Déjà Vu: S.F. State University investigates professor for showing Muhammad picture in class

April 7, 2023 • 12:30 pm

Both FIRE and The Chronicle of Higher Education report that, mirabile dictu, yet another professor is in trouble for showing a picture of Muhammad—this time at San Francisco State University (SFSU).  He hasn’t been fired, but he’s under investigation.  FIRE is of course campaigning to nip this in the bud, and so they have both a blog post about it as well as a four-page letter they sebnt to SFSU letting them know that they’re violating the professor’s academic freedom and that even investigating him is chilling speech and violates the First Amendment (SFSU is a public school).

Here’s the backstory from the Chronicle (the “Muhammadgate” incident is at the very end, part of a longer article about academic freedom).

Maziar Behrooz, an associate professor of history at San Francisco State University, does not yet know what a teaching decision he made might cost him.

In the fall of 2022, Behrooz was teaching the history of the Islamic world between 500 and 1700 and showed a drawing of the Prophet Muhammad. He’s taught the course, and the image, for years. One student, a devout Muslim, strongly objected, outside of class. His main point, Behrooz told The Chronicle, was that it’s not permissible for an image of the Prophet Muhammad to be shown in any shape or form.

“This is the first time that this has happened,” Behrooz said. “I was not prepared for somebody to be offended, in a secular university, talking about history rather than religion.”

Behrooz said he told the student that, as the professor, he is the one who decides what’s shown in class. The student then complained to Behrooz’s department chair, who broached the issue with the professor, according to Behrooz. He said he explained to his chair that the student’s view is not uniform among all Muslims. The type of drawing he shows in class can be bought at markets in Tehran near holy shrines. Many Shiite Muslims have such drawings on walls in their homes, said Behrooz, who was born in Tehran and has written books on Iran’s political history.

The student also apparently complained to “authorities higher up” at the university, according to Behrooz. The professor said the institution’s office of Equity Programs & Compliance informed him in March that it would investigate the incident and asked him to attend a Zoom meeting.

A staff member in the vice president’s office at San Francisco State told The Chronicle in an email that she could not comment on specific reports or investigations. She instead described the process for assessing reports of potential misconduct. An investigator meets with the complainant to gather information and discuss options, she said. If it’s decided the conduct could violate the California State University nondiscrimination policy, an investigation begins, and both parties are notified.

The Zoom meeting is slated for early April. Behrooz said he’s not overly worried, though he thinks an investigation by this office — which fields reports of harassment and discrimination — is unnecessary. He’s not sure what the inquiry portends. “How it goes from here is anybody’s guess,” he said.

FIRE’s letter is very good, with all the legal citations and bells and whistles, implying that the investigation should end tout suite and requesting that SFSU should respond by April 13.  I sense a lawsuit in the offing, and if SFSU doesn’t stop this investigation, they’ll be in a Hamline-University-like situation where they’ll get negative national publicity and a fat lawsuit filed against them by Dr. Behrooz.  Remember, even an investigation for charges that don’t carry weight, as these don’t, serves to chill speech and is a form of punishment.

It looks like Behrooz is going to at least accede to giving trigger warnings, but he doesn’t seem sufficiently angry! From the Chronicle:

In the meantime, Behrooz is thinking through what, if anything, he should change about his teaching. As a principle, he said he doesn’t think religious groups, or students, should decide how an instructor teaches a course at a secular institution. “But one has to also take into consideration, I think, the sensitivities of some religious people, be it Muslim or otherwise.”

Should he talk about the drawing without showing it? Should he still show it, as he’s done for years? Or, should he offer a compromise — warn students that the image is offensive to some and perhaps allow them to leave the class and come back?

He hasn’t decided, but he’s considering the compromise.

Finally, if you want to send either a boilerplate message to SFSU objecting to this stuff, or confect your own letter (I did the latter), just go to this site (bottom of page) and fill in the form. I wrote my own short letter, which follows. Feel free to appropriate from it if you wish.

Subject: End Investigation into History Professor ImmediatelyDear President Lynn Mahoney (show details) 

I understand that your university is investigating Professor Maziar Behrooz for showing a picture of Muhammad in a class about Muslim history. One student objected because some sects of Muslims consider this forbidden, and now SF State is investigating Behrooz.

I taught on the faculty of the University of Chicago for 36 years, and, unlike you, this university understands the meaning of the First Amendment and of academic freedom. Even investigating this didactic and proper use of the picture is itself a violation of the First Amendment, for it acts to chill speech.
I urge you to not go the way of Hamline University and try to punish this professor, for you will end up like they did: a national laughingstock and an academic embarrassment. Please stop this baseless investigation now.
Jerry Coyne

Big new British monument to answered prayers

September 13, 2020 • 8:45 am

As Britain races towards secularism faster than the U.S., the faithful are making their last stands. One such stand is this Mobius strip of a memorial slated to be started next spring in Coleshill, near Birmingham. As this article in The Times explains, it’s to be called “The Eternal Wall of Answered Prayer”, and it’s huge. (Of course, an Eternal Wall of Unanswered Prayer would be much, much larger!)

Click to read; it may be paywalled, but judicious inquiry will yield you the document:

Here’s how big it is:

At 169ft tall, the monument will be just a few inches shorter than Nelson’s Column in London but almost three times the height of the Angel of the North, Anthony Gormley’s 66ft-high steel structure in Gateshead, Tyne and Wear.


It’s a big ‘un!  It was envisioned by Richard Gamble, former chaplain of the Leicester City football club, who had a revelation to build it.  He began a crowdfunding campaign had an international competition to design it, and then crowdfunded the construction. It’ll contain a gazillion answered prayers (actually, about a million).

Each brick in the wall will be associated with a Christian prayer and feature a unique code that can be read with a smartphone app. Visitors can use their phones to learn about the prayers individuals feel were answered, as well as the personal stories behind them. For bricks out of reach, the app can zoom in on a map of the monument.

Gamble, 51, and a team of volunteers have been collecting people’s testimonies online since 2018, noticing a surge in messages during the pandemic.

“Until this year it had been a small trickle,” he said. “But then it started accelerating. During lockdown it went mad.”

They need £9.35 million to finish it off, but, you know, God will provide; all you have to do is pray. So far God has prompted the faithful to ante up nearly £6 million. And you can submit answered prayers here.

It’s curious that God decided to answer more prayers during the lockdown (were more people were praying?), but the one prayer he didn’t answer was “God, please make this pandemic disappear.” But of course He works in mysterious ways, and one of those ways is killing off lots of innocent people.

The article gives examples of some of the prayers that will appear on the bricks:

The apparent miracles people have shared range from the dramatic to the mundane.

One person wrote about how their baby daughter had been rushed to hospital with a brain haemorrhage but survived and is now a healthy five-year-old. A doctor told a story about how, after 20 minutes kneeling in prayer, he and his team were sent a delivery of personal protective equipment that had been cancelled. Others also talked about mending difficult relationships and overcoming serious illnesses.

At the other end of the spectrum, one person explained how they had managed to have an “impossible meeting” with a dentist while suffering a swollen gum during lockdown.

“God is sooooooooooo good! He listens to our hearts’ cry,” they wrote.

But God is also sooooooo bad! He’s killed a million people in this pandemic, and he could have stopped it. At any rate, there’s been some discussion about “inclusivity”—not racial inclusivity but religious inclusivity. Not all religions are Christian, so they’ll be an exhibit inside about how adherents to other faiths pray.

I still think the humanists should build an Eternal Wall of Unanswered Prayers nearby, but to make its point it would have to be larger than this one, and that would cost too much.

h/t: Dom, Jez


Ohio passes ambiguous “Student Religious Liberties Act”

June 19, 2020 • 12:45 pm

Last November, when I was on a ship off Antarctica, I posted about a bill in the Ohio Legislature, now called the “Student Religious Liberties Act,” that, critics fear, would expand the role of religion in the public schools. At that time the bill had passed the Ohio House over the objections of Democrats.  Now, according to the news site Cleveland.com, the bill has passed the Ohio Senate unanimously, by a vote of 32-0, and is on the way to the governor for his signature.


While my earlier post singled out four areas of concern, the one that most disturbed me was this one, which appears to have been adopted without any changes:

You don’t have to parse this closely to see the ambiguity. You are not to be penalized or rewarded by engaging in religious expression on assignments, but yet you’re supposed to be graded using “ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance.” How is that going to work.

The proponents of the bill, below, say that nothing will change, with one person using as an example that if someone draws a picture of Jesus in an art class, “They are not to be penalized on the religious content but on their skill as a painter.” The problem is, of course, that not all classes are art classes! (See below.)

The newspaper article at the top notes that ten other states have adopted similar legislation, and it’s worrisome that religious organizations were the ones lobbying for the bill.

My concerns remain the same as they were seven months ago, and so I’ll just repeat what I said then. My words are indented, and quotes are further indented:

The fourth bit—the subject of this post and the Ohio bill—is especially worrisome, because it allows students to give wrong answers if those wrong answers comport with their faith. That, too, is inimical to the public welfare, and to the duty of public education, in the service of religion. While the bill is said to be more “nuanced” than that, I don’t know how, and even the bill’s supporters aren’t sure.

Here’s what that bit says in the bill:

Sec. 3320.03. No school district board of education, governing authority of a community school established under Chapter 3314. of the Revised Code, governing body of a STEM school established under Chapter 3326. of the Revised Code, or board of trustees of a college-preparatory boarding school established under Chapter 3328. of the Revised Code shall prohibit a student from engaging in religious expression in the completion of homework, artwork, or other written or oral assignments. Assignment grades and scores shall be calculated using ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance, including any legitimate pedagogical concerns, and shall not penalize or reward a student based on the religious content of a student’s work.

You can see the ambiguity here. On the one hand the code permits students to use religious expression to do homework or answer test questions, and to do so without penalty (or reward); on the other hand it says that assignments will be graded “using ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance.” That gives no guidelines about what to do when a student says that the Bible says that the Earth is 10,000 years old, or that all animals and plants were created within a day or two because that’s what Genesis says. This is a bill that’s simply begging for a lawsuit.

. . .Well, there’s plenty of chance for religious self-expression after school or in church. And there’s no excuse for impeding students’ education by giving them credit for religious answers that are wrong—or failing to tell them that they’re wrong, even if you don’t penalize them. If you want religious answers to be acceptable, have your kids home-schooled—or send them to religious schools.

But would the bill allow students to get credit for wrong answers that buttress their faith? It’s not clear, for that might depend on the results of later First-Amendment lawsuits. The Cleveland.com website says this:

ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] of Ohio Chief Lobbyist Gary Daniels called HB 164 a mixed bag. On the one hand it removes some restrictions on students’ religious rights.

I think Daniels is a bit off the mark here. Those “restrictions on students’ religious rights” are already prohibited by the First Amendment (first and third points above). So what’s new?

Here’s the ambiguous bit:

On the other hand, Daniels said that if a student submitted biology homework saying the earth is 10,000 years old, as some creationists believe, the teacher cannot dock points.

“Under HB 164, the answer is ‘no,’ as this legislation clearly states the instructor ‘shall not penalize or reward a student based on the religious content of a student’s work,” he said.

Well, that’s confusing! If you can neither penalize nor reward students for arguing that, for example, the Earth is 10,000 years old, what can you do? If you give them credit, you’re rewarding them. If you give them no credit, you’re penalizing them.

Amber Epling, a spokeswoman for Ohio House Democrats, said that in an analysis of the bill by the legislature’s nonpartisan staff, “they cannot be rewarded or penalized for the religious content in their assignments.”

She believes the bill could result in teachers accepting assignments that fly in the face of science.

But I think it’s more likely that teachers would avoid this whole issue by not asking questions that could lead to religiously-inspired answers. But that means no evolutionary biology at all, and not many biology teachers want to avoid teaching evolution, even in the American South. To deprive students of this wondrous (and true!) theory by catering to students’ faiths would be to do them a profound disservice. After all, is religion so different from other unsubstantiated faiths like Holocaust denialism? Does Scientology and its crazy claims about Xenu and thetans get “respected” too? That way lies madness.

And here’s some more madness. Sponsor Gintis says that the bill’s “nuances” prohibit students from getting credit for wrong but religiously-inspired answers, but then undermines what he said by asserting that Moses was a historical figure and you could get credit for writing about Moses as if he existed.

But Ginter, the bill’s sponsor, said that the student would get a lesser grade in a biology class for an evolution assignment. Even if the student doesn’t believe in evolutionary theory, the student must turn in work that accurately reflects what is taught.

“It will be graded using ordinary academic standards of using substance and relevance,” he said.

However, if students were assigned a report based on historic figures, they could turn in a paper on a historical figure, such as Moses or Mohammed, Ginter said.

What, exactly, is the extra-Biblical evidence for the historical existence of Moses? It’s exactly as thin as extra-Biblical evidence for the historical evidence for a Jesus figure—i.e., NO evidence.

h/t: Tom

Supreme court set to further erode the First-Amendment wall between church and state

January 31, 2020 • 10:45 am

In the past few years, federal courts have continued a slow erosion of the church-state wall specified by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, often ruling that religious symbols or monuments can remain on public land, or be flaunted by government agencies, because they’re not really religious but simply part of our “tradition.” Now the Supreme Court is set to speed up that erosion, and I suspect that, given the preponderance of conservative Justices, they will decide to allow more of the religious camel into America’s secular tent.

On January 22, the Supreme Court heard arguments on a “landmark” case—that is, it could be a landmark case if the Court decides to further bash the First-Amendment wall between church and state. This is the case of Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, whose arguments can be seen on the Supreme Court’s blog below (click on screenshot), and are summarized in the New York Times article below that.

This is a complicated case, with the details and issues not at all clear from newspaper reporting (even the NYT), so I had to call the Freedom from Religion Foundation to get clarification (h/t to Attorney Patrick Elliott).

What’s at stake here is whether the government is obliged to fund religious schools, something that’s previously been off limits in most but not all states. This case represents an appeal following a case in Montana, where the state’s supreme court ruled against a scheme that allowed such funding. At the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s website, constitutional lawyer Andrew Seidel summarizes the case so I don’t have to:

The case involves a neo-voucher scheme adopted by the Montana legislature. Taxpayers owe taxes to Montana. They are relieved of that obligation [JAC: not completely relieved; they get a tax break] if they divert the payment to a scholarship organization that funds private education. It’s a dollar-for-dollar match. One dollar to a scholarship fund is one dollar off your taxes, and 94 percent of these scholarships fund private religious education. Montana appropriated $3 million to cover the anticipated shortfall from forgiving those obligations. The Montana Supreme Court struck down this neo-voucher program because the Montana Constitution says that the state “shall not make any direct or indirect appropriation or payment from any public fund or monies, or any grant of lands or other property for any sectarian purpose or [school].” The court ended the entire neo-voucher scheme, for all private education, religious and nonreligious.

Plaintiff Espinoza brought suit against the state’s ban because she has daughters in a Christian school and want the state program to be maintained to allow them to stay there.

According to another NYT piece, 13 schools were served by these vouchers, 12 of which were religious—and all of the latter were Christian schools. Seidel continues:

Conservative Christian parents want the U.S. Supreme Court to save the program by declaring that they have a right to public funds for their private religious education. If the Supreme Court agrees, it will be overturning a crucial legal principle. Without that principle, states could compel all taxpayers to fund religious worship and religious education. So, yes, this case does threaten religious freedom. Because the right to be free from that compulsion is religious liberty. The right is possessed by every Montana citizen and taxpayer, not just a select segment of Christian parents. That is the right at issue before the Court today.

Well, the law as I read it doesn’t compel taxpayers to fund religious education; after all, you don’t have to contribute to the “neo-voucher” fund. Nor does the state government directly issue vouchers to give money to religious schools. But in effect, the Montana state government was subsidizing religious education, for tax monies that could go to secular schools were diverted, though the program, to private schools, and in Montana that means religious schools. That’s why the Montana courts completely dismantled that program: what was happening was an “indirect appropriation” used for religious purposes: a violation of the state constitution.  The issue might be clearer if the law said that if you gave money to a fund that supported churches, your state taxes would be reduced by that amount. Now that is clearly a violation of the First Amendment. Well, it’s no different with religious schools.

Now half of what the plaintiffs are arguing is that the Montana court decision violates the “equal protection” clause of the U. S. Constitution (which is why this is before the Supreme Court, which has no power to interpret a state constitution). But that argument is bogus because the program that funded both secular and religious schools was eliminated by the state. So the issue of protection has disappeared. If the Supreme Court had its wits about it, it would reject this contention. But many people think that conservatives on the court will accept any argument to further religion.

Besides constituting a government subsidy to religious schools at the expense of public ones, the prospective voucher system also weakened the public school system.

Apparently several other states have voucher programs that support religious schools, but some other states have forbidden them. In a ruling two years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that eliminating such programs actually violated the First Amendment by barring religious schools from participating in programs along with other private schools. And the basis for that ruling is “religious freedom”: the second contention of Espinoza in the Supreme Court case. Apparently religious people think that the First Amendment entitles them to not only have religious schooling for their kids (a right they have already), but also should have government support for that schooling. That, too, seems to be a backwards interpretation of the First Amendment, which is supposed to prevent entanglement of the government with religion.

The religious plaintiffs and their defenders, which of course include the Trump administration as well as various conservative and religious groups, are arguing that freedom of religion demands subsidies to religious schools if there are subsidies for secular private schools, for otherwise, excluding them under a voucher system is discrimination against religion.  But, as New York Times court reporter Linda Greenhouse wrote:

There is so much about this case that is simply backward. The administration argues in its brief that “the constitutional violation in this case is especially egregious because it involves the education of children.” But to the contrary, that’s exactly where the wall of separation has to be maintained with the greatest care. Religious education serves a purpose, inculcating religious values and preserving religious traditions. A parochial school is not just another neighborhood school down the block.

What is the FFRF and secularists worried about? Apparently that if the Supreme Court overturns the Montana decision, then all voucher programs must also include religious schools. As Greenhouse writes:

Certainly, parents are constitutionally entitled to choose a religious education for their children. And under a 2002 Supreme Court decision, Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, states are free to offer parents the choice of using vouchers to help pay for religious education. That was a bitterly fought 5-to-4 decision. The administration now would go further: not only that a state may include religious schools in a voucher program, but that it must include them, if it wants to have a voucher program at all.

But it could be worse than that. It’s not beyond the Court’s purview to confect a ruling that requires all states to allow government funding of religious schools, though it’s not clear how that would work. In other words, they could not only reinstate Montana’s original voucher program, but make it mandatory for every state to have such a program. And that would represent the most serious erosion of the First Amendment.


FFRF places full-page ad in the New York Times attacking the theocracy of the Trump administration

December 5, 2019 • 12:30 pm

I don’t have a paper copy of the New York Times (I’m an e-subscriber, and unsure whether I’ll renew), but, according to the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), their organization ran a full-page ad in today’s paper attacking the pervasive theocracy of the Trump administration. (They weren’t 100% sure it would run today.) The FFRF also put the ad on their own website, so I’ll reproduce it below along with an excerpt from their description.

I’m not sure what full-page ads cost in the New York Times, but they’re not cheap; you can see some of the rates here, though they’re hard to decipher. Given that this ad is in color, I’d say it cost in the ballpark of $200,000. But the FFRF isn’t poor—it’s one of the best-funded of all secular organizations, and on top of these ads they give out lots of cash awards and scholarships.

Here’s a bit of the FFRF’s explanation of the ad, along with the name of the artist:

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is running a dramatic full-page ad this week in The New York Times warning that a theocratic deluge could drown us. The ad will likely appear on Thursday, Dec. 4.

The striking ad has a stark depiction of the Statue of Liberty holding a cross while large waves labeled “Theocracy” surround her and overwhelm buildings. The image is drawn by Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Steve Benson. “Help stem the theocratic tidal wave,” FFRF’s ad urges.

. . . “Our constitutional right to a secular government has never before been in danger of being so engulfed,” says Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. “We will fight to the utmost to ensure that reason and our secular Constitution endure.”

The ad includes a coupon at the bottom enabling people to become members or supporters of the state/church watchdog organization. The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national nontheistic group with more than 30,000 members and several chapters all over the country, has received a four-star rating plus a “perfect score” this year from Charity Navigator as a carefully run nonprofit.

Yes, the organization is run as a tight ship. You should consider joining it (I’m a member as well as on the honorary board of directors); it’s only $40 per year and you get a fat monthly newsletter with all kinds of good stuff in it. And of course you’re helping a secular group that really fights hard to keep the church-state wall in place, and has had numerous legal successes. To join, go here.

Christianity infests the State Department, violating the First Amendment

October 15, 2019 • 8:15 am

Newsweek and HuffPo report that this was the the U.S. Department of State’s homepage yesterday:

I checked a few minutes ago, and the homepage entry has been changed to this:

HuffPo reports this:

The U.S. State Department’s main homepage was updated on Monday to show a photo of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with the headline: “Being A Christian Leader.”

The phrase refers to a speech he gave in Nashville last week:

“As believers, we draw on the wisdom of God to help us get it right, to be a force for good in the life of human beings,” Pompeo said in the speech, according to the rest of the remarks on the State Department website. “I know some people in the media will break out the pitchforks when they hear that I ask God for direction in my work.”

The headline on the State Department homepage was changed later in the day to read: “Secretary Pompeo at the America Association of Christian Counselors.” By nighttime, the page was changed completely to a report about sanctions against Turkey.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State slammed the speech and the government website makeover.

“It’s perfectly fine for Secretary Pompeo to be a leader who is Christian. But he cannot use his government position to impose his faith on the rest of us,” CEO Rachel Laser said in a news release. “That is a fundamental violation of the separation of religion and government.”

Newsweek adds this:

Titled “Being a Christian Leader” and promoted in his official government capacity on the homepage for the State Department, religious and civil liberties organizations have decried it as a potential violation of the U.S. Constitution’s intended separation of church and state.

“I keep a Bible open on my desk, and I try every morning to try and get in a little bit of time with the Book,” Pompeo said, describing how the texts sacred to Christians influences his disposition, engagement with others and decisions. “We should all remember that we are imperfect servants serving a perfect God who constantly forgives us each and every day.”

This was clearly a violation of the First Amendment: you don’t get to tout the Secretary of State as espousing Christian values on a State Department homepage. A Muslim politician from Virginia got it right:

National television networks refuse to air First-Amendment commercial featuring JFK

September 11, 2019 • 10:00 am

A news release from the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) tells us that while this FFRF commercial featuring John F. Kennedy was played three years ago on the ABC television network, it was rejected by ABC for airing during the Democratic debates in Houston tomorrow.  This was after ABC refused a much more provocative ad, one featuring Ron Reagan, the former President’s son (see it here).

From the FFRF:

“Every year we ask the major networks to reconsider and run our commercial,” explains FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “We were disappointed, but not surprised, when ABC once again refused to run the Reagan endorsement spot.”

But, Gaylor says, she was shocked that ABC next rejected a commercial largely featuring a video excerpt of a famous speech by John F. Kennedy. As a presidential candidate, JFK gave a talk to a gathering of Protestant ministers in Houston in 1960, intending to allay their fears that as a Catholic he would be beholden to the Vatican rather than to the Constitution.

In his strong remarks in favor of secular government, JFK said: “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.” FFRF’s commercial leads with footage from his speech, then states: “Let’s restore respect for America’s secular roots. Help the Freedom From Religion Foundation defend the wall of separation between state and church. Join us at FFRF.ORG. Freedom depends on freethinkers.”

The ad concludes with the strains of “Let freedom ring,” as FFRF’s emblematic image appears of a Lincoln penny with the words “In Reason We Trust” instead of “In God We Trust.”

FFRF produced this commercial, which first aired on “CBS This Morning” and the “Monday CBS Evening News” in 2012, in response to a remark by then-presidential candidate Rick Santorum, after he said JFK’s remark “makes me want to throw up.”

Ironically, FFRF had no trouble placing the JFK spot nationally on “ABC World News Tonight” on Sept. 24, 2016, to protest Pope Francis’ joint address to Congress.

Note that this ad is quite unprovocative. All it does is show a former President affirming the church/state separation principle of the First Amendment. Apparently the networks are so sensitive about Militant Atheism that they won’t even air an innocuous ad like this:


South Dakota requires all public schools to PROMINENTLY display “In God We Trust”

July 29, 2019 • 8:45 am

We all know that “In God We Trust” is the U.S. national motto, though the unofficial motto—a much better one—is E pluribus unum (“Out of many, one”). The former is divisive, the latter unifying. The change in mottos was made in 1956, during the Cold War, and was largely a response to “godless Communism”: an American affirmation of “See, we’re better than you are!” The motto bill was passed by both houses of Congress and signed into law on the same day by President Eisenhower.

Of course this motto violates the First Amendment, as it’s a government endorsement of religion over nonreligion, but, as Andrew Seidel recounts in his book The Founding Myth, the courts have been weaselly about this, interpreting this kind of breach as “not religious” and “part of tradition”. But I have little doubt that founders like Madison and Jefferson would never have approved of such a motto.

I’m not sure exactly why the forces of Christianity are trying to push this kind of stuff on us more than ever. Perhaps it’s a desperate response to the increasing secularization of America.  And so “In God We Trust” bills are passing in various states. The latest is in South Dakota, where, according to multiple sources (e.g., CNN and ThinkProgress), students returning to public schools this year will be greeted by the results of a new law: a required public display of “In God We Trust”. And it has to be “prominent”, like this stencil on a wall at South Park Elementary in Rapid, City, South Dakota (photograph from 6 days ago). I find this dictatorial and ridiculous: something out of Nineteen Eighty-Four (just substitute “Big Brother” for “God”).

Photo: Adam Fondren/Rapid City Journal via AP

The law takes effect this month. As CNN notes:

A bill signed by Gov. Kristi Noem mandates that the words be on display for students to see beginning in the 2019-2020 school year.

The display can be on anything the principal feels is appropriate for their school, like a plaque or student artwork.

But there are requirements. The display must be at least 12 inches square and must be in a prominent location.

“A prominent location is a school entryway, cafeteria, or other common area where students are most likely to see the national motto display,” the bill said.

Here’s most of the bill; note that, anticipating lawsuits, display of the bill will be defended by the state at no charge to the school or school district, though it’s not clear where the money will come from. (Click on the screenshot to get a pdf of the full bill).

There are some savvy students there, though their attempt to modify the bill failed miserably (from CNN):

Lawmakers have heard concerns that displaying the motto may alienate students of non-Christian backgrounds.

A group of Stevens High School students in Rapid City spoke to their school board to propose a modification to the sign that would include mention of science, Allah, Yahweh, the Spirits, Buddah, Brahman and “ourselves” in addition to God, according to CNN affiliate KOTA TV.

“I think that’s a really foundational element of American society is that we are a cultural melting pot and it is really important that we make all people who come to America to feel welcome and to be more in accordance with the First Amendment since we all have the freedom of religion,” student Abigail Ryan told KOTA TV.

The board heard the opinion but took no action, the station said.

ThinkProgress adds a bit more information (my emphasis):

Only one Democratic state senator voted in favor of the bill.

During the 2019-2020 school year, all South Dakota public schools will have to display the “In God We trust” in a “prominent location” and the words “may be no smaller than twelve inches wide by twelve inches wide.” Prominent location is defined as a school cafeteria, school entryway, or other common area. The law also requires that the attorney general provides legal representation at no cost to the district, employee, school board, or member of the school board and that the state will financial responsibility for any monetary damages, attorney’s fees, and other costs.

This bill is part of a national movement, too:

South Dakota is not alone in its decision to require public schools to display the motto. According to The Washington Post, at least six states passed these kinds of laws in 2018 and another 10 have introduced or passed them this year. Kentucky schools are also getting ready to display the motto prominently in public schools this year.

This will clearly go to the Supreme Court, and it’s pretty certain they will declare it constitutional. After all, if every $1 bill the kids have carries “In God We Trust” on it, and that’s legal, why not in the schools?  But we can be sure that there will be challenges. The Freedom from Religion Foundation, for instance, has correctly deemed the law “exclusionary”, and adds this in a bulletin (my emphasis):

“The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., which has legally challenged the motto’s inclusion on U.S. currency, alerted its South Dakota members to contact their legislators to express opposition to the law,” AP reports. [JAC: this bulletin was issued four days ago, though the law passed in March.]

FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor told AP: “Our position is that it’s a terrible violation of freedom of conscience to inflict a godly message on a captive audience of schoolchildren.”

“In God We Trust” was belatedly adopted as a motto when President Eisenhower signed legislation at the behest of the Knights of Columbus and other religious entities, which undertook a national lobbying campaign during the height of 1950s zealotry. The original inclusionary U.S. motto, chosen by a distinguished committee of Jefferson, Franklin and Adams, is the Latin E Pluribus Unum (From Many, [Come] One). As FFRF principal founder Anne Gaylor always pointed out, the religious motto isn’t even correct: “To be accurate it would have to read ‘In God Some of Us Trust,’ and wouldn’t that be silly?”

Anne Gaylor’s remark is more apt now than ever. The nonreligious segment of the U.S. population is currently the largest “denomination,” surpassing Roman Catholics at almost 24 percent of the populace. One-third of Millennials are “Nones,” and one-fifth of Gen Z explicitly identifies as atheist or agnostic. A large portion of the schoolchildren in South Dakota belong to Gen Z — and with the required display of an explicitly religious motto, religion is being imposed on the freethinkers among them.

It really is a violation of the First Amendment to force American kids to confront a motto that many of them don’t accept. If the courts let this stand, it will represent a further erosion of the wall between church and state. These laws are travesties, but show the desperation of the faithful who, in a climate of increasing secularism, need to force their own religion down the throats of children—in schools that are an arm of the U.S. government.

I know we have readers in South Dakota, so weigh in below. Are you people doing anything about this?

My talk with Andrew Seidel about his book on America’s secular origins

July 23, 2019 • 9:15 am

As I wrote a while back, in June I had a 45-minute public discussion with Andrew Seidel, a constitutional attorney for the Freedom from Religion Foundation and its Director of Strategic Response. The topic was Andrew’s new book, The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism Is Un-American. It took place at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Hemant Mehta (“the Friendly Atheist”) was the moderator.

As always, I can’t bear to listen to myself talk, so I didn’t go through this. But I recall that Andrew was very eloquent and enlightening (as interlocutor, my role was just to ask questions, so the floor was his).  I think you’ll learn a lot about Andrew’s twin theses: the U.S. was not founded as a Christian nation, nor was it founded on Christian principles. (Also, as you probably already know the founders weren’t very religious. In fact, some of them were quite randy and, by evangelical Christian lights, immoral!)

I did listen near the end just so I can tell you that the audience questions begin about 48½ minutes in. And I can assure you that you will enjoy Andrew’s conversational style and will learn a lot, including what a liberal constitutional lawyer thinks of today’s Supreme Court, and where the law is heading.

Twitter starts censoring speech, beginning with speech about religion:

July 11, 2019 • 10:45 am

Diana MacPherson called my attention to this new post by Twitter on conduct that they’re going to block. And they’re starting with religion. Click on the screenshot to read:

Here’s what Twitter says:

We create our rules to keep people safe on Twitter, and they continuously evolve to reflect the realities of the world we operate within. Our primary focus is on addressing the risks of offline harm, and research* [JAC: they give two studies in the article’s footnotes] shows that dehumanizing language increases that risk. As a result, after months of conversations and feedback from the public, external experts and our own teams, we’re expanding our rules against hateful conduct to include language that dehumanizes others on the basis of religion.

Starting today, we will require Tweets like these to be removed from Twitter when they’re reported to us:

Twitter notes that if you’ve already put one of these up, it will be removed but your account won’t be blocked. But after the rule was set (July 9, 2019), accounts may be deleted if they start posting stuff like the above. (But how would you know? Who reads Twitter-policy updates? Shouldn’t you at least get a warning?)

But note that they’re starting not with ethnicity, race, or other common subjects said to attract “hate speech.” They’re starting with religion. Why? Here’s what they say:

Why start with religious groups?

Last year, we asked for feedback to ensure we considered a wide range of perspectives and to hear directly from the different communities and cultures who use Twitter around the globe. In two weeks, we received more than 8,000 responses from people located in more than 30 countries.

Some of the most consistent feedback we received included:

  • Clearer language — Across languages, people believed the proposed change could be improved by providing more details, examples of violations, and explanations for when and how context is considered. We incorporated this feedback when refining this rule, and also made sure that we provided additional detail and clarity across all our rules.

  • Narrow down what’s considered — Respondents said that “identifiable groups” was too broad, and they should be allowed to engage with political groups, hate groups, and other non-marginalized groups with this type of language. Many people wanted to “call out hate groups in any way, any time, without fear.” In other instances, people wanted to be able to refer to fans, friends and followers in endearing terms, such as “kittens” and “monsters.”

  • Consistent enforcement — Many people raised concerns about our ability to enforce our rules fairly and consistently, so we developed a longer, more in-depth training process with our teams to make sure they were better informed when reviewing reports. For this update it was especially  important to spend time reviewing examples of what could potentially go against this rule, due to the shift we outlined earlier.

But this doesn’t at all explain why they started with religion. The next bit is said to help explain “why religion first?”, but it doesn’t seem to, either:

Through this feedback, and our discussions with outside experts, we also confirmed that there are additional factors we need to better understand and be able to address before we expand this rule to address language directed at other protected groups, including:

  • How do we protect conversations people have within marginalized groups, including those using reclaimed terminology?

  • How do we ensure that our range of enforcement actions take context fully into account, reflect the severity of violations, and are necessary and proportionate?

  • How can – or should – we factor in considerations as to whether a given protected group has been historically marginalized and/or is currently being targeted into our evaluation of severity of harm?

Well, you could say that delineating “hate tweets” and enforcing rules consistently is easier with religion than, say, gender or race, but I don’t think so. In both cases you have to separate hatred for people with dislike of policy (e.g. “Deport all Muslims” vs. “Islamic doctrine is often oppressive”; or “Send blacks back to Africa” vs. “Affirmative action is wrong”). Note that both examples, which involve religion and race, show the potential blurring of lines, for sentiments against affirmative action or against Islamic doctrine can be and have been deemed “hate speech”.

This blurring is why I object to Twitter doing this kind of policing, as drawing lines will be arbitrary. But if they feel they have to draw lines, then the tweets above, which are bigoted against people, are clearly reprehensible. And since Twitter is a private company, they can do what they like. But I want them to hew to the First Amendment as closely as possible, and the tweets above don’t violate that.

Diana felt more strongly than I, and told me this (quoted with permission):

It sounds like a bad idea all around to me. How many times have religious groups had atheists banned from social media just for being atheists? So now if someone criticizes a religion, is that going to be counted as violating their rules? And why religious groups that get special protection? Twitter calls them marginalized – really? Christians are marginalized? It just seems like really faulty thinking all around.

I’ve seen reasonable speech characterized as hate speech too often to immediately get on board with Twitter’s rules. Yes, the examples above are beyond the pale—if you must police speech on a social-media platform. But there will be many other examples where criticism of religion might be either chilled or censored. To many, completely innocent pictures in my tweets—like animal pictures that come from my websites—are labeled by Twitter as “sensitive material” that you have to click to see. I think that’s because I tweet Jesus and Mo cartoons, which got me censored in this way.

Although Twitter still allows us to Post Jesus and Mo strips, it also acts as an informant when somebody else objects to “sensitive” material, as when Maajid Nawaz tweeted Jesus and Mo as well:

Does Twitter need to inform Nawaz that his content violates Pakistani law? Shouldn’t Twitter just tell Pakistan to “bugger off”?

Well, at least Twitter doesn’t ban the cartoons in the way that WordPress does to help out the Pakistani government when it accuses me of “Jesus and Mo”-related blasphemy.

The more I ponder this, the more I’m coming around to Diana’s point of view, and thinking that so long as social media doesn’t violate the First Amendment principles of free speech as interpreted by the courts, it should allow everything to be posted.

Do the rules above seem reasonable, or do you, like me, see a slippery slope?