January News and Notes

george_head.jpgby George Kane

Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) won an important skirmish against South Carolina promoting religion on license plates. Last month, the legislature authorized issuing "I Believe" auto license plates for a fee, embellished with a Christian cross and the image of a stained glass window. AU initiated the suit Summers v. Adams on behalf of three Protestant ministers and a Rabbi who are South Carolina residents, as well as the Hindu-American Foundation and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. The state filed a motion to dismiss the suit, but U.S. District Court Judge Cameron Currie ruled that the suit should proceed to trial. The judge issued a temporary injunction restraining the state Department of Corrections from producing and the state Department of Motor Vehicles from distributing the plates until the suit is decided.

In Kentucky, American Atheists Inc. has joined forces with the American Civil Liberties Union and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in a suit filed on behalf of nine state residents to oppose religious clauses in the in the law that created the state's Department of Homeland Security. The clauses, included in an amendment authored by state Rep. Tom Riner, (D-Louisville), received little notice when the bill was originally passed.

The first clause requires that a permanent plaque stating that the "safety and security of the Commonwealth cannot be achieved apart from reliance upon Almighty God" be posted at the state's Emergency Operations Center. The other clause requires the Executive Director of Homeland Security to publicize "the dependence on Almighty God as being vital to the security of the Commonwealth."

In order to establish standing to file suit, the plaintiffs must show that they have been harmed by these requirements. The plaintiffs therefore assert that they "suffer anxiety from the belief that the existence of these unconstitutional laws suggest that their very safety as residents of Kentucky may be in the hands of fanatics, traitors, or fools."

The suit states that the law was passed in response to the September 11 attacks, which it calls a "faith-based initiative."

Outgoing President George W. Bush disappointed a lot of conservative Christians when he discussed his religious views on ABC's Nightline. Asked if the Bible was literally true, Bush replied: "Probably not. ... No, I'm not a literalist, but I think you can learn a lot from it, but I do think that the New Testament for example is ... has got ... You know, the important lesson is ‘God sent a son.'" The president also said that he prays to the same God as those with different religious beliefs. "I do believe there is an almighty that is broad and big enough and loving enough that can encompass a lot of people," Bush said.

Bush denied that the decision to go to war in Iraq was determined by his religious beliefs: "I did it based upon the need to protect the American people from harm," Bush said.

"You can't look at the decision to go into Iraq apart from, you know, what happened on September 11. It was not a religious decision," he said. "I don't view this as a war of religion. I view this as a war of good, decent people of all faiths against people who murder innocent people to achieve a political objective."

He said he felt that God was with him as he made big decisions, but that the decisions were his.

A couple of months ago, the British Humanist Association ran an ad campaign on London buses. The ads read "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." They inspired advertising campaigns by atheist groups in the US, but the ads here have elicited howls of protest from Christians.

The American Humanist Association is paying $40,000 to run ads on Washington D.C. buses throughout the month of December. The ads read simply "Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness' sake." The good-humored ads have drawn hundreds of calls to Washington's Metropolitan Transit Agency in protest. The MTA cannot pull the ads, however. In the 1980s they were sued for pulling ads that ridiculed President Reagan for running a "Jelly Bean Republic." They are under court order to accept all ads that are not factually misleading or false, that do not violate laws or incite violence, or employ profanity.

The furor is greater in the Washington state capitol, where the Freedom from Religion Foundation posted a plaque reading "At this season of the Winter Solstice, may reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds." First the plaque was stolen, but returned to a radio station. After the plaque was returned to its spot at the capitol, a reported 500 people showed up to protest it.

I understand that Christians will disagree with the message of the plaque, but it does not call for any action against Christians. Particularly it does not call for denying their right to freedom of speech. As FFRF co-president Dan Barker said, "Our members want equal time, not to muscle, not to coerce, but just to have a place at the table."

The protesters, to the contrary, demanded that the atheist plaque be removed. The Rev. Kenneth Hutcherson, pastor of Antioch Bible Church in Redmond, demanded that the atheist plaque be removed: "Just because you must represent everyone in the state doesn't mean that you put up with intolerance from the people that you represent." I'm sure that he was completely oblivious of his own hypocrisy.

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