December 18, 2018

Why Some Care About Religious Displays on Government Property

Christmas nativity scene

Here we are in the midst of what many refer to as the "holiday season" because they personally celebrate various holidays this time of year or because they are well aware that their culture strongly encourages them and everyone else to do so. And just like every year, governments will violate the separation of church and state by promoting specific religions, prompting objections from some atheists who will be condemned as "Grinches" or worse.

It is in this context that I'd like to call your attention to an excellent post by Rob Boston (Americans United for Separation of Church and State). In it, he makes an important point of which some atheists lose sight this time of year because they like Christmas decorations. I'm highlighting it not just because it is timely but because I think Boston does a great job explaining why some of us do care about religious displays on government property.

Here's his message:

Let’s say you’re a Jew, a Hindu, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Humanist, a Wiccan, a Pagan or a Zoroastrian. You approach city hall, the police department or the public library of your town and there’s a large nativity scene on the steps. Let’s say it was put there by the local government or by a church working in cooperation with the government. This is not a free-for-all where any groups can erect a symbol. It’s sitting there alone.

That sends a message: We, the officials of this diverse community, have a favorite religion. Here is its symbol, resting prominently in front of this government building. We favor this faith above all others and certainly more than non-belief. If you share this faith, you are one of us, and we think well of you. If you don’t share it, you’re an outsider, a second-class citizen. Of course, you’re still tolerated in this town. By law, we have to let you and those who believe as you do engage in your activities, but we know the real religion. The true one. We’ve put it on display right here. So do your thing, but understand that you are not a full member of this community. Your religion or non-belief is not the one we have chosen to enshrine. We think less of it. And you, a taxpayer and a resident of this town, will be reminded of that every time you come to this public place.
This is a great explanation of why I care about religious displays on government property, and it is the sort of thing I had in mind when I wrote "Time For 'In God We Trust' To Go" back in 2015. What you or I might think of Christmas decorations is not the issue here; the issue is the inappropriateness of a government sending the sort of message Boston describes.