Category Archives: Politics
An Arizona State Representative caused an unusual opening to Tuesday’s afternoon session of the Arizona House of Representatives. He started out by asking his fellow state lawmakers not to bow their heads.
According to Phoenix New Times, Rep. Juan Mendez, an atheist, opened Tuesday’s session by explaining his “secular humanist tradition” and quoted Carl Sagan, author of books like Cosmos and The Demon-Haunted World and host of the screen adaptation for Cosmos.
Here is what Rep. Mendez opened up the session with:
Most prayers in this room begin with a request to bow your heads. I would like to ask that you not bow your heads. I would like to ask that you take a moment to look around the room at all of the men and women here, in this moment, sharing together this extraordinary experience of being alive and of dedicating ourselves to working toward improving the lives of the people in our state.
This is a room in which there are many challenging debates, many moments of tension, of ideological division, of frustration. But this is also a room where, as my secular humanist tradition stresses, by the very fact of being human, we have much more in common than we have differences. We share the same spectrum of potential for care, for compassion, for fear, for joy, for love.
Carl Sagan once wrote, ‘For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.’
Very inspiring, very not offensive. Of course, I’m sure there are going to be conservative Christians that are going to have a problem with an opening that did not mention a god one bit.
Sitting in the gallery of the Arizona House were members of the Secular Coalition of Arizona, who Rep. Mendez introduced. One SCA member attending the session said that she was “witnessing history.” It certainly is historical with Arizona being dominated by the Republicans, so this was probably the first ever secular opening to the Arizona House.
Another fun thing is that the only atheist currently in the United States House, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (also the first openly bisexual woman in Congress), shares many of Rep. Mendez’s very same constituents, although she likes to call herself a “nontheist” instead, but whatever.
I hope Rep. Mendez continues to open sessions for the Arizona House, and I hope that other lawmakers around the country start coming out as nonreligious and begin the precedent in their states and cities of having secular humanist openings in their state Houses and city councils.
On Tuesday, Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann said that God will repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare), thereby answering the prayers of many conservative Christians.
During an interview with the Family Talk host James Dobson, also the founder of Focus on the Family, Rep. Bachmann said, “I think the President will ultimately be forced to repudiate his own signature piece of legislation, because the American people will demand it, and I think before his second term is over, we’re going to see a miracle before our eyes. I believe God is going to answer our prayers, and we’ll be freed from the yoke of Obamacare.”
Bachmann also noted, right before making this remark, that the House or Representatives has voted 37 times to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Yes, for the 37th time, the House has voted to repeal the P.P.A.C.A., and almost every time it has gone through the House. However, Bachmann also said, “We have two more steps,” meaning that the Senate also has to vote to repeal the act, and then they either need the President’s signature, which President Obama has repeatedly said that he would never repeal his own signature legislation even if it did somehow get to his desk, or a two-thirds majority in both houses overriding a presidential veto.
Assuming this actually does happen, that the Affordable Care Act is somehow repealed (which would never happen in the current makeup of the Congress), why was God choose to spend His time repealing a piece of legislation and not helping those being struck by tornadoes across the Midwest?
Were the prayers of Michele Bachmann and other Republicans in Congress louder or more faithful? Were they in more dire of a need than those who were praying while waiting for an F5 tornado to rip through their towns, destroying their homes and killing their family?
She immediately went on to say, “We serve a mighty God, and I believe it can happen.”
A “mighty God” that cares more about you winning points with your constituents than about His children dying.
This is the kind of arrogance that many Christians have. When God does something good for them, He’s blessing them. When God does something terrible, like sending a tornado through an elementary school, He’s testing us, or we could have been more faithful or prayed harder. They think God’s will is exactly that of their own, and if it doesn’t line up perfectly, well I guess “God works in mysterious ways,” like letting children die.
You can listen to Dobson’s interview with Bachmann here.
The State Department released its International Religious Freedom Report for 2012 today. The report details violations of religious freedom around the world.
This may seem like nothing of importance or any particular interest to people who don’t like the study of politics, as it is just another government report like so many others out there. This one is different though. In it, the US State Department acknowledged the plight of nonbelievers around the world and their right to be nonbelievers.
Now, the report never mentions the words “atheist,” “secular,” or even “nonbeliever,” but it does lay out that the “freedom to believe–including the freedom not to believe–is a universal human right.” That is huge.
The 2012 IRF Report is completely different from any past one released by the State Department. The only mention of nonbelievers in the 2011 report was how China requires members of the Communist Party to be atheists. Not much positivity there.
There even existed a section in the 2012 report specifically dedicated to “Blasphemy, Apostasy, and Conversion.” In it, they talked about how some countries, most of them in Africa and the Middle East, have anti-blasphemy and apostasy laws that forbid blasphemy and apostasy and even have the death penalty for it.
Not only that, but many countries do not allow for religious groups to proselytise within their countries and will punish those who take part in it.
The cynical part of me is saying, “Big whoop. It’s just a report. It’s not like the United States is going to do anything about it.” The idealist side of me is saying, “Yes, but the US wields a lot of influence in the world still. Having this report and, hopefully, a commitment to stopping anti-atheist persecution around the world, the world can move forward.”
Also, I have to disagree with the Friendly Atheist on something he said in his post about this though (emphasis mine).
Kerry is saying that we support universal religious freedom, which includes the right to be an atheist, something many countries in the world are afraid of doing.
Maybe I’m just nitpicking, but many countries in the world are not afraid of stopping their persecution of atheists. They don’t want to stop it. They want the persecution to continue, because they are the ones perpetrating it.
Now, Hemant might mean that many world powers are afraid of doing what the United States just did. I don’t know. He never specifies.
I’m not aware of France, Great Britain, Germany, Canada (yes, even Canada), Russia, Japan, or other such countries doing this, but knowing most of these countries as being more tolerant and accepting of atheists, I wouldn’t doubt it if they did. I’m sure if they haven’t yet they will follow suit closely behind the US. One can only hope.
Nonetheless, the IRFR is just another annual report that the State Department puts out. It does not mean much, and it probably won’t get much, if any, mainstream media attention, but it is nice to know that the United States government is starting to recognise and acknowledge that atheists do exist and that they face serious discrimination around the world. Now if only the US can acknowledge that it happens in their own country and actually do something about it.
There are some people out there who love President Obama so much that they will defend him to their last, dying breath. Everything he does is perfect. He is the greatest president in American history. No one can top him.
There are some people out there who hate President Obama so much that they will attack anything and everything that he does. Everything thing he does is wrong or a failure. Everything bad that goes on in the world is his fault. He is the worst president ever.
This next case is one of those latter scenarios.
Welcome to “Umbrella-gate!”
On Thursday, President Obama was holding a press conference with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. During the conference, it started to rain, so President Obama called on two Marines standing nearby to hold some umbrellas for the two of them.
And conservatives are freaking out!
The Daily Caller, a conservative blog, had the headline, “Obama breaches Marine umbrella protocol.”
According to the Washington Post:
“Obama expects our troops to hold damn umbrellas rather than go inside: It’s disrespectful, inconsiderate, classless,” tweeted Lou Dobbs.
“Mr. President, when it rains it pours, but most Americans hold their own umbrellas,” former Alaska governor Sarah Palin added on Facebook.
The conservative Move America Forward PAC likened the umbrella-holding to what conservatives view as Obama’s weak response to September’s attack in Benghazi, Libya. A fundraising e-mail from the group read, “Rain: ‘Hold My Umbrella.’ Benghazi: ‘Stand Down.’ ”
Seriously. Who gives a flying fuck?
I’m not trying to defend President Obama. There are things he does that I like and things I don’t like (drone strikes, crackdowns on medical marijuana, etc.).
But seriously, people. If you’re not going to like the President, do it for legitimate reasons. Hating and attacking him for having a Marine hold an umbrella, which he can do as Commander-in-Chief, is not a legitimate reason.
Holy shit! Listen to this voice mail that was left to Dan Koller of D Magazine by Dallas city council candidate Richard Sheridan (shown above) about one of his opponents, who is gay.
No surprise, he’s a conservative Christian.
According to Robert Sobel of Examiner, “…18-year-old Jacob King received 77 votes, 49 more than Sheridan’s 28 votes, which landed him in fourth place in the election held this past Tuesday. The “gay” opponent, Leland Burk finished second to Jennifer Staubach Gates.”
There’s not really much else I can say about it. Just listen to it. Please, put your headphones in if you have children around or people who are easily offended.
As D Magazine put it, when you listen to this, you “may need a shower afterwards.”
With the ouster of Steven Miller, the now former commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), by President Obama due to the recently uncovered scandal where the IRS was specifically targeting and applying extra scrutiny to conservative and ultra-nationalist groups, such as the Tea Party, when they applied for a tax-exempt status, it’s important to focus on who this “new leadership” that President Obama called for in a statement delivered from the White House’s East Room.
Being the optimist and idealist that I am, I would hope that President Obama would find someone to lead the IRS that will finally go after churches that purposely break their tax-exempt status by endorsing or opposing candidates for public office. Just in case people didn’t know, that’s illegal.
Knowing Washington politics the way I do though, the new commissioner will probably be someone within the Democratic Party or average bureaucrat already within the IRS that no one knows about – I didn’t know the name Steven Miller before this whole thing happened – or has never ever paid any attention to who will continue to do nothing about this clear violation of the law, because appeasing the religious is more important to this administration and every administration before it than the law.
If churches want to play the game of politics, then they have to pay like everyone else. If the Secular Student Alliance, Center for Inquiry, American Atheists, or other secular and atheist organisations wanted to endorse a candidate, I’m sure the IRS would have no problem in taking away their tax-exempt status.
That’s the thing. Christianity is given greater status under the law, not equal status, as the laws says it should have. Christianity is given a pass or excuses are made when it breaks the law or when a Christian does something wrong, but when atheists commit the same crimes or it is said that atrocities were committed “in the name of atheism,” then that’s proof that atheism is a terrible “ideology” and atheists are terrible people.
President Obama: make sure the “new leadership” is someone who will follow the law and not allow for the inequality that has been rampant throughout the American tax code by allowing certain organisations to break the law. I don’t think I need to mention it, but churches should also be taxed.
Today in Baghdad, gunmen opened fire at liquor stores in the eastern district of the city. The attack occurred at peak business hours when people are coming home from work, killing 11 people in total and wounding five others.
Police say that the liquor stores in question had been rebuilt from a previous bombing attack that happened the year before.
According to ABC News, “Nobody claimed responsibility, although Islamic extremists have frequently targeted liquor stores in Iraq, where alcohol is available in most cities.”
On the ABC article real quick. Only about four paragraphs are dedicated to the actual attack. The rest of the article is about the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK. For no reason, they’re talking about the PKK and their ceasefire with the government of Turkey. I don’t know if ABC is trying to connect the PKK to the attacks to paint them as terrorists, but there is no apparent logical reason as to why they are talking about this for the vast majority of the article. None whatsoever.
Now onto the actual attack. Enough bashing for now of the mainstream media and their incompetence.
Faisal Al Mutar, operator of the Global Secular Humanist Movement and Iraqi refugee, called this an example of “Islamofascism” and said that this happened, because alcohol “is banned in Islam.” So the obvious thing to do is drive in a convoy with machine guns and kill innocent people who are purchasing/selling alcohol.
It does seem to be a recurring theme amongst the religious fundamentalists in Iraq, and possibly other Muslim nations, to bomb liquor stores and shoot their patrons, because they see them as sinners in the eyes of God.
When American Atheists talked about this on their Facebook, they said that atheists should “remember this moment” when people ask why we can’t just live and let live. I completely agree. We can’t “live and let live” if people are not being allowed to live, because someone’s religion tells them that they should strap a bomb to their chests or put an AK-47 in their hands and march into the nearest crowded area.
This moment and so many others should serve as reminders as to why atheists, secularists, and humanists should stand up and speak out against the atrocities that are done in the name of religion. This moment is just one of the many examples that we can point to of religion causing harm. Because of religion, eleven more people have been murdered today. Let this serve as a reminder to everyone that assailants gunned down eleven innocent people, because they thought that some deity wanted them to.
Often when arguing with theists, more so conservative Christians, atheists will appeal to the Constitution when the subject of separation of church and state comes up. They say, “The First Amendment lays out the separation of church and state when it says, ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…’”
That’s nice. Good to know that you understand elementary American government. Maybe the school systems haven’t failed us yet.
Does that really matter though? If the Supreme Court wants to rule as constitutional that prayers can be forced into public schools and students can be forced to read from the Bible, who really is to stop them?
Nothing stopped the Court from ruling that Japanese Internment Camps were constitutional in Korematsu v. United States (1944), even though they were clearly a violation of so many of our rights I can’t even begin to list them all.
This is why the Constitution needs to be left out in certain discussions. It doesn’t matter what the Constitution says, especially since “respecting an establishment of religion” is so vague and up for interpretation by whomever is reading it and whatever their agenda is.
In discussions with people, and maybe even in court cases, it needs to be laid out why separation of church and state is a good idea, whether or not it’s in the Constitution. Yes, it’s in the Constitution, which is how we get the courts on our side, but the case needs to be made why the government would have a compelling interest as to why they should keep religion out of government and government funded schools.
I don’t care what the Establishment Clause says. I care that students in government funded schools are not being forced to pray or read from the Bible. That’s a good idea.
I care that our government is not forcing religion, any religion, onto anyone through things like the National Day of Prayer or having invocations at town hall meetings. That’s a good idea.
I care that our government cannot erect monuments to Christianity or any other religion with tax-payer money. That’s a good idea.
Whether or not the Establishment Clause was in the Constitution, I would still support a complete separation of church and state, because that’s a good idea. Having a separation between church and state protects everyone, not just atheists, which is why Christians, Muslims, Jews, and everyone else no matter their religion or religious beliefs should be in favour of it too.
This is the transcript of a talk I gave recently at the Flower Mound High School Secular Student Alliance. Flower Mound High School is my old high school, but I did not graduate from there, as I transferred after my sophomore year.
The talk was about what the students can do stop invocations from happening at the graduation ceremony. You can watch my talk here.
Hello. I would like to thank everyone here for having me here today.
My name is Daniel Moran. I am the President and Founder of the Secular Student Alliance at the University of North Texas. I am also the Texas Volunteer Network Coordinator for the Secular Student Alliance.
If you listen to atheist podcasts, you might recognise me as being the former Co-host and Political Correspondent from Dogma Debate with David Smalley or the current Correspondent and Producer for The Nones with Shayrah Akers and Lilandra Nelson.
I’m also a former student of Flower Mound High School. I didn’t graduate from here, as I transferred to a charter school after my sophomore year, but my brother did, and my little sister currently attends here.
But most of all, I’m a Political Science major, with a focus in American government and politics, but Constitutional law is a hobby and passion of mine, which is why I’m here. I hope that my knowledge and experience with graduation prayer can help you guys.
For any seniors in here, I’m sure it is on your mind that you graduate in a couple of weeks. First off, I’d like to say congratulations to you. Now, it is very common for high schools to have invocations, which is just a fancy word for prayer, at the graduation ceremony. Nine times out of ten, this invocation will be a Christian form of prayer.
As we all know, school-sponsored or government-sponsored prayer or any government endorsement of religion is unconstitutional, as it violates the separation between church and state that our nation was founded on. But how do we make sure our schools are not violating the Constitution and essentially discriminating against non-Christian or non-theistic students? How do we make sure the schools follow the law and keep prayer out of the graduation ceremony?
I want it clear though, before we delve into the unconstitutionality of school-led prayers that we are not here to take away anyone’s right to pray. People have the constitutional right to pray, even in public schools. The Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld that right, even for non-Christians. If Muslims want to pray towards Mecca or a Buddhist wants to meditate, they can do that, as long as they aren’t causing a disturbance of any kind. People do not have the right to force religion onto anyone else, and the government, including public schools, especially does not have the authority to do this.
First, we need to establish that the law is indeed on our side. We all know it is, but some do not or do not know exactly how, and some will purposely ignore the law to advance their agendas and force religion into public schools. We need to have a solid, constitutional foundation and judicial precedent as to why these sorts of things are not okay. So what does the law actually say?
Let’s start with the obvious one: The United States Constitution.
In the Bill of Rights, the First Amendment starts off with, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” Not only that, but if people try to say that the First Amendment doesn’t apply to the states and only to Congress, point to the Fourteenth Amendment, which says in Section 1, “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
But we’re Texas. We don’t need to care about the US Constitution! We’re going to secede from the Union any day now! Well, the Texas Constitution says this in Article One, Section Six of its Bill of Rights, “No human authority ought, in any case whatever, to control or interfere with the rights of conscience in matters of religion, and no preference shall ever be given by law to any religious society or mode of worship.” Section Seven says, “No money shall be appropriated, or drawn from the Treasury for the benefit of any sect, or religious society, theological or religious seminary; nor shall property belonging to the State be appropriated for any such purposes.” Funny enough though, Texas is thinking about having a constitutional amendment to change that. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen. But not only do we have the US and Texas Constitutions on our side, but we have the Supreme Court of the United States on our side.
In ruling after ruling, the Supreme Court has affirmed and even strengthened, in some instances, the wall that keeps church and state separate.
There are many cases that are relevant and important to know about. The first one I want to talk about is Engel v. Vitale, which was a 1962 case where the Supreme Court ruled that public schools cannot have school-sponsored or school-led prayer. The plaintiffs in this case, most of whom were Jewish or backed by local Jewish organisations, brought suit against the schools that their children attended, because they didn’t like that the school had created and was endorsing this prayer, “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our country. Amen.”
The Supreme Court ruled, in a 6-1 decision, as one Associate Justice had a stroke and another recused himself from the case, that government-led prayers in public schools were unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds. They also outright rejected the argument that the prayer was voluntary and the argument that the students were not told to respect or believe in any specific religion or set of religious beliefs. The Court held that the mere promotion of a religion, any religion or religious belief, is sufficient enough of a violation, even if that promotion is not a coercive one.
The Court also held that the vagueness of the prayer, that it did not establish which particular religion it was endorsing, was not a good enough defense. It still promotes a specific family of religion, the ones that refer to their deity as “Almighty God,” the Judeo-Christian Islamic religions or Abrahamic faiths, and excludes those of polytheistic, pantheistic, other monotheistic religions, and atheistic people, thereby still violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Being vague is not a defense. Being “voluntary” is not a defense. So if we have a school official say, “Well, it doesn’t refer to a specific religion, and we kept it vague to include as many as possible,” point to Engel v. Vitale and the opinion written by Justice Hugo Black.
Let it be made clear. The Court did not rule that students or teachers did not have the right to pray in school. All that was held was that teachers and administrators could not create a prayer or make students pray.
Then we have Abington School District v. Schempp. Edward Schempp, a Unitarian Universalist, was a resident of Abington, Pennsylvania, and his son Ellory Schempp, who attended school in the Abington School District, was required under Pennsylvania law to partake in Bible readings as part of his education in the public schools. The law, Pennsylvania Statute 15-1516, reads, “At least ten verses from the Holy Bible [be] read, without comment, at the opening of each public school on each school day.” Schempp made the case that the requirement was a violation of his son’s First and Fourteenth Amendment Rights.
Schempp was eventually consolidated with the case, Murray v. Curlett, on appeal to the Supreme Court. William J. Murray III was the son of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who founded the organisation American Atheists the same year.
In the majority opinion written by Associate Justice Thomas Clark, he pretty much said that no level of government, whether state or federal, shall prefer or disparage any religion or religious belief. Justice Clark cited a previous SCOTUS ruling from two years prior, where Justice Hugo Black said, “Neither [a State nor the Federal government] can constitutionally pass laws or impose requirements which aid all religions as against non-believers, and neither can aid those religions based on a belief in the existence of God as against those religions founded on different beliefs.”
Clark concluded his opinion with, “The place of religion in our society is an exalted one, achieved through a long tradition of reliance on the home, the church, and the inviolable citadel of the individual heart and mind. We have come to recognize through bitter experience that it is not within the power of government to invade that citadel, whether its purpose or effect be to aid or oppose, to advance or retard. In the relationship between man and religion, the State is firmly committed to a position of neutrality.”
Yes, there probably won’t be a Bible reading, but the ruling is still important to cite for various reasons, and we’re Texas, who knows what they’ll do next.
Then we have what are known as “moments of silence.” These are sometimes what are offered by secularists as alternatives to outright prayers and invocations in public schools. I mean, it’s not a prayer, so what problem could we have with it? Well, nonetheless, the Supreme Court has a problem with it.
In the case Wallace v. Jaffree, Ishmael Jaffree, an American citizen and a Muslim, filed suit against the Mobile, Alabama School District, on First Amendment grounds, for its law that allowed for public school teachers to set aside a minute or so for “meditation or voluntary prayer.” Jaffree complained to the school several times that the school was holding teacher-led prayers and that his children were being harassed for not taking part in them. The District Court ruled against Jaffree, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision, and was then sent off to the Supreme Court, who ruled in a 6-3 decision, with Justice John Paul Stevens writing the opinion for the majority, that the practice of a moment of silence was also unconstitutional.
Justice Stevens said in his opinion, “The record here not only establishes that [the law's] purpose was to endorse religion, it also reveals that the enactment of the statute was not motivated by any clearly secular purpose…The State’s endorsement, by enactment of [the law] of prayer activities at the beginning of each school day is not consistent with the established principle that the government must pursue a course of complete neutrality toward religion.” So if a school says, “Well, we’re going to have a moment of silence,” we can point to Wallace v. Jaffree and Stevens’ opinion in that case.
However, if we could get a school to not have an invocation, a moment of silence is a decent compromise. Take it if it is offered. I personally see it as simply a waste of time, but whatever.
Then we move to Lee v. Weisman. This case, along with the next one, are the most relevant and important. If you take anything from what I have said, I pray it is these two cases and their significance. I care you know about these two cases.
The Lee v. Weisman case struck down the ability of public schools to invite local clergy to deliver invocations at public school graduation ceremonies, including non-sectarian prayers.
Deborah Weisman, who was Jewish, did not want a prayer at her high school graduation. The principle, Robert E. Lee, and yes that is his name, decided to invite a rabbi to do it in hopes of not having to hear from them. This didn’t work, so Weisman and her parents requested a temporary injunction against the invocation but were denied by the Rhode Island District Court.
When this eventually got to the Supreme Court, they ruled 5-4 in favour of the Weismans, with many people thinking that Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, who is still the swing vote of the Court to this day, would vote with the conservatives on the bench and allow for school prayers and overrule precedent, such as Engel v. Vitale and Abington School District v. Schempp.
Surely enough, he sided with the liberals and moderates and wrote the majority opinion in the case. As part of the opinion, Justice Kennedy wrote, “The undeniable fact is that the school district’s supervision and control of a high school graduation ceremony places public pressure, as well as peer pressure, on attending students to stand as a group or, at least, maintain respectful silence during the invocation and benediction. This pressure, though subtle and indirect, can be as real as any overt compulsion.”
He also wrote, “True, [the student] could elect not to attend commencement without renouncing her diploma; but we shall not allow the case to turn on this point. Everyone knows that in our society and in our culture high school graduation is one of life’s most significant occasions. A school rule which excuses attendance is beside the point. Attendance may not be required by official decree, yet it is apparent that a student is not free to absent herself from the graduation exercise in any real sense of the term ‘voluntary’…” Sure, no one is forced to go to a graduation ceremony, even their own, but societal pressure put on a student “can be as real as any overt compulsion.”
Last, but certainly not least, is Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe. In a rural Texas town between Houston and Galveston, Santa Fe ISD allowed for prayers to be broadcast over the school’s PA systems before football games by a student of the school. Two sets of parents and their students, one Catholic, one Mormon, filed suit, claiming that the prayers were a violation of the Establishment Clause. Yes, the majority of these cases are brought forth by religious people. It’s only in a few cases that these suits were brought forth by atheists or agnostics.
The case simply refers to these families as “Doe” to protect their identities. This is why we have Roe v. Wade. The woman in the case used the pseudonym “Roe” to protect her identity. After the district court ruled that the prayers were allowed but that they had to be “non-sectarian and non-proselytising,” both parties in the case appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, one of the most conservative circuits, who agreed, in a 2-1 decision, with the lower court’s ruling of non-sectarian and non-proselytising prayers but also ruled that these kinds of prayers were only allowed at graduation ceremonies and not at events like football games.
On appeal to the Supreme Court, the Court ruled in favour of the Does, and Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in the majority opinion, “School sponsorship of a religious message is impermissible because it sends the message to members of the audience who are non-adherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community. For many the choice between whether to attend these games or to risk facing a personally offensive religious ritual is in no practical sense an easy one. The Constitution, moreover, demands that the school may not force this difficult choice upon these students for it is a tenet of the first amendment that the state cannot require one of its citizens to forfeit his or her rights and benefits as the price of resisting conformance to state-sponsored religious practice.”
Yes, the Supreme Court never said that student-led prayers at graduation ceremonies were unconstitutional, and the Fifth Circuit, to which Texas resides in, even said that these sorts of prayers are constitutional at graduation ceremonies. However, the case can be made to school administrators by combining the Lee v. Weisman and Santa Fe ISD v. Doe cases, that student-led prayers at graduation ceremonies do in fact violate the Constitution’s Establishment Clause.
The reason I emphasise student-led prayers at graduation ceremonies, is because that is usually how schools will get around the Lee and Santa Fe decisions. They think to themselves, “Oh, if we have a student do it instead of a priest of a teacher or administrator, then if someone complains, we can just say, ‘It falls under that student’s First Amendment rights to freedom of speech,’ so we’re covered!”
That is also not the case. To go back real quick to the Santa Fe ruling. Justice Stevens also wrote that a “student will unquestionably perceive the inevitable [prayer] as stamped with her school’s seal of approval.” They found that because of the amount of involvement that the school had in the prayers, that these sorts of prayers and religious activities will be seen as stamped with the school’s official approval and therefore an endorsement of religion.
The high school that I graduated from, iSchool High STEM Academy over in Lewisville, did just that. They invited a student, someone who was not of the graduating class, to lead an invocation that was on the schedule of events. The principle even straight up said to me when I confronted her about this a few days later, that the invocation was okay, because a student did it. No. That’s not okay.
What would be okay, by current jurisprudence in the Fifth Circuit, is if a valedictorian or salutatorian, which are usually the only two students to give a speech at graduation, wanted to have as part of their speech an invocation of some kind. I don’t agree with that, but that’s the current judicial precedent that Texas has to go off of.
If you pay attention to local news, which I honestly don’t, then you might know what I’m talking about, which is a case that just two years ago went to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
In the 2011 case Schultz v. Hildebrand, the Schultz family sued the Medina Valley Independent School District, which is just outside of San Antonio, to not have an invocation at their son’s graduation ceremony. The invocation though was going to be held by the valedictorian, the Hildebrand in the case, during her speech.
A federal judge ruled in favour of the Schultz family. However, the judge in his opinion said that the valedictorian and the school could be held in contempt of court if they did the prayer anyway, which usually involves jail. So the media takes this as, according to a Fox News headline, “Federal Judge Prohibits Prayer at Texas Graduation Ceremony.” And the Liberty Institute said about the case, “federal judge threatened…model high school student and valedictorian, with jail if she prayed during her graduation speech.”
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said about this case, These are “attempts by atheists and agnostics to use courts to eliminate from the public landscape any and all references to God whatsoever. This is the challenge we are dealing with here. [It’s] an ongoing attempt to purge God from the public setting while at the same time demanding from the courts an increased yielding to all things atheist and agnostic.”
On almost immediate appeal to the Fifth Circuit, with help from the Liberty Institute, Attorney General Greg Abbott, and Governor Rick Perry, the Fifth Circuit reversed the lower court’s decision and allowed the valedictorian to have the invocation. I don’t agree with the decision obviously, and we could argue about whether or not this is really constitutional, but that’s what we have to go off of.
When I was at my own graduation, there was an invocation that was led by one of own classmates, which actually was a surprise to me.
At my high school, a brand-new charter school of only a little more than 200 people, I was known as the atheist on campus. I had even attempted to start a Secular Student Alliance, before I even knew the national organisation the Secular Student Alliance existed, but was eventually denied recognition by the school, which is a whole story all on its own.
Because of this reputation I had, the principle, who was the former principle of a private Christian academy that closed down recently (which is where most of the students in this school came from), invited me personally into her office to tell me that the school did not have a lot of funding, so graduation had to be held in a church, because it was cheaper. She asked me if I was okay with that.
I said, “Yes,” and I immediately followed it with, “As long as there isn’t a prayer.” She shook her head as if she understood me as she shoved me out of her office.
Come graduation day, I see on the schedule “Invocation.” I had thought that I had been promised by the principle herself that there would be no prayer.
They had lied to me.
They had lied to me, and, more importantly, they had violated the Constitution.
Then there is the case of Damon Fowler. Some of you probably know about this case. For those who don’t, here’s the story in as much of a nutshell as I can put it.
In the graduating class of 2011, which is my class and the class of Angela Hildebrand, the Hildebrand in the case that we were talking about earlier, Damon Fowler, as senior at Bastrop High School in Louisiana, sent an email to the superintendent of his school district, explaining how the school’s tradition of having an invocation at the school’s graduation ceremony was unconstitutional. That email was somehow leaked to the school and the community.
As a result of this, Damon was, according to an Alternet article by Greta Christina:
1) Fowler has been hounded, pilloried, and ostracized by his community.
2) One of Fowler’s teachers has publicly demeaned him.
3) Fowler has been physically threatened. Students have threatened to “jump him” at graduation practice, and he has received multiple threats of bodily harm, and even death threats.
4) Fowler’s parents have cut off his financial support, kicked him out of the house, and thrown his belongings onto the front porch.
All because he stood up for what was right.
And after all this, the school went ahead and did the prayer anyway.
Don’t let this discourage you though.
I know the idea of this happening to you can be frightening. It was for me. At the same time all of this was going down, I was in high school waiting for my own graduation day, unaware that my school would have an invocation. After it happened, I started researching and I found out about Damon and his story. It was Damon though that gave me the courage to stand up and at least try to stand up to my school and what they had done. It was his story and his courage that gave me the courage to do it, even if I failed miserably myself.
So we know the law. We know the judicial precedent and the rulings. How do we go about actually keeping prayers out of our schools to make sure cases like what happened to me, Damon Fowler, and so many others do not happen again?
First off. Contact organisations like the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and the American Civil Liberties Union. I didn’t. I went in there to confront my principle without consulting with anyone who actually knew what they were talking about.
The organisation that you contact will send a letter, or some other form of contact, to the school to request that their invocation be removed from the graduation. If the organisation is contacted after-the-fact, then they will request that it is left out of next year’s, and these organisations do follow ups to make sure.
That’s something important to bring up. If you can’t do it this year, if you can’t get them to stop the invocation in the few weeks we have until graduation, still contact these organisations. That was the one thing I did right. After it happened at my school, I went to the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s website and filled out their form where you report a violation, and I told them all that I could. I was as descriptive as possible. Despite the amount of descriptiveness, the FFRF screwed up the school’s name when they talked about the incident in their newspaper. They called my school School High.
Nine times out of ten, the school will ignore the letter that is sent to them by the FFRF or the ACLU. Don’t let that discourage you. There was a case in Houston of a school district being contacted by the FFRF and actually listening to them and choosing to not have invocations in their graduation ceremonies, and this is recent news. This is like a few weeks old.
The next step, assuming they ignore the letter and don’t do anything about the invocation, is to personally email the superintendent of the school district, in this case Lewisville Independent School District, and the principle of your school. I’ve written up a rough kind of email that you can send. If you want, I can email it to you so that you can send it to them yourself.
They will probably ignore this too. Also fine.
Set up a meeting with the Principle, and you have to be persistent if they try to say no. Keep emailing them. Keep going into the office and ask the receptionist to see them if emails won’t work. Leave messages on their office voicemail. Make it known who you are and that you are not going away. You guys have the special advantage of being a group, so you can work together, and it looks more official and persuasive. If it’s just one person constantly complaining, then they will probably ignore them, but several people continuously contacting the principle, vice principles, and other administrators is how it should be done.
So what do we do when we have a meeting with them? Well, we don’t want to go into a principle’s office shouting, “You’re breaking the law! You’re all going to jail!” We need to take a respectful approach in these kinds of situations. Really, you should have that in most situations when dealing with school administrators, but especially this case. If we go in there screaming, they’re never going to listen to us. If we accuse them of breaking the law, they’re never going to listen to us, even if they technically are.
Where I failed is that I assumed someone with that position actually understood the law. Don’t assume that just because they are a teacher or principle or superintendent, that they are an authority, that they know the law, that they know the Constitution better than you do, because what they’re doing is unconstitutional. That’s what I did. I thought that an adult, someone who held a position of power, knew what they were talking about when they said that the invocation was alright, because a student did it. I knew nothing of Constitutional law.
I know now, and I know now that what they did was not constitutional.
Now, I can’t give you a flow-chart or play-by-play for what to do or say in these meetings, because they will all be different, but the main thing you need to do is you need to maintain respect, even if it is not shown to you, and stay on message. Don’t get into a theological, historical, or political debate. Just get the point across that what they are doing is unconstitutional and that you and your organisation are not going away and not going to let this down.
If it comes down to it. Meaning, if they repeatedly ignore you and your requests to stop the invocation, contact these aforementioned organisations again with all of the new details. Contact local media. There are tools the Secular Student Alliance offers about how to contact the media, how to write press releases, and much more.
If you can bring attention to the school, shine a spotlight on them and what they’re doing, they will either 1) Become entrenched and we have a court battle on our hands or 2) they will back down and the invocations at Flower Mound High School will be a thing of the past.
If you can, get someone to record the graduation with a camcorder or even their phone. Everyone is a filmmaker these days if they have an smart phone. Some schools I know have a DVD that they sell of the whole ceremony. Get one of those DVDs, as well. It is proof, handed out by the school itself, that they did in fact do this, and it’s probably in Hi-Def, so if you ever do send something to the media, they have a nice HD clip of the invocation.
Many people might think that an invocation at a high school graduation is not a big deal. It is though. It is saying to people that we don’t care about the Constitution. It is saying we don’t care about the more than 20% of this country that aren’t Christian. It is saying that Christianity is the religion of this country. And yes, we are a majority Christian nation, but our country was founded on secular values that were there to promote equality through neutrality. And that is all we want. Equality. We want equal protection under the law. We don’t want to ban God or ban prayers. We don’t want to have an “increased yielding to all things atheist and agnostic.” We just want what is right. By allowing for Christian prayers to be held at high school graduation ceremonies, public schools are discriminating against non-Christians.
The best thing you can do is know the law. Know the Constitution. Know the rulings and significance of Lee v. Weisman and Santa Fe ISD v. Doe. If you know the law, that is your greatest tool. They may have the numbers. They may have the money. They may have the media. They may have the politicians. They don’t have the Constitution. They don’t have that, and as long as they keep saying that having religion endorsed in public schools is okay, they will never have that.
Below is the email that I spoke about that can be sent to the superintendent, the principle, and other school administrators. Use this email and make any corrections however you see fit, and send this format to any schools you know of that are violating the Constitution, whether it be your high school, your sibling’s, or your own child’s.
Dear Superintendent [Insert Name Here] and Principle [Insert Name Here],
As a student of [Insert School Name Here], I am deeply concerned about the actions its student body, its faculty, and its staff take that represent our school and the perception of our school in the academic world and other spheres. I am told that at the graduation ceremony of our school, an invocation or prayer will be held as an official part of the schedule. I write to inform you that this sort of action is unconstitutional, and I kindly ask that this be removed from the schedule of events.
In the Bill of Rights, the First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” Of course, it does say, “Congress shall make no law…,” but the Fourteenth Amendment says in Section 1, “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” This means that all states must abide by the United States Constitution, including the First Amendment and the Establishment Clause contained within it.
As well, the Constitution for the state of Texas reads in Article One, Section Six of its Bill of Rights, “…no preference shall ever be given by law to any religious society or mode of worship.” Section Seven says, “No money shall be appropriated, or drawn from the Treasury for the benefit of any sect, or religious society, theological or religious seminary; nor shall property belonging to the State be appropriated for any such purposes.” Simply put, having an invocation or prayer, even non-sectarian in nature, would violate the United States Constitution, as well as our own state Constitution.
I absolutely support the right to freedom of religion. A person has the right to believe, or not believe, in whatever they wish. A person even has the right to express their religious views in a school setting. However, a school does not have the authority to force its students to listen to or take part in religious activities, even if this activity is done by a student.
In the Supreme Court case Lee v. Weisman, the Court ruled in 1992 that prayers led by clergy at public high school graduation ceremonies were unconstitutional and a violation of the Establishment Clause. More importantly, in the 2000 case Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, the Supreme Court ruled, with Associate Justice John Paul Stevens writing for the majority, that student-led prayers were also unconstitutional, because a student “will unquestionably perceive the inevitable [prayer] as stamped with her school’s seal of approval.” If [Insert School Name Here] were to have an invocation as part of the graduation ceremony, it would be a violation similar to that of the Santa Fe ISD and Lee cases.
If the invocation is not removed, I ask for a simple compromise. I ask that the school instead have a moment of silence in place of an invocation for students to silently pray to themselves, to reflect on the past four years they have had at [Insert School Name Here] and their futures to come, or to simply sit silently for a moment. No religion or religious views will be invoked by students, faculty, or clergy, therefore no violations will have occurred, but all will still have the chance to pray at an important event in their lives, if they so choose.
I hope that the invocation is removed or, at least, replaced with a moment of silence. I do not wish to cause any disturbance or bring any negative attention to [Insert School Name Here], as I love this school just as much as any other student would. I simply ask for our school to follow the law and adhere to the ideals that our nation was founded on.
If you would like to meet to discuss this further, please feel free to contact me at any time.
[Insert Your Name Here]