Governments Should Not
Erect Religious Displays
by Cliff Walker, Publisher
Positive Atheism Magazine
as written for and submitted to PanGaia Magazine
published in their Winter, 2000, issue
©2000 by Cliff Walker, used with permission

The discussion of whether governments should allow religious displays on public property is part of the discussion of religious liberty. Roger Williams first put the modern concept of religious liberty into practice in Rhode Island. In The Bloudy Tenet of Persecution (1640) he said, "No man shall be required to worship or maintain a worship against his will." Until then, Europe and America had endured what Thomas Paine later called, "the adulterous connection between church and state."[1]

When governments allow themselves to endorse religion at all, the tendency has always been for the dominant religious viewpoint to get all the endorsements and for other viewpoints to be left out. Even today, when they invoke a deity at a Texas high school football game, the prayer is inevitably addressed to the Christian deity. Sure, the Senate in Oregon once allowed a Wiccan priestess to perform the invocation, to the chagrin of one Conservative Christian Senator.[2] Then again, this is Oregon, where Wicca flourishes; I doubt they'd be allowing this in Alabama.

Our founders crafted the first godless constitution in the world, a secular constitution which did not claim a direct pipeline to a deity. The seat of our government rested with the people, and we erected strict protections against the tyranny of the majority. The founders were painfully aware of the persecutions inevitably practiced when religion is established by government.

James Madison, the Constitution's primary architect, and Thomas Jefferson were both from the colony of Virginia, where citizens who did not accept the doctrine of the trinity could be deprived of all liberties, and Baptist clergymen were routinely jailed for preaching the wrong religion. They were aware that Quakers were persecuted in some colonies, Catholics, or Jews in others. Heretics, as heresy is defined by the state religion, were sometimes put to death. The gruesome witch-hunts of the Salem of 300 years ago are a painful chapter in the colonial history of theocracy run amok.

Thus, the founders were adamant in their refusal to endorse religion. It was commonly understood that the Constitution's prohibition against entanglement forbade governments and the offices of public servants from endorsing any religion. Jefferson refused, as President, to urge a day of fasting and prayer, saying, "Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises, & the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets; and this right can never be safer than in their own hands, where the constitution has deposited it."[3] This, to me, is the most lucid argument against allowing our government to sponsor any religious exercises, including the erection of holiday displays.

The latest Supreme Court decision in this respect bans student-led public prayer before football games at public high schools. Justice John Paul Stevens wrote: "School sponsorship of a religious message is impermissible because it sends the ancillary message to members of the audience who are nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community."[4] Now, Christians are resorting to civil disobedience and threatening to organize "spontaneous prayer events" before games.[5]

The similar controversy over religious displays in parks and on Courthouse lawns involves the practice of erecting displays of Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus. Harmless? No, not when such displays serve to remind folks like me of the persecution that our predecessors suffered in the name of the very religion symbolized in the display, not to mention the indignity we continue to endure today. The statues of the so-called Holy Family symbolize, for me, that indignity; when erected upon public property, they constitute that indignity. I would hope my government would protect me from such indignity.

Two winters ago, groups in Somerset Massachusetts tried to "diversify" their controversial Mother Mary display by throwing in a few candy canes, including a Jewish Menorah, and moving in what opponents have dubbed "Santazilla" (a giant statue of Paul Bunyan converted into an image of Santa Claus).[6] An out-of-court settlement was reached last fall by separationist Gil Lawrence Amancio, who had thus far successfully opposed the display in court.[7] Amancio then moved to include a large Solstice display amidst the candy canes, the baby Jesus, and the giant Santa. The local Congregational Christian Church issued a letter to City Hall raising the possibility that "Witches, devil worshipers and representatives of many other religious beliefs" might want to join in the action, erecting a plethora of unpopular religious symbols in front of the Town Hall.[8]

Moves to erect religious displays upon public property tend to come from two camps. The perpetrators from the religious majority almost always wish to allow only symbols of the majority religion. At minimum, this comes off as a blatant attempt to promote their religious views at public expense. Inevitably, though, these displays of power serve to marginalize people who are not members of the dominant group. This becomes clear whenever members of the minority seek equal representation: someone almost always raises concerns about "Witches and Satanists!"

Those who seek to erect symbols of minority viewpoints seem to be reacting to the unfairness inherent in allowing displays in the first place. Such people are initially offended at the encroachments of the first group, but later succumb to a mentality of "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em." Arguments from this camp almost always involve the angle of fairness and "equal time."

To me, the only way to ensure fairness is to agree that promoting religion is not the role of government. This is what the founders of the United States had in mind when they declared the Revolution, and it's what they had in mind when they drafted the Constitution. It's been the dominant view of almost all Presidents through Jimmy Carter. This has only recently become an issue, and only because we let it get started. Once a precedent is set, the majority tends to wield its power to gain advantage at the expense of the minority. True religious liberty occurs only when we agree to keep our government's hands out of religious messages and ritual at all levels-even something as seemingly innocuous as a holiday display.

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1. The Age of Reason Part First by Thomas Paine paragraph 12

2. "Wiccan priestess handles the rites on Monday" by David Kravets (May 11, 1999) Statesman Journal

3. January 23, 1808 letter to Rev. Samuel Miller

4. Opinion for the Majority: "Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe"

5. "Prayer Disruptions, Commandments Crusading Loom as Many Students Head Back to School" by Conrad Goeringer, American Atheists Magazine, posted August 27, 2000

6. "End of the Road as Massachusetts Nativity Case Results in 'Instruction Manual' for Religious Displays" by Conrad Goeringer and Gil Lawrence Amancio, American Atheists Magazine, posted August 25, 1999

7. "Public Advisory on Religious Displays" ACLU Press Advisory, revised December 6, 1999

8. "Amancio Wants Equal Time, Free Speech for Solstice Greeting at 'Secularized' Town Nativity Display" by Conrad Goeringer and Gil Lawrence Amancio, American Atheists Magazine, posted December 13, 1999

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