Fighting the Stupid Public Square

Image: Fighting the Stupid Public Square

Sixth Circuit demolishes militant atheist strategy responsible for inflicting “Skeleton Santa” and “Flying Spaghetti Monster” on holiday displays.

By: Kyle Duncan, General Counsel

If a city includes a nativity scene in its holiday display, must it also include a sign mocking the Christmas story as a toxic myth? If the scene has an angel, must it have a devil, too? Raising these strange questions is a new strategy adopted by militant atheist organizations like Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF). These groups—not content to practice their atheism privately—seek to scour public life of all religious references: nativity scenes, “Under God,” Ten Commandment monuments, and the like. Recently, however, they have advanced the argument that, if there are to be any religious messages in the public square, then there must be equal space for their anti-religious messages. A kind of religious fairness doctrine. Accepting this premise has resulted in some bizarre spectacles—as when a Northern Virginia county allowed “Skeleton Santa” to be crucified on its courthouse lawn, or when the City of Santa Monica sponsored a homage to the “Pastafarian” deity, the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Indeed, the Spaghetti Monster’s incarnation convinced Santa Monica to ban all holiday displays. This new atheist strategy still seeks a “Naked Public Square,” but it gets there by first creating what one might call a “Stupid Public Square.”

The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals recently struck a powerful blow against this tactic. Freedom from Religion Foundation v. City of Warren, Michigan, concerned a holiday display placed annually in Warren’s civic center, featuring secular and religious symbols, such as a tree, reindeer, Santa’s mailbox, nutcrackers, candy canes, a “Winter Welcome” sign, and a nativity scene. This last item drew the atheists’ anathema. After repeatedly petitioning Warren’s Mayor James Fouts to remove the nativity scene, FFRF finally threatened to sue unless the City added an “sandwich board” announcing this:

At this season of
may reason prevail.
There are no gods,
no devils, no angels,
No heaven or hell.
There is only our natural world, [sic]
Religion is but
Myth and superstition
That hardens hearts
And enslaves minds.

While more nuanced than Flying Spaghetti Monster, the verses did not soften the heart of Mayor Fouts, who fired back a letter rejecting the sandwich board because he thought its message “antagonistic toward all religions.” The Mayor added that he had “allowed a display in city hall celebrating Ramadan,” but that he “would never have allowed a sign next to the Ramadan display mocking or ridiculing the Moslem religion.” The Mayor ended with this plea: “During this holiday season, why don’t we try to accomplish the old adage of ‘Good will toward all’?” Unmoved, FFRF sued.Writing for a unanimous panel, Sixth Circuit Judge Jeffrey Sutton easily found the nativity scene did not establish religion. There was really no serious question about that: the Supreme Court approved virtually the same display over three decades ago. Of greater significance is Judge Sutton’s methodical demolition of the argument that the City of Warren must balance the nativity scene with an anti-religious message. Judge Sutton explained that the holiday display is the city’s speech and no one else’s. By selecting items for its display, Warren crafts its own message; it does not create “a seasonal public forum” to host competing views of the holidays. The city therefore gets to choose messages and symbols it likes (like “Winter Welcome,” Santa’s mailbox, and a nativity scene), and to exclude those it doesn’t (like a sandwich-board proclamation that “Religion is but / Myth and superstition / That hardens hearts / And enslaves minds”).

To be sure, Judge Sutton explained, the First Amendment and our political process give atheists every right to use their own speech to protest the nativity scene. They can stage an anti-nativity rally outside city hall. They can run likeminded candidates against the Mayor. They can complain at city council meetings. They can pass out leaflets and write op-ed columns. They can produce infomercials warning Warren’s citizens about the heart-hardening and mind-enslaving powers of a group of statues representing Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the three Magi, shepherds, an Ox and an Ass. But what they cannot do, as Judge Sutton explained, is “commandeer the [city’s] own voice to deliver its message.”

Forget law; a basic knowledge of civics is enough to demolish this new atheist tactic. Government lives by words and symbols. Any government doomed to give “equal time” to objectors whenever it speaks would collapse into incoherence. The postal service couldn’t issue a stamp honoring Martin Luther King, Jr., without also honoring the Ku Klux Klan. The National Holocaust Museum would have to include the Joseph Goebbels Wing. Lincoln’s statue would have to stare at a Jefferson Davis Memorial. And, as Judge Sutton asked, “[c]ould [the government] urge people to ‘Register and Vote,” ‘Win the War,’ Buy U.S. Bonds’ or “Spay and Neuter Your Pets’ without incurring an obligation to sponsor opposing messages? Doubtful.”

One doesn’t have to dream up hypotheticals. When local governments have felt pressured by FFRF’s specious argument, absurdity has soon followed. Children in Loudoun County, Virginia were terrorized during the Christmas season by the county-approved Passion of Skeleton Santa. Santa Monica found itself sponsoring a shrine to the Flying Spaghetti Monster before simply exiting the holiday display business altogether. And Warren was nearly forced to adorn its display with the poetic equivalent of a sign saying, “You religious folk sure are mean and dumb.”

The evangelical atheist strategy is not subtle. Where courts cannot be convinced to erase all religious symbolism from public space, those spaces must be made safe for religion to be mocked and degraded until the only hope of civic peace is to ban displays altogether. Where the Naked Public Square cannot be commanded directly, the Stupid Public Square is a promising first step.

Judge Sutton’s exposure of the legal and intellectual bankruptcy of this pernicious tactic is crisp, funny, and devastating. May it stiffen the spines of city council members the next time some proselytizing atheist delivers the threat, perhaps in verse:

Let reason prevail:
Lose the nativity scene,
or we crucify Santa.

Read the Sixth Circuit opinion here.

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16 Responses to “Fighting the Stupid Public Square”

  1. November 07, 2013 at 5:10 pm, pcolsen said:

    You have a strange definition of religious freedom when you say about atheists that they should be “content to practice their atheism privately.” If Christians were “content to practice their atheism privately” then this entire issue would have gone away. This one phrase belies all the principles you claim. You should be deeply ashamed.


  2. March 09, 2013 at 4:27 pm, alex said:

    Plain common horse sense is what is lacking to Atheist who do have a yearly holiday on April1.Why? The Scripture says there Fool says in his heart that there is no god. Happy Holiday to them!


  3. March 09, 2013 at 4:26 pm, Dirk Mous said:

    It’s past high time that atheism is recognized as a religious world view in its own right and treated as such. Consider that.


  4. March 09, 2013 at 2:01 pm, Bil Schwer said:

    Finally! The voice of reason. Hats off to Judge Sutton! Too much of our society has been hijacked by a few vocal and misguided individuals.

    It is laughable that atheists spend so much time, energy and money railing against God, whom they claim doesn’t even exist.


  5. March 09, 2013 at 10:31 am, Cliff said:

    I agree 100%


  6. March 09, 2013 at 4:04 am, Bill said:

    I’d say Freedom from Reason Foundation is a more accurate name.


  7. March 09, 2013 at 4:01 am, Jane Fuchs said:

    I agree with your message.


  8. March 08, 2013 at 9:55 pm, Fabricio Galiana said:

    Our rights are at least as important as theirs. Respect and love must reign in our relationhips. We cannot apply this conduct in many aspects of our life. When visiting a Museum we cannot say: I don’t love this painting, so pull it out, specially if it is a religious theme or scene and a subject recognized as a masterpiece


  9. March 08, 2013 at 9:05 pm, Robert J. Belec said:

    Love it………Kristina..Are you married?


  10. March 08, 2013 at 8:39 pm, michelle said:

    The following is the exact language of the Amendment:

    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

    Nowhere in that statement does the word “from” appear. It does not say FROM, it says OF and those words are not interchangeable.


    • June 05, 2013 at 3:16 pm, Kyle said:

      > I suppose the phrase “establishment FROM religion” doesn’t make much sense.


  11. March 02, 2013 at 12:31 am, Thomas said:

    WHY is it appropriate for Atheists to DEMAND that MY RIGHTS are NOT as important as THEIRS. If a Christmas display offends them, they do not have to look at it. Christians do NOT get upset if a Menorah is displayed! Christians don’t get upset with an Atheist display.

    I am tired of having MY RIGHTS stomped on by ANYONE!!!!! Why should I have to be concerned about their feelings, when they don’t care about mine??


    • March 08, 2013 at 9:58 pm, Gabriela said:

      > I am in complete agreement with you Thomas. Funny how tolerance goes out the window when Jesus or God is mentioned. I’m not Jewish, yet I don’t get all bent out of shape whenever I see a menorah displayed, and I don’t celebrate Kwaanza, yet I am able to walk past a kinara without demanding it be taken down. A nativity scene does not mean that the people displaying it are trying to convert you to Christianity…it is simply an expression of that person or organization’s faith…nothing more and nothing less.


      • June 04, 2013 at 9:59 pm, Kyle said:

        > How would you feel about “In Allah We Trust” on the money?


    • June 04, 2013 at 9:58 pm, Kyle said:

      > I don’t think the FFRF was saying here that atheists’ rights are more important than those of Christians. Instead, FFRF’s basic position is that government should not comment on religion one way or another. At one point, the author of this piece suggests that atheists should be “content to practice their atheism privately.” Really, the FFRF isn’t asking anything more of Christians.
      You also say that Christians do not get upset at atheist displays. You sound pretty upset, though! I think that you and the FFRF may have a bit more in common than you think.


      • June 17, 2013 at 9:40 pm, Elizabeth said:

        > As Kyle points out, “the author of this piece suggests that atheists should be ‘content to practice their atheism privately,'” I agree that may be unfortunate wording. However, please read the actual Sixth Circuit opinion. The judges give a number of ways that the FFRF could practice their free speech on this matter. What this case is about is the FFRF trying to take over the city’s speech to deliver it’s own message. Also keep in mind, that in the context of all the components of the display, the presence of the crèche “depicts the historical origins of this traditional event long recognized as a National Holiday…Whatever benefit to one faith or religion or to all religions is indirect, remote and incidental (Lynch vs. Donnelly, 1984). There is room in our public discourse to express our views without ridiculing those of others. I am a person of Faith, but I would adamantly object to a sign placed on public property which followed the FFRF example: “In this season of the Winter Solstice, may reason prevail, There is a God, There is a devil, There are Angels, There is a heaven and a hell. God created our natural world, Religion is Right, Lack of it hardens hearts, And enslaves minds.”


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