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Free Inquiry

Volume 19, Number 1
Winter, 1998/1999

The following articles are from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 19, Number 1.

RFRA Clones Stall in Congress, Several States

by Tom Flynn

Bills designed to curb government power over religion have stalled in Congress and in four of seven states. The Religious Liberty Protection Act (RLPA) failed to attain congressional "fast track" status and remains in the Senate and House Judiciary committees. Similar bills died in the Maryland and New Jersey legislatures; in Illinois and California, they fell to gubernatorial vetoes. In each case these initially popular bills lost support as concerns mounted about potential legal fallout. For example, California Governor Pete Wilson vetoed the California Religious Freedom Protection Act in part because of prison administrators' fears that the bill would trigger a torrent of frivolous lawsuits by prisoners. Earlier, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Florida rapidly enacted similar legislation.

These bills mark legislators' latest efforts to nullify a controversial 1990 Supreme Court decision, Employment Division v. Smith. Smith reversed the historic principle that government action should burden religion only in response to a compelling interest. The previous attempt to restore the "compelling interest" standard, 1993's Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), was overturned by the Supreme Court in Boerne v. Flores (1997). A proposed Religious Freedom Amendment died last spring after failing to garner a two-thirds majority in the House of Representatives.

Church-state activists are divided over RFRA/RLPA. Some, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the interfaith Coalition for Free Exercise of Religion (CFER), have been supportive. Other groups, including the Council for Secular Humanism, oppose RFRA and RLPA because they establish special rights for religious believers not available to other Americans. In his concurring opinion in Boerne, Justice John Paul Stevens expressed that objection cogently: "The statute has provided the Church with a legal weapon that no atheist or agnostic can obtain ... governmental preference for religion, as opposed to irreligion, is forbidden by the First Amendment."

So far, the "special rights" objection has not figured prominently in the rhetoric of RFRA/RLPA opponents. Through its new First Amendment Task Force, the Council for Secular Humanism hopes to encourage legislative responses to Smith that emphasize freedom of conscience in preference to more narrowly defined freedom of religion.

When the Government Pays (Religious) Helping Hands

by Rob Boston

A quiet revolution is under way in the delivery of social services in America. Thanks largely to the efforts of one man, U.S. Senator John Ashcroft (R-Mo.), a Religious Right favorite and aspiring presidential candidate, government money is for the first time underwriting social service programs provided by religious organizations with virtually no significant oversight or strings attached.

Ashcroft calls his scheme "charitable choice." He and his supporters argue that religious organizations do a better job of providing social services than government, and thus they should not be burdened with government regulations. The concept has already been written into the Welfare Reform Act of 1996, and Ashcroft recently introduced legislation that would ensure that the charitable choice principle applies to every federally funded social service and public health program—legislation that could affect areas such as youth development, services for the elderly, substance abuse treatment, and corrections.

The irony is, charitable choice is a remedy to a problem that doesn't exist. Religious groups have been receiving government money to run services for the poor and needy for a long time. Catholic Charities, for example, receives nearly 70% of its budget from government sources. But groups like Catholic Charities, Lutheran Services in America, and Jewish relief agencies often had to set up separate corporations to administer government-funded programs. They were not permitted to discriminate on the basis of religion when serving the public or hiring staff. They were expected to run secular programs. Most religious organizations were willing to play by these rules.

Why then the change? Ashcroft is a fundamentalist Christian who embraces a literal interpretation of the Bible. But something more nefarious may be afoot as well. Fundamentalist Christian denominations have long been wary of accepting government aid for their social service ministries over worries that they would then be required to tone down their aggressive proselytism. Now, thanks to charitable choice, they don't have to.

Proponents of charitable choice argue this will not happen because, on paper at least, the law says no one will be forced to go to a religious provider for help. But does anyone really expect a panoply of providers in rural areas or small towns? It's more likely that those in need will simply be shuttled off to the local Baptist church or whatever denomination has agreed to run a program. And, given the lack of significant monitoring provisions in the bill, it's unlikely a government agent is going to make sure individual church programs are free of religious coercion.

Also, since charitable choice permits commingling of government and privately raised funds, it would be easy for religious groups to argue that any proselytism in their programs is paid for with voluntary contributions. Finally, people in need are unlikely to know every jot and tittle in the law, and even if they do, they are unlikely to quibble. A hungry person who is told to watch a religious video is likely to do it if he or she has been told there's a meal waiting at the end.

Attorneys with Americans United for Separation of Church and State are studying the issue and gathering evidence for a possible lawsuit. They caution, however, that the Supreme Court has been wavering on the issue of government funding for religion and in recent decisions seems to be leaning toward the idea that state financial support for religion is permissible as long as secular services are funded as well.

But the scale of abuses possible under charitable choice is so enormous that litigation seems inevitable. In the meantime, hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars will likely end up in the coffers of houses of worship, with virtually no controls to ensure they are not spent to promote religion.

Stop the Presses - The Pope Cracks Down on Dissident Catholics

by Tim Madigan

Pope John Paul II has made it clear that liberal Catholic theologians who deviate from official Church teachings will no longer be tolerated. He has declared that any break from the "revealed truth" regarding euthanasia, sex outside marriage, and the ordination of women will be met with strict punishment, ranging from a warning to excommunication.

Many American Catholic theologians have reacted with surprise to this sudden pronouncement. "They're trying to create a kind of chilling climate to shut people up" said Father Charles Curran, who was himself denied the right to teach by the Vatican because of his controversial writings on birth control, homosexuality, and abortion. But this policy is in keeping with John Paul's highly orthodox style during his entire papacy. To celebrate the twentieth anniversary of assuming the papal throne, the pope also issued his thirteenth encyclical, entitled "Fides et Ratio" ("Faith and Reason"). A criticism of postmodernist critiques of rationality, John Paul urges all priests and bishops to become more philosophical and "search for the ultimate and overarching meaning of life." Yet his earlier order to quell independent thinking within the church is anathema to the very meaning of "philosophy" - the love of wisdom through the search for truth.

Saint Mania

by Andrea Szalanski

Pope John Paul II has beatified 805 people and canonized a record number of saints - 280 - during his papacy. To help him along, the Vatican has relaxed already questionable standards for authenticating the required miracles. The recent case of how Holocaust victim Edith Stein became a saint illustrates the new fast-track-to-holiness policy.

Edith Stein was a Jewish intellectual who converted to Catholicism in 1922 and later became a Carmelite nun. During World War II, when the Nazis offered to spare Jewish converts if the Vatican dropped its public opposition to Nazi deportation of the Jews, the Vatican refused. Stein, by then Sister Teresia Benedicta, was sent to Auschwitz and died there in 1942.

Twenty years later, Stein's admirers started the process of canonization. Her case received a boost from 1983 Vatican reforms that reduced the requirements for sainthood. Politics played a role, too, as Pope John Paul II desired to strengthen the Catholic Church by increasing the numbers of saints, including more from nontraditional backgrounds, and to improve the world's view of the Catholic Church's record in World War II.

In 1987, the single miracle that was required for Stein's sainthood was verified as occurring in Brockton, Massachusetts, to then two-year-old Benedicta (Stein the nun's namesake) McCarthy. The child had accidentally taken an overdose of Tylenol, which put her in a coma and in danger of liver and kidney failure. Her parents, who had raised Benedicta and her 11 siblings in a highly religious household, asked everyone they knew to pray to Sister Teresia Benedicta to save their daughter's life. She recovered fully.

Benedicta's physician, Dr. Ronald Kleinman, has stated that, while most children who take large doses of Tylenol do not die, in Benedicta's case he did not expect her to live. That was enough for the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, who declared the event a valid miracle and secured Stein's canonization.

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