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.

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!!

The Good Friday Turtle stops by (while James Madison does a facepalm)

The yummy treats that the Good Friday Turtle (if he exists) might bring us next year!

Unlike Christmas and Easter, which unfortunately have become widely commercialized and somewhat secularized, Good Friday remains very unambiguously a religious holiday: specifically a Christian one. Very few people would claim that Good Friday is a secular holiday. There is no Good Friday Turtle that crawls around giving presents to good little girls and boys, no exchanging of Turtles chocolate and pecan candies, no TMNT marathons on TV, no playing of music from The Turtles (though “Happy Together” would make a nice holiday song!).

Although it’s nice to think about, no Virigina, there is no Good Friday Turtle. The only reason that someone would treat Good Friday differently than any other day is for religious reasons. It is a religious observance of the day that some guy named Jesus, who only some people believe was the son of their god, died on a cross before going to hell for a couple of days, after which he miraculously (magically) rose from the dead to go back to heaven. All this trouble just so daddy would agree to let some people up into heaven, while leaving the rest burn for all eternity.

Personally, and for the record, I like the Good Friday Turtle idea much better, but the Constitution says people have a right to believe that whole God-sent-his-son-to-be-tortured-to-death mumbo jumbo. The Constitution also tells us however that government cannot endorse one religion over another. So when the Shelby County Clerk in Tennessee reportedly closes on Good Friday, or the state of Wisconsin recognizes Good Friday as a holiday, these government entities certainly seem to be celebrating a Christian-only holiday.

So what’s the harm in these and other government agencies closing for Good Friday? What’s wrong with people having a day off or people having to wait until Monday to renew their licences? Giving this strictly religious holiday preferential treatment shows an official bias in favor of that religion (Christianity) over other religions or non-religion.

Despite what many religious folk claim, the founding fathers did not intend the US to be a Christian nation, unless you think the entire Constititional Convention did a collective facepalm once they realized they had accidentally left “The United States is a Christian nation” out of the Preamble. Doesn’t seem likely to me.


A photo of James Madison after realizing he and other founding fathers forgot to establish the United States as a Christian nation in the Constitution??

The country was intentionally founded with freedom of religion in mind. People may celebrate their religious holidays if they so please, but government is not and should not be involved. Holidays of other religions besides Christianity are generally not observed or usually even mentioned by government bodies, and this is the way it should be. An occasional nod to Jewish or Muslim holidays may occur, but they normally don’t shut down government just because some religion somewhere thinks a given day is important to their deity of choice. And that’s the way it should be.

Government agencies get around this issue for Christmas because it has now taken on a largely (if not predominately) non-religious life of its own. Few would dispute this fact, although many might justifiably object to it. The main objections to Christmas arise when government steps over the line and starts inserting Christian words and symbols into what has become a secular celebration. Easter has followed Christmas along the path to secularization to a lesser extent (with pagan and secular symbols such as the Easter Bunny, colored eggs, marshmallow Peeps); but since most government agencies are closed on weekends anyway, the issue of officially recognizing Easter by closing offices normally doesn’t come up.

But when government or government-funded agencies (schools, libraries, etc.) declare Good Friday to be a holiday and shut down in observance of that Holy Day, they are very clearly moving from secular celebration to religious observance. That’s something that government isn’t allowed to do. It wouldn’t be an honest argument to claim that Good Friday is just part of some sort of long weekend of a secularized Easter, since Christians obviously must separate Good Friday from Easter enough to want a separate day to observe it. Good Friday is clearly, in practice and by definition, a Christian-only holiday. One that most religions don’t recognize, and some people object to. I don’t want my government telling me or my fellow citizens (whether child or adult) that one religion’s primitive idea of human sacrifice to appease the gods is something to be respected and revered. And the Constitution has my back on this one. Religions can teach this, but governments can’t endorse it by saying Good Friday is a holiday.

Unless The Good Friday Turtle stops by Tennessee, Wisconsin, or elsewhere next year, bringing candies and presents for all, I expect government to drop Good Friday as a holiday and get back to the business of running the country, not promoting religion.

Source of Turtles image: http://www.candyfavorites.com/i/t_3822.jpg and facepalm image: http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/facepalm.jpg

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.

Barker visit, Part 2: roundup and personal reaction

Dan BarkerPhoto source : The Daily Helmsman

Here is Part 2 of my roundup on Dan Barker’s visit on December 3 in Memphis. In this part, I’ll mention a few more highlights as well as my personal reaction and thoughts. For Part I, click here. For an excellent recap of the Dan Barker event, read Oliver’s post (oliver_poe on Twitter) on the Mississippi Atheists website.

I’ve already mentioned in my first post much of his talk about state-church separation, so I will focus on other aspects here. Perhaps the most notable thing about Dan Barker’s talk was the fact that it was a fair-minded plea for state-church separation, filled with anecdotes, examples, and humor that could appeal to both believers and non-believers. While Barker does also talk on things such as Biblical errancy, his goal in this talk was not to promote an atheist agenda but speak on state-church issues.

A nice example of this were Dan’s arguments defending religious believers. (No, that is not a typo.) Unlike the exaggerated image of angry, close-minded atheists held by some believers (and too often painted in the media), Dan Barker made it very clear at several points that religious people do a lot of good in the world.

One believer argued during the Q & A that humans by nature are not altruistic, that we are selfish and introverted by nature. Barker countered that humans are actually very social animals, and that being empathetic and altruistic comes naturally to people. Barker said that Christians, believers of different faiths, as well as nonbelievers, are just as good and kind at heart. Because of this, he argued the human qualities of kindness and generosity “transcend” religion. Instead of just attacking religion, Barker was trying to find common ground among believers and non-believers.

Dan Barker also made it clear that he does not think that the government should go on the offensive against religion, just keep religion out of government. He cited the example of the much-mediatized solstace plaques that have been placed in a few state capitals (including Olympia, Washington; Springfield, Illinois; Madison, Wisconsin). The plaques, which state among other things that “There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell” are only placed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation in response to Christmas displays in state capitals.

In response to a questioner about the goal of such plaques, Barker made it clear that they are actually pleased when governments choose to ban all displays during the holiday season, which is what happened in Olympia after the FFRF’s plaque spurred a number of groups to post displays in addition to the Christmas one. Barker argued that banning these diplays was a victory since there shouldn’t be “religion OR irreligion” (emphasis his) in government buildings, including religious prayers.

He argued that non-believers deserve just as much protection as belivers both in Memphis and nationally. Using national statitics, he argued that few politicans would openly come out with policies that would discriminate against Jews, who represent a little over 1% of the population, while many politicians openly oppose atheists and agnostics, who represent between 9-10% of the population. The Memphis City Council, like all government bodies, should represent and support the rights of all citizens, not just believers. Instead of having Christian or other religious prayers at its meetings, the Council should neither support nor attack any religion. (As an atheist, he likened the situation of seeing councilmembers praying to seeing an airline pilot pray. A pilot should be confident in his flying skills, not asking for outside help to fly the plane. Barker joked that if he saw a pilot praying before take-off, he’d get right off the plane.)

Barker also mentioned the Founding Fathers, at a number of junctures: something that believers often do while trying to defend religious incursions into government. Barker mentioned the Jefferson Bible, for which Jefferson literally cut out with a pair of scissors all of the superstitious (miracles, etc.) parts of the New Testament. He said that while some founders were Christians, most were Deists who wanted religion separate from government. He said that as a believer, he used to think of the Pilgrims and Founders as being related to each other, when in reality they were separated by over 100 years and religious beliefs.

In order to address the fact that the Founders didn’t put the phrase “wall of separation between church and state” in the Constitution (Jefferson wrote this in a letter), Barker said that the concept is there even if the phrase isn’t. He gave other examples of phrases that aren’t in the Constitution or Bill of Rights that have become commonplace descriptions of the ideas found there: the words “Bill of Rights“, “interstate commerce“, “separation of powers“, and “checks and balances” also are not in the constitution either, but you don’t hear religious people criticizing those who talk about the Bill of Rights saying there is not such thing.

Barker did not completely spare religious teachings in his talk, however. There were a few critiques about religion, the majority of which were in direct response to questions attacking church-state separation or atheism. Dan Barker poked fun at the creation story in the Bible, which includes a talking snake (Barker, who is part Native American, mentioned that his tribe also had a snake myth). He also mentioned that Jesus clearly supports slavery in the New Testament, using it as an example in his parables (saying you should beat some slaves less than others) instead of speaking out against it.

Barker mentioned that Jefferson famously said that finding good in the Bible was like trying to find “diamonds in a dunghill.” Barker also defended his right in the public sphere to say that he finds the teachings of Christianity, and the Christian god, to be morally offensive, in particular the idea that humans are by nature unclean and sinful. He said that real life debunks this notion, that we see headlines of criminals in the paper (of which religious leaders aren’t exempt, he pointed out) because they are exceptions to the norm. If that’s how everyone was, then it wouldn’t be news. He also cited studies have shown that countries that are generally areligious, such as Nordic countries, often rank as the happiest and least plagued by crime and other social problems.

There is more I could comment on, but I think that sums up the main points of interest about the talk that weren’t covered in my first post or Oliver’s post.

I have a personal confession to make: I am somewhat of an admirer of Dan Barker. I was very religious when I was younger, and can identify with Dan Barker’s journey from belief to unbelief. My grandmother thought I would be good pastor material, and I seriously considered becoming a pastor. So when I first heard about Dan Barker, a minister-turned-atheist, his story really hit home with me. I’ve read his book godless, am a faithful (or faithless) listener of Freethought Radio, and have listened to and viewed many of his talks and debates online. So I was very much looking forward to seeing what he had to say about the Memphis situation, and state-church separation in general.

After the talk, I waited in line to meet Dan Barker. He talked to me briefly and was very personable both to me and the people who were in line ahead of me (he even gave out a free copy of his book to someone!). I asked him to sign my copy of his book, and I mentioned to him that I am a member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. I had a bookmark “Imagine No Religion“, which FFRF had sent me for free when I ordered his book from them. I showed it to him and the person next to me said she thought at first I was trying to give him a religious tract!

Since I am not “out” as an atheist, except to my wife, standing in line in a public venue to meet Dan Barker and have him sign a book entitled “godless” for me was a big, and somewhat frightening, step for me. While I did not come out and say “I am an atheist”, it was the closest I’ve ever come to be open about my atheism in person. I told him my name for him to sign it, but I don’t think anyone there knew or recognized me, so I guess I am still officially in the closet for now. Dan Barker was wearing an “A” pin, part of the Richard Dawkins coming out campaign for atheists. Maybe someday soon I will feel comfortable enough with friends and family, and secure enough in my job, to be an open atheist, too.

How The Religious Right Stole Christmas

Americans UnitedSource: American United

I’m hoping to have time in the next day or two to post more on Dan Barker’s visit. In the meantime, here’s an interesting article from AU: Americans United (for the Separation of Church and State) about the so-called “War on Christmas” that the Religious Right bemoans around this time of year.

AU is not an atheist/freethought group, but they do actively support having a secular government, following the principle that church and state should be separate. (Fancy that!)

http://www.au.org/media/church-and-state/archives/2009/12/how-the-religious-right-stole.html

Dan Barker calls for Memphis Council to steer clear of prayers, keep church and state separate

Dan BarkerPhoto source : The Daily Helmsman

Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), spoke out last night in Memphis against the religious convocations given at Memphis City Council meetings, arguing instead for neutrality in government when it comes to religion.

Barker opened on a light note, excusing himself for starting a little late, saying he was looking for someone who could begin the meeting in prayer (he asked if there were any councilmembers who could assist). The rest of his talk, followed by over an hour of Q & A with both supporters and detractors, combined background on state-and-church issues across the country, personal anecdotes, and light-hearted humor.

Barker specifically addressed the Memphis situation several times, explaining that it was wrong on constitutional grounds for the city to include religious prayers in its official procedings since this constitutes government speech in support of religion, something not allowed under the First Amendment. Barker noted that the very phrase of the First Amendment is one restricting the rights of the government in terms of religion: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

In its complaint letter from September, FFRF noted that this year, nearly all of the convocations were done “in Jesus’ name” or with clear references to the Bible. According to Barker, convocations like those given at Memphis council meetings “crossed the line” by subjecting citizens to prayers given by religions, more often than not “in Jesus’ name”. He also noted that the City Council website also contains a biblical reference, further indication that the Council is playing favorites in religion.

He addressed critics who claimed FFRF was trying to advance atheism in government, stating that FFRF is only seeking neutrality. He said as a former minister, he understood where some religious people were coming from, incorrectly seeing as an “attack” what is really constutionally-mandated neutrality in government.Memphis is not being called on to begin meetings with “God is dead”, for example, but simply that neither religion nor irreligion be sanctioned by government officials in the public square.

Barker made a distinction between the public square (where government and citizens meet) and the public sphere (where citizens express themselves). Government officials, just as anyone else, have the right to pray in church, talk about God, or exchange ideas on whatever they want to in the public sphere; however, once they are acting officially in the public square in their jobs as representatives of the people, government officials must remain neutral. Barker pointed out that City Council members are free to pray in their offices before the official session begins, but not during the session itself as an official act of government.

In response to a questioner who said that the founding fathers were religious and did not think government and church should be separate, Barker said that in addition to God not being in the constitution, the founders did not have official prayers at the Constitutional Convention. Ben Franklin made a motion at the convention to have prayers at the meetings, but his motion was not even seconded, much less adopted. Barker said this showed that while some founders in their personal lives were Deists or Christians, most of them wanted to keep church out of the government and let each person decide for themselves according to their own conscience what to believe.

Another questioner wanted to know what FFRF would consider to be an acceptable solution to the current situation, where the City Council holds prayers. Barker said preferably on constitutional grounds, there should be no prayers during government meetings, but he offered at least two possibilities. The Council could have a moment of silence if it were clear that the moment was not stemming from a ploy to get around state-church separation, which Darker said would prove difficult in this case. Another possibility was establishing a system where anyone from any religion or no religion could speak to the assembly on any topic; drawing names from a hat to determine who would speak, for example, instead of the current situation of chaplains being invited to pray.

Much more was discussed during the talk and the Q & A. A summary of additional topics discussed, as well as commentary on the event, will be posted in the next few days, so please check back. In the meantime, here is an article that is appearing in today’s Commercial Appeal (Memphis’ leading daily newspaper) about the meeting, as well as some previous posts as background (1, 2, 3).

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.

In God We Don’t Trust

File:Emancipation-Hall 1.jpg
Emancipation Hall of the Capitol Visitor Center, photo from Wikipedia

The U.S. House and Senate apparently need a refresher course in the Constitution. The Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) is happy to oblige by launching a lawsuit to block them from spending federal money to tell visitors to Washington, D.C. that we are beholden to God.

The House voted 410-8 late last week to prominently include "In God We Trust" in the new Capitol Visitor Center, as well as the Pledge of Allegiance (which claims we are "one Nation, under God"). They were following the Senate’s lead earlier in the week. In biased reporting, this Yahoo News / AP article only mentions why people voted for the measure.

Rep. Dan Lungren , R-Calif., sponsor of the measure, said the importance of religion goes back to the Declaration of Independence , which states that all men "are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights " […]

And yet, the Constitution — the United States’ founding document — does not mention any Creator. Were the Founding Fathers asleep at the wheel? Did they wake up afterwards and say "Oh my, we forgot to put God in the Constitution!" and then decided, unlike the first 10 Amendments, that they just couldn’t be bothered to put it in an Amendment?

Considering that the God references in the Pledge and the national motto didn’t appear until the 1950s, it seems much more likely that it was intentionally left out by generations of lawmakers. According to Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, the Constitution does not require anything religious, and omits it in places where some people think it is required (such as swearing on a Bible).

The Yahoo / AP article also states that:

The Congressional Budget Office estimated the cost of the engravings at less than $100,000.

It’s subtle, but "less than $100,000" makes it sounds like it’s not that big a deal. You could also so "almost/nearly $100,000" to make it sound like a big deal, or "under $100,000" to be more neutral.

As stated in the FFRF press release for their lawsuit (which, unlike the supposedly unbiased AP News and Yahoo News, is expected to promote a specific point of view), the Visitors Center is

"conceived as an extension of the Capitol rather than a stand-alone facility; the Capitol Visitor Center is intended to be and is the sole point of entry to the seat of American government."

So it’s basically forcing God onto people visiting the national legislature despite the First Amendment’s prohibition against establishing religion. The complaint also points out that 15% of Americans identify as non-religious, as I mentioned in a previous post .

In an economic crisis, is there really nothing better the government can spend less than/nearly $100,000 on than adding religion to the Visitor Center? That’s more than a lot of people (including me) make as a salary for a year, so I don’t think it’s small peanuts.

I’ll see if I can find out the 8 who voted against it (and find out who, if anyone, voted against it in the Senate) so they can get the recognition they deserve.

Election commentary—Not out of the woods yet

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Election commentary—Not out of the woods yet

So Palin was not elected VP after all! That is reassuring on a number of fronts, but especially as religion goes. She very well may have been the most openly religious VP ever had she been elected. And I truly believe she thinks the end of days is upon us and God is calling the shots to get us closer to Judgment Day. Scary that someone with religious views that extreme could get so close to being elected VP.

This presidential election was, as far as I can tell, the most religious in American history. McCain and Obama had a religious debate *before* the official debates, and the candidates’ religions came up frequently during the primary and general election campaigns. This is very dangerous. Our founders got a lot wrong (slavery most notably), but their decision to keep religion separate from government was a milestone in human history after millennia of bloodshed in countries around the world over whose god is better.

While I think Obama has the potential to do a good job as president, his change on a number of positions (most notably campaign finance) worries me. What else will he change his mind on? He seemed, according to a number of observers, to be mostly pandering when he would talk about the importance of faith in his life, the continuation of faith-based initiatives, and other religious matters. He may have been exaggerating or fibbing about his religion because he thought it would help him get elected. But this worries me, because I wonder: will he become "more" religious if it becomes politically expedient for him?

He seemed to be trying to please everyone. He has openly said his father was an atheist, and he claims his stepfather wasn’t very religious. But he claims his faith is very powerful for him. This would appeal to the religious: despite the faithlessness of his parents, he "saw the light" and become Christian. This would also appeal to atheists and the mildly religious, who would see him as being open-minded and exposed to ideas his father or stepdad may have exposed him to.

Some people, both religious and non-religious, say Obama used churches more as a way to get things done than actually representing his beliefs. Some freethinkers might find this to be a relief after 8 years of Bush in office and the risk that Palin would have been a heartbeat away from being president.

But I almost think it would be worse if it turns out Obama truly is not very religious or is areligious. What does that say about him that he would lie about his faith to get elected? A "necessary" compromise of his values? I certainly would understand on some level, being a rather secret atheist myself, but I’m not running for public office and do not lie to hundreds of millions of people about my beliefs. He either should not have commented on his religion (reminding people of the no-religious-test clause of the Constitution) or should have been upfront with the American people. If he’s a true believer, then I guess we’re getting what was advertised.

Whether he is a true believer or not, I don’t think we’re out of the woods yet regarding the increasing intrusion of religion in the public sphere. Religion is still likely to play a big role in the foreseeable future here in the US, and there is nothing in what I read or heard in Obama’s speeches that gives any indication that he would do anything to start working towards fighting the increasing presence of religion in our political system. The fact that more and more atheists and agnostics are coming out does give me some hope though.