No More Crosses To Bear? [Foundation member Ro Ellis spoke at a panel as a plaintiff named

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No More Crosses To Bear? [Foundation member Ro Ellis spoke at a panel as a plaintiff named in a state/church case recently brought in Alabama. This is excerpted from her talk at the December, 1992 Freedom From Religion Foundation convention in San Antonio.] By Ro Ellis ----------- Actually, I'm not the one who should be on this litigation panel. I have done very little except cheer Pat and Roger Cleveland on in their efforts since the spring of 1989 when they began the Birmingham, Alabama Freethought Association. My activism takes the form of radio talk shows, speaking against "school choice," and letters to the editor, trying to convince the local populace that faith in any unverified thing is not a virtue but folly and could be fatal. Pat even put together this folder of the history of the suit against Alabama State Parks Administration, particularly Cheaha with its locked chapel, reserved at no cost every Sunday morning for a "non-denominational" religious service; but kept locked the rest of the week to protect the bibles and hymnals and other religious symbols from the general public. I did go with the Clevelands, some other chapter members, and Dan Barker to visit the chapel in April, 1990 when Dan came to our state for a debate and concert in Birmingham. Dan would have nailed Annie Laurie's thesis, Freethought Today, to the door except we didn't have a hammer or nail on us. The Clevelands, at that time, had already initiated action against the Cheaha Park management, by writing a lot of letters and making a few phone calls. They learned that church services at the park were requested by an unknown number of campers, motel and cabin guests. Consequently, at the beginning of his tenure in 1977, the manager began a search for someone to coordinate the services. It took the Lord three years to send him "Brother" I. D. Alexander who, in the course of 10 years, got the state to build a chapel to his specifications instead of the planned open pavilion for that site. The chapel was built instead of several other planned and needed facilities at the park, as mentioned by a news report in the Daily Home in May, 1989. It is probably no coincidence that another "Brother in Jesus Christ our Savior" had been elected Governor of Alabama in 1986, sort of a political fluke. I must say, though, Brother Alexander was most magnanimous in his letter to the Clevelands. He informed them that they were "welcome to reserve the Chapel at any time another group has not already reserved it, on a first come, first served basis"--except every Sunday morning through November each year when his "volunteer group put on an inter-denominational Christian worship service for park campers and visitors who wish to attend." Most of you already realize that most people in this nation think as long as you make public worship non-denominational (or inter-denominational) and allow a rabbi to perform occasionally, that fulfills the constitutional mandate of government neutrality in the matter of religion and that it is in conformance with the "free exercise" clause of the First Amendment. I get so frustrated trying to educate the local populace through letters to the editor; but as you know, this is hardly the Age of Reason! I think my point was best made by a businessman who recently announced his candidacy for Congress with the words, "Separation of church and state is okay, but when you leave God out of government, you're in big trouble." My outrage at this man's proud ignorance was one letter neither newspaper printed. Fortunately, the candidate didn't even campaign very long. But, back to Cheaha. This was a case of "In God we trust--all others pay cash." No fee was assessed for these Sunday morning services; but any other group could reserve the chapel at any other time--on a first-come, first-served basis--regardless of race, sex, or religion--for a $50 fee to the State Park. That park manager certainly took umbrage at the kill-joy Roger. He had Roger know it is not unusual for a chapel or church to be a part of a state or national park, and cited the fully operational church at Yellowstone and other states for justification. He failed to see Roger's point and suggested further questions be directed to the state legal department in Montgomery. Unlike the federal constitution, the Alabama Constitution does contain the word "GOD." In Alabama's preamble, the writers "invok[ed] the favor and guidance of Almighty God ..." However, number 3 under Article I [Declaration of Rights], emphatically states: "... No religion shall be established by law, no preference given to any religious sect, society, denomination or mode of worship; nor to pay any tithes, taxes or other rates for building or repairing any place of worship, or for maintaining any minister or ministry, ... no religious test shall be required as a qualification to any office of public trust under this State; and ... the civil rights, privileges and capacities of a citizen shall not be in any manner affected by his religious principles." That article could not be passed in Alabama today. With a copy of this rule in hand, the Clevelands approached the Alabama Civil Liberties Union and the next scene in this drama was a premature celebration of an incomplete denouement at the national FFRF convention in Ann Arbor in 1990. Those Alabama Fundamentalists want everybody in this nation to keep "God's word;" but apparently have no concern about keeping their own words. They promised to remove all religious symbols. They didn't. They promised to open the chapel to all groups for no fee. They didn't. So, in September, 1992, the curtain rises on Act 40, more or less. Enter once again Edward Still, Attorney at Law, associated with the Civil Liberties Union, offering to represent Roger, and whoever else wanted to get in on the act, for no fee to plaintiffs if plaintiffs didn't interfere with his modus operandi and didn't reach a settlement with defendants on their won, apart from his negotiations. At least this is how I finally understood the legalese; and after several days of Roger's trying to get me to understand we wouldn't have to pay those high-priced legal fees even if Edward Still did not win the case for us, I joined Roger, The Freethought Association, and Hank Shiver as plaintiffs and signed the complaint document. Hank's part of the suit brought in religious symbols and the advertisement for "Galilean Services" on the Gulf Shores state park beach. I had already written my letter explaining how offensive it is to me to have religion and religious symbols confronting me everywhere I go. I said something to the effect that it had taken me many years to overcome the fear, the oppressive, destructive religion of my childhood and youth; and I didn't want religion imposed on my grandchildren. Anyway, the drama is not over--totally. In late October, 1992, our attorney settled out of court with the defendants, who were the director of state parks, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the manager of Cheaha State Park. We don't know if our attorney was paid any fees by the state; but it is a hollow victory--worth almost as much as we paid. They are removing or modifying the symbols, but keeping the services! Maybe I'm just a sore loser or not a good litigant. (There are so many infractions of church-state separation, it would take several Perot fortunes to sue them all.) Sometimes I think lawsuits bring more enemies than they gain friends; but if we can't reason with people, make them accept reality, the law is our only recourse. It is so important to me that we win this war against organized religion because I believe--as much as I can believe anything based on observation, recorded history, scientific journals, and daily newspapers--that if we don't, the human species will go the way of the dinosaurs. Already I fear America is going the way of the Roman Empire: waiting upon the Lord; and as Dan Barker sings, "We can't win with 'original sin'." ------------------------------------------------------------------------- This article is reprinted (with permission) from the January/February 1993 issue of Freethought Today, bulletin of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. For more information, write Freedom From Religion Foundation P. O. Box 750 Madison, WI 53701 USA (608) 256-8900


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