News and Notes

Published by Minnesota Atheists on

By George Kane

Head shot of George, smiling in jacket and tie.

At the end of March, American Atheists, The Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers and the Military Religious Freedom Foundation held a rock concert at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. This “Rock Beyond Belief” event was held as a response to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s “Rock the Fort” concert last September that promoted Christian evangelism. The brass at the base were in a box: having approved the Christian event, they had to approve the atheist concert or it would not have been possible to deny bigotry.  

The event was funded by a $50,000 grant from the Stiefel Freethought Foundation, which even provided a free barbecue lunch for the first 1,000 military ID-card holders. Richard Dawkins was the featured speaker.   

Touting the military’s even-handedness, the garrison commander, Col. Stephen Sicinski said, “We try to accommodate all of the quality of life needs of our soldiers and their family members.” Despite the concert’s success, event organizers would prefer for this concert to be their last. They would prefer that the army, in the future, not approve concerts sponsored by outside groups that take any position on religion. Christians would love to have military bases opened to every gala religious-expression event, expecting to maintain an inescapable Christian presence while swamping atheism and every minority religion into a mute background.

Of more pressing concern to the event organizers is that no atheist group is currently permitted to hold regular meetings at the camp. According to Col. Sicinski, “that needs to be answered by the Department of Defense. As far as I know, that’s being discussed at the Chief of Chaplains level.”   

Old, settled constitutional arguments are rising like zombies in a couple of southern states. In Tennessee, the legislature passed a bill encouraging teachers to present the “scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses” of topics that arouse “debate and disputation” such as “biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.” The governor allowed the bill to become law without his signature.

Tennessee became the object of national ridicule during the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, after its legislature had criminalized teaching evolution. The Supreme Court ruled in 1968 that the opposition to evolution is a religious belief, which cannot be taught as science without violating the establishment clause of the First Amendment. The Dover case in 2005 rebuffed an attempt to dress up religious belief in scientific garb as “intelligent design.” The current bill is an attempt to discredit science broadly to promote conservative ideology.   

The bill was strongly opposed by the Tennessee Science Teachers Association, but Governor Bill Haslam let it become law without his signature. It is certain to be challenged in the courts.  

Meanwhile, in Florida, Governor Rick Scott signed into law a bill designed to subvert the protection of public school children against institutionalized prayer. Although the bill does not mention prayer, it is clearly intended to sidestep the prohibition against school-sponsored prayer by leaving the content completely up to the student who offers the “inspiration” to open an assembly or sporting event. The schools are expressly forbidden to censor or edit these “inspirations.”    

Does anyone think that problems might arise when you regularly give teenage boys an open microphone and a captive audience, and tell them that the school cannot do anything regardless of what they say? Democrats tried to amend the bill to restrict messages to avoid anything that “could or would endanger the health and safety of children,” “distorts well-established historical facts,” or expresses “anti-American sentiments that are intended to disparage, either directly or indirectly, the United States of America.” Had any such exceptions been incorporated into the bill, Republicans feared that the courts would see the prayers as not truly “student-initiated,” and therefore fail constitutional review.   

Once again, Christians expect their advantage in numbers to outweigh the risk of giving a platform to a dissident or two. They expect that for every troublemaker, a dozen compliant sheep will satisfy their religious duty to proclaim the glory of Lord Jesus.

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