Christian Flag in Rankin County Courthouse: Time for Action

After passing along the report that a Christian flag was sighted in the Rankin County Justice Court in Brandon, MS, I hoped that atheists in the area would decide to do something about it. I tried to articulate why it is not appropriate to have a Christian flag in a government courthouse. A couple of Mississippi atheists have contacted organizations that work to preserve the separation of church and state (i.e., the Mississippi ACLU and Freedom From Religion Foundation) but were told that additional information was needed. Best I can tell, little else has been done. I guess it is time for me to get the ball rolling.

I plan to send the following letter to the Rankin County Justice Court. I am posting it here for your feedback and in case others are looking for a model they can use. I have tried to keep it brief, to the point, and respectful.
[full name and return address]


Kristie Pyles, Court Clerk
Rankin County Justice Court
P.O. Box 71
Brandon, MS 39043

Dear Ms. Pyles:

I am writing to request that you remove the Christian flag currently displayed in the Rankin County Justice Court.

Displaying the Christian flag in a government building appears to violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution which prohibits government promotion of religion. From previous U.S. Supreme Court rulings, it is clear that governmental endorsement of religion is unconstitutional (see Allegheny County v. American Civil Liberties Union and McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky). Closer to home, a federal judge ruled last month that displaying a portrait of Jesus in the foyer of a Louisiana courthouse was unconstitutional.

I hope you will agree to resolve this matter without the need to involve the ACLU and Freedom From Religion Foundation, and I look forward to hearing from you.



[full name]
A concerned Mississippi resident
Maybe the presence of a Christian flag in a public courthouse does not bother atheists in Rankin County. It does bother me. I realize that there are limits to what I can do as someone who does not reside in Rankin County. Still, that is not going to stop me from doing what I can.


Oxford Humanist Society June Meetup

The Oxford Humanist Society is holding their June meeting on Monday, June 9 at 7:00 PM at Square Books in Oxford, MS. To learn more, visit the Oxford Humanist Society Meetup page.

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Why the Christian Flag Does Not Belong in a Courthouse

"There go those damn atheists again, always stirring up trouble. Why are they so determined to eradicate every trace of religion in America? Don't they know we are a Christian nation?" We atheists are routinely accused of creating controversy, of attempting to banish religion from the public square, and even of persecuting religious believers. These same accusations will soon be leveled as we move forward with efforts to have the Christian flag in the Rankin County Justice Court removed. So what is our motivation? Why should this flag be removed?

Believe it or not, the answer is not particularly complicated. The "Establishment Clause" of the U.S. Constitution prohibits the government from promoting religion. Unlike the Ten Commandments, where at least a cogent argument can be made that our legal system was influenced by it and that it has taken on a largely secular role today, nothing comparable can be said of the Christian flag. So the simplest answer would involve pointing out that displaying an unequivocally religious symbol like this is unconstitutional. It violates the law of the land, and it should be removed.

However, I believe that the real objection we receive from our religious critics is not about why the flag should come down but why we care enough to actually do something about it. That is, what they really object to are the meddling atheists and not even necessarily what we are trying to accomplish.

So let me turn their central question on myself. Why I give a damn that there is a Christian flag hanging in the Rankin County Justice Court?

The problem with displaying the Christian flag in a courthouse is, besides the illegality of it, that there are non-Christian citizens in and out of that building all day. This flag communicates something powerful to these citizens - that they are the outgroup, somehow less worthy than those to whom the flag refers. That this happens in a courthouse, where people are supposed to be convinced that they are equal before the law, makes it even worse.

Let's review. Why should the Christian flag be removed from the Rankin County Justice Court?
  • It is an unconstitutional promotion of religion by the government.
  • There are many non-Christians in Rankin County and the rest of Mississippi who are symbolically excluded by this symbol. Having such a flag in a courthouse stands in opposition to the democratic ideal that we are all equal in the eyes of the law.
As for why we should be involved with efforts to remove the flag, I have only one question for you to consider. Who else is going to do it?

I know what you're probably thinking at this point- what about the Mississippi state flag itself? I find the inclusion of the Confederate battle flag in our state flag utterly disgusting and despise what it represents (e.g., slavery). I think it should be removed too, for some of the same reasons. But that can be another post.

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New Domain for Mississippi Atheists!

First Atheist Revolution got a custom domain (, and now Mississippi Atheists has a new home on the web too ( Please update your links.

Action Alert: Stop Fundraising for Bigotry

From the Secular Coalition for America:
Last week the House of Representatives passed legislation (H.R. 5872) creating a commemorative coin for the Boy Scouts of America, an organization that explicitly discriminates against nontheists (as well as gays) in admission, employment, and even volunteer opportunities. By directing the U.S. Mint to produce commemorative coins as a fundraiser for the Boy Scouts of America (BSA), the House is sending an estimated $3.5 million dollars directly to their organization. Now the Senate is beginning to organize efforts to pass the Boy Scouts legislation this summer.
To join me in taking action to stop this bill, contact your elected officials here.

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Christian Flag Spotted in Mississippi Courthouse

A regular reader of this blog e-mailed me about a recent experience at the Rankin County Justice Court in Brandon, MS, that may interest you. He was there to contest a traffic ticket and observed something surprising in the courthouse. Alongside an American flag and a Mississippi flag was a Christian flag. A Christian flag prominently displayed in a state courthouse in 2008! Does anybody know if this is common around our state? I don't know why I am so surprised, but I am.

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A Non-Believer in Church: St. John's Catholic in Oxford

Oxford, MS has many churches so there is no shortage of flavors of Christianity for me to experience in this small town. Two weeks ago, I visited an Episcopalian service and very much enjoyed it. This week, I attended the 8:30 AM Mass of the St. John's Catholic Church, which is being held at the Paris-Yates Chapel on the University of Mississippi campus due to the construction of their own meeting place. Maybe I have things backwards in my head, but the Episcopalian service felt more "catholic" than the Catholic service that I attended today. Whether you are Catholic or formerly Catholic or simply find this interesting, please leave a comment.

Close to 200 people were at the service and the chapel was packed. Ushers were setting up folding chairs in the aisles to accommodate people still coming in the door. There are two morning services and I can only guess the problems faced by the second morning service where people don't have to wake up as early to get to church on time. The song leader had an impressive tenor voice. He would sing a complete song and then the congregation would do their best to repeat that song. For a few of the songs the people attempted to sing with no help on what the lyrics were, which made the music sound weak. Most of the songs were in English and one song was in Latin.

The service began with a procession of people, including the alter boys and the priest and one other man holding a Bible. The priest wore a long white robe and alter boys wore casual Sunday clothes. The priest lead everyone in the greetings and the group confession of sins. In blindly reading from the bulletin, I asked the blessed Mary, ever virgin, and all of the angels to pray for me. Just like the Episcopalian and the Presbyterian services, most of the service consisted of me reading the bulletin and trying to keep up with the next point for the congregation to say something. They recited the Nicene Creed. I've only been to three services of this style, but sheepishly reading every word in the bulletin and reciting the Nicene Creed is getting monotonous. When the priest asked everyone to greet those around us, I made a point to say "peace" to everyone who shook my hand. The lady sitting next to me said in a cheery voice, "Welcome to our parish!"

There were a few Bible readings and I thought it was interesting that reading from the Gospels were treated with higher regard than Old Testament passages or Paul's letters. (Maybe someone in the comments can tell me why this is.) The priest's sermon was directed to the new high school graduates. He began his lesson by telling a packed house of early rising Catholics that it was rare for anyone to pledge fidelity to a church anymore. I didn't realize it was proper to insult the congregation like that. He warned the new graduates that when they get to college, there will be a "religion 101 course taught by a man with a ponytail and a tweed jacket who laughs at Monty Python and will tell you that there is no god and we're all the same." Again, I was shocked. I'm sitting in a chapel built on state property at a state university that allows the local Catholic church to meet here for Mass and the priest returns the favor by trivializing the university's Department of Philosophy and Religion. The priest ended his lesson by discussing how Catholics were viewed in the rest of the world. He said, "Catholics are often viewed as being weak in their knowledge of Bible scripture. We are strong in our knowledge of the Bible. We wrote the dang thing!" At this point, I was beginning to wonder if I was sitting in a Catholic service or a parody of a Catholic service.

Near the end of the service, the communion was offered, which involved an elaborate series of preparations which could only be seen at a distance. The priest said that all were welcome to take, including visitors, so I took this as an invitation to get in line. To accommodate all of the people, the communion was split, so I went to the back of the room. The lady handed me a cracker and said, "This is the body of Christ." I took a second look at it and it still looked like a cracker.

The service concluded with a prayer of support for everyone in the church, including Pope Benedict XVI. There was a final song and we were dismissed.

The priest's stereotype of atheists is only one third true: I don't have a ponytail or own a tweed jacket, but I do enjoy Monty Python. While some members of the church made me feel welcome, it was the priest's lesson that did not make me feel welcome. I don't feel compelled to return to this church any time soon.

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Praise for Mississippi's Community College System

In a state often known for poverty, infant mortality, obesity, and Christian extremism, it is nice to have some good news for a change. A new report by the Chronicle of Higher Education has listed our community college system in the top four nationwide. I continue to believe that quality secular education is a crucial part in escaping the clutches of religious delusion, and I am happy to learn of this report.

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Cause of the Tornadoes in Mississippi?

You may have heard that we had a bit of tornado activity in Mississippi this week. If there is one thing I've learned from Christian extremists, such as McCain buddy John Hagee, it is that the cause of all bad weather is the Christian god. But since Mississippi can hardly be accused of being overly tolerant toward homosexuals (or anyone else for that matter), what could we have done to upset this god? It must have been our recent congressional election.

I hope all of our readers are okay. We had a bit of a scare in the Hattiesburg area, but those I've heard from so far made it through just fine. I suppose that must be a miracle, huh?

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Carnival of the Godless #91

Carnival of the Godless #91 has been posted at State of Protest. I submitted Oliver's latest post in his "A Non-Believer in Church" series, and it was included in the carnival. Check it out.

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Americans United Condemns Religious Right Plot to Politicize Pulpits

According to Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Christian extremist group, calling itself the Alliance Defense Fund, is asking clergy to disobey the law preventing tax-exempt religious organizations from endorsing political candidates. The full press release is provided below.

May 9, 2008

Americans United Condemns Religious Right Plot To Politicize Pulpits

Asking Churches To Violate Federal Tax Law Is Deplorable, Says AU's Lynn

A Religious Right group's plan to ask churches to violate federal tax law on electioneering is deplorable, according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

The Wall Street Journal reported today that the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) is urging clergy to defy the tax-law ban on candidate endorsements by tax-exempt groups. Ministers are being pushed to use their pulpits on Sept. 28 to preach about candidates and spark a showdown. The Wall Street Journal report:

The ADF, a theocracy-minded legal operation founded by right-wing religious broadcasters, hopes the Internal Revenue Service will launch investigations of these churches, thus opening the door to a federal test case of the constitutionality of the law.

Said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, "This is a truly deplorable scheme. Federal tax law rightly requires churches and other tax-exempt groups to use their resources for religious and charitable purposes, not partisan politics. When the faithful put their hard-earned dollars in the collection plate, they don't expect it to wind up pushing
some politician's campaign.

"The Religious Right leaders who lust for political power in America will apparently stop at nothing, not even the sacred character of the church," Lynn continued. "The vast majority of clergy do not seek to turn their incense-filled sanctuaries into smoke-filled political backrooms.

"I think very few clergy will yield to the Alliance Defense Fund's worldly temptation," Lynn concluded. "And those who do will find their churches' tax exemptions in jeopardy. I assume the ADF will provide a list of congregations unwise enough to join this move, and we'll be ready to report those churches to the IRS."

Lynn noted that clergy know they are free to speak out on religious, moral and political issues. But they cannot use tax-exempt resources to support or oppose candidates for public office, which includes statements from the pulpit by church officials and other indications of campaign intervention.

In May of 2000, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia unanimously held that the IRS properly revoked the tax exemption of the Church at Pierce Creek, a congregation near Binghamton,N.Y., that bought newspaper ads in 1992 opposing presidential candidate Bill Clinton. (Americans United filed a complaint with the IRS about this clear violation of tax law.)

The court ruled in Branch Ministries v. Rossotti that "the revocation of the Church's tax-exempt status neither violated the Constitution nor exceeded the IRS's statutory authority." (The three judges were Reagan appointees, and the opinion was written by James Buckley, a scion of the ultra-conservative Buckley family and brother of William F. Buckley.)

Americans United has served as a monitor of the intersection of religion and politics. In response to church politicization efforts, the watchdog group has distributed informational literature to religious leaders about federal tax law. In 80 cases since 1996, Americans United has asked the IRS to investigate apparent electioneering violations of the IRS Code by religious groups.

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Invitation From New Orleans Secular Humanist Association

Mississippi atheists are invited to a presentation by Glen Sandberg on Saturday, May 17, at the New Orleans Public Library. The presentation, "Naturalizing the Magic of the Mind," will start at 2:00 PM and is brought to you by the New Orleans Secular Humanist Association.

Here is Glen's description of the presentation:
It tries to clarify how imagination and creativity are natural results of the massively-parallel processing by billions of neurons in our brain, that each constitute an associative pattern-recognition element. It will take about 30 minutes and leave time for discussion and other NOSHA business.
You can even find a preview of Glen's presentation here. For those who cannot attend, the presentation will also be posted here.

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A Non-Believer in Church: St. Peter's Episcopal at Oxford

As a college student, the end of the semester is good about throwing me off of my regular routine, but I found some time to visit St. Peter's Episcopal Church here in Oxford. This was my first time inside of an Episcopal church so once again I am asking any readers who are familiar with this denomination to elaborate in the comments. The service was so wrapped in symbolism that I felt completely lost.

I attended the 5:30 PM service of the Holy Eucharist, which is designated to fit into the busy schedules of local college students. There were about 50 people in attendance. Nearly all were college students wearing typical college student garb. The music was the best that I've heard in any church visit yet. The music at The Orchard was good, but felt mass produced. The music at First Free Will Baptist was country folk singing at the top of their lungs. Here we had a small band of mostly acoustic guitars and a violinist playing a set of honest and beautiful songs. If I could get a CD of this small band, I would.

Most of the service was foreign to me. The services began with a procession of people in white robes holding various holy relics like a Bible or a Cross. I did not understand a single action of the minister. He had a metal ball that produced smoke that he started swinging at a candle. There is a deeper symbolic reference here I'm sure, but I've read the Bible from cover to cover and must have missed the references to a metal ball, the smoke, and the candle. There was part of the service where everyone recited a prayer while staring at a stain glass window of Jesus . There were parts where we were requested to kneel during a prayer. At another point, the assistants brought all of the holy relics to the center of the auditorium while the minister produced a lot of smoke from his metal ball and began reading from the Bible. Like the Presbyterian service, the congregation recited the Nicene Creed, and many did it from memory. I felt uncomfortable (and very weirded-out) for not understanding any of the symbolism.

The minister asked everyone to greet those sitting around them. When people shook my hand, I made the mistake of saying "hello." The word of these people was "peace." I began to stick out.

The minister's sermon was on the ascension of Christ which takes place in Acts Ch. 1, but aside from reading the passage, he didn't use any scripture to support his lesson. His message was that Christ meets you regardless of how strong your faith is. (My faith is nil, so I'm curious how far Jesus has to stretch to reach me considering that I don't believe him to be divine.) He wanted everyone in attendance to act in a manner which is "countercultural and foolish for your faith." To some extent, I can agree. He wanted the people to practice peace. Peace is certainly counter cultural, but it is not foolish, and peace is good whether it is done in the name of your faith or not.

Near the end of the service, the minister prepared the communion with a series of elaborate actions involving two cups sitting on a table. All of these actions had a symbolic meaning but it was all lost on on me. Like the Presbyterian service, communion was served by everyone coming to the front of the auditorium to receive it from the minister. Again, I felt like an oddball for being the only person who remained in the pew during communion. In a group of 50, it was not hard to spot the new guy.

The service concluded when the minister asked everyone to go outside for a group picture. Everyone was dismissed and began talking in the front of the church. I stood on the front lawn for about five minutes wondering if anyone would at least greet the new guy, but no student did. The minister spoke up, "We have a visitor!" He just might be the nicest guy in the world. He asked me, "So which parish are you from?" I told him how I was visiting in order to experience an Episcopal church service and he told me about the church website and invited me to the group dinner for all students after the service.

Aside from conducting a very peculiar service and being forced to work with college students who are too scared to say "hello", the minister made me feel welcome.

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Atheists Dancing Naked

Wouldn't that be something? The Olive Branch Atheists are meeting on May 18 at 3:00 PM at Fox and Hound (Southaven) to "dance naked in the glorious month of May." Details here.

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The Politics of Elitism

As I watch more than my share of political shows and read various analyses of the upcoming Presidential election on assorted political blogs, it is becoming obvious that elitism is going to be a big issue between now and November. With Clinton's last-ditch efforts focusing on casting Obama as an elitist while pretending to be in touch with the "average American," she is foreshadowing what will almost certainly be a key strategy of McCain's campaign once Obama receives the Democratic nomination. It is far from just another political strategy and provides us with a key example of how reason, intelligence, and education are routinely devalued in contemporary American society.

In the unfolding political drama, the Democratic candidates are now falling all over themselves to trick the ill-informed voter into thinking they are something they're not. Clinton and Obama are both qualified to be President, so much as anyone can really be said to be qualified. They are also both wealthy, intelligent, well-educated people whose daily lives bear little resemblance to most Americans. I don't see either as elitist, but certainly both are elite.

What bothers me about this whole affair is the idea that anyone in their right mind would want a President who was just like them. A President has an extremely difficult job. Why would we not want someone qualified to do the job? In most every other job, we value intelligence, education, experience, proven leadership, and even evidence of financial success. We aren't seeking an assembly line worker or custodian but a President.

Part of this fascinating phenomenon - wanting a President who is no better than us - is about narcissism. We have a need to believe that nobody, including our President, is better than us. It makes us feel better about ourselves. Another part is about our wholesale acceptance of the myth of equality - equal opportunity is a worthy goal, but equality in terms of ability is an absurdity. Humans differ, and characteristics such as intelligence are normally distributed in the population. When it comes to intellectual ability, equality could not be farther from the truth. But another part, even if it is not a motivating factor, involves a general devaluing of intelligence, education, reason, and the like. We bring those with Presidential aspirations down to our level by overlooking and devaluing their accomplishments.

Denigrating intelligence, education, and reason is bad for all of us. Maybe some people need to combat their feelings of inadequacy in this way, but it harms even then. And what about their children? Level of parental education is a potent predictor of eventual educational achievement by their children and not simply because of the genetic link. It also has to do with environmental effects such as modeling the importance of education.

To be sure, this is a subject that could use additional investigation and discussion. I posted this here rather than on Atheist Revolution because I have found negative attitudes toward intelligence, education, and reason to be far more prevalent in Mississippi than in other places I have lived. What do you think?