August 31, 2016 - 2:26 pm

(Presented by our member organization, the American Humanist Association.)


Court: Parent in FFRF suit has standing to challenge Ten Commandments monument

 On August 9, 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held that an FFRF member who is a parent of a high school student has legal standing to challenge a Ten Commandments monument in front of a Pennsylvania school.

The court ruled in favor of Marie Schaub, finding that a district court dismissal of the case against the New Kensington-Arnold School District last year was improper. The three-judge panel unanimously found that Schaub's removal of her daughter from Valley High School due to the Ten Commandments monument, and prior contact with it, were sufficient for her to bring the case.

"The District Court appeared to read the direct, unwelcome contact standard to include a frequency requirement," Judge Patty Shwartz, writing for the panel, said of the legal test applied by the district court. "This is incorrect."

The court noted the ability of plaintiffs to bring Establishment Clause cases, even when they have not changed their behavior. "A community member should not be forced to forgo a government service to preserve his or her ability to challenge an allegedly unconstitutional religious display or activity," Schwartz said. "Thus, a community member like Schaub may establish standing by showing direct, unwelcome contact with the allegedly offending object or event, regardless of whether such contact is infrequent or she does not alter her behavior to avoid it."

The court also highlighted the unique parental rights involved, writing that Schaub "has an interest in guiding her child's religious upbringing and has standing to challenge actions that seek to ‘establish a religious preference affecting' her child."

The court reversed and remanded for further proceedings on Schaub's claims and remanded for consideration of whether FFRF has standing on the basis that Schaub was a member when the suit was filed.

For more information, see FFRF's news release:


Atheists Reach $41,000 Settlement with Tennessee County Sheriff

On August 11, 2016, American Atheists and Bradley County and the Bradley County Sheriff's Office reached a settlement in a federal lawsuit alleging First Amendment violations of the U.S. Constitution by Bradley County and Bradley County Sheriff Eric Watson.

As part of settlement agreement, the new official Bradley County Sheriff's Department Facebook page will not be used to "promote or further any religion, religious organization, religious event or religious belief." Additionally, the sheriff's office has decided to not allow any comments on this Facebook page, making it an informational Facebook page only. The office's original Facebook page was deactivated earlier this year and will be permanently deactivated.

While the county and sheriff admit to no wrongdoing under the agreement, the county will pay a total of $15,000 in damages to American Atheists and the local plaintiffs, Joshua Stevens and Jane Doe, and $26,000 in attorney's fees.

Sheriff Watson will be allowed to maintain a personal Facebook page that is clearly marked as containing only his personal opinions and not those of the department.

The lawsuit arose in May after Sheriff Watson posted an explicitly religious Easter message on the sheriff's office's official Facebook page. American Atheists sent a letter to the sheriff advising against such religious messages on a government-sponsored social media site. The sheriff responded by telling a local newspaper that he intended to use his position as sheriff to proselytize. After posting the local newspaper article on the sheriff's office's Facebook page, commenters began criticizing the sheriff's statements. The sheriff and employees of the sheriff's department began deleting and blocking critical comments and users who were critical of the sheriff while leaving favorable comments on the governmental Facebook page.

For more information, see American Atheists' news release:

FFRF sues Lehigh County, Pennsylvania over cross on county seal

 In a federal lawsuit filed August 16 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) and several local members sued Lehigh County in Pennsylvania to remove a Latin cross from the county seal and flag.

FFRF is a plaintiff, as are members residing in the county who have encountered the religious symbol on governmental property and documents, such as on letterhead, numerous official county forms and reports, the county's website, a display in the Board of Commissioners meeting room and even on flags prominently displayed at the entrance of county buildings.

FFRF complained to the county in November 2014 and again in January 2015. Following several meetings about the controversy, the Board of Commissioners sent a reply on March 25, 2015, noting: "The cross, one of more than a dozen elements, was included to honor the original settlers of Lehigh County, who were Christian."

FFRF's local members find the presence of the cross on a seal representing the entire county to be exclusionary and offensive, as the cross endorses Christianity and does not reflect the diversity of the population. By adopting and displaying a seal and flag with a Latin cross, the county is violating the First and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The Plaintiffs contend the purpose is religious, not secular, and "has the primary effect of both advancing religion and expressing defendant's preference for Christianity above all other religions and nonreligion."

For more information, see FFRF's news release:

Americans United & American Atheists sue Pennsylvania House of Representatives

 On August 26, 2016, Americans United for Separation of Church and State and American Atheists jointly filed a federal lawsuit challenging the Pennsylvania House of Representatives' discriminatory policy of barring people who do not believe in God from offering pre-meeting invocations.

The Pennsylvania House has a longstanding tradition of opening invocations, which are often delivered by guests from the community. Over the last two years, several non-theists who requested to deliver opening invocations before the House were deemed ineligible on the grounds that they are "non-adherents or nonbelievers."

The plaintiffs in the case include Pennsylvania Nonbelievers, its president Brian Fields, and member Joshua Neiderhiser; Dillsburg Area Freethinkers, its chief organizer Paul Tucker, and member Deana Weaver; and Lancaster Freethought Society and its president Scott Rhoades.

Read more about the lawsuit here:




August 26, 2015 - 12:14 pm

Presented this week by the American Humanist Association.

Social Security Administration to apply Obergefell retroactively
According to an August 20 press release from Lamda Legal, the nation’s oldest and largest legal organization that works for the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, and people with HIV/AIDS, “the Department of Justice announced that the Social Security Administration (SSA) will apply [Obergefell] the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent landmark marriage ruling retroactively and process pending spousal benefits claims for the same-sex couples who lived in state that did not previously recognize their marriages. According to the Department of Justice, the new policy will apply o previously filed claims still pending in the administrative process or litigation."
Prior to this decision, SSA guidelines recognized whether someone was married for Social Security purposes by the definition of marriage in their state of domicile. This had prevented married couples in states that did not recognize same-sex marriage from receiving full Social Security benefits. After Obergefell, all states must recognize same-sex marriage. This decision, according to the Department of Justice, “will apply to previously filed claims still pending in the administrative process or litigation.
6th Circuit upholds Affordable Care Act’s accommodation for religious non-profits
On August 21, the 6th Circuit upheld the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) accommodation for religious non-profits. The complainant employers in Michigan Catholic Conference v. Burwell, (6th Cir., Aug. 21, 2015) had argued that the accommodation – which allows them to opt out of paying for contraception coverage – violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The 6th Circuit had previously affirmed the accommodation in this case, however, while on appeal, the Supreme Court remanded it back to the appellate court for re-evaluation under Hobby Lobby. The 6th Circuit, however, affirmed its earlier decision, upholding the accommodation under RFRA and Hobby Lobby, finding that “[t]he government’s imposition of an independent obligation on a third party does not impose a substantial burden on the appellants’ exercise of religion.”
With this ruling the Sixth Circuit becomes the seventh to uphold the ACA's accommodation.
Arkansas rejects Hindu statue on state capitol grounds
Following a law passed by the Arkansas legislature last April approving placement of a Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the state’s Capitol, the Universal Society of Hinduism has requested to place a privately-financed statue of Lord Hanuman on the grounds as well. The Arkansas Secretary of State’s office has reportedly denied the requested, with Chief Deputy Secretary of State Kelly Boyd allegedly telling the Hindu group that the State Capitol Arts and Grounds Commission that is responsible for approving monuments on Capitol grounds. The Secretary of State also suggested the Hindu group seek legislative approval similar to that of the Ten Commandments monument. The Universal Society of Hinduism plans to take its request to the governor. The Freedom From Religion Foundation and the Satanic Temple have also expressed interest in placing monuments at the Arkansas capitol.
December 23, 2013 - 7:06 pm

As Americans gather to celebrate Christmas, fewer and fewer actually believe they are celebrating the birth of a divine being who subsequently died and then rose from the dead. But if you look around during the holiday season, that doesn't seem to matter much.

Atheism continues to grow in America. That’s the clear message from a Harris poll released last week, which shows that God-belief is declining sharply. While 74 percent still say they believe in God, that figure is down from 82 percent in three previous polls in 2009, 2007, and 2005. The remaining 26 percent said they did not believe in God (12 percent) or were not sure (14 percent).

Almost all the numbers in the poll indicate that America is gravitating away from supernatural beliefs. Belief in miracles is down (76 percent in 2009, 72 percent in 2013), as is belief that Jesus was God or the son of God (73/68), or in the resurrection (70/65), survival of a soul after death (71/64), and several other supernatural religious concepts.

Belief in only a few supernatural phenomena actually saw increases when compared to previous polling. Belief in astrology was at 29 percent this year, up from 26 percent in 2009, and belief in reincarnation was at 24 percent, up from 20 percent.

The polling also confirmed previous data showing that secularity is most prevalent among younger generations. God-belief is lowest in those under age 36 (at just 64 percent) and climbs with each older age category.


Continue reading at Psychology Today >>

December 5, 2013 - 12:02 pm

An interview with author and activist Sikivu Hutchinson

A generation ago a typical humanist group might have been little more than a few older, white men meeting in the basement of a Unitarian church, arguing points of philosophy that have little relevance in the real world. That has changed, as atheist and humanist groups have sprung up in a much wider range of settings, from schools to pubs to workplaces, and as young people, women, people of color, gays and lesbians, and others have helped the notion of personal secularity gain traction in the wider population.

But still, despite this expansion, many would like to see the secular movement experience faster and broader growth in African-American and Latino communities. Dr. Sikivu Hutchinson, a Los Angeles author and secular activist, is one of those working to expand the movement in communities of color. With the authority of churches in those communities very strong, she argues that the secular movement is unlikely to challenge that authority unless it firmly addresses issues of social and economic justice. This message resonates with many—especially among those humanists who see such traditionally liberal issues as being central to humanist ethics—but not with everyone. Some would prefer that the movement focus exclusively on church-state separation and other so-called "culture war" issues, for example, while some atheists even describe themselves as conservative. Below, I chat with Hutchinson about her views on this ongoing discussion.


DN:  I attended a recent talk that you gave, and I believe one of the key points you made was that women of color in America have historically gravitated toward religion because it was one of the few institutions that validated their humanity. Could you explain what you mean by that?

SH: In my book, Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars, I argue that the literature on secularism and gender does not capture the experiences of women of color negotiating racism, sexism, and poverty in historically religious communities. The relative dearth of secular humanist and freethought traditions amongst women of color cannot be separated from the broader context of white supremacy, gender politics, and racial segregation. The writers Nella Larsen and Zora Neale Hurston are generally acknowledged as pioneering twentieth century black women freethinkers. Yet, what few women’s histories of freethought there are celebrate the political influence of prominent nineteenth century white women non-believers, many of whom were suffragists and abolitionists. None contextualize these women’s influence vis-à-vis the race and gender politics that shaped both the feminist and freethought movements.  For example, I have yet to see an appraisal that seriously addresses the racism, nativism and xenophobia of forerunning 19th century freethinker Elizabeth Cady Stanton (who used white supremacist imperialist rhetoric touting the intellectual superiority of white women to oppose the 15th amendment granting black men the vote) or the “curious” absence of women of color from freethought movements.


Continue reading at Psychology Today >>

November 5, 2013 - 4:59 pm

If you believe Rick Saccone, the Pennsylvania lawmaker sponsoring a bill to erect “In God We Trust” signs in public schools, he doesn’t want to use the apparatus of government to proselytize his religious views: “This isn’t about evangelizing,” Saccone told reporters last week, insisting that the proposed signs aren’t an effort to endorse God-belief or invalidate nonbelievers.

If that’s so, one could reasonably question what purpose such signs would serve. A posted message affirming not just a belief in a God (whose existence, of course, can't be proved), but a collective trust in that God, would seem to serve few purposes other than to validate theism. But alas, this query was answered by none other than Fox News, which clarified the Republican legislator’s motivation, reporting as follows: “Saccone said the motto would fit well with the state’s local history curriculum.”

So there you have it—we need “In God We Trust” signs in public schools not because Saccone, a devout Christian, has any interest in promoting belief in God, but because he is earnestly concerned about history curricula. Interestingly, however, Saccone's strategy of promoting knowledge of history through religious messaging is not shared by actual educational experts, who instead suggest that history education is best furthered by peculiar practices like reading history books, watching informative documentaries, and reviewing other substantive materials. In fact, neither the American Historical Association nor the Society for History Education endorse “In God We Trust” signs as a means of instilling a comprehensive knowledge of history. But what would they know?

Saccone's fondness for religiously flavored history lessons is a recurring pattern, as we see from other efforts that he has led. For example, last year he was prime sponsor of a resolution to declare a “Year of the Bible,” a measure that alluded to history while expressly calling the Bible "the word of God" and urging "faith in God and holy scripture." He was also prime sponsor of another resolution to declare a day of fasting and prayer, again with historical references and express theistic language.

Saccone wryly suggests that such measures are “noncontroversial,” which is remarkable given the firestorm of protest that they have ignited (including, in the case of the Year of the Bible, a lawsuit), and he also insists that these proposals have nothing to do with promoting theism or discriminating against those millions of Americans who happen to hold non-theistic views.

Continue reading at Psychology Today >>

October 15, 2013 - 11:49 am

Unfair prejudice is most shocking not when it comes from expected sources - a KKK leader, for example, or a skinhead - but when it comes from a respected mainstream spokesperson who supposedly reflects enlightened contemporary values. Thus, brace yourself for Oprah Winfrey, as she disparages millions of atheists by telling her audience that, in her opinioin, atheists are incapable of awe.

In the interview she is chatting with endurance swimmer Diana Nyad, who recently swam from Cuba to the Florida at age 64. Nyad unhesitatingly identifies as an atheist when asked about her beliefs, then adds that she sees no contradiction between her atheism and her ability to experience awe, or in her words to "weep with the beauty of this universe and be moved by all of humanity."

Oprah, however, apparently found this description unsettling, for it seems that in her view atheists must be cold, emotionless rationalists. "Well I don't call you an atheist then," Oprah responded to Nyad's disclosure. "I think if you believe in the awe and the wonder and the mystery, then that is what God is."

What is most alarming about Oprah's revelation is that she doesn't even realize its invidiousness. Atheists, to her, don't feel that deep, emotional connection to the universe. She has drawn a circle that includes people of all faiths, but excludes atheists, thereby confirming negative attitudes toward nonbelievers.

To those among Oprah's legion of loyal viewers who may have held anti-atheist prejudices, this now validates their bias. That's right, those atheists just aren't like the rest of us, they can now say, nodding their heads. While we religious people of the world are appreciating the wonder and awe of life, those atheists are just one big buzzkill!

Continue reading at Psychology Today >>

September 18, 2013 - 10:26 am

Probably because my writing and activities frequently involve taking stands on issues of public policy, from time to time I am asked whether I would consider running for political office. Such inquiries provide me with an opportunity to get a good laugh, because I usually respond with something like this:

"I'm not so sure I have the ideal resume for elected office. I currently serve as president of a group that advocates for atheists (the Secular Coalition for America). Before that, I served two terms as president of another atheist-humanist advocacy group (the American Humanist Association). Moreover, I've also written a book called Nonbeliever Nation. And to top it all off, I'm lead counsel in a lawsuit that challenges the ‘under God' wording of the Pledge of Allegiance!"

My questioner usually gets my point quickly, and is already laughing before I cap off this statement with a question of my own: “Does that look like the resume of a viable candidate for election?”

After we both enjoy this little chuckle, we’ll move the conversation toward more realistic topics.

As I relayed this story to one young person recently, however, I received a different response. She smiled slightly, but then her face immediately became serious again and she asked another question: “Why should any of those things disqualify you from running for office?”

I could see that her question was sincere, that she wanted an answer. Forced to consider it, I realized that I had never taken the analysis beyond the joking stage. Indeed, why should a person be seen as unfit for elected office merely because he or she has advocated visibly on behalf of the secular demographic?

Objectively speaking, it’s not as if atheists are an embarrassing segment of society, some strange cult with bizarre beliefs and rituals. Over ninety percent of the National Academy of Sciences holds atheist or agnostic views – is this a source of shame? Social problems do not correlate to secular individuals or societies, and in fact they often correlate negatively (with lower rates among secular populations) – so why should advocacy on behalf of seculars disqualify anyone from office?

It's noteworthy that most atheist activism has little to do with trying to dispel other religious beliefs, but instead merely seeks to push back against anti-atheist prejudice and to oppose the intrusion of religion into government. It's hard to see why this would be political poison. Advocacy on behalf of racial minorities, women, or gays and lesbians would never disqualify a candidacy, but for some reason we seem to see it as toxic in the context of secular advocacy.

Continue reading at Psychology Today >>

July 17, 2013 - 4:40 pm

In yet another sign of how the American secular demographic is emerging – in terms of both raw numbers and organizational commitment – the first-ever rally featuring nonbelievers of color is scheduled for later this month in New York. The Blackout Secular Rally takes place on the afternoon of Saturday, July 27, at Flushing Meadow Park in Queens.

The event was inspired by last year’s Reason Rally in Washington, says Mandisa Thomas, president of Black Nonbelievers, a co-sponsor of the celebration along with Black Atheists of America. The Reason Rally drew over 20,000 nonbelievers from all over the country to the National Mall on a rainy March day, showing a solidarity that had never before been demonstrated by America’s atheists and humanists.

“We thought it would be a great idea to have a similar event," Thomas told me in a recent interview, adding that the Blackout will be a chance to showcase both the growing numbers of secular minorities as well as pro-secular speakers and performers who may not be well known outside the African-American community.  

The notion of “coming out” as atheist, agnostic, or humanist has been an important part of the modern secular movement, and it is getting traction in minority communities as well, Thomas says: “There are now more atheists of color making themselves more visible.”  

The Blackout is also an opportunity for seculars of color to network and find support, she said, which is especially important for minorities who are faced with heavily religious communities. The idea, she explained, is to "help people understand there is nothing wrong with questioning religion, being open about atheism."

Like everyone else, minorities are increasingly aware of knowledge and scientific advances that raise questions about religious truth claims and validate skepticism, Thomas said, and other factors, such as religious scandals, have also caused many to question traditional faith. As such, her group wants those doubters to know they aren’t alone. “It is important for us to be more visible in order to create better communication and help our communities,” she said.

Continue reading at Psychology Today.

June 19, 2013 - 9:30 am

Though it didn’t make many headlines, a legislative showdown on Capitol Hill last week can be seen as the latest development in the so-called culture wars.  On the surface it would appear that this particular battle was won by religious conservatives, but a closer look shows otherwise.

The legislation in question would have allowed nonreligious chaplains in the military, a proposal that sponsor Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) said was designed to serve the large segment of America’s military (almost 25%) that is nonreligious. Currently, chaplains must be appointed by religious organizations such as the Catholic Church, but Polis said this unnecessarily excludes those who are "secular humanists and ethical culturists or atheists" and that nonreligious chaplains are needed to support the "brave (nonreligious) men and women who serve in the military."

Some have suggested that secular military personnel in need of chaplain services should opt instead for secular counseling services, but Polis pointed out that the chaplaincy option has definite advantages. “When someone (in the military) sees a psychologist, psychiatrist, or counselor, it has a certain stigma that can be attached to it that doesn’t exists when you’re seeing a chaplain,” he said. “It doesn’t enjoy the same confidentiality that a chaplain visit does.”

The Polis bill was defeated, 150-274, with every House Republican voting against it. This may seem like a defeat for seculars, but such a view would be shortsighted. The fact that a bill specifically recognizing and benefiting atheists-humanists was put forward at all, and then garnered the support of 150 members of Congress, is itself significant, something that would have been highly unlikely just a few years ago, and it demonstrates the progress that the secular movement has made.

Continue reading at Psychology Today.

May 19, 2013 - 9:33 am

Think back to your school days, when your class would recite the Pledge of Allegiance. If you looked around the classroom during the exercise (and of course most of us did from time to time, even though we were supposed to be focused on the flag), would you see a room filled with fine young patriots, standing upright with hands squarely over hearts, reciting the words with great seriousness and solemnity, pondering the meaning of each phrase?

If your school was like mine, it probably fell a bit short of such a patriotic ideal. Slouched, half-awake students, mumbling the words and giving little thought to their meaning, were as common as the upright patriots. In the lower grades, terms like “allegiance” and “indivisible” were often mispronounced and misunderstood. By high school the exercise had lost much of its mystique, not because kids are unpatriotic, but mainly because the pledge was seen as rote recitation that was required by authority figures.

Perhaps recalling such lackluster attitudes from their school days, some people seem to think governmental religious references are meaningless, not worth disputing. Every now and then, for example, when I'm discussing a church-state issue, someone will throw out a question that has nothing to do with legalities, but instead raises a more practical angle: Why are you fighting over this? Does it really matter? The issue might be "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, a crèche on a public park, or "In God We Trust" as the national motto: “What’s the big deal?” 

There are many reasons why church-state separation is a big deal (indeed, the fact that a valid constitutional claim is being raised should, in itself, qualify the matter as a legitimate “big deal”), but there is a psychological component to such issues that sometimes gets overlooked amid all the legal analysis. This component, which I call “crisis-induced devotion” (or “CID”), illustrates why governmental religiosity, while sometimes appearing benign and unimportant, is always at least potentially dangerous.

CID shows us that what appears mundane, given the right stimulus, can quickly become extremely intense. CID occurs, for example, when a person who is not particularly religious or patriotic suddenly becomes fervent about their religion or patriotism due to some external crisis that triggers intense devotion.

Continue reading at Psychology Today.