Date: Mon, 28 Oct 1996 12:15:51 -0700 Subject: [Atheist] AANEWS for October 28, 1996 A M E
Date: Mon, 28 Oct 1996 12:15:51 -0700
Subject: [Atheist] AANEWS for October 28, 1996
Reply-To: email@example.com, AMERICAN.ATHEISTS@listserv.direct.net
A M E R I C A N A T H E I S T S
nnnnnnnnnn AANEWS nnnnnnnnnn
#186 uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu 10/28/96
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
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
"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
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
-- (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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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