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Toni Van Pelt interviewed on First Coast Connect radio show hosted by Melissa Ross. Listen Now 
156 Civil and Human Rights Groups Call for Stronger Response to Hate Incidents WASHINGTON –The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and 155 civil and human rights groups today called upon the Executive Branch to respond more quickly and forcefully to hate-based incidents, which have been occurring at an alarming rate in recent months.  The statement follows: “Our diversity is part of what makes America great, and incidents motivated by hate are an affront to the values we share. No one should face acts of violence or intimidation because of their race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, disability, or national origin. Just this year, we have seen an alarming increase in accounts and reports of hate-based acts of violence and intimidation. Some recent examples include: The February shooting in Olathe, Kansas, where two Indian Hindu Americans were attacked, killing Srinivas Kuchibhotla; Four mosques burned in the past two months, in Texas, Washington, and Florida, and more defaced by acts of vandalism; Numerous bomb threats against Jewish Community Centers, synagogues, and ADL offices around the country; The recent shooting in Washington state of a Sikh American outside of his home;  Racist graffiti targeting African Americans in Stamford, Connecticut and at a high school in Lake Oswego, Oregon; An attack on a Latino man in Daly City, California, and an attack on a Hispanic woman in Queens, New York, with both targeted because of their ethnicity; The murders of seven transgender women of color, including six African Americans and one Native American. While we welcome President Trump’s remarks to the joint session of Congress, where he noted ‘we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all of its very ugly forms,’ it was the first public acknowledgement he had made on specific recent events.  It is clear that the President has been slow to respond to hate incidents, when he has responded at all.  We strongly believe the President has a moral obligation to use his bully pulpit to speak out against acts of hatred when they occur. (Read More)
 It is a gross mischaracterization of the wide latitude of freedoms that houses of worship enjoy in the United States to claim that their rights of free speech are being abrogated by the Johnson Amendment. These claims mask the more sinister intentions to channel money directly into political campaigns to influence elections.1 In 2016, Rev. Jerry Falwell, Jr. was quoted in the New York Times saying that repealing the Johnson Amendment would “create a huge revolution for conservative Christians and for free speech.” It is simply false to claim that churches and other houses of worship cannot engage in political speech or that pastors as individuals are unfairly fettered. Houses of worship can engage in political speech, and clergy are free to speak their mind in their personal capacity.  The limit on 501(c)(3) organizations, including houses of worship, pertains only to abstaining from endorsing or opposing candidates in political campaigns. (Read More)
Toni Van Pelt
 Dear Representative: We write to ask that you become an original co-sponsor of the Do No Harm Act, which Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III and Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott plan to introduce following the July 4 recess. This critical legislation would ensure that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) continues to protect religious freedom, but cannot be misused to harm others. The reintroduction of this bill is particularly timely and important, as President Trump’s May 4 executive order lays the groundwork for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to misuse RFRA and other protections for religious freedom to license taxpayer-funded discrimination. Our organizations, including some that supported the passage of RFRA in 1993, have grown increasingly alarmed by the misuse of RFRA. For example, religiously affiliated social service providers that get government grants currently use RFRA to discriminate in employment with taxpayer funds. And, employers, including Hobby Lobby, have successfully invoked RFRA to deny their employees insurance coverage for contraception.
BLACK MUSIC, SKEPTICISM, HUMANISM AND SECULARISM By Norm R. Allen Jr. June is African American Music Appreciation Month. (It was originally designated as Black Music Month on June 7, 1979 by President Jimmy Carter. President Obama gave it the present designation in 2009. By the way, June is also LGBT Pride Month.) African Americans have contributed greatly to music. They were among the founders of blues, jazz, rock and roll, disco, rap and other genres. Musicians such as Little Richard heavily influenced the Beatles. Musicians such as Muddy Waters heavily influenced the Rolling Stones. (In fact, Rolling Stone  magazine and the Rolling Stones are both named after Waters’ 1950 hit “Rollin’ Stone.”) The blues might be the best place to start a discussion about black music and secularism. Indeed, blues music is secular, and some of it has been downright blasphemous, even questioning the very existence of God. Religious Blacks used to call it devil music. There have also been some popular songs with secular or skeptical themes in other genres. Stevie Wonder’s hit song “Superstition” has been popular among skeptics. Stevie talks about “writings on the wall,” the number 13, the idea that breaking a mirror brings seven years of bad luck, and even mentions the devil, as though there might be reason to be skeptical of the great demon. His most memorable line in the song is: “When you believe in things that you don’t understand, then you suffer. Superstition ain’t the way.” Paul Kurtz couldn’t have said it any better. (Read More)