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    • How Ebola Aerosolized in Pigs Could Kill Millions
      Up until today I’ve been moderately sanguine about Ebola outside of some poverty struck African countries with compromised health care systems (and places like Greece.)  The main danger is incompetence and austerity, as with the CDC and Texas fumbling their Ebola cases. No more. Ebola is aerosolized in pigs.  This may not seem like a [...]
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Friday: On Religious Freedom

Gosh, it’s tough to be a high school atheist these days. No wonder Brooke wants to homeschool. Jessica Ahlquist of Cranston, R.I. is catching Hell for speaking up at school board meetings about the, well, there’s no other way to say this, offensive prayer that hung in the lobby of her high school for 49 years. It’s hard to believe that Cranston got away with it for that long. One suspects that it was some kind of “in your face, asshole” response to Madelyn Murray O’Hare’s 60’s crusade against prayer in public school. Here’s the text of the prayer:

Our Heavenly Father,
Grant us each day the desire to do our best,
To grow mentally and morally as well as physically,
To be kind and helpful to our classmates and teachers,
To be honest with ourselves as well as with others,
Help us to be good sports and smile when we lose as well as when we win,
Teach us the value of true friendship,
Help us always to conduct ourselves so as to bring credit to Cranston High School West.
Amen

What’s so wrong with that, you might ask? Several things. First, there’s a presumption that there is a God. You can believe what you want. I’m not an atheist but I also don’t believe in the God of the Bible. Secondly, that non-existant Biblical God doesn’t have a gender. Not only is this prayer offensive to atheists, it’s offensive to women and girls. The minute you walk into Cranston West H.S., you already know where you are in the cosmic pecking order. Starting the day as the lowliest of the low does not make for an affirming academic experience.  The majority of Cranston’s residents are Catholic and Catholics don’t really have a place in their theology for women except as virgins, martyred virgins, virgin mothers, cloistered virgins and babymakers.  It’s a very binary world for Catholic women.

The rest of the prayer presumes that students can’t be moral, kind, supportive or friendly if they don’t believe in the non-existent, male, Biblical God.  This puts the atheist in an awkward position.  If they want to stay on the school community’s good side, they have to conform and keep their atheism a secret.  We can see by Jessica’s example what happens when they don’t.  Whenever someone proclaims that creationism is as good as evolution or that it’s Ok to ostracize someone who’s gay or call girls sluts if they have sex because that’s what it says in the Bible and it’s moral, the atheist can’t really challenge that ignorance and hurtful behavior without revealing themselves to be an UNBELIEVER.  I’m not quite sure why it is that believers can’t tolerate the unbelief of others.  It’s a mystery.

The prayer has a way of squashing dissent. Keeping the unbelievers quiet means that biblical “morality” and Fox induced Acquired Stupidity Syndrome goes unchecked and propagates, and we as a nation go further down the rabbit hole because unquestioned obedience to an authoritarian power trumps reason.   I’m sure that Rupert Murdoch and our financial industry overlords are fine with this but there’s no reason why any American should be complacent about it.  Unleashing the power of the faithful in a country that has been encouraged to embrace fundamentalism is leading to our own destruction.  Fundamentalists are trained to not trust their own understanding but allow others to interpret scripture and events for them.  This has the potential to empower dangerous people who will take advantage of that faith and unquestioning obedience.  We are now living in a country where citizens bully school girls who won’t comply with the indoctrination.  In this country, the majority presents us with the choice of letting the authoritarians and their useful idiots run the country or keeping silent.  If I were religious, I’d call that a sin.

Then there are the other students who attend Cranston West who are not from a Judeo-Christian background.  What about Buddhists?  They don’t have a God either, do they?  What about Muslims?  How would the good burghers of Cranston R.I. feel if the prayer started with “Allahu Akbar”?  What about the pagans?  I particularly like this pagan prayer:

Oh Goddess Mother

Let me act in wisdom

Conquer my fear and doubt

Discover my own hidden gifts

Meet others with compassion

Be a source of healing energies

And face each day with hope and joy

Short and sweet.  It says everything the first one does but doesn’t say anything about morality.  Of course, you do have to ascribe to a non-Judeo-Christian female entity but if Cranston’s going to complain about that then it might be a violating civil rights law, not just the first amendment, by creating a hostile learning environment for girls.

In the meantime, Jessica has had to put up with a lot of, ahem, disapproval from Cranston residents:

In the weeks since, residents have crowded school board meetings to demand an appeal, Jessica has received online threats and the police have escorted her at school, and Cranston, a dense city of 80,000 just south of Providence, has throbbed with raw emotion.

State Representative Peter G. Palumbo, a Democrat from Cranston, called Jessica “an evil little thing” on a popular talk radio show. Three separate florists refused to deliver her roses sent from a national atheist group.

WTF??  They won’t even deliver her roses? It sounds like Cranston’s citizens have never read the prayer they’re fighting so hard to preserve, especially the parts that ask for assistance being “kind and helpful”, “To be honest with ourselves as well as with others”,
“to be good sports and smile when we lose as well as when we win”, “teach us the value of true friendship”, and “help us always to conduct ourselves so as to bring credit to Cranston High School West”.  Maybe they think all that morality only applies to high school students.  I have to wonder if Cranston parents are being faithful to God if they are telling their kids to obey this prayer but are acting completely differently at home and in front of the school board.  Shouldn’t they be setting a good example for their kids?

Oh, the poor Judeo-Christians of Cranston, persecuted for their beliefs.  Doesn’t this 16 year old godless heathen know that the majority of Cranston’s residents are Judeo-Christians?  Why does she have to bring her intrusive governmental regulations into their quiet, peaceful, little village full of moral, upright citizens?  She’s probably a drug taking, low life, lazy, potential drop out who sleeps with the entire football team- all at one time. Or not.

No, Jessica is simply a minority in her school.  Well, as far as anyone will ‘fess up to she’s a minority.  I suspect that the whole honors level segment of her class, as well as the sleeper kids in the regular CP level courses, have already made the leap from “literally” true to “metaphorically” true.  It would be nice if they all had a “I am Spartacus!” moment in support of their ostracized classmate.  It would be nice, but knowing high school like I do, I wouldn’t count on it.  Minorities are minorities because there aren’t many of them.  That’s why the writers of the constitution took special care to protect them.

When it comes to matters of conscience, the first amendment was not written to protect the religious freedom of the vast majority of citizens of Cranston.  They already have that protection by virtue of their numbers.  The first amendment was meant to protect the religious freedom of the Jessicas.  And Suresh.  And Chengua.  And Rhiannon.  And Alia.  And who was it meant to protect them from?

The people of Cranston.

For more information on Jessica standing up for the First Amendment right of the minority to have religious freedom (or freedom *from* religion), check out the Freedom From Religion Foundation.  They have several podcasts about Jessica.  The latest one can be found here.

One final thing:  Honestly?  I don’t have any problem with people believing whatever they want.  I do have a problem with them proselytizing.  When you tell a religious person that you’re not interested, they need to leave you alone about it- permanently.  Yes, you can cross us off your cosmic checklist. But people who knew me on the school board know that when I was a member, I was actually quite protective of the religious Christians.  I felt that sometimes the school administration and teachers were trying to teach values to children and I don’t think that belongs in school coming from the teacher.  (Remind me to tell the story about the AIDS activist and the giant purple dildo) Values should be taught at home. If Christians want to teach their children that abstinence is the only birth control allowed, homosexuality is a sin and Darwin was wrong, that’s their business.  I happen to think they’re whacked but as long as those kids come to school exercising good behavior and respect towards their peers, I don’t think the school can credibly ask for more.  It is good citizenship that schools have the right to enforce, not values.  Yes, you might legitimately argue that the right beliefs and values lead to good citizenship but you may be intruding on someone else’s conscience in this regard and at some point, we have to agree to hold people accountable for their actions, not their thoughts.

What I have found, from personal experience, is that even if a kid is raised in the strictest household where God’s word is law, once they are exposed to other ideas, the smart ones will figure it all out for themselves.  For the rest, school officials should content themselves with compliance and tolerance and that is what they should ask of religious parents and no more than that.  Their kids are just as constrained by a system that requires their attentive presence as the more liberal parents’ children.

When it comes to changing people’s behavior and attitudes, leading by example and modeling good citizenship is much better than teaching kids values.  And it keeps the fundamentalists out of your classroom in school.


Should the U.S. have a National Day of Prayer?

Is the US a Christian Nation?

Barbara Crabbe, a US District Court judge in Wisconsin, has issued a decision calling the “National Day of Prayer” unconstitutional. The complete ruling is here (PDF). In her decision, Crabbe wrote of the legislation establishing an official U.S. day of prayer:

It goes beyond mere “acknowledgment” of religion because its sole purpose is to encourage all citizens to engage in prayer, an inherently religious exercise that serves no secular function in this context. In this instance, the government has taken sides on a matter that must be left to individual conscience. “When the government associates one set of religious beliefs with the state and identifies nonadherents as outsiders, it encroaches upon the individual’s decision about whether and how to worship.”

The ruling came in response to a suit by the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

The Foundation filed its groundbreaking suit in October 2008. Plaintiffs besides the Foundation are Anne Nicol Gaylor, Annie Laurie Gaylor, Dan Barker, Paul Gaylor, Phyllis Rose and Jill Dean, who are all Foundation officers or board members. Defendants are President Barack Obama and Robert Gibbs, his press secretary. Original defendants were President George Bush and Dana Perino, his press secretary at the time.

All presidents since 1952 have issued proclamations designating the National Day of Prayer each year. Since 1988, the National Day of Prayer has been held on the first Thursday in May. The president’s proclamations are released by the Office of the Press Secretary.

Judge Crabb enjoined Obama from enforcing the National Day of Prayer law, but stayed the injunction until the appeals process is completed. The law setting the first Thursday in May as a National Day of Prayer passed Congress in 1952 after an intensive campaign led by Rev. Billy Graham.

Also active in the passage of the legislation was Rev. Pat Robertson’s father, Virginia Senator Absolom Robinson

The bill establishing the National Day of Prayer was introduced in the Senate by Absalom Robertson of Virginia – Rev. Pat Robertson’s father. Senator Robertson stated that it was a measure against “the corrosive forces of communism which seek simultaneously to destroy our democratic way of life and the faith in an Almighty God on which it is based.”

The law, signed into effect by President Truman, read, “The President shall set aside and proclaim a suitable day each year, other than a Sunday, as a National Day of Prayer, on which the people of the United States may turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups, and as individuals.”

As expected, since the judge stayed her decision until higher courts rule on it, the White House immediately announced that it will still continue with plans for this year’s national day of prayer on May 6.

There have been a number of reactions around the blogosphere. At Shakesville, Jadelyn is pleased even though there may not be immediate change, calling the decision

a huge step forward for non-believers in America, or those who do not “pray” in the traditional sense of the word, or just those who understand the concept of separating church and state and would like to see it upheld. And it deals a hefty blow to the dominionist types, who are forever arguing that America is a Christian nation, to be told outright that even a non-sectarian and inclusive (for some value of “inclusive”, which pointedly does not include atheists or agnostics) Day of Prayer, when mandated by law, is unconstitutional.

At Americablog, John Aravosis warns: “prepare for Armageddon” and adds:

I don’t want my government getting anywhere near my religion, or anyone else’s. Far too often, you see corrupt governments, and corrupt religions, influencing each other. If politicians want to pray on their own time, great. But Congress shouldn’t be mandating special prayer time.

From a Pagan site, The Wild Hunt,

Of special interest to my audience concerning Judge Crabb’s 66-page decision is the following passage:

“Recognizing the importance of prayer to many people does not mean the government may enact a statute in support of it, any more than the government may encourage citizens to fast during the month of Ramadan, attend a synagogue, purify themselves in a sweat lodge, or practice rune magic.”

Right there, Crabb acknowledges the reality and existence of pre-Christian, indigenous, and non-monotheistic faiths in this country. That having a US state-sanctioned “prayer day” isn’t some sort of secular ceremonial deist tradition (in fact, both Jefferson and Madison thought such proclamations were unconstitutional), but instead invokes the praxis of primarily Abrahamic faith traditions.

From the Atheist Revolution,

The part of Judge Crabb’s 66-page ruling that I found particularly compelling was her clear recognition that a National Day of Prayer “serves no purpose but to encourage a religious exercise.”

This is a big win and should be celebrated as such. Based on what we’ve seen from the Supreme Court lately, I will be somewhat surprised if it isn’t overturned. Of course, the Obama administration does not have to appeal it. Wouldn’t that be a nice change?

Yeah, it would be a nice change, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

So what do YOU think? And have you seen other interesting reactions? If so, please share in the comments.

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