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Wendy Davis and Secular Politics

Last night, I was at the event where State Senator Wendy Davis (D-10) announced her candidacy for the Governorship of Texas.

Here’s a picture of her of me at the after-party later that night!

Sen. Wendy Davis and Me!My hair looks like shit…

I stood outside in the heat and annoying wind for at least an hour before they let us inside. Once there, I stood for two hours waiting for Wendy Davis to even appear.

An hour before she spoke, the official sign of her campaign was revealed. Here’s the photo I took the second the veil was lifted from it:

Wendy Davis Campaign Sign

Needless to say, I was very excited about this. I was very excited to see Sen. Davis and to hear her speak, een though my legs were about to give out by the time she took the stage.

While I was there, I was very optimistic about the future of Texas. The feelings I had while I was waiting for her to come out were elated and pumped. I have never been to a political rally like this before (I guess, the Reason Rally kind of counts), so these are kind of new feelings for me to experience.

It was also great meeting somewhat like-minded people and being able to converse with them, which was mostly bitching about Republicans and the government shutdown that they caused.

Although I realize that Texas is still very red, I know that if real progressives work at it, Texas can at least become a valuable swing state within this decade.

About half an hour before Sen. Davis came out at five o’clock, we were led in the Pledge of Allegiance. That, I can understand. Sure, I don’t understand the nationalistic aspect of it or the part about “Under God,” but I do understand somewhat why this happens at nearly every public event in America.

Next came out (who I assume was also a State Senator because I honestly can’t remember who they were) someone who delivered an invocation. This is where Shayrah and myself started having a problem with the event. While nearly everyone had their heads bowed, some with their hands in the air like at a megachurch, Shayrah and I kept our eyes on the speaker with a look merely of disapproval.

It didn’t really seem like an invocation though. It felt like preaching. He was very loud and passionate about the things he was saying, throwing in God every few words or saying that something was a gift from God. He said that Wendy Davis was a gift from God. He said that God was a rock and Davis was our anchor to that rock. Religious metaphors that I understood but didn’t see the need for.

Usually at political rallies, they have someone who introduces the candidate with a sort of pre-speech. This “invocation” seemed more like that than invoking the power or blessing of a deity.

If this man had been commissioned by the organizers of this rally to not give an invocation but to simply give an introductory speech for Sen. Davis, would anyone have noticed?

If they had left out the invocation completely, would anyone have noticed?

If the speaker had left out all mentions of God, would anyone have noticed?

Would anyone have noticed or really even cared?

Do political rallies somehow require God to be constantly mentioned? Can’t there be political rallies or public events that simply don’t mention deities or how much we supposedly need them to make our country better? Can’t we make a better world without God?

Why do politicians feel the need to mention God so much? I understand that many of these politicians are Christians, but what good does it do to constantly thank or mention God? You can’t thank the American people or the things that they actually did?

Astrophysicist and popularizer of science Neil DeGrasse Tyson once said that for every football team that thanks God for a win, there is an equal number of teams that can blame God for a loss. Well, if both Democrats and Republicans say they have God on their side or invoke God in some way in hopes of winning an election, the same argument can be made, so what point is there in invoking God?

American politics has created a culture where God has to be mentioned, or else. It has created a culture where there must be a prayer before a rally, or else. If you don’t, then you get called out by the religious right for hating America or for being a godless heathen (which for many Americans is worse, Democrat and Republican alike).

If politicians simply did not mention God all the time or have invocations all the time before events, then they would be seen with less and less importance by the American people, regardless of political party or ideology. Politicians would no longer feel the need to be the most Christian-ey Christian of all the Christians in Christian Land.

This would not only create a secular culture in politics (I’m talking about politics, not government), where one does not need to appease the religious majority anymore, but it would also allow for nonreligious candidates to no longer feel like they need to hide or that they don’t belong in American politics.

Religion and religious affiliation should be irrelevant though. It should not be something that is even worth noting.

I didn’t care that Mitt Romney was a Mormon or that Paul Ryan was a Catholic. I cared that they believed that gays should not have the right to marry and women should not have the right to control their own bodies, among many other things. Whether they justified that through their religion or through secular means was irrelevant to me.

I’m not saying for Christian politicians to hide their Christianity (far from it), but in order to make all people, of all religious beliefs, feel more welcome, that requires a secular culture in politics and in the broader society as a whole.

Simply don’t have invocations before rallies. What purpose do they serve? We’re attending a rally, not a church service.

Again, I have to ask. Would anyone have noticed if they just did not have an invocation before Sen. Wendy Davis spoke and announced her candidacy? Probably not.

How to Fight Unconstitutional Prayer in Your High School

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.

graduation-PRAYERS

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.

But anyway.

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.

Thank you.

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.

Thank you,
[Insert Your Name Here]

The Christian Guide to Atheists: Atheists Want to Remove God from Society

When I was at my high school graduation, there was an invocation that was led by one of my classmates who was not of the graduating class, 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. Not because I was preaching atheism or bashing the religious in school. I just was not ashamed of my beliefs and was willing to share them, in a respectful manner, with people when they asked.

Because of this reputation, the principle, who was the former principle of a private Christian academy that closed down about a year beforehand (where most of the students from my high school went before), invited me personally into her office to tell me, “The school doesn’t have a lot of funding, so we have to hold graduation in a church. Are you 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.” When it happened, needless to say, I was kind of pissed. 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 United States Constitution.

I’m actually going to be giving a talk soon to a local affiliate of the Secular Student Alliance, at one of my former high schools (not the one that I graduated from, but I know they perform invocations at there graduations too), about why it is unconstitutional to do such a thing.

http://alise-write.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/guide-to-atheists.jpg

It is a common sentiment amongst those who do not understand secularism to paint it as “anti-God” or “anti-Christianity.” Often, attempts made by secularists, note that I am not saying atheists, to maintain the separation of church and state that the United States was founded upon are perceived as “attacks on God” or “persecution of Christians.”

This kind of sentiment was almost epitomised in the words of Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott when he said (emphasis mine), in relation to a court case concerning a high school graduation invocation, “[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.”

These are complete misrepresentations of these efforts and outright lies about them in order to make them seem like atheists are wanting belief in a god shoved out of public life and to persecute those who believe, which we do not.

It is often coupled with references to communist countries like the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), China, North Korea, Cuba, etc. Now yes, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, and others were atheists and did indeed persecute the religious. It must be made clear though, this was not because they were atheists. It was because they were communists. Christianity was simply a competing ideology. It could have been anything and the communists would have done whatever they could have done to stomp it out.

Admission: In 1976, and many people do not know about this (I didn’t until very recently, and I am a huge history buff), the country of Albania was taken over by a communist regime. In there constitution, it says in Article 37 states (emphasis mine), “The state recognizes no religion, and supports atheistic propaganda in order to implant a scientific materialistic world outlook in people.”

This regime was indeed persecuting the religious. They made people with biblical names change their names. They banned churches and mosques. They arrested priests and imams. They executed one priest for baptising people.

I can’t really argue with the fact that this particular communist regime was indeed forcing religion out of their country. I can argue against the regime though. They were clear violations of human rights, and what they did was abhorrent and despicable.

The goals of Western secularists are not that of the Albanian regime.

However, people think that it is, and they will constantly employ a slippery slope fallacy. If a Christian wants to say that our goals are that of Albania, then we can say that the fundamentalist Christian goal is that of Uganda (Christian), Saudi Arabia (Muslim), and other states that put people to death for homosexuality, adultery, fornication, supposed witchcraft (including children), atheism, and a whole lot of other things. Religion is so coupled with government that they are essentially the same institution in certain countries, if not outright theocracies, like Iran.

American Atheists, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and other organisations are almost seen as agents of Satan for wanting to keep prayer out of public schools or removing religious icons from government property.

Like this one.

That’s me at the Texas State Capital just a few weeks ago for the American Atheist Convention.

https://sphotos-b.xx.fbcdn.net/hphotos-prn1/523622_4345865138776_1796967457_n.jpg

Don’t be fooled. I’m not really short or something. That monument is like seven feet tall.

This is what secularists want done with. They simply want a secular government that is neutral on matters of religion. No endorsement of religion or irreligion.

And yes, having the Abrahamic Ten Commandments on government property is an endorsement of religion, thereby violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

And if not neutral, equal in some other fashion. If there are going to be Christian monuments, then there should be a Jewish, Muslim, Taoist, Buddhist, Hindu, Zoroastrian, and atheist monuments alongside them. Even then, this should only be in special cases, such as the various Winter holidays and maybe the different groups want to have a temporary display.

We simply want all religions and religious beliefs, including having no religious beliefs, to be treated equally. That equality should be in the form of complete neutrality though.

However, certain Christians don’t want neutrality. They don’t want equality or equal treatment. Jon Stewart said it best with this:

http://thebarkingatheist.files.wordpress.com/2013/04/jonstewartestablishment.jpg?w=542&h=338

Well said.

Certain Christians see equality as persecution. They do not want equal status. If their god is not made the one true god of the state and forced to be taught about in public schools that are paid for by our tax dollars, then that is an affront to their religious freedom.

If we don’t want a state religion, we’re the ones violating their religious freedom. If we don’t want a school to force children to pray or read from the Bible, we’re the ones violating their religious freedom. If we don’t want a prayer banner on the wall of a high school in Rhode Island, we’re the ones violating their religious freedom. If we don’t want a graduation ceremony or city council meeting to have an invocation, we’re the ones violating their religious freedom. If we don’t want a cross or the Ten Commandments on government property that is paid for by our tax dollars, we’re the ones violating their religious freedom.

I seem to be ranting a little. Let me try to get back on topic.

The point of this post is to talk about atheists wanting to remove God from society.

I really don’t care if people believe in a god or not. Sure, I see god-belief as wrong and something that can cause harm, but I don’t think god-belief or religion should be banned or forced out of the public square. I think the best cure, for lack of a better word, for god-belief is education, not persecution.

I believe that endorsement or preference towards a religion should be removed from public schools and the government completely, but if a student wants to express their religious beliefs, then they have the constitutional right to do so, even in a school.

If a student wants to pray in school, that is their right, and the Supreme Court has upheld that repeatedly. That means all people though. Not just Christians.

It is not the right of the government (or anyone for that matter) to force someone to believe in or support a religion or take part in religious practices. That is all we want.

If the United States decided to ban Christianity, or religion in general, I would be on the front lines alongside the Christians and Jews and Muslims and marching to protect their constitutional right to freedom of religion.

What secularists want is freedom of and from religion. That is all. A person is free to believe or not believe in whatever they want. The government cannot force you to believe or not believe what it wants you to. What they can do is keep everyone equal by having complete neutrality on the matter.

Atheists do not want religion to be banned or forced to only be in the confines of a person’s home. Atheists, more so secularists, only want religion to be something that is not endorsed by the government, especially in school settings.

If you want something to be angry about when it comes to religion in public schools though, get Katherine Stewart’s book The Good News Club. That is something that I see as completely unethical, immoral, underhanded, and disgusting, but it’s all apparently constitutional according to a Supreme Court decision just a few years ago.

If anything, it is certain Christians that want to remove atheism from society, not the other way around.

Constantly, I will hear people say, “It’s freedom of religion, not freedom from religion,” which I don’t really get. Are they really saying that I don’t have the freedom to not believe?

I will receive threats of Hellfire and death by Christians on an almost daily basis. I will see others, especially organisations like American Atheists, receive death threats too. I will see (non-offensive) atheist billboards vandalised, and nothing is done about it. Some people are even applauded by the community for doing it.

Jessica Ahlquist, a high school student from Rhode Island and friend of mine, received rape and death threats for her efforts to remove the prayer banner from her high school. She was even called “an evil little thing” by her own US Congressman. Damon Fowler, a high school student from Louisiana and friend of mine, was shunned by his entire community and kicked out of his own home by his parents, all for wanting the school-led invocation at his graduation ceremony to be left out.

Alise put it beautifully with this comparison:

Imagine that you’re entering your child’s public school. You support the school through your taxes. Your child gets an excellent education there and the teachers are capable and kind. But when you enter the building, you are faced with the Five Pillars of Islam. They speak of things that are admirable, like helping the poor, but they also speak to the prophethood of Muhammad and of a pilgrimage to Mecca. This may make you uncomfortable.
Now imagine that not only are these symbols are here, but people are fighting to keep them there. When you suggest that they make your child feel left out of their class, your child is called an “evil little thing.” You are shunned by neighbors and local businesses refuse to serve you. You are demonized and called hateful. Not because you are asking for people to adhere to your beliefs, but because you are asking that your child is not asked to adhere to another groups’ belief system.

As always, be sure to read Alise’s post to get a Christian perspective on this issue.

Next week’s The Christian Guide to Atheists will be “Atheists Are Unpatriotic.”

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