Nel's New Day

December 21, 2014

Hope for Freedom from Religion

Congress gave the country several lumps of coal in the holiday stockings—loss of pensions, threatened taxpayer bailouts of banks, more government peering into everyone’s private life, 10 times more campaign donations, environmental cuts, etc. Those who want a separation of church and state in the United States have received  a few goodies at the end of 2014.

In the House, Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO) “introduced a resolution to protect the symbols and traditions of Christmas for those who celebrate the holiday. The resolution also disapproves of efforts to ban references to Christmas. We must not allow those who chose to take offense to shut down the religious celebration of every other American.” Americans United for Separation of Church and State gave an excellent rebuttal to Lamborn’s resolution. Lamborn didn’t say how much money he wanted from the federal government to enter the “War on Christmas.” This is the third year that Lamborn has done this and the third year that the resolution went nowhere.

A Kansas organization, Citizens for Objective Public Education (COPE), claims that evolutionary biology should be prohibited in public-school science classes because evolution is part of a “non-theistic” religious agenda. Fortunately, U.S. District Daniel Crabtree threw their illogic out of court. COPE disapproves of the new science standards, teaching both evolution and climate change as key scientific concepts, because such education leads “impressionable” students “into the religious sphere by leading them to ask ultimate questions like what is the cause and nature of life in the universe – ‘where do we come from?’”

After decades of blaming sexual assault victims for their abuse, officials at Bob Jones University (Greenville, SC) is now considered wrong for its “blaming and disparaging” attitude, in reports from 56 percent of 381 current and former students and employees who said they knew how the school dealt with these cases. Victims who reported incidents or sought treatment have been penalized in the past and told not to report the assaults to the police, an illegal action by the university. University officials told those who were children when people in their church assaulted them that speaking out would hurt the Christian cause.

Two years ago Bob Jones hired Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE) to complete the investigation but fired them after the school disagreed with the investigation’s direction. Criticism led the school to rehire GRACE. The new president, Steve Pettit, acknowledged that “we failed to uphold and honor our own core values.” He is the first person outside the Jones family to head the university since it was founded in 1927.

In addition, the investigators recommended taking action against the university’s chancellor from 1971 to 2005, Bob Jones III and removing James Berg from his position as head of the counseling programs. GRACE also recommended overhauling the university’s policies on sexual assault, outsourcing victim counseling, offering assistance to past victims, reviewing old complaints to find those that should have been reported to law enforcement, and halting the use of counseling booklets and videos developed by some university officials.

The Kennesaw (GA) City Council has decided to approve a mosque after trying to stop it from opening in a shopping center storefront. The reversal came after a 150-minute with the city attorney and mayor. No reasons were given for the shift in votes, but they may have anticipated an expensive lawsuit. Protesters to the mosque said they were afraid of Muslims’ using the mosque as a center for violent acts of terrorism against Kennesaw residents.

Thanks to a conservative Supreme Court, states may be required to allow a wild variety of displays—including ones from the Pastafarians (who wear colanders on their heads) and the Satanic Temple—beside Christmas nativity scenes endorsing Christianity. Last year, Florida refused a Satanic Temple request to show an angel falling into a pit of fire at the capitol next to Christian displays, but this year the organization is back with its lawyers.

Thirty years ago five conservatives on the Supreme Court held that cities can finance religious displays when Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote that Christ in a manger served “legitimate secular purposes.” He disagreed with dissenting justices who claimed that he had equated holy figures with “Santa’s house or reindeer.” Five years later, six justices ruled that a menorah doesn’t endorse religion, that it is just a celebration of “the winter-holiday season, which has attained a secular status in our society.”

The message has been that religious displays are legal if the government doesn’t favor one religion over another. The position was made even clearer in Rosenberger v. University of Virginia, which ruled that the school must fund all student publications because it funded a Christian one. Government institutions aren’t allowed to stop some groups or individuals from expression if they open a forum for a specific category. In short, officials who don’t want Satanic Temple displays shouldn’t allow any religious displays.

The Supreme Court went even farther in last year’s Hobby Lobby case when it ruled that beliefs, such as IUDs causing abortions, don’t have to be factual—or even sincere. Plaintiffs just need to claim that this is their belief. That ruling leaves the state of Florida with no legal argument to stop the Satanic Temple’s display or the Pastafarians or any other group that professes a religious belief. Even secular humanism is a religion because secular humanists say it is. Ho! ho! ho!

Last year Adam Fraley was pressured to leave his position as choir director at the First United Methodist Church in Alexandria because he is gay. A new pastor was hired with the provision that he would reinstate Fraley, but he reneged after he took over as minister. David Steele, a former lay leader who had attended the church for 60 years, asked Mantor to reconsider his position on Fraley, and Mantor relieved Steele of his position. The Methodist church does not allow LGBT people to be ordained as ministers, but church leadership is authorized to make decisions about their participation in other roles. The Alexandria church, founded in the late 1800s with its current location built in 1901, will close on December 31. Mantor said that the membership had been declining, but 80 percent of the congregation, most of them over the age of 60, left in support of Fraley.

After Pope Benedict attacked the U.S. nuns six years ago because they only took care of the poor and needy, the 50,000 nuns in 341 religious orders may have come out on top. The former pope wanted them to attack abortionists and LGBT people, but the nuns continued with its focus to actually help people, particularly the poor. Benedict assigned a Seattle bishop to control them while the nuns continued their good works.

A new report from Pope Francis praises the women for their social and educational work while asking them to keep to the Church teachings. There was no specific criticism, however, and the report largely skipped over the investigation’s controversy. Another positive part of the report was its statement that women have more input into decisions that affect them.

Two years ago, Michigan GOP legislators set out to destroy the state in its lame duck session, causing a great deal of anguish to many people. This year, the state House passed a law allowing anyone with “sincerely held religious beliefs” to discriminate against LGBT people in any way that they wanted. Fifteen senators, including one Democrat, asked the Senate Majority Leader to take up the bill that passed the House, but passing it requires 20 votes. The bill is now dead–at least for this year.

Elizabeth Sheppard won a scholarship after she stood up for her beliefs. When her high school economics teacher compared atheism to smoking cigarettes, she recorded him. He claimed that atheism was against human nature and that “the mind rejects the concept of atheism” just like the body rejects smoking. The following week he taught a lesson advocating prayer for a positive state of mind. Her essay for the scholarship application stated, “His actions were unconstitutional and were not related to economics at all. This was economics class, not Sunday school.”

Her message, like the other stories, is that people should not be able to force their personal religion on everyone else. Thanks for all the people who support this position.

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