News Archive

Since December 26, all of us have been bombarded by news and pictures of one of the worst natural disasters in modern history. The death toll from the Boxing Day tsunami continues to rise, and aid organizations are scrambling to get resources into place for what will be a prolonged and expensive recovery effort.

Austin atheists are pitching in to help. 

ACA's Tsunami Relief fund drive began at the January 2nd meeting at Cresent City, and will run until February 10th, ACA's birthday. 100% of the money collected will delivered to Oxfam, a highly respected relief organization.

Those wishing to contribute may do so by seeing treasurer Don Rhoades at an ACA meeting, through PayPal (http://www.atheist-community.org/donate.php), or by sending a check or money order to -

ACA PO Box 3798 Austin, TX 78764

Please indicate that your donation is for Tsunami Relief.

Over the past few years, Mynga Futrell and Paul Geisert, with the assistance of such prominent thinkers as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, have been calling on atheists to identify themselves as brights, but it never has caught on nearly as much as its proponents had hoped. But in just the past few weeks, another term has achieved far more popular circulation, "the reality-based community."

In his article, "Without a Doubt," published last month, author Ron Suskind brought the term into print, perhaps for the first time. He attributes it to an unnamed senior presidential adviser, who defines it as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." Recalling his conversation with the aide, Suskind writes, "I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism."

The first week in November has been a less than encouraging time for that community.

In the presidential election, a few atheists found valid reasons for preferring the current incumbent to any of his challengers (the Democratic candidate as well as several third-party and independent alternatives), but many secular people and even some religious moderates have been concerned about what George W. Bush alternately has done and has promised to do in order to court religious fundamentalists in this country--deferring to religious strictures against stem-cell research, reproductive access, and equal rights for sexual minorities, and also providing direct federal assistance to religious groups. None of the above has been particularly heartening for people who believe in scientific research, advances in health and medicine, personal liberty, or the very wall of separation between religion and state. In a statement released Wednesday, November 3, Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, is quoted as saying, "The Religious Right is already crowing about providing Bush's margin of victory. The movement's leaders expect to be handsomely rewarded for that. The culture war may go nuclear."

Beyond the incumbent securing another four years in office, eleven states featured ballot initiatives that asked voters to deny same-sex couples the right to marry; on Tuesday, November 2, the initiatives passed in eleven states. Since the Massachusetts Supreme Court protected that right late last year in its state, a debate about same-sex marriage rights has raged on across the nation. In late September, the leadership of the US House of Representatives tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to block its legality anywhere in the country by asking its members to vote on a constitutional amendment, which the president openly supported. And back in February, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom briefly sanctioned civil marriages between same-sex couples in his city, until they were stopped and invalidated by the state of California. After Newsom made his bold move, the Board of Directors of the Atheist Community of Austin weighed in on the issue with a resolution in March, announcing its opposition to applying religious strictures to what is legally a secular institution.

Across the nation, the latest victories by religious fundamentalists seemed complete by Wednesday, November 3, but in Texas, the struggle continued through Friday.

A final vote on high-school health textbooks by the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) still was scheduled for Friday, November 5. The proposed textbooks have been controversial because of their failure to provide medically accurate information about contraception.

The Texas State Board earlier held two public hearings on the textbooks. Health educators and medical experts, who oppose the textbooks, came out in full force for the hearing on July 14. Fundamentalist Christian groups, who support the textbooks in the name of "abstinence before marriage," dominated the hearing on September 8. While other textbooks also were being considered this year, the two hearings focused solely on the proposed health textbooks for high-school students.rnrnConsequently, the Texas State Board's initial meeting on Thursday, November 4, took an unexpected turn when SBOE member Terri Leo of District 6, arguably the member most aligned with the Christian right here in Texas, expressed contention with health textbooks proposed for students in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades. She faulted one textbook series for failing to include gender-specific language when discussing sexual attraction and asked that revisions specify that such attraction is explicitly and exclusively for the opposite sex. In the process, she referred to the lack of specific gender references as "asexual stealth phrases." She claimed to make her objections on the basis of Texas law, specifically the state's Defense of Marriage Act, which denies same-sex couples the right to marry (although it says nothing about the right to desire). After Leo voiced her objections, Don McLeroy of District 9 asked that the publishers refer explicitly to "husband and wife" when discussing marriage instead of "partners." He tried to justify his recommendation by pointing out the initiatives against equal marriage rights for same-sex couples that had been passed by voters in eleven states two days earlier. By Friday, November 5, publishers had agreed to include definitions of marriage as between a man and a woman in addition to using the phrase "husbands and wives" instead of "partners" when referring to spouses. Yet Mary Helen Berlanga of District 2 expressed reservations about these revisions, saying that the Texas State Board's political interference set a very bad precedent. Her colleague David Bradley of District 7, another supporter of the religious right, had made motions to pass all the textbooks, except for the high-school textbooks, with all the latest revisions to which the publishers had agreed, but Berlanga offered substitute motions to approve the books without those revisions. However, Berlanga only picked up the support of three of her colleagues, Renee Nunez of District 1, Joe J. Bernal of District 3, and Mavis B. Knight of District 13. Those four are the only Democrats currently serving on this elected body in a state where the Republican party effectively has been taken over by Christian fundamentalists. After Berlanga's substitute motions failed, Bradley's won decisively.

Then the Texas State Board finally voted on the high-school health textbooks, which were approved thirteen to one. Knight provided the sole dissenting vote.rnrnIn a press conference immediately afterwards, Samantha Smoot, executive director of the Texas Freedom Network, told reporters, "This is a sad day for Texas teens. Four million teenagers will rely on these textbooks for information that is accurate and up-to-date. Instead of doing the responsible thing and providing high school students with life-saving information about sex and health, the State Board of Education has left them to fend for themselves and get information from each other and sources like the internet and MTV."

Randall Ellis, executive director of the Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas, also was there to comment on the Texas State Board's dogged insistence on exclusively heterosexual terms for describing relationships. He suggested that the publishers' compromises result in textbooks that will be alienating to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered youth.

In any event, the issue of separation between religion and state remains underacknowledged in mainstream political discourse, and the extent of its stakes often has been minimized. Ironically, the only group that comes close to appreciating its full implications are the country's religious fundamentalists, who choose to oppose it. Where does that leave the rest of us?

In televised debates, the president's Democratic challenger, US Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, said that he would not want to impose his own Catholic faith on other citizens, including "atheists," an explicit reference to nontheistic Americans by a national politician that is shocking because it is so seldom made. But on Wednesday, November 3, the Senator ended his concession speech with what he described as a prayer: "God Bless America."

On Sunday, November 7, at 11:30 am, the Freethinkers Association of Central Texas (FACT), based in San Antonio, is inviting the public to the city of Comfort for the Third Anniversary Freethinker Cenotaph Commemorative Ceremony of the German Freethinkers, who founded the town in 1854. 

Participants are to meet in front of the Ingenhuett General Store, 830-834 High Street, again in Comfort, Texas. 

Following the program, lunch will be served at Double D Biergarten's Patio at 1004 Front Street. The buffet costs $7.95.

Convening the weekend of Friday, October 8, through Sunday, October 10, the 2004 Texas Atheist and Agnostic Conference, hosted by the Atheist Community of Austin at the Holiday Inn-Town Lake, was widely viewed by attendees as a rousing success. As the highlight of the event, Michael Newdow detailed his experiences challenging the "Under God" addition to the Pledge of Allegiance in his keynote address in an emotionally engaging, fast-paced rapid-fire style laced with jokes and even songs, some of which are also available at his website. After having his challenge to the Pledge of Allegiance denied by the US Supreme Court for reasons of standing, Newdow now plans to represent other families making the same challenge in every Federal Circuit Court in the nation.

Earlier on Saturday, Newdow had appeared as a guest on Jeff Dee, Russell Glasser and Dennis Loubet’s internet-audio show The Non-Prophets, along with several other conference speakers. The internet-audio show team combined interviews with news and technical information on how to produce a show like theirs in front of a studio audience. 

On Sunday morning, local attorney Thomas Van Orden indicated that the US Supreme Court’s certiori decision on his suit challenging the Ten Commandments monument on the Texas Capitol grounds in Austin would be available Tuesday morning at the Supreme Court's website. Should cert be granted, Van Orden expects to win 6-3.

The Atheist Community of Austin gave donations to both Newdow and Van Orden to help them continue their state-church separation efforts. 

Envisioned as an annual working conference to leverage the experience of different Texas groups in support of each other’s growth, attendees to this year’s gathering learned details of website development, internet-audio show production, and public-access television-show creation. They also heard experiences from each other’s groups as well as listened to informative and often entertaining presentations. At a meeting Saturday night, it was decided to return to Austin for next year’s conference. This year was its first annual.

On 91.7 FM and also live on the web, KOOP Radio featured attorney Michael Newdow, best known for the Pledge case that went to the US Supreme Court, in an interview with Allan Campbell, Tuesday, October 5, from 2 to 3 pm.

Campbell's weekly radio program, El Gringo Show, addresses the concerns of a diverse, interdependent people under siege by war, empire, patriarchy, race and class hierarchy, heterosexism, and religious extremism. News stories on his program ypically alternate with music, which, in the tradition of such filmmakers as Kenneth Anger and Michael Moore, usually amplifies the issues being covered in both expected and unexpected ways. The songs featured during the October 5th episode were Les McCann and Eddie Harris' "Compared to What," Bruce Springsteen's rendition of "This Land Is Your Land" (written by Woody Guthrie as an answer to Irving Berlin's "God Bless America"), John Lennon's "God," and, inevitably, Funkadelic's "One Nation Under Groove," which concluded the hour.

In addition to being a programmer of record at the radio station, Allan Campbell is also a member of the Atheist Community of Austin, where he currently is serving his second term on its Board of Directors. On June 18 of thisyear, he and another member, Don Baker, addressed the public on behalf of ACA as guests of another KOOP Radio program, Outspoken, hosted by Lonny Stern, regularly heard Friday evenings from 6 to 7. Since late September, both El Gringo Show and Outspoken have been underwritten by ACA as part of its broader outreach to city residents. Long a practicing Doctor of Medicine, Mike Newdow is also an atheist father with a law degree, which he now has put into use to challenge the monotheistic reference in the Pledge of Allegiance. On June 26, 2002, US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit made a decision in his favor, but after agreeing to hear the case, the US Supreme Court overturned the Ninth Circuit's decision on June 14 of this year. Five of the eight Justices (John Paul Stevens, Anthony Kennedy, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer) did so on the grounds that he lacked standing due to an ongoing custody dispute; the other three (William Rehmquist, Sandra Day O'Connor, and Clarence Thomas) said that he had standing but that the monotheistic reference is constitutional. The ninth Justice, Antonin Scalia, had recused himself from the case. Allan Campbell spoke with Mike Newdow by telephone, just days before the Texas Atheist and Agnostic Conference, where the justifiably famous attorney was the featured keynote speaker. Campbell suggested to Newdow that five of the eight Justices may have been showing tacit respect for his arguments about the current Pledge's violation of the First Amendment by ruling against him on standing alone.

Newdow responded, "With regard to standing, it was rather ironic that Justice Stevens, for instance--who had previously written how the Court shouldn't use standing to get out of deciding important issues--wrote the opinion that, in fact, was just that; and, contrarily, that Justices Thomas and O'Connor and Chief Justice Rehmquist--the ones who generally are rather parsimonious with standing--were the ones who said, Yeah, he does have standing in this case. It was odd. I think it showed that the Court is comprised of individuals who--all of them--want to reach the results they want to reach, [and] will do so with whatever means they have."

Campbell then asked the attorney why he pursued this particular issue.

Newdow answered, "Well, it actually started off with 'In God We Trust' on the coins and currency. I felt that was clearly unconstitutional, but as I did the research, my daughter was about to enter kindergarten, and I didn't want her having to say the Pledge in school, and it turns out to be a much stronger case, because in 1954 Congress passed a law that did nothing but take a Pledge which already existed, which was secular, and put in the two purely religious words, 'Under God.' And by all the Supreme Court precedent, that's clearly unconstitutional."rn rnCampbell brought up Austin's contradictory status as a fairly enlightened city in the Bible Belt, a place where cars bear competing fish symbols, Christian and defiantly secular. He asked Newdow, who lives in northern California, what responses he has been receiving from everyday people outside the Bible Belt.rn rn"I'm sure I get a very skewed sample, 'cause most people who disagree with me, I assume, don't want to come up and talk with me. But the people who do come, almost ninety-plus percent, are supportive and agree and say, We hope you win, and stuff like that. So, I don't know if I can give a really good sample. I'm sure I can't. From what all the polls say, ninety-plus percent of the population is against me on this. But that, I think, is also interesting, 'cause I don't think they ever ask the proper question. They say, Do you want God in the Pledge? And they say, Yeah. And I think they ought to ask the question--these pollsters should say, Do you want government to get involved with religious questions? And I think we'd probably find a strong majority saying no. And that's the issue here. It's not whether or not God is or isn't in our government. It's whether government is taking any position, one way or the other. I'd be just as much opposed to having a Pledge saying, One Nation That Denies the Existence of God. That too is just as wrong."

When asked about his future plans, Newdow revealed that he would be bringing the challenge again on behalf of various families, hopefully in all eleven circuit courts. "The case is overwhelmingly on my side. The facts, the principles, the ideals are all for me. There is no reason I should lose this case. The arguments against it are completely bogus. And everybody knows that. It's just whether a three-judge panel will say what is quite obvious to everybody. And if they do, it will get back to the Supreme Court."

Purely as an autobiographical anecdote, Campbell described what he personally observed at the Travis County Democratic Convention in late March, not long after Newdow delivered his oral argument before the Court. Local leaders pointedly led delegates in the Pledge, many of whom rebelled, either pausing during the "Under God" part or going straight into "Indivisible." Newdow was awfully surprised, until Campbell explained that most delegates are neither elected officials nor seeking elected office. The host also suggested that local rank-and-file Democrats, particularly ones active during the primary season, could constitute another skewed sample.

"The whole point, you know, is that this is a Pledge of Allegiance," Newdow said, "and it's supposed to be this unifying Pledge. And whether or not you agree with whether or ot we should have Pledges, if you accept that we have one and it's supposed to serve that purpose, look what we've done by sticking in this purely religious dogma. And if I win the case, it's going to be just the same. Everybody's going to be saying, 'One Nation--UNDER GOD!' in the middle of the thing, and that's exactly what you don't want to have in a unifying Pledge. And that's clearly why this thing is unconstitutional. And if I win and 'Under God' is taken out, they'll eventually have to change the entire Pledge, if they want to have a unifying Pledge to follow. . . . If they do the one before '54, the people who want 'God' are going to be yelling out 'Under God' in the middle of it. . . . You're going to have the divisiveness, which is exactly what a Pledge of Allegiance is supposed to preclude."

Campbell offered the argument that what was good for what Tom Brokaw has called the Greatest Generation, the people who served during World War II, ought to be good for us now. Newdow, describing himself as "not a big Pledger," responded that fifteen seconds would be better spent honoring the Constitution or, better yet, discussing it. He reminded listeners that the Framers of the Constitution wanted to keep out religion in order not to divide the people of the United States. "It's liberty and justice for all," Newdow said in the reference to the Pledge, "and since 1954, it's liberty and justice for all people who believe in God."

Campbell then brought up the divisive initiatives being pushed by the leadership of US House of Representatives the previous month in anticipation of November 2, including passage of the so-called Pledge Protection Act, which would deny citizens the right to make any challenges to the Pledge in the federal courts. This piece of legislation, which has not been approved by the US Senate, obviously pertains to Newdow. 

Newdow said that while the US Congress may have the right to restrict the jurisdiction of the federal courts in some areas, to do so with the Bill of Rights (including the First Amendment, which guarantees the separation of church and state) "just wouldn't comport with the whole idea behind the Constitution." He also brought up the issue of checks and balances. Although he was hesistant these days to say what the US Supreme Court would or would not do, he said that he would be very surprised if it let such legislation stand.

Newdow also said, "I think all these governmental endorsements are unconstitutional--'In God We Trust' on the coins and currency; having the Supreme Court start off, 'God save the United States and this Honorable Court'; Presidents sticking in 'So help me, God' in the middle of the Oath, which, in the Constitution, does not have those words. All of that is an endorsement of religion and an endorsement of an idea that there exists a god. Government's not supposed to do that. That's one of the arguments that I find almost laughable, that people always hold against me: They say, Well, if you're going to get 'Under God' out of the Pledge of Allegiance, what are you going to do next--take 'God' off the money? I say, Yeah. You know, it's like, Well, if you're going to get segregation out of the schools, what are you going to do next--take it out of the water fountains? Yeah, that's right. That's exactly what this thing's about. It's for everybody, and none of this stuff is supposed to be there."

Atheist Community of Austin

The Atheist Community of Austin is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to promoting positive atheism and the separation of church and state. The ACA serves the local Austin community through outreach programs, providing informational resources and various volunteer activities. In addition, the ACA serves the community-at-large through free online portals including informational wikis, regular audio/video podcasts and interactive blogs.

We define atheism as the lack of belief in gods. This definition also encompasses what most people call agnosticism.

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