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Rally Protests School Prayer Rule
by Rose Livingston
The Birmingham News

November 9, 1997

Rainsville -- Sylvania High School student David Newsome said he can't see himself in next spring's graduation ceremonies without praying with his classmates and their parents.

"You can't separate prayer and Christians," he said.

And Allison Wilkes said she cannot stop taking part in Priority Prayer before school every morning.

"I have no choice until God tells me differently," she said. "There's a lot of things they can take away from us, but prayer is not one of them."

The two spoke to a crowd of people who rallied Saturday at the Rainsville Civic Center against a federal injunction restricting religious activities in DeKalb County public schools.

The rally followed a series of walkouts staged by students in DeKalb and surrounding counties in protest of U.S. District Judge Ira DeMent's injunction, which curtails prayers using public address systems and audience-participation prayers at graduation ceremonies. A state senator has asked DeMent to step down, and others have talked of impeachment in the wake his far-reaching order.

John Holkem of Rainsville, a father of seven, said he fears what students will turn to if they cannot express religion at school.

"When you remove God from our lives, you're leaving room for evil forces to creep in," he said. "And I don't see anybody trying to outlaw Satan's influence anywhere."

The Rev. Gary Williams of Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Boaz led the group in prayer for the beginning of a new movement against "spiritual warfare" and help to "defeat the demons and all the attacks of hell."

Boyce Chandler of Crossville displayed a T-shirt marked with a red circle and slash across the word "monitor." DeMent ordered the school system to appoint and pay monitors to watch for compliance with his order. Chandler said there was too little money to educate children, and now part of that money would pay for spies.

"It breaks my heart to see what's happening in our world today," he said.

Gary Carlisle, principal of Sylvania High School, said he got a taste of government monitoring a week ago when he was ordered to DeMent's office after writing a letter to a newspaper in response to the injunction. Carlisle said he was stopped on his way to Montgomery and told the meeting was postponed.

"I sure was glad to go to that football game that night" instead of having to meet the judge, he said.

Dean Young, executive director of the Christian Family Association, encouraged the crowd to keep up its stand for religious freedom because it will be watched by the nation.

He also had a message to DeMent and the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the original lawsuit brought by a DeKalb principal.

"It's going to be a long, hard fight," he said. "They hate what you're doing here tonight. We will not have monitors in our schools watching our kids. You rescind that order or you step down. You have no right."

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Charlotte Atheist Bracing
for Second Round in
Commandments Battle
by Conrad Goeringer

November 9, 1997

When a local city councilman in Charlotte, North Carolina suggested displaying a copy of the Ten Commandments in the local government center, religious groups and secularists promptly lined up on opposite sides of the issue in yet another example of the "culture war" sweeping the country.

In early August, council member Don Reid called for the Decalogue to be displayed in the local government offices. Reid claimed that he was inspired by evangelist Luis Palau who has urged supporters to pray in public, display the Ten Commandments and proclaim that the teachings of Jesus Christ constitute the foundation of the American society. Palau, says Reid, "gave me the incentive and -- I'll call it courage -- to do it." But there were other incentives, too. Reid's support from the local religious community plugs into the nationwide issue of school prayer and religious display in government, exemplified by the controversy in Alabama involving county Judge Roy Moore, who displays the commandments in his courtroom and open proceedings with a Baptist prayer.

In March, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to support Moore and urge display of the Decalogue by passing a non-binding resolution. It termed the commandments, "a declaration of fundamental principles that are cornerstones of a fair and just society." Three months later the Southern Baptists expressed their support for displaying the Commandments in public buildings. In several states, organized efforts got underway to have Decalogue plaques erected. In Wisconsin, for instance, one group announced the goal of having the Commandments displayed in every one of the state's 76 county courthouses. But atheist and First Amendment activist Rob Sherman threatened legal action, and so far the proposal remains just that: a proposal.

In July, a Charleston, South Carolina, city council member nailed a copy of the Ten Commandments to the wall of a county office building despite a legal action to prevent the move. Back in Charlotte, councilman Reid was informed by the city attorney that his proposal, as originally formulated, was probably not capable of withstanding a judicial test for state-church separation.

In late August, Reid proposed an amended scheme to erect the Ten Commandments; he suggested a "mural" possibly paid for with private funds which would display the commandments along with "a group of documents" including the U.S. and North Carolina constitutions, the Declaration of Independence, and the city and county charters. "It would make a beautiful display in our lobby or in our chambers," he gushed to the Charlotte Observer newspaper. "It would be constitutional and it would be an appropriate action to take."

Charlotte atheist and secularist James Senyszyn disagreed, and spoke out against Reid's disingenuous scheme to smuggle religious symbols into government venues. Following a heated meeting, the Charlotte city council voted 7 to 4 to postpone any action on Reid's proposal until after the November election.

It's That Time Again

The elections are over, of course, and like a bad penny, the issue of posting the Ten Commandments is expected to return. Mr. Senyszyn is ready. In addition to printed remarks in the local media and statements before the council, Jim outlined his opposition to Ten Commandments display in an op-ed piece which appeared in the Greensboro (North Carolina) News and Record newspaper on November 2; that article has now been picked up by other news sources, including the Indianapolis Star. Mr. Senyszyn's writing also won him the 1997 First Amendment Award at American Atheists' recent conference in Washington, D.C.

The next test in Charlotte could happen as early as tomorrow evening, Monday, November 10 when the city council reconvenes in its first post-election meeting. Mr. Senyszyn reports that so far, the commandments display has not been placed on the council agenda; one secretary thought that the proposal might even be "dead." That may not be the case, however, if local prayer-in-government supporters take their cue from events in Alabama, and see the goal of displaying the Decalogue as a form of support for Judge Moore and the cause of school prayer. In Charlotte, as elsewhere, vigilance is indeed the price of liberty -- and state-church separation.

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Against Displaying
The Ten Commandments
in Charlotte's City Hall
by Jim Senyszyn
from the Greensboro (North Carolina) News & Record

November 2, 1997

The motivation (of this proposal) is to promote religion. Interviews in the Charlotte Observer and other media show that the proposal was inspired by the preaching of an evangelical minister. The proposal is not being put forward by any legal association, historical society or arts group. This religious intent, effect and entanglement violate the First Amendment's "establishment clause."

These three-pronged criteria were laid out by the U.S. Supreme Court in Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971), the so-called "Lemon test." In Stone v. Graham (1980), the U.S. Supreme Court threw out a Kentucky law requiring the posting of a copy of the Ten Commandments on the walls of each public school classroom in the state. Displays of the Ten Commandments at county courthouses were found unconstitutional by federal district courts in Harvey v. Cobb County, Georgia (1993) and in Anderson v. Salt Lake City (1972).

America was not founded on Christianity.

The myth of some religious past to which we must now return is based on phony colonial history. Roger Finke and Rodney Stark in their book The Churching of America 1776-1990 (Rutgers University Press, 1992) report general agreement among historians that in the colonial period no more than 10 to 20 percent of the population actually belonged to a church. The rate for Southern colonies was a low 12 percent, partly as an artifact of slavery, and was 20 percent if only whites were considered -- on a par with the other colonies.

Jon Butler's book "Awash in a Sea of Faith" (Harvard University Press, 1990) agrees with those figures. Butler further points out that during the Revolution 75 percent of the Anglican ministers left their parishes because they supported or were supported by the Crown, and that patriots ransacked all but one of the Anglican churches in the American colonies.

Revolutionary War polemicist Thomas Paine wrote a critique of Christianity, "The Age of Reason."

Commandments and rights are not the same.

The concepts of democracy, trial by a jury of one's peers, religious freedom and inalienable rights can not be found in the Bible. Rights in the Bible are not inherent, but bestowed.

Since the Bible's basic cosmological model is monarchical, any rights that do occur are by the sufferance of the monarch. Thus any and all grantable rights are equally revocable. There are arbitrary bestowal criteria to a "chosen" people. Not even the right not be killed is uniformly secure: Abraham turns his knife aside from his son Isaac only on a command from God, not because of the rights of the potential victim (Genesis 22:2, 9, 10 and 12).

Religious symbols intimidate and give false authority.

At a meeting of the Charlotte City Council this summer a black lady pleaded for a traffic light in her community, saying that it was not right to take into consideration the low moral condition of her neighborhood. Government should make decisions based on their merits and should not be in the business of forgiveness of sins. The presence in the court house of religious symbols would only increase such feelings of inferiority, invidious discrimination and disempowerment.

On the other hand, such symbols give other people instant respectability and false authority. To me, they are like waving a magic wand to make the city's problems go away.

Most commandments are religious or semi religious.

The first four commandments -- no other gods, no graven images, do not take the Lord's name in vain, and remember the Sabbath -- are wholly religious in nature, unrelated to any civil or criminal law. That is 40 percent of the commandments.

Two other commandments -- for honoring thy father and mother and not coveting -- are semi-religious social and psychological norms that would have to be enforced by thought police.

Joseph Lewis in his book "The Ten Commandments" (Freethought Press Association, 1946) notes that Martin Luther said, "honor thy parent does not refer to fellow men, but vice-regents of God." Lewis also claims that the tenth commandment really is against an "evil eye" practice of witchcraft rather than against envy as we know it today.

"Two other commandments -- for honoring thy father and mother and not coveting -- are semi-religious social and psychological norms that would have to be enforced by thought police..."

Catholics do not adhere to the commandment proscribing graven images.

The second commandment against graven images has been omitted from the Catholic Decalogue. The Hebrew and Protestant versions even go as far as to prohibit "any likeness of anything that is in the heaven above, or that is in earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth." Displays of Moses on a wall would clearly violate this.

This could even prevent public support for representational visual art altogether, close movie houses and justify the confiscation of all television sets.

The commandments evolved rather than being written in stone.

A forgotten set of Commandments in Exodus, Chapter 34 was used by the early Hebrew tribes and antedates the present Decalogue by many centuries. This set of Commandments not only proves the antiquity of the Biblical narrative, but is indisputable evidence of the evolutionary process of ethical and moral concepts.

These covenants deal only with the most primitive form of ritual duties and have no moral implication whatsoever, such as may be attributed to the later Decalogue. Portrayal as fixed tables of stone totally mischaracterizes this historical growth.

The authenticity of the Pentateuch is highly questionable.

The first five books of the Bible, or "Pentateuch" are of highly questionable authenticity. The "Book of Law" was discovered in the reign of King Josiah in 621 B.C.E., over 600 years after its putative author, Moses lived (2 Kings 22). Some scholars believed this was only the book of Deuteronomy, but, possibly, it was all or parts of the other books as well. The first observance of Passover was commanded by Josiah (2 Kings 23:21-22).

The commandments are associated with brutal and unfair punishment.

Robert Ingersoll notes in "Some Mistakes of Moses" (Prometheus Books, 1986) that when Moses descended from Mount Sinai 3,000 men were butchered for practicing idolatry before the commandment against it had ever been given to them.

Besides heresy, the Bible also proscribes death for working on the Sabbath, cursing one's parents, and for adultery. The second commandment extends punishment "unto the third and fourth generations," thereby visiting the sins of a father on his great-great grandchildren.

How can the city council hold up the Ten Commandments as exemplary law?

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Student Walkout
Over Prayer Ruling
Prompts Suspensions
The Associated Press

November 11, 1997

Pell City, Alabama -- More than two dozen students who left class to pray in protest of a federal judge's order on schoolhouse religion were suspended for three days from Pell City High School.

The suspensions Monday resulted from the latest in a series of student walkouts that followed an October 29 decision by U.S. District Judge Ira DeMent, who set limits on religion in Alabama public schools.

Pell City protesters, of whom between 25 and 30 were suspended for leaving class, said the ruling wrongly stole their right to pray.

"We'll be back, even being suspended, to stand up for what we believe in. We'll be here until they get it right," said Wayne Smith, 14, a freshman.

The judge did not bar silent prayer by students or the wearing of religious jewelry or clothing, but did include a list of do's and don'ts following precedent rulings from federal courts on the issue.

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Pryor Urges Calm Over
Religion-In-School Issue
by Stan Bailey
The Birmingham News

November 11, 1997

Montgomery -- Attorney General Bill Pryor called Monday for calm in Alabama public schools while a federal appeals court reviews a far-reaching injunction banning school-sponsored religious activities.

Pryor said he asked U.S. District Judge Ira DeMent to delay, pending appeal, portions of his injunction, which Pryor contends violate the First Amendment rights of students.

"I would urge the citizens of Alabama, the students, the teachers, the parents to be calm and let the legal process play out," Pryor said at a press conference.

He urged students not to walk out of classes in protest against DeMent's order but to wait until portions of DeMent's order can be changed by a higher court.

"That's why we're going to court. That's why we're appealing. That's why we're asking for a stay. And I urge everyone to see that the legal process plays out," said Pryor.

Pryor said a related school prayer case before Etowah Circuit Judge Roy Moore -- who has issued a restraining order against enforcement of DeMent's order in Etowah schools -- has been dismissed at Pryor's request by the parents who filed it.

Pryor also said he has appointed lawyers Jay Sekulow and Stuart Roth of the American Center for Law and Justice -- a public interest law firm specializing in religious liberty cases -- to help him with the appeal of DeMent's order, at no cost to the state.

"We believe that this is the most important school prayer case in the country, without a doubt, and that's why we're delighted to be involved," Sekulow said. "This case has national implications, because it's a direct attack on student-led and student-initiated prayer, which was settled precedent until (DeMent's) order was issued."

Sekulow and Roth, whose organization has won several religious liberty cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, "bring the best legal minds in the country to this case," Pryor said.

The U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear that distribution of Gideon Bibles and other literature on public sidewalks is protected speech, and the idea that the Bible must be treated as "asbestos that we have to handle as hazardous waste is ridiculous," Sekulow said.

DeMent's order is both "vague and overbroad" in some areas, such as where it prohibits the distribution of Gideon Bibles on a sidewalk near where students are loading or unloading from a school bus, and where it directs students in religious expressions not to "unduly call attention to themselves," Sekulow said.

Pamela Sumners, an ACLU attorney representing plaintiffs in DeMent's court, called Pryor's appeal of DeMent's injunction "ridiculous."

"This is the same attorney general who said last April that he wasn't going to appeal the judge's [DeMent's] order," she said. "I suppose it's just an election year and we'd better get used to it."

DeMent issued the original order in March in the case involving DeKalb County schools in March, then followed up with his detailed injunction last week.

Pryor said he discussed with Governor Fob James his intentions to appeal DeMent's injunction, and James, who has vowed to fight the injunction, was supportive.

Sekulow and Pryor said they do not challenge portions of DeMent's order that prohibit teacher-led and organized prayers.

"Our position is that the teacher should not be leading and organizing prayers. We've been very clear about that and I know the attorney general has," said Sekulow. "But when it comes to these students, the idea that a student at a football game, a group of students, couldn't get together to pray, is outrageous."

Sekulow said he isn't asking DeMent or the 11th Circuit to overturn any prior ruling of the federal courts, but current Supreme Court rulings will permit greater liberty to students than DeMent's order does, he said.

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Confusion Garbling Judge's
School Prayer Ruling
by Jay Reeves
The Associated Press

November 11, 1997

Birmingham -- Silent prayer is still okay in Alabama's public schools. Christian students can still wear their crosses and "What Would Jesus Do?" garb. Bible clubs are still free to meet outside class hours.

You'd never know any of that, however, by listening to some critics of a recent decision on school religion by U.S. District Judge Ira DeMent. In many places, confusion seems to be reigning supreme.

"These people saying Judge DeMent prohibited prayer are just incorrect," said Donald Sweeney, an attorney for school systems statewide. "People are saying things aren't allowed that Judge DeMent specifically said are allowed."

At Pell City High School, where more than two dozen students were suspended Monday for walking out of class to pray, demonstrators expressed their outrage -- and apparent misunderstanding -- over the ruling.

"Anybody who wants to can wear (shock rocker) Marilyn Manson shirts and we can't wear Christian shirts. They can worship the devil but we can't worship God," Cindy Bradberry, 14, told reporters.

During a weekend rally attended by hundreds in Rainsville, Sylvania High School junior Allison Wilks vowed to continue a student prayer group she began.

"Until God tells me not to do Priority Prayer at Sylvania High School, I have no choice but to do Priority Prayer," she said.

Fine on both counts. Neither Christian clothing nor student religious groups are banned by DeMent's order. The same thing goes for voluntary silent prayers said at anytime or anywhere in school.

Even the DeKalb County educator who sued to block school-sanctioned Christianity said he has no problem with his school's Bible Club.

"They can have their religious clubs during meeting times, they can make their religious club announcements, they can hand out literature at the appropriate time," said Michael Chandler, assistant principal at Valley Head School. "But they can't do it so there's no escape from it."

DeMent did bar prayers said over school intercoms during class hours. He also prohibited pre-game prayers on stadium public address systems. There can be no preaching or evangelizing in class.

But DeMent went to "great lengths" to state that students are free to wear religious symbols if they want, Sweeney said, and that silent prayer said before a math test is perfectly legal.

Sweeney, who represents DeKalb County in the Chandler case, said he has received calls from school administrators seeking guidance on what is allowed under the order.

"Most of the things they've been asking about we've been saying are permissible," said Sweeney. "People are just not reading the order."

DeMent's ruling resulted from DeKalb County's request for a list of what types of religious activities are allowed in public schools, Sweeney said. The county is now appealing, along with the state.

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Students Misunderstand
Prayer Ruling, Some Say
by Kent Faulk
The Birmingham News

November 13, 1997

Albertville, Alabama -- A group of students held hands around the flag pole at Albertville High School before classes began Wednesday and bowed their heads in prayer.

They've gathered here every day since a federal judge set guidelines on religion in schools two weeks ago.

Such gatherings are still allowed, despite misconceptions by some that U.S. District Judge Ira DeMent's ruling had banned student prayer.

"There is plenty of room within Judge DeMent's order for any student who wishes to pray to do so," said Albertville Schools Superintendent James Pratt.

Students in the prayer circle say they understand the order and will abide by it. But they don't like it.

Suzanne Freshwater, a senior, had said the prayer over the loudspeaker every morning at Albertville High School until the judge's ruling, which included a ban on praying over public address systems at schools and ball games. "When they took it away I was pretty upset. It was such a part of me," she said.

Jason McCullars, a senior, noted the ruling doesn't prevent students from praying silently. "Prayer is between you and God and you can pray any time you want to," he said.

Misconceptions by some students about what the judge's ruling says may have been partly responsible for a number of students walking out of schools across North Alabama, some educators and pastors say.

About 70 in Albertville and more than two dozen in Pell City, have been suspended for refusing to return to class after walking out in protest.

"I think some of the protests that the kids have been doing is from a lack of understanding, but their intent is good," said Peter Migner, pastor of the First Church of the Nazarene in Albertville.

Some students apparently don't understand the ruling and have been quoted as saying they couldn't pray at all, wear clothes with religious messages or participate in religious group activities on campus.

In fact, DeMent's ruling specifically says students may do those things under certain guidelines.

Pratt, other superintendents and principals say they have tried to explain the judge's ruling to students.

The judge's ruling says school sanctioned religious activities such as vocal prayer, scripture or devotional readings and distribution of material such as Gideon Bibles are not allowed at school or school-sponsored events. Public address systems cannot be used at schools or sporting events for prayer or religious messages. And nonreligious student clubs can't be treated differently than religious clubs.

DeMent's ruling also lists activities students are permitted to take part in.

They may participate in religious activities during breaks as long as they do not interfere with or impose themselves on other students. Students can use the Bible and other religious material in homework and can pass out religious tracts during breaks as long as students wanting to pass out nonreligious material are afforded the same opportunities.

Pamela Sumners, attorney for the Valley Head High School assistant principal who filed the 1995 lawsuit over the prayer issue, said many students who have walked out of class in protest of the ruling simply didn't read what the judge said.

"I do think much of the hysteria we are seeing is ignorance to the fact that the judge is applying the law that has been around since 1962," she said. "They can pray quietly and nondisruptively. They can wear crosses or Star of David. Nothing in Judge Dement's order changes that."

Ms. Sumners said she believes some students are being led by parents or politicians who have not read the order or who are distorting it for their own purposes.

"One of the reasons we have all of the laws that we have about prescribing religious activity in school is that students are impressionable," Ms. Sumners said. "They are as easily led in politics as they are in religion."

Barry Bowen, 15, who returns to Albertville High classes today after being suspended Monday for walking out, said he understands the ruling, but he worries about what the next ruling might say.

Bowen's 14-year-old sister, Dawn, was suspended last week after participating in a walkout with students at Alabama Avenue Middle School.

Their mother, Lisa Bowen, said she supported her children's decisions. "I'm behind them 100 percent, but I do need them to know they need to be back in school."

Graphic Rule

Slated: "National Bible Week";
"America's Christian Heritage Week"

Religious Commemorations
Threaten First Amendment
by Conrad Goeringer

November 12, 1997

Two week-long events take place later this month, which supporters hope will garner official support for religious recognition; critics worry, though, that government proclamations supporting "America's Christian Heritage Week" (ACHW) and "National Bible Week" (NBW) are an insult to millions of non-believers, and threaten state-church separation.

The "Christian Heritage" and Bible weeks are both scheduled for November 23-29, 1997, although the latter includes November 30. Both represent somewhat different agenda, with "America's Christian Heritage Week" involving religious right groups such as the Christian Coalition, American Family Association, Concerned Women for America, Focus on the Family, Family Research Council and WallBuilders. The objective here is to have governors, mayors, other public officials and even the President issue proclamations which commemorate the alleged "Christian heritage" or origins of the United States. According to the American Family Association, the event "is designed to remind people of the real roots of this country and help America return to her spiritual foundation."

In 1996, Governors in Arizona, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, New York, Oregon, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin signed proclamations which were approved by Christian Week promoters.

Spearheading this effort is a part-time evangelist, Bruce Barilla; Barilla challenged Sen. Jay Rockefeller in the 1996 West Virginia Democratic Senate primary, but attracted only 12 percent of the votes. He operates a ministry in Athens, West Virginia which includes the "Concord Christian Connection" and the "America's Christian Heritage Week" planning group.

Much of the material included in both the proclamations and resources available through ACHW come from the controversial WallBuilders organization headed by revisionist historian David Barton. The proclamation issued by New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson in September, 1996 which recognized "Christian Heritage Week," noted that "...the Christian heritage of our nation is recognized in the accomplishments of such renowned individuals as Christopher Columbus, William Bradford, George Washington, John Hancock, Abigail Adams, Noah Webster, Abraham Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson." It also acknowledged "The rights [of] citizens to be fully educated as to the Christian heritage of our nation and New Mexico is recognized by the United States and New Mexico as a voluntary exercise of the freedom of educational choice."

Barton is the author of several books and pamphlets, including an 1989 work, "The Myth of Separation." He claims that "The separation of church and state is not a teaching of the founding fathers; not an historical teaching' not a teaching of law except in recent years; not a biblical teaching." Perhaps his most notorious charge concerned Thomas Jefferson's reference to a "wall of separation" between government and religion which he made in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association. Barton and his supporters claim that the wall is "one directional," supposedly established to prevent the government from interfering in the affairs of religious groups but designed to do nothing concerning entanglement of churches with the state.

The WallBuilders founder also claimed that the U.S. Supreme Court lifted the phrase about a "wall of separation" from a speech Jefferson purportedly made in 1801, where he then supposedly claimed, "That wall is a one directional wall. It keeps the government from running the church but it makes sure that Christian principles will always stay in government."

As with a number of other claims Barton has made in both print and video, this one distorts American history. The "wall of separation" phrase was used in 1802 in the letter to the Association, and it says nothing about a "one directional" function or anything else. A number of claims Barton has produced in support of his thesis that America is "a Christian nation" have been refuted; and quotes which he has attributed to leading figures in American history have been shown to have no documented support for their provenance.

Even so, religious right movements have seized upon Barton's "Christian revisionism," a form of historical falsification which some have compared to those who have claimed that the Nazi Holocaust did not take place, or that slavery in the deep South was a humane and beneficial institution.

Events leading up to "America's Christian Heritage Week" include speech and essay contests in churches and religious schools throughout the nation, and efforts to induce public officials to issue scripted proclamations. The speech competition for one church group in Nebraska, for instance, includes categories such as "The 10 Commandments or ten suggestions -- are they still relevant today?" and "Christian perspectives on the Origin & Purpose of Law." Many of the groups connected with ACHW use the event to showcase and link other issues, including school prayer, anti-abortion activism, anti-pornography and gambling efforts, and even creationism.

Clinton Rejects Proposal

Barton's pamphlet, "America, God Shed His Grace on Thee," distributed by WallBuilders and the American Tract Society, serves as the basis of a proclamation which "Heritage Week" groups have asked President Clinton to sign. It reads, in part, "Now, therefore, I, William Jefferson Clinton, President of the United States, do hereby proclaim November 23-29, 1997, [Thanksgiving week] as: America's Christian Heritage Week and I encourage all citizens to acknowledge, appreciate and celebrate, each in their own way, America's Christian heritage." The suggested proclamation includes quotes by Adams, Webster, Madison, Washington, Jefferson and Rush; one paragraph reads: "...commemorating America's Christian heritage provides an opportunity for those choosing to participate to thank God for His "Blessings of Liberty, to ask His help in reinsuring 'domestic Tranquility,' and to recognize our national need to reaffirm our 'reliance on the protection of divine Providence' in keeping America a 'Free and Independent' Nation..."

"America's Christian Heritage Week" groups have been flooding the White House with pre-printed cards, however, expressing the sender's disappointment that Clinton has thus far refused to put his seal of approval on this celebration.

Promoting the "National Civic Religion"

Another religious celebration covering the Thanksgiving period is "National Bible Week." This celebration began in 1941, when the first Bible Week proclamation was made by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Support for this event is better organized and funded than the "America's Christian Heritage Week," since the latter is relatively recent. But the Bible Week celebration has the same objective of prompting elected officials to declare the holiday and issue proclamations. In 1996, governors in 29 states declared National Bible Week (up from 27 in 1995).

NBW organizers include major leaders in the business and political sectors. Chairing the Bible Week committee is S. Truett Cathy, chairman and founder of Chick-Fil-A, Inc. of Atlanta, Georgia. Acting as Co-Chairs are U.S. Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and Representative Steven Largent (R-OK). Governor Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania is in charge of the Governors' Committee for NBW. And overseeing the committee charged with recruiting municipal leaders on behalf of the Bible Week cause is Mayor Kurt Schmoke of Baltimore, Maryland.

A Religious Response to "Moral Decay"

Like ACHW, the National Bible Week symbolizes a religious response to perceived problems and trends in American society. The "Christian Heritage" groups are heavily focused on 'culture war' issues such as abortion, gay rights and the role of belief in government. Similar questions and angst gave rise to the National Bible Week, which grew out of a group known as "National Committee for Religious Recovery" (NCRR).

"Recovery" was a fortuitous choice for a word. Founded in 1940, the group envisioned itself as an antidote to the social and political developments of World War I and its aftermath, including the freewheeling spirit of the "Roaring 20s," the disastrous Prohibition experiment, and the Great Depression which saw the rise of militant labor movements. The stated purpose of the NCRR was, "to encourage belief and faith in God, daily reading of the Bible, religious education, attendance at houses of worship and Sunday Schools, and to strengthen religious life in America as the basis for national as well as individual living."

Early leaders of the "Recovery" group -- the following year re-christened "The Laymen's National Committee" -- were closely identified with political and economic interests. Chairman included corporate heads of Armco Steel, United States Rubber, Radio Corporation of America (RCA), Texas Bank and Trust, and Aerojet General Corp. In 1966, W. Clement Stone, a close associate of future President Richard Nixon took over the National Bible Week Committee; subsequent heads represented General Motors Corporation, Corning Glass, Exxon, Arthur Young and the Chase Manhattan Corporation. Among the names were even men (a woman has never served as Chair) like former baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, U.N. Ambassador Arthur Goldberg, and Wallace Johnson of Holiday Inns. Most were associated with mainstream religious groups, and believed not so much in the explicit identification of specific denominational teachings with government as they did in the so-called National Civic Religion -- a diffuse acknowledgment of "god" and the role of organized religion in the institutions of American society. Certainly in its early days, the National Committee for Religious Recovery even had a more explicit political goal -- advancing religious belief as an alternative to the stormy politics of the era which saw confrontations between communist, fascist and democratic ideologies, and as a balm for growing militancy in labor ranks or other manifestations of social and cultural stress.

Unlike its "America's Christian Heritage Week" counterpart, National Bible Week insists that its mission is "not political." Few religious right figures have worked closely with NBW, although Richard DeVos of Amway Corporation -- a key player in fundamentalist political movements and associate of the Christian Coalition -- served as Bible Week Chairman in 1987. Last year's chairman was George Gallup, Jr., Co-Chairman of the Gallup polling organization.

Although it does not have the rough edges of the "Heritage" week, the Bible Week observance committee nevertheless sees an important role in trying to involve political figures. While a "business or professional leader" serves as the National Chair, the various Presidents of the United States have consistently issued Bible Week proclamations; the President also serves as Honorary Chair of the Bible Week group, along with a designated U.S. Senator and U.S. Representative.

The religious denominational affiliations of National Bible Week leaders gives insight into the doctrinal and even political differences separating them from their religious right counterparts. NBW seems to be closely identified with Methodists and Episcopalians, with even a smattering of Roman Catholics. There is not the heavy representation from Pentecostal, Evangelical and fundamentalist sects as one encounters in "America's Christian Heritage Week."

Both Events Threaten State-Church Separation

It is also worth noting that in terms of a social and political agenda, not everyone in the ACHW camp would find the relatively tame, ecumenical and more restrained National Bible Week an appropriate vehicle. NBW encourages people to "read their Bible," but it does not explicitly identify the hard-edged political agenda one finds in religious right groups associated with the "America's Christian Heritage Week." Both camps see an important role for religion, and some interpretation of the Christian legacy in American society; they may disagree, though, on how this is to be established and how far it permeates into the nation's social and even personal life.

Both events, though, are important challenges to atheists, non-believers and state-church separationists. As with prayer in schools, religious symbols and mottos on currency or government seals, religious oaths and other manifestations of the National Civic Religion, the proclamation by government officials at every level challenges the "wall of separation" proposed by Jefferson. Here are some "talking points" concerning both "America's Christian Heritage Week" and "National Bible Week."

Talking Points

Government Officials Should Not Be Advancing Religion by Issuing Proclamation about Belief, Holy Books or Creeds

    Both "America's Christian Heritage Week" and the lamer, more mainstream "National Bible Week" specifically call upon political officials to use their office in a shameless, overt promotion of belief and, in these cases, specific denominational dogmas. The Bible is an amalgam of Jewish and Christian teachings, and the "Christian Heritage" Week event explicitly proclaims the alleged foundations of the nation in a specific religious ideology. Both clearly violate the First Amendment's establishment clause, and, specifically, the "Lemon test" from Lemon v. Kurtman. Government officials are clearly engaged in an activity which promotes and elevates not only specific religious beliefs and writings, but clearly fosters the illusion that belief is somehow preferable to non-belief.

But Atheists and Others Who Don't Agree Are Not Forced to Participate

    This is only partially true, of course; the government is not compelling us to report to churches or temples for periods of mandatory Bible reading, although some who support these proposals feel that students and those attending government meetings should, indeed, be compelled to pray or listen to prayers. But there is a distinct element of compulsion involved here -- we are compelled, through our tax money, to essentially support proclamations, activities and offices which are promoting religious belief.

    The wider issue here concerns the role of the government in "establishing" or promoting religion. Both the "America's Christian Heritage Week" and "National Bible Week" do just that -- promote a specific religion. American Atheists takes the position that civic leaders have no business using public offices and facilities to promote religion, whether in the forms of writings, symbols, displays, songs or other teachings. Religious belief -- or the lack of it -- should be a private affair, not the business of government.

Both ''America's Christian Heritage Week" and "National Bible Week" Insult and Marginalize Non-Believers.

    Nearly 10 percent of Americans -- over 25 million persons -- identify themselves as atheists, freethinkers, agnostics, or some other term which covers the notion of "non-belief." That figure is larger than most Christian denominations! Millions of other Americans are branded with the pejorative label of "unchurched," and do not regularly attend church, temple or mosque rituals. For them, religious teachings and activities play little or no role in their lives.

    These proclamations put the government in the position of being a "prayer bully," where civic, public institutions, offices and officials are cast in the role of judgmental authority figures "scolding" the citizens for irreligiosity, and encouraging not only religion, but a specific form of religion. Along with the millions of atheists and other non-believers who are being insulted there are millions of non-Christians who embrace some other religion -- Islam, Hindu, Buddhist for instance. How would Christians feel if politicians suddenly declared "National Koran Week," and encouraged a "moral revival" by having people read and meditate upon verses from the Islamic holy book? Or what about having the President, or the local mayor endorse the superstitious writing of L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology? Is any of this fair and proper? We say it is not.

These Activities Do Little If Any Harm. Why Oppose Them?

    We have two responses to this question.

    First, these proclamation are harmful in that they undermine the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and set a poor precedent in terms of state-church separation law. Courts are grappling with important First Amendment issues; and cases which defend egregious violations of state-church separation (such as school prayer or "special rights" for religious groups and believers") often use the fact that government has in the past supported activities like National Bible Week and America's Christian Heritage Week as precedent.

    Second, these declarations don't exist in some kind of cultural and political vacuum. Bible reading and claiming a "Christian Heritage" for the nation are part of a larger culture war. This truly separates those groups who advocate the use of religious ideology in the "reconstruction" of modern society (and the creation of "One Nation Under God") from atheists, non-believers and other secularists.

What Can Be Done to Prevent This Abuse?

    Atheists, non-believers and secularists should oppose any efforts to have political leaders in their state or community declare either of these religious events. The American Atheist web site will be posting more information on this issue. In the meantime, these abuses of state-church separation need to be raised in letters to officials, and in the public media. Protests of some kind should be considered in those communities and states where "America's Christian Heritage Week" and "National Bible Week" have been proclaimed. Leaders need to be challenged on why they approved this invasive, constitutionally suspect and bigoted proposal -- and, politely asked to withdraw it.

Graphic Rule

Graphic Rule

First Amendment Activist
Rob Sherman
to Address Officials

Religious Symbol on
City Seal: Voters Face
Expensive Lawsuit
by Conrad Goeringer

November 12, 1997

The community of Stow, Ohio faces some tough choices as officials there decide whether or not to meet a legal challenge over a vote which restored a Christian cross and a picture of the Bible to the official municipal seal. In February, the city council voted to remove the religious graffiti, but voters then overturned that decision. Now, officials have less than two weeks to decide their next move, which could include an expensive lawsuit.

Officials must also now deal with atheist civil rights and First Amendment activist Rob Sherman, who has challenged the inclusion of religious symbols on government seals throughout the Midwest. Sherman will be addressing a meeting of the city government on Thursday, November 20 at 8 p.m. He says that his presentation "will consist of information about past city seal battles and strategy for dealing with the results of the referendum that reinstated the old Stow city seal." Sherman added that we can expect some "arm twisting," as he battles for constitutional rights in this community located about 40 miles south of Cleveland, in eastern Ohio.

The American Civil Liberties Union has promised to follow through with its threatened lawsuit if city officials don't remove the religious symbolism from the municipal seal. The city, should it decide to defend the seal, would probably hire a law firm specializing in constitutional issues, says municipal legal director Tom Watkins. He told the Arkron Beacon Journal newspaper that the first suit could take up to a year; a loss and subsequent appeal would then go to the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, which could take perhaps as much as two more years.

The religious symbolism is being promoted by a group calling itself Concerned Citizens for Constitutional Freedom. It began promoting the February referendum following the council's decision to exclude the cross and Bible from the municipal badge; CCCF won by a 4,861 to 3,592 vote which, say observers, was not marked by especially high turnout. The group is now pressuring officials to defend the decision to retain the religious symbolism, but Watkins is advising the council to retire the seal, saying that Stow is likely to lose in the courts. He defended his decision by citing a similar case in Edmond, Oklahoma, where the city ended up paying over $200,000 in legal bills after being ordered to eliminate the Christian cross which was part of its municipal seal. Watkins has predicted a similar six-figure bill for Stow taxpayers.

But CCCF spokespersons told media following the November elections that, "We're going all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary."

Sherman not only has good legal precedent on his side, he also has a critical portion of the Ohio State Constitution. Section 7 of that document, titled "Rights of conscience; education; necessity of religion and knowledge" states that "All men have a natural and indefeasible right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own conscience," but then adds that "No person shall be compelled to attend, erect, or support any place of worship, or maintain any form of worship against his consent; and no preference shall be given, by law, to any religious society." These portions might suggest that taxpayers should not be required to maintain religious symbols, and particularly to maintain the symbol of one particular faith over another.

Graphic Rule