All posts by Blake

Subsidizing discrimination: Christian schools and their tax-exempt status

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This week 17 year old Austin Wallis was forced to either deny he’s gay or find a new high school. In his viral YouTube video, Wallis explains that his Lutheran high school forced him to leave because he was gay. They gave the popular YouTube blogger a choice: he could either go back into the closet by removing all evidence he’s gay from social media or he would be expelled. So he left.

This story, as tragic as it is, raises the question: why are we giving tax breaks to discriminatory Christian schools?

Lutheran High North (LHN) is run by Lutheran Education Association of Houston (LEAH) which is filed as a 501(c)(3). That means the school is able to function as a non-profit with all the tax shelters that come with it while discriminating against its students in whatever way it sees fit on religious grounds.

In the U.S. it’s the status quo for Christian schools to be tax-exempt. They either fall under the umbrella of a host church which is tax-exempt under federal law, or they apply for their own tax exempt status as an independent religious entity.

It seems absurd that a tax-exempt school would able to enforce moral clauses that, in the case of LHN, declare that the school “reserves the right, within its sole discretion, to refuse admission of an applicant and/or to discontinue enrollment of a current student participating in, promoting, supporting or condoning: pornography, sexual immorality, homosexual activity or bisexual activity; or displaying an inability or resistance to support the qualities and characteristics required of a Biblically based and Christ-like lifestyle.”

And it seems illegal. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, and national origin. By requiring its students to identify with a particular brand of Christianity (see the moral clause above) or to otherwise face expulsion, the school would appear to be breaking the “religion” clause of the federal anti-discrimination laws.

There are similarities here to the Ken Ham Ark Encounter story. In case you haven’t been following, Ken Ham from Answers in Genesis is trying to build a Noah’s Ark theme park in Kentucky. Originally, the for-profit venture was depending on $18,000,000 of Kentucky tax payer money as part of that State’s tourism tax incentives. Then it was discovered that the Ark Encounter was taking part in discriminatory hiring practices in that they refused to hire applicants who are gay or non-Christian. As a result they lost their anticipated tourism tax incentives and all was right in the world.

Similar to the Ark Encounter scenario, if a Christian school is to require a student to adhere to a particular brand of Christianity, the school should be stripped of its tax-exempt status. Their thoughts on morality are their business, but when they receive tax breaks while forcing those religious views on others, it becomes our business. It should be obvious that no tax paying citizen should be made to subsidize discrimination and homophobia by bearing the burden of tax-exemptions awarded to these religious, anti-LGBT institutions.

These six superpowers are why atheists are #winning

Atheism is #winning

To be free from superstition or the belief in the supernatural is a rarity in the history of our species. It’s so rare in fact that it’s a stretch to include it in the description of what it is to be human. It is only through generations of evidence-based knowledge about the world that we have recently found ourselves in an environment hospitable to modern atheistic and skeptical world views. This niche we find ourselves in has been so out of reach to humans until so recently that the ability to experience such a detachment from gods and superstition might even be fairly described as superhuman.

There’s evidence that the origin of supernatural thinking dates as far back as 300,000 years ago when Paleolithic humans began burying their dead. If you consider that we’ve only had access to enough evidence-based ammunition to smother the absurdity of faith-based and superstitious thinking since the dawn of the scientific revolution 300 years ago, you realize that only 0.1% of our species’ existence since the Paleolithic era has been marked by the potential to be a modern atheist or skeptic.

So it can be argued that to be an atheist or skeptic in the modern world makes you superhuman. As an atheist (or future atheist) you might ask, “what’s the point of being superhuman if it doesn’t come with superpowers?” Well it does, take a look:

Superpower #1: Freedom of Thought

We have the freedom to think about anything we want without thinking someone else is listening. While our religious friends are fearful to imagine for even a second that there might not be a god because they might be damned to eternal hell-fire, we’re free to explore all ideas. The ability to entertain all ideas without the fear of a supernatural eavesdropper allows us to make sound judgments about the validity of some ideas over the absurdity of others. We’re #winning because our freedom of thought gives us the freedom to be ourselves.

Superpower #2: Wisdom

We live at a time when we have access to an unimaginable breadth of knowledge that helps us not only better understand our past, but more presciently plan for our future. Theists have to square any new knowledge they gain with the views held in their ancient doctrines. When there’s a conflict, they’ll choose the obsolete doctrine over new evidence leading them to surrender their potential wisdom to utter ignorance about the world around them. We’re #winning because our wisdom is built on the shoulders of giants.

Superpower #3: Imagination

With the unimaginable amount of knowledge we’ve garnered on the inner workings of the universe, our imaginations are given boundless range for exploration. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a theist who understands enough cosmology (see Superpower #2) to dream about, say, someday terraforming a planet, or to realistically contemplate the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe, or to make a great discovery in string theory. We’re #winning because we have a “spaceship of the imagination” that runs on logic and evidence and so is limitless in range.

Superpower #4: Honesty

Understanding the world based on facts and evidence allows an honesty in our thinking. Theists have to hold in their minds competing ideas about how the world works as becomes apparent when they have to defend a belief. For example, watch what happens when you ask your Christian friend how, when Noah’s ark landed, the kangaroos made it back to Australia? Your friend will have to ignore the entire fossil record and invent a response. We’re #winning because we don’t have to make stuff up to make sense of the world.

Superpower #5: Stewardship

Our ability to consume and synthesize facts and evidence in the absence of religious doctrine allows us to make decisions that will benefit the future of our species. As is all too common in the US, Christians are the first to ignore scientific evidence in favor of faith, submitting control of the future of our planet to their imaginary friend. An atheist understands there are no gods to solve our problems and will therefore work to solve them rather than ignore them or try to pray them away. We’re #winning because our thoughts and actions are positively correlated to the survival of our species.

Superpower #6: An Evolved Morality

Our morality like everything else is subject to evidence and research and as such is able to evolve as our understanding of human nature evolves. We don’t rely on an ancient, static doctrine to mandate fixed moral codes that aren’t open to criticism as we learn more about ourselves and what it means to live in societies. A static view of morality results in a narrow understanding of what it is to be human and by extension what it is to be humane. We’re #winning because our morality is adaptable to knowledge and therefore promises to work to reduce the suffering of as many fellow human beings as possible.

We’re #winning because we possess superpowers that were out of reach for our species until very recently. If you’re a fellow atheist or future atheist, enjoy these powers, don’t squander them, and use them wisely.

Expanding the definition of child abuse: anti-LGBT parenting

depressed teen

Leelah Alcorn’s suicide has brought about a fresh public awareness of the phenomenon of parental negligence and abuse under the guise of religious freedom. As People describes it, “Leelah’s death has sparked a growing debate about how to approach transgender youth, as well as a public backlash to how her parents, Doug and Carla Alcorn, handled their child’s situation.” As we’ll see below, it is clear that there is a link between higher rates of LGBT teen suicide and the anti-LGBT religious households in which many teens grow up.

The following is an argument that we as a society should hold parents and guardians accountable for working to improve the emotional well-being of their LGBT children as based on a science-based understanding of mental health regardless of their held religious beliefs. In the same way we have begun in the U.S. and the U.K. to criminalize attempted “faith healing” as a form of physical abuse against dying children, we can and should criminalize attempted “gay healing” as a form of emotional abuse toward LGBT children. In short, to attempt to convince a child that the sexuality or gender with which they identify is the result of a mental disorder is nothing less than child abuse.

LGBT teen suicide

To build the case, let’s look at LGBT teen suicide. We need to stop ignoring the fact that higher rates of LGBT teen suicide are correlated to anti-gay religious parenting. While it is difficult to determine the exact percentage of LGBT youth who attempt suicide relative to their non-LGBT counterparts, studies have clearly shown the incidence is much higher in LGBT youth. Further, it has been demonstrated that there is a direct correlation between high rates of suicide attempts in LGBT youth who are living in anti-LGBT households.

According to a San Francisco State University study, LGBT youth “who experience high levels of rejection from their families during adolescence (when compared with those young people who experienced little or no rejection from parents and caregivers) were more than eight times likely to have attempted suicide, more than six times likely to report high levels of depression, more than three times likely to use illegal drugs and more than three times likely to be at high risk for HIV or other STDs” by the time they reach their early 20s.

In this spirit, gay rights activist Dan Savage tweeted in reaction to Alcorn’s suicide, “We know that parental hostility & rejection doubles a queer kid’s already quadrupled risk of suicide—rejecting your queer kid is abuse.”

A direct comparison: faith healing

Next, we need to clearly understand where religious freedom ends and children’s rights begin. Children, unable to make adult decisions by definition, are dependent on the decisions of their adult caretakers. When a parent is incapable of effectively caring for their child, we have already in place a robust framework for removing the child from the ill-suited parent. However, sometimes religion gets in the way of this framework.

A clear example of this can be seen in the phenomenon of faith healing where children are allowed by their parents to suffer and often times die of treatable conditions under the belief that prayer is the only remedy. Modern medicine is shunned in the name of blind faith, and it is helpless children who suffer as a result. Faith healing is physical abuse by any definition and in the case of the death of a child, it is homicide and should be tried as such in a court of law. Much of the time, however, these parents get away with murder under religious freedom legislation.

Recently in the U.S. some states have begun to remove these antiquated legal shields that protect faith healing parents from prosecution under the pretense of religious freedom. Just last month, three years after Oregon updated its laws, two parents were convicted of manslaughter and were each sentenced to 10 years in prison for allowing their daughter to die of a treatable form of diabetes, relying on prayer instead of medicine.

In her article, Faith Healing: Religious Freedom vs. Child Protection, Harriet Hall sums up the issue: “Freedom of religion has come into conflict with the duty of society to protect children. The right to believe does not extend to the right to endanger the lives of children.” She further explains, “The medical ethics principle of autonomy justifies letting competent adults reject lifesaving medical care for themselves because of their religious beliefs, but it does not extend to rejecting medical care for children. Society has a duty to over-ride parents’ wishes when necessary to protect children from harm.”

Emotional abuse is a thing

That the physical abuse of a child by an adult is detrimental to the child’s well-being is obvious and that we should criminalize faith healing when it leads to death or injury of a child should be equally as obvious. But why isn’t emotional abuse held to the same level of prosecution as physical or sexual abuse? Emotional abuse, according to a study cited by the American Psychological Association (APA), is just as harmful as sexual or physical abuse. It was found that “Children who are emotionally abused and neglected face similar and sometimes worse mental health problems as children who are physically or sexually abused.” According to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), a charity campaigning and working in child protection in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Channel Islands, “not recognizing a child’s own individuality [and] trying to control their lives” is included in the definition of emotional abuse. It would seem given these definitions that emotional abuse should be prosecuted no differently than sexual or physical abuse.

In just such a step forward, last June in the Queen’s Speech, Queen Elizabeth announced a crime bill that would include legislation to criminalize neglect and emotional abuse of children.

Conversion therapy is emotional abuse

Coming full circle, conversion therapy can be described as a form of emotional abuse. The foundation of conversion therapy lies on the false premise that homosexuality and alternative gender identity are mental disorders. Forced conversion therapy can be classified as emotional abuse because it works to persuade the subject that they have a mental disorder when in fact they do not.

According to the APA the tenants of conversion therapy have “serious potential to harm young people because they present the view that the sexual orientation of lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth is a mental illness or disorder, and they often frame the inability to change one’s sexual orientation as a personal and moral failure.”

Mainstream health organizations critical of conversion therapy include the American Medical Association, American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, the American Counseling Association, the National Association of Social Workers, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Association of School Psychologists, and the American Academy of Physician Assistants.

The good news is that in alignment with faith healing and emotional abuse as described above, legislative headway is being made in banning conversion therapy.

Washington D.C. recently became the third jurisdiction in the nation, after California and New Jersey, to ban the therapy for minors. There have also been legislative actions to make it illegal in eight other states. In New Jersey, the law was unanimously upheld by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals as Christian counselors and therapists fought to claim that the ban was a violation of free speech. Judge Freda Wolfson summed up the case with: “Surely, the fundamental rights of parents do not include the right to choose a specific medical or mental health treatment that the state has reasonably deemed harmful or ineffective.”


It is clear that suicide rates among LGBT teens are higher than their non-LGBT counterparts. High suicide rates in LGBT teens can be tied to emotional abuse characteristic of anti-LGBT households. In the same way the physical abuse of children should not protected by declarations of religious freedom as we have seen through the phenomenon of faith healing, so too the emotional abuse that comes with falsely diagnosing one’s LGBT child with a mental disorder and demanding that they become ‘healed’ can neither be protected on religious grounds. In agreement with Dan Savage’s view, Leelah Alcorn’s parents should indeed be prosecuted; the emotional abuse they unleashed on their daughter as evidenced through her online footprint can be seen to be the direct cause of her death.

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