My feeling was that this would be a disaster in the making (just from a PR standpoint). Even if they were right on principle, I’m not convinced they could win a legal challenge. Even if they won, it may cause more harm than good.
Jane Everhart (their director of communications) wanted to respond to the points I and many of the commenters made. I’m reproducing her email below verbatim (though I added in a couple links when necessary):
- The Brooklyn, NY reporter who wrote the original story (which has now gone worldwide, thanks to Reuters) got it right when she wrote that the “Seven in Heaven” street sign “endorses the religious view that afterlife exists.”
- Those who wrote about the Establishment Clause in the Constitution got it right — and wrong. It’s true that the First Amendment says merely that the state cannot establish a religion. However, case law has gone beyond that. In the Philadelphia case of Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) the precedent was established that subsequently forced Alabama’s Judge Roy Moore to remove from his courthouse a standing monument with the 10 Commandments on it. The decision (later to be known as the “Lemon Test”) established that you cannot place religious symbols in public places where other people are forced to endure them. I.e., you can’t shove your religion down our throats.
- NYC Atheists is not concerned about any “bad” public relations we would get by filing a suit. We have found the opposite to be true: We got 25 new members in the first week the story broke. Apparently a lot of people who have been silent are encouraging us now with their money and their presence in our ranks.
- A lot of your blog people think seem to think that this is an “unimportant” issue. We did not choose this issue; it chose us. Once it broke in the newspapers, all hell broke loose. Nationwide! And now, Reuters has made it worldwide. I worked for 10 years in a New York public relations firm as a P.R. account writer/supervisor, and one thing I learned: the media controls what stories it wants to cover. You can send tons of press releases to the media and they won’t pick up on the story you want them to cover. So when they bring a story to you, you pay attention. This street sign story is important not because we say so, but because the world says so.
- This story is not about the seven firefighters who died — and not even about their families. We too honor the firefighters. That’s why we resent that they are being exploited as an indirect advertisement for a religious afterlife in a heaven that the dictionary describes as the place “where God and angels live.”
- The church has become expert at subliminal religious imprinting. And I assure you they too have a public relations office that, even as I write this, is pondering how to deal with our potential suit. We have already sued Bishop DiMarzio of Brooklyn’s Catholic diocese once for making robocalls during the last election to plug a candidate that was soft on clergy child-abusers. That case was thrown out of court. Brooklyn is heavily Catholic. We’re not afraid to sue again. Whatever it takes, we’re prepared to do it.
- We have said publicly that we do not wish to change the names of places like “San Francisco.” Those religious names were affixed a couple of centuries ago and have mostly lost all connotation of religon. Nobody thinks of San Francisco as the city of St. Francis. If anything, they think of San Francisco as the city-where-many-gay-people-live. Besides, that’s naming a city after a person, not after an idea or a religious precept. But, as Ken Bronstein puts it, we are now drawing a line in the sand and saying, OK, no more. No new religious “product placement” on our street signs!
- The “Seven in Heaven” street sign was paid for by the City of New York, using our tax money. As atheists, we pay taxes and we do not want our hard-earned money to be used to pay for an advertisement for a religious afterlife. You may ask, don’t the religious people also pay taxes? But that does not give them the right to put their religion on a public street sign. We cannot; they cannot.
- Are we denying religious advocates their freedom of speech? No. They can spout their religious aphorisms in their churches, in their homes, on their private property. They just can’t do it in public places where it constitutes forcing their religion in our faces. But nobody, nowhere, has complete freedom of speech. You cannot yell “Fire” in a crowded theatre. You cannot slander or defame somebody.
- Picture this. You, B.A. (before Atheism), are walking by the “Seven in Heaven” street sign with your 5-year-old kid. He says, “What does that mean, Mommy? ” You say, “It means seven brave firefighters died in the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11.” “Why are they in Heaven, Mommy?” “Well, that’s their reward, son, for being heroes.” “Will I go to heaven, Mommy?” “Well, um, if you are good.” “Will you go to heaven too, Mommy?” “Well, I guess so.” “Will I be there with you, Mommy?” You, bristling: “Well, look, I don’t know.”
Do you want to go through that conversation with your child? I don’t. But that’s going to happen with scores of borderline-religious moms and dads. Look, if advertisements can get kids to eat Fruit Loops, advertisements can get kids to worry about heaven and hell. And there it is, staring at them: That ad up there on the street that says if you are good, you will go to Heaven and be with the Firefighters. Fruit Loops, anyone?
A couple points:
“This street sign story is important not because we say so, but because the world says so.”
Not exactly. The reason the media is covering this story is not because it’s an important issue. It’s because it’s ridiculous to most people that anyone would be upset about a sign honoring firefighters who died on 9/11 and the media wants to capitalize on that public rage.
I know we want to argue church/state separation is at play here, but I don’t think most Americans see this as an infringement of anyone’s rights or an endorsement of religion. By drawing more attention to this issue, we’re just giving more people a reason to dislike us.
There are other church/state issues that make us look bad (like getting “Under God” out of the Pledge of Allegiance), but I would argue that winning that lawsuit would have an important, positive effect on millions of schoolchildren. I don’t see that benefit in this situation.
As for the conversation with the kid… that’s just silly. If this sign freaks you out, what’s going to happen when your son sees a church with a cross on it or a street preacher? What happens when your daughter goes to school and makes friends from religious families? You can’t shield them from faith forever. Might as well guide them in a way that gets them thinking critically about it.