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No, Dave Muscato: One Can Support LGBTQ Rights and Be a Christian (or why beliefs about what the Bible says are religious doctrines, too)

American Atheists recently posted a picture of a marriage equality protest with the hashtag #religionispoison. In defense of this hashtag, public relations director Dave Muscato tweeted, “If you’re a Christian and an LGBTQ supporter, you’re doing one of them wrong”.

This series of tweets has understandably caused a firestorm of online activity. Many responses, such as Dean Roth’s (January 16th on Chris Stedman’s blog), have argued that these statements are “appropriative”, “disrespectful and offensive to the queer people you claim to be supporting”, and unethetical/inappropriate behavior for an LGBTQ allies, wrongfully seeing gay people as “pawns in your game against religion”.

While others have argued that Dave’s tweet is an inappropriate thing for an LGBTQ ally to say, here I will put aside ethics and argue that the tweet is simply factually incorrect. There is no incompatibility between being a Christian and being a LGBTQ ally. In this post, I will assume that I am talking to an atheist audience. Christians will be unlikely to be convinced by the arguments I present because I assume several opinions commonly held amongst atheists but unlikely to be held by Christians. In this post, I will not engage with the internal theological debate amongst Christians as to whether or not Christians should support a theology inclusive of LGBTQ people. Instead, I will engage with whether or not Dave’s tweet, and subsequent post on Chris Stedman’s blog, can be maintained with assumptions common amongst atheists and I will show that it cannot.

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Karl Giberson, Christian Privilege, and Teaching Science/Religion Classes

For those who don’t know, there has been an on-going spat concerning a class taught by physics professor Eric Hedin at Ball State University. Hedin teaches a class entitled “Boundaries of Science” whose syllabus reveals that the class focuses on discussing the relationship between science and religion. As someone whose academic pursuits are related to studying the relationship between science and religion, this debacle has been on my radar screen for a while. Several groups have weighed in — perhaps most prominently Jerry Coyne (who is against the class) and the Discovery Institute (who say that they support the class in the name of “academic freedom”) — with a variety of viewpoints. Recently, physicist Karl Giberson has weighed in on the issue on his blog. In this post, I’d like to say a bit about Giberson’s response.

Giberson is a Christian commentator on the evolution/Creationism dispute who encourages his fellow Christians to accept Darwinian evolution. He works for the pro-evolution evangelical think tank the Biologos Foundation and I’ve been following his work in the blogosphere for a while.

In his article, Giberson calls Coyne’s view on the issue “hyperbolic” (I don’t think they are) and goes on to state (emphasis mine):

The Hedin uproar interests me because I teach similar courses — at Stonehill College in Easton, Mass. — that explore the boundaries of science, the nature of scientific truth and the religious implications of science…

Teaching courses on controversial subjects when you have a public — or even private — position on the controversy is a balancing act. Teachers, especially professors, are authority figures with powers of persuasion that should not be used to move students to positions that do not represent the mainstream thinking on the topic

…I assign equal reading from theists and atheists and spend roughly half the time discussing the ideas of the atheists. My goal — and I think I succeed — is to help students think through important issues that may inform their own spiritual journeys, regardless of the direction they are traveling. And as we know, college students do a lot of traveling…

Hedin’s assigned readings and bibliography are somewhat unbalanced, although one of the two required texts is a solid popularization of conventional big bang cosmology, unadorned by theological speculation. However, were students to infer that the extensive bibliography list covers the bases for the discussion of the “Boundaries of Science” they would be mistaken. Of the roughly 20 books listed, half advocate basic intelligent design with the remainder divided evenly between books by Christians sympathetic to raising constructive questions about God in the context of science — like Keith Ward and myself — or non-theists with minority viewpoints that resonate in some way with traditional theism — like Roger Penrose and Paul Davies. Noticeably absent are genuinely critical books of the sort written by Vic Stenger, Steven Weinberg and even Jerry Coyne that address the same issues but offer informed atheistic responses.

But is any of this a big deal? Should Ball State University terminate a young assistant professor teaching a general education course, which most faculty avoid like the plague, outside his field because, on first offering, it was ideologically slanted? I wonder how those us living in the ivory towers of academia would fare if our most challenging interdisciplinary syllabi constructed early in our careers became topics of national conversation?

…my guess is that his interdisciplinary explorations, like those of many thinkers inclined to consider the larger context of their fields, will become more sophisticated as time passes. If not, his colleagues won’t vote him tenure. In the meantime, Ball State doesn’t need external culture warriors telling them how to run their university.

I feel largely sympathetic to much of what Giberson stated. I’m a graduate student whose research focuses on the historical and philosophical relationship between science and religion. Despite having publicly accessible views on that relationship, I look forward to teaching courses on this topic but worry that my views may get in the way of pedagogy (what happens when students google me?). Unlike Giberson, I’m an atheist, but I think can I can imagine what it would be like to teach courses of this kind when one’s views are so publicly accessible. I have yet to teach a class on this, but would very much like to do so in the future (especially since it’s my research area!). And I think that Giberson has much the right idea; spending half of his course on thinkers he is adamantly opposed to, and working hard to present their ideas as strongly as you present your own, can work to create a classwork environment where academic exploration is encouraged. While I have not taught classes on the topic, I have done guest lectures for various groups and was happy to hear from my colleagues (who sat in) that I was as neutral as I was.

Giberson is correct that Helin’s syllabus lacks the full range of possible views that one might have on the science/religion relationship. And he’s right that Hedin is abusing his power as a professor. As others have pointed out, Hedin’s teaching evaluations on provide further evidence that he seems to be abusing his power as professor:

“Extremely nice guy and an easy class. However, the class had an extremely Christian bias and he does not believe in evolution. Many of his views do not quite jive with those of mainstream science.”
“Constantly talks religion, as an atheist, I was slightly concerned my science teacher is a devout christian.”
“The one thing I didn’t like was his constant bringing religion into class.”

When I took Philosophy of Religion, professor Ted Parent commented to the class that, if he did his job well that semester, students in the class will be guessing right up until the last day what his personal views are. Having taken other religion courses, I’ve seen other ways that professors try to avoid appearing biased; my Sociology of Religion professor stated his views the first day of class (he was an agnostic) and apologized if he ever appeared biased. He also encouraged students to relate the material to their own backgrounds and their own personal views. I sat in on a class that looked at the history of science and religion, taught by Matthew Goodrum, and he avoided telling the class his personal views the entire semester. He was so good at appearing neutral that his views were never relevant to the course material. His own views were simply not relevant to the course material. These approaches appear to me to be legitimate ways of reassuring students that the material will not be present in a biased manner; either make an effort to appear so neutral that your students have no idea what your views are or air them on the first day of class and let the students know that you want to cooperate with them to leave those views outside the door of the classroom.

Hedin’s class, in its syllabus and in his teaching evaluations, seems to be unapologetically biased towards Christian theism.

Giberson’s remark that this isn’t really a big deal seems to miss-the-mark. The problem is two-fold: 1. the kind of abuse of one’s power that can be identified in Hedin’s teaching evaluations and syllabus and 2. the kind of anti-atheist prejudice that is involved here. Despite recognizing Hedin’s abuse of power, Giberson asks that outsiders leave the matter to the university. Nonetheless, (2) especially concerns me because we already live in a country where atheists are regularly demonized; it doesn’t help to have a college professor abuse his power to erase the positions which atheists are voicing. If there were a class on “Gender Theory”, and it was taught by a white, heterosexual, cis male, and the syllabus solely contained works written by so-called “Men’s Rights Activists”, we would have reason to be concerned. We would have even more reason to be concerned if the professor’s teaching evaluations and other anecdotal evidence revealed that the teacher was making misogynistic comments in class. Such a situation would strike many of us as cause for concern. Imagine how inadequate it would appear if the response from MRA activists was to defend such a professor in the name of “academic freedom”.

It’s not that such a class should avoid discussing MRA thought; as much as I detest it and find it morally abhorrent, such views appear in the discussion on gender issues and a class focusing on such issues could conceivably do students a disservice if such a discussion were avoided. Similarly, while I find it intellectually abhorrent, Creationism is relevant to the discussion of science and religion. That does not mean that it should be the primary focus of the course.

This course is a violation of student rights and openly presents inaccurate information. If Ball State does not want to do anything about this situation, then students have every right to seek outside influence. It isn’t fair that students should be subjected to this sort of thing and it isn’t right for a professor to teach whatever he pleases under the guise of “academic freedom”.

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Hopkins’ Letter About Pickens School District Prayer

The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) is, once more, having to deal with illegal school prayer (this time, involving prayer at school board meetings in Pickens County, South Carolina). Activist Harrison Hopkins has an excellent letter-to-the-editor on the subject appearing in that town’s local paper. Here’s an excerpt:

People are obviously upset about this, seeing it as an “attack” on Christianity and their right to pray. But it is no such thing. Your right to pray will be completely unaffected by this. Your ability to force prayer upon others is the only thing that would be touched.

And that’s not a right you have.

Well said.

That cases like these recur so often makes me wonder when school officials will learn just how costly breaking the law can be, or when people will learn to recognize Christian privilege.

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Ten Commandments Taken Down in Giles, Va

I’ve previously blogged about the situation in Giles County, Va, concerning hanging the Ten Commandments in the school. There’s been a new development in the case that I wanted to state here. According to the Roanoke Times:

The board voted unanimously to replace the commandments with a copy of a page from a history textbook that mentions the Ten Commandments in conjunction with American government and morality. The commandments themselves do not appear on the page; they are represented by a drawing of two tablets.

I’ve read a photocopy of the  new document. It does detail that our system of government was influenced by Enlightenment thought and by Greco-Roman systems of government. I applaud both of those features, commonly denied by the Christian Right. Strangely, when discussing the Enlightenment influences, the document only references John Locke and Montesquieu. There are several others that would likely be worthwhile to mention — Voltaire and Rousseau being perhaps obvious examples. Nonetheless, not everyone could be covered in the small space and perhaps this omission could be excused.

What I do object to is the way that the Ten Commandments are presented on the document. The associated text reads:

The values found in the Bible, including the Ten Commandments and the teachings of Jesus, inspired American ideas about government and morality.

The first obvious problem is the politically correct use of the phrase “Judeo-Christian”. That’s a phrase that came into popularity sometime after World War 2 primarily in an effort to re-write Christian history; despite the hundreds of years of Christian anti-semitism, it was suddenly very popular to show solidarity between Christians and Jews. This newly awakened interest in ecumenical multiculturalism, in the face of the horrors of the Holocaust, is largely responsible for an ever increasing revisionist view of history. Christians were suddenly cast as being the friends of the Jews, despite the fact that it was after Mass when Jews had needed to hide for centuries prior, in fear of the mobs seeking out those they identified as Christ killers. The terror of Passion Plays is all too conveniently forgotten by modern day religious conservatives.

Yet if our country could be said to have religious origins at all, those origins are distinctly white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant. When the country was founded, there was a tremendous amount of anti-Catholic rhetoric being thrown about in the public discourse; it’s only been very recently that anti-papist propaganda essentially disappeared amongst American protestants. Anyone who is either old enough to remember Kennedy’s presidency, or who has read up on the subject, will know that one that one of the major accusations thrown at him was that he was a “papist”.

At the country’s founding, Jews were an almost non-existent minority. Even today, Jews only comprise 1.9% of the country. By some estimates, atheists far outnumber Jews; yet atheists do not yet have a considerable pull in the political sphere. The fact that Jews do reflects a certain kind of guilt uniquely felt by the descendants of oppressors.

And it needn’t surprise most of my readers that the Founding Fathers endorsed a view of religion popular in the Enlightenment, but decidedly antithetical to any understanding of religion endorsed by modern American Christians. While it may be true that most of the Founding Fathers (with the possible exception of Thomas Paine) were believers in a god, they were not Christians (at least not in the modern sense.) They were largely deists, Freemasons, or other kind of heterodox believers. They stressed reason over faith and devalued the ideas of miracles or revealed truths. They would not have said that they believed on the basis of faith; they thought they had strong reasons which compelled them to hold various kinds of positions.

By and large, the Founding Fathers believed in “Natural Religion”, an Enlightenment era invention created to capture what they felt was religion as revealed by nature and not by revelation or scripture. Describing the concept in the 17th century, deist author Matthew Tindal wrote:

By natural religion, I understand the belief of the existence of a God, and the sense and practice of those duties which result from the knowledge we, by our reason, have of him and his perfections; and of ourselves, and our own imperfections, and of the relationship we stand in to him, and to our fellow-creatures; so that the religion of nature takes in everything that is founded on the reason and nature of things. I suppose you will allow that it is evident by the light of nature that there is a God, or in other words, a being absolutely perfect, and infinitely happy in himself, who is the source of all other beings….

When we are told that “all men are created equal” or that they are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”, we are reading text typical of Enlightenment era deists. The vocabulary has been framed in that particular religious context, with the pre-text of the philosophical developments of the 16th through 18th centuries.

But this brings us to the other problem with the text. Not only is the phrase “Judeo-Christian” an essentially meaningless, politically correct modern construction, but there is no clear sense in which the Framers of the Constitution utilised either Jewish or Christian concepts in any of the founding documents.

In fact, fearing an outbreak of religious war, it was signed into the Treaty of Tripoli in 1797 that:

As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Mussulmen [Muslims]; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

The language here concerning Islam may be archaic, but the point is clear. This document, agreed to by the Senate, Congress, and by then-president John Adams, makes a very clear statement. It’s important to point out that the treaty does not grant the protection of religious liberties to American citizens; the Constitution and Supreme Court precedent act in that capacity. However, the treaty does reflect the position of the founding representatives of our country. In fact, when the treaty was approved by the Senate, John Adams stated:

Now be it known, That I John Adams, President of the United States of America, having seen and considered the said Treaty do, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, accept, ratify, and confirm the same, and every clause and article thereof. And to the End that the said Treaty may be observed and performed with good Faith on the part of the United States, I have ordered the premises to be made public; And I do hereby enjoin and require all persons bearing office civil or military within the United States, and all other citizens or inhabitants thereof, faithfully to observe and fulfill the said Treaty and every clause and article thereof.

But in case it isn’t clear, let us actually examine the Ten Commandments.

The first four commandments — not worshipping any other gods, not making idols, not taking the Lord’s name in vain, and keeping the Sabbath day holy — have never been codified into American law and are explicitly religious in character.

In fact, the US government has occasionally worked against these commandments. For example, the US post office delivered mail every day of the week until 1912, when, to keep the Sabbath, several religious groups demanded that mail not be delivered on Sundays. The Supreme Court has since ruled that, for pragmatic reasons, the postal service needs to be closed one day of the week. For historical reasons, it was found to be most convenient to keep that day on Sundays. Therefore, they have since identified an entirely secular reason for no mail delivery on Sundays.

Freedom of speech, one of our most prized freedoms, directly contravenes any law prohibiting the taking of the Lord’s name in vain. Blasphemy laws are deemed a direct violation of the Constitution.

The other six commandments — honouring one’s parents, prohibiting murder, against adultery, stealing, lying, and coveting — are more secular. But prohibitions on murder exist in nearly all cultures and pre-date Judaism. Ditto for stealing. Adultery is legal in the United States, though (perhaps rightfully) seen as immoral. And one can covet whatever one would like.

In fact, our modern moral sense should make us shudder at the blatant sexism in the tenth commandment:

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.

 Notice two things:

1. There is no prohibition against coveting your neighbor’s husband;
2. Women are listed second after your neighbor’s house and in a list of your neighbor’s property.

That’s right — the tenth commandment makes women out to be property, to be owned by men. Worse, the commandments assume a male audience. Morality is seen as the province of the man, and women, being simply property to be owned by men, are not taken into consideration. The laws concerning rape in the 22nd chapter of Deuteronomy make this abundantly clear as well; a man raping a woman was perceived as mere vandalism. Women were viewed as highly prized objects that fathers could trade for a hefty price.

Not only is this sickening, but it cannot be the basis for our culture’s moral zeitgeist.

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"In God We Teach" Documentary

I recently came across a documentary entitled “In God We Teach”. It’s absolutely fantastic and well-balanced, though I would have liked to have seen a little more information about the legal issues involved. The documentary covers the events at a high school in Kearny, NJ, involving an Establishment Clause lawsuit. The documentary is free for non-commercial use and is available on YouTube. For those who have followed a number of these kinds of cases in the past, the events will probably seem all too familiar (it’s strikingly similar to what we’ve seen in Ahlquist v Cranston, Damon Fowler’s situation last year, and the on-going litigation concerning Giles County, Virginia.) Take a look:


You can access the website for the documentary here.

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Giles County Revisited

In Giles County, Virginia, the Ten Commandments have hung on the school wall since April, 1999. The ACLU and the FFRF are now suing Giles County Schools, on behalf of a local anonymous resident, to have the Commandments removed. Liberty Council, a non-profit, Christian group of lawyers associated with Liberty University, are defending Giles County Schools. I have previously argued, in an Op Ed in the Roanoke Times, that there are theological, legal, and historical reasons that the Commandments should be removed. Here, I will give further analysis of the case in light of previous legal precedent. And I will explain why many of the supporters of the hanging of the Commandments are making their case more difficult for themselves. Additionally, I will discuss some developments since the appearance of my Op Ed article.

Liberty Council and the Giles County School Board have both argued that the hanging of the Commandments was permissible for two reasons:

1. The Ten Commandments form one part of a larger historical display (which consists of many other historical documents) and therefore serve a secular, historical purpose;
2. The documents display was paid for by local residents and not by the school board. Therefore, even if (1) were not true, this would not be an Establishment Clause violation.

In order to evaluate (1) and (2), there are two cases that are particularly worth our time to consider. The first is Stone v Graham (from 1980) and the second is Ahlquist v Cranston (from 2012).

In Stone v Graham, local residents (one of whom was Stone) sued Graham, the superintendent of public instruction in Kentucky, over a then recent law requiring the posting of 16×20 copies of the Ten Commandments in public school classrooms. The case was brought before the Supreme Court, where it was determined that posting copies of the Ten Commandments in public schools is unconstitutional. In that case, private contributions were used to pay for the Ten Commandments. Thus, argument (2) is a non-sequitor; Supreme Court precedent has already ruled that private monetary contributions do not render a display constitutional.

As in many other cases, the Court used the criteria from Lemon v Kurtzman (the Lemon Test) to determine the constitutionality of the hanging of the Ten Commandments. The Lemon Test consists of a three pronged criteria, where failure of any of the three is considered sufficient to determine an Establishment Clause violation. The three prongs are that governmental actions must (wording from Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577, 585, 112 S.Ct. 2649, 2654.):

3. “reflect a clearly secular purpose”;
4. “have a primary effect that neither advances nor inhibits religion”;
5. and “it must avoid excessive government entanglement with religion.”

The Court determined that the law violated prong (3). Since it violated prong (3), the law was determined to be unconstitutional. The Court wrote: “The pre-eminent purpose for posting the Ten Commandments on schoolroom walls is plainly religious in nature. The Ten Commandments are undeniably a sacred text in the Jewish and Christian faiths,[3] and no legislative recitation of a supposed secular purpose can blind us to that fact. The Commandments do not confine themselves to arguably secular matters, such as honoring one’s parents, killing or murder, adultery, stealing, false witness, and covetousness. See Exodus 20: 12-17; Deuteronomy 5: 16-21. Rather, the first part of the Commandments concerns the religious duties of believers: worshipping the Lord God alone, avoiding idolatry, not using the Lord’s name in vain, and observing the Sabbath Day. See Exodus 20: 1-11; Deuteronomy 5: 6-15.”

Additionally, the Court ruled that while a note was posted with the Commandments proclaiming the display to have a purely secular purpose, this is insufficient to support that the display in fact had a secular purpose. Therefore, it was ruled that even if a body proclaims its intent to be secular, that is not sufficient to establish that the intent is actually secular. This is important for argument (1) because it doesn’t really matter if the Giles County School Board proclaims its purposes to be entirely secular. What matters is whether or not its purposes are sufficiently secular as determined by the courts.

It’s true that the Ten Commandments have been hung in public courthouses or in other governmental buildings and that such displays were ruled not to be Establishment Clause violations. However, the Court has long upheld that, due to the impressionability of children, special care must be taken in what is displayed in public school class rooms. On these grounds, the Court has been especially delicate with regards to the sensitivities of children. The Judge in Abington School District v. Schempp stated: “constitutional prohibitions encounter their severest test when they are sought to be applied in the classroom.”

This establishes that the hanging of the Ten Commandments in a public school classroom, by themselves, is an Establishment Clause violation. However, the Ten Commandments are not currently being hung by themselves in Giles County Schools. They are being hung alongside a number of other historical documents, such as the Consitution and the Magna Carta. Furthermore, in that context, it’s argued that the Commandments serve the secular purpose of further elucidating the history of codes of law.

Therefore, to address the legality of argument (1), I turn to Ahlquist v Cranston. In that case, then high school junior Jessica Ahlquist (via her father, who acted as “next friend”) sued the city of Cranston. In Cranston High School West, which Ahlquist attended, a prayer banner had hung in the back of an auditorium since the 1960s. At the time when it was first hung, school prayer had not yet been deemed unconstitutional and the school had just been recently constructed. A student constructed the prayer banner which the school hung to the wall, where it resided for the last ~50 years.

Ahlquist’s case was brought before the Rhode Island District court, who ruled the banner unconstitutional. The defence argued both that the banner is a historical display going back to the school’s founding and that Ahlquist did not have proper standing to bring the suit.

A key part of the decision in Ahlquist v Cranston was the Lemon Test analysis. While the Judge stated that the Lemon Test has not always been applied in the same way, he did consider it to be an important part of the legal criteria used to establish Establishment Clause violations. To establish a violation of prong (3), he noted that it was important to consider both the intent when the prayer banner was first displayed and the present day intent in continuing to display the banner.

The original purpose was found to be obviously religious. The banner is, after all, a display of a Catholic prayer and differs even from Protestant prayers. The language used is not that used by other Christian denominations nor even similar to that used by other religions. The Judge went on to note that “Cranston’s purposes in installing and, more recently, voting to retain the Prayer Mural are not clearly secular… the tenor of the School Committee’s open meeting [where it was voted to keep the banner] at times resembled a religious revival”. The judge ruled that this was sufficient to establish the failure of the first prong of the Lemon test.

Therefore, some of the relevant legal issues to be decided in the Giles case are:

6. What was the original intent of the Ten Commandments display in Giles County Schools?
7. What is the present intent of the display?

I do not intend this to be an exhaustive list of all of the legal issues to be considered, but (6) and (7) are definitely crucial. To answer (6), it’s important to have some information about the history of the display. And to answer (7), one needs to examine the rhetoric in and surrounding Giles County Schools. For example, how do the local residents of Giles county view this issue? What sort of pressure have they applied to the school board to keep the commandments hanging and for what reasons?

Roanoke Times gives a timeline of the display in Giles:

April 1999: After the Columbine school shootings, a Giles County pastor donates framed copies of the Ten Commandments and the U.S. Constitution to be displayed in all public schools. The Rev. Shahn Wilburn later says he hoped students would see and obey the commandment: ‘Thou shalt not kill.’
December 2010: The Freedom from Religion Foundation sends a letter to the Giles school superintendent, objecting to the display on the grounds that it violates the constitutional separation of church and state. The commandments are removed from all schools and replaced with the Declaration of Independence.
January 2011: More than 200 angry citizens pack a school board meeting, demanding that the Ten Commandments be restored. ‘We all know that America was founded on biblical beliefs,’ one speaker says. The school board votes unanimously to put the displays back up.
February 2011: Following news reports that a lawsuit was pending, the school board holds a special meeting. Members are told their lawyers, from Christian-based Liberty Counsel, are threatening to end their representation if the displays remain in their present form. The board votes to take down the commandments.
March 2011: About 200 Giles High School students walk out of class to protest the vote. ‘This is Giles County and Christ is a big, big, big part of Giles County,’ one student says. ‘For those who don’t like it, go somewhere else.’
June 2011: The school board votes 3-2 to put the commandments back up. This time, at the suggestion of county resident and attorney Bobby Lilly, the commandments are included as part of a larger display with nine historical documents such as the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence.
September 2011: A student at Narrows High School and a parent sue the school board in U.S. District Court in Roanoke. They are identified only as Doe 1 and Doe 2, saying they fear backlash from the community if they are named.
October 2011: Attorneys with Liberty Counsel object to concealing the names of the student and parent. ‘The people have a right to know who is using their courts,’ they write in court papers.
December 2011: Judge Michael Urbanski orders lawyers to draft an order concealing the plaintiffs’ identities. ‘This court will tolerate no harassment, no efforts to interfere with the rights of these individuals,’ he says. Urbanski also denies a motion by the school board to dismiss the case, setting the stage for a long legal battle.
April 2012: The American Civil Liberties Union, which represents the student, files court papers asking Urbanski to order the display be taken down. It cites the heated community reaction, along with comments from one school board member, in arguing that the display and the board’s support are at their core a governmental endorsement of religion.
April 2012: Liberty Counsel argues in its briefs that the lawsuit should be dismissed because the commandments appear with historical documents — a secular display not of religion, but of the development of American law and government. The school board also argues it’s not responsible for a display suggested and put up by a private citizen.

Since the posting of this timeline, Judge Urbanski has suggested that a compromise be reached by excising the explicitly religious commandments and leaving the others.

Note that the Commandments were originally donated with a clear religious intent by a local pastor (in April 1999.) Note also the language used in January, 2011, and March, 2011. It wasn’t until June of 2011 — a full 12 years after the Commandments were originally hung — that the other documents were added. For the the entire period up to that time, the display had a clearly religious purpose and was seen as such by the local community.

I actually attended one of the school board meetings in Giles. A local Baptist group showed up to the meeting and held a prayer beforehand. They spoke loudly about their religious convictions and made it clear that they wanted the Commandments to stay on the school wall for sectarian purposes. The school board members spoke about their own religious convictions, but voiced fears that the school district would not have enough money to fight off a potential lawsuit. After the school board was done discussing the Commandments, a number of people left. Myself and those I had come with were left behind.

One should also note that Liberty Council was brought in to defend the school district. This is an organisation whose mission, as described by the Roanoke Times, is as a, “A Christian-based, nonprofit organization that uses litigation, education and policy to advance religious freedom, the sanctity of life and family.” One should recognise the buzzwords tacked onto the end of that statement; they, ostensibly, legal warriors for the religious right, where the phrase “family values” really means prejudice towards gays and making abortion illegal (consider, for example, organisations like Focus on the Family.) This is a group associated with Liberty University, an institution founded by ultra-conservative Baptist pastor and televangelist Jerry Falwell. While the association between the Giles County School Board is certainly not sufficient to show an Establishment Clause violation, it is strongly indicative that the school board is arguing a religiously motivated position. It seems largely disingenuous for either the school board or Liberty council to argue that their aims are non-sectarian.

Judge Urbanski’s recent decision — to compromise by removing the explicitly religious commandments but keeping the other six — was not well received by conservative commentators. For example, during his show’s “Culture Warriors” segment, Bill O’Reilly called Judge Urbanski a “pin head” (available here). Other commentators on the same program stated that they felt the suggestion to be “blasphemous”. But this seems to drive the point home even further — conservatives are seeing the discussion from a purely religious perspective.

Conservative commentator Bobby Eberle wrote (for GOPUSA) that: “I personally don’t care if the 10 Commandments are surrounded by the Bill of Rights, Constitution, or any other document.” Indeed, he sees this as putting the Ten Commandments on trial, as opposed to putting on trial whether or not displaying them in the context of a public school is constitutional (this is certainly not a trivial equivocation.)

Fox News columnist Lauren Green argues along explicitly religious lines. She states: “The problem is, once the first commandment goes, the whole ten are nothing more than suggestions. The reason those six come second is because the Bible is saying that only when God is revered can mankind avoid the pitfalls of committing adultery, murder, stealing, etc.” She goes on to state that morality cannot exist without God and gives the oft-cited Dostoevsky quote (“Without God, all is permissible.”) To be fair, her analysis is probably a decent (from a religious perspective) Christian exegesis of the Decalogue. But it’s also irrelevant to the issues under legal consideration.

Amongst philosophers and theologians, opinion is widely divided on the subject of the ontological foundations of morality. Indeed, many think that morality cannot derive from a Divine being of any kind because of the Euthyphro Dilemma. But whatever the truth of that matter might be, it’s not an appropriate matter for courts to adjudicate on. Thus, Green’s comments on this subject are entirely non-sequitors. Whether or not the Ten Commandments are the source of moral values in Western society is simply irrelevant to whether or not they can be hung in a public school.

But I don’t think the Judge Urbanski thought his suggestion would be well received by the parties involved. Instead, to invoke a Biblical metaphor, I contend that it was rather more like the sort of test employed by King Solomon in 1 Kings 3:16-28. Two women bring a baby to Solomon, who is given the hard choice of deciding who is the actual mother. Solomon orders that he be brought a sword so that he can cut the baby in half. One of the women cries out and pleads to let the other woman have the baby, while the other simply states, “Go ahead and cut him in half. Then neither of us will have the baby.” Solomon states that the first woman must be the real mother and gives her the baby.

In the Giles case, Urbanski is given the hard decision of determining whether or not the Commandments are being hung for religious reasons. If they are being hung simply as historical documents, there should not be any issue in hanging excerpts from them as opposed to the documents in full. This might not be a perfect test; conceivably, one might argue that we should not be in the business of editing or censoring history in an educational setting. But that would still be a secular response. Instead, we are told that cutting or censoring the documents is “blasphemous”.

In the context of Giles public schools, the Ten Commandments are clearly being hung for religious purposes. The local community construes the issue as Christians versus non-Christians. Conservative commentators across the media view the issue in those terms as well. The team of lawyers currently defending the school district hail from a Christian institution and have the stated mission of defending Christianity in the public sphere. And, as I previously documented in my Op Ed article, the arguments in favor of hanging the commandments involve a deeply revisionist history that wrongly construes our founders to have been orthodox Christians (while most of them were certainly not atheists, their beliefs would not be considered recognisably Christian by modern American Christians. And certainly not by religious conservatives.)

Therefore, despite its being hung together with historical documents, the Commandments are an Establishment Clause violation. And, what’s more, the particular brand of rhetoric being brought out from that community makes it even more difficult for anyone in that community to argue for a secular purpose for the display.

Atheism civil liberties civil rights


Polls show that the least trusted group in the United States are atheists. Want statistical evidence? I’ve got that.

First, there’s the study from Minnesota:

And then there are statistics on public attitudes about atheists in general:

Christians constitute a full 81% of the country (and are, therefore, a very large majority). The largest group of Christians, according to Pew, are the evangelicals, comprising 26.3% of the American religious public (to be compared with the roughly 2% who are atheists, based on most estimates.)

I found this comical little quote from Pat Robertson:

And, despite being a member of the 2% who are atheists and belonging to one of the most hated groups in the United States, I feel bad for all the Christians that we liberals have whisked off to death camps. I mean, we really shouldn’t be exterminating the Christians en masse.

Wait……. what the….???

civil liberties civil rights funerals Religion respect Texas

Respect Family’s Right to Their Own Funerals

I cannot imagine a more egregious offence to the right of private citizens to their own beliefs than to force the inclusion of a particular doctrine at a funeral. Yet, this is precisely what certain lawmakers in Texas are trying to do. Everyone, regardless of religious persuasion or attitude, should have the right to be buried in whatever respect that they wish. Instead, certain Texas politicians are pushing for the mandatory inclusion of Christian iconography and ritual at the funerals of soldiers, regardless of the wishes of families or of the deceased.

As if Rick Perry’s stance on science, religion, and their role in governance wasn’t already morally despicable, lawmakers in his own state are now pushing for this rubbish. Take a look here.