Conscientious Objector Newest American Citizen

Recently DividedUnderGod broke a news story about a 64 year old atheist woman, named Margaret Doughty was being denied citizenship to the United States. That story immediately went viral gaining over 200,000 views and the attention of national news blog sites like CNN, Huffington Post, and many others. This also drew her help of national organisations including the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the American Humanist Association who both wrote letters on her behalf. Even her Congressman got involved. So what happened exactly? Well on Thursday [27 June] I got a chance to talk to her and find out.Margaret Doughty came to be in the United States 33 years ago after working in various other countries around the world. Originally she was here on a short-term visa with family however her children fell in love with being here and she decided to take a job to remain here. Margaret is a literacy and social justice advocate, working with literacy coalitions around the U.S. Literacy helps a community to be economically successful and these collaborating organisations are using that as a tool to assist people toward self-sufficiency. Starting back in the early 80’s Margaret was invited to start a coalition in Houston and built from that in other communities as well.

Having already spent more than three decades living here and working here, what made Margaret want to become a citizen? Well, because she had been living here for so long it was obvious it had been home, her partner is American, two of her sons live here and she has American grandchildren. “It seemed like it was the right minute to go from being an outsider to being an insider and the problems that I had been working with had become my own problems. I’ll continue to do social justice work as an American rather than a foreigner working in this country.” She does however, maintain her British passport as well.

So, having spent so much time working here and living here one would think that citizenship would be a given. Margaret filled out all the necessary applications and submitted them to the immigration office. The time came for the interview, which she attended answering questions about the United States and demonstrating her ability to speak English fluently. The person conducting the interview informed her that everything looked great…except for one response.

When asked if Margaret was prepared to bear arms for the U.S. if needed, she answered “no.” The interviewer asked if, since due to her age Margaret wouldn’t ever be called to actually serve in a combat situation would she be willing to change her answer. The reply was “No, I am a conscientious objector. I cannot do that.” When asked on what grounds she was objecting she replied, “moral and ethical.” She was then informed that she was only allowed to object on religious grounds. Margaret then explained that she did not belong to any religion nor was she objecting on religious grounds, it was an ethical dilemma.

Margaret was told that her interviewer would speak to her supervisor about it but in the meantime Margaret should think about it and decide what she wants to do. A couple weeks later she received a call from the same immigration employee asking if she had changed her mind about what she intended to do, to which Margaret replied that she had not. She was told that the interviewer was holding back the form that would deny her application, but she had to let Margaret what she intended to do.

At this point Margaret decided to consult an attorney friend and they decided to go over her statement, make sure that it contained what it needed to in order to qualify for “conscientious objection.”
She wrote a second statement and took it back to the same immigration officer. She was sworn in “to tell the truth and nothing but the truth” and then was again asked if she was going to change her stance. Margaret replied, “look you have just sworn me in to tell the truth and now want me to lie. No, I can’t change it.” She offered the immigration worker the new statement and the research that they had done to show that what she was doing was in fact following the law.

She was again sent away and was contacted back a couple of weeks later. This time it was a letter, giving ten days to respond and informing her that failure to do so might result in rejection of her application. She was to submit on church letterhead references from elders within that church stating that she had attended. It was at this point she decided she needed help.

This is where Kevin Davis stepped in. Kevin is the owner and primary blogger for DividedUnderGod. Kevin was contacted by his friend and stepson to Margaret, Chris Johnson. I got a chance to talk to Kevin about his part in this (and you can find that interview by following this link). In addition to Kevin’s articles I have followed stories and blogs covering Margaret and her attempt to gain citizenship. Many readers have suggested that she talk to any number of non-denominational churches just to gain the letter that INS was asking for. For me, as an atheist this wouldn’t even be an option. Nor was it for Margaret who said that since the law supports her position and she saw no reason to.

“I assumed that when this was done it would just go away. However at the ceremony yesterday [Wednesday, 26 June] it was very, very clear that I was told that there was no modified oath. I expected to receive that modified oath with my objection in it. I expected that there would be an opportunity to modify it. What actually happened was that I was called down to the floor of the auditorium. I was told that when I say the oath I just don’t say the bit about God.” She wasn’t actually given a modified oath [or a chance to modify it], so when everyone said the oath, including “under God” she was just supposed to leave that part out.

So at this point it’s become evident that in addition to everything else that needs to be reexamined in this country, the immigration system needs a complete overhaul. I realise that this is not news, however I don’t think that the extent of this is really understood. The officers handling the immigration cases need to be trained better. There is also an enormous need in the literacy world to teach those volunteers who are helping the immigrants who are coming in. They simply are not told what the alternatives are when they do not pass. Lastly, the injection of religion into the process to immigrate new citizens into a secular country needs to stop. Finally, on behalf of the entire country and myself I want to welcome Margaret Doughty officially to the United States of America. Congratulations to one of our newest Americans.

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Religious Observance in Scottish School

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Scotland is a beautiful country, rich in heritage and culture. They have contributed everything from medical advancements to technological invention to the rest of the world. There is not a day goes by that most people worldwide do not make use of at least one Scottish innovation. The people are friendly and welcoming and let’s be honest, they speak with one of the warmest accents in the whole world.
However, there is part of their tradition that is holding them back in the way of societal advancement and includes something that here in the United States we don’t have to worry about. It’s called Religious Observance (R.O.) and it’s not just limited to private or denominational schools either. What this means is that every week of every school term children can be pulled from academic instruction to receive what amounts to religious indoctrination. Children generally attend holiday observances about six times a year, but it can vary by school. Now this is not a mandatory attendance, by any means. However generally speaking only about half of all parents are informed that their children don’t have to attend. The way it’s set up is what is referred to as “Opt-out” which means that as default every child attends unless otherwise specified.

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To find out more about this I spoke to Mark Gordon, father and author of a petition that seeks to make a very simple but important change to how things work. Currently, in order to keep your child from attending religious service parents are required to make contact with the school and notify them that they wish for their child to be withheld from attending.

In the larger areas, like Glasgow or Edinburgh parents pulling their children from service isn’t as much of an issue due to the population of the schools. There is more of a variety of students including a large number of Muslim children. If a parent wishes to pull their child from the services s/he will not be the only one. However in the smaller, more outlying areas often there are but only one or two which leaves some parents not really wanting to rock the boat or single their child out of the entire student population. There is also the problem of parents being unaware of their option to have their child not attend. It seems that not all parents are being notified of their right to “Opt-out” either. Scouring through the many different school handbooks shows a very small percent that actually mention the option.

This is where Mr. Gordon’s petition comes in to play. What it would do is change the default from “Opt-out” to an “Opt-in” making it left to the parents to decide whether they wish to have their child participate in R.O., which is where it should be. This seems like a no-brainer to an American citizen. We have laws specifically set to prevent anything of this sort from happening. However Scotland didn’t evolve the same way the U.S. did despite the fact that our “Declaration of Independence” was somewhat based on their own “Declaration of Arbroath” (that’s right, just one more thing we can thank the Scots for).

Scotland has a great many of their schools established and funded by the Church. Historically speaking the church has maintained power over how schools are run and how often R.O. is instituted. To make any change to this would limit the control that the Church has over the education of Scottish children. However it’s a change that parents like Mark and the members of Secular Scotland (the organisation supporting the petition) are ready for.

Secular Scotland in no way wishes to remove R.O. from the schools. This may sound incredible to an American parent as we fight every day to uphold the separation of church and state that our Constitution grants us (based incidentally on the Scottish National Covenant of 1638). However for a country like Scotland making a small change like what this petition requests is a major step for the country, and one that the majority of her citizens can live with.

For my full interview, follow this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ObJefHp_ljU

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To sign the petition, you can follow either scan the image to the left or follow this link: http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/gettinginvolved/petitions/religiousobservance

For the full PDF petition, you can follow this link: http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/gettinginvolved/petitions/petitionPDF/PE01487.pdf

For the Press Release issued by Secular Scotland:http://secularscotland.org/ro-opt-in/

For more information about Secular Scotland visit their website here: http://secularscotland.org/  or you can join them in conversation on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/secularscotland/

Local Article on Mark Gordon: http://www.inverclydenow.com/today/9598-local-dad-campaigns-for-change-in-school-religious-observance

Philanthropy and Secularism: Two

Adam and Amanda Brown fam picAdam and Amanda Brown are one of the most charismatic couples in the atheist movement. They are seated together taking turns describing how life was growing up as an Evangelical Christian and a Restoration Mormon [respectively]. Two very different paths brought these two together and as a result some very important things are happening, not just to the community but to the role of atheists as a whole.

After researching questions that his faith brought forward in his mind while attending college, Adam compiled all of his information into a website that is now a widely used resource for those who are seeking answers of their own. The Atheism Resource states that it’s “designed to give easy access to loads of information on the subject of atheism from a historical, cultural, political, psychological, sociological, and scientific perspective.” It does exactly that, and much more. It gives people a place to reach out to other atheists and read blogs written on a myriad of topics.

Adam is also the co-owner and creative director of Voss Visuals, which offers vehicle wraps, marketing and printing services. As such he offers a discount to companies that use their services for atheist, secular or humanist needs. That’s not to say that they will not accept business from other companies or organizations, but for projects that some companies will not touch based on who they represent, Voss Visuals welcomes the opportunity with open arms.

Amanda meanwhile, was busy paving her own path. Focusing on hot-button topics like education, LGBT and women’s rights, she became more active fighting not just equality but in the separation of church and state. Soon, it became apparent that being and fighting as an atheist wasn’t enough. People needed a way to reach out to others and let people know they were atheists at the same time. We Are Atheism was the brainchild of that need with Amanda the driving force behind it. The website is a place to read stories about how others came to understand their beliefs and tell their own stories that will hopefully help those who might not otherwise have the courage on their own. Mostly however, it lets people know that they aren’t alone by sharing those essays and  videos.AGA_Logo

Adam and Amanda then pulled their ambitions together and set their sights one step higher. They created a movement called “Atheists Giving Aid” which is exactly what it sounds like. Funds are raised for various campaigns and the money goes directly to those in need, rather than lining another pocket of another corporate organization. How do they ensure this happens? By working with local organizations they ensure that it’s distributed where it’s supposed to be. Currently they have two separate collections in action on the website.

The first, for the Boston Marathon Tragedy is working in conjunction with Boston Atheists and the Secular Coalition for America (Massachusetts Chapter) is raising money to benefit the victims [and their families] of the bombing that occurred there last Monday, April 15. As of Thursday they have successfully raised over $28,000. The second fund running right now is for those who are suffering as a result of the plant explosion in West, Texas that occurred while the country was still reeling from the Boston tragedy. Currently the amount raised there is building toward the $1,000 mark. This isn’t the first time the Brown’s have pulled fund for those in need either. They also raised roughly $25,000 for the victims of the Sandy Hook tragedy as well.

Amanda Brown on stageAmanda is also one of the primary organizers for ReasonFest in Kansas, which took place this last weekend. Ordinarily she prepares a speech and presents with the other speakers however this year she has devoted part of her time in a different way. Working with Society of Open Minded Atheists and Agnostics, they took donations in the form of non-perishable items . The items collected are then to be delivered to both Harvesters and the Lawrence Community Shelter. Donations requested ranged from non-perishable foods and toiletries to guest needs and linens for the shelter.

When asked what their ultimate goal for all their activism the answer was “tolerance.” They want to help put faces to atheism so that when people hear the term they think of someone close to them. Or perhaps a stranger that helped them out when they were in need. Recently the Brown’s helped a homeless man outside of a chain restaurant near Austin Texas. He was hungry and asking for money. The couple bought him some food, gave him some money, and then did what most wouldn’t think to do. They had a conversation with him. During that talk it came out that the couple were atheist which surprised the man. Everything he had heard before meeting them painted a very unfriendly picture about people who choose not to have faith. He walked away knowing that not only had everything he had heard been wrong, but that in fact the exact opposite is true. Regardless of whatever he believed they were willing to help him in his time of need. That’s their message, at it’s core. People are people, no matter what path they follow or whether having faith is the lamp that lights that path. Adam Brown's painting

Philanthropy and Secularism

Kansas City Atheist Coalition’s mission to advance atheism

through activism, philanthropy and education.

Sarah Hargreaves2 NAPTwo years ago, Sarah Hargreaves started an organization to help bring light to the positive side of what being an atheist means that gets vastly ignored and forgotten. But Sarah wasn’t always an atheist. After teaching at Sunday school, during vacation bible school and even helping to organize a church summer camp, Sarah ended up moving away from her hometown. The church that had been like a second home became hard to get to and unable to choose one that felt right, she became a “Christian without a church.” Right around the same time the “marriage equality” fight was really coming into the spotlight.

Sarah’s morals got the better of her and she really began to question her own faith.  “There were several steps along the way that opened me up to realizing that the answers I was given as a child really weren’t doing the trick any more.  There were better explanations and answers for how the world works, even how morality works and all these things. I became much more satisfied morally and ethically as an atheist. Certainly more scientifically satisfied as a person as an atheist than I ever was as a Christian.”

So after searching around, testing out several other organizations and outreach attempts she started becoming acquainted with other like-minded people. Using connections made at www.Meetup.com, attending  conferences like Skepticon and ReasonFest she finally started to feel like she was a part of something real, she was “plugged in” to a comfortable community.

There were lots of opportunities for her and other atheists to get together for various “Skeptics in the Pub” type hangouts or educational speakers to listen to but she missed being able to help people, really reach out into the community at large and be able to really help people but without the umbrella of a church. So taking what she learned and adding it to what she was missing from her  days within the church, the idea for the Kansas City Atheist Coalition was born.

The mission for the KCAC is to “advance atheism through activism, philanthropy, education and the cultivation of a positive secular community.” Sarah breaks it down like this; as activists they stand and fight for not just their own rights but the rights of those who could be considered allies. A good example of this is marriage equality, fighting churches and groups that don’t just display homophobic behavior but are outright gay-bashing in nature.

As for the philanthropy, Sarah feels that it “meets the needs for atheists to provide charitably because I think atheists are a humanistic people that care and have love for their fellow human being. There aren’t a lot of outlets for atheists to do that as an ‘out’ atheist. It’s also to let the larger community know that atheists are good without God.” This organization allows them to do just that.

Sarah Hargreaves3 NAPShe goes on to say “We do one charitable thing a month like we will volunteer with Harvesters Food Network or we’ll do a blood drive with the Community Blood Center of Kansas City but the AIDS Walk is a great opportunity because we are out in the community mixed in with a bunch of other groups in Kansas City and we are all working towards the shared purpose to raise money to help raise money to fight the disease of AIDS and we get to participate in this march where we can wear our KCAC t-shirt and it’s a great opportunity to be this very ‘out’ atheist doing good for goodness sake. That kind of captures the spirit that we are wanting to get at with the whole part of us doing good works n Kansas City. Letting atheists do good things out of the goodness of their hearts and also showing our community that we are good people.”

Lastly, it’s education. “It is educating ourselves; we are interested in learning more about science, biology, and cosmology; psychology, sociology, society and people in general, the world around us; understanding our own minds and how they work and how we function as a society; other religions and cultures. A lot of freethinkers find the study of religion totally fascinating, I myself find the study of religions interesting. Of course, educating others. Educating the community at large about what it means to be an atheist.”

So far KCAC has been fairly well accepted by the members of the community. People recognize that, even with the title, atheists are generally good people. With the exception of the incident last month with the Kansas City St. Patrick’s Day Parade they haven’t really had issue with being accepted either. Once in a while they come across a group that isn’t thrilled about them being so up front about their lack of belief but outside of a preference that they don’t display their shirts or banner they haven’t been turned away from helping.

When asked about the ultimate goal for her organization, like most secular activists she hopes to one day be put out of a job. “At the end of the day if people aren’t feeling ostracized, made to feel like the “other” or different…then they don’t need a support system because their friends, family and neighbors all accept them for who they are then I’ll be happy.”

For more informaSarah Hargreaves NAPtion about Sarah and her organization you can visit their website, check out their Facebook page or stop anytime you see a group of people holding signs like these shown at the right. They host “Ask an Atheist” possibilities at events all over the city and have no problem taking up a healthy discourse about who they are and what exactly they are up to.