August 15, 2012 - 10:22 am
Governor Mitt Romney’s most recent campaign ad focuses on one issue: President Obama and his relentless “war on religion.” As a Mormon, Romney should be able to recognize such a “war” when he sees one.

 

From the Utah War to the prohibition of polygamy, Mormons have dealt with religious discrimination for many years. Can Obama’s policies regarding religion really be called a “war,” and thus be equated with other past and present instances of religious persecution? The answer is no.

Of course, Mitt Romney is hardly the first person to accuse Barack Obama of attacking religious tradition in the United States. Texas Gov. Rick Perry ran a prominent ad during the Republican primary in which he promised to protect the country against “liberal attacks on our religious heritage” and end Obama’s “war on religion.” There was also Newt Gingrich, who on the campaign trail accused both Obama and Romney for the “attack on religion” allegedly brought on by their respective health care mandates. Gingrich’s rhetoric echoes that of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which routinely uses words like “war” and “attack” with regards to religion, and have even compared the President’s policies to those of Hitler and Stalin. While Romney began to use the term “war on religion” in April, this new ad features the issue more prominently than we have seen before.

At the heart of these recent accusations is healthcare reform. The announcer in Romney’s ad states: "President Obama used his health care plan to declare war on religion, forcing religious institutions to go against their faith. Mitt Romney believes that’s wrong." Presumably, Romney is referring to the fact that religiously-affiliated employers must include contraceptive coverage in the healthcare insurance packages they provide to employees. If there is a religious objection to doing so, the employees can obtain contraceptive coverage directly through the insurance company with no additional cost to the employer.

The government has a responsibility to respect rights of conscience and to balance those rights with the general welfare of the citizenry. Rather than engage in a conversation about this balance, the knee-jerk reaction by the USCCB— and now Mitt Romney—is to cry that a war is being waged. 

The endgame may be to raise a group’s public profile or win the support of certain voters come November, but at what cost? When we distort reality for the sake of posturing and politics, we also cheapen the plight of people who really do face intolerance and even violence because of their beliefs. Barack Obama’s “war” does not compare to the recent instances of religious persecution in Nigeria or China. Nor does it compare to the difficulties Mormons have faced in American history, or the slander, vandalism, and bomb threats that Muslims in Murfreesboro, Tennessee recently confronted as they prepared to open a new mosque. And then there was the tragic shooting in Wisconsin earlier this month—one of many acts of violence and discrimination that Sikhs have coped with over the last decade. In the United States there are people who really do face a “war” when it comes to peacefully practicing their religions. Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, and the members of the USCCB are not among those people. 

Hopefully, Gov. Romney will abandon this line of attack as the election moves forward. He has every right to advocate for his policies over those of his opponent, but to invoke a “war on religion” is to play into a false narrative that ultimately damages all Americans, religious and secular alike. 

 

 

 

 

July 20, 2012 - 12:41 pm
Across the United States, people are fighting to keep the institution of marriage separate from the controls of religious tradition. Yet, even in places that have largely shed religious requirements and embraced same-sex marriage, the fight for full marriage equality has not been won.


In the District of Columbia, only ordained religious leaders may perform marriages outside of the courtroom. Citizens that desire a nonreligious wedding have no option but to be married by a judge, and then they can have an unofficial second ceremony elsewhere.  This type of regulation is not limited to D.C., and even of those progressive states that have legalized gay marriage—Iowa, New York, and New Hampshire—all have similar restrictions on the books. There is no good reason that state governments should restrict the rights of secular minded people to be wed by the person and in the place of their choice.

Current D.C. regulations allow for individuals to apply for authorization to celebrate marriages.  However, as part of the application you must have a celebrant or leader from your church vouch for you first, and if you can’t, you are out of luck. Of course, there is a demand for secular weddings held in places that are more private or romantic (no offense to courtrooms) so some people find ways around the current law.  This can mean having a friend go through the free online ordination for the Universal Life Church, or contacting a Humanist celebrant to perform the ceremony (in some states even this is a challenge). But these loopholes are not a solution; they are an exploited crack in a biased law.

The District was right to legalize same-sex marriage. The next step is to change the law so that secular Americans have the same opportunities as those that choose religious ceremonies. In states like California, Massachusetts and Vermont, anyone over the age of 18 can apply to be a “Deputy for a Day.”  D.C. and other states should follow this precedent. By removing the illicit privileging of religion, a friend or a family member can preside over a wedding, and couples can define the location and style of their own ceremonies, for themselves. 

 

July 12, 2012 - 10:34 am
Congratulations to our member organization, the Secular Student Alliance. Last weekend at The Ohio State University, they pulled off their largest conference to date.

 

The Secular Coalition for America made the trip out from Washington D.C. to attend the event, and, like many other organizations, we set up a table so that curious conference attendees could stop by. While there were many notable moments and events at SSA Conference 2012, surprisingly, the view from behind the table was among the most inspiring of them all.

The students who approached the various tables at the conference may have been hunting for stickers, pins, and jolly ranchers, but they were also looking for something else: “So how can I help?” was the most common question heard. When over three hundred dedicated young people are asking what they can do to make a difference, there is a good chance that they will make a change in the future. Yes, they had traveled from all over the country to hear advice and learn from their peers and more experienced speakers. However, they also seemed ready to take the next step beyond listening to other people talk; they were ready to act.    

These students were all the more admirable considering the stories they would tell about why they were involved with secular issues. At school, at home, and in public places, many been subjected to discrimination of the sort that might cause less courageous people to be silent about their beliefs. From behind the table, I heard these stories, and watched friends help friends heal from hurtful experiences. 

The staff and volunteers at the SSA clearly worked hard to bring everything and everyone together last weekend and they all deserve credit for this year’s gathering. Many people simply passing through the Student Union approached our table, and expressed support for the movement. Some Ohio State students working at nearby shops were surprised and excited that an organization like the SSA was in existence in the first place. If anything, these are signs that SSA has plenty of places to expand, and that conferences to come will continue to build on those of the past. 

 

 

 

 

 

June 25, 2012 - 9:56 am

 

Now more than ever, the United States needs to change its laws surrounding religious subsidies. Last year, the state of Florida cut over $1.3 billion from the budget meant for public schools as well as $1.1 billion for police and firefighter pensions. If Florida had collected property taxes on religious institutions, the revenue would have been $2.2 Billion, almost enough to cover both of these budgetary expenses. In fact, the debate over religious tax exemptions has recently been distilled down to one number: 71 billion dollars. That’s the total amount that the government forgoes every year in religious subsidies, and clearly, there are places that this money could be put to use.

It’s not that religious organizations are unimportant to our civil society, nor should churches necessarily be stripped of all the privileges they enjoy. Rather, we should reform our tax law to ensure that churches really are doing good work with the money they are given. It will not weaken religious groups to put them on equal footing with the other non-profit organizations in our country.

The $71 billion sum comes from Prof. Ryan Cragun of the University of Tampa. He and his students arrived at this number by adding up the various government subsidies that churches enjoy (these include the parsonage exemption, income tax subsidies, and property tax subsidies among others).  Other charitable groups are also eligible for some of these benefits—the difference is that secular nonprofits are responsible for reporting their finances. If a nonreligious charity wants to maintain its tax free status, they must prove they are addressing the issues they claim to work on—such as poverty, homelessness, or health care. The American Red Cross, for instance, spends 92.1 percent of its budget directly on the needs of those it aims to assist.

However, the primary function of a church is not to provide charity as much as it is to address spiritual concerns. For example, the Mormon Church gives about 0.7 percent of its annual income to charitable causes. Other churches, like the United Methodist Church, give significantly more (about 29 percent of its annual income 2010). Yet, as the study’s authors point out, even if a 50 percent cutoff is used to determine whether an institution is primarily a charitable organization, there may not be a single religion that would qualify.

Even so, churches do not have to apply for tax exempt status; they get it automatically. Additionally, while all other 501(c)(3) charities are restricted in their political activities, churches go as far as to intentionally flout these rules, blatantly daring the IRS to take actions against them. This lack of regulation is especially troubling considering the $71 billion of government money at stake. Doesn’t the government have an interest in ensuring that a church is respecting its 501(c)(3) designation, and doesn’t the privileging of religious groups over secular institutions represent an unconstitutional endorsement of religion? 

Not everyone believes in the same answers to these questions. In a May 2012 New York Times opinion piece, Prof. Mark Rienzi, senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, responded directly to a prompt about religious tax breaks. He wrote that “What is good for religion is good for America,” and noted that religious exemptions (including tax laws) help churches remain independent from the government. These institutions then use their independence to act as instrumental forces for good in the public sphere. As evidence, Rienzi asks us to look at the history of the United States: From Quakers leading the charge against slavery to Martin Luther King Jr. and the SCLC, the whole nation benefits when religious groups share their beliefs with the American community.

With this popular line of reasoning, Rienzi manages to sidestep the question at hand. He swiftly frames his argument as a general defense of all religious privileges and thus avoids engaging the concern of tax exemptions in any detail (while also declining to mention any of the religiously informed bigotry of our past and present).

As a start, religious organizations should separate their charitable activities and finances from their religious activities and finances. This way, we can be sure that money is not being used for political or personal purposes. However, even this practical solution is unlikely to gain much traction in today’s political environment, because Rienzi and others fear that by keeping church financial records honest, we may encroach on the crucial “breathing space” that religious individuals and institutions need to exist. Ultimately however, a church that operates like any other charity will depend less on government exemptions and will be more likely to do work that does the most good for the most people in our society. 

 

June 6, 2012 - 2:45 pm

Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant knows that prayer in public school is illegal—but he wants it anyway.

In a graduation speech on May 29, Bryant said he believes that the Supreme Court will come around on the issue in a “moment of enlightenment”. In his speech to 300 high school seniors about the benefits of school prayer, he reminisced about the days of his childhood when such practices “built our character.”

In his remarks to the press, the governor noted that with multiple denominations, an appropriate prayer might be difficult to decide upon. Yet, a non-denominational prayer would do well to “let people know there is a God.”

Governor Bryant seems to have forgotten that there are specific reasons why the Supreme Court has set restrictions regarding religious activity in public schools in the first place. Our school system helps preserve the crucial concept that citizens should have the right to choose their own ethical beliefs, even if they stand at odds with those of other people. In an educational setting where attendance is required for the children involved, it is wrong for the government to privilege one type of religious belief over another—or over non-belief.

Instead, Bryant appears to display exactly the sort of narrow worldview that our laws are there to protect against. The governor is only concerned with reconciling the contending views within the denominations of his own Judeo-Christian belief system, and he does not seem aware that a non-denominational prayer will always ignore certain religious traditions, as well as those people without a religious belief—millions of American citizens who have every right to feel comfortable in public schools that are supposed to serve everyone.

Too often, politicians ignore the nonreligious, a group that makes up a sizeable amount of the American population. In fact, there are 40 million Americans who do not identify with any particular religion.

Students, like all other Americans, have the right to pray, but prayer should not be government sanctioned. This is because we have a separation of religion and government that protects all of us; nonreligious and religious alike.

Currently, Governor Bryant has no plans to pursue legislation to legalize school prayer in Mississippi, yet he continues to rationalize his position with the myth that the United States was and is a Christian nation.

Perhaps Governor Bryant should have spent more of his school days learning history rather than praying. Maybe then he would remember that many Europeans first journeyed across the Atlantic specifically that so that they could escape a government required religion.  He’d also do well to remember that in America, elected officials are put in place to represent all of their constituents—not only those whose personal religious beliefs happen to coincide with their own.

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