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

This week’s legal roundup:

The Christian Family Coalition persuaded the Miami-Dade County Commissioners to institute a prayer to start off each meeting. Commissioner Dennis Moss was understandably upset at the passage of the ordinance, and objected vociferously, which displeased the CFC. It seems that they expect their elected officials never to defend the wall of separation of church and state. One of the prongs of the CFC’s mission is to “protest anti-Christian bias and defend the legal rights of Christians.” I kid you not. Apparently they believe Christians are oppressed. From where I sit, just the opposite seems to be the case. The ACLU is monitoring the situation, and may file suit if the council’s prayers slide into sectarian territory.


In a no-brainer of a lawsuit, FFRF sued a school district in Fayette County, Pennsylvania, in September over a Ten Commandments monolith in the school yard. In their answer to the suit filed just this week, the school district’s lawyers said that the monument had to be placed there during the otherwise completely lawless 1950’s, when school children had no code of conduct from any other source. (Yes, that’s what the report says. Well, pretty much. Click the link if you don’t believe me.) The school district’s attorneys, desperate for an argument – any argument! – said that the outdoor monument was not really a problem because it has an eagle (the school’s mascot) the Eye of Ra on it, so it’s all nonreligious and stuff. Plus, objecting students can simply avert their eyes.

Jessica Ahlquist, Constitutional Champ

Let’s ask Jessica Ahlquist about how the law sees such a solution, shall we? I’ll bet she can answer us without blinking.

The school district’s lawyers also said, “Considering the ‘history and ubiquity’ of this Eagles’ Ten Commandments monument, and assessing how a reasonable person would view it, it is clear that the monument does not convey a message of endorsement of religion.” Evidently they don’t know about the logical fallacy of an appeal to tradition.



Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ)

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, a project of the Pew Center for Research, reported on the religious affiliations of the 113th congress a couple of weeks ago. We know that we have our first Hindu (Hawaii Democrat Tulsi Gabbard) in either house and our first Buddhist Senator (Hawaii Democrat Mazie K. Hirono, whose house seat Gabbard won). For the first time a religiously unaffiliated person, Arizona Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, has been elected to a new seat in Congress. She has so far resisted saying whether or not she is actually atheist, but she’s openly bisexual. California’s Pete Stark had been in office for well over a decade when he came out as atheist in 2007. He is the only known atheist ever to serve in Congress, although Dave Silverman of American Atheists claims that there are at least 20 closeted non-theists currently in office.

When the 113th Congress takes office in January, 393 members of the House of Representatives will be Christian (246 Protestant, 134 Catholic, 8 Mormon, 5 Christian Orthodox), 22 Jewish,  2 Buddhist, 2 Muslim, 1 Hindu, 1 Unitarian, and 1 unaffiliated. Eight members of the House did not specify their religious persuasions.

Eighty-seven Senators are Christian (53 Protestant, 27 Catholic, 7 Mormon), 10 are Jewish, 1 is Buddhist, and two did not specify a religious preference.


We expect to see blasphemy in the headlines from theocratic Muslim countries, but it is more startling to hear that countries that make up the European Union still have blasphemy laws on the books. Despite its intensely Catholic history and its role in the Protestant Reformation, Europe seems to be in the process of abandoning its religious roots, relegating religion to a curiosity that existed in its history, but which rarely plays a part now. Today’s Europe is increasingly secular, amused by unscientific fundamentalism, and irreverent.

There are eight notable exceptions: Denmark, Germany, Greece Ireland, Italy, Malta, the Netherlands, and Poland. A couple of weeks ago, I told you about the iconoclastic Greek play that resulted in blasphemy charges for its actors, director, and producers. Ireland has a blasphemy law on the books, and its abortion prohibitions are so strict that even when the mother’s life, and thereby the fetus’, are at risk, still no abortion can be performed.  That nightmare scenario played out to devastating and preventable results not long ago.

Last week the Dutch parliament moved to scrap its blasphemy law, too. The Dutch law, passed in the 1930’s, has not been used in more than 50 years. Feel free to marvel at the social change that took place within a single lifetime. A majority of the political parties in the Netherlands agree that such a law is no longer relevant to modern Dutch life, where the freedom of speech and tolerance are treasured.

I am also pleased to report that here is hope for Ireland. This week,Ireland opened a constitutional convention that may result in eight significant changes in its laws, especially with respect to human rights. Among those possible changes are the elimination of the blasphemy law passed as recently as 2009 and approval of same-sex marriage. Last year Taoiseach Enda Kenny proved himself not to be in religion’s back pocket when he blasted the Catholic Church in his address to Parliament regarding the Cloyne Report. The report marked a devastating blow to the Vatican because it revealed the involvement of the Vatican – not just local church officials – in covering up child sexual abuse by priests in one Irish diocese. In the opening speeches Saturday, Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore advocated significant changes from the 1937 constitution, saying it “reflected the aspirations for our country as they were in the 1930s, which was a time when one church had a special place when women were second class citizens and homosexuality was a criminal offence.”


The United Nations gets two upvotes this week. First, it has condemned female genital mutilation, a religious and cultural practice confined mostly to Africa and the Middle East, but which, because of widespread immigration, has become an issue worldwide. The World Health Organization has said that female circumcision has no health benefits, and indeed, that the procedure actually “interferes with the natural functions” of the female body.

Recently a woman from Gambia sought political asylum in the U.K. because of the genital mutilation she had suffered, and the fear that her three-year-old daughter would be subjected to is they returned there. The United States and Canada have both granted asylum based on realistic fears of genital mutilation – in fact, our kind neighbors to the north were the first country to recognize that females as a minority social group faced persecution in the form of genital mutilation if they were forced to return to certain countries, and to grant them asylum because of it.

Male circumcision has fallen into worldwide disfavor in recent years, and made the news last week when Grace Adeleye, a nurse-midwife, went on trial for the death of a four week old baby who bled to death after she circumcised him. The circumcision was done without anesthetic in the home of the baby’s Nigerian-immigrant parents. Adeleye used forceps, olive oil, and a pair of scissors to do the job.

In 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics changed from a neutral stance on circumcision to one in which it stated that there was “insufficient information available to recommend” circumcision, although it did say that the health benefits of circumcision outweigh the risks. Because of the potential health benefits, the World Health Organization says that male circumcision is partial protection against AIDS. According to the CDC, “Male circumcision reduces the risk that a man will acquire HIV from an infected female partner, and also lowers the risk of other STDs , penile cancer, and infant urinary tract infection. In female partners, it reduces the risk of cervical cancer, genital ulceration, bacterial vaginosis, trichomoniasis, and HPV. Although male circumcision has risks including pain, bleeding, and infection, more serious complications are rare.” Some human rights organizations claim that the male circumcision studies relied upon by the UN, WHO, and CDC are flawed.

This week’s second upvote for the United Nations results from its recognition of Palestine as a state. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)  has held the status of a non-member observer entity” since the 1974, but this change in status implies that the U.N. recognizes Palestine as a state, putting it on equal footing with the Vatican within the U.N.’s hierarchical framework of nation-states. Palestine is understandably jubilant about its recognition. However, the U.S. and Israel refused to go along with the designation, for which they both earn downvotes from me. Like I really count.

Apartheid is apartheid, denying people basic human rights based on their religion violates those rights, reservations for indigenous people are a form of oppression, and killing children is wrong, no matter whether you are God’s Chosen People or God’s Country. Sorry.


The proposed Chester County Pastafarian tree

Last week I reported in the Chester County, PA dust-up over the Evangelical Pastafarians demanding space for their holiday exhibit. Chester County responded by passing a resolution saying that only displays owned by the county would be displayed, and that only “traditional” Judeo-Christian displays would be acquired by the county. The county refused to acquire the Tree of Knowledge put together by the local Freethought Society, which had been displayed since 2007 with the other holiday displays, and refused the Pastafarian’s holiday display. Sounds like establishment of religion to me. And forgive me for mentioning it, but as I recall there is a Judeo-Christian tradition of a Tree of Knowledge. Maybe the Chester County Commissioners think that those who would pursue knowledge are Satan’s minions.


The United Kingdom now requires its free schools to teach evolution by natural selection, or risk losing government funding. Free schools can be run by religious organizations and other creationists, and are not the same as regular public schools in the U.K.; they do not have to follow the government-mandated curriculum. In a massive victory for the children’s education, this new rule means that children attending these schools have to be taught real science, not creation science. We in the United States, who have dealt with individual teachers, administrators and even entire public school boards who don’t mind giving evolution short shrift, wish the U.K. well in enforcing the law. We hope the U.K. is successful and that we can pick up some good pointers.


Alternative medicine is often called “alternative” because it’s not real medicine and it doesn’t really work. In the world on homophobic excesses, the good news is that a new lawsuit isn’t against homophobic Christians this time. It’s against JONAH, the Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing. The Southern Poverty Law Center, a watchdog for hate groups including anti-gay groups, has filed suit on behalf of four plaintiffs who were teenagers when JONAH attempted to “cure” them of their homosexuality by conversion therapy. Two other plaintiffs are the Orthodox Jewish parents of the patients. JONAH’s “therapy” consisted of having the young men beat effigies of their mothers (who “made them gay”), inappropriate physical contact and genital displays, and subjecting the patients to name-calling.

The American Psychiatric Association does not consider homosexuality to be a mental disorder. It cannot be “cured” by any therapy, and certainly not by abuse. Conversion therapy is typically used by religious groups or practitioners to eliminate sexual desires in gay people. You may remember that during the run up to the presidential primaries, it was reported that Michele Bachmann’s husband Marcus used conversion therapy on gay patients in his practice, and encouraged them to “pray away the gay.”

The basis of the JONAH suit is fraud and deceptive practices.



Got a legal question? Email me at 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. I’m on Twitter as @aramink, and you can see my regular blog at, where I write book reviews, ruminate on Life, the Universe, and Everything, and occasionally – frequently – rant about Stuff.

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