A Review of the First Amendment

Since in a recent post a possible church/state violation was discussed, I thought it would be appropriate for us to review the first amendment to the US Constitution.  It is very succinct:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

That’s it.  Short and to the point.  But despite the parsimonious language (or perhaps because of it), many Americans have been and are confused about what it means, so some analysis is in order.

First, though only congress is mentioned in the first amendment, it is important to realize that through the fourteenth amendment the restrictions placed on congress have been extended to all levels of government, not just the federal government.  So the argument that the Constitution only restricts the federal government’s actions with respect to religion is specious.  And, when it comes to public schools, they are part of government.

So, to the first amendment itself.  Notice that there are two clauses.  The first of these — “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” is typically referred to as “the Establishment Clause.” It is also important to look closely at the wording.  The clause does not say no state church shall be established.  It says no law even respecting an establishment of religion.  In other words, any law that even touches on government support of religion is prohibited.  And even little words are important in legal documents.  It is significant that the indirect article “an” was chosen rather than the direct article “the” when referring to religious establishments.  This is evidence that it was not only the prohibition of one national religion that was forbidden — if it were, the direct article would have been appropriate because it would refer to one instance.  But the indirect article — the word “an” — implies that the founders had in mind that any religious establishment be out of the question.  This becomes even more clear when studying the history of the United States before the Constitution.  Many states had “multiple establishments,” which required support for one or more of a variety of established and government supported churches.  So if anyone tries to tell you that the first amendment only prohibits a national church, you can tell them why they are wrong.

The first amendment’s other clause — the free exercise clause — protects the right of the individual to practice religion if he or she chooses.  With respect to schools, this means that individual students or teachers can pray, read the Bible, or whatever, as long as they do so on their own time.  But when a teacher is acting in an official capacity — when he is “on the clock” so to speak — he is a state actor.  So if he leads a prayer group — let’s just say — he is acting as a member of government, and thus his actions constitute an establishment of religion.  This is why it is not unconstitutional for students to pray on their own, or even for religious groups to use school property before or after school hours so long as they are not favored over other, non-religious groups.  But it most certainly is unconstitutional for a teacher or administrator to lead a prayer at the beginning of the school day, before a school-sanctioned event such as a football game, or what have you.  This is not the free exercise of religion, it is the imposition of religion (a n establishment) by a state actor (a government employee) on the public.

Further, if there is an appearance of official sanction of religious activity, the first amendment has been violated, because the implication is that a particular government entity is supporting religion, and support means establishment.  In many cases, all that is necessary is a simple disclaimer stating the the religious perspectives or activities in question in no way reflect any official position of the government entity (maybe a school) in question.

Enough for now.  But I suggest that as church/state separation becomes an ever more pressing issue for us, we should all brush up on our knowledge of the first amendment so that we are prepared for possible public controversy.

An Interesting Muslim Perspective

In light of the recent terrorist attacks in France and the ongoing tension between European Muslims and their secular counterparts, the Muslim mayor of Rotterdam, Ahmed Aboutaleb, has an interesting take.  He has said that if Muslims don’t like Western values, they should pack their bags — or words to that effect.  Read more here:


Church/State violation at the Middle School?

One of our GRAF members happened to visit the Robert J. Elkington Middle School a couple of weeks ago and was surprised to see the poster below in one of the hallways. Sorry, for reasons I have been unable to fathom, the posted image is very blurry. Click the image to see a clear version.


As you will note, the poster makes no mention of this being a student organized or led event. It seems much more clear that it is an event organized by a teacher named Mr. Holsman who apparently teaches a health class. The poster further implies that this is a school sponsored event. I have written to the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) of which GRAF is a chapter. Their attorneys are extremely busy and it may be awhile before we hear back. If they decide to take action, which seems likely, it will probably be in the form of a letter to the Grand Rapids school administration, the Principal of the middle school and possibly the School Board.

The stance of the FFRF is to always sweat the small stuff rather than let it slide by. Each church/state violation that is ignored provides a foothold for further violations in the future. I’m surprised that this poster hasn’t already been removed by the school, but only very slightly. We shall see what happens next.

British Muslims on Muslim Extremists

Here is a video I saw posted originally on Jerry Coyne’s blog. Since Jerry may not be widely read by GRAF members and others who may occasionally read this blog, I thought it would be worth passing along. I don’t have a lot to say about it since I think it speaks for itself. Below I will share a comment that kept rattling around in my head (besides the usual rattling sounds) while watching it.

I kept thinking that it wouldn’t be that difficult to replace any mention of Islam or Muslim with Christian; at least in this country. Some of the ideas are truly extreme and even barbaric, but if you pay attention to the religious rightwing in this country, you’ve seen and heard Christians expressing some seriously nutty stuff. It wouldn’t be hard to find pastors advocating the jailing or execution of gay people. Christians claiming that they are being persecuted and silenced. Nut cases praising those who have attacked and killed doctors associated with legally operating abortion clinics. The similarities between Christian and Muslim extremists who provide shelter for violent extremists are striking and scary.

A hope for the outcome of our conversations with the CPC and others would be the marginalization of extremism within this town’s Christians. Perhaps a vain hope, but a hope nonetheless.

GRAF Reading Group Meets Next on 2/3/15

Hi, everyone.  Just wanted to confirm the date for our next GRAF reading group meet-up. We’ll discuss “The Science of Evil” by Simon Baron-Cohen on Tuesday, Feb. 3rd, 6:30pm at Caribou. New participants always welcome to this informal discussion group. If you have questions or want to get on our e-mail list, send Amy a message at: fsm.gr.mn@gmail.com.

Evolution of Weird–Carnivorous Caterpillars

The wonderful thing about this kind of post (apart from the fact that it saves us all from my clumsy, ill thought-out philosophies) is that it’s basically endless.  I keep telling myself that this will be the end of “Evolution of Weird,” and then I immediately find another animal that deserves a spot.

Enter: Hawaii’s carnivorous caterpillars!


Any number of vicious Sci-Fi aliens come to mind

Most caterpillars are nice enough to realize that they’re already fairly unsettling, and snack on leaves, the loss of which cause absolutely no one to lose any sleep.  These caterpillars apparently decided that their wriggling bodies weren’t quite enough, developed spiked feet and flesh-rending fangs, and went on a murder spree.


I DARE you to watch gifs of these things!

Properly known as Eupithecia caterpillars; when these miniscule hellbeasts managed to make their way to Hawaii, they found an environment free of the murder-machines known as ants and wasps, which had, up until this point, been bullying caterpillars everywhere into squishy submission.  Naturally, something needed to fill the void, and as caterpillars already had the whole “look just like a plant stem” thing down pat, they were halfway through the “ambush predator” thing when they got there.

Not to be outdone, another Hawaiian caterpillar known as Hyposmocoma molluscivora (which is Latin for “foreshadowing” for those of you who don’t actually speak Latin…or was that Greek?) decided that pretending to be a stem and ambushing flies was for caterpussies.

“Molluscivora actually means “snail-eater”


The only known caterpillar that eats shelled animals–which is one caterpillar too many–Mr. Mollusk Muncher up there decided that he needed a far more terrifying hunting strategy.  After devouring a snail, these horrorpillars live inside the shell of their victim, and use their new home as camouflage to creep up on other snails, which, as you may recall, are about as smart as the slime they leave behind.  Because that’s still not horrifying enough, they wrap up the snail they catch spider-style, then clamber up inside the new snail’s shell, eating the thing from the inside out.

So Hawaii is home to horrifying yet tiny writhing, wriggling, flesh eating caterpillars…that sentence alone is incompatible with an all-loving god.






The Herald Review and Free Speech

So the Herald Review has an editorial expressing solidarity with those killed in the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo and affirming support for free speech.  This is great.  However, it is ironic that the HR expresses support for speech on controversial issues when it takes place somewhere else, but itself shies away from controversy, as the recent rejection of our LTEs and the position statement basically indicating an unwillingness to touch certain issues, such as controversy over religion, indicates.  Of course, the HR is under no way obligated to publish our letters or those written by anyone else, but that is not the issue.  Even small town newspapers ought to be bold when it comes to reasonable discussion of contentious issues, and as they stand behind champions of free speech who actually risk their lives in the name of free speech, one would hope the editorial staff at the HR would reassess their own weak -kneed and anemic policy.

An Act of Barbarism

In Saudi Arabia today, a blogger by the name of Raif Badawi was tied to a post outside of a Mosque and publicly flogged for the “crime” of insulting religion in a Facebook post.  Badawi’s suffering will not be over soon — he has been sentenced to one thousand lashes, and is scheduled to be whipped every Friday for twenty weeks in a row.  This is incredibly barbaric, and reminiscent of something from the Dark Ages.  That this can still happen anywhere in the world is profoundly tragic.

A broken record — Islam is insulted, and atrocities are committed.  Is this ever going to end?  F*** Islam.

Mohammed Can Go To Hell

Ok, so this is a politically incorrect post.  I am writing it in response to the killings in France, which appear to have been the work of Muslim extremists.  If that turns out not to be the case — well, I still will not retract it, because it is time to get beyond the idea that the West should be silent with respect to Islam. I believe that Mohammed is now nothing but dust, and I do not believe hell exists, but if it did, I would say it is a good place for terrorists who commit atrocities in the name of “the prophet.”

Islam might have seemed to make sense in the seventh century when it was new, but in the twenty first century, it is time to say that it is a bunch of nonsense.  The state of human knowledge has moved on, and it is time to relegate Islam to the trash heap of history.

Of course, I can write this in comfort, because it is not very likely that al-Qaeda or ISIS or other idiot members of Muslim terrorist groups are reading this blog, and even if they were, I am writing under a pseudonym.  But hats off to writers and journalists who work for major publications like Charlie Hebdo who risk life and limb as they try to shine a light on the dark corners of our world.