Nativity Scenes on Public Property December 16, 2009

Nativity Scenes on Public Property

Yesterday, I got an interesting email from a producer of a radio show asking if I could come on to talk about Nativity scenes on government property.

Which radio show?

The one hosted by former congressman Mark Foley… The guy who sexted with underage pages. He has a radio show now.

It was strangely uneventful. I was on air for all of 30 seconds, I think. I said that religious or non-religious displays had no business being on government property, but if one was allowed, they all had to be allowed.

At no point could I work in the word “page.” Which means I failed at helping my friends take part in a drinking contest.

As far as I know, there’s no recording or transcript, but I’ll provide it if it becomes available.

Anyway, stories about Christian displays on public property are all over the place, with a variety of “solutions” dealing with them:

Secular students near Montville, New Jersey are requesting that a display featuring a Menorah, a Nativity scene, and reindeer either be taken down or made to include a display of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Township administrator Frank Bastone and his committee are not budging, even after consulting with legal counsel. (What lawyers are encouraging them to keep these displays up?!)

David Iacoviello, president of the Society of American Youth Secularists, or S.A.Y.S. at William Paterson University, requested the religious icons be removed at a township committee meeting last week.

The township’s display was brought to the attention of the student secular groups after an anonymous Montville resident reached out to Rutgers’ Pastafarian group for support, said Jeffrey Cupo, Pastafarian founder at Rutgers New Brunswick. The resident said the township failed to respond to his requests to remove the religious icons from the display, said Cupo.

In response, Cupo alerted both S.A.Y.S. and the Secular Student Alliance at The College of New Jersey, and urged the other groups to ask township officials to take down the display.

In Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, local officials allowed a Nativity scene to be placed near a local public fountain. After local atheists demanded that a sign be placed near the Nativity reading, “Celebrating Solstice — Honoring Atheist War Veterans,” the Borough Council decided to take down all religious/non-religious displays.

Now, local Christians are pissed off because they realized they’re not special:

“Borough didn’t even give us a chance. They decided on their own without even asking the borough residents what they wanted,” resident Robert Wall said.

“When National Atheist Day happens, or National Atheist Veterans Day happens, I think he should be able to put his sign up,” said petition organizer Lisa Blackstock.

The Borough actually made the legally correct decision and it’s not up for popular vote.

Also, does anyone else think Blackstock would lead the charge to take down an atheist sign on public property regardless of the holiday?

The Arkansas Society of Freethinkers recently sued Secretary of State Charlie Daniels “after he refused to grant permission for the group to put up its display, dubbed the Box of Knowledge.” A judge ruled in their favor and a display from the atheists will be put up alongside the Nativity scene.

This is the Box of Knowledge:


If you’re curious, that entire siding can be seen here (PDF).

[ASF President Tod] Billings said that in filing the controversial lawsuit, the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers was not trying to exclude Christian displays or silence religious followers. Instead, the society was pushing for inclusion, he said. One face of the four-sided display honors the winter solstice.

“As the old year passes and a new year is born, we reflect on that which has passed and hope for a better tomorrow,” the proposed display reads, as reported by the AP. “May the light of reason be a beacon to a brighter future for us all.”

Those nasty heathens…

In Kokomo, Indiana, they’ve done away with all Christian/atheist displays altogether.

They have chosen to display a fisherman, the Loch Ness Monster, and a smiling whale… really the best parts of the Bible.

This video gives you a grand tour of the awesomeness:

I love this line from an article about the display:

Some people say that keeps the “Christ” out of “Christmas.”

It also keeps the county out of court.

This is all very easy to understand: No religious or non-religious system gets any special privilege from the government. It’s an all-or-nothing deal when it comes to holiday displays. Why is that so hard for some Christians to comprehend?

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  • Valdyr

    At no point could I work in the word “page.”

    *assembled hopeful masses slowly disperse, crestfallen*

  • Ubi Dubium

    I’ve heard that originally permission for the Box of Knowledge was refused on the grounds that it “wasn’t festive enough” to qualify as a holiday display. I recommend that tinsel and lights be added.

  • Karen

    I’ve always wondered what part of “separation of church and state” is so hard to comprehend.

  • cypressgreen

    It’s time Americans turned over a new page in our religious history and permanently move all religious holiday displays off government property.

  • qwertyuiop

    This is all very easy to understand: No religious or non-religious system gets any special privilege from the government. It’s an all-or-nothing deal when it comes to holiday displays. Why is that so hard for some Christians to comprehend?

    Because they’ve been indulged and coddled for so long that they honestly think that their way is the way things should be.

  • I am in love with the person who created the Box of Knowledge, whoever he or she is. It so totally sounds like some cheeseball object of a quest from Captain Planet and the Planeteers or maybe the animated Dungeons and Dragons cartoon from the 1980s. Please don’t tell GPop.

  • Trace

    I like the Kokomo display!

  • Our City Hall has a Menorah at the front…I just noticed it yesterday. The holiday display is completely secular, but our mayor is Jewish so I guess he felt the need to throw that in there. Trying to decide whether I should complain about it.

  • Heidi

    OMFSM, I love the Box of Knowledge!! <3 <3 <3

    I may have to print that out and hang it on my fridge.

  • Alex

    Any chance that the image files used to create the four sides be available for downloading somewhere? I would love build one!

  • martin

    Love the article about the display!!!
    some great lines:

    “”I think there should be more religious display here, because I’m a Christian,” said resident Michelle Elizade.”

    Really does say it all. And I think there shouldn’t be religious displays here, because I’m an atheist… oh and the Constitution forbids favoring one religion…

    “County commissioners say the complaints are centered around the absence of any religious aspects of the holiday season. Marching soldiers appear in place of wise men and there’s a fire truck instead of a manger.”

    I guess they missed the part in the Bible when Jesus was being born the Fire Trucks came and put out the Hell fires as the soldiers marched towards the manger to stop the insurgents.

  • jemand

    I love the Kokomo display!

  • There is one nativity scene on public property in my town. You have to go looking for it to find it though. I figure it is not worth the hassle of doing anything about as it could cost me my job here.

  • So this does pose a question: How do you approach objecting to a public religious display? There is one big nativity display at the Clawson Mi public library. Its pretty silly because there is a Santa sleigh right next to it, setup in a way that makes it look like all part of the same scene. But anyway, it is an elaborate display. I’ve thought about objecting to it, but what is the best way to go about this?

  • DemetriusOfPharos

    National Atheist Veterans Day

    Anyone else feel a little stabby after that? I mean, Veterans Day already exists and has absolutely nothing to do with religion.

  • AnonyMouse

    True story: I live just outside Marsing, Idaho, and every year without fail the town leaders decorate the place for Christmas. Most of it’s nice stuff – candy canes, trees, stocking, etc. But they also set up a large nativity scene in one of the parks every year.

    I didn’t realize until this Christmas that that was actually potentially illegal… perhaps I need to donate a FSMas display.

  • Matto the Hun

    Christians need to stop being so pathetically ignorant of their own religion. Almost everything about Christmas is not Christian.

    In a funny kind of way I think the JWs have a more consistent and honest approach by not celebrating Christmas.

  • Dan

    I’ve always wondered what part of “separation of church and state” is so hard to comprehend.

    The part where the separation of church and state include their particular religion, their particular denomination.

    They have diluted themselves to think that their way is the right way and that the U.S is some kind of theocratic Christian nation, and thus all things Christian are exempt from that pesky separation of church and state.

    Their nativity scenes could very easily go on church properties or private properties or form part of an inclusive display of many religions and non-religious displays. The reason they want it to be located on public property in front of City Hall’s and Court houses and to be standing on its own is to push the view that the U.S is a Christian Nation.

    The U.S is not a Christian Nation and will never be a Christian Nation. If it ever did than that day would be the day that liberty and freedom died in the U.S and an American Taliban like state would be formed. Some of these fundamentalist groups might consider that a win but it is not it is a recipe for religious wars and a very unjust society and there is no guarantee that their particular brand of religion will be the one adopted by the state.

    Accept the fact and be happy that you live in a nation where you can believe what you want and worship how you choose. The more you try to push your religion on others and the more hostile you are to differences the more push back your going to get from them and the fast your going to alienate potential or existing church members.

  • echoecho

    I agree wholeheartedly with the “all or nothing” rule.

    But if solstice is a time for celebration – the darkest days of winter, several different religious holidays fall around it, etc – I still have seen no solid reason offered as to why it can’t be “all” instead of “nothing”.

    If cities have a certain amount of space to put up religious displays, hell, let people people fill it up with crazy holiday chaos! If they’re concerned about the displays getting into each other’s areas, have a lottery system by which there are a certain number of plots and everyone goes in for a space.

    I feel very strongly about the separation of church and state, but it makes me angry when people (I think it was a Seattle freethought group?) piss in everyone’s cornflakes to try to get the whole thing shut down, like going to someone’s party and being such an ass that everyone goes home.

    If we want to drive home the point that the state shouldn’t favor one religion, it is just as easily done with cheerful solstice displays. Or boxes of knowledge!

    (which is a great example, actually – if my choice is between a big patch of grass, or an area with a nativity scene, a menorah, and a box of knowledge, I am all about the latter)

  • Ashley Moltzan

    Wow those are impressive lights

  • Joffan

    I think we’re all on the same page here. Turning to a new page in social attitudes is essential. Someone should page the councils in these cities to let them know what the text of the constitution says. The attractive pages of the Information Box can stand alongside the vague picture-book images of the little boy in the manger anyway.

    (The info box needs fake snow on the roof, though, maybe icicles too, if the local weather is not going to provide. Interesting geometric mobiles would be my choice rather than tinsel.)

  • RPJ

    UGH the text on the Box of Knowledge is thick. tldr much?

    It’s not a trivial point; delivery of information is arguable just as important as the information itself. Dense articles are appropriate for venues where one looks for information – journals, essays, or other resources. But nobody on the street is going to stop and spend half an hour reading that monument. I would only look at it long enough to jeer at the noobs who fail at information delivery.

    A display, especially such as one equivalent to a Nativity scene, should focus on visuals that convey a theme succinctly and clearly. Text is ok if used sparingly – preferably, to snare one’s attention and direct them to a resource for the to find out more. It’s an advertisement, essentially.

    Though it wins the legal battle, that display, unfortunately, loses the ideological battle by a landslide by being completely blind to communication. In a larger sense, this is the difficulty that atheism, secularism and science have in dealing with religious encroachment – religion communicates with people far better. non-religious messages will have to be able to compete to gain any headway.

  • DGKnipfer

    I agree with you on all of these with one exception, Hement. The Montville, New Jersey case is a looser for us. Much as I love the Flying Spaghetti Monster, may his noodleiness be upon you; his first appearance in modern writing is widely accepted as an attempt to mock the Religious Right. As such, the city council can claim that a Flying Spaghetti Monster display is not in the proper spirit of the holiday season, but instead a joke intended to mock the Christian holiday displays. A secular display expressing season’s greetings during the winter holidays would be acceptable and in the proper holiday spirit, but a display that gives the impression that it is specifically intended to mock other beliefs that it is displayed along side is not inappropriate or in the proper holiday spirit.

  • Tracy

    I love the idea of the “Box of Knowledge”. But I have to agree with RPJ – that box is a communication / graphic design disaster. Too much information! Who’s going to read any of that? Especially the text at the bottom, unless it’s going on a pedestal. I make posters sometimes for work, and I give my boss a non-negotiable word limit of, say, 25 words. Even that’s pushing it.

  • Joffan

    Agree with RPJ, despite my skittish post earlier – I recall thinking that was my first impression of the knowledge box display. How many people are going to read the bottom two feet of text?

    Images… I like natural-world sciency stuff
    – the track of the midwinter sun across the sky (maybe overlaid with the midsummer track)
    – the track of the planets, especially Mars and Jupiter with their retrogrades
    – lightning strikes
    – crystals, especially geodes
    – micrograph of cells
    … each with a little explanatory text explaining and mentioning the transition from supernatural stories to scientific understanding.

    This is all on the assumption that it has to stay very cheap, of course. Otherwise go for models and screens.

  • At no point could I work in the word “page.”

    Really? I thought of one within oh, a second of reading that sentence… (it’s much harder when you’re on the spot, which is why you need to pre-plan that kind of shenannigans).

    After saying:
    “Religious or non-religious displays have no business being on government property, but if one iss allowed, they all have to be allowed.” you add
    “I think it’s time we all turn the page and agree to stick to the law on this one.”

  • Alex

    Link to the box of knowledge images is:

  • muggle

    Get all this foolishness out of the public square. But, until they are, fight fire with fire. Every time there’s a religious scene let’s either, yeah, mock them (so what it’s mocking, if the government is giving venue to opinions you can display something mocking) with the FSM or counter with reason’s greetings.

    And thanks for posting the story about Tod Billings. It was nice to drop an old bulletin board pal a line. It’s been about a decade.

  • wyocowboy

    The Religious Wrong (I do NOT call them “right” because they are not right BUT WRONG) is at it again, they need to be stopped. What happened with the separation of Church and State. I have read that the RW is trying to get rid of it. Regan, and both Bush’s have destroyed this country and we are paying the aftermath of their rule. The WR need to be stopped!!!!

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