[Originally published on 1 July 2013]

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.

 

 

[Originally published on 18 June 2013]

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