Thursday, June 28, 2012

Another letter...

I thoroughly applaud your group's urging of the city to remove the cross. I hope you will start organizing people to put up other symbols on the city land. Starting with a pentagram, I think, would get the point across! 

Good luck to you, hope they city realizes how wrong they are!

A Letter on the Cross in Providence

In response to our letter to Mayor Taveras requesting the removal of an unconstitutional cross on city property, we received the following letter from a sixteen year old. I have withheld the name out of respect for her age.

Dear “Humanists,”
Humanism was defined during the Humanism Movement of Renaissance and in today’s society is defined as “a philosophy that usually rejects supernaturalism and stresses an individual's dignity and worth and capacity for self-realization through reason” (Merriam-Webster dictionary). Humanists support the welfare of humanity. They do not protest and cause a big fuss just because they don’t like how something looks. Humanism is based off of science. You are not using science, you are just whining.
Atheism is the disbelief in a higher power. Only sixteen percent of the entire world is atheist. Take it from a sixteen year old girl who’s been told this multiple times: the world does not revolve around you. To be honest, there is no need for anyone to be offended by a cross or a sign with the word “God” on it. Let me ask you a few questions:
Do people preach at you when you wear atheist symbols? No.
Was this country established because people wanted to be free of religious persecution? Yes.
Is anyone persecuting you because you don’t believe in God? No.
Are these historic statues and signs that you want to take down preaching at you? Not at all.
Let’s be real here. Stop making a fuss and please, just let things be. There is no reason a town should have to remove a historical symbol for you just because it says God on it. The symbol is not telling you that you have to believe in a higher power, it’s simply there because it has always been there.
I’m only sixteen and I’m done listening to this religious war you are trying to start in the United States. And YES, Atheism is a religion whether you would like to admit it or not.
Now, I’m not trying to stir up things. I’m just saying that before you start screaming, again, for people to take things down because they offend you, consider the other people involved. Consider why these things that so terribly offend you were put up and who they are really for.
That banner that you humanists made a school take down was not put up to offend you. It was assembled to symbolize the first graduating class of that school. It again, has nothing to do with you and everything to do with the Cranston High School class of 1963.
What about those veterans that the cross was put up to celebrate them? That cross has nothing to do with you. It’s meant for those veterans, the majority who are religious.
It is one’s choice to practice a religion during adulthood.
Please explain to me how a cross or a banner is hurting anyone.
Thank You,
Name withheld by editor
Humanism is defined in many different ways. Though the definition you provided is fine, I don't think anyone would be satisfied by being limited to the dictionary definition of their beliefs. Can you imagine what would be missing if we limited Judaism or Buddhism to just what is in the dictionary? Entire libraries of books are dedicated to explaining peoples beliefs. A couple of lines from a dictionary could never do them justice.

Humanists do support the well being of humanity, and one of the many ways our group tries to do this is by supporting our Constitutions First Amendment. We believe that religious liberty is of primary importance, and we also believe that the government's role in religion is to have no government role in religion. Allowing religious displays on state owned land mixes church and state, shows favoritism to one particular religion, and makes those that do not believe in that religion feel diminished.

I'm going to assume all the questions you asked and answered are rhetorical, and correct one thing you said. "There is no reason a town should have to remove a historical symbol for you just because it says God on it." The cross in Providence is not historical, in went up within the last couple of months, and was put up in response to the situation in Woonsocket. This is a recent addition to a well maintained median, and really has no place there.

Also, though this has been said many times, atheism is not a religion. It's the absence of religion. Like "off" is a TV channel, or "bald" is a hair color. It should also be noted that we, as a group, don't "whine" or "shout." We explain our position as articulately as we are able, and we ask that the Constitution and the laws of our land be applied fairly.

I appreciate you letter.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A Cross in Providence...

In Rhode Island, there's a cross on public land. It's not the one in Woonsocket, it's the one in Providence, on a city owned median strip located at about 14 Pleasant Valley Parkway near the Coca-Cola plant.

The Humanists of Rhode Island sent a letter to Providence Mayor Angel Tavares, asking that the cross be removed, as the presence of a cross on public property violates the First Amendment. Certainly there is no secular purpose for this cross, as is argued in the case of the cross in Woonsocket. No veterans are being honored at this site, the cross exists purely to evangelize Christianity.

Here is the text of the letter sent to Angel Tavares:
Dear Mayor Tavares,

I am writing on behalf of our group, Humanists of Rhode Island, because we assume you are unaware about a cross on publicly owned land in Providence Rhode Island. The cross is located on what we believe to be a city owned median strip located at about 14 Pleasant Valley Parkway near the Coca-Cola plant. I am not of the impression that this cross was erected by anyone acting on the behalf of the City of Providence, or that the cross in any way serves as a marker for an accident victim. This seems to be the construction of a private citizen using public lands to create a permanent fixture for the purpose of proselytizing, and as such is in violation of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, which neatly and essentially separates church and state.

I have enclosed several pictures of the cross in question.

Because the United States Constitution requires government to treat all religious viewpoints equally, failure to remove the cross indicates that the City of Providence intends to administer this median as a limited public forum whereby all religiously themed groups will have equal space and access. Should the cross not be removed, Humanists of Rhode Island plans to erect an icon of similar size and visibility on the median, and will vigorously defend other religious groups who wish to do the same.

Naturally, the City will be responsible for ensuring a fair and equal distribution of land area so that no one religion dominates, and for investigating and prosecuting any instances of vandalism that may hinder the free speech and free exercise rights of unpopular religious groups.

However, this solution is not our preference.

We respectfully ask that this cross be removed from public land. We do so as a local group, without the involvement of the ACLU, or the Freedom from Religion Foundation, or any other national group because we feel that as Rhode Islanders that we can deal with this matter “in house” as it were. We do not see the need for making a gigantic case out of this issue. The cross in question was not erected years ago, is not a tribute to fallen soldiers, and is not sanctioned by the city. The removal of this cross should really be no big deal.

Thank you for your attention to this matter and we eagerly await your response,
Steve Ahlquist
President, Humanists of Rhode Island
Here are some additional photos of the cross in question:

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Chafee urged to veto monument bill: Article in today's ProJo

Humanists of Rhode Island got some coverage in today's Providence Journal in a story about the so-called Monument Bill, and our call, along with the ACLU, for Governor Chafee to veto it.

You can read the story here:

Here's the part particular to our group:
Steve Ahlquist, president of the Humanists of Rhode Island, a group that advocated for removing the prayer mural at Cranston High School West’s auditorium earlier this year, added that the bill might have unexpected consequences.

“First, no law enacted at the state level can override our federal, constitutionally protected rights,” he said. “Second, merely declaring that a monument is secular doesn’t make it so any more than declaring a cat is now a cow allows one to milk it.”

Monday, June 18, 2012

Christine Eldridge: Beware psychics' assertions

On June 11, 2011, the Providence Journal ran a very credulous piece on a Psychic Fair in East Providence put on by the First Spiritualist Church of Rhode Island. In response, Christine Eldridge wrote the following letter to the editor:
The very credulous reporting of the local psychic fair, "Good Vibrations:Meeting of the minds at psychic fair" (June 11, news), is irresponsible, potentially dangerous and a disservice to your readers.

There is no scientific evidence of the existence of psychic ability. While it may seem as if the "reader" has uncanny knowledge, it is actually a technique called "cold reading''. Additionally, there is confirmation bias: People tend to remember the "hits" and forget the "misses," especially if they go into a reading wanting to believe.

Far from being lighthearted fun, as the mood of the article suggests, belief in psychics can be very harmful. Psychic scam artists deliberately take advantage of people mourning the loss of a loved one, offering false hope, often at great cost. People have suffered devastating financial losses, and even neglected seeking real medical treatment, resulting in grave illness or death, on the advice of psychics.

Please use critical thinking when reporting on extraordinary claims.

Christine Eldridge
East Providence 
The writer is vice president of Humanists of Rhode Island.
Among the replies to Christine's letter (which only appeared in the online version of the Providence Journal, as nearly as I can tell) was this one from Nathan Horodysky, Secretary of the First Spiritualist Church of Rhode Island:
Hi Christine,

Critical thinking is indeed important which is why before writing this article the reporter attended the event and wrote about the atmosphere he experienced. I would invite you to do the same. Since opening our Spiritualist Church a year ago we have had many people come through the doors and had their lives changed for the better. Did you know that everyone is actually psychic and can connect with the other side if they are open and unafraid? I would love to have you come and attend our church so that we can help you to do the same. I applaud that the Humanists support religious freedom, it is so important to allow everyone to find their own spiritual path. It is also important that in supporting the First Amendment that we do not belittle other people's beliefs. Therefore before attacking the Journal for posting an article I ask you to do your own research and please come down and check out our church. Introduce yourself and we will see that you get a chance to experience a reading for yourself. We welcome you and your beliefs with open arms.

Nathan Horodysky
Secretary, First Spiritualist Church of Rhode Island
I bolded two lines from Nathan's response because I thought they deserved special attention. Both of the lines selected make the kind of extraordinary claims Christine warned about in her letter. I would like to point out that Christine never belittled any person's beliefs. She merely pointed out the lack of evidence supporting psychic powers, and pointed out the many ways in which people have been injured because of their willingness to accept the claims of psychics.

Looking at the website of the First Spiritualist Church of Rhode Island was a little worrying. Christine, in her letter, wrote, "People have... neglected seeking real medical treatment, resulting in grave illness or death, on the advice of psychics." Looking at the site, I see advertised, for donations of $7 or $10, a twice monthly "Holistic Cancer Circle" and a monthly "Evening of Healing." I can only hope the church is not helping people neglect real treatment in favor of feelgood mumbo-jumbo.

Friday, June 15, 2012

A Letter to Governor Chafee

Governor Chafee,

The bill being presented to you for your signature, H8143 seeks to make an end run around the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The bill seeks to establish a means by which any public monument can be classified as secular despite any religious meaning or significance that might be attached to it.

I understand that this bill is seeking to protect historical monuments, and specifically the cross currently at issue in Woonsocket, from those who value the separation of church and state, but the bill fails on at least three grounds. First, no law enacted at the state level can override our Federal, constitutionally protected rights. Second, merely declaring that a monument is secular doesn't make it so any more than declaring a cat is now a cow allows one to milk it. Third, poorly thought out bills, such as H8143, may be pleasing to some constituents, but crowd pleasing bills, passed in the heat of the moment, often have unexpected and counter productive consequences.

On behalf of myself and the group I represent, I urge you to veto this bill, fully understanding how politically difficult this might be.


Steve Ahlquist
Humanists of Rhode Island

Monday, June 11, 2012

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Countering the Lies About Religious Freedom in Newport

Suzanne Kane
Across the United States, around noon on Friday June 8th, rallies were held in over 160 cities to oppose President Obama's HHS mandate requiring all employers to "provide free contraceptives, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs through their health plans." Given that reproductive rights are central to any kind of real health care plan, opposition to such a scheme can only be coming from the hard line anti-abortion religious right. And a quick look at the "blogroll" on the national organization's website quickly confirms this.

In Rhode Island, the event took place in Eisenhower Park in Newport. Organized by Suzanne Kane, the youth pastor of the Lifepath Church of Middletown, RI, the local rally had four adult and two high school aged speakers and lasted about an hour. You can read an interview with Suzanne Kane at about her motivations for holding the rally and some of the details about how she organized it. I tried to be very fair in my interview and gave her plenty of opportunity to express her opinion.

Ten members of the Humanists of Rhode Island showed up to counter protest the rally. We did so with some trepidation, because in interviewing Suzanne Kane, I was informed that the organizers of this event with primarily teens from LPY4life (Lifepath Youth for Life), a youth run pro-life ministry, and I had no desire to protest a youth run and youth attended event. Still, I was not completely convinced by Suzanne's explanation, because she seemed very involved with organizing the rally, and indeed, hen I got there, my suspicions were confirmed. Only two students spoke, no more than five or six students were present, and Suzanne Kane was in charge of the rally and the vast majority of the 85 or so people who showed up to hear the speakers were over the age of fifty.

When our group showed up (five of us drove down from the Providence area and five of us were more local) we were immediately confronted by Suzanne, who asked if we were there to protest the event. I informed her that we were, but that e intended to be very polite, we had no interest in disrupting her rally. We were there to hand out informational fliers and to observe and video the proceedings. She claimed that her permit for the park gave her exclusive use of the park and that we had no right to hold up signs or to speak out during their speeches. This was a curious thing for Suzanne to have said, because in my interview with her I asked:
How many people do you expect to attend this rally, and was any special permitting required by the City of Newport?
 and she answered:
We should expect about 200 people and did not have to have a special permit.
Okay, so maybe she got a regular old permit, not a special one, but my understanding was that no permit was needed, asked for or procured by the rally organizers.

So I set up my camera and stood quietly recording the show while the other members of the group handed out fliers to passers by explaining what REAL religious freedom is. What the controversy over the HHS mandate boils down to is that Catholics, Evangelicals and others across the country want to be able to opt out of the health care system because they are opposed to birth control in all its forms, up to and including abortion. They see freedom of religion and conscience as the freedom to dictate to the government what kind of laws they should and should not pass. This is not freedom, this is theocracy.

Freedom of religion means completely separating church and state, or to paraphrase Jesus, "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and render unto God what is God's." Those speaking at this rally have no real understanding of the importance of this principle, or about the solid legal precedents that have established this principle as one of the bedrocks of our nation.

I f those speaking at the rally had just stayed on the message of theocracy over democracy, it would have been bad enough. But speaker Joe Burke went way off into the weeds with a conspiracy laden rant about Hollywood being controlled by anti-Christian, anti-Jewish "progressive secularists." You can see this part of his speech at the sixteen minute mark in the YouTube video below. The classic crank conspiracist trope of Hollywood being controlled by Jews has been converted into Hollywood being controlled by "progressive secularists" (read this as atheists and humanists). This is not only nutty, it's bigotry, plain and simple.

Later, at about 24 minutes,  speaker named Cathy talks about microchips being forcibly injected to every human o hat the government can keep track of them. And the science is only two week away This idea is expressed without irony, but with extreme paranoia. At 35 minutes, Cathy's mother runs up and starts chastising the people who did not attend the rally, for not showing up. That's right: She was yelling at people who were not there.

Filled with lies, hate, fear and bigotry, the Rally for Religious Freedom exemplified Orwellian Newspeak at its worst. The United States does not need this kind of reactionary political pandering, and when it occurs, it should be opposed, politely and with actual facts.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Stand Up for REAL Religious Freedom


The Humanists of Rhode Island fully support the First Amendment right of religious freedom. Such freedom to worship or not worship, according to one’s beliefs, is guaranteed only by complete separation of church and state.
The "Stand Up for Religious Freedom Rally" is not about religious freedom, however it is about the Catholic Church and other religious groups forcing it's religious doctrine on the American people, and in so doing they are reversing needed health care reforms and turning the clock back on women's health care.
The fact that some religious hospitals and universities have already found ways to accommodate new women’s health care requirements under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act shows that the arguments being put forth by organizations such as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops are about politics, not religious freedom. Georgetown University, DePaul University in Chicago, Boston College, and other Catholic universities, already have insurance programs in place that meet the requirements laid out by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
Steps HHS has already taken to balance women’s health care needs with the rights of church-affiliated organizations have satisfied the Catholic Health Association, which made the following statements in a February 10, 2012 press release:

“We are pleased and grateful that the religious liberty and conscience protection needs of so many ministries that serve our country were appreciated enough that an early resolution of this issue was accomplished… The Catholic Health Association remains committed to working with the Administration and others to fully implement the Affordable Care Act to extend comprehensive and quality health care to many who suffer today from the lack of it.”

The attack on the Affordable Care Act by the Catholic bishops and other conservative organizations is at odds with the desires of the very population they are supposed to represent. As the National Catholic Reporter wrote in February, 2012:
“According to a Feb. 7 report from the Public Religion Research Institute, about 6-in-10 Catholics (58 percent) believe that employers should be required to provide their employees with health care plans that cover contraception… A majority of Catholics (52 percent) say that religiously affiliated colleges and hospitals should have to provide coverage that includes contraception.”
The Reporter also notes that, “Numerous polls show that sexually active Catholics use or have used contraception, perhaps as many as 98 percent.”
In heavily Catholic Rhode Island, a Brown University public opinion survey reported in the Providence Journal shows that, “More than half of Rhode Island voters support President Obama's contraception policy… The poll found that 56.3 percent of those surveyed support the president's revised policy, which requires insurers to offer contraceptive services directly if religious institutions object.”
It is time the Catholic bishops join the American people in recognizing that religious institutions willing to work creatively can balance their religious convictions with the need to ensure that women’s health needs are adequately met. 
Note: You can access the other side of this argument over at Caution Church Ahead. The rally, and a small counter-protest, will take place in Eisenhower Park in Newport Rhode Island at 12 noon on Friday, June 8, 2012.