ACLU Files Free Speech Lawsuit Against County of Lackawanna Transit System

9e112ba20386839ff42faecfe3794570_f2360

ACLU Files Free Speech Lawsuit Against County of Lackawanna Transit System

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
April 28, 2015

CONTACT: Sara Mullen, ACLU of Pennsylvania, 215-592-1513 x122, smullen@aclupa.org

PHILADELPHIA – The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed a federal lawsuit today against the County of Lackawanna Transit System (COLTS) over its refusal to allow a local atheist group, the Northeastern Pennsylvania (NEPA) Freethought Society, to advertise on its buses. The lawsuit argues that the transit system violated NEPA Freethought Society’s free speech rights by rejecting its ads because of the group’s views.

Since 2012, the NEPA Freethought Society has tried unsuccessfully to run various ads on COLTS buses. The rejected ads simply say “atheists” along with the group’s name and/or website. COLTS first turned down one of these ads under a policy that gave COLTS discretion to reject ads it deemed “controversial” or that would spark debate or discussion of public issues. In commenting on the rejection, COLTS’ solicitors said that COLTS did not accept any ads “promoting” or “attacking” religion or ads intended to spark public debate. However, according to the complaint, for at least ten years before NEPA Freethought Society tried to advertise, COLTS never rejected a single ad. COLTS has run ads from religious organizations, a political candidate, and a blog with links to anti-Jewish websites. COLTS also displayed the message “God Bless America” on the front of one bus for years.

In September 2013, COLTS again rejected the society’s proposed “atheists” ad, explaining that COLTS believed the ad would “offend or alienate” some of COLTS’ riders, causing COLTS to lose money. Eight days after rejecting the ad, COLTS adopted a new advertising policy that explicitly banned ads that “promote the existence or non-existence of a supreme deity” or address religion.

In 2014, COLTS finally accepted a version of the NEPA Freethought Society’s ad after it removed the word “atheists.”

“It’s hard to advertise effectively if we’re not allowed to use the word ‘atheists’ to say who the NEPA Freethought Society’s members are or who we’re trying to reach,” said Justin Vacula, organizer and spokesperson for the NEPA Freethought Society. “We just want to be treated fairly and allowed the same opportunity to advertise that COLTS has given other groups for years.”

According to the complaint, COLTS’ decision to ban all religious ads and begin enforcing its advertising policy was motivated by its dislike for NEPA Freethought Society’s beliefs.

“The First Amendment means that government officials can’t censor speech just because it’s unpopular or because they disagree with the speaker,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “Once you open up a space for speech, you have to let everyone in equally.”

The NEPA Freethought Society is represented by Mary Catherine Roper and Molly Tack-Hooper of the ACLU of Pennsylvania and Theresa E. Loscalzo, Stephen J. Shapiro, and Monica Clarke Platt of Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP.

More information about the case, including a copy of the complaint, is available at: www.aclupa.org/COLTS

###

 

Media:

Friendly Atheist relinked at RichardDawkins.net

Associated Press story featured on CNBCPhilly.com, The Washington Times, Reading Eagle, and other sources

The Times Leader (updated since original posting)

Scranton Times-Tribune (updated since original posting)

The LuLac Political Letter

Religion Clause

The Christian Post

Dispatches From The Culture Wars [archived screenshot]

Background Probability

The Washington Post

Christian News

Metro

 

Atheists Giving Aid Launches The Good One Percent Club

http://www.weareatheism.com/
http://www.weareatheism.com/

501 (c)3 organization We Are Atheism launches philanthropic campaign The Good One Percent Club

From a press release:

We Are Atheism is expanding on their Atheists Giving Aid program with a new campaign. “The Good One Percent Club” is a new program encouraging atheists to donate just one percent of their monthly earnings. While churches ask for ten percent, We Are Atheism is confident that atheists can do more even while giving less.

Through Atheists Giving Aid, We Are Atheism was able to raise over $75,000 for victims of Sandy Hook, the Boston Marathon Bombings, and the Oklahoma City Tornadoes. A complete accounting of their fundraising efforts is available on their website (http://www.weareatheism.com/2012-2014-incomeexpense-report/). The Good One Percent Campaign will help change lives, help change the face of atheism in America, and make religious leaders see that asking for 10% of people’s hard earned money is just greedy and unnecessary.

This is a direct challenge to churches who have far too often used their well-oiled money raising machine to fund lavish luxuries for priests, political campaigns against the rights of women and gays, to protect sexual predators from the law, and to proselytize to those in need of actual help.

Plus unlike churches, atheists promise no imagined riches in the afterlife or false predictions of future rewards here on Earth from imaginary deities. The only reward is the knowledge that you helped those who needed help. The Good One Percent Club won’t guilt anyone into giving money or shaming them for their inability to do so either. This is one reason why they are asking for only one percent. If you make just a little, then give just a little. If you make a lot, then give a lot. It’s just that simple. By doing this, you’ll join The Good One Percent Club and get special newsletters showing what good Atheists Giving Aid is doing with your money. Yes, you’ll actually know how your donations are being used.

Prominent atheist Faisal Saeed Al Mutar, founder of the Global Secular Humanist Movement had this to say about The Good One Percent Club:

“There are many things we can learn from religion in terms of community and service, as Atheist or people without religion we can create a similar and probably more efficient system of service which is based upon goodness for goodness sake, a system that not is not based upon fear of hell or reward of heaven but out of love for humanity, which is why I support the Good 1% Club.”

Atheist author David Fitzgerald also endorsed the project:

“You can join your fellow atheists in helping those in need, making the world a better place, and smashing the old lie that only religious charities exist. Give to the Good 1% Club and you’re helping people, not priests or preachers!”

We Are Atheism is a registered 501c3 charity with tax exempt status from the federal government. All donations to this campaign are tax deductible, by law. For more information contact the We Are Atheism Board of Directors at WeAreAtheism@gmail.com or check out the website at weareatheism.com/thegood-1-club.

Jehovah’s Witnesses Watchtower mag demonizes skeptics

Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania
Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania

A 2011 piece from the Jehovah’s Witness publication The Watchtower considers apostates to be mentally diseased criminals who should be shunned and avoided.

A frequent criticism of organized religion I and others voice is that religion often creates division. While creating division does not necessarily make particular religious ideas false, one can focus on the harm that is caused by religion when talking about its divisive nature.

Personally, I’ve encountered a large amount of vitriol from religious individuals (some of whom are family members) in my community following my activism for separation of church and state – most prominently in 2009 when I objected to a nativity scene placed on county courthouse property. A local disc jockey, on his radio show, called me the ‘third most hated person in Luzerne County‘ (only to be ‘topped’ by two judges implicated in the infamous Kids for Cash scandal) reflecting the outlook of many in my community who sent me hate mail (physical and electronic), tried to interfere with my education/scholarships, and sent nasty letters to my parents.

I have maintained that if the Christian faith (or any religious belief for that matter) is based in truth, individual believers should welcome critical discussion and be prepared, as the Bible says, to answer objections. Shouldn’t one be sure about what they believe if they want to dedicate their lives to a belief? I began a journey listening to criticisms of the religious beliefs I held and determined that there is no good reason to believe the Christian god exists after finding significant objections — unsatisfactorily answered by Christians — and determining that the reasons Christians provide for belief in God are not sufficient to justify belief.

It’s often the case that those who question religious belief are demonized – portrayed as agents of Satan trying to ruin the lives of Christians – bringing them down the wrong path in life. A piece titled ‘Will You Pay Attention to Jehovah’s Clear Warnings‘ in 2011 issue of The Watchtower — a Jehovah’s Witness publication — is a clear example of this. Apostates — people who have abandoned religious faith — are compared to and/or considered ‘false teachers,’ ‘wolves that eat the sheep,’ ‘criminals,’ ‘mentally diseased’ people, ‘and ‘gossipers.’

The Watchtower provides advice about how Jehovah’s Witnesses should deal with such ‘false teachers,’

“We do not speak to them or invite them into our houses. We do not read their books, watch them on television, read what they write on the Internet, or add our own comments about what they write on the Internet. Why are we do determined to avoid them? First of all, it is because we love “the God of truth.” So we do not want to listen to false teachings that go against the truth in God’s word.”

The divisive nature of religious belief is apparent when viewing this passage; the message for Jehovah’s Witnesses is to shun those who disagree on matters of religious belief. Witnesses are not to even respond to or be friends with ‘false teachers.’

Personally, I’m friends with many religious people. It’s almost never been the case — barring some fringe cases of extreme disrespect almost certainly due to religious beliefs — that because I was aware someone was religious I abandoned a friendship or refused to talk to a person. On the contrary, I enjoy interactions with people I disagree with whether the disagreement falls in the realm of religion, politics, law, or other areas.

 Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania
Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania

The religious person who refuses to interact with sincere non-believers* or people questioning religious faith seems weak in their religious beliefs and very likely worse off for not examining their own beliefs. Openness to experience, exposure to a variety of ideas, and a rigorous examination of one’s core beliefs are almost always beneficial and critical to self-development.

If religious belief cannot stand inquiry and must be abandoned, religious believes will be better off – holding beliefs better reflecting the way the world actually is. If reasons for religious belief are based in truth and atheists must abandon their non-belief, atheists will be better off.

Don’t demonize people merely because they disagree with you on matters of religion. Do not let religion be a more divisive force than it already is.

As always, feel free to leave comments below.

* By sincere non-believer, I mean a person who appears to be genuinely interested in a meaningful discussion. I don’t believe everyone should answer or take seriously people who do not appear sincere in their criticisms or are extremely disrespectful/attacking persons. A burden of responding to every person would also be unreasonable.

Selective action and prayer’s incompatibility with free will

"Prayers to Heaven Balloon Launch"
“Prayers to Heaven Balloon Launch”

I discuss the incompatibility of prayer with free will and difficulties Christians face in arguing for God’s selective action.

Last month, in a piece titled ‘Prayer and the false cause fallacy,’ I argued against common reasoning Christians provide to argue for the efficacy of prayer – that because an event happens following a prayer we can be justified in believing prayer was responsible. I briefly hinted at the incompatibility of prayer and free will in the light of moral evil — harmful actions humans inflict upon other humans — and shall now expand on my reasoning in this post.

Atheists often object to Christian claims about the efficacy of prayer as follows – ‘Why doesn’t God intervene to stop mass murderers – perhaps even slightly, without notice — by altering humans’ thoughts? Since this does not happen, and God is supposed to be an all-loving, all-knowing being who can effortlessly stop heinous acts, we can be justified in disbelief of God.’

A typical Christian response is such that if God intervened in human affairs [at least to stop mass murderers] free will would be infringed upon. Free will is of utmost importance — trumping all other concerns — and may not be infringed upon lest we be agents unable to exercise meaningful choice thus God does not intervene.

For purposes of this post, I shall take this argument for granted and demonstrate that even if we accept this line of reasoning, Christians face significant difficulties if they contend that prayer has efficacy in situations involving a group of individuals.

Suppose a Christian prays for, like in this example, someone to love them – that Jane prays for Bob, despite his leaving Jane following relationship difficulties, to reenter into a relationship with her. The mechanism by which success was achieved is often unstated by the Christian, but the result is often emphasized. Might God have bestowed a boon upon Jane – instilling her with special knowledge and advice? Might God have intervened upon Bob – causing him to enter into a relationship with Jane?

In either case, and likely every case by which a Christian would describe the transformative nature of prayer, free will is compromised. Before the prayer there existed a state in which Bob, exercising his free will, decided not to remain in a relationship with Jane…but suddenly after the prayer Bob entered into a relationship with Jane. Free will would be infringed upon in this case because an already determined choice had been altered in some way because of God’s supposed interference.

If the Christian maintains that prayer instead led Bob and Jane to meet somewhere, for instance, and ultimately rekindled a romance there would still have to be a ‘divine rearranging’ of events by which Bob and Jane had met; God in some way had to have changed decisions of Bob and Jane so that they met. If the Christian would maintain that Bob and Jane met by accident, for instance, without the intervention of God, it is not, then, the case that God had intervened to begin with (and thus efficacy of prayer can’t be argued for in this case).

"Prayer Wall"
“Prayer Wall”

What about ‘financial blessings’ such as these? Surely if someone receives a check in the mail because of prayer/God’s intervention it is the case that God had influenced the actions of people so that a check would arrive. If the Christian maintains that the check arrived without influence from God, efficacy for prayer could not, then, be argued for.

Even other mundane requests such as help for passing an examination would involve, at the very least, God intervening in human affairs although free will might not be infringed upon in all cases (perhaps it could be argued that others may be placed at a disadvantage and thus were not able to actualize their choices which would have — absent prayer — have yielded a higher test result in a curved grade situation)?.

The Christian, then, next faces an atheistic objection concerning natural evil — why would God not intervene to stop deadly natural disasters, birth defects, etc — while maintaining that God intervenes in some areas in life but not in others. How could an all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing God intervene to help someone pass an examination but not intervene to stop hundreds dying because of a tsunami?

Christians who argue that God intervenes in some circumstances — whether infringing upon free will or not — but not in others face tremendous difficulties in explaining why God would act in some situations [often quite mundane] and not in others [involving gratuitous suffering]. Saying God doesn’t intervene because he wants to preserve free will yet maintaining prayer worked in some situations in which free will was infringed upon places Christians in an even deeper morass.

For more of my thoughts on the problem of evil, see this category.

As always, feel free to comment below.