According to a report by WBBM, the Chicago CBS affiliate, a kerfuffle over religion erupted a few days ago in the Illinois state capitol building in Springfield.
Seems there were a variety of religion-related displays in the capitol. They included a nativity scene, a Christmas tree, a Soldiers’ Angels wreath, a tabletop display from the ACLU defending freedom of religion, a Hanukkah menorah, and an aluminum Festivus pole representing the semi-fictional holiday from the TV series Seinfeld.
There was also a sign put there with the appropriate permit by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which bills itself as an educational group working “…to promote the constitutional principle of separation of state and church and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.” The group’s sign, located next to the Christmas tree and near the nativity scene, read:
At the time 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 just myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.
That was just too much for William J. Kelly, a conservative activist and candidate for Illinois Comptroller. He announced his intention to remove the sign, but all he managed to do was turn it face-down before the police detained him and ordered him to leave the building.
Kelly called the sign “hate speech” and said,
I don’t think the State of Illinois has any business denigrating or mocking any religion, and I think that’s what the verbiage on the sign was doing. …
The fact that sign was immediately in front of the tree, I found that to be disturbing because any family and any child would run up to that tree with a smile on their face, and they would immediately see that sign.
The First Amendment says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” That’s understood to mean that there’s a separation between church and state, and Illinois probably shouldn’t be hosting annual religious displays in its capitol building. In any case, I don’t think it’s a big deal and certainly don’t spend time worrying about such things.
However, here comes that pesky First Amendment again, with its “freedom of speech” business. If religious folks are free to put up signs and symbols of their particular religious beliefs, then non-religious folks are equally free to put up signs that state their beliefs. The only other acceptable approach, assuming anyone takes the Constitution seriously, is to ban all religious activity, signs, and symbols from the state capitol and other government establishments.
There are myriad religions and variations on religious belief. Each believer is convinced, of course, of the absolutes of his faith, whether he relies on the Bible, the Torah, the Qur’an, the Book of Mormon, or some other holy text. That’s fine. And who knows — some among them may just have it right. But the rub comes when believers insist that everyone else accept and even promote their particular beliefs. That’s what’s happening when people who insist on having a nativity scene in a public building object to non-Christian displays in the same location at the same time.
I also note Kelly’s concern that a child might see the the non-religious group’s sign. Children grow up in a specific religious belief simply as an accident of birth. Catholic parents raise Catholic children, Muslim parents raise Muslim children, and so on. Are those belief systems so fragile that it’s dangerous for children to suffer mere exposure to signs or symbols representing other ways of thinking?
Maybe we should request guidance on the subject from the Chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives, who is a Catholic priest and a Jesuit, or from the Chaplain of the U.S. Senate, who is a Seventh-day Adventist. If they can’t sort it out for us, we could always go to Reverend Jeremiah Wright, President Obama’s spiritual mentor, who is a … well, whatever.
(This article was also published at Opinion Forum.)
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