U.S. Postal Service Under Fire from Christians and Atheists

The United States Postal Service can’t catch a break. They’ve managed to piss off Christians and atheists, for different reasons.

The first problem — which is totally not a problem at all — involved a new ad campaign aimed at promoting priority mail services that are available online.

The campaign’s name? “In Priority We Trust

Christians were apparently angry that another word had replaced “God” in the U.S. motto.

USPS spokesperson Tad Kelley responded to their complaints this way:

Some customers voiced concerns with the phrase. Being sensitive to their concerns, we directed affected post offices to remove the elements. These were only one component of nearly 100 element-retail display promotions. The other elements will remain in post offices and are not affected by this change.

Talk about being oversensitive…

Meanwhile, the Freedom From Religion Foundation expressed concern about a legitimate issue — a USPS-contracted truck with religious imagery on the sides:

It is our information and understanding that a truck used for the transport of U.S. mail between South Florida and Chicago includes on its cab an image of two hands clasped in prayer. We understand that the vehicle is owned by Finkle IV, a New Jersey company which has contracted with U.S. Postal Service for transporting mail…

By displaying this symbol of religious activity on a vehicle in service of the U.S. Postal Service, the government is illegally demonstrating a preference for religion over nonreligion.

This is only an issue because the USPS is a government agency and its contractors work under their purview. The solution is simple: Stop using Finkle IV or ask them to cover up the images when on duty for the Postal Service.

FFRF sent them a letter a month ago and the USPS responded by saying that the clasped hands did not “constitute religious imagery under an Establishment Clause analysis.”

What?! How are clasped hands in prayer formation not religious? That’s the sort of warped logic the Supreme Court used when they ruled that a cross wasn’t Christian.

FFRF wrote back to them with evidence to the contrary, and we’ll see if they respond. Maybe they would act more quickly if the clasped hands picture had a circle around it with a slash going through, and Christians became upset about it…

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • eric

    That seems a pretty stupid response by the post office. IANAL, but wouldn’t the defense “as a private contractor, their corporate logo does not imply government endorsement” be a crapton better than “hands clasped in prayer is not a religious image?”
    I’m not saying the former will (or should) win in court, but it appears to me that it would be a much more credible legal defense.

    • WoodyTanaka

      This argument is moot, because the UPSP is not saying that clasped hands are not a religious image, they’re saying it does not constitute religious imagery under an Establishment Clause analysis, which is not the same thing.

    • Jim

      “hands clasped in prayer is not a religious image?”"

      You’ll note that the only actual quoted words from the USPS were “constitute religious imagery under an Establishment Clause analysis.” The bit about “hands clasped in prayer” was not a direct quote, so I’m guessing they didn’t use those words. They probably said something more like what you suggested.

  • Rain

    Well there goes my new slogan “Our atheism, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy atheism.” Don’t want to make anyone upset or anything.

    • nash984954

      Hmmm…I pledge allegiance to the fact that if we don’t remove religion’s perniciousness and those who use it to make laws, then…well…we’re ALL doomed, we’re doomed I tell ya, we’re doomed…

    • nash984954

      “Our father who ain’t in heaven or any other place for that matter, hollow is thy name, thy kingdom come,now that’s just in a word…dumb, in 2 words…really dumb, thy will shalt never be done cuz like man you ain’t nowhere…” :-)

  • Mick

    Holy Cow. Are you Americans serious or delirious?

    • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

      Both.

    • EvolutionKills

      If I ever travel abroad, I’m going to claim to be Canadian…

      • Anon

        Don’t bother, many people won’t believe you.

        • EvolutionKills

          I’m from the great lakes region. I work at a hotel that regularly see visitors from Toronto and Ontario, so I actually have a fair amount of regular interaction with Canadians. Outside of the occasional hint of a french accent, we have almost identical accents. I bet I could pull it off reasonably well.

          • Rod

            Stick in an odd “eh?” and you’ll be OK.
            Also brush up on Tim Horton’s

            • EvolutionKills

              We have Tim Horton’s here already, mainly because of all the Canadian tourism. :D

      • C.L. Honeycutt

        What do I do when I travel to Canada, though?

      • Gus Snarp

        Just watch Strange Brew a few times, you’ll get it down.

    • Artor

      Yes.

    • fentwin

      Seriously delerious?

    • Matt D

      Well, that depends on which state you live in.

    • rx7ward

      Yes. (Unfortunately.)

    • nash984954

      I’m with what Artor and Houndentenor said. Or do I re-iterate?…or just iterate…so if I iterate, then re-iterate am I thrice in counting agreement of? As in I re-iterate said ditto.

  • William T. Robbins

    The FFRF has this one wrong. The prohibition doesn’t extend to contractors. Contractors are not government employees. In fact creating an employer employee relationship is called personal services which is generally illegal. As long as the contractor was selected based on neutral criteria the government isn’t endorsing religion. I could write an entire blog on the contractual problems telling the company to remove or cover it would entail. Suffice to say unless the contract specifics exactly what the truck has to look like the government has no grounds contractually to make such a request.

    • thfc1987

      Maybe the prohibition doesn’t extend to a regular contractor relationship, but when it’s a government contract, might it be different?

      • William T. Robbins

        I am speaking specifically to government contracts. Specifically Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) 37.101 & 37.104. I work in government contracting. Normally I am in agreement with FFRF but not in this case.

    • EvolutionKills

      Actually, I would really enjoy reading if you would write up a researched blog post and drop us a link. I’m not that well versed in Constitutional law, and I would be interesting to see an argument that came at it as other than dueling over the Establishment Clause.

    • baal

      Your last sentence is a tautology.

      “I could write an entire blog on the contractual problems telling the company to remove or cover it would entail.” Have you read fedgov contracts? They are the 800# and tell you the terms. They don’t have discussions about them. If they had a term, “neutral or only TM’d iconography on contractors trucks” then that would be the term with no butts about it. Further, the fedgov could very well sue a number of violations of law outside of the contract regardless of the contract terms.

      • William T. Robbins

        I read and review Federal contracts for a living.

        Not sure what you mean by “the fedgov could very well sue a number of violations of law outside the contract”. What violation of law outside the contract? A contract does not automatically make a contractor a state actor.

        • baal

          If a contractor violated the civil rights of an employee, the federal government could still file a criminal or civil complaint under the law and not as a breach of contract. As such, I don’t see the federal contract as necessarily protecting the mail delivery truck from an order to cover up the copyright violating praying hands.

          • William T. Robbins

            It is not illegal to have praying hands on a truck. The government can act as sovereign or party to the contract you are correct. But as sovereign there is no violation. You cannot act outside the contract, solely because there is a contract. Further who would take such action?

            • baal

              Ah, “under the color of the united states” might be the key framing for you. The ban on government establishment of religion includes endorsement of one religion.

              I otherwise agree it’s likely a fact issue for a jury to decide if the hands on the side of the truck are obviously due to a contractor or if it really does look like a government endorsement of a sectarian religious symbol. It depends a lot on what’s commonly on the sides of trucks and how clearly folks can tell it’s an agent of the government or not.

              • William T. Robbins

                You seem to have missed my question. What is your basis for action against a religious expression, on a private vehicle? Absent the contract there is none. And a contract does not automatically render a contractor a state actor. The very case the FFRF cites says as much.

                So what is your argument that it does in this case? Even if it does who has standing to sue?

                • baal

                  I don’t think I did miss it but this is my last post in reply. The suit could be brought by an attorney general type office or by a private citizen who saw the truck and thought it was the government endorsing religion. That’s not the hard part. You’re right it’s not automatic.

                  Let’s do a thought experiment. The post office has -0- vehicles and rents the entire fleet needed to do deliveries. It chooses only vendors who decorate their trucks with RC specific imagery on all sides and in every way including banner style ads that say, “The Pope is God’s one true leader of all faiths.” and similar pro-RC messaging. I’d argue that’d not be ok and would be the government endorsing a specific religion, i.e. establishing that religion as the religion of the state. The question then moves to one of degree, how much state endorsement of religion is permissible under the Constitution (or the Lemon case as the legal embodiment).

                • William T. Robbins

                  1. Attorney general’s don’t typically sue the government.

                  2. A private citizen would have to show actual injury. Seeing a truck doesn’t cut it.

                  3. Your thought experiment is invalid as it disregards the selection process and tomes of federal law regarding acquisition. It wouldn’t be a valid selection criteria.

    • Gus Snarp

      I’m inclined to think that you’re correct. This is a case of going too far and making ourselves look ridiculous.

    • Hat Stealer

      I agree. I worry that the FFRF goes a little overboard sometimes, because cases like this do nothing to help the image of the ‘intolerant atheist,’ and more importantly, do so when there’s not an actual violation of the law.

  • Blacksheep

    The image may also be the driver’s image and not Finkle 4′s logo. Their website doesn’t show clasped hands anywhere.

    • thfc1987

      Doesn’t matter.

      • Blacksheep

        Are you sure? It may be a privately owned truck. You may be correct, but I’m not so sure.

  • EvolutionKills

    “FFRF wrote back to them with evidence to the contrary, and we’ll see if they respond. Maybe they would act more quickly if the clasped hands picture had a circle around it with a slash going through, and Christians became upset about it…”

    EXACTLY.

  • Art_Vandelay

    If the FFRF would challenge the government on this…and I’m not saying they’re wrong…how do they let “In God We Trust” on the money slide? That’s like 10,000 times more of blatant position of government choosing religion over non-religion.

    Oh and Christians who have to defend your God against innocuous ad slogans: Once again…your God created a bunch of awesome shit like supernovae and mantis shrimp and neutrinos. It is far too advanced of a being to be offended by innocuous ad slogans in a small section of this speck of dust we call Earth. If it exists, it’s laughing it’s ass off at you.

    • Brian Westley

      They don’t. The courts keep ignoring it and saying they don’t have standing.

      • Art_Vandelay

        That seems borderline totalitarian.

    • UWIR

      And one time my local post office put up a poster with a picture of the Statue of Liberty and the words “In God We Trust”. How is that not an endorsement of religion?

    • talkingsnake

      IGWT is a funny one, and I frequently use it in conversations with godbotherers when they tell me “well then, I suppose you should take all of that money out of your pocket and throw it away”.

      Over 90% of the time, they don’t understand when that phrase went on currency and why, or the history of our national motto.

      The Supreme Court ruled that this falls under “ceremonial deism”, that its use is of a patriotic or ceremonial heritage, and no longer related to religious endorsement.

      These are the words I use with godbots and then ask them if this makes their xian sensibilities feel any better. It is typically met with silence.

  • WoodyTanaka

    “What?? How are clasped hands in prayer formation not religious?”

    Oh, for Pete’s sakes, they didn’t say that it wasn’t religious, they said it did not “constitute religious imagery under an Establishment Clause analysis,” which is not the same thing. Contrary to what many ignorant people might think, the law does not say “if it is religious, it is unconstitutional.” Your overreaction is as bad as the people complaining about “In Priority We Trust.”

  • Physeter

    Wow. I think a picture of praying hands on a mail truck has absolutely zero effect on me as an atheist. This is really what gets the FFRF all upset?

  • Gus Snarp

    Who at the Post Office thought they could get away with “In Priority we Trust”? Sure, it’s completely legal and all, but it’s a marketing slogan. You might want to look at what it’s actually going to do for your brand. Who in their right mind thinks that in the United States today you can get away with something like that? Sure, if you’re some edgy brand, but we’re talking about the Post Office. Sure, the Christians are getting bent out of shape over nothing, but shouldn’t the people doing marketing for the Post Office know enough about Americans to know they would get bent out of shape in the first place?

    • JET

      We’re talking about the post office here. I don’t think they can exactly afford Madison Avenue ad agencies. Probably somebody’s idea of a joke in the break room and they decided to run with it.

      • wombat

        That sounds like a very depression break room.

  • advancedatheist

    Which goes to show why I’ve lost respect for the people who run the FFRF.

    If they really want to go after an establishment of religion issue which demonstrates some radical thinking, how about the fact that religious superstitions have pervasive effects on healthcare policy in the U.S? These beliefs play a role in the fact that scientists face political restrictions in finding treatments for aging, because god ordains aging as punishment for “sin”; in finding ways to understand and enhance human intelligence, because a god created the human mind “supernaturally”; and in trying to turn death from a permanent off-state into a temporary and reversible off-state, as the brain preservationists advocate, along with Michael Shermer, because a god ordained death as our “fate.”

    Show me an atheist organization which wants to file lawsuits to challenge these establishments of religion which have literal life-or-death consequences, and I might want to support its efforts financially.

    • Gus Snarp

      Not to mention abortion and euthanasia.

    • UWIR

      Your post doesn’t actually identify any clear, specific government establishments of religion.

  • BrandonUB

    I can’t really see any great reason to be particularly concerned about a prayer-ish image on a contracted mail delivery vehicle. IANAL, but it seems to be that this is not actually showing preference for a religion over a lack thereof, and that switching out what seems to be a perfectly functional contractor over such a trivial matter is an undue burden on the USPS.

  • axelbeingcivil

    While I agree that showing the prayer hands could be construed as a display of religion, it’s hard to construe that as a particular preference of religion by the government when it’s used by a sub-contractor. The symbol might not even be a company symbol but rather a logo slapped on by a driver. It also isn’t on a vehicle that has any sort of United States Postal Service logo as far as I can see; the company name is stated rather clearly and few mail trucks have “UNITED STATES POSTAL SERVICE” across their trailers.

    The FFRF needs to pick its battles a bit better.

    • ibelieveindog

      The stylized eagle to the right of the hands is a USPS logo. To pick a nit.

      • UWIR

        One might also argue that the phrase “U.S. Post Office” falls under the same category as “USPS logo”.

    • allein

      It also says U.S. Mail below the hands, though that looks like a separate piece added to the door, while the hands are painted on the door itself. (I think any vehicle carrying mail has to be marked as such. After all, if someone were to steal from that truck while carrying mail, it would be a federal crime, as opposed to if it was carrying cargo for a private company.)

  • Guest

    Clasped hands promotes which religion exactly? I like what the FFRF does and stands for most of the time. But FFS, sometimes these church/state separation watch dog groups pick some stupid battles. Here’s another one that will make us look like a bunch of fu–ing haters and losers.

  • LesterBallard

    The second; they’re contractors. The first; Jesus Fucking Christ.

  • Michaela Samuels

    So, a double win for the continuation of church and state holding hands. What a horrid bummer. : /

  • Alexis

    Many christians look at a billboard “Got God” or sing “christ’s a bridge over troubled water” and think how clever they are to use a secular phrase for a sacred purpose, but they get upset when it goes the other direction.

  • Mario Strada

    Maybe they are “patticake” enthusiasts? That’s just their first move.

  • Monika Jankun-Kelly

    Put a silhouette bowed in in prayer, Muslim style, or a star and crescent on the truck, and watch how quickly the courts rule “yep, that’s religious all right”.

  • UWIR

    “Being sensitive to their concerns, we directed affected post offices to remove the elements.”
    They are “sensitive” to some being bullying jerks?

    • talkingsnake

      The USPS is one of those interesting government entities that actually does have to care about its customers, unlike virtually any other.

      There are cheaper, more efficient alternatives to the USPS, and they bleed money left and right year after year. They are a dying institution.

      • http://timothy.green.name/ Timothy (TRiG)

        Because the government didn’t like the fact that USPS was more efficient than its private competitors, and therefore deliberately crippled it with absurd pension requirements, according to Fred Clark.

        TRiG.

  • Thomas J. Lawson

    Maybe the truck driver is Indian… If “Namaste” was printed underneath the hands FFRF wouldn’t have a case, because the clasped hands are a cultural greeting with religious origins, much like every day of the week in which that mail is delivered. Thank God It’s FreyaDay!

  • DougI

    The clasped hands isn’t religious, it’s just Miyagi preparing to fix Larusso’s broken leg.

  • Ed Dovey

    Both sides should really grow up and get a life. Maybe they should devote their energies to combatting world poverty or protecting the environment rather than whining about an ad slogan or the fact that there is an image of clasped hands.

  • Lisa Hrncir

    I’m wondering if the USPS would have a different response if that picture on the truck had a circle around it with a diagonal line across it. I would imagine that Christians would have a fit!

  • frankbellamy

    I’d have to look into the case more to be sure, but my feeling is that FFRF is wrong on this one. As far as endorsement, if I drive by this truck on the highway, all I see is a presumably (and actually) privately owned vehicle with a religious symbol on the side. So what? That’s not illegal. I have no way of knowing what it is carrying or that it has any connection to the government. If I’ve understood the facts correctly, this is a truck that caries mail between post offices in different cities, it doesn’t deliver it to my house, so I don’t see it there. So where is the government endorsement of religion? I don’t see it. And it doesn’t sound like the post office selected this truck because of anything having to do with religion. So I don’t think I see a constitutional issue here.


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