News and Notes

Published by Minnesota Atheists on

By George Kane

Head shot of George, smiling in jacket and tie.

We get far too little good news from the conservative Roberts Supreme Court. It was therefore a rare pleasure in December when it refused to consider a case that could have forced school boards to permit church groups to hold worship service in public school buildings outside of normal school hours.

The case was brought by the Bronx Household of Faith, an evangelical Christian church which wanted to use a local school for Sunday religious services. In 1994 they applied to use a New York City middle school for its Sunday morning church services, and were refused because the Board of Education had a policy prohibiting religious worship at its schools. The appeals court ruled that allowing the church services in schools would violate the constitutional requirement on the separation of church and state, and would send the message that government endorsed religion. However, a federal judge granted an injunction allowing the services, pending a ruling by the Supreme Court. SCOTUS rescinded the injunction and reinstated the appeals court ruling, which it declined to review.

The Florida legislature is trying to foist on its voters an expensive amendment to the state constitution that would blast a huge breach in the wall of separation between church and state. Amendment 7 would repeal a provision that has been in the state’s constitution for 125 years that forbids the state to directly or indirectly provide state funding to religious institutions. The amendment would even require the state to fund a wide array of religious programs and institutions. The legislature put it on the November 2012 ballot with the deceptive title “Religious Freedom.”

The leading group in opposition to this amendment is the teacher’s union, since the amendment would transfer funds for public education to religious schools. Joined by several religious ministers, they sued to have Amendment 7 removed from the ballot. They argued that the amendment’s title and ballot summary were misleading. Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis agreed, particularly that the assertion that the amendment would bring the state constitution into conformance with the U.S. constitution is false.

Judge Lewis therefore ordered the amendment to be deleted, but a provision in state law will probably result in it being restored to the ballot. This provision permits the state attorney general to alter the title or summary of challenged amendments without requiring legislative approval. Judge Lewis’ ruling provides Attorney General Pam Bondi instructions on the changes needed to pass judicial review.

Religious conservatives will criticize President Obama, no matter what he does. There remain those who refuse to accept that he is a Christian, and are sure that he is a closet Muslim. Now he is accused of flaunting Christmas by putting up too many decorations at the White House. Sean Hannity was especially critical that the decorations, bought with tax funding, provide enjoyment for the president and his family. I wonder if he will also criticize the Christmas decorations put up by prior administrations.

I confess that I have never had any interest in any of the spate of “reality shows” that have been so ballyhooed over the last few years. I find them both voyeuristic and mundane, and have not heard of any that focus on people with whom I would identify or find interesting. This is particularly true of American Muslim, an offering on TLC, The Learning Channel. The show focuses on the daily lives and commonplace travails of Americans of the Muslim faith.

That is not a premise that would ever motivate me to flip the channel to catch a program. It provoked the wrath of the conservative Christian media watchdog Florida Family Association, however. They threatened the program’s sponsors with a boycott, provoking Lowe’s, Home Depot, and Sweet ‘n’ Low to pull their ads.

This shows considerable clout, but what is the organizational strength of the Florida Family Association? It turns out that it has only one paid employee, David Caton. The threats of boycott that so terrified the program’s sponsors was really a one-man crusade of anti-Muslim bigotry.

Jon Stewart provided a wry assessment of the complaints against American Muslim. Surely, Stewart mused, the problem with the program must be that it provides a platform for the anti-American rants of jihadis. Then he played a film clip of Caton, complaining that the program portrayed Muslims as having the typical ambitions, anxieties and concerns of other middle-income Americans. “Oh!” exclaimed Stewart in feigned shock. “The problem with the program is that there are not enough terrorists!” The sponsors who pulled their ads are now facing a backlash for religious bigotry.

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