Freethought Society’s Tree of Knowledge Banned from Pennsylvania Courthouse

You would think a “Tree of Knowledge” would be the least controversial holiday display of them all:

TreeCloseup

In previous years, book covers included The Myth of Nazareth by Rene Salam, Why I Am Not a Muslim by Ibn Warraq, and Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman. There were also covers of the Bible and Koran. It’s a good mix of holy books and books that criticize them. That’s what knowledge is, after all — learning enough so you have a set of beliefs, and then being open to having those beliefs challenged. It’s hardly an attack on any one particular belief.

“We want people to read these kinds of books so they can make up their minds about religion, not just be spoon-fed by pastors and priests and rabbis,” [Margaret] Downey explained.

But after three successful years of that tree going up in front of the Historic Chester County Courthouse in West Chester, Pennsylvania — alongside creches and menorahs — the county commissioners have found a way to block the Freethought Society from putting up their tree. Last year and this year, they’ve just put up a secular display of their own:

The county display last year included Santa in a sleigh, a toy train, banners proclaiming “Peace on Earth” and “Seasons Greetings,” and a wreath honoring military service members, as well as a traditional creche and a menorah.

“They finally figured out a way of keeping us out,” Downey said.

During an interview in October, commissioners’ Chairman Terence Farrell said county officials have seen a lot of controversy about this issue and suggested that they commissioners stick with the displays they used last year unless a compelling reason arose to deviate from them.

Even if they’re allowing a secular display alongside the religious ones, Downey isn’t happy with the decision — she shouldn’t be — and she’s planning a rally on December 3rd:

Next Saturday, the supporters plan a similar format to last year’s gathering, with speeches, singing, photo opportunities and a news conference. Downey said the songs sung at the rally are popular in the non-theist community and include “You Gotta Fight the Battle Between Church and State,” sung to the religious tune of “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho.”

“We want people to see that it’s a symbol accepted by the non-theist community and it’s used and recognized everywhere,” Downey said.

Supporters are encouraged to gather at the corner of High and Market streets about 3 p.m. Saturday. The group then plans to get together for dinner about 5:30 p.m. at Kildare’s Irish Pub.

Last year, in spite of their ban, the supporters got together to create a Human Tree of Knowledge:

This year, I’d love to see an even bigger rally. (If you’d like to volunteer and help out, details are here.)

If you’re a religious person who supports separation of church and state, please join them. Downey and the other atheists aren’t just standing up for themselves — they’re fighting on behalf of every minority group not allowed access to the front lawn of the courthouse. They’re fighting on behalf of the principle that a couple of religious groups don’t represent everybody.

Downey believes that majority religious groups should not have a monopoly on the holidays. She notes that religious persons, specifically Christians, argue that the holiday is ‘their holiday’ and want to exclude others from being represented in free speech zones on public property. Downey says, “a free speech zone isn’t just for eleven months a year. Christians shouldn’t be the only ones recognized. We should have equal access every day of the year.”


About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • http://snigsfoot.blogspot.com/ Rob Crompton

    A tree of knowledge! But that’s terrible – it was eating from the tree of knowledge that was the awful sin which started the sorry mess (Genesis chs 2,3) from which we could only be saved by the miscarriage of justice perpetrated against Rabbi Jesus.

    • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/DJRVGKGG36KNLNMZAVT4EXOF3M Ed-words

      Are you a troll?(or just being “snarky”?)

  • analia

     always support secularism

    • Anonymous

      Bad acronym.

  • Aanton

    Years ago, the city of Indianapolis thought they’d try to forestall the usual whining from the Xian community and in addition to the Xmas tree, they invited other groups to put displays in the lobby of the City-county bldg.
    There were displays from local Wicca, Muslim, and Lubavitcher groups. the Xians claimed the Xmas tree, never mind that it’s really a Pagan emblem…
    The Wicca display was the first to be vandalism, followed by the Lubavitcher one, and I can’t remember if the Muslim display was vandalized or if they removed it.

    Next year, not even a Xmas tree in the lobby.

    Peace on Earth, Good Will towards Men…

    • Anonymous

       Perhaps the xian symbol should be a pepper spray cannister.

      • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/DJRVGKGG36KNLNMZAVT4EXOF3M Ed-words

        Was Officer John Pike a Christian? Maybe so.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    For the future, it will make a more convincing tree of knowledge if it sticks to actual historical, scientific and other critical sources and doesn’t include things by people like Rene Salm, whose work is no more evidence-based than what conservative Christians tend to produce.

  • http://twitter.com/DangerousTalk Staks Rosch

    I was there last year and I will be there this year too. I will also be writing an article letting everyone know how it went on my Examiner page: http://www.examiner.com/atheism-in-philadelphia/staks-rosch

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/DJRVGKGG36KNLNMZAVT4EXOF3M Ed-words

    Margaretdowney.com   (another atheist hero)

  • Mickey

    Honestly, shoving this tree in the face of believers is as bad mannered as Christians shrieking about how “Jesus is the reason for the season!” We all have our vices, and I’m not trying to be an apologist but sometimes we need those vices to get through stressful times. While the tree might pique the curiosity of some questioning individuals, ultimately it sounds like the mother who harps on her happily married daughter for her son-in-law’s flaws every year at holiday time. She can pick apart every aspect of his job, upbringing, childrearing skills, car, parents, dreams and goals for a couple of weeks while her daughter’s family is visiting. And she might be right about him. But all it does is stress everyone out during a time meant for bringing the generations together. My daughter’s cancer surgeon might be a 2 pack a day smoker, but right before it’s time for him to operate on her I’ll be the last person in the world to remind him of the health risks associated with smoking and the first to offer him a light. There are plenty of other times and ways to educate believers. This method is just petty and mean spirited. Kind of ranks up there with God Hates Fags. Have a little empathy, for goodness sake.

  • Ben Bradley

    Just a small (IMHO) correction – they didn’t find a WAY to block the Freethought Society – they only found an EXCUSE.


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