Churches fight transportation fee on 1st Amendment grounds

Image from http://www.clevelandleader.com/node/13909

The Alliance Defense Fund, which is known for trying to tear down the wall of separation between church and state, is now claiming that churches in one town do not have to pay a new tax because of church-state separation.

According to the Huffington Post, Mission, Kansas has instituted a new “transportation utility fee” which taxes properties based on the amount of traffic they get.

“It was just a fair way to spread the cost among those who are generating the traffic,” said Mission Mayor Laura McConwell, “to help pay for the roads that you need to bring people in either for your business or for the churches or to people’s homes.”

But some churches are apparently none to happy about the tax and have asked the Alliance Defense Fund, known for fighting for religious symbols on public property and defending convocations at public schools and government meetings, to help them on 1st Amendment grounds, arguing that the 1st Amendment prohibits the government from taxing churches. Again from the Post

“It makes no sense to tax churches and to limit their ability to provide their services, and it does damage to the constitutional separation between church and state,” argues Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund [...] He acknowledges that church-state separation is generally not an argument made by his conservative Christian law firm; but in this instance, he says “there should be a separation here.”

So apparently the 1st amendment somehow prohibits the government from taxing churches? We could play the Christian Right’s game and bring up the fact that the exact words “separation of church and state” appear nowhere in the Constitution, nor does it explicitly say “The government will not apply transportation utility taxes on churches.” But that would be somewhat disingenuous since the exact wording is not what matters, but the idea behind the words. And no matter how you twist it, the 1st amendment does not even come close to saying churches should pay no taxes. It is ridiculous that churches are exempt from most taxes to begin with. And in this specific case, the transportation fee has absolutely nothing to do with establishing a religion or prohibiting the free exercise of religion.

Hey, maybe that’s their plan: they’re going to claim that “free” in the Constitution doesn’t mean “unrestricted”, but rather “without cost.” If religion should be “free”, then they shouldn’t pay taxes!

The sad thing is, if the Alliance Defense Fund can suddenly become church-state defenders when it suits them, I wouldn’t put it past them to try to twist the word “free” in the Constitution. I’m glad to see the Religious Right finally recognizes the idea of Church-State separation; it’s too bad it’s only when taxes are concerned.

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War on Christmas meets War on Terror

Before the end of 2010, one last story on the craziness involved with the so-called “War on Christmas,” which has apparently now started to overlap with the “War on Terror.”

From AlterNet comes an article by the Nashville City Paper describing how a letter sent by the Tennessee branch of the ACLU was placed on a Homeland Security map as “terrorism events and other suspicious activity.”

The ACLU had the audacity to remind schools that during the end of the year, public schools should not be celebrating Christmas to the exclusion of other religious observances because the First Amendment prohibits the government from endorsing religion. Tennessee Homeland Security’s website’s explanation for why it was placed in that category was exactly that: “ACLU cautions Tennessee schools about observing ‘one religious holiday’.”

So the ACLU reminding schools about what the Supreme Court has found in terms of state-church separation apparently puts them with Bin Laden and the shoe bomber. Browning, a spokesperson for Tennessee’s Department of Homeland Security, said it was a “mistake” to label the ACLU letter as a “suspicious activity”. When contacted about it, the spokesperson claimed that it had been reclassified into their website’s “general information category.”

The story doesn’t end there. The Nashville City Paper checked up on this though and found out the ACLU’s letter had now been classified as “general terrorism news.” The Homeland Security spokesperson explained that “That’s the general news category. It doesn’t have anything to do with terrorism.” (Why not just take the darn thing off the website, then?!)

So at first the ACLU sending out a letter about schools respecting the First Amendment was first described on Tennessee’s Homeland Security site as “terrorism events and other suspicious activity” and is now described as “general terrorism news.” Scary times we live in, especially since being associated with terrorist activity can get you on no-fly lists, among other things.

Hopefully 2011 will be a better year for freethought, atheism, and just all-around. Happy New Year!!

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Atheist plaque combats Christmas display in MS: is this a good thing?

Jackson, MS is the among latest cities in the news that are having illegal Christmas displays challenged. FFRF (Freedom From Religion Foundation) has put one of their plaques in the Capitol building next to a nativity scene placed there by the Mississippi 9/11 Remembrance Association, according to WLBT.

Why would a 9/11 organization put up a nativity scene? The connection between 9/11 and this nativity scene is perhaps that both were organized by religious zealots… The comparison is a little unfair, perhaps. Obviously a nativity scene is not an act of terrorism, but it’s scary that religious people feel like they can do whatever they want just because it’s honoring their god.

There shouldn’t be Christmas displays or atheistic plaques in government buildings. I will admit that, although I support the FFRF, I am concerned that the expansion of the plaques into more cities might mean that it will become the norm or accepted to have Christmas displays, they will just be accompanied by “token” displays that include secular or non-Christian themes.

I think the plaques were originally meant to represent atheists but also as a deterrent (the language in it is strong and some might prefer there  to get rid of both the Christmas decorations and the plaque). I’m not sure it’s working, though. I do not object to the plaque’s message itself, although it isn’t the most positive of fronts to present to theists. But I vacillate on whether I think it is an effective strategy. If the plaque + Christmas scene precedent gets established, Christians will (mostly) get their way of having Christmas in state buildings around the country because they can then argue, “well, the atheists get their sign, too, so what’s the problem?” I want less religion in public places, not religion and atheism mixed.

Why can’t people just celebrate holidays on their own instead of forcing it on everyone in official areas? That pesky First Amendment again always trying to protect the rights of the minority where government is involved… Christmas is alive and well, in case Christians haven’t noticed. Aren’t the gazillion Christmas displays up in stores and private residences this time of year (bad) enough?!?! Hopefully eventually people will realize that religion is a private matter, but it doesn’t look like this will happen any time soon.

Images from WLBT.

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Creationism still going strong


Check out Creation Science 101 by Roy Zimmerman

For anyone still actually reading this blog after my prolonged absence, here’s some news showing that while hard-core creationism has gone down slightly, the majority of Americans think that evolution didn’t happen or that God is the one guiding evolution.

From Gallup, Via The Atheist Spot

Four in 10 Americans, slightly fewer today than in years past, believe God created humans in their present form about 10,000 years ago. Thirty-eight percent believe God guided a process by which humans developed over millions of years from less advanced life forms [...] What no doubt continues to surprise many scientists is that 4 out of 10 Americans believe in the first of these explanations.

What frustrates me is how basic this one is. All you have to do is read the first two chapters of Genesis to see that something’s up: there are two different creation accounts. I guess most people just accept one or the other and leave it at that, instead of throwing the whole thing into question.

If you even ignore the Bible, does no one know about dog breeding? I think some people just think that there are minor changes that occur, and don’t think about the big picture that if little changes are occurring in a small amount of time, then big changes occur over large amount of time. But I guess thousands of fossil specimens and logic don’t go very far these days.

At least a growing percentage of Americans, 16%, believe that humans evolved without a god’s involvement. Maybe by the year 3000 we can get that up to 50%!

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Halloween

It’s been a while since I’ve posted on here. Blame it mostly on work: when you work most of the year 12-14 hours a day during Monday-Thursday, and 3-6 hours a day on weekends, it doesn’t leave much time for relaxing, much less posting.

I did overhear a conversation relating to religion and Halloween that I thought was interesting, so I decided to do a quick post. I think if I do quick posts, I’ll be on here a lot more often, so here goes…

Standing in line at a Walgreen’s (a scary enough place most days as it is), I overheard two women in line lamenting the fact that Halloween falls on a Sunday. I don’t try to listen in on conversations, but when someone’s right ahead of you in line, you can’t help but overhear. Here is the relevant part of the conversation, as best I remember. They’re not direct quotes (didn’t have my iPhone recorder on of course!) but the general content and gist is here.

— Can’t believe they’re letting kids do trick-or-treating on a Sunday.

— Yeah, it’s a shame…on a Sunday! That ain’t right — why don’t they do it on Saturday?

— Shouldn’t do it at all, dressing up as monsters and devils for Halloween…but on Sunday?!

Now I don’t know for sure that this is related for religion, but what other moral objection could one have to children trick or treating or pretending to be monsters and devils on Sundays? Tennessee is a religious state, but I live in a part of the state (Memphis area) that is a little less Bible-Beltish. So I was rather surprised to hear this. There’s a lot of God talk I hear here and there, but this stuck out as particularly close-minded.

I’ve heard of communities “moving” Halloween / trick-or-treating to another day for safety/law-and-order reasons (to avoid people TP-ing [toilet-papering] houses, people targeting kids, etc.), but this is the first time I’ve heard it implied that Sunday is a special day that should trump Halloween.

Halloween is a pretty silly but overall harmless holiday, and does go back to religious (or a-religious) roots. My understanding is that it’s similar to Carnival, the period before Lent (that includes Mardi Gras): having fun and letting loose before a pious Christian holiday comes along. All Hallowed’s Eve preceded All Saints’ Day, so it was a time to continue a non-Christian tradition of celebrating pagan religious beliefs in spirits and such. I don’t believe in spirits, so I see absolutely no intrinsic value in Halloween, but I also see no intrinsic value in opposing it since nearly no one associates the holiday with this history. For nearly everyone, it’s just an occasion to dress up and/or have fun.

But not on a Sunday, the Lord’s day! Maybe if they can find a Bible verse that says Sunday is a holy day, I might be more understanding of the idea that Sunday is a special day that certain activities (such as purchasing alcohol or apparently trick-or-treating) can’t take place. I think the Wiccan/pagan minority has it wrong that it’s a religious occasion (which only occasionally falls on Halloween itself), but it’s their right to think so. But this is not the celebration that will be happening across America tomorrow. Halloween is only vaguely related to religion, in the minds of a small minority of Christian or Pagan kooks. Until either Christians or Wiccans change this state of affairs, I don’t think there’s a huge problem with kids or others playing dress-up for a day.

Image source: http://www.halloweenclipart.com/halloween_clipart_images/jack_o_lantern_wearing_a_witch_hat_0521-1010-1412-3503.html

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Prop 8 proponents — which kind(s) of Biblical marriage do you support?

A quick follow-up to my post on Prop 8. As pointed out by in a comment by a member of Atheist Nexus, the Bible is far from supporting only what Prop 8 proponents think of as “traditional” marriage. According to the site Religious Tolerance, there are at least 8 types of marriage the Bible specifically condoned by God in the Bible.

If Christians are going to only go to bat for god-friendly weddings, they’ll have to either endorse forced marriage of unwed, unbetrothed rape victims to their attackers or else explain why they are not campaigning for what the Bible clearly outlines as a required form of marriage. Do they really want to make their god angry by not allowing polygany (a man marrying multiple women) or thousands of concubines?

If we’re going to pick and choose what parts of the Bible to follow or legislate, I guess then that means that men “lying” with men (and women with women) should be fair game, too.

Image from http://www.slapupsidethehead.com/2008/11/proposition-8-is-discriminatory-nonsense

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Anne Rice loses her religion

Famous author Anne Rice has said she’s leaving Christianity, specifically the Catholic religion she converted to 12 years go after recovering from a coma. This Freethinker article discusses the decision more in detail. She was raised Catholic, abandoned it for atheism, converted back to Catholicism, and is once again renouncing her ties with the church. She apparently has not given up on god or on Christ himself, but on organized Christianity. A few quotes from Anne Rice:

I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life.

I’ve come to the conclusion from my experience with organized religion that I have to leave, that I have to, in the name of Christ, step away from this.

I’ve also found that I can’t find a basis in Scripture for a lot of the positions that churches and denominations take today, and I can’t find any basis at all for an anointed, hierarchical priesthood.

She makes it clear that she’s not anti-Christ, just anti-church. Is this for PR (not wanting to alienating likely the majority of her readers who are Christians) or does she actually like the Bible and not like what churches have done with it?

I’ve heard some people say this and can sympathize to some extent, but if she’s looked at Scripture in detail though, doesn’t she see that not all, but a lot of what she is criticizing does in fact come from Scripture. To take feminism just as an example: 1 Corinthians 14, for example tells women it is “disgraceful” for them to speak in church. She might consider reading the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible’s section on women, for more insight on this…

In any case, I applaud people who reject Christianity’s hate-filled teachings, whether they do so by rejecting the religion outright, or by picking and choosing the occasional nuggets and insights — just so long as they don’t pretend that the Bible (including the New Testament) isn’t backwards, hateful, violent, contradictory, and just plain wrong a large portion of the time.

UPDATE: According to an LA Times article, Rice answers how she envisions being devoted to Christ without being Christian.

It’s talking to God, putting things in the hands of God, trusting that you’re living in God’s world and praying for God’s guidance. And being absolutely faithful to the core principles of Jesus’ teachings.

It would be interesting to know what exactly she thinks the “core principles of Jesus’ teachings” are, since the interpretations of his teachings have helped lead to thousands of denominations, religious wars…As an author herself, you’d think she would find fault with the Bible’s lack of clarity!

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Christian leaders condemn overturning of Prop 8

As most people who follow the news likely know, California’s Proposition 8 (the ban against same-sex marriage in that state) was just overturned last week in federal court. There will of course be appeals, but this is a major step towards the legalization of same-sex marriage not only in California, but if it survives appeal, possibly at the national level.

Since Christianity is all about love, they are throwing their full support towards gay marriage, right? (Did you detect a note of sarcasm there?)

Here is a link to an article by Christianity Today (which I saw posted in a few freethought-friendly places) which provides some reactions from the Christian community. To be fair, there are some quotes that are fairly neutral or even supportive of LGBT community, but here are a few gems to give you an idea of the other side of the coin.

Majorities are unstable, and while traditional marriage has the upper hand now, it may not in 20 years. [What is going to happen, LGBT people will suddenly become a majority in the next 20 years? Now that's what I call evolution! Or will they just corrupt the rest of God-fearing people by then?]

Because gay marriage is less than God’s best for relationship, we need to equip ourselves to minister to those who will choose it and later realize it might not have been the best decision. [Will they also equip themselves to minister to those who will choose and later realize it was the best decision of their life?]

At stake in the debate is the very nature of marriage itself. Thinking biblically does not allow us to regard marriage as merely prudential or preferential (I like strawberry, you like pistachio), but as a covenantal union of one man and one woman established by God for a purpose that transcends itself. [Comparing the love and devotion of two adults committing to spend the rest of their lives together...to liking pistachios. It'd be hard to make a more ignorant or belittling comparison. Although  "my cute little strawberry" does sound like a nice pet name.]

The Bible makes clear that marriage is God’s idea rather than a social contract that we are free to renegotiate based on changing social trends. [So if we have to follow God's ideas on marriage, does this mean we're sticking with the whole you-must-marry-your-rapist thing dictated in the Bible, then? (Deuteronomy 22:28). If we mustn't follow social trends when it comes to marriage, should we also wear BC-era wedding attire?]

The gospel is deeply serious while Judge Walker’s decision is a jumbled mess of sloppy thinking [...] [That's funny; I would have said the exact opposite.]

Hopefully this ruling will lead society towards understanding of those who are not in the mainstream, instead of the continuing legacy of bigotry towards the “Other” that religions too often help perpetuate.

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Love never fails [A post in memory of my mom]

A universal sentiment for atheists and believers alike.

My mother died suddenly and unexpectedly last month. She died from what appears to have been a massive stroke. She had just seen a doctor, and while she had a few relatively minor health issues (as many 50-somethings do), she had just seen a doctor a few days prior to her death. There was nothing to indicate to her doctor or to any of her friends and family that she would suddenly be gone.

I simply could not believe the devastating news at first; this was nearly everyone’s reaction upon hearing it. It just didn’t make sense. From what my stepfather told me, my mom had a very fun night the previous night and had gone to bed happy. He goes to work early in the morning, so as was often the case he didn’t wake her up when he left and just let her sleep.

When he arrived home, she was already dead and had apparently never gotten out of bed. I mention this because it means she very likely died in her sleep and either did not suffer at all or suffered only very briefly. As I’ve mentioned before on my blog, my father died just a little over a decade ago after several years of painfully battling cancer. The suffering he went through made me question the existence of an all-powerful, loving God. My mother at least was hopefully not a victim of lengthy, unbearable, meaningless pain before she died. Although it is always difficult to lose a loved one, knowing they went as quickly and painlessly as possible is some comfort.

As you might expect, her death brought up a whole swirl of religious thoughts among her grieving family and friends, myself included. (I will go into these more in detail shortly, including the pastor who nearly ruined my mother’s funeral.) Not being religious at all anymore, and feeling certain that my mother isn’t in a “better place,” brought both comforting and distressing feelings in me. I know that dying is a natural part of life, and that helped me to some extent. A number of people said it didn’t seem or feel “fair” that my mother died so young.

I will admit that a part of me felt, and still feels, that way. Logically, however, I know that there is no cosmic fairness that determines when and how someone dies. Death is just a part of life, and we all will eventually die. Somewhat coincidentally, I had just become acquainted with George Hrab‘s song “Everything Alive Will Die Someday,” which helped comfort and remind me of death being a natural part of life.

But the other side of atheism is knowing that my mother isn’t in some magical place looking down on us, either finally at peace or having fun in paradise. I knew that other people (including family) saw the wake and funeral as a chance to see loved ones and celebrate her life on Earth — and for many if not most gathered there, what they believe to be her new life in heaven. A couple people have said they don’t know exactly where she is, but hope that she’s somewhere.

I don’t feel this way, however: I know with about as much certainty as possible that my mother, as much as I love her, simply doesn’t exist anymore. I’m sure most people who knew her don’t share my views on this, though. What was at least a somewhat comforting occasion to most was downright depressing to me. The wake and funeral felt to me overall as a sort of meaningless death ritual taking place around the rotting corpse of my mother. That was very difficult for me. I did what I felt was right though and played along for the most part, talking to loved ones and recounting memories of my mom.

Memories of her and her life will live on as long as we let them, but my mother herself is no more. On good days, I take time to remember and even laugh about fond memories of my mom, although there is still a great deal of sadness that I’m sure, if my experience after my dad’s death was any indication, will take quite some time to subside.

I was surprised actually at the wake and funeral, how few people actually said she was “in a better place.” Maybe it’s become too cliché now to say. Most people either said that they were very saddened and sorry for our loss, and/or their thoughts or prayers were with us. Their sentiments were appreciated. While the wake, conversations, and sympathy cards did include some “God” talk, there was only one thing that very much upset me, and it turned out that it upset some other people as well.

My mother had become more religious in recent years, but still was not a bible-thumping, church-every-Sunday sort of person. There was some basic Christian imagery and words chosen for the wake, but also some more general themes (peace, love). I think this reflected her well and I’m sure is what most of the family wanted. The chapter that was chosen to be read at her funeral was one that I thought was appropriate for a group of family and friends who are nearly all Christians, but also as a general message, too: 1 Corinthians 13.

As many believers and nonbelievers alike will recognize, this is the famous chapter that includes the lines “Love is patient, love is kind [...] Love never fails” and ends with “Now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” Of all of the Bible verses that could be used, I was happy this one was chosen since it includes one of the most universal (as opposed to dogmatically-Christian) sentiments in the Bible, at least as it is widely taken by many people. The power and importance of love is a warm way to remember a mother, wife, daughter, sister, friend, and so many other roles she filled for the people she loved and who loved her so much.

But the pastor officiating the service did not leave the verse at this. In his message, he told my stepfather, me, and the rest of assembled grieving loved ones that my mother’s love did fail, and that our love for her also failed. He paused after each of these pronouncements, I presume to allow the full effect of his words to sink in. He then continued, saying that human love always fails, and that it is only Christ’s love that saves us.

I was shocked and infuriated that he would use those verses to deliver a message so dark and drenched in dogma at my mother’s funeral. My mother, despite any faults she may have had (who doesn’t have faults?), was perhaps the most loving person I have ever known. She very well may have believed some sort of afterlife, or specifically in heaven, or even in Christ’s saving love for her. But there isn’t anyone in that room who knew my mother who would actually think she would have approved of a pastor telling her husband and children that her love had failed us, and that our love had failed her. It felt like a hijacking of her funeral.

Fortunately, immediately after the service, when the funeral director was giving directions to the cemetery, he added a few much more positive words to end on a more upbeat and compassionate note. It was still a Christian message, but focused on life and death in nature, and love and memories. A few family members mentioned afterwards that they thought the pastor’s words were overly dark and “depressing.” So even some devout believers felt that message was just too much and inappropriate, although they didn’t put it in those words. My wife also agreed with this and we talked about it briefly. It gave me some comfort to know that I have loved ones who are not totally blinded by what was surely a valid, though cruelly heartless and insensitive, interpretation of their religion at my mother’s funeral.

But here’s what’s most important: I don’t feel the pastor, despite his best efforts to evangelize instead of comfort, ruined the commemoration and celebration of my mother’s life and love. In spite of the pastor’s words, and how difficult her sudden death has been on me and on my family, how much she’ll miss, how much we’ll miss her, there is something that comforts me. Not religion, but love. My mother is dead. But my mom loved me, and as long as I live, I will love her. Life ends, but love never fails.

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Woman sentenced to death by stoning

An Iranian woman, after already being lashed 99 times for adultery, has now been sentenced to be stoned to death. It’s hard to believe such barbaric punishment can occur in the 21st century, but Sakineh Mohammadie Ashtiani, who is a 42-year-old mother, has exhausted all her legal options and could be put to death any day for her alleged crime.

According to CNN

Ashtiani, 42, will be buried up to her chest, according to an Amnesty International report citing the Iranian penal code. The stones that will be hurled at her will be large enough to cause pain but not so large as to kill her immediately.

People continued to be cruelly tortured and killed like this because of religious dogma. Some Muslim apologists claim that since stoning for adultery isn’t in the Koran, that it’s not an Islamic but rather a cultural practice. While it’s true that the Koran doesn’t condone stoning for adultery, it is condoned in hadith writings which are meant to interpret and give guidance to Muslims about the Koran. While interpretation and application of hadiths can vary (notably between sunnis and shiites), the fact remains that this practice stems from Islamic tradition.

Even worse are the facts that

• there is no conclusive proof that the woman actually committed the crime she has been sentenced to death for.
• she has already been punished for her alleged crime (99 lashes), and

According to the Guardian:

Sakineh already endured a sentence of 99 lashes, but her case was re-opened when a court in Tabriz suspected her of murdering her husband. She was acquitted, but the adultery charge was reviewed and a death penalty handed down on the basis of “judge’s knowledge” – a loophole that allows for subjective judicial rulings where no conclusive evidence is present.

Amnesty International has a campaign trying to get Iran to abolish stoning, but there appears to be little chance it will work in time to save Sakineh Mohammadie Ashtiani or at least 10 other people who as of 2010 are awaiting stoning.

Debating whether or not there is a god may be an interesting intellectual enterprise, but in the meantime the horrible crimes committed in the name of supernatural beings goes on. Governments, no matter whether they claim to be Islamic, Christian, or secular, should not be punishing people based on religion.

Photo source: Amnesty International

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