Freethought Today

Freethought Today (3846)

Freethought Today, the only freethought newspaper in North America, is published 10 times a year (with combined issues in January/February and June/July). Edited by PJ Slinger, Freethought Today covers timely news related to state/church separation and includes articles of interest to freethinkers. To read select articles please click on the "Recent Issues" menu on the right. 

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A federal judge for a second time has ruled in favor of FFRF's historic challenge of a housing tax allowance that uniquely privileges clergy.

At issue is the constitutionality of a provision in the tax code that excludes from gross income a housing allowance paid to a "minister of the gospel."

Rep. Peter Mack, sponsor of the 1954 law challenged by FFRF, argued that ministers should be rewarded with a clergy allowance for "carrying on such a courageous fight against this [a godless and anti-religious world movement]." The clergy allowance is not a tax deduction but an exemption — allowing housing allowances paid as part of clergy salary to be subtracted from taxable income.

In 2013, U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb ruled in FFRF's favor in its original challenge. Crabb's finding sent "shockwaves through the religious community," according to the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, which bitterly fought the ruling, along with just about every religious denomination in the country.

In November 2014, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out that victory — not on the merits, but on the question of standing — arguing that FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor hadn't yet sought a refund of their housing allowance from the IRS. Accordingly, they sought them and when denied, went back to court.

FFRF renewed its challenge of the housing allowance in April 2016. Sued are Steve Mnuchin, U.S. secretary of the treasury, and John Koskinen, IRS commissioner. The case also had religious intervenors as defendants.

Plaintiffs are Barker and Gaylor, and Ian Gaylor, representing the estate of President Emerita Anne Nicol Gaylor, whose retirement was paid in part as a housing allowance.

"Although defendants try to characterize [this provision of the tax code] as an effort by Congress to treat ministers fairly and avoid religious entanglement, the plain language of the statute, its legislative history and its operation in practice all demonstrate a preference for ministers over secular employees," writes Crabb, for the Western District of Wisconsin.

"As I noted in the earlier lawsuit," Crabb writes, "there is no reasonable interpretation of the statute under which the phrase minister of the gospel could be construed to include employees of an organization whose purpose is to keep religion out of the public square."

Any reasonable observer would conclude that the purpose and effect of the statute is to provide financial assistance to one group of religious employees without any consideration to the secular employees who are similarly situated to ministers, Crabb noted. "Under current law, that type of provision violates the establishment clause," she adds.

"In reaching this conclusion, I do not mean to imply that any particular minister is undeserving of the exemption or does not have a financial need for one. The important point is that many equally deserving secular employees (as well as other kinds of religious employees) could benefit from the exemption as well, but they must satisfy much more demanding requirements despite the lack of justification for the difference in treatment."

Crabb also discusses financial benefits to even wealthy ministers: ""Thus, an evangelist with a multimillion dollar home is entitled under § 107(2) to deduct the entire rental value of that home, even if it is not used for church purposes. ("Joel Osteen lives in a $10.5 million home and is entitled to exclude the fair rental value of that home so long as he spends that money on the home and his church allocates that amount to housing.")."

The benefit of the tax exemption to the clergy is enormous. The congressional Joint Committee on Taxation has reported that the exemption amounts to $700 million a year in lost revenue. Religion News Service calculated the allowance increases the take-home pay of some pastors by up to 10 percent. This is because churches benefit, since tax-free salaries lower their overhead. Christianity Today found that 84 percent of senior pastors receive a housing allowance of $20,000 to $38,000 in added (but not reported) compensation to their base salary.

"The manner in which our housing allowance has been used borders on clergy malpractice," William Thornton, a Georgia pastor and blogger, told Forbes magazine in 2013. "A growing subset of ministers who are very highly paid and who live in multimillion dollar mansions are able to exclude hundreds of thousands of dollars from income taxation."

Clergy are permitted to use the housing allowance not just for rent or mortgage, but for home improvements, including maintenance, home improvements and repairs, dishwashers, cable TV and phone fees, paint, towels, bedding, home décor, even personal computers and bank fees. They may be exempt from taxable income up to the fair market rental value of their home, particularly helping well-heeled pastors. The subsidy extends to churches, which can pay clergy less, as tax-free salaries go further.

Becket, the law firm that represents a group of intervening clergy, released a statement labeling Crabb's decision "a devastating blow" that "threatens churches across the country with nearly $1 billion in new taxes."

Becket said an appeal will be filed with the Chicago-based United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

The case was filed on behalf of FFRF by litigator Richard L. Bolton. Gaylor et al v. U.S. Treasury has case number 3:16-cv-00215.

Chaplain barred FFRF co-president from delivering invocation

A federal district judge in Washington, D.C., issued a ruling Oct. 11 that legitimizes the exclusion of nonbelievers from the nation's legislative chambers.

U.S. District Judge Rosemary M. Collyer, a Bush appointee, ruled against plaintiff Dan Barker, co-president of the FFRF. Barker sued House of Representatives Chaplain Patrick Conroy, a Roman Catholic priest, for barring him as an atheist from delivering a guest invocation. Also named as a defendant was Paul Ryan, speaker of the House, who oversees the chaplain's office.

"To decide that Mr. Barker was discriminated against and should be permitted to address the House would be to disregard the Supreme Court precedent that permits legislative prayer," Collyer wrote. Although the court found that Barker was injured, and that the defendants did not have legislative immunity, she ruled that none of the defendants was ultimately responsible for that injury.

The judge claimed that the chaplain was powerless to allow Barker to give the invocation, due to House rules, yet also dismissed Barker's claim against the House itself. The decision fails to identify who, if not the House chaplain and the House itself, could be sued for implementing a rule excluding nonbelievers from participation.

Under her ruling, the program — in which members of the House invite a religious leader of their choice to open a session with an invocation — remains closed to community leaders representing the 23 percent of Americans

overall — including 38 percent of millennials — who are nonreligious.

"We're deeply dismayed that atheists and other nonbelievers are being openly treated as second-class citizens," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "Our government is not a theocracy, and it needs to stop acting like one."

"Conroy's personal biases against the nonreligious have prevented me from participating in my government," Barker says. "The judge's acquiescence in this inequity sends a crystal clear message that our government, founded upon our entirely secular Constitution, may discriminate with impunity against atheists and freethinkers."

The case began when U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., who represents Barker's district in Madison, Wis., requested that Barker give the opening invocation before the House. Barker is a former minister.
Although the chaplain had no written requirements for guest chaplains, Conroy not only required proof of ordination, as well as representative backing, but other documentation. Barker, who retains a valid ordination, met each of the ad hoc requirements the chaplain's office invoked to bar him.

After Conroy decided that Barker could not deliver the opening invocation because he lacks belief in a higher power, Barker submitted a draft of his invocation, in which he noted that he could indeed invoke a "higher power": "There is no power higher than 'We, the People of the United States.'" His remarks also invoked the spirit of the founding patriot Thomas Paine, who promoted "common sense over dogma."

In his legal complaint, Barker noted that from the years 2000 to 2015, 96.7 percent of all guest chaplains have been Christian, although Christians are 70.6 percent of the U.S. population; 2.7 percent were Jewish, compared to 1.9 percent of the population, and other religions were underrepresented. Fully 99.8 percent of recent invocations have been by those stemming from Abrahamic religions.

No atheist or agnostic has been allowed to officially offer the opening invocation before Congress.

"Shouldn't the House of Representatives — the People's House — be representative?" Barker asks.

Speaker Ryan hailed the decision, saying that Congress has always sought to acknowledge God.

"Since the first session of the Continental Congress, our nation's legislature has opened with a prayer to God. Today, that tradition was upheld and the freedom to exercise religion was vindicated. The court rightfully dismissed the claims of an atheist that he had the right to deliver a secular invocation in place of the opening prayer," he wrote. "I commend the district court for its decision, and I am grateful that the People's House can continue to begin its work each day as we have for centuries: taking a moment to pray to God."

Congress spends about $800,000 a year on its opening prayers, including Chaplain Conroy's annual salary of $172,000, as well as a salary and office for the Senate chaplain. Conroy's sole duty, Barker points out, is to "offer a prayer at the commencement of each day's sitting on the House" — roughly 135 times per year — a duty that Conroy delegates to a guest chaplain approximately 40 percent of the time. For 2011, FFRF calculates that Conroy earned $1,659 per prayer.

"No atheist has ever been allowed to give an opening invocation in Congress, and a federal court has just blessed suppression of our views and rights by a tax-paid Roman Catholic chaplain," FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said.

Barker is represented by FFRF Staff Attorneys Andrew L. Seidel and Sam Grover, with Richard L. Bolton serving as a consultant. Barker v. House has case number 1:16-cv -00580.

Artist, filmmaker, novelist Scott Burdick isn't afraid to challenge authority

I was born and raised in 1967 in a working-class neighborhood in Chicago. I attended the same Catholic grade school as my mother had, and the same Jesuit high school as my uncle had. As an altar boy, I felt God's eyes on me night and day. Everyone I knew believed in God, so it was just an obvious fact — until my junior year of high school when I decided to read the entire bible. That was when the first cracks appeared.

Catholic schools taught the basics of Darwinian evolution and accepted that Genesis was not literal. I wondered how to separate the myths from the facts. So I read books on comparative religion, the history of how the Catholic Church formed, and the historical evidence for Jesus' resurrection. Within a year, I realized all religions were equally man-made.

I never had any bad experiences with priests, nuns or the Jesuit brothers — I simply didn't believe anymore. I didn't tell anyone I was an atheist, but I did stop going to church, which caused some problems, especially since I was still in Catholic school. Mostly, I felt relief that Big Brother was no longer watching and deciding if I deserved heaven or hell.

After winning a full scholarship to attend The American Academy of Art in downtown Chicago, a famous artist named Richard Schmid asked a group of us young students what we thought about the existence of God. One after the other, each classmate affirmed their belief in God. I was last. My heart was pounding, but I stated my disbelief out loud for the first time. All the other students were shocked. One of them said, "But you're such a good person!" Then, to my utter surprise, Richard Schmid said, "That's what I think, as well." It was the first time I realized I wasn't alone.

While in art school, a girl in my class told me that her mother gave all their savings to Oral Roberts when the televangelist said God would "call him home" (kill him) if he didn't raise $8 million. This was in 1987, and the girl had to leave school because of this family disaster. It was the first really negative consequence of religion I witnessed. Years later, while staying at a collector's house in Tulsa, we were invited to attend an event at a country club where Roberts was a member. I warned our hosts that if I met Roberts, I would tell him the story of my classmate, since I'm not the kind of person who can simply say nothing in the face of such a con artist. I left it up to them if they wanted me to go with them. They decided to take us to a restaurant instead.

After art school, I attended Columbia College for writing and film, and then made a living as a gallery painter, while occasionally doing paid jobs for film. (I worked on a development team for an animated feature called "Spirit" for DreamWorks, as well as writing a couple screenplays for them that never got made.)

Tired of the city, my wife and I moved to North Carolina about 20 years ago. We spend a lot of our time traveling. While in Africa, India, Tibet, Peru, Turkey or wherever else, I love reading the history and religious texts of the culture we're visiting and then talking to people about their beliefs. Many of those stories and images work their way into my novels and paintings.

I wasn't active in the freethought movement until a controversy erupted in King, N.C. (the town we live next to). A very brave Afghan veteran, [FFRF Life Member] Steven Hewett, complained about a Christian flag hanging on a veteran's memorial in our town's public park. After the City Council took the flag down under threat of a lawsuit, near-continuous protests flared up. At a rally attended by 5,000 flag-waving Christians, speaker after speaker said there was no such thing as separation of church and state and anyone who disagreed should be "encouraged" to leave town. People told local businesses that if they didn't hang a Christian flag in their window, they would be boycotted. Everyone complied.

I was so angry that I decided to make a documentary called "In God We Trust?" in my spare time. It took me a year to film and edit entirely on my own. I released it on YouTube simply to feel like I had at least stood up these bullies and exposed them for what they were. To my surprise, the documentary was widely seen and ended up as evidence in a lawsuit brought by Americans United against the town of King's fake public forum that was used to put the flag back up.

A week before I was scheduled to testify in federal court last year, the town finally gave in on all counts. They removed the Christian flag and other statues from the memorial, and the town's insurance company paid half a million dollars in court costs to Americans United (and $1 to Hewett). All the threatening emails I received as a consequence of the film and trial are merely a bonus, but the most gratifying thing about that film were the handful of religious people in town who told me that watching it changed their mind about why the separation of church and state makes sense even for believers.

Because of this film, Sue Kocher of The Triangle Freethought Society contacted me and asked if I'd film a documentary of the first Reason Rally, which I did with her help. Then she talked me into doing another one with the society and Katherine Stewart on The Good News Club — and then the first interviews for the Openly Secular project.

The most exciting part was interviewing so many of my atheist heroes like Annie Laurie Gaylor, Dan Barker, Richard Dawkins, James Randi, Lawrence Krauss, Adam Savage, and on and on.

Because I make good money from my paintings and novels, it's nice to be able to donate my time to a cause I feel is essential for our future. At every museum show or book signing I do, there are always a few people who come up to me (sometimes with tears in their eyes) and say how thankful they are for my openness about being an atheist, since they cannot come out of the closet for fear of retaliation.

On one panel discussion moderated by George Gallo (writer of "Midnight Run"), I was asked if I ever worried that being so openly atheist might hurt my career. I replied that if you're afraid to express your honest thoughts and ideas, you probably shouldn't be an artist, writer, or filmmaker — at least not if you want to do anything of value. Even though George said this was a very good answer, we clashed a few years later when I saw a film he wrote and directed called "Local Color." In the film, his main character says, "In my opinion, an atheist can never be a great painter. In order to create great art, man must make peace with his own mortality and bow to a higher power." I called him out on this publicly, and we had quite an extended and heated exchange, though I never succeeded in getting him to see how insulting and ridiculous such a statement was.

My newest novel (The Immortality Contract) is the first one I've written that focuses entirely on religion. I give Annie Laurie and Dan credit on the Acknowledgements page, since it was while listening to one of their podcasts that I first came up with the story idea. In the novel, a billionaire atheist scientist (Theon) offers a fountain-of-youth pill to the world free of charge — under condition that the recipient abandons any and all support for religion (especially financial). The pill will only be available in countries with strictly secular governments. Almost overnight, every person on the planet must decide if they have more faith in science and life in this world — or religion and the promise of life in the next. Theon's goal is the destruction of organized religion and ushering in a golden age of reason and science. Unfortunately, things don't go as smoothly as he'd hoped. Probably, there won't be as large an audience for this book as for my science fiction novels, but it was fun to write!

To me, questioning and continuing to learn is what art and living is all about. We're all works in progress. The saddest thing would be to mistakenly think you know all the answers and give up searching.

To see Scott's work, visit his website (, his YouTube channel (ScottBurdickArt) or read his novels (Nihala, The Immortality Contract).

By Jackie Douglas

In what can only be described as an eye-opening experience, I recently volunteered at a mobile volunteer clinic to help those in need of free medical, dental or vision care.

My friends Cate Adams and Katie Pajac joined me in volunteering for the Remote Area Medical Volunteer Corp. (RAM) from Sept. 29 to Oct. 1 at Camp Jordan in East Ridge, Tenn.

RAM was founded as a nonprofit organization in 1985 by Stan Brock. If that name sounds familiar, it's because he starred in "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom." The mission of RAM is to "prevent pain and alleviate suffering by providing free quality health care to those in need." RAM also does disaster relief in the United States and other countries.

Since 1985, RAM has had more than 100,000 humanitarian volunteers, including licensed dental, vision, veterinary, and medical professionals. It has treated more than 700,000 individuals and 67,000 animals and delivered $112 million worth of free health care services.

FFRF's Nonbelief Relief has donated $10,000 to RAM.

This particular clinic focused on dental, vision and general health services. It also had a women's health exam area the final day.

We were there for three days, which included the setup day on Friday. Even though we wouldn't open until Saturday morning, patients were already camped outside in the parking lot.

On Saturday, I arrived at 5 a.m. to get acclimated and assigned a job, and the doors opened about 45 minutes later. I was sent to the Mobile Optical Lab, where I was trained on the machines that cut lenses, how to assemble glasses, and how to use the lensometer, which verifies the eyeglass prescription.

The Mobile Optical Lab that I worked in can make about 200 pairs of glasses a day when it is running at top efficiency. Unfortunately, not all eyeglasses can be made on site. If a child needs polycarbonate lenses or if the prescription is too high, then the glasses are made at RAM headquarters in Knoxville and then mailed to the patient.

Besides working in the optical lab, I also handled patient registration on Sunday for a couple of hours. It was nice to put faces to the eyeglasses I would make later.

During the course of the weekend, the 510 volunteers who helped that weekend saw more than 800 patients (432 for dental work, 191 for medical reasons and 353 for vision issues), some who needed to be seen in more than one field.

I had an amazing time volunteering for RAM. Everyone was friendly and passionate about what they do. All patients were treated with respect and kindness. I am already planning my next volunteer expedition with RAM in spring of 2018. If you get a chance to volunteer with RAM, please do it. You won't regret it!

Jackie Douglas is FFRF's membership manager.

Name: Monica Schwartz

Where and when I was born: I was born in Beloit, Wis., in the early '90s.

Education: I graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a B.S. in community and nonprofit leadership and an entrepreneurship certificate.

Family: With my mother, father and sister, I grew up in what I consider to be the most supportive and communicative family I know.

How I came to work at FFRF: I wanted to build my nonprofit acumen by working for a national nonprofit whose mission aligned with mine. I feel lucky to have found that at FFRF.

What I do here: I am the office assistant at FFRF, meaning I pick up the support tasks that help the office stay focused and diligent. Bought anything from the FFRF store? I probably shipped it to you! Received a new-member packet? I may have stuffed it for you! Whatever helps the overarching goal of keeping state and church separate.

What I like best about it: I get to work with incredibly intelligent and passionate people where there's endless coffee and witty banter.

What gets old about it: Remember the aforementioned shipping and stuffing? That has resulted in quite a few paper cuts, although I'm learning how to avoid them.

I spend a lot of time thinking about: What it means to be an atheist and how to label my own religious identity.

I spend little if any time thinking about: Whether the Constitution is worth working to uphold. It is.

My religious upbringing was: I was baptized Catholic, but when my mother refused to raise her daughters in a church that didn't allow women to lead the congregation, I was confirmed in a Methodist church.

My doubts about religion started: One of my earliest memories is of walking up the stairs in my childhood home during the Christmas season wearing my puffy red jacket and thinking, "Jesus . . . God . . . that can't ACTUALLY be real, right?"

Things I like: I like community. I get the biggest thrill when I know I've been a part of something that brought people together. As a loyal Wisconsinite, I also really like cheese.

Things I smite: Close-mindedness, racial and economic disparities, injustice — the usual.

In my golden years: Whenever I'm lucky enough to hit my "golden years," I hope I will feel as though I've done enough — as though I've positively impacted lives. Maybe I will reflect on that on a warm beach somewhere . . .

By Molly Hanson

California school gets constitution lesson

The staff in a California school district has been educated by FFRF on constitutional concepts after a First Amendment violation was addressed.

FFRF was informed that a teacher at Roseville High in Roseville, Calif., had been pressuring students to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance and favoring students who complied. FFRF Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell wrote to the Roseville Joint Union School District on Aug. 23, telling administrators that students have a constitutional right not to be coerced into participation in the pledge.

FFRF was informed on Sept. 7 in a letter from Principal David Byrd that he had met with the teacher to let her know that she could not compel any student to recite or stand for the pledge, nor could she reward students for participating in the pledge. Byrd also reported to FFRF that the entire school staff would be reminded of the law surrounding students' rights regarding the pledge.

FFRF squashes godly speech in Texas school

After receiving a legal letter from FFRF, a Texas school district has taken steps to keep its commencement speeches secular and lawful.

It was reported to FFRF that during a commencement speech in the Quitman Independent School District in Quitman, Texas, a parent speaker quoted multiple bible verses in what should have been a secular speech. The parent also infused the speech with religious instructions, such as telling students to "seek the Lord for wisdom."

FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote to Superintendent Rhonda Turner on June 16 informing the district that the unconstitutional speech alienated non-Christian members of the school, and that graduations are not the place for a personal promotion of religion.

On Sept. 8, FFRF received confirmation from an attorney representing the school district that future commencement speakers and subject matter would be reviewed to avoid another constitutional violation.

Church recruiters in school told to scram

A Louisiana middle school has heeded FFRF's warning over a serious constitutional violation.

FFRF took action after it learned that a "Field Day" event hosted by Scott M. Brame Middle School in Alexandria, La., was sponsored by the school's Fellowship of Christian Athletes and staffed by the Philadelphia Baptist Church.

During the school-day event, the church representatives, stationed at tents, proselytized students. FFRF was further alerted that the school had plans to begin a partnership with the church in the fall. FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover sent a letter to Rapides Parish Schools Superintendent Nason Authement on Aug. 3, warning the district that inviting, or allowing, a religious organization into the school to indoctrinate students is a far-reaching constitutional violation. FFRF requested that the district investigate the situation and halt any planned church-school partnership with the Philadelphia Baptist Church.

On Sept. 8, Authement responded, informing FFRF that the violation and other Establishment Clause issues would be addressed with district administrators at a scheduled in-service.

Oklahoma sheriff's office removes quote

A bible quote has been removed from an Oklahoma sheriff's office building after FFRF warned against promoting religion on behalf of the government.

The bible passage quoting Matthew 5:9, "Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God," was on visible display in the Sequoyah County Sheriff's Office. Additionally, a photo of the quote was being used as the Facebook cover photo for the office's official page. FFRF Legal Fellow Christopher Line wrote to the sheriff's office on July 21, explaining that it is inappropriate for the office to display the religious message, a clear government sponsorship of Christianity. FFRF requested that the bible verse be immediately removed from the sheriff's office and from its Facebook page.
On Sept. 26, FFRF was informed that the photo had been taken down from the office and that the post had been removed from Facebook.

FFRF muffles prayer in Arkansas school

A principal at an Arkansas elementary school will no longer be pushing prayer after the district received a letter from FFRF addressing a constitutional complaint.

A concerned community member informed FFRF that a principal at Allen Elementary School in Siloam Springs, Ark., had invited first- and second-grade students to say a prayer during an announcement. On Aug. 30, FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote to the Siloam Springs School District, informing administrators that public school employees may not legally encourage or lead students in prayer.

Superintendent Ken Ramey responded on Sept. 8, informing FFRF that the school district would refrain from crossing the line into prayer promotion or religious endorsement in the future.

Texas district to halt teacher-led prayers

A school district in Texas has taken precautions to ensure that it does not endorse Christianity after receiving a letter from FFRF over staff meeting prayers.

A district employee contacted FFRF to report that during an in-school training day at Brewer High School in Fort Worth, Texas, a school official led the teachers in prayer. A few days later, an auditorium full of district employees assembled for a mandatory staff convocation event that was led in prayer. FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote to the White Settlement Independent School District on Aug. 23, warning that the promotion of religious ritual was a violation of the Establishment Clause.

A legal representative of the school district responded on Sept. 13, informing FFRF that the district would comply with the constitutional principle of separation of church and state.

Teacher to stop pushing student prayers

A concerned parent alerted FFRF that a kindergarten teacher in the Booneville School District in Booneville, Miss., was selecting a student each day to lead her class in a pre-lunch prayer.

On Sept. 7, FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote to the school district, cautioning that public school teachers may not encourage students to pray or otherwise endorse religion to students. FFRF asked that district immediately investigate this situation and ensure that its employees are not illegally promoting religious practice to their students.

On Sept. 21, Boonville School District Superintendent Todd English responded, informing FFRF that the teacher and the rest of the faculty had been met with regarding the reported violation.

Alabama school ceases unlawful prayer

After a concerned community member reported that a principal in an Alabama public school district organized a prayer event, FFRF took action.

FFRF learned that a principal at Mill Creek Elementary School in Huntsville, Ala., invited the public to pray for the school district community to start off the school year. The principal had also posted an invitation on Facebook for people to join her at the school on Aug. 6 to pray. In a letter sent to the school district on Sept. 22, FFRF Legal Fellow Christopher Line wrote that the principal's invitation to community members and students to join her for an event held at the school creates the appearance of school-sponsored prayer — which is unconstitutional.

FFRF requested that the district ensure that the principal no longer host prayer events at the elementary school. On Sept. 27, the school district superintendent responded, informing FFRF that the violation had been discussed with the principal and that she was reminded of her duty to keep religion out of her role as principal.

Texas district won't promote religion

A Texas school will no longer unlawfully promote religion after receiving a legal letter from FFRF.

A parent contacted FFRF to let it know that at Judson High School in Live Oak, Texas, a religious invocation and benediction had been delivered at the school's graduation ceremony. The official program for the ceremony indicated that the school designated a "student chaplain" to deliver the opening invocation, which began "Dear heavenly father" and ended with a reference to "our Lord Jesus Christ" and an "Amen."

FFRF sent a letter to the school district on June 13, warning the district against personal religious promotion. In order to protect the freedom of conscience of all students, Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote, high school graduations must be secular events. On Sept. 13, an attorney representing the district responded by informing FFRF that district staff in charge of graduation ceremonies had been reminded to not promote religion.

FFRF halts religious promotion in school

Thanks to FFRF, a public school district in Texas has ceased its distribution of Christian propaganda.

A concerned community member informed FFRF that administrators at Wood River Elementary in Corpus Christi, Texas, sent an email promoting the event "See You at the Pole," a Christian-oriented prayer rally organized each year around a bible verse. FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote to the Calallen Independent School District on Sept. 26, warning the district that allowing any religious message or prayer gathering to be part of a school-sponsored event is unconstitutional.

FFRF was informed in an Sept. 27 faxed message that the district had counseled its teachers on not promoting "See You at the Pole" events.

Religion in Texas district exterminated

FFRF put the kibosh on future unconstitutional religious events hosted by a public school district in Texas.

It was reported to FFRF that the Burkburnett Independent School District in Texas was advertising a "Family Night" event with the first scheduled activity titled "YOUTH GROUPS Gather for Worship." The advertisement for the event was displayed on the district's website. FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote to the school district on Sept. 20, warning it that proceeding with the event would be an illegal endorsement of religion, and a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment

An attorney representing the district responded on Sept. 27, informing FFRF that the district administration had taken measures to certify that district staff in charge of scheduling and hosting events would be reminded of the district's obligation not to promote religion.

FFRF protects students' freedom from pledges

Thanks to FFRF, a Wisconsin teacher has a better understanding of students' First Amendment rights.

It was brought to FFRF's attention by a concerned parent that a third-grade teacher at Frank Allis Elementary School in Madison, Wis., was forcing students to stand up for the Pledge of Allegiance and scolding students who would not comply. She reportedly told students that sitting during the pledge was unpatriotic and required that they bring a written and signed parental permission to sit during the recitation.

FFRF Staff Attorney Ryan Jayne wrote to the Madison Metropolitan School District on Sep. 21, notifying the district that, as the Supreme Court has ruled, students have a constitutional right not to be forced to participate in the pledge, and cannot be singled out or penalized for following their freedom of conscience. FFRF received word on Sept. 28 that the school principal had warned the teacher to end her unconstitutional classroom policy.

Texas school district to make secular changes

FFRF has halted religious promotion taking place in a Texas school district.

FFRF learned that the Lyford Consolidated School District in Lyford, Texas, was sending home permission slips with fifth-grade students so that the students could take bibles distributed by the district. FFRF was also alerted that students were being called to give invocations at Lyford High School graduations, with the 2016 prayer having mentioned Jesus.

FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote to the district on June 8, requesting that the unconstitutional promotions of religion end. Grover cautioned that courts have held that distribution of bibles to students during the school day is prohibited, and that the Supreme Court has continually struck down prayers as school-sponsored events including graduations.

On Sep. 29, a district representative responded informing FFRF that a review of the high school graduation format and fifth-grade practices was underway.

New Jersey school halts promotion of worship

After receiving warning from FFRF, a New Jersey school district will cease its unconstitutional sponsorship of divisive religious activities.

It was reported to FFRF that the Millville Board of Education co-sponsored an event that included Christian worship. The event, Millville Elk's Donald "Ducky" Sharp Youth Week, had scheduled a Sunday morning church attendance for "all Millville boys and girls in grades 1 through 6." FFRF took swift action to inform the school that the display of favoritism for Christianity by the district was unlawful. FFRF Staff Attorney Ryan Jayne sent a letter notifying Millville Public Schools that it is unconstitutional for the district to encourage students to attend church.

A representative of the school district responded on Oct. 2, informing FFRF that the district would not sponsor the event in the future.

FFRF removes biblical game in Florida park

Thanks to FFRF, children in a Florida town can enjoy a public playground free of religious propaganda.

A resident informed FFRF that on a visit to R.E. Olds Park in Oldsmar, Fla., she had stumbled upon a small playground with a picture game that depicted the biblical tale of Noah and the ark. Each section of the game contained a passage from the legend, paraphrased directly from the book of Genesis to be more easily absorbed by children. FFRF Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell wrote to the city parks superintendent on July 27, informing the city that the display equated to a government endorsement of Christianity, which the city cannot legally do.

The city's director of leisure services responded on Oct. 2, notifying FFRF that the panel had been permanently removed.

FFRF mends violations in Texas school district

A Texas school district will comply with its constitutional duty to remain neutral in matters of religion after hearing from FFRF.

It was reported to FFRF that West Elementary School in Lubbock, Texas, had been advertising a private Christian-orientated prayer rally event, "See You at the Pole," on the school calendar. FFRF was also informed that the annual Lubbock-Cooper Independent School District staff convocation included a scheduled opening prayer.

On Sept. 27, FFRF wrote to a school district representative, Ann Manning, concerning the violations. FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover asked that the district ensure that its schools cease scheduling "See You at the Pole," or other religious events, on campus. Grover also warned that the inclusion of prayer at staff training events violates the district's obligation to remain neutral on matters of religion.

On Oct. 11, Manning responded, informing FFRF that the district superintendent undertook a thorough investigation into the violation. FFRF was told that going forward no outside adults will participate in "See You at the Pole" events. Manning assured FFRF that in the future convocation procedures would be reviewed with appropriate changes made to ensure compliance with constitutional law.

Religious event ends at Alabama school

An Alabama principal has been given a lesson on the First Amendment, courtesy of FFRF.

It was reported to FFRF that Roger Wilkinson, the principal of Mitchell Elementary School in Gadsden, Ala., sent a message out to all parents and students promoting a "See You at the Pole" rally — a Christian event. In the message, Wilkinson said that he would be holding the rally. In a letter sent to Superintendent Ed Miller on Sept. 26, FFRF Legal Fellow Christopher Line cautioned that public school employees may not lead, direct or encourage students to engage in prayer.

On Oct. 4, the school district superintendent responded in an email informing FFRF that he had shared the complaint with the district administrative staff and advised that they follow all constitutional law going forward.

Kansas team guidelines given secular update

FFRF has ensured that a Kansas school football staff will prioritize its constitutional duty to keep personal religion out of coaching tactics.

FFRF was informed that the guidelines in the Eisenhower Middle School football program indicated that God is the team's first priority. FFRF Legal Fellow Christopher Line wrote to the Liberal Unified School District on Aug. 30 warning the district that listing God first on the school team's list of priorities illegally imposes religious sentiments upon students and demonstrates that the EMS football coaches refer religion over nonreligion.

On Oct. 5 the district attorney responded, notifying FFRF that the school board adopted a policy regarding religious expression and prayer and the coaches handbooks would be approved for no references to God, Christianity or religion.

Professor receives lesson on constitution

A professor at a Kansas public university will no longer be holding classes in a religious setting after FFRF took action.

It was reported to FFRF that a professor at Wichita State University was holding her chemistry classes in a religious coffee shop that described itself as "an outreach ministry of the Lutheran Student Center." FFRF was informed that the shop is filled with bible quotes and other religious iconography.

In a letter sent to Wichita State University President John Bardo, FFRF expressed concern over students being required to enter a religious establishment in order to attend a science class at a secular, public university. FFRF requested that necessary and appropriate steps be taken to ensure the professor's classes will be held in secular locations. On Oct. 1, FRFF was notified by a legal representative of the university that the violation had been remedied.

Baccalaureate service no longer promoted

FFRF was informed that Warwick Valley High School in Warwick, N.Y., was continuing to promote a baccalaureate service for graduating seniors that FFRF had raised constitutional concerns about in the past.

The Warwick Valley Central School District's official website and calendar promote the religious event. In an Oct. 5 letter, FFRF Legal Director Rebecca Markert warned the district that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits public schools from sponsoring any type of religious practice, and baccalaureate programs are religious services that include prayer and worship.

Superintendent David Leach responded on Oct. 10, informing FFRF that the school district would dissociate itself from the baccalaureate service.

FFRF earns victory in Iowa high school

A concerned parent informed FFRF that a football coach for Waukee High School in Waukee, Iowa, had instituted team prayer and devotionals.

The team's head coach, Scott Carlson, had been praying with the team before and after every game, and requested that players join him. Reportedly, at one recent away game, the players were instructed to "take a knee" in the end zone and join Carlson in a prayer before they could leave. Furthermore, it was reported that other members of the coaching staff hold religious devotional sessions prior to every game, and encourage members of the team to attend a weekly Christian youth outreach program, "Ignition."

FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote to the Waukee Community School District warning that public school employees may not organize and advocate for team prayer.

The school district superintendent responded on Oct. 11 notifying FFRF that the First Amendment violations had ended.

Tennessee football team prayers to end

FFRF has ensured that public prayers will not be announced during football games in a Tennessee school district.

It was reported to FFRF that at the start of a football game at McEwen Junior High in Waverly, Tenn., a Christian prayer was delivered over the loudspeaker. FFRF Legal Director Rebecca Markert wrote to the Humphreys County School District on Sept. 29, notifying the district that it is illegal for a public school to sponsor a religious message at school athletic events. Markert requested that immediate steps be taken to end the use of district resources to project prayer to the public.

On Oct. 13, the school district superintendent informed FFRF that the McEwen Junior High principal had addressed the issue with the school staff to ensure the violation would not recur.

Michigan schools stop holding prayer circles

FFRF has equipped a coaching staff in a Michigan school district to have a better understanding of the First Amendment.

On Sept. 28, a prayer ritual was performed after a football player was injured in a game between Bay City High School and H.H. Dow High School in Bay City, Mich. Both teams and coaches took a knee at the 50-yard line while the athlete was given medical attention. Afterward, a "prayer circle" was formed as the players and coaching staff on both teams joined hands on the field.

FFRF sent a letter to Midland Public Schools on Oct. 11, in which FFRF Legal Director Rebecca Markert informed the school district that the coaching staff's conduct had been an unconstitutional endorsement and promotion of religion. Coaches can neither lead their teams in prayer nor can they organize students to lead team prayer.

On Oct. 17, Superintendent Michael Sharrow responded, informing FFRF that the staff had explained the law to the coaching staff and remedied the violation.

FFRF has come out against a series of theocratic interpretations of "religious liberty protections" that will unleash legal chaos and discrimination.

President Trump's executive orders and memos largely redefine religious liberty as the right to discriminate and deny others civil rights. President Trump signed two executive orders under the auspices of religious liberty, permitting employers to deny women workers contraceptive coverage, in a move condemned by FFRF.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, at Trump's behest, has now issued a list of 20 far-reaching "Principles of Religious Liberty" that all federal agencies must implement. The goal appears to be to exempt Christians and other religionists from the rules and regulations of civil society, including rules that prevent discrimination.

Trump instructed the attorney general "to issue guidance interpreting religious liberty protections in federal law" when he issued his May 4 order on religious liberty. That executive order, in part claiming that churches no longer had to obey the Johnson Amendment barring 501(c)(3) entities from engaging in politicking, is under court challenge by FFRF.

The unprincipled "principles" signal that the U.S. federal government will look the other way when discrimination occurs, so long as it is religiously motivated. The attorney general's memo seeks to redefine religious freedom, a strategy FFRF has warned about for years. It seeks to morph a right to freely exercise one's religion into an absolute right that can be used to harm and even discriminate against other Americans.

While some of the principles simply reiterate obvious and accepted constitutional provisions, many carve out new rights for religionists, such as:

• Saying private associations and even businesses have free exercise rights.

This would imply that secular businesses may discriminate based on religion, e.g., by refusing to hire or promote LGBTQ individuals or unmarried mothers who are considered transgressive of some religious dogma. (Principle 3)

• Repealing federal mandates pertaining to grants to faith-based organizations, saying that "the federal government may not condition federal grants or contracts on the religious organization altering its religious character, beliefs, or activities." (Principles 4, 6)

This would appear, for example, to allow adoption or foster care agencies working with the government to discriminate against LGBTQ or interracial couples, so long as that discrimination stems from a religious belief. It would allow churches to get FEMA funding (a timely issue, with Trump tweeting support for litigation against FEMA by some Texas churches seeking hurricane relief). Principle 6 explicitly states that the government may not deny religious schools the right to participate in voucher programs, thereby seeking to bypass Congress' role in passing such legislation.

• A religious adherent can deprive another citizen of a benefit. (Principle 15)

Allowing a religionist to deny a benefit would be acceptable because the federal government must accommodate this religious belief. This clearly speaks to ongoing challenges involving cake bakers who refuse to bake cakes for same-sex weddings, plus any number of other kinds of discrimination.

At the root of the attorney general's memo is not the First Amendment, but the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a broad and misguided act passed by Congress in the early 1990s.

RFRA, not the First Amendment, was the basis of the Supreme Court's infamous Hobby Lobby decision enabling some secular corporations to deny women workers contraception based on corporate "religious belief."

Citizens may believe whatever they like, but the right to act on those beliefs is by no means absolute, FFRF points out. "Laws are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious belief and opinions, they may with practices," the Supreme Court ruled 130 years ago. The court asked: "Suppose one believed that human sacrifices were a necessary part of religious worship; would it be seriously contended that the civil government under which he lived could not interfere to prevent a sacrifice?"

Somewhere on the spectrum of religiously motivated action, civil law can step in. That line should be drawn where the rights of others begin. As Thomas Jefferson put it, "The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."

But if religion mandates picking pockets and breaking legs, it comes under the purview of our secular law. And no belief, however fervent, should change that.

Fourteen states have filed a friend of the court brief siding with the city of Pensacola, Fla., in its appeal to keep the 34-foot tall Bayview Park cross, which was ruled unconstitutional after FFRF and the American Humanist Association filed suit.

FFRF and AHA filed a lawsuit against the city in May 2016 on behalf of four people who had objections to the cross being on city-owned property. A federal district judge ruled earlier this year in favor of FFRF and AHA.

On Oct. 3, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi joined 13 other states' attorneys general in signing on to a brief written by Alabama Attorney General Steven Marshall's office. The brief supports the city of Pensacola's appeal of a federal judge's ruling that the cross in the city-owned park violated the separation of church and state.

In addition to Florida and Alabama, other states joining the friend of the court brief are Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Utah.

In addition to the 14 states, five Jewish groups, a municipal attorneys group, the Foundation for Moral Law and JCI Florida — the descendant group of the Pensacola Jaycees that placed the cross in the park — have all filed friends of the court briefs supporting Pensacola's appeal.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is representing the city in its appeal of the lawsuit. FFRF and AHA have until Nov. 16 to file their legal brief. After that, Becket will have until Dec. 14 to file a reply.

FFRF condemns President Trump's executive orders that virtually overturn the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive mandate by exempting any employer with a religious or "moral" objection from covering contraception.

Under the new rules, which took effect in May, any employer, including publicly traded companies and even universities, can claim a religious objection to providing birth control to employees. The Trump administration claims the twin executive orders "protect religious liberty."

This is religious liberty run amok, contends FFRF. Religious liberty does not mean the freedom to force dogma upon unwilling employees who themselves do not share these scruples.

"As it has for millennia, religion is being used to oppress women," notes FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "Employers have no business sticking their noses into intimate health decisions by women workers. It's outrageous."

The contraceptive mandate has given more than 55 million women access to birth control without additional co-payments. Under these new regulations, hundreds of thousands will lose that coverage.

One executive order exempts an employer or insurer from covering contraceptive services "based on its sincerely held religious beliefs." The other exempts employees with "moral convictions" from covering contraception.

"It's a legal fiction — frankly absurd — that a company can have a religious belief," says FFRF Co-President Dan Barker.FFRF condemns President Trump's executive orders that virtually overturn the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive mandate by exempting any employer with a religious or "moral" objection from covering contraception.

Under the new rules, which took effect in May, any employer, including publicly traded companies and even universities, can claim a religious objection to providing birth control to employees. The Trump administration claims the twin executive orders "protect religious liberty."

This is religious liberty run amok, contends FFRF. Religious liberty does not mean the freedom to force dogma upon unwilling employees who themselves do not share these scruples.

"As it has for millennia, religion is being used to oppress women," notes FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "Employers have no business sticking their noses into intimate health decisions by women workers. It's outrageous."

The contraceptive mandate has given more than 55 million women access to birth control without additional co-payments. Under these new regulations, hundreds of thousands will lose that coverage.

One executive order exempts an employer or insurer from covering contraceptive services "based on its sincerely held religious beliefs." The other exempts employees with "moral convictions" from covering contraception.

"It's a legal fiction — frankly absurd — that a company can have a religious belief," says FFRF Co-President Dan Barker.

A former student from Delta High School in Colorado has sued the school district for sabotaging her college applications because of her secular views and opposition to religiously based instruction in the public school.

On Sept. 25, two Denver attorneys filed a civil lawsuit on Cidney Fisk's behalf in U.S. District Court in Denver against the district and school officials. She is seeking compensatory and punitive damages for economic losses, emotional distress and humiliation.

(Cidney Fisk was awarded FFRF's Richard and Beverly Hermsen Student Activist Award of $5,000 for her outspoken questioning of authority at the school. Her story ran in the May issue of Freethought Today.)

Fisk says that teachers in the Delta County Joint School District gave the straight-A student a failing grade and denied her the ability to get scholarships because of her outspokenness.

At a meeting, a counselor warned her that she could be removed from her student government position and lose college scholarship opportunities, the lawsuit also states.
Fisk was quoted in an April 1, 2016, Daily Sentinel article about her opposition to a middle school program called "Donuts with Dan," in which a teacher gave students doughnuts and Gideon bibles.

After the article was published, the teacher dropped Fisk's grade in his class to an F. She then spoke with the teacher and the principal. Both expressly said that her grade was because of her comments in the paper. They said that if she wanted to improve her grades, she should "shut up."

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