Thursday, October 7, 2010

Religion and suicide - a patchy global picture

Government Unconstitutionally Forced Idaho Inmate To Participate In Religion, Americans United Tells Court

Posted: 06 Oct 2010 06:41 PM PDT

Government may not force Americans to participate in religious indoctrination and courts must not interpret the Constitution in ways that allow such coercion, according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

In a friend-of-the-court brief filed today, Americans United told a federal appeals court that an Idaho inmate was unfairly treated by a local judge and an Idaho homeless shelter that tried to force her to convert to Christianity and participate in Pentecostal worship.

Janene Cowles was given the choice of participating in a “discipleship/recovery” program at the Boise Rescue Mission or continuing to serve a one-year sentence in the Ada County Jail on a drug conviction. Cowles enrolled in the program, but was kicked out — and returned to jail — when she failed to convert to Christianity.

“This is just plain wrong,”said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. “When the courts and religious groups join forces to indoctrinate Americans in a particular faith, they have gone too far. The Constitution does not allow this kind of government-assisted religious coercion.”

Cowles and the Intermountain Fair Housing Council sued the mission for religious discrimination. But a U.S. district court held that the mission’s ejection of Cowles from its residence is protected under the First Amendment’s free exercise of religion. The court said the federal Fair Housing Act, therefore, cannot be applied to the mission.

In its brief with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Americans United said the district court was wrong. The Free Exercise Clause does not generally exempt religious groups from neutral, generally applicable laws such as the Fair Housing Act.

Furthermore, when religious groups work closely with the government in a “symbiotic relationship,” AU continued, they cannot claim exemption from laws and constitutional safeguards that protect Americans from coerced religion.

“By [the mission’s] own admission,” AU asserted, “the Discipleship Program depends heavily upon the State for participants and, in return, provides the State with a free residential program. Accordingly, [the mission] functions as a state actor – and must comply with constitutional guarantees – at least insofar as it houses court-mandated attendees.”

The Americans United brief in Intermountain Fair Housing Council v. Boise Rescue Mission Ministries was written by AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan and Washington, D.C., attorneys Clifford M. Sloan, Jennifer Mullin and Ray D. McKenzie.

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Religion and suicide – a patchy global picture

Posted: 06 Oct 2010 04:48 PM PDT

The previous post took a look at suicides in Switzerland, with a new study showing that, although the non-religious have a higher suicide rate than the religious, that seems to be largely down to assisted dying.

Switzerland is not like most other countries, however, which is where a new study, from an international team lead by Merike Sisak at the Estonian-Swedish Mental Health and Suicidology Institute, comes in. They looked at data from a major new WHO initiative, SUPRE-MISS. The main objective of this study is to understand the factors that contribute to suicide in different countries, and what can be done to reduce them.

In each country, people who have attempted suicide are brought into the study and given a questionnaire to fill out. Another group of people, randomly chosen, are given the same questionnaire. That allows the team to compare religious affiliation, involvement in organised religion, and individual religiosity in suicide attempters and the general population.

When they looked at the data, and adjusted them for a host of factors known to affect suicide risk (age, gender, marital status, employment, and education), a complex picture emerged.

In Iran, religion was highly protective, whether religion was measured as the rate of mosque attendance or as whether the individual thought of themselves as a religious person.

In Brazil, going to religious services and personal religiosity were both highly protective. Bizarrely, however, religious affiliation was not. That might be because being Protestant was linked to greater risk, and Catholicism to lower risk. Put the two together, and it may balance out.

In Estonia, suicides were lower in those who were affiliated to a religion, and those who said they were religious. They were also a bit lower in those who

In India, there wasn’t much effect of religion at all – a bit lower in those who go to religious services at least occasionally.

Vietnam was similar. Those who went to religious services yearly were less likely to have attempted suicide, but no other measure of religion had any effect.

In Sri Lanka, going to religious services had no protective effect, but subjective religiosity did.

In South Africa, those who go to Church were no less likely to attempt suicide. In fact, those who said they were religious were actually nearly three times more likely to attempt suicide, and those who were affiliated to a religion were an incredible six times more likely!

These are very large differences. In Brazil, religious people are six times less likely to commit suicide than the non religious. In South Africa, they are three times more likely. How to explain these national differences?

Part of it might be differences in the predominant religion. The protective effect of religion seems to be higher in monotheistic countries, and it’s particularly high in the most fervently monotheistic country, Iran. In India, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam, the protective effect is smaller or non-existent.

But that doesn’t explain South Africa. South Africa is unusual in that it is a highly diverse country, fractured by ethnic, social and religious boundaries. The researchers think that this might be a factor:

South Africa has been described as ‘‘The Rainbow Nation’’ because of its cultural diversity. There are a variety of ethnic groups and a greater variety of cultures within each of these groups. While cultural diversity is seen as a national asset, the interaction of cultures results in the blurring of cultural norms and boundaries at the individual, family and cultural group levels. Subsequently, there is a large diversity of religious denominations and this does not seem favorable in terms of providing protection against attempted suicide.

They point out that earlier studies have shown that religious homogeneity is linked to lower suicide rates, and they suggest that the reverse might well be happening in South Africa.

In fact, this also could explain why, in Brazil, Protestants have a higher suicide rate than the unaffiliated. That too could be linked to their status as a religious minority.

So once again we’ve got a study showing the double-edged nature of religion. For those inside the group, it provides support and comfort. But once fractures appear, religion just seems to turn up the heat!

ResearchBlogging.orgSisask, M., Varnik, A., Kolves, K., Bertolote, J., Bolhari, J., Botega, N., Fleischmann, A., Vijayakumar, L., & Wasserman, D. (2010). Is Religiosity a Protective Factor Against Attempted Suicide: A Cross-Cultural Case-Control Study Archives of Suicide Research, 14 (1), 44-55 DOI: 10.1080/13811110903479052

Creative Commons LicenseThis article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

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Poll: Tea Partiers aren’t libertarian but Religious Right

Posted: 06 Oct 2010 02:06 PM PDT

Since its inception, we’ve heard many times that the Tea Party is not just about being “Taxed Enough Already”, but about liberty, freedom, and the American Way. Many Tea Partiers have attempted to paint the movement as libertarian. A new poll of Tea Partiers contradicts this image, describing instead a socially-conservative movement dominated by the Religious Right.

The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) conducts its American Values Survey (AVS) every two years. This public opinion survey, conducted as Americans gear up for the national election season, surveys American attitudes on religion, values, and politics.

The results from self-identified Tea Partiers reinforced much of the common wisdom about the Tea Party. Compared to the general
population, they are more likely to be non-Hispanic white; are more supportive of small government; are overwhelmingly supportive of Sarah Palin; and are much more likely to report that Fox News is
their most trusted source of news about politics and current events. However, when it comes to religion and social issues, the results contradict the libertarian image that organizers want to project and that members themselves often believe.

§ 81% identify as Christian; of these, 57% consider themselves part of the Christian Conservative movement.

§ Of all Tea Partiers, 47% identify as part of the Christian Conservative movement.

§ 63% believe abortion should be illegal in all, or nearly all, cases.

§ 82% oppose gay/lesbian marriage.

§ 76% are Republican partisans, with 48% identifying with and 28% leaning toward the Republican party.

If this is what the Tea Party supports, we should not be surprised that the Tea Party supports radical Religious Right candidates like Sharron Angle, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Christine O’Donnell.

Tea Partiers presently comprise 11% of the American population — half the numbers of the Christian Conservative movement, and there is significant overlap between the two. Does this mean they can be safely ignored?

We can infer from these results and from the candidates chosen for support that the Religious Right is influencing, if not wholly steering, the Tea Party. However, only slightly less than half of the Tea Party rank-and-file identify as Christian Conservatives.

Through the Tea Party, the Christian Conservative movement gains for its chosen candidates the support of about 6% of the population (just over half of the Tea Party’s 11% of the population) that they may not have otherwise had. 6% is more than enough to swing many races. Further, Tea Partiers are motivated to vote in this election, while Democrats in particular are not. It is reasonable to expect a higher voter turnout from the Tea Party, helping lift the Religious Right’s candidates into office.

Results of the 2010 American Values Survey are based on telephone interviews conducted by Public Religion Research Institute among a national random sample of 3,013 adults (age 18 and older) between September 1 and September 14, 2010. You can read the full report and questionnaire here.

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The Date: 10/6/10 Atheist Cartoon

Posted: 06 Oct 2010 11:47 AM PDT

Baptist leader denounces pulpit politics

Posted: 06 Oct 2010 11:43 AM PDT

The effort to recruit pastors to endorse political candidates from the pulpit on Sept. 26 is a misguided idea and a brazen attempt to blend the worship of God with electoral politics, said a Baptist leader, constitutional scholar and church-state expert.

J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, said the Alliance Defense Fund’s plan to provoke investigations of these houses of worship by the Internal Revenue Service could risk the tax-exempt status of the churches. ADF lawyers would then challenge the investigations in court.

Walker says “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” is a misnomer because pulpits already are free in this country. He calls the idea “misguided” because it is unnecessary, divisive and corrosive.

“Pulpit Freedom Sunday is entirely unnecessary. Preachers are perfectly free to interpret and apply scripture as they see fit, speak out on the great moral and ethical issues of the day, and urge good citizenship practices, such as registering to vote and voting,” Walker said. “The only thing they can’t do — in exchange for the most favored tax exempt status — is to tell the faithful how to vote.

“In every church I know of, it would be like setting off a bomb shell in the sanctuary for the preacher to tell the congregants how to pull the lever in the voting booth,” Walker said. “It would be incredibly corrosive of the church’s true mission to spread the gospel and be salt and light in the culture. As soon as the church throws in with a particular candidate or party, its prophetic edge is blunted. You can’t raise a prophet’s fist at a candidate or party when, with the other arm, you are locked in a tight bear hug. “

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More churches openly violate IRS rules for tax exemption

Posted: 06 Oct 2010 12:01 AM PDT

Click for larger version. Image:

A growing number of churches are thumbing their noses at federal law and diving into the political arena . . . putting their 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status at risk.

According to the I.R.S.’s rules and regulations, a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization (which includes churches) may not “influence legislation as a substantial part of its activities and it may not participate in any campaign activity for or against political candidates.” It’s simply part of the deal that in order to exist without paying taxes, certain types of political action are off-limits.

It’s rare, but the I.R.S. can revoke a group’s tax-exempt status if they violate the rules and did so for the first time in 1995. In the last few years, more and more churches, however, are crossing the line on purpose.

An Oklahoma church pastor is openly endorsing political candidates and proudly proclaims the I.R.S. is doing nothing to stop him. If they do, he vows to fight “all the way to the Supreme Court.”

In Iowa, a church is getting attention because its leader is openly trying to get rid of three of the state’s Supreme Court justices. “In fact, I hope the IRS tries to do something about it,” Rev. Cary Gordon, associate pastor with Cornerstone World Outreach said. “I think that the current IRS code is a violation of the First Amendment.”

Earlier this year, American United for Separation of Church and State (AU) asked the I.R.S. to investigate Dove World Outreach Center, the church which has since become famous for the threat to burn Korans last month. The church put up a sign that stated “No Homo Mayor” in reference to Craig Lowe, a gay candidate for mayor of Gainesville, Fla.

AU has also asked the I.R.S. to investigate a South Dakota church when a pastor there endorsed a candidate for governor. Rev. H. Wayne Williams, pastor of Liberty Baptist Tabernacle in Sioux City, S.D., reportedly endorsed Gordon Howie, a Republican who was looking for his party’s nomination for governor.

There are groups asking for the revocation of the tax-exempt status of the Mormon Church, based largely on their push to get a constitutional amendment passed in California banning same-sex marriage. One blogger pushing for the I.R.S. to step in, sympathetic to the church, wrote: “I have never harbored ill will toward the Church, but I am deeply troubled at how the Church’s efforts were likely the deciding factor in California’s recent vote to take away the right to marry from same-sex couples.”

And, of course, the extremely nutty Westboro Baptist Church has a Facebook page devoted to revoking their tax-exempt status.

It seems that many churches are openly violating the law and the I.R.S. is sitting around letting it happen. It is unclear why nothing is being done, but this can’t go on for long. The I.R.S. will have to do something at some point. Hopefully, they’ll charge a whole group of churches at the same time in order to show the serious nature of the problem.

If churches want to legally engage in politics they can easily do so. They just need to give up their tax-exempt status and pray for more money to make up the difference. If prayer works, as they assert, it shouldn’t be a problem.

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CFI Announces Video Contest Winners

Posted: 05 Oct 2010 11:04 PM PDT

The Center for Inquiry (CFI) is pleased to announce that

Gregory Walsh
and John Schmid of Maryland are the Grand Prize winners of its Campaign for Free Expression Video Contest, which asked contestants to submit short videos in the form of a public service announcement that addresses the importance of free expression.

The Grand Prize provides Messrs. Walsh and Schmid with a cash award of $2000.

In the Cards

The entry Mr. Walsh and Mr. Schmid submitted was: ”In the Cards .”

Regarding their entry, CFI president & CEO Ronald A. Lindsay observes, “This entry, by concisely and memorably illustrating the wide diversity of views protected by our right to free speech, forcefully conveys the importance of free expression.”

In addition to the Grand Prize winner, there were two other winners. Second-place and an award of $1000 went to Reilly Donovan of Washington for his video ”The Loud Silence .”

Third-place and an award of $500 went to Mia Holley of New Jersey for her video “PSA Freedom of Speech .”

The Campaign for Free Expression is an initiative by CFI to emphasize the critical importance of free expression. During the campaign, CFI has drawn attention to efforts to suppress free speech both in the United States and elsewhere. It has also sponsored several contests, including a blasphemous phrase contest, an essay contest, and a cartoon contest.

The winners of the video contest are being announced on International Blasphemy Rights Day, which is sponsored by CFI. Through International Blasphemy Rights Day, CFI underscores its position that religious beliefs should be subject to examination and criticism, just like any other belief.

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Americans United Urges Texas State School Board To Reject Resolution On ‘Pro-Islamic/Anti-Christian’ Bias

Posted: 05 Oct 2010 08:00 PM PDT

Americans United for Separation of Church and State today urged the Texas State Board of Education to reject a resolution that criticizes publishers for allegedly promoting “pro-Islamic/anti-Christian bias” in world history textbooks.

The resolution, put forward by an ultra-conservative faction on the board, vows to reject textbooks that “offend Texas law with respect to treatment of the world’s major religious groups by significant inequalities of coverage space-wise and/or by demonizing or lionizing one or more of them over others.” It warns that discriminatory treatment of religion may increase “as Middle Easterners buy into the U.S. public school textbook oligopoly.”

Advocates of civil rights and civil liberties said the measure is based on faulty and misleading analysis and is merely the latest attempt by right-wing board members to politicize public education in Texas.

 “This clearly is just an attempt to add fuel to the anti-Islam rhetoric currently circulating around the country,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. “The right-wing faction on the board needs to recognize that it is their duty to make the best decisions for students, not to push a political agenda.

“Once again, the Texas school system is being turned into a culture-war battleground,” Lynn continued. “When will these board members drop the political stunts and focus on improving education?”

In a letter today, Americans United called on the board to shelve the resolution.
The letter, drafted by AU State Legislative Counsel Dena S. Sher, urged the board to oppose the resolution because it is based on dubious analysis, focuses on out-of-date textbooks and “undermines core democratic values of inclusion and respect for all religions.”

“We urge the Board to oppose this harmful resolution,” wrote Sher.  “Although the purported goal of balanced treatment of religion is commendable, the resolution actually achieves the opposite result – it has the effect of disparaging Islam. The Board should focus on giving Texas school children the best education possible and not stir up fear and intolerance.”

The resolution has been placed on the agenda for the board meeting being held today and tomorrow in Austin. Americans United’s Austin Chapter President Brian Spears plans to provide testimony opposing the measure.

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Army Must Cancel Evangelistic Event At Fort Bragg, Says Americans United

Posted: 05 Oct 2010 07:55 PM PDT

An evangelistic rally jointly sponsored by U.S. military personnel and evangelical Christian churches and ministries violates the U.S. Constitution and must be cancelled, says Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

The “Rock the Fort” event at Fort Bragg this weekend targets both military personnel and adults and children in the surrounding community for conversion to Christianity. This clearly violates the separation of church and state, attorneys with Americans United informed Army officials in a letter today.

“It’s not the Army’s job to convert Americans to Christianity,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “This event is totally unacceptable and must be canceled.

“It is particularly shocking that the military would join forces with Franklin Graham,” Lynn continued. “Graham has expressed utter contempt for Islam, Hinduism and other faiths. When our military joins hands with him, it sends exactly the wrong message to the world. Our military defends a nation that includes people of many different faiths and some who follow no faith at all.”

“Rock the Fort” is being sponsored by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) in conjunction with Fort Bragg chaplains and local churches. The current CEO of the Graham Association is Franklin Graham.

In addition to evangelizing soldiers, officials at Fort Bragg have invited members of the surrounding community to attend the Sept. 25 event, which will feature Christian music and sermonizing. Special emphasis will be placed on evangelizing children.

The Graham Web site contains a quote from Fort Bragg Chaplain Antonio McElroy who said, “I think we are trailblazing here in many ways. I don’t think there has been an outside concert of this magnitude with an organization like BGEA and our chaplains partnering with local churches to come together for one purpose – and that is to glorify God and share the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

The Graham site also tells partnering churches, “The Rock the Fort outreach is designed to channel new believers into your church, so you can encourage them to further spiritual growth. The future of the church lies in reaching and discipling the next generation.”

On June 2, a letter from the chaplain’s office at Fort Bragg was issued to local churches. The letter, signed by Chaplain David Hillis, urges clergy to take part in the event and notes that it will take “the Christian message to all of Fort Bragg and the surrounding community!” The letter goes on to state that the event is “evangelistic in nature” and that it “will conclude with a clear Gospel message.”

It is unclear how many churches received this letter, but given its evangelistic tone, it’s unlikely it was sent to any churches outside of the evangelical Christian tradition.

“The Army has no business entering into a partnership with evangelical churches to help them win new members,” Lynn said. “I urge Army officials to stop this event and make sure no more take place. In addition, the military must end its relationship with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.”

In today’s AU letter to Secretary of the Army John McHugh, Americans United Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan wrote, “The military’s participation in a religious event designed to proselytize soldiers and the community departs of the Army’s obligation to maintain ‘official religious neutrality.’

“’Rock the Fort’ is not an event designed to minister to the needs of soldiers unable to otherwise access religious services; rather, it is an event designed to proselytize soldiers and community members into the worship of Jesus Christ,” Khan continued. “The Army has, thus, overstepped the constitutional line by sponsoring the event.”

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.

Help us to keep the wall of separation strong. Donate today.

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God Bless America to honor the troops??!!

Posted: 05 Oct 2010 07:45 PM PDT

A few months ago, there was a discussion on the blog pertaining to a disturbing trend taking place at major sporting events, during which spectators are expected to stand for the singing of God Bless America. I believe then, the general consensus was that we should take our stand by not standing up for this song.  I agreed with this consensus because I refuse to be bullied into participating in a clearly religious practice during a supposedly secular activity.

However, yesterday I encountered a new twist on this practice.  I was attending the last regular season Rangers baseball came in Arlington, TX when an announcement was made that spectators needed to stand for the playing of God Bless America to HONOR OUR TROOPS!  So now, by not standing, I would be disrespecting our troops.  Since I didn’t spend 23 years in uniform, including service in Iraq and Afghanistan, to be accused of disrespecting the troops, this left me with a dilemma.  Do I stand by my principles and refuse to accord this religious activity any significance and thereby fail to honor our troops or do I stand to honor our troops and sacrifice a core belief on the alter of majority-rules religion?

Here’s what I did.  I bought a beer from a vendor just as the song started playing and I sat there and sipped my beer while everyone else around me stood.  I honored the troops in my own way, by rendering them a toast.  I am pretty certain I was the only person sitting down in section 30 of Rangers ballpark while God Bless America was played and I wouldn’t be surprised if I was the only person in the ballpark who remained sitting (this is Texas, after all).  Afterwards, I endured a lot of dirty looks and a very nice elderly woman, who was sitting next to me and who I’d been chatting with during the game, moved to an empty seat in order to avoid having to sit next to me for the rest of the game.

It was a great day for a baseball game and I had been enjoying myself up until that moment. It was wrong for the officials at the Rangers ball park to force the spectators into participating in a religious ritual, and it was even more wrong to think playing this song in any way honors our troops.  I think the whole “honor our troops” angle is just a sneaky way to encourage blind compliance and participation and it sucks to be put into that position against my will.  Plus, it was extremely uncomfortable to sit there and endure all that hostility after the song. What if there had been some nut-ball nearby who took it personally enough to say or do something to me?  I was there with my elderly and disabled parents plus my fiance and his young daughter, and it could have easily turned into a situation that endangered their safety and well-being.  I wouldn’t have knowingly endangered their safety for anything, but I only had a few seconds to decide if I was going to comply or not and didn’t become fully aware of the hostility being sent in my direction until it was already done.

Thoughts?  Anything I could have or should have done differently?  In my capacity as American Atheists vice president and military director, I’m working on a letter of complaint on American Atheists letterhead to send to the Rangers Ballpark (assuming our president and legal director concur, which I think they will) but I am interested in any other suggestions and/or comments.

Kathleen Johnson

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