FFRF Mockery Prompts Candidate to Action in Illinois

The Freedom From Religion Foundation continues to promote peace of the season by mocking religion — all in the name of freedom of speech. That’s their argument after a candidate for public office in Illinois tried to remove the customary atheist rant from right in front of the Christmas tree at the state capitol a day before Christmas.

Conservative activist and Illinois comptroller candidate William J. Kelly was escorted from the Illinois State Capitol building Wednesday when he tried to remove a sign put up by an atheist group. Kelly announced Tuesday that he planned to take down the sign put up by the Freedom from Religion Foundation, and on Wednesday, he tried to make good on his plan.

But Kelly said when he turned the sign around so it was face down, state Capitol police were quick to escort him away.

Illinois Secretary of State’s office spokeswoman Henry Haupt said Kelly was escorted from the rotunda by state Capitol police, who briefly detained him, wrote an incident report, and directed him to leave the building.

“It doesn’t matter how we feel about the message on a display,” Haupt said. “Our obligation is to protect the property within the state Capitol building, and we would do the same for any other display.”

But Kelly called the sign “hate speech,” and said he does not believe it is appropriate for a sign that “mocks” religion to be placed next to a Christmas tree and also near a nativity scene.

“I don’t think the State of Illinois has any business denigrating or mocking any religion,” Kelly said, “and I think that’s what the verbiage on the sign was doing.”

The sign reads: “At the time of the winter solstice, let reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is just myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.”

The sign was also on display at the Capitol at this time last year. The group says it filed for a permit to post the display in response to the state’s decision to put up the nativity.

But Kelly said he believes the problem is not only the verbiage of the sign, but also its proximity to the Christmas tree.

“The fact that sign was immediately in front of the tree, I found that to be disturbing because any family and any child would run up to that tree with a smile on their face, and they would immediately see that sign,” Kelly said.

Haupt said Kelly had been advised not to return to the state Capitol for the rest of the day on Wednesday.

The Madison, Wis.-based Freedom from Religion Foundation has placed the sign in several state Capitol buildings across the country.

As to Kelly’s claims that the sign mocks religion, foundation co-President Dan Barker said: “He’s kind of right, because the last couple of sentences do criticize religion, and of course, the beginning is a celebration of the winter solstice. But that kind of speech is protected as well – speech that is critical and speech that is supportive.”

The foundation does not approve of the nativity scene, Barker said.

“We atheists believe that the nativity scene is mocking humanity,” by suggesting that those who do not believe in Jesus will go to hell, Barker said. “But notice that we are not defacing or stealing nativity scenes because we disagree with their speech.”

Signs in other states have been targets of vandals, Barker said.

In Wisconsin, someone threw acid on it one year, and some people turned it around and hid it in the back rooms of the state Capitol, and in Washington state, someone walked it out of the Capitol and threw it away, Barker said. The Washington state sign was later found in a ditch near a country radio station and returned to the capitol in Olympia.

This is the second year the Freedom from Religion sign has been at the Illinois State Capitol.

Haupt said in addition to the sign, the Nativity Scene and the Christmas tree, there is also a Soldiers’ Angels wreath, and a tabletop display from the American Civil Liberties Union that says the group “defends freedom of religion.” A Hanukkah menorah had also been on display until the Jewish Festival of Lights ended on Saturday.

For the second year in a row, the Capitol also has an aluminum Festivus pole commemorating the fictional holiday created in “Seinfeld.”

Athiest Complaint Leads to Removal of Angels, Stars from Christmas Trees

There’s no place for angels atop Christmas trees, according to one California man who successfully lobbied for the removal of religious symbols at county buildings after spotting a yuletide decoration last week.

Stars and other religious emblems were ordered removed from Christmas trees in all government buildings in Sonoma County on Monday following a complaint by Irv Sutley, a disabled 65-year-old Marine veteran who said the symbols were “extremely offensive” and part of the “cult” of Christianity.

“I just don’t believe government has the right to intrude on anyone and force them into sectarian behavior,” Sutley told FoxNews.com. “I’ve opposed Buddhist statues, the star of David — anything of a religious nature.”

Sutley said he filed the complaint with acting County Administrator Chris Thomas on Dec. 18 after noticing an angel atop a six-foot tree in the lobby of the county recorder’s office. Sutley, a lifelong atheist and chairman of the county’s Peace and Freedom Party, said he visited the office last week for his re-election bid next June.

Sutley said the angel violated previous court rulings concerning holiday displays, including a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found that government-sponsored Christmas trees decorated with religious symbols constitute an illegal endorsement of Christian doctrine.

Sutley said he was pleased with a subsequent e-mail sent by Thomas to managers of all 26 county departments instructing them to remove religious symbols like angels and stars from holiday displays.

Jim Toomey, a public information officer for Sonoma County, confirmed the removal.

“To avoid any controversy and to satisfy this gentleman’s concerns, the ornaments were removed,” said Toomey, adding that he knew of no prior complaints concerning the holiday display.

Sutley, of Santa Rosa, said he’s pleased with Thomas’ directive, but said his work might not yet be done. The veteran previously led successful efforts to stop prayers at government meetings in nearby cities and forced Rohnert Park to redesign its city emblem due to religious symbols.

He now intends to ask county officials to remove a steel cross near Ernie Smith Park in Sonoma that serves as a memorial to an accident victim.

“It was put up privately without a permit,” Sutley said. “It shouldn’t be there.”

US Government Uses Joseph and Mary Imaging to Promote Census

PH2009121501980A poster showing Mary and Joseph heading to Bethlehem for a census and the birth of Jesus is raising eyebrows among some evangelicals, who consider it an inappropriate use of Christian symbolism for the headcount the government will conduct next year.

The posters, created by the National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO), have been distributed to more than 7,000 churches in an effort to raise awareness of the census among Hispanics. Most were printed in Spanish.

Luke 2:1-4 says Jesus was born during a census ordered by Caesar Augustus. Although historians question the accuracy of the account, Luke stated that everyone had to return to his ancestral town to be registered for taxes and that Joseph and Mary left Nazareth for Bethlehem.

The NALEO poster depicts that journey with an outline of Joseph leading Mary, on a mule, down a hill in the direction of a large star. “This is how Jesus was born,” the poster says. “Joseph and Mary participated in the census.” In smaller letters to the side, it adds, “Don’t be afraid.”

The posters were dreamed up by NALEO, one of 136,000 “partners” to the U.S. Census Bureau. The volunteer organizations are helping spread the message that the census is important, easy and safe. NALEO has been at the forefront of a national coalition of Latino groups promoting the census.

Arturo Vargas, executive director of NALEO’s educational fund, said the poster is timed for the Christmas season. Vargas said the posters “are being well received by the congregations that we’re working with, and they’re reminding people of the Gospel story of how Jesus was born.”

The poster has widened a fault line between Hispanics who are encouraging participation in the census and those who are urging a boycott to protest lack of progress in immigration reform.

The Rev. Miguel Rivera, a boycott leader who heads the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders, criticized the poster during his Tuesday morning radio show, which is broadcast in 11 states.

“The Bible establishes clearly that we are not supposed to use the name or God or Jesus in vain for any other purposes than worshiping,” Rivera said. “The census would never do the same thing using the name of Muhammad during Ramadan.”

The Rev. Luis Cortes Jr., the head of the church network Esperanza and a co-sponsor of the poster, accused Rivera of condemning the poster to draw attention to his call for a boycott.

“It is a biblical fact that the mother and father of Jesus Christ responded to the census of their day,” he said.

Biblical scholars had mixed reactions to the poster.

Obery Hendricks Jr., a professor at New York Theological Seminary and author of “The Politics of Jesus,” said the poster shows a lack of respect for Jesus.

“It cheapens Jesus and oversimplifies everything,” he said. “Why don’t they say his parents were forced to go to the census, forced to go away from their land for oppressive purposes? It take things out of context and makes it Pollyanna, all is calm, all is bright, when he was born in a time of terrible tumult.”

Marcus Borg, a historical Jesus scholar at Oregon State University, said the narrative of Jesus’s birth is often used for secular purposes

“Take Christmas cards, if they say, ‘Peace on Earth,’ and don’t say anything specifically Christian,” he said. “I can’t imagine why anyone would take issue with the poster on grounds of irreverence or blasphemy.”

The Census Bureau is trying to stay above the fray.

“We work with people from all walks of life to get an accurate count, but we do not provide funding to partner organizations and play no role in the creation of material by private community groups,” said Nick Kimball, a spokesman for the Commerce Department, which oversees the Census Bureau, reading a written statement.

Idaho Charter School Students Can’t Say Christmas at Talent Show

A Garden City (Idaho) public charter school director asked students singing in a school talent show to replace the word “Christmas” with “holiday” because of the scrutiny Nampa Classical Academy has garnered regarding the use of religious texts in the classroom.

Media attention over the lawsuit Nampa Classical Academy has brought against the Idaho Public Charter School Commission and other state officials so it can use religious texts as part of an objective curriculum “put(s) negative pressure on all charters and we are being closely monitored right now to see if there’s anything the media can find that can be misconstrued as using peoples’ tax dollars to teach religion incorrectly,” Garden City Community School director Cindy Hoovel said in a memo on the school’s Web site. “Therefore, the decision was made to be extremely careful with this issue.”

Hoovel acknowledged the decision may have been “a bit overboard” but said she felt frustrated because the arts-based charter school is getting positive press coverage and she didn’t want to take any chance that her school would get lumped into the church and state issue.

“If you called any school, traditional or charter, every single administrator has to face how they are going to handle this time of year,” Hoovel told the Idaho Press-Tribune. “I do think it’s made administrators have to go overboard on being political correct.”

Seventh- and eighth-graders sponsored the talent show and gave Hoovel a list of the songs and acts to be performed the day before the show. Hoovel noticed several songs were about Christmas. The student wanted to perform a song by “Alvin and the Chipmunks” that included the word Christmas.

“I didn’t want their little hearts broken by not participating, so we compromised to change the word ‘Christmas’ to ‘holiday’ so they could still sing their songs. I was just being careful,” Hoovel said. “I’m hired to uphold educational law, not necessarily my personal opinion,” she added.

The decision got attention and Hoovel said the school has received many phone calls. She said listening to the feedback has been interesting and that the issue of separation of church and state in public schools needs to be examined by the public, schools and legislators.

Tamara Baysinger, charter schools program manager of the Idaho Public Charter School Commission, declined to comment on the talent show controversy because the commission has not taken a position on that issue and was not involved in Hoovel’s decision to replace the word Christmas with “holiday.” The use of the word Christmas is unrelated to the commission’s position on the use of religious texts in public school classrooms, according to the commission’s Web site. The commission was advised in an attorney general’s opinion that religious texts may not be used in public school classrooms, including public charter school classrooms, for any purpose.

In response to the controversy, Nampa Classical Academy board of directors vice-chairman Michael Moffett told the Press-Tribune, “It is extremely disappointing and sad that someone responsible for teaching children does not understand what the so-called ‘separation of church and state’ is and not willing to stand up for our American rights. Administrators don’t have to be ‘ridiculously correct.’ They need to stand up for what is right.”

Moffet continued, “At Nampa Classical Academy, we boldly exercise our American right to recognize Christmas while respecting other belief systems and will not violate our students’ right to celebrate our Western traditions. It is clear the Public Charter School Commission is and has created a chilling effect resulting in the muting of the childrens’ voices.”

Jail Inmates Forced to Listen to Sheriff’s Christmas Music

Sheriff Joe Arpaio – the self-proclaimed “toughest sheriff” in America – likes Christmas music, especially “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and anything by Alvin and the Chipmunks, and apparently he thinks the 8,000 inmates inside his Phoenix jail should, too.

So it was with some glee that his Maricopa County office announced Thursday in a red-and-green press release that the “sixth and perhaps final lawsuit” brought by inmates to stop the sheriff from playing the holiday songs all day, every day, during the holidays had been dismissed in federal court.

“We keep winning these lawsuits. Inmates should stop acting like the Grinch who stole Christmas and give up wasting the court’s time with such frivolous assertions,” it read. “But chances are they’ll keep suing and we’ll keep winning.”

The latest lawsuit was filed by inmate William Lamb, who said that being forced to listen to the Christmas songs 12 hours a day was a violation of his civil and religious rights. But U.S. District Judge Roz Silver disagreed, dismissing the case and denying Lamb’s claim for $250,000 in damages.

Sheriff Arpaio catapulted to national attention when he cracked down on the thousands of illegal immigrants who swarm daily through his county; put inmates in pink jumpsuits and underwear; worked them in chain gangs; housed them in tents in the Arizona desert and fed them bologna sandwiches.

He said that his Christmas selections were multi-ethnic and culturally diverse, from all faiths and ethnicities. He told The Washington Times earlier this year that in addition to tunes by Alvin and the Chipmunks, the music included the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Bing Crosby and Doctor Demento.

At the time, he said “all people everywhere deserve a little Christmas cheer.”

Lt. Brian Lee, the sheriff’s spokesman, said the court issued a summary judgment upholding the decision to “inject the holiday spirit into the lives of those incarcerated over the holiday season in the third-largest jail system in the U.S.”

He said inmates have sued six times claiming the music was in violation of their religious rights or cruel and unusual punishment, but the court disagreed – finding no evidence of fact, so Sheriff Arpaio was entitled to the judgment as a matter of law.

The sheriff is no stranger to controversy, although his philosophy of “zero tolerance towards the criminal element” has been embraced by his deputies and the community alike. He was first elected in 1996 and was re-elected by double-digit margins in 2000, 2004 and 2008. In 2007 a petition to recall him failed to gain enough voter signatures to get on the ballot.

Most recently he has come to the attention of the federal government. He was notified in March by the Justice Department that he may have unfairly targeted Hispanics and Spanish-speaking people for arrest. In October, the Department of Homeland Security revoked the authority of 160 of his federally trained deputies to make immigration arrests in the field.

The sheriff has denied any wrongdoing and has said he welcomed and would cooperate in any investigation of his office. He has continued to arrest illegal immigrants under recently passed state laws.

Tired of waiting for the federal government to secure the U.S.-Mexico border and concerned about the potential terrorism threat that the lack of border security posed, he assigned deputies in 2006 to monitor his 9,226-square-mile county for illegal immigrants. He targeted the illegals under an anti-smuggling law that state lawmakers passed to fight drug trafficking.

“My message is clear: If you come here and I catch you, you’re going straight to jail,” he said at the time. “We’re going to arrest any illegal who violates this new law, and I’m not going to turn these people over to federal authorities so they can have a free ride back to Mexico. I’ll give them a free ride to my jail.”

Sheriff Arpaio, 77, captured headlines nationwide when he set up a jail system that included tents, spent less than 15 cents per meal per inmate, and banned smoking, coffee, movies, pornographic magazines and unrestricted television in all of his jails. He also assigned both men and women to chain gangs.

The sheriff also has created several rehabilitative programs, including “Hard Knocks High,” the only accredited high school program administered by a sheriff’s office in a U.S. jail.

More recently he has been mentioned as a possible candidate for governor, with polls showing that he has a commanding lead as a Republican candidate for the November 2010 race.

A November poll by Rasmussen Reports said that of 1,200 likely Arizona voters, he was the Republicans’ “best shot at holding onto the Arizona governorship in 2010.” The poll said Sheriff Arpaio led the expected Democratic challenger, Terry Goddard, Arizona’s attorney general, by 12 points and that 64 percent of voters statewide said he was doing the right thing by working around federal law to continue his aggressive actions against illegal immigration.

Lt. Lee said his boss had received “multiple inquiries locally and nationally” about the latest Rasmussen poll, but had made no decision regarding the governor’s race.