Tag Archives: atheist

Madison billboard campaign features young atheist voters

Billboards proclaiming, “I’m an Atheist and I Vote,” went up in 12 locations across Madison this morning and will remain on display through the state’s April 5 presidential primary election.

Freedom From Religion Foundation, which calls itself “the largest free-thought association in North America,” is sponsoring the billboards, which feature local millennial voters who are atheist. The goal is to send a message to presidential candidates and their staff as they travel through Madison while campaigning in the state.

“Madison is a very secular city, and we want the candidates to acknowledge our presence and priorities,” said Calli Miller, a graduate of UW-Madison who is currently an FFRF legal assistant, in a press statement. “Candidates should acknowledge secular voters as the fastest growing minority group in America, while committing to keep religion out of government.”

According to FFRF, the number of religiously unaffiliated adults in America has grown by 19 million since President Obama was first elected in 2008. The group says that secular millennials are fueling the growth.

The Madison billboards are part of a larger campaign to reach voters across the nation through FFRF chapters, a national TV ad buy focusing on the separation of church and state and efforts to mobilize students on college campuses. The campaign is a coordinated effort involving the nation’s other major free-thought associations, which together will sponsor the “Reason Rally” on June 4 in Washington, D.C.

“Secular voters are highly educated and independent-minded,” said FFRF co–president Annie Laurie Gaylor in a prepared statement. “They care deeply about women’s rights, environmental protection, marriage equality, and social justice and candidates should be reaching out to them directly.”

Click this link to check out the billboards’ locations.

Madison bans discrimination against atheists

Without dissent, the Madison Town Council on March 31 voted to ban discrimination against people who are “non-religious.” Multiple sources say the move is the first in the nation to protect people who don’t believe in God from discrimination.

“It’s my personal feeling that since we protect religious people, we should protect non-religious people,” said Madison Alder Anita Weier, who sponsored the amendment. She first introduced it on March 17, before the brouhaha over religious rights erupted in Indiana.

Weier said she didn’t know whether incidents in Indiana are behind the fact that no one voted against the amendment, which was adopted on a voice vote.

“It was something I’ve been thinking about for quite a while,” Weier said. “I’m not running for reelection, so it’s something that I wanted to get passed before I left office. Anyone who was seeking reelection might not have introduced it.”

The ban was added to an existing equal-opportunity ordinance, which protects people from discrimination based on a list of factors, including race, gender, sexual orientation and gender identity. The March 31 vote added the phrase “religion or non-religion” to the ordinance, which applies to employment, housing and public accommodations.

Non-believers represent a growing movement in the United States. There are a growing number of atheist organizations that maintain a presence on Facebook, including Atheist Republic, which has nearly 1.2 million “likes.” In recent years, such groups have been posting billboards around the country, including in Milwaukee during December 2014.

The billboard, which was placed on St. Paul Avenue just south of I-94, pictured a small girl writing to Santa: “All I want for Christmas is to skip church! I’m too old for fairy tales.”

The billboard was sponsored by American Atheists and Southeast Wisconsin Freethinkers, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Although the Constitution prohibits government office seekers from a religious litmus test, people who don’t believe in God are banned from office in six southern states and Maryland. Non-believers say they frequently face discrimination, and a 2012 Gallup poll found that Americans are more likely to vote for gays or Muslims than atheists.

Michigan city sued after rejecting ‘reason station’ at city hall

A coalition of civil liberties groups has filed a federal lawsuit challenging a ban on an atheist booth in the atrium of city hall in Warren, Michigan. The city has allowed a prayer station in the atrium.

City officials set up the atrium as a public space that can be reserved by groups and individuals, including civic organizations and Warren residents, but the mayor is not allowing an atheist to use space in the atrium because he claims that his belief system “is not a religion,” according to a news release from the American Civil Liberties Union.

The ACLU, Americans United for Separation of Church and State and Freedom from Religion Foundation are the groups that brought the federal complaint.

Since 2009, the city has allowed a church group to run a prayer station in which volunteers distribute religious pamphlets, offer to pray with passersby and discuss their religious beliefs with people who approach the station.

The lawsuit filed on July 23 does not seek to have the prayer station removed, but instead asks the court to order the city to treat believers and non-believers equally. 

“Once the government opens public space for use by private groups, it cannot pick and choose who can use the space based on the content of their message or whether public officials agree with that message,” said Dan Korobkin, ACLU of Michigan deputy legal director. “For instance, Warren officials would not be permitted to grant access to activists supportive of the mayor and reject the applications of activists who are critical of the mayor. The same logic extends to this matter: the city cannot allow speech supportive of religion and reject speech supportive of atheism.”

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Douglas Marshall, a Warren resident whose request to install a “reason station” was rejected by the city. Marshall wants to set up a station that is similar in size, structure, and function to the prayer station — a folding table and chairs with literature on display and available to the public — except that his station will offer information and opportunities for discussion from a non-religious perspective.

In April 2014, Marshall submitted an application to city officials to reserve space in the atrium for two days a week. According to the lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, Marshall and other volunteers who operate the reason station would offer to have philosophical discussions with passersby who express an interest in a secular belief system.

Less than two weeks after it was submitted, Marshall’s application, although nearly identical to the application submitted by the prayer station volunteers, was rejected by Warren Mayor James Fouts. In the rejection letter, Mayor Fouts wrote: “To my way of thinking, your group is strictly an anti-religion group intending to deprive all organized religions of their constitutional freedoms or at least discourage the practice of religion. The City of Warren cannot allow this.”

Alex J. Luchenitser, associate legal director of Americans United, said, “The city has an obligation to serve all members of the community equally, regardless of their faith or their lack of faith,” said”Our laws make it clear that our government can’t adopt a rule book that favors one group over another.”

Atheist ‘mega-churches’ are growing

It looked like a typical Sunday morning at any mega-church. Hundreds packed in for more than an hour of rousing music, an inspirational sermon, a reading and some quiet reflection. The only thing missing was God.

Dozens of gatherings dubbed “atheist mega-churches” by supporters and detractors are springing up around the U.S. after finding success in Great Britain earlier this year. The movement fueled by social media and spearheaded by two prominent British comedians is no joke.

On Sunday, the inaugural Sunday Assembly in Los Angeles attracted more than 400 attendees, all bound by their belief in non-belief. Similar gatherings in San Diego, Nashville, New York and other U.S. cities have drawn hundreds of atheists seeking the camaraderie of a congregation without religion or ritual.

The founders, British duo Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, are currently on a tongue-in-cheek “40 Dates, 40 Nights” tour around the U.S. and Australia to drum up donations and help launch dozens of Sunday Assemblies. They hope to raise more than $800,000 that will help atheists launch their pop-up congregations around the world.

They don’t bash believers but want to find a new way to meet likeminded people, engage in the community and make their presence more visible in a landscape dominated by faith.

Jones got the first inkling for the idea while leaving a Christmas carol concert six years ago.

“There was so much about it that I loved, but it’s a shame because at the heart of it, it’s something I don’t believe in,” Jones said. “If you think about church, there’s very little that’s bad. It’s singing awesome songs, hearing interesting talks, thinking about improving yourself and helping other people — and doing that in a community with wonderful relationships. What part of that is not to like?”

The movement dovetails with new studies showing an increasing number of Americans are drifting from any religious affiliation.

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released a study last year that found 20 percent of Americans say they have no religious affiliation, an increase from 15 percent in the last five years. Pew researchers stressed, however, that the category also encompassed majorities of people who said they believed in God but had no ties with organized religion and people who consider themselves “spiritual” but not “religious.”

It also plays into a feeling among some atheists that they should make themselves more visible. For example, last December, an atheist in Santa Monica created an uproar — and triggered a lawsuit — when he set up a godless display amid Christian nativity scenes that were part of a beloved, decades-old tradition.

“In the U.S., there’s a little bit of a feeling that if you’re not religious, you’re not patriotic. I think a lot of secular people say, ‘Hey, wait a minute. We are charitable, we are good people, we’re good parents and we are just as good citizens as you and we’re going to start a church to prove it,” said Zuckerman. “It’s still a minority, but there’s enough of them now.”

That impulse, however, has raised the ire of those who have spent years pushing back against the idea that atheism itself is a religion.

“The idea that you’re building an entire organization based on what you don’t believe, to me, sounds like an offense against sensibility,” said Michael Luciano, a self-described atheist who was raised Roman Catholic but left when he became disillusioned.

“There’s something not OK with appropriating all of this religious language, imagery and ritual for atheism.”

That sentiment didn’t seem to detract from the excitement Sunday at the inaugural meeting in Los Angeles.

Hundreds of atheists and atheist-curious packed into a Hollywood auditorium for a boisterous service filled with live music, moments of reflection and an “inspirational talk, ” and some stand-up comedy by Jones, the movement’s co-founder.

During the service, attendees stomped their feet, clapped their hands and cheered as Jones and Evans led the group through rousing renditions of “Lean on Me,” ”Here Comes the Sun” and other hits that took the place of gospel songs. Congregants dissolved into laughter at a get-to-know-you game that involved clapping and slapping the hands of the person next to them and applauded as members of the audience spoke about community service projects they had started in LA.

At the end, volunteers passed cardboard boxes for donations as attendees mingled over coffee and pastries and children played on the floor.

For atheist Elijah Senn, the morning was perfect.

“I think the image that we have put forward in a lot of ways has been a scary, mean, we want to tear down the walls, we want to do destructive things kind of image is what a lot of people have of us,” he said. “I’m really excited to be able to come together and show that it’s not about destruction. It’s about making things and making things better.”

Settlement reached, no Jesus portrait in Ohio school

A middle school in Ohio will be forced to permanently remove a portrait of Jesus from its school grounds and pay nearly $100,000 after reaching a settlement with two groups, including the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The settlement requires the Jackson City School District in southern Ohio to pay the ACLU and Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation damages and legal fees totaling $95,000.

The two sides had a tentative agreement months ago that bogged down in more legal filings after the two groups said the school district continued to keep the Jesus portrait, and displayed it on the school lawn during a prayer meeting. Court filings show the portrait was also visible to those entering an art-storage area.

“All of this was unnecessary,” said James Hardiman, legal director for ACLU of Ohio. “The law is pretty clear … the display of this particular kind of religious artifact (in a public school) is unconstitutional.”

He said U.S. District Judge Algenon Marbley in Columbus accepted the settlement late last week.

Superintendent Phil Howard said in a statement that the district’s attorneys believed settling was the “best case scenario” at this point because legal fees were “mounting by the day.”

He said the district’s insurance will pay the nearly $95,000 and taxpayers will not be liable for the damages and legal fees.

Boy Scouts’ turmoil to benefit other youth groups

With the Boy Scouts of America entangled in a furor over its ban on gays, lesser-known youth organizations across the ideological spectrum see an opportunity. They wonder if the turmoil might prompt some families to give them a closer look as options for their boys.

They range from Bible-based programs run by conservative religious organizations to coed, inclusive groups, including one founded on the basis of pagan beliefs.

None of the groups has the size or iconic status of the BSA, though some have been around for many decades.

Leaders of several of the groups, in public statements and interviews with The Associated Press, made clear they are following the Boy Scouts’ predicament with interest and pondering possible ramifications for their own prospects – though not seeking to profit from “someone else’s misfortune,” as one leader said. 

The BSA, founded in 1910 and now serving about 2.66 million boys, is deliberating a possible shift in its long-standing policy of excluding gays as youth members or adult leaders.

In May, the BSA’s 1,400-member National Council is expected to consider a proposal to ease the ban by allowing sponsors of local Scout units to decide for themselves whether to admit gays.

Some gay rights groups say the plan is inadequate, and that no units should be allowed to discriminate, while some conservative religious leaders and advocacy groups want the ban to stay in place nationwide.

As a result, there has been consternation on both the left and right of the Scouting community, and warnings of possible defections depending on what decision is made in May.

Already there are families seeking alternatives to the Boy Scouts, including:

– SECULAR PROGRAMS

• Camp Fire. Founded in 1910 as Camp Fire Girls of America, this organization changed its name and became coed in 1975. Boys now comprise almost half of its 300,000 youth participants, according to spokeswoman Catherine Lufkin.

While the Boy Scouts have drawn some criticism for excluding gays and atheists, Camp Fire stresses its inclusiveness and says it welcomes youth and families regardless of race, creed, gender, social status, disability or sexual orientation.

Lufkin said young people view Camp Fire’s diversity as an asset and enjoy making friends who are different from themselves.

Like the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts of the USA, and other major youth organizations, Camp Fire has seen its membership ranks decline in recent decades, though Lufkin said the numbers have stabilized in recent years.

Nonetheless, Camp Fire adopted a new logo last year and has striven to develop “rebranding” strategies to attract new participants.

“The hard truth is that the vast majority of parents and youth _ from all walks of life – know nothing about us anymore,” CEO Cathy Tisdale wrote in a newsletter last summer.

• Navigators USA. This alternative scouting organization has its roots in a Boy Scout troop based in New York City’s East Harlem neighborhood and sponsored by the Unitarian Church of All Souls.

The troop broke away from the BSA in 2003 out of disagreement with the exclusionary membership policies, and some of the volunteer leaders decided to continue independently as a coed, inclusive movement.

The group’s growth outside New York was slow at first, but founder and executive director Robin Bossert says the number of chapters has surged from 16 to 42 in the past year, with an average of about a dozen youths per unit. He attributes the growth in part to the controversies surrounding the Boy Scouts.  

Bossert said Navigators USA emphasizes outdoor activities _ “to combat nature-deficit disorder” – as well as community service projects.

• The Baden-Powell Service Association. The BPSA was founded in 2008 by David Atchley of Washington, Mo., who as a leader of his son’s Cub Scout pack had a rift with regional BSA leaders over his efforts to adopt a nondiscrimination code.

Atchley, a software engineer, said the BPSA has grown steadily in the past two years, from just a handful of units to 19 now, ranging from Kingston, N.Y., and Exeter, N.H., to Albuquerque, N.M., and Sunnyvale, Calif.

Like the Navigators, the group is coed, with an inclusive membership policy, and Atchley says the contrast with the Boy Scouts has been a factor in its growth.

The organization takes its name from Robert Baden-Powell, whose initiatives in Britain in starting in 1907 launched the international Scouting movement.

Atchley said the BPSA, inspired by its namesake, focuses on outdoor skills and community service.

“It’s back to basics, instead of broadening the program to appeal to everybody under the sun,” he said, referring to the Boy Scouts’ efforts to modernize and diversify their activities.

SpiralScouts International. This coed organization originated in 2001 at the Aquarian Tabernacle Church in Index, Wash., which serves a Wiccan community.

Though developed on the basis of pagan beliefs and practices, it is open to youth and families of any faith – or no religious affiliation. Its units are known as circles; it also welcomes individual families who are designated as “hearths.”

Spokeswoman Rachel Scott said the U.S. component comprises about 150 adult volunteers and 350 youth scouts, ages 3-18, in 45 circles and hearths.

The mix of genders is a key principle, according to the group’s website.

“Our program encourages girls and boys to learn, play, and work together under the direction of leaders of both genders as a way of showing by example that both men and women are capable and cooperative leaders,” it says.

SpiralScouts has gone public with its disapproval of the Boy Scouts’ membership policies, offering to extend its highest rank to Eagle Scouts who have returned their badges to the BSA in protest over those policies.

– FAITH-BASED PROGRAMS

• The Southern Baptist Convention’s Royal Ambassadors.  Founded in 1908, this is a program run by Southern Baptist churches for boys in first through sixth grade. The SBC’s Women’s Missionary Union, which oversees the program, estimates that it has about 6,300 adult leaders and 31,000 youth members. Its curriculum shares many features with the Boy Scouts but it also stresses a goal of providing boys with “godly characteristics” and a “biblical worldview.”

Of the major religious denominations that sponsor large numbers of Boy Scout units, the Southern Baptists have been among the most outspoken in urging the BSA to keep the ban on gays.

The SBC’s official news agency, Baptist Press, recently reported that the Royal Ambassador program might spread to more Southern Baptist churches if the BSA’s ban is lifted.

The article quoted Don Hinkle, editor of the Missouri Baptist Convention’s newspaper, as reminiscing fondly about his boyhood experience with the Royal Ambassadors.

“Perhaps in these sad, self-destructing days for the Boy Scouts of America, God will use RAs in a new and powerful way to bring honor and glory to Him,” Hinkle told Baptist Press.

In addition to the Royal Ambassadors, the SBC also oversees the Challengers, a program for boys aged 12-17.

• The Assemblies of God’s Royal Rangers. Founded in 1962 by one of the largest Pentecostal denominations, the Royal Rangers have about 81,000 youth members in about 4,000 units, according to church headquarters.

“We provide Christ-like character formation and servant leadership development for boys and young men in a highly relational and fun environment,” says the Rangers’ mission statement.

Every four years, the organization brings together several thousand boys and adult leaders for a “Camporama” at the Rangers’ campground in Eagle Rock, Mo. Last summer’s event featured a high-ropes course, two zip lines, a water slide, and a lumberjack show.

Like the Southern Baptists, the Assemblies of God considers homosexuality immoral and has urged the Boy Scouts not to lift the ban on gays. A statement to that effect, from the denomination’s leader, has been posted on the Rangers’ website.

“We are saddened and disappointed to hear that Boy Scouts of America, an organization long devoted to biblical values, is now considering loosening the principles in which it was founded,” says the Rev. George O. Wood. “We pray the BSA will give careful consideration to this matter and hold firm to the beliefs that have made it a strong and influential organization for more than 100 years.”

• The Seventh-day Adventist Church’s Pathfinders. Dating back more than 60 years, the coed Pathfinders program serves about 35,000 boys and girls ages 10-15 in the U.S. and Canada, according to James Black, the church’s director of youth ministries for North America.

Black said the program resembles the Boy Scouts in many respects, with an emphasis on camping, plus an array of honors and patches that the youth members can work for.

Unlike the Scouts, however, the Pathfinders operate as a church-based ministry, with a priority placed on community service. However, Black said boys and girls are welcome to join even if not from Seventh-day Adventist families.

Amid the Boy Scouts’ turmoil, there’s been an upsurge of inquiries from parents about possible participation in the Pathfinders, Black said.

“We don’t want to gain off of someone else’s misfortune – but we want to be there as an available option for healthy, meaningful programs,” he said. “We wish the best for the Boy Scouts. …Our hearts and prayers go out to them.”

• The Calvinist Cadet Corps. Founded in 1952, with a headquarters in Grand Rapids, Mich., this is a non-denominational but staunchly religious scouting-style program.

Office manager Kathy Door said the corps currently serves about 9,900 boys in 550 clubs in the U.S. and Canada, with strong bases of support in Michigan, Illinois, Iowa and the Pacific Coast.

“When someone who hasn’t heard of us asks questions, we tell them we’re sort of along the lines of Scouting but we are much more conservative,” Door said. “There are Bible lessons at every meeting.”

Most of the participants come from churches with Calvinist roots, such as the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church.

Door said the Cadet Corps was not trying to capitalize on the Boy Scouts’ current predicament, but had received inquiries in recent days from leaders of several local Boy Scout units interested in learning more about the corps.

• The Knights of Columbus’ Columbian Squires. This organization for Roman Catholic boys and young men ages 10-18 was founded in 1925 and claims a youth membership of more than 25,000, including some in units in Mexico and the Philippines.

The Squires, says the program’s website, “is an athletic team, a youth group, a social club, a cultural and civic improvement association, a management training course, a civil rights organization and a spiritual development program all rolled into one.”

Report: Boy Scouts didn’t report hundreds of suspected child sex abusers

The Boy Scouts of America failed to report hundreds of suspected child sex abusers to authorities and often helped cover up the accusations over two decades, the Los Angeles Times reported on Sept. 16.

In a review of 1,600 of the organization’s confidential “perversion” files dating from 1970 to 1991, the newspaper found that Scout leaders helped suspected molesters push the allegations under the rug in about 400 instances.

One of those cases took place in Pennsylvania. In 1976, five Boy Scouts filed detailed complaints against a Pennsylvania scoutmaster, accusing him of rape and other sexual abuse. The scoutmaster resigned, saying he had to travel more for work. A troop leader wished the man luck and said he accepted the resignation with extreme regret.

The Scouts have fought to keep the files confidential, but they emerged as part of a lawsuit against the organization, the Times said. The files date back to 1919 and were kept as a type of “blacklist” of people unfit to serve in the organization.

While the Scouts found out about most suspected molesters after the allegations were reported directly to authorities, in about 500 instances leaders were notified directly by parents, boys and staff members.

In most of those cases, Scout leaders failed to report the suspicions to police.

In a 1982 Michigan case, a camp director told police that he did not immediately report accusations about a staff member because higher-ups told him they wanted to protect the Scouts’ reputation and the staff member.

In another 1982 case in Virginia, a camp director wrote a letter to the Scouts’ top lawyer, saying something needed to be done about a veteran employee suspected of a “lifelong pattern” of abuse who had never been reported to police. Instead, the director wrote that the accused employee had simply been asked to resign.

In a statement, Scouts spokesman Deron Smith said the organization today requires members to report any suspicion of abuse directly to local authorities and has always fully cooperated with police.

That reporting policy was instituted in 2010. Before that, the organization told leaders they had to comply with state laws about reporting suspected abuse.

The Times found several instances where leaders did not appear to comply with state law. New Jersey, for example, has required the reporting of sex abuse allegations since the early 1970s, but nothing appeared to have been done about several complaints listed in the files.

In some cases, Scout leaders’ lax treatment of the alleged offenders allowed them to keep abusing children, the Times said.

In 1984, Arthur Humphries was arrested in Chesapeake, Va., on child molestation charges. Scout leader Jack Terwilliger told a local newspaper that no one had suspected Humphries of abuse, but in 1978, Terwilliger ordered that a 12-year-old Scout be interviewed about Humphries’ sex acts with him.

Terwilliger later gave Humphries a glowing job reference and Humphries went on to abuse 20 Boy Scouts before his arrest in 1984. Both Terwilliger and Humphries are dead.

The Oregon Supreme Court in June ordered more than 1,200 more confidential files to be released soon.

The BSA claims to be a private entity that prepares young people to make ethical and moral choices and promotes religious values. Citing that mission, the BSA maintains a constitutional right to ban gays and atheists from employment and membership.

Philly owes Scouts after losing eviction case

A federal judge recently ruled that the Boy Scouts of America can recoup about $900,000 in legal fees after winning a wrongful eviction case against the city of Philadelphia.

The city ousted the BSA from its regional headquarters in a building at 22nd and Winter streets because the organization discriminates against gays.

The scouting organization had occupied for free the building for decades, but in 2003 the city demanded that the group either pay rent, lift its ban against gays or move.

Negotiations failed in 2007 and the city evicted the BSA, which then sued, alleging that the city’s actions violated the First Amendment.

A jury sided with the scouts and in mid-March U.S. District Judge Ronald Buckwalter ordered the city to pay $877,122.07 in legal fees while still praising the city’s handling of the issue.

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