An atheist banner in a Connecticut town has prompted a “Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays” response from the mayor:
That may seem innocuous enough — and perfectly legal — but it’s another sign of how little atheists are respected in the community.
To make sense of that, you have to know that the ironically named Constitution Park in the city of Shelton was recently 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 had to sign off on what went 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 “Let Reason Prevail” banner (with wording, but not design, like 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 legal 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.
While that lawsuit was pending in the courts, Bloom said he would drop the case and work out a settlement with the city.
Because local officials gave 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’s the banner you see in the picture at the top of this post. It’s just a few hundred feet away from another Nativity scene.
But Shelton Mayor Mark Lauretti couldn’t handle that atheist message, which is why he felt compelled to put up his own sign wishing everyone a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays:
“Well, I would think that the majority of the people in this community are highly supportive of one sign,” said a smirking Lauretti.
Lauretti added, “People should just take a deep breath and deal with it.”
To be clear, Bloom, the atheist, had to file a lawsuit to put his own message in Constitution Park — and still never received a green light. The compromise was that he could erect his message near a Nativity scene in a different park.
And when he did that? The mayor still decided to one up him with a separate message. Just to make sure the atheist didn’t get the last word.
It’s not that what Lauretti did was illegal. It’s just a petty, spiteful move. It’s not about equality either — a Nativity scene is already there — but rather a way to remind everyone that atheists are in the minority while those celebrating Christmas represent the “city of Shelton.”