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.

Dan Barker to visit Memphis, address church-state violations


Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor
from FFRF. Source: http://ffrf.org/radio

Freedom from religion is finally coming to Memphis! Well, I should say: Dan Barker from the Freedom From Religion Foundation is coming; since the City Council here continues its unconstitutional prayers at its official meetings, we’ll have to see if freedom from religion will soon prevail here.

Dan Barker, co-president of FFRF and author of the recent book godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists (foreward by Richard Dawkins), will be coming to the University of Memphis campus on Thursday, December 3, 2009.

Barker, who is a minister-turned-atheist, will be speaking about the importance of state-church separation — a particularly hot issue now in Memphis.

In September, FFRF lodged a complaint with the Memphis City Council over starting its meetings with convocations (read: religious prayers) and giving gifts emblazoned with the city’s official seal to religious leaders (see my original post here and a follow-up here). The controversy made the local media and has sparked some debate in town.

For now the city is continuing the convocations, and Council Chairman Harold Collins has said they would be willing to take the matter to court. It will be interesting to see what Dan Barker has to say on the issue. The FFRF has a long history of championing the rights of non-believers to have church and state separation, including taking a case against the White House faith-based initiatives all the way to the Supreme Court.

Dan Barker’s event will be held at Dec. 3 at 7:00 pm in the Rose Theater (470 University Center: map). For more information, visit the Campus Freethought Association website or contact Jason Grosser. I’ll also be sure to post any news on the Memphis state-church situation, as well as information on Dan Barker’s visit (including a report after the event)

Memphis council ready to go to court over prayers

Official city emblem on the Memphis City Council website. The Council gives cufflinks with this official emblem to Chaplains of the Day.

The Memphis City Council, under fire for allowing prayers “in Jesus’ name” and giving gifts to preachers at its public meetings, would be willing to take the matter to court if challenged, according to an article in Memphis’ top-selling daily newspaper, The Commercial Appeal .

The Commercial Appeal article fills in some of the details of the situation, including the fact that these invocations have been occurring for “almost 18 years” and that the goody bags given to each officially- appointed Chaplain of the Day includes “city emblem cufflinks and necklace pendants for spiritual leaders”.

On the one side is the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF), whose co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor said “They’re not separating their personal faith with their governmental duty. It’s really crossing the line.”

On the other side is Memphis City Council chairman Harold Collins, who defended the practice, saying “It does not alienate people who are not of faith […] They don’t have to participate in the prayer.” He states that the reason invited chaplains are Christians is because council members are Christian. If FFRF challenges the practice and threatens to sue them, Collins said “We’d have to see them in court.”

The Pro Tem Mayor, Myron Lowery, who is also a former council chairman, has decided not to step into the fray except to say that “I am not going to stop the council from doing what it’s been doing for years and to which I feel is to their benefit.”

I believe the case is even more clear-cut than I originally thought. In addition to the fact that most of the prayers are clearly Christian in nature, and the councilman admits that they invite mostly Christians, it also appears the Council gives these Chaplains cufflinks with the city’s emblem on them. This certainly could be interpreted as city approval of these chaplains, unless they give the cufflinks to anyone who comes by. There are also the “necklace pendants”. I wonder what these “necklace pendants” look like. A cross is a type of pendant, but no mention is made of this in the article.

In any case, it sounds like these gifts are specially given to the chaplains. The Council is using city money to reward preachers from one religion, Christianity. If that isn’t government endorsement of religion, what is?

In general, FFRF diligently pursues cities who make illegal sectarian prayers at town meetings. As I mentioned earlier , such official endorsement of religion has been found to unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court. The initial reaction of the council chairman does not sound like they are willing to find a compromise or re-evaluate the council’s practice in light of the allegations. If they’re unwilling to even attempt to fall into constitutional guidelines, it looks like they’re headed for a lawsuit.

Memphis does work “in Jesus’ name”, in violation of Constitution


Image Source: Tennessee Department of Tourism Development

Memphis, TN is the latest city to come under scrutiny for invocations “in Jesus’ name” at City Council sessions. The Memphis City Council joins a growing list of institutions which the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) has sent complaints to due to their unconstitutional endorsement of religion during official government business.

It is fairly common practice for city councils in the United States to open their sessions with an “invocation”. The Supreme Court has held that such invocations must non-denominational in nature. In other words, a government institution is not supposed to pray to Jesus or Mohammad, or favor one congregation or another, since this would appear to be supporting one religion over another and promoting belief over unbelief.

In practice, invocations at government meetings all too often turn into openly Christian prayers. Such practices clearly go against the Establishment Clause of the Constitution (which Thomas Jefferson described as “a wall of separation between Church and State”). As a resident of the Mid-South, I am sad to say that Memphis is unfortunately no exception.

Here are some examples of objectionable quotes and occurrences at Memphis City Council meetings this year which clearly seem to show the city choosing sides in religion. From FFRF’s News Release and letter of complaint ,

  • The Memphis City Council, at each of its general meetings, names an official “Chaplain of the Day”, giving them a certificate and a “goody bag” of gifts that includes cuff links.
  • Repeated references to praying “Jesus’ name” during and at the end of invocations, clearly showing a preference for Christianity.
  • A call by one Chaplain of the Day on June 2nd saying that “These legislative leaders you have allowed to sit at the table of decision now acknowledge the inability within themselves to fix these ills of society and they now recognize and depend on your sufficiency,” followed later by the Lord’s Prayer.
  • A quote from Psalms saying that “The Lord knows the ways of the righteous: but the way of the ungodly shall perish,” ending the invocation by saying “in the name of Jesus Christ we pray”.

These examples, among many others like them, clearly show that the Memphis City Council is not only preferring religion over non-religion, but Christianity over other faiths. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that invocational prayers at government meetings cannot be “exploited to proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other, faith, or belief” (Marsh v. Chambers , as quoted by FFRF). Under this ruling, the invocations cited by FFRF clearly seem to violate the Constitution.

I also have looked into this somewhat (audio archives of all Memphis City Council meetings can be found at http://memphis.granicus.com/ViewPublisher.php?view_id=2 ), and it’s clear that city council members are not only aware of these unconstitutional appeals to Christianity made by the Chaplains of the Day (who the City Council officially names), but council members sometimes even praise the Chaplains after making such statements.

The message is clear: as far as the council is concerned, Memphis is a Christian city. I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that Memphis, or any other city, should not be pushing anyone’s religion on city time and on the city’s dime. Just as churchgoers would not want council members to go into churches to make sermons about city ordinances, why should civic-minded Jews, Buddhists, or atheists be subjected to Christian dogma at city council meetings?

Memphis City Council joins the list of other government bodies (The Wisconsin Assembly and the city councils of Toledo, OH and Lodi, CA , among others) caught mixing religion with official business. It will be interesting to see what Memphis’ response to these clear violations will be. I’ll be sure to post any updates to this story as I find out about them.