Thursday, May 30, 2013

Oklahoma Legislative News

Weekly State Legislation Highlights

Several church-state separation issues are coming up in the states. Here are a few highlighted bills that AU is working on:

Oklahoma On Tuesday the Oklahoma legislature held a hearing on HB 1918, a bill that provides a way for employers to side-step the federal mandate that the health insurance they provide to their employees cover contraceptives. This underhanded bill proposes state tax deductions for employers that receive federal tax penalties for refusing to provide birth control for employees. It passed the Appropriations and Budget Committee, and we’ll be watching it as it progresses.

Oklahoma: The House Judiciary Committee passed anti-Sharia bill, HB 1060, last Wednesday. The bill claims to prohibit the application of foreign law in Oklahoma, but Oklahoma Courts can already refuse to apply foreign law if it conflicts with U.S. and Oklahoma law.  Instead, this bill targets the Muslim community, perpetuating the false claim that Sharia Law is being implemented in the United States. This bill only perpetuates anti-Muslim sentiment and should not pass.
Vouchers and Tuition Tax Credits

Vouchers and tuition tax credits – backdoor vouchers – funnel taxpayer money away from public schools and fund primarily religious schools, violating our country’s commitment to the separation of church and state. Vouchers do not work: multiple studies of the District of Columbia, Milwaukee, and Cleveland school voucher programs, students offered vouchers do not perform better in reading and math than students in public schools. Not only have these voucher programs been proven to be ineffective, they also often lack accountability and civil rights protections.  Nonetheless, we are seeing several attempts to implement vouchers in the states.

Alaska: The Alaska House Education Committee held a hearing on Friday on HJR 1, which would repeal provisions of the Alaska Constitution that prohibit the state from spending taxpayer money for religious school tuition. AU submitted testimony opposing the resolution.

Nebraska: Richard Spellman, Omaha Chapter President, submitted testimony on behalf of AU opposing LB 14, a tuition tax credit bill.

New Jersey: Governor Christie made his Fiscal Year 2014 Budget Address on Tuesday, revealing a plan to put $2 million towards a pilot voucher program for children to attend private and religious schools. If you live in New Jersey, tell your legislators to oppose vouchers!

Tennessee:  Last week The Tennessee Senate Education Committee placed SB 196, a voucher bill, on its agenda.  AU submitted testimony opposing the bill.  Only one witness was heard at the hearing, however, and the bill will be heard again in committee this Wednesday. The House Education Committee will hold a hearing on the House version of the bill tomorrow.
Continue to check the blog for weekly updates on church state separation issues in the states. To get involved, visit the action center!

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Prayer Wars: When It Comes To Religion, The Majority Does Not Rule

Prayer Wars: When It Comes To Religion, The Majority Does Not Rule

Government’s first duty is to represent all of its citizens, regardless of what they believe (or don’t believe) about God and theology.
As many of you know, the U.S. Supreme Court decided last week that it will hear an appeal of an Americans United case challenging Christian prayers before meetings of the Greece, N.Y., Town Board.

The high court’s decision to hear the dispute during its fall term has led some news reporters to look at practices in the communities they cover. This story from the Panama City (Fla.) News Herald is a typical effort to put a local spin on a national story.

Also typical is the attitude expressed by some local government officials. One hears the same arguments over and over again: We should be able to do what we want. We have the right to pray. No one has ever complained.

Consider this comment by Bay District Schools Superintendent Bill Husfelt: “I really think that should be a local decision. I get frustrated when people try to tell us how to live our lives. I just think this is another area of federal control.”

Yes, it is an area of federal control. And the federal document that controls it is called the Constitution. That document, Superintendent Husfelt might recall, contains provisions prohibiting the government from promoting one religion over another.

A comment by George Gainer, chair of the Bay County Commission, raises another common argument.

“To eliminate that from the meeting would certainly interfere with our freedom of religion and freedom of speech,” Gainer said. “I believe that this country was founded on a firm faith in God and I believe that our forefathers meant for God to be a big part of our way of life. I believe that’s what made this country great and will continue to make it great.”

Gainer and his fellow commissioners – as individuals – have every right, under the First Amendment, to pray on their own as they see fit. But that’s not good enough for them. They insist on a right to pray on behalf of their entire community at a governmental meeting.

When they include official sectarian prayers as part of the agenda for their meetings, they are making a theological decision for everyone: This is our community’s favored mode of religious expression. If you agree with it, you’re an insider. If you don’t, you’re a second-class citizen.

Several local officials told the News Herald that no one has ever complained to them about the prayer practice. They seem to assume, therefore, that most people are happy with it. But that may not be the case. It takes a lot of courage to oppose official prayers before government meetings or in public schools. The people who choose to stand up can be subjected to a lot of abuse and threats.

Recently, Americans United protested the inclusion of prayers in a public school event in South Bristol, Maine. Some of the responses we received from residents of the community were rather heated, to say the least. One man suggested that we be placed in a lobster pot and tossed into the sea.
AU’s offices are a long way from Maine, so we shrugged it off. A resident of the town might feel differently. The bottom line is that local officials should never assume that just because no one has complained that everyone in town is on board with what’s going on. Some might be reluctant to speak out for fear of sparking community backlash.

We also often hear the claim that all types of prayers are welcome. Panama City Beach Mayor Gayle Oberst told the newspaper that she’d be fine with a variety of prayers.

“Most of our prayers are for the men and women in service and for the City Council to do the correct and good things,” Oberst said. “I don’t think it would matter in what faith the prayers were offered.”
That’s easy to say. In practice, as soon as someone offers a Muslim, Hindu or Wiccan prayer,
Religious Right zealots are immediately on their feet screaming. And if a non-religious person tries to offer a secular invocation, things get really interesting.

Government’s first duty is to represent all of its citizens, regardless of what they believe (or don’t believe) about God and theology. It can’t do that when it’s favoring one faith over others by opening meetings with prayers that are almost always from a certain faith tradition.
Local government, as the branch that is closest to the people, has a special obligation to treat all people equally and leave promotion of religion to the private sector. It’s a shame some local officials don’t understand that.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Supreme Court Should Rule Against Sectarian Prayers Before Town Board Meetings, Says Americans United


Church-State Watchdog Group Urges High Court To Use Greece, N.Y., Case To Affirm Government Neutrality Toward Religion

The U.S. Supreme Court today announced that it will hear a lawsuit challenging Christian invocations before town board meetings in Greece, N.Y.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the organization that is sponsoring the lawsuit, urged the high court to affirm government neutrality on religion.

“A town council meeting isn’t a church service, and it shouldn’t seem like one,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Government can’t serve everyone in the community when it endorses one faith over others. That sends the clear message that some are second-class citizens based on what they believe about religion.”

Americans United brought the litigation on behalf of two community residents, Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens. They objected to the Greece Town Board’s practice of inviting clergy to open its meetings with sectarian prayers.

The board does not require that the invocations be inclusive and non-sectarian. As a result, the prayers have almost always been Christian. Official records showed that between 1999 and June 2010, about two-thirds of the 120 recorded invocations contained references to “Jesus Christ,” “Jesus,” “Your Son” or the “Holy Spirit.”

In a unanimous May 2012 decision, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the town’s prayer policy. Judge Guido Calabresi said “a given legislative prayer practice, viewed in its entirety, may not advance a single religious sect.”

AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan, who directed the litigation for Americans United and will argue the Town of Greece v. Galloway case before the Supreme Court, said the justices should uphold the lower court’s ruling.

“Legislative bodies should focus on serving the community and stay out of the business of promoting religion,” Khan said. 

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Church Electioneering and the IRS: Another Example of Tax Agency Failure

 Executive Director, Americans United for Separation of Church and State


Church Electioneering and the IRS: Another Example of Tax Agency Failure

You might have noticed that there has been a little controversy about the Internal Revenue Service lately.

It appears that officials in a Cincinnati IRS office subjected some conservative organizations that were seeking a form of tax exemption to heightened scrutiny and additional procedures because they had words like "Tea Party" and "patriot" in their names.

Lois Lerner, the director of the IRS's tax-exempt division, has conceded this was wrong. I agree. It's also frustrating.

Here's why: For some years now, Americans United for Separation of Church and State has been urging the IRS to crack down on tax-exempt religious organizations that engage in blatant partisan electioneering. These are clear violations of the law, and yet the IRS seems to have done nothing to penalize scofflaws.

When I say clear violations of the law, I mean clear. I'm talking about religious organizations using their tax-exempt personnel and resources to intervene in elections. I'm talking about pastors standing up and telling their congregants which candidates to vote for or against, endorsing candidates in church bulletins or taking other actions that step way over the line.

These activities are not permitted. No tax-exempt, 501(c)(3) organization -- religious or non-religious -- can engage in behaviors designed to intervene in an election by endorsing or opposing a candidate. This is so because one of the conditions of tax exemption (which is very lucrative benefit) is that the groups holding it must refrain from this type of overt partisan politicking.

complete story here--

Monday, May 13, 2013

This is the Student Who Blew the Whistle on Muldrow High School’s Ten Commandments Plaques

This is the Student Who Blew the Whistle on Muldrow High School’s Ten Commandments Plaques

Earlier today, I posted about the Ten Commandments plaques that hang in every classroom in Muldrow High School (Oklahoma). As the story went, after an anonymous atheist student contacted the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the FFRF contacted the school and the plaques will now almost certainly be taken down after the school board discusses the incident at Monday’s meeting.
But the plaques won’t be coming down without a fight.
“It’s Christianity under attack within our own country,” said Josh Moore, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Muldrow, Okla.

Parent Denise Armer told KHOG she supports the students’ efforts to save the Ten Commandment plaques.
“If other kids don’t want to read the Ten Commandments, then they don’t have to,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean that they have to make everyone else do what they want.”
I guess no one taught these Christians the way the law works. Give it a couple of days, though, because they’re about to find out.

complete story at:

Minnesota Senate Clears Way for Same-Sex Marriage

clip “It was only a matter of time before people would realize that we’re just folks — we’re in people’s congregations, we’re in the grocery store, we’re everywhere.”

 Minnesota Senate Clears Way for Same-Sex Marriage

Video of 2013 OKAU Spring Dialogue

Video of 2013 OKAU Spring Dialogue

With many thanks to Damion and Chas, our chapter's treasurer and secretary, the video of OKAU's 2013 Spring Dialogue is available at the link below.  It's divided into segments to provide ease of access.

Prepared remarks from the four panelists--

Q & A with the panelists and audience--

Comments from the moderator, Chas Stewart, are posted here--

Article from Red Dirt Report, an Oklahoma news website, is here--

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Red Dirt Report--Fifth Annual OKAU Spring Dialogue

Fifth Annual OKAU Spring Dialogue

By Andrew W. Griffin

Red Dirt Report, editor

Posted: May 8, 2013

Andrew W. Griffin / Red Dirt Report
OK-AU Spring Dialogue panelists (l-r) William Tabbernee, Clayton Flesher, Bilal Erturk and James Nimmo.
OKLAHOMA CITY – Covering issues as diverse as capital punishment, Turkish secularism, marriage equality and the pragmatic and principled reasons for supporting the separation of church and state, Tuesday night’s fifth annual Spring Dialogue, sponsored by the Oklahoma City chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church & State at the Raindrop Turkish House, drew a nice crowd while providing fodder for conversation and debate.

This year’s panel – with the theme being “Advantages and Disadvantages of Religious Involvement with Civil Government” - included James Nimmo, communications chair for OK-AU, Clayton Flesher, and atheist and co-founder of Odd Oklahoma, Dr. Bilal Erturk, a finance professor at Oklahoma State University and the Rev. Dr. William Tabbernee, executive director of the Oklahoma Conference of Churches.


“We are the number one state in the U.S., per capita, for capital punishment, and the third in actual numbers, after Texas and Virginia,” Tabbernee said. “And the question is ‘why’?”

As Tabbernee explained, the state embrace of the death penalty is religiously linked to the “divine right of kings,” as interpreted in the Bible, particularly the archaic, monarchist-endorsed King James version.


lesher, meanwhile, tackled the separation of church and state from the perspective of its pragmatic usefulness. He talks about Adam Smith’s 18th century book The Wealth of Nations, and the idea of “the economics of religion.”

Noted Flesher on Smith’s findings: “Government involvement in religion would likely decrease pluralism or the variety of religions in a country and decrease religiosity.”

Flesher reminded the diverse audience that “The United States is founded on enlightenment principles.”

“We do not want the government deciding winners and losers on the subject of religion," he said.

Erturk, a native of Turkey, shared his thoughts on the Turkish Republic’s secular model which is different in that while the state is secular, they still control much of the Muslim-majority country’s involvement in religion.

“One area, which is a hot button issue in Turkey, is women wearing headscarves,” Erturk said, banned for having religious connotations.

The law there acts like Clorox bleach, he said, wiping away religious symbols and lifestyle from social life, although in recent years, those authoritarian views are being somewhat relaxed.

Erturk said this approach is not all that different from the centralized, government approach seen in Saudi Arabia with the thuggish Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vices that force women to wear coverings.

The final speaker, James Nimmo, addressed marriage equality for taxpaying, American gay and lesbian citizens and how the state collaborates with the dominant religion in denying them marriage rights.
“I believe morality comes from empathy and not from religion,” Nimmo said. “Most of us know people steeped in religion, but who have little empathy or understanding for those with differing backgrounds or points of view.”
Nimmo continued, explaining that religious minorities “frequently to have to defend their 1st Amendement rights against the stereotypes held up by the dominantly and politically misinformed.”
Nimmo reminded those in the audience that the dominant religious views in a place like Oklahoma, where conservative interpretations of Christianity take the dominant position.
Marriage, he said, is allowed for those in prison, as an example of where “morality” is more or less moot. Therefore, the state, embracing “religious dogma,” denies LGBT couples from marrying.
He also made the point that the state is in violation of the Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of religion by not allowing religious groups that allow same-sex marriage to perform those ceremonies.

Complete article at ---