Atheist in Mississippi
Books
Books (Photo credit: Moyan_Brenn)
If you have a teen or young adult in the Hattiesburg area, consider letting them know about the Hattiesburg Young Adult Book Club, a community group focused on young adult literature. The club is sponsored by the Library of Hattiesburg, Petal, and Forrest County and the Department of English at Southern Miss.

What does this have to do with atheism, you ask? Not much of anything really. I suppose I see efforts like this aimed at getting young adults to read to be beneficial in promoting literacy and education. That strikes me as sufficiently valuable to share. And after all, it is National Library Week.

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colored waiting room
(Photo source: Wikipedia)
Gov. Phil Bryant signed SB 2681 yesterday. The Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act has passed and will take effect on July 1. We will now see “In God We Trust” added to our state seal even though many Mississippians do not believe in any sort of gods. We may also see businesses discriminating against LGBT individuals and then hiding behind their fundamentalist Christianity to excuse it. But most of all, Mississippi will retain its reputation for intolerance and bigotry, a reputation that has been devastating to the state’s economy, leads increasing numbers of bright young people to move away as soon as they are able, and has helped to keep us locked in a cycle of poverty.

Thank you to all who have been working so tirelessly in opposition to SB 2681. Clearly, our work is far from over. The good news is that your efforts have demonstrated to anyone paying attention that there is significant opposition to this legislation in Mississippi. We must now figure out how best to channel our opposition to this law into the sort of meaningful change that will move us closer to equality and the preservation of church-state separation.

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SB 2681 has passed both legislative chambers and is on Gov. Bryant’s desk awaiting his signature. Now is the time to let him hear from us. Please join me in calling today.


If you want to help but cannot call Gov. Bryant’s office, you can use the online form from Americans United for Separation of Church and State to send a message here.
The Great Seal of the State of Mississippi
Mississippi State Seal (Photo credit: chmeredith)
SB 2681, the controversial “Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” passed the state Senate, was amended by the House, and subsequently passed the House in amended form. In passing the legislation, the House sent the portion that appeared to permit religiously-based discrimination against LGBT individuals to a study committee. According to Deep South Progressive, this happened because Republican leadership was not confident that the bill had enough support to get through the House. It will likely return at some point, but it has not yet been passed.

Preventing the portion of SB 2681 from passing was a major accomplishment, and everyone who contributed to its defeat should be commended. It was encouraging to see Mississippians spreading the word and contacting their elected officials to express opposition to the bill. I’d like to extend special thanks to the Campaign for Southern Equality and Deep South Progressive for their efforts to inform and organize around defeating this legislation.

Unfortunately, something got lost amidst all the controversy around the “license to discriminate” portion of SB 2681. This bill also sought to add “In God We Trust” to Mississippi’s state seal, and this portion of the bill passed. For some Mississippi atheists, this addition to the state seal is purely symbolic and has little importance. For others, and I include myself here, this addition and the rationale for it are cause for concern.

At best, this addition to the state seal is inaccurate. The United States is not a Christian nation, and Mississippi is not a Christian state. There are many Mississippians who do not believe in the Judeo-Christian god and worship other gods instead. There are also many Mississippians who do not believe in any gods whatsoever. We do NOT trust your god.

At worst, this addition to the state seal is a form of symbolic bigotry. It divides Mississippi into the sort of people who are desired by our conservative Christian politicians (i.e., those who share their god-belief) and the rest of us. Adding this language to the state seal tells those of us who do not believe in gods that are not “real Mississippians” are are not wanted here. It also tells us that our elected officials, including Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, are not interested in representing all Mississippians or in protecting the separation of church and state.

As happy as I am that the anti-LGBT discrimination contained in SB 2681 has been prevented from passing so far, I am disappointed that adding “In God We Trust” to our state seal received so little coverage and generated so little controversy. This divisive expression of superstition does not belong on our state seal. And no, it does not belong on U.S. currency or in the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center either.

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Locator Map of Alamance County, North Carolina...
Alamance County, NC (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Abby Franklin, a senior at Elon University (Elon, NC), recently wrote an article about atheism for her school paper, The Pendulum. Ms. Franklin’s article, “Atheists nervous about coming out in southern states,” is likely to be of interest to atheists throughout the South. She notes that atheists living in many Southern states receive the message that atheism is unacceptable. I can’t help thinking that articles like hers are an important step on the path toward changing this sort of bigotry.

Some of the points Ms. Franklin makes in her article include:
  • Some states, including Mississippi, still prohibit atheists from holding public office.
  • Public professions of religious belief often seem necessary for Southern politicians, and this may have a “trickle-down effect” on atheist residents.
  • Minority groups throughout history have faced the challenge of overcoming destructive stereotyping by the majority, and atheists now have this task.
  • Atheism is increasing at the national level, but stigma remains problematic in much of the South.
  • The Internet has been instrumental in the growth of atheism.
I appreciate Ms. Franklin’s efforts to bring attention to this subject, and I hope that more will follow in her footsteps. Things are beginning to change for atheists at the national level, and this is certainly encouraging. But from the perspective of many of us here in the South, change at the local level is much slower and more difficult to spot.

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The Mississippi House has not yet voted on SB 2681, the thoroughly unnecessary “Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act” already passed by the Senate. The bill was supposed to come up for a vote on February 27 but instead went to committee for modification. According to Deep South Progressive, the controversial “right to discriminate” language remains in the amended version of the bill.
Those key parts of the bill, which LGBT activists feared would legitimize discrimination by businesses that claim “sincerely held religious belief” as the motivating factor, remain unchanged.
That is, the part of the legislation that most enraged supporters of equality remains in tact. This means that continued action is necessary.

Take Action!

If you do not want to see Mississippi allow religiously-based discrimination against LGBT persons, now is the time to do something about this legislation before it is passed by the House and signed by Gov. Phil Bryant. The Humans Right Campaign is making it easy for you to help out, regardless of where you live.
The amended legislation is expected to come up for a vote in the next few days, so act now.

What About the State Promotion of Religion?

In addition to permitting religiously-based discrimination, SB 2681 has church-state implications in that it will add “In God We Trust” to Mississippi’s state seal. It does not seem to matter to our legislators that there are plenty of Mississippians who do not believe in any sort of gods. I suppose we aren’t wanted here.

I must admit that I am puzzled about why we have not heard more about this from secular organizations like the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF). The rationale being offered for why it is necessary to add references to god seems like the sort of thing that would interest such organizations. And yet, I have been unable to find any mention of this bill on the FFRF’s website.

I think it is important that our elected officials hear from us about this too.

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stop SB 2681

SB 2681, the “Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” has passed the Mississippi Senate and is expected to come up for a vote in the House today. This legislation is being compared to Arizona’s new “Turn Away the Gays” law. For more on what you can do to help, see http://ift.tt/1fsZ6Gg.

keep church and state separateDue to the importance of this issue to those of us residing in the state of Mississippi, as well as the broader interest to those everywhere who care about the separation of church and state, I am cross-posting this at Atheist Revolution.

The state of Mississippi appears to be moving toward adding “In God We Trust” to the state seal. It was requested by our conservative Republican governor, Gov. Phil Bryant, and approved 48-0 by the Mississippi Senate (SB 2681). The bill, called the “Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” now moves to the House. I would estimate the probability of it passing and becoming law as close to 100%.

What is particularly fascinating about this bill is the rationale that has been offered by its supporters for why we need it, given that the U.S. Constitution already guarantees religious freedom. According to Emily Wagster Pettus’ article for the Associated Press, the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Phillip Gandy (identified as minister of Liberty Baptist Church) explained:

Times are changing, and Christians are afraid of a lot of different things. And some of that is reality, possibly, and some is perception. But we want to do what we can.
Sen. Gandy indicated that some conservative Baptists and Pentecostals in Mississippi are concerned but did not specify what exactly they were concerned about. Perhaps the concerns stems from the rise of atheism. After all, the quote about times changing and Christians being fearful implies that they fear change and see this measure as a way to protect their privilege.

After the bill passed the Mississippi Senate, here is what Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves had to say about it:
The United States is a Christian nation, and nowhere is that reflected more than in Mississippi.
No, the United States not a Christian nation. It is a religiously diverse nation, and it includes millions of people who are not Christian and millions who do not believe in any sort of gods. To claim otherwise is to reveal one’s ignorance of U.S. history and reality itself.

I realize it is tempting to conclude that the people of Mississippi get what they deserve for electing people like this to office. The problem with that sentiment is that it neglects to consider the fact that there are many atheists living in the state who deserve some protection from this sort of “tyranny of the majority.” We do not trust in any sort of god, so why does our state insist on adopting a symbolic gesture that communicates that we are not wanted here? What happened to the separation of church and state?

Gov. Phil Bryant had this to say of the bill during his official State of the State address:
I continue to believe this is the right time to stand for our beliefs—our faith, our families, and our nation. To strengthen our resolve, I have asked that we take a bold step for God and country.
The “our” to which he refers appears to be limited to those who share his god-belief. I suspect it is limited to those who share his Christian beliefs as well. But again, there are many of us right here in Mississippi who do not share these beliefs. He is our governor too, and he is tasked with representing us. That he would use the power of his office to promote his Christian faith in this manner strikes me as an egregious dereliction of his duty to represent all Mississippians.

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Hub City Transit Bus, Hattiesburg, MS, 2007
Hub City Transit Bus, Hattiesburg, MS, 2007 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
An unusually severe winter storm swept into our state yesterday. At least, it was unusually severe for the sort of winter weather we get here. Those of us who moved here from areas that get real snow are sometimes tempted to scoff at the locals and how badly they freak out over a little bit of sleet, but we quickly realize we were wrong to do so when we discover how unprepared the area is for such weather. There are no snow plows, reserves of sand and salt, or the equipment needed to spread it on roads here in the Southern half of our state. That means that if the temperatures remain cold enough, whatever falls from the sky and freezes could pose some real problems.

Here in the Hattiesburg area, there were many accidents yesterday and a few road closures. I did not venture out because the local government said not to. Specifically, they said that nonessential personnel (that’s me!) should stay home and off the roads. I was more than happy to oblige. Some of my conservative neighbors felt quite differently, however, and this caught me by surprise.

The mayor of Hattiesburg took an unusual step late yesterday afternoon, calling for a mandatory curfew in which he said that nobody should be on the roads between 8 pm last night and 7 am this morning. The roads were icy, and travel was unsafe. There had been far too many accidents already, and emergency vehicles were having difficulty responding. The curfew, similar to those implemented in some areas following various hurricanes, was a public safety measure designed to protect the public and emergency responders from unnecessary risks.

When a couple of local TV stations posted news of the curfew on their Facebook pages, the local conservatives erupted. Several referred to this curfew as “martial law,” suggesting that they had absolutely no idea what martial law involves. Others left comment after comment complaining about “the nanny state.” Many reasonable people responded, pointing out that the curfew was about public safety and was necessary, at least in part, because the emergency services were so over-extended that they could not respond to all the accidents.

Seeing the back-and-forth was an interesting reminder of the massive differences we have between those who believe that government has some sort of role in public safety and those who do not. Equally interesting was the selfish manner in which some seemed to be processing the situation. The attitude that came through loud and clear in many of the comments was something like, “Who cares about anyone else’s safety? If this thing inconveniences me in any way, it is tyrannical!” It is all about “my rights” and “my freedom” - screw everybody else.

Try as I might, I simply cannot reconcile attitudes like this with Christianity. One of the positive things I recall of Christianity was the concern for one’s neighbors, and particularly the less fortunate among us. This concern seems to have been replaced with a surprising level of hostile selfishness. Perhaps Christianity has evolved into something else. Or maybe there simply isn’t room for what I remember as some of the core Christian values in contemporary conservative politics.

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Shortly after writing that last post asking whether Mississippi needs an atheist church, I was reminded of that we already have one…sort of. Mississippi Gulf Coast Atheist and Freethinking Association has been around since 2003 and meets monthly in Gulfport on the third Sunday of each month. I suppose I’ve never thought of them as a church, but here is how the group’s organizer, Glen Sandberg, described them in an email:

We are a Congregation!
From Latin, gather together, a group of people who claim affinity for a variety of purposes; in our case a determination to judge for ourselves what to believe. We must balance commitment, to accomplish anything, against keeping an open mind to find a better way. We congregate, in groups for social, spiritual, intellectual, and political purposes, and we share the security that the communities are there when needed.
Whether it makes sense to think of them as a church or not, it does sound like they have many of the attributes of what the media insists on labeling “atheist churches.”

Thanks for the reminder, Glen!