Christian Arguments Against Universal Health Care

Universal Health CareImage by Paul Garland via Flickr

Forget the debate over President Obama's health care plan for a moment and ask yourself a more general question: Should we have universal health care of some sort? That is, should every American be able to count on receiving health care regardless of ability to pay? In this post, I'd like to share a negative response to these questions I have heard from a couple of people I know who identify themselves as devout Christians and reside in Mississippi.

There may be other arguments against the general idea of universal health care, but the one I have heard from a couple of independent sources can be boiled down to this:
Providing health care to all Americans, regardless of their ability to pay, is immoral for at least two reasons. First, it undermines the work ethic of those who receive the health care without paying for it. When they are given something without having to work for it, you are essentially removing an important motivator for them to work, promoting laziness and making them more dependent on big government. Second, any universal health care system we can imagine is going to take from the wealthy to cover the cost of the poor. The wealthy are wealthy because they are favored by the Christian god, and the poor are poor because they are lazy and have not applied themselves. While the Christian god still loves the poor, it would be wrong to punish the wealthy in this way. The poor must earn their own favor.
This was a paraphrase from a couple of conversations and not a direct quote that can be attributed to any one individual. Of course, it should not be surprising that one's interpretation of the Christian god is far more revealing about oneself than about any sort of external god. Still, when I hear this sort of rationale, I cannot help being reminded of the very same "social Darwinism" of which Christians are so fond of throwing at atheists.

How is this conception of the wealthy being wealthy because they deserve wealth and the poor being poor because they deserve poverty not an extreme form of social Darwinism? And given the way some Christian approach illness, how much of a stretch is involved in saying that someone with an illness probably deserves his or her illness?

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MS Gulf Coast Atheist and Freethinking Association August Meeting

The Mississippi Gulf Coast Atheist and Freethinking Association has announced their August meetup. The group plans to meet on Sunday, August 9th at 3:00 PM in Gulfport. For more information, please visit their page.

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Christian Extremists Target Mississippi For Abortion Ban

SANTA MONICA, CA - APRIL 15:  Five-year-old Ka...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

The American Family Association (AFA) has issued an action alert asking their supporters (i.e., Christian extremists) to spread the word about what they are calling the Mississippi Personhood Amendment. The amendment, which they hope to get on the state ballot in 2010, would redefine "personhood" along religious lines as beginning at the moment of conception.

Obviously, this would amount to a statewide ban on abortion. The alert describes abortion as "the greatest moral evil in our nation today" and compares it to the Holocaust.

If the alert is correct that 89,000 signatures from registered voters will be enough to get this measure on the ballot, it is hard to imagine that we will not find ourselves voting on it in 2010. Women in Mississippi could soon find their reproductive rights severally curtailed.

My favorite part of the alert, by far, was the following request:
Please help us get this important information into the hands of your pastor.
Evidently, pastors in our state do not even have to pretend that they aren't telling congregants how to vote for fear of jeopardizing their tax-exempt status. Disgraceful!

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Carnival of the Godless #122 at CyberLizard's Collection

If you are looking for some good atheist reading from around the blogosphere, look no further than the 122nd Carnival of the Godless, hosted by CyberLizard's Collection.

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Mississippi Higher Education in Trouble

The University of Southern Mississippi SealImage via Wikipedia

This rant has been brewing for some time now, but I can't say that I've gained much clarity or perspective yet. I'm still too mad. Maybe this will be cathartic, and if not, maybe it will at least be informative to others.

Higher education in the state of Mississippi has long been subpar and about to get worse as a result of sweeping budget cuts brought on by our faltering economy. Prior to the pending cuts, our plight was already notable.
  • Professors at Mississippi's public universities are paid less than the southeast regional average.
  • Mississippi universities are notorious for hiring their own graduates, a practice most universities avoid because in tends to prevent the infusion of new ideas.
  • Faculty at research-extensive universities have higher teaching loads than those at most research-extensive universities in other states.
  • Higher education is one of the last priorities for legislative funding in our state in that it is generally the last area of the budget to be considered.
  • Mississippi's universities routinely admit students who are ill-prepared for higher education and would never qualify for admission in other states.
  • Faculty and staff at Mississippi's public universities do not receive yearly cost-of-living increases in pay, a common practice in most other states.
Collectively, these factors produce low morale, frequent turnover, and impaired productivity among staff and faculty. Students suffer, and so do the communities which would benefit from what healthy universities offer. The economy of our state is affected, as employers who need educated employees are going to look elsewhere.

In this context, the University of Southern Mississippi has announced plans to cut an additional $10-$12 million. Because the university already operates on a shoestring budget and the IHL board will not allow a tuition increase, the only way to accomplish these cuts is to eliminate entire programs (including some undergraduate majors) and fire faculty and staff. Despite the positive spin university PR officials are going to try to put on this, the reality on the ground is that these cuts are going to devastate an already impaired system.

As we eagerly await economic recovery, we seem to be doing everything we can to postpone it. Gutting our universities is not going to make it any easier to improve Mississippi's economic plight; it will keep is stuck in this hole even longer. Anyone who wants to see Mississippi's economy improve should be demanding that our state legislature funds education in our state.

Some say that this is just a temporary fix and that any programs that are shut down now can simply be reopened once we are out of the recession. Unfortunately, that is not how it works. Effective programs take many years to build, and few accrediting bodies are going to want to take a chance on an institution with this sort of history. These decisions, once implemented, are not going to be easy to reverse.

The only conclusion I am able to draw from all of this is that education is not valued in the state of Mississippi. I suppose that should not come as much of a surprise. After all, a blog like this probably wouldn't be necessary in an area that was serious about education. But surprising or not, it still stings.

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Wicker to Vote Against Sotomayor

{{w|Roger Wicker}}, member of the United State...Image via Wikipedia

I can't say I'm surprised to learn that Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) has announced that he plans to vote against Judge Sonia Sotomayor's confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court. I assume his conservative credentials would be at risk were he not to do so. Still, I was somewhat surprised that his rationale included her "alarming hostility" toward gun owners, as I hadn't realized that this had even been part of the debate.

You know, Sen. Wicker, I'd like to think that one can be a gun owner without being a gun nut. In fact, I think of myself in this way. I do own a gun but would never dream of joining the NRA or opposing an assault weapons ban. And yet, I am somehow supposed to take your word for it that Judge Sotomayor is hostile to me?

Personally, I don't feel like we have enough information on Sotomayor's stance on church-state separation for me to support or oppose her. She certainly seems well qualified, according to the ABA, but I do wish we knew more about how serious she was about protecting the Establishment Clause.

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Photos From a Teabagging in Biloxi

Last Saturday, there was a teabagging in Biloxi, Mississippi. As much as I wanted to go photograph it, I was bogged down with work and unable to do so. Fortunately, one of our readers made it with camera in hand. Userjack6880 got some great pictures of the event. This one to the right is probably my favorite of the many signs photographed, but there are many good ones.

From the many pictures in userjack6880's collection, it looks like the teabagging was split between those protesting taxes and those protesting Obama. It was interesting to see how many signs referenced patriotism in one way or another.

Also, here are some notes taken during one of the speeches:
State's rights, too much government, Christian values are undermined, school books are not the same as they used to be, this is a war for freedom, traditional values, Christian values, and American values (connecting them all together, that is), we don't owe anybody anything - in fact, they owe us, GM should fail if it cannot support itself without the help of the government, the healthcare system will fail because of this new bill, abortion is a continuing battle (in support for), Obama's hope is a false hope, Obama is making this nation a tyrannical one, government corruption, the government has a clear disconnect with Mississippi, the US is the world's last hope.
That sounds about right.

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Mississippi on Twitter

USM StadiumImage by jwinfred via Flickr

If you are new to Twitter, one of the more frustrating things can be finding people to follow. This can be an even bigger challenge if you want to find people in Mississippi. Fortunately, Mississippi Twitter List provides a lengthy directory of Twitter users with "Mississippi" or "MS" listed in the bio location of their Twitter profiles.

There sure aren't many on the list who have "atheist" or "atheism" anywhere in their bios. Maybe we can work on changing that. Of course, there are several who describe themselves as "Christ follower."

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Mississippi's Chip Pickering is Third Republican Accused of C Street Scandal

{{w|Chip Pickering}}, member of the United Sta...Image via Wikipedia

The secretive Christian extremist group known as "the Family" has been in the news a lot lately after two high-profile Republican sex scandals were linked to them. Now it appears that a third Republican linked to the infamous "C Street House" has been accused of having an affair, and this time, he's from Mississippi. The wife of former Rep. Chip Pickering was in court to file a lawsuit against a woman alleged to be her husband's mistress.

As CNN notes, this makes Pickering "the third politician associated with the Capitol Hill 'Christian Fellowship' home to be embroiled in a sex scandal." It appears that the Family may be a story for some time. The more I learn about the organization, the more I think that is probably a good thing.

For more, see this article at Jackson Free Press.

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Atheists in Mississippi

Southern U.S., Mississippi? (LOC)Image by The Library of Congress via Flickr

One of the most common reactions I get in response to this blog from those outside our state is surprise. "There are atheists in Mississippi?" It is an understandable question, and I'm quite certain I would be asking it if I wasn't here myself. Yes, there are atheists in Mississippi. As you might expect, many of us remain fairly quiet on the subject of religion, for we have much to lose by expressing our thoughts and even more by identifying ourselves as atheists.

For those who have not spend any significant time in the rural South, it is difficult to convey what it is like to be an atheist here. Religion is more pervasive in Mississippi than I could have imagined without experiencing it for myself. Virtually everyone I know here has a large part of their identity tied up in religion. I sometimes find it even more oppressive than the summer humidity, and there is no question that living here affects me.

To say that there is a social stigma against atheists in Mississippi would be a colossal understatement. As difficult as it must be to be gay here, I suspect that an openly gay Christian would have a somewhat more positive experience than a heterosexual atheist.

Many atheists in Mississippi have had enough bad experiences around revealing their atheism that it is difficult to remember that not all experiences will be negative. This is understandable, but it also serves as an obstacle for atheist equality. As long as we remain invisible, it is easy to demonize us. And yet, it is easy to say that more of us should "come out" without appreciating the price paid by those who do.

What is it like socially for atheists in Mississippi? Of course, our experience is variable. I've written previously about my inner tug-of-war between deception and ostracization. Either I keep my atheism to myself, or I run a fairly high risk of being socially ostracized. It is not easy.

Although there are a handful of small atheist groups active in Mississippi, I know that many atheists here feel socially isolated. I've never been someone with particularly strong social needs, and I suppose that plays a big part in how I can stand to be here. Nevertheless, I can relate to the sense of alienation I have heard many atheists describe. It goes far beyond simply loneliness and involves a sense of not being able to be genuinely oneself in so many situations.

There are many barriers to atheist activism in Mississippi, but I think that the lack of strong communities of support is probably the most important. It is far easier to join in or organize activist efforts when one has a safe community. Too many of the atheists in our state lack any such community, and this makes it much harder to work for meaningful change.

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A Teabagging in Biloxi

Teabagging_8Image by literaghost via Flickr

If you haven't been to a Republican "tea party" yet and are convinced that the White House should be "teabagged," now is your chance to join the misguided protests cloaked in sexual innuendo sufficient to make Gov. Mark Sanford (R-SC) blush. Y'all Politics has posted an announcement from a group calling itself "Gulf Coast We Surround Them 912 Project" that a tea party will be held in Biloxi on July 18th.

This is proving to be an unbelievably busy month for me, but I am tempted to grab my camera and drive down to Biloxi for this event. As much as I would not want to be counted as contributing to the size of the rally, the opportunity to capture this sort of idiocy on my camera is quite tempting.

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Central MS Atheists July Meetup in Jackson

Central Mississippi Atheists has scheduled their July meeting for July 22, 2009 at 7:00 pm in Jackson at Sneaky Beans. For more information, check out the group's page.

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We Like Stories

Earlier this week, a dear friend forwarded me a picture with a caption that many of you have probably seen. It shows Michelle Obama serving meals at a soup kitchen, mugging for the camera as a man takes her picture with a camera phone. The Headline over the picture says something like "Michelle Obama Serves Meals at a Federally-Funded Soup Kitchen." Underneath is that ubiquitous paraphrasing of that credit card commercial:

A bowl of soup - $0.00

Having Michelle Obama serve your lunch - $0.00

Taking a picture of a homeless man getting a free meal at a federally-funded soup kitchen taking Michelle Obama's picture with a $500 Blackberry - Priceless!

I have paraphrased the text, but this is the gist of the message. The message of this short, quite effective little picture & text is quite clear and needs no explanation from me.

This little gem of propaganda led to an interesting exchange between my friend, who endorses the message, and myself. I want to say at the outset that my friend is one of the most compassionate people I know. She has worked in social services all of her life and is devoted to improving the lives of the disadvantaged.

When she sent the original email, her only comment was "Doesn't this just piss you off?"

My response was short - "No, why should it?"

Her terse response was - "Yeah, I guess it is OK for this guy to eat on my hard earned tax money."

Our back and forth after this involved some discussion of social issues which are not germane to the point I want to make here. The point I want to make here is how easy we are to manipulate.

I wrote her back saying my initial response to the picture/text was to look for some attribution to connect to the photo. I could find none. No attribution of the photo appeared in the post. You don't know who took the picture. I could find no story about the event in any media. The only articles I found were responses to the picture/text itself. I could find no information on who the 'homeless' man was, if indeed he was homeless, no information on whether he was actually there to get a free meal, whether the Blackberry was his or not, nothing on this man's situation.

I was also bothered by the stress on this being a "federally-funded" soup kitchen. I know something about federal food distribution and nutrition programs, and I am pretty sure that the federal government does not fund soup kitchens or food banks. These are routinely all privately funded. We haven't funded soup kitchens with federal money since the Great Depression. I may be wrong about this. I could find no evidence of such funding on a web search, so I researched the particular soup kitchen where this incident took place. I found out it is Miriam's Kitchen, it is in the basement of a Presbyterian church in northern Virginia, and it has run for a couple of decades on private donations.

I made these points to my friend in my next e-mail. She conceded my points, but made some points of her own. One of them was "How do I know the man was NOT as presented in the picture/text?" Her other point was that even if this particular story was not true, it does nothing to alter the basic truth of the message it makes. She goes on to draw on her experience in social work to say that she has known hundreds of people who are living on government hand outs and we should be working to empower them instead of giving them things.

It is here that I saw the parallels between her arguments and those of so many of the theists I have engaged in conversations about god(s)/goddess(es), faith and religion over the years.

I responded that I don't know if the guy was what the pic/text said he was. I had done my research, found one glaring deception which really destroys the whole point it attempts to make, and nothing about the man himself. Based on the one big deception, I have good reason to doubt that the man is what the pic/text says he is, but I can't say for sure because I could find no reliable information on him. No information, in fact, except what the pic/text provides. Sound familiar? I went on to note that the burden of proof is not on me, I am not making any definitive claim about the man's existence. I can't prove a negative. The burden of proof is on those who are making a positive claim as to the man's situation, not on me.

Also familiar from my encounters with theists was her defense of the main point of the pic/text even if it was a fiction. There is something about a story that resonates with our pre-existing ideas of how the world works, even if the story has no basis in real events. We like stories more than we like statistics, evidence, and reason. Her claim about all the people she has worked with who were jacking the system at her (and their) expense is no doubt true. I have worked with the same type of people for a long time. I asked her if she had any hard stats on how many people jack the system as compared to the ones that are truly disadvantaged and legitimately need help. This is a hard area to get hard stats on. I suspect that it is a continuum that would be hard to set definite borders around. This does not change the fact that her view is based on personal, anecdotal evidence, and I can make counter arguments based on a different perspective on the situation.

The main idea I was trying to make is that she likes the story's message, even if it is fiction, because it fits with her experience and world view, and I don't like the story because it is evidently false and is an attempt to manipulate opinion. It is not that I don't like stories, too, but I try to base my world view on fact, evidence, and reason. I don't know how successful I am at this, but I try. It is hard, because we all like stories more than statistics. We evolved that way. We all like stories that confirm our world view more than we like evidence that contradicts it.
Recent neurological experiments back up this claim.

As Stephen Jay Gould and others have noted, it is not religion itself which is our enemy, it is irrationality.


Mississippi Atheists on Twitter

Mississippi Atheists is now on Twitter (@msatheists)! I held off on this mostly because I wasn't sure that it made sense for a team blog to have one Twitter account. However, Twitter is becoming so popular that I realized that we were missing out on a great marketing tool by not getting on board. Besides, I've set it up so that any post written here by any of our authors will automatically be distributed on our Twitter account.

Mississippi Constitution Discriminates Against Atheists

US Flag and Mississippi FlagImage by Jim Frazier via Flickr

A reader, John, recently reminded me of something I've been meaning to address for some time. The Constitution of the State of Mississippi discriminates against atheists by explicitly stating that we are disqualified from holding office.
No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office in this state.

SOURCES: 1817 art VI §6; 1832 art VII §5; 1869 art XII §3.
Mississippi is not the only state engaging in this form of discrimination, but we are one of a shrinking number.

Given that the United States Constitution expressly forbids religious tests for qualification for office (Article VI, Clause 3), I would guess that legal challenges to our state law would be successful in federal court. Until then, we have the distinction of living in a state where discrimination is not merely legal but legally mandated.

My Brother: The Making of an Agnostic

crumbling church in aixImage by Djuliet via Flickr

The following post was written by Mims H. Carter

My older brother is one of the nicest, kindest people I have ever known. He is over a dozen years older than me, so he grew up in the pre-counterculture era while I came of age in the middle of it. This may be partially responsible for the way our lives took such different courses. Until recently, I would have said also that it may be responsible for how our world views differed significantly. Now I find an interesting convergence coming on, especially in terms of our views on religion.

Without going in to great detail, and greatly simplifying things, Fred has always been what I would call a mainstream, middle-class, salt-of-the-earth member of society. He was a teacher and a coach. He lives in the mid-west, he married his high school sweetheart while he was still in college, has three grown children and a bunch of grandchildren, and has resided in the same little town for almost fifty years. He was never particularly interested in political issues, unless it intersected with his job security, and has been what could be called a pillar of his community all his adult life. He is the kind of guy everyone calls 'Coach'. He has been a respected member of his mainstream Protestant church since he was married in it, and until recently attended services every Sunday.

Over the last decade, particularly since he retired, he has started paying attention to things a little more closely. As I said, he was never particularly political, but he had an inherently conservative world view, and voted Republican most of the time. The only exception would be if the Republican candidate for governor in his state said anything negative about teacher's unions. We have lived in different parts of the country, or even different countries, for many years, and our phone conversations usually avoided talk of politics and religion and concentrated on what our families were up to and other such things, as he knew I was politically more left-wing than he was and also that I was an atheist.

As I said, recently he has changed. He started getting interested in politics. At first, he started talking about how his opinion of conservative commentators has changed. Before, he was the type of guy who would listen to Rush Limbaugh and get a kick out of him. Then he started really listening and discovered he did not like what the man was saying. He turned against Fox News, which used to compete with ESPN for his TV's default position. He started out just disliking the negativity of the commentary, then he started to question the whole conservative ideology. Now he calls me to ask if I saw the Rachel Maddow show the night before. With religion, he started to talk to me about some of the discomfort he felt with conservative christianity. He had some personal encounters with more fundamentalist and evangelical members of his community that made him a bit angry. He started to side with me against the religious whackos, whereas before, he was like the mainstream christians Harris and other rail against for failing to call these folks on their radical ideas. His church is, as I said, more mainstream Protestant. He has always believe in the god of his church, but has never been prone to thinking too deeply on theological issues. He believes in god, he goes to his church, and he has always enjoyed the church community.

Last week he called me and said that he has started to change his ideas of even mainstream christianity, due to an incident that happened in his church. His pastor invited a young woman, who had been an active member of the church's youth community for years until she went off to college, to speak to the church during its regular Sunday service. This young woman had graduated from college and had gone abroad in a humanitarian service role for an international non-profit agency, and was visiting her home town for a while. During her talk to the congregation, she made a point of mentioning she was a lesbian. Many members of the church were outraged, and it led in the end to the pastor's removal. My brother was outraged. He started to look at his fellow church goers a little differently.. His conversations with me now sound like someone starting to question the whole thing. He says he doesn't attend the church as much anymore, and when he does, he feels uncomfortable. I think he is just showing his face there occasionally because he does not want to make a statement with his total absence. He is not the kind of guy who makes statements. He has generalized his doubts from his own church to all churches. He is starting to question whether organized religion is a valuable thing for society. He says he still believes in god, that he won't change that, but he is more and more seeing my point on religion. He was defensive with me about the god thing at first, wanting me to know he hasn't come all the way over the fence to my side. I explained to him that I was not opposed to the belief in god, it was actions like the one his church took with the pastor, and the knee-jerk opposition to a homosexual woman even speaking in their church, that I objected to.

It will be interesting to see how this evolves. He has climbed to the top of the fence to see what the other side looks like, and he sees that it isn't the wasteland he had always thought it was. In fact, there are a lot of familiar looking things over there, as his little brother has always told him there were. Whether his next step is to sit on the fence for a while is something I don't know, but I know that even if he decides to stay on the side where he has always lived, he won't look at it the same way from now on.


Something Else to Celebrate

Independence Day fireworks in San Diego, Calif...Image via Wikipedia

It looks like we are due for a hot and dry July 4th here in Mississippi. The hot part is to be expected this time of year, but it seems like forever since we've had any rain (at least here in Hattiesburg). I fear that my neighbors' excessive use of fireworks will not be deterred by what has to be extreme fire danger.

Amidst whatever celebrating you plan to do today, I just wanted to call your attention to something else worth celebrating. According to an article by Katrina vanden Huevel in the most recent edition of The Nation,
...there are now more nontheists in America than Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Mormons and Jews combined...
I'm sure you've probably heard this before. But have you stopped for a moment and really let it sink in? I'm not sure I have, but that is one of the things on my to-do list for today.

H/T to Friendly Atheist

Most Americans Do Not Believe In Evolution

{{w|Kindergarten}} on the Ministry of Agricult...Image via Wikipedia

Pharyngula reports the results of an international survey conducted by the British Council assessing people's opinions about evolution. The results are not surprising, but they certainly aren't encouraging either. More than half of Americans do not believe in evolution. I desperately want to believe that we can do better, but I recognize that considerable effort will be required.

Anyone in Jackson Willing to Scout Billboard Locations?

I think it would be great to have an atheist billboard in Mississippi. It looks like the Freedom From Religion Foundation is interested in placing a billboard in every state and is especially interested in state capitals. According to their web page on the subject, this is what they need from us:
1. When you're out and about, take note of promising billboard sites and locations. Contact the billboard company (whose name is on the bottom of the board) to ask about availability and costs. Most companies will shoot you an email with a photograph, estimated daily traffic figures, and monthly costs. This information can be forwarded to Annie Laurie Gaylor.

If the board you're interested in isn't available, ask the company for suggestions of promising sites. FFRF relies on a local contact to scope out billboard locations and confirm they are in a good spot, that trees, etc., aren't obscuring their view, etc.

Once a location is agreed on, FFRF asks for a nonprofit rate (sometimes extended), and signs the contract directly.

What's a good site? As a nonprofit, FFRF has managed to find moderately priced billboards, but some have been less expensive in rural areas and a few flashy boards in urban areas far more expensive. A smaller "poster" billboard by the side of a downtown building in a nice area may actually be better than a high-priced billboard on a freeway. It's a bonus if the billboard location permits easy access for photographs by media (and souvenir photographs by members!).

Accessibility and visibility of a billboard site is probably more important than traffic estimates for FFRF purposes. Thousands may zoom past a billboard on the highway without heeding our sign. But a smaller billboard in a pleasant, well-known urban location (particularly by state capitols or courthouses, landmarks or tourist sites) may attract more media attention.

2. You may donate toward the billboard campaign. Some of the billboards placed in the past year by FFRF have been suggested and paid for entirely or partly by generous local members. Others have been paid for via the Billboard Fund, a pool of contributions collected for this purpose. (Just earmark your check or Paypal contribution for the "Billboard Fund.") All donations to the Foundation are deductible for income-tax purposes.
What do you think? Anyone in the Jackson area willing to do some scouting?