The “prayer vigil” – dealing with state/church issues locally

As most of you probably know, the Sheriff’s department in Itasca County sent a letter out ostensibly from the department’s chaplain (who knew they had a chaplain?). The letter was on official letterhead and gave the clear impression that the “vigil” was sponsored by the Sheriff. The “prayer vigil” was to be held on November 21st at the courthouse and was scheduled to last 24 hrs. The praying was to “benefit” the law enforcement, fire department and medical first responders in the community. What benefits were to be received was a bit vague.

Since sponsorship by the Sheriff would constitute a state/church violation of the 1st Amendment to the Constitution, I contacted FFRF and provided them with a copy of the letter. They wrote to the Sheriff and other county officials advising them of the problem and requesting that the vigil be cancelled and the chaplain position be abandoned.

Nathan Bergstedt who was still with the newspaper did some interviews including the County Administrator in plans for publishing an article on the situation. He also interviewed me as a representative of GRAF. While there was plenty of time for the paper to publish the article about this prior to the 21st, the article never appeared, until this Wednesday, the 2nd of December.

The article was a bit late and out of date since the vigil either did not occur or was moved to some undisclosed location. Several GRAF members drove past the courthouse on the morning of the 21st and saw no evidence of any vigil although the street was partially blocked off and various equipment that might have been used was setup on the sidewalk and street. There were no signs indicating what happened with the planned vigil.

So, chalk one up for the county abiding by the requirements of the first amendment. Give the Herald Review a D- for waiting so long to publish “news” and neglecting to find out what happened. The community was left to wonder if the vigil was held, whether the county had responded to the FFRF letter and requests, etc.

Poped Out?

I will agree that the current pope is better than many of his predecessors.  But the new media are treating him like he is Christ himself (whom of course does not exist).  Does the pope’s visit really merit the wall-to-wall coverage he is getting from CNN, MSNBC, and elsewhere?  Do professional journalists really need to get starry-eyed and sometimes even teary-eyed over the visit of the pontiff?  And yes, it is true the Francis has shifted focus to social justice, do we really need to laud him for that?  Shouldn’t the Church have been focused on these issues long ago?  And the pope remains very conservative on women’s issues.

In short, though he is a step up from some of his predecessors, by maintaining the authority of the institutional Church, the pope remains an enemy of free inquiry and unfettered rational thought.

At any rate, I am feeling a bit “poped out.”  I am sick of hearing ad nauseum about every trivial detail of the pope’s visit to the US east coast.

Public vs. Private

Recently, Ben Carson, one of the Republican clown candidates for President of the United States, got in a bit of trouble for indicating that he did not believe a Muslim could be acceptable as president, or that Islam accords with the U.S. Constitution.

Islam certainly has lots of problems, and, while there are without question far too many Muslim extremists, I think I could handle a Keith Ellison or someone similar as president.  But why not just say this: in their capacity as private citizen, anyone should be able to engage in any religious practice whatsoever as long as it does not violate anyone else’s rights.  But in their capacity as government actor, elected or appointed officials are bound by the parameters of the Constitution.  They cannot use their power in the public sphere to impose there religious views on others or to inhibit lawful practice of religion or non-religion.  It really is not that complicated.  Yet, this principle is not understood by the likes of Kim Davis and her supporters, nor does Ben Carson understand the distinction.

It is too bad that right wing supposed defenders of the Constitution do not take the time to actually study it, and to understand the distinction between public and private.

FFRF repeats its request to the Elkington Middle School

As most of you know, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) wrote to the Grand Rapids School District in response to our notification that a poster advertising a “prayer time” in a classroom at the Elkington Middle School was on display in the hallway of the school. The poster identified a teacher and a classroom where the meeting would be held prior to the start of classes every Monday morning. Since the poster did not note that the meeting was neither sponsored or endorsed by the school district, it represented a church/state violation. It was also not clear that the teacher didn’t not actively participate or direct the meeting and this would further suggest a church/state violation. The School District had an attorney from the Twin Cities respond to FFRF and assure them that the poster would be corrected and that the teacher had no active role in the group.

A few weeks later at our monthly meeting, we learned that the poster was still on display with only a piece of paper tapped over the teacher’s name and none of the other requested changes. A photo of the poster was available and I forwarded this along with the other information suggesting the prayer meeting was still presenting a church/state problem. The FFRF attorney who had written the original letter to the School District has now sent a follow up letter noting that promised changes had not been made. He also noted that the School District’s mention of the Equal Access Act (EAA) raised further concerns since the EAA only applies to secondary schools and in Minnesota only the grades 7 through 12 are deemed secondary. Since the Middle School has children in the 5th and 6th grades, he asked for assurances that children of that age were not directly involved in the group as organizers or directors of the group. They would not be considered covered by the EAA.

We are now awaiting a second response from the School District and I will post that response as soon as we get it from FFRF. The failure of the School District to make sure that they were in compliance with the law suggests that they are not taking the problem seriously and may not have informed the teacher about his proper role and the limitations placed on teachers acting on religious beliefs while at the school and acting as an agent of the government.

Stay tuned.

Taking RFRA to its logical conclusion

From Daily Kos, we have an example of a Christian business man determining what sign he wants to put on the door or window of his shop so that he can freely exercise his religion in the operation of his business. Please note that there is no mention of LGBT discrimination in his notice. So he is not going to discriminate against gays so that’s not what the RFRA is about. He’s just going to follow his bible and demonstrate that he is an equal opportunity bigot against just about anyone.

They Had it Coming

Most readers of this blog follow current events very closely, and are therefore aware of the shit storm Governor Mike Pence of Indiana unleashed for himself.  Since most of us are aware, I will not rehash all the details, but it is clear that Indiana’s so-called “religious freedom restoration act” was designed to give legal sanction to anti-LGBT bigotry.  But attitudes in this country have changed, and Pence and others who supported the law are deservedly catching hell.  The RFRA in Indiana is not about religious freedom, it is about allowing conservative Christians to legally discriminate.  It is interesting that Governor Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas was prepared to sign a similar bill in his state, but balked when the CEO of Wal-Mart (among many others) voiced opposition to the bill. Finally, big business is using its power to promote the general welfare.

At any rate, I am posting this simply to provide a venue for anyone who might want to discuss the Indiana law or any related issues.  What does everyone think?

FFRF gets a response from the Middle School

Yesterday I received an email from Calli MIller, one of the legal staff at the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), regarding the response of the Grand Rapids School District to our complaint about a church/state violation. You can read about the details of the situation here. Briefly, a sign promoting a “prayer meeting” at the Elkington Middle School on every Monday morning in a teacher’s classroom. The FFRF sent a letter explaining the legal problems with holding a prayer meeting at the school without making it clear that it was not a school sponsored or directed activity since it is a public school. The bulk of the response to the FFRF letter is indented below:

“The ‘prayer time’ activity is a noncurricular, student-initiated, student-run club. Mr. Holsman’s role is solely supervisory. The club is in keeping with the First Amendment (Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause) and the Equal Access Act (EAA). Further, the EAA requires access during ‘non-instructional time’, which is defined as ‘before actual classroom instruction begins or after instruction ends’. 20 U.S.C. § 4072(4). Therefore, the timing of the club’s meeting is in compliance with the EEA.

The School District does not sponsor or endorse the ‘Prayer Time’; however, we will request that a statement be added to the students’ poster to clarify that fact.”

The letter was signed by Maggie R. Wallner

Calli Miller provided the following assessment from FFRF:

“We’ve received a response to the letter we wrote regarding a Robert J. Elkington MS teacher holding a “Prayer Time” event in his classroom every Monday morning.  A copy is attached for your review.  We completely agree that the complaint you reported violates the principles of state/church separation, but often hostile law and/or the specific facts make it difficult for us to take a legal challenge any further. That is the case here and, unfortunately, we are no longer able to pursue this complaint.  Even if this is not the outcome we were hoping for, we’ve alerted them to community objections and helped them understand that their community includes freethinkers—this might affect future decision-making.  Please do note, however, that the school is going to add a disclaimer to the “Prayer Time” poster affirming that the District does not sponsor or endorse said event, which is a positive step in the right direction.”

So, we got about as much as we could expect provided the School District is being forthright about what is actually going on. And, as Miller says, we have put them on notice that someone is paying attention. So, we need to be mindful that possible state/church violations are always lurking in various situations. In a town as awash in Christian religious organizations as this one, the potential for Christian privilege being invoked is relatively high.


Idaho.  It’s a fantastic state, the land of potatoes and…um, well there’s, no that’s, that’s not…but there’s, uh.

Well, that’s unimportant.  You see, a bit of hilarity has come creeping from the land of spuds, an odd little factoid about the state legislature.  Republican State Representative Vito Barbieri supports a bill that would prevent doctors from prescribing abortion medication through telemedicine.  Ostensibly, this is to protect women who may have negative side-effects from the medications, though lawmakers are in no way shy about admitting that this is just another step in making abortions harder to come by in Idaho.

In 2013, the then-Representative Ron Mendive asked if the American Civil Liberties Union if their pro-abortion stance also meant they supported prostitution.  That snippet was to show you what living in a state where, apparently, no one gives any fucks whatsoever about the concept of correlation.

While hearing testimony from a doctor who opposed the bill, and who had just made an anecdotal statement about how colonoscopies may utilize cameras to better give doctors an idea of what’s going on, Rep. Vito Barbieri asked the question–and I shall directly quote here–“Can this same procedure then be done in a pregnancy? Swallowing a camera and helping the doctor determine what the situation is?”

The doctor, presumably trying to hide her astonishment at the rampant idiocy of this man, replied that swallowed objects do not find their way into the vagina.

“Fascinating. That makes sense.”

Rep. Barbieri later tried to pass off this comment as rhetorical, but I don’t believe this spud-muncher for a second.  Not only is the comment asinine in context (the context supposedly being that he wanted to show the lack of correlation between a colonoscopy and an abortion) but it fits with the complete lack of knowledge of female anatomy Republicans so eagerly trot out.  I’m not saying this is on the level of Todd Akin’s belief that vaginas have shields against dishonest sperm (which may just be the nicest way of summarizing his legitimate rape claims) but it completely fits the prevailing theme with Republicans that, when it comes to how the female body operates, they have no fucking clue what they’re talking about.

Obama on Religion

So as I write this, Obama is speaking at the national prayer breakfast.  Some of what he says is laudable: he is speaking on behalf of tolerance an religious freedom, and he stresses the importance of humility.  He also is emphasizing the importance of separation of church and state, and affirming the right to have no religious belief at all.

That’s all well and good, and Obama is light years ahead of the cavemen presidential candidates in the GOP.  Still, there is a lot of god-talk and prayer talk, which in my opinion is very unseemly.  Perhaps we will someday get to the place where political leaders no longer need to kowtow to the religious.