November 8, 2012 - 3:56 pm

Pete Stark

Regardless of party affiliation, any elected official that serves his or her constituency for four decades should be recognized as exhibiting the essence of representative democracy. For all the talk of term limits, having one’s job be dependent upon a public referendum every 24 months would seem to offer just such a limit. Rep. Pete Stark of California, Congress’s only out atheist, saw his storied Congressional career come to a close on Tuesday when he was defeated in his quest for a 21st term. Rep. Stark was one of us, and not just by virtue of his nonbelief.

For almost two decades, we have let other groups and organizations work and succeed in defining nonbelievers as unpatriotic, lacking moral centers, and a pox on society. Yet Rep. Stark’s work on healthcare in the 1980s, his constant vigilance in protecting our men and women in the Armed Forces, and his care for the environment throughout his 40 years of service are an instant refutation of those charges. Some undoubtedly disagree with his politics, but none could question he was operating out of a deep love and commitment to his country. We may not know when he came to the realization that he was an atheist, but whether it was before his first election or after his 15th, his service as a Representative remained steadfast. He proved that nonbelief in a deity did not preclude a strong belief in our country.

Pete Stark was one of us. His departure from the U.S. House or Representatives is bittersweet. As we reflect on his loss we are emboldened by the apparent victory of Kyrsten Sinema in Arizona. An open nontheist, Sinema’s race was encouraging because her nonbelief was not a factor in her election. It was not used to slander her as un-American or suggest that she was unfit for office. Additionally, newly elected Senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin has not listed a religious affiliation during her time as a Congresswoman. Voters in Wisconsin looked to her record in the House, not to a biographical bullet point, to determine that she was qualified to represent the state.

Pete Stark was one of us. Reading his acceptance speech for being awarded the 2008 Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association, one is struck by his humbleness, his humor, and his gratitude at having the privilege of serving in elected office. Nonbelievers heal our sick, educate our children, serve in our military, raise families in every state and, yes, represent some of us in government. Nonbelievers are a part of American society and have been since its inception. The results of this election show that Rep. Pete Stark was not just one of us, in an important way he was the first of us. 

 

October 3, 2012 - 10:57 am

It can be difficult to find victories in the Secular Movement. From Florida’s proposed Amendment 8 to the Missouri legislature’s override of a gubernatorial veto of a bill that would prohibit women’s access to contraception on religious grounds, it can seem like losing is the name of the game. However, October 1, 2012 can now stand as a gold star day in the secular calendar, the sign of an unequivocal victory.

David Niose, President of American Humanist Association speaks to an overflow crowd at the SCA's first Capitol Hill Briefing.

Monday, October 1, marked the day that the Secular Coalition for America came to Capitol Hill and held a briefing to an overflow crowd on “The State of Secular America.” Staff from over 35 Congressional offices came to hear secular thought leaders and academics speak about the past, present, and future of the movement. In keeping with the nonpartisan focus of SCA, the staff members represented offices that ran the ideological gamut from the most liberal Members of Congress to the most conservative. 

The Secular Coalition has been in existence for just over a decade. In that decade we’ve grown from an iSCA's Executive Director, Edwina Rogers, after the Congressional Briefing. dea in the mind of our president, Herb Silverman, into a fully functioning lobbying organization that continues to gain respect and clout. We’ve seen one U.S. Representative identify openly as a nonbeliever.  We’ve helped coordinate a rally on the National Mall, in the shadow of the Capitol dome. And now, we’re establishing chapters in every state to focus on local issues that affect our constituency where they live, while continuing to keep an eye on the big-ticket federal legislation that impacts us nationally. Monday was just the next mile marker in this ongoing journey.

Victories can be hard to come by in this movement, but they’re there. October 1, 2012 is just the latest example. On to the next one…

 

Hear audio of briefing here.

 

More than 50 people from 35 Congressional offices attended the SCA's first Capitol Hill Briefing on the State of Secular America.

October 2, 2012 - 11:16 am

There has been much talk about the United States’ abysmal record on education. America spends more per student than any other developed country except for Switzerland, and to what end? For those critical of public education, one proposed cure for these ills is “school choice.” Private schools have long had a place in educating America’s youth. Indeed, for many years there were only private schools. However, looking at the makeup of today’s “private schools”, Secular Americans have every right to be concerned about the final destination of taxpayers’ dollars.

Of the more than 33,000 private schools in the U.S. in the 2009-10 school year, just over 68 percent had some religious orientation. And of that 68 percent, nearly half of the elementary schools and three-fourths of the secondary schools were Catholic-affiliated. Strictly speaking, if a family is looking for a private Catholic school then, yes, it is likely that choices abound.

The Rehnquist-led Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 in favor of an Ohio school voucher program in 2002 (Zelman v. Simmons-Harris). The ruling claimed that the voucher program was neutral with respect to religion because secular and religious schools were available to families. 82 percent of the schools participating in the Ohio voucher program had a religious affiliation. 96 percent of the students participating in the program were enrolled in religiously-affiliated schools. Nothing about either of those statistics suggests diversity.

From Secular America’s perspective, this is a blatant violation of the First Amendment. If 96 percent of families choose a religious school (in an area where 8 in 10 private schools are religious), how can that be anything other than government establishment of religion? And for believers who protest that eliminating these programs impinges on personal freedoms, I must ask if they would be so supportive if a school system had a voucher program where 8 in 10 schools were Islamic? (A near mathematical impossibility as only 0.7 percent of private schools in the U.S. is Islamic.)

Whether it comes in the form of a direct voucher or the “back door” of a tax-break for choosing a private school, advocates for public funding of religiously-affiliated private schools are increasing their calls for a seat at the taxpayer trough. Last week, the American Center for School Choice announced the formation of the Commission on Faith-Based Schools. At the very least we can be grateful that they’re coming out of the closet on their real goals. Because, while the American Center for School Choice may make little mention of religious schools in total, the “choices” available to a family looking for a nonreligious private school are few and far between.

The Commission of Faith-Based Schools intends to release a report next spring and subsequently convene a national conference. It will be interesting to see if they bother to address the First Amendment issues public funding of faith-based schools inevitably raises. Although the Supreme Court’s decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris argued to the contrary, voucher programs that allow religious programs to participate are an explicit endorsement of religion, and Christianity specifically. Sectarian schools have long been a part of America’s education history, but taxpayer funding of them has not. A debate can and should be had about our country’s public education system and what ails it. Unfortunately, as with every other faith-healing, religion won’t make the patient any better.  

 

September 5, 2012 - 5:18 pm

EDIT (6:00 PM EDT): Apparently we shouldn't. Delegates just voted to insert mention of "god" into the platform. The language is:

"We need a government that stands up for the hopes, values, and interests of working people, and gives everyone willing to work hard the chance to make the most of their God-given potential."

This mirrors a reference to "God-given potential" in the Democrats' 2008 Party Platform.


ORIGINAL POST

The Democratic National Convention has begun in Charlotte, NC and already religion has become a flashpoint in the coverage. Or rather, the lack of religion in the Democratic Party platform has. 

The newly adopted national platform for the Democratic Party does not mention “God”. Not even in passing. By comparison, the Republican Party platform mentions “God” 10 times (12 if you count the pull quotes they re-use in the document). This brings the national parties into almost exact parity with the Texas state party platforms, which the Secular Coalition has previously addressed.

A study of the American Presidency Project’s archives at the University of California, Santa Barbara sheds some light on the prevalence of “God” throughout the history of the two major parties’ platforms. What is perhaps most enlightening is that there appears to be no rhyme or reason to the frequency with which “God” appears in the respective documents. In 2000 and 2004, when the Republican candidate was a born-again evangelical Christian, the Democratic platform mentioned “God” more frequently than did the Republican platform. From 1964 to 1992 the Democratic platform made no mention of “God” at all. In fact, it is nothing short of a miracle that the apocalypse did not occur in 1972 when neither party mentioned “God” in its platform.

The truth is that 40 years ago, for one brief shining electoral moment, our two major party platforms accurately reflected that other important document in our nation’s history that contains no mention of “God”: the Constitution of the United States. Republican Vice-Presidential Candidate Paul Ryan has openly questioned the removal of “God” from the Democratic Party's platform, going so far as to say that the Democrats’ “purged” God. One would hope that someone vying to be a heartbeat away from the highest office in the land would be aware of Article VI of the Constitution that states that there can be no religious test for public office. Perhaps the Founding Fathers are to be blamed for the original “purge” since no deity is mentioned at all?

None of this is to say that the Democratic platform is a welcoming document for nontheists. In place of any direct reference to “God”, there is a lengthy paragraph about “faith”:

Faith. Faith has always been a central part of the American story, and it has been a driving force of progress and justice throughout our history. We know that our nation, our communities, and our lives are made vastly stronger and richer by faith and the countless acts of justice and mercy it inspires. Faith-based organizations will always be critical allies in meeting the challenges that face our nation and our world - from domestic and global poverty, to climate change and human trafficking. People of faith and religious organizations do amazing work in communities across this country and the world, and we believe in lifting up and valuing that good work, and finding ways to support it where possible. We believe in constitutionally sound, evidence-based partnerships with faith-based and other non-profit organizations to serve those in need and advance our shared interests. There is no conflict between supporting faith-based institutions and respecting our Constitution, and a full commitment to both principles is essential for the continued flourishing of both faith and country.

The secular community is no stranger to advancing the principles of this country. Our constituency serves in the military, educates children, shelters the homeless, feeds the hungry, and heals the sick. They do so for any number of reasons, and they should not be made to feel like their motivation is any less patriotic, any less important, any less American than any other citizen. The implication of the “faith” section of the Democratic Party’s platform is that faith is necessary to be or to do good.

Nonbelievers are members of each of the major political parties (and many others). They deserve to be recognized, not marginalized. At the end of the day, whether or not “God” appears any number of times in a platform, what remains true is that our secular government best serves the people when religion is truly separate from the state. Until then, the secular movement must gaze longingly toward a future that looks like 1972. 

 

August 17, 2012 - 1:56 pm

This summer has been record-breaking not only in terms of temperature but also in the number of times “religious liberty” has been mentioned in the media. From the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB)’s “Fortnight for Freedom” to presidential campaign ads warning of a “war on religion”, religious liberty (and its attendant synonym “religious freedom”) has become a catch-all encouraging a dramatic reinterpretation of the First Amendment.

While no comprehensive accounting of the total number of faith groups in the U.S. exists, it should be virtually unchallenged that America is the most religiously diverse nation on the planet by virtue of the sheer number of unique denominations. And as those denominations multiply, does that entitle religious institutions to greater First Amendment protections? Or, conversely, does it require society to more strenuously defend those social advances that have taken place in the face of religious doctrine?

In March of this year, a grocery store customer in Longview, TX claimed his civil rights were violated and he was mistreated because of his religious beliefs. The “belief” in question? He objected to an African-American bagging his groceries. The customer, who considers himself a practitioner of an early form of Hinduism known as Vedism, requested that someone other than the African-American cashier bag his groceries. When he returned to the store on a different occasion and again reiterated his objection to an African-American bagging his groceries, he was detained by the store management for the purposes of being charged with criminal trespass. Putting aside the question of whether or not the customer has a correct interpretation of Vedic beliefs, the more relevant questions are: is this what defenders mean when they speak of “religious liberty”? And should any state or federal judge be constitutionally bound to allow this practitioner the right to his admittedly discriminatory beliefs?

This extreme example serves to underscore the vigilance required in a pluralistic society. Enshrined in our Constitution - Article I Section 2 to be precise - is one of the most flawed passages ever to be ratified by a democratic republic: “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned…by adding to the whole Number of free Persons…three fifths of all other Persons.” African-Americans, the very same individuals who built the Capitol building that housed the government created by the Constitution, counted for only three-fifths of a human being. Scholars can debate about whether or not this designation was religiously based (although given that the Mormon church began allowing African-Americans to hold the priesthood beginning all the way back in 1978, such hypotheses would seem easily defensible), but the fact remains that numerous examples exist of society beating religion to the punch on issues of liberty and equality. The recent adoption of marriage equality into the Democratic Party platform is one of the most recent instances of American society outpacing religious doctrine in the social justice arena.

In fact, the “religious liberty” argument is probably best outlined by the marriage equality issue, even more than in the USCCB’s highly vocal opposition to the contraception debate. The First Amendment can and should protect religious institutions from performing a ceremony they feel is counter to their doctrine, but it should not be invoked to prevent the State from recognizing that ceremony if performed privately or by another religious institution without such prohibitions. The contraception debate becomes a more complex argument due to the nature of our country’s private health care system, but it still hinges on individual liberty. Employees of a Catholic university or hospital should have access to contraception, but are free to exercise their First Amendment liberty not to use contraception if they feel it is in conflict with their religious beliefs.

Like the case in Texas, whether or not there is agreement with a religious tenet, if the free exercise of a belief comes into direct conflict with another citizen’s individual liberty, society has every right to reexamine the application of “religious liberty”.

June 29, 2012 - 1:50 pm

Political parties exist to help provide a framework for policy advocacy and subsequent development of legislation. Many Americans, whether Libertarian, Republican, Democrat, Green or any other party affiliation likely believe that their respective party’s platform represents their views and they, in turn, can approach friends, relatives, and legislators to advocate for those views. But what happens if a political party’s views exclude the very individuals who would otherwise advocate for the platform?

The state Democratic and Republican parties in Texas recently released their party platforms for the 2012 election year. As expected, there are many differences of opinion between the two parties about the size and scope of government, the rights of individuals, the use of social programs, and education standards. They are the same differences that could undoubtedly be found on the national party platforms. What is interesting is the explicit presence of religion in the Texas Republican party platform.

In the 22-page document , “God” is mentioned 12 times. The Texas State Democratic Party platform – 41 pages, if you’re keeping score at home – mentions “God” once. While it might fit neatly into the opposing party’s platform, would anyone really think that the relative absence of the word “God” in the Texas Democratic Party platform suggests that an entire party is without faith?

Ultimately, however, this isn’t an issue of quantity. The Texas Republican Party platform’s explicit use of religion could run counter to their ability to find viable candidates for public office. What if there is a candidate for the Texas House who is Hindu? Or Muslim? The platform makes several mentions of America being founded on Judeo-Christian principles. Can a Hindu in San Antonio who might otherwise firmly believe that border security is essential to national security and that welfare should be reformed still be allowed to run as a Republican? Can a Muslim in Houston who thinks the Transportation Safety Administration should be abolished because he is tired of being harassed at airport checkpoints find safe harbor in the Grand Old Party? What about an Atheist in Dallas who believes that less government regulation will help her small business grow? The party platform would suggest the answer is “no”.

Political parties should be defined by the map they draw for the country or, in this case, a state. By excluding people of minority faiths or no faith, they are limiting the possible number of true believers to represent the party’s economic and social agenda. Democrats often tout their “big tent” approach to politics, and that comes with its own challenges in forming a coherent message. It likely goes a good way to explaining why their platform is nearly twice as long. Nevertheless, by remaining a faith-neutral platform, they invite the ideas of any number of believers and non-believers to develop their map for Texas and to represent that agenda in the state capitol. If the Texas Republican Party insists on making religion a defining feature of their platform, they run the risk of leaving many outside of their tent.

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