April 7, 2014 - 4:20 pm

On Friday Salon.com published an article critical of the Secular Coalition for America's Congressional Report Cards, "Liberals are overlooking a major political ally: Yes, there's a religious left!" In the piece, author, Elizabeth Stoker, rightly pointed out the rubric of the report cards' "logic is open to inquiry."

Unfortunately, many of Stoker's points of concern inaccurately portray the basic facts of the report cards via misstatements, inaccuracies, or logical fallacies which beg for clarification or correction.

On Darwin Day
Salon says:
"It's even more bizarre to try to work out exactly what [the Darwin Day Resolution] would have to do with the separation of church and state."

The SCA asserts: The text of the resolution, H.Res 41, states "the teaching of creationism in some public schools compromises the scientific and academic integrity of the United States education systems." Using publicly funded schools to promote the religious belief in creationism is a textbook example of the separation of church and state.

Salon says:  "...it's absurd and insulting to imagine only non-religious people to be interested in the improvement of human life through scientific progress."

The SCA asserts: The Secular Coalition never stated, nor implied the bills we champion are only open to support from the non-religious, because that's not true. We regularly work with religiously affiliated allied organizations and continue to enthusiastically encourage their support for this bill. The separation of religion and government protects both the church and the state, which is why we work with religious organizations, including three of our own member organizations, The Society for Humanistic Judaism, American Ethical Union and HUUmanists.

On Health Care
Salon says:
 The Health Care Conscience Right Act, H.R. 940, is described as an attempt to "protect rights of conscience" as it would "signal the government's refusal to act upon individuals who, for reasons of conscience, did not want to perform a particular service. In that sense it's a clear-cut push for neutrality."

The SCA asserts: This bill, and this representation of it, continue the misinterpretation and misuse of religious freedom that has grown in the past few years. The truth is this bill exempts an individual from the requirement to purchase health insurance coverage if something they religiously or morally object to could potentially be covered. To be clear, the action required by the Affordable Care Act is purchasing insurance. The action religiously objected to is receiving various health services. These are distinctly different. There is no action which burdens religion to be exempted from here. The ACA is religiously neutral as written. This bill is not a push for neutrality, but a push away from it towards religious privilege.

On Religious Discrimination
Salon says:
 "That the SCA willingly aligns itself with symbolic legislation that takes a shot at religion writ large could, however, ultimately damage the prospects of the left as a coalition."

The SCA asserts: The Secular Coalition cannot align with "symbolic legislation that takes a shot at religion" as it does not exist. However, legislation that symbolically endorses religion is much easier to find. For example, the Congressional reaffirmations of "In God We Trust" as our national motto and "one nation under God" in the pledge of allegiance. Or possibly the 20 statements on floor of the House of Representatives honoring various reverends and pastors during the three weeks of March in which the House was in session. Pointing out favoritism is hardly an attack.

On Partisanship
Salon says:
"The breakdown of the lucky few who managed to score A's was telling: All were Democrats." "But based on the issues that appear meaningful to the SCA and the side they fall out on, it seems there's rather a political agenda tied up in their secularism, and it's a decidedly leftist one."

The SCA asserts: Correlation does not imply causation. The Secular Coalition is a nonpartisan organization. We reject political agendas, conspiracy theories and logical fallacies. The issues that are meaningful to the Secular Coalition are those which privilege religion by claiming a burden which does not exist; justify legislation with religious beliefs, not evidence nor reason; or send taxpayer money to houses of worship, exempt from any oversight or transparency. The political agenda tied up in these issues isn't ours. We will continue to recognize and thank whoever stands up to the monolithic religious-political complex pushing this agenda, no matter the party with which they are affiliated. 

 

January 31, 2014 - 3:38 pm

On Tuesday, President Obama gave his annual State of the Union Address. Recently, the Secular Coalition has been working more closely with the White House, including giving in-person input to encourage the recognition of nonbelievers and an accurate portrayal of religious liberty in the president's speech.

As a result of our work, the Presidential Proclamation on Religious Freedom Day, issued last week, recognized people of "no faith" and specifically included "atheists and agnostics" for the first time in over 200 years of Presidential proclamations.

In the lead-up to the speech, the Secular Coalition provided the White House with input on the State of the Union address. The submitted comments focused on areas in which secular issues aligned with the President's current policy agenda and covered issues of contraception coverage and false use of "religious liberty," the necessity of teaching evolution and fighting back against attempts to insert creationism in the classroom to provide a "high quality education," and recognizing the important role nonbelievers play in a religiously diverse country.

After all of our work with the White House, we were admittedly excited about this year's State of the Union Address. So, how did the President's speech do on secular issues? The results were mixed, but largely positive. While the president didn't specifically mention nontheists, he generally shied away from speaking about religion at all-which was one of our asks. He also made some key statements on issues important to the secular community, namely climate change. Here's how the President stacked up:

  • Someone needed it say it, and the President did. "The debate is settled. Climate change is a fact." And despite a spirited round of applause for his statement, there's an influential group of legislators who are not on board with what the rest of the country seems to recognize as settled science: the Republican members of the House Science Committee. This group has historically propped up false "scientific" debate and blocked legislation that would leave our children a safer world.
  • The President highlighted tax reform as a way to save money to invest in our country's infrastructure. His comment on "wasteful, complicated loopholes" focused on corporations; however, including churches and their "integrated auxiliaries" would raise billions for community improvement that helps all Americans, not just a select few. Addressing this issue would be simple: enforce the current tax exemption regulations against those churches that violate them. To make this possible, the current loopholes and protections need to be removed, creating a simpler and fairer tax code.
  • The President mentioned undoing the cuts to federally-funded research (including scientific research). Unfortunately, while this may be a priority of the President, this is a decision left up to Congress. Funding vaccine research and production is a core responsibility when it comes to protecting the safety and welfare of all Americans.
  • The President did mention religious groups during his speech once: he called on faith leaders (as well as business leaders, labor leaders and law enforcement) to act on immigration. The mention of religious groups understandably upset some in the nontheistic community, but we don't see this specific mention as necessarily negative. While not an issue of religion and government, immigration is an issue of community, hence the role of faith leaders. It is time for the secular movement to decide if addressing this issue is also important to the secular community. We do not need to agree, but as a community should discuss the moral, ethical, evidence-based reasons for immigration reform. If we want to be recognized as a community of invested Americans, we cannot stick our heads in the sand on issues that affect our entire country.
  • High quality education has always been a top priority for the secular movement. The skills highlighted by the President as crucial for the new economy, are skills the secular community champions: "problem solving, critical thinking, science, technology, engineering, math." By focusing on these skills, the President is implicitly speaking out against programs that would diminish them, such as vouchers, and curricula that include the teaching of so-called intelligent design.
  • The President continued his push, from last year's speech, for high-quality pre-Kindergarten. He was clearly unhappy with the lack of progress and enlisted coalition partners to help get it done. That list had two obvious omissions: faith leaders and teachers. Faith-leaders is an omission we are pleased with, as the Secular Coalition has grave concerns as it relates to unlicensed religiously-affiliated child care centers. Their existence puts children in harm's way and the idea that they would receive federal funds to do so is atrocious. Fortunately, this has not been the case so far. However the omission of teachers is more concerning. While the listed coalition partners, including elected officials, business leaders and philanthropists are certainly necessary to get the structure of a nation-wide secular pre-K system in place, the framework of that system should be evidence-based on best practices in education.
  • President Obama spoke directly to women in the workplace. Specifically, to workplace mothers and pregnant women. Without diminishing those issues, women who want to hold off on having children, temporarily or permanently, were left out. He said "it is time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a 'Mad Men' episode." What could be more outdated than debating birth control? An issue that was settled has now come back because employers want to tell their female employees to live their lives according to their boss' religion. If the President truly wants to "give every woman the opportunity she deserves," he will stand up against any and all attempts to limit a woman's access to controlling her body and her future.
  • The President spoke about our basic American ideals of "inherent dignity and equality of every human being, regardless of race or religion, creed or sexual orientation." There could not have been a more perfect place to mention religiously motivated discrimination, especially against LGBT citizens. For his statement to ring true, anti-discrimination laws that protect the LGBT community should not have religious exemptions. Far from being "regardless of religion", these special provisions hold religion in the highest regard, written into our laws as a valid justification for hate.
  • Finally, the closing to every major speech given by almost any politician was the same on Tuesday night for President Obama: "God bless America." While the sentiment behind it is less religiously motivated and more ceremonial, it still makes 22 percent of Americans suddenly feel the last hour of inspiration was not for intended for them. Statements like these offer not-so-subtle insinuation that America offers "opportunity for all" with the usual footnotes of "if you believe in God." The problem is the lack of a good alternative --one that will speak to the entire country and evoke the same sense of closure to the speech and patriotism that are intended by these words. While challenging, this task is accomplishable, and the answer may already exist.

While the President's speech on Tuesday wasn't a major win for the movement, progress is being made, and we will continue to do our part in strengthening the separation between religion and government until the day it's no longer a question.

 

 

 

October 12, 2012 - 5:05 pm

The news on “nones” is the latest hot topic.(1) Not just around secular movement water coolers, but in the mainstream media. Major newspapers read: “losing our religion,” “one in five Americans reports no religious affiliation” and “labeled ‘nones’ because they claim either no religious preference or no religion at all.” While the public focus is on the changing religious identity of the average American, the takeaway for elected officials should be this: the religious unaffiliated are a growing segment of the electorate. Here are five reasons why politicians can no longer afford to ignore us:

1. Constituency Take-Over

Not just the fact that 46 million Americans are right now religiously unaffiliated, but the rate of growth is staggering! In the last five years alone, the percentage of U.S. adults who are unaffiliated with any religion increased from 15% to just under 20%. With each election, the number of unaffiliated voters grows. The religious pandering that won elections in the past, won’t fly in the future.

2. The Young Vote

Much of the growth comes from the young unaffiliated crowd coming of age. A third of adults under 30 are religiously unaffiliated and the old notion that young voters don’t make a difference no longer applies. In the last two presidential elections young voters gave the Democratic Party a majority of their votes.(2) It is unwise to alienate your most supportive voters by ignoring their demographics.

3. We May Be Persuaded

Campaigns are clamoring to appeal to the coveted undecided or non-party-line voters. Nones have a higher percentage of “Independents/other” and moderates than the general public. Here they are, now appeal to them.

4. Ahead of the Curve

Look at the trends in public opinion on major social issues and you’ll see nones ahead of the curve of the general public. 61% of nones supported same-sex marriage in 2001, when only 35% of the general public did. But the public is catching up, with support now around 50%.(3) Pay attention to nones and politicians might again be an inspiration to society.

5. It Goes Both Ways

Almost one quarter of Democratic and Democratic-Leaning registered voters are religiously unaffiliated. The party that aligns closer with nones on social issues pushes them away with unnecessary affirmations of religiosity, like awkwardly forcing God into the party platform. 

Although religiously unaffiliated voters lean Democratic, the percentage of the Republican or Republican-Leaning registered voters who do not identify with a religion is growing. More than one-in-ten Republicans is being told by his or her own party that he or she is not a true American. Knock it off Republican Party, and you could court the 50% of nones who would rather have a smaller government with fewer services. Uphold the most patriotic and traditional American value of all, a secular government, or risk losing your fiscally conservative, religiously unaffiliated voters. 

Let’s hope politicians keep this advice in mind as they persuade Americans to select their name on the ballot.  Because when given a list of religious options, a large and growing number of voters have no problem selecting “none of the above.”  

 


(1) "Nones" on the Rise: One-in-Five Adults Have No Religious Affiliation, Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, October 9, 2012
(2) Young Voters in the 2008 Election, Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, November 12, 2008
(3) Changing Attitudes on Gay Marriage, Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, July 2012

 

July 30, 2012 - 2:45 pm

Catholic business owners claiming the contraception mandate violated their religious freedom may be celebrating too soon. On Friday a federal court in Colorado granted a Motion for Preliminary Injunction to Hercules Industries, Inc., a for-profit, secular employer engaged in the heating and air conditioning business, whose owners adhere to the Catholic faith. The injunction temporarily releases them from the requirement to provide contraception coverage in their health care plan. What's being hailed as a victory is no more than a ruling that enforcement of the mandate against Hercules Industries, Inc. will be put on hold until the trial. 

How can this be seen as a win? It's a win for the secular movement against those attempting to redefine the Constitutional principles of the religious clauses, as the Judge declined to address the validity of claims based on violation of Free Exercise or Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment. The court also noted this injunction applies only to Hercules Industries, Inc., and not to any other party looking for a religious loophole. The Secular Coalition for America is hopeful that when this case goes to trial the court will place the religious freedom of individuals, the employees, before the discriminatory desires of a corporation.  

May 24, 2012 - 11:21 am

Federal support for prayer at school board meetings has been introduced through resolutions in both the House and the Senate.(1 & 2) The resolutions make no attempt to hide that there is no secular purpose for school board meeting prayer, instead stating that "voluntary prayer acknowledges beliefs widely held among the people of the Nation." Neither the Constitution nor the courts have ever said the government is free to endorse a religion as long as it's the most popular religion. In fact, "indirect coercive pressure upon religious minorities to conform to the prevailing officially approved religion" was explicitly declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court when they struck down classroom prayer fifty years ago. (3)

Inaccurate and illegal justifications for school board prayer aside, the constitutionality of it hangs on the question of whether a school board meeting is more like a school-sponsored activity or a legislative session. This is an important legal distinction because religious intervention is prohibited at school-sponsored activity, while prayer opening legislative sessions does not always violate the Establishment Clause. (A bigger problem for another post)

The Supreme Court handles religious activity in schools differently because of the unique elements of the public school setting. Students are young, impressionable, and required to attend.(4) Additionally, public schools are particularly important to the maintenance of a democratic, pluralistic society. While the principle of separation of church and state, when applied to the public school setting, does not trample the religious freedoms of students, it does require that school officials refrain from any activity that promotes or endorses religion, including prayer.

The Supreme Court found prayers will unquestionably be perceived by students as endorsed by the school when they occur on school property, by a speaker representing the school, during school-sponsored events.(5) School board meetings are held on property own by the school district and school board members are school officials. They are school-sponsored events because actions taken by the school board, such as discipline or recognition of students or changes to school policies, are based upon and directly affect activities that occur exclusively in the public school setting. Prayers at school board meetings will be perceived by students as endorsed by the school and are prohibited.

The Congressional resolutions argue prayer should be allowed because a school board is more like a legislative body. The resolutions state that like legislative bodies, school boards hold sessions open to the public, their nature is not altered by the presence of students, and they enact policies that are given the force of law. Although these meetings are open to the public, their focus is not on regulating the public, but solely on school-related matters. Their proceedings are materially altered by the presence of students who wish to participate in the discussion of school-related matters. School board policies are direct communications to students to be enforced exclusively by school officials, not by or for the public. 

Opening a school board meeting with prayer has no purpose other than conveying the public school system's endorsement of religion. It is disturbing that both sides of Congress focused their precious time and resources to support an unconstitutional practice. Symbolic government actions in support of religion seem a lesser threat than other secular issues, but each one adds evidence to the false history that we are a Christian nation, which is why we must call them out every time.

 

(1) H. Res. 662

(2) S. Res 18

(3) Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421, 431 (1962).

(4) People of Ill. ex rel. McCollum v. Bd. of Educ. of Sch. Dist. No. 71, 33 U.S. 203 (1948).

(5) Santa Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290, 120 S.Ct. 2266 (2000)

 

 

April 20, 2012 - 3:09 pm

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) are appealing a recent federal court ruling that found unconstitutional the government authorization and funding of their religious-based restriction on services to help sex trafficking victims. Congress appropriated up to $10 million for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to carry out the Trafficking Victims Protection Act's purpose of providing services to victims of human trafficking. Despite the warning in its proposal stating the USCCB would not allow the government money to "provide or refer for abortion services or contraceptive materials for our clients," the HHS selected the USCCB as general contractor to administer these funds. As of June 2010, the government awarded the USCCB over $15.9 million.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts (ACLU) filed suit against the HHS for violating the First Amendment by allowing the USCCB to "impose a religiously based restriction on the disbursement of taxpayer-funded services." The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits the government from suggesting that a particular religious belief is favored or preferred. The ACLU argued the government appeared to endorse a Catholic belief by authorizing the USCCB's religiously motivated restriction on reproductive services that beneficiaries of the TVPA program would otherwise have received.

The USCCB disagreed, arguing the government's acceptance of their restriction was an accommodation of their religious belief, not an endorsement. The government is allowed to accommodate religion to remove burdens on free exercise of religion. There is no question USCCB's restriction was motivated by deeply held religious beliefs, but this is not a burden on free exercise of religion because there is no legal obligation mandating the USCCB provide abortion or contraceptive services. If the sincerely held religious beliefs of the USCCB do not allow them to fulfill the requirements of this government contract, they are free to not take the money. This is about the government authorizing the use of taxpayer money by a religious institution to impose its beliefs on others.

Still, the USCCB cries this ruling is discrimination against religion. Demanding the government respect the separation of church and state does not discriminate against religion. It respects religion by refusing to favor any one faith over another. In a statement about their decision to appeal the ruling the Archbisops William E. Lori and Jose Gomez quoted Justice William O. Douglas that "when government acts to accommodate religion ‘it follows the best of our traditions.'" In the same case where he wrote those words, the Justice also wrote "there cannot be the slightest doubt that the First Amendment reflects the philosophy that Church and State should be separated. And so far as interference with the ‘free exercise' of religion and an ‘establishment' of religion are concerned, the separation must be complete and unequivocal."1 The well reason ruling of Judge Sterns in this case upholds the First Amendment and should withstand this latest challenge.

 


1. Zorach v. Clauson, 343 U.S. 306, 312 (1952)

 

 

April 5, 2012 - 3:08 pm

Kansas' "Preservation of Religious Freedom Act" will protect discrimination based upon religious beliefs. Currently Kansas prohibits discrimination in employment, public accommodations, and housing on the basis of race, religion, color, sex, disability, national origin, ancestry or familial status.  The Kansas cities of Salina, Wichita, Hutchinson, and Pittsburg discussed adding the classes of sexual orientation and gender identity to their local anti-discrimination ordinances. The Kansas House of Representatives responded by introducing the "Preservation of Religious Freedom Act" to block cities from expanding their anti-discrimination laws. The bill passed the House on Thursday, March 29th, by a vote of 91-33. It is now being considered by the Senate as Senate Bill No. 142.

Protection of discrimination masked as a protection of religion is a dangerous expansion of an individual liberty into a justification for intolerance. The constitutional right to Free Exercise of religion is not unlimited. The freedom to believe is absolute, but the freedom to act on those beliefs is not. There is already a system in place for determining when Free Exercise rights are unconstitutionally restricted by the government. When an anti-discrimination law restricts an individual's Free Exercise of religion, courts compare the importance of the preventing that discrimination against the burden on the individual. The government cannot substantially burden a sincerely held religious belief unless they have a "compelling government interest." This test is used by courts around the country, including the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Kansas House of Representatives twists this balanced approach into an unfair fight by stating discrimination against a class not already protected is NEVER a compelling government interest. Therefore, even if a city determines an unfair bias against select individuals is important enough to the welfare of its citizens to be considered a "compelling government interest," this law restrains the city government from taking action. This doesn't protect religion, it protects discrimination.

Authorizing an individual to discriminate against others based upon a quality for which he cannot be discriminated against shocks the conscience. This bill will protect the right of a Christian to refuse to rent to a gay couple only because they are gay, when it is illegal for a gay couple to refuse to rent to a Christian because he's Christian. This bill will allow landlords to use religion to refuse to rent to anyone for any reason not currently protected: unwed couples, single mothers, LGBT individuals and couples, the list continues indefinitely.

This is not to say that every characteristic of a potential renter's identity should be off limits as a reason for exclusion. But the identities and prejudices of our communities are evolving. If a local government deems the protection of a class of individuals is instrumental to the public welfare, it should be able to provide those protections. The use of religion as a shield to defend discriminatory activities should be concerning for every American, but especially to those in the nontheistic community familiar with discrimination under the guise of freedom of religion.

 

 

March 22, 2012 - 5:18 pm

On Monday, March 19th the Tennessee Legislature passed House Bill 368. The confusing double negative language of the bill prohibits school administrators from prohibiting teachers from helping students critique scientific theories. Support of critical scientific thinking from the Tennessee Legislature is unexpected and inspiring, to the point of raising eyebrows and red flags. Like a leopard can't change its spots, but is a master of camouflage; the Tennessee Legislature refused to give up on religion in public schools, so they disguised it. In place of an explicit endorsement of religion, the legislature cleverly inserts a prohibition on prohibitions. This is not their first use of this tactic to subtly insert religion into the public school curriculum. The Tennessee Legislature succeeded using this method in regards to school prayer (TCA §49-6-1004. Moment of silence; prayer) and Bible study (TCA §49-6-1062. Nonreligious academic Bible study; influence on the arts).

If the purpose of the House Bill 368 truly is to encourage critical scientific thinking, then it is at best unnecessary. That is why a bill that gives science teachers more instructional freedom is opposed by the Tennessee Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Center for Science Education, the National Association of Biology Teachers and all eight Tennessee members of the National Academy of Sciences. Critical thinking is already an integral piece of science education. Analyzing theories through the scientific process is already taught in classrooms and science fairs across the country and in Tennessee.

Evolution is named in the bill, with global warming, as a controversial theory that requires more critique and review. Evolution may be a religious and political controversy, but it is not a scientific controversy. As the Tennessee Science Teachers Association stated in their letter to the Tennessee House Education Committee, "...the scientific theory of evolution is accepted by mainstream scientists around the world..."

By authorizing unnecessary and non-scientific curriculum changes, it is clear the true purpose of this bill is to introduce non-scientific alternatives, such as creationism and intelligent design, into the public school science classroom. Any form of religious education in public schools violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Despite multiple courts striking down Tennessee's past public school religious instruction mandates, the message that their actions are unconstitutional was not received. The Tennessee Legislature perceives the Establishment Clause not as a right or the law, but as a problem to work around. Using a double prohibition to disingenuously authorize critical thinking to slip non-scientific alternatives into the science curriculum is brilliant, in an evil genius way.

UPDATE: This is now the law in Tennessee. Governor Bill Haslam did not veto or sign the bill, but Tennessee procedure dictates that a bill will become law if the Governor takes no action on it. Governor Haslam's decision to neither support nor reject the bill bolsters the argument that the contention surrounding evolution is more political than scientific.

 

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