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