Monday, April 19, 2010

Secular Humanism Online News -- April, 2010

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Vol.6 No.4, April, 2010

In This Issue:


Humanism Conference Coat-of-Arms LogoDon't Miss the Council’s 30th Year L.A. Conference!

The Council for Secular Humanism has announced the spectacular lineup for its 30th Anniversary Conference. Long in the planning, “Setting the Agenda: Secular Humanism’s Next 30 Years” will feature some of the most impressive names in science promotion and secularism today, including Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Robert Wright, James Randi, P.Z. Myers, Christopher diCarlo, Eugenie Scott, Paul Kurtz, Lawrence Krauss, Chris Mooney, Jennifer Michael Hecht, Victor Stenger, Shadia Drury, Mark Johnson, Barry Kosmin, Ibn Warraq, and many more.

Discounts Available for Early Birds

Starting about May 1, the public at large will be able to register for the conference at regular rates. The Council will have a Web page with online registration and do a national brochure mailing to all FREE INQUIRY and SKEPTICAL INQUIRER subscribers. But there is an early-bird discount for those in the know: advance-registration discounts are available in the April/May FREE INQUIRY magazine to give subscribers and single-issue purchasers a chance to register first at lower rates. Those discounts, however, will be available only through May 15, and only when people register by mail or phone using the form in that issue (now on newsstands).
Voices for Humanism
Apart from the roster of distinguished speakers, the conference will also feature the 15th anniversary celebration banquet for Center for Inquiry/Los Angeles, chaired by CFI/LA director James Underdown, which will include a live restaging of one of Steve Allen’s classic Meeting of Minds PBS episodes, starring Entourage’s Gary Cole as Steve Allen, with Charles Shuaghnessy (The Nanny), Wendie Malick (Just Shoot Me), Robert Forster (Oscar nominee for Jackie Brown) and Dan Lauria (the father in The Wonder Years), who will portray intriguing historical figures live on stage.
The conference will be held in the lavishly restored, exuberantly art-deco Millennium Biltmore Hotel—the site of the Academy Awards ceremonies during the 1930s and 1940s and the on-site movie set of numerous Hollywood films, including Vertigo, Cocoon, and Ghostbusters.

Click here to see the full announcement

African Americans for Humanism to Explore New Directions at Washington, D.C. conference  

The first conference to be devoted exclusively to African Americans for Humanism (AAH), a program of the Council for Secular Humanism, will take place Sunday, May 16, at the Center for Inquiry’s Washington, D.C. office. The theme of the conference is “New Directions for African American Humanism.” It is scheduled to run from noon to 6 p.m.
Speakers will include AAH executive director Norm R. Allen Jr., CFI field organizer Debbie Goddard, freelance journalist Jamila Bey, and columnist Sikivu Hutchinson. Topics will include African American women and humanism, how to attract African Americans to organized humanism, the role of the clergy in the African American community, great African American humanists in history, and other subjects.
Registration is $45 for the general public, $35 for Friends of the Center and AAH members, and $15 for students. For abstracts of scheduled talks and registration information, visit:
This event is co-sponsored by the Center for Inquiry/D.C. and African Americans for Humanism.

Secular Organizations for Sobriety to Hold Festival of Recovery in Celebration of 25 Years  

Secular Organizations for Sobriety, also known as Save Our Selves (SOS) is set to mark 25 years of service this year when it hosts its third-annual Festival of Recovery on April 24, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., at the Center for Inquiry/Los Angeles' Steve Allen Theater.
They do this in the shadow of Alcoholics Anonymous’ 75th anniversary. SOS is the world’s largest non-religious alterative to AA’s traditional “faith based” 12-Step program.
The ecumenical festival will feature all recovery options, including AA, Narcotics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, SOS, Women for Sobriety, SMART Recovery and mental health community recovery groups.
For more information, contact Jim Christopher via e-mail at  sos

Skeptics and Humanists Aid and Relief Effort (SHARE) Receives Notable Coverage in The New York Times

The Center for Inquiry’s charitable arm, Skeptics and Humanists Aid and Relief Effort (SHARE), received a notable mention in an April 2nd New York Times feature piece by distinguished columnist Samuel G. Freedman titled Atheists’ Collection Plate, With Religious Inspiration. (The Center is a supporting organization of the Council for Secular Humanism.)
Sherry Rook, CFI’s vice president of development, was quoted in the story, which detailed the recent efforts of the new “Foundation Beyond Belief,” founded by Dale McGowan.  
The full article is available online here.
SHARE raised more than $100,000 in relief funds following the devastating January 12 Haitian earthquake. The response was immediate, with $47,000 coming in less than 24 hours after announcing the campaign  on January 15.  All donations—100 percent with no operating costs retained—were sent directly to the secular aid group Doctors Without Borders, which suffered the loss of all three of its medical facilities and worked against difficulties to provide the basics of first-aid care and stabilization.
SHARE began as a project of the Council for Secular Humanism in 1989 to provide an alternative for those who wish to contribute to disaster relief efforts without the intermediary of a religious organization. At that time SHARE was called the Secular Humanist Aid and Relief Effort. In early 2010, the SHARE program was transferred to the Center for Inquiry's aegis and renamed Skeptics and Humanists Aid and Relief Effort, still maintaining the acronym SHARE. 

On the Legal Front:

Church-State Struggle Continues to Fester in East Ramapo, New York
By Oscar Cohen
Our school district is in the midst of a church-state First Amendment struggle. The tension is palpable on alternate Wednesday evenings during East Ramapo Central School District’s (ERCSD) board meetings ( where five of the nine school board members, voted into office by the orthodox Jewish community, consistently vote as a bloc to advance the interests of religion-based private schools. Three of the nine Board members, and most of the audience, are residents who have attended and/or whose children attend the public schools; their advocacy for public school education is clear. The bloc of five’s whispering, furtiveness, threats, and refusal to respond to the public’s questions characterize many of the meetings. This is a manifestly unequal tug-of-war concerning the use of public funds for private religious schools versus the use of taxes to support secular public school education.
A major interest of the religious school-associated board members is the referral of parochial special education school children to private religious schools at taxpayer expense. Children with disabilities in the United States are entitled to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE). Only when a school district cannot provide an appropriate special education to a child may the school district consider placing, and paying for, a child to attend a private school. The cost of such private service to the ERCSD can be as much as $70,000/year per student as opposed to approximately $25,000/year in a public school. ERCSD is known to offer excellent special education programs, superior to and less expensive than those in most private schools. There is no apparent educational reason for most children with disabilities in East Ramapo to be sent to private religious schools for such services at taxpayer expense.
Nevertheless, this winter the bloc of five, without prior discussion with the full board, fired the ERCSD district attorney of twenty-five years despite community objections, hiring instead a Long Island based lawyer with a well-documented reputation for placing children with disabilities in private religious schools at public expense. Every request for an explanation for hiring this attorney was met with silence. The new lawyer is charging the district $424,000 more than the previous school attorney, including $200 per meeting for the hundred-mile round trip he must take. The previous attorney worked in the county and did not charge for travel. This kind of decision is affecting students attending public schools in a negative way. For example, with the budget already tight, the district was unable to fund participation in a $300,000 nationally heralded math and science enrichment project for high school students. Thus, an exemplary program serving scores of high school students was in effect exchanged for a lawyer supporting the interests of the private religious schools.
The deliberate referrals of special education children to private religious schools at public expense violate the intent of federal law while contributing to the growing de facto segregation within ERCSD, where most attendees are students of color. The diminution of resources for students attending public schools is reflected by ERCSD graduation rates. Once among the highest achieving districts in Rockland County, ERCSD 2009 high school graduation rate has fallen to 67 percent compared to neighboring districts of Suffern (88 percent), Nyack (84 percent), and Pearl River (94 percent).
East Ramapo’s diversity is its strength. Its schools should serve as a magnet attracting homebuyers, teachers, school administrators, and business leaders. Instead, the contentious school board meetings, which generate undesirable media reports, and the board’s placing children with disabilities in private religious schools despite the existence of exemplary special education services in the East Ramapo public schools, are worrisome. Reducing resources to students in public schools in order to support private religious schools counters the spirit and letter of the law and will continue to undermine the vitality and growth of a diverse and wonderful community. 
CFI Files Amicus Brief with High Court
On Monday, March 15, the Center for Inquiry (CFI) submitted an amicus brief in the U.S. Supreme Court case of Christian Legal Society v. Martinez. CFI argued that religious student organizations do not have the constitutional right to violate public colleges' non-discrimination policies. 
The case concerns a student chapter of the Christian Legal Society (CLS) at the University of California, Hastings College of Law.  CLS sued the school after being denied official recognition and funding because the student group excluded non-Christian, gay and lesbian students, in violation of the school's non-discrimination policy. That policy requires that student groups can receive funding and official recognition only if they are open to all students. CLS maintains that enforcement of this policy interferes with the group’s right to free speech and free exercise of religion.
Read more here.
UN Human Rights Council Passes 'Defamation of Religions' Resolution by Slim Margin
The United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva has yet again passed a resolution, backed by Islamic countries, to suppress criticism of religion in the name of defending human rights. The Council passed a non-binding resolution on March 25 targeting the so-called "defamation of religions," with 20 votes in favor, 17 against, and 8 abstentions.
Read more here.

Office of Public Policy Update

With all the news coming out of Washington the past few weeks regarding health care, it may be hard to imagine that anything else has been happening. Rest assured, though, that the CFI Office of Public Policy (OPP) has been working hard! Here is your March update:
Civic Days Conference Is Almost Here!
Preparations for Civic Days are now in full swing. We have planned many fun and exciting events to compliment our lobby training and events on Capitol Hill. On Sunday evening, April 25, Civic Days participants will have the opportunity to have coffee, dessert, and conversation with Doug Crandall. Doug is currently the director of legislative affairs for the U.S. Forest Service. He has worked in government throughout his distinguished career and will be present to discuss his experience in both the executive and legislative branches of government. He’s also really cool and pours a mean martini…
Another event that we are delighted to highlight is a visit on Sunday afternoon to the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, where our guests will have the opportunity to explore two exhibits on evolution: Since Darwin: The Evolution of Evolution and the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins. These self-guided tours will explore the origins of humankind, from our ancestry and evolution to the key importance of Charles Darwin’s theory in unifying the biological sciences. As we explore the halls of the museum, we will ponder and discover answers to the question “What does it mean to be human?”
In addition to these events, we have also planned for Monday morning, April 26, a tour of Robert Ingersoll’s life in Washington D.C. led by Steve Lowe. On Monday afternoon, we will explore the Capitol Visitor Center. Don’t miss it!
For more information on Civic Days, or to register, please visit our event page at If you have any questions, please contact Matt Separa by e-mail at msepara or by telephone at 202-xxx-xxxx. We hope to see you there!
CFI/Arizona Continues Lobbying Work since AZ Civic Days
OPP Director Toni Van Pelt conducted a Civic Days training in Arizona this February, leading members of CFI/SAZ in their first organized lobbying effort at the state capitol in Phoenix. Since then, the folks in Arizona have continued to lobby the Arizona State Legislature on important issues relating to science and secularism. They are working to form a local coalition to lobby Senator McCain to call for an up or down vote on the nomination of Dawn Johnsen for assistant attorney general in charge of the Office of Legal Counsel. Keep up the great work, CFI/SAZ!
OPP Director Toni Van Pelt Speaks on Science in Public Policy
On March 20, Toni attended and spoke at the 4th annual Darwin Day Science Conference in Indianapolis, Indiana. The conference was cosponsored by CFI/Indiana and the IUPUI Freethinkers and took place at the IUPUI Campus Center. The topic of Toni’s talk was “The Importance of Advocating for Science.” Highlighting CFI’s commitment to science and reason, Toni discussed the alarming frequency with which many Americans—including influential decision makers—fail to understand the nature of scientific inquiry and the integrity of empirical research. She further spoke on how this seeming disdain for science and its methods is aggravated by the excessive influence of religious doctrine on public policy and how the Office of Public Policy works to combat these injustices by advancing science and reason in the nation’s capital.
Repealing 'Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell'
President Obama recently announced that the time has come to finally repeal the discriminatory policy known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which prevents gay, lesbian, and bisexual soldiers from serving openly in our military. The OPP has been hard at work advocating for this repeal. CFI just published a position paper authored by Derek C. Araujo, CFI’s general counsel and director of CFI’s legal department. The paper carefully weighs the arguments for and against repealing DADT and concludes that maintaining the policy has significantly compromised the quality, effectiveness, and readiness of the United States military. The paper, along with all of CFI’s other position papers, is available here. Also, on March 23, OPP Director Toni Van Pelt and Policy Analyst Matt Separa attended a panel discussion at the Center for American Progress on implementing the repeal of DADT. A full round-up is available here.
Join us next month when we will have a full report on Civic Days and other exciting news!

Brookings Guide for Governments and Country’s School Boards Neglects Secularists

A Special Report from the Office of Public Policy
By Toni Van Pelt

The Center for Inquiry Office of Public Policy (OPP) actively monitors and comments on the workings of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships and its President’s Advisory Council and affiliated taskforces. Earlier this year representatives of the OPP attended a Brookings Institution presentation introducing a publication titled Religious Expression in American Public Life. Although Brookings says the document is intended “to provide accessible and useful information for Americans about this area of law,” it may be of more use to religious rather than nonreligious Americans.
According to Brookings, the document discusses current legal protections of religious expression, including issues such as religion and politics; religious gatherings on government property; chaplains in legislative bodies, prisons, and the military; and religion in the workplace. The document also covers the history and future of “common-ground projects in the religious freedom field.”
The Brookings presenters, who were part of a much larger group that drafted the document, were described as a “diverse working group of religious and secular leaders.” They included Melissa Rogers, nonresident senior fellow with the Governance Studies Department at Brookings and director of Wake Forest University School of Divinity Center for Religion and Public Affairs. She spearheaded the production of this document following a conference held five years ago by the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center and the McCormick Freedom Museum. A previous joint statement on religious expression in public schools was distributed to school boards around the country. The current effort, Religious Expression in American Public Life, is being published as a booklet in a question-and-answer format and will be distributed to local governments and school boards nationwide.
OPP’s initial review of the document found bias in the framing of the booklet’s questions. Most questions are couched in language that presumes religious expression is of primary importance. Scant attention is paid to the limits on religious expression imposed by the constitutional separation of church and state, and little or no attention is paid to the rights of nonbelievers. Nowhere does one find a discussion of how nonreligious students are protected by law from religious intrusion in public school. The conclusion of the document states “we agree that current laws protect the rights of people to express their religious convictions and practice their faith on government property and in public life as described here. Thus, we hope this document will help settle the debate whether current law provides any protection for the right of religious expression and practice in these settings (it clearly does).” Again, no concern is expressed for the rights of secularists.
According to Brookings Senior Fellow E.J. Dionne Jr., “the starting point for our dialogue and agreement is our shared conviction that religious liberty or freedom of conscience is a fundamental inalienable right for all people, religious and nonreligious.”
While the Office of Public Policy agrees this should be the starting point, OPP representatives do not believe this sentiment was followed in the development of this document. OPP staff will continue to protect our secular values and our secular democracy, and to monitor and challenge those who favor the religious.

 In the Media:

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The Council for Secular Humanism is committed to free inquiry, reason, and science, the separation of Church and State, civil liberties, nontheism and humanist ethics. It does not endorse candidates or parties, nor does it take political positions as a corporate body. We open our publications to a wide range of opinions, including dissenting viewpoints; opinions expressed in columns and articles do not necessarily represent the views of the Council.

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