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Tag: Freedom From Religion Foundation

Quote of the Day: The Futility of Religion in the Midst of a Pandemic

Cartoon by Lalo Alcaraz

Wash your hands or say a prayer? Social distancing or Sunday mass? Cancel public events or give out coronavirus communion wafers to the credulous?

Many believers face these choices as the coronavirus spreads. There is no religious response to the pandemic, unless we count abandoning religious rules in favor of science and medicine. Faced with these choices, most people accept that religion is pointless, at best, and harmful, at worst. Most are making decisions that appear to be motivated by science and medicine, not scripture and sacred doctrine. 

And this is different. 

Think about American responses to mass shootings or drought or oil spills or wildfires. Thoughts and prayers. Prayer vigils. More god. As horrific as some of these tragedies are, our response to preventing repeats, especially for mass shootings, is little different than the immediate response: Get on your knees and pray.

….

We’re not in the aftermath of a catastrophe or thinking about the best way to prevent some hypothetical tragedy — we are in the middle of an outbreak, a pandemic. In the wake of tragedy, we at FFRF often get complaints about government officials using government power to push people to religion or prayer. This may simply be a misguided attempt to assuage societal sorrow or it may be a deliberate attempt to prey on the unfortunate. Both are plausible, neither is permissible. But what is interesting is that, so far, we are not seeing that as a response to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak. In fact, while FFRF reliably gets state-church complaints after a front-page tragedy, we’ve had none about responses to the coronavirus. 

So far, we’ve had no reports of teachers telling kids “this is in God’s hands” or that the virus “is God’s wrath” (which some clergy are now preaching). So far, we’ve had no complaints about coaches or principals telling students to pray to end the outbreak. Not even local government officials touting the efficacy of thoughts and prayers as a response, at least not yet.

….

In perhaps the most telling response, even churches are getting in on the science. Catholic churches are draining holy water and shuttering after infected priests passed out slices of their savior’s flesh. Catholic schools are closing. Not just mainline churches but fringe churches are also shutting down. Even — and this is the most telling of all and a glorious admission —  faith-healing congregations are halting programming. Just three months ago, Bethel Church in Northern California promised to raise 2-year-old Olive from the dead. Now, it’s refusing to visit hospitals to pray for and prey on the sick.

There are, of course, exceptions to the general observation that people are abandoning harmful and ineffective religious regulations in favor of science and medicine. But the clingers seem to be at the higher, more removed, and dare we say, privileged, levels. The Christian Nationalist Trump administration and its political appointees have bungled the response, suffocated information that might reflect poorly on the White House, and have sought to tout their religion and prayers. But they appear to be the exception to the rule. Vice President Mike Pence is all about the prayer, as we documented last week. As is the pope, who has encouraged priests to visit those infected with the coronavirus and give them communion. Francis won’t be putting his fingers in mouths laden with coronavirus, his lackeys will, and then they’ll move on to another mouth and another. This, in the country with one of the worst outbreaks. Then there’s Joel Osteen, the greedy and shortsighted megapreacher who can’t go two or three weeks without passing the collection plate, even to save the lives of a few of his sheep. 

One wannabe Osteen, a right-wing preacher named Jonathan Shuttlesworth, posted a video in which he said churches that heed medical guidance and close are “sissies” and “pansies,” with “no balls” who “got neutered somewhere along the line.” 

But in between his sips of Acqua Panna, this Patagonia-clad preacher stumbled on the truth when he asked of the basins bereft of holy water: “How holy is the water then? That should be a sign to you that your whole religion’s a fraud. Any faith that doesn’t work in real life is a fake faith. Totally fake.” Even without this refreshing admission, Osteen, Trump, Pence and the pope were already proving the point: Religion has nothing to offer in the face of a pandemic. Instead, we must rely on science and medicine. Wash your hands, work from home, avoid travel and large crowds, don’t hoard supplies: Flatten the curve.

Andrew Seidel, Attorney for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, March 12, 2020

Quote of the Day: The Cross is not Secular Says Ruth Bader Ginsburg

ruth bader ginsburg

An immense Latin cross stands on a traffic island at the center of a busy three-way intersection in Bladensburg, Md. “Monumental, clear, and bold” by day, the cross looms even larger illuminated against the night-time sky. Known as the Peace Cross, the monument was erected by private citizens in 1925 to honor local soldiers who lost their lives in World War I. “The town’s most prominent symbol” was rededicated in 1985 and is now said to honor “the sacrifices made in all wars,” by “all veterans.” Both the Peace Cross and the traffic island are owned and maintained by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, an agency of the state of Maryland.

Decades ago, this court recognized that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution demands governmental neutrality among religious faiths, and between religion and nonreligion. Numerous times since, the court has reaffirmed the Constitution’s commitment to neutrality. Today, the court erodes that neutrality commitment, diminishing precedent designed to preserve individual liberty and civic harmony in favor of a “presumption of constitutionality for longstanding monuments, symbols and practices.”

The Latin cross is the foremost symbol of the Christian faith, embodying the “central theological claim of Christianity: that the son of God died on the cross, that he rose from the dead, and that his death and resurrection offer the possibility of eternal life.” Precisely because the cross symbolizes these sectarian beliefs, it is a common marker for the graves of Christian soldiers. For the same reason, using the cross as a war memorial does not transform it into a secular symbol, as the courts of appeals have uniformly recognized.

Some of my colleagues suggest that the court’s new presumption extends to all governmental displays and practices, regardless of their age. ‘A more contemporary state effort’ to put up a religious display is ‘likely to prove divisive in a way that a longstanding, pre-existing monument would not.’” I read the court’s opinion to mean what it says: “Retaining established, religiously expressive monuments, symbols, and practices is quite different from erecting or adopting new ones,” and, consequently, only “longstanding monuments, symbols, and practices” enjoy “a presumption of constitutionality.”

Cross not suitable for other faiths

Just as a Star of David is not suitable to honor Christians who died serving their country, so a cross is not suitable to honor those of other faiths who died defending their nation. Soldiers of all faiths “are united by their love of country, but they are not united by the cross.” By maintaining the Peace Cross on a public highway, the commission elevates Christianity over other faiths, and religion over nonreligion. Memorializing the service of American soldiers is an “admirable and unquestionably secular” objective.

But the commission does not serve that objective by displaying a symbol that bears “a starkly sectarian message.” The First Amendment commands that the government “shall make no law” either “respecting an establishment of religion” or “prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Adoption of these complementary provisions followed centuries of “turmoil, civil strife, and persecution, generated in large part by established sects determined to maintain their absolute political and religious supremacy.”

Mindful of that history, the fledgling Republic ratified the Establishment Clause, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, to “build a wall of separation between church and state.”

Government may not favor

The Establishment Clause essentially instructs: “The government may not favor one religion over another, or religion over irreligion.”

In cases challenging the government’s display of a religious symbol, the court has tested fidelity to the principle of neutrality by asking whether the display has the “effect of ‘endorsing’ religion.” The display fails this requirement if it objectively “conveys a message that religion or a particular religious belief is favored or preferred.” To make that determination, a court must consider “the pertinent facts and circumstances surrounding the symbol and its placement.”

As I see it, when a cross is displayed on public property, the government may be presumed to endorse its religious content. The venue is surely associated with the state; the symbol and its meaning are just as surely associated exclusively with Christianity.

To non-Christians, nearly 30 percent of the population of the United States, the state’s choice to display the cross on public buildings or spaces conveys a message of exclusion: It tells them they “are outsiders, not full members of the political community.”

“For nearly two millennia,” the Latin cross has been the “defining symbol” of Christianity, evoking the foundational claims of that faith. Christianity teaches that Jesus Christ was “a divine Savior” who “illuminated a path toward salvation and redemption.” Central to the religion are the beliefs that “the son of God,” Jesus Christ, “died on the cross,” that “he rose from the dead,” and that “his death and resurrection offer the possibility of eternal life.” “From its earliest times,” Christianity was known as “religio crucis — the religion of the cross.”

Christians wear crosses, not as an ecumenical symbol, but to proclaim their adherence to Christianity. An exclusively Christian symbol, the Latin cross is not emblematic of any other faith.

The principal symbol of Christianity around the world should not loom over public thoroughfares, suggesting official recognition of that religion’s paramountcy.

The commission’s “attempts to secularize what is unquestionably a sacred symbol defy credibility and disserve people of faith.” The asserted commemorative meaning of the cross rests on — and is inseparable from — its Christian meaning: “the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and the redeeming benefits of his passion and death,” specifically, “the salvation of man.” Because of its sacred meaning, the Latin cross has been used to mark Christian deaths since at least the fourth century. The cross on a grave “says that a Christian is buried here,” and “commemorates that person’s death by evoking a conception of salvation and eternal life reserved for Christians.”

As a commemorative symbol, the Latin cross simply “makes no sense apart from the crucifixion, the resurrection, and Christianity’s promise of eternal life.” The cross affirms that, thanks to the soldier’s embrace of Christianity, he will be rewarded with eternal life. “To say that the cross honors the Christian war dead does not identify a secular meaning of the cross; it merely identifies a common application of the religious meaning.” Scarcely “a universal symbol of sacrifice,” the cross is “the symbol of one particular sacrifice.”

Every court of appeals to confront the question has held that “making a . . . Latin cross a war memorial does not make the cross secular,” it “makes the war memorial sectarian.” The Peace Cross is no exception. That was evident from the start. At the dedication ceremony, the keynote speaker analogized the sacrifice of the honored soldiers to that of Jesus Christ, calling the Peace Cross “symbolic of Calvary,” where Jesus was crucified. Local reporters variously described the monument as “a mammoth cross, a likeness of the Cross of Calvary, as described in the bible,” “a monster Calvary cross,” and “a huge sacrifice cross.”

The character of the monument has not changed with the passage of time.

Not a universal symbol

Reiterating its argument that the Latin cross is a “universal symbol” of World War I sacrifice, the commission states that “40 World War I monuments . . . built in the United States . . . bear the shape of a cross.” This figure includes memorials that merely “incorporate” a cross. Moreover, the 40 monuments compose only 4 percent of the “948 outdoor sculptures commemorating the First World War.” The court lists just seven freestanding cross memorials, less than 1 percent of the total number of monuments to World War I in the United States. Cross memorials, in short, are outliers. The overwhelming majority of World War I memorials contain no Latin cross. In fact, the “most popular and enduring memorial of the post-World War I decade” was “the mass-produced Spirit of the American Doughboy statue.” That statue, depicting a U.S. infantryman, “met with widespread approval throughout American communities.”

The Peace Cross, as plaintiffs’ expert historian observed, was an “aberration . . . even in the era in which it was built and dedicated.” Like cities and towns across the country, the United States military comprehended the importance of “paying equal respect to all members of the Armed Forces who perished in the service of our country,” and therefore avoided incorporating the Latin cross into memorials. The construction of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is illustrative. When a proposal to place a cross on the Tomb was advanced, the Jewish Welfare Board objected; no cross appears on the Tomb. In sum, “there is simply ‘no evidence . . . that the cross has been widely embraced by’ — or even applied to — ‘non-Christians as a secular symbol of death’ or of sacrifice in military service” in World War I or otherwise.

The Establishment Clause, which preserves the integrity of both church and state, guarantees that “however . . . individuals worship, they will count as full and equal American citizens.”

“If the aim of the Establishment Clause is genuinely to uncouple government from church,” the clause does “not permit . . . a display of the character” of Bladensburg’s Peace Cross.

— This is an edited and condensed version of the dissent, written by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and joined by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in the Bladensburg cross case

Christians Say the Darnedest Things: Jesus is NOT a Religion

jesus hawkins texasJesus is not a religion, Jesus is in every religion across the globe. If you don’t believe that Jesus existed, then he would be fiction. If he’s fiction, and you want to remove his name from everything then you need to remove every fiction name that there is across the country. That means we couldn’t say Superman welcomes you to town.

— Mayor Will Rogers, Hawkins, Texas

Freedom From Religion Foundation News Release

Texas city has at long last removed a “Jesus Welcomes You to Hawkins” sign that the Freedom From Religion Foundation objected to years ago.

Back in 2015, the state/church watchdog twice wrote to the city of Hawkins about the blatantly Christian sign on city property after receiving local complaints.

“The Establishment Clause prohibits government sponsorship of religious messages,” FFRF Associate Counsel Sam Grover noted. “The Supreme Court has been clear that the ‘First Amendment mandates government neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion.’”

The city of Hawkins violated this neutrality with a prominent governmental sign that proclaimed “Jesus Welcomes You” and endorsed belief in the pre-eminent figure of Christianity, FFRF pointed out. It sent a clear message to those with Christian beliefs that they’re favored community insiders and an equally clear message to those who believe differently that they’re not.

Then Hawkins-Mayor Will Rogers, the creative mind behind the sign, which he commissioned public school students to build, defended it with media statements such as “Jesus is not a religion, Jesus is in every religion across the globe. He’s in Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism” and “If you don’t believe that Jesus existed, then he would be fiction. If he’s fiction, and you want to remove his name from everything, then you need to remove every fiction name that there is across the country. That means we couldn’t say ‘Superman welcomes you to town.’”

Fortunately, better sense prevailed in the rest of the city administration, and it heeded FFRF’s advice, albeit after many twists and turns.

The City Council voted to remove the sign after FFRF’s second letter, but then events headed in a strange direction after the mayor got into a long tussle with the city. He sued eight city officials and a bunch of other residents for supposedly resisting his attempts to root out corruption. Rogers settled the lawsuit but narrowly lost his re-election bid, with the sign playing a major role in the campaign.

Meanwhile, a group of supporters of the sign claimed that it was on private property, while the city contended that it had an easement to build a road on the land and, therefore, it was city-owned. The land turned out to be on the property of a funeral home that wanted nothing to do with the controversy, but then an entity called “Jesus Christ Open Altar Church, LLC” brought a lawsuit against the city after claiming to have bought the land from the funeral home. FFRF waited and watched while the lawsuit was underway. Finally, the city won that lawsuit on appeal and recently removed the sign.

FFRF is breathing a sigh of relief at this overdue victory for the U.S. Constitution — and for the rights of minority believers and nonbelievers in the community.

“We believe in justice for the good people of this country — even justice that is long delayed,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Finally, the city of Hawkins is in compliance with the law of the land — and has stopped sending a divisive and exclusionary message.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national nonprofit founded in 1978, has over 31,000 nonreligious members and several chapters around the country, including more than 1,300 members and a chapter in Texas.

 

Abortion and the Religious Right

abortion right wing

The above comic, drawn by Don Addis, was recently featured on the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s website. I thought it nicely summed up attempts to outlaw abortion by Evangelicals and conservative Roman Catholics. These zygote worshiping zealots will not rest until abortion (and birth control) is outlawed and criminalized.

Are you a member of the Freedom of Religion Foundation? If not, I encourage you join with over 30,000 other freethinkers as they support and defend the separation of church and state.  For more membership information, please go here.

Quote of the Day: Churches That Value Protecting Their Reputations More Than Abused Children

value children over dogma

The egomaniacal and rapacious drives of a molester who blots out all sense of right and wrong, brutally disregarding the pain he is causing children, have often found a parallel in churches bent on protecting themselves at the expense of thousands of victims. That disregard is a malignancy in the church . . .

If religion or any institution depends on the sexual exploitation or subordination of children or women, then it is better that such institutions should cease to exist. If it is a question of the survival of the institution of the church versus the survival and safety of children, then our allegiance clearly must be with children.

— Dan Barker, Betrayal of Trust: Clergy Abuse of Children, Freedom From Religion Foundation, 1988

Betrayal of Trust is now out of print. You can read the book in its entirety here.

Portland, Oregon City Leaders Consider Giving Non-Believers Civil Rights Protections

freedom from religion

Portland City Council plans to hold a hearing tomorrow on an ordinance that will grant atheists and other non-believers civil rights protections under Portland law. The summary of the ordinance states:

Amend Civil Rights Code to add non-religion such as atheism, agnosticism and non-belief to the definition of Religion (Ordinance; amend Code Chapter 23.01)

The City of Portland ordains: Section I. The Council finds that:

I . Discrimination on the basis of non-religion such as atheism, agnosticism, and non-belief exists in the City of Portland and the state law does not explicitly prohibit such discrimination against these groups. This change is necessary to clarify that disbelief, or lack of belief should be included in the protected class of “Religion” in order to provide every individual an equal opportunity to participate fully in the life of the City.

2. Providing protections for non-religion such as atheism, agnosticism, and non-belief promotes the intent of the Council to remove discriminatory barriers to equal participation in employment, housing and public accommodations in the City of Portland. Other cities, such as Madison, Wisconsin, have taken similar measures.

3. It is necessary to update citations to the Oregon Revised Statutes as cited in Chapter 23.01 to the most current version in order to maintain accuracy.

4. Updates to make language used in Chapter 23.01 more inclusive are also needed

According to a 2015 Public Religion Research Institute survey, Portland is the most non-religious city in the United States. Forty-two percent of Portland residents self-identify as non-religious. Unsurprisingly, the most religious community in America is the Baptist stronghold of Nashville, with only fifteen percent of residents identifying as non-religious. Nationwide, almost one out of four Americans check NONE when asked their religious affiliation. This number continues to grow, scaring the shit out of Christian church leaders. Southern Baptists, in particular, are desperately trying to find ways to stem attendance loss. Millennials, especially, show an increasing indifference towards religion. I should note that being non-religious and being an atheist are not one and the same. All atheists are non-religious, but not all NONES are atheists. Most just don’t care about matters of faith. Most of my children fit in this category. They simply have no interest in organized religion. Do they believe in a deity of some sort? I don’t know, but I can tell you that such questions don’t interest them in the least.

According to Portland Commissioner Amanda Fritz, the reason for the ordinance is simple:

Portland has a large percentage of residents who identify as religiously unaffiliated. We need to make these changes to our Civil Rights Code to remove discriminatory barriers, so they may participate equally in employment, housing, and public accommodations in the City.

Readers might be surprised to know that in many locales non-religious people do not have the same civil rights protections as the religious. At the Federal level, atheists have been forced to claim atheism is a “religion” in order to gain equal protection under the law. While atheists are growing in number and influence — much like the LGBTQ community — they often lack the same rights as religious people — especially at the state and local level. Groups such as the Freedom From Religion FoundationAmerican Atheists, the American Humanist AssociationAmericans United for Separation of Church and State, and the American Civil Liberties Union tirelessly fight for civil rights protection for non-believers, diligently challenging  separation of church and state breaches and discrimination against non-believers. These battles are fought daily, and the good news is that unbelievers are, for the most part, winning. This does not mean, however, that the playing field is fair and just for atheists and other non-believers. It’s not. The United States is a long way away from living up to its secular heritage. Religious sectarians are, by nature, exclusionary, demanding that their beliefs be given preferential treatment. Evangelicals, in particular, believe that the United States is a Christian nation, a bright shining city chosen by God to conquer the world with the Christian gospel and the teachings of the Bible. In their minds, atheism is a religion too, albeit a false, Satanic one. I laugh when an Evangelical says to me atheism is a “religion.” If atheism is, indeed, a religion, it is the only sect in American history without beliefs, buildings, clerics, and holy books. Atheism can be defined with one sentence: The disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods. That’s it. If atheism is a religion, it’s the only sect that doesn’t ask anything, including money, of its adherents. Maybe we should get the word out about the First Church of Atheism®. Keep your money, sleep in on Sundays, and eat succulent roasted babies for dinner. Better forget that last one, I suppose.

It will be interesting to see if Portlandian Christians object to the aforementioned proposed ordinance. In 2015, the city of Madison, Wisconsin, became the first community to pass a law making discrimination against atheists and other non-believers illegal. Local Christians said nothing. Channel 3000 reported at the time:

The vote amends the city’s equal opportunity ordinance, adding atheism as a protected class in the areas of employment, housing and public accommodations.

“There are many categories that are protected,” Weier said. “And it did occur to me that if religion was then perhaps the opposite should be”

UW graduate student, and former Atheists Humanists and Agnostics president Chris Calvey was among the five atheists speaking in favor of the proposals.

They told the council stories of housing, employment, volunteer, community, and parental custody discrimination because of their non-belief in God, saying that fact has no bearing on their character, values or what type of job they do.

“It’s actually something we’re commonly very concerned about, just because atheism is viewed as such a taboo in this country. And there’s such a stigma with it. That people in my student group for example are very hesitant to be honest about their lack of belief in God out of fear that they are going to be discriminated against in employment opportunities. If that came up in a job interview that’s held against them,” Calvey said.

“Having it on the books, where we’re legally a protected class, that’ll make things much easier for atheists,” Calvey said. “And we’ll be able to be confident that at least if we’re honest about what we actually believe, then we have the law backing us up so we can’t legally be discriminated against.”

“It’s really making a big statement that we’re not going to put up with discrimination in the name of God. That being a believer doesn’t mean you can discriminate,” Freedom From Religion Foundation co-founder Annie Laurie Gaylor said.

If such a law were proposed here in the land of God, Guns, and Republican Politics, I am certain local Christians would be outraged, filling local newspapers with letters to the editor about how evil and un-American atheism is. I have been personally attacked in the pages of the Defiance Crescent-News by Evangelicals and Catholics outraged over my atheism, anti-Christian views, and liberal/progressive politics. (Please see My Response to Daniel Gray’s Lies.) One of the reasons I take photographs for the local school district is to put a real flesh-and-blood face on atheism. I want locals to be confused by what they know about me as a man and what their pastors say about evil, Satanic atheists. If Christians actually know an atheist, that relationship often changes their opinion about unbelievers. Behavior matters. I know, when it came to me and my hostility towards LGBTQ people, my beliefs didn’t change until I actually knew and befriended someone who was gay. The same goes for atheists. Take the time to get to know an atheist/agnostic/humanist/pagan or other non-Christian and you will find out that we are not much different from the people you sit next to in church every Sunday. We have the same wants, needs, and desires as you do, and it sure would be nice if we had the same civil rights protections too.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 61, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 40 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.

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An Atheist in the Land of Jesus: Living a Compartmentalized Life

compartments

I live in rural northwest Ohio. I have spent most of my life living in rural communities. I am, in every way, a country boy; that is, in every way except my politics and religious beliefs. It is a well-known fact that it’s rural people who put Donald Trump in the White House and delivered solid Republican majorities to Congress and state legislatures. Here in Ohio, virtually every major state office is occupied by right-wing, pro-life, anti-same-sex-marriage, white Christians. Go to the major cities and college communities and you will find progressive/liberal/Democratic/socialist political beliefs. Drive ten miles outside of town, and everything quickly turns from red to blue. Here in Defiance County, almost three out of four voters vote Republican, and in the last presidential election, Donald Trump won by a sixty-four percent to twenty-nine percent margin. (Seventy-three percent of registered voters voted in the 2016 election.)

Religiously, Evangelical (and conservative Catholic/Lutheran/Methodist) Christianity rules the roost. In the four-county area where I live, there are roughly 140 thousand people and 400 Christian churches. Christian belief and practice colors every aspect of local life. It is assumed that everyone is Christian. Over the past decade, I have witnessed countless church-state violations. The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) could spend months here dealing with schools and other government agencies that don’t have a clue about the First Amendment, the establishment clause, or the separation of church and state. It’s not that local leaders deliberately set out to violate the law. It’s just that giving Christianity preferential treatment is very much part of the ebb and flow of life around here. It is just how it is.

hicksville high school christian materials

Let me give an example. Recently, nearby Hicksville High School gave its 2018 graduates bags of Evangelical literature and DVDs. Here’s what FFRF had to say on the matter:

A concerned student reported that during Hicksville High School’s commencement practice on May 30, a guidance counselor handed every graduating student a package that contained Christian materials. The package included a copy of “Evolution vs. God,” an anti-evolution film created by Christian evangelist Ray Comfort, “Rich in Christ: A Dead Dog at the King’s Table,” a religious tract titled “Are you a Good Person,” and a religious pamphlet that “explains the plan of salvation in easy-to-understand terms” called “Life’s Most Important Question.” FFRF’s complainant reports that this package was put together by a science teacher at the school.

This package included a letter titled “Hicksville High School Class of 2018,” which reads:

Congratulations 2018 Graduate!

As you look ahead to your future with excitement and great anticipation, may you also come to discover God’s very best for your life. God loves you so very much that He sent His Son Jesus to earth to die for your sins so that you may have a personal relationship with God, and be assured of an eternal home in Heaven.

Rich in Christ is filled with hope and encouragement for you. It contains dozens of wonderful promises from the Bible, that God wants you to understand and claim as your very own. May you find God’s richest blessings as you follow His leading and His blueprint for true success. Enjoy your riches!

“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”  II Corinthians 8:9

The letter indicates that a number of local individuals and businesses, including Hicksville Exempted Village School Superintendent Keith Countryman and his wife, sponsored the gift package.

“It is a fundamental principle of Establishment Clause jurisprudence that a public school may not advance, prefer, or promote religion,” FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line writes to Countryman. “As a public school, Hicksville High School cannot promote Christian religious doctrine by distributing proselytizing materials to students as part of graduation rehearsal, a school function. This violates the principle that ‘the preservation and transmission of religious beliefs and worship is a responsibility and a choice committed to the private sphere,’” to quote the U.S. Supreme Court.

The school district has an obligation under the law to make certain that “subsidized teachers do not inculcate religion,” to again quote the U.S. Supreme Court. When faculty use school time to proselytize to students, whether it be through distribution of literature or through religious statements, they are taking religion out of the private sphere and violating parental trust.

Religion is a divisive force in public schools, FFRF emphasizes. When a school distributes sectarian religious literature to its students it entangles itself with those religious messages. As well as alienating non-Christian students, teachers, and members of the public whose religious beliefs are inconsistent with the message being promoted by the school, these practices estrange the 24 percent of Americans, including 38 percent of young adults, who identify as nonreligious. prri.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/PRRI-Religion-Report.pdf

“It is a violation of the duties and responsibilities of public school staff to proselytize students,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Imagine the uproar if a staff member was propagating atheism or Islam.”

Gaylor calls the school officials’ actions “bizarre,” saying that it is particularly concerning that a science teacher had a hand in distributing anti-evolution propaganda to graduating seniors and that the superintendent sponsored the unconstitutional distribution.

FFRF insists that to avoid constitutional violations, any future graduation “gifts” distributed by Hicksville Exempted Village School staff as part of a school function not contain religious materials.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with 33,000 members and several chapters across the country, including more than 800 members and a chapter in Ohio. Its purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

According to the latest issue of Freethought Today, the Hicksville school district agreed to stop distributing sectarian religious materials to its students. Did the school administrators deliberately ignore the law, choosing, instead, to evangelistically promote Christianity? Of course not. They just did what has always been done. It is assumed that everyone is Christian.

I am an atheist and a humanist. I am a political liberal who aligns himself with the Democratic Socialist party. I generally vote Democratic, but many local Democrats, thanks to their religious beliefs, skew to the right. This is especially true for those who are forty-five and older. Even local mainline Christian churches — which are historically liberal — tend to be conservative politically and socially. True liberals such as myself are as rare the ivory-billed woodpecker. We exist, but there aren’t many of us. We tend to lurk in the shadows, pining for the day when progressive values prevail. The good news is that younger locals are far more liberal than their parents and grandparents. I see a better day ahead, but in the short-term, people such as myself must bite our lips, hold our tongues, and silently swear.

Last month, Polly and I attended a tractor pull at the Fulton County fairgrounds. The event was sponsored by the National Tractor Pullers Association. Events such as this one are gaudy displays of American exceptionalism, nationalism, and conservative Christianity. Imagine sitting through nine minutes of masturbation to the Christian God and the American flag. First, the crowd was asked to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Second, the PA announcer read a four-minute monologue set to music about the greatness of America and its military, reminding everyone that REAL PATRIOTS stand and honor the flag. Then it was time to sing the Star Spangled Banner. And last, but not least, the preacher/announcer prayed a sectarian prayer in the name of Jesus, amen.

By the time all this nonsense was over, I was ready to scream. My son asked me, Dad, why do you subject yourself to this stuff? I replied, because I love watching tractor pulls. I endure the religious/nationalist nonsense because I know what waits on the other side of the Amen.

I willingly choose to live in rural Northwest Ohio. Twelve years ago, Polly and I returned to this part of the state so we could be close to our children and grandchildren. We do not regret doing so. We love the slowness of small town life, and when we want to experience big city life, Toledo and Fort Wayne are but an hour away. Applebee’s is considered “fine” dining around here. When we want to enjoy a meal at an upscale restaurant, we drive to Fort Wayne or Findlay. In every way, we have a good life. That said, choosing to live in a place where Jesus and the GOP are joined at the hip requires us to practice the fine art of compartmentalization.

I own a photography business: Defiance County Photo. I shoot many of the local high school’s sporting events. I don’t advertise my politics or lack of religious beliefs. It is hard enough to make a few meager bucks off my photography work without limiting my business opportunities by being an in-your-face atheist and socialist. I don’t hide my beliefs, but I don’t talk about them either. Recently, I had a job interview where the business owner tried three times to goad me into a religious discussion. He really, really, really wanted to share his “testimony” with me, but every time he mentioned God/Jesus/faith, I said nothing. That was my way of telling him, I AIN’T INTERESTED! Polly has a similar problem at work. She’s a pro at ignoring attempts to drag her into discussions about this or that Christian belief.

I have one compartment that contains my business. I am sure some locals know I am an unbeliever and a political liberal. I suspect these facts cost me business. As an atheist, I want to live and conduct my business in such a way that Christians around me will be perplexed by my good works. I know doing so confuses some of them, as they have been told by their preachers that atheists are Satan worshipers, baby killers, and lovers of sin. Much like Jesus commands Christians to live, I want people to see that you can live a good, meaningful life without God or the Bible. I want to “let my little light shine!”

I have another compartment that contains Bruce Gerencser, the father and grandfather. I attend a number of school events every year. Ten of our twelve grandchildren attend three different local school districts. Many of them play summer sports, and several of them play junior high and high school sports. I always have my camera with me, shooting this or that event or game. Thanks to my white beard, ruddy complexion, and portly build, I look like Santa Claus. The school mates of my younger grandchildren wonder if I am the “real” Santa. Of course I am! I enjoy playing the role.

In this compartment, it’s all about family. I don’t talk about politics or religion. When people extol the virtues of the Tyrant King, I outwardly smile and say nothing. Why? I don’t want my politics or godlessness to negatively affect my grandchildren. Believe me, I would love to be a fire-breathing atheist. I would love to eviscerate those who blindly and ignorantly support our Toddler-in-chief. However, for the sake of my family, I say nothing.

Finally, I have a compartment where I am a vocal, outspoken atheist, humanist, and Democratic socialist. This blog is home to my writings on religion and politics. Few locals read my writing, though I suspect more than a few have done a Google search on my name and have come across this blog. I make no apologies for the subject matter of my writing. It is here that I can be open and honest. If locals stumble across this site and are offended, that’s their problem. This is my “ministry,” so to speak. The Bible spoke of Jesus not being able to do mighty works among his own people because of their unbelief. I understand Jesus’ plight; the difference being, of course, that I can’t do many mighty works among my own people because of their religious and political beliefs. I am, in every way, a stranger in a land I dearly love. That’s not to say that there are not other atheists or socialists around here. There are, but due to family and employment concerns, they, too, keep a low profile. From time to time I will receive emails from local heathens thanking me for my writing. They often say they wish they could be an out-of-the-closet atheist such as myself. Fear keeps them in the closet. Maybe someday we will be more in number, but for now, we choose to keep our heads down, knowing that being a vocal atheist would be social and career suicide. It’s not fair, but I learned long ago that little in life is.

Do you live in rural America? Please share your experiences in the comment section. Are you forced to compartmentalize your life? How do you balance your unbelief with societal and familial norms?

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 61, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 40 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.

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Why Penny Nance is NOT a Good Choice for Women’s Ambassador of Global Affairs by Annie Laurie Gaylor

penny nance
Penny Nance

There will be a lot more “concerned women” in America if Trump’s purported pick for women’s ambassador of global affairs at the State Department is confirmed. Penny Nance, Trump’s rumored choice, happens to be president and CEO of Concerned Women for America, a virulently anti-feminist, anti-abortion organization whose purpose is to “bring Biblical principles into all levels of public policy.”

Nance is such a cartoon that she actually criticized Disney for supposedly undercutting traditional notions of masculinity by creating what she regarded as overly spunky princesses in “Frozen.”

Frozen is the operative word. We’re frozen in some kind of time warp out of the imagination of the most extreme leaders on the Christian Right. In Trump’s quest to produce a “fox for every chicken coop in Washington,” as the always quotable Gloria Steinem put it at the Women’s March, he has found the perfect foil for this ambassadorship. Planned Parenthood’s Dawn Laguens compares it to “putting an arsonist in charge of the fire department.”

The position of the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues at the State Department was started by the Obama administration. Its mandate is to “promote the rights and empowerment of women and girls through U.S. foreign policy.” Its priorities are gender equality, including gender-based violence, women’s economic empowerment, women’s participation in peace and security, and adolescent girls.

Nance is a longtime critic of the Violence Against Women Act. In an op-ed for The Christian Post, she urged women impregnated by rape to carry such pregnancies to term, revealing the depths of her religious fanaticism: “As Christians, we live every day in a fallen world and must deal with the painful consequences of evil acts such as rape, murder, theft, and deception. No, sin was never God’s intention. But the creation of a life that might one day be used to spread the Gospel or show God’s love by helping others is still a miracle that deserves our reverence and protection.”

It’s a snub to us truly “concerned women of America” for Trump to even shortlist Nance, a handmaiden for the radical Christian Right, for this position intended to further women’s rights.

—  Annie Laurie Gaylor. Co-President Freedom From Religion Foundation, Trump’s Pick for Women’s Ambassador Extremely Disturbing