June 8, 2011 - 4:24 pm

Texas Governor Rick Perry, perhaps preparing a campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, chose an interesting way to distinguish himself from the field this week. He decided to reach out to the American Family Association (AFA), which has been labeled a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, to host a prayer event focused on “the Lord Jesus Christ,” and then invited his 49 fellow governors to attend.  The specific "statement of faith” for this theocratic event includes belief in the literal truth of the virgin birth and resurrection. That edict would make Thomas Jefferson, a one-time governor of Virginia, unwelcome.

As the Texas Tribune and others have noted, the American Family Association is an extremist organization with a long history of intolerant, fundamentalist and hate-filled religious rhetoric. Here are just a few examples:

  • AFA’s Bryan Fischer “has blamed gays for the Holocaust,  […] called on Muslims to convert to Christianity or face the wrath of U.S. military power” and asserted that church-state separation “came directly from the mind of Adolf Hitler.”
  • AFA objected to a Hindu clergyman giving the opening prayer for the U.S. Senate, and several of its supporters tried to disrupt the ceremony.  
  • AFA has demanded that every member of Congress be sworn in on the Bible, thus specifically excluding secular Americans and people of other religions such as Hindus or Muslims.
  • Most recently, AFA called for a boycott of Home Depot because the store supports “homosexual activism.”

This is the organization Perry, a U.S. governor, chose to partner with for his “apolitical Christian prayer meeting,” the website of which clearly states that millions of non-Christian Americans are doomed to “damnation.”

Earlier this week, SCA issued an action alert calling on our nation’s governors to reject Perry’s invitation and focus on substantive policy work -- not grandstanding ceremonies sponsored by hate groups.  (If you go to SCA’s issues page you will see that our focus is substantive policy, not political grandstanding.)

As of this blog post, the governors of California, Oklahoma, Michigan, New Jersey, and Georgia have turned down Perry’s invite. If you have not contacted your governor about this yet, please do so here

Gov. Perry’s actions are sadly characteristic. After the BP oil spill, Gov. Perry’s first reaction was not to investigate safety violations or to take responsibility for the consequences of lax policies. Instead, he said that the spill might have been “just an act of God,” thus absolving real corporate and government decision-makers from real world responsibility for their own actions leading up to a major disaster.

In a country that faces, in Perry’s words, “financial debt, terrorism, and a multitude of natural disasters,” the last thing our elected officials should is pander to extremist hate groups that are expressly hostile to millions of non-fundamentalist Americans. It is a red flag when the likes of Thomas Jefferson would not be welcome at an event, an event hosted by a hate group hostile to all by but the most fundamentalist of Christians.

Governor Perry has succeeded in clearly defining himself. He believes the way to the Republican nomination is through radical theocratic extremism. For the future of our republic, founded on separation of church and state, let’s hope he’s wrong.

April 5, 2011 - 12:19 pm

In my view, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is one of the greatest women in American history.  She could be called young by Supreme Court standards. At 78 she’s much younger than my hero John Paul Stevens, who was vigorous on the court until age 90. Ginsburg has bravely faced both colon and pancreatic cancer, and no one doubts her brainpower. We need brains like hers.  

Yesterday, Justice Ginsburg took an important stand by joining the dissenting opinion in a ruling that could now make it more difficult for taxpayers to legally challenge government programs that aid religious organizations.

In a 5-4 decision, the court’s ruling in Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn will keep alive an Arizona program that allows taxpayers to send money to private schools, mostly private religious schools, and then take a dollar-for-dollar tax credit. The decision blocks citizens from bringing suit by knocking aside a long-standing precedent that said citizens have standing in court to challenge laws if their tax money is used in a way that might violate church-state separation. The opinion, written by Justice Antony Kennedy, stated there was no discernable way to measure the effect of a tax credit on those bringing suit and therefore the harm they alleged was not actionable. This is one of the most theocratic decisions of the Roberts Court to date, and the activism displayed by Chief Justice John Roberts (remember “I’m just an umpire”?) and others in the majority opinion is stunning.

In Justice Elena Kagan’s first dissent, which was joined by Justices Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Stephen Breyer, she correctly pointed out the court has directly faced the issue several times before and never even discussed the majority’s extreme idea that there is not even standing to address this clear violation of church–state separation. (In the 1968 ruling Flast v. Cohen, the Court declared that citizens had standing to sue the government specifically over violations of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.)  Justice Kagan put it starkly and correctly: The Arizona ruling, she wrote, “threatens to eliminate all occasions for a taxpayer to contest the government’s monetary support of religion.”  Read that sentence again to let its significance sink in.

In essence this means states have a loophole the size of a cathedral through which to drive violations of the separation of church and state – because, oh so sorry, no citizen has standing to address it.   As Justice Kagan correctly noted, if the government hands money to a favored religious group or hands a tax credit to the favored religious group, the result is the same: a violation of the separation of church and state.  It is simply a sleight of hand to deny standing through the latter option.

In order to reach this result the activist majority had to ignore decades long precedent in many decisions.  It was Justice Roberts, not me, who made such a show of respecting precedent during his confirmation hearing. Well, not so much now.

Back to Justice Ginsburg.  Ginsburg has expressed admiration for Justice Brandeis’s decision to retire at age 82.   Justice Antonin Scalia, an extreme theocratic activist, is only three years younger than Ginsburg.  Justice Anthony Kennedy, sometimes referred to as the swing justice, leans theocratic: It was he who authored the majority opinion in yesterday’s ruling. Justice Kennedy was born in the 1936, the same year as Scalia.

Regardless of which Justice retires next, this court teeters on the edge of theocracy, and, indeed yesterday, crossed a dramatic line heading in that direction.

The saddest note for me about the ruling is perhaps that the Obama administration stood with the majority.  Justice Kagan, former Obama administration Solicitor General, thankfully did the right thing in her vigorous dissent.  The Obama administration is the same administration that -- despite President Obama’s pledge of July 1, 2008 -- has failed to sign the Executive Order prohibiting proselytizing and discrimination in so-called faith-based initiatives.  (The President does not need Congress to do the right thing here. All he needs is a pen.).

The Secular Coalition for America is a non-partisan organization.  We are here to face realities, not advocate for candidates.  I am fully aware of the theocratic gold rush now blazing through Iowa as potential candidates like Michelle Bachmann, Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich and company race to prove who is the most theocratic candidate.  

Regardless of what happens in the 2012 election, we as a movement must be more ready to lobby the next Supreme Court fight. We must be ready whether it turns out that we are fighting against a theocratic court nominee or trying to shore up an administration to follow its stated principles and nominate a justice who supports about church-state separation as our founders intended.  We must stand at the ready to get Members of Congress to do the right thing regarding a nomination.  We must work to make it a requirement that nominees embrace the principles of Jefferson and Madison when it comes to separation of church and state.

But there is something even more important:  We have launched the Secular Coalition for Arizona and the Secular Coalition for Alabama. Our goal is 51 such coalitions (including D.C.) by 2020.  But the sooner the better.  Our influence in Washington will grow when we can report more feet on the ground in the home districts. 

Secular Americans have a patriotic duty to get organized with more numbers and more vigor, because, as of yesterday’s ruling, the threat of theocracy is at our door. And, given Justice Kennedy’s attitude, even my hero Justice Ginsburg may not be enough to protect our Constitution.

March 23, 2011 - 2:13 pm

In a front-page feature this weekend, The New York Times Magazine profiled Yasir Qadhi, an important Islamic cleric, teacher and author – who is also a lifelong U.S. citizen.

Imagine an influential fundamentalist who rejects democracy -- specifically rejecting majority rule because majority votes might contradict scripture. This fundamentalist says voters don’t have the “right” to contradict scripture. You might be further concerned if this fundamentalist said the fact that we in are the 21st century is not relevant since ancient scriptural law is immutable.  You might be even more concerned if you learned that this fundamentalist said ancient scriptural “family law” must be obeyed -- and obedience to this ancient law includes the law of “punishment”. In this worldview women are subordinate, and homosexuality is criminal conduct.  Under this view, amputations are appropriate, indeed mandated, as a form of punishment.

Here’s a video of Mr. Qadhi expressing his views.

Five of Mr. Qadhi’s former students have allegedly been involved in terrorist activities or organizations, including the so-called “underwear bomber,” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.

The Times article starts with Mr. Qadhi’s apparently endearing trait of addressing students as “dude” and soon mentions the American-born Qadhi’s interest in Disney World. But The Times is not as specific regarding Mr. Qadhi’s extremism and his implicit acceptance of violence.

Now, let’s get some things out of the way:

I objected to Rep. Peter King’s recent and widely-publicized hearings on “the extent of the radicalization of American Muslims.”  And all this talk about Sharia law in the U.S. is political grandstanding. The only fundamentalist laws that I’m aware of passing in the U.S. come from Christians violating the separation of church and state – not Muslims.
We shouldn’t demonize the American-Muslim community.

But, having said that, we shouldn’t allow political correctness to impede legitimate and forceful discussion of real instances of dangerous extremism either.  

The Times implies in their profile that our government might consider Qadhi to be a counter-point, and potential ally, among fundamentalist Muslims in contrast to the even more extreme American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. Rational people can make this case, but The Times piece subtly underplays the extreme nature of Mr. Qadhi’s views.

The Times piece portrays Qadhi as articulate and educated. Okay, but I’m more concerned about his substance than his style.  I wish the article had expressly catalogued, clearly and specifically, the very extreme views of the Salafi fundamentalist sect for which Mr. Qadhi is such a strong advocate. It goes on to describe the number of Qadhi students who have turned to violence as a “small fraction” –- despite that fact that if, say, a right-wing Republican professor had that many students who had turned to terrorism, it would be cause for concern, indeed great alarm, and legitimately so.

The article notes that Qadhi’s new online seminar about sex in Islamic marriage includes how, “I give explicit detail on how a man should give his wife an orgasm in a permissible manner.” (As opposed to the impermissible manner, I suppose).  This sounds very Dr. Ruth, but for all his soothing style, Mr. Qadhi advocates Sharia law. Read this link for a sense of the ways Sharia law constitutes a violation of women’s basic human rights.

Near the end of the article we read this quote:

“American Muslims, Qadhi told the audience, needed to abide by the laws of their country, understanding that had they been born in Palestine or Iraq, their ‘responsibilities would be different.’ He did not elaborate.”

Time and again, Qadhi renounces violence on the one hand, while implying foreigners and those who renounce citizenship may use violence – without coming right out and saying so.

Later in the profile we learn that Qadhi “hopes that the world will someday fully adhere to his faith.”  Qadhi views government as a place for his 7th Century views – and says so – and encourages his many students to share this view. In this context Qadhi’s qualified renunciation of violence is less comforting.

The Times does, near the end of the piece, add this: “In Europe, some policy makers argue that nonmilitant fundamentalists are the problem, not the solution, because their rigid interpretation of Islam fuels the very radicalization they profess to fight.” Ya think?

There are reasonable grounds for debate on how our government should relate to fundamentalist extremists. We at the Secular Coalition for America advocate a foreign policy that protects so-called blasphemers. We oppose laws, here and abroad, relying on scriptural edicts to impede the rights of women or sexual minorities.  Mr. Qadhi expressly seeks a Muslim theocratic state, in foreign lands and in the United States.

Because the reaction against the tactics of Congressman King are so understandly strong, and because liberals are now so wary of condoning prejudice against Muslims, I worry that many people, and potentially our government, bends over backwards to label extremists as “moderate.” Five students apparently turning to terrorism is a significant number and a basis for real concern.

Mr. Qadhi seeks to grow his fundamentalist movement in America. I suggest that liberals and conservative, without stigmatizing Muslims as a group, must face the stark reality that there is indeed a growing fundamentalist movement that specifically rejects the basic principles of our form of government as well as the basic human rights that we hold dear.  We’ve seen this from the Christian Fundamentalists for a long time. We should not hesitate to call this kind of extremism what it is: dangerous. It is no less dangerous because Mr. Qadhi speaks with an American accent, says dude, and has a platform at Yale. The media has an obligation to lay this reality on the table unflinchingly.

March 16, 2011 - 5:22 pm

Former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum, a likely candidate for president, said yesterday that he was "frankly appalled" that John F. Kennedy said, "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute." Santorum said, "That was a radical statement" and did "great damage." And here's the kicker: Senator Santorum added, "Jefferson would be spinning in his grave."


Thomas Jefferson crafted the phrase “wall of separation between church and state.”  Jefferson and Kennedy espoused the same values. Santorum undermines these patriotic values.

In the same great speech that Santorum condemns, Kennedy said, America is “where every man has the same right to attend or not attend the church of his choice.” (emphasis added). Kennedy said, “[N]o church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference.”

Mr. Santorum has the opposite view. Mr. Santorum has supported giving government money to religious schools that discriminate based on religion through the use of voucher funds. Santorum has gone even further and seeks to bring fundamentalist doctrine into public schools.  In fact he was such an enthusiast, that the Santorum amendment was named for him. This amendment proposed the teaching of intelligent design while questioning the academic standing of evolution in U.S. public schools.

As a Senator, Mr. Santorum introduced a bill that would make it easier for people in a workplace to claim, because of their religious bias, that they do not have to comply with state and local civil rights laws that protect against sexual orientation or marital status discrimination.

Santorum doesn’t hold back:


“Look, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was not about men and women serving in the military. Men and women who are gays and lesbians can serve in the military right now. That’s not the issue. The issue is a bigger issue. The issue is – and it’s not even about gay marriage. This is about a larger issue of the secularization of our society. It’s a larger issue about the left just, you know, trying to, you know, put government in control of this country, and trying to move faith, trying to move any people of faith and religion out of the public square, out of America, trying to transform what America’s all about."

Senator Santorum is free to make whatever fundamentalist statements he chooses.  I would defend his, or anyone’s right to do so, in the public square, or, as Santorum so frequently does, on the campaign trail. 

The fact that his views are constitutionallly protected does not make him right.

Senator Santorum uses this Christian-victim-in-the-public-square canard to distract us from the reality of our nation’s great leaders: Jefferson and Kennedy supported a secular government. 

Senator Santorum, time and again, has proposed laws that make it easier to discriminate based on religion, proselytize with tax dollars, and bring religious bias into our schools.  Kennedy and Jefferson were on record opposing religious bias in law. It is one of the reasons they will be remembered with admiration a thousand years from now, after Mr. Santorum is long forgotten.

March 8, 2011 - 5:51 pm

Welcome to the Secular Coalition for America's new blog, the Secular District, which we hope will become a reliable and trusted destination for news and views from across America’s growing secular movement.

With this enterprise, we plan to feature regular contributions from members of our Coalition and other allies who support secular values, the separation of church and state, and public policies based on science, reason, and compassion – not religious bias.

At a time when America’s secular government has become increasingly threatened by religious privileging and creeping theocratic rhetoric, such an enterprise seems more necessary than ever.

So please, take some time to peruse our newly designed site, sample blog posts from members of our coalition, and view our latest web videos. Whether you’re an atheist, an agnostic, a humanist, or a religious believer, I hope you’ll find these posts to be rich and engaging material for the ever-important debate about the proper role of religion in our pluralistic – and historically secular – government.