In memoriam: Steven Weinberg was FFRF’s first ‘Emperor’ award recipient

Steven Weinberg accepts FFRF’s Emperor Has No clothes Award from FFRF founder and President Anne Nicol Gaylor in 1999.

Nobel Prize laureate and theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg, 88, died in Austin, Texas, on July 24.

Weinberg was the first official recipient of FFRF’s Emperor Has No Clothes Award, which he accepted in November 1999 at the annual convention in San Antonio, Texas.

Weinberg received the honor for a widely reprinted remark at a conference in April 1999 in Washington, D.C.: “Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”

Weinberg was born May 3, 1933, in Bronx, N.Y., the only child of Frederick and Eva (Israel) Weinberg. He received his undergraduate degree in physics from Cornell University in 1954. There he met Louise Goldwasser, his future wife, who became a University of Texas law professor. They married in 1954 and had a daughter, Elizabeth.

Weinberg began his graduate study at the Institute for Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen (now the Niels Bohr Institute). He completed his Ph.D. at Princeton in 1957.

In 1979, Weinberg was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics along with Abdus Salam and Sheldon Lee Glashow “for their contributions to the theory of the unified weak and electromagnetic interaction between elementary particles, including inter alia, the prediction of the weak neutral current.” This was one of the most significant scientific advances in the second half of the 20th century.

He has received many other awards, including the national Medal of Science in 1991. He was also a foreign member of the Royal Society of London. Known for his writing, Weinberg received the Lewis Thomas Prize, which is awarded to the researcher who best embodies “the scientist as poet.”

Weinberg has written hundreds of scholarly articles and textbooks such as The Quantum Theory of Fields and Cosmology; the more popular works The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe and Dreams of a Final Theory (which contains a chapter called “What About God?”). 

Weinberg was outspoken about his lack of religion and encouraged other scientists to be more vocal in their opposition to religious ideas. He said, “As you learn more and more about the universe, you find you can understand more and more without any reference to supernatural intervention, so you lose interest in that possibility. Most scientists I know don’t care enough about religion even to call themselves atheists. And that, I think, is one of the great things about science — that it has made it possible for people not to be religious.” 

He added, “The whole history of the last thousands of years has been a history of religious persecutions and wars, pogroms, jihads, crusades. I find it all very regrettable, to say the least.” He wrote in The First Three Minutes: “Anything that we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done and may in the end be our greatest contribution to civilization.”

In 1999 he became the first recipient of FFRF’s Emperor Has No Clothes Award, reserved for public figures who make known their dissent from religion. He began his acceptance speech, “I enjoy being at a meeting that doesn’t start with an invocation!” He said, “Nothing has been more important in the history of science than the work of Darwin and Wallace pointing out that not only the planets, but even life can be understood in this naturalistic way.” 

How secular candidates fared in the 2020 election

Members of the Congressional Freethought Caucus (Races Won)

D-CA (District 2) — Rep. Jared Huffman 2013
D-CA (District 9) — Rep. Jerry McNerney 2007
D-CA (District 19) — Rep. Zoe Lofgren 1995
D-GA (District 4) — Rep. Hank Johnson 2007
D-IL (District 6) — Rep. Sean Casten 2019
D-MD (District 8) — Rep. Jamie Raskin 2017
D-MI (District 5) — Rep. Dan Kildee 2013
D-MI (District 13) — Rep. Rashida Tlaib 2019
D-PA (District 7) — Rep. Susan Wild 2019
D-TN (District 9) — Rep. Steve Cohen 2007
D-WA (District 7) — Rep. Pramila Jayapal 2017
D-WI (District 2) — Rep. Mark Pocan 2013

D-D.C. Del. — Eleanor Holmes Norton 1991

U.S House (Races Lost)

D-AZ (District 4) — Delina DiSanto (Challenger)
D-CO (District 5) — Jillian Freeland (Challenger)
D-OH (District 16) — Aaron Godfrey (Challenger)
D-TX (District 26) — Carol Iannuzzi (Challenger)
D-WA (District 10) — State Rep. Beth Doglio (Challenger)
D-WI (District 8) — State Rep. Amanda Stuck (Challenger)

U.S House (Races Not Called Yet)

D-NY (District 1) Dr. Nancy Goroff (Challenger)

State Legislatures (Races Won)

AZ House District 18 — Rep. Jennifer Jermaine 2019 – Current Religiously unaffiliated
AZ House District 26 — Melody Hernandez (Challenger) Agnostic
AZ House District 26 — Rep. Athena Salman 2017 – Current Atheist
AZ Senate District 9 — Sen. Victoria Steele 2019 – Current Spiritual but not religious
AZ Senate District 26 — Sen. Juan Mendez 2017 – Current Atheist
CA House District 20 — Rep. Bill Quirk 2012 – Current “Scientist”
CO House District 11 — Karen McCormick (Challenger) Spiritual but not religious
CO House District 13 — Judy Amabile (Challenger) Atheist
CO House District 23 — Rep. Chris Kennedy 2017 – Current Agnostic
CO House District 27 — Rep. Brianna Titone 2019 – Current Spiritual but not religious
CO House District 52 — Rep. Cathy Kipp 2019 – Current “Does not belong to any organized religion”
CT House District 88 — Rep. Joshua Elliott 2017 – Current “Agnostic atheist”
CT House District 96 — Rep. Roland J. Lemar 2017 – Current “Agnostic & humanist”
FL House District 47 — Rep. Anna Eskamani 2018 – Current Secular
FL House District 49 — Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith 2017 – Current Agnostic
FL House District 113 — Rep. Michael Grieco 2018 – Current “Not religious”
HI Senate District 9 — Stanley Chang 2016 – Current “No religion”
MD House District 20 — Rep. David Moon 2015 – Current Nonreligious
MA House Bristol 2 — Rep. Jim Hawkins 2018 – Current Religiously unaffiliated
MA House Essex 18 — Rep. Tram Nguyen 2019 – Current Spiritual but not religious
MA Senate Second 
Suffolk & Middlesex Dist. — Sen. William Brownsberger 2012 – Current Nontheist
NE Senate District 8 (Unicameral) — Sen. Megan Hunt 2019 – Current Atheist
NV House District 10 — Rep. Rochelle Nguyen 2018 – Current Not religious
NV House District 15 — Rep. Howard Watts III 2018 – Current Agnostic
NH House Cheshire 5 — Rep. John Bordenet 2014 – Current Unitarian Universalist
NH House Grafton 8 — Rep. Suzanne Smith 2008 – Current Religiously unaffiliated
NH House Grafton 8 — Rep. Joyce Weston 2018 – Current Atheist
NH House Hillsborough 12 — Rep. Amanda Bouldin 2014 – Current Atheist
NH House Hillsborough 12 — Rep. Andrew Bouldin 2018 – Current Atheist
NH House Hillsborough 17 — Rep. Tim Smith 2012 – Current Atheist
NH House Hillsborough 27 — Rep. Kat McGhee 2018 – Current “Does not practice religion”
NH House Hillsborough 28 — Rep. Jan Schmidt 2016 – Current Nontheist
NH House Hillsborough 30 — Rep. Sherry Dutzy 2018 – Current Nonbeliever, atheist, & humanist
NH House Hillsborough 42 — Rep. Jacqueline Chretien 2018 – Current Humanist
NH House Strafford 16 — Rep. Sherry Frost 2016 – Current Atheist
NH House Strafford 25 — Rep. Amanda Gourgue 2016 – Current Religiously unaffiliated
NJ House District 16 — Rep. Andrew Zwicker 2016 – Current Atheist
NM Senate District 37 — William Peter Soules 2013 – Current Spiritual but not religious
NY House District 74 — Rep. Harvey Epstein 2018 – Current Agnostic
NC Senate District 49 — Julie Mayfield Challenger Agnostic
OR House District 5 — Rep. Pam Marsh 2017 – Current Religiously unaffiliated
OR House District 14 — Rep. Julie Fahey 2017 – Current Religiously unaffiliated
OR House District 47 — Rep. Diego Hernandez 2016 – Current Openly agnostic
PA House District 182 — Rep. Brian Sims 2013 – Current Openly nonreligious & very outspoken
VT House Addison-1 — Rep. Robin Scheu 2017 – Current Humanist
VT House Bennington-4 — Kathleen James 2019 – Current Spiritual but not religious
VT House Chittenden 6-6 — Barbara Rachelson 2013 – Current Nonreligious Jew
VT House Windsor 4-2 Dist. — Rep. Rebecca White 2019 – Current Atheist
VT House Washington-4 Dist. — Rep. Warren Kitzmiller 2001 – Current Humanist
VT Senate Windsor Dist. — Sen. Dick McCormack 2007 – Current “Governs with reason”
WA House District 21a — Rep. Strom Peterson 2015 – Current Agnostic
WI House District 76 — Francesca Hong (Challenger) Humanist
WI Senate District 16 — Rep. Melissa Sargent 2013 – Current Agnostic
WI Senate District 26 — Kelda Roys (Challenger) Atheist & Secular Humanist

State Legislatures (Races lost)

AR House District 68 — Lisa Hassell (Challenger)Agnostic
AR House District 74 — June Anteski (Challenger) Spiritual but not religious
AZ House District 8 — Sharon Girard (Challenger) Agnostic
AZ House District 23 — Eric Kurland (Challenger) “Not religious”
AZ Senate District 20 — Douglas Ervin (Challenger) Humanistic Judaism
CO House District 16 — Stephanie Vigil (Challenger) Atheist
CO House District 56 — Maria-Vittoria “Giugi” Carminati (Challenger) Secular Humanist
CO House District 57 — Colin Wilhelm (Challenger)Spiritual but not religious
FL House District 69 — Jennifer Webb 2018 – Current Spiritual but not religious
FL House District 73 — David Fairey (Challenger) Atheist
GA House District 24 — Natalie Bucsko (Challenger) Non-theist Pagan
GA House District 44 — Connie Di Cicco (Challenger) “Not religious”
IA House District 22 — Shawna Anderson (Challenger) Humanist
IN House District 11 — Keegan Damron (Challenger) “Not religious”
IN House District 20 — Tim Gust (Challenger) Agnostic
IN House District 41 — Greg Woods (Challenger) Atheist
IN House District 49 — Amanda Qualls (Challenger) Agnostic
NV Senate District 18 — Liz Becker (Challenger) Secular Humanist
NH House Belknap 2 — Natalie Taylor (Challenger) Atheist
NH House Belknap 6 — Don House (Challenger) “Spiritual humanist”
NH House Grafton 9 — Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban (Challenger) “No religious affiliation”
NH House Hillsborough 20 — Nikki Fordey (Challenger) Agnostic
NH House Hillsborough 21 — Rep. Wendy Thomas 2018 – Current Spiritual but not religious
NH House Hillsborough 37 — Brett Gagnon (Challenger) No religious affiliation
NH House Rockingham 3 — Michael DiTommaso (Challenger)Secular Humanist
NH House Rockingham 4 — Ben Geiger (Challenger) Atheist
NH House Rockingham 4 —Matthew Krohn (Challenger) Agnostic Unitarian Universalist
NH House Sullivan 5 — Liza Draper (Challenger) Nonreligious
NY House District 130 — Christopher S. Comegys (Challenger) Spiritual but not religious
NC Senate District 50 — Victoria Fox (Challenger)Agnostic
ND House District 40 — Kalyn Dewitt (Challenger) Humanist
OH House District 76 — Garrett Westhoven (Challenger) Not religious
TX House District 11 — Alec Johnson (Challenger) Deist
TX House District 20 — Jessica Tiedt (Challenger)“Omnistic”
TX House District 33 — Andy Rose (Challenger) Agnostic
TX House District 150 — Michael Walsh (Challenger) Atheist
VT House Caledonia 3 — Brice Simon (Challenger) Secular Humanist
WA House District 31b — Thomas Clark (Challenger) Agnostic
WA Senate District 9 — Jenn Goulet (Challenger) Secular Humanist
WI House District 89 — Karl Jaeger (Challenger) Nonreligious
WI Senate District 18 — Aaron Wojciechowski (Challenger) Nonreligious

State Legislatures (Races Not Called Yet)

IL House District 90 — Seth Wiggins (Challenger) “Does not practice religion”
NY House District 3 — Steven Polgar (Challenger) Atheist
NY House District 105 — Laurette Giardino (Challenger) Humanist
OR House District 11 — Rep. Marty Wilde 2019 – Current Unitarian Universalist
TX House District 135 — Rep. Jon Rosenthal 2019 – Current Agnostic
UT House District 38 — Ashlee Matthews (Challenger) Agnostic

Total on the ballots: 14 state senators, 85 state reps, 8 Congress
Total (results so far): 10 state senators, 41 state reps, 1 Congress

Phil Zuckerman: Why don’t atheists get elected to Congress?

This article first appeared on TheConversation.com on Oct. 5 and is reprinted with permission.

By Phil Zuckerman

T

Phil Zuckerman

his year, the selection of Kamala Harris as Joe Biden’s running mate presented the United States with its first politician of Indian heritage — and the first Black woman — to be on a major party ticket. It followed Hillary Clinton’s becoming the first woman to win the popular vote for president in a 2016 election to replace America’s first Black president, Barack Obama.

Meanwhile, Pete Buttigieg became the first openly gay candidate to win a presidential primary and Ted Cruz became the first Latino to do so. In recent years Americans saw the first Jewish American win a primary, Bernie Sanders, and Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar became the first Muslim women elected to Congress.

But in this era of increasing diversity and the breaking of long-rigid political-demographic barriers, there is no self-identifying atheist in national politics. Indeed, throughout history, only one self-identified atheist in the U.S. Congress comes to mind, the late California Democrat Peter Stark.

‘In atheists, they don’t trust’

This puts the country at odds with democracies the world over that have elected openly godless — or at least openly skeptical — leaders who went on to become revered national figures, such as Jawaharlal Nehru in India, Sweden’s Olof Palme, Jose Mujica in Uruguay and Israel’s Golda Meir. New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, the global leader who has arguably navigated the coronavirus crisis with the most credit, says she is agnostic.

But in the United States, self-identified nonbelievers are at a distinct disadvantage. A 2019 poll asking Americans who they were willing to vote for in a hypothetical presidential election found that 96 percent would vote for a candidate who is Black, 94 percent for a woman, 95 percent for a Hispanic candidate, 93 percent for a Jew, 76 percent for a gay or lesbian candidate and 66 percent for a Muslim — but atheists fall below all of these, down at 60 percent. That is a sizable chunk who would not vote for a candidate simply on the basis of their nonreligion.

In fact, a 2014 survey found Americans would be more willing to vote for a presidential candidate who had never held office before, or who had extramarital affairs, than for an atheist.

In a country that changed its original national motto in 1956 from the secular “E pluribus unum” — “out of many, one” — to the faithful “In God We Trust,” it seems people don’t trust someone who doesn’t believe in God.

As a scholar who studies atheism in the United States, I have long sought to understand what is behind the antipathy toward nonbelievers seeking office.

Branding issue?

There appear to be two primary reasons atheism remains the kiss of death for aspiring politicians in the U.S. — one is rooted in a reaction to historical and political events, while the other is rooted in baseless bigotry.

Let’s start with the first: atheism’s prominence within communist regimes. Some of the most murderous dictatorships of the 20th century — including Stalin’s Soviet Union and Pol Pot’s Cambodia — were explicitly atheistic. Bulldozing human rights and persecuting religious believers were fundamental to their oppressive agendas. Talk about a branding problem for atheists.

For those who considered themselves lovers of liberty, democracy and the First Amendment guarantee of the free exercise of religion, it made sense to develop fearful distrust of atheism, given its association with such brutal dictatorships. And even though such regimes have long since met their demise, the association of atheism with a lack of freedom lingered long after.

The second reason atheists find it hard to get elected in America, however, is the result of an irrational linkage in many people’s minds between atheism and immorality. Some assume that because atheists don’t believe in a deity watching and judging their every move, they must be more likely to murder, steal, lie and cheat. One recent study, for example, found that Americans even intuitively link atheism with necrobestiality and cannibalism.

Such bigoted associations between atheism and immorality do not align with reality. There is simply no empirical evidence that most people who lack a belief in God are immoral. If anything, the evidence points in the other direction. Research has shown that atheists tend to be less racist, less homophobic and less misogynistic than those professing a belief in God.

Most atheists subscribe to humanistic ethics based on compassion and a desire to alleviate suffering. This may help explain why atheists have been found to be more supportive of efforts to fight climate change, as well as more supportive of refugees and of the right to die.

This may also explain why, according to my research, those states within the United States with the least religious populations — as well as democratic nations with the most secular citizens — tend to be the most humane, safe, peaceful and prosperous.

Freethought caucus

Although the rivers of anti-atheism run deep throughout the American political landscape, they are starting to thin. More and more nonbelievers are openly expressing their godlessness, and swelling numbers of Americans are becoming secular: In the past 15 years, the percentage of Americans claiming no religious affiliation has risen from 16 percent to 26 percent.  Meanwhile, some find the image of a bible-wielding Trump troubling, opening up the possibility that suddenly Christianity may be contending with a branding problem of its own, especially in the skeptical eyes of younger Americans.

In 2018, a new group emerged in Washington, D.C.: the Congressional Freethought Caucus. Although it only has 13 members, it portends a significant shift in which some elected members of Congress are no longer afraid of being identified as, at the very least, agnostic. Given this new development, as well as the growing number of nonreligious Americans, it shouldn’t be a surprise if one day a self-identified atheist makes it to the White House.

Will that day come sooner rather than later? God only knows. Or rather, only time will tell.

FFRF member Phil Zuckerman is professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College.

2nd place (tie): College essay contest — Katherine Lance

I cede to no one, not even God

FFRF awarded Katherine $3,000.

Katherine Lance

By Katherine Lance

Since before I could even articulate the thought, I have philosophically opposed the idea of an omnipotent, omnipresent and omnibenevolent God. Most children do not wrestle with the problem of evil. However, being the victim of maternal abuse, I pondered evil daily and prayed to God nightly.

I read Mark Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger when I was 10 — and everything fell into place. Armed with this philosophical knowledge, I came to rely only on myself, unable to place my fate in the hands of such a callous handler as God. No God ever came to save me.

When I was 16, I told my mother she was forcing me to parent her, so she kicked me out. God never came for my older siblings. They simply left. God never came for my younger sister. At 14, I was 95 pounds of pure desperation fighting an enraged grown woman. When it was time to write a testimony for court, I did not pray for God to give me strength. I relived all my worst memories alone in my head. And I got it done.

My grandmother’s death was the catalyst for my official break in faith. An impoverished Mexican immigrant, pregnant when she crossed the border and abused for much of her life, she was a victim of every obscene punishment life can offer. Despite this, she was deeply religious. My devout Catholic grandmother died enfeebled and in agony, wracked by cancer, despite her faith that God would save her. My mother called me stupid for not believing in God. I explained the problem of evil to her in this context and she never questioned my beliefs again. 

Others are not satisfied, citing intelligent design. Religions first existed partly as a way for humans to explain the unexplainable. As we make further advances in scientific research, we have no need to assign deities to what we now know to be natural phenomena with rational explanations. Intelligent design as a concept is similarly invalid. As a student of biology, I can show you the meandering path of evolution in many organisms — pointless vestigial structures, deer antlers being made of cancer cells, legs serving as makeshift antennae in proturan insects. Koalas eat what is basically poison, have an almost completely smooth brain, and cannot recognize eucalyptus leaves as food unless the leaves are still on the branch. Pandas are terrible at reproduction and parental care, leading to their near functional extinction. Sloths sometimes confuse their own limbs for branches and fall to their deaths. Even the human   skeleton is architecturally unsound. These are only a few examples of how evolution has taken place.

I will admit the natural rebuttal to that argument, which is that God only set the universe into motion and did not otherwise interfere — that there is no such thing as an act of God. I will allow this as a possibility, but I will never be religious.

As someone who grew up with an abusive mother who so ardently believed in God, I have a natural place in my psyche where faith should lie. It is filled instead with statements to the contrary.

Cormac McCarthy writes in The Crossing, “There is no order in this world save that which death has put there.” This is the truth the religious wish to deny. By seeking comfort in God, we can turn a blind eye on the senselessness of suffering. I choose to overcome obstacles rather than pretend they do not exist. I take an active role in my life rather pray for happiness. All of myself is my own. I cede to no one, not even God.

Katherine, 20, is from Cedar Park, Texas, and attends Tarleton State University, majoring in wildlife sciences, with minors in natural resource ecology and entomology. “I spend much of my time hiking and working on my insect collection, and I am also a visual artist and creative writer. I use these skills to run a blog advocating for the conservation of insects, which are often wrongly vilified in popular media.”

Honorable mention — College essay contest: Fatima Montero

No gods, no masters, no organized religion

Fatima Montero

By Fatima Montero

One of the earliest memories I can vividly recall included me staring idly up at the church ceiling, tracing the rib vaults with my eyes as my mother rocked me in her arms, a bottle in my mouth. I couldn’t have been older than 2, but for some reason, that memory has latched itself to my mind to this day. I spent a lot of time in churches, and growing up, my aversion to religion only solidified as I learned of the atrocities of the Catholic Church. I never had a good relationship with religion and I hated every second I was in that building. To me, religion is suffocating as much as it is damaging, and I want no part of the manipulation and subjugation that occurs there.

The rejection of organized religion as we know it is central to my politics and core beliefs. I have identified as a leftist for almost three years now, falling closer to anarchism than communism or socialism. I believe in complete human autonomy, free will, mutual aid and anti-fascism. A common phrase thrown around by anarchists, especially in the punk and metal scene, is “No Gods, No Masters.” Liberation lies not under the domineering suppression of God, but under the knowledge of our power and control over ourselves and our lives. I strongly believe that in order to secure basic human rights such as housing, food, water and healthcare, we must reject organized religion and reckon with the violence it has imposed on marginalized peoples. A removal of religion in our institutions would mean the liberation for women, queer folk, Black and Brown folk, indigenous folk and other marginalized peoples. The Catholic Church, in its hundreds of years conquest to conquer, plunder, convert, assimilate and decimate non-white peoples in the name of God, effectively labelled itself as the religion of genocide.

How can I worship and pray to a God who was used as justification for American Imperialism, slavery, witch-hunting, war, capitalism, homophobia, sexism, racism, transphobia, genocide, when I can believe in a mass collective effort to a better world for myself and others less fortunate than me?

Freethought and the rejection of religion is necessary to decolonizing our communities and selves. The years of repression and homophobia I internalized and projected to others is not easily overcome simply because I am an atheist or an anarchist. While these two have helped me come a long way in loving my masculine lesbian identity, I cannot speak for the millions of people who have been subject to European colonization and religious conquest. What about our indigenous population, who have been stripped of their land, freedom and rights? What about our LGBT+ population, who are stripped of rights by conservative policy makers and denied healthcare, service and life? What about our Black population, who still face the terrors of religious terrorists like the Ku Klux Klan and the police, and have yet to be paid reparations for the slavery their ancestors had to endure? Or our women, who are killed, raped, controlled and denied reproductive rights? Religion is not the remedy we need, but the cancer we must eradicate. Religion underpins most, if not all, systemic issues relevant to marginalized peoples, and its hand in colonizing and enslaving peoples is nothing short of disgusting. A liberation of the marginalized and the working class lies in the rejection of religion as we know it, as well as the institutions it plagues in our society. A better world is possible. We simply must believe in it.

Fatima, 18, is from Bethlehem, Pa., and attends Moore College of Art and Design. “I am a lesbian Mexican who loves heavy metal, anarchy and creating occultist art,” she writes. “I hope to become a successful freelance illustrator and use my art to advocate for anti-capitalism, anti-fascism, anti-racism, LGBT+ rights, and many more.”  

 

 

FFRF: Justice, healing needed to halt racism

Thousands of protesters take to the streets in Miami on May 31 following the death of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. (Photo by Shutterstock)

We have all watched the horrifying video documenting a helpless African-American’s life being snuffed out by a pitiless and indifferent white police officer in Minneapolis.

African-American bystanders desperately tried to point out that George Floyd was not resisting arrest and then didn’t appear to be breathing during the horrifying 9 minutes officer Derek Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd’s neck. Other cops stood by watching indifferently as Floyd desperately gasped, “Please, please, please, I can’t breathe.”

African-Americans and other minorities have long pointed out how they are imperiled in the United States, that “driving while black or brown” can get them pulled over by cops — and often much worse.

“Wearing a hoodie while black” can result in death, with the killer getting off scot-free, as when George Zimmerman was acquitted for fatally shooting Trayvon Martin, 17, in Florida in 2012.

“Jogging while black” was Ahmaud Arbery’s “crime” when he was murdered in February in Georgia at the hands of several white men who have since been arrested.

Breonna Taylor was killed by Louisville police in her own home on March 13 during a bungled “no-knock” drug search intended for a home miles away belonging to men already in custody.

Even “bird-watching while black” led to a recent confrontation in Central Park, which fortunately did not escalate but could have endangered the life of Harvard grad Christian Cooper.

Black and brown Americans in the United States are continually aware of their vulnerability. As Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said after Floyd’s murder, “Being black in America should not be a death sentence.”

Our nation is already on edge. The pandemic is exposing glaring inequities and injustices in the United States. One in four Americans is unemployed, with African-American and Latinx communities disproportionately affected by the economic downturn. Black and Hispanic Americans are also disproportionately catching and dying of COVID-19. And it is a national shame that the Navajo Nation’s coronavirus infection rate has become the highest in the country, that many in the tribe do not even have running water on the reservation and that the federal response has been botched. This is another tragic way in which being a racial minority in the United States can become a death sentence.

Americans — white and black, religious or freethinking — must speak up and demand not only justice for Floyd, but a national reckoning with racial profiling, police brutality, vigilantism and institutional indifference and racism.

Fifth place — Law student essay contest: Nick Ormes

Nick Ormes

FFRF awarded Nick $750.

By Nick Ormes

The U.S. Supreme Court has held that marriages of opposite-sex and same-sex couples must be afforded “equal dignity” before the law. This clear command has not stopped many states from trying to curtail access to same-sex marriage, usually under the moniker of “religious freedom.” These religious refusal or conscience clause bills are aimed at restricting a variety of civil rights, but those aimed at limiting same-sex marriages are abundant in state legislatures.

One such bill was recently filed in the Texas Legislature, ostensibly to protect the religious freedom of state officials who can perform marriage ceremonies. The bill is currently in committee in both branches of the Texas Congress. The bills have nearly identical language, except that the House version allows recusal for “sincerely held religious belief or conscientious objection,” while the Senate version only allows recusal for “sincerely held religious belief.” Texas law authorizes any justice or judge of the state as a person able to perform marriage ceremonies. The Senate bill fails to strike an appropriate balance between the religious rights of state officials and the civil rights of those most likely to be affected by this bill:  same-sex couples.

There are three primary issues with the bill: It protects religious expression to the exclusion of the civil rights of same-sex couples, it targets same-sex marriages and provides no relief to any couple denied a marriage, and it raises the religious beliefs of elected judicial officials above current law.

Religious expression already enjoys broad protections under current law, including providing reasonable accommodations based on religious beliefs. Following the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell, the Texas attorney general wrote an opinion on the constitutionality of judges and clerks refusing to perform marriages based on religious beliefs. This opinion concluded that a judicial officer could refuse to perform a same-sex marriage ceremony if another authorized official was available to perform the ceremony. While this position fails to consider the civil rights of same-sex couples fully, it provides some type of accommodation between religious rights and civil rights.

The balance that this bill creates would significantly burden same-sex couples’ right to marry while granting far too much power to the religious rights of judicial officials. The bill gives no consideration to whether another official is available to perform the marriage. It would be entirely possible for Texas to have counties where no judicially overseen same-sex marriages occur. While this may be an extreme situation, the bill would clearly allow it. In fact, the bill would insulate judicial officials from paying civil damages if this situation did exist. It even would protect that judicial official from being subject to “a law, policy, or adverse action of [the] state” by claiming as a defense that it violates this bill. A judicial official can even bring a civil claim against “a law, policy, or adverse action” that would require them to perform a marriage ceremony.

Same-sex couples already face discrimination in other sectors of society, and this history of discrimination implies that this bill is meant to limit same-sex marriages.

There is a long history of discrimination against same-sex couples in Texas. The Texas House of Representatives once proposed legislation that would have stripped government employees who granted a same-sex marriage of their jobs and benefits. The state criminalized same-sex intimacy. Even the Texas attorney general’s opinion following Obergefell demonstrates this history. 

This bill’s true purpose is to limit same-sex marriages, not to protect religious freedom. The bill protects “sincerely held religious beliefs” without any consideration of countervailing interests. The bill requires a court overseeing a case brought against an official for refusing to perform a marriage to ignore the civil rights of a same-sex couple entirely. It denies judicial relief to same-sex couples.

If the bill’s main purpose was to protect religious expressions, then it could require a judge to provide reasonable accommodations to the couple. It could, at the very least, require that there was one official who is available to perform the ceremony if other officials refuse to marry same-sex couples. Instead, there is no protection offered to any couple refused by a judge.

The “religious protection” of these conscience clause bills creates a privilege unique to religious persons. Sticking with the Texas bill, if a judge refused to marry a same-sex couple based on the official’s sincere belief that civil marriage is restricted to a man and woman, that would be illegal. However, if that same official refused due to a belief that only marriage between a man and woman is proper according to some higher power, that would be legal. All of these laws provide a unique right to religious persons to refuse to comply with the law that does not exist for secular views.

Further, all of these laws grant a right to discriminate on religious grounds, sometimes in blatant violation of the law. These bills generally allow religious refusals for a variety of civil rights, usually targeting minorities. In addition to inviting discrimination against same-sex couples, the Texas bill adds a new subsection to existing Texas law. The purpose of this subsection is to guarantee that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is allowed. Sexual orientation is not a protected class under current law, but this bill is aimed toward encouraging religious persons to discriminate against same-sex couples.

In sum, the Texas bill would create an inequitable balance between the religious expressions of judicial officials and the civil rights of same-sex couples.

First, the bill would prefer a judge’s religious beliefs over a same-sex couple’s right to marry. Second, the history of targeting same-sex relationships in Texas and the lack of protection given to same-sex couples indicates that the thrust of this law is to limit same-sex marriages, not protect religious expression. Lastly, this bill and other “conscience clause” bills grant a dangerous religious privilege and empower religious persons to use religion as a weapon. 

Nick, 24, attends the Indiana University Maurer School of Law and attended Indiana University as an undergrad, earning a B.S. in psychology. He grew up in Crown Point, Ind., but said his move to the college town of Bloomington “really opened me up to other ways of thinking and people of different backgrounds.”

Photos, marquees, cartoons (December 2019)

Eighth place — College essay contest: Cora Womble-Miesner

Finding tranquility in godlessness

Cora Womble-Miesner

FFRF awarded Cora $500.

By Cora Womble-Miesner

My parents chose not to inflict a strict faith onto my brother and me, but hints of God remained from their own religious upbringings. So, for the early years of my life, I held the idea of a greater power in my head, one that was all-knowing and ever-present. It took me a while to realize that God was a source of anxiety for me: At the slightest glimmer of a sinful thought, I would become certain that I had put myself in jeopardy. God would undoubtedly know that I had conjured up indecent thoughts, and therefore I would be punished — not for actual actions, but rather for amorphous things that took place solely within my mind. The harder one tries not to think of anything evil, the more salacious thoughts crowd together, bouncing off one another and multiplying. I was certain that I was destined for hell, due to my inability to control the wandering of my thoughts.

Something struck me one day and diverted my unhindered anxiety: I realized that belief in a higher power was a choice, and if I did not believe in God, then I would not have to live in fear of his punishment. I can’t recall what catalyst prompted this abrupt loss of God, but it was a moment of elation. I was 10 years old and I felt this thought operating like a switch inside me. In an instant my thoughts were calmed, and I was so pleased with the remarkable inner change that I returned to the idea again and again. If God didn’t exist, then my thoughts could be wholly my own, impenetrable from the outside, a place for me to explore freely without fear of being spied on by an all-knowing entity who could decide my fate during life and after death. With the loss of a god, I also lost the concept of an afterlife. Death has a calming finality to it, devoid of the possibilities of punishment or reward.

In that same year, my best friend confided in me in the hallway at school: “Hell isn’t real,” she expressed excitedly. “It was invented to make people go to church.” The confidence with which she delivered this information struck me. It was then that I started to realize that religions operate largely based in fear and shame. To believe in God is to fear God, and so you construct your actions in a way that you will avoid his wrath. Religion is often falsely equated with morality, but if one’s good deeds are not for the benefit of others but rather to ensure a pleasurable afterlife for oneself, the integrity of these morals can be called into question. Without belief in heaven or hell, kindly acts can be truly selfless instead of self-serving.

Freed from the fear of a fiery inferno awaiting me post-mortem, I found that my quality of life improved. The mind of a middle-schooler is already replete with enough worries, trepidations and anxieties without the added concern of eternal punishment. Once I realized my thoughts were not being supervised, I no longer found my brain crowded with hurtful ones. I found instead that my mind was a safe haven for me to be alone, to imagine in solitude, and then return to the world unscathed and soothed. I conduct myself in a way I consider moral, not because of God’s watching eye, but because I care about humankind. My parents raised me to be empathetic and kind and I do not need the threat of hell to monitor my behavior.

Cora, 23, is from San Diego and attends New York University, where she is majoring in English. She attended community college for four years before transferring to NYU. Cora enjoys literature and amateur boxing, and volunteers at her local library and teaches boxing lessons to children at a gym. She would like to teach creative writing to incarcerated people.

Honorable mention — High school essay contest: Kaitlyn Cochenour

Is God a solution?

By Kaitlyn Cochenour

For years, people have turned to religion to solve problems rather than making changes that are within reach. No matter their beliefs, people should still rely on common sense, personal efforts and individual change to solve problems.

One example is the conflict between religious influence and the use of vaccinations. Vaccines are essential in a society in which social interaction is constant. These medicines protect not only the person who receives it, but everyone around them. One of the most common disagreements with vaccines has to do with religion. Some religious individuals and groups believe that God or another deity can solve this problem. But some invisible, all-knowing force will not save anyone from harmful and even deadly sicknesses.

Another example of using religion instead of practical problem-solving is the rehabilitation of addicts. Addiction is a painful and devastating force that needs to be addressed in an upfront and honest manner. Leading people to believe in something just to stop them from addiction is not an effective solution. A focus on religion in rehabilitation leads to the question, “If God wants me to recover so much, then why am I an addict in the first place?” Focusing on religion instead of practical solutions leads to empty promises, a loss of faith and lack of progress.

I have experienced this in my own life through my older brother. He was diagnosed with cancer in 2012. Following his diagnosis, he fell into a life of drug abuse, alcoholism and great mental struggle. When all of these terrible things happened, I tried to tell myself that God would help him and that things would soon be better. Things only continued to get worse and I felt as though my family was a victim of God, rather than those who he cares for. I developed a host of mental issues in facing one of the most difficult challenges in my life. I kept seeking calm through religion in hopes that everything would go back to normal.

Eventually, my mind began to disprove the power of God. If he was so great, then why had he allowed all of this to happen to a young teenager and his fifth-grade sister? Through chemo, therapy and rehabilitation, my brother is making enormous progress. Practical, known solutions allowed him a chance for success and to be the best version of himself.

Kaitlyn Cochenour

Religion had no place in my progress, either. Humans can accomplish so much without using religion because humans are mighty.

Kaitlyn, 18, is from New Castle, Pa., and will attend Youngstown State University with plans to major in business administration. She was involved in track, varsity softball, travel softball, jazz band, concert band, marching band and art club. Following graduation, Kaitlyn hopes to own a tattoo shop.