FFRF objects to official devout Indiana messages

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The Freedom From Religion Foundation is protesting explicitly religious correspondence that regularly originates from an Indiana government office.

A concerned local resident informed FFRF that condolence letters on behalf of "North Township Trustee Frank J. Mrvan and staff" to express sympathy for recent deaths of constituents carry an overt religious message. They state, in part:

Whereas God in His infinite wisdom has removed [the deceased] from your midst, He has not removed him from your heart. One of God's own, we celebrate his "Homecoming," where he has been given a new heavenly body that will enter into the presence of the Lord and rejoice among the angels.

The letters go on to quote from a devotional passage in the bible: "Trust in the Lord with all thine heart and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thine ways acknowledge Him and He shall direct thy path."

The North Township Trustee office provides social services for residents of the area.

FFRF understands and appreciates that the township wants to express its respect for deceased recipients. However, FFRF points out the trustee's office can draft condolence letters that do not endorse a particular religion and are respectful of the township's duty to remain neutral on religious matters.

The U.S. Supreme Court has held that public officials may not seek to advance or promote religion, FFRF reiterates. When Mrvan corresponds on North Township letterhead, it creates the unmistakable appearance that the views expressed are made in his official capacity as trustee.

"Government officials can worship, pray, and participate in religious events in their personal capacities," FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel writes to the North Township Trustee office, based in Hammond, Ind. "But they are not permitted to use their government office to provide credibility or prestige to their religion. Their office and title belong to 'We the people,' not the office's temporary occupant." 

And, as a trustee for the township, Mrvan represents a diverse population that consists not only of believers, but also atheists and agnostics. Overall, 23 percent of Americans identify as nonreligious, and another 6 percent practice non-Christian faiths. Blatantly religious condolence messages are certain to bring an unwelcome and even offensive message to many grieving households. Not all families are comforted by the thought that their loved one is rejoicing among the angels. Worse, nonreligious families are likely to receive an alternate message: that the township shares the Christian belief that nonbelievers, potentially including the deceased, are sent to hell. While these letters are unconstitutional regardless of the recipients' religious views, they are especially inappropriate in this context.

"Public officials cannot assume that their constituents share a set of religious convictions or find comfort in sectarian condolences," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "The United States is comprised of many strands — including numerous varieties of religious and nonreligious beliefs."

FFRF asks for the North Township trustee office to stop sending out religious condolences.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 29,000 members across the country, including over 400 Hoosiers. Its purpose is to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church and to represent the views of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics, and nonbelievers).

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The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

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