A M E R I C A N A T H E I S T S
nnnnnnnnnn AANEWS nnnnnnnnnn
#201 uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu 11/20/96
In This Issue...
* Phoney FCC Petition
* Gingrich Probe May Determine Fate Of Religious Legislation
* Hyde Still In S&L Debacle
* Creche Controversy In Pittsburgh
* TheistWatch: Want To Pray? Go In A Closet!
CC MAKES IT OFFICIAL ~~ A HOAX IS A HOAX IS A HOAX...
An popular "urban legend" which warns that Atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair
is attempting to ban all religious broadcasting has been officially nixed by
the Christian Coaltion. In a website posting on Monday, the
fundamentalist-evangelical political organized labeled the widespread rumor a
"hoax," and warned that "Christian gullibility" threatened to undermine
other tenets of the faith, including the resurrection story.
The legend, which has resulted in an estimated thirty million petition
signatures and letters to the Federal Communications Commission, has been
going on since the mid-1970's. Last month, a fresh round of photocopied
petitions appeared in a number of states including Utah, Illinois, Indiana,
Ohio and Minnesota, and resulted in phone calls by private citizens, news
media and even congressional offices to the American Atheist center in
Austin, Texas. Director Spike Tyson declared that "we've given up even
trying to keep track of this thing. It's been in virtually every major
newspaper in the U.S. over the last twenty years, and I don't see any
indication that it will go away."
The petitions usually begins by telling readers:
"Madalyn Murray O'Hair, an atheist whose efforts successfully eliminated
the use of Bible reading and prayer from all public schools, has been granted
a federal hearing in Washington, D.C. The petition, RH2493, would ultimately
pave the way to stop the reading of the Gospel on the airwaves of America."
Readers are often informed that "One million signatures are needed" to
stop O'Hair's nefarious activities, and they are urged to copy the bogus
counter-petitions and circulate them among friends and groups.
As a result, the FCC has received a staggering amount of mail, and a
steady influx of phone calls each month.
An "Urban Legend"
The Great FCC Petition Hoax has become what social scientists describe as
an "urban legend," a contemporary folk-myth often transmitted verbally and
based on alleged second-hand accounts. Madalyn O'Hair penned a long article
about the hoax titled "The Phantom Phenomenon," which was carried in the
American Atheist Magazine.
Is there any basis, though, for the story of "Mad Madalyn" and her elusive
It all began in December, 1974 when two men attempting to assist minority
groups establish small, non-commercial radio stations mailed a "Petition for
Rulemaking" to the Federal Communications Commission. They asked for a
temporary freeze on the granting of licenses for religious and government
institutions until a study could determine whether existing noncommercial
educational stations were fulfilling their mission. FCC officers dismissed
the petition, #2493, on the grounds that the government should remain neutral
in respect to religion.
The story would have ended there, save for another then-unrelated
development. In several interviews to newsmedia, Madalyn Murray O'Hair --
the founder of American Atheists -- casually mentioned that the group had
recently sent out a mailing to 27,000 people on its mailing list. Petition
#2493, the issue of religious broadcasting, the infamous O'Hair name and a
mailing list of 27,000 Atheists suddenly got melded together; the following
year, some major religious organizations like the National Religious
Broadcasters, Inc., were circulating warnings like: "It has been reported to
NRB that 27,000 comments favoring the anti-religious broadcasting stance
taken by the petition were filed by the opponents."
The media quickly picked up the story, but exposing the whole affair as a
misunderstanding and hoax seemed only to fuel the angst of churches and other
religious groups. In 1990 alone, 1.4 million letters poured into the FCC
offices, and the Commission reports that it has spent over $1,500,000 on
salaries and other costs to try and de-fuse the rumor. The Chief of the
FCC's news division told Time Magazine that the hoax was like a "fire that is
difficult...to put out." And a historian in American religion noted that "To
evangelical Christians, (O'Hair) is considered perhaps the archenemy."
Christian Coalition: Reality Check, Image
The CC web posting is titled "Have Your Heard the One About..." and is
written by Douglas Trouten, director of Evangelical Press News Service. The
article also discusses other myths and "urban legends" popular within
fundamentalist and evangelical circles which have little or no basis. These
* Rumors that a film is about to be produced concerning the "sexual life
of Jesus Christ," where the god-man is portrayed as a homosexual. This rumor
is an embellishment of a 1977 magazine story; it resulted in 40,000 letters
pouring into the office of a state Attorney General.
* The claim that the Procter & Gamble company used a "satanic symbol" as
its logo, and that the president of the company appeared on a nationwide talk
show to state that P&G contributed money to the Church of Satan. A variation
of this theme involves similar charges made against the McDonald's chain.
Trouten notes that "The company has successfully filed lawsuits over the
years against a number of people who were intentionally spreading this rumor
-- some of whom were multi-level marketing businesspeople selling products
which compete with Procter & Gamble brands."
While the Christian Coalition web posting about the Phantom Petition and
other rumors permeating the evangelical-fundamentalist subculture is a
welcome reality check, there are problems with some of the group's own recent
statements. In a section titled "Why do we believe," Trouten warns of the
pitfalls of "the Christian community's susceptibility to fanciful stories,"
and quotes another critical evangelical minister who explains why "such
hoaxes take root." Reasons include placing excess faith in "experts,"
believing "what makes us feel comfortable," believing what we are told, and
willingness to accept whatever "fits into our world view."
While religious pop-culture artifacts like the FCC petition fraud are now
recognized by the Christian Coalition, the group continues to peddle its own
version of "historical revision" and anti-faith conspiracy theories. Last
summer, for instance, Director Ralph Reed insisted that an alleged wave of
church arsons were the result of a "war on religion" and the "people of
faith," although even at that time insurance experts, news media and even
arson investigators found little evidence of any conspiracy.
By no longer linking its fortunes to such disreputable hoaxes like the
phoney O'Hair petition, the Christian Coalition makes an important move in
trying to shore up its credibility in the political marketplace. Indeed, an
evangelical minister warned that "Our credibility is on the line. People
might think if Christians are stupid enough to fall for this falsehood, maybe
early Christians were gullible enough to fall for the resurrection story."
GINGRICH PROBLEM MAY BE KEY TO 1997 RELIGIOUS AGENDA IN CONGRESS
Power May Shift From Speaker To Capitol Hill
House Republicans affirmed their support for Speaker Newt Gingrich this
morning, and in a caucus vote decided to back the controversial 53-year old
congressman to that position. That move should pave the way for an
acclamation voice vote in Congress to keep Gingrich in the post he has held
since 1994, when Republicans captured control of both the House of
Representatives and the U.S. Senate for the first time in 40 years.
But behind the scenes, there are subtle power shifts which could have
consequences for a number of pieces of proposed legislation being pushed by
religious groups. These include an over-ride of President Clinton's veto of
the Partial Birth Abortion Ban, a Religious Equality Amendment, action on
Parental Rights, vouchers and other financial assistance to religious
schools, and a ban on homosexuals in the military.
* Gingrich and groups like the Christian Coalition have enjoyed a
love-hate relationship ever since the 1994 GOP sweep in the congressional
races. While the Republicans were trying to move their Contract With America
through the legislative labyrinth, the Coalition unveiled its own social
agenda ("Contract With the American Family") which emphasized "family values"
and "religious liberty." When Gingrich promised to deliver on issues like a
school prayer amendment, though, the congress emphasized economic legislation
and left some GOP religious right elements feeling "betrayed." In the 1996
GOP convention, the Coalition managed to keep most of the religious groups in
the party ranks, trading hard-line positions on abortion, prayer and other
issues for the lackluster candidacy of Bob Dole.
This month's elections produced mixed results for the Republicans, and the
Coalition. The GOP managed to do better than expected in congressional
races, but lost the White House race to Mr. Clinton. That fact has
stimulated considerable speculation that Reed & Co. may be in the back seat
when the 105th Congress convenes in January.
* Gingrich has an ethics cloud hanging over his leadership and political
fortunes, and has to weather the results of House committee probe scheduled
for release in January. Political analyst Larry Sabato of the University of
Virginia told the Christian Science Monitor that "Everything depends on the
results of the ethics investigation. If it's critical of him (Gingrich) it
will be difficult for him even to rehabilitate himself. If it exonerates
him, he has the opportunity to do so, but it will be tough."
But House Republicans are already making changes in their strategy for
next year. News reports suggest that the GOP Caucus is transferring power
"from the Speaker back to the committee chairman," a move which the Monitor
suggests "would include more people in the decisionmaking process and should
placate GOP moderates, who complained that they were left out of the process
It may have just the opposite effect, though. Gingrich acted as a
pragmatic stop-break on some pieces of religious right legislation in the
104th session; a greater role for committee and subcommittee heads like Rep.
Henry Hyde could lead to a slew of key religious right proposals finding
their way to the House and Senate for legislative action.
And House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R.-Texas) was relected to his
position: it was Armey who resurrected a school prayer proposal in the form
of a "Religious Freedom Amendment." Although the RFA didn't make it to the
floor for a vote, it is expected that another attempt will be made to pass
this legislation sometime next year.
(See Related Story Below)
HYDE REMAINS IN HOT WATER OVER S&L DEBACLE
A key player in Congress for religious right groups, Rep. Henry Hyde
(R.-Ill.) continues to battle charges of wrongdoing and impropriety over his
role in the $67,000,000 collapse of an Illinois savings and loan firm.
Investigators have been probing Hyde's involvement with Clyde Federal
Savings and Loan Association, a thrift institution which failed in 1991.
The House Judiciary Committee chairman was sued by the Resolution Trust
Corporation (RTC) in April, 1993 along with 11 other directors who were
accused of negligence and mismanagement. RTC was originally seeking $17.2
million in damages.
Earlier this week, Hyde announced that he did nothing wrong while serving
as a director at Clyde, and was refusing to pay any part of a proposed
$850,000 settlement. That statement came amidst early reports that Hyde was
being promoted as a possible replacement for House Speaker Newt Gingrich by
dissatisfied Republicans within the GOP caucus. Hyde's own ethics problems,
though, may have discouraged that move.
'TIS THE SEASON FOR THE BATTLE OF THE CRECHES
In Pittsburgh, Commissioners Vow To Erect A Nativity Scene On Public
With two major holidays approaching, governments will again be facing the
question of whether or not to allow religious displays on public property.,
Already a battle is brewing in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where two Republican
County Commissions have pledged to erect a nativity scene at a courthouse.
According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Council members Larry Dunn and Bob
Cranmer say they will support a request by the Catholic Holy Name Society to
place a privately owned religious display in a public courtyard; this would
be the first time since 1989 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that such a
creche was unconstitutional because it involved government promotion of
Dunn and the Holy Name Society now insist that a 1995 Supreme Couret
ruling, though, permits private religious displays in public parks as part of
free speech. He added that the county would also permit "secular" holiday
symbols like Christmas trees; and a news statement from the American Civil
Liberties Union issued yesterday noted that "He (Dunn) also suggested that
other religious groups would be able to place their own holiday symbols in
ACLU is expected to challenge any creche or other religious display.
THEISTWATCH SHORT SHOTS
Sometimes, producing AANEWS gives your editor the same feeling expressed
by high-risk sports enthusiasts who jump out of planes on boogie-boards, or
street luge with no brakes at 70 miles per hour -- "been there, done that."
Take this time of year, for instance, when retail merchants are primed and
ready to drape the malls and strip centers with Christmas decor and kick off
the biggest consumer binge of the past twelve months. Notice how every year
the pictures of St. Nick or the plastic reindeer seem to appear on the scene
earlier and earlier? We haven't even sliced the Thanksgiving Day turkey than
we're bombarded with Yuletide Greetings of "Pre-Christmas" Sales.
Religious groups have become just as aggressive and pushy when it comes to
demanding that we allow creches, menorahs or other conspicuous displays of
belief on public property. It used to be that Christians had the retail lock
on such expressions, when a nativity scene was considered de riguer. Some
Jewish group (even those who used to howl over the government-sanction of the
Christian religion) then got into the act, demanding that huge menorahs be
erected for the Hanukkah season. Now, we've got Muslims demanding "equal
time" and "equal access" for displays of their religiosity. It got so bad
last year in New York's Grand Central Station that officials decided to stop
ALL religious displays, which is what they should have done in the first
Whatever happened to separation of Church and State, anyway?
So, in keeping with the "been there, done that" pre-December spirit, let's
repeat exactly what American Atheists has to say on the subject of religious
rituals and displays on public property.
* There should be NO seasonal religious display in government buildings or
taxpayer-owned public facilities. This isn't about "equal access," or free
speech, or making sure that non-Christian groups can put up their particular
religious emblem next to the Christian nativity scene. The First Amendment
warns of government "establishing" religion, and court findings like the
Lemon decision enjoin the state from any actions which promote religious
belief, favor one religion over another, or result in "excessive
entanglement" between government and religion.
* It shouldn't matter whether the religious creche, nativity scene or some
other display is paid for with "voluntary" donations, or erected with
"volunteer labor." The fact remains that the religious groups involved are
insisting that their display be erected on government property. Now, why do
you think this is the case?
To answer that question, "let your fingers do the walking." Pick up the
yellow pages directory for your area, and look under headings like CHURCHES.
Even if you don't live in a major metropolitan region, you will probably
find dozens -- if not hundreds -- of listing for churches, chapels, temples,
synogogues and other venues where the "people of faith" can go to in order to
pray, chant, sing, genuflect, gyrate, burn incense, contribute money,
"transcend," give offerings, listen to sermons, hold hands, and do whatever
else they feel it takes to propitiate the god or gods of their choice. There
are between 300,000 and 600,000 churches and temples in the United States
alone depending on whose count you accept. The "people of faith" have ample
opportunity to exercise their freedom of religion, no doubt about it. We'll
save the fact that all of this is tax-exempt for another time...
Check out some of these churches and temples, and you'll find that a lot
of them have nice yards and lawns where they can erect religious displays. A
lot of them already do; "living nativity" scenes have gotten popular, where
volunteer's dress up like the characters in the nativity myth, freeze their
butts off and work hard at remaining still for hours on end. I thought that
manequins did just fine, but if that's your thing, be my guest.
So, with all of those lawns and even all that space inside churches,
temples and mosques, why the big flap over "freedom of religion" in the
public square? I've got a couple of theories:
* It's important for some religious folks to make a public display out of
prayer, even though the bible admonishes the faithful to beware such a
temptation and literally go into a closet while praying. I'd suggest that
those commissioners in Pittsburgh, and Jay Sekulow of the American Center for
Law and Justice, and Pat Robertson and anyone else who supports public
religious displays read their own literature, especially the sixth chapter of
St. Matthew, verses 3-7.
"But when thou doest arlms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand
That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret
himself shall reward thee openly.
And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they
love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets,
that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast
shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which
seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.
But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions as the heathen do: for they
think that they shall be heard for their much speaking."
* Religious display in public buildings or on public property reinforces
the Christian myth that America "is a religious nation," or is "founded upon
biblical principles." Some fundamentalist groups may be wary of giving the
same privileges to unorthodox religious sects (like Muslims or Satanists)
when it comes to religious display. But for all of these diverse groups
hawking their wares in the postmodernist belief bazaar, identification with
government provides a certain cache and legitimacy which is not gained by
confining oneself to one's own temple, chapels, church, mosque or hovel.
So, how should Atheists react to the clamor by religious groups that they
be given space in a courthouse or public area like a vendor at a swap meet?
We can begin by pointing out that the First Amendment guarantees both
freedom of religion and freedom from religion. The former permits religious
groups to build their temples, mosques and churches at the own expense, and
worship their god or gods on their own time. They are free to express their
views, have their own events, and even peacefully proselytize individuals who
hold differing opinions. The latter separates the church and state; it
declares an official neutrality by government toward religious exercise. It
prohibits the State from doing anything which promotes religious belief,
favors one religion over another (thus preventing an "establishment" of a
state-religion), or excessively entangles the church and state.
One error which Atheists and separationists should avoid this and every
holiday season is the temptation to demand "equal time," as if to say "Well,
since THEY'RE violating the First Amendment, let's hop on the bandwagon!" We
should not be opposing religious displays on public property by insisting
that an "atheist" or "freethough" display be put up. Doing this sends the
misleading message that Atheism is "just another religion." We DON'T want
"equal time" for ourselves, or "other religions." We want to stand firm to
the principle that church and state should be separate.
But there may be some out there on the aanews list who would like to erect
their own "Atheist display" at this time of year; we encourage you to do so
on your own property. And what would such a display consist of? For
starters, how about an empty crib?
About This List...
AANEWS is a free service from American Atheists, a nationwide movement
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