The Central Florida Freethought Community (CFFC) has been working hard to keep religion out of government in Central Florida.
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“Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected
are as outraged as those who are.”
— Benjamin Franklin
29 August 2014
Mayor, Police Chief Condemned for Ejecting Citizen
Who Refused to Stand for Prayer/Pledge
Winter Garden—The Central Florida Freethought Community (CFFC) condemns Winter Garden Mayor and Police Chief for removing a city resident from Thursday’s Commission Meeting. The CFFC’s parent organization, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) sent a letter of complaint in support of the citizen, “John Thoreau,” a member of the CFFC. The CFFC has been documenting the beginning of local government meetings in Central Florida to ensure elected officials follow the law by allowing persons of every religion and those of no religion to participate.
In video recorded by Thoreau, Mayor John Rees told everyone at Thursday’s Commission Meeting to rise for the invocation and Pledge. As the prayer began, Rees interrupted, pointing at the seated Thoreau and saying, “We’re waiting for everyone to rise.” Thoreau repeatedly asserted he did not have to and remained seated. Rees moved to the invocation, a sectarian prayer given by a commission member.
When Thoreau also refused to stand for the Pledge, Rees ordered Police Chief George Brennan to “either escort him out or have him stand for the Pledge.” Brennan asked Thoreau whether he would stand or leave. Thoreau responded, “I guess I’m leaving,” and was escorted out of the room in front of nearly 100 fellow citizens.
Rees claimed the refusal to stand was disrespectful, telling the Orlando Sentinel “I did not make him stand for the prayer, but the Pledge? Even school kids stand. So I told him, ‘You have two choices: You can stand or go outside.’”
“The Mayor and the Police Chief clearly don’t understand the law,” CFFC Founder David Williamson said. “It’s been seventy years since the Supreme Court decided our public school students do not have to stand for the Pledge and I am aware of no time in our history when standing for the Pledge was mandatory for adults, regardless of the reason.”
FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel criticized this behavior, writing, “These actions were an astounding violation of Thoreau’s rights.” Seidel cited several court cases holding that compelling citizens to recite the Pledge or salute the flag is unconstitutional, including the 1943 Supreme Court case West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette where the Court explained, “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”
Seidel informed Rees and Brennan that it is also unconstitutional to coerce citizens into showing deference to prayers, writing, “The government cannot ask people to stand, let alone force people to stand under threat of arrest.”
As a remedy to this violation of Thoreau’s civil rights, FFRF urges Rees and Brennan to each explain at the next meeting that “citizens are within their rights to remain sitting for the Pledge and that it does not reflect a lack of patriotism. In fact, refusing to rise and repeat the Pledge is more patriotic and respectful of the godless, secular constitution that created this nation, than rising and declaring our nation to be ‘one nation under god.’” Twenty-four percent of FFRF’s membership is active or retired service members.
The letter informs the officials to expect members of the CFFC at next city commission meeting. “In a show of solidarity with John,” Seidel wrote, “they will exercise their First Amendment rights to remain seated during the invocation and pledge, both involving gods and a religion they do not worship. Mayor Rees and Chief Brennan ought to honor their rights.”
15 July 2014
Orange School Board Reverses Censorship;
Atheists Vow to Distribute More Literature
Orlando—The free speech case filed by the Central Florida Freethought Community (CFFC) and the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) against the Orange County School Board was dismissed after the School Board agreed to allow the originally censored materials to be distributed. In 2013, the CFFC sought to distribute literature including several books in eleven public high schools after the district allowed an evangelical Christian group to distribute bibles at those same campuses. The majority of the materials were censored with no time to make arrangements for alternates to be purchased.
"We intend to give out a lot more literature to educate students about atheism and the importance of keeping religion out of public schools. We are even designing new materials specifically for students and families in Orange County,” said David Williamson, Founder of the CFFC.
Co-plaintiff and FFRF Co-President Dan Barker, a former evangelical preacher said “We consider this a victory. The court has said that the school district is allowing all the materials that were initially prohibited,” said FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. “We disagree with how the court and the school district chose to handle this clear-cut discrimination, so we’ll likely be appealing on some issues, but overall, it’s a win.”
From the beginning, CFFC and FFRF have maintained that Orange County Public Schools should close the distribution forum. “The irony is that kids can get a bible anywhere. It’s the country’s most widely available book,” FFRF Staff Attorney, Andrew Seidel, said, “but where could a Christian kid get a copy of Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation so easily? As long as the forum remains open, they can get one in Orange County Public Schools.”
Opportunities for local activism are easy to find these days, and while our plates are already brimming with important work that keeps our organizations thriving, it is rare when an opportunity comes along that requires little effort but can help us meet several goals at one time. The recent decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway is that perfect opportunity and every local leader in the movement should consider taking advantage of it. The Supreme Court made clear that governments must have non-discriminatory invocation policies and upheld Greece’s practice largely because “a minister or layperson of any persuasion, including an atheist, could give an invocation.” Put simply, a humanist resident cannot be denied the opportunity to offer an invocation if citizens of other faiths deliver invocations.
The time to act is now while your members, your local government, and the media are still talking about it. These are just a few of the benefits that are too good to pass up:
- Educating elected officials and all in attendance about Humanist values
- Testing the forum for equal protection to ensure compliance with the ruling
- Normalizing the participation of nonbelievers in local government meetings
- Engaging local media about our message of inclusion and diversity
The Central Florida Freethought Community (CFFC) is an affiliate of the American Humanist Association (AHA) and a chapter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF). Our mission is to unite members of local freethought organizations in state/church activism. While we disagree with the Court’s decision in Town of Greece since it continues to allow prayer at government meetings, we are turning it into something truly positive.
We have members in every Central Florida county and in dozens of cities and towns. Our plan is to contact each local government in the coming months that begins their meeting with a prayer, but for now we are focused on low-hanging fruit. We contacted those governments with prayers led by religious clergy as well as those that have a publicized invitation for clergy participation. We only contact localities where our members reside. However, we don’t need to have invocation-givers residing in the locality unless the policy or practice requires it. In other words, we need a legitimate claim that we should be included in the invocation practice.
With a strong contingent of humanist celebrants and a humanist chaplain in the Orlando area we have several ambassadors to choose from. Since the Town of Greece decision noted that anyone could perform the invocations, we were not limited to just those individuals. A list of humanist celebrants who are able to give invocations can be found at the Humanist Society website. If you are looking to draft your own secular invocation, check out the CFFC websitewhere we have transcribed humanist invocations including word counts, durations, and videos going back ten years. Our recent local invocations are there as well.
With the help of attorneys Monica Miller at AHA’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center and Andrew Seidel at FFRF, we drafted a very effective request letter that you can use. Each government meeting is tracked on a spreadsheet with contact information so we can use a mail merge to quickly print letters and address envelopes. The letter was also sent attached to an email.
The first batch of about nineteen letters were sent in mid-May and at the time of this writing we have completed four invocations with seven more being scheduled. In some cases the “honor” of inviting someone for the invocation is shared and not assigned to a single person so our request was forwarded internally to each board member. We will be following up as needed and engaging attorneys in the process if we continue to be ignored.
So far, our invocations have been well received with good press coverage by local print andTV media. Each event is accompanied by a social event just before or after to make it a celebration in each area.
One word of caution: be sure you coordinate who will recite the Pledge of Allegiance ahead of time. No adult, and certainly no child, can be compelled to do this so consider passing that duty back to the board itself. Pledge activism may be a legitimate reason for not inviting you back, so think it through if you decide to engage in that.
Whatever your local organization’s goals this project is likely to help you achieve many of them. The effort required is minimal and the benefits are extremely long term. Being a featured guest at your local government meeting and offering an inclusive and inspirational secular reflection in stark contrast to the typical divisive prayers is a great way to make some sweet lemonade out of the tons of lemons the Supreme Court gave us this year.
13 May 2014
After Supreme Court Decision on Prayer
Local Freethinkers to Offer Secular Invocations
Orlando, FL—The Central Florida Freethought Community (CFFC), a chapter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and an affiliate of the American Humanist Association has launched a campaign to seek inclusion for more than one-fifth of the local population who identify themselves as “nones,” or none of the above, regarding their religion.
The CFFC is contacting over two dozen local councils, boards, and commissions which currently start their meetings with a religious invocation. The goal is to have group members offer a non-religious reflection before meetings which would be inclusive of all citizens, unlike the current practice of prayer which is exclusive of non-believers and divisive among religious people.
David Williamson, of the CFFC, said, “We hoped a majority of Supreme Court Justices would realize that policy designed for state legislatures has no business in city or county meetings which include public participation. But, since they did not, we have to work with decision as is. Our aim is to ensure that non-believers, as well as all other religious minorities, are included. The Greece decision supports our plan perfectly.”
The decision in Greece v. Galloway, which was returned just last week, specifically includes equal access to the invocation as part of its justification for allowing the prayers to continue. It reads, in part, “The town at no point excluded or denied an opportunity to a would-be prayer giver. Its leaders maintained that a minister or layperson of any persuasion, including an atheist, could give the invocation.”
Currently, at least six area county commissions (Orange, Seminole, Osceola, Volusia, Lake, and Brevard) begin meetings with a prayer along with at least thirty city or town councils. Each will be sent a letter requesting inclusion of a secular invocation by a member of the CFFC. School boards will not be contacted since the CFFC and several appeals courts agree that school prayer law already bars such prayer.
Williamson continues: “The Greece decision makes it unlikely that government prayers will cease any time soon. If our local elected officials wish to continue praying before meetings, we expect them to provide an opportunity for a truly unifying message to be shared by one of our organization’s members—a message that embraces all citizens as equal participants in the process of local government.”
An example of the letter can be found at: http://tinyurl.com/cffcwinterparkletter
Legal Complaint: http://ffrf.org/uploads/legal/OCSchools-Distribution-Complaint.pdf
June 13, 2013
Orange County Schools Sued for Double Standard
That Promotes Evangelical Christianity
Orlando, FL—The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) and its local chapter, the Central Florida Freethought Community (CFFC), filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against the Orange County School Board for censorship of their literature distribution on May 2, the National Day of Reason. The CFFC distributed selected items in response to the unfettered distribution of Christian bibles in January by World Changers of Florida (WCF), but the School Board prohibited many of the submitted materials.
WCF is an evangelical Christian organization from Naples which “support[s] the biblical account of creation, including having creation theory taught in our public schools.”
David Williamson, of the CFFC, said, “Since we were unable to prevent the bible distribution in January we expected the School Board would provide us with the equal treatment we deserve. The fact that this was so blatantly denied should alarm all parents and taxpayers in Orange County.”
The School Board heavily censored literature donated by secular organizations including FFRF, American Atheists, Secular Student Alliance, American Humanist Association, and Florida Atheists and Secular Humanists. The Board prohibited the distribution of best-seller Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris, The Truth, by Robert Ingersoll, Why I am Not a Muslim, by Ibn Warraq, Jesus is Dead, by Robert Price, and What on Earth is an Atheist?, by Madalyn Murray O’Hair. Also forbidden were several “nontracts” from FFRF: Dear Believer, An X-Rated Book: Sex & Obscenity in the Bible, Why Jesus?, and What Does the Bible Say About Abortion?
The Board prohibited one book because its message that Jesus was not crucified or resurrected "is age inappropriate for the maturity levels of many of the students in high school.” However, the bible that the school approved for distribution claims that Jesus was crucified and resurrected. "Permitting one viewpoint (the crucifixion and resurrection occurred) and censoring the opposing viewpoint (the crucifixion and resurrection did not occur) is unconstitutional," the complaint states.
The CFFC plans to repeat the distribution annually unless the Board adopts a policy that would stop all distributions by outside groups that are unrelated to the students’ education.
Williamson continues: “The notion of our government promoting one religion over another or preferring religion over non-religion by has been settled long ago in the courts, yet violations continue across the country. This will no longer go unchallenged in Central Florida and we will partner with any organization, secular or faith-based, to prevent this in the future.”
Humanists of Florida Association Newsletter
It is no coincidence that the first Thursday in May is not only the National Day of Prayer, but it is also the National Day of Reason. And what better day to share the value of humanism and rational inquiry with everyone? This year, seventeen volunteers with the Central Florida Freethought Community (CFFC), a local state/church activist group and affiliate of the Humanists of Florida Association (HFA), did just that. They distributed more than 2,000 books, brochures and pamphlets in the same eleven Orange County high schools where fundamentalist Christians distributed Bibles in January. The volunteer team included Dan Barker, Co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) and David Silverman (AA), President of American Atheists.
However, the CFFC, as well as HFA, FFRF, AA, and the event’s other sponsors (Secular Student Alliance, American Humanist Association, and Florida Atheists and Secular Humanists/FLASH) do not want to be in the schools distributing these materials. They all agree that schools should be free from proselytizing by outside groups of any kind (religious and non-religious).
Other than one religious student “Baptizing” the materials with her drinking water and a few schools discarding the materials at some point during the day, there were relatively few challenges during the event. The literature distribution and the Day of Reason Celebration at the First Unitarian Church of Orlando that afternoon were a success. Local TV, radio, and print media coverage was objective and the Interfaith Council of Central Florida event wrote and op-ed piece in support of our efforts to keep religion out of schools.
Unfortunately (or fortunately) several of the materials submitted for distribution were censored. The reasons given for the censorship included claims that the materials would cause a substantial disruption due to the materials’ criticism of religion, questioning the claims of the Bible, and inappropriateness of the material for the age of the students.
It’s a good thing that the organizations involved couldn’t agree more—as long as the Bible is also censored in the exact same way. Perhaps dozens of verses would have to be censored to meet the same criteria we had to meet for our distribution. Stay tuned to this story as we continue to seek a resolution that includes the prohibition of all materials unrelated to education or the direct support the school’s mission—education.
April 30, 2013
Freethinkers Celebrate Day of Reason with
Literature Distribution in Orange County Public Schools
Orange County, FL—Area atheists, agnostics, humanists, skeptics, and other nonbelievers will distribute freethought literature in Orange County High Schools Thursday, May 2, 2013 to celebrate the National Day of Reason. Titles include What is Wrong with the Ten Commandments?, What is an Atheist?, Why Women Need Freedom From Religion, and The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine.
In January, the School Board allowed Christian Bibles to be distributed at eleven Orange County public high schools. Within a week, the Central Florida Freethought Community (CFFC), a chapter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FRRF), submitted materials which are scheduled to be distributed in the same eleven high schools this Thursday.
David Williamson, of the CFFC, said, “We repeatedly explained to the School Board that we wished to prevent religious proselytizing to children in public schools. We prefer that neither bibles, nor our literature is distributed in public schools, unfortunately, the Board is welcoming religious scripture for distribution on campus. Therefore we are obligated to share our own literature and to ensure the campus is truly an open forum for all and not just the privileged majority.”
The School Board censored many of the materials CFFC asked to distribute. Williamson continues, “Since the law requires equal treatment we are concerned that several of our materials have been unconstitutionally censored and we are considering all of our options up to, and including, litigation. Regardless of these concerns we look forward to sharing reason and freethought with the high school students in Orange County.” FFRF Attorney Andrew Seidel is helping with the legal aspects of the distribution and investigating the possibility for litigation.
Books, pamphlets, and brochures were donated by several individuals and freethought organizations including the Freedom From Religion Foundation, American Atheists, the Secular Student Alliance, American Humanist Association, the Florida Atheists and Secular Humanists (FLASH), and the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science.
Several prominent leaders in the secular movement will be available during the day to talk to the media and help distribute materials including Dan Barker, Co-President of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and former evangelical preacher, David Silverman, president of American Atheists, and Teresa MacBain, President of the Humanists of Florida Association and also a former Methodist pastor.
After the distribution, more than a dozen national, state, regional, and local freethought organizations, including local high school and college chapters of the Secular Student Alliance, will celebrate the National Day Reason at the First Unitarian Church of Orlando beginning at 5 PM. (1901 East Robinson Street). First Unitarian is a “freethought-friendly” congregation that welcomes freethinkers into its pews each week.
Humanists of Florida Association Newsletter
Those who remember reciting the original, and rightly indivisible, post-1954 Pledge of Allegiance; you know, the one without the God “clause;” probably also remember when prayer and bible readings were a common part of the public school curriculum. While we are still trying to pry that pesky deity out of the Pledge, the matter of bibles in the schools has long been settled…hasn’t it?
Well, not exactly. It seems that getting bibles out of the hands of teachers during instructional time was only the beginning of the fight. The Gideons have been trying to convert our nation’s youth for many decades. And they’ve often had the blessing of teachers, principals and even school boards to thank for it. This is still going on around the country until parents or administrators learn that they are, in fact, breaking the law by having the kids line up to be handed a copy of the oldest best-seller known to man.
Fortunately, the distribution of religious scripture is prohibited in many jurisdictions due to the hard work of state-church separation activists who have gone before us. Unfortunately, this isn’t in the case in Florida. In fact, courts have decided that so-called “passive” distributions are allowable in public schools if the distribution of other types of non-school-related materials is permitted. Passive simply means that materials are not handed to students and there is no communication with them about the materials. This is where our story begins.
On Monday, January 14th, a member of the Central Florida Freethought Community (CFFC) was watching the local TV news and learned about a bible distribution planned in Orange County High Schools that was to happen on Wednesday that week. The sponsor was World Changers of Florida, a fundamentalist Christian group from Naples, who has stated objectives on their website that include having biblical Creationism, Christian prayer, and bible reading in public schools. Additionally they claim to speak out against “humanistic views contrary to the Biblically based founding fathers’ Constitutional vision.”
Apparently, this would be their second year doing such a distribution in Orange County on National Religious Freedom Day. The member immediately alerted the CFFC, an affiliate organization of HFA and a chapter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF). The distribution was simultaneously reported to FFRF by several members and non-members in the area.
While the World Changers’ political agenda is concerning the most important issues are the group’s intent to indoctrinate public school students and the unequal footing this distribution gives to Christianity above every other religious tradition including non-theism. Public schools should be as secular as any other government agency or activity and should remain neutral on matters of religion—not supporting one religion over another nor supporting religion over non-religion. This is establishment clause 101.
The legal background on this is not as compelling as you might think. In 2010 the World Changers of Florida and their attorneys at the Christian ministry, the Liberty Counsel, obtained a Consent Decree from the Middle District Court in Florida compelling Collier County Schools to allow a bible distribution. This same decree, which cost Collier schools $20,000 in attorney’s fees plus their own legal expenses, was used to intimidate the Orange County School Board and force them to allow a bible distribution even though the decree is not binding on any other school district.
There is hope to be found, however. Schools and other government bodies can remain neutral regarding religion if they avoid “viewpoint discrimination.” This means they cannot discriminate simply because a message is religious. Policies must have wider exclusions that prohibit more organizations and, therefore also prohibit religious ones. This means that more requests to distribute scripture should be expected until school boards decide to set these wider exclusions, a new legal argument can be crafted, or those who bring scripture into schools get tired of their attempts being met by other religions as well as secular organizations.
By the way, student members at three local schools all reported deviations from the passive distribution rules and we are working with the School Board’s General Counsel to address these. Two schools had adults attending the tables and speaking with students and at another school a dry-erase board was placed adjacent to the distribution table for students to answer the question “What is your biggest question about the bible?” (photos provided)
To be sure the media was still paying attention when we joined the conversation, we issued a press release on the same day as the bible distribution. It explained that freethought materials were on their way to Central Florida and permission to distribute in schools had already been granted. As you can see on our public Facebook page (facebook.com/CFLFreethought) the response locally was tremendous. Along with good press from TV, radio, newspaper, and online news sites, the story was most recently featured on the Ask An Atheist podcast and Freethought Radio, the weekly radio program and podcast from FFRF.
Once media interest in the story piqued planning got underway to convince the School Board to prevent future distributions. If that wasn’t possible, then a distribution of our own would be necessary. And to ensure there were enough materials to distribute on short notice we were able to combine materials from FFRF, American Atheists, the Secular Student Alliance and the American Humanist Association. All organizations were eager to help out. They shipped books, brochures, and other materials to help us spread the message of freethought, secular humanism, challenges of the claims of religion, as well as the principle of state-church separation.
The call for volunteers was answered as well. Of the forty people who contacted us to help twenty-five have signed up with Orange County Public Schools as official volunteers. The process of matching those volunteers with the eleven schools where bibles were distributed is underway so we can be ready when a date has been determined. When the time comes, our materials will be placed on tables in common areas with a sign disclaiming the School Board’s support (as with the bibles) and they will be picked up in the afternoon.
During the process of planning the distribution itself we remained hopeful that the School Board would listen to reason. They needed to understand the many problems that are caused by the distribution of ANY religious materials on campus, including the already botched passive distribution mentioned previously. Nearly two weeks after the bible distribution, at a small meeting before the regular bi-monthly meeting we made our case. Then the School Board’s legal team promptly reminded the Board of the Consent Decree and many Board Members cited a need to keep the campuses open for outside groups for various reasons; including many which were unrelated with the passive distribution of literature. In the end, they made it clear they were more concerned about a lawsuit than any concerns the rest of the residents of Orange County might have about religion in schools.
The Board Chairman, Bill Sublette, seemingly agreed with our arguments, yet stated that he “actually wishes a Jewish group would come to us and distribute the Torah and that a group would come and distribute the Koran.” Perhaps the Chairman may have his way soon enough. It is likely that every year on National Religious Freedom Day the Orange County High School “Religion Fair” will attract every religious denomination, sect, and cult to come on campus and spread their particular brand of the “good” word.
One idea worth serious consideration is to ensure that every organization in the country related to humanism, atheism, skepticism, and state-church separation join the party with an individual table of their own alongside the rest. Those of us in the freethought community agree that there should be no “battle” for the souls of our children in public schools. If, however, those in power decide there must be such a battle, then let us also agree that reason and science must be defended. While there will never be clear winners and losers in this fight, non-theistic students must know there is a place for them in our ranks and let’s together welcome them into our community.
January 16, 2013
Local Freethinkers Organize to Distribute
Atheist and Agnostic Literature On Public School Campuses
Orange County, FL—The Central Florida Freethought Community, a chapter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, has obtained consent this week from the Orange County (FL) School Board to distribute materials about atheism, agnosticism, and secular humanism to students in public schools. This permission comes after the School Board allowed a group of Christians to distribute Bibles to students on campus during school hours for Religious Freedom Day on January 16.
David Williamson, of the Central Florida Freethought Community (CFFC), said, “This group of Biblical Literalists has somehow convinced the School Board that our public schools should be a religious battleground of sorts. This is unacceptable to freethinkers and persons of all religious traditions, including many Christians. But because the school board insists on opening the schools up to Christian proselytizers, we think it’s important that students receive materials countering their religious propaganda.”
Books, pamphlets, and brochures from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, American Atheists, and the Secular Student Alliance are on their way today to Central Florida and distribution will begin as soon as the promised written permission is received from the School Board and volunteers are cleared to come on campus. Some items being considered for distribution are “An X-Rated Book: Sex & Obscenity in the Bible,” “Ten Common Myths About Atheists,” as well as literature about starting student led secular organizations on campus and books by atheists Dan Barker and Madalyn Murray O’Hair among others.
“One good schoolmaster is of more use than a hundred priests.”
— Thomas Paine