Law and Secularism – The Week in Review

Religious Freedoms

Last week we reported on the Kansas City Atheist Coalition being denied permission to participate in its city’s annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade because of their lack of religious belief. No other non-Catholic or secular groups were prohibited. The KC Atheists went to the parade anyway, holding signs that protested the discrimination and soliciting questions from the public. We’re looking forward to a lawsuit next year on this issue.


Consider the foster child: removed from parents and other family members, placed in someone else’s home or in a group home, and indoctrinated into a religion. By the very nature of their circumstances, foster children are traumatized and disempowered. Americans United For Separation of Church and State considered the effect of religious pressures on these extremely vulnerable young people. It  filed suit in Kentucky to prevent a children’s home run by the Kentucky Baptist Convention from pushing their brand of Christianity on children in their care. In a settlement reached last week, any child care agencies that receive state money will not be permitted to pressure children to accept one doctrine over another. (Does anyone remember in White Oleander how the atheist child in foster care was indoctrinated? Speaking from my experience of working with kids in foster care, I promise it happens – a lot.) This should have been a no-brainer, but as long as we have faith-based initiatives, we’re going to have proselytizing.

Last week Melissa Rogers was appointed the director of the federal Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships – the agency that administers faith-based initiatives. Rogers is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a D.C. think tank, and also is director of the Center for Religion and Public Affairs at Wake Forest University Divinity School. Until 2003 she directed the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. The Anti-Defamation League and other organizations that champion separation of church and state approve.  In a press release, the ADL noted that “As Chair of President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, she led the efforts to identify needed church-state and anti-discrimination reforms of the Faith-Based Initiative as it had been previously administered by Bush Administration officials – including efforts to eliminate the possibility of proselytizing and discrimination against program beneficiaries.” Good on her!


The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear American Atheists’ case against Kentucky. You may remember that in 2006 Kentucky passed an anti-terrorism law requiring its state Office of Homeland Security to affirm in training materials that it cannot keep the state safe without reliance on “Almighty God,” and to place a plaque with similar wording on the building housing the office. Refusal carries a criminal penalty, including up to 12 months in prison for the director of the state agency. The Supreme Court can’t hear every case, but you’d think a softball like this wouldn’t unnecessarily clog its docket.


The Center for Inquiry’s Office of Public Policy has published a position paper about Christian fundamentalism expanding and becoming entrenched in the U.S. military. The author of the paper, Dr. James Parco, is a graduate of the Air Force Academy and a professor of economics and business at Colorado College. Dr. Parco found that fundamentalist, evangelical Christianity is both tacitly and overtly endorsed by senior military leaders. The position paper recommends steps that should be implement immediately in order to fully protect the U.S. military’s necessarily secular foundation and the religious freedom of all who volunteer to serve.

Reproductive Rights

North Dakota, determined not to let its southern sister beat it when it comes to alternate uses for coat hangers, is challenging Arkansas for the most draconian laws banning abortion. Both houses of the state legislature have now approved a bill that will criminalize abortion as soon as a fetal heartbeat is detected, six weeks into pregnancy. Many women do not know they are pregnant at this point, much less that they might have already wanted to get that abortion they’ve been dreaming of since they were little girls. North Dakota’s newest infringement on a woman’s right to determine how her body is used says that abortion is legal only to preserve the life and health of the mother. It includes no exception for rape, incest, or serious fetal anomalies. Another bill prohibits abortions based on the gender of the child or for genetic abnormalities such as Downs Syndrome.

North Dakota is also voting on two personhood bills this week, which would eliminate legal abortions altogether since human life would be legislated to begin at conception. Infertility doctors in the state say their work would be seriously curtailed, because they could not risk criminal prosecution for what might happen to human embryos that are not implanted into someone’s womb. The first bill criminalizes any abortion except during a medical emergency that will otherwise result in the death of the mother – in other words, unless the mother’s death is imminent due to the pregnancy, no abortion can be performed. The other bill redefines “human being” to include embryos and fetuses “at any stage of development” for purposes of the murder statutes.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, North Dakota already has a relatively low abortion rate, accounting for one-tenth of one percent of all abortions nationwide.


On the other hand, Washington State is leading the charge for equal access to reproductive health care, including equal access to abortion, with its Reproductive Parity Act. The governor of Washington has already said he will sign the bill if both legislative chambers pass it. The bill is scheduled for public hearing in the Senate Committee on Health Care.

Washington is not alone. the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women adjourned its annual two-week meeting last Friday with a draft of Agreed Conclusions that signals a policy to be adopted world-wide. Among other things, that policy would give all women everywhere access to sex education, birth control, and safe and legal abortions.


Perhaps more appropriately filed under “Amazing Batshittery” than under reproductive rights, Fox News really needs to listen to the stupidity it promulgates. Conservative columnist Star Parker told Fox News host Sean Hannity that a Democratic plan to expand gun background checks would allow the Ku Klux Klan to control black people and keep firearms out of the hands of women who had an abortion. “Because people who have had abortion, according to studies, have a tendency to have mental challenges later on,” Parker explained.

The American Psychological Association says that there is “no credible evidence” that abortion causes any sort of mental health problems.


Same-Sex Marriage

 In the U.S. Supreme Court

As we wait for the oral arguments in the Supreme Court next week, read the Pew Forum’s legal analysis of the pending Prop 8 and DOMA cases, and a supplemental report released yesterday. Standing to sue is the biggest hurdle, according to legal experts, followed closely by applicability of general principles to states.

The American Bar Association has posted the amicus brief of the Republican proponents of equal rights for people who identify as LGBTQ. Scroll to the end to see all the Republicans who signed it.

Around the Nation

Remember Harvey Milk? The San Francisco City Supervisor was the first openly gay politician ever elected to office in California. His meteoric political promise went down in a blaze of gunfire at the trigger of a political rival in 1978. Harvey Milk was more than a first, though. He was an inspiration, and may be fundamentally responsible for the favorable light that, with his political ascendency, began to shine on gay and lesbians everywhere in this country. On more than one occasion, Harvey Milk exhorted people to come out of the closet. He knew that as soon as homophobic people realized that their children, their cousins, their friends, their neighbors, their colleagues, and their respected icons were gay and lesbian, acceptance of homosexuality had to follow.

That philosophy may be why Dick Cheney, of all people, does not condemn homosexuality. His love for his lesbian daughter prevents him from espousing political and civil rights shackles for her. There are other gay-friendly Republicans out there, but they mostly keep quiet. One of them has decided to speak up, though. Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio has announced that he favors same-sex marriage because – guess why – his son is gay and he hopes his child will be able to have the same sort of loving relationship that his parents have been able to enjoy, complete with the benefits that come with marriage. And it’s okay with him if that relationship is with another man.

Despite a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted earlier this month, which found that 58% of Americans favor same sex marriage, House Speaker John Boehner is unswayed by Portman’s love and hopes for his child’s future. The poll also found that 62% of people now believe that homosexuality is not a choice, and that 64% of people believe that the Supreme Court should decide the issue based on the U.S. Constitution rather than allow each state to decide the issue separately.


Only two states in the U.S. have elected not to define marriage when it comes to genders. New Jersey and New Mexico have stayed above the affray until now, but this week David Coss, who is the mayor of Santa Fe, and Geno Zamora, Santa Fe’s City Attorney, put their heads together and determined that what the law does not specifically forbid, it implicitly allows. Ergo, county clerks are encouraged to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples who apply for them. Philip Sisneros, the state Attorney General, agrees that the law is sufficiently vague. So will the county clerks agree and issue the marriage licenses? One did so on her own back in 2004, but was advised to stop. Another says now that she won’t. We’ll probably know soon how this will all turn out. The Santa Fe mayor and city attorney were motivated in part by their love for gay and lesbian family members.

It looks like Harvey Milk was right!


Favored 2016 presidential nominee and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton unequivocally came out in support of same sex marriage this week in a video made specifically for the Human Rights Campaign.  Clinton said gays and lesbians are “full and equal citizens and deserve the rights of citizenship.” This announcement follows her 2011 statement as Secretary of State that “gay rights are human rights.”

 And Elsewhere

Some Native American tribes don’t have a problem with same-sex marriages. The Coquille Tribe, located in Oregon, and the Suquamish Tribe, located in Washington state, were joined earlier this month by tribal council of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians voted to recognize same-sex unions as long as at least one member of the couple was a citizen of the tribe. Last week, the same day that the tribal law went into effect, Gene Barfield and Tim LaCroix, a member of the tribe, were married pursuant to the legal authority of the tribe. They have been together for 30 years. Sadly, the state of Michigan, where the LTBB tribes are based, does not recognize the marriage legally conducted by the sovereign nation.

Creationism and Anti-Science

Zack Kopplin is the science advocate we want all of our schools to be. Not only does he educate himself outside the classroom, he calls out officials who would disseminate misinformation to students pretending it is really education. He spoke out this week in a press release announcing that Louisiana state Senator Karen Carter Peterson (D-New Orleans) had filed SB 26 to repeal the Louisiana Science Education Act. The Louisiana Science Education Act is the state’s creationism law, masquerading under a misleading title. Kopplin has been campaigning against this law since he was in high school in Louisiana; he is now at Rice University. He encourages students themselves to fight against being given misinformation in school.

Louisiana’s private school voucher program is being challenged in court, too, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed an amicus brief objecting to the constitutionality of the law, because its result is that taxpayers subsidize religious education, not to mention anti-science agendas. “Louisiana legislators are siphoning money from tax-starved public schools to feed private schools that promote dogma and aren’t accountable to the taxpayers,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United in a press release about the case.


The National Center for Science Education reports that yet another anti-science bill  has died in the Oklahoma House of Representatives. Along with Senate Bill 758, which died in February 2013, HB 1674 was one of two proposed laws that would have undermined the integrity of science education in Oklahoma. HB 1674 would have encouraged teachers to “help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories pertinent to the course being taught.” HB 1674 specifically mentioned “biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning” as subjects which “some teachers may be unsure” about how to teach.

Public Policy

Today at 2:30 p.m. EST the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and the religion, policy and politics project at the Brookings Institute will host a forum to release a new national opinion survey on religion, values and immigration reform. With nearly 4,500 respondents, the survey is one of the largest ever conducted on the issue of immigration. The accompanying research report, authored by PRRI CEO Robert P. Jones, PRRI Research Director Daniel Cox, and PRRI Research Associate Juhem Navarro-Rivera, along with Brookings Senior Fellows E.J. Dionne, Jr. and William Galston, explores general sentiment toward immigrant communities, opinions on the impact that immigrants have on American culture and public support for specific policy approaches to immigration reform. The report also explores support for immigration policy among religious groups and the political implications of the issue for and within both the Democratic and Republican parties.

After presentation of the survey results and the panel discussion, participants will take audience questions. Register to participate in the live webcast, or follow the conversation on Twitter using #ImmSurvey.

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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