse settlements, other payments to victims, “support for offenders,” attorneys’ fees, and other miscellaneous costs related to those lawsuits.

Delaware city sued for not allowing crèche

The Knights of Columbus, backed by the First Liberty Institute, filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Rehoboth Beach, Del., claiming religious discrimination for the town’s blanket ban of a Knights of Columbus nativity scene from city property.

For decades, a free-standing crèche has been part of the Christmas holiday tradition in Rehoboth Beach. The primary location for Christmas displays is the circle at the city bandstand and adjacent boardwalk.

In 2018, after a local church placed a nativity scene on the public site, the city forced the church to take it down.

“I don’t understand why Christians would be deeply offended,” Mayor Paul Kuhns said. “We are basically saying that on public property, with public resources comes public responsibility and this [separation] of church and state is the city’s decision.”

Churches took in $6B of taxpayer money

The Freedom From Religion Foundation condemns the unconstitutional, possibly corrupt handout of taxpayer funds to churches, including churches run by some of President Trump’s closest allies, under the Paycheck Protection Program. New data released by the Small Business Administration on the program’s forgivable loans shows that more than 12,400 American churches took in billions of taxpayer dollars (while some were helping to spread the pandemic).

Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Board reaped substantial benefits. The First Baptist Church, run by Robert Jeffress, a vocal supporter of Trump’s Christian Nationalist policies, took in between $2 million and $5 million. Other members of the board fed at the government trough, many also receiving $2 million–$5 million, including: Jack Graham (Prestonwood Christian Academy); David Jeremiah (Shadow Mountain Community Church); Greg Laurie (Harvest Christian Fellowship), and Tom Mullins (Christ Fellowship Church). Still others connected to the board obtained smaller amounts, such as Paula White (City of Destiny), whose church received at least $150,000.

And yet other churches closely aligned with Trump also got forgivable loans of $2 million or more, including King Jesus International Ministry in Miami, led by Trump ally Guillermo Maldonado. It is difficult to determine with specificity how much taxpayers were forced to give to church leaders personally connected to Trump, but the figure is at least close to $50 million.

FFRF analysis, made possible by an initial search through the data for houses of worship (conducted by Professor Ryan Burge and posted publicly) reveals that U.S. churches took in at least $6 billion of taxpayer funds, possibly much more, in the Paycheck Protection Program. FFRF sounded the alarm in May about precisely this problem with the program’s funding, and has been vigorously investigating it ever since.

“These numbers are staggering,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “It’s everything the framers of our godless Constitution dreaded: the government wielding its taxing power to force citizens to support churches and pay preachers’ salaries. Where public money goes, public accountability should follow, but that is not the case with church finances.”

“One of the real dangers with unconstitutionally sending taxpayer funds to churches is that they become beholden to politicians,” adds FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. “This was one of the harms our Founders worried about.”

Roman Catholic churches and dioceses also dominated the list of recipients. For instance, the Diocese of Pittsburgh took in between $2 million and $5 million. That diocese was infamously featured in the Pennsylvania grand jury report on abuse and rape of minors involving 90-plus priests, some of whom marked victims with gold cross necklaces so other priests could more easily spot them. The church received its taxpayer infusion 20 months (to the day) after the grand jury report was finalized.

The Small Business Administration loan numbers were not specific, but were released in five sets of ranges: $150,000–$300,000; $350,000–$1 million; $1 million–$2 million; $2 million–$5 million; $5 million–$10 million.

The many reports and news stories about churches and worshippers acting as superspreaders of the coronavirus, with a number of them suing the government for preferential treatment from stay-at-home orders, make this gross violation of the principle of separation between state and church all the more appalling. As FFRF has documented, scientific data shows that churches have often been responsible for spreading the virus.

FFRF intends to continue its investigation into this constitutional violation and the appearance of political cronyism. This is just the tip of an unconstitutional iceberg.

Church and State

Dozens of religious groups got highest tier of funds

Under the government’s Paycheck Protection Program, at least two dozen religious organizations received the highest tier of funds (between $5 million and $10 million), according to Religion News Service.

Of those dozens, two megachurches — Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago and Life.Church in Edmond, Okla. — were included.

“The notion of separation of church and state is dead, and the PPP loan program is the evidence of that,” Micah Schwartzman, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law, told Reuters. “The money is going to fund core activities of many organizations, including religious organizations. That’s something we’ve not seen before.”

Religion News Service reported that several Protestant denominations, such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Presbyterian Church, also received between $5 million and $10 million, as did a dozen Roman Catholic entities and at least two Jewish organizations — the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations. Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in New Jersey, which is named after President Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner’s grandfather, got a loan in the range of $1 million to $2 million.

Reuters reported that the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Bernardino, Calif., received between $5 million and $10 million, despite publicly acknowledging its role in decades of sexual abuse.

And Ken Ham’s infamous Ark Encounter in Kentucky, the $100 million boondoggle meant to prove that the bible is literally true, has taken in between $1 million and $2 million through the PPP.

Most of the churches (70 percent) listed in the data received between $150,000 and $300,000, according to Ryan Burge, an assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University who examined the data.

But highly controversial figures have also received aid, including televangelists Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker and Peter Popoff.

Swaggart, who leads the Family Worship Center in Louisiana, was defrocked by the Pentecostal Assemblies of God in the early 1990s after being implicated in sex scandals. His church got between $2 million and $5 million.

Bakker, of Morningside Church Productions in Missouri, was also defrocked by the Assemblies of God after a highly publicized sexual encounter with a church secretary and was imprisoned in the 1990s on dozens of fraud and conspiracy charges surrounding his church fundraising. Morningside received between $350,000 and $1 million.

Popoff, of People United for Christ in California, was exposed for using an earpiece to receive radio messages from his wife so he could pretend to know personal details about his audience members during religious services. His church received between $350,000 and $1 million.

Between 12,000 and 13,000 of the 17,000 Catholic churches in the United States also applied for PPP loans, CBS News reports. The larger the church, the more likely it was to have applied for federal aid. Half of the pastors at churches that average 200 or more attendees said their church applied for a loan, compared to only a third of churches that average fewer than 50 attendees.

Pete Evans, an investigator of religious fraud for the Trinity Foundation, said he had expected controversial churches would receive the aid.

“You’re getting free money, and that’s what these guys are good at,” Evans told The Guardian.

Note: As a qualifying secular 501(c)(3) nonprofit, FFRF was eligible for and received a forgivable loan under the PPP of less than half a million dollars. Unlike churches, FFRF discloses its finances to the government and the public.

Court’s Guadalupe decision allows discrimination

FFRF is decrying the unwarranted expansion of a religious exemption by the U.S. Supreme Court as a blow to the rights of employees everywhere.

“The Supreme Court is allowing religious employers a broad opportunity to discriminate against employees. Their workers now will have less protection under civil rights laws,” says Dan Barker, FFRF co-president.

The consolidated cases of Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James School v. Biel dealt with the “ministerial exception” to civil rights laws, which allow religious organizations to fire their “ministerial” employees for any reason — even because of race, sex, religion, age, national origin, etc. The July 8 ruling, which dealt with the firing of two teachers at different Catholic schools, harmfully expands this exception under the guise of the religion clauses of the First Amendment.

“When a school with a religious mission entrusts a teacher with the responsibility of educating and forming students in the faith, judicial intervention into disputes between the school and the teacher threatens the school’s independence in a way that the First Amendment does not allow,” Justice Samuel Alito writes for the 7-2 majority opinion.

In a strong dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, points out the potentially dire societal consequences of the ruling.

“The court is not only wrong on the facts, but its error also risks upending antidiscrimination protections for many employees of religious entities,” she states. “Recently, this court has lamented a perceived ‘discrimination against religion.’ (Espinoza v. Montana Dept. of Revenue) Yet here it swings the pendulum in the extreme opposite direction, permitting religious entities to discriminate widely and with impunity for reasons wholly divorced from religious beliefs. The inherent injustice in the court’s conclusion will be impossible to ignore for long, particularly in a pluralistic society like ours.”

In an amicus brief filed before the court in March, FFRF had asked the high court to reject such overbroad firing practices.

FFRF’s brief was unique in warning the court that adopting the test preferred by the defendants would have an immediate, devastating impact on the rights of more than 1 million health-care employees — a point that is even more pertinent now than when the brief was filed.