AG Jeff Sessions: Religion trumps established law


(Photos: Reuters/Nate Chute)

Without much fanfare late last month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued an addendum to the US Attorneys’ Manual: 1-15.000 – Respect for Religious Liberty, which  clearly lacks all respect for the 1st Amendment.  The document, which seems to be flying under the radar, is just now getting attention from the American Atheists and other progressive bloggers.

It is worth reviewing the policy in depth, but for now, let me just point out a few of the dangerous statements that were made.  Of critical importance was the requirement that each of the 93 regional US Attorney offices (which including our local office in Western PA) must assign member to “to coordinate religious liberty litigation issues” at the cost of ignoring other issues.  The document goes on to state that

Under certain conditions

the Internal Revenue Service may not enforce the Johnson Amendment—which prohibits 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations from intervening in a political campaign on behalf of a candidate.

The free exercise of religion includes the right to act or abstain from action in accordance with one’s religious beliefs.

The Free Exercise Clause protects not just the right to believe or the right to worship; it protects the right to perform or abstain from performing certain physical acts in accordance with one’s beliefs. Federal statutes, including the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (“RFRA”), support that protection, broadly defining the exercise of religion to encompass all aspects of observance and practice, whether or not central to, or required by, a particular religious faith.

The freedom of religion extends to persons and organizations.

The Free Exercise Clause protects not just persons, but persons collectively exercising their religion through churches or other religious denominations, religious organizations, schools, private associations, and even businesses.
Americans do not give up their freedom of religion by participating in the marketplace, partaking of the public square, or interacting with government.  ….  Although the application of the relevant protections may differ in different contexts, individuals and organizations do not give up their religious-liberty protections by providing or receiving social services, education, or  healthcare; by seeking to earn or earning a living; by employing others to do the same; by receiving government grants or contracts; or by otherwise interacting with federal, state, or local governments

I would beg to differ.  If you are Amish and your religion tells you not to drive motorized vehicles then perhaps “school bus driver” is not the best job for you.  Likewise, if you bake wedding cakes out of your storefront business, then current anti-discrimination laws say you need to bake cakes for all customers or close up the storefront.

The point is once you give a blanket pass for religious views in a pluralistic society, one be concerned about just how far could you legally move the bar.  It is worth recalling that interracial marriage was banned in Virginia for religious reasons as recently as 1967.  That Virginia statute was overturned by the Supreme Court, just as same-sex weddings are now legal in the US as a result of the 2015 Supreme ruling, Obergefell v. Hodges.

However, by the wording in Jeff Session’s memo any hotel owner or restaurateur could say “I don’t care about the law.  We don’t serve interracial couples for religious reasons”, as was documented in the powerful 2016 movie Loving.  Under the Session’s memo, there is no bound to the discrimination that might occur.

The simple point is that we have laws and courts for good reasons.  We have a separation of church and state for good reasons.  To blur the line between church and state should not be done by the stroke of a pen, especially the pen of the leading law enforcement official in Washington.

As pointed out at the Progressive Secular Humanist blog:

Under guidance from the Trump administration, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is quietly installing “religious freedom” czars in every U.S. Attorney’s office. And the country continues to march towards a Christian theocracy.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who charged with enforcing laws, has published a new policy (1-15.000 – Respect For Religious Liberty) that is confused, misguided, foolish and wrong.  The United States is a much more dangerous place when basic civil rights are overturned by the theological zealots.

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Understanding how a culture keeps itself blissfully ignorant

Here is a perfect example of how a culture keeps itself ignorant and a threat to the civil liberties of everyone.

Students of a northeast Ohio school district (or should I say, their parents and guardians) decried the fact that several constitutional watchdog groups brought it to the attention of their school district that it was in violation of the US Constitution to permit religious practices to take place during public school sponsored events.  The school board, knowing full well that prayerfests of any type during public school time was in violation of the US Constitution and that they could very easily be sued by allowing it to continue, decided that it would be best to terminate the practice of offering prayers during school sponsored sports events.  Of course, that was a very wise decision on their part.  Their wisdom and knowledge of Constitutional law saved their district a big hassle, major embarrassment and a ton of bucks leaving their already depleted coffers because of their own negligence to know, respect and follow the law.

Do the parents and guardians of these children follow the district’s wise example?  Do the parents and guardians of these children encourage their kids to know more about the history of the First Amendment and its protections, to honor and defend them from the encroachment of zealots who would, through their own ignorance of American history, muddle and ultimately destroy them?  Are these children being taught that they could pray any place they damn well please, just not during public, State-sponsored events?  No, apparently not.  The standard, knee-jerk reaction in this part of the country is to scream like a bunch of loose nuts claiming that you’re being oppressed and persecuted because “what you like to do is being taken away from you”  and then encouraging your children to wear T-shirts that proudly proclaim your stupidity and ignorance.

Does the local newspaper help to clarify the phony controversy that the parents of these children project?  Heck no.  Why not?  Easy answer.  The Vindy is a bastion of religious fundamentalism.  They regularly plaster their headline page with all manner of superstitious bunco.  Easter and Christmas are their two favorite periods of the calendar; the stories of religious-induced delusion come flowing into their press rooms like as tsunami.  And they made no exception with this recent phony-baloney and ridiculous brouhaha.

Scripture is quoted daily in their pages.  They hardly miss a day without publishing (always in glowing terms) some preposterous (if not asinine) story of a religious event, like the orthodox shaman who heads down to a local feeder creek of the Mahoning River where he and his wing-nut followers pray while he tosses a crucifix into the running creek.  This, the shaman claims, somehow protects the creek and the waters it meets on its way to the Ohio River.  The Vindy is so giddy about this annual event that they send a camera crew and a local “reporter” down with the shaman and his delusional followers to video-capture the event for all posterity!   But, I’m happy to report that this annual event does have a happy ending.  You see, for many years the shaman tossed the crucifix in the creek and that’s where it remained.  But after a complaint came (from a friend of mine) that his action was in violation of the EPA’s clean water standards, he decided to attach a string to the crucifix so he could reel it back in after performing his worthless ritual.  Pollution problem solved.

So, there you have it my friends, the full explanation as to why a sizable segment of our country feels quite comfortable creeping culturally backwards, and trying desperately to drag the rest of their patriots with them.

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Losing Our Religion

At 7pm on Wednesday, January 24th, there will be a one night showing of a Losing Our Religiona feature-length documentary about how preachers who are no longer believers make the transition out of the church. Allowed access to the 600 members of The Clergy Project – a safe haven for preachers from all faiths who no longer believe – the documentary follows ex-members and clergy, who are not just losing their religion, for many they are losing their friends, community, and even family. As well as their job.  Losing Our Religion is a documentary about community, acceptance, and a view inside the complicated lives of clergy who are stranded in the rising tide of non-believers.

This one-night showing will be at 7pm, Wednesday, January 24, at the Melwood Screening Room (477 Melwood Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15213) in North Oakland near the University of Pittsburgh campus.  The movie will be followed by a short Q&A with Pittsburgh native, Linda LaScola, who works for the Clergy Project out of their Washington, DC office, in close collaboration with Prof. Daniel Dennett, one of the other co-founders of the Clergy Project.

This event in Pittsburgh is being offered as a fundraiser for the Pittsburgh Freethought Community, a non-profit organization, whose mission is threefold:

  1. To be a welcoming and caring community for all those who share a humanist worldview and an evidence-based perspective;
  2. To provide a strong and respected public voice for the secular community in shaping public debate and formulating public policy;
  3. To promote science, reason, critical thinking, and humanist values in the greater Pittsburgh area.

Hope to see you there!

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Crabb Apples Taste Sweet This Week

This was a big week for supporters church/state separation, when U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb ordered the suspension of the IRS regulation that allows Christian ministers to deduct housing allowances from their taxable income, because the deduction benefits religious leaders and no one else.  The ruling filed on Dec 13, 2017 addressed the often abused housing allowance that allowed megachurch preachers to live tax-free in multimillion dollar homes.  Judge Crabb correctly noted that by allowing the allowance only to ministers provides an undue benefit to religion by writing:

that 26 U.S.C. § 107(2), which excludes from the gross income of a “minister of the gospel” a “rental allowance paid to him as part of his compensation,” is unconstitutional. Specifically, I concluded that § 107(2) violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment because it does not have a secular purpose or effect and because a reasonable observer would view the statute as an endorsement of religion.

The ruling goes on to say that Congress has 180 days to produce an alternative, which might be extend the housing allowance to other non-profits (meeting certain requirements) or remove the housing allowance altogether.

Either way, the ruling puts an end to long-standing fight by the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), which began several years ago when they first challenged the law, asking why their non-profit organization cannot get this benefit for its “leaders”.  The initial response from the courts was rather curious.  They said that FFRF was never denied the exemption because FFRF never asked for it.  So, the next year, the Executive Board of FFRF designated a portion of the salary as a housing allowance for its co-Presidents, Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker, who then filed an amended return asking for a refund. The IRS denied this request, which then allow FFRF to sue on the behalf of all secular non-profits.  This chain of events resulted in the landmark Dec 13th ruling linked above.

Joel Osteen Tax-Free Home

What happens next, however, is somewhat unclear as Crabb’s decision gives others a chance to appeal and gives Congress six months to rewrite the law.  The revision could go several ways. The benefit could be extended to other non-profits, including FFRF. The benefit could be removed for all parties.  Or, there may be some other creative alternative, which would be interesting to see what emerges.  Whatever, the outcome might be, I am sure that we will hear from Joel Osteen, Rick Warren, and others on the list of richest pastors in America, as to why paying taxes is so unfair.


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Let Them Eat Cake

Rainbow Cake

This was one of the most contentious weeks at the Supreme Court with the Justices hearing the case of the intolerant baker, Jack Phillips of Lakewood, Colorado, who lawyers were painfully arguing again that he has the right to refuse service to paying customers.

I say “again” as the original lawsuit, Craig v. Masterpiece Cakeshop, was decided in favor of the plaintiffs:

The cake shop was ordered not only to provide cakes to same-sex marriages, but to “change its company policies, provide ‘comprehensive staff training’ regarding public accommodations discrimination, and provide quarterly reports for the next two years regarding steps it has taken to come into compliance and whether it has turned away any prospective customers.”

Great.  So that must be it. Done.  Right?  

Nope.  The master of Masterpiece, appealed to the aptly named Colorado Court of Appeals. In its decision, the Colorado Court of Appeals “asserted that despite the artistic nature of creating a custom cake, the act of making the cake was part of the expected conduct of Phillips’ business, and not an expression of free speech nor free exercise of religion.”

Great.  He tried, but that must be it.  Done. Right?

Nope.  Next in line was the Supreme Court of Colorado, which declined to hear an appeal, at all.

Whew. Good try, but that must be it.  Three strikes and all that.

Nope.  As the final arbitrator, the Supreme Court of the United States, had agreed to hear the case.

Why, you ask?  No idea.

For those interested in the details, the transcript of the 1 hour and 24 minute session  is online, as well as the  entertaining audio.  Of most importance, we get to hear Justice Kennedy, who is considered to be the swing vote.  In the questioning, Kennedy asked the lawyer for Craig numerous questions that made it seem like he was in favor of the baker and perhaps even the candlestick maker.

It is hard to figure out which side he will land on, but it would be nice if consider the what was perhaps the strongest retort to the religious nonsense, which came at the very end of the session:

WAGGONER: Justice Sotomayor, I think that the gravest offense to the First Amendment would be to compel a person who believes that marriage is sacred, to give voice to a different view of marriage and require them to celebrate that marriage. The First Amendment –­

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: Then don’t participate in weddings, or create a cake that is neutral, but you don’t have to take and offer goods to the public and then choose not to sell to some because of a protected characteristic. That’s what the public anti-discrimination laws require.

Let’s hope that the Court decides in favor of public anti-discrimination laws.  If not, they are opening the doors to many  other barriers that have long since been dismantled.


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Boy Scouts Continue to Discriminate

The Boy Scouts of American made a lot of noise this week by stating that they were opening Cub Scouts to include girls as members, to be followed by girls as Boy Scouts a few years down the road.

While the media debates the plus and minus of that change, little attention is being paid to another kind of discrimination.  Unlike the Girl Scouts that allow all young girls to join, the Boy Scouts refuse membership to atheist, agnostic or humanist members, be they scouts or scout leaders.  With estimates suggesting that as many 30% of those under 30 would mark “None of the Above” when asked about their religion, the Boy Scouts are holding on to a discriminatory view of what makes a for good citizens.

As FFRF recently noted:

The official position of the group — “No member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing his obligation to God” — turns secular boys into pariahs and second-class citizens and defames nonbelief. This is a bias exclusively belonging to the U.S. division of Boy Scouts, which makes the religious litmus test all the more inappropriate in a secular country that welcomes citizens, of all religions or no religions. Furthermore, Boy Scouts has a congressional charter as a fraternal (not a religious group), and the president serves as the honorary commander in chief, all additional reasons why its religiously discriminatory policy must go.

In fact, Boyscout_Badgeas way of countering the bigotry against atheist scouts, FFRF has adopted a program to allow any young boy — or girl — to fulfill their own Atheist Merit Badge requirements and then receive the (unofficial) badge shown here that can be sewn on the merit badge sash as silent protest. If the Boy Scouts would change their discriminatory policy and allow this badge to worn with the other Scout merit badges, it would send a clear message that, in fact, Scouting is for All!





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PaStAHCon is next weekend

There is still room to attend PAsTAHCon coming up next weekend (Sept 13 – 15, 2017) in Philadelphia.

The quantity and quality of the list of top-notch speakers will make it well-worth the trip for those of you within driving distance, be it PA, MD, NJ, NY, CT, VA, DE or DC.  An earlier post highlighted some the main speakers and special events, including Lawrence Krauss and the a special Friggatriskaidekaphobia (Fear of Friday the 13th) party hosted by Margaret Downey.

In addition to those two special events, there will be a wonderful mix of speakers that you will not want to miss.  Along with Lawrence Krauss, there is a strong emphasis this year on science with Yvette d’Entremont from, Dr. Abby Hafer from Curry College , and Andrew Newberg, M.D. from Thomas Jefferson University.

Alix Jules is a writer, activist, social critic and commentator based in Dallas, Texas. His activism has garnered national attention on matters of race, religion, and politics. He’s been featured in various national secular campaigns and was the first atheist featured in Ebony Magazine.

Tracie Harris is a well-known member of the Atheist Community of Austin (ACA), appearing on the award-winning program “The Atheist Experience” in 2006. She is current Vice President of ACA, and was a regular voice on their atheist/feminist podcast “Godless Bitches, as well as an occasional stand-in for “Non-Prophets.”

Roy Zimmerman will be there with his poignant and occasional heart-breaking songs, such the painfully relevant To the Victims of This Tragedy We Send Our Thoughts and Prayers.

Rounding out the speakers are Heather Henderson and Emery Emery, bloggers Gail Jordan (Happy. Healthy. Heathen) and Hemant Mehta (The Friendly Atheist), high school student Madison Kimrey from Burlington, NC, college student Amanda Scott, author Laurie Lebo, comedian Leighann Lord, and Mark Nebo of Be Secular!

Schedules and all other details can be found at Please consider making the journey.  It would be well worth the trip!

2017 PaStAHCon Speakers



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Make your plans for PaStAHCon!

PaStAHCon 2017 will be held in Philadelphia the weekend of October 13-15. Over the next few weeks, this blog will highlight some of the speakers that you will miss if you don’t go, which is clearly something that you want to avoid. For the full list of speakers, as well as information on tickets and related events, go to

This year, the festivities will begin with a special Friggatriskaidekaphobia (Fear of Friday the 13th) party hosted by Margaret Downey, where you might get to walk under a ladder, break a mirror, spill salt, and dance indoors with an open umbrella. It is all in good fun and you won’t even be asked to spell Frigga-what-ever-it-is-called!

Another timely event will be a talk by noted physicist, Lawrence Krauss,noted author of both scientific and popular works, including the New York Times bestsellers The Physics of Star Trek (1995) and A Universe from Nothing (2012). He will be available to autograph his newest book “The Greatest Story Ever Told…So Far”, which was released in March of this year.

And, who knows? Prof. Krauss might also include stories of watching a full eclipse on the West Coast with Penn Jillette last week. You can hear Penn’s side of this adventure on the most recent episode of Penn’s Sunday School.

In all, it will be a great conference that is worth the journey. Additional conference notes and speakers will be highlighted in this blog in the coming weeks. Hope to see you there!

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New Feature for Our 9th Annual Canoe Trip/Shrimp Boil

It is now after Independence Day – and that means that summer is well under way. Which means that it is time (past time, really) to start making plans for summer fun – like our annual Canoe Trip on the Youghiogheny River and the Shrimp Boil at Cedar Creek Park for the halfway point of the trip.  Of course, for those not necessarily inclined toward watercraft activities, you are more than welcome to just attend the shrimp boil picnic. Or bike on the Allegheny Passage Trail that runs along the river and right through Cedar Creek Park. But however you wish to enjoy yourselves, come on out and join some like-minded folks for a pleasant summer day. The date for this year’s event is Saturday, August 19th. So mark your calendars!

For those not familiar with our annual event, here are some particulars: the Canoe Trip is a gentle, leisurely float down the Yough, from the put-in at Smithton downriver to the outfitter’s facility in West Newton, a distance of about 7 miles. There are no rapids or serious whitewater to contend with. We meet at Youghiogheny Outfitters in West Newton at 9:30 am. After registration and fitting of flotation devices, we are transported upriver to the put-in at Smithton. About halfway to the pull-out in West Newton, at a fairly large right bend in the river, there is a boat ramp on the left. That is Cedar Creek Park. If you are joining everybody for the Shrimp Boil or lunch, pull your craft out of the river and put it safely clear of the ramp. About two hundred yards to the left, past the concession stand, is Pavilion #19 where the picnic takes place. When you come up the boat ramp, across the road there are rest rooms.

If you are not going on the water and want to come directly to the picnic, just follow the signs to the park and enter on the park’s main road. Follow that road to where it seems to end in a small parking lot. It doesn’t. It crosses over the bike trail to the right and turns left past several more pavilions. We will be in Pavilion #19, the last one before the concession stand.

This year, we have a new feature, an upgrade as it were. For this year’s shrimp boil, we have acquired an 80-qt cooking pot. To borrow a term from one of our national political figures – a yuuuuge one. It will bigly cook enough food for everybody to eat together, at one time, rather than having to wait and eat in shifts, though we might have to use both rows of tables.

Details: Youghiogheny Canoe Outfitters, 226 Collinsburg Rd., West Newton, PA 15089

Canoes or tandem kayaks: $53 (canoes can have a 3rd person under 60 lbs for an add’l $4)

Single kayaks, sit-in or sit-on: $32

Shrimp Boil: $12 for adults; $7 for children under 12; n/c for toddlers

To reserve your spot(s), email BillK at before August 4th and submit payment to:

CFI-Pittsburgh, PO Box 81003, Pittsburgh, PA 15217

Make checks payable to CFI-Pittsburgh. Payment must be received by August 12th, 2017

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Understanding Donald Trump

For months now I’ve been carefully observing the many machinations of our current Orange-Haired Orangutan in chief.  My objective?  Trying as best I can to understand what makes the incompetent fool tick.

I’ve read and considered voices from many different fronts: politicos, journalists, historians, psychiatrists, you name it, I’ve studied their perspectives as well as any student of reality can possibly study anything.

But, with each passing day, our Idiot in Chief (or one of his idiotic sidekicks) does something more spectacularly stupid then the day before and I’m again left feeling convinced that I’m failing to fully understand the core nature of the buffoon’s inanity.

This week, however, I was very fortunate to find an explanation in my Twitter feed that answered every question that I had remaining.  Wednesday, May 19, 2017 was my lucky day.  In the spirit of selfless public service I present to you the real explanation for everything you’ve witnessed to date.

One simple, lazy click right HERE will end your search for a comprehensive, rational explanation as well.


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