Freedom From Religion Foundation

Our periodic reminder for journalists: The Freedom From Religion Foundation has an agenda

Our periodic reminder for journalists: The Freedom From Religion Foundation has an agenda

It’s almost humorous.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation — whose name succinctly characterizes the organization’s agenda — complains about the conservative Republican governor of one of the nation’s most religious states speaking at a church.

A leading newspaper in that state rushes to report the claim that the governor is doing something unconstitutional, as if it’s breaking news.

Except that it’s really the same old, same old — and regurgitating the anti-religion group’s talking points as if they’re the gospel truth is not great journalism.

I came across the story that sparked this post via the Pew Research Center’s daily religion headlines today. Believe it or not, it was the second headline on Pew’s rundown of top religion news nationally. Ironically, the story came from my home state of Oklahoma, even though I hadn’t heard about it.

Here is the lede from the Tulsa World:

OKLAHOMA CITY — A group advocating for the separation of church and state on Tuesday accused Gov. Kevin Stitt of using his office to promote religion.

Stitt in his official capacity as governor is speaking at 7 p.m. Sept. 22 at Guts Church in Tulsa, according to the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The event uses his title to seek attendees.

In a Monday letter to Stitt, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wisconsin, said if Stitt wanted to discuss religion, he should do it as a private citizen and not as governor.

“Using the Office of the Governor to promote a specific religious mission is unconstitutional and sends a direct message to the 30 percent non-Christian adults who you serve that they have the wrong religion and that only your personal god can solve Oklahoma’s problems,” the letter said.

“We are telling Gov. Stitt, as we tell all pious politicians: ‘Get off your knees and get to work,’ ” said Freedom From Religion Foundation Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “It’s not OK in Oklahoma or any other state for public officials to misuse their office to promote religion.”

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Odd, unquestioning AP story misses point on University of Wisconsin's 'religion center'

Odd, unquestioning AP story misses point on University of Wisconsin's 'religion center'

Once upon a time, the Associated Press could be depended upon to deliver solid, basic, hard-news stories which informed readers about a given event or issue. Samuel Langhorne Clemens, also known of course as Mark Twain, famously declared: “There are only two forces that can carry light to all the corners of the globe … the sun in the heavens and the Associated Press down here.”

Reading the AP's report -- perhaps more properly titled an "aggregation" -- on developments at the University of Wisconsin, one wonders if the AP of Twain's day is far less recognizable today. Instead of insights, we get hints and teases of information, and nothing more. I'd call that a journalism problem, wouldn't you?

Under the rather bland headline "University of Wisconsin-Madison starts new religion center," the AP story, seen online at websites for the Chicago Tribune and other outlets, is short on details:

A new center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison hopes to spread religious literacy on campus.
The Center for Religion and Global Citizenry comes after the Luber Institute for the Study of Abrahamic Religions closed last year due to lack of funding, Wisconsin Public Radio reported.

Neither the AP nor the original Wisconsin Public Radio story shed much light on the questions raised by the reporting. Who funded the now-shuttered Luber Institute? Who is funding the new Center for Religion and Global Citizenry? What do the funders expect from the new project?

Let's remember that the University of Wisconsin system is a state-funded campus.

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Can a public school superintendent pray at a mandatory assembly? That's the question in Texas

Can a public school superintendent pray at a mandatory assembly? That's the question in Texas

"Heavenly father, we just want to thank you for this beautiful day."

A man wearing a suit and tie stood at a pulpit adorned with a Christian cross as he said those words.

But the speaker wasn't a preacher or other church leader — at least that wasn't his function on this particular day.

Instead, the person leading the prayer was the superintendent of a suburban school district north of Dallas — and the setting was a mandatory employee assembly.

Anybody see the potential for a church-state clash?

That leads us to this story from the Dallas Morning News:

MCKINNEY — A nonprofit organization advocating for the separation of church and state believes McKinney ISD crossed the line this year during its back-to-school convocation, which included a prayer led by the district's superintendent.
Three people — including one district employee — filed complaints with the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation after the district's mandatory employee assembly in August. The assembly took place at Prestonwood Baptist Church, where it has been held for more than a decade. 
"I realize that some of you, now you may not feel comfortable. And I'm alright with that. I understand," Superintendent Rick McDaniel says in a video of the event before saying the prayer.
"For those of you who feel comfortable praying with me that's fine. At a minimum, we're going to have a moment of silence."
The video shows McDaniel — head bowed, eyes closed — leading a nearly one-minute prayer over a microphone behind a pulpit marked with a cross.
In a letter to McKinney ISD from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the organization said the district "violates its obligation to remain neutral on matters of religion" with this prayer.

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America is 26 percent atheist these days? Kansas City Star's uncritical report on shock stat

America is 26 percent atheist these days? Kansas City Star's uncritical report on shock stat

"Everything's up to date in Kansas City," the musical Oklahoma once told us, and if Oscar Hammerstein said it, it must be true. They had a building "seven stories tall, about as high as one should go," after all.

Kansas City, and its flagship daily newspaper have received recurring attention here in GetReligion-land. Earlier this week, my colleague Julia Duin examined a Kansas City Star piece about the local Catholic archdiocese and the Girl Scouts that left readers hunting for details

Last August, the Star was found wanting in its coverage of a gay clergy issue within the United Methodist Church -- again, crucial facts were missing. 

So the, ahem, "revelation" that a stunning 26 percent of all Americans are atheists, in the same Kansas City Star merits close attention. Particularly when -- surprise! -- elements that would make for a fully orbed report are M-I-A.

Let's get to the news element of the article:

A recently published study based on 2,000 interviews suggested that a quarter of Americans or more are atheist — multiples of what other surveys have found.
[University of Kentucky psychologist Will] Gervais and fellow University of Kentucky psychologist Maxine Najle posed a list of innocuous statements — “I own a dog,” “I enjoy modern art” — and asked how many of the declarations applied to a respondent. Then they put the same statements to another group but added the statement, “I believe in God.”
By comparing the results, they concluded that 26 percent of the U.S. population doesn’t believe in God. Previous surveys in 2015 by Pew and Gallup asked directly about the belief in God and found the number of atheists at between 3 and 11 percent.
“Obtaining accurate atheist prevalence estimates may help promote trust and tolerance of atheists — potentially 80 million people in the USA and well over a billion worldwide,” the study said.

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Are Bible classes in public schools constitutional? The answer is complicated

Are Bible classes in public schools constitutional? The answer is complicated

I don't have a real problem with The Associated Press' coverage of a religion-related federal lawsuit filed against a West Virginia school district.

I mean, it's a threadbare account — roughly 400 words — but that's typical of AP news these days. At least this one makes an attempt to present both sides. 

However, the story does — IMHO — raise more questions than it answers. I'll elaborate below.

First, though, here's the lede:

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) — A kindergartner's mother sued her public school system in West Virginia, saying a 75-year practice of putting kids in Bible classes violates the U.S. and state constitutions.
The woman, identified as "Jane Doe" in the federal lawsuit backed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said her child will be forced either to take these weekly classes at her Mercer County elementary school or face ostracism as one of the few children who don't.
"This program advances and endorses one religion, improperly entangles public schools in religious affairs, and violates the personal consciences of nonreligious and non-Christian parents and students," the suit said.
The school district said the courses are voluntary electives.

GetReligion readers are, of course, familiar with the agenda of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. It's no surprise at all that the organization has an issue with teaching the Bible in public schools.

But does that make the courses unconstitutional? Not necessarily.

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News alert: Freedom From Religion Foundation has an agenda; journalists might consider that

News alert: Freedom From Religion Foundation has an agenda; journalists might consider that

News alert: The Freedom From Religion Foundation has an agenda.

For those paying attention, that advocacy group's name provides a clear indication of that agenda.

Why am I stating the obvious? Because in reading some recent news reports, journalists seem to treat the Freedom From Religion Foundation as if it's an unbiased expert source on church-and-state legal questions.

Let's consider, for example, the Washington Post's recent story on a high school football coach who baptized a player.

This tweet is from the Post reporter who produced the story. So in other words, the journalist agrees with the Freedom From Religion Foundation that what's happening is "unconstitutional."

Except that the tweet is inaccurate. The coach didn't baptize the player at a public school, according to the Post's own story:

The Newton school district, however, is sticking by Coach Smith’s actions. In a statement, the school said that the baptism happened off school property — outside a dentist’s office, about a block away from the school, Superintendent Virginia Young told The Post. “The District feels this is a private matter of choice for that student. Any additional Newton Municipal School District students that attended the baptism did so as their own voluntary act,” the school’s statement said.

The Jackson Clarion-Ledger in Mississippi also notes that the baptism didn't occur at a public school:

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What do Seattle, San Diego and West Virginia have in common? Right now, it's revivals

What do Seattle, San Diego and West Virginia have in common? Right now, it's revivals

Several months ago, a church in Seattle had a weekend revival. Then the meetings from that event carried over into the following week. And the next week after that. By the time they hit the fifth week, the church was getting bigger crowds, the event had its own hashtag (#westcoastrumble) and the nightly meetings were being broadcast online.

Similar revival meetings in San Diego were making this look like a regional phenomenon. By the eighth week, I decided this just might be news and so I started pitching a story about it. Religion News Service was interested and my story ran April 19.

This got me to thinking about revivals, mass meetings and movements, all of which are notoriously hard for a secular newspaper to cover well. Just what does constitute a large religious movement? Crowds? Miraculous healings? The fact that it’s spread to other locales?

Which is why I was interested to hear of a similar revival happening in West Virginia. The religious media, in this case CBN, were the first to arrive on the scene after a mere three weeks. CBN began with:

MINGO COUNTY, W. Va. -- There's a new sound coming forth from the hills of southern West Virginia - a sound many prophets have foretold but haven't heard until now.
For the past three weeks, the large sports complex in the small coal-mining town of Williamson, West Virginia, has been filled to the rafters with people crying out for God

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Freedom from Religion Foundation: Will journalists investigate what they do?

Freedom from Religion Foundation: Will journalists investigate what they do?

There are times when a headline just grabs your attention and this story was one of those times. “Satanic book, Bible sex tracts provided in Colorado schools,” the Associated Press headline read.

On second thought, the combo of Bible and sex is not astonishing as the Old Testament gets rather explicit in some places and I’m not talking just the Song of Solomon. When God was angry at profligate Israel’s insistence on worshiping idols, He used some pretty earthly images in describing their lustful ways.

However, I’ll not be critiquing the AP this time around. I’m going to address a part of the woodwork that news organizations aren’t even considering when they write about these topics.

DENVER (AP) -- It sounds like an April Fool's joke, but it's not.
Atheists provided pamphlets on topics like sex in the Bible, problems with the Ten Commandments and a Satanic activity book to middle and high school students in a rural Colorado district Friday, the result of a fight between Delta County schools and critics over whether it should continue to let everyone from Little League organizers to the Gideons distribute literature in schools.
The Freedom from Religion Foundation is behind the literature. The Madison, Wisconsin-based group got involved after a mother sought help in December from the Western Colorado Atheists and Freethinkers, which contacted the foundation.
The woman was upset about Bibles made available in schools on tables designated for pamphlet and book giveaways, and there were also complaints that students who didn't take them were bullied, said Anne Landman, founder of Western Colorado Atheists and Freethinkers.

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It's already time for Christmas Wars! So, journalists, who you gonna call?

It's already time for Christmas Wars! So, journalists, who you gonna call?

Here they come again -- the Christmas Wars.

No, I am not talking about Fox News specials on whether cashiers in megastores should be forced by their employers to say "Happy Holidays" to customers instead of "Merry Christmas." We have to wait until Halloween for those stories to start up. I'm talking about actual church-state battles about religion in the tax-dollar defined territory in the public square.

Public schools are back in session, so it's time for people to start planning (cue: Theme from "Jaws") holiday concerts. This Elkhart Truth story -- "Concord Community Schools sued in federal court over live Nativity scene in high school's Christmas Spectacular play" -- has all the basics (which in this case is not automatically a compliment). Here's the lede:

DUNLAP -- Two national organizations Wednesday filed a federal lawsuit against the Concord Community Schools over a live Nativity scene that has been part of the high school’s Christmas Spectacular celebration for decades.

You can see the problem looming right there in the lede. It's that number -- two.

Anyone want to guess which two organizations we are talking about? I'll bet you can if you try.

The suit by the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union alleges that the Christmas Spectacular -- which ends with a scriptural reading from the Bible as religious figures such as Mary, Joseph and the wise men act out the scene -- endorses religion in a manner that is illegal in a public school.
The complaint, filed on behalf of a Concord student and his father, asks the U.S. District Court to instruct school officials not to present the live Nativity scene in 2015 or  in the future. The complaint also seeks nominal damages of $1 and legal fees, as well as “other proper relief.”

Now, let me stress that the problem with this story is NOT that it quotes the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the ACLU.

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