The Week in Review – Law and Atheism 11/29/2012

For this week’s legal roundup, and the arrows are back with a vengeance.

Today’s first item just gets all sorts of my tacky little arrows. It’s awesomeness really deserves twinkling lights and a neon border, too, but I can’t tart up JT’s blog too much or he’ll stop me from posting. Writer Suzanne Lamb and her cohorts from the SSA at Western Kentucky University have taken on religion in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky.  Since the school district has allowed religious organizations including the Gideons to pass out Bibles and other Christian literature, Lamb asked for – and received – the same opportunity. She and the SSA are attending after-hours school-sponsored events and passing out FFRF info and copies of Dan Barker’s book, Godless, at Muhlenberg County high schools. The school board has a “community use” policy that permitted any nonprofit organization to distribute literature on school grounds.

One particularly outraged Kentuckian said, “I think it’s giving them an opportunity to impose their views and their values where they shouldn’t have a right to do that.” He added, “No one … should be allowed to go into the schools to go in and push their doctrine and their belief, which I believe to be a false belief – on any children. They’re opening the door for anybody to go in, and that would be including the atheists!”

Halleluiah, he gets it!

And so does the school superintendent, who said that the schools would not discriminate among nonprofit groups wanting to spread their information to students. Horrified that atheists (gasp!) have access to school children, the school board is likely to change the policy for the next school year to prohibit all nonprofit organizations from distributing literature at the public schools. My hat is off to Suzanne Lamb, and I hope others reading this blog and wanting ideas for way to be activists without risking arrest will take a page from her playbook. Lamb alerted me by email that there is a Canadian family doing the same thing in Ontario. This means FFRF reaches across borders to help spread secularism.

I encourage you to check out Lamb’s blog, What to Tell the Neighbors, in which she chronicles more details about her battle with the schools. One recent post contains an especially poignant email from a former Muhlenberg County student, who thought he was the only atheist around. Those of us who grew up without religion or who never managed to buy into the faith of our parents know exactly how that young person felt.

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Sanal J. Edamaruku is on a mission. He is traveling all over Europe to raise awareness of India’s colonial-era blasphemy laws. He hopes that the negative international attention will pressure India’s government to repeal them. He has a reason – he’s had to flee the country because of them and because of the death threats he received when he proved last March that Jesus Never Wept. As the founder of Rationalist International, Edamaruku is pretty much the James Randi of India. He’s the guy who challenged a tantrik, or black magician, to kill him – using only magic – on television a few years ago. The three-minute attempt was broadcast live, and when it failed even after Edamaruku graciously allowed the tantrick to continue trying to kill him for five hours, the magician declared that Edamaruku was clearly under the protection of a powerful god. Edamaruku replied, “Nope; I’m atheist,” and jaws dropped all over the religious world.

In Mumbai earlier this year, a big, wooden crucifix started dripping water from the bloody toes of the Jesus,  so of course the natural thing for most people to do was to declare a miracle and commence with the pilgrimages and the bottling of the water, ’cause ain’t nothing holier than a leaky crucifix. Edamaruku showed – once again on live TV – that Jesus’ toes were crying over a clogged drain and the resulting capillary action that funneled the water through a nail hole in the crucifix,  and that the wooden Jesus was not bothered in the least by the gruesome depiction of his death. The Catholic Church was very upset that its miracle was really science. Angered by Edamaruku’s accusation of “miracle-mongering,” the local bishop filed a formal complaint against him for “hurting the religious sentiments of the community,” which carries up to a three-year prison sentence. (Thanks, Mom, for not punishing Sis and me like this for hurting each other’s feelings as kids.)

Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. have appealed the decision by a federal trial judge that they have to provide coverage for contraceptives in its company health care policy. Interestingly, at one time the employee insurance plan did include these emergency contraceptives. When the employers realized this, they removed two emergency contraceptive drugs from the approved list. The judge indicated that he was sympathetic to the situation of the companies and their owners, but that the court was required to follow the law.

The judge refused to grant an injunction in favor of Hobby Lobby, its sister Corporation Mardel, and the owners of the two companies, despite their claims that they are religious employers and therefore should be exempted from contraceptive coverage required under the Affordable Care Act. The trial judge pointed out that to qualify as a “religious employer,” the purpose of the companies and their owners must be to companies and their owners must be a nonprofit organization primarily engaged in the business of religious indoctrination, that their employees must share the employer’s religious tenets, and that the employer must primarily serve people who share the religious tenets of the organization. Obviously, these companies do not meet these criteria.

Hobby Lobby also argued that the Obamacare contraceptive mandate requires them to violate their religious beliefs and “substantially burdens their religious exercise.” This language invoked the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which says that the “government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability” unless the burden furthers a “compelling governmental interest; and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.” The trial judge said that while the owners of the companies obviously had religious views, the companies themselves were incapable of holding religious views, because corporations are not people for every constitutional purpose, and because general business corporations do not exercise religion.

Despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which assured corporations a right to free speech and unlimited spending on that speech even in politics, the trial judge noted that not every constitutional right has been granted to corporations. Religious liberty is intended to protect an individual’s liberty.  If a law restricting religious conduct – as opposed to religious thought or belief – is both neutral in its treatment of religion and is generally applicable no matter what, it only has to be “rationally related to a legitimate governmental interest to survive a constitutional challenge.”

Hobby Lobby could not prove to the trial court that the contraceptive mandate was religious in nature, or that the mandate was intended to do anything other than to promote gender equality and public health.  What’s really bad, the court said, is that the constitutional rights of the employees are affected: procreation, marriage contraception, and abortion are private matters within the domain of the individual to exercise or not.

The Chester County, Pennsylvania, Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster! ‘Tis the season to remind local governments that there is more to celebrate each December than a baby who might or might not have been born in unsanitary circumstances somewhere in the Middle East 2012 years and one month ago. (The Pope says he wasn’t – can you believe that Benedict XVI actually gets an upvote this week for helping to debunk Christian myths? I know! Me either!)

Evangelical Pastafarian (did you know there were such?) Tracy McPherson bravely challenged the Chester County Commissioners, who have failed so far to include Pastafarianism in the county’s seasonal displays. She demanded that her religion be acknowledged alongside the Jewish Menorah and Christian Nativity Scene. More of us should design seasonal displays and demand they be given equal time.

William Cox has stepped up to the plate in an FFRF lawsuit that was in danger of being dismissed. He agreed to be a named plaintiff in a lawsuit to remove a religious statue from a Montana ski slope.FFRF had sued in its own name on behalf of its members, but the Catholic men’s organization Knights of Columbus, which erected the statue, objected to FFRF’s legal standing without a person actually named as a plaintiff. Thank you, William Cox! According to news reports, “several out-of-state conservative and religious groups have pledged their support in defending the statue’s existence on its 25-by-25 foot patch of land, saying it represents the history and heritage of the region.” I wonder what the dozen or so tribes of people indigenous to the region have to say about the religious history of their region?

All that having been said, I’ve had a crazy-busy week, and I know I’m missing significant stories. Feel free to add more in the comments.

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Got a legal question? Email me at anne@aramink.com. I’m a lawyer, but there’s only a 2% chance I’m licensed in your state. Whether I answer your question or not, sending me an email or reading this blog post does not create an attorney-client relationship between us. You can see my regular blog at www.aramink.com, where I write book reviews, ruminate on Life, the Universe, and Everything, and occasionally – frequently – rant about Stuff.

  • baal

    “Obviously, these companies do not meet these criteria.”
    It’d be creative of companies like these to set up little mary or jesus shrines right up next to the entrance / register and proselytize customers as they come in. “Hi, welcome to our store and perpetual worship service! Please kneel at this prie dieu and recite the text on the page embedded right there. Yes, feel the love of the Lord enter you (that’s the holy syrup by the way) and peace be with you as you shop shop shop for stryofoam balls, hobby paint and notions.”
    You might also be tempting fate* (as may be the judge in the hobby lobby case), that the xtians will run a test case up to get religious freedom added to the plate of rights that are granted to corporate persons.
    *fate in this case is the SCOTUS w/ RWA looney theocrats.

    • eric

      The non-profit requirement would still get them.. Non-profit status puts serious limitations on things like stock (generally, nonprofits can’t offer it), how much % markup they can do on goods and services (like, less than 5%), and how they can distribute profits to corporate employees (it limits the types and amounts of bonuses). I doubt very much the owners of Hobby Lobby will give up all that over what is probably for them, a cost-neutral difference in what health insurance plan they offer.

      • baal

        Good point, I mentally over looked the other requirements.

  • RuQu

    My wife and I got great laughs from both the black magic and, even better, the shock that the Kentucky Christians had over the idea of people spreading their beliefs in schools once they realized those beliefs might not be Christianity.

  • Pingback: The Week in Review – Law and Atheism 12/6/2012


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