Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. FFRF.org

In the News (Jan/Feb 2019)

Vol. 36 No. 01 Jan/Feb 2019

Sinema gets sworn in on law book

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., began her first term as a U.S. senator by holding her hand on a law book for her ceremonial oath of office.

Sinema openly identifies as religiously unaffiliated, according to the Pew Research Center for Religion and Public Life, which is why she did not use the bible as a prop for her oath.

During the ceremony, Vice President Mike Pence concludes the oath by saying, “So help you God?” to which Sinema answered, “I do.” 

A spokesperson for the senator confirmed to The Arizona Republic that the book was from the Library of Congress and contained texts of the U.S. and Arizona constitutions.

“Kyrsten always gets sworn in on a Constitution simply because of her love for the Constitution,” Sinema’s spokesman John LaBombard told the Republic.

Sinema became Arizona’s first female senator and the first Democrat to win a Senate race in the state since 1988. Sinema is also the second openly LGBTQ person to be elected to the Senate, joining Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., who is lesbian.

Einstein’s ‘God letter’ auctioned for $2.9M

Albert Einstein’s so-called “God letter,” written in 1954, sold for nearly $2.9 million at an auction in New York on Dec. 4.

The Nobel Prize-winning scientist, then 74, wrote the one-and-a-half page note to German philosopher Eric Gutkind in response to one of his works.

It fetched almost double the auction house’s predicted price of between $1 million-$1.5 million.

In the letter, written in his native German, Einstein takes issue with the belief in God.

“The word God is for me nothing but the expression and product of human weaknesses,” he writes. “The bible is a collection of venerable but still rather primitive legends. . . . No interpretation, no matter how subtle, can [for me] change anything about this.”

Montana strikes down tax-credit program

The Montana Supreme Court on Dec. 12 struck down a state-run program that gives tax credits to people who donate to private-school scholarships, saying the program violates a constitutional ban against bestowing state aid to religious organizations.

The justices ruled 5-2 that the program giving tax credits of up to $150 for donations to organizations that provide scholarships to private-school students amounts to indirect aid to schools controlled by churches. There is a ban in the Montana Constitution on any direct or indirect state aid to such schools, regardless of how large or small the amount is, the opinion by Justice Laurie McKinnon said.

Poll: Americans trust clergy less than ever

The level of trust Americans have in members of the clergy has dropped to a record low, a recent Gallup survey suggests.

Gallup found that only 37 percent had a “very high” or “high” opinion of the honesty and ethical standards of clergy. Forty-three percent rated the clergy’s honesty and ethics as “average,” while 15 percent had low or very low opinions.

The 37 percent positive rating is the lowest Gallup has recorded for the clergy since it began examining views about religious leaders’ ethical standards in 1977.

Currently, only 31 percent of Catholics and 48 percent of Protestants rate the clergy positively, according to Gallup.

John Fea,  a professor of American history at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, said he thinks the prominence of the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandal this year may be contributing to a lack of trust in the clergy. 

Record low says religion can solve problems

A record low number of Americans says religion can serve as an answer to “all or most of today’s problems,” according to a Gallup poll.

The Gallup survey found that just 46 percent of respondents said religion can solve all or most of the world’s problems. It marked the first time in more than six decades of polling that less than half of Americans responded that way.

Meanwhile, 39 percent said that religion is “old-fashioned and out of date.” 

Americans’ perspectives on that issue are predictably divided based on how frequently they attend church, according to the poll. The poll found that 81 percent of people who attend church weekly say religion can answer today’s problems, while 58 percent of people who attend infrequently called church old-fashioned. 

‘In God We Trust’ now on Mississippi plates

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant introduced the state’s new “default” license plate, one that will automatically be given to anybody who needs it, which includes the state seal emblazoned with the phrase “In God We Trust.”

Those plates are now replacing the old plates that featured the guitar, a symbol representing blues legend B.B. King.

Bryant is the reason the religious phrase is on the state’s seal at all, the result of a bill he signed in 2014.

Nones rising, religion declining for many

More than one-third of Americans identify as atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular, according to a 2018 study by the American Family Survey.

This group, known collectively as Nones, make up 35 percent of the population, up 1 percent  from 2017.

“Though the change from year to year is small, there is a clear upward trend,” said Chis Karpowitz, one of the authors of the survey and a professor at Brigham Young University.

For Millennials and GenXers, the most common religion is no religion. The Nones claim 44 percent of the 18–29 age group, and 43 percent among those who are 30–44.

Also, less than half of Americans consider religion to be an “extremely” or “very” important part of their identity, according to a study by the American Family Survey. 

Judge blocks opt-outs for contraception coverage

A federal judge on Jan. 13 blocked Trump administration rules that would allow most businesses to opt out of covering contraception for their employees if they have moral or religious objections.

Judge Haywood Gilliam blocked the rules, which were set to go into effect Jan. 14, in 13 states and Washington, D.C. Gilliam granted a request for a preliminary injunction from those states, but limited the ban’s scope to only the case’s plaintiffs.

Saudi woman granted asylum in Canada

An 18-year-old Saudi woman who fled from her country and family, saying she feared for her life, has been granted asylum in Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said.

Rahaf Alqunun initially fled to Thailand to escape her family. When she arrived in Bangkok, she was at first denied entry, but then allowed to stay. But there were growing fears over her security as she remained in Bangkok, so she was taken to the Canadian embassy. 

Trudeau said the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees had asked Canada to take in Alqunun, who grabbed international attention this week after she barricaded herself in a Bangkok airport hotel room to resist being sent home to her family, which denies any abuse.