Church-State Appeal Arguments

I haven’t posted much recently because I’ve been very busy with legal work. One thing I’ve been working an is an appeal of a church-state case in Colorado. It finally went to court yesterday, in the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, Colorado. The case involves a school district that has actively and repeatedly supported Christian missionary organizations.  Coverage here from the Denver Post.

 

Not All Soldiers Are Christians

We sent a letter from the AHA’s legal center this morning to the mayor of Roselle Park, New Jersey, to complain about a memorial on public property portraying a Christian cross. Mayor Carl Hokanson reportedly purchased the display himself and had city employees install it in front of the community’s library. The display, which depicts a soldier kneeling in front of a grave marker shaped as a Christian cross, is apparently intended as a tribute to fallen soldiers.

The problem is that not all soldiers are Christians, and the cross is not a universal symbol for those who have fought and died. The AHA won an Establishment Clause lawsuit in California in 2014 over a similar display, and will most likely litigate this one if Roselle Park does not remove the display. As I told one reporter, Jewish, Muslim, atheist, and Hindu soldiers are not honored when a government erects a memorial that use the cross. There are better, religiously neutral ways to pay respect to fallen soldiers.

Ocala in the summertime

Ocala, Florida, isn’t an ideal destination at the height of summer, but I’ll be heading there this week for legal work. I’ll be deposing the city’s mayor and police chief in connection with a lawsuit brought by the American Humanist Association and several local residents who objected to a prayer vigil that was promoted and organized by the city’s police department.

The city’s police chief posted a public letter saying, among other things, that prayer was needed to solve the city’s crime problem and urging citizens to attend the prayer vigil. Police department chaplains led many of the prayers at the rally, much to the delight of the city’s conservative Christian leaders.

Our lawsuit claims that the entire event, from its promotion by the police chief to its police-led prayers, is a violation of church-state separation under the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. At the depositions, we’ll discover more about how these government officials justify throwing a Christian revival.

Latest church-state scuffle: Beebe, Arkansas

I had to contact the mayor of Beebe, Arkansas, this morning to register objections to his public endorsement of Christianity, complete with a message of city letterhead declaring his goal to “usher the presence of god and to celebrate the Christian message” via a city-sponsored event that will feature gospel musicians. The AHA’s press release, along with links to documents, is here.

New Event: AU Religious Liberty Dinner

New event: On June 2 I’ll be speaking at the Annual Religious Liberty Dinner of the Massachusetts Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Two other authors, Rob Boston and Katherine Stewart, will be on the program as well. Both Rob and Katherine are strong advocates for secular government. Rob serves as AU’s communications director and is a leading spokesperson on church-state issues. His latest book, Taking Liberties: Why Religious Freedom Doesn’t Give You the Right To Tell Other People What To Do, is directly relevant to the debates today over whether claims of “religious freedom” should give people the right to ignore laws that offend their religious beliefs. Katherine’s book, The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children, is an excellent, eye-opening overview of how the Religious Right is attacking public education in order to assert a fundamentalist Christian worldview in American society. The book is very well researched and shows that the problem of religion in public schools is far worse than you may have realized.

This will be a fun night, and if you’re in the Boston area I hope you can make it. It’s at the Marriott Copley, 110 Huntington Avenue, Boston. A cash bar reception starts at 5:30, dinner at 6:30, with the program starting at 7:30. Details here.

 

Senator rips up our complaint letter

Our American Humanist Association legal center sent a letter to a state senator from Arkansas this week, telling him that his plans to erect a Ten Commandments monument at the state capitol are unconstitutional.  I guess it would be an understatement to say he was unpersuaded.

The senator, Jason Rapert, took to Facebook to post a video, in which he rambles for over 18 minutes, insisting that we are the bad guys of course. At about 14:30, he rips up our letter, making it perfectly clear that he’s going to continue with the project. The video is here.  (One apt and humorous detail that’s hard to miss: throughout the video, Fox News is on the television in the background.)

More information about our complaint letter, including a link to the letter itself, can be found here. Rapert leads a national caucus of religious conservative legislators known as Appeal to Heaven, which says governing the nation according to “biblical principles” is part of its mission.

When Church-State Separation is “Anti-Christian”

Our American Humanist Association legal center sent a letter last week to the mayor of Stockton, California, criticizing him for sponsoring a prayer rally. In the aftermath, we can get an interesting glimpse at the mentality of religious conservatives via an article appearing in Christian Today. The article tells readers: “A group of atheists has once again made an anti-Christian move by condemning the mayor of Stockton, California, for hosting a prayer rally after a six-year-old girl was shot.”

But wait a second: Anti-Christian?

If you think about it, the allegation that our objections are “anti-Christian” essentially proves our argument. That is, the article is implicitly conceding that the mayor’s activities were in fact pro-Christian. (If objecting to the activities is “anti-Christian,” then the activities themselves must be pro-Christian, right?) This, in turn, is basically an admission that the mayor was violating the Establishment Clause, which forbids governmental activities that have a purpose or effect of promoting a particular religion.

Nevertheless, not surprisingly, the article is highly critical of the AHA for objecting to the mayor’s Christian favoritism. I guess we shouldn’t let the Constitution get in the way of that good old-fashioned Christian privilege. If you don’t like your tax dollars being used to promote Christianity, the answer is simple: move out of Stockton!

What the good folks at Christian Today don’t realize is that the AHA has no objection to prayer rallies when they are sponsored and conducted by churches or private parties. It’s governmental sponsorship of prayer rallies that becomes problematic. That seems like such a simple distinction, but we repeatedly see conservative Christians failing to grasp the concept.

 

American Christians: Oppressed or Oppressors?

Most sensible Americans can chuckle at the idea of a red coffee cup as a symbol of Christian oppression. As Donald Trump calls for a boycott of Starbucks, the implied message is that cups lacking holiday symbols are evidence of hostility toward Christianity in American culture.

I understand how some would laugh at such lowbrow politics, but I can’t. Having litigated church-state cases across the Bible Belt in recent years—thus seeing the aggressive, malicious nature of religious culture in some of America’s most pious communities—I know what underlies those absurd claims of Christian persecution, and it’s not pretty. Consider this message I received after notifying government officials in Pensacola, Florida, that a large Christian cross on public property violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause:

Hater - gun war

Not only are Christians in America rarely oppressed, quite often they are actually the oppressors. Just ask anyone who has challenged religious privilege in a Bible Belt community. Venom and intolerance can quickly become defining characteristics of towns where locals consider themselves upright and God-fearing. This is why plaintiffs who bring church-state cases must often seek anonymous “John Doe” or “Jane Doe” status—they truly risk their jobs, their safety, and their standing in the community if discovered.

hater (1)

As the small sampling of messages provided with this article show, meanness and bad grammar are the two consistent traits demonstrated by my religious adversaries. The sloppy writing is inconsequential, but the belligerence certainly justifies the fears of plaintiffs and other nonbelievers in these communities. If Jesus preached goodwill and harmony, many of his followers apparently didn’t get the message.

Another common theme in these interactions is the suggestion that nonbelievers are not true Americans. Thus, though Bible Belt Christians like to talk about religious freedom, what they often demand is national religious homogeny. It seems patriotism can be understood only through a prism of Christianity.

Love letter

Only a small fraction of the inquiries we receive at the Appignani Humanist Legal Center actually result in litigation, because many who notify us of church-state violations are afraid to proceed with a formal complaint letter or lawsuit. They want to tell us about the violation, but they’re terrified of being discovered in their community. So they’ll provide a detailed description of a proselytizing coach, a preaching teacher, a principal who promotes religion, or a sheriff who thinks his job includes instilling God-belief in the citizenry, but then they’ll end their communication by adding: Please don’t use my name. Often this fear isn’t just for themselves—jeopardizing their own job or personal safety would be bad enough—but for the well-being of spouses or children.

Hate mail copy 2 (1)

To be fair, there’s no question that only a small minority of Christians live on the wing-nut fringe sending hateful emails. But it isn’t a small minority that creates the insular and overbearing Christian culture in many Bible Belt communities, an atmosphere that demands Christian privilege in schools and the public square. Nor is it a small minority that nurtures a delusional mindset that Christianity is under attack in this country. In Syria, yes, but in rural Georgia, no. To create a community-wide aura of fear and anxiety, it takes a village.

Christian hegemony has gone unchallenged in much of the United States for generations. Today, however, nonreligious Americans comprise about a quarter of the population (higher among young people) and they want to be treated as equal citizens. It’s unfortunate, but perhaps not surprising, that many Christians interpret nonbeliever demands for equality as oppression.

What America really needs is a religious landscape wherein nobody plays the role of oppressor or oppressed. For that, all we need is an atmosphere of religious neutrality in the public arena.

 

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Starbucks cup photo by Becky Hood via Creative Commons.

 

 

 

Congressional Prayer Caucus Under Scrutiny

The Congressional Prayer Caucus (CPC), a center of Christian Right political power in Washington, came under scrutiny in major media this week, with an article in USA Today that called attention to the group and its religiously charged agenda.

Led by Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA), the taxpayer-funded CPC has connections to a private group called the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, which is headquartered in a building owned by Forbes that also houses his campaign office.

As I have pointed out elsewhere, the CPC consistently takes positions that support fundamentalist Christian viewpoints in public policy. They want “In God We Trust” signs and Ten Commandments monuments in public places, they oppose efforts to remove “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance, they want prayer to be part of government activities, and they defend gay-bashing chaplains in the military. The group once criticized President Obama for referring to E Pluribus Unum as an American motto, and has even gone so far as to advocate for removal of Establishment Clause cases from the jurisdiction of federal courts.

One would hope that with views like these the CPC would be obscure and insignificant, but that’s not the case. At one point the CPC boasted over 100 members, or almost one in four members of Congress.

The American Humanist Association has been calling public attention to the CPC for years. In each of the last two election cycles, for example, the AHA has sent letters to incoming members of Congress urging them not to join the CPC, pointing out that CPC positions are extreme and hostile to the interests of religious minorities and the nonreligious. Perhaps the efforts are working, as CPC membership has dropped over ten percent since the AHA’s efforts began.

 

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‘In God We Trust’ on Police Cruisers: Lies and False Pretenses

“In God We Trust” has been America’s national motto since 1956, but only recently have we seen efforts by religious conservatives to place the motto anywhere and everywhere. One trend that’s been quite prevalent, especially in the Bible Belt, has been to place “In God We Trust” stickers on police cruisers. Such campaigns, if successful, allow religious conservatives to define their communities on their terms, sending a strong, unwelcoming message to freethinkers, liberals, and non-Christians.

These “In God We Trust” campaigns are the subject of a piece for The Humanist magazine this week. The article takes a close look at the misrepresentations that are being made by the proponents of the motto. Almost laughably, they often claim that the words have nothing to do with promoting God-belief. Do you believe them?  The article is here.

 

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