A M E R I C A N A T H E I S T S
nnnnnnnnnn AANEWS nnnnnnnnnn
#203 uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu 11/23/96
In This Issue...
* Open Season On The Establishment Clause?
* Watergate Crook-Turned-Preacher To Operate Prison
* Sherman Protests School "Flagpole" Prayer Event
* AACHAT Update
* About This List...
ANOTHER ROUND OF FIRST AMENDMENT VIOLATIONS
Were it summer, it could probably be blamed on the "silly season." But
with the nation going into one of the most hormone-charged times of the
religious year, there is an outbreak of First Amendment violations involving
everything from prayers in judicial courtrooms to signs of yet more squabbles
over nativity and other displays in public courtrooms...
* On Tuesday, Mayor Wilburn Brown of Gilbert, Arizona declared a "Bible
Week" by proclamation, stating: "The Bible is the foundational
document...upon which our nation was conceived." According to reports,
including stories in the Phoenix-based Arizona Republic newspaper, the
mayoral diktat states that local residents should read bible verse during the
week-long period which starts tomorrow and runs through December 3.
Two years ago, mayors in Scottsdale and Tempe, Arizona joined the town of
Gilbert in sponsoring a similar affair. Despite protests from local atheists
and civil libertarians, none of those government withdrew their declarations,
although Tempe and Scottsdale chose to drop the "Bible Week."
Atheist Glenn Harris of Mesa, Arizona told the Republic that many people
in the region practice non-Christian religions, or profess no religious
beliefs whatsoever. "I don't think public funds and employees' time should
be spent promoting the Bible," Harris added. And State ACLU Director Louis
Rhodes said that the Gilbert Mayor's proclamation was a clear violation of
* The battle to re-instate a nativity display in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
continues as reported earlier this week in AANEWS. Government Council
members Larry Dunn and Bob Cranmer say they are supporting a request from the
Roman Catholic Holy Name Society to erect a privately owned religious
advertising display in the yard of the local county courthouse. In 1989, a
similar creche was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court for
being a government promotional stunt for religion.
Dunn and the Holy Name Society, though, insist that a 1995 high court
ruling now permits private religious displays on public land as part of free
speech. He told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Tuesday that the county would
also be allowing "secular" holiday symbols like Christmas trees, and even
displays from other religious organizations.
Yesterday, Dunn blasted the local American Civil Liberties Union which is
opposing the creche, saying that the group was "wrong-headed,
wrong-spiritied, and wrong legally." He threatened that "we will meet them
(opponents) in court and I believe the citizens of Allegheny County will
prevail over these folks who would try to steal the holiday seasons..."
An ACLU representative added that the last time the county engaged in
legal wrangling over a creche display, it cost the taxpayers over $100,000.
* In Montgomery, Alabama, Judge Roy Moore is at it again. Moore has
attracted national attention for his policy of opening legal proceedings
with prayer, and posting a Ten Commandments plaque in his courtroom. A
Circuit Judge heard arguments in September from attorneys with the ACLU, who
maintained that Moore was, in effect, practicing his religious faith in
A rally organized on September 11 to support Judge Moore "got out of hand"
according to press reports when a local minister charged that Christians
should hate the ACLU since it "hates Christianity, (and) the Christ of the
Bible." Rev. Mickey Kirkland called opposition attorneys "blood sucking
parasites," phraseology too strong for even former Moore media advisor Dean
Young, who now heads the state American Family Association. Young quickly
told media and the crowd of Moore supporters, many of whom were praying and
singing hymns, that "We love the ACLU, we just don't agree with them." Moore
told his supporters that posting the Ten Commandments and praying in the
courtroom was "an acknowledgement of the Almighty God."
Yesterday, it was learned that Judge Moore has won a partial victory in
the case; Montgomery County Judge Charles Price said that Moore can no longer
open sessions of his court with prayer, but may still post the religious
But the Alabama Court of Civic Appeals has ruled in a separate matter that
Judge Moore's religiosity may be a barrier to fair judicial conduct in a case
involving a lesbian mother's divorce case. Susan Scott Borden has argued
that Moore's "over Christianity" (Associated Press) makes him a "poor choice
to preside in the case." Borden's suit also maintained that Moore would be
hostile toward her own attorney, Janice Hart, due to her work on behalf of
The Appeals court ruling was quickly denounced by the state branch of the
American Center for Law and Justice, a Christian legal group founded by
televangelist Pat Robertson. Center spokesman Stewart Roth told the
Huntsville-Times: "I believe this (ruling) sounds a warning to every man and
woman who sits on a bench in Alabama to not discuss their religious beliefs,
not to discuss their views and not to stand up in church and share their
beliefs because it can come back to haunt you."
"FAITH BASED'' PROGRAM APPROVED FOR TEXAS INMATES
The Texas Board of Criminal Justice, a state agency which controls the
Texas prison system, has announced that it will be handing over a special
unit in a penal facility near Houston to be operated by former Watergate
crook-turned- religious activist Charles Colson and his Prison Fellowship
Ministries, Inc. The Austin American-Statesman reports that "The issue of
separation of church and state was thoroughly researched before prison
officials agreed to the project," according to the Board's attorney. TBCJ
executive director Wayne Scott added that "We're not going to be involved
with promoting any specific religious beliefs... We look at this as a
But the new scheme may face legal challenges and constitutional questions,
and may be -- at best -- disingenuous. The Statesman reports that Colson's
proposal is for a "Christ-centered, biblically rooted values-based" operation
which is to "emphasize the prisoner's need for restoration with their family,
community and Jesus Christ."
There is also evidence of an incestuous, albeit indirect financial
entanglement between the government and the Prison Fellowship Ministries,
Inc. Colson's ministry will provide an eight-member staff (valued at $1.5
million over a two year period, or an average salary of close to $94,000 per
annum for each "Christ-centered" proselytizer), while taxpayers pick up the
tab for the cost of housing, food and guards.
Colson -- From Schemer, To Crook, To Bible
Colson has created a veritable religious industry capitalizing on his
disgraced persona as former White House counsel to President Richard Nixon.
By his own admission, he was a presidential aide "incapable of humanitarian
thoughts," and the White House "hatchet man." In 1974, Colson entered a plea
of guilty on charges related to the Watergate cover-up, and ended up serving
seven months of a one-to-three year prison sentence.
Following his release, Colson "got religion" and began to proselytize
through his Prison Fellowship outreach. By the 1980's, he was thoroughly
enmeshed in the nexus of politically active Christian fundamentalist and
evangelical groups, grinding out a steady flow of books and tracts, and
visiting prisons throughout the world as part of his religious activities.
But while the one of Prison Fellowship talked about "reconciliation" and
"healing," Colson himself was gravitating toward more extreme and provocative
views on issues like abortion, and echoing the sentiment popular in
religious right circles that America is "under attack" by cabals of gays,
secularists and atheists who intend to subvert the country. ("Are lawyers
making America safe for atheism?," asks Cyberspace Christian Books, in its
promo for Colson's commentary "A Dance With Deception.")
In 1993, Colson was recipient of the Templeton Prize for Progress in
Religion, an award established by British financier Sir John Templeton. He
has also joined the Promise Keepers, a Christian religious "men's movement"
which holds "rallies" at athletic venues throughout the nation, and preaches
the need for males to reassert their "leadership" in the nation and family as
"heads of the household." Not surprisingly, this "muscular Christianity" has
come under attack for sexism and gay-bashing.
But it is Colson's flirtation with extreme anti-abortion politics that is
perhaps most disturbing, and raises serious question of what sort of message
his Prison Fellowship ministry may be trying to send to inmates in Texas and
elsewhere. His novel "Gideon's Torch," co-authored with Ellen Santilli
Vaughn, takes place in the near-future and begins with a new Republican
president opposed by the extreme "Christian Alliance." Following the murder
of an abortionist, the president leads a "crusade' against anti-abortion
radicals, who discover that a government plot exists to promote late-term
abortions after researchers discover that fetal brain tissue can be used in
formulating a cure for AIDS.
There has been considerable speculation in religious circles that
"Gideon's Torch" is a thinly veiled work with a plot and characters based on
real events and persons. Groups like "Refuse and Resist!," though, consider
Colson's screed anti-woman version of the apocalyptic "Turner Diaries,"
especially with its conspiratorial and millennialist overtones. Indeed, the
fictional Lambs of Christ anti-abortion group resembles the real-life Army of
God and John Salvi types who justify murder as a morally defendable and even
necessary tool in stopping the "slaughter" of "pre-born children."
...Back In The Heart Of Texas
Support for turning over a correctional unit to Colson's ministry seems to
be based on religious preference. Criminal Justice Board member Carol Vance
told the Austin paper that "he sees no problem with such a religion-based
program," which seems to contradict the statement of the Board's attorney who
insisted: "As long (as) we retain our focus on the secular goal, there will
be no problem -- and we won't be involved with any proselytizing." Carl
Reynolds adds that the state already offers "12-step" programs throughout the
state penal system which are "religion-based to some degree." But Board
member Allan Polunsky, while tentatively endorsing the program, expressed
reservations. He noted that while Prison Fellowship Ministries, Inc. is
donating personnel for the first two year portion of the operation, "it
intends to seek state funding after that. Polunsky, who is Jewish, said he
will oppose that" (Austin American Statesman).
There are already two major problems with the incestuous relationship
between Texas corrections authorities and the Prison Fellowship Ministries,
Inc. One involves the clear fact that the state is facilitating religious
exercise by essentially providing a religious group a subsidized venue for
its activities. Taxpayers are picking up the cost of guards, food and
various support services, even though Colson's group is "donating" personnel
and whatever other resources will be used in the "reconciliation" and
Another problem involves potential coercion of inmates. At present, it is
not clear whether inmates will have an option of participating in the PFM-run
penal unit. There could be legal complications, though, if inmates are
either forced to participate, or if participation in the program becomes a
condition or added benefit when seeking parole. A state Supreme Court in New
York has already ruled that prison officials there violated the rights of an
"Atheist-agnostic" inmate who stopped attending self-help meetings sponsored
by Alcoholics Anonymous. Participation in that program was a condition for
parole; the court ruled that "Adherence to the AA fellowship entails
engagement in religious activity and religious proselytization," and thus
violated the rights of nonbelievers.
There is a final irony, however, in the Texas "religious prison" story.
The pilot program involving Colson's outreach ministry will be at a facility
near Houston, Texas appropriately called the "Jester facility."
SHERMAN WANTS BEFORE-SCHOOL PRAYER STOPPED
No sooner was Illinois Atheist activist Rob Sherman arrested and released
following one First Amendment controversy than he waded into another, this
one involving teacher-led prayers with students before school. Speaker to
the Northwest Suburban High School District board on Thursday evening,
Sherman criticized a Sept. 18 religious event known as "Meet Me at the
Flagpole." Organized nationwide by school prayer groups, the "Flagpole"
events ostensibly involves students and anyone else interested meeting at an
announced location and participating in group prayer before the start of the
official school day. Organizers insist that "Meet Me at the Flagpole" is
entirely voluntary for both students and teachers.
Local school district officials released a memo stating that teachers
could participate in the event as long as it took place before the beginning
of the regular school day; teachers were told, though, that they should
neither lead the prayer nor urge students to attend the event.
According to the Chicago area Daily Herald, Mr. Sherman told the school
board that a First Amendment violation took place because the event was held
on school property. In addition, he warned that students might feel
pressured or compelled to take part in the "Meet Me at the Flag" prayer event
if they thought that doing so might improve grades or please their
"Students might think, 'I better go and pray because I can't take that
chance,' " added Mr. Sherman.
According to press accounts, Assistant School superintendent John Hillary
said that he would discuss the points made by Sherman with the district's
NOT RECEIVING AACHAT?
Several dozen aanews readers participate in the American Atheists,
members-only discussion forum known as aachat; and if you're one of them, you
have probably noticed that aachat has been off line for the past three days.
There is a conflict involving new software recently installed on our
moderator's machine; and soon as this is fixed, back mail will be sent out.
In the meantime, member-participants are asked to NOT send mail until you
begin receiving aachat letters again. We hope to have the problem resolved
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