February Meeting Review
By George Kane
Our February Meeting opened with the election of officers for the 2010 year. All of the candidates were unopposed, and were elected by voice acclamation: President, August Berkshire; Associate President, Laura Hutt; Chair, George Kane; Associate Chair, Steve Petersen; Treasurer, Brian Knoblock; Secretary, Rick Rohrer; Directors-at-large Karen Burke, Mike Haubrich and Cody Peterson.
The Educational Presentation, provided by members of the First Amendment Watchdog Committee, was on how to be an activist. This group was formed as a committee reporting jointly to the boards of directors of both Minnesota Atheists and the Humanists of Minnesota. Because it was the intention of the group to actively lobby legislators, they dissociated themselves from their parent groups so that their activities would not endanger the 501(c)3 tax exemptions held by those organizations. The group is considering renaming itself, perhaps to ‘Church State Separation Watchdogs,’ since most clauses of the First Amendment do not fall under the committee’s area of concern.
The group does not intend to duplicate the function of national groups such as the Freedom from Religion Foundation or Americans United for Separation of Church and State, although they may pass some cases up to those groups for litigation. Rather, the purpose of the Watchdog Committee is to identify local violations of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, and to get the word out to activists in the state. They hope to complement rather than duplicate the other organizations that support strict application of the Establishment Clause.
The longest segment of the presentation was a review by August Berkshire of current laws and governing court decisions. Marco Scavo, the committee Chair, spoke of their new web site, MNWatchdogs.org, where anyone can join or sign up for e-mail alerts. George Kane provided guidelines for writing effective letters to legislators. A handout was distributed of two very different letters, one by George and one by Steve Petersen, each asking Governor Pawlenty not to participate in Minnesota Day of Prayer events. George and Steve urged everyone to write and send their own. While it is good to draw on a variety of sources for ideas and information, writers should only send original letters. There is disagreement, however, on whether hard copy letters are more effective than e-mail.
Bob Schmitz, the original Chair of the First Amendment Watchdog Committee, spoke about the lack of structural safeguards for charter schools against entanglement of church and state. The promotion of Islam by the Arabic language immersion TiZA school is by now well known, but there are other suspect chartered schools receiving state funding, particularly former parochial schools that meet in classrooms on church property.
The presentation ended with a panel discussion, which gave the audience the opportunity to ask questions of all the presenters.