Earlier this year, the ironically named Constitution Park in Shelton, Connecticut was at the center of a lawsuit involving the First Amendment.
Since 2012, the American Legion (a faith-based veterans group) had requested to put up a display in the park depicting “heralding angels” from the Nativity story. There was no formal display policy for the park, other than the Mayor has to sign off on what goes up, 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.
That’s why atheist Jerome Bloom asked permission last year to put up a banner similar to the one below, which says there are no angels.
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.
That banner was quickly rejected because, as Bloom was later told by the director of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department Ronald Herrick, it was considered “offensive to many.” But that’s not a reason to exclude it.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation soon 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.
That lawsuit is still pending in the courts, but Bloom now says he’s going to drop the case and work out a settlement with the city.
Because local officials have given him permission to put a banner with the same message in nearby Huntington Park:
“We’d prefer to keep public parks and government buildings free from religious divisiveness,” says FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. “But if a devotional nativity display is allowed, there must be ‘room at the inn’ for all points of view, including irreverence and freethought.“
That new banner is just a few hundred feet away from another Nativity scene.
As for the “heralding angels” at Constitution Park, they’re no longer there.
“It’s a nice compromise,” Bloom said. “The upside to this is the angel light display in Constitution Park has been replaced by secular reindeer.”
In an e-mail, the American Legion Post 16 public affairs officer said the angel display was changed because many of the bulbs in it burned out.
Shelton Mayor Mark Lauretti told a local reporter that the reason Bloom’s request last year was denied was because “his banner included a written message, which isn’t allowed at Constitution Park but is on the Huntington Green.” I’m not sure where that policy was in writing, but either way, it looks like no single religious group has special privilege anymore. Just the way it should be.