Saturday, December 24, 2016

In Defense of the Freedom From Religion Foundation

The following was submitted yesterday as a Letter to the Editor of the local paper:

To the Editor,

Leaving an evening showing of the new movie “Jackie” last night at the Kimball’s Peak Three Theater, my girlfriend and I marveled at how charming and delightful downtown Colorado Springs looked all lit up for Christmas.  We have also enjoyed the festive religious and secular holiday displays located in and outside of businesses and on front lawns all over town.  And finally, one simply cannot escape the ubiquitous Christmas music playing in restaurants, doctors' offices, hair salons, and grocery stores between Thanksgiving and New Years Day.  Christmas cheer is indeed everywhere – as it is every year.  This is as it should be given the immense popularity of the holiday season to believers and non-believers alike.  Winter celebrations have ancient pagan roots.

I am thus quite puzzled by today’s lead editorial.  If, as the Gazette contends, “litigious publicity mills” like the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) are on an “annual buzzkill” crusade to “censor [!] the sights and sounds” of Christmas, they are doing such a terrible job at it that one wonders why the Gazette felt the need to attack FFRF.

I would like to correct the record about FFRF.  On its website, the organization acknowledges that religious holiday displays on public property are legal “in narrow circumstances.” It explains helpfully that the constitutionality of such displays is determined “on a case-by-case basis.” It provides a list of eight factors weighed by courts when ruling on these matters.  Most importantly, it advises its readers: “if, after assessing these guidelines and reading the summary of the two Supreme Court cases below” you think a religious display is illegal, then you may request assistance from FFRF.  Potential complainants are implored to “please provide as much detail as possible.”  This is hardly the guidance one would expect from an organization allegedly bent on making community leaders “shudder in fear” with threats of “nuisance lawsuits.”  While I have no direct access to the detailed criteria FFRF uses when deciding to challenge a constitutional violation in court, I assume from this publicly available information that it does so only when a violation is clearly present.  FFRF has a long track record of winning (or successfully settling) such cases.  The Gazette is free, of course, to regard such cases as “nuisances.”

I would also take issue with what appears to be a truly novel reading of the First Amendment.  The Gazette emphasizes that the constitution does not say a person’s freedom to practice his religion is limited to “private property.” This is undoubtedly true.  I can freely read the Bible aloud on my back deck and I can equally freely read it aloud on the corner of Tejon and Bijou (as a few visible preachers regularly do).  But whose religious views, specifically, are being expressed when a city prominently displays a nativity scene at the entrance to its main offices? Is the Gazette suggesting that the “free exercise” clause of the First Amendment requires nativity scenes to be displayed on public property?  Stated differently, is a private citizen’s right to celebrate Christmas infringed when the government merely refrains from celebrating along with him?  The Gazette seems to think so.  Yet this would be a view of “free-exercise” jurisprudence not recognized by any court anywhere across this fruited plain.

Finally, the Gazette rather snidely describes FFRF as a “mom-and-pop outfit in Wisconsin” in order to create the impression that the organization is nothing but a small group of “mean-spirited activists” trying to ruin Christmas in small towns across America.  You really should correct this gross mischaracterization and tell your readers that FFRF is the nation’s leading church-state separation advocacy group whose leaders frequently appear on national television, whose cases often achieve national coverage, and whose annual conferences attract the leading lights of the freethought community.

Merry Christmas & Happy Holidays,