Date: Mon, 28 Oct 1996 12:15:51 -0700 Subject: [Atheist] AANEWS for October 28, 1996 A M E

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Date: Mon, 28 Oct 1996 12:15:51 -0700 Subject: [Atheist] AANEWS for October 28, 1996 Reply-To:, A M E R I C A N A T H E I S T S nnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn nnnnnnnnnn AANEWS nnnnnnnnnn #186 uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu 10/28/96 e-mail: In This Issue... * RFRA -- More "Special Rights" For Believers? * Stay Off The Bus, Oregon Atheist Warns * TheistWatch: Barbie Menances The Mullahs! RELIGIOUS FREEDOM RESTORATION ACT: "SPECIAL RIGHTS" FOR BELIEVERS AND CHURCH GROUPS? A decision made earlier this month by the U.S. Supreme Court to test the Religious Freedom Restoration Act once again is highlighting the emotionally charged question of state-church separation, and the issue of so-called "religious rights." Many religious groups and legal supporters charge that the the scales have been tipped unfairly against the rights of believers and in favor of state-church separation. Religious organizations differ on how they seek to remedy this perceived injustice; conservative groups support some version of a Religious Equality Amendment, although more liberal and mainline churches see that specific legislation as either unnecessary, or a violation of the intent of the First Amendment. Increasingly, though, religious movements across the political and theological spectrum are throwing their weight behind the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Congress passed the act in 1993 after the Supreme Court had ruled that governments could pass laws or enforce regulations even if they impinged upon religious exercise but applied to other segments of society. . That decision came in the case of Smith v. Employment Division, and involved the claims of a Native American religious sect that it should be permitted to use the hallucinogenic substance peyote as part of its ritual. Writing for the court, Justice Antonin Scalia -- in a decision which stunned many religious groups -- said that the Constitution only guards against harmful discrimination when a religious faith is discriminated against and given unequal treatment. Earlier this month, the high court announced that it would hear the case of St. Peter Church in Boerne, Texas. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese announced that it intended to demolish most of the present structure; city officials and preservationists, though, insisted that the building -- erected in 1923 -- was subject to local ordinances regulating historic structures. Boerne Mayor Patrick Heath compared the famous church to the town's century-old library and other structures. In the Boerne case, the court must grapple with two fundamental questions. The first involves the right of Congress to pass legislation which, according to some constitutional scholars, involves congressional intrusion into federal court decisions, and interferes with zoning and legislative powers of state and local governments. The other point concerns under what circumstances government has a "compelling interest" in placing restrictions and limits on religious exercise. For Atheists and separationists, the Boerne case raises a question at the root of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act -- should religious believers and churches have "special rights" which are not guaranteed to other citizens? Should certain believers be exempt from laws or other restrictions by virtue of belief, which non-believers (and even other religious groups) are compelled to follow? "Absolutely not," opined Ellen Johnson, President of American Atheists. "RFRA highlights the difference between those of us who see the First Amendment protecting state-church separation, and those groups who want to create 'special rights' for believers. Why should religious people enjoy special privileges which don't apply equally to the rest of society?" Johnson said that the group was "absolutely opposed" to RFRA, and added that "only people who think religious is a positive benefit to society would support inventing these special rights for churches." RFRA has attracted the support of many religious groups and even organizations which have been nominally concerned with state-church separation. The reaction against the Smith decision united the National Association of Evangelicals, Religious Action Center for Reformed Judaism, and even the liberal People for the American Way. The outcome in the Boerne case could determine just how far government can go in "protecting" religious exercise, or in granting churches and believers an extraordinary category of privileges under the mantle of "religious liberty." Right vs. Left RFRA is viewed by many as the "alternative" embraced by liberal and mainstream religious groups to a Religious Equality Amendment, a keystone for more conservative groups like the Christian Coalition. Two versions of the Religious Equality Amendment have circulated through Congressional committees for the past 18-months. The so-called "Hyde version", dubbed the Religious Freedom Amendment, was on the legislative fast track as late as July, 1996 when it was quickly introduced and then vanished from the political radar screen. Both versions of the REA would re-introduce some form of prayer and religious exercise into public schools and other government institutions; and supporters insist that the measure is necessary to protect the "religious liberties" of believers. More progressive and mainstream church groups, though, oppose the REA and see it as either coercive or unnecessary. Their solution seems to be a defense of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Should the court rule against RFRA, expect more pressure for passage of some kind "religious equality" legislation. Striking down RFRA may provide political ammunition for the Christian Coalition and other religious right groups for their argument that "faith is under attack" and that "government is actively hostile toward religion." Both the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the Religious Equality Amendment constitute attacks on First Amendment state-church separation, albeit from different ends of the theopolitical spectrum. Religious conservatives support a "pro-active" blending of governmental and religious ritual in the form of school prayer, religious monuments and displays on public property and stronger limits on public school curriculums which run contrary to dogmas in areas like sex education and evolution. Liberal groups appear to be demanding that government either create a category of "special rights" for religious practice, or limit the enforcement of certain laws in the case of religious belief and exercise. RFRA could conceivably be used to argue that churches maintain a special tax-exempt status, and not be constrained by laws and regulations which apply to businesses, private individuals and other sectors of society. ** "GET ON THE BUS" -- AND WATCH OUT FOR PROSELYTIZING! Imagine if a group of Atheists approached school children as they boarded a bus on the way to classes. Can you imagine the outroar and indignation from the religious community? Atheist activist Ken Courcey in Oregon, though, has a different situation on his hands. The following letter Mr. Courcey recently sent to the principal of a local school is self-explanatory; and we'll keep you posted on how this case develops... * "It is proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties..." -- James Madison, author of the First Amendment Dear Mr. Keegan, I was just handed a copy of your "Trent News" for September 19th by a concerned parent in your school district. Knowing of my interest in church/state separation issues, she asked "This isn't legal, it it?" and pointed to your announcement about children being approached by religious "volunteers" as they board the buses in the afternoon. My opinion, having studied many of the Supreme Court rulings in this area, is that what is being proposed is highly unconstitutional. Even under the rather general guidelines of Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) which state that for a government practice to pass constitutional muster it must first have a secular purpose; must neither advance nor inhibit religion; and third, must not foster excessive extanglement with religion, this practice would appear to violate all three prongs of the test. This practice clearly has a religious purpose, it is designed to advance and promote religion, and it fosters an excessive entanglement with religion since you have to announce the event in the school bulletin, choose which groups can participate, set limits on their behavior, etc. It would only need violate one of these tests to be unconstitutional, yet this practice would appear to violate all three. In Everson v. Board of Education (1947), the court reminded us that the First Amendment "has been interpreted by the Supreme Court to prohibit not only Congress but also the states and their subdivisions, such as counties and school districts, from inserting themselves into religious practices." The court goes on to explain that the First Amendment's objective "was to create a complete and permanent separation of the spheres of religious activity and civil authority by comprehensively forbidding every form of public aid and support for religion." It is precisely this objective that you violate with this practice. The federal courts repeatedly make the point that the school environment is special primarily because attendance is mandatory. This forces the students to be a "captive audience," and therefore extreme care must be taken to avoid coercion. Any sort of religious involvement must "be voluntary in the truest sense of the word. In order for any student to attend, it first would be necessary for at least one student to take the initiative and arrange the meeting. Any other student desiring to participate would then have to reject the various other secular activities availabgle to him and go to the room where those few other students who have a common interest would be meeting for religious activities." -- (Herdahl v. North Pontotoc Attendance Center, 1994) Clearly, having the meeting between students and the religious take place aboard the very bus they are required to take to get home is the ultimate in non-voluntary coercion. In addition, the Supreme Court decisions have been especially protective of younger, more impressionable children. The Lee court noted that "There are heightened concerns about protecting freedom of conscience from subtle coercive pressure in the elementary and secondary public schools." -- (Lee v. Weisman, 1992) Some practices which may be deemed acceptable at the high school level are therefore off limits at the elementary school level. It is the school's responsibility to ensure that the children do not get the impression that a particular set of religious beliefs, or even that religion in general, is being endorsed by the school. "This appearance (of endorsement) is conveyed when the government implicates that religion is 'favored,' 'preferred,' or 'promoted' over other beliefs." -- (Ingerbretsen, 1996) Certainly by allowing this to take place on school property, during the standard school day, you have given the imprimatur of the state to these religious schools. Would you allow representatives of the Atheist School, the Wiccan School, or the Satan Worship School to proselytize on the buses? I think not. And neither should Christian schools be allowed to do so. One might well wonder why can't the parents get this information directly from their churches if they are interested. If they are not interested, or don't even go to church, it would seem highly unethical of the school to enable religious "volunteers" to go behind the parents' back to attempt to recruit the children directly. This would certainly qualify as excessive entanglement on the school's part. I hope you will reconsider this practice, and notify the volunteers that in the future they may not use public school property to proselytize for their faiths. I would appreciate a timely response to the concerns I have raised... Sincerely, Kevin Courcey, President, Eugene Atheists and Freethinkers ** THEISTWATCH SHORT SHOTS Not to be outdone by their more fundamentalist Taliban counterparts currently running amok in Afghanistan, clerical leaders in Iran have identified the latest threat to religiosity and wholesomeness. It isn't the shennanigans of the CIA, or a military incursion from neighboring Iraq. It's Barbie. We refer, of course, to the famous (or, in this case, infamous) Barbie doll which despite being prohibited in this showcase of Islamic idiocity and repression, nevertheless has managed to slip across the border and display herself on the shelves of toy outlets even in the capital of Tehran. The "Barbie-at-the-prom" version sells for $40, while the fully decked-out bridal model is available for the inflated price of $700. Now, Islamic authorities have begun combatting the insidious Barbie by producing a pair of "mullah approved" dolls named Sara and Dara. Sara wears the traditional, Islamic mandated full-body covering known as the chador, a symbol of female "modesty" in a culture besotted with sexual repression and cultural authoritarianism. Dara is to be marketed as Sara's brother, and sports a long coat and turban -- costume favored by Iran's thriving class of mullahs, "religious scholars," and political Koran-meisters. The rationale for Sara and Dara is truly an experience to hear. Indeed, the dolls are the result of almost Stalinesque centralized cultural manipulation, the product of a herculean two year effort by the Amusement Department of the government-run Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults. Designer Majid Ghaderi charges that "Barbie is like a Trojan Horse...It carries its Western cultural influences, such as makeup and indecent clothes. Once it enters our society, it dumps these influences on our children." And we certainly can't have that, can we? Ghaderi also charges that "Barbie is an American woman who never wants to get pregnant and have babies. She never wants to look old, and this contradicts our culture." The government wants to pump-up demand for Sara and Dara by flooding their images into theatrical performances, cartoons and even computer games. The dolls have already been used as characters in elementary schools, but they have been unable to stop the competative power of Barbie. CNN notes that "dozens of Tehran shops display genuine Barbies, some wearing only a swimsuit," and that merchants intend to continue selling them. ** Well, the lesson here should pretty obvious. We're told that there are big differences based on exotic doctrinal points between the clerical regimes in Kabul and Tehran. Really? Does those quibbling questions about doctrinal succession to the Prophet Mohammed really made that much difference in everyday practice? Of course not. Scratch any clerical regime and you discover the same sorts of restrictions on free inquiry, civil liberties and personal choice. You find government -- under the command of priest-bureaucrats -- enforcing invasive and at often ridiculous religious edicts. You find the church and state working in concert to manipulate as many areas of personal and social existence as they possibly can. And it reaches the point of absurdity at times. Who would have thought that Barbie would become a practical argument on behalf of state-church separation? ** It might surprise you to know that, occasionally, aanews has encouraged certain religious leaders in hopes that their honest quest for truth and enlightenment may someday lead them toward a rational, Atheist perspective. Our latest candidate is the Rt. Rev. John Shelby Spong, "perhaps the most liberal bishop in the Episcopal Church" according to the Los Angeles Times, who has written a book suggesting that the life of Jesus is not based on literal fact. Like the recent papal declaration on behalf of evolution, well, tell us something we didn't already know, 'Rev. Atheists have long questioned the historicity of Jesus, and writers like American Atheist Magazine editor Frank Zindler have ground out reams of evidence which seriously question the proposition that any such man (let alone the offspring of some god) ever existed as a historical figure. Indeed, "Jesus" is most likely an amalgam of several would-be messiahs spiked with generous portions of folk legend and mythos, the whole concotioned occasionally massaged and regurgitated by successive waves of institutional church Councils and ecclesiastical hoedowns. Spong's lates work, "Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes," is "certain to outrage many Christians and be seen as an attempt to undermine the faith." He argues that scriptural writings have long been misinterpreted, particularly by religious fundamentalists who are "trafficking in certainties they cannot deliver." The gospels "were not written to be history," and many events and "miracles" contained in the new testament were intended as metaphorical lessons, not an accounting of actual events. While Spong admits that his faith in the "literal Bible" was obliterated during his days in religious seminary, he still hasn't managed to break away from the seductive appeal of religious mysticism; indeed, he tries to salvage some supernatural kernel from the rubbish heap of biblical literalism, arguing that Jesus, while a man, was some kind of "window" to a transcendent and godly realm. In this respect, Spong typifies the growing position of mainstream religious groups who retreat from literalism into a deeper, vague pop-mysticism, one emphasizing "spirituality" rather than the institutionalized church as it exists today. We encourage the Rt. Rev in his intellectual sojourn; he admits that he's been wrestling with religious concepts for years, but states "I cannot and will not give up being what I call a believer." ** The Vatican has a new nemesis, it seems. To the list of alleged social ills such as abortion, secularism and unbridled intellectual inquiry, add the most recent bugaboo -- stable population. Last week in Rome, the Vatican convened the third in a series of meetings about demography and the family under the auspices of the Pontifical Council for the Family. Previous sessions had been held in Latin America and Asia, where swelling populations still create an up-beat market of potential believers for Vatican creed-peddling. But in Europe, where many countries have embraced varying degrees of secularism, population rates are either stable or, in some cases, declining. Church number-crunchers lamented this situation, terming it a "demographic winter." Why would the church be concerned with such a situation? For starters, stable populations require an erosion in the more traditional cultural icons involving women and the role of motherhood. Smaller families -- or, worse yet, "child free" living arrangements -- are also a manifestation of the consumer-oriented, materialist culture which religionists on both ends of the political spectrum delight in raving about. And any step away from the traditionalist "nuclear family" smacks of toleration and social acceptance of wicked "alternative lifestyles." Besides, without booming populations, who's going to fill up all those empty and decaying churches? ** AANEWS is a free service from American Atheists, a nationwide movement founded by Madalyn Murray O'Hair for the advancement of Atheism, and the total, absolute separation of government and religion. For information, send mail to and include your name and mailing address. Or, check out our site on the web at You may forward, post or quote from this dispatch, provided that appropriate credit is given to aanews and American Atheists. For subscribe/unsubscribe information, send mail to and put "info aanews" in the message body. Edited and written by Conrad F. Goeringer, The LISTMASTER ( Internet Representative for American Atheists is Margie Wait,


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