Here is the unedited e-mail interview with Ashu Solo.
1. Tell me a bit about yourself: where you’re from, what your personal background (i.e., education, occupation, hobbies) is, how long you’ve lived in Saskatoon.
I’m an interdisciplinary researcher, electrical engineer, computer engineer, intelligent systems engineer, political and public policy engineer, mathematician, and entrepreneur. I’m also a progressive political writer, progressive activist, and civil rights activist. I’m currently a representative on the Saskatoon Cultural Diversity and Race Relations Committee, an advisory committee to Saskatoon City Council. I served honorably as an infantry officer and platoon commander understudy in the Cdn. Army Reserve.
I’m the author, editor, or associate editor of 364 engineering and math research and political commentary publications. I’ve created new branches of math, which are published. I’ve defined and originated new interdisciplinary fields, which are published.
My hobbies are an extremely wide variety of combat sports, extreme sports, and physical conditioning. My favorite sports to do are kickboxing and mixed combative arts.
I was born and raised in Saskatoon. I’ve lived in Saskatoon for about 30 years.
2. The details of the story are fairly well-publicized. Do the media accounts fairly match your own description, or is there anything missing/misleading in the stories?
I think some of the bloggers have the mistaken impression that Councillor Randy Donauer was praying to himself. He was trying to lead the entire extremely diverse audience in a Christian prayer.
Many in the media have no understanding of Saskatoon politics and how there have already been numerous complaints about Mayor Don Atchison and Councillor Randy Donauer abusing their government offices for Christian indoctrination. They think this was an innocent one-time mistake by them. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is an ongoing problem with them for which they have already received significant criticism.
3. Tell me about the interactions you’ve had from the mayor’s office. Has he made the attempt to reach out and understand your position?
I’ve sent about a dozen emails to Don Atchison and Randy Donauer and copied them to City Council as well as various media outlets. Atchison and Donauer haven’t bothered to respond to any of them. Justin Trottier from the Centre for Inquiry Canada also left messages for Atchison and Donauer about this issue. Atchison and Donauer never bothered calling him back too. Atchison and Donauer obviously have no interest in discussing this issue.
4. From an outsider’s perspective, your correspondence with the city appears very combative. For example, you mention that you are considering suing the city for implying that you do not support freedom and tolerance. Is there anything that sparks this anger besides the prayer and subsequent dismissive attitude from the city?
Great freedom fighters like Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and President John F. Kennedy were motivated by anger at injustice in my opinion, but that anger was protagonistic in that it motivated them to fight to make the world a better place. I’m also motivated by anger at injustice, but my anger is protagonistic, not antagonistic.
The anger is sparked by the threatening, racist, and bigoted backlash against me by conservative Christian supporters of Atchison and Donauer, my belief that Atchison and Donauer have endangered my life by not ending this matter, the lies of Don Atchison and Randy Donauer about me to the media, the abuses of office by Atchison and Donauer, and the fact that I need to keep standing up against the religious discrimination and bigotry of Atchison and Donauer.
In more detail, I would say that my anger about this case is sparked by these factors:
1. The threatening, racist, bigoted, intolerant, profane, and nasty backlash from conservative Christian supporters of Atchison and Donauer.
2. Atchison and Donauer are endangering my life by prolonging this case. I think they’re endangering my life because I was on the receiving end of threatening remarks. They’re prolonging this case by refusing to apologize and refusing to stop Christian prayers at civic events.
3. The extreme abuse of government offices by Atchison and Donauer to try to impose their religious beliefs on others who don’t share them at a taxpayer funded municipal government event.
4. Atchison’s lies to the media about me where he falsely claimed that I’ve done all of my dialog through the media when I’ve sent him about a dozen emails and he has only responded through the media.
5. Donauer’s clear implication that I’m against freedom and tolerance. I didn’t say I would sue the city. I said I would consider suing Atchison and Donauer for libel and slander about me.
6. Atchison’s clear implication on News Talk 650 CKOM that this is a Christian city.
Other than this event, the only other event from my past that drives me to stand up against religious discrimination and bigotry is there was a Christian Lord’s prayer in assemblies and Christmas plays in assemblies at Saskatoon Public Schools when I was in elementary school. I’m angered by this attempt at Christian indoctrination using the public school system and their failure to ever apologize for it. I wish I would have stood up against this as a kid, but that’s hard to do when one is in elementary school.
5. You detail a number of abusive correspondance you’ve received on your website. A website calling itself “The Canadian Immigration Report” calls your fight with the city an example of “Minocracy” – minority rule over the majority. How much of the backlash toward your story do you think is motivated by race? Put another way – if your name was Ian Cromwell and you looked like Justin Trottier, how much more/less abuse do you think you’d be getting right now?
The abusive messages were mostly comments on Web sites with articles about this case. I also received some threatening and insulting phone calls and email messages. In a constitutional democracy, we need to protect the rights of the minority from the misdirected will of the majority. I think the backlash is mostly from conservatives who believe in a Christian theocracy and want agents of the state to abuse their government offices for Christian indoctrination of non-Christians. I think my race influences the choice of the insult, but doesn’t motivate the backlash. If I had a Christian name and were white, I think I would be getting almost as much abuse, but the insults wouldn’t be directed at my race or ethnicity; there would be other kinds of insults. However, I might be wrong about that. Much of the backlash could be motivated by race because there have been other cases where Caucasians have stood up against religious discrimination and bigotry and didn’t receive as much backlash. I have no way of knowing what motivates bigots.
6. Not all of your detractors have been theists. You’ve faced a lot of criticism from other atheists as well.
The detractors are ignorant about a lot of facts, don’t know the discrimination and bigotry history of Don Atchison and Randy Donauer, don’t believe in standing up for civil rights, and don’t understand what’s really at stake here. Ignorance is not bliss; ignorance is poison. Some of my opponents have said that I should have gone to the mayor privately, but I’ve tried talking to the mayor before about police corruption and he hung up on me. Also, the mayor knows using his office for Christian indoctrination is a problem because he has received many complaints about the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast, but he doesn’t care. Furthermore, I thought the media reporting this would put more pressure on them to stop violating the separation of religion and government. Atchison and Donauer needed to be reported by the media for their severe abuse of office in trying to impose their religious beliefs on others who don’t share them at a taxpayer funded municipal government event. My opponents should really get informed before they write about an issue. They can talk to me if they want to get informed. You’re getting informed by talking to me and I appreciate that.
The first thing many of my opponents don’t understand is Saskatoon politics. Atchison has had an ongoing problem with abusing the mayor’s office to promote Christianity. There is a Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast. This is a privately funded Christian event organized by Donauer and others. However, with this event being called “Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast,” Atchison is using his office to promote Christianity. Atchison has received many complaints about this including from the Centre for Inquiry, but he doesn’t care and he continues violating the separation of religion and government. Donauer knows about these complaints because he helps organize the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast, but he doesn’t care and he continues violating the separation of religion and government too.
Many of my opponents have claimed that I should have talked to Atchison and Donauer. I’ve sent Atchison and Donauer about a dozen email messages, which are available to the public at http://atchison-discrimination.blogspot.ca and which have been copied to Saskatoon City Council. Atchison and Donauer haven’t responded to any of my email messages. My phone number was at the end of my email messages. Atchison and Donauer haven’t bothered phoning me.
I tried speaking to Atchison on the phone once when he was a city councillor about the issue of police corruption. Atchison unprofessionally and rudely hung up on me when I tried calling him that time, so now I’m sending him email instead. Also, I want there to be a record of what was said, so I’m using email instead.
Justin Trottier from the Centre for Inquiry, which is working with me on this case, left phone messages for Atchison and Donauer. Atchison and Donauer never called Trottier back too. Atchison and Donauer obviously have no interest in discussing this issue.
My demands are not something that can be negotiated through dialog with Atchison and Donauer. I’m unwilling to compromise on public prayer recitations being eliminated from official city events because this is an extremely discriminatory and bigoted practice. A “universal” prayer discriminates against agnostics and atheists. Atchison has indicated that he wants this matter settled by the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission.
My first email message to Atchison and Donauer was copied to various media outlets because Atchison and Donauer needed to be exposed by the media for imposing their particular religious beliefs on others who don’t share them at a taxpayer funded municipal government events. This is a severe abuse of office that was rightly exposed by media. Furthermore, I knew there would be much greater pressure on Don Atchison and Randy Donauer to stop imposing their religious beliefs on others at taxpayer funded municipal government events if this story was reported to the public by the media. If Don Atchison and Randy Donauer had agreed to stop this discriminatory and bigoted practice and had apologized then, the news story would have ended there, but they stubbornly resisted.
The media only covers an event right after it happens. If I hadn’t gone to the media about the Christian prayer at the Volunteer Appreciation Banquet right after it happened, the media would never have covered it.
My opponents don’t understand what a religious bigots Atchison and Donauer are. I’ll tell you how I know they’re religious bigots.
When Brent Loucks of News Talk 650 CKOM asked Atchison on air on April 24, 2012 whether he’s going to stop having public Christian prayers at municipal government events in response to my complaint, Atchison started talking about how this city was supposedly founded on Christianity by a Christian priest named John Lake (you can hear this starting at 3:30 of http://www.ckom.com/sites/default/files/Mayor_Atchison_Apr24.mp3) How is this relevant at all? How is it relevant to whether there should be public Christian prayers recited at official city events in 2012 that the city was founded by a Christian priest? In 2012, Saskatoon is an extremely diverse city with people from numerous religions. Why would Atchison say this unless he’s trying to imply that Saskatoon should be a Christian city today? Saskatoon is not a Christian city today. It is supposed to be and is advertised as a secular multicultural city in a secular multicultural country where all citizens are supposed to be treated equally. Let’s have what is advertised. Atchison is clearly implying that he thinks Saskatoon was founded as a Christian city and therefore should still be a Christian city today. This is extremely discriminatory and bigoted. Atchison is a religious bigot.
Donauer has suggested that people against him trying to lead a diverse audience in a Christian prayer at a municipal government event are against freedom and tolerance. Essentially he’s saying he should have the freedom to abuse his government office to impose his religious beliefs on others who don’t share them. Donauer is a religious bigot.
A lot of my opponents don’t understand that Canadian law and legal precedents do support freedom of religion, freedom from religion, and separation of religion and government. It’s my position and the position of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association that freedom of conscience in section 2a of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms includes freedom from religion, that the Charter forbids attempts to coerce, limit, or otherwise influence the choice of religious observance, and that section 27 of the Charter forbids conferring special privileges or benefits on any particular religion. Separation of religion and government means government can’t interfere with freedom to practice religion, but also means government can’t promote any religion. This is to protect people of all religions including Christians. Separation of religion and government is a fundamental aspect of freedom of religion. There is significant case law to back these positions.
Many of my opponents think this is a Christian country. That’s ridiculous. This is a secular multicultural country, not a Christian country. There is nothing in Canadian law saying that this is a Christian country. There is no state religion to some zealots’ chagrin.
I didn’t serve in the Cdn. Army Reserve Infantry to defend religious bigotry. It’s hypocritical for the Canadian Armed Forces to be fighting for religious freedom in places like Afghanistan when there isn’t even full religious freedom in Canada.
Many of my opponents don’t understand that my civil rights complaint is to get a judgment that has the effect of permanently stopping public prayers at all official civic events throughout the province of Saskatchewan. And my civil rights complaint is to get a judgment that has persuasive value in other provinces too.
Many of my opponents claim that by fighting against prayers at civic events, I’m forcing atheism on them. I’m not forcing atheism on anyone. Secularism is separating government from religion. Atheism is not believing in religion or a God. Secularism is not atheism. Lack of a public prayer recitation isn’t atheism. Lack of a public prayer recitation is secularism. People are free to pray on their own and I encourage them to do so if they want to do that. They’re not free to abuse their government offices to try to lead people in a public Christian prayer at a taxpayer funded municipal government event.
A Christian prayer recitation at a civic event is analogous to going to a restaurant where there is only one menu option and the restauranteur force feeds with that single menu option. Secularism is analogous to going to a restaurant and being able to eat whatever you want. The former is suitable for some people. The latter is suitable for all people. My opponents are fighting for some people. I’m fighting for all people.
My civil rights complaint has nothing to do with atheism. I’m not just fighting for the civil rights of atheists. I’m fighting for the civil rights everyone including Christians. I’m fighting for the civil rights of Christians because most Christians wouldn’t want a politician from a minority religion imposing his beliefs on them and many Christians don’t believe in using the government to impose their religious beliefs on others who don’t share them. People should be able to pray to their own version of the divine or just go ahead and dine.
This is an issue that divides people not based on whether they’re Christians or non-Christians. This is an issue that divides people based on whether they’re conservatives or progressives. This is clearly a partisan issue. Almost all of my opponents are conservatives. Almost all of my supporters are progressives. Non-Christians who oppose me are mostly conservatives. Christians who support me are mostly progressives. Non-Christians who oppose me are also minions to the Christian majority. The left is right and the right is wrong.
When someone fights for important progressive causes, the conservatives severely criticize him and the progressives greatly respect him. When someone fights for important regressive causes, the conservatives greatly respect her and the progressives severely criticize her. That’s the nature of politics and political activism. You can’t fight for progressive change or regressive change unless you’re willing to stand up to the backlash.
It’s the rebels, the troublemakers, and the innovators who see things differently that push the human race forward. The great freedom fighters of the past also had many opponents. Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and Louis Riel had many opponents, but they kept on fighting. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton have many opponents, but they keep on fighting. I don’t claim to be in the league of these great freedom fightesr, but I’m driven by the example they set to keep on fighting against overwhelming odds.
Senator Edward M. Kennedy said, “Few are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world that yields most painfully to change. And I believe that in this generation those with the courage to enter the moral conflict will find themselves with companions in every corner of the globe.”
Most people who have criticized my approach have absolutely no experience in fighting for civil rights, so they’re in no position to criticize me. Their criticism of my approach is extremely naïve and uninformed. I think many of these people would criticize the approach of great freedom fighters like Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. King, but they have absolutely no credibility in doing so. I am highly experienced in fighting for civil rights, so I believe I know what I’m doing. I’ve never received much media attention in the past, but now I’ve learned how to work with the media for public reporting of civil rights abuses.
I seek a court judgment that will protect the right to religious liberty for all including Christians by banning public prayer recitations at all civic events not just at Volunteer Appreciation Banquets in Saskatoon, but at all civic events throughout Saskatchewan. That’s what is at stake here. The great advances in civil rights came not through changes in attitude, but through progressive legislation and court judgments.
To get along, one has to go along. To move progressive public policy ahead, one has to go head to head. If someone doesn’t have the guts to stand up and fight, he should get out of the way and not try to tear down those who do have the guts to stand up and fight.
Some of my opponents have claimed that I’m looking for money. I’m absolutely not looking for any money. This case is not at all about making money for me. If monetary damages are awarded, I’ll donate them to charity. That being said, I will sue any blogger who engages in libel or slander about me because I will not tolerate defamatory lies about me.
How do you respond to critics who think that your complaint is frivolous, and/or that it makes atheists look silly when there are more important things to fight?
It’s always better to vigorously stand up for what’s right than passively sit down for what’s wrong.
Some people don’t understand what’s at stake here. This isn’t just about a Christian prayer recitation at one civic event. This isn’t just about a Christian prayer recitation at Volunteer Appreciation Banquets in Saskatoon. This isn’t just about Christian prayer recitations at civic events in Saskatoon. This is about getting a court judgment that has the effect of ending all prayer recitations at all civic events throughout Saskatchewan. And this is about getting a court judgment that also has persuasive value in other provinces.
My civil rights complaint is to protect the rights of the minority from the misdirected will of the majority, to protect the right to freedom of conscience and religion including freedom from religion, to enforce the separation of religion and government, to protect against religious bigots who would abuse their government offices to impose religion or spirituality on others who don’t share these beliefs, to protect against government giving primacy of one religion over all other religions, and to protect against religious bigots who would abuse their government offices to impose their particular religious beliefs on others who don’t share them.
The Centre for Inquiry, the Canadian Secular Alliance, and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association wouldn’t have volunteered their help if they didn’t think this was an important issue to fight.
Most of the people who claim that there are more important things for which to fight aren’t fighting for anything. If they think there are more important issues to fight for, why aren’t they doing so?
The Centre for Inquiry, the Canadian Secular Alliance, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, and I are willing to put our time, money, and resources into fighting this case. It’s up to us to decide what’s important to fight.
The use of their government offices to promote Christianity isn’t a one-time occurrence for Atchison and Donauer. This is an ongoing problem with them, as I’ve described above.
If some people think my civil rights complaint is petty, isn’t it infinitely more petty that Atchison and Donauer won’t apologize and won’t agree to not violate the separation of religion and government again? It’s my opposition that is being petty.
If this issue is petty, then why are there so many threatening, racist, bigoted, intolerant, profane, and nasty messages directed at me? Why are Christians phoning me, yelling at me, and trying to intimidate me?
I wouldn’t be interviewed by you if this issue wasn’t important. I wouldn’t have received the massive media coverage that I have if this issue wasn’t important.
Lastly, I wanted to start a national debate on this issue and that’s what exactly what I’ve done.
7. Your decision to go to the Human Rights Commission has also raised a few eyebrows. How do you respond to those who say that involving the Human Rights Commission is an overreaction? Is there any truth to the statement that your complaint exposes the fact that HRCs are nothing more than a place for people to whine about hurt feelings?
Only the threat of a human rights complaint got the attention of Don Atchison, Randy Donauer, and the media.
Civil rights and civil liberties should be the central governing principle of a free country. Nothing is more important than civil rights and civil liberties. The seed of liberty grows peace and prosperity.
The greatest thing that Canada has going for it over many other countries is its human rights commissions where any citizen whose civil rights or civil liberties have been violated can seek redress without the prohibitive expense of going to the courts.
This has nothing to do with hurt feelings; this has to do with people abusing their government offices to impose their religious beliefs on others who don’t share them
When Atchison and Donauer have a Christian prayer at a municipal government event, it sends the message that there is a priority given to Christian values, it sends the message that Christians are more valued or welcome than others while marginalizing others, it sends the message that only Christians can serve on City Council because a non-Christian won’t have a Christian prayer, and it forces those who object to the prayer to make the choice of having to sit through the prayer against their religion, conscience, or will or face embarrassment from leaving the room.
The people who say my civil rights complaint is overreacting are trapped in a cesspool of complacency whereas I’m fighting for religious liberty for all. Their complacency induces sleep, but I believe there are solemn promises of liberty to keep, resulting challenges to meet, towering obstacles to beat, and a long way to go before we sleep, and a long way to go before we sleep.
8. Many atheist writers, myself included, have written derisively about Christians claiming religious ‘persecution’ for slight offenses, when there is real legitimate persecution of Christians happening in the world. Is your situation just the flip side of the same coin? If not, why not?
Every citizen of the free world has a duty to stand up to defend and advance the frontiers of freedom. I don’t shirk that responsibility; I embrace it. That’s why I served as an infantry officer and platoon commander understudy in the Cdn. Army Reserve. That’s why I’ve fought for civil rights on many occasions. I don’t cower in fearfulness. I stand up for fairness.
People need to care about more than their own lives. People can’t be afraid to defend our civil rights and civil liberties. People can’t cower in fearfulness. They need to stand up for fairness.
9. CFI Canada has come to your defence. How have they been helping? What difference has that made to you personally?
The support of Centre for Inquiry shows how important my complaint is. The overwhelming support that I’ve received from CFI and its members has made me better understand that I’m not just fighting for me. I’m fighting for a lot of people and they greatly appreciate that I’m taking this on for all of them and taking the heat for all of them. I received some help from Justin Trottier, national communications director for CFI Canada, and Kendra Getty, chair of CFI Saskatchewan. Justin Trottier has appeared on the Roy Green Show twice with me. I have a lot of new friends from CFI now. Some of my supporters have told me they consider me a hero and I’m honored that they think that. I’m also supported by the Canadian Secular Alliance. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association agrees that civic events must be secular and is writing a legal letter arguing for this.
10. My understanding of Saskatoon is that it is a city with a lot of tension, not only between a very overtly religious majority and a non-religious minority, but racial tension as well. I imagine that this isn’t the first time you’ve had to deal with overt displays of religiosity and racist backlash. Is this an isolated complaint about a prayer, or are you trying to raise aware of the problem in your city in general?
I don’t think Saskatoon is worse in terms of racism and religious bigotry than other parts of Canada. However, the religious bigotry of Don Atchison and Randy Donauer has made Saskatoon look an archaic city of religious intolerance.
Numerous conservative Christian supporters of Atchison and Donauer have threatened me, told me to go back where I came from (even though I came from here), insulted my first name, insulted my race, insulted my ethnicity, insulted my atheist belief, etc. That just shows me that there’s much more racism and religious bigotry than I ever realized in Canada and makes me infinitely more determined to fight against discrimination and bigotry. Canadians like to believe that their country is free of racism and bigotry, but the racist and bigoted backlash against me proves that isn’t true. The backlash shows that Canada is an extremely racist and bigoted country. They tried to intimidate me out of filing a civil rights complaint, but instead they made me infinitely more determined to file it and I did.
11. You’ve made it clear that you’re looking for an apology from the mayor and a statement that prayer will no longer be part of the city council’s way of doing things. If he held a press conference tomorrow and announced that he was going to do exactly that, would you accept it and move on?
My only demands are the following:
1. An apology from Don Atchison to me and to anyone else who was offended for having a public Christian prayer at the Volunteer Appreciation Banquet.
2. An apology from Randy Donauer to me and to anyone else who was offended for saying a public Christian prayer at the Volunteer Appreciation Banquet.
3. A guarantee from Atchison that he will not violate the separation of religion and government again. This includes not violating the separation of religion and government with the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast. The name of this event should be changed, so it doesn’t use the office of mayor to promote prayer or Christian prayer. It could be called “Don Atchison’s Prayer Breakfast.”
4. A guarantee from Donauer that he will not violate the separation of religion and government again.
The only way this matter can be resolved is by them meeting these demands. If they agree to these demands tomorrow, the case will be resolved tomorrow.
12. Looking back on your experience since the volunteer dinner, is there anything you wish you had done differently?
My supporters think I’ve made the right decisions at every stage in this case and I believe I have too. I think I would have been more aggressive in contacting more media outlets earlier about this civil rights abuse by Don Atchison and Randy Donauer to get the message of religious liberty out even further and stir up even more of a national debate on this issue.
13. What advice would you give to other atheists (or even non-Christian theists) faced with the same situation you faced?
It’s better to always vigorously stand up for what’s right than passively sit down for what’s wrong. People should stand up and fight when they see an abuse of civil rights. Write a civil rights complaint, send it to the opposing party and media, and take it to the human rights commission if they don’t get a satisfactory remedy from the opposing party. Then the state won’t be governed with bigotry. The state will be governed with liberty.
Most people see things as they are or even hear of things that aren’t—then simply accept them as wrong or right. We need to see things as they should be and even dream of things that could be—then strive to bring them to light.
14. Is there anything else you’d like to say?
This is not a Christian country and it’s not a Christian city. This is a secular multicultural country and secular multicultural city. We cannot have a tyranny of the majority. In a constitutional democracy, we need to protect the rights of the minority from the misdirected will of the majority.
People can refer to http://atchison-discrimination.blogspot.ca for my emails to Don Atchison, Randy Donauer, and City Council, my civil rights complaint against Atchison, Donauer, and the City of Saskatoon, and my media coverage for this complaint against Atchison and Donauer for abusing their government offices to try to impose their religious beliefs on others who don’t share them.