Saturday, May 26 , 2018, 12:55 am | Fair 58º


National Humanist Leaders Deliver Mixed News in Talk in Santa Barbara

Conservative commentator Bill O'Reilly called American Humanist Association Executive Director Roy Speckhardt "The Head Atheist."

The Humanist Society of Santa Barbara brought Speckhardt to speak last weekend, along with Maggie Ardiente, development and communications director for the AHA who is also Speckhardt's wife.

Click here to view my photos of this dynamic duo.

Ardiente brought positive news for humanists in terms of expanding support for and popularity of humanist views.

The AHA now has more than 200,000 Facebook followers, and it has a Political Action Committee. And Lee Rogers is running for Congress in a conservative area of eastern California with the support of humanists.

But Speckhardt brought some less rosy news for humanists: Secularists are losing First Amendment court battles.

The 1948 Vashti McColumn case ended the use of public school classrooms for religious instruction, and the 1963 Ellery Schempp case ended Bible readings in public schools.

But more recent cases have not gone the humanists' way, in large part because of a new breed of judges. Historically, judges were chosen by presidents with American Bar Association advice. President George W. Bush changed to using the conservative Federalist Society for advice. He stacked the federal bench by appointing only conservative Catholics and Christian evangelicals.

And groups like the Eagle Forum and the American Center on Law and Justice are well funded legal think tanks that work to thwart humanist efforts.

Speckhardt talked about "cross cases" where a cross on public land was made legal simply by selling that tiny bit of land to a church or private entity. The new judges have allowed this.

But a much bigger legal issue in First Amendment Establishment Clause cases is "standing." Standing requires: 1) You have been wronged or injured, 2) a remedy is possible and 3) you are the right person or entity to bring the complaint.

The 1968 case Flast v. Cohen allowed "I am a taxpayer" to be sufficient standing. But recent cases have made this difficult or impossible.

Another strategy by the religious side is to call for government "accommodation" as established in Cutter v. Wilkinson in 2005. Religion can be used to opt out of legal rules others have to follow. Examples include wearing a hat in a driver's license photo or not to be vaccinated. It is now up to the government to prove such accommodation causes a substantial problem for the state.

The court also upheld vouchers for religious schools. It allowed public school teachers to be part of religious school teaching projects. And the federal courts ruled "In God We Trust" is OK on currency, buildings and as our national motto.

Groups like Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the American Civil Liberties Union are now reluctant to take on such First Amendment cases. They fear that losing them could set even worse precedents than currently exist.

But the AHA has a plan, Speckhardt said. He invited us to remember how same-sex marriage rights were established — it happened at a state level, and it was based on "equal protection" clauses of state constitutions.

The new strategy can apply to rights of humanists, atheists and freethinkers.

This approach does not require proof of injury. Unequal treatment is sufficient.

One argument used in First Amendment cases is that "In God We Trust" or "Under God" are OK because they are historically accepted. But in equal protection cases, such historic patterns of discrimination are considered especially egregious.

In the case of daily patriotic ceremonies for children invoking "under God": 1) This implies that non-believers are second-class citizens whose patriotism is suspect, creating prejudice against that "class" (nonbelievers). 2) It harms those non-theists who opt out of participating by denying them the right to the patriotic exercise. 3) It harms those non-theists who do participate by having them validate religious language they disagree with.

This case is being pursued now in Massachusetts. It has made it through lower court hurdles and has been heard by the Massachusetts state Supreme Court. They have been extending the release of their decision, which is expected any time now.

When the case is won there, Speckhardt said it will be brought in three more states and three more after that until the 1954 "Under God" Cold War relic is ended.

Non-believers are also often non-joiners and haven't been used to seeing themselves as a group. But they are, in fact, a group that has been subject to discrimination, Speckhardt explained.

Only about half of Americans surveyed said they would vote for a qualified atheist for elected office. This is less than any other identified ethnic, racial or religious group.

Seeing things in this way of equal rights and equal protection is working to bring long-overdue rights to many historically disenfranchised groups. And equal protection is a benefit to everyone.

Robert Bernstein is a local photographer and frequent Noozhawk contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.


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