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Secular World


The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 15, Number 1.


Supreme Court Creates More Voucher Confusion

The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to hear Milwaukee parents' challenge to their state's use of public money for religious schools. The Court's failure to take up the case, Jackson v. Benson, leaves in place the 1973 landmark ruling that outlawed reimbursing New York parents for religious school tuition, but fails to bring Wisconsin into line with that ruling.

The November 9 decision shocked and dismayed First Amendment activists, and has created nationwide confusion over the constitutionality of state-funded vouchers for religious schools. The Court's indifference to Milwaukee's support for religion has emboldened voucher supporters to campaign for voucher legislation in other states.

In June, the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld the state's plan to expand its Milwaukee voucher program to include religious schools, contradicting the 25-year-old U.S. Supreme Court precedent. Previous attempts to channel funds to religious schools in Maine, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Vermont have all been overturned by state courts.

Tom Flynn, director of the Council for Secular Humanism's First Amendment Task Force, commented, "Milwaukee's education system is out of step with the rest of the country, the U.S. Constitution, and the Supreme Court's own landmark ruling. And yet the Supreme Court is ignoring the whole issue. Wisconsin seems to have left the Union and entered a constitutional twilight zone."


City Must Remove Cross from Seal

A federal judge has ruled that the Latin cross in an Ohio city seal is unconstitutional, stating that "this is precisely what the Constitution of the United States prohibits." Judge Daniel Aaron Polster said that "the Stow City seal, as it is currently depicted, does indeed have the effect of advancing and promoting the Christian religion." The controversy surrounding the seal, Judge Polster concluded, "could only have the effect of causing non-Christians in Stow to feel like outsiders."


Biblical Hatred Embarrasses Christians

The nation's leading religious news service has criticized a homophobic Kansas preacher, claiming that his hate-mongering is a major embarrassment to Christians. In a December 1998 story, Religion Today noted the increasing prominence of Baptist preacher Reverend Fred Phelps. Since 1991, Phelps and his church have been conducting what they term a "ministry of public religious pickets," which has targeted gay pride events and the funerals of people who died from AIDS. Phelps's congregation gained recent notoriety for picketing the October 1998 funeral of Matthew Shepard, whose killers had taunted him with homophobic slogans as they pistol-whipped him to death. At the funeral, Phelps and his congregation held signs declaring "God Hates Fags" and "No Fags in Heaven."

Phelps provides a biblical defense of his hate-mongering, declaring, "You can't preach the Bible without preaching hatred." Freethinkers might well agree with Phelps's summary of biblical teaching, while agreeing with Religion Today that it is morally reprehensible to preach hate. The freethought solution is to reject the biblical tradition of morality and embrace the compassionate ethics of secular humanism.


State of the World's Children

More than 130 million children of elementary-school age receive no formal education, reports the United Nations Children's Fund, UNICEF, in its 1999 State of the World's Children Report. UNICEF reported that education for girls was particularly neglected and called for an additional $7 billion a year to be spent around the world.


Oregon to Recognize Same-Sex Partners

An Oregon appeals court has said that government is constitutionally required to recognize same-sex domestic partnership and has barred all employment discrimination against gay men and lesbian women. The sweeping ruling has been hailed as one of the most significant victories for gay rights in U.S. history.

The ruling makes Oregon the eleventh state to prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation but the first to require that government provide benefits to the partners of lesbian and gay employees. "The decision will require all public agencies in the state to provide benefits to domestic partners," said Dave Fidanque, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, which acted as a "Friend of the Court" in the case. "In addition, it suggests that any time the state extends a special privilege to a married couple, it should provide the same privilege to gay couples who are not permitted to marry."

Civil rights groups welcomed the victory, saying they intended to use the Oregon ruling as a precedent to argue for equal rights for gays and lesbians in other states. Two other states, New York and Vermont, voluntarily provide domestic partnership benefits to lesbian and gay couples, as do scores of cities, counties, and increasing numbers of major corporations. Ten other states and the District of Columbia have laws protecting lesbians and gay men against work place discrimination: California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Wisconsin.


O Lord, Lead Us Not Into Graduation

by Chris Mooney

Last May at Midwestern State University, an evangelical Christian student named Mary King made a very strong case against graduation prayer. She did so not by argument, but by frothing at the mouth.

During her spring commencement benediction, she asked God to forgive her fellow students for their sins. In particular she begged forgiveness for the sin of using their time to get a university education instead of devoting their lives to prayer. After demanding that her audience repent for their caps and gowns, King collapsed, crying and gasping for air. University President Louis Rodriguez, not recognizing these symptoms of Holy Spirit infestation, called an ambulance.

As a result of the incident, the MSU Faculty Senate voted 8-7 to remove prayer from future commencements. But President Rodriguez vetoed the decision. At winter commencement, student government President Gant Grimes delivered a much less sectarian prayer, which according to the Wichita Falls Times Record News began, "Lord, we come to you at this special time in our lives to offer our thanks . . ." and ended, "God bless you all and peace be with you. Amen."

What a relief. President Rodriguez may yet see compelling reasons for doing away with commencement prayer altogether. The likely formation of a Campus Freethought Alliance chapter on the MSU campus will no doubt quicken the process.

Chris Mooney is Field Director of the Campus Freethought Alliance and a Senior at Yale University, where he is co-President of the Yale Univ. Society of Humanists, Atheists, and Agnostics.


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