Iowa governor raised private school funds

The Iowa governor has transgressed the Constitution by recently raising funds for a Christian school, charges FFRF.

On April 10, Gov. Kim Reynolds helped a faith-based school raise money by allowing it to auction off a dinner with her at the governor’s mansion. The winning bid was an astounding $30,100, reports an Iowa-based community news portal. Des Moines Christian School’s self-described mission is to nurture graduates who are “servant-hearted leaders” and “passionate apprentices of Christ,” and donors to the gala were told their contributions represent an investment in the school’s effort to “impact the world for Christ!”

FFRF says Reynolds misused her public position and publicly funded residence in order to raise funds for a Christian school. 

“Our Constitution’s Establishment Clause dictates that the government cannot in any way endorse religion,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to the governor. “As the Supreme Court has put it, ‘the First Amendment mandates governmental neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion.’”

Tom Shipka: Are you a critical thinker? Take this test

Tom Shipka
Photo by Shutterstock

By Tom Shipka

Thinking is like playing tennis, driving a car, giving a talk, dieting, or speaking a foreign language. It can be done well or badly. In modern education jargon, good thinkers are called critical thinkers. Critical thinkers have a mix of attitudes, skills and habits that set them apart from sloppy thinkers. Are you a critical thinker? Test yourself by answering these questions. Award yourself a score on each item as high as five (5) or as low as one (1).

___ 1. I am a successful problem-solver.

___ 2. When I face a problem or mystery, I follow Occam’s Razor, i.e., I seek the simplest adequate solution or explanation instead of a needlessly complex one.

___ 3. Before I make a decision, I first gather as many relevant facts as time permits and I anticipate the likely consequences of each course of action.

___ 4. I strive for informed beliefs, that is, beliefs based on solid evidence and sound arguments. I do not embrace beliefs simply because they are popular or consoling.

___ 5. I appreciate the indispensable role of skepticism in an intelligent and responsible life. I refuse to embrace a claim or adopt a practice, however satisfying or intriguing, until I find reasonable grounds for it.

___ 6. I can explain and defend my beliefs and practices capably.

___ 7. My beliefs are coherent, that is, some of them don’t contradict others.

___ 8. My practices are coherent, that is, some of them don’t contradict others.

___ 9. My beliefs and practices are coherent, that is, some of the former don’t contradict some of the latter.

___ 10. I use language with precision and clarity.

___ 11. I am a good listener.

___ 12. I strive to be objective and even-handed in my assessments. I do not exaggerate the benefits or harms of a belief, a practice, an argument, a person, an organization, a lifestyle, a movement, a product or a service.

___ 13. I know that my perceptions can be distorted by my beliefs, expectations, biases and state of mind.

___ 14. I know that my memory is selective and constructive and seldom provides a literal report of the past.

___ 15. I am open-minded and flexible. I am willing to hear or read an elaboration or defense of a position that strikes me initially as weird, foolish, far-fetched or immoral.

___ 16. I am sensitive to human fallibility, that is, the fact that humans make mistakes. Accordingly, I have the courage to reevaluate a long-cherished belief or practice and to acknowledge that it may be mistaken.

___ 17. I am sensitive to human fallibility, that is, the fact that humans make mistakes. Accordingly, I welcome constructive criticism.

___ 18. I am sensitive to human fallibility, that is, the fact that humans make mistakes. Accordingly, I recognize that well-educated and well-trained persons, even experts, can be mistaken.

___ 19. I successfully detect bias, special pleading, code words, propaganda and exaggeration in what I hear or read.

___ 20. I strive to be honest, fair and objective. I scrupulously avoid lying and exaggerating, and treating speculation, gossip or rumor as fact, in order to influence or persuade others.

___ 21. I am aware that many TV programs, films and publications deviate from the historical record and contradict well-established scientific laws and theories.

___ 22. I strive to stay intellectually alive.  magazines and other publications.

___ 23. I strive to stay intellectually alive. I balance my reading, radio listening and TV viewing so that I expose myself to a variety of views and perspectives.

___ 24. I strive to stay intellectually alive. I participate regularly in serious, civil conversations about significant issues facing the human community locally, nationally and globally.

___ 25. I detect common fallacies in reasoning such as:

*Stereotyping (assuming that all members of a group share the same strengths or weaknesses of one or a few members of the group that I observe).

*Hasty generalization (jumping to a conclusion based on insufficient evidence).

*Ad hominem (disqualifying a claim or argument based solely on its advocate or supporter).

*The slippery slope (assuming that a modest change will necessarily trigger dire consequences).

*The time fallacy, also called post hoc ergo propter hoc (assuming that because one event preceded another, the former caused the latter; confusing correlation with causation).

*The appeal to ignorance, or shifting the burden of proof (assuming the correctness of a claim or belief simply because it has not been disproven).

___  26. I strive to avoid the use of such fallacies in my own reasoning. 

The highest score possible is 130 points. How did you do? If you are especially bold and brave, you might invite another person who knows you well to evaluate you on this same test, compare the two scores, and discuss any discrepancies.

FFRF Member Tom Shipka is emeritus professor of philosophy at Youngstown State University.

Versions of this essay appeared previously in The Vindicator, David Stewart and H. Gene Blocker’s book, Fundamentals of Philosophy, Shipka and  Arthur J. Minton’s book, Philosophy: Paradox and Discovery, and Shipka’s Commentaries: 162 Essays on WYSU.

Barbara G. Walker: Concept of immortality defies logic, proof

Barbara G. Walker
Photo by Shutterstock

By Barbara G. Walker

The concept of immortality is one of the most grandiose expressions of human egotism: the pretense that we are so radically different from every other form of life on Earth that we will not cease to exist as individuals. 

Despite the undeniable proof we see all around us, that every living thing sooner or later comes to its end, we invent mental images of our own perpetuity. We greatly fear the intrusion of reality upon this imagery, so we create religious brainwashing that begins in childhood and usually remains unquestioned throughout life.

We also fear to witness what really happens to the dead. In most cultures, corpses are either completely destroyed, or securely enclosed and hidden away. Some have invented mummification, and its highly profitable modern descendant, embalming, to pretend for a while that the body won’t decay after all. But it will, in spite of all such complex procedures, and we don’t want to watch. 

According to the Catholic Church, there are numbers of alleged saints whose bodies remained fresh for centuries, but such nonsense is not much heeded nowadays.

Nevertheless, we have to realize that the dead rot away inevitably, so we create nonearthly places for them to exist in: heavens in the sky, hells underground. We surely know that the sky really has nothing but air, and beyond it lie billions of light-years of dark, empty space. We also know what lies beneath the Earth’s surface, and it’s not a realm of tormenting demons or hellfires decreed by the cruelty of a punishing God. How could we endure eternal torture when we are without any nerves to feel? We know that the pearly gates and legions of harp-strumming angels, which have been literally believed for centuries, are simply not possible. Yet we can envision them as clearly as we see Santa Claus. People speak of the dead “looking down” on them, as if the dead somehow exist in the empty sky. On the other hand, sometimes they “walk the Earth,” and are seen as benevolent or malevolent spirits still among us, seen or unseen.

Deep down, we know perfectly well that the only real persistence of our individual image is in the memories of other humans, usually family for a generation or two, or because of our works. Much flowery language develops around our overwhelming desire to be “remembered.” We are enjoined to “remember” deceased heroes of all sorts, so they can still exist at least in the imaginations of the living.

Today’s fancy, expensive funerals developed from the centuries-old, primitive belief that ghosts are out there somewhere, watching and listening, and they want praise and kowtowing, or they might take offense. Ghosts were feared, even those of formerly beloved relatives.

A tastier synonym for “ghost” is “soul,” a typically religious concept that exists only as a word.

It is roughly envisioned as our basic consciousness, actually a product of the gray matter within our skulls, which is just as perishable as the rest of the body. Patriarchal societies insisted that soul is the really important part of a person, and it is simply a “seed” implanted in a woman by a man. Official church doctrine always declared that a baby’s soul comes only from the father’s semen. This led to male claims on family names, property and innumerable rights not allowed to women. Of course, it was not until 1928 that the human ovum was discovered and seen to be much larger and more complex than a spermatozoon. Religious notions of the male “seed” bearing the soul are obvious nonsense, but they persist nevertheless among the ignorant who still worship Allah or Yahweh.

Centuries before the advent of patriarchy, worldwide beliefs usually attributed the soul to the mother. The primitive but logical assumption was that babies were formed from the mother’s blood, which remained in the womb for that purpose instead of emerging with each menstrual phase of the moon. Thus, family relationships were always “blood” relationships. We still use the same term.

According to the early Egyptians, a mother gave her “heart’s blood” to create her child’s soul. Mothers were given more respect than fathers, but all male “blood” relatives such as brothers, maternal uncles, nephews and cousins in the maternal line were all part of the lineage.

When Darwin demonstrated that humans are simply life forms like all other animals, having outsized brains to make up for their usually inferior senses and physical strength, religious fundamentalists were horrified by the possible diminution of father souls and father gods, and frantically denied the facts of evolution. Some still do, even though against incontrovertible truths. They claim that only humans possess souls, and all other creatures are soulless. Those who are keenly aware of the genuine love and intelligence demonstrated by their pets tend to contradict this view. Some people bury their deceased pets with as much ceremonial grieving as they lavish on relatives.

So, what can we conclude about our fabled immortality? 

First, that it is a monumentally successful money-making scam. Second, that it is perpetuated by our monumentally egotistical view of ourselves. Third, that it can exist only in our imagination, but nowhere in the real world. The fact that it still exists, and continues to be perpetuated by a majority of human beings, attests to the determination of believers, no matter how contrary the evidence. We need to be grownup enough to control our egotism, accept the brevity of each individual human life, and use our time as wisely as possible.

FFRF Lifetime Member Barbara G. Walker is a researcher, lecturer and author of 24 books.

Ryan Jayne: Banning transgender athletes is wrong

Ryan Jayne
A protester holds up a sign at the National Trans Visibility March in 2019 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Shutterstock)

This article appears on FFRF’s blog site

By Ryan Jayne

There’s a disturbing new phenomenon we’ve recently observed at the state level.

Last year, Idaho was the first state to ban transgender females from playing in high school women’s sports. Even though the Idaho law is likely unconstitutional, this year 31 states are considering following suit, and four state legislatures have already passed such measures: Alabama, Idaho, Mississippi, South Dakota, Tennessee and Arkansas. The Freedom From Religion Foundation tracks bills like these that seek to codify a benighted religious belief into the law, and this is a major trend we’ve spotted among the 900+ bills FFRF is currently tracking.

These bills and laws achieve nothing except using the legislative process to stoke anti-trans fears. This is nothing new — lawmakers similarly tried to convince parents that trans women would assault girls in public bathrooms. After intense backlash, they are moving to a new bête noire, insisting that trans women will steal high school sports awards. This anti-trans rhetoric is rooted in religious absolutism based on biblical references that supposedly declare that gender and sex are identical, binary and immutable. The argument depends on creation myths for support, since data, science and the real world offer none.  

Are we to believe that 2021 was the great awakening in which anti-LGBTQ lawmakers suddenly discovered a deep love of and desire to protect women’s sports and equality? How many of them have supported the Equal Rights Amendment? Just like their “bathroom bills” were never about bathrooms, their trans athlete bans are not about supporting women’s sports. They’re about outing and excluding transgender kids.

The Christian nationalist contingency in Congress is a driving force behind this anti-trans movement. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., an unapologetic conspiracy theorist and Christian nationalist, made a public show of dehumanizing transgender individuals by placing a sign that read, “There are two genders, male & female, ‘Trust the Science!’” across from the office of a colleague who has a transgender child. This statement is not only factually incorrect, but also shows the need for a law like the Equality Act, which has passed the House of Representatives and will prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity. (See Page 19.) Greene’s anti-trans behavior and rhetoric shows how bigots bring their religiously motivated hate into the workplace to dehumanize and divide others.

Religious motivation

The motivating factor behind this anti-trans rhetoric is overwhelmingly religious in nature. The argument is often cast as “God only made two genders.” Or as a West Virginia legislator put it recently in defense of a trans athlete ban, the existence of trans people means “that my God made a mistake. . . . [and] my God does not make a mistake.” In these lawmakers’ minds, discriminating against transgender individuals is fulfilling the Christian god’s will. To do anything less is “defying God’s will.” Seeking to legislate religious doctrine is the real motivation behind these bills.  

But, of course, they try to spin their discrimination as being based in fact and reason. Those proposing “trans athlete bans” insist that the laws are needed to prevent the end of women’s sports as we know it, and are essential to protect cisgender female athletes. QAnon-endorsing, gun-and-God-obsessed Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., went on Fox News to say that the Equality Act is a threat to female athletes, and that those who favor the act “hate women” and want to “end women’s sports.” Like most of her fellow anti-trans lawmakers, Boebert cannot cite a single instance of this “problem” in her district. 

Boebert’s fear-mongering about women’s sports was also the leading argument by opponents of the Equality Act at the bill’s recent hearing in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The first thing Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, did was to enter into the record a letter from a parent of a female Connecticut athlete who was concerned about her daughter competing with “biological males” (an outdated description that shows Grassley is not up to speed on the relevant science). Other senators opposing the bill repeated the same argument. An “expert” witness — a reporter, not a scientist — told senators over and over again that banning discrimination on the basis of gender identity means instant doom for women’s sports.

Data, science and reason tell a different story. Even considering their best possible arguments, the conclusion is clear: These bans are nothing more than targeted discrimination, inflicting harm for no reason. No science supports these bills.

The history of sports has shown that while all elite athletes reach biological limits to their performance, those barriers come sooner for elite athletes who have competed in women’s events than for those who have competed in men’s events. As one stark example, the male deadlift record is now over 1,100 pounds, with many elite male powerlifters topping 900 pounds, while the women’s record, set in 2005, is 694 pounds. Studies have documented biological differences between post-pubescent men and women that likely explain this gap, which is present at the elite level in every athletic test of strength, endurance or speed. This persistent gap cannot be written off as a difference in technique, hard work, psychology or the ratio of female to male athletes. The difference, science suggests, is physiological.

Proponents of trans athlete bans point to this elite-level gap and conclude that it would be unfair for cisgender girls or women to compete, at any level, against anyone who has undergone male puberty, arguing that, therefore, cisgender female high school athletes should not be forced to compete against transgender female athletes. That’s the strongest version of their argument, and it is riddled with problems.

An imagined problem

We know that this is an almost entirely imagined problem.

In many states that have protected against transgender discrimination for decades — e.g., Minnesota since 2001 — we have not seen the “sky is falling” predictions for women’s sports come to pass. After decades of transgender athletes participating at every level, the anti-trans crowd all cling to one instance of an award-winning runner in Connecticut. It puts perspective on the issue to point that only 0.6 percent of American adults identify as transgender. The transgender takeover of women’s sports is a fantasy.

We can thus say with confidence that trans athlete bans have virtually zero practical benefit, since they address a nonexistent problem. Meanwhile, the bills openly discriminate against and exclude transgender athletes, harming these young athletes in a clear and unambiguous way. High school trans athletes don’t have a significant athletic edge, but excluding them deprives them of the myriad benefits associated with sports, from scholarships to the psychological benefits of being part of a team. And it gets worse.

These laws restrict young athletes, most of whom care more about participation than performance, rather than elite athletes.

The gap described above is most pronounced at the very elite levels of competition, when athletes are approaching the very limits of their physical capabilities — a world where runners and swimmers work to trim hundreths of a second off of their times. Things are very different at the high school level, where these trans athlete bans apply. At that level, most student athletes simply want to play. Their performance varies wildly depending on their natural abilities, how well refined their technique is, and how hard they train. 

Elite athletic leagues already have their own science-driven policies, which have not obliterated women’s sports.

If there is a high school transgender girl who is really good at a sport, that’s just fine. Any concerns about a possible physiological advantage are easily outweighed by the benefits of inclusion for all high school athletes. Beyond the high school level, governing bodies like the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have allowed transgender women to compete, subject to policies that attempt to ensure an even playing field (those, too, are hotly contested and subject to ongoing studies). 

Detached from research

A state legislature imposing a sweeping ban on transgender participation in women’s high school sports is detached from the research we do have and amounts to lawmakers inserting themselves into an area where they are not experts. It’s the wrong decision-makers making the wrong decision for the wrong reasons.

The bigotry that motivates these rules is laid bare when one considers that restricting sports participation to “sex assigned at birth” leads to the very problem proponents say they are trying to avoid. 

Under a trans athlete ban, a transgender male, identified female at birth, could go through male puberty and would still be forced to compete in women’s sports. This is not merely hypothetical. In Texas, a transgender boy was forced by state rules to compete against girls, drawing boos when he won the state championship. That a 17-year-old was booed shows both the harm and the absurdity of the anti-trans lawmakers’ supposed concerns for women. The fact that anti-trans lawmakers fixate on their constituents’ fear of transgender women, without even realizing they are trying to force transgender men to compete in women’s sports, shows how phony their concern is. If their concerns were genuine, they would seek a more nuanced, research-based approach.

Finally, many groups that are dedicated to advancing and protecting women’s sports — including the Women’s Sports Foundation and the National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education — have emphasized that, as a practical matter, trans athlete bans would do far more harm than good. There are very real threats to women’s sports, and transgender athletes are not among them. If you care about women’s sports, you should want more women to participate, not fewer. 

To summarize: Yes, there is a physiological performance gap between elite athletes who have gone through male puberty and those who have not. But don’t be fooled into thinking that fact in any way supports a ban on transgender high school athletes. It does not. Just let the girls play.

Ryan Jayne is an FFRF attorney.

Barry Fagin: Memorial is monumentally unconstitutional

Barry Fagin
This memorial in the Monument, Colo., town cemetery is unconstitutional because of its promotion of Christianity. (Photo courtesy of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation)

This column first appeared in LA Progressive on March 11 and has been updated and is reprinted with permission.  

By Barry Fagin

Can non-Christians serve in the military? Should they be allowed to? If they die in combat, should their sacrifice be honored?

Does America’s military fight for Jesus? Allah? Moses? Joseph Smith, perhaps? Are America’s soldiers sworn to defend the bible? The Koran? The Book of Mormon?

Last October, the town of Monument, Colo., dedicated a memorial to veterans in the town cemetery. Given how many veterans are buried there, this makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is the inscription, well-known in fundamentalist circles: “Only two defining forces have ever offered to die for you: Jesus Christ and the American Soldier; one died for your soul, the other died for your freedom.”

The cemetery memorial is, I believe, deeply and profoundly offensive to all non-Christians buried there. I’m confident it offends some Christians, as well. But even if everyone buried in that cemetery is Christian, what does the memorial say to non-Christians who have lost loved ones in uniform? No need to ask. Jewish War Veterans of the USA has already called for the memorial’s removal.

Also, the memorial features the copyrighted logos of America’s armed services. These are specifically forbidden by Department of Defense Instruction 5535.12 to be used “for any purpose intended to promote religious beliefs (including non-belief).”

The memorial is simply unconstitutional. It is a blatant government endorsement of a specific sect of a specific religion on government land. You cannot enter the cemetery without passing by it.

This memorial was an Eagle Scout project. I know many Eagle Scouts and their parents, all of them awesome.

I’m sure this young man is awesome, too. Unfortunately, every single adult involved in the approval and execution of this project failed him badly.

When the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) claimed it would file suit against the town of Monument because of the memorial, the town claims to have sold the land on which the memorial was built to the family of the Eagle Scout, making it a matter that, supposedly, no longer concerns the town. 

Even if this were true, the problem of illegal use of trademarked Department of Defense logos remains completely unaffected.  Additionally, such a transfer would require that the land be completely maintained by the family in perpetuity, and a sign prominently displayed indicated that the memorial is private and is in no way endorsed by the town. And, of course, it would need to have been sold to the family at fair market value. We do not yet have any evidence any of this has happened or will happen.

In fact, there is good reason to believe what the town has done is something different and equally problematic. For the land to truly have been sold, it needs to be conveyed to the family “in fee simple,” a fact which would be recorded on the deed. Since the town has not publicized the documents pertaining to the alleged sale, as yet we have no way of knowing if this is in fact what the town has done. 

What is far more likely is that the town has cooked up some scheme involving the sale of burial plots, either of equivalent size to the land around the memorial, or possibly but less likely, located on the grounds of the memorial itself. Even if we grant the tenuous assumption that family members will eventually buried on the memorial site (if you would see it, you’d see how unlikely that is), all the town has sold to the family is the right to be buried there. The land would still be owned by the town.

We will not know the truth until the town of Monument is compelled to provide all documents pertaining to the alleged transaction, either through the Colorado Open Records Act or through legal action.

Sadly, I suspect doing right by the law was not the town’s primary purpose. What this ruse has accomplished is the widespread conviction among consumers of evangelical Christian media that those of us who are opposed to this chicanery are vilifying an Eagle Scout who honored the service of his family and other veterans with a completely legal memorial on private land. That is patently untrue. 

But in our modern culture wars, truth takes a back seat to faith.

Barry Fagin is an ACLU National Civil Liberties Award winner and a recipient of the Thomas Jefferson Award from the Military Religious Freedom Foundation.

Tyler Broker: ‘Religious liberty’ a truly deceitful term

Tyler Broker
Former Bremerton, Wash., assistant football coach Joe Kennedy (lower center in blue) praying with students after a 2015 football game, just lost his appeal. (Photo from court documents)

This column was first published on on March 22 and is reprinted with permission.

By Tyler Broker 

It is understandable, if not logical, for citizens today to believe religious faith is under attack. When held up to scrutiny, however, the claim falls apart. 

For one thing, religious liberty is currently on a decade-long winning streak at the Supreme Court. Indeed, thanks entirely to an ever-increasing conservative majority, the Supreme Court has, without textual basis and in complete defiance of precedent, reimagined the meaning of the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause in a way that favors religious exemption from general applicable laws. 

You would think that, as a consequence of such an impressive and resounding winning streak, religious citizens would feel more protected. Instead, the exact opposite has occurred.

In such a religiously diverse country as ours, there are a lot of explanations for current religious angst. I submit the reason mainstream Christians feel under attack is because both Protestantism and Catholicism are experiencing a rapidly declining membership. As a consequence of more Americans openly rejecting attendance in Christian churches, nonreligion itself has become more of a boogeyman to Christians — something not only to fear, but to demonize and hate.

Under the previous president’s administration, demonization of the nonreligious population was commonplace and done openly without remorse to citizens whose only perceived failing was they did not believe in religious faiths. The prior administration’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, had described the nonreligious as a threat to government. At his confirmation hearing just four years ago, he wondered whether nonreligious citizens could discern “truth,” calling into question the morality of every nonreligious citizen working at the Department of Justice.

William Barr, the man who would eventually replace that attorney general two years ago, took bigotry against the nonreligious a step further and proclaimed that nonbelievers as a collective group were directly responsible for claimed rises in “depression and mental illness,” “suicide,” “senseless violence,” and furthering “a deadly drug epidemic.” This demonization of citizens for their lack of religious belief is not without effect. The nonreligious are one of the most disliked religious minorities in the United States.

Not only is this demonization by cabinet members sickening, it is demonstrably false. (Imagine if an attorney general nominee said at their confirmation hearing that they couldn’t say if Catholics or Protestants could discern “truth” because their faith was wrong.)  

As the decline of religion has occurred, over this same period, violence and crime have dropped dramatically, and, even on a topic many Christians claim is of their upmost concern, abortion rates are now at record lows. Yet, there is a disturbing insistence by powerful government officials who claim that nonreligion is a national security threat and a threat to the religious way of life.

Nonbelievers, however, are not just facing rhetorical demonization but actual legal oppression. A federal court has upheld disenfranchising nonbelievers from giving secular invocations to state legislatures. The court’s reasoning for banning nonbelievers from addressing their own state legislatures with patriotic messages of universal tolerance and unity was that “only theistic prayer can satisfy all the traditional purposes of legislative prayer.” Again, imagine if a federal judge said that neither Catholics nor Protestants could give invocations because only nonreligious messages could “satisfy all the traditional purposes” of a secular or civil government?

Regardless of whether you agree that only religious faiths that have given invocations in the past are capable of giving invocations to state legislatures now or in the future or that it is just nonbelievers who can be excluded from offering invocations, this is not a neutral position but a direct (and vile) system of government-enforced exclusion and discrimination against an ever-growing population of American citizens. 

And if we’re talking tradition, traditionally American legislatures represent all citizens, regardless of their religious faith.

In another federal court, nonreligious citizens were banned from performing private wedding ceremonies for nonreligious couples. A federal court upheld a law that bans one-fifth of the population in Texas from performing private wedding ceremonies, solely because the citizens lacked a government-required religious belief to perform a private task. If a nonreligious couple wants a nonreligious celebrant in Texas, the government will only allow them to use the services of a government official, whereas a religious citizen in the same state can have someone from their own community, who reflects their values, and at their exclusive choosing, perform the same (legal) ceremony without any interference from the government.

I will say this until I am blue in the face: There is no form of legal or cultural attack on believers that even remotely compares to the legal disenfranchisement faced by nonbelievers in just these two cases. And I could go on about how the Supreme Court upheld forcible taxation on nonbelievers to subsidize a giant Christian monument.

With such gross imbalance toward favoring religion in the law, you would be right to ask how a claim of persecution by government against religion persists? The blunt answer is that people are being deliberately misled. 

For example, take Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, a case from Washington that has been making the religious outrage rounds on platforms like Fox News. To hear the plaintiff tell it, assistant high school football coach Joe Kennedy was fired because he was simply expressing his faith. But the facts of the case tell a much different story. 

Here are those facts: Kennedy prayed in the middle of the field immediately after the football games ended. At first, he prayed alone. When several students asked to join the coach in prayer, the coach responded with “This is a free country” and “You can do what you want.” Over time, a majority of the team’s players would join the prayer. Sometimes, members of the opposing team also joined. 

Then, the parent of an atheist student told the principal that his son “felt compelled to participate” in the coach-led prayer because “he felt he wouldn’t get to play as much if he didn’t participate.”

The school, fearing a lawsuit on Establishment Clause grounds, made an attempt to work with the coach to provide a “location within the school building, athletic facility or press box” that could be made available to the coach to practice the religious exercise he and others were participating in. The school even said the coach or any player could pray on the field, although not immediately after the game or before the students had been released. 

Instead of discussing the matter with the school as requested, the coach chose to go on a media blitz, where he repeatedly portrayed himself as the victim of religious persecution by the school and vowed to continue the prayer despite any school order. 

The media attention turned the issue into a spectacle — and a potentially dangerous one. Several school officials testified they suffered repercussions (and fear for their own safety) due to the increased attention and anger being expressed at the way the coach “chose to address the situation.” On at least one occasion, the school was unable to properly supervise the students and keep the crowd under control at the game.

After the season ended, the school chose not to rehire the coach because he had “failed to follow district policy,” and because “his actions demonstrated a lack of cooperation with administration,” and had “contributed to negative relations between parents, students, community members, coaches and the school district,” while he “failed to supervise student-athletes after games due to his interactions with media and community.”

More than a few things stand out about these facts that conflict with the narrative used by the coach that he was fired because of his faith. The school showed no animus to the coach’s faith, for one thing. The school was only objecting to the time and place of the exercise, not the religious practice itself. 

The school even offered to open up all of its facilities to accommodate the religious expression, at virtually any time other than right after the game before the students had been released to the care of their parents. Moreover, I submit it is completely understandable why the school would be worried about the time and manner of the exercise that has nothing to do with religious animus but to better encourage personal choice and free exercise.

Thankfully, the Supreme Court denied to take up Kennedy’s appeal. 

Religious exercise is a personal choice that is better reserved to the decision-making between the parent and child than by government officials who students are mandated to follow while under their supervision.

The spectacle of stigma is what prevents equitable results in religious liberty cases. Knowing that, it is still amazing to watch it work despite the obvious. 

How can it be legally justified that the coach in Bremerton is a victim of hostile government animus, yet states can ban nonreligious wedding celebrants at private ceremonies? It’s beyond me.

Calling such a system “religious liberty” is not only mistaken, but pernicious and intentionally deceiving.

Tyler Broker’s work has been published in the Gonzaga Law Review, the Albany Law Review and the University of Memphis Law Review.

Barbara Alvarez: It’s time to end the Hyde Amendment

Barbara Alvarez
Photo by Shuttterstock

By Barbara Alvarez

It is high time that we end the destructive Hyde Amendment, a religiously rooted piece of legislation that denies abortion coverage for otherwise eligible federal health care recipients. Simply put, the Hyde Amendment is based on religious intent — not science. And the impact is ruinous.

The Hyde Amendment was introduced by staunchly Catholic Rep. Henry J. Hyde and first enacted in Congress in 1976. Hyde’s intent with this amendment was to make abortion as inaccessible as possible. On the heels of the Supreme Court’s landmark case Roe v. Wade, which made abortion a constitutional right, Hyde sought an opportunity to restrict abortion on a broad scale. He found that by targeting low-income women and women on federal health plans, he could do just that. And since 1976, the Hyde Amendment has been included in every Congressional appropriation act.

Due to the Hyde Amendment, low-income women on Medicaid, federal employees, women in federal prisons, Peace Corps volunteers, those in the Children’s Health Insurance Program and Native American women on the Indian Health Service program are ineligible to receive subsidized abortion care. When abortion care can range anywhere from $500 to $2,000, these out-of-pocket expenses can cost families up to one-third of their monthly income.

Thankfully, the Equal Access to Abortion Coverage in Health Insurance Act of 2021, or the EACH Act, was reintroduced recently. This bill, which currently has 127 co-sponsors in the House and 22 in the Senate, would end the draconian Hyde Amendment and make abortion accessible and affordable to millions of women throughout the country. FFRF has joined All* Above All, a women of color coalition, and 150 other groups, including Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, and SisterSong: Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, to champion this bill.

As a result of the Hyde Amendment, millions of women are delayed or denied abortion care. For example, in 2018, 20 percent, or roughly 13 million women of reproductive age, were on Medicaid.

While some states elect to use their own funds to subsidize this legal medical procedure, 34 states and the District of Columbia do not. As such, low-income women and racial minorities, like Black and Hispanic women (31 percent and 27 percent, respectively), are disproportionately denied their constitutional right. This leads to poor maternal health outcomes, since states with more abortion restrictions have higher maternal and infant mortality rates.

Hyde explained his religious reasoning for this patronizing and damaging legislation: 

“When the time comes, as it surely will, when we face that awesome moment, the final judgment, I’ve often thought, as Fulton Sheen wrote, that it is a terrible moment of loneliness. You have no advocates, you are there alone standing before God — and a terror will rip your soul like nothing you can imagine. But I really think that those in the pro-life movement will not be alone. I think there’ll be a chorus of voices that have never been heard in this world but are heard beautifully and clearly in the next world — and they will plead for everyone who has been in this movement. They will say to God, ‘Spare him, because he loved us!’” 

The Catholic Church praised Hyde for his efforts to strip women of their bodily autonomy. As a nation founded on the separation of state and church, there is no room for this religious fusion in our health care legislation. 

That’s why it is imperative that we pass the EACH Act. Not only would it reverse the Hyde Amendment, but it would also prohibit the federal interference related to decisions by state and private insurance companies related to abortion coverage. Additionally, the EACH Act would end unnecessary restrictions on state health plans. Furthermore, 62 percent of Americans support abortion coverage on Medicaid.

Christian nationalist efforts to restrict abortion care are not backed by science or by the majority of people. A 2020 survey of FFRF’s membership found that a whopping 98.8 percent support abortion rights. Clearly, FFRF’ers are well aware of the role religion is playing in denial of basic reproductive and human rights. Let’s make our secular voices heard and call on our legislators to support the EACH Act immediately.

Barbara Alvarez is FFRF’s first Anne Nicol Gaylor Reproductive Rights Intern and lives in Sheboygan, Wis.

Mark Dann: The Equality Act debate hinges on religion

Mark Dann
A symbol of justice with rainbow colors in the background

By Mark Dann

Recently, the Equality Act — one of FFRF’s top priorities for legislation — passed the House (224–206). It provides consistent and explicit anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people across key areas of life, and it is starting to move in the Senate.

The debate on the Equality Act is instructive on where Congress is on issues relating to the separation of state and church. 

The Equality Act was debated on the House floor in 2019 during the previous Congress when religious liberty issues were not front and center. There were exceptions in the form of usual Christian Right hardliners, such as Reps. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., and Louie Gohmert, R-Texas. Gohmert mockingly said, “I realize they believe that their [supporters of the bill] way of approaching things includes much more wisdom than that of Moses.”

Most of the attacks were disgusting and full of baseless claims about the transgender community, with fearmongering tangents about transgender athletes ending women’s sports. The opposition presence in the chamber was sparse compared to the large physical presence of members on the “pro” equality side. The opposition even ran out of speakers and didn’t use up its allotted speaking time. Not surprisingly, the “pro” side commanded the floor.

This year, the opposition to the Equality Act has intensified, and more opposition members of Congress see electoral gains in vocally opposing it. A leader of the opposition has been Trump stalwart Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio. The lies about transgender Americans were still on full display. But an addition to the opposition attacks were claims that the bill would violate religious freedom.

Jordan expressed the thoughts of many of his colleagues: “They [supporters of the bill] are taking away American citizens’ most fundamental liberty [freedom of religion].” Others, like Rep. Greg Steube, R-Fla., combined contempt for the LGBTQ community and religious freedom. In his floor speech, Steube stated, “It’s not clothing or personal style that offends God, but rather the use of one’s appearance to act out or take on a sexual identity different from the one biologically assigned by God at birth. . . . The gender confusion that exists in our culture today is a clear objection of God’s good design. Whenever a nation’s law no longer reflects the standards of God, that nation is in rebellion against him and will inevitably bear the consequences. … And I think we are seeing the consequences of rejecting God here in our country today, and this bill speaks directly against what is laid out in scripture.”

One reason why so many opposition members are angry about the Equality Act is because of the strong provision in the Equality Act stating that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act can’t be used to discriminate against others. Opposition members of Congress want that provision removed. Their thinking goes: If someone voices a religious objection to the equal treatment of others, that’s the individual’s constitutional right. Deny housing or employment? Fine, if there’s a religious objection. Obviously, FFRF strongly opposes this claim that privileges religion and exempts religionists from honoring civil rights laws.

The anti-equality side of the debate, surprisingly, has added two new members from swing districts: Reps. Victoria Spartz, R-Ind., and Yvette Herrell, R-N.M. Given that 70 percent of all Americans support the Equality Act, it’s odd to see such members of Congress spend their political capital on publicly opposing the Equality Act, especially with a floor speech. In normal times, somewhat vulnerable members would not want to be so vocal in their opposition to an extremely popular bill.

But these are not normal times.

Opposition members are seeing benefits in vocally opposing pieces of legislation such as the Equality Act. The new calculus is to keep the Christian nationalist base engaged and enraged. Compared to the 2019 debate, the right-wing media ecosystem has intensified and hardened, thanks to Fox News and One America News. The debate is turbocharged with thousands of right-wing social media pages that many of us won’t even know about, due to how algorithms suggest pages to like-minded viewers.

Given the siloing of the media, swing voters who might be turned off by staunch opposition to the Equality Act may not see the tactics that the opposition is using. And, even if these voters do see what is happening, they might deprioritize the Equality Act in favor of other political gains and priorities.

We are seeing that when an issue becomes religious in nature, it can take on a tribal aspect that becomes a live wire in the culture wars. FFRF’s role in Washington, D.C., has not changed. We will continue to work with like-minded organizations to pass our legislative agenda, work with the Biden administration to roll back harmful Trump actions, mobilize and grow the number of FFRF supporters, and build and strengthen the Congressional Freethought Caucus.

Rep. Jamie Raskin, Md., co-chair of the Congressional Freethought Caucus, said it best during his floor speech on the Equality Act: “Every scoundrel in American history has tried to dress up his opposition to other people’s civil rights in religious garb.” We’ve seen this show before. We’ve defeated religious cosplay time and time again — and we’ll keep doing it in the 117th Congress and beyond.

Mark Dann is FFRF’s director of governmental affairs in Washington, D.C.

Annie Laurie Gaylor: Religious governors a danger to our health

By Annie Laurie Gaylor

We “Nones,” atheists and agnostics can properly take pride in the freethought movement’s pro-science and pro-public health actions during this pandemic. Religious-minded public officials, however, occupy the other end of the spectrum.

Atheists are the most likely to say we will get a vaccine, while white evangelical Protestants are the least likely to, according to Pew Research Center. Nine in 10 atheists say they would definitely or probably get a vaccine or already have had one, compared to 77 percent of Catholics, 65 percent of Black Protestants and 54 percent of white evangelical Protestants. Similarly, only about 56 percent of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents say they’ll get a vaccine, compared to eight in 10 Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents.

As has been well-documented, Christian nationalism may determine whether you wear a mask or, if you are a public official, mandate masking. A survey last fall showed that subscribing to Christian nationalist views is the second leading predictor of whether someone would engage in precautionary measures, such as social distancing, wearing masks and washing hands.

And therein lies a huge problem: Many public officials, including governors, are disproportionately white Protestants or Catholics — some of them indeed strong Christian nationalists. These public officials with religiously impaired judgment are calling the public health shots for the rest of us in irresponsible ways that are costing Americans’ health and lives, and crippling our nation’s recovery from the pandemic. Yes, the nation dodged a bullet when it unseated the last president, a Christian nationalist panderer, most of whose Covid-19 policies were harmful and full of “alternative facts.” But almost half of our states are led by similar panderers or true believers who have or are shunning science and common sense.

About 64 percent of Americans live in counties where there is a very high or extremely high risk of exposure to Covid-19. With 65,000 new cases a day, the most common variant of the coronavirus is the highly infectious version originating in the United Kingdom. B.1.1.7 is 60 percent more contagious and 67 percent more deadly than the original form of the virus. This is no time for governors and public officials to relax vigilance.

Yet 21 states have no statewide face covering mandates. Ten states recently lifted statewide mask mandates, eight via gubernatorial order (Arkansas, Indiana, Iowa, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Texas and Wyoming), one by court order (Wisconsin) and one by legislation action (Kansas). Alabama’s mask mandate has also just ended.

What is happening in the FFRF’s home state of Wisconsin is a travesty, just to take one example. The Wisconsin Legislature, along partisan lines, overrode Gov. Tony Evers’ Covid-19 emergency order and mask mandate, even knowing this action would cost a catastrophic loss in federal supplemental benefits tied to state mandates. In early April, the ultraconservative Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down the mask mandate — despite knowing that beginning in May hungry state citizens will lose out on a total of more than $50 million per month in supplemental food aid. Had the court been willing to wait only one more day before issuing the ruling, the state still would have received the $50 million payment for May. The court’s and the Legislature’s callous, cavalier cruelty makes Scrooge look like a philanthropist.

Most of the governors who have refused to issue or are rescinding masking orders are religious Republicans (see list below), many of whom preferred to proclaim unconstitutional days of prayer over Covid-19 rather than show responsible leadership.

Are these public officials just too religious to care? Are they truly so blinded to facts, evidence, science and compassion? It seems so.

FFRF and its membership have our work cut out for us in combating so many public officials whose true allegiance lies with religious lobbies, churches and their own particular dogmas, instead of their oath of office. That oath includes upholding the preamble of the U.S. Constitution, which calls for promoting the public welfare of We the People.

Annie Laurie Gaylor is co-president of FFRF.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey held a prayer (which FFRF protested) while announcing a statewide stay-at-home order last spring. She declared May 7 last year as a day of prayer in light of Covid-19 and quoted the New Testament in a statement urging citizens to stay at home if possible.

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy refused mandates, instead calling for an “Alaska Day of Prayer and Hope.”

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey has signed a law to protect many entities, including religious institutions, from being sued over Covid-19. Last April, he issued an Easter/Passover proclamation imploring a turn toward prayer “in times of trials and uncertainty.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis belatedly encouraged social distancing a year ago but has still urged Floridians to “Please keep God close.” He has exempted churches from social distancing rules. He has also steadfastly refused to enact statewide mask mandates and is working to strike down local face-covering ordinances.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp in February announced the “Faith Protection Act” to ensure the governor’s emergency powers could not be used to “specifically limit the practice of any religion.” He held a prayer service and day of prayer at the Georgia Capitol last April, which streamed live on Facebook. 

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (who recently got publicly vaccinated), issued a “Day of Prayer” for Covid-19 in Iowa a year ago instead of a ma  sking mandate. 

Idaho Gov. Brad Little refused to issue a mask mandate and asked “Idaho to unite in prayer” over Covid. He did indicate that he would be attending church remotely at that time.

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves said on Nov. 30, in opposing church limitations, that “God is bigger than government,” promising “The right to freely practice your faith must never be infringed.” He also held a “Statewide Day of Prayer, Humility and Fasting.” 

Missouri Gov. Michael Parson on multiple occasions has appealed to prayers and citizens to pray and last spring exempted houses of worship from social distancing rules.

Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte, who tested positive for Covid-19, along with his wife, reversed some public health restrictions implemented by previous Gov. Steve Bullock. They attend Grace Bible Church, a nondenominational church.

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts proclaimed Dec. 30 as a “Day of Prayer” for “relief from the pandemic.” (Ricketts notoriously signed a proclamation this year declaring Roe v. Wade as an “Annual Statewide Day of Prayer to End Abortion.”)

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum started a press conference last spring with prayer, although he did thank churches for being “North Dakota Smart” by not holding in-person services at that time.

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt declared Dec. 3 — as virus cases surged — a statewide day of prayer and fasting for Oklahomans affected by Covid-19. 

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster not only proclaimed a day of prayer over the pandemic last May, but championed a bill to treat churches and other religious organizations as “essential services” during a state of emergency (which has passed the House). FFRF complained many times about his use of prayer at official press briefings including about  his March 19 conference. McMaster tried to misallocate $32 million in coronavirus aid to students attending private schools but was successfully sued.

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem proclaimed a day of prayer over the virus and recently defended her hands-off approach to Covid-19.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee told mayors last year to pray about the virus, rather than pass mandates. Last May, he issued an executive order blocking local governments from regulating places of worship to stop the spread of the virus. He announced he would send out prayers in January three times a week for the next four weeks about Covid-19. Although he had sharp words for churches a year ago last March that were still meeting in person, he exempted churches from in-person limitations imposed late last December.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott proclaimed churches “essential services” a year ago, making an exception for church services in his stay-at-home order. Abbott urged “Texans of faith to lift each other up in prayer.”

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott

Trisha Ahmed: ‘Getting better is taking me so long, Dad’

Avijit Roy, center, who was murdered six years ago by religious extremists, stands with his wife Bonya Ahmed, right, and step-daughter Trisha in Peru in 2014.

Avijit Roy was killed six years ago in a machete attack in Bangladesh

This article first appeared in the Baltimore Sun on March 1 and is reprinted with permission.

By Trisha Ahmed

My stepfather, Avijit Roy, was a Bangladeshi-American writer and engineer. While visiting Bangladesh, he was violently attacked with machetes and murdered on the street, as he left a book fair with my mother, Bonya Ahmed, who was also attacked and suffered life-threatening wounds. This happened six years ago. Ten days prior to this distressing anniversary, five of the attackers, members of a terrorist group inspired by al-Qaida, were sentenced to death in a Bangladeshi court.

This verdict does not bring me closure — so many questions about the forces underlying his murder remain unanswered. If I could talk with my dad today, this is what I would say.

Dear Dad,

People took pictures of you after the attack. One photo shows your glasses and a chunk of your brain, lying in a pool of your blood on the pavement. I think of this image every few months.

But in the days leading up to the verdict in your murder (yes, it took almost six years for Bangladesh to hear your case in court), I couldn’t stop thinking about your glasses on the ground.

I’m no better at drawing now than I was when you were alive, but I sketched your glasses on a piece of paper. I drew all sorts of sights around D.C. into the lenses of those paper frames: monuments, memorials and other places you’ll never know. I pass by them every day now, as a D.C.-based graduate student at the University of Maryland focusing on investigative journalism.

America doesn’t seem to care much for journalists now. Neither does Bangladesh. But if you were around, I hope you would say: “Journalist? That’s even better than a scientist!”

Which means I didn’t become the scientist you were so excited for me to be.

I couldn’t commit to it after what happened to you. To deal with the trauma of losing you and nearly losing Maa, I became obsessed with other people’s stories. I started collecting them in Baltimore as an undergrad at Johns Hopkins, and then all over America, finding that so many others are also dealing with fathers, brothers, cousins and friends being killed.

You should know that you changed the world, Dad. People marched in the streets for you. Millions of people learned your name. I’m sure you would ask me, excitedly: “Does that mean the world is more rational now?”

I don’t think so.

After you died, the attacks continued. Your attackers were affiliated with a

group known as “al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent.” They didn’t like what you wrote about science and secularism.

In the months after your death, extremists killed your friends. And your publisher. And a bunch of other people you didn’t know. The attacks were graphic, with machetes and ISIS videos and witnesses who might never forget seeing their partners die.

I’m realizing now, after six years, that the news of each murder gashed fresh wounds into scars that were not done healing for you. Getting better is taking me so long, Dad. I’m still mourning you, but also them.

On Feb. 16, some of your attackers were sentenced to death. Knowing they’re going to die doesn’t make me feel better about losing you. Their loved ones will mourn them too.

Though these five were charged with carrying out your attack, so many more were involved in the planning, execution and silencing of Bangladeshi bloggers. Some orchestrators have never been caught, or even identified. After the verdict, Maa asked questions I wish could answer: Where are the masterminds of the attack? Why was one leader killed in police custody, years before the trial?

“Money used to flow in to kill bloggers, publishers and [gay people]” in Bangladesh, one of your publisher’s attackers confessed. So, who funded your murder?

I thought, if the Bangladeshi investigators don’t have answers, then maybe journalists will. Unfortunately, Bangladesh — like many countries now — is imprisoning journalists for speaking out.

Just last year, Bangladeshi journalist Shafiqul Islam Kajol mysteriously disappeared for 53 days after criticizing a government official’s alleged sex-trafficking involvement. When he resurfaced, Kajol was then sentenced to seven years in prison, under Bangladesh’s controversial 2018 Digital Security Act, which restricts free speech. Two other journalists were jailed in May under the same law.

Thankfully, Kajol had a kid, who fought for his father’s release and gained international attention. Kajol was released from jail after seven months, instead of seven years.

Cases like his and yours, which are only the tip of the iceberg, keep me up at night. When I finally sleep, you tend to die. I still wake from violent dreams and feel tired all day, desperate for rest. I might have actually forgotten how to rest. But maybe, like you, I’ve never known how.

I remember your late nights writing, your determination to change minds — but most vividly, I remember your songs. When you couldn’t get topics you were writing about, like “intelligent design,” out of your head, you’d turn those words into loud, belted-out tunes. I remember us dancing to them. I wonder, if you were here now, would you still be singing and dancing with me?

There’s little point pondering hypotheticals. But one hypothesis comforts me: As long as there are people like Kajol’s son and your daughter, the world will be forced to provide answers — as we bend societies toward your vision of rationality, of equity, of peace.

Trisha Ahmed is a graduate student at the University of Maryland and reporter at the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism.