Help Save the Tree of Knowledge! November 17, 2010

Help Save the Tree of Knowledge!

Thursday morning, the Chester County (Philadephia) Commissioner’s Office will vote on whether to “rescind all private, unattended winter holiday season displays on the Chester County Historic Courthouse property.”

Passage of this bill, Resolution 58-10, would mean private groups could not put up any holiday displays.

That may not seem like such a bad thing, but it seems clear why this bill is up for a vote right now: In the past, the local Freethought Society has put up a Tree of Knowledge and the commissioners are trying to put a stop to that.

The Tree of Knowledge is a tree with covers of classic freethought/science books on it instead of ornaments.


“The Tree of Knowledge represents the many contributions nontheists have made to society and has become an anticipated tradition,” said Margaret Downey, founder and president of the Freethought Society. “The Tree of Knowledge display conveys to passersby that there exists in America a strong united minority of nontheists which include freethinkers, atheists, secular humanists, agnostics, skeptics, rationalists, ethical culturalists and humanists.”

I could go both ways on this — if they’re saying no to the atheists, they’d have to say no to the religious groups as well… and that’s always a plus.

But I really like the tree!

There’s an online petition you can sign if you want to Save the Tree. There are also sample emails and phone numbers of the commissioners at various websites.

Contact the officials and let them know how you feel. The vote is tomorrow morning so you don’t have a lot of time!

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  • JohnJay

    FYI – The Virginia AG just ruled that religious displays are allowed on government property. Maybe they’ll reconsider if a Tree of Knowledge is put up. Here’s the conclusion of the ruling:

    Accordingly, it is my opinion that a local governmental entity is never categorically compelled to prohibit holiday displays, including those incorporating recognizably religious symbols, because governments enjoy considerable discretion in accommodating the religious expression of their citizens and employees and in their own recognition of traditional seasonal holidays. It is further my opinion that displays depicting the birth of Jesus Christ are permissible provided the government ensures appropriate content and context.

  • Richard Wade

    No displays at all on government property is a heck of a lot better than a zoo of religious and irreligious junk, which just foments enmity. Here’s our opportunity to get religion off government land.

    Face it, the Tree of Knowledge, or statues of the Flying Spatetti Monster, or plaques talking about axial tilt and decrying the problems of religion are all REACTIONS to the religious displays on public property.

    They wouldn’t be necessary if there wasn’t the constant intrusion of religion into publicly-funded government property.

    If Chester County wants to get rid of all that crap on their public property, GREAT! Let the religious folks erect their erections on private property. No problem.

    Isn’t this the way we want it in the long term future? A cleansing of all of it out of government?

    If you really like the tree, put it up on private property.

  • Will

    I agree with Richard! (I also hope you’re feeling better.)

  • WingedBeast

    Why don’t you just put it up on private grounds?

  • Richard Wade

    Hemant’s article says that all displays will be banned by the pending bill, but on the website linked to the petition, this is how they describe the bill:

    The Chester County Commissioners have elected to write a resolution which effectively bans non-theist groups from creating a holiday display. This is a direct response to the Freethought society’s TREE of KNOWLEDGE display which has shared the courthouse lawn with a Christian creche and a Jewish Menorah, as well as a standardly decorated county Christmas tree.

    “bans non-theist groups”?

    Their petition starts with this:

    We the undersigned strongly request that you do not pass Resolution 58-10, which is designed to stop the open quality of the Winter Holiday Display, and make it no longer accessible to the citizens and organizations of Chester County, in favor of a single display chosen by the Commissioners.

    So, which is it? This paragraph seems to say that the bill will allow the customary religious displays and disallow anything they don’t like. One of these accounts has to be incorrect.

  • Dan

    Maybe that is something we need to be comfortable with. Just as we’re asking the religious to be comfortable with keeping government out of religion, we should be comfortable with government not having a stand on atheism either.

    But I’m confused about the wording of the passage. Does it mean if it’s an ATTENDED private display it will be allowed? Or if it’s an unattended PUBLIC display is it allowed to stay?

    Just curious.

  • JSug

    @Richard: Yeah, I was wondering about the actual wording of the resolution. It sounds like maybe the county is trying to get rid of any privately funded displays, but leaving a loophole for a single publicly funded display of their choosing. I can’t find the actual wording, but this local news story seems to confirm that:

    Even Better information:

  • Richard Wade

    Thanks for those links. They clearly show how unclear this situation is.

    The first link seems to indicate that the issue hinges on “privately owned” versus “county owned” displays, but does not offer any clarifying information.

    The second link gives an account of small town bureaucratic foot dragging to try to stop the Freethought Society, and describes one man influencing the county board to ban the Tree of Knowledge, because he says it “denigrates” what he calls “real religions.”

    But the article still does not make clear whether or not the county board’s bill will allow the county have some kind of holiday display of its own design, whether or not the bill will ban other non-religious displays, or what, or what, or what.

    Privately owned or not, county owned or not, if a display goes up on public property, with any religious references at all, and the Tree of Knowledge is banned, it’s lawsuit time. Good hunting.

  • Tim

    Here is my e-mail to the three contacts in the article Hemant linked to:

    To Whom it May Concern,

    The Chester County Commissioner’s Office will soon vote on Resolution 58-10, which would ban private groups from erecting holiday displays. Not only is this a blatant violation of free speech, but it is also betrays a far more insidious motive; this move is obviously to block the local Freethought Society’s holiday display, the Tree of Knowledge. It’s a sad day when the government would rather block all displays than allow one that they didn’t agree with.

    The Freethought Society’s display is of course protected by freedom of speech and expression, and they have as much right as any other group to put up holiday displays on public land. As much as the Commissioners would like to believe otherwise, the Constitution does not allow the government to silence speech simply because they disagree with it. As much as the Commissioners would like to believe that America is a “Christian Nation,” that is simply not so; the only truly American solution to this situation is to preserve our high-held freedoms, and allow all displays, whether the Commissioners agree with them or not.

    Blocking the Freethought Society’s display (even in the duplicitous guise of banning all private displays) is a direct violation of the 1st Amendment’s freedom of speech and religious practice, as well as the Establishment Clause.

    Christians do not own the winter holidays. The fact that the (undoubtedly Christian) Commissioners would rather ban all displays than allow a non-theistic one shows how truly immature, intolerant, and un-American they are.

    Please preserve the Constitutional Separation of Church and State. Please preserve the Constitutional Freedom of Expression. Please do not ban holiday displays.

    Sincerely a Concerned Pennsylvanian,

    Timothy H. Best
    Pennsylvania, 18801

  • ethinethin

    It’s a sad day when the government would rather block all displays than allow one that they didn’t agree with.
    I think it would be a happy day. To hell with religious displays on government property. They shouldn’t be there. As Richard said, atheist holiday displays are a reaction to religious displays. In most respects, they are an effort to undermine religious displays on government property. We should celebrate a local government choosing to ban all religious displays on government property (if that’s really what they’re doing here).

  • I agree with ethinethin. If the government got rid of all religious displays and philosophical displays on government property, it would finally be an equal situation for everyone. No one group or idea would get special emphasis or exposure at all. Not through the government.

    People need to rely on themselves if they want to say something that’s at all divisive. Religion is still an especially sensitive issue with the masses, so I really think the government is best off not addressing religion. To endorse one is to offend all the rest. It’s only a matter of time before the rest speak out, and again, we’re in a legal conflict with ourselves. Our society, that is.

    Government neutrality works best in such a diverse society.

  • Heidi

    I’m with Richard on this. If they’re banning all the displays, cool. Move the Knowledge Tree somewhere else, and let the religious displays go up at churches and/or homes.

    But if they’re planning on “banning” just so they can put up a single government religious display, that is uncool beyond words.

  • I know these people and I can tell you that however this resolution is worded, if passed the Creche will be permitted and the Tree of Knowledge will not.

    Thank you Hemant for posting this and thanks for adding a link to my article. Please sign the online petition. We really need to get as many signatures as we can before 10am Thursday. E-mails and phone calls are also helpful.

  • kyrosion

    Just another person backing up Richard, here. The Tree of Knowledge is great and all, but there are other places to erect such a display, and getting the religious displays off of public property counts as a win in my book.

    That said, if they’re trying to loophole the law so that they can ban the Tree and STILL put up one or more religious displays, well then. It’s time to throw down.

  • classic freethought/science books

    So why the hell is “The Teachings of Buddha” there?

    It’s supposed to be freethought/secular books, not merely non-Christian woo.

  • Kamaka

    So why the hell is “The Teachings of Buddha” there?

    “The Tree of Knowledge represents the many contributions nontheists have made to society…”

    The Buddha (not that I’m convinced such a person actually existed) was decidedly non-theistic.

  • Rieux

    I’m with Richard, too, but I agree that there are serious concerns if the offered “no private displays” rule is really just a sneaky prologue for a “public” display… that conveniently omits everything but the favored religions’ symbols.

    On the upside (sort of), that public display would be unconstitutional. The whole point of delegating the sectarian holiday displays to private organizations is that it allows the government to claim the religiosity isn’t their doing; it’s the private citizens’. If they opt for a single public display, there goes that excuse.

    It would be preferable to have the city abide by the Establishment Clause rather than forcing a drawn-out court battle, though. What a waste of time and resources.

  • Nick Andrew

    I wouldn’t want them to ban the Tree of Knowledge yet find some loophole which allows the christian display to remain.

    The answer depends in part on the exact text of this bill.

  • If in the end, a Nativity Scene or some other religious display is allowed, and no other displays are, I definitely think that some Freethinkers should go there and blatantly point and laugh at it. In front of passers-by.

    Apart from that, what’s to discourage government religion promoters? I’d like them to know that putting silliness on display in a government setting is inviting critique. A hearty laugh will send the message, and it’ll include a smile.

    Something like that. For sure, we need to provide a clear and loud response to any and all unfair government promotions of religion.

  • I really don’t know how to make this any more clear. Come December 25th, that Creche WILL be on the Courthouse lawn. The question is, will our Tree of Knowledge be with it?

    If the County got rid of it all, I would certainly consider that a win, but at least one and maybe two of the three commissioners are working with “The Pastor Network” on this resolution and there is NO WAY Colin Hanna will allow his Creche to not be allowed up.

    So I’m with Richard too, but that is not the situation we are dealing with here. The situation is that this resolution has been purposefully constructed to keep us out and the Creche up.

  • I understand this is bullshit. I think it should still be allowed to pass. It’s a triumph of removing displays. If they then turn around and put up the creche, sue their asses off. You’ll be back by the group that wants the menorah and you know it’s un-PC for the anti-Semetic to admit they’re anti-Semetic.

    It’s really the only way to go. The Tree of Knowledge is way cool but should be elsewhere along with everything else.

  • @Muggle I am really getting tired of stating this, but this resolution will ONLY remove our display not the menorah and definitely NOT the creche.

  • Elga

    Here is the link to the resolution:

    It is absolutely amazing (sickening) that they are effectively banning secular displays.

  • t-mac

    i think it all should be banned because its all pagan, christmas trees shouldn’t even be viewed as something holy or sacred to christians, and i think its very amusing that athiests are using the tree of knowledge as a symbol for them or whatever i don’t get. it came from a book that i assume they don’t accredit as being factual, the bible. and there are buddhist card ornament thingys which are religious…am i wrong?
    the tree of knowledge in the bible, whether one believes it 2 be real or not represented something much deeper than most will admit. it represented the creator’s sovereignty, or his right to rule. Adam and eve used their free will to deliberately disobey and partake of the forbidden fruit, in essence saying that they’d be better off ruling themselves and that humanity doesn’t need God’s counsel, wisdom, protection, blessing yadda yadda yadda, and they were fit 2 decide right and wrong 4 themselves. Doing so however, turned their world upside down and all you have to do is look around to see the price we have to pay for it…
    well look at life now what’s right? what’s wrong? is life the perfect paradise that man has created? is man able 2 make wise decisions for the whole world? can somebody figure out a way so that i don’t have 2 die or get sick without being greedy or going corrupt? can anybody or group of people give me the same answer for the meaning of life and a way to be truly happy without proving to be hypocrites? it disgusts me that the majority of religious people and nonreligious people can’t see the big picture at hand.
    i apologize if my comment offends anyone, everyone has the right to decide for themselves what is certain and what is not. i long for the time however, when all people and animals will be united here on the earth living in peace without worry and growing in accurate knowledge every day.

  • Mike

    What if you made sure it was attended? Candle-light vigil anyone?

  • JSug

    Thanks for the link, Elga. Here’s the text of the resolution for anyone too lazy busy to click through and scroll down:

    WHEREAS, the Chester County Commissioners previously adopted Regulations Affecting Private Unattended Winter Holiday Season Displays on the Chester County Historic Courthouse Property; and

    WHEREAS, such displays were not sponsored by Chester County and were not owned, erected, and maintained by the County; and

    WHEREAS, the Chester County Commissioners desire for the County to own, erect and maintain its own seasonal holiday displays to celebrate the traditions of the holidays, honor this nation’s traditions of liberty and freedom and the men and women of our armed forces who protect and defend those traditions, celebrate peace, and foster and promote commerce;

    NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED by the Chester County Commissioners, that any and all prior policies, whether written or as otherwise authorized, relating to Private Unattended Winter Holiday Season Displays on the Chester County Historic Courthouse Property are hereby revoked and rescinded. Upon execution of this Resolution, the County will acquire such holiday decorations and displays and erect and maintain such decorations and displays as it determines appropriate on the grounds of the Chester County Historic Courthouse consistent with and as otherwise constitutionally permitted by applicable law.

    To summarize: “We didn’t like that other people were putting up displays we don’t approve of. Now nobody can put up displays, except we can still put up displays that we approve of.”

    I smell a law suit.

  • The Resolution passed by a vote of 2 o 1. The Democrat Kathi Cozzone (who I am friendly with) voted against it.

    Freethought Society boardmember Carol Everheart Roper has just posted her report on today’s vote HERE.

    I will again inform you that the Creche and Menorah will almost certainly be on the Courthouse Lawn by December 25th. The issue is whether or not the County can push us off the lawn. It seems they think they can.

  • To summarize: “We didn’t like that other people were putting up displays we don’t approve of. Now nobody can put up displays, except we can still put up displays that we approve of.”

    I smell a law suit.

    Bingo on both counts. They’re trying to get cute with the law, but they’re setting a trap for themselves. If they let one group put up a display, they have to let all viewpoints be expressed. If they let NO groups put up displays, any viewpoint being expressed is inherently the government’s, and WHAM!, it’s still an Establishment Clause violation. Being “ecumenical” by including a menorah isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card. It does push it closer to the line, but the transparently discriminatory purpose of the resolution is relevant and would be introduced in any trial.

  • Non-Litigious Atheist

    The first link seems to indicate that the issue hinges on “privately owned” versus “county owned” displays, but does not offer any clarifying information.

    Just out of curiosity: Why is a cross on private land like a church or cemetery just an afterthought, but a cross on public land deals a lethal dose of radiation to non-believers? It’s amazing what a difference two inches to the left makes – not!

    By the way, the repeating cries ‘Sue! Sue! Sue!’ reminds me of the repeating cries in Gladiator, “Kill! Kill! Kill!’

    Let’s sue the bastards. Nothing wins hearts and minds like getting lawyers involved. Everyone loves lawsuits almost as much as they love lawyers! Let’s face it – we need more creche-chasers!

  • @ Non-Litigious Atheist said:

    Just out of curiosity: Why is a cross on private land like a church or cemetery just an afterthought, but a cross on public land deals a lethal dose of radiation to non-believers?

    Do you seriously not get the difference? A cross on private land is just that – a private matter. People can do as they wish on their own property. On public land, however, it sends the message that the government endorses that particular religious viewpoint, in violation of the First Amendment. Legally, it makes all the difference in the world. And when the government decides to violate the law in defiance of respectful advocacy that they don’t, litigation is the only avenue left to redress the violation.

    Brush up on your background information before issuing blanket condemnations, please.

  • Non-Litigious Atheist

    @Everyday Atheist: My question was not a legal one. My question was about priorities. Why is creche-chasing important to anyone, atheist or not?

    What practical difference does it make whether the creche is there or not? If you don’t see it at courthouse you’ll see it along the lines of houses, over and over again, on the way to the courthouse. One more creche is not going to kill you – if any of them will.

  • Well, it certainly matters to me. If the government places a nativity scene on public property, the government is making a religious statement. I couldn’t care less how many private homes or churches display them, but I expect the government to be unbiased and refrain from endorsing or promoting Christianity. If the government erecting religious displays doesn’t qualify as a worthy or important violation of the separation of church and state, what on earth does?

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