State-Church Separation (parody of “My Generation”)

Here’s my latest project, which I’ve just posted on YouTube. It’s called “State-Church Separation”, and is a political parody of The Who’s song “My Generation.” I wrote the song last month and just finally was able to finish recording and make a quick YouTube video. It’s a very nice coincidence that The Who will be doing the halftime show at the Super Bowl! When I found this out, it gave me even more motivation to finish this up and post it this weekend. (I’m an amateur singer and this is my first YouTube video, so please bear that in mind when viewing it or commenting!)

More and more, I’ve been reading about cases of government officials ignoring the constitutionally-mandated separation of church and state. I’ve reported on the Memphis City Council having official Chaplains of the Day who pronounce prayers, often in Jesus’ name, and get cuff links emblazoned with the city’s logo paid for at taxpayer expense.

Cases such as these, with the government promoting or endorsing religion, or even more egregious ones (such as a Mississippi police department trying to collect funds to rebuild a church in Haiti, saying “Jesus Christ [is] the answer for this life and the next”) are coming to light as more atheists, freethinkers, humanists, and other non-religious people are standing up for their rights. We are being marginalized in society, often by our own government at the local, state, and national levels.

This country was formed on religious freedom for individuals, not state-sponsored religion imposed on citizens. There are thousands of religious denominations in the United States, as well as millions of Americans who do not subscribe to any religious beliefs. The government should not be spending taxpayer money to support the religious practices of their choosing (nativity scenes, religious memorials, etc.). Our elected representantives, and other government officials, should not be holding religious prayers while doing government business for their constituents, many of whom may believe in a different god than that of the majority, or in no god at all. There is a time and place for everything. A church service is not the time or place for goverment business, and a city council meeting is not the time or place for prayer.

There is a growing movement of atheists and other freethinkers who are speaking out, and I thought a parody of “My Generation” might be able to capture this. Hopefully as more people speak out about this issue, public officials will realize that the rights of all citizens, no matter what religion if any they profess, need to be respected.

Should ministers have to pay taxes?

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Churches in the US are given a lot of benefits by the government, including tax exemptions on property tax, donations, social security taxes, and sales tax.

But did you know that preachers also personally receive hefty tax breaks from the IRS at everyone else’s expense? According to ABC News Sacramento, a lawsuit filed this week in Sacramento against the IRS, Timothy Geithner, & the state of California will help determine whether it’s legal for preachers to get a free pass on taxes that other citizens must pay.

According to the Freedom from Religion Foundation:

“Ministers, who are paid in tax-free dollars, also may deduct their mortgage interest and property tax payments. Under both Federal and California law, allowances paid to ‘ministers of the gospel’ are not treated as taxable income, unlike the situation for other taxpayers. Only ‘ministers of the gospel’ may claim these benefits”.

No matter what your stance is on whether churches should get tax exemptions, these ministers-only tax exemptions go even further. Unlike charity laws which give tax benefits to both secular and religious organizations, these laws give benefits only to ministers. In some cases, clergy even “double-dip“: they “deduct their mortgage payments and real estate taxes from income tax, even though they paid for these with tax-exempt dollars, amounting to a government subsidy solely for clergy,” according to FFRF.

In a secular nation, which has a constitution prohibiting the establishment of religion, it seems both illegal and unjust that ministers of any income get a free ride on taxes everyone else has to pay. Just like everyone else, some men and women of the cloth make little money, while others are multi-millionaires. So why shouldn’t they be taxed at the same rates as everyone else? The rest of the country shouldn’t be made to pay more taxes to make up for this unfair exception.

Freedom of religion should allow ministers to worship, not to cheat the tax system at taxpayer expense.

Court rules Texas man can sacrifice goats

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From The Freethinker comes the story of a man who battled in court for the right to practice his religion. Normally, I am for freedom of religion (as well as freedom "from" religion , of course), but there are stories that come up sometimes bring questions as to how free should people be in religious practices.

There have been numerous stories of children suffering or dying because their parents did not think God wanted their child in the hospital (here’s one tragic case recently that American Freethought reported on; a number of others can be found on whatstheharm.net ). Cases like these are all too common, and have been fairly widely reported on. Although I haven’t come across a poll confirming this, my general feeling is that most Americans would think it’s wrong to withhold critical care from children on religious grounds, even if some states have not caught up with the times.

But here’s another, stranger issue. There’s this case from Texas of a man suing for the right to sacrifice goats. According to the British magazine The Freethinker

In May 2006, [José] Merced and ten church members were preparing for religious ceremony that included an animal sacrifice when Euless police raided his home […] Subsequently, the city declined to issue a permit for Merced to conduct future ceremonies, citing rules against cruelty to animals, keeping livestock and disposing of animal waste.

In 2007, officials offered Merced a compromise: He could sacrifice chickens, which the city ordinance allows, but not goats, as he wanted.

Initially, a district court sided with the city in its refusal to allow the goat sacrifices. But a circuit court has just overturned the decision, which means Merced may be able to sacrifice goats again despite human health issues and animal cruelty laws, just because his religion (called Santería ) says he should sacrifice the goats.

Believe it or not, The U.S. Supreme Court has apparently already ruled on a similar case having to do with the Santería, finding that laws specifically targeting Santería animal sacrifices were unconstitutional. The difference here is that there appears to have been no law specifically passed to stop Merced or other followers from sacrificing goats; such sacrifices are just against laws already on the books.

As I said, I generally believe that people should be able to practice whatever religion they want. But what if the religion clearly negatively impacts the welfare of other humans and/or animals? If someone says their religion tells them to sacrifice goats, should they be allowed to do so even if it’s against the law? Who decides what animals should be sacrificed? I don’t see why religiously sacrificing a chicken is any better than sacrificing a goat in terms of animal cruelty, for example.

But then, if you disallow some religious practices, where do you stop? Should parents have the right to decide whether or not to vaccinate their kids if they think it’s against their religion? Can kids decide not to attend science class if they find it conflicts with their religion? Some issues would be more clear-cut than others, in my opinion.

I’m not sure what the line should be, but making an exception to laws for religious purposes seems like dangerous territory to me. I feel in general that laws should apply to everyone equally.