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First Amendment: Freedom for Religion

Nicholas Johnson

Iowa City Press-Citizen

April 29, 2006

Related Material:
Rob Daniel, "Group Calls Foul on Benefit Game," Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 21, 2006
Editorial, "Sheesh, They Were Trying to Do a Good Thing," Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 25, 2006
Letters, Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 29, 2006
Bill Jenkins, "Church Supports School's Decision," Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 29, 2006
Annie Laurie Gaylor, "Schools Should Not Support Activities," Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 29, 2006
Elizabeth Everson, "Other Symbols of the Storms," Iowa City Press-Citizen, May 1, 2006;
Evan Fales, "Flap Could Have Been Avoided," Iowa City Press-Citizen, May 2, 2006;
Edwin L. Clopton, "Be On Watch for a Different Crisis," Iowa City Press-Citizen, May 4, 2006;

[Note: This material is copyright by the Press-Citizen, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Iowa City Press-Citizen.]

Given America's Constitution and religious history, the notion of "Freedom From Religion" claims both too much and too little.

Our country's settlers were mostly a religious people. They came seeking not freedom "from" religion but freedom "for" religion. Prior experience taught them to fear not religion, but government-imposed official religion.

Both concerns contributed to the First Amendment's opening words: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

"Congress" -- which today's courts define as all public agencies, including school districts -- is constitutionally prohibited from "establishing" a religion. Central is the prohibition of government funding individual churches.

Neither can public institutions interfere with the practice of religion ("free exercise").

But general principles do little to resolve specific court cases. Public school buses can transport children to religious schools. Religious organizations can meet in public schools. The Iowa Legislature can't require students to recite an official prayer. But the Texas Legislature can put a Ten Commandments monument on its Capitol grounds. Thousands of such distinctions could consume more than a semester in law school.

And there's another complication.

A school district need not open up its facilities. But once it does, it must treat all groups equally -- including religious groups. It can't limit after-school use to one denomination ("establishment of religion") nor permit their use by all religions but one ("free exercise thereof").

Not only can religious groups use the public schools, but also if other groups are permitted to use facilities for fund raising, so can they. Moreover, any private group that raises money at school can decide how to spend it -- including contributions to religious organizations.

What the school district cannot do constitutionally is to participate in religious fund raising -- by organizing, "sponsoring" or promoting events. That could be characterized as "an establishment of religion."

And so it is that the constitutionality of our basketball fund raising for St. Patrick's Church "turns on the facts."

At what point does an organization promoting school functions become "the school district"? Is the West High Boosters Club, a truly independent, private organization, or something intertwined with and sponsored by the school? Should it matter if it's given discounted rates for use of facilities? (Similar legal issues arose in applying "public records" requirements to the university's foundation.) Given the Freedom From Religion Foundation challenge, the district wisely chose to avoid the costs of litigating these issues.

In short, the legal question turned less on what was done than on the way it was done.

What could have been done constitutionally?

The event could have been held at Regina -- a non-governmental institution beyond the First Amendment's reach.

It could have been at West High, but organized by a private group unaffiliated with the district -- including groups from St. Patrick's Church.

Perhaps religious issues could have been eliminated by raising post-tornado money "to restore historic buildings" -- one of which just happens to be a church.

Clearly this building is an historic Iowa City landmark.

My parents sent me out to find my own church by visiting widely. Although I ended up Unitarian (a church that encourages visiting), St. Pat's provided my introduction to Catholicism -- an exposure continued in Washington, D.C., at Georgetown's Holy Trinity.

Growing up in Iowa City, the influence of St. Patrick's Church extended into my close-knit (and now historic) neighborhood. One of the church's families, the Hollands, lived there. They, especially the mother, Betty, taught me by example what it means to live one's religion. They also contributed two mayors of Iowa City and a distinguished U.S. Navy admiral.

There are other such individuals in many of Iowa City's places of worship. After viewing the devastation, I hoped Iowa City might use this opportunity to organize a great ecumenical coming together. I visualized people of many faiths -- Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jew, Muslim and others -- working side by side, in the spirit of an Iowa "barn raising," building both a stronger sense of religious community and a great church. It may still happen.

We don't want official religion. We've seen what that does in other countries. But we continue to value our freedom for religion.

Fortunately, both are protected as our First Amendment rights.
Nicholas Johnson, a former law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, teaches at the UI College of Law and maintains He was a member of the Iowa City School Board from 1998 to 2001.

Schools Should Not Support Activities

Annie Laurie Gaylor

Iowa City Press-Citizen

April 29, 2006

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, which recently stopped a violation in the local schools on behalf of one of our Iowa City members, has received many nasty e-mails from residents of Iowa City.

The general gist -- "Suck you," as one vulgar e-mailer put it -- comes through loud and clear. We've been called "pinheads" and "disgusting," and told, "You are all idiots for what you pulled in Iowa City."

The school district complied with our very sensible request that money raised through the public schools should go to an all-purpose fund accessible to all of the tornadoes' victims, rather than just to a Catholic Church. Those who wish to contribute to rebuilding St. Patrick's Catholic Church are free to do so -- and that contribution is even tax-deductible.

The Catholic diocese is likewise free to host fundraisers in its Catholic schools. But the secular school district, supported by all Iowa City residents, was not free to use a public facility and its club to host an event to rebuild a church. Such actions would have explicitly violated Article I Section 3 of the Iowa Constitution, which forbids the use of tax funds or other rates "for building or rebuilding places of worship."

One of the more thoughtful e-mailers agreed it was a "technical violation," but wrote that we should have looked the other way in this case. We know from experience and history that any violation of the separation of church and state that goes unchallenged is used as legal precedent to excuse future and worse violations.

If a public school can host a fundraiser to rebuild a Catholic Church this week, then must it fundraise for out-of-luck Lutherans next week, Methodists needing to expand the week after, and then perhaps Satanists whose building has burned down. If a government can host a fundraiser for a church damaged in a tornado, then what is to stop it from rebuilding churches obliterated by Hurricane Katrina?

It is tragic when "Acts of God" (the interesting term insurance companies use to describe what happened to St. Patrick's Catholic Church) demolish homes and buildings. We can all sympathize. But "Acts of God" are why churches have insurance.

The Catholic Church, one of the wealthiest denominations in the world, does not need and should not expect taxpayer support, however laudable the charitable feelings were of the young University of Iowa players in suggesting a benefit.

As many other businesses and structures were damaged, wasn't it a little strange to suggest raising funds through a public school event which exclusively benefited Catholics?

Many of our ancestors came to this country fleeing the tyranny of state religion, where they were taxed to support churches and doctrines against their personal consciences. Americans are showing a frightening willingness to disdain our secular form of government and throw away our Bill of Rights. The founders of our country were the first to adopt a godless constitution, to invest sovereignty not in some supernatural deity but in "We, the People," to decry religious tests for public office and to ensure there would be no tax-supported religion.

It is no coincidence the U.S. Constitution is the longest-lived constitution in the world, and that it has protected us from the religious wars and bloodshed we see around the globe. In no nation has religion flourished more than in the United States, precisely because state and church are separated.
Annie Laurie Gaylor is co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, She is editor of its newspaper, Freethought Today, and of the anthology "Women Without Superstition: No Gods -- No Masters."

Church Supports School's Decision

Bill Jenkins

Iowa City Press-Citizen

April 29, 2006

It has been more than two weeks since so many lives in the Iowa City area were changed by the tornado. While it has been very sad to see the loss of buildings, trees and memories, we also have witnessed the drawing together of a community.

I am writing to speak out against any controversy that could overshadow the good that has been done.

St. Patrick's Church was one of many structures that was damaged by the tornado. Since that time we have picked ourselves up with the help of our parishioners and our Iowa City community.

One expression of kindness and generosity was to come from a basketball game that was to be put on by our own Iowa Hawkeyes to help raise money for St. Patrick's.

It has been the decision of of the school board that this fundraiser should not take place in a taxpayers property with the proceeds going to a private religious institution like St. Patrick's.

We understand. We do not want to involve ourselves or anyone else in the argument of separation of church and state. St. Patrick's wants to be part of the solution of rebuilding our entire Iowa City community. It is our hope that in the months to come St Patrick's will be able to help through fundraisers of our own to help benefit students and other citizens who have been affected by this storm.

This topic of separation of church and state is a non-issue to the people of St. Patrick's, and we respect the decisions that were made by the school board. Please let us continue to support one another and be ever grateful that no lives were lost in Iowa City and that our community is getting stronger every day.

Bill Jenkins is the president of the St. Patrick's Parish Council.


Iowa City Press-Citizen

April 29, 2006

Time for Donors, Not Prejudice

Jake and Angie Lamb

My husband and I were disgusted and saddened after reading the article about the Freedom From Religion Foundation's intervention in our community ("Group calls foul on benefit game," April 21).

Iowa City is a diverse community of religious and non-religious groups that often have clashing beliefs. However, when a community such as this is partially destroyed, we should be able to set aside those differences and work together to rebuild it.

This is also a time when the youth of the community learn how important it is to help out those who are most in need. I think we can all agree that some of the worst devastation caused by the storm was at St Patrick's Catholic Church. That church has been a pillar in this community for decades, and people of all faiths and backgrounds would like to see it restored. We applaud the five young men who volunteered their talents to help do their part in rebuilding the church.

Separation of church and state is part of this country; however, we should not be dwelling on that in a time of need.

We should, instead, be acting as mature adults helping each other out, being blind to our personal differences. Since we do not know the name of the person who contacted this foundation, we are urging everyone to email them directly and voice our concern over their reckless use of precious time and resources allocated to this community. Contact information can be found at

Please let them know that the preferred form of donations is time, money or other much-needed items, not prejudice toward community churches.

Jake and Angie Lamb
North Liberty

Prayers Are With the Parishioners

Barb Vakulskas

My husband and I attend St Pat's when we are spending time in Iowa City. We are also contributors to the parish.

It would appear that the Freedom From Religion Foundation has a little too much time on its hands when it goes looking for these types of issues. In light of recent national disasters that have uncovered poor handling of Red Cross funds, we chose to pay the admission to the game at West High and then delivered our donation check to the Rev. Rudy Juarez the next day.

We tip our hats to these fine young men and the West High faculty who provided a wonderful family event to the attendees of the game. Our prayers go with those parishioners who are in the process of making some difficult decisions about the future of the parish.

Barb Vakulskas
Iowa City

Funds Should Help Community

Naomi McEmeel

I'm writing this in response to the article, "Group calls foul on benefit game." I want to applaud the players involved with this game and the West High Booster club for their efforts to help the community they live in.

However, I do feel that separation of state and church is absolutely vital and that this well-intentioned event did violate that separation. As a local resident, I've driven around this area and seen the destruction. The storm hit members of all faiths (i.e. look at the synagogue), ages and all races. It did not discriminate.

To me, it may be more appropriate to designate this money to an all-purpose fund that can help those who may not be insured, like a young student who may have lost everything they own and is not able to buy insurance. By doing this you cannot only help those most in need, but also avoid turning a public event into a private fundraiser for just one faith.

Naomi McEmeel
North Liberty

Never Trivialize Church and State

Carol Smith

Thank you for endorsing the need for separation of religion and government and for attempting to educate your readers in your editorial ("'Sheesh, they were trying to do a good thing,'" April 25). Because I believe that Constitutional issues should never be trivialized or ignored because of "emotional issues," I disagree with your comment: "it just doesn't seem that those two reasonable-sounding premises apply to this good cause." There is no cause good enough that it should require ignoring or trivializing the important and necessary concept of keeping government out of religion and religion out of government.

I concur with your bottom line: those who want to, should give to the church directly. Benjamin Franklin's comments, in a letter to Richard Price, are as true today as they were in 1790: "When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does not support itself, and God does not take care to support it so that its professors are obliged to call for help of the civil power, 'tis a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one."

Carol Smith
Mequon, Wis.

Religion Must be Self-Supporting

Benjamin Pokorny

I saw the suggestion that the opposition by the FFRF organization (to public donations to reconstruct a Catholic church) was just petty bickering over a relatively small amount of money.

Sure, it seems like a small amount of money as far as school/city budgets are concerned. However, that could be simply because this is just a single incident in a single town. Many such give-aways to religious organizations occur every day all across the nation, and there are only so many of them that a watchdog organization such as FFRF can successfully inhibit. This happened to be one that was an obvious legal violation, and in which a town resident directly appealed to FFRF for help in stopping it.

If you were one of the affected citizens and did not wish to be forced to financially support the Catholic Church, would you not appeal for help to an organization founded specifically to stop such behavior on the part of government? Especially when success was a legal slam-dunk?

I'm sure it wouldn't have been unimportant either if one or more of the players on the team happened to be adamantly anti-Catholic (it isn't against the law, you know) and knew that all their hard work in the game would benefit an organization which they despise (also an organization that should have properly insured their own building). After seeing headlines in recent years, that isn't a hard thing to swallow. Given the local public outcry over the FFRF complaint, it is also easy to imagine any dissenters on the team or within the school keeping quiet about their opposition to the donation.

I commend the school board for a proper legal and ethical decision in not forcing the town's citizens to support an already tax-exempt religious institution.

Benjamin Pokorny
Libertyville, Ill.

Why Are People So Upset?

April Wheeler

While I don't live in Iowa City, nor even in Iowa, I think that this issue is important to everyone. Why? Because if it's allowed to happen in one place, then it opens the doors for it to occur in others. It will become some precedent, and in order to maintain the separation, we can't "blur the lines" for any of it.

The fact that people can donate directly to the church, as well as other churches or businesses, to give their support nullifies the complaints of people who don't seem to grasp what a separation of church and state is. No one is preventing people from donating directly to the places and/or people they wish to. It's merely been said that having the school support the donation to one specific church is inappropriate at best.

All that besides ... why are people so upset by it? It was changed from donating to one church to donating to everyone. To all the victims. Shouldn't that be more important than just one? Aren't all victims worth donating to? I think people need to think more about what's really important here and less about the fact that their feelings were hurt.

April Wheeler
Bremerton, Wash.

Understanding Desire to Help

R. Bruce Wilkey

This letter is to commend the Iowa City School District's decision to direct that monies collected at the West High School booster club's benefit game be directed into a general relief fund rather than earmarked for repairs to a particular place of worship.

I live in Tennessee where several people were recently killed by tornadoes, and I can understand the desire to help. The organizers are certainly to be commended for their instinctive generosity.

Laudable as the intent may have been, however, the use of the proceeds as planned would have crossed the delicate line separating church and state -- a line which stands at the heart of the preservation of our civil liberties. Funds will still be made available to the rebuilding of the church dome through a variety of more appropriate sources that do not entangle public funds in unconstitutional support of a particular religion. The students and citizens in general should be urged to contribute through those sources.

The majority of persons in the area may participate in the religion in question but, certainly, all do not. I believe school administrators should use this opportunity to educate the students about the reasons for the need for church-state separation and protection of minority rights -- a hallmark of our constitutional framework.

Without respect for this stipulation, those of other religions and those who profess none at all would be stripped of their inherent rights guaranteed by the Iowa and United States Constitutions.

R. Bruce Wilkey
Signal Mountain, Tenn.

Missing the Point

Marilyn LaCourt

Perhaps we're missing the point. They did do a good thing. The West High booster club donated $1,000 to the Red Cross to help tornado victims. End of story. Sheesh.

Marilyn LaCourt
Brookfield, Wis.

Money Will be Used Appropriately

Pamela T. Hale

You seem to be arguing that having the money collected go to a general fund instead of directly to the catholic church means that the money will no longer be doing good. I believe that the money will be doing much more good since it will be used in an appropriate fashion, to assist those in need and not to fund a religious organization which, in any case, is well capable of rebuilding without state assistance.

Our country is in a very perilous time. There has never been a time in my lifetime when so many challenges to the separation of church and state were cropping up all over the place. If we ignore any potential erosion of our freedom, just because it sounds like a "good cause," we are opening ourselves up to losing what our forefathers built for us and what many of our ancestors have fought and died for. We can not allow the wall that stands between church and state to be removed one brick at a time any more than we would allow it to be bulldozed all at once.

It is short-sighted to think that it would be ok to overlook the rules just this once "in the wake of the storms." There will always be storms. The true demonstration of living by principle is sticking to your principles, even in hard or unusual circumstances.

Pamela T. Hale
Seattle, Wash.

Why Not Use Money for Students?

Mary Christensen

I just wanted to voice my opinion on the West High issue. I don't think it's appropriate for a public school to send money to rebuild a church. If the students wanted to get together after school and do that, that would be fine. But public school affairs are run by public money, and the benefits from those should not be discriminatory for or against religion any more than they should be for rebuilding an atheist foundation, a synagogue, a Republican Party headquarters, a communist headquarters or any other partisan organization. The students were trying to do a nice thing, and that's very sweet of them, but church donations are not appropriate on the public's tab.

In light of the fact that students are doing the fundraising, why not use the money to benefit displaced students?

Mary Christensen
Iowa City

Religious Freedom Cuts Both Ways

Shelley Rivers

Some people could be against the schools helping St. Patrick's. Reasonable people should.

If the church had been spared, would the proceeds have gone to rebuild Martini's or Chezik Honda? Despite the name of the group that made the issue public, religious freedom cuts both ways.

St. Pat's doesn't pay property taxes because of the separation of religion and government. It isn't covered by the ADA or most other civil rights legislation. No government entity can tell the parishioners who or what to worship or how. That is the freedom they receive as the flip side of the coin. Reasonable people know this.

Reasonable people also know there is a difference between a symbol and the concept or thing it represents. If people are moved by the devastation of the tornadoes to help victims of the tornadoes, then the Red Cross, Crisis Center or United Way are all agencies that do the work needed.

And reasonable people do not send threatening or hate mail to anyone. That the organization received any from Iowa Citians should embarrass us all.

Shelley Rivers
Sioux City

Demonstrating Care for Community

Fred Meyer

I applaud and thank the players of the five Hawkeye basketball players who raised money for repairing tornado damage. This effort demonstrates true care for our community. Given that the funds were raised in a public school, however, I do agree that the donations should be made to a non-religious organization. This in no way diminishes their effort or their gesture and ensures that we maintain the separation between church and state that keeps our country strong.

Fred Meyer
Iowa City

Three Cheers to All Watchdogs

Chris Warren

I am thankful that the Freedom From Religion Foundation was able to put a stop to the Catholic Church fundraiser the West High School Booster Club was holding. Three cheers to all the watchdogs that are attempting to keep church and state separate.

Chris Warren
Cedar Rapids

Sheesh, They Were Trying to Do a Good Thing


Iowa City Press-Citizen

April 25, 2006

Note: The Freedom From Religion Foundation maintains a Web site at

[Note: This material is copyright by the Press-Citizen, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Iowa City Press-Citizen.]

That's been the collective response of many local residents after hearing the news that an outside anti-religion organization blocked five Hawkeye basketball players from raising money for the heavily damaged St. Patrick's Catholic Church ("Group calls foul on benefit game," April 21).

It's easy to understand how the organizers of a benefit game between five Hawkeye seniors and West High coaches would decide that the money raised should be given to St. Patrick's rather than to the West High booster club. After all, no one could be against helping the church that has become the symbol of the destruction wrought by the April 13 tornadoes.

The problem, however, was that this was a school-sponsored event taking place in a taxpayer-funded facility to the direct benefit of a religious organization. After a local resident complained to the Freedom From Religion Foundation -- a national organization headquartered in Madison, Wis. -- the foundation wrote a letter pointing out the illegality of using a school-sponsored event for such a purpose. District officials decided to give $1,000 of the $1,600 raised to the Red Cross for general tornado relief.

This is both a constitutional and an emotional issue. Every letter to the editor on this topic has argued that the event would not have violated the line between church and state. Officials from the Freedom From Religion Foundation report that they too are receiving many negative e-mails -- sometimes filled with four-letter words -- from Iowa City residents.

We too think that initial "Sheesh!" over the petty legality of this issue, but we're not critical of the school district for changing who received the funds. In terms of the small amount of money involved, it would have made no sense to mount a legal challenge that the school district would most likely lose.

But neither are we critical of those who originally wanted to give the money to St. Pat's. We know we need a separation of church and state and that we need watchdog groups to keep us alert at those times when our compassion might overshadow or ability to make fine legal distinctions. But, in the wake of the storms, it just doesn't seem that those two reasonable-sounding premises apply to this good cause.

Officials at the Freedom From Religion Foundation offer slippery slope arguments and say that these small infringements of religion upon the public square slowly erode the wall between church and state. But, when they challenge this act of generosity on the part of the Hawkeye players and school boosters, it still feels that such concern is more myopic than actually fulfilling any essential watchdog role.

We commend the school district for making the best of an awkward situation. And we encourage those who want to, to give to the church directly.

Group Calls Foul on Benefit Game

Says Donating to Church Violates Constitution

Rob Daniel

Iowa City Press-Citizen

April 21, 2006

A benefit game featuring the five senior members of the University of Iowa basketball team Wednesday at West High turned controversial after team members opted to donate a portion of the proceeds to a tornado-ravaged Iowa City church.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation of Madison, Wis., said donating some of the proceeds to help rebuild St. Patrick's Catholic Church would have been "an unlawful taxpayer subsidy of Roman Catholicism."

The game featuring the UI seniors -- Greg Brunner, Jeff Horner, Erek Hansen, Doug Thomas and West High alum Justin Wieck -- versus a team of West High coaches and staffers had been scheduled in January to benefit Club West, West High's booster club. However, after a tornado struck Iowa City on April 13, the players decided to donate the money to St. Patrick's Church, which had been heavily damaged by the storm, Iowa City School District superintendent Lane Plugge said.

"They were trying to do a good thing," Plugge said of the players.

However, after a notice of the game and the players' intent was published in the Tuesday's Press-Citizen, a reader complained to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, an "educational association of nonbelievers and secularists" working "to keep state and church separate, and to promote free thought," according to the group's Web site. Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the group, sent a letter to Plugge saying the use of the school's facilities to raise money for the church violated the U.S. and Iowa constitutions.

"We understand the players often turn the events into charitable endeavors, which is highly laudable," Gaylor wrote, "but they cannot do it at the expense of the U.S. Constitution and the Iowa State Constitution."

Plugge said the district, the players and Club West, after consulting with the district's attorney, Kirsten Frey, decided to donate $1,000 of the about $1,600 raised from the game to the American Red Cross for general tornado relief. The rest will benefit Club West.

"We can't use school facilities to raise dollars to give to a religion institution," Plugge said. "That (giving the money to the Red Cross) worked out nicely. The other option would have been to cancel the game."