August 8, 2011 - 1:04 pm

In case you didn’t have the time (or the willpower) to follow Texas Governor Rick Perry’s grandstanding prayer rally this Saturday, here is my list of the top five most divisive and/or outrageous statements made during the televised prayer-fest. 

5. Public Schools Should Bring Back Prayer and the Ten Commandments

“Lord, I pray that we might see a reinstating of the display of the Ten Commandments in our classrooms. I pray Lord that we will again see freedom to pray in our classrooms.”

Vonette Bright, a co-founder of CRU (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ) whose work has helped establish the National Day of Prayer, received huge applause when she said this. The rally’s attendees apparently believe it’s crucial for all schoolchildren – regardless of their religious backgrounds or lack thereof – to be reminded daily to respect the Sabbath, to worship only the god of Abraham, and to not covet their neighbor’s “male or female slave, or ox, or donkey.” Clearly. Since any individual student (or teacher) is free to pray to themselves during school, Bright's comment about "freedom to pray in our classrooms" must actually mean "freedom to force everyone to say a Christian prayer together."

4. Jews Should Convert to Christianity

“Tens, even hundreds, of thousands of Jewish people in the last decades have come to their Messiah. And so Lord, we pray for the revival around the world, and for Israel to come to their own Messiah.”

This “gem” came from Pastor Don Finto of the Caleb Company. According to Right Wing Watch, the sentiment that Jews should embrace Jesus was not isolated on Saturday. In fact, another rally sponsor, the International House of Prayer “actively encourages Jews to convert to Christianity.” Remember when the rally organizers said that people of all faiths were welcome at this event? Well, they were welcome—but apparently so the attendees and organizers could persuade them to convert to their religion instead. 

3. Humanists Can’t Be Good Without God

“In the humanistic culture, people are talking about love without reference to Jesus Christ.”

Mike Bickle, director of the International House of Prayer Missions Base of Kansas City, was outraged – outraged! – that so many people can feel, share, and even talk about love without placing it in the context of his religion. Maybe he should take a minute to check out the American Humanist Association’s website and learn what humanism really is. It might do Bickle some good, especially considering his next quote. It’s a hum-dinger. 

2. Jesus Was Anti-Gay Marriage and Anti-Choice

“There’s a crisis of truth in the pulpits today in our land. That, in the name of tolerance, even in the name of love, we are redefining love that is not on God’s terms. Jesus is god. There is no other god than Jesus. Father, son, and Holy Spirit. All the world religions, they can say what they say. There is no other god besides Jesus. There is no other standard of truth. Jesus alone is the standard of truth. He defines morality. He defines marriage. He defines life. He defines righteousness. And in our allegiance to him, we say what he says. It’s time to come out in the open. It’s time to go public. Regardless what it costs us, we love you Jesus! The only god!”

That’s Mike Bickle again. Where to begin? Well, I’m no Bible scholar, but I’m pretty sure Jesus never said anything about gay marriage or abortion, so, as Sarah Posner of Religion Dispatches observed, it sure is convenient that Bickle claims Jesus defined these things exactly “the way that Bickle does.” Notice the certainty with which he says Christianity is the only “standard of truth,” but every other religion in the world is wrong. The rest speaks for itself.

1. God Is Not Political (Says the Would-Be Presidential Candidate Hosting the Prayer Rally)

“His agenda is not a political agenda. His agenda is a salvation agenda … He is a wise, wise god, and he is wise enough to not be affiliated with any political party. Or for that matter, He is wise enough to not be affiliated with any man-made institutions.”

Yep, this one is from Governor Perry himself – and he’s exactly right! “God” has no reason to be affiliated with man-made institutions like government, public school, marriage, the doctor’s office, or prayer rallies. Wait a minute … then why did a sitting U.S. governor host a prayer rally so people could ask God to intervene in all these man-made institutions?!

Oh, that’s right. Because – as various news sources report today – Perry plans to announce his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination in the next week or two. I wonder if he’ll stick to that line about his God not having a political agenda come debate time.  

UPDATE: Sources now report Perry will announce his campaign intentions Saturday.

August 4, 2011 - 11:24 am

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals handed down an important ruling for church-state separation last week, affirming that officials in Forsyth County, North Carolina, were wrong to open an estimated four-fifths of public meetings with overtly sectarian prayers that specifically referenced Jesus Christ.

“[P]rayer in governmental settings carries risks,” wrote Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III in the majority opinion. “The proximity of prayer to official government business can create an environment in which the government prefers—or appears to prefer—particular sects or creeds at the expense of others.”

Two local residents, Janet Joyner and Constance Lynn Blackmon, filed a lawsuit against the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners in 2007, with assistance from the ACLU of North Carolina and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, after objecting to the invocations that were routinely delivered by clergy to begin each meeting. According to the court:

The prayers frequently contained references to Jesus Christ; indeed, at least half of the prayers offered between January 2006 and February 2007 contained concluding phrases such as ‘We pray this all in the name under whom is all authority the Lord Jesus Christ,’ ‘[I]t’s in Jesus’ name that we prayer[,] Amen,’ and ‘We thank You, we praise You, and we give Your name glory, and we ask it all in Your Son Jesus’ name.’”

The frequency of such blatantly Christian invocations, the district court ruled and the federal court affirmed, violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, as well as Supreme Court precedent mandating that prayers in a government setting must at the very least be “nonsectarian.”

“[L]egislative prayer must strive to be nondenominational so long as that is reasonably possible – it should send a signal of welcome rather than exclusion. It should not reject to tenets of other faiths in favor of just one,” Wilkinson wrote. 

As The New York Times noted in an editorial this week, this ruling is another great victory for “the essential boundary between church and state.” However, I have one specific issue with Judge Wilkinson’s otherwise fantastic opinion (which you can read in full here).

Yes, public meetings should be as inclusive as possible. And yes, government should not endorse one religion over others. But why is it OK for the government to endorse religion over non-religion? Isn’t that what any “nondenominational” prayer that refers even vaguely to a higher power does? The court has ruled – as it should – that it is not acceptable for government to endorse Christian prayers, because doing so alienates people of other religions. So why doesn’t that logic extend to include people of no religion as well? There are millions of atheist, agnostic, humanist and other types of nontheistic Americans who do not believe in prayer, deities, or a higher power. When a public meeting is opened with any prayer—no matter how innocuous others may think it to be—nontheistic citizens are alienated by it. 

And if you don’t believe that a “nonsectarian” prayer can be alienating, here’s how the court defined one:

“[A nonsectarian] ideal is simply this: that those of different creeds are in the end kindred spirits, united by a respect paid higher providence and by a belief in the importance of religious faith.”

To state the obvious, people who have no religious faith cannot be united with others “by a belief in the importance of religious faith.”

In defending the lack of minority religions in the invocations, the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners argued that a Christian opening prayer reflected “the religious demographics of the [local] communities.”

The reason that Jewish or Buddhist or Muslim clergy rarely, if ever, opened their meetings, they claimed, was because few practitioners of those religions live in the area. That may be. But what about nonreligious citizens, who were mentioned nowhere in last week’s ruling? According to the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey, roughly 10 percent of North Carolina’s residents do not identify with a particular religion. That’s more than 950,000 people! At least some of them must presumably live in Forsyth County, and may even attend public meetings from time to time. When they do attend, they should feel welcome.

But that was not the case for either of the plaintiffs:

“On Joyner and Blackmon’s account, the overall atmosphere made them feel distinctly unwelcome and ‘coerced by [their] government into endorsing a Christian prayer.’ Blackmon claimed that she felt compelled to stand and bow her head because of the Chair’s instruction to stand and because of the audience’s response. Joyner offered a similar account, believing that if she had failed to comply, it would have “negatively prejudice[d] consideration of [her] intended petition as a citizen appearing for public comment.’”

So in addition to failing to “send a signal of welcome rather than exclusion,” the board’s opening prayer also made the plaintiffs feel “compelled” to participate out of fear that not doing so would have a negative impact on the actual public business Joyner had come to conduct. That’s hugely problematic. 

“Faith is as deeply important as it is deeply personal,” Wilkinson wrote in the majority opinion, “and the government should not appear to suggest that some faiths have it wrong and others got it right.”

Exactly. And nor should the government suggest that having faith is right – and not having faith is wrong. If public meetings truly want to be as inclusive as possible, they should skip prayers entirely and get on with the business of government.

In fact, earlier this year, the Hawaii state Senate became the first state legislative body in the nation to eliminate the daily prayer conducted before its sessions. Let's hope others follow.

August 1, 2011 - 12:27 pm

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg did something on Friday that few mainstream American politicians ever take the opportunity to do: he publicly acknowledged nontheistic Americans and their equal rights before the law.

Responding to criticisms of the recent lawsuit filed by American Atheists, an SCA member organization, to prevent a pair of cross-shaped steel beams found in the World Trade Center ruins from being included in the government-funded National September 11 Memorial and Museum because of its treatment as a religious symbol of Christianity, Bloomberg said the following:

"You've got to be careful in criticizing people. No. 1, they [American Atheists] have a right to sue, and we'll see what the judge says. This group of atheists, they're free in our country to not believe and not practice, and we should defend their right to do that, just as we should defend individuals' rights to practice and to believe."

This is exactly the kind of thing SCA hopes more officials will stand up and say about nontheistic Americans. Notice how Bloomberg isn't saying he agrees with the lawsuit. He's simply making the point that atheists are Americans, too. We are part of the cultural fabric, we have equal rights before the law, and our fellow citizens should not only respect but defend those rights -- as we will theirs.

Sadly, not all Americans have followed Bloomberg's example. Some people have even taken to posting violent wishes and death threats targeted at American Atheists on Facebook. How Christian of them.



July 21, 2011 - 12:41 pm

“He’s going to lead the way, every day,” says Tim Pawlenty’s wife, Mary, in a new video for her husband’s presidential campaign. Except she’s not talking about her husband – she’s talking about God. 

That’s just one of the more eyebrow-raising moments in the below ad, which unapologetically panders to the Republican Party’s influential evangelical base by touting the Pawlentys’ church-going ways, Tim’s conversion to the evangelical faith, and the couple’s opposition to marriage equality and abortion rights.

The video’s most problematic statements, however, deal with the separation of church and state. Here’s the former Minnesota governor’s spin:

“The separation of church and state was intended to protect people of faith from government, not government from people of faith. Now we have all this revisionism around what was intended and where those lines really are drawn. I think the Founders of this country made it very clear; we were founded as a nation under god. And it’s not only in our founding documents nationally; it’s in the founding documents of 49 of the 50 states nationally. So it’s very clear what roadmap they put out for us as it relates to faith in the public square.”

I actually agree with what half of Pawlenty says in that bolded section. America's founders did make religion’s role in government very clear in our founding documents. Because they didn’t mention God at all! The Constitution, our supreme legal document and the basis of our entire government, does not mention a deity even once. Religion is mentioned just twice: to prevent the government establishment of religion and to protect its free exercise (the First Amendment), and to prevent any religious test for public office (Article VI). There are always people who point to the fact that the Declaration of Independence references a “Creator,” but the Declaration is simply a political statement, not a binding legal document like the Constitution.  

And saying “we were founded as a nation under god” is just pure baloney. As we’ve been forced to point out time and time again, the phrase “under God” was not widespread until the mid 1800s. It was not inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance until 1954, and "In God We Trust" was not made our national motto until 1956 – long after all our Founders, even 9-year-old John Quincy Adams, were dead and buried in the ground.  

Here’s Mary Pawlenty struggling to support the myth that America’s Founders were all devout Christians:

“When I think of those who founded this country, and we look back on the record of what they said and what they believed, we know these were people of faith. We look back on, for example, comments that Benjamin Franklin made at the time of the Constitutional Convention. And he spoke of the fact that ‘If a sparrow cannot fall without God’s knowledge, is it possible that an empire could rise without his aid?’ We know that this country was founded by people of faith, and that that’s a critical aspect of this country’s roots.”

That’s the same Ben Franklin, by the way, who famously said, “Lighthouses are more helpful than churches.” I wonder what the Pawlentys would think about that one. Seriously, Ben Franklin?! The guy once wrote, “I have found Christian dogma unintelligible.” Is he really the best example the Pawlentys could find?

Regardless, T-Paw appears to be the front-runner among evangelicals for now. A recent poll found that 45 percent of the National Association of Evangelicals would select him as the Republican candidate.

July 12, 2011 - 3:26 pm

There have been so many jaw-dropping stories about Republican presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann’s theocratic beliefs recently that it’s getting hard to keep track.

Barely a week after the Minnesota Congresswoman signed a rambling, racist, homophobic, anti-liberty, and theocratic “Marriage Pledge” to oppose all forms of gay marriage, pornography, and abortion, new revelations have come to light about the Christian “counseling” businesses Bachmann co-owns with her husband, Marcus. 

ABC News, The Nation and other media outlets have reported that – despite denials from the Bachmann family – counselors at Marcus Bachmann’s centers in Minnesota offer widely-discredited “reparative therapy” that uses prayer and other Christian teachings in order to “cure” gay people of their sexual orientation. 

ABC News interviewed John Becker, an openly gay activist with the group Truth Wins Out, who secretly filmed five treatment sessions he received at one of Marcus Bachmann’s clinics. Here’s how Becker describes the counselor’s advice:

“His path for my therapy would be to read the Bible, and pray to God that I would no longer be gay.”

Watch the entire ABC News video below:

Bachmann, who is currently leading in the Iowa polls, refused to comment in detail, saying simply that she’s “very proud” of the business she owns with her husband.  

These types of “pray the gay away” practices have been widely denounced by the medical and scientific communities, including the American Psychological Association and American Psychiatric Association, which have both stated that such treatments are extremely harmful to patients.  

What could make this situation worse? How about the fact that your tax dollars have helped pay for these hideous counseling services!? That’s right, according to NBC News, Bachmann & Associates have received $161,000 in federal taxpayer dollars since 2005.

This is a business owned by the same Marcus Bachmann who was previously caught saying gay people are “barbarians” who “need to be educated” and “disciplined.” It’s the same business that is co-owned by Michele Bachmann, the Tea Party darling who gained her popularity by railing against the federal government, and whom millions of Americans think should be our next president.

For those who are interested, the Human Rights Campaign has organized an online petition asking GOP presidential candidates to “take a public stand against ‘ex-gay’ therapy and the insidious anti-gay ideology behind it.”

And, I would add, the insidious religious ideology behind it, as well.

July 11, 2011 - 4:54 pm

For anyone who still doubts that Texas Gov. Rick Perry's Aug. 6 prayer rally is really just a front for extremist Christian nonsense, take a minute to watch this video Right Wing Watch put together interspersing Perry's recent video invitation with some of the more outlandish statements made by the event's endorsers, organizers, and sponsors:



And, of course, there's more:

There were also several other clips that we just couldn't work into this short video, like Cindy Jacobs saying birds were dying because of the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't tell, Jim Garlow saying African Americans were saving the nation from the "bondage and enslavement" of gay marriage, David Barton saying Jesus opposed the minimum wage, Peter Wagner saying Japan is cursed because the Emperor had sex with a demon spirit, Buddy Smith saying gays are "in the clasp of Satan," or any of the littany of bigoted statements uttered by Bryan Fischer over the past year.

Is this really the kind of company one should keep if you plan on running for president?

If you haven't already, please take a moment to urge your governor to reject his or her invitation to Perry's rally.

(H/T Right Wing Watch)


July 8, 2011 - 12:23 pm

America’s political leaders could learn a thing or two from the Dalai Lama.

During talks with lawmakers on Capitol Hill this week, the Tibetan Buddhist leader, who retired from politics in March, not only emphasized his support for church-state separation, but also had the integrity to admit that he himself has violated the concept. From the Washington Post:

Addressing his retirement, the Dalai Lama said he had come to see the “hypocrisy” of his advocating for the separation of church and state while claiming leadership in both realms. “Now I can tell people religious institutions and political institutions must be separate,” he said. “My statement is now honest.”

It’s important to remember that the Dalai Lama’s simple message – that “religious institutions, political institutions, must be separate” – was first put into practice here, in the United States, by our secular constitution. Sadly, because of recent antics by the Religious Right, a foreigner visiting the U.S. these days might not recognize the concept in practice.

And could we blame them? Our longest serving governor, Rick Perry of Texas, has called on the nation and its political leadership to “come together and call upon Jesus to guide us through unprecedented struggles.” No less than three Republican candidates for president have said that they are running for our nation’s highest office because God told them to. One of them, Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, believes in “end times” and has publicly prayed to God to end health care reform. The mayor of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, believes God, prayer, and fasting are the only things that can solve her city’s budget deficit. And the list goes on.  

If our political leaders learn anything from the Dalai Lama’s visit this week, it should be that in a nation founded on church-state separation, lawmakers can’t act as both government officials and religious clerics.

They have to pick one or the other.

July 7, 2011 - 2:26 pm

Fueled by religious dogma, Catholic agencies across the country have shut down adoption and foster-care programs helping thousands of children because they refuse to extend services to legally married gay couples.

It started in Massachusetts, after that state became the first to legalize same-sex marriage. In 2006, Catholic Charities of Boston announced it would end its adoption program before it was forced to comply with state laws preventing discrimination against married gay couples. Then last year, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington followed suit, shutting down its 80-year-old adoption program in the nation’s capital rather than help place children with gay foster parents.  

Now the trend has spread to Illinois, where the Chicago Tribune reports that Catholic Charities in five regions decided to end their state-funded foster-care programs once that state’s civil union law took effect in June. Thousands of families – including 330 children in the Rockford area alone – were suddenly without an organization to handle their casework.

How compassionate of those “charities”!

Luckily, a secular organization – which includes many individual religious members – has decided to step up and take responsibility for some of the families abandoned by Catholic Charities because of their anti-gay religious bias.

David McClure, executive director of Youth Service Bureau of Illinois Valley, believes Catholic Charities left his agency no choice but to take care of the 330 children affected by [Bishop Thomas Doran of Rockford]’s decision. […]

McClure also had watched employees, children and parents disperse when Catholic Charities of Chicago ended its foster care services in 2007. He didn't want to see the same turmoil in Rockford. "I took a very deep breath because it's much bigger than what we're doing now," he said. " … The children needed some fairly immediate help, and that had to get started."

McClure describes his organization as “secular and not faith-based,” but he adds that many social workers, including himself, draw on their personal faith to get their job done.

McClure said his church has helped him understand gay and lesbian couples shouldn't be excluded from the pool of prospective foster parents. He has watched same-sex couples in the congregation excel at raising children. Through conversations with gay members, he has learned to empathize with the challenges of being gay."We don't have enough foster parents, period," he said. "My friendships with people at that church helped me realize that these distinctions don't need to be made."

McClure believes his children's generation will move other churches forward on the issue. "We're going to grow out of this," he said. "It's too bad it happened to the (Catholic) Church in this way. If you can't adapt your institution to it, it's going to create problems."

Here is another wonderful example of religious individuals rejecting dogma and embracing secular values and institutions as a way to help the greatest number of people.

Let’s hope more will follow.

June 30, 2011 - 12:17 pm

EllenBeth Wachs, 48, has been arrested three times in four months by Polk County, Florida, sheriff's deputies – and she claims it’s because she’s an atheist who has worked to keep prayer out of public meetings.

In a federal lawsuit filed against Polk County Sheriff Gracy Judd, who is an evangelical Christian, Wachs contends that she has been repeatedly arrested on “frivolous criminal charges” because of her work advocating for church-state separation as legal coordinator for the nonprofit Atheists of Florida.

According to Reuters, Wachs first encountered Sheriff Judd in December, “when she filed several public-records requests to look into his decision to donate the Polk County jail’s basketball hoops and other equipment to local churches.” Wachs, a non-practicing lawyer, signed the request with the word “Esquire” after her name. That simple act caused Judd to dispatch what Wachs described as “about 20 paramilitary-garbed police” to arrest her on felony charges of illegally posing as a lawyer. Wach’s own attorney has said using “Esquire” doesn’t violate any bar rules.

And the other two arrests? One came in May, after Wachs allegedly tried to stop some neighbors from playing basketball outside her home by “moaning repeatedly in a sexual manner from an open window in her house, saying ‘Oh John,’ in a crescendo,” according to The New York Times. For that, officers arrested her on felony sex charges and conducted a search of her house, during which they took away a safe. The officers said they found marijuana in the safe, so they arrested Wachs a third time for marijuana possession. All three charges are still pending.

Sheriff Judd, by the way, has received national attention for his efforts to crack down on pornography and sex offenders. And in 2006, around the time Wachs moved to Polk County, Judd made headlines for defending officers who shot to death a man suspected of killing a sheriff’s deputy. The police officers fired 110 rounds of ammunition and hit the suspect 68 times. “I suspect the only reason 110 rounds was all that they fired was that’s all the ammunition they had,” Judd said at the time.

Community reactions to Wachs’ situation have been mixed. Her lawsuit describes Polk County as a place where “Christian prayer rituals are routinely held before government meetings” and school board members have supported the teaching of intelligent design in classrooms.  But according to Wachs’ attorney, many local residents are still supportive of his client.

“The community in general, as they saw this whole thing go down, called these events Gestapo-like and retaliatory and scary,” [Lawrence] Walters said. “The community knows what's happening. We have a sheriff that's out of control, frankly, that's misusing his position to the detriment of our client and to the detriment of the First Amendment, and we hope to put a stop to it.”

But others blame Wachs.

Conservative religious leaders in Polk [County] say Wachs has it all wrong. Lynne Breidenbach, a Christian activist and media consultant for churches, says Wachs and other members of Atheists of Florida are the ones who are the cause of the ongoing problems. "This is a community of faith, and faith is very important to the people of Polk County, and if they (Wachs and other atheists) would like to live and work here as members of this community, they need to be more accommodating of us," Breidenbach said.

Ah, you see? There wouldn’t be a problem at all if the atheists would just shut up and “be more accommodating” of their Christian neighbors.

For information about EllenBeth Wachs’ legal defense fund, visit the Atheists of Florida website here.

June 27, 2011 - 4:39 pm

Different organizations continue to come out for and against Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s radical Aug. 6 prayer meeting in Houston – but this one in particular caught my eye.

A group called The Pray in Jesus Name Project recently issued an action alert, via Conservative Action Alerts, that specifically targets the Secular Coalition for America and seeks to counter our campaign asking governors to reject Perry’s invitation to his divisive and unproductive (to say the least) event.

Have a look:

Now, here’s what really gets me about this alert. It’s not just that they got our name wrong (it’s the Secular Coalition for America), or that they incorrectly stated that we launched a “national fax drive” targeting governors (it’s the 21st century, so we send emails not faxes), or even that they somehow think asking Gov. Perry to respect the separation of church and state amounts to “erosions” of “religious freedoms.”

What really gets me is that The Pray in Jesus Name Project actually charges its supporters $20 to $179 for them to send out faxes to governors and members of Congress on their behalf! This is the same service that SCA, many of our member organizations, and just about every group I’ve ever seen issue action alerts provides to its supporters for free. That's because we don’t send these things out to make money; we send them out to rally support for secularism, civil rights, and other important issues. 

Not to mention that all of those organizations, SCA included, save the ink and paper involved in faxing and use this nifty little thing called email instead.

As God Discussion explains, Gordon James Klingenschmitt, the man behind the PIJNP, has a rather questionable resume, including the time he stated that exorcism is an effective way to “treat” homosexuality.

Anyway, if you haven’t yet asked your governor to reject his or her invitation to Perry’s grandstanding, extremist-sponsored prayer meeting, you can do so (for free!) at our Action Alert Center.

And hey, if you’d like to help support us in combating religious extremism, or thank us for providing services like action alerts, you can always make a contribution to the Secular Coalition on our donate page.

Even if you don’t, we will still send your emails to officials – free of charge.  

(Thanks to God Discussion for originally pointing this out.)