The ironically named Constitution Park in Shelton, Connecticut is at the center of a lawsuit involving the First Amendment.
Since 2012, the American Legion (a faith-based veterans group) has requested to put up a display in the park depicting “heralding angels” from the Nativity story. There’s no formal display policy for the park, other than the Mayor approves displays. But we all know how this works. When you open the door to religious displays on government property, non-religious displays must be allowed there as well.
So last year, when atheist Jerome Bloom asked permission to put up a banner similar to the one below, which says there are no angels, he was surprised to find out it was denied.
The banner read: “At this season of the Winter Solstice, LET REASON PREVAIL. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth & superstition that hardens hearts & enslaves minds.”
According to a phone message from Ronald Herrick (director of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department) to Bloom, the only reason the banner was denied was because it was seen as “being offensive to many.”
Bloom said this was viewpoint discrimination. Just because the Christian display is popular didn’t mean it should be able to get a free pass while opposing perspectives were shut out.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation then stepped in on Bloom’s behalf by writing a letter urging officials to reconsider. When no one from the city responded, FFRF wrote again. And again. Even when officials responded, it was without substance.
FFRF terms the city of Shelton’s censorship “impermissible viewpoint-based discrimination.” The city’s actions have caused Bloom and FFRF injury by censoring and excluding their protected expression, and by disparaging Bloom on the basis of his nonbelief in religion, rendering him a political outsider, FFRF’s legal complaint notes…
The plaintiffs are seeking a judgment that the city’s censorship has violated their free speech rights under the First and 14th Amendments, as well as their equal protection rights, and a judgment enjoining the city from excluding their display in the future, as well as nominal damages and reasonable legal costs.
Hard to see how the city escapes this one. It’s not like the atheist display was filled with pornography or hate speech or any other legitimate reason to deny the request. It was simply an opinion city officials didn’t like. And that’s not a good enough reason to abridge Bloom’s right to erect the banner.