In The News (April 2021)

U.S. Rep. Don Beyer joins Freethought Caucus

U.S. Rep. Don Beyer of Virginia is the newest member of the Congressional Freethought Caucus, which was started by Reps. Jared Huffman and Jamie Raskin.

Speaking at the Secular Coalition for America members’ meeting on Feb. 6, Beyer said:

“I was honored to be invited to join the Congressional Freethought Caucus in Congress. Congressman Jared Huffman and Congressman Jamie Raskin are two men I admire immensely. Together, we will do our best to minimize the impact and influence of religious rules and dogmas and intolerances on our laws and our budgets. If we are a nation founded on freedom, then it is essential that every person be free to think, believe, even worship in their own way — to the extent, of course, that it is lawful and does not impinge on the freedom of others.

“I have four children, none of whom have even the slightest inclination toward God, religion or church. Religion means 19 Muslims killing 3,000 people and themselves on 9/11, to earn virgins in heaven. It means Jerry Falwell and Jerry Falwell Jr., and the Moral Majority, which was neither. It means Shiites vs. Sunnis, Catholics vs. Protestants, burning at the stake because you don’t believe in baptism. Religion is equivalent to intolerance — of skin color, sexual orientation, class, and on and on. Religion means imposing your rules and practices and beliefs on everyone else — especially, especially when it comes to sexuality.”


Alabama can’t execute inmate without pastor

The Supreme Court on Feb. 12 said Alabama could not execute a death row inmate without the man’s pastor by his side, the Washington Post reported.

The court also indicated that other states must find a way to honor final requests for a spiritual adviser in the death chamber.

The court’s order came an hour before Alabama’s self-imposed deadline of executing Willie B. Smith III, convicted of a 1991 robbery and murder. A lower court had put the execution on hold, and Alabama asked the Supreme Court to step in.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett sided with liberal colleagues, saying federal law requires states to make accommodations for prisoners like Smith.


Tennessee bill would let man stop abortion

Tennessee lawmakers proposed a bill on Feb. 15 that would let a biological impregnator stop a woman from getting an abortion, according to a report by The Hill.

An injunction would only be granted to an individual if there is evidence the woman is considering an abortion and if there is evidence the man is the impregnator.

However, DNA evidence is not required for the injunction.

Once the injunction is issued, the court must hold a hearing with both parties within 14 days. If a woman violates the injunction and gets an abortion, “the court may hold the respondent in civil or criminal contempt and punish the respondent in accordance with the law.”

If the bills are passed and approved by the governor, they would take effect starting July 1.


Religion’s relevance down in Iran, Middle East

Several recent surveys in the Middle East show an increase in secularization and growing calls for reforms in religious political institutions, according to a report by Deutsche Welle.

“Personal piety has declined some 43 percent over the past decade, indicating less than a quarter of the population now define themselves as religious,” it said in the Middle East survey report.

In Iran, the survey showed 47 percent reported “having transitioned from being religious to nonreligious.”

Pooyan Tamimi Arab, assistant professor of religious studies at Utrecht University and co-author of the survey, sees this transition as a logical consequence of Iran’s secularization.

“Iranian society has undergone huge transformations, such as the literacy rate has gone up spectacularly,” Tamimi Arab said.


Evangelicals more likely to believe QAnon theory

A survey shows that more than a quarter of white evangelical Protestants believe the QAnon conspiracy theory that purports former President Donald Trump was secretly battling a cabal of pedophile Democrats, the Religion News Service reports.

It also showed that about half of the evangelicals expressed support for the debunked claim that antifa was responsible for the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Experts say the data point to a widening ideological divide not only between white evangelicals and other religious groups in the country, but also between white evangelical Republicans and other members of their own party, RNS reports.

There was also significant support among white evangelicals for the claim that members of antifa, or anti-fascist activists, were “mostly responsible” for the attack on the U.S. Capitol — a discredited claim repeated by former Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani and conservative religious leaders such as the Rev. Franklin Graham. FBI officials have said there is “no indication” antifa played a role in the insurrection.


Young Black adults becoming less religious

Young Black adults are less religious and less engaged in Black churches than older generations, a Pew Research Center survey shows.

Black Millennials and members of Generation Z are less likely to rely on prayer, less likely to have grown up in Black churches and less likely to say religion is an important part of their lives, the Pew report states. Fewer attend religious services, and those who do attend are less likely to go to a predominantly Black congregation.

About one-in-five Black Americans are not affiliated with any religion and instead identify as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular,” and this phenomenon is increasing by generation: Roughly three-in-ten Black Gen Zers (28 percent) and Millennials (33 percent) in the survey are religiously unaffiliated, compared with just 11 percent of Baby Boomers and 5 percent of those in the Silent Generation.

But Black Americans are still more religious than the American public. They are more likely to say they believe in God or a higher power, and to report that they attend religious services regularly. They also are more likely to say religion is “very important” in their lives and to be affiliated with a religion, and to believe prayers to ancestors have protective power and that evil spirits can cause problems in a person’s life, the Pew report states.


God belief not needed to tell right from wrong

One doesn’t have to believe in God to believe in goodness, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center, analyzing various values driving the morals of atheists and religious believers.

The poll revealed more than half (51 percent) of people polled in 34 countries do not think believing in God is fundamental to being moral and having good values.

Overall, respondents in nations with lower gross domestic product are more likely to say that belief in God is necessary to be moral and have good values.

Also, individuals with more education are less likely to say that belief in God is necessary to be moral. This pattern closely tracks the connection between income levels and the way people answer this question, because there is a significant correlation between educational attainment and earnings.


Religious institutions not trustworthy for Gen Z

Trust in institutions among Americans in general has dwindled over the years and Gen Z — those born between 1995 and 2010 — are among the most distrustful, according to a story on the Religion In Public blog on Feb. 19. Gen Z members are also the generation most likely to self-identify as “atheist” or “agnostic” according to surveys.

The State of Religion and Young People 2020 confirmed that trust in organized religion was not very high — around two-thirds of young people rated their trust of religious institutions at 5 or below out of maximum of 10, with an overall mean score of 4.5 out of 10. This compares with an average score of 5.3 for banks.


Atheist Rep. running for Lt. Gov. in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania State Rep. Brian Sims, an outspoken progressive who is, according to “Friendly Atheist” Hemant Mehta, “openly gay, openly atheist, and never afraid to pick a fight with conservatives who want to use their power to hurt people,” is running for lieutenant governor.

The office is up for election in 2022.

If elected, he would become one of the highest-ranking openly atheist officials in the country — and the only one in statewide office.

According to the Advocate website, Sims “once posted a photo of him giving Mike Pence the middle finger at a protest where Sims and others were voicing opposition to the Trump administration’s policy of separating immigrant families. He has filmed himself calling out an anti-choice demonstrator at a Planned Parenthood facility in Philadelphia.”


Being godless might be good for your health

Atheists may be just as healthy as devoted believers, according to a new study from Canada called “Godless in the Great White North,” published in the Journal of Religion and Health.

In some cases, belief in God might actually be bad for your health. A 2020 study published in the Review of Religious Research found that “doubting theists” — those who believe in God but are less certain about those beliefs — reported poorer health outcomes.

Joseph Baker, a sociologist of religion at East Tennessee State University who worked on the study, said that atheism can give people a strong sense of identity and a clear set of values, which may help with their well-being, even if they don’t have the same kind of built-in social support that religious people do.


Archdioceses: Vaccine is ‘morally compromised’

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and at least six other dioceses from across the country have released statements expressing “moral concerns” about using the Johnson and Johnson vaccine because cells used to create the vaccine are derived from aborted fetal tissue in the 1970s.

The Archdiocese of New Orleans and Archdiocese of Detroit are among those that have stated that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is “morally compromised” and “morally problematic.”

The decision puts those dioceses in conflict with the Vatican and Pope Francis, who have been aggressively pro-vaccine. Last December, the Vatican approved the use of vaccines “that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process,” adding it’s “morally acceptable.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops hedged and said Catholics should get vaccinated, but should push for other options than the Johnson & Johnson one.


Vatican: Priests can’t bless same-sex unions

In a decree approved by Pope Francis, the Vatican on March 15 said priests cannot bless same-sex marriages, saying that such relationships are “not ordered to the Creator’s plan,” according to a report in the Washington Post.

“The blessing of homosexual unions cannot be considered licit,” the church said.

The “explanatory note,” issued by the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog, carries the weight of a universal ground rule for the Roman Catholic Church — and it regards one of the most controversial inside an institution divided over its stance on sexuality.

“The Catholic church has long fought against LGBT rights, and past popes have called same sex unions deviant or a moral evil,” the Washington Post reports.


‘In God We Trust’ to be OK in OK state buildings?

Oklahoma’s House speaker is pushing for the national motto, “In God We Trust,” to be displayed prominently in state buildings.

The Oklahoma House on March 1 passed Speaker Charles McCall’s House Bill 2085 to add the phrase in 342 state buildings at an estimated cost of $85,000.

Democrats argued that the bill violates the separation of church and state and could alienate Oklahomans with diverse religious beliefs.

Rep. Mauree Turner, who is Muslim, said whether it’s intentional or not, the legislation will hurt atheists and non-Christians.

“This bill sends a message,” she said. “It sends a message to folks who don’t believe in religion, to folks who believe in different religions and quite frankly, it sends a message to me.”

Rep. Regina Goodwin, made a similar point, noting additions to state buildings wouldn’t say, “In Buddha We Trust” or “In (Prophet) Muhammad We Trust,” nods to Buddhism and Islam, respectively.


Catholic schools hit by large enrollment drop

Enrollment in Roman Catholic schools in the United States dropped 6.4 percent from the previous academic year — the largest single-year decline in at least five decades, Catholic education officials reported March 1, according to ABC News.

Among the factors were the closure or consolidation of more than 200 schools and the difficulty for many parents of paying tuition fees that average more than $5,000 for grades K-8 and more than $10,000 for secondary schools, according to the National Catholic Educational Association.

John Reyes, the NCEA’s executive director for operational vitality, said the pandemic has been an “accelerant” for longstanding challenges facing Catholic education.

Between the 2019-2020 school year and the current year, nationwide enrollment dropped by 110,000 to about 1.6 million students. Back in the 1960s, enrollment was more than 5 million.


Atheists are most likely to get Covid vaccine

According to a recent survey reported by Religion News Service, atheists and agnostics scored highest of all religious groups in their willingness to get vaccinated.

Ninety percent of atheists and 80 percent of agnostics said they would “definitely or probably” get the Covid-19 vaccine.

Only 54 percent of white evangelicals said the same. It was the lowest of any religious or nonreligious group.

White evangelicals are the least likely to say they should consider the health effects on their community when making a decision to be vaccinated. Only 48 percent of white evangelicals said they would consider the community health effects “a lot” when deciding to be vaccinated. That compares with 70 percent of Black Protestants, 65 percent of Catholics and 68 percent of unaffiliated Americans.

John Fea, a U.S. historian at Messiah University who studies evangelicals, said he wasn’t surprised that white evangelicals seemed least likely to want to take advantage of the vaccine.

“There’s a long history of anti-science within American evangelicalism,” Fea said.


Swiss ‘burka ban’ accepted by slim majority

Switzerland will introduce a clause in its constitution to outlaw face coverings, including the Islamic burka and niqab, in public spaces after a 51.2 percent to 48.8 percent vote on March 7.

It will join five other European countries, including France and Austria, who have already banned such garments in public.

Exceptions to the law will include face coverings for reasons of security, climate, or health – which means protective masks worn against Covid-19 are acceptable. Niqabs and burkas will still be allowed in places of worship.


Supreme Court: Graduated student can seek damages

The U.S. Supreme Court on March 8 sided with a former Georgia college student who sued his school after it prevented him from expressing religious views in a free-speech zone on campus.

The 8-1 decision, with only Chief Justice John Roberts dissenting, said that Chike Uzuegbunam, who was silenced by Georgia Gwinnett College officials even after he had obtained a permit to proselytize and handout religious literature, can seek nominal damages despite the fact that the school ultimately changed course and Uzuegbunam subsequently graduated.

First Amendment advocates, including FFRF, called the decision a win for free speech and religious expression. The decision reversed two lower court rulings that agreed with the school in calling the case moot.


Pandemic has Vatican bracing for $60M deficit

According to a statement released by the Vatican on Feb. 19, Catholic Church leaders say the financial toll of the Covid-19  pandemic on Vatican coffers will be more than $60 million.

Expenses for the tiny city-state this year are expected to reach almost $376 million, while revenues lag behind at just above $316 million.

The Vatican said that its finances were “heavily impacted by the economic crisis generated by the COVID-19 pandemic,” which shrank donations and closed the high-earning Vatican museums for months.

The Vatican has not been particularly forthcoming with the state of its finances in the past, but it released its 2021 budget, the statement said, “with the objective of providing more visibility and transparency to the economic transactions of the Holy See.”

In the United States, Catholic dioceses and other Catholic institutions received at least $3 billion in federal aid from the Paycheck Protection Program.


‘QAnon Shaman’ denied request to leave jail

Jacob Chansley, the “QAnon Shaman” who is facing federal charges for his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, has been denied a request to be released until trial, despite appeals to his “Shamanic faith,” Religion News Service reports.

A lawyer representing Chansley asked that his client be released from prison while he awaits trial because of his refusal accept a vaccine for Covid-19. Chansley’s refusal to be vaccinated, combined with various COVID-19 protocols in place at prisons where he is being held, have made communication with his attorney impossible, his lawyer said.

But U.S. District Court Judge Royce  Lamberth rejected Chansley’s request on March 8, dismissing several of the arguments — including religious ones.

“To put it plainly, defendant’s religious objection to the Covid-19 vaccine is not a relevant reason, let alone a ‘compelling reason,’ to grant his temporary release,” Lamberth wrote.

Churches favored over science again

The U.S. Supreme Court has engaged again in religiously preferential conduct toward churches resisting Covid-19 health orders, much to the FFRF’s chagrin.

In an unsigned order issued on Feb. 27, the high court blocked local health regulations seeking to slow the spread of Covid-19 via indoor worship services. A group of churches suing Santa Clara County, Calif., appealed to the Supreme Court after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals left in place limits on indoor worship. The court’s brief order simply refers to one of its prior decisions: “This outcome is clearly dictated by this court’s decision in South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom.” Justices Elena Kagan, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor dissented.

The county had argued that its regulations, which temporarily limited “all indoor gatherings of all kinds,” are neutral and did not single out churches. The county also filed a letter with the court indicating that decreasing rates of Covid-19 would lead to allowing indoor worship gatherings as early as Wednesday, March 3. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court went ahead with its order.

Covid-19 cases have topped 114 million globally, with more than 2.53 million deaths.

“Given the fact that the United States is the worst-hit country with the highest number of cases and deaths, it’s appalling that the Supreme Court has gone out of its way to favor churches,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Churches and religious gatherings have figured highly as super-spreaders. This decision is not based on the science, but on privileging churches.”

Other California churches that challenged health orders have flaunted their disregard for public health — and have been coddled by the highest court in the land. Harvest Rock Church was granted an injunction by the Supreme Court on Feb. 5. Its most recent Sunday service featured 30 straight seconds of shouting as part of a 40-minute sing-along.

“This reckless behavior is exactly why churches should have to follow the same rules as other gatherings,” adds Gaylor.

Epidemiologists have warned about extended worship gatherings that involve singing. Kagan had previously cited the state of California’s expert witness, who reported that there is an increased risk of community spread where churches have lengthy gatherings that involve singing or chanting.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court continues to favor churches over science.

In the News (March 2021)

Court: Boston can reject Christian flag

Three flags fly outside the Boston City Hall. One is always the American flag, the second is always the Massachusetts state flag and the third flag varies, based on private groups who submit their flag to be flown. A court ruled that the city may bar the Christian flag from being the third flag. (Photo courtesy of city of Boston)

The city of Boston can refuse a citizen’s request to fly a Christian flag over City Hall, the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Jan. 22, according to Courthouse News.

This doesn’t violate the plaintiff’s right to free speech nor does it discriminate against religion, the court said.

Boston is “entitled to select the views that it wants to express,” U.S. Circuit Judge Bruce Selya wrote for a three-judge panel. And the refusal to fly the flag “simply cannot be construed to suggest the disparagement of the plaintiffs’ religion.”

The court said the flagpoles represent the government’s speech, not the public’s speech, because a casual observer seeing the flags would assume that the city intended whatever message they convey. 

FFRF had originally joined the amicus brief supporting the city.

Ex-state Rep. Saccone resigns after comments

Former Pennsylvania state Rep. Rick Saccone, who was the target of an FFRF lawsuit in 2012, resigned from his teaching position at St. Vincent College after comments he made on social media.

Saccone tweeted a selfie from the Capitol on Jan. 6, saying: “We are storming the Capitol . . .  We will save this nation. Are u with me?”

A pro-Trump violent demonstration at the U.S. Capitol left five dead. Saccone, 62, resigned as an adjunct instructor the following day, Jan. 7.

In March 2012, FFRF sued against a declaration by the Pennsylvania House that 2012 is “The Year of the Bible,” which was authored by Saccone. U.S. District Judge Christopher Conner on Oct. 1, 2012, dismissed the case, ruling House officials had legislative immunity, but chastised House officials for “premeditated pandering.”

Abortion ban takes effect in Poland

A near-total ban on abortion in Poland went into effect on Jan. 27, despite protests from hundreds of thousands of residents.

The law halts the termination of pregnancies for fetal abnormalities, basically the only kind of abortion performed in Poland.

The decision had been made in October by the Constitutional Tribunal, but its implementation was delayed after it prompted a month of protests. On Jan. 27,  the government abruptly announced that the ruling was being published in the government’s journal, meaning it came into effect.

“We are dealing with incompetence, corruption, a total decay of the state, so these men are doing what they know best — taking away rights and freedoms from the citizens,” Marta Lempart, a protest organizer, told a television station.

8-year-old expelled for having crush on girl

Chloe Shelton, an 8-year-old second-grader, was expelled from Rejoice Christian Schools in Owasso, Okla., because she told another girl she had a crush on her.

“[Chloe] said the vice principal sat her down and said the bible says you can only marry a man and have children with a man,” said Delanie Shelton, Chloe’s mother. “My daughter was crying, saying, ‘Does God still love me?’”

Rejoice Christian Schools told Shelton they don’t condone boyfriend/girlfriend relationships on campus.

“The vice principal asked me ‘How do I feel about girls liking girls?’ And I said, ‘If we’re being honest, I think it’s OK for girls to like girls’ and she looked shocked and appalled,” Delanie Shelton said.

Ark. House OKs bill to let churches stay open

A bill passed the Arkansas House 75–10 on Jan. 28 that would prohibit the state from closing churches or prohibiting religious gatherings during emergencies, including a pandemic.

The bill would allow houses of worship to ignore reasonable public health restrictions, increasing the likelihood that in-person church services will become Covid-19 superspreader events.

The bill now moves to the Republican-heavy state Senate, which is also likely to approve it.

Iowa bill would ‘out’ LGBTQ+ students

A bill introduced in the Iowa Senate has critics saying that it’s a blatant attempt to “out” LGBTQ+ students.

Senate File 80 states that if a school chooses to ask a student or give them a survey which asks them to identify their gender, that information would be required to be provided to the parent or guardian of the student.

One Iowa, whose mission is to improve the lives of the LGBTQ+ community in Iowa, has criticized the bill because not all students who consider themselves LGBTQ+ are comfortable “outing” themselves to their parents.

Survey: Covid-19 in U.S. has strengthened faith

A Pew Research Center survey conducted in the summer of 2020 reveals that more Americans than people in other economically developed countries say the outbreak has bolstered their religious faith and the faith of their compatriots.

Nearly three in 10 Americans (28 percent) report stronger personal faith because of the pandemic, and the same share think the religious faith of Americans overall has strengthened, according to the survey of 14 economically developed countries.

Far smaller shares in other parts of the world say religious faith has been affected by the coronavirus. For example, just 10 percent of British adults report that their own faith is stronger as a result of the pandemic. In Japan, 5 percent of people say religion now plays a stronger role in both their own lives and the lives of their fellow citizens.

Majorities or pluralities in all the countries surveyed do not feel that religious faith has been strengthened by the pandemic, including 68 percent of U.S. adults who say their own faith has not changed much.

Judge: Church’s beach parking is religious act

A federal judge in Florida ruled on Jan. 29 that the community of St. Pete Beach couldn’t stop a church from allowing beachgoers to use its parking lot, calling the practice a legitimate ministry.

The United Church of Christ parking lot, which has 70 spaces, is about a block from a metered lot run by the city. In June 2016, the city fined the church twice for violating a law governing commercial parking lots. The church filed its complaint in the U.S. District Court of Florida.

As Religion News Service writes, “The arguments in the case hinged, as they often do in religious freedom rulings, on whether the church’s insistence on keeping the parking lot available to the public was ‘a sincerely held belief’ of the church’s faith.”

Researcher: Definition of ‘evangelical’ changing

Ryan Burge, assistant professor of political science and a researcher from Eastern Illinois University, says that the term “evangelical” is morphing into something more political.   

In his Jan. 26 op-ed on the Religion News Service site, “Think U.S. evangelicals are dying out? Well, define evangelicalism,” Burge writes: “The assumption is that the term [evangelical] describes those who place high value on the teachings of the bible and strive to evangelize other people into their faith.

“However, that understanding of the term seems to be fading, replaced with a more amorphous concept that melds together religious doctrine and an affinity for conservative politics that experts are only beginning to understand now.”

Burge continues: “For instance, in her book From Politics to Pews, scholar Michele Margolis argues that people are choosing their religious affiliation based on their political partisanship with greater frequency now than in prior decades.”

Saudi women’s activist released from prison

Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul was released from custody on Feb 10, according to several news outlets.

She was best known for challenging the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia. In 2014, al-Hathloul, tried to drive her car across the border from the United Arab Emirates into Saudi Arabia and was detained for more than 70 days.

She was arrested in 2018 and sentenced to almost six years in prison last December under a broad counterterrorism law. She’s been in prison since then and her release after 1,001 days is due to time served and a partially suspended sentence

But al-Hathloul’s family has said she is not really free because she has been banned from leaving the country for five years and will not be allowed to speak with journalists.

Satanic Temple sues Boston over prayer policy

The Satanic Temple on Jan. 23 sued the city of Boston after the City Council declined to allow Satanists to deliver an invocation at the start of its meetings.

The Satanic Temple said the council’s policy for its opening prayer is discriminatory and unconstitutional because it does not permit prayer from every religious organization that wishes to deliver one.

Satanists have asked to give the opening invocation on at least three occasions, and each time they were informed the council doesn’t accept requests, the organization said.

The Satanic Temple, in its federal lawsuit, argued that the council policy violates the city’s public accommodations statute, which states that any place serving a public function is entitled to protection from discrimination. It also violates the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause, which it argues guarantees all religions an equal opportunity to participate in free-speech forums.

After legal battle, secular invocation given in Florida

David Williamson

David Williamson, a director and co-founder of the Central Florida Freethought Community (a chapter of FFRF), offered what is believed to be the first-ever secular invocation to open a meeting of Brevard’s Board of County Commissioners.

Williamson’s invocation on Jan. 26 was noteworthy because the board previously had denied him and other nontheists the opportunity to offer secular invocations to open its meetings, while permitting a parade of religious invocations, thus sparking a nearly five-year-long legal battle. The case, in which FFRF was a major participant, ended successfully in February 2020 when commissioners agreed not to discriminate against nonreligious individuals or those who don’t belong to mainstream, monotheistic religions.

Williamson’s remarks reflect on the shared American ideals of public service, democracy, compassion, community and seeking common ground.

“The religious landscape of Brevard includes a fast-growing number of nonreligious people,” stated Williamson. “It is an honor to begin the process of including atheists, humanists and others who claim no religion whatsoever as equal members of the community.”

Williamson was the lead plaintiff in Williamson v. Brevard County, which was filed in 2015 by FFRF, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Florida. Other plaintiffs included the Central Florida Freethought Community; the Space Coast Freethought Association and its former president, Chase Hansel; the Humanist Community of the Space Coast and its president, Keith Becher; and Brevard County resident Ronald Gordon.

The plaintiffs settled the case last year after the county agreed to implement a July 2019 decision of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which made clear that government officials must not engage in religious discrimination when selecting people to deliver opening invocations. As part of the settlement, the county agreed to pay nearly $500,000 in damages and legal fees to plaintiffs.

Report: $1.5B PPP abuse by Catholic Church

Don Addis cartoon

Another new bombshell report by the Associated Press shows once again that churches are stealing from the American taxpayer:

“As the pandemic began to unfold, AP revealed Feb. 4, “scores of Catholic dioceses across the U.S. received aid through the Paycheck Protection Program while sitting on well over $10 billion in cash, short-term investments or other available funds, an Associated Press investigation has found. And despite the broad economic downturn, these assets have grown in many dioceses.”

AP reports that “[t]he 112 dioceses that shared their financial statements collected at least $1.5 billion in taxpayer-backed aid. A majority of these dioceses reported enough money on hand to cover at least six months of operating expenses, even without any new income.”

The PPP is not even a year old and already the grift and abuse by church has been enormous. And, unfortunately, we’ll see more: The Paycheck Protection Program was reopened on Jan. 11.

Remember all the state/church problems with PPP that FFRF has fought and brought to light in the past year?

First, the Small Business Administration violated the Constitution and trampled longstanding agency rules to extend these loans to churches. This was clearly unconstitutional, as FFRF explained to the SBA at the time.

The SBA is currently — even under the new administration — working to make these rules permanent.

Second, this rule change was not authorized by the COVID relief act that created PPP. The CARES Act extended eligibility for loans from the SBA to nonprofits, which was new. But the law did not give the SBA the power to extend this eligibility to churches, nor could it — the Constitution prohibits government funding of religion. The CARES Act only mentions religion once, to prevent universities from using taxpayer funds for “capital outlays associated with facilities related to athletics, sectarian instruction, or religious worship.”

However, the SBA ignored that language, and the centuries-old bar on taxpayer-funded religious worship, and issued rules and guidance declaring that your taxpayer funds “can be used to pay the salaries of ministers and other staff engaged in the religious mission of institutions.” To do this, SBA had to suspend numerous rules that, correctly, prevented taxpayer funds from flowing to churches.

SBA was spurred to do this because a few congressmen, like Christian Nationalist Josh Hawley who has since helped incite an insurrection, declared after the fact and against the language of the law and the Constitution, that churches were beneficiaries. Again, FFRF was there to explain why this was wrong.

Third, the Trump administration was using the program to reward his closest political allies. FFRF broke the story of secretive White House calls between SBA officials and religious leaders that supported Trump politically. The preachers were encouraged to apply for the PPP funds and promised help. Trump-allied faith leaders were assured by the federal government that even a discriminatory fly-by-night “church” that provides absolutely no secular social services, and of which the owner is the sole employee, could have its wages covered by taxpayers during the PPP time period. On one call, Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, a member of Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Council, explained that the Dr. James Dobson Family Institute, which took in $350,000–$1 million, “has literally been kept solvent . . . by the Paycheck Protection Plan (sic)” and explained that in 43 years of leading two faith-based ministries, he has “never asked for, nor received, one cent from the federal government” expressing his surprise that taxpayer funds could now flow to his ministry.

Finally, there’s well-documented but still emerging abuse. FFRF Director of Strategic Response Andrew Seidel  wrote, “American churches took in as much as $10 billion in taxpayer funds through PPP loans. More than 400 evangelical churches received loans of at least $1 million. The Catholic Church might have taken in as much as $3.5 billion.” He explained that Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church took in nearly $5 million in taxpayer funds. Other mega-churches purchased private jets, returning the taxpayer money when they were caught.

And this is only the tip of the corruption, as the latest AP report shows.

In the News (Jan/Feb 2021)

Court backs religious groups in two states

The Supreme Court on Dec. 15 sided with religious groups in Colorado and New Jersey that argued that the states’ pandemic-related restrictions on worship services violated religious liberty rights.

In unsigned orders, the justices shot down lower court opinions in challenges that went in favor of the states.

The New Jersey challenge concerned restrictions related to limiting attendance at houses of worship as well as the state’s “mask mandate” that critics said violated the free exercise of religion because there are exemptions for secular reasons, including health, exercise and eating, but masks are only allowed to be removed momentarily in religious settings.

In the Colorado case, the court ruled in favor of High Plains Harvest Church, a small church in Ault.

The dispute was brought against Jill Hunsaker Ryan, executive director of the Colorado Department of Health and Environment, who had issued an order capping attendance at houses of worship to 50 people.

53% of Americans believe in God with no doubts

According to findings from the American National Social Network Survey, 53 percent of Americans report they believe in God without any doubts at all. Conversely, 6 percent of Americans say they do not believe in God and express no uncertainty in their belief.

A majority of Americans (59 percent) say it is not necessary for a person to believe in God to be moral and have good values, which is a remarkable shift in recent years. A large part of this change is due to the rise of religiously unaffiliated Americans, who now make up 26 percent of the adult population.

Forty-one percent of Americans express at least some uncertainty about their belief in God. Eleven percent express some degree of disbelief in God, but remain at least somewhat unsure. Nineteen percent of Americans are inclined to believe in God but are somewhat less than completely certain in their belief. Eleven percent of Americans report being completely uncertain in their views on God.

Canadian churches fined $18K for COVID violations

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police said it has distributed tickets totaling $18,400 to representatives from three places of worship in British Columbia’s Fraser Valley for violating public health orders.

According to a press release, on the mornings of Dec. 6 and 13, 2020, Chilliwack RCMP responded to reports of groups of people gathering at three separate churches contrary to the existing public health order.

And on Dec. 17, 2020, police charged representatives of the congregations with eight counts of failure to comply with an order of a health officer, including fines amounting to $18,400.

Release humanist, says Nigerian court

A judge at the High Court in Abuja, Nigeria, ruled on Dec. 21 that Mubarak Bala should be immediately released from detention in Kano state, where he has been held since April 2020.

Bala, president of Humanist Association of Nigeria, was arrested by the state police after being accused of violating anti-blasphemy laws for calling the Prophet Muhammad a terrorist.

The ruling, in which the judge declared Bala’s continuous incarceration as illegal and ordered his immediate release, follows a “fundamental rights” petition detailing how Bala has been detained without charge for more than seven months, five months of which he was denied access to his legal representatives.

“Today’s ruling by the High Court in Abuja is a victory for the human rights of all citizens in Nigeria,” said Andrew Copson, president of Humanists International. “It is time our colleague Mubarak Bala was released immediately and unconditionally and we call upon leaders in Nigeria to respect due process and the rule of law.”

New Zealand votes to legalize euthanasia

New Zealand has voted to legalize euthanasia in what campaigners have called “a victory for compassion and kindness.”

Preliminary results showed 65 percent of voters supported the End of Life Choice Act. The law allows terminally ill people with less than six months to live the opportunity to choose assisted dying if approved by two doctors.

The law is expected to take effect in November. New Zealand will join a small group of countries, including the Netherlands and Canada, that allow euthanasia.

The legislation authorizes a doctor or nurse to administer or prescribe a lethal dose of medication to be taken under their supervision if all the conditions are met.

14 found guilty of aiding ‘Charlie Hebdo’ attacks

A French court on Dec. 16 convicted 14 people of crimes in relation to Islamist attacks in 2015 against the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine and a Jewish supermarket.

Brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi stormed Charlie Hebdo’s offices in Paris on Jan. 7, 2015, killing 12, nearly a decade after the magazine published cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad. A third attacker, Amedy Coulibaly, killed a police officer and then four Jewish hostages in a kosher supermarket in a Paris suburb. Like the Kouachis, Coulibaly was killed in a shoot-out with police.

The ruling found the 14 defendants guilty on a variety of charges, ranging from membership in a criminal network to complicity in the assault.

Prosecutors asserted that the 14 defendants who received their verdicts Dec. 16 aided the primary assailants with money, vehicles and other logistical support. Eleven of the accused have been behind bars awaiting trial, while the rest were tried in absentia.

South Carolina court: No money for private schools

South Carolina’s Supreme Court on Dec. 9 affirmed its rejection of Gov. Henry McMaster’s plan to spend federal coronavirus money on private school tuition grants.

The court’s unanimous decision strikes another blow to the governor’s months-long effort to direct $32 million in federal CARES Act aid toward a program that would pay for poor and working-class children to attend K-12 private schools in South Carolina this year.

The ruling also provides no help to 22 private colleges in South Carolina, including historically black colleges and universities, who were seeking an exception to the ruling so they could collect some $12 million in coronavirus relief.

The ruling was a follow-up to the state Supreme Court’s Oct. 7 also unanimous decision in the same case, where the justices ruled for the first time that the state’s Constitution prohibited the spending of public money for private schools.

“The Supreme Court’s opinion, affirmed today, is an unequivocal affirmation of our state Constitution’s prohibition of the use of public K-12 education dollars, allocated in any form, to private schools,” said Scott Price, executive director of the S.C. School Board Association.

Sculptor Zenos Frudakis featured on public TV show

Renowned sculptor and FFRF Member Zenos Frudakis is one of the artists featured in Season 6 of the Emmy Award-winning public television magazine series “Articulate with Jim Cotter.” The episode featuring Frudakis, titled “The Monument Man,” aired beginning Jan. 15. The series informs  audiences with stories of how creative thinking shapes our world. “The Monument Man” episode explores the artistic drive behind the creative work of Frudakis, who, as “Articulate” describes him, “has spent the last 50 years sculpting life out of bronze, aiming to capture the likeness and spirit of his subjects and to shine a light on those who have helped foster change in the world.”

Frudakis is the sculptor who, underwritten by FFRF, created the Clarence Darrow statue outside the courthouse in Dayton, Tenn., site of the 1925

Rep. Raskin’s remarks — ‘Thought crimes that have no actual victims’

U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin

The Freedom From Religion Foundation cheered the U.S. Senate’s and House’s approval in December of a resolution seeking the global repeal of blasphemy and related laws. Both resolutions specifically note that “secularists” are frequent victims of such laws.

Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., co-chair of the Congressional Freethought Caucus, spoke on the floor of the House in support of the anti-blasphemy resolution on Dec. 7, 2020. The following is a slightly edited version of that speech.

By U.S. Rep Jamie Raskin

Mr. Speaker, in this age of partisan division, one of the foundational American values still has the power to bring us together across the aisle — the defense of every human being’s freedom of religious conscience and freedom of thought against government persecution.

With House Resolution 512, we act today to stand up for religious and intellectual freedom in a world gone mad with religious discrimination, religious oppression and religious violence. H.R. 512 calls for global repeal of laws punishing blasphemy, heresy and apostasy — three religiously defined thought crimes that have no actual victims and thus no place in the criminal law of free nations.

And, yet, governments in 84 countries — from Saudi Arabia and Iran and Somalia to China and Russia and Bangladesh — still use laws like these to intimidate, arrest, prosecute and incarcerate members of minority religions, disfavored faiths and freethinkers. Putting them in jail or even condemning them to death for religiously subversive speech was not unknown in the American colonies. In Massachusetts, Puritan governors hanged Quakers for their heretical lectures in town squares. But our enlightenment Constitution, especially our First Amendment’s Free Exercise and antireligious Establishment clauses, put us squarely on the path of rejecting blasphemy laws and these other relics of the Inquisition, holy crusades and New England witchcraft trials.

Our law has gotten rid of obsolete offenses like blasphemy and apostasy because they have a purely religious character and do not refer to empirical social harms. Blasphemy is making impious or sacrilegious statements about established churches or doctrines. Heresy is taking religious or intellectual positions at odds with an established religious orthodoxy. Apostasy is breaking away from a religious orthodoxy or church. As offensive as we might consider other people’s religious views and utterances, in America today, people’s thoughts and words about religion are absolutely protected by the First Amendment. But in many parts of the world where religion is still actively weaponized by theocratic and authoritarian governments, these imaginary offenses can still get you thrown into jail, harassed and executed, or simply stopped and torn from limb to limb by state-sanctioned lynch mobs.

Religious people of the wrong faith are the most common victims of blasphemy and heresy laws.

You might be a practicing Christian or Hindu in an officially Muslim state like Libya or Afghanistan or a devout Muslim in a Hindu society like India. You might be a nonreligious person targeted by your enemies or state authorities.

You might be a 22-year-old Nigerian gospel musician like Yahoo Sharif Aminu, who is convicted of blasphemy in his state Sharia Court in Kano State on Aug 10, and has been sentenced to death by hanging for something that he said on a WhatsApp group on the Internet.

You might be a Sudanese Christian like Meriam Ibrahim, who was jailed for apostasy because, although she’d been a devout Christian for her entire life, government officials demanded that she follow her absent father’s Muslim faith. She was held in jail with her 20-month-old son and forced to give birth to her daughter in prison while her legs were shackled to the floor.

You might be a 13-year-old Muslim boy in Nigeria, like Omar Farouk, who was sentenced to 10 years at hard labor for blasphemy when he said something about Allah in an argument with friends — a brutal miscarriage of justice condemned by UNICEF and child advocates all over the world.

You might even belong to the wrong sect of the official state religion. In the Islamic State of Pakistan, for example, people belonging to the Ahmadiyya Muslim faith are being persecuted as heretics and apostates as if this were the Middle Ages. At least five Ahmadi Muslims have been killed in Pakistan this year [2020] alone because of their faith.

Mr. Speaker, the global assault on religious and intellectual freedom today is taking place in many of the world’s largest countries. China confines millions of Muslims in miserable re-education camps and forces them into slave labor. Russia has decreed that Jehovah’s Witnesses are an extremist group and confiscated their property, jailed their members and even allegedly tortured some of them. India recently passed draconian laws burdening the rights of disfavored Muslim minorities.

With this resolution, Mr. Speaker, against the new wave of global religious oppression and persecution, America can once again take the lead in defending the basic human rights of religious and intellectual freedom all over the world.

Let us share this principle with the nations of the world with this resolution.

Raskin family creates fund

Following the death of U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin’s 25-year-old son Tommy in late December, the Raskin family announced the launch of the Tommy Raskin Memorial Fund for People and Animals. The fund will distribute money to causes and charities championed by Tommy Raskin, including Oxfam, Give Directly, the Helen Keller Institute and Animal Outlook. The fund was launched with an initial contribution of $50,000 and FFRF has made a donation.

Condolences or donations can be sent to [email protected] or by mail to his district office at 51 Monroe Street, Suite 503, Rockville, MD 20850.

In the News (December 2020)

Church defiance to restrictions is growing

The number of people who want their church congregation to defy potential state orders to close due to the coronavirus has grown since March, according to surveys done by Paul A. Djupe of Denison University and Ryan P. Burge of Eastern Illinois University.

In March, 56 percent of those surveyed did not want their congregation to defy such an order, but that shrunk to 39 percent by October. Support for the government asking congregations to stop meeting in person slipped from 66 percent in March to 56 percent in October.

The data was clear across political party lines as the defiance is growing in all categories of political leanings. Even strong Democrats are urging a more defiant stance, though the growth among Republicans is much greater.

Poland delays abortion ban as protests continue

Poland’s right-wing government has delayed implementation of a controversial court ruling that would outlaw almost all abortion after it prompted massive protests in more than 500 cities around the country.

The decision by the country’s constitutional tribunal promised to further tighten Poland’s abortion laws, which were already some of the strictest in Europe. Abortion is allowed in Poland only if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, if the woman’s life is in danger, or if the fetus is affected by severe congenital defects. The Oct. 22 court decision eliminated the last of these three conditions from the list.

The overwhelming majority of legal abortions — 1,074 of 1,100 performed last year — resulted from fetal abnormalities.

Trump sparks a rise of Patriot churches

Patriot churches are part of “an evolving network of nondenominational start-up congregations that say they want to take the country back for God,” according to an article in the Washington Post on Oct. 26.

Patriot churches belong to what religion experts describe as a loosely organized Christian Nationalist movement that has flourished under President Trump.

Sociologist Samuel Perry, co-author of the new book Taking America Back for God, says “no other factor better predicts a vote for Trump than adherence to a Christian Nationalist ideology,” the Post reports.

In just four years, Trump has helped reshape the landscape of American Christianity by elevating Christians once considered fringe, which has, as the Post reports, “made for some strange bedfellows, but the common thread among them is a sense of being under siege and a belief that America has been and should remain a Christian nation.”

Beheaded French teacher to be awarded honor

France will posthumously honor Samuel Paty, a teacher who was beheaded on Oct. 16, with the Legion d’Honneur, the nation’s highest honor.

Paty, 47, was killed and beheaded in the Paris suburb of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine as he walked home from school.

His brutal murder took place after he was targeted by an attacker who prosecutors say sought to punish him for showing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, considered blasphemous by the teachings of Islam, to pupils during a civics class teaching freedom of expression.

Americans supportive of LGBTQ rights

According to the Public Religion Research Institute, the vast majority of Americans (70 percent) favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally. Majorities of Democrats (80 percent) and independents (76 percent), as well as half of Republicans (50 percent), support same-sex marriage.

White evangelical Protestants stand out as the only major religious group in which a majority opposes allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry (only 34 percent favor). Majorities in every other major religious group support marriage equality, including 90 percent of religiously unaffiliated Americans.

Americans overwhelmingly favor (83 percent) laws that would protect gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people against discrimination in jobs, public accommodations and housing.

John Paul II blamed for McCarrick elevation

Pope John Paul II disregarded warnings in elevating Theodore E. McCarrick to the position of cardinal, a Vatican inquiry found.

The Vatican report found that John Paul II had rejected explicit warnings about sexual abuse by McCarrick, now a disgraced former cardinal, “choosing to believe the American prelate’s denials and misleading accounts by bishops as he elevated him to the highest ranks of the church hierarchy,” the New York Times reports.

As Washington’s archbishop, McCarrick was one of the most powerful leaders of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. But he became the highest-ranking American official to be removed for sexual abuse when the pope kicked him out of the priesthood in 2019.

Survey: Prejudice higher for religion in the UK

Religious prejudice is the “final frontier” for diversity, a place where individuals are willing to express negative attitudes, according to “How We Get Along,” a diversity study in England and Wales in 2020.

The report says, “We are a society largely comfortable with the idea of a close relative marrying someone from a different ethnic or national background. We are, however, less comfortable with a close relative marrying someone from a different religious background.

“This particularly applies to marrying a Muslim, the group most often targeted by negative attitudes from other faith groups, but also the group most likely to have negative attitudes towards other faith groups.”

Around three-quarters of those surveyed are comfortable with a close relative marrying an Asian or Black person (70 percent and 74 percent), but less than half (44 percent) are comfortable with the idea of a close relative marrying a Muslim.

W.Va. can’t use consumer law to sue church

The West Virginia Supreme Court said the state’s attorney general cannot use a consumer protection law to sue a Roman Catholic diocese over sexual abuse allegations.

The court, on Nov. 23, issued its opinion in response to a lawsuit the state filed last year accusing the Wheeling-Charleston diocese of failing to publicly disclose the employment of sexual abusers in its schools and camps.

The absence of such disclosure amounted to a violation of a consumer protection law, Attorney General Patrick Morrisey argued.

The narrow legal question concerned whether using the 2015 Consumer Credit and Protection Act to sue the diocese violates the separation of church and state. A lower court judge had stayed his order to dismiss Morrisey’s lawsuit pending the Supreme Court’s review.

In its majority opinion, the high court said the law does not apply to services provided by a religious institution.

Among the lawsuit’s allegations was that the diocese failed to conduct more than 20 background checks at a Catholic elementary school in Charleston in 2007 and 2008.

It also accused the diocese of covering up a 2006 report on sexual abuse allegations involving a teacher in Kanawha County.

Buffalo diocese sued over sex abuse  cover-up

The state of New York on Nov. 23 sued the Roman Catholic Diocese of Buffalo and two former church leaders, alleging they “covered up allegations of sexual misconduct and misused charitable assets by supporting predatory priests who were allowed to retire or go on leave,” according to the Associated Press.

New York’s Attorney General Letitia James filed the suit against the diocese, former Bishop Richard Malone and former Auxiliary Bishop Edward Grosz.

It comes after a two-year investigation that found church leaders sheltered accused priests by letting them step away from ministry rather than follow mandated procedures that would subject them to possible removal from the priesthood.

Appeals court: Texas can kick PP out of Medicaid

A federal appeals court is allowing Texas to kick Planned Parenthood out of its Medicaid program.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Nov. 23 sided with state officials who removed Planned Parenthood from the program for low-income people, according to a report in the Texas Tribune. The state cited a highly edited video created by anti-abortion advocates in 2015 that purported to show PP officials selling fetal tissue.

A lower court had blocked the state from removing Planned Parenthood in 2017. But the 5th Circuit judges ruled that legal precedent disqualifies Medicaid beneficiaries from taking issue with how states determine which providers are qualified to be in the program.

In the News (November 2020)

Supreme Court won’t hear Kim Davis case

The Supreme Court on Oct. 5 said it won’t hear a case from Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses for same-sex couples, the Washington Post reported.

The court rebuffed the case from Davis, the former county clerk who was sued after she said her religious convictions kept her from recognizing same-sex marriages. She was briefy jailed over the issue.

While Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. said they agreed with the court’s decision not to accept Davis’ appeal, they renewed their objections over the case.

“Davis may have been one of the first victims of this court’s cavalier treatment of religion in its Obergefell decision, but she will not be the last,” Thomas wrote. “Due to Obergefell, those with sincerely held religious beliefs concerning marriage will find it increasingly difficult to participate in society without running afoul of Obergefell and its effect on other anti-discrimination laws.”

Some baptisms may be invalid, archdiocese says

The Archdiocese of Detroit is trying to contact those who may have received invalid sacraments after a priest in the archdiocese learned his own baptism as an infant 30 years ago was invalid, according to a report on DetroitCatholic.com.

On Aug. 6, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a note clarifying that baptisms using an improper formula — using the phrase “We baptize you . . .” instead of the Church’s “I baptize you . . .”  — are not valid.

Matthew Hood, an associate pastor, contacted the Archdiocese of Detroit after finding out that his baptism used the wrong wording.

“It was devastating for me to find that out,” Hood told Detroit Catholic. “There was definitely shock and sadness at finding out 30 years later that I was never baptized. It was an alienating sense that even though I was following the Lord, I wasn’t a Christian, and I wasn’t a priest, and I wasn’t a deacon.”

Court shows interest in abortion medication case

The Supreme Court issued a decision on Oct. 8 saying that it was holding onto a case involving access to abortion medication. While not yet deciding the matter, the court said in FDA v. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists that it would benefit from a “more comprehensive record.” It directed a lower court to consider a request from the government to lift a court order that provides for non-contact access to abortion medication.

Because of the pandemic, a Maryland district court issued an injunction against the enforcement of an FDA rule that requires women to pick up in person a pill that induces abortion. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, doctors and patients sued over the rule, given concerns about unnecessary face-to-face contact. The FDA asked the Supreme Court to reinstate the rule.

This decision by the Supreme Court is significant because it shows substantial interest by the justices on this issue. The decision is also informative because of a dissent filed by Justice Samuel Alito, who would have taken the case outright and ruled in favor of the FDA. He wrote that the pandemic has caused “unprecedented restrictions on personal liberty,” and said that “free exercise of religion also has suffered previously unimaginable restraints.” Alito added, “While COVID–19 has provided the ground for restrictions on First Amendment rights, the District Court saw the pandemic as a ground for expanding the abortion right recognized in Roe v. Wade.”

Pakistani court acquits man for blasphemy

A Pakistani appeals court has acquitted a Christian man who spent about seven years in jail on the accusation of blasphemy.

Sawan Masih, 40, was arrested in 2013 on blasphemy charge following an argument with a Muslim.

A two-member bench of the Lahore High Court on Oct. 6 acquitted Masih of all charges, with a full verdict detailing the reasons for the acquittal to be issued at a later date.

Masih was convicted and sentenced to death under Pakistan’s strict blasphemy laws by a lower court in 2014. The court had convicted him of insulting Prophet Muhammad, a charge that carries a mandatory death penalty under Pakistani law.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews hit hard by coronavirus

Defiance to public health measures and lack of education are the driving forces behind the high levels of COVID–19 infections among ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel (and New York City), according to an article in Foreign Policy.

Israelis, in general, have followed the lockdown protocols, the ultra-Orthodox Jews known as Haredim have accounted for as much as 40 percent of new daily confirmed cases in Israel.

And in New York City, another region with a large population of ultra-Orthodox Jews, communities have also been hit hard by the coronavirus. In one area, the average rate of positive test results was 28 percent, compared with 1 percent statewide.

Foreign Policy writes: “In Israel — and increasingly in the United States — the ultra-Orthodox community is impoverished and uneducated in the skills that prepare them for life in the modern world. Over the last decades, the Haredi ideal has been to be a ‘society of learners,’ where men pursue a life of religious study to the exclusion of everything else well into adulthood.”

Christian Nationalists flout safety guidelines

A group of academics say Christian Nationalism is either the single best predictor or a top predictor of whether a person will flout social distancing recommendations, among other science-negative beliefs and actions, according to a report from Religion News.

Samuel Perry, associate professor of sociology at the University of Oklahoma, Andrew Whitehead of Indiana University and Joshua Grubbs of Bowling Green State University “argue in a series of new papers that Christian Nationalism is a top predictor of whether a person will flout social distancing recommendations, be skeptical of science, find nothing racist about calling COVID–19 the ‘China virus’ or argue that lockdown orders threaten the economy and liberty — all while deprioritizing the threat to the vulnerable,” according to Religion News.

“Christian Nationalism is knocking out all of the competition in terms of factors that influence these things,” said Perry, who co-authored with Whitehead the book Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States.

Pope sides with science on climate change

Pope Francis, during a prerecorded TED talk that streamed Oct. 10, urged lawmakers to follow science and to deal with climate change as a “moral imperative,” according to a report by Religion News Service.

“Science tells us each day with greater precision that urgent action is needed — I am not exaggerating; this is what the science tells us! — if we want to have the hope of avoiding radical and catastrophic climate change,” the pope said in the message.

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.