BETHEL, CT—Today, the American Atheists Legal Center (AALC) sent a letter to the Town of Bethel, Connecticut, asking the Board of Selectmen to rescind a recent decision permitting a nativity scene to be the only winter display erected in P.T. Barnum Square, a public park in the town. American Atheists asks that the Board of Selectmen instead develop an official winter display policy that is not discriminatory. American Atheists is assisting a Bethel resident who applied for a permit to set up a secular holiday display in P.T. Barnum Square. That application was eventually denied, while a local church was granted permission to display a nativity scene. “Until recently, the Town of Bethel had an open and neutral policy for handling these displays, at least on paper,” said Geoffrey T. Blackwell, Litigation Counsel for the American Atheists. “Now, though, the Board of Selectmen has given an official stamp of approval to the Parks and Recreation Department’s unofficial, discriminatory policy,” he added. “The residents of Bethel are being denied their First Amendment right of free speech if the applicant’s religion is a factor in deciding whether to approve a display on town property.” The minutes of the 6:30 p.m. meeting of the Bethel Board of Selectmen on November 13th show that due to “limited space” in the Square, the Board approved a retroactive motion to allow only one display this season, and that the permit would be granted to “the first completed application they received.” However, more than an hour earlier, at 5:06 p.m. on that same day, the Connecticut Post ran an article about a November 17th ceremony to dedicate a new nativity scene in the Square. The article says that “First Selectman Matt Knickerbocker will speak” and “Father Corey Piccinino from St. Mary’s Church will give a sermon about ‘Keeping Christ in Christmas.’” “It’s clear that the nativity scene was approved well before the board meeting,” Blackwell said. “If the application to install the display had yet to be approved, then the Connecticut Post could not have had those details at the time of publication.” “The holiday season is for everyone, not just Christians,” said Nick Fish, president of American Atheists, “The Constitution is clear that the government cannot use religion to abridge a person’s rights, yet the Town of Bethel appears to be doing just that.” The letter asks the Board of Selectmen to rescind the decision to approve the nativity and deny all other applications, and to utilize the available space in a way that does not unlawfully discriminate against certain residents based on their religious identity. American Atheists is offering to assist the town in developing an equitable policy to govern the installation of temporary displays on town property in the future, along with guidance in developing methods to ensure that the policy is properly applied. ###
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CRANFORD, NJ—During a panel discussion between Iowa candidates for Senate in 2014, Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker explained his preference for federal judges that have a “biblical view of justice” and that he would look for judges who were “people of faith.” He went on to say that if judges have a “secular worldview,” he would be “very concerned about how they judge.” In response to these comments, American Atheists president Nick Fish released the following statement: Matthew Whitaker’s utter disdain for the Constitution should immediately disqualify him from serving in government, never mind as the person entrusted with enforcement of our laws. The Trump administration continues its tradition of finding the most rabidly anti-equality, anti-secularism, anti-LGBTQ, anti-woman supplicant to the Religious Right to install as Attorney General. Jeff Sessions was unquestionably one of the worst Attorneys General our nation has ever seen, and Whitaker will certainly reach or exceed that high bar. Video of Whitaker’s comments was recorded by the watchdog group People for the American Way. ###
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ELKHART, IN—Today, in a letter addressed to Elkhart Community Schools and the Elkhart, Indiana, Police Department, American Atheists demanded that the agencies take action to ensure staff compliance with the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution and the Equal Access Act (EAA). In September, Northern Indiana Atheists, an affiliate of American Atheists, received several reports from community members about a “Meet Me at the Pole” event held at Elkhart Central High School on September 26. According to those reports, the event was led by a uniformed officer assigned by the police department as a “school resource officer.” At least one faculty member also actively participated. Both actions are prohibited by the Establishment Clause and the EAA and are violations of Elkhart Community Schools’ policy. “The law could not be more clear on this issue. Staff members are not permitted to lead or participate in religious activities with students,” said Geoffrey T. Blackwell, litigation counsel for American Atheists. “Parents entrust their children to public schools for their education, not for religious indoctrination.” This is not the first time Elkhart Community Schools has run afoul of the First Amendment and the EAA, which prohibits school officials from interfering with—or showing favoritism toward— non-school-sponsored student groups. In 2013, the Freedom From Religion Foundation contacted the school about a similar incident. “Students have every right to voluntarily engage in prayers or other religious events, either individually or with fellow students, but school officials cannot lead, promote, or participate in those events,” added Blackwell. The letter asks Interim Superintendent Mark T. Mow and Elkhart City Police Chief Ed Windbigler to take steps to educate teachers, resource officers, and other staff about their obligations under the Constitution and the EAA and to ensure that similar incidents do not happen again in the future. You can read the full letter here. ###
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Cranford, NJ—In response to the firing of Attorney General Jeff Sessions by President Trump, American Atheists president Nick Fish released the following statement: Jeff Sessions was a scourge on our nation’s democracy who seemed to relish finding new ways to subvert religious equality; attack the fundamental rights of LGBTQ people and women; and advance the racist, xenophobic, and sexist policies of this administration. Good riddance. ###
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Cranford, NJ—In response to the October 21 New York Times article “‘Transgender’ Could Be Defined Out of Existence Under Trump Administration,” American Atheists president Nick Fish released the following statement: This latest attack on the trans community exposes the deep cruelty and bigotry of the religious extremists who have been installed by the Trump administration at every agency of the federal government. This proposal is nothing but transparent pandering to far-right religious groups who have spent the last decade attacking even basic civil rights protections for LGBTQ Americans. No one should have to worry about losing their job, losing their home, being denied service in a public place, or being harassed because of who they are. The trans community has fought too hard to achieve those basic protections and to advance the cause of inclusive civil rights laws to turn back now. No policy change by this administration can silence the voices of the millions of transgender Americans or stop the march of progress. American Atheists will continue to stand with our trans friends and loved ones as we fight back against these relentless attacks on their very existence. Science, medicine, morality, common decency, and the law are on all our side. We will do everything in our power to elevate the voices and experiences of all trans atheists, and indeed all trans people, in public discourse to ensure that this administration’s galling attempts to define millions of Americans out of existence will not succeed.
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