Church economic development controversy strikes West Lafayette, IN

Jen says: The following is a guest post by my friends Anna, Mike, and Mario. Anna is the president of the Society of Non-Theists at Purdue and “isn’t cool enough for a blog.” Mike blogs at Politics and Pucks. Mario blogs at An Episcopalian in Planet Earth. West Lafayette, IN is home to Purdue University, my old stomping ground, so I’m still interested in separation of church and state issues there.

Hello everyone! As you may have heard, members of our community have been addressing an issue with regards to Church and State. Local residents have contacted the FFRF and have garnered local media attention. Both Jen McCreight and JT Eberhard have graciously allowed us to guest post on their respective blogs concerning this issue. This Wednesday, we will be hosting an online town hall meeting to address questions the non-theist and LGBTQ community may have about this issue.

First of all, we’d like to warn you that this is a complicated issue. Politics, law, complicated economics, and ethical concerns are all working together to make this as complicated as possible. We’ll try to walk you through it as best we can, but feel free to contact us with any questions.

There’s an empty lot close to campus that has begun to affect property values. Multiple other projects have been proposed for the site, but failed for various reasons, leaving nearby residents dissatisfied. This is where Faith Church (a local, very active, and very conservative Baptist congregation) intends to build a facility known as Faith West for ministry housing, biblical counseling, and as a home for the Purdue Bible Fellowship.

Generally this wouldn’t be an issue, but there are a few reasons why it is. Faith Church has applied for Economic Development Revenue Bonds (EDRB) that are meant to promote economic development and the welfare of the community through non-profit organizations. The non-profit organization finds a bank they want to borrow from, for their project, and can ascertain loans at a lower interest rate. The issue however, is that the city rubber-stamps this loan. It does not cost the city a dime, but it is a clear endorsement of the project. The city’s bond policy requires that a project “be of benefit to the health or general welfare of the City of West Lafayette.” This is a point that has been made by the only dissenting vote thus far, Councilman Rev. Peter Bunder. Faith Church is asking for up to $7 million, and the city only has to approve it and put their endorsement on it, after getting a loan from JP Morgan Chase.

According to the Faith Church website:

Each space within Faith West is designed to serve the West Lafayette Community and further the mission of Faith Church and be a blessing to Faith Church’s neighbors.

This is on their website, differing in language from the proposal to the city, which attempts to carve out the differences between religious and secular components of the project. In the proposal they have claimed that only certain parts of the facility (supposedly those that are not religious) will be covered by the bonds, while the rest is coming from their own funds. It has been mentioned that this “carve out” and division of funds is ultimately impractical and misleading.

On a side note, we know what Faith West would be if it really did serve a secular purpose.

During the May 24th meeting, Anna spoke of the contradictions which are emerging between the story Faith is telling the City and the narrative they are sharing with their own people. She also pointed out direct contradictions between the bond application, the ordinance that would provide the EDRBs, and what was actually being said.

The city attorney responded by saying that the ordinance was the binding document, not the application. Yet the ordinance is even more vague regarding the specifics of the carve out, and neither of them match what was actually being discussed.

Mario then spoke about his concerns regarding this project. He said that he supports campus ministry (he works for one and has good relations with the LGTBQ community and the Society of Non-Theists at Purdue) and understands the right of Faith Church to support their own campus ministry. However, he spoke about his concerns from the economic side since that was the focus of the public hearing:

  1. Faith Church speaks of the benefits that the 18 created jobs will bring to the community. Mario asked what will be the nature of these jobs, what are the qualifications of these jobs, and who can apply to these jobs.
  2. The ERDB will fund student housing on the site. According to their plans, the housing ministry at Faith West is intended to help Faith Church accomplish its mission in West Lafayette by providing ministry housing to students that seek a unique type of housing that is geared toward a high moral code. Each student seeking to live at Faith West’s Student Ministry Housing will sign a membership covenant that will indicate the student’s willingness to live in accordance with a high standard of moral conduct. The staff at Faith West will hold students accountable for living up to the terms of the covenants. Mario asked: who will have access to this housing? Can it be any student at Purdue? Also, what is the nature of this “covenant”? Details about this covenant have not been provided at these public forums. Instead they have been paraphrased, but not presented.

With regards to the LGBTQ community, Faith Church offers biblical counseling. Pastor Viars claims to support diversity, but there has been public testimony of abuse toward a LGBTQ member through their “homosexual repairitive counseling.” We are unable to verify everything we’ve heard, but we’ve heard other allegations of neglect and abuse from counselors when patients need treatment, but didn’t want religion forced on them. Also, their fitness facilities in Lafayette are open to everyone, unless you want a family membership, then you best have a perfect nuclear family.

Mike spoke on the issue concerning the local LGBTQ community (in fact he had to define that term to the board). He mentioned that negative attitudes toward Faith Church’s ideology by members of the LGBTQ community could lead to negative economic consequences. Further citing that the members of the LGBTQ community could dissuade their peers to live or work in the community. Also, he mentioned that each job is going to cost roughly $300-350k, which is well above the wages that these employees of the facility will likely make in one year. More importantly, he emphasized that he is not convinced that these future employees will be hired from within the community.

To answer Mike’s concerns at the May 24 hearing, Steve Viars said the following:

“…We of course welcome LGBTQ members. We are in the business of being welcoming. This can be said by our treatment of the skateboarders. We don’t ask them their sexual identity, because we’re more interested in their tattoos and piercings…”

If this wasn’t enough, the lawyer said at the public hearing:

“There is a term I picked up in Law School: ‘no brainer.’ This is a ‘no brainer’. The only reason why anyone would oppose this project, because they object to Faith Church.”

Despite these concerns, Faith Church claims in a public letter that opposition to this project is “misinformed.” Here’s something that was written in the letter:

With apologies for being blunt, there is no valid basis for voting “No” with regard to a Project like this one, which provides a clear economic development boost in a struggling neighborhood, at no cost to the City and no risk to the City – aside from simply discriminatory animus toward a particular borrower.

It seems here that Faith Church feels that the only way that people will oppose this issue is on religious grounds. Admiral Ackbar has something to say about this.

We need to argue this in a way that avoids anti-Christian rhetoric, because that’s what they want and they’re already baiting this. We know some of you are concerned, and we share this concern. So if you choose to write a letter to the city council, please avoid anti-Christian rhetoric (ask a Christian friend…if you have one). For example, bring up concerns about LGBTQ abuse, but do not single out Christians. The worst thing we can do right now is to fall in this trap.

We want what’s best for the West Lafayette, IN community. Mario, Mike, and Anna are residents, live, work, and care deeply about this community. In fact, we do want to see the lot being used, but we oppose this proposal. By not being forward about all the details of the project, our doubts have been largely confirmed through information on the Faith Church’s website. We think this behavior has been very misleading, and saddening that people who claim a moral standard are violating their own morals, while berating those who object this project.

The three of us (Mario is Christian, Anna and Mike are non-theists) are opposing this project for very similar reasons that are founded on evidence that goes beyond personal opinion regarding religion. And this is a case where actions speak much louder than words.

The final City Council meeting will be on June 4th at 6:30 at the West Lafayette City Hall. Last time, there were over 200 people, most of which were bussed in by Faith. Written statements can be sent to the City Council, but please make sure the Council Clerk gets a copy too.

Who are your Champions of Reason?

After a long day of studying, I turned to reddit to relax a little before bed. I stumbled upon this artwork in r/atheism titled “Champions of Reason”:

The artist explains:

“This is a depiction of people I intellectually admire. I say admire because it is rather impossible for me to take someone as a hero, looking past their human flaws. But it is their flaws that makes them human, which makes their intelligence all that more admirable. There are many, many others who didn’t make in this art who are just as awesome. They have my appreciation although not on this art.”

I couldn’t help but notice a pattern in the selection of champions. But I didn’t have to say anything; on reddit ADMcD76 already brought it up:

“I like it, but…not a single woman? Not even Ayaan Hirsi Ali?”

guysholliday replies:

“Why does a work of art need to be an equal-opportunity enterprise? He didn’t choose Hawking because he was disabled or Kaku because he’s Asian.”

The artist explains:

“I couldn’t think of one that influenced me as a person of reason, unfortunately.”

I’m fine with the artist choosing whoever he wants. This is supposed to represent people he personally admires, which happen to be all men (and overwhelmingly white). If this was commissioned for a conference or supposed to represent rational thought in general, I’d be a little peeved. But instead of being annoyed, I’m just sad. You can’t think of a single woman who’s influenced you as a person of reason? Not one? Yet again, there are plenty of wonderful female atheists and skeptics out there that so many people just don’t know about. It’s a really shame.

So how about you guys? Who are your champions of reason? Anyone who draws their champions of reason (stick figures acceptable!) get bonus points.

Thanks, Pixel

I needed a kitten interlude from the recent internet stupidity, so here you go. She likes to look over my shoulder as I do my research.

“Another bar graph, really? Those colors? Hey, did you correct for multiple testing?”

Maybe I should just let her take my general exam.

“Oh yeah? Well you’re UGLY”

A winning argument made by Scented Nectar and Abbie Smith of ERV:

Proof women can be sexist assholes too! I really feel like we should have a law for this, like Godwin’s law. “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a woman’s appearance being mentioned grows larger.” The type of remark can vary. I’ve been called both pretty and ugly as insults (hurrrr, or pretty ugly!). Women just can’t win.

Sadly, I’m used to this. You know, because I went to high school. And middle school. And elementary school. I was a slightly chubby awkward nerd, which means spent age 5 through 18 constantly having my appearance made fun of. I think my favorite endearing nickname bestowed on me was Sasquatch, since I had the audacity to be a foot taller than other girls my age. Honestly I’m always more befuddled when people attack me by calling me pretty or sexy, since it’s a concept I’m still not totally used to. Anyway, glad to know some people never outgrow that stage.

And ERV is shocked that National Geographic wants her to pull down some inappropriate material? Calling someone ugly for a laugh is the most benign thing she’s done.

Dealing with badly behaving speakers

At last weekend’s Women in Secularism conference, I accidentally set off a lot of discussion with something I said during a panel. I say “accidentally” because I wasn’t planning on talking about this specific point, nor did I think it would result in such a reaction. I remarked that when I was about to attend my first major atheist/skeptical conference, multiple people independently sent me unsolicited advice about what male speakers to avoid at the con. The same speakers were mentioned by different individuals, with warnings that they often make unwanted and aggressive sexual advances toward young pretty women and that I should not be alone with them.

It certainly made my first big con a little more stressful. But it became more stressful when I realized this was far more pervasive than I thought. As I started getting more involved in these communities, more and more stories came out of the woodwork. Both female friends and strangers confided in me, telling me stories of speakers that talked only to their chest, groped them against their wishes, followed them to their hotel room, or had goals to bag a young hottie at every speaking gig they did. Once after I had publicly criticized someone on my blog, people made sure to warn me that this person had a skeevy record. I had to request friends attending the con to be extra diligent about making sure I wasn’t alone.

The same names kept popping up over time. None are particularly shocking, honestly. They’re all people who have been criticized for public sexist comments that they’ve made. Which does not mean everyone who’s made a sexist comment is also making inappropriate advances – it’s a subset. But women in the movement had formed an unofficial underground network of knowledge, making sure to warn people about who to avoid.

There are obviously problems with this. A commenter at Almost Diamonds summarized it well:

You will, of course, do whatever you want, but I find it very upsetting to be told that, “You should come to our conferences! Of course, some of the people who really have a chunk of power at the conferences (the speakers) are known to treat women badly, and thus might treat you badly. But I won’t tell you who they are, so you’ll just have to hope you don’t encounter them or, if you do encounter them, that they won’t treat you badly. But do come!”

I’ve been to one secular/atheist/freethinker conference, and I was treated badly by a man (not a speaker). As awful as it was, the one of the things that made it bearable was the thought that no one knew this was going to happen and that if they had, they would have acted to support me. To think that I might go through a similar experience with a speaker while knowing that other people knew what was going to happen but felt no need to warn me makes me very angry, and it makes me feel like I’m not safe to go to conferences.

It’s all well and good to advise “networking behind the scenes,” but I don’t have a fucking network, and that’s part of the reason I feel like going to conferences might be good for me. But if I have to network behind the scenes to be safe at conferences, then I have to already have what I’m looking for to be safe.

Maybe I’m being selfish about this. Maybe I’m too angry. But I’ve been abused enough in my life. I am not about to set myself up to be abused again, and it makes my eyes tear up and my throat constrict to think that going to these conferences means going to interact with people who everyone else may know is abusive but won’t warn me because I don’t have connections.

This commenter has every right to be angry. I’m angry at myself for being part of the problem – for being someone with this knowledge who has no clue what to do with it.

“Why don’t you just publish a list of names?” you ask. If only it were that easy. Imagine what would happen if I published a list of names based on hearsay alone. I don’t have video evidence. I don’t even have personal experience – people now know I’m a loud mouth blogger, which makes me a terrible target. Even though I trust my friends to be truthful, and patterns of bad behavior make the hearsay convincing, it’s an easy target for skeptics. There’d be a flood of accusations that people are lying or oversensitive.

Not only that, but I fear the consequences. Look at what happened to Rebecca Watson when she simply said “guys, don’t do that” about an anonymous conference attendee. Imagine the shitstorm if there were public accusations of sexual misconduct of some very famous speakers. I’m not ready for the flood of rape and death threats. I’m not ready to be blacklisted and have my atheist “career” ruined by people more powerful and influential than me. I’m not ready to be sued for libel or slander. I’m not ready for the SSA or other organizations I’m affiliated with to also be harmed by association. And that’s exactly how all of these other women feel – hence the silence (See Stephanie Zvan’s lovely FAQ for this situation).

It’s a terrible Catch 22.

And I frankly don’t know how to navigate this minefield. I’m a scientist by day, with atheism and feminism as my hobbies. I’m not an HR specialist. I’m out of my element.

But because of my random comment, progress is already being made. For one, I didn’t realize so many people were oblivious to these problems. I thought because I was so quickly brought into The Know, this had to be something everyone in the movement was aware of. But it wasn’t. After I made my comment, dozens of people kept asking me for the names on The List (which I didn’t give – see my previous points). I was independently approached by multiple big names at the conference who wanted to help and learn what they could do to make their conferences safer.

Stephanie Zvan has given an excellent suggestion: Our conferences need to start adopting anti-harassment policies with guidelines of how to handle harassment that are clearly known to everyone, including speakers. It’s not a cure-all, but as Stephanie says:

“The problem with speakers didn’t develop overnight, and given the difficulties in dealing with them, they’re not going to disappear overnight. However, not only does having formal policies in place help protect your guests while this is being sorted out, but they provide a means of collecting and tracking this misbehavior. It’s much simpler to push back against pressure to include a speaker with formal tracking. It’s much simpler to share information with, “We had X number of violations of policy reported to us, and we have the records to back that up,” rather than, “So-and-so did such-and-such according to some person I can’t name.””

And her blog post is already having results. Groups are pledging to adopt this policy, including American Atheists and the Secular Student Alliance (which had an anti-harassment policy last year but will make it more prominent). I encourage you to ask other major atheist and secular organizations to adopt similar policies with a link to Stephanie’s post. Because an easy first step is to put pressure on organizations to address this problem. EDIT: Freethought Festival and the Minnesota Atheist Convention have also pledged to adopt a policy.

Obviously more needs to be done. An idea that has been floated is to create a list of speakers who will not attend events unless there’s a strict anti-harassment policy with them. I would happily sign up for this list, and maybe if enough big names did as well, it would put pressure on organizations to accept.

An idea is to make conference organizers and speakers agree to not partake in sexual activity with attendees at their events. The SSA already has this policy, which I’ve received as a member of their Speakers Bureau. If you’re a conference organizer or a speaker, you are in a position of power. If you are making advances toward someone, you are abusing that position of power. Full stop. Speakers and conference organizers should not be looking to get laid at conferences because they are there in a professional setting, even if attendees are there for more entertainment reasons. Even if things seem consensual, that power differential makes things inherently unbalanced. Women are already socialized to not directly say no – it’s even more difficult to do so when power differentials are involved.

And I say this as a sex positive person. There’s a time and a place for flirtation and mating rituals, and when you’re a speaker, a con is neither the time nor place. I understand if attendees want to flirt and hook up with each other, since the event is not necessarily a professional setting for them (but please do your flirting during at the pub and not in the middle of a lecture, and please take no for an answer). But in my opinion, this just shouldn’t acceptable for speakers.

Again, this isn’t my area of expertise. What do you think we can do to deal with badly behaving big names? Is the anti-harassment policy enough? Do you like the idea of a list of speakers who want anti-harassment policies in place? What can we do to solve this problem?

The Women in Secularism conference ROCKED

In the months leading up to CFI’s Women in Secularism conference, I admit I had my worries. I was worried attendance would be low because men wouldn’t be interested. I was worried it might be the same feminist talk over and over again. I was worried that any perceived failure would be trumpeted by the sexist atheists and skeptics as proof that women just aren’t as good at speaking, don’t know anything about secularism, and don’t have issues that are relevant to secularism.

My worries were unfounded.

I can’t stress enough how wonderful I thought WIS was. It was one of the most fun, enlightening, informational, and moving conferences I’ve been to. The material was so refreshing. As Paul Fidalgo said in The Morning Heresy, “This was no egg-headed snoozer, this was no reiteration of why we like Darwin so much (not that there’s anything wrong with those).” We didn’t just repeat the 3827 arguments against God’s existence.

I want to end on a positive note, so let me briefly comment on some things that weren’t so great (other than both of my panels being at ~9am, which is cruel for a grad student from the west coast). For one thing, the audience was a little small for a speaker lineup of this calibre. Part of the overall lower turnout was due to the temporal and physical proximity of the Reason Rally and the fact that graduations and finals were going on. But part of it was the dearth of men. While it was weird and refreshing to look out at an audience that was a majority women, I wish more men would have realized these issues affect them too. The men who did come kept telling me what a great time they were having – it definitely wasn’t a women-only conference.

As for content, there were only a couple of things I didn’t like. It really bugged me how Liz Cornwell of the Richard Dawkins Foundation kept stating how genetics and evolution explain how religiosity came to be. It’s an interesting hypothesis, but she presented it as undisputed fact and didn’t cite any studies. I mean, we hardly known the genetics behind highly heritable traits like height – I know of no good evidence for the “genetics” of religion. Alas, I wasn’t on the panel and my question didn’t get picked for the Q&A, so I couldn’t ask for a clarification or citation.

My other complaint is Edwina Rogers’ lackluster talk. I should be glad that only 15 minutes of an entire conference was lackluster, but I was disappointed. I was hoping she would use those 15 minutes to give a passionate talk about her motivations to join the secular movement, focusing on women’s issues – I thought maybe she could save a little face from the weeks of botched interviews. Instead she gave a canned “Intro to the SCA” talk that I’ve seen Sean Faircloth do before. It was a 15 minute advertisement that had little do with women in secularism (other than a couple of bullet points on the end), and she basically read off the list and lacked the passion and charisma that Faircloth had. Then she rushed out to leave for another conference so there was no Q&A or even time to say hello. Bah.

But now that’s out of the way, I want to stress why I had such a blast:

1. Moving beyond Feminism 101. When I’m invited to speak at conferences, I’m often the only woman or one of few. And as our movement begins to recognize the importance of addressing diversity, sexism, and women’s issues, they usually request that I talk about it. Which I’m happy to do – I think it’s very important! But when I (or another female speaker in my boat) am giving a talk to a general audience, we often have to spend our hour on stage walking through basic concepts about feminism, sexism, and privilege. Because everyone at WIS had that same background, and because we had a whole conference instead of an hour to talk about it, we got to talk about so much more interesting stuff. It also meant the questions in the Q&A were wonderfully thoughtful, instead of the same infuriating uninformed arguments we’ve debunked 37618295 times before.

CFI will be putting the talks online (yay!). If you can’t wait until then, you can satisfy your curiosity in a number of places. The Skeptical Seeker has a great summary of the main ideas presented at WIS. If you want a more detailed summary, check out the detailed liveblogging coverage of Ashley F. Miller (123456) and Ophelia Benson (1234567). If you want a highlight of the main concepts and great one-liners, peruse through #wiscfi on twitter.

2. Discovering new role-models. It’s funny. When I talk about diversity, I always mention how there are all these wonderful female atheists out there doing wonderful things, but we’re just unaware about it because they don’t get promoted as much. Hell, I keep a list of them (that sorely needs an update, I know) precisely for that reason. And I saw that in action:

  • While I knew of Susan Jacoby, I had never seen her speak. She’s now my hero. Not only did she manage to keep us awake with the dreaded 8:30am time slot, but she was hilarious, incisive, and strong. I’ll post her talk when it’s online, since my summary can’t do it justice.
  • Bernice Sandler was wonderful, and her talk should be required listening for anyone who has to run a department, or committee, or classroom, or…hell, anyone who has to interact with groups of people. She talked about the little differences in how people treat men and women – how women are interrupted more, more likely to have their ideas attributed to others, more likely to be called a bitch instead of aggressive, etc. You can see the full list on her website. She also gave practical advice on how to counter these things, and I’ll be sure to share the video.
  • Wafa Sultan. Wow. I’ve never seen such a powerful, moving talk at any previous conference. I quickly realized my goal would be to not cry, which I promptly failed. She talked about the abuses she and her friends, family, and patients faced under Islamic rule. “Just walking early in the morning to Starbucks without being called a whore…that is freedom.” You can probably guess by now, but yeah, I’m gluing your eyeballs open and making you watch the video.

3. The stereotype-breaking. We embraced the term “promiscuous assembly.” We joked about baby eating and Jamila Bey’s “Show me on the doll where Jesus touched you” shirt. Even people with softer voices like Annie Laurie Gaylor and Margaret Downey were anything but soft-spoken – they were just as fierce critics of religion as Hitchens or Dawkins. We’re not all demure gentile ladies, or humorless killjoy feminists. We are human.

4. Meeting wonderful people. I always love seeing my atheist friends. Greta Christina, her wife Ingrid, Jamila Bey, Debbie Goddard, Ophelia Benson, Jessica Ahlquist, Ashley F. Miller, Stephanie Zvan, Brianne Bilyeu, Rebecca Watson…I wish I could have drinks and dinner with these people every week. But I also love meeting all the new people. And no, I don’t just mean hobnobbing with speakers (though I was so happy Wafa Sultan sat next to me at dinner and we got to chat a lot). I love meeting the random blog readers and Secular Student Alliance members. I feel honored getting personal feedback, but I love it even more when I meet someone who is just overjoyed about the conference in general. I met so many women who had never gotten involved in secularism before, but this conference had them hooked. “Finally!” one told me. Finally indeed.

I’m sure I’ll continue to think about wonderful things from the weekend, but I only have one more thing to say: I hope there’s a Women in Secularism 2.

I’m off to the Women in Secularism conference!

On a typical day I’d still be sleeping for four more hours, but right now I’m in the airport. And in a couple more hours, I’ll be in DC for the Women in Secularism conference! I’m super excited (well, excited as you can be at 5am and about to fly to an opposite coast). The lineup is amazing, and I’m honored to be a part of it. Can’t wait to see all of my godless friends!

Watch #WISCFI on Twitter for con updates. Of course, we won’t be tweeting the top secret lesbian rituals or our plan for worldwide castration, but…

I’ve said too much.

My flight will be just as fun. I get to read a dozen papers on multiplexing microRNA for high throughput sequencing to study for my general exam! Wooooooooo! …man, when I scheduled this conference a year and a half ago, my schedule was a little less hectic. Oh well. Honestly I’ll probably get more studying done while trapped on a plane without distraction (aka the internet).

If you’re at the con, say hi!


Here’s a depressing comparison for you:

2012 US Science Budget*: $85.2 billion

Yearly losses due to religious tax exemptions: Over $71 billion

We could basically double the US Science Budget, but instead we continue to bow to religious privilege. Priorities, indeed.

*Funding the National Institute of Health, National Science Foundation, NASA, Department of Energy, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Defense Department, US Department of Agriculture, US Geological Survey, Environmental Protection Agency, National Institute of Standards and Technology, Food and Drug Administration, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.