January 2016

Volume 15, Issue 1

Table of Contents

January 2016 Meeting

  • Who:  ADRIANNE LEIGH McEVOY, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Philosophy and Director, Great Conversations Honors Program, Mansfield University of Pennsylvania
  • When:  Monday, January 18, 2016, 6:30 to 9:00 p.m. (doors open at 6:00 p.m.)
  • Where: BUCKMAN BRIDGE UNITARIAN CHURCH, 8447 Manresa Ave., Jacksonville, FL 32244.  (From the I-295 Roosevelt exit, go north to the first traffic light, Collins Rd.  Turn right.  Go 400 ft.  The church driveway will be on your right.)

Meeting Description

What exactly is the role of empathy in medical decision making? More than most patients and providers realize. Autonomy is a fundamental principle in medical ethics. Understanding the patient's wishes is necessary in order to effect the patient's autonomy, yet many providers fail to appropriately empathize with their patients.  In her talk, Dr. McEvoy will look at four different conceptualizations of autonomy and the barriers—both practical and epistemic—to achieving empathy within the patient-provider relationship.

Meet the Speaker

Dr. Adrianne Leigh McEvoy is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Great Conversations Honors Program at Mansfield University which is a small, public, liberal arts school in North Central Pennsylvania. Her areas of interest include Philosophy of Medicine, Philosophy of Law, and Philosophy of Mind. Her specializations include applied and theoretical ethics. Her book, Will You Know My Pain, is an exploration into the practical and theoretical road blocks to effective pain management. When not sharing her passion for critical inquiry in the classroom, she can be found engaging her toddler, Conor, in exploring the world around him.

January 2016 President's Message

Earl Coggins

A recent guest columnist in the Florida Times-Union, Ken Hurley, Dec 15, 2015, brought up some needed observations regarding violence committed in the name of a god. Hurley alluded to an issue which deserves public scrutiny:  The holy texts associated with some of the world’s major religions promote discrimination and violence against certain categories of people, and many of the moderate adherents of these major religions are turning their heads the other way when acts of violence can be traced back to these holy texts.

The column also exposed an interesting fact: People who commit violence in the name of god believe they know what god wants. I want to take this conversation one step further.

How does anyone “know” anything about a god or gods at all? Knowledge of any god comes from what a person reads or hears from other people. How can anyone be sure the claims made by any religious writings or conversations are actually true, especially when the source of these conversations and writings comes from religious documents dating back to the Bronze and Iron Ages, approximately 2000 to 5000 years ago?

Two equally implausible characters who supposedly lived in the distant past, one long since denigrated as purely mythical, the other still widely regarded as historical despite a lack of one shred of evidence that he actually existed or did the things attributed to him.  And he was a lot less fun than the mythical guy.

The god hypothesis is scientifically untestable, which makes it an extraordinary claim. Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence, but this issue need not be restricted to scientists. The idea that a sentient being, god, actually exists and is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient warrants serious inquiry at all levels of life; and given the fact that historically there has been entirely too much war and violence committed in the name of a god, it’s way past time for this taboo subject to be thoughtfully analyzed by the lay person. It’s not difficult to think it through once we remove the taboo that religion and the existence of a god or gods cannot be discussed, scrutinized, or challenged.

How does anyone know God exists? How does anyone know the nature of a god? How can anyone claim to speak on behalf of a god?  When people claim to know what god wants, what they are really saying is that they know what their religious texts mandate, and the whole world needs to abide by those religious texts.

What constitutes a god? How does one discern who and what is a god? What are the criteria—the check list—for evaluating who gets to be a god? How often do the world’s Christians actually think about the god of Christianity and the tenets of Christianity? Do Christians take time to understand that their god is actually three distinct entities? This trinity in actuality means that “God the god” is also “Jesus the Savior” and is also the “Holy Ghost,” a bodiless spirit.

An analytical summation of the ethos of Christianity goes something like this: Before there was a Christian Trinity, there was a duality—God the god and God the Holy Ghost. God the Holy Ghost came to earth and impregnated Mary so that God in the form of Jesus could be born as a human. This was done without sexual intercourse, hence the term "virgin birth." God as Jesus, once born, would then be killed as a human sacrifice so that other humans could be saved from eternal death, because God the god says humans have an inherently deviant nature. God as Jesus then rises after being sacrificed and dead for three days and ascends into Heaven to be with his father, God the god.

If God and Jesus are the same person, what exactly was sacrificed? If this was all planned out by God the god in the first place, what was given up to save us? Why do we need to be saved? Are we really supposed to believe that all humans are born defective, deviant, and sinful? From birth? Really? If this all sounds far fetched, it might be because it is far fetched.

Yet another holy absurdity— full of holes.

If I said I am a god, how would anyone disprove my claim? If you can’t disprove that I am a god, how can you prove anything about the gods purported to exist? Is it possible that god does not exist and is merely a human creation from a time thousands of years ago, when people did not have a good understanding of nature and the cosmos? These are observations and questions that all thinking people should be pondering. Aloud.

I think it’s time for the lay person to frequently speak his or her mind. The freethought movement is never going to get anywhere quickly as long as its voice is limited to Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. All of us need to speak out about the real root cause of religious violence: belief that a god knows what is best for humanity.

Membership Dues are Due in January!

Judy Hankins, Membership Chair

Many thanks

to those of you who have renewed!  However many of you still have not. We hope you are planning to renew.  Whether you are a current renewing member or a member from the past, or a new member, we look forward to hearing from you. If we do not hear from you soon, we'll send out a snail mail reminder for your convenience. Remember also, multiple levels of membership are available, should you choose. The First Coast Freethought Society is only as strong as its membership. Our presence is needed in the community and to continue that, we need you!

To Join or Renew

All membership dues and donations are tax-deductible, and you will receive a letter from the treasurer to that effect for IRS purposes.

Thinking (Freely) About the Death Penalty

Joque Soskis

Since all political questions these days must be stated as either/or propositions (what we are "for" or "against," or what we "believe in," or don't), I will begin by saying that I oppose the death penalty entirely, categorically, and in all cases whatsoever. Having got up on this soapbox, I feel obliged to state my views on the issues that one might find persuasive in this connection, together with the weight I give to each. 

A. Inherent justice (0.0%).

I do not deny that it might be theoretically possible to construct a just society, even a decent one, in which one could, having reached adulthood and being of normal intelligence, forfeit one's right to live through horrible, repeated, intentional, premeditated conduct. For example (and assuming that he was correctly convicted), I can think of no argument that could be made by John Allen Muhammad, the D.C. sniper, to the effect that putting him to death would deprive him of justice.

B. Cruel and unusual punishment is prohibited (see U.S. Constitution, Amendment VIII) (0.0%).

To violate the 8th Amendment, a punishment must be both cruel and unusual.
Execution is obviously not unusual. Therefore, the question is whether it is inherently cruel (which the Supreme Court has carefully avoided saying). So if a given method of execution is not cruel, then it could pass constitutional muster.
Our present attempts to use lethal injection have many intractable problems, not the least of which is that medically trained personnel are prevented from participation, and correctional personnel are inexpert.

Lethal injection in action

Suppose however, that a particular method was not inherently cruel (in that it would not impose pain or suffering beyond that occasioned by contemplating one's own death). For example, the condemned could be secured in a comfortable recliner in a small space, with his or her favorite music playing, and have a very powerful sedative administered by intramuscular injection. (This can readily be taught to non-medical personnel.) Once the sedative had taken effect, the air could be pumped out of the room at the same rate at which an inert gas was pumped in (reducing the oxygen concentration while keeping the atmospheric pressure normal). Helium and nitrogen, for instance, are colorless and odorless, do not produce the splitting headache typical of carbon monoxide poisoning, and would not produce the hypercapnic alarm response (a result of elevated carbon dioxide levels). The condemned person would simply get drowsy and then fall asleep, and death would soon follow.
So then we would have a method which is neither cruel nor unusual. I am still unalterably opposed to it. Here's why.

C. Puppies cannot have rights (15.0%).

Legal positivists make the argument that it is pointless to talk of rights inhering in anyone (or anything) that cannot enforce them. In this view, it makes no more sense to base laws against cruelty to puppies (just the most heart-wrenching case of cruelty to animals generally) on the rights of puppies, than it would to discuss the rights of unicorns. (Children and the mentally disabled have their rights enforced by their parents or guardians.)
However, a powerful argument for prohibiting, preventing (and when necessary, punishing) cruelty to puppies can be grounded in the notion that permitting or ignoring cruelty to puppies is destructive of the humanity of the people who commit it, and the society that permits or ignores it. In effect, it can be said that a society has the right to prohibit whatever is dehumanizing.
It is dehumanizing for a society to permit cruelty to puppies, it is by analogy comparably destructive to us as a society to put human beings to death. Nevertheless, this comprises only a small part of my opposition to the death penalty.

Unfortunately it was all too easy to find lots of photos of cruelty to puppies, but ye olde softy editor found them all too heartbreaking to use. So here's one of a cute, unmutilated puppy instead.

D. Errors (85.0%).

The overwhelming majority of my opposition to the death penalty arises from the secure knowledge that we make mistakes. We make mistakes in arrests, in deciding what charges to bring, in criminal trials (eyewitness testimony, flawed forensics, perjury by officials, racially unbalanced juries), in sentencing decisions, and in appeals. We have made them in the past, we make them today, and we will continue to make them in the future. This is indisputably established by the number of exonerations of death row inmates that have occurred since the advent of DNA analysis.
And given the fact that only some of these mistakes will be identified and corrected before the defendant is executed, retaining the death penalty necessarily means that we will put to death (further) innocent people, or people guilty only of non-capital crimes. Any half-assed mathematician can prove it to you. (I can't prove it to you mathematically, because I never advanced that far in mathematics.)
The effects of these errors fall overwhelmingly on the poor and disadvantaged, but that is not the point. No one should support any government policy that inevitably carries out wrongful death sentences and, since there is no way to render the system flawless, must be abandoned.  Now.

Olive Garden - January 26

  • WhereOLIVE GARDEN on Philips Highway, across from the Avenues Mall. Ask for us at the desk. The hostesses will show you to our room.
  • When: Tuesday, JANUARY 26, 2016, at 6:00 p.m. Social hour at 6:00. Dinner at 7:00. We order from the menu.
  • RSVP: E-mail (or call 904-268-8826) by Tuesday morning, if you plan to attend. This is a great way to learn more about the FCFS and meet members and friends. You do not need to be a member to attend!

State - Church Separation Update

A regular feature of the First Coast FreeThinker

In this feature, you will be kept apprised of the actions of the First Coast Freethought Society, the local AU chapters which include AU of Northeast Florida and the Clay County Chapter, as well as AU on the national level. If separation of state and church issues are important to you, we encourage you to first join the First Coast Freethought Society, then join AU!

If We Don't Speak Up, We Get What We Deserve!

Merrill Shapiro, Trustee, National Board of Trustees, Americans United For Separation of Church and State

Have you ever heard the argument “We’re wrong, but we’ve been wrong for such a long time that it must be right?”  It’s an argument used by the U.S. Supreme Court to support religious invocations on the part of legislatures, particularly in both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives.  It must be noted that only a fraction of those using the “it’s grandfathered (why is it never “grandmothered?”) in” argument actually believe they are wrong at all!
Now comes the City of Deland, Florida whose government leaders have received notice of a complaint about the cross displayed so prominently in its city seal!  It is quite true that the seal, as it appears today, cross and all, was adopted 131 years ago!  It may also be true that the founders chose the seal’s design to express the “faith, hope and charity” as is pointed out by City Attorney Darren Elkind. "Nothing in the history of the city's seal suggests that it was adopted to promote any particular religion or even religion in general," Elkind said recently. City Manager Michael Pleus has told that the seal has "been in place since the date of incorporation…it's an important part of our history… and in 131 years, we've never had a complaint about our seal."
It may be true that the seal has been used for 131 years.  Does that make it right?  It is also true that women in the United States were not permitted to vote for more than 131 years!  That didn’t make denying half the country’s adults access to the ballot box right!
It was that statement by City Attorney Darren Elkind though, that caught the attention of many.  It may be that Deland’s city seal was not “adopted to promote any particular religion or even religion in general.” But “promoting religion” is not the issue.  It is more about public approval of religion. 
City Attorney Elkind’s stand, along with Jacksonville City Attorney Jason Gabriel’s arguments against interfering with the city’s long-standing policy of invocations that comport with Baptist beliefs that led to a question addressed to Americans United for Separation of Church and State’s Richard Katskee, Director of the organization’s Legal Department.  The question arose during a forum Katskee led during AU’s annual leadership meeting in Washington DC.
“Mr. Katskee, in general, what is the level of understanding of most city attorneys with respect to issues relating to the separation of church and state?”  “Well,” Katskee responded, “all of them have had to take ‘Connie Law,’ a course on Constitutional Law.  Issues relating to the understanding of the separation of church and state were probably covered during the last 10 minutes of the last class of the semester!” 
The only way to help these City Attorneys get a proper education is for you, dear reader, and I, all of us together, to maintain a watchful eye and speak up when we see these violations.  If we are silent, we’ll only get what we deserve!!

To Donate to the FCFS

Carrie Renwick, Fundraising Chair

The 2015 NPR Corporate Sponsorship fund drive is over and was successful thanks to you!  We will not actively seek funds until next summer's Annual NPR fund drive. However, donations are critical to the health of the FCFS, as membership dues barely cover operating expenses. If you want to see the FCFS remain strong and continue putting on events such as April's Freedom of Speech Panel Discussion, you might consider contributing before next summer's NPR fund drive. In addition to joining at a higher level of membership, here are two ways in which to contribute. Many thanks for your continued support.

 To Donate on a Monthly Basis

  1. Go to the FCFS website home page,, click "Join, Renew, Donate" where you will find a PayPal button to make an automatic monthly donation to our NPR fund. Automatic monthly donations via PayPal require you to have a PayPal account.
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The Road to and from Extreme Religious Liberty

Marci A. Hamilton

[Editor's note: This article was originally published in the November/December issues of The Humanist magazine and is reprinted here with the kind permission of the author.]
At the founding of the United States, James Madison drafted the First Amendment; his view was that there is such a thing as too much liberty. The larger culture also believed that you could have such a thing as too much liberty, and they had a name for it: “licentiousness.” Many state constitutions excluded acts of licentiousness and placed peace and safety limits on the right to free exercise of religion.
Dangerously, in our modern era we’ve temporarily lost the ability to talk about too much liberty. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”) and the thousands of religious exemptions granted without thought for the persons harmed have allowed religious accommodation that yields too much to the believer and harms too many affected by the believers’ conduct. Fortunately, the extreme rights awarded, via RFRA, to the craft store chain Hobby Lobby by the Supreme Court in 2014 set off an alarm that many in society are hearing.

The reason I wrote the first edition of God vs. The Gavel is because legislators are unnaturally deferential to religious entities. So, when a bishop sweeps in and says, “No, no, no. Don’t change the statute of limitations on child sex abuse because you’ll hurt us,” members of legislatures across the country respond, “Oh, you’re right, I don’t want to hurt religion.” There was a time when it was easy to assume that religious actors never harmed anybody. That’s long past, right? We’re in a war against radical Islamists. We’re not in a war against people who don’t have any religious faith. It’s religious faith that knows no limits. An extreme religious faith is the basis of our war. You can’t talk about religious actors not doing harm anymore. You can’t talk about clergy sex abuse not existing, because it does, and it is now, finally, being investigated by the press.

An-all-too-common variation of headlines of the last several years, exposing crimes kept under wraps for centuries.

So we’ve won with the press. They’re now covering religious figures making mistakes and committing crimes against the vulnerable. There was a time—it was an interesting time—when if the New York Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, or the Los Angeles Times caught wind of a religious actor doing something wrong, they would quash the story. They wouldn’t cover it because they thought their readership didn’t want to hear it. That’s no longer true; those stories are now on the front page. That’s why we now know about the fundamentalist Mormons abusing their children. That’s why we know about clergy sex abuse. That’s really why we can talk about the War on Terror in ways that we couldn’t before.

I assume most if not all of you have heard of RFRA (pronounced “riff-ruh”) by now. RFRA, which stands for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, is a threat to sound public policy because it was built on propaganda, it is sold on propaganda, and it is perpetuated via propaganda. My view, as an educator and public intellectual, is that it is my job to uncover where the propaganda lies, because it’s the truth that will get us back to liberty and off the ledge of licentiousness.

The RFRA story began in 1990. I was clerking for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the peyote case, Employment Division vs. Smith, in which the Court held that if you’re a religious believer and drug counselor, and you’ve violated the state drug laws, you can be fired and made ineligible for unemployment compensation. The First Amendment is not a defense in those circumstances. Yet, it was not the end of religious liberty: the Court approvingly pointed to legislative accommodation for the use of peyote in several states. The religious and civil liberties factions wrongly responded, however, that legislatures are not accommodating enough and that they needed to be able to use the First Amendment to obtain true religious liberty.
The response to the Smith decision was an overreaction that was fueled by the disappointment of religious litigators and lobbyists whose campaign since the 1960s to radically increase rights to avoid neutral, generally applicable laws had been firmly rejected. They had been seeking an extreme standard, and while the Court had never granted it before, not until Smith was it crystal clear they would never receive extreme protection from the Supreme Court.
The anti-polygamy case in the late nineteenth century, Reynolds v. United States, was the first free exercise case. If a law is neutral (i.e., it’s not discriminatory) and if it’s generally applicable (i.e., it applies to everybody who does the same thing), the First Amendment does not relieve the actor of the force of the law. So the Court (and lower courts) have repeatedly held that any law that is neutral and generally applicable applies to everyone. For example, the person who is late to church and who runs a red light is just as guilty as the person who runs a red light on the way to the store. Your faith does not relieve you of such general laws. Similarly, the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act is constitutional under the First Amendment. The only reason that Hobby Lobby now stands where it stands with an ability not to provide contraception to its female employees is because of RFRA. RFRA has displaced the First Amendment in the vast majority of cases. The cry now should be to return the First Amendment to religious liberty.
The bottom line in Smith was that drug counselors didn’t have a constitutional right to use illegal drugs. Still, the result was a net increase in religious liberty, as Native American church members fanned out across the country and asked for exemptions from the drug laws in each state, and in every state in which they requested an exemption, they received it. In other words, the net result, which triggered all that we’re living with today, was in fact an increase in religious liberty. They lost at the Supreme Court, but they won in every legislature to consider the issue. Regardless, its proponents pushed for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Congress, which would implement the extreme standard they had demanded for decades but definitively lost in the Smith decision.

Ritual sacrifice of a goat.

Three years later, the Supreme Court decided the Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah. This case involved animal sacrifice during religious ceremonies by the Santerians. Neighbors of the church objected to the part of the ritual where the sacrificed, bleeding animal landed on the street. But let’s face it, Hialeah wanted to be rid of the Santerians, not just have them engage in more sanitary disposal. It was a drive to get rid of a religious minority.

In that case, the Church of Lukumi Babalu asked again for an extreme level of protection. They wanted what would amount to a right to licentiousness, a right to tailor the law to their personal faith. Five months before RFRA became law, what happens? The church demands this extreme standard for laws that are not neutral or generally applicable, arguing that the government must prove it has a compelling interest and that the interest is served in the “least restrictive means” for this believer. The Santerians won, but the Court also rejected the church’s extreme test, as it had under every other prior case. Again, the net result was a net plus for religious liberty.

Still, RFRA’s proponents persisted in telling Congress that the Court had “abandoned” religious liberty and demanded a statute with the extreme standard rejected in Smith and Church of Lukumi. That statute is RFRA. Therefore, in the two free exercise cases that led up to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, religious liberty won. But RFRA was still sold to Congress and the president as needed. Religious liberty supposedly had been “abandoned” and we supposedly needed a law to enact the standard that was rejected in Church of Lukumi five months before.
What’s wrong with RFRA? I’ll tell you what’s wrong with RFRA: it has a misleading title, a misleading lobby, and opaque content. Other than that, it’s a really great law. (I’m joking.)
FIRST THE MISLEADING TITLE. It’s called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Yet, it doesn’t restore anything. It introduces a new standard never before employed by the Supreme Court in a free exercise case, whether the case involves a neutral law or a discriminatory law. Kudos though to whoever named it because it is a nearly impossible name for a legislator to vote against, regardless of content.
After we prevailed in Boerne v. Flores (I represented the city of Boerne, Texas) and the Court held RFRA unconstitutional in 1997, it was then sold across the states. In Indiana, like all the rest, it was touted as a law that simply codifies a prior, ordinary standard. That is nothing short of a lie. In fact, RFRA does two things: it imposes a new, extreme standard on discriminatory laws, and it does the same for the laws that are neutral and generally applicable, e.g., nondiscriminatory.
THE MISLEADING LOBBY. The Coalition for the Free Exercise of Religion supported RFRA. Why was it misleading? It was every major religious group in the country plus the ACLU, People for the American Way, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Now, there were groups that weren’t part of that coalition, and they didn’t want the members of Congress to think about them when it agreed to pass RFRA. Al Qaeda; The Children of God, which was a Berkeley-based sex cult that believed that children starting at age three should have sex with everybody in the cult; The Church of Satan; The Ku Klux Klan; The World Church of the Creator—none of these groups were named. Why? Because you had to whitewash all religious conduct to let people think that RFRA was a good idea. If you didn’t whitewash it, they knew that they would never get it passed.
The lobbying for RFRA was misleading because they characterized it as all mom and apple pie. It’s not. They also didn’t bother to mention the main agenda behind the original RFRA, which was not to get peyote to the Native American Church. The main agenda had to do with the fact that conservative Christians were losing the fight against fair housing laws in the states. They didn’t want to have to rent to unmarried couples, single mothers, or gay couples. They were losing that political fight. They needed RFRA to be able to trump the laws. The only way RFRA’s critics learned of this agenda was when someone shared with me the Christian Legal Society’s letter to legislators when we were fighting the California RFRA. I don’t remember the details of how I received that fax, but it was eye-opening. Perhaps an act of God. I was shocked, frankly. I had bought into the public story that this was all about peyote, but it was really about keeping people out of apartments based on religion.

OPAQUE CONTENT. The language of “least restrictive means” was new for the courts but the whole statute—which is nothing other than constitutional law gobbledygook—is hard for people or the press to understand. RFRA is triggered if there is a “substantial burden” on the believer; at that point, the government must prove a “compelling interest” in the law that is accomplished through the “least restrictive means.” All three terms have posed opaque puzzles to the public and the press. Hobby Lobby argued that providing cost-free contraception as part of its health care plan imposed a “substantial burden” on its belief that some of the contraceptives were abortifacients and that the government did not have a compelling interest in women receiving cost-free contraception and even if it did, including cost-free contraception in their plan was not the “least restrictive means” of serving the government’s interest. What would be less restrictive? According to the Court: have the government pay for it. This is something that’s politically infeasible; it will never happen. In other words, the least restrictive means is whatever is needed to accommodate the believer, without regard to whether such a law would ever be passed. In effect, RFRA makes the judiciary a superlegislature, with judges second-guessing any legislative or legal rule if it imposes a burden on any believer and any belief.
LOBBYING PROPAGANDA. Then the RFRA fire was spread into the states. What is all the propaganda in the states? You hear repeatedly that RFRA was passed “unanimously.” You don’t hear that from the major media outlets anymore, because I resorted to contacting editors and reporters whenever this misrepresentation was made to correct the record. No reporter worth their salt should be spreading such propaganda. Fact: it was never passed unanimously in Congress. It was passed by “unanimous consent.” Unanimous consent is the procedure by which nobody is present except some members of leadership and the opposition has left the building.

Thanks to RFRA, among other misguided laws as well as Supreme Court decisions, corporations such as Hobby Lobby have more liberties than individuals in the "land of the free."

It’s also untrue that bipartisan support for RFRA continues. Groups like the ACLU have now peeled off in embarrassment that they were ever in favor of it in the first place.

Twenty states currently have RFRAs, with thirty left to go, though it does appear that the momentum has slowed dramatically. There is a movement to amend RFRA, if not repeal it, in Congress, and to institute civil rights for the LGBTQ community in federal and state laws. By their very existence, these movements show that the pendulum of religious liberty is swinging away from its most extreme apex in American history to date. There is, however, a way forward for religious liberty that everybody needs to understand. It’s what we were doing before 1990, except we weren’t being explicit enough about it. We should return to the First Amendment’s doctrine, repeal RFRA, and when there’s a request for a religious exemption from a law, four issues need to be considered. Until they’re raised, discussed, and understood, no accommodation should happen.
  1. Which law is going to be affected? Don’t talk to me about “every law” as in the blind accommodation that is RFRA. Tell legislators and the public specifically which law will be affected.
  2. Indeed, the RFRAs should be rejected and repealed. The way to win in any legislature is to make five phone calls. Every legislator thinks that the house is on fire if they get five calls in the same day on the same issue—five. So if you can find four friends to join you in calling your elected representative on the same day—it’s hard to believe but the accumulation of a few individual voices can make a difference in a particular electoral district.
  3. Who wants to overcome this law? Demand the truth. Is it the Christian Legal Society not wanting to rent to unmarried couples? Conservative Christians with an agenda to block contraception generally?
  4. Who will be harmed? Are you going to raise this defense in child sex abuse cases involving clergy as RFRA is now raised routinely in twenty states?
What is the hurry? There is no reason to provide religious exemption in a legislative text overnight. It should be aired. It should be debated. It should not be assumed it’s always good. Because now that we’ve reached the level of licentiousness, we need to return to common sense and start thinking: Who are we going to harm if we provide too much religious liberty? There really is such a thing as too much religious liberty. Those harmed by it, which I catalogue in God vs. the Gavel: The Perils of Extreme Religious Liberty, know this all too well.

[Editor's note:  If you wish to learn more about RFRA, next month's speaker, Toni Van Pelt, will speak on the RFRA and its dangers to secular society and government.]

You need to be a member of the FCFS Humanist Book Discussion - Jacksonville MEETUP GROUP in order to RSVP to attend book discussions, to be kept apprised of meeting locations and details, and to suggest books for discussion. We look forward to your participation! To join the Meetup: 

Humanist Book Discussion Group - Jacksonville

  • When:  The first Sunday of each month. For time, visit Meetup group.
  • Where:  Different locations in Jacksonville. To learn where, visit Meetup group.
  • What:  Books planned for discussion:
    • February 7, 2016 - Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue, by Sam Harris & Maajid Hawaz
    • March 6, 2016 - God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law, by Marci A. Hamilton
In this short book, Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz invite you to join an urgently needed conversation: Is Islam a religion of peace or war? Is it amenable to reform? Why do so many Muslims seem drawn to extremism? What do words like Islamism, jihadism, and fundamentalism mean in today’s world?

Remarkable for the breadth and depth of its analysis, this dialogue between a famous atheist and a former radical is all the more startling for its decorum. Harris and Nawaz have produced something genuinely new: they engage one of the most polarizing issues of our time―fearlessly and fully―and actually make progress.

Islam and the Future of Tolerance has been published with the explicit goal of inspiring a wider public discussion by way of example. In a world riven by misunderstanding and violence, Harris and Nawaz demonstrate how two people with very different views can find common ground.
To join the FCFS Humanist Book Discussion Group - Jacksonville MEETUP group, click here:

Humanist Book Discussion Group - St. Augustine

  • When:  7:00 - 8:30 p.m., the second Thursday of each month.
  • Where:  Clubhouse at a private condominium in St. Augustine (Anastasia Island).
  • What:  Books planned for discussion:
    • February 11, 2016 - The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, by Jeff Sharlet
    • March 12, 2016 - Reclaiming Conversation: the Power of Talk in a Digital Age, by Sherry Turkle.
They insist they are just a group of friends, yet they funnel millions of dollars through tax-free corporations. They claim to disdain politics, but congressmen of both parties describe them as the most influential religious organization in Washington. They say they are not Christians, but simply believers.

Behind the scenes at every National Prayer Breakfast since 1953 has been the Family, an elite network dedicated to a religion of power for the powerful. Their goal is "Jesus plus nothing." Their method is backroom diplomacy. The Family is the startling story of how their faith—part free-market fundamentalism, part imperial ambition—has come to be interwoven with the affairs of nations around the world.

From the product overview at  

Link to Book Review:

More Info:  Contact coordinator Sheila Harty at, or call 904-826-0563 for location, directions, and gate code.  We hope you can join us!

NOTE TO ALL!  Books may be found in the library, purchased from local book stores or online. The First Coast Freethought Society will receive a small remuneration from your purchase (at no additional cost to you) if you first go to and then click the link to for your purchase.

Now, our Correspondent in Thailand...

Thai Politics

Steven Lance Stoll

(Sociologist Lance Stoll, long-time member and friend of the First Coast Freethought Society, is currently living and teaching in Thailand.  He shares his views from afar. —Editor's Note)
In my year in Thailand I haven’t been involved in political matters nor would I be permitted to as a foreigner, but I have been observing.  What I have noticed here may be of interest to my American readers as this is a fascinating culture and people.

I have found the Thai people to be warm, welcoming and kind and also among the most stubborn of people I have ever known!  Remember that this country is among the only countries on the planet that was never colonized by western European nations.  Nearby Laos, Cambodia, and Viet Nam had the “good pleasure” of being French colonies. On the other side, Burma (Miramar) as well as India and Singapore had the “kindness” of the British.  The Philippines had a hundred years of Spanish domination and then Americans after the Spanish American War.  Only the Thais managed to resist the self-ingratiating presence of the European powers.  The book Anna and the King and play "The King and I" gave a fictionalized account of the methods the Thais used, but King Rama IV who ruled Siam at the time was a shrewd fellow!  He knew that Siam could not resist a military intervention by a European nation.  Instead of waiting for this to happen, he invited the English to become involved….he made friends with the British! He opened Thai society to English companies and people and eventually made it unnecessary for Britain to invade. It really is an amazing feature of Thailand that it is a country that has been making its own decisions for over 2500 years or so.  It truly is a land of peace. Yes,  there have been some military defeats at the hands of others, like the Burmese,  the Japanese forced an uncomfortable association during world war 2 and the Americans similarly during the Viet Nam war, but all in all, Thailand has remained independent all of its long history.  


King Mongkut (r. 1851-1868) and the future King Chulalongkorn (r. 1868-1910), aka Kings Rama IV and V, of Siam.  Both played key roles in keeping foreign powers from colonizing their kingdom, which would become officially known as Thailand in 1949.  Yul Brynner portrayed Rama IV in the film, "The King and I."

This independent streak may be one of the reasons for the stubbornness. In an earlier column I told you about mai pen rai (go with the flow). Well, one learns here that there is a right way, a wrong way, and a Thai way to do everything. Rather than pointing out better ways to do things one comes to realize that the mai pen rai thing to do is leave it alone. Thais will continue to do it (whatever it is) the Thai way! From the way they run education here to the ridiculous visa system in which you have to leave the country in order to re-enter, the Thai way isn’t the most efficient or even the most logical methodology. Thai people don’t get angry waiting in lines or in traffic, they go with the flow! One long weekend in July we spent over 10 hours in bumper-to-bumper traffic from 30 miles or so south of Bangkok to 30 miles or so north of Bangkok. People would have been murdered in the U.S., here, people moved slowly, patiently and pulled over to the side to sleep before getting back in line. 

Thai politics is no more logical. They have had like 15 coups here in the last 20 years or so, 13 of them successful. In 2014, just before I arrived, an elected Prime Minister was thrown out in a military coup, and the country put under military rule. We are now nearly 2 years into a military dictatorship, but you sure don’t feel much at the grassroots level. The average lives of average people go on as before. For the rich and powerful, I am sure a great deal has changed. The new junta claims to be trying to end all corruption and has TV commercials promoting good virtues and asking Thai people to come together as one. Prior to the coup, there were two political organizations known as the Yellow and the Red. Now, it’s important to know that there are a variety of colors here that have great significance. Yellow is the color of the king, blue of his queen and purple of the princess.  All the people of Thailand love their king. He is much more than simply a man; he represents the culture and the heart of Thailand. The absolute monarchy ended a long time ago, and this king has been limited in a constitutional monarchy, but he is very popular and powerful  He is also very wealthy, among the richest in the world.  Most Thais love their king. But, there are several schisms, one about the family of the king and the monarchy in general. The king is 87 and in poor health. In Thailand only men can be monarchs, so his wife, who is a very popular queen, cannot govern. The crown will go to his very unpopular son who has been embroiled in personal and marital difficulties and is not well liked. His sister the princess is very popular and sponsors educational and health activities all over the country but will not become ruler. So, who is Yellow and Red? Yellow is a more conservative movement from BKK and the south that favors the monarchy, the military, and the police. The Red is the party of the former prime minister. It loves the king, too, but opposes the monarchy and it is based in Chang mai in the north of the country. I don’t know who the good guys or the bad guys are, if there are any clear delineations.  And both love this king! Thai politics is quite complicated and most Thai people don’t want to discuss it. When the king dies, some think we will be thrown into a violent uprising, others fear the Prince and his government. I'm not not sure about any of that, but I know that the average Thai person will be very sad.  They love this king and know no other. He has reigned over 60 years! He has been involved in construction and farming activities all over the nation, and his wife revived the Thai silk industry. His daughter opens schools and builds hospitals all over Thailand and hands out diplomas at graduation. This is not a quiet, out of touch royal family.  They are very active in the lives of the people of this kingdom. The king has also invited us foreigners to this country and treated us well here.  So we, too, are concerned about the transition. At this point, for me personally, I must simply join Thais in that old refrain, “long live the king.”

King Bhumibol Adulyadej, aka Rama IX, born in 1927 and crowned in 1946, with Queen Consort Sirikit and Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, of the current royal family of Thailand.

About our newsletter, the First Coast FreeThinker

Information for Readers

The First Coast FreeThinker is published for all freethinkers and potential freethinkers.  Nonmembers and members may receive the e-mail version indefinitely.  Nonmembers may receive three hard-copy issues free, after which they must join the FCFS to continue to receive hard copy.  Members are entitled to receive hard-copy should they prefer.  The e-mail version is encouraged, as the newsletter is optimized for on-screen reading.

Readers are invited and encouraged to share our original materials provided they give credit to this publication.  The officials of the FCFS are not responsible for opinions or other statements expressed in this newsletter.  The FreeThinker is intended to convey ideas that stimulate thought and promote discussion on a variety of subjects.

Information for Contributors

We welcome submissions.  Articles, poetry, etc. should be e-mailed to   Material must be submitted ELECTRONICALLY.   Submissions may be formatted in MS Word, in a text file, or cut and pasted into an e-mail.

The deadline for time-sensitive material is the THIRD SATURDAY of each month for the following month’s issue, but submissions are welcome anytime.

We prefer articles no longer than 1,000 words.  Longer articles will be evaluated in terms of whether their importance and degree of interest to our readers warrant publication. 

Subject matter must tie in with freethought or with the Affirmations of Humanism:  A Statement of Principles (found on our website).  All accepted submissions are subject to editorial modification.  Our style guide is The Chicago Manual of Style.  Authors (not the First Coast Freethought Society) are responsible for the accuracy of all quotations and for supplying complete references where applicable.

Several First Coast freethinkers attended the last Reason Rally in 2012 and here's notice of the next one, coming up on June 4, 2016, in Washington, D.C.  Go to for more details.

About the First Coast Freethought Society

First Coast Freethought Society, Inc.
P.O. Box 550591
Jacksonville, FL 32255-0591

Statement of Purpose

The First Coast Freethought Society, Inc. is an educational, nonprofit, 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization dedicated to supporting nonreligious persons in the Northeast Florida area and promoting a nontheistic approach to everyday life.


If you share our world view and would like to be a part of the FCFS, we encourage you to join.  If you are new, or if you are renewing and your contact info has changed, you can pick up an application or a brochure at a meeting, or you can download and print an application on our website: and mail it in.


The FCFS meets the THIRD Monday of each month at the Buckman Bridge Unitarian Universalist Church, 8447 Manresa Ave., Jacksonville, FL 32244. 

Directions:  From the I-295 Roosevelt exit, go north to the first traffic light, Collins Rd.  Turn right. Go 400 feet. The church driveway will be on your right.

Meeting time:  6:30 to 8:30 p.m.  Doors open at 6:00 p.m.  Meetings are free and open to the public. 

Other Activities

  • Two monthly humanist book discussion groups, one in Jacksonville and one in St. Augustine. Current books are listed in each newsletter. For further details, visit
  • A monthly social and dinner at the Olive Garden. See details in each newsletter.
  • Secular Sunday in the Park - Coffee and conversation in the fresh air on a monthly basis. We meet the fourth Sunday of each month, 10:00 a.m. to noon, at Losco Regional Park, 10851 Hood Road South, Jax, 32257. See Activities section of the FCFS home page:
  • Dinners for Doubters (when scheduled).
  • The Dignity U Wear volunteer activity has been discontinued for the time being.  We will keep you posted.
  • Yahoo! Group for freethinkers. To subscribe, send a blank message to
For information on all these activities, please visit, or see the calendar of events at the end of each newsletter and on the website. You need not be a member to attend these activities!

FCFS 2015 Board Members

President - Earl Coggins:  904-521-5039
Vice President - Carrie Renwick:  904-268-8826
Secretary - Liz DuClose:  352-260-2880
Treasurer - Stephen Peek:  904-742-5390
At-Large - Herb Gerson:  904-363-6446
At-Large - Fred Hill:  904-358-3610
At Large - John Ruskuski:  904-419-8826

Other Appointments

Parliamentarian - Mark Renwick:  904-616-2896
E-mail Secretary - Carrie Renwick:  904-268-8826

Committees and Chairs

Community Outreach - Celia Abbruzzese:  904-982-8431
Editorial - Fred Hill:  904-358-3610
Finance - Stephen Peek:  904-742-5390
Fundraising - Carrie Renwick:  904-268-8826
Membership - Judy Hankins:  904-724-8188
Publicity - Carrie Renwick:  904-268-8826
Website - Mark Renwick:  904-616-2896

All FCFS personnel may be reached via e-mail at

February 2016 Meeting - RFRA

Carrie Renwick, Program Chair

On Monday, February 15, Toni Van Pelt, President, Institute for Science and Human Values, will speak on the "Religious Freedom Restoration Act and its Dangers to Secular Society and Government."  She will illuminate the history of RFRA and outline the damage it has done to date.


You can make a lasting impact on the future of
freethought and secular humanism in this community
…if you provide for the First Coast Freethought Society in your Will.

Your bequest will ensure that the FCFS continues to be a beacon for freethinkers
on the First Coast and remains a vital Voice of Reason in Northeast Florida.

Several options are available for establishing a bequest (specific, percentage, residual,
or contingent). We can provide the appropriate wording to you and your attorney,
depending upon your wishes. Or, just talk to your attorney.  Our EIN is 20-1462737.

For further information, contact
Carrie Renwick, PO Box 550591, Jacksonville, FL 32255-0591 or
904-419-8826 ● ●
All inquiries are held in the strictest confidence.

Northeast Florida Coalition of Reason

The FCFS is a proud member of the Florida Humanist Association.

Freethought Events on the First Coast

  • Monday, Jan. 18 - FCFS Monthly Meeting at Buckman Bridge Unitarian Church, 6:30 p.m.
  • Saturday, Jan. 23 - Submission deadline for the FCFS February 2016 newsletter
  • Sunday, Jan. 24 - FCFS Secular Sunday in the Park, Jacksonville, 10:00 a.m.
  • Tuesday, Jan. 26 - FCFS Monthly Social at Olive Garden, Jacksonville, 6:00 p.m.
  • Monday, Feb. 8 - JAM Session, 6:30 p.m. at the San Marco European Street Café (Date, time & place subject to change; please see for details.)
  • Monday, Feb. 15 - FCFS Monthly Meeting at Buckman Bridge Unitarian Church, 6:30 p.m.

Directions to Monthly Meeting

Regular monthly meetings are held at the BUCKMAN BRIDGE UNITARIAN UNIVERSALIST CHURCH, 8447 Manresa Ave., Jacksonville, FL 32244. The address is Manresa, but the main entrance to the church is located on Collins Rd.

  • From I-295, take the Roosevelt exit. Go north on Roosevelt Blvd. to the first traffic light which is Collins Rd. Turn right onto Collins. Go 400 feet. The main entrance to the church is located on Collins Rd., on the right.  
  • Going south on Roosevelt, look for Atlantic Self-Storage on the left. This is the Collins Rd. intersection. Turn left onto Collins. Go 400 feet. The main entrance to the church is on Collins Rd., on the right. (If you come to I-295, you’ve gone too far, turn around, and you will turn right onto Collins Rd.)

See accurate map at this link:  (Please note, Google Maps, as well as other maps, may not be consistent with the actual street signs.)

Membership Application

Use this PDF form   to print the application and mail it in with your check, or join on our website.
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