The religious right-wingers got their feathers ruffled again last week – this time at president Obama’s apparent lack of “God” in his Thanksgiving Address.
The President explicitly thanked God earlier in the week in his written Thanksgiving proclamation, in which he said, “As we gather in our communities and in our homes, around the table or near the hearth, we give thanks to each other and to God for the many kindnesses and comforts that grace our lives."
In his Thanksgiving Day internet address, president Obama also mentioned God, closing with "God bless you." His speech also provided a biblical reference, about being each other's keepers. But that wasn’t enough for some people.
"Holy cow! Is that one screwed up or what?" said columnist Sherman Frederick of the Las Vegas Review-Journal in a blog post. He was one of a host of commentators that attacked the President for his address. "Somebody ought to remind Obama (and his speechwriter) that when Americans sit down around a meal today and give thanks, they give thanks to God."
Actually, it’s time someone remind the President’s detractors that Thanksgiving is a secular holiday, celebrated by all Americans regardless of faith. Not every American chooses to give thanks to God in particular. In fact, there are approximately 50 million secular Americans, who may feel extremely grateful for the positive things in their lives, but not necessarily to a deity. Gratitude is not a religious quality—it’s a human quality.
Thanksgiving is the great American unifier of holidays because unlike Christmas or Easter, it is something everyone can appreciate and participate in, precisely because it is not faith-based. It is also a holiday that has its roots in the acceptance of those with different religious views, as the settlers used the help of the non-Christian Native Americans in learning to work and harvest the land in this new country.
What’s disturbing is not that president Obama failed to give thanks to God ad nauseum, but instead that the religious right sees every opportunity for Americans to be unified or inclusive of one another —regardless of religion— as an attack on their faith or way of life.
They continue to try to insert religion into every aspect and sphere of public life—from health care laws to mentions of God on public buildings. Now they want to edit the President’s speeches to include their particular brand of religion and intentionally exclude those who don’t agree. That seems like a very negative and self-centered thing to do on a holiday that focuses on outward projections of positivism, gratitude and pride in being American—with all of the values that implies.
Even sadder, these detractors attack as un-American the millions of people who are using their uniquely American rights to religious freedom—which includes the right not to believe. And isn’t that freedom of religion one of the things that makes this country exceptional and sets it apart from others?
The First Amendment, which guarantees these rights, exemplifies American exceptionalism. And on the secular American holiday of Thanksgiving that is certainly something to be thankful for.
The religious right-wingers got their feathers ruffled again last week – this time at president Obama’s apparent lack of “God” in his Thanksgiving Address.
No taxpayer should be required to pay for another’s religious education. But that is exactly what is happening in many schools across the country—specifically in Arkansas, where several preschools that offer religious training rely on tax dollars to operate.
Growing God's Kingdom in West Fork and Noah's Ark Preschool in Mountain Home are two such schools. The names alone should be a tip off to the curriculums, but here are some facts: In God’s Kingdom, Bible quotes are posted on the school bulletin boards and students and teachers are encouraged to proselytize to others. At Noah’s Ark children participate in daily prayers, and both schools offer Bible lessons daily.
Not only do these schools function with tax payer dollars, but in an even stranger twist, both are run by politicians—public servants who have sworn to uphold the U.S. Constitution, which in its First Amendment guarantees a separation of church and state. Growing God's Kingdom is run by Republican state Representative Justin Harris, while Noah’s Ark is run by Republican state Senator Johnny Key.
According to an article published last week in the Arkansas Times, God’s Kingdom receives more than $500,000 a year of state funds towards tuition for the school’s 110 students and receives nearly $900,000 a year in federal funds, including nutrition aid. Noah’s Ark receives $200,000 in public money a year.
The article continues, “Nearly 300 agencies — many of them with religious roots — receive $100 million a year in public Arkansas Better Chance funding to provide preschool for poor children.”
While Arkansas law requires that religious preschools be audited to ensure they are not unconstitutionally funded, no audits have ever been performed. Worse, Harris said he received an OK to offer religion instruction as long as it takes place outside of the mandated 7.5 hours of care required for each taxpayer funded child – a seemingly impossible task for a school with “God” in its very title. Not to mention that the very infrastructure of the institution is taxpayer funded – a fact that doesn’t cease to exist after 5 pm.
Arkansas isn’t the only state where taxpayers are forced to fund religious education. Both the federal voucher program that affects students in the District of Columbia, as well as other voucher programs throughout the states use taxpayer dollars to pay for student tuition at religious schools. Additionally, in 14 states religiously-affiliated child care centers are not required to meet many of the same health, safety and caregiver-training standards that secular schools must, yet still receive taxpayer funding to operate.
In a society that regards religious liberty as a core principle – one that is backed up by the very founding documents of the country—it’s unacceptable that any citizen would be forced to pay for religious training of another, especially when that training runs counter to that individual’s personal religious beliefs.
Not only do these schools favor religion over non-religion, but they favor Christianity over other faiths and in the process ostracize those in the minority. After all, how would the people of Arkansas – a majority Christian state—feel about their tax dollars going to a school that provided Muslim religious training?
The bottom line is, there is no way to ensure that Christian tax dollars go to Christian schools, Muslim tax dollars go to Muslim schools and atheist tax dollars aren’t used toward either. And even if there were, the idea would still run counter to spirit of the Constitution which states explicitly, that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion – that means one religion over another, as well as religion over non-religion.
American principles were designed specifically to prohibit individual taxpayers from financially supporting other taxpayer’s religious training. To uphold those very principles our country was founded upon, it is essential that programs like are put to an end.
Ireland--one of the world's Catholic strongholds--may have just elected an agnostic president.
From the outside, Higgins seems a little risqué for a country that in only 2009 passed blasphemy laws. But in reality, he doesn't seem to be raising too many eyebrows at home. During the Irish presidential campaign, four of the seven candidates committed to recognizing the rights of atheist and agnostic citizens if elected president. So it turns out that even in Catholic Ireland, Higgins isn't alone.
He certainly isn't alone on the world stage. Last year, Australia elected its first female prime minister, Julia Gillard, who is also an atheist. The prime ministers of Sweden and Norway are atheists, as is the president of Finland. All four countries ranked well above America on the Forbes' Happiest Countries List, and others similar studies as well.
Ironically it is in the United States-with its express separation of church and state-that religion and politics have a most unholy alliance. While in Catholic Ireland candidates openly express a desire to recognize secularists as equal citizens, here in "secular" America polls consistently show atheists are the most distrusted minority when it comes to politics, and candidates fall over themselves to prove their devotion to a "higher power".
Just last month, Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich said secularists--about 50 million Americans--absolutely should not hold public office and are not entitled to representatives who actually represent them. "How can you have judgment if you have no faith How can I trust you with power if you don't pray" he said.
Just this week Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain said God told him to run for president. He joins the ranks of fellow candidates Michelle Bachman, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum all of which have also said God told them to run, along with Gingrich who said God influenced his decision to run and would influence his day-to-day decisions as president.
Forget the No Religious Test Clause-at the heart of the 2008 presidential election was President Obama's faith, including questions about if he was truly a Christian and accusations that he may be a secret Muslim.
The president of Ireland is actively working to be more inclusive of all Irish citizens regardless of faith, while the leaders here often do the opposite, attempting instead to ostracize nonbelievers--as evidenced by the recent reaffirmation of "In God We Trust" as the national motto. Issues like these pit Americans against each other and deflect focus from working together to solve very serious problems in the day-to-day lives of citizens, such as the economy.
While the congressional approval rating in the U.S. is at an all-time low of 9 percent, by contrast, people in Finland--with its atheist president--overwhelmingly trust their government. Eighty-two percent of people in Finland say they trust their political institutions. Voter turnout in Finland--a measure of public trust in government and of citizens' participation in the political process--was 74 percent during recent elections, compared to 38 percent voter turnout in the 2010 U.S. election.
In Norway, which has the world's highest Gross Domestic Product, 93 percent of the people believe hard work will get them ahead in life and 74 percent say other people can be trusted.
While America's politicians focus on putting God into government, these other countries focus on the things their people actually elected them to do--create policies that work for the people--and they are happier and have more trusted, productive governments because of it.
America could learn a lesson from its European counterparts: it's time to let go of God when it comes to governing.
Laws aimed at denying LGBT couples the right to marry and be a family in the eyes of the law have an unintended and possibly unrealized effect—harming children in LGBT families.
An estimated 2 million children are being raised by LGBT families—a number expected to grow in the coming years. These families struggle due to religiously-based laws aimed at promoting “family values” while in reality pushing more children into poverty.
It’s another example of a fundamentalist view of religion being pushed, in lieu of the bigger picture. We see it all the time. For example, in Illinois, where Catholic Charities would rather shut down its adoption and foster care services, rather than comply with the state law that allows gay couples to adopt. We also saw it in the religiously-based House Resolution 358 that Congress passed in October. It is a law so stringent in its anti-abortion stance, it allows health care administrators the right to deny a pregnant woman life-saving procedures if it will harm the pregnancy—even if that pregnancy is not viable. In claiming to “support life”, the law could instead cause thousands of women to die unnecessarily.
These views and the laws that emerge from them claim to do “good” while simultaneously causing wide spread harm in other ways—an idea that seems morally corrupt, especially coming from those who purport to be practicing “moral values.”
The laws affecting gay marriage across the country are similar. In their insistence on pushing their religious agenda regarding gay marriage, marriage equality opponents aren’t seeing the bigger picture: the way the children are being harmed.
Last week, the Center for American Progress released its report, “All Children Matter: How Legal and Social Inequalities Hurt LGBT Families,” which detailed all the many ways that children in these families are failed by the system.
According to the report, LGBT families live everywhere—they are in 96 percent of U.S. counties. But more interestingly, they are concentrated in states you wouldn’t expect: Mississippi has the highest percentage of same-sex couples raising families. Other southern states like Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, Alabama and South Carolina top the list, as well as middle-American states like Wyoming, Oklahoma, Kansas and Montana.
Ironically, these are the states that offer the least protection for these families—with many same-sex friendly state laws concentrated in the Northeast. And those protections mean a lot.
Children raised in LGBT families are more than twice as likely to live in poverty and safety net programs often do not extend to same-sex families. These services include access to Social Security, Food Stamps, Public Housing, health care, early childhood education programs, inheritances and tax benefits that can cost same-sex couples thousands more a year than heterosexual families.
The CAP report compared two families—one heterosexual and the other same-sex, and found that the same-sex couple’s total financial burden was $219,000 more than that of the heterosexual couple.
But while the laws and inequalities were outlined in the CAP study, the underlying sentiment behind the laws that hurt families wasn’t mention —and that sentiment is religious.
Religious dogma is behind much of the bullying and the refusal to recognize LGBT families as families in the eyes of the law. Many of the laws that hurt same-sex families have been backed by religious groups and politicians who profess religious beliefs that affect their judgment, including the current federal law known as the “Defense of Marriage Act.” Proponents of laws aimed at LGBT families often cite the Bible as a key influence.
And despite that the highest numbers of LGBT families reside in the south, the “Bible Belt” is still the place that offers the fewest rights for these families.
Discussing the issue of same-sex marriage and its consequences on children last week, Rev. Dr. Dennis W. Wiley, a pastor of the covenant Baptist United Church of Christ in Washington, D.C., described the rights being denied to LGBT families as “venom all in the name of God.”
“One thing the faith community professes to be interested in is family, but even in the Bible it’s not a neat arrangement— all types of family configurations have existed,” Wiley said. “You cannot allow children to suffer over theological differences.”
And the U.S. Constitution agrees—for both children and adults. The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution extends “equal protection of the laws” to all citizens. By denying same-sex couples the right to marry, the federal government is treating the couples—and by extension, their children and families—inequitably.
Religious dogma has its place, and that place is not within the laws of our secular government. It’s time for these antiquated marriage laws holding back 2 million families in this country to be overturned. Furthermore, it’s time for law makers to look at the bigger picture of how these laws negatively impact families and children who have no say.
In the United States, every year an estimated 50,000-75,000 women and children are trafficked into the country and forced into sexual servitude. As startling as that number is, it doesn’t even include the hundreds of thousands already residing within our borders forced into the commercial sex industry.
Sometimes it’s a pimp that forces a runaway into prostitution. Other times, women and children are kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery by abductors. Often women are lured abroad with promises of good jobs and better lives, only to find themselves held against their will as prostitutes with no means of escape.
If a victim is lucky enough to get to help -- which 14,000 victims are each year-- they should be given every bit of care they need. For women who have been forced into sexual slavery, part of that critical care includes contraceptives, preventative care and even abortions.
But for years, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), while annually dispersing $2.5 million -$3.5 million dollars of federal money intended to help these victims, has prohibited subcontractors from providing – and even referring women for – contraception, condoms and abortion care solely because of USCCB’s religious beliefs. Because so many of these victims have been raped, forced into prostitution and sexually assaulted, these services are vital.
Although the government chose this year not renew its contract with the USCCB, the ACLU has appropriately filed suit to ensure it is never an issue again. For that, I applaud them.
It is another case of denying the most vulnerable women the care they need because of religious belief and dogmatic “morality.” The USCCB cites this morality as the reason they refuse to offer these services to women. But how moral is it to take away the choice of a young girl or a woman forced into prostitution— making her carry the child of her rapist? How moral is it to impose personal religious beliefs on a victim by offering only certain parts of critical care?
It is so often women who suffer when religion and government are comingled. This case is just one in a long line that represent the real impact on victims when the separation of church and state is blurred. In many states, it has become commonplace for rape victims to be denied emergency contraception if doing so violates the pharmacists’ religious beliefs.
And the problem is not confined to the borders of the U.S. In places like rural Ethiopia, non-government organizations (NGOs) often provide the only option for women and girls who need abortions. But U.S. policy has restricted NGOs from using even their own non-U.S. funds to provide legal abortion services, providing accurate medical counseling and even advocating for abortion reform in their own countries.
Women have the right to determine their own morality and to make the decisions that affect their lives. They have the right to determine which services they want and need — that’s especially true for women who have for too long had their choices taken away from them, while enduring the types of atrocities that these women have.
Ironically, many who advocate that public funding should not be used to offer these services because they offend their religious beliefs have no problem imposing their beliefs on others by limiting education and removing options.
It is impossible for the government to respect every religion equally, which is why the framers of the Constitution stated explicitly that it would make no law respecting an establishment of religion. Yet time after time, the secular government offers money to religious groups that use it to further their religious agenda. It’s time for the public funding of religious institutions to end.
The bottom line is that the church cannot be blamed for carrying out their message—that’s who they are and what they do. And it is their right to believe what they want and act accordingly.
It is up to the government not to give money to organizations that impose their religious dogma on the society at large. The separation of church and state exists for a reason— and that reason is so that Americans are not forced to finance and promote the religious views of one organization over another, or over non-religion.
In order to comply with our Constitution the government must be more discerning in whom it gives money to.
I applaud the government for not renewing its contract with the USCCB and the ACLU for fighting to ensure this never happens again.
Last week the Religious Right got together again for the Value Voter Summit—an annual gathering of conservative pundits and politicians.
This year’s event drew almost all of the Republican presidential candidates to D.C. to discuss among other things, “protecting America”, “championing traditional values”, and “limiting government”. Ironic, since a lot of what was said focused on removing the separation of church and state that protects Americans from religion— thus expanding the government’s reach into citizens’ personal lives.
It was a weekend filled with extreme, inaccurate and overreaching statements, and while it was difficult to pick out the craziest ones, here’s our take:
1: Voters Should Choose the Candidate Who is a “Born Again Follower of Jesus Christ”
"In a few months, when the smoke has cleared, those of us who are evangelical Christians are going to have a choice to make….Do we want a candidate who is skilled in rhetoric, or one who is skilled in leadership? Do we want a candidate who is a conservative out of convenience, or one who is conservative out of deep conviction? Do we want a candidate who is a good moral person, or do we want a candidate who is a born-again follower of the Lord Jesus Christ?” — Robert Jeffress, the senior pastor of the 10,000-member First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas.
This is the same guy who has said that voters should always support Christians over non-Christians at the polls. I guess he didn’t see the “No Religious Test Clause” of the U.S. Constitution (Article VI, paragraph 3), which states, “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” Or, maybe he just doesn’t care. If it were up to him, all office holders would be Christian. Unfortunately for him, not everyone agrees. In fact, he may have violated a tax law when he endorsed Texas Gov. Rick Perry on his church’s website, which could prompt an investigation by the IRS.
2. Rick Perry Says He’s Fiercely “Pro-Life” (But Only When It’s the Life of a Fetus)
"For some candidates, pro-life is an election year slogan to follow the prevailing political winds. For me, it's about the absolute principle that every human being is entitled to life." —Rick Perry, Texas Governor and Republican Presidential Candidate
Regardless of your stance on abortion, this is outrageous due to the sheer hypocrisy. Perry drew riotous applause at a September Republican presidential debate when he said he has “never struggled” with presiding over 234 executions — more than any governor in the modern history of the death penalty. Perry boisterously said he has no remorse even though he may have presided over at least one wrongful execution—that of Cameron Todd Willingham in February 2004.
3. Gays and Islam are the Largest threats to American Society and the First Amendment
“Just as Islam represents the greatest long-range threat to our liberties, so the homosexual agenda represents the greatest immediate threat to every freedom and right that is enshrined in the First Amendment.” —Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association
Interesting, considering that Fischer dislikes homosexuals and Muslims due to his religious beliefs and the First Amendment outlines the separation of church and state. You know, it’s that pesky amendment that states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Pretty sure that covers all religions (and the non-religious) —not just Fischer’s brand of Christianity. Fischer went on to say that the government should not “legalize” or “protect” “homosexual behavior”, and called on participants to reject “the morally and scientifically bankrupt theory of evolution.” More violations of the First Amendment he wants to “protect”.
4. The Separation of Church and State is “Mythical”
“No matter what you think of the mythical separation between the church and state, it is not possible for there ever, in the United States of America, to be a separation between God and government.” —Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association
Firstly, the separation of church and state is not mythical, it’s actually in the U.S. Constitution (that pesky First Amendment again). And second, not only is it possible, but preferable. That Fischer could call the separation of church and state mythical while citing the First Amendment is utterly ironic. What more can you say?
5. The U.S. Constitution is Based on the Christian Bible
Retired Army Gen. William Boykin said that parts of the Constitution are based on the Bible – in fact they were based on colonial sermons. In reality, several of the prominent Founding Fathers were anti-religion – especially when it came to politics. For example, Thomas Jefferson opposed religious institutional power and influence in all aspects of public and political life. And others, like Thomas Paine, didn’t believe in organized religion.
First it was doctors who wouldn’t perform abortions and pharmacists who wouldn’t fill prescriptions for contraceptives.
Several years back a Chicago police officer sought an exemption from an assignment to guard an abortion clinic. And most recently, a town clerk in New York state refused to sign the marriage license of a lesbian couple who had every right to marry under the recently passed state law.
In these cases public servants claimed religious exemptions from doing a part of their job under the guise of so-called "conscience clauses". In each case, “religious freedoms” of public servants have trampled over the rights of the people they took an oath to serve.
Many of the country’s conscience clauses were established after abortion was legalized to allow the religious to abstain from administering the procedure. But the slope has gotten more and more slippery as other public servants have attempted to expand laws that were once confined to health care issues, to all spheres of public life. And the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is one of the biggest proponents of expanding the coverage of “conscience clauses."
Advocates of the clauses believe they safeguard their religious freedom — that forcing a town clerk to issue a marriage license to a homosexual couple is a violation of the clerk’s rights as a religious person who condemns homosexuality as a sin. It’s a disingenuous interpretation that allows for anyone who wants to force their beliefs on others to call it “religious freedom.” And it’s dangerous.
These conscientious objections—not only in health care, but all spheres of public life—are not a simple matter of individual religious beliefs and rights, because they always affect someone else’s access to care or services.
While these individuals have the right to consider their religious beliefs in determining their own personal medical and social decisions, those personal beliefs cannot be forced on the public, as they pick and choose which services to provide.
As Americans we are guaranteed the right to freedom of religion, but that freedom is limited so that it doesn’t infringe upon the rights of others to do the same. The reality is that the individuals who claim “conscience clause” rights are discriminately denying the patient or individuals to whom they are denying care or services to, the right to practice their own freedom of religion—or non-religion. By denying public access to legally allowed services, they are forcing their beliefs on specific members of the public who don’t share their religious views.
For those who have been denied services, it’s downright insulting and can be humiliating. Such refusals of service may lead to additional costs in time and expenses to the patient or individual who must find a way to obtain the service or care another way. It is simply unacceptable for any one person’s religious view to infringe upon the rights and lives of others, whose choices they may not agree with — especially true in circumstances of public employees or organizations that accept any form of public funding.
New York Governor, Andrew M. Cuomo, had it right in his response to the town clerk who refused to issue the marriage license to the lesbian couple. He said, “When you enforce the laws of the state, you don’t get to pick and choose.”
It’s that simple. If your religious beliefs infringe on your ability to do parts of your work, then it’s time to find another job.
Religious freedom does not mean that you can ignore portions of your job, administer only the portions of the law that you like, deny services to the public based on your personal beliefs or infringe on the rights of another.
What conscience clause advocates need to understand is that freedom of religion is for everyone — not only those who share their religious views.
The Secular Coalition congratulates Christopher Hitchens on receiving the Freethinker of the Year award at the Texas Freethought Convention on Saturday.
Hitchens is one of the most well recognized voices of the New Atheism movement and a self-described antitheist. He has written several books, including God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, published in 2007, as well as columns for several publications such as The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, Slate, The Nation, Free Inquiry, and World Affairs.
Hitchens’ newest book, Arguably, a collection of essays, was published last month and earlier this year he was awarded a National Magazine Award.
In June 2010 Hitchens was diagnosed with Stage 4 esophageal cancer and due to health reasons has significantly narrowed his schedule and the number of public appearances he makes. However, Hitchens said he made an exception for the convention in part because it coincided with his move from England to the United States almost 30 years ago, to the day.
The award was presented to Hitchens by Richard Dawkins of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, which sponsored the award.
This year’s event marked the fourth annual Texas Freethought Convention which was co-sponsored by the Atheist Alliance of America.
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