Graphic Rule

Lock That Barn Door Now!
by Carol Faulkenberry

December 11, 1997

An old proverb reminds us that it is too late to lock the barn door after the horse has been stolen. Well, friends, the thieves are now standing outside the barn, and they are planning to steal the horse, the saddle, the bridle, and the oats, and leave us with nothing but the manure. If you have any intention of keeping what you value, it's time to get off your duff and act now.

In the spring of 1997, Rep. Ernest Istook, a Republican from Oklahoma, introduced into the House of Representatives a proposed Religious Freedom Amendment to the Constitution. As with all bills, this was referred to a committee for study. In this case, it was the House Judiciary Committee. Just before Congress adjourned in November, the committee approved this slightly amended version of the proposed amendment:

"To secure the people's right to acknowledge God according to the dictates of conscience: Neither the United States nor any state shall establish any official religion, but the people's right to pray and to recognize their religious beliefs, heritage or traditions on public property, including schools, shall not be infringed. Neither the United States nor any state shall require any person to join in prayer or other religious activity, prescribe school prayers, discriminate against religion or deny equal access to a benefit on account of religion."

The bill's nearly 150 cosponsors hope to bring it to a vote in the House of Representatives shortly after Congress reconvenes in early January.

Amending the Constitution is not easy. A proposed amendment must be approved by a two-thirds majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Then it must be ratified by three-fourths of the states. Nevertheless, the Constitution has been amended 27 times. Popular amendments have sometimes been ratified very quickly. The twenty-sixth amendment, which lowered the voting age to 18 in 1971, was ratified slightly less than six weeks after being approved by Congress. A nation sick of the Vietnamese War felt strongly that young men subject to the draft should have the privilege of voting for those who had the power of declaring war, so the states responded rapidly.

The proposed Religious Freedom Amendment is extremely popular with the politically powerful religious right. The large number of cosponsors indicates that it has tremendous support in the Congress. Throughout the country, it is being supported by a number of religious groups, including the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Traditional Values Coalition, Concerned Women for America, Focus on the Family, the American Center for Law and Justice, the Family Research Council, the General Council of the Assemblies of God, and -- of course -- the Christian Coalition, which has said it will "spend whatever resources are necessary to mobilize our grass-roots network" for passage. It is entirely possible that this amendment could be part of our Constitution before summer rolls around.

If you think the amendment sounds rather harmless, please read it again, carefully, and think about what it says.

Nobody's right to express his religious beliefs, heritage or traditions on any public property could be infringed. This means that any and all prayer, reading of the Bible or other religious texts, religious instruction, display of religious pictures and icons, hymn singing, or even preaching in public schools, courtrooms, etc. would be perfectly constitutional, so long as those who did not wish to participate were not forced to do so. (Let us remember that sending a child to stand in the hall while his class has a morning devotional brands him as being "different" and often makes him the object of ridicule and harassment from other children.)

And please notice that final clause, the one that says that the government shall not deny equal access to a benefit on account of religion. Yes, this means that the government could not deny you Social Security benefits just because you had taken up the worship of humpback whales. Far more important, it means that neither the federal not the state government could deny private religious schools funding equal to that which they give public schools. And what about government grants? Many scientists apply for, and receive, grants to finance research. Suppose some "scientific" group applies for a grant to finance a search for Noah's ark? If you think the tax-exempt status of churches creates an unfair burden on the taxpayer, you ain't seen nothing yet!

If you value your freedom, your first amendment rights, your hard-earned money, right now, this minute, is the time to let your representative and your senators know that you oppose the Religious Freedom Amendment and will forever vote against any bozo who votes for it.

So you don't like to write letters? You regularly do things you don't like to do because you know they are important. Fighting against this amendment is one of the most important things you will ever do -- important to you and to all future generations of Americans.

You don't write well? You don't have to. And you don't need fancy stationery. Buy a post card and write, "If you want my vote, do not vote for the proposed Religious Freedom Amendment." For that matter, you don't have to write. You can phone or e-mail. You don't have to impress anybody with your eloquence. You just have to get your point across.

You don't know the addresses or phone numbers of your representative and senators? Worse yet, you don't know who they are? Call the public library. Or the local newspaper.

You're too busy? You just don't have time? Not having time to stand up for your rights is about like not having time to breathe. Turn off the idiot box for an hour, and you'll have plenty of time.

You think that what you say won't make any difference? Maybe it won't. But if enough of us speak up, it will make a difference, for what congressmen want more than anything else is our votes. And they are aware that people who care enough to write to them are people who vote. One thing is certain. The more of us who are silent, the more Congress will hear the strident voices of the religious right. You can't expect your voice to be heard if you keep your mouth shut.

Lock that barn door now, or the next sound you hear will be the thunder of galloping hooves as that thief rides your horse away into the sunset.

Graphic Rule

Alabama Guidelines:
Still Vague, Open To Abuse

Alabama Attorney General's
Guidelines Distort Ruling
by Conrad Goeringer
from AANEWS by American Atheists

December 11, 1997

Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor wants it both ways. Earlier this week, the state's top law enforcement official released a series of guidelines to public school officials outlining what he says is and is not permissible in terms of religious activity.

This action follows growing tensions in schools across Alabama in the wake of federal Judge Ira DeMent's ruling which struck down the state's controversial school prayer law, and the clarification by the judge about what practices would not be permitted. DeMent gave a thumbs-down for "student led" prayer or other religious activity during any official school event, including graduation ceremonies, athletic contests and the beginning of or during classroom activities. The decision has drawn opposition from fundamentalist groups in Alabama such as the Christian Family Association, as well as elected officials like Governor Fob James and Attorney General Pryor.

But on Monday, Pryor released his own set of guidelines amongst considerable media fanfare, which generally echoed earlier standards set by the Department of Education. The combative Attorney General, who earlier had praised student protest walk-outs directed against Judge DeMent's order, seemed to be retreating to a more conditional stance. He still described the federal order as "vague" and "overly broad," and told school officials, "I wouldn't say ignore it, but nor would I say go strictly by it and it alone."

Pryor was joined at a press conference podium by Ed Richardson, the state school Superintendent. Richardson added that "balance" was the key behind avoiding state-church entanglement, and cited the example of permitting schools to include "Frosty the Snowman" along with religious hymns like "Silent Night" during seasonal plays and other holiday activities. Some groups have argued that the inclusion of cultural or commercial holiday symbols can "secularize" what otherwise would be a strictly religious display or activity.

The guidelines echoed themes from last summer's Department of Education report on what was permissible in public schools. They included allowing students to voluntarily engage in individual or group prayer during non-instructional time, discussion under the circumstances about religion, distribution of religious literature at set times, displaying religious symbols on clothing, and having access to meeting rooms and other facilities comparable to that enjoyed by non-religious groups.

Pryor's guidelines, though, included potentially litigious areas such as teaching about religion, including the use of the Bible as a resource, and the role of religion in the history of the United States. Critics worry that these curriculum units are often biased and have the effect of proselytizing select religious beliefs.

Graphic Rule

Christmas Trees and Creches
and Carols and the Constitution

Christmas Displays Rally
Prayer Backers in Alabama
by Conrad Goeringer
from AANEWS by American Atheists

December 18, 1997

Trees, Nativity Creches Become Poignant Theopolitical Statements

Christmas may be a time for some people to emphasize peace on earth and goodwill, but in Alabama this month is becoming an occasion for hard shell political and religious messages over volatile issues like prayer in government. The state has become the focus of important First Amendment state-church separation concerns over cases like county Judge Roy Moore, who orchestrates prayer in his courtroom and displays the Ten Commandments, and a recent federal decision which overturned Alabama's controversial school prayer law. Both issues have divided communities, as well as political and even religious groups. Many leading public officials have come out squarely in support of prayer and religion; and hardly any government event isn't being used to raise awareness of the issue.

This past week, for instance, the state capitol building in Montgomery resembled a Christmas time church service. Governor Fob James presided over a tree lighting ceremony, and more than 100 school kids from throughout the state placed over 500 ornaments on the branches. That wasn't quite good enough for religious organizations, though, who within hours moved onto the capitol grounds and set up a manger scene. "I think it's a good," said James, who argued that "The Capitol belongs to the people of Alabama."

Leading that effort was T. J. Lee of the Association for Judeo-Christian Values; he told reporters that the creche was not meant as a political demonstration but rather a "wake up call" for Christians and other religionists. "It's certainly not our intention to do an in-your-face sort of thing. But what we have found and the trend we are seeing across the country is an anti-Christian sentiment and also an anti-Christian bigotry that exists." Lee added that, "We've gone past putting everybody on a level playing field to actually removing all Christian roots and heritage from public schools and the public square."

Another manger scene was planned by other groups, many of them active defenders of Judge Moore and the discredited prayer law. They include the Eagle Forum, Alabama Family Alliance and the Alabama Christian Education Association. Members of those groups said they would gather on the steps of the capitol to sing religious hymns. That event was to be emceed by Rev. Mickey Kirkland, who ran for governor in 1994. But Kirkland made not be the best choice at a time of year which supposedly urges Christians to embrace tolerance and brotherhood. At one prayer rally in support of Judge Moore, for instance, Kirkland -- minister of the Lighthouse Baptist Church -- implored his audience to "hate" the American Civil Liberties Union, which had represented Alabama freethinkers in the original legal challenge to Moore's courtroom antics. Kirkland insisted that, "The ACLU hates Christianity, the Christ of the Bible, and we hate the ACLU!" The minister also called attorneys for the plaintiffs "blood-sucking parasites."

Graphic Rule

Alabama Locker Room Bravado

"Prayer Warriors" Turned Athletes?
by Al & Carol Faulkenberry, Barb Buttram and Larry Mundinger
with Conrad Goeringer
from AANEWS by American Atheists

December 18, 1997

Federal Judge Ira DeMent, in overturning Alabama's 1993 prayer law which permitted student-led religious activities, has released guidelines delineating how his ruling applies to private and school time behavior. While private or informal prayer is permitted, any religious ritual involving official school events (often where students are a "captive audience," as in the classroom) is banned.

The cycle of impromptu student walkouts which began within days of DeMent's action seems to have ended -- at least for the time being. State officials such as Attorney General Bill Pryor appear less combative and confrontational; but Alabama is proceeding with a legal challenge to Judge DeMent's ruling. In the meantime, the resistance to that ruling has shifted from classrooms to athletic fields. DeMent's guidelines prohibit orchestrated prayers at official athletic events; but does that apply to a prayer call for spectators, and leave athletes free to invoke a deity on the sidelines or in the locker room?

According to press reports, pre-game prayers seem to be a widespread custom throughout the state -- something being emphasized now in the contentious climate fostered by the school prayer issue. The Birmingham (Alabama) News noted this past week that prior to the Class 5A championship game, former-NFL linebacker-turned-evangelist, John Bramlett, showed up to a pep rally for Etowah High School football players. It was not clear whether other students were at this event. Coach Raymond Farmer gushed, "You could have heard a pin drop (when Bramlett finished)."

"There will be a life-long impact as a result of what John Bramlett had to say," promised an assistant coach.

Other examples of religious involvement in public school locker rooms in Alabama include the case of Aliceville High School coach Jerry Dismuke, who reportedly leads his team members in a prayer before and after games. "And Ben Harris, coach of Saturday night's winning 5A Blount team, is known for requiring his players to meet him on Sunday morning to go to church," noted the News in its December 14 issue. The paper also reports that Etowah High School's football squad has had a "team chaplain," identified as Rev. David Carpenter of the Siberton Baptist Church, for the past five years.

Bramlett's involvement in locker room proselytizing resonates with a number of religious right practices. Every since evangelist Bill Bright founded his Campus Crusade for Christ in 1951, high school and college athletes have been major targets for recruitment into fundamentalist groups; Bright's "Athletes in Action" is an example, and part of his call for "spiritual multiplication" where high profile members of a community -- in this case, athletes within a student body -- are encouraged to use their position to advance a "parachurch" ministry and "spread the gospel." Athletes are urged to be examples of "clean living" and religious righteousness, although from a wider cultural perspective this has not always been the case. Indeed, the first of the "bi time" American evangelists, Billy Sunday, was a former pro baseball player in the early days of the game, and frequently complained of the widespread womanizing and "immorality" which was allegedly rampant in sports. (See"Preacher," a biography of Sunday by Roger A. Bruns, N.Y., Norton, 1992)

Changing cultural mores, as well as the economic underpinnings of both school and professional athletics, have changed the parameters of just how far coaches, ministers and institutions can go in demanding that athletes lead "clean lives" and maintain certain standards of decorum. Outrageous but talented athletes such as Dennis Rodman "push the envelope," but seem to enjoy wide fan support. The involvement of homosexuals in certain athletic activities has blended social issues with pure athletic concerns. And events on the court or playing field reflect the wider changes taking place in a pluralistic American society.

The curious melding of religious right theopolitics with athleticism is typified in the burgeoning Promise Keepers movement founded by former University of Colorado football coach Bill McCartney. The Promise Keeper's "men only" events often take place in athletic venues such as stadiums and arenas which, according to PK activists, are identified as the traditional "turf" for males. One redolent theme of Promise Keepers and other religious groups which seek to proselytize and recruit athletes, is the idea that men are "at risk" from a combination of mostly moral or sexual factors -- pornography, lack of being "right with Jesus," or accepting "responsibility" as the "head of household." Public confession, a ritual which emphasizes past misdeeds, is framed as part of an excruciating process if one seeks to become a "godly man" and "prayer warrior" in the battle against evil.

Like "Coach" McCartney and other religious right gurus who boast of past failures in life and marriage (alcohol and drug abuse, divorce, wife battering, adultery), Bramlett carries a similar message into churches and high school locker rooms. He is described by the Birmingham News as once having been a "mean" NFL linebacker, "living a life of abusing drugs and alcohol." In 1973, he "gave his life to Jesus Christ," and has been a full-time evangelist for the past 12 years. And following the doctrinal template of Promise Keepers, Bramlett draws "support" from a wife who tolerated past transgressions, and has forgiven her "new" husband. The former linebacker has also authored a book, Taming the Bull, which details his conversion from a gridiron tough-guy to an evangelical Christian tough-guy.

Whatever the alleged merits of such a story, Bramlett's message is clearly one of religious proselytizing -- and as such has no place in a public high school locker room, auditorium or class room. High school athletes, while not quite the "captive audience" which all students become in the context of a class or other mandatory school activity, nevertheless should not be required to pass a "religious test" by attending church, or listening to religious messages as part of their amateur athletic career.

Although claims have been made which purport to show a positive relationship with religious belief or church attendance and, say, health or economic achievement, the correlation in athletic performance remains even less clear. Rev. Bramlett's exhortations to the Etowah High School prayers -- which, says the paper, resulted in "two coaches and eight players surrendering their lives to Jesus Christ" -- appears to have had little effect on the championship game.

Etowah lost to Blount High School, 21-0.

Graphic Rule

Nativity Scene
At Independence Hall

Religious Display Erected in Federal Park
Catholic Groups Borrow Tactics Used By Protestants
by Conrad Goeringer
from AANEWS by American Atheists

December 18, 1997

A nativity scene was erected this past Sunday at Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia, and according to "religious rights" organizations, passes constitutional muster because it is associated with freedom of expression, not belief.

Members of the Catholic League for Civil and Religious Rights -- a group which has protested freedom of expression in media by objecting to programs it finds "offensive" or "anti-religious" -- erected the creche in a portion of the park which some say is a "public forum."

"The cradle of liberty is now home to a cradle of the Baby Jesus," gushed the Philadelphia Daily News. The display was installed on the Judge Lewis Quadrangle across from the historic Liberty Bell, near a similar area where Orthodox Jewish Lubavitchers will raise a 32-foot electric menorah to commemorate Hanukkah for the 22nd year. This is the first time a creche has been displayed, however, according to Park officials. The News added that, "This is the first nativity scene at Independence Mall, and the first ever supported by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia on public property."

Catholic League officials said they had obtained a permit for the display, and were inspired in seeking "equal time for Christians."

Arthur Delaney, chairman of the League's Philadelphia chapter, said, "The Christian-Judaic culture we share in this country is now fully symbolized by the displays of the crib, the Christmas tree and the menorah." The display has been dedicated and blessed by Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua.

Religious Establishment or Free Speech?

In 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that private and religious groups should be permitted to erect displays on public property, but only in areas where demonstrations or expression of free speech had traditionally occurred. But that standard has a considerable legal gray area; courts have ruled, for instance that the Lubavitchers could display a menorah inside the Georgia Statehouse in Atlanta. In the Philadelphia case, the quadrangle site has a long history of being a venue for free speech and protests, whereas the area of the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall itself remain "off limits," according to the News.

Ironically, at least in the case of the Catholic League, the guarantees of free expression are being used by an organization with questionable credentials in the cause of civil liberties.

The only group which appears to speaking out against the Philadelphia display is the Jewish Community Relations Council which says that it opposes both the menorah and nativity erections. A former official with the organization says that it has "always taken the position that those displays are inappropriate for everyone." But the Philadelphia Daily News observed that the JCRC has sponsored Israel Independence and Holocaust memorial events on public property, and even endorsed Pope John Paul II's masses "so long as religious symbols are displayed only when people are present."

For separationists, the Philadelphia display -- and the efforts of religious groups to exploit "free expression" zones -- pose troubling questions. Many of these groups, of course, care little for "free expression" from other organizations. Ellen Johnson, President of American Atheists has charged that the "free speech" argument is disingenuous. "It applies only to themselves," said Johnson, "not groups they might disagree with." She wondered if the Catholic League or the Lubavitchers would be such zealous "free expression" supporters and permit the an atheist display, or a symbol erected by a non-mainstream religious group.

And what areas are truly "free speech" zones? In the Philadelphia case, the quad area is known as an area where demonstrations have taken place; it is important, though, that other areas not be conveniently included in that designation to appease powerful religious interests, or create the appearance -- and fact -- of government endorsement.

Graphic Rule

Lawsuit to Challenge
Municipal Seal
with Religious Symbols
by Conrad Goeringer
from AANEWS by American Atheists

December 19, 1997

After heated meetings of the local council and a referendum by voters, the City of Stow, Ohio has been sued in federal court by the American Civil Liberties Union for its use of religious symbols in its municipal sea. The action, filed on Tuesday, charges that the seal is unconstitutional, and "endorses religion over non-religions and additionally a specific religion over all others."

In early November, 1996, the city received written notice from the Union that it would initiate legal proceedings. The controversy had begun the year before, though, when two local residents complained to the city's legal director that the municipal seal violated the constitutional separation of state and church by including a Christian cross and a Bible in one of the design's quadrants. The complaint followed a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to let stand a lower federal court decision which ordered officials in the town of Edmond, Oklahoma, to remove a cross from that community's insignia. The Oklahoma legal challenge had attracted national attention since it was considered a definitive resolution on the issue of whether or not government escutcheons could include religious symbols or mottos; judges had ruled that such practices violated the First Amendment, and were an endorsement of religion and often the specific religious belief of Christianity.

The Stow Law Director, Tom Watkins, cognizant of the Edmond ruling, then informed council officials and advised them that the city seal was in violation of the law. At a heated meeting last February, the Stow City Council voted 4-3 to retire the seal. Supporters of the symbol, however, organized a group known as Concerned Citizens for Constitutional Freedom and launched a petition drive to include a motion on the November, 1997 ballot; it ordered that the seal be retained. Some 57 percent of voters approved that measure and the political hot potato landed back in the hands of the Stow City Council.

Some officials expressed concern that continued challenges over the constitutionality of the municipal seal would be prohibitively expensive for the small community. State-church separation activist Rob Sherman, who has successfully challenged similar religious graffiti on community seals throughout the nation, warned officials that they had few if any legal grounds for their positions.

An Expensive Resistance

This could be a long and costly lawsuit for Stow, and any other communities which insist on retaining religious imagery on their municipal decorations. The suit, filed in the Ninth Circuit will be assigned to a judge in either Akron or Cleveland; trial could take up to a year.

Stow could pay dearly for the stubborn refusal of some voters to recognize the need for state-church separation. The city has estimated legal costs to run as high as $150,000, not including reimbursement of costs to the plaintiffs. Further appeals at the appellate court level could quickly run up another $300,000; and efforts to carry the case to the U.S. Supreme Court would add on more charges, and take up to two years just to find out if the justices would even hear the case.

So far, there is no evidence that religious groups such as Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice will take up the Stow, Ohio case; an ACLJ official, however, told the Freedom Forum online that, "the suit is just another attempt by the ACLU to purge religious symbols in our country."

Graphic Rule

Prior Said Activities Prohibited
Which Are Actually Allowed

Judge DeMent Denounces
Attorney General Bill Prior
For ''Political Posturing"
by Conrad Goeringer
from AANEWS by American Atheists

December 19, 1997

U.S. Federal Judge Ira DeMent, who recently struck down Alabama's controversial prayer law, accused state officials on Wednesday of distorting the court's guidelines over religious activity in public schools. Denouncing what he termed "political posturing," DeMent singled out Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor, charging that the state's top law enforcement official was claiming that many student activities were prohibited by the federal order when, in fact, they were not.

"The political posturing that has followed this case encourages divisiveness and apprehension, benefits neither the citizens nor the schoolchildren of Alabama, and clouds the real issues raised by this suit: the coercive religious practices engaged in or allowed by state official in DeKalb County," wrote DeMent.

DeMent announced that he was also rejecting an appeal from Attorney General Pryor to shelve major portions of his guidelines pending review by a higher courts. Pryor had challenged portions of the ruling as "vague and overly broad," and said that his office would be appealing to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court. The judge also said that school officials in DeKalb County had thus far taken the necessary steps to comply with the guidelines; but he warned that shelving any part of his order would violate the rights of those who had filed suit against the prayer law.

Passed in 1995, that legislation permitted a wide range of "student initiated" religious activities.

DeMent also cited the statements of Alabama Governor Fob James, who as late as November 4 told the public that he would "resist Judge DeMent's order by every legal and political means, with every ounce of strength I possess." The judge responded that the position of state officials like Pryor and James, "essentially argues for preservation of majoritarian will. As the attorney general should know, however, the will of the majority makes for sound argument in election disputes and Political grandstanding, not in the analysis of First Amendment jurisprudence."

According to the Huntsville (Alabama) Times and dispatches from Associated Press, the Wednesday ruling "cites numerous religious activities that Pryor said have been banned by DeMent but in fact are permissible ... They include reading the Bible in study hall, class discussion of the meaning of Christmas and Easter, saying grace before lunch, and distributing religious materials to classmates during non-instructional time."

DeMent also accused Pryor of distorting his ruling by citing the hypothetical situation of a student valedictorian who purportedly could not cite the importance of a religious figure (such as Mother Teresa) to his or her academic success. DeMent said that since this was not devotional speech or ritual, it was permitted by the constitution.

Wednesday's ruling altered only "twelve words out of the court's 3,714-word" order, according to the decision. In addition to citing Governor James' combative posture, it rebuked Mr. Pryor for telling school officials that activities like singing "Silent Night," voluntary reading of the Bible during study hall, individual prayer before lunch, non-orchestrated prayer at athletic events for injured players and other activities were banned.

Part of DeMent's ruling cited a November 7 football game incident, which noted that prior to the start of a Sylvania High School game, students were asked to pour onto the field and join members of the school band and the cheerleaders in forming a prayer circle to protest the court's order. A loudspeaker system was used to inform students that the action had the support of the governor.

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Evangelist Gary Bauer
Joins the Fray
by Larry Mundinger (with Conrad Goeringer)
from AANEWS by American Atheists

December 19, 1997

Gary Bauer's influential Family Research Council has begun running advertisements on Christian radio stations. Larry Mundinger monitored the following pitch which aired on Birmingham station WDJC-FM:

"I'm Gary Bauer for the Family Research Council. By now you've heard about a federal judge's sweeping order that restricts the right of Alabama's school children to express their religious faith. Well, we're working on a federal law to stop such assaults on our constitution. We want all Americans, including school children, to be free to acknowledge the Creator. We also want public institutions such as the courts and schools to be free to post the Ten Commandments. Our nation's founding declaration acknowledged God as the source of our most cherished rights and liberties. I comment those Alabama parents and students who are standing up for their rights of free speech and religious expression. I will stand with you in this fight..."

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Alabama Freethought Association
To Erect Sign At State Capitol
by Conrad Goeringer
from AANEWS by American Atheists

December 19, 1997

Members of the Alabama Freethought Association were planning to gather for a press conference on the steps of the State Capitol in Montgomery, Alabama this afternoon. The group plans to erect a sign which reads:

Today's Birmingham News quotes AFA activist Adam Butler, who says, "The use of a state owned property surrounding the capital [sic] building for religious purposes is completely inappropriate." The reference is to the erection of a nativity creche earlier this week by Christian groups.

Graphic Rule

Group Denies God
on Steps of State Capitol
Reuters News Service

December 22, 1997

Montgomery, Alabama (Reuters) -- A sign denying the existence of God was placed on the steps of the Alabama state capitol on Friday in the latest turn in a war of words over the exercise of religion in public places.

"There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell," said the sign by the Alabama Freethought Association, a group of atheists, agnostics and secular humanists.

"There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds," it said.

The sign was left at the foot of the Capitol steps opposite a nativity scene set up by the Association for Judeo-Christian Values, a religious rights organization.

Members of the secular group said they were reacting to the the nativity scene, which had been placed there on Wednesday in response to a U.S. District Court injunction on October 29 against school-sponsored religious activities in DeKalb County.

Governor Fob James took part in the rally against the injunction and strongly criticized the court decision.

The governor had said other religious expressions would be allowed on the grounds of the state capitol, but he declined comment on the atheists' actions.

Freethought Association spokesman Adam Butler said the group wanted to ensure equal access was granted to the capitol grounds for supporters of all outlooks, religious or secular.

"If during the next few weeks we are indeed given equal access and our sign is allowed to stay, then we do no oppose the nativity scene's presence here, at least not from a legal standpoint," he said.

The Freethought Association was one of the plaintiffs in an American Civil Liberties Union case against Etowah County Circuit Judge Roy Moore, who was sued last year for displaying the Ten Commandments on the wall of his courtroom.

Graphic Rule

''Freedom of Expression"
In Alabama? Maybe Not

Second Sign Expressing
Non-Belief Stolen From
State Capitol Grounds
by Conrad Goeringer
from AANEWS by American Atheists

December 22, 1997

An effort by the Alabama Freethought Association to erect a display on the grounds of the Alabama state capitol building seems to running into problems, especially from thieves.

Last Wednesday, Christian groups set up a nativity creche by the capitol in Montgomery, an act which drew the enthusiastic support of leading public officials including Alabama Governor Fob James -- an unabashed supporter of prayer and religious expression in the public square. So members of the AFA decided to test the proposition that the nativity scene was just another example of "free speech" which, theoretically, should apply to all citizens of the state, religious and non-believer alike. AFA members prepared a sign which on one side stated:

Following a press conference last Friday, members of the group then erected their sign, which according to reports in the press is separated from the nativity creche by "a broad expanse of the Capitol steps." AFA activist Adam Butler, a student at the University of Alabama, said the organization opposed the blatant endorsement by Governor James of the Christian display, which he labeled as "religious propaganda."

"Even though it is legal for this display to remain here, it is completely inappropriate for a government setting," added Butler.

AFA member Carol Faulkenberry said that the sign "should stay here [at the capitol] as long as the Nativity scene does. I want to make sure everybody had freedom and rights to believe and say what they feel."

Interestingly, the freethought sign had a Bible verse written on the back:

That seemed appropriate in a state where the battle over issues like public school prayer and the display of religious icons in government venues -- such as the courtroom of Etowah County Judge Roy Moore -- has attracted national attention. But it didn't stop someone from boosting that first sign over the weekend, which prompted Mr. Butler to tell reporters that "the theft of the sign has only prompted Alabama activists to work harder." The group put up a second wooden sign, eight feet by four feet, dwarfing the original display which was a tame 22 inches by 14 inches. "The larger the sign, the less chance there is that someone will try to steal it again," theorized Butler. He noted that the new and improved board had several hefty sand bags which secured it.

State officials, including Governor James, declined comment over the propriety of the theft, and the blatant violation of both civil rights and one of the Ten Commandments:"Thou shall not steal."

Skullduggery In The A.M.

Carol Faulkenberry said that this morning, police at the State Capitol arrested an unidentified individual who was trying to boost the second sign -- all 32 square feet of it. The sign has been impounded as evidence of the theft, and Carol tells us that AFA is hard at work constructing a third and (hopefully) final size. She thanked any religious enthusiasts who might have boosted the signs, saying that because of those actions, "we are getting far more media coverage than we would otherwise have expected."

Graphic Rule

Plastic Jesus Violating
Establishment Clause?
Let Santa Help!

Atheists vs. Christian Coalition
and City Over Creche
by Conrad Goeringer
from AANEWS by American Atheists

January 9, 1998

The Christmas decorations are coming down in the community of Somerset, Massachusetts, but that hasn't put an end to a legal fight between American Atheists Regional Director Gil Lawrence and city officials who have picked up support from the local Christian Coalition. At issue is the decades-old practice of erecting a Christian nativity scene in front of the Town Hall. Every year, says Mr. Lawrence, in early December, members of the community fire department assemble the creche which measures about eight feet long, and has statues of biblical characters -- Joseph, Mary, the magi and "a few small barnyard animals." The wooden cradle is left empty throughout the Christmas season, though, until Christmas Eve when the Town Hall custodian carries a plastic Jesus doll from a government building storage area and places it in the cradle.

It is clearly an endorsement of religion, and a specific religion -- Christianity -- says Lawrence, who for years has sent out a blizzard of letters to news media and government officials in protest of this "establishment of religion." Lawrence is now in court, thanks to representation by the American Civil Liberties Union. ACLU first sent a letter to Somerset officials, which quoted an opinion by Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who described circumstances in one case, County of Allegheny v. ACLU, 109 S. Ct. 3086. O'Connor wrote that a creche -- similar to the Somerset display -- was unconstitutional because its location " the seat of county government conveys a message to non-adherents of Christianity that they are not full members of the political community, and a corresponding message to Christians, that they are favored members of the political community."

Lawrence then attended the next meeting of the Town council, only to discover that the issue was to be discussed at a closed (and possibly illegal) "executive session" with the city's attorney.

The next step was surprisingly abrupt in its timing, and shocking in its results. "Less than eight hours after the meeting," says Lawrence, "a five-foot-high plastic, lighted Santa Clause was added to the lawn next to the nativity scene." That act ignored something that had already been mentioned in the ACLU warning letter, though, and drawn unfavorable comment from courts in a related case. The City of Jersey City, New Jersey had tried a similar ploy, including Frosty the Snowman and a sleigh in order to sanitize and "secularize" its nativity display.

Enter Christian Coalition and the "Heavenly Father"

The local chapter of Christian Coalition promptly organized a rally in defense of the plastic Jesus (and, presumably, Santa) which attracted over 200 persons. TV and other news media covered the event extensively, and CC Chapter head David Amaral told the crowd that "The ACLU needs to get a life, and turn its attention to more important issues." Amaral also pledged to contact the American Center for Law and Justice, a "religious rights" group established by televangelist Pat Robertson, and get "Christian attorneys to help the community of Somerset fight this case." He added that "Christianity was fully expected [by the Founding Fathers] to be taught in public schools and in politics." Echoing a refrain established by David Barton and other anti-separation groups, Amaral also insisted that the words "Separation of church and state" do not appear in the U.S. Constitution."

The Christian Coalition leader also charged that Christianity "has been hijacked by historical revisionists and liberals in the Supreme Court," and that "our society is crumbling" because of "Godlessness." A local minister then led the faithful in a prayer to the Heavenly Father that he might "grant the light of Christmas."

Town administrators continue to take a stubborn position regarding their nativity scene. Administrator John McAuliffe told the local Herald News that he supports keeping the creche on town property, and noted that the Fire and Police Headquarters building has a Santa clause and Jewish menorah on display as well.

Mr. Lawrence is now awaiting word as to when and where this case will be heard.

Graphic Rule

Atheists Actively Challenge
Decalogue Display, Barton's
"Christian Nation" Claims

Atheists End Decalogue Hopes
in Charlotte, North Carolina
by Conrad Goeringer
from AANEWS by American Atheists

January 9, 1998

A proposal to display a copy of the Ten Commandments in the Charlotte, North Carolina government center may be dead following protests by local American Atheists and other state-church separationists. According to activist Jim Senyszyn and AA State Director Wayne Aiken, the Decalogue display is not on the agenda for future city action, and local media considers it a "dead issue." Aiken and Senyszyn, though, may have delivered the final blow last week during a press conference where the pair rebutted a number of disingenuous claims made by Ten Commandments supporters, including Councilman Don Reid who had introduced the original measure.

The 14-page handout, crafted by Mr. Aiken, was in the form of a report to the public titled "Inaccurate and Improper Usage of Quotes from Founding Fathers at [Charlotte] Council Meetings on November 24, 1997." It was at that meeting that debate over Reid's proposal was originally held. Aiken charges that the "debate on the Ten Commandments display [was] ... an attempt to revise the history of the founding period of this country and deny the constitutional principle of the separation of church and state."

Aiken and Senyszyn also charged that many disingenuous claims made by Reid and others on the council, as well as members of the audience and others who supported the Decalogue display, could have used materials from evangelist David Barton and his "WallBuilders" group. Barton is best known for his book and video "The Myth of Separation." He maintains that the separation of government and religion is "Not a teaching of the Founding Fathers, not an historical teaching, not a teaching of law [except in recent years], not a biblical teaching. In addition, Barton is the source of what critics say are misleading and even inaccurate quotes from historical figures, and quotes which are seriously distorted or taken out of context. His most egregious error involves the famous reference by Thomas Jefferson to the "wall of separation." Barton said that, according to Jefferson, the "wall" was to be "one direction," supposedly to keep the government out of the affairs of church, but was not designed to prevent religious interference in the affairs of state. No scholar can find evidence of Jefferson ever having said anything resembling this -- especially in his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, where the "wall of separation" metaphor appears. Barton inaccurately claimed in his anti-separationist book, "The Myth of Separation," that the "wall of separation" phrase had been taken by the U.S. Supreme court in 1947 from a speech Jefferson supposedly made in 1801. Barton quotes Jefferson as saying, "That wall is a one directional wall. It keeps the government from running the church but it makes sure that Christian principles will always stay in government."

Historians are at a loss to find evidence of this quote in the historiographic record.

Mr. Aiken's report also challenged Councilman Reid's claim that, "This country was build on Judeo-Christian principles, the basis of which is the Ten Commandments, no one can deny that..." Aiken notes: "The Constitution of the United States and the legal system which comes from it was influenced by many sources, but primarily the philosophical works of Locke, Hume and Rousseau -- thinkers most commonly associated with the 'Age of Enlightenment.' This radical, new world view affected nearly every aspect of life, including traditional Judeo-Christian doctrines, particularly the relationship between spiritual establishments and temporal government." Aiken adds that "The uniquely American approach involved a complete separation."

Councilman Reid's call for display of a Ten Commandments plaque was reportedly inspired by a proposal from a local evangelist that Judeo Christian documents should be show cased in government buildings throughout the nation. Another impetus was the effort of groups like the Christian Family Association to display the Decalogue as an act of "putting god back in government," and supporting Judge Roy Moore, the embattled Alabama county jurist who displays the Commandments in his court room, and opens proceedings with a Baptist invocation. Moore's unconstitutional ritual is now under legal challenge.

Although the Charlotte proposal may be dormant thanks to the efforts of activists like Mr. Aiken and Mr. Senyszyn, the example in that city shows that the campaign to blend religion and government is one which is national in scope. It is also a movement which relies on questionable and even inaccurate view of history being promoted by hard core religious right organizations like WallBuilders. Some of David Barton's misinformation and dubious quotes have been deleted from newer, revised WallBuilder materials, but the old material continues to circulate in churches, religious activist groups, Christian and right-wing radio talk shows and other venues. The sources now used by the Barton organization are still controversial, and critics charge that they are taken out of context, or used selectively. Separationists need to be vigilant, not only in maintaining state-church separation as in Charlotte, North Carolina, but in defending the historical record as well.

Graphic Rule