Lake Superior Freethinkers was formed in 1997 by psychiatrist Dr. Bill van Druten as a friendship group in support of morality without superstition, freedom from religion, church & state separation, and “rational thought.”
Logic versus Faith
On Sunday, July 16, 2000, Dr. van Druten was the subject of a major profile in the Duluth News Tribune. Linda Hanson wrote the multi-page article entitled “Logic vs Faith.” It presented Dr. Bill’s personal and professional biography and experience with the church and with clients who had become its victims. The article also addressed the sorts of things freethinkers believe. At that time, the group was meeting at Bennett’s Restaurant in downtown Duluth (within the Fitger’s complex) and the breakfast buffet was $13.
At some point, Jon Eggleston and other members arranged for Lake Superior Freethinkers to adopt a section of roadway. The group is responsible for keeping Arnold Road clean from its intersection with Martin Road two miles North to its intersection with West Beyer Road. The sign pictured above is new as of 2019.
Meeting with the Governor
On Wednesday, December 27, 2000, Dr. van Druten and others of the Minnesota Secular Council met with Governor Ventura. They had an opportunity to present the concerns of the secular community about practices and regulations imposed by the church on Minnesota citizens, regardless of their own religious affiliation. At this meeting, they presented the governor with a Political Courage award from the Atheist Alliance International and a First Amendment Freedom Fighter award from their own Minnesota Secular Council.
Hospitals and Choice
On January 21, 2001, Dr. van Druten joined others in a letter to the Board of St. Luke’s Hospital. Like St. Mary’s Hospital (the only alternative), St. Luke’s was thinking of affiliating with a Roman Catholic institution. He feared that this affiliation would eventually lead to imposition of “Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services,” which place restrictions on the lawful rights of patients and their surrogates in matters concerning sterilization, fertilization, contraception, emergency contraception for victims of rape, pregnancy termination, and end-of-life decisions. That affiliation was blocked.
Boy Scouts of America
On June 25, 2002, Dr. van Druten wrote to the Duluth News Tribune to remind it that the Boy Scouts of America’s national resolution of February 6 made clear that “duty to God … is an obligation” and praised “faith based values.” But a growing number of Americans were starting to think that faith-despite-evidence might be at best foolish. They resent having their sons excluded from the ranks of the Boy Scouts because they are non-believers with presumably compromise in their moral character.
In August of 2002, former Eagle Scouts including Dr. van Druten returned their medals and badges to the Boy Scouts of America marked as Badges of Shame. On August 22, a group of about a dozen Lake Superior Freethinkers protested in Duluth against a Boy Scout ban on gay and atheist Scout Leaders. Our group, which is a chapter of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, serves as a watchdog for such local issues.
More than a dozen years later, September 20, 2013, Dr. van Druten was able to write to the Duluth News Tribune praising the Boy Scouts of America for their recent inclusion of gay members. However, he noted that Mormons and Catholics within the group were still insisting that faith in God was an important part of building character.
Ten Commandments Monument
In 1946, St. Cloud Judge E. J. Ruegemer sentenced a 16 year old boy (who had stolen a car and hit a priest) to memorize the Ten Commandments and receive instruction from local pastor. the judge was also a leader in the Fraternal Order of the Eagle. When he heard about Cecil B. DeMille’s movie called The Ten Commandments, he suggested that the Eagles get involved in supporting it. At first, they rejected the idea as seeming too coercive and sectarian, but Ruegemer persisted backed up by the movie’s producers. Eventually, more than 4,000 copies of a publicity monument from the movie were made by two appointed Minnesota granite companies.
Local Eagles chapters raised money to buy the stones and donate them to City Halls across the state. The stars of the film were dispatched to the dedication of these monuments. Milo Schnepf of the Eagles group said “everybody believes in the ten commandments and, if they don’t, they should.” Keep in mind that this was happening around the same time as the government’s injection of the phrase “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance, the insertion of “So help me God” into oaths of office, and the replacement of the actual United States motto (E Pluribus Unum) with the phrase “In God we trust” on U.S. money. This was a time of being careful to avoid being identified with “godless Communists” at all costs.
In the summer of 2003, non-theist groups began complaining about such religious symbolism on government property. They pointed out that such displays amounted to an endorsement of Judeo-Christian religious tenets over those of other religions. On August 29, 2003, an article in the Duluth News Tribune pointed out that almost no one (except these atheists) complains about such displays or about this one in particular. On September 12, 2003, MnCLU wrote to Dr. van Druten and Dale Hagen to seek local plaintiffs. Together, they all requested that the monument be removed to a non-government location. Dr. van Druten suggested that the base instead support a new monument to the Bill of Rights.
On February 12, 2004, an article appeared in the Duluth News Tribune recommending that people sit tight and wait for upcoming rulings in other jurisdictions. In that article, the full names of all the plaintiffs were published. A letter postmarked February 14, 2004 from someone identified simply as “S.S.” celebrated Valentine’s Day by sending the following message to Dr. van Druten through the U.S. Mail.
“Bill, If you take away the courthouse stone, your life will be taken. If you think we are kirdding [sic] your [sic] wrong.”
Three days later, the originals were given to Detective Sargent Robin M. Roeser who opened case #04-007836 to look into the matter. On the same day, Baird Hegeson of the Duluth News Tribune was given a copy of the letter in person. The postal inspector was also notified, and it was discovered that a baker at the House of Donuts had said, “There are guys out after those guys.”
Most responses were less crazy, such as letters to the editor like the one from Vicki Surges on February 15th, 2004. She argued that no separation of church and state was specifically mentioned in the Constitution and that these Commandments are not unique to Christianity, implying that they are just common sense moral rules applicable to all.
A thoughtful discussion of the issue appeared in the “Our View” section of the February 17th, 2004 Duluth News Tribune, entitled “Move Hollywood Publicity Monument to Private Land.” It expressed the views of the editorial board, headed up by Marti Buscaglia (President and Publisher) and Pia Lopez (Editorial Page Editor). The essay rightly pointed out that the monument was a show business prop to promote a film. “The monument has two tablets at the top inscribed with jibberish symbols created for the film. Then comes the ‘all-seeing eye’ … and an American eagle holding the American flag.” The list of the Commandments is not accurate, and the bottom had “two small Stars of David and a Christogram.” In Elkhart v Books, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the eagle and flag “specifically links religion, or more specifically these two religions, and civil government.” Justice John Paul Stevens noted that the statement “I AM the LORD thy God” belied any secular intent, and pointed out that it is all religions (and not just two of them) that deserve liberty.
On February 19th, 2004 the Reverend Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist wrote to Mayor Herb Bergson and offered to put up another monument, stating that Matthew Shepard (who was beaten to death in Wyoming for being gay) had “entered Hell on October 12, 1996, at age 22 in defiance of God’s warning.” That proposed stone included the words of Leviticus 18:22 and a carved image of Shepard. Bergson recognized this fellow from the 1998 protest of gay City Planner Darrell Lewis and rightly ignored the offer. That same week, the removal of a similar monument at Plattsmouth, Nebraska’s City Hall had been upheld by an appeals court.
Ten days later, the city acknowledged that it “expected to be served with the [MnCLU] suit on Monday [March 1].” Many residents felt like Joe Miller, who thought the Ten Commandments were “very basic rules of moral behavior that most people around the world believe in, regardless of their religious background.” Council President Jim Stauber wanted to keep the monument. He pointed out that it had been there since October, 1957 and had been accepted by the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Duluth Civic Center Historic District on November 6, 1986. Councilor Russ Stewart wanted it removed, noting that the first four Commandments are specific to Judeo-Christian religions.
When the lawsuit [04-1079JMR/RLE] was filed in federal court in Minneapolis, Mayor Herb Bergson and the City Council were named as defendants. The MnCLU said it had given Duluth three months to remove the monument, and it had not been removed. In a few weeks, on Monday March 16, City Council voted 5-4 to voluntarily remove the monument. However, one member changed his mind the next day. The City’s March 18, 2004, answer to the suit denied responsibility for the problem. The Mayor vowed to fight, citing overwhelmingly support. On April 5th, a draft resolution was presented to be voted on during the April 12th City Council meeting. On April 7, 2004, Project Moses in Kansas took out a 1/2 page ad in the Duluth News Tribune to support keeping the monument.
Nonetheless, as the lawyers worked through the legal issues, it was clear that the City could lose this suit and end up with large financial liabilities. On May 12, a Consent Decree was signed by City’s lawyer Bryan F. Brown. The City agreed to remove the monument and suffer automatic penalties if the monument was returned. The document was finalized on May 13th with the signature of Howard Carp, the official lawyer for the MnCLU. The monument was taken down the morning of May 15, quickly and quietly, and ended up in a storage facility on Rice Lake Road while its final disposition was considered.
The Reverend John C. Pressler, pastor of First Presbyterian at 300 East Second St. (who had come from Pittsburg two years previously) saw this as opportunity to get the stone delivered to his church. The City told him it could not be given away and that he would have to bid on it. In a “Point of View” article, Steven F. Peterson (a physician and senior pastor of Invite God Ministries in Duluth) made this shocking claim. He argued that the Constitution should be over-ruled in cases where “75 percent of the people in this country” disagreed with it.
Of course, the Constitution exists specifically to avoid this kind of “tyranny of the majority.” If we were to make important decisions by popular vote, we might still have slavery. But Peterson arranged for a Twin Cities church to buy the stone and take responsibility for it. On October 24, 2004, the Ten Commandments monument was placed at its new home on Canal Park and was officially consecrated on August 30th. Minnesota Atheists magazine (Volume 14, Number 4) announced the Certificates of Appreciation that were given to Dr. Bill van Druten, Dale Hagen, Maxine Caserta, and Dave Davidson for serving as plaintiffs.
KROC Community Center
Joan Kroc, born in West St. Paul, Minnesota, was the third wife of Ray Kroc. When he died in early 1984, she inherited the fortune he had made as a partner in McDonald’s. She used some of that money to set up public charities and often gave many anonymously (such as when she bailed out the citizens of Grand Forks after a 1997 flood). She also donated 87 million dollars to build and endow the first “Ray & Joan Kroc Corps Community Center” (Kroc Center) in her new home city of San Diego. When she died in late 2003, she left more than 100 million dollars to local charities and institutes, 225 million dollars to National Public Radio, and 1.5 billion(!) dollars to the Salvation Army to establish and maintain Kroc Centers across the nation.
The trust specified that Kroc Centers were to be centers of opportunity, education, recreation, and inspiration throughout the United States. They were to be highly visible and easily accessible, within reach of various economic groups with a particular outreach to under-served families, to have high quality service within world-class facilities, and to include programs involving education, fitness, arts, and worship. They were to be owned and operated by the Salvation Army.
In August, 2004, hearing that 400 million dollars had been set aside for the Midwest, Mayor Herb Bergson asked City Council to divert 6 million dollars from Fond du Lac revenue, which had been earmarked for road maintenance, to fund an attractive bid for a Duluth Kroc Center. Council not only approved this, but sweetened the pot by pledging a total of 7.2 million dollars (1.2 million dollars for each of the first six years of its operation). Everyone seemed to agree that this was a great opportunity. It would be built in the West End of Duluth, a neighborhood that badly needed the construction jobs and recreational opportunities this project could provide.
By the next summer, however, it was becoming apparent that the Duluth Salvation Army was planning a religious building with a chapel, large external cross, and Biblical quotes throughout the building. It refused to consider removing or relocating those religious symbols. The new Kroc Center would provide all the facilities specified in the trust, but it would also be a religious center with discriminatory hiring of employees who shared the Salvation Army’s religious ideas. City Councillor Russ Stewart was getting concerned about the entanglement of church and state.
The first plan, in the fall of 2005, was for a 125,000 square foot facility (later scaled down to 85,000 square feet) with an Olympic size pool, aquatic center, basketball courts, and a coffeehouse. By next February, local residents and businesses had raised enough money to bring the total offer of support to over 10 million dollars. The city would sell five acres of parkland at Wheeler Field for just over $300,000 and the project was moving full steam ahead. But Lake Superior Freethinkers was becoming concerned about the funneling of so much public money into what seemed in many ways to be a thinly disguised church.
The City hired attorney Corrine Thomson of Minneapolis to look into the matter and specify what it would take to avoid running afoul of the Establishment Clause. On November 15, 2006, she reported that supporting the project would be permissible as long as the Salvation Army agreed to the following terms: No religious symbols could be visible from the entrance or displayed in areas that would be used by the community, the name of the center could not have any religious connotation, and the architecture could not suggest a place of worship. Also, the City should be allowed to inspect the site and review its financial records from time to time. With these precautions in place, the City could safely use public money to support the project. The City decided to require that 750 hours per year be made available for use of the pool and two basketball courts by the surrounding community. However, as Dr. van Druten wondered in the editorial pages of the local newspaper, would Duluthians have supported a 10 million dollar investment in a Muslim Community Center?
The City put these proposals to the Salvation Army office in Chicago that would make the final decision about proceeding with the project. Attorney Doug Franzen of Minneapolis, representing the Salvation Army, responded that this would be a deal-breaker; they would never agree to these terms. So, later that month, the City Council backed off of those terms and agreed to risk an Establishment Clause lawsuit in order to proceed with this overall beneficial project.
Next month, on December 5, 2006, City Council voted to approve the sale and parkland and the maintenance agreement. Councilor Russ Stewart voted against the proposal, stating that this was not the proposal he originally signed up for. His interaction with the Salvation Army convinced him that they were intending to build a church at this site. Letters to the Editor generally supported the project, misreading the Constitution and assuming that “Congress shall pass no law …” did not apply to local governments, although they clearly derive their authority from that Congress. An editorial in the Duluth News Tribune suggested that the project could create jobs and provide opportunities in an under-served neighborhood and that everything would probably work out well if the Chicago office came up with the other $40M from the Kroc Center funds.
Three months later, on March 14, 2007, the City was shocked to hear that the Salvation Army in Chicago decided not to proceed with the proposed Kroc Center in Duluth. The reasons given were that (a) the finances of the Duluth Salvation Army were unstable and could not be counted upon, (b) running this Center would adversely affect the existing operations of the Duluth Salvation Army, and (c) they had gotten push-back on identifying the Center as a religious outreach. As of 2017, the Salvation Army has approved these 26 Kroc Centers with its 1.5 billion dollars.
Current Salvation Army Ray & Joan Kroc Corps Community Centers
South: Atlanta, GA, Augusta, GA; Biloxi, MS; Greenville, SC; Kerrville, TX; Memphis, TN; Norfolk, VA, Guayama, PR.
West: Coeur D’Alene, ID; Kapolei, HI; Suisun City, CA; Phoenix, AZ; Salem, OR; San Francisco, CA; San Diego, CA.
East: Camden, NJ; Boston, MA; Philadelphia, PA; Ashland, OH; Dayton, OH.
Central: Chicago, IL; Grand Rapids, MI; Green Bay, WI; Omaha, NE; Quincy, IL; South Bend, IN.
Incorporation as a Non-Profit
On May 24, 2016, Lake Superior Freethinkers became a registered Minnesota corporation recognized as a nonprofit organization by the IRS under Section 501(c)(3). It is organized with a four-person executive team (President, Vice-President, Secretary, and Treasurer) and a nine-member Board of Directors. Tax receipts are available for donations of $75 or more.
This notice was placed at West Third Street and Second Avenue during the Holiday Season of 2016. That is a location used heavily by local commuters (as opposed to seasonal visitors) and reminded the community that the organization was alive and well, and available to anyone struggling with their faith or just overwhelmed with religious messages over the holiday season.
Duluth Transit Authority Banner
This message was placed on a bus that rotated through all the routes of the Duluth Transit Authority. It was on display during the month of September, 2017, when thousands of students returned to the city from their summer vacations. Although this picture shows a banner on the right side of the bus, that was ja mistake. The banner was immediately moved to the left side so the sign was visible to passers-by and less focused on those who happened to be at the bus stop. Once again, the message was simply that we are here and available to anyone who is struggling with their faith or otherwise disappointed in organized religion.
Interview in the Canadian Atheist
On February 3, 2019, the Secretary was interviewed by the publication Canadian Atheist. That interview can be accessed here.
Profile in the Duluth News Tribune
The Lifestyle Section of the Duluth News Tribune ran a profile on the group under the title, “Lake Superior Freethinkers Offers Outlet for Camaraderie without Faith.” That report was quite favorable and can be accessed here.
National Day of Reason
The National Day of Reason is a secular celebration established in 2003 by the American Humanist Association, observed annually on the first Thursday in May just like the National Day of Prayer. This year, more than 70 people—including travelers from Northern, Central, and Southern Minnesota—gathered to support secular government and policy based on reason, science, and evidence. Our Secretary Jim Lyttle was there and a dozen legislators spoke or dropped by to show support. The event was sponsored by Humanists of Minnesota with the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis and Or Emet: the Minnesota Congregation of Humanistic Judaism. It was endorsed by 12 freethought groups including the Lake Superior Freethinkers. Organizers hope that this will be the beginning of a statewide coalition of secular voters who can act as a counterpoint to the religious right.