In a Town Full of Christians, Holding a ‘Lottery’ to Decide on a Holiday Display Isn’t Right

You would think officials from Ellwood City (in Pennsylvania) would have learned their lesson by now…

Last year, they allowed a Nativity Scene — and nothing else — to be displayed in the Municipal Building. It was a clear endorsement of Christianity. When they started to see legal challenges come their way, they allowed other groups to submit their own displays. FFRF obliged.

There were unnecessary rallies in defense of the Nativity Scene (as if the atheists were coming to tear it down), the Mayor spoke out against FFRF… it was chaos all around, all caused by city officials’ own ignorance of the law.

And now, they want it to happen all over again.

Next month, the Borough council will meet to decide what will happen this year and the proposal currently on the table is completely insane:

Under the proposed rules, any borough resident or taxpayer wishing to put up a holiday display would submit an application for a permit. If no borough taxpayer applied, then people from outside the area would be able to apply.

If there were more than one applicant, the borough would hold a lottery to determine who would get to choose the display, which would remain up from early December to mid-January.

That paragraph says a lot, so let’s unpack it:

Knowing that more than one person will apply to put up a holiday display and knowing that the majority of the people in Ellwood City are Christians, the council is suggesting holding a “random” lottery to pick the display. They’re not even being subtle about their wishes:

“We’re all assuming that the winner of a lottery would put up a creche,” said [council president Anthony] DeCarbo…

“My fear is that somebody is going to be picked in the lottery and not put up the Nativity,” [Ellwood City Nativity Placement Committee chairwoman Marisa Bunney] said.

They’re well aware atheists have gamed systems like this in the past. City officials in Santa Monica, California learned that the hard way and decided to stay out of the religion-picking-business altogether this year.

If they don’t think atheists will come out in full force to counteract the Christian majority, they should prepare to be embarrassed:

… [DeCarbo] warned that lottery systems have caused problems in other jurisdictions when nonreligious groups — or religious parody organizations such as followers of the Flying Spaghetti Monster — won holiday display lotteries.

On Monday, Bunney suggested a standing display that would include the Nativity, along with secular holiday symbols, including a Christmas tree, reindeer and snowmen. She said a lawyer specializing in religious liberty issues examined a draft drawing of the display and said the only concern was that the Nativity was the centerpiece, although that issue could be remedied.

This is a stupid fight to pick. Let churches put up Nativity Scenes. The city government has no business taking sides in the War on Christmas and they should stay out of this. Put up some lights, take a few days off, leave it at that.

Meanwhile, I hope atheists in Ellwood City will consider applying for the displays. I’m sure FFRF will help you out. When the time comes, I’ll post all the rules here to make applying easy.

City officials may know how to pander to the religious crowd, but we understand math. And if they want a challenge, we’ll make sure our applications drown out all the Christian ones.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • http://www.facebook.com/AnonymousBoy Larry Meredith

    I love a good sabotage.

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    I think everyone should apply.  I mean, if they don’t get any local submissions, they’ll have to take an external one, right?  Wouldn’t have have to at least open them and read them to find out if they’re borough residents or not?

  • Alan Williamson

    Death by a thousand paper cuts.

  • DG

    If atheists could pick their own special time of year, that would be nice.  But if they insist on Christmas, that’s fine, too.   Free country and all.  The only stipulations that they keep to whatever limits the others must hold to, and that the displays aren’t a finger in the eye of others. 

    • http://yetanotheratheist.com/ TerranRich

      If Christians could pick their own special time of the year and not hijack the customs and traditions of Pagans and other belief systems, that would also be nice. You agree, of course, right?

    • Baby_Raptor

      Okay, as soon as you give all of your holidays back to us Pagans, you have the right to demand that Atheists get their own. 

      • Azel

        Don’t forget the Jews: Christianity did hijack Passover. And Christians might have to give back holidays to other religions, but I know of noone else…perhaps Zoroastrians ?

  • http://yetanotheratheist.com/ TerranRich

    This is why, when observing the Establishment Clause and trying to pick between “accommodate them all”, or “stay religiously neutral”, it is always better to go with the latter of the two. 

  • Rennie

    Democracy in action. Mr. Mehta – as a math teacher you should be well aware that everyone in a drawing has an equal chance of winning.

    • Heartfout

      Not when there are two groups of different sizes, no. Try again.

      • Rennie

        No, you need to brush up on basic statistics.

        Are the odds in favor of a believer being chosen due to group size? Yes. But it doesn’t change the fact that a non-believer would have an equal chance to be chosen. It is a completely fair and democratic solution.

        • Cincinatheist

          So what you’re saying is that if I have 50 balls in a bag, 45 of which are white and five of which are black, that the probability that I will pick a white ball is the same as the probability that I will pick a black ball?  Vegas must love when you come to visit.

          • Rennie

            I said no such thing. Try again.

    • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

      Exactly! That’s why we’re a democracy, not a republic!  Whenever a question comes up, we vote on it, and majority rules.  That’s why black people couldn’t marry white people until it was accepted by popular vote in 1991.  When 50%+1 of this Christian Nation decide to give Godless atheists any rights, then they’ll have rights.  Until then, they can shut up or leave.

      #sarcasmnotpoe

      • Rennie

        Get over yourself. A nativity display hardly rises to the level of representative government. Explain how your rights would be infringed by a democratic vote just because you might be in the minority.

        Do you think everything has to be equal to be fair?

        • Another anonymous area atheist

          No. Things have to be FAIR to be fair. This isn’t.

          • Rennie

            You just made my point. You can’t distinguish between equal and fair.

            Let me dumb it down for you.
            5 Smith children can’t agree on where to go for an afternoon outing. 4 of them want to go to the zoo and 1 wants to go to the lake. Mom decides to draw a name out of a hat and that person gets to decide. She could have just said majority rules but wanted to be fair to each.

            All have an equal chance to get their choice of destination. The zoo ends up being the destination. 4 kids got their wish and 1 didn’t.

            Were there equal odds of going to the zoo or the lake? Nope.

            Were all treated fairly (and equally as well)? Absolutely.

            • Another anonymous area atheist

              Yup, that was pretty dumb. There’s no Constitutionally-mandated separation of zoo and parents to worry about, and Mom didn’t set the lake up to fail.

              Mayor DeCarbo knows that there are next to no irreligious people in Ellwood City and is banking on that to get what *he* wants, state and federal Constitutions be damned.

              This is just one more entry in a long list of Old Boys’ Club mentality that’s been present for decades in Ellwoodian politics.

              • Cincinatheist

                Right. And watch the Christians cry foul when atheist and freethinking groups start signing up for the lottery when it opens. The minute that the script is flipped, it goes from “democracy” to “cheating.”  Like Hemant said, then either the rules will change or the whole thing will be shit-canned (like Santa Monica did.)

                It’s Calvinball at its finest.

                • Another anonymous area atheist

                  Correct, and this also ignores the fact that I would never, EVER consider entering even if I still lived there, because there were some very real threats made in those borough council meetings. In towns like this, if something happens to someone nobody likes, expect people to look the other way.

                • Rennie

                  If atheists rig the lottery by having non-residents vote then it would rightfully be called cheating. I see a few of you proposing just that. Does that make you proud of yourselves?

                • Another anonymous area atheist

                  The lottery is impossible to rig. If they get even a single application from inside borough limits, they won’t look elsewhere. Read the article.

                • Rennie

                  Go back and read what this blog host wrote.

                • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

                  Meanwhile, I hope atheists in Ellwood City will consider applying for the displays.

                  So?

                  And I suggested people from outside also enter, not to cheat, but simply to  demonstrate.  There WILL be an in-city application.At least one.  So any of us who apply from outside WON’T be picked, and we know that.  We’re simply voicing our opinion on the matter, for whatever it would be worth.

              • Rennie

                Like I replied to Rich. There is nothing unfair about one man, one vote.

                If your candidate for city dog catcher loses because you were the only one who voted for him are you going to cry foul and claim your constitutional rights were violated because you held a minority opinion?

                • Another anonymous area atheist

                  No, because I got to vote. Having a lottery in a town consisting of 95% or higher Christian population while using intimidation tactics against the irreligious all but ensures that a Christian will win.

                  If you can’t see this, you’re just that fucking stupid.

                • Rennie

                  By all means resort to name calling when you run out of argument. Now that you’ve been unable to defend your argument that a lottery is unfair, you switch to an assumption of  intimidation and throw in nasty name calling for good measure. Maybe you assume intimidation because that’s how you roll?

                  I was right. This is boring.

            • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

              Four of the Smith children want flowers in the house that the fifth Smith child is allergic to.  They can vote, and probably fifth child will have to suffer allergies, or they could just not have the flowers in the house.

              • Rennie

                Mr and Mrs. Smith can do whatever they want in their house.

                Should Mr. Smith insist that everyone in the neighborhood remove all their pollen producing plants so his child won’t be bothered with the sniffles when he goes out to play? That’s basically your position.
                You and your sensitivities must prevail above everyone else’s. In fact, it seems to me that you think that because you are in the minority your vote/opinion should carry more weight than anyone else’s so it’s even odds all around.

                Your think your right not to be bothered by looking at a nativity scene is more important than 99 other people’s right to enjoy seeing one. Show me how your rights have been damaged if you had the same chance as anyone else to choose if a nativity would be displayed or not. If 99 people wanted one and your lone vote against was chosen would you still claim it was an unfair vote or would you tell the 99 to suck it up?

                Like I said, get over yourself.

                • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

                  Mr and Mrs. Smith can do whatever they want in their house.

                  Since a family is an autocracy.  Which makes your ‘Smith children’ analogy silly in the first place.

                  when he goes out to play?

                  Nope.  If I go to Saudi Arabia I’d expect to not see any women driving.  They are essentially a theocracy.

                  In fact, it seems to me that you think that because you are in the minority your vote/opinion should carry more weight than anyone else’s so it’s even odds all around.

                  Nope.  This isn’t about ‘even’.  This isn’t even about not being offended.  This is about my government not offending me.  I don’t care if a church or private citizen wants to offend me.  Well, I care, but I don’t presume to any right to demand that it stop.

                  Our government is not supposed to get involved in religion, including telling us there is no god.  Simple as that.  Have your creche on every private lawn in the town if it means that much.

                • Rennie

                  “Our government is not supposed to get involved in religion,”

                  Our government is not supposed to establish a state religion and force you to worship at the state church under pain of penalty.

                  The fallacious notion that gov cannot have anything to do with any religion is one that has been promoted by atheists and has nothing to do with our constitution.

                  Your other arguments are straw men and not worthy of a response.

                • Another anonymous area atheist

                  What exactly does “wall of separation between church and state” mean to you? You know the guy who wrote the damn First Amendment also wrote that, yes? Oh, you didn’t? Explains a lot.

                  You people really are too much. You’ll say anything, make up any lie you want to get your way. ENOUGH!

                • Rennie

                  You would be well served to do a little study up on the matter, including looking up the ACTUAL wording and the history behind why the founding fathers were worried about preventing a STATE religion, and not just rely on blogs like this to get your information.

                • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

                  The fallacious notion that gov cannot have anything to do with any religion

                  That’s your opinion, but it’s not shared by a majority of the members of the supreme court (all theists of course).  I know that makes David Barton cry, but them’s the breaks.

                  promoted by atheists

                  technically true, but promoted by more theists.  e.g. most members of American United are theists (although in proportion to the general population, I’m sure there are more atheists).

                  I’ve only taken down strawmen you put up.

                  You should do some reading outside of David Barton.  Like some actual church/state SCOTUS decisions.  They always explain their decision, including arguments for and against in great detail.

                • Rennie

                  I’ve never read David Barton to my knowledge. Bad judicial decisions get overturned when the right case comes along. Atheists will push the issue with sympathetic and imprudent judges until one case goes too far. Then the right case, argued by the right lawyer before the right court will begin to swing the judicial pendulum back to constitutionally consistent decisions.

                • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

                  same chance as anyone else to choose if a nativity would be displayed or not

                  Keep in mind that the exact opposite of “nativity scene” would be something like a sign saying “god is a fairy tale for adults”.  Not asking for that, although if an atheist wins the lottery, you may get that simply to make the point.

                • Rennie

                  And it would offend the theists but any right minded person would accept the lottery result.

                • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

                  I’ve seen enough examples to the contrary that I don’t share your optimism as to the ‘right mindedness’ of your fellow citizens. That is, I don’t know your town, but many inoffensive legal non-Christian displays have ‘disappeared’.

                • Rennie

                  Bad people exist on both sides of the issue and one or the other may misbehave.

                  That doesn’t change the validity or fairness of a democratic lottery.

  • Justin

    “If there were more than one applicant, the borough would hold a lottery to determine who would get to choose the display…”
    “Choose” is an interesting word to use here.  My interpretation on face value is that the lottery does not determine which display is picked, but  determines who gets the right to pick a display.  Does that also mean that they have a set group of displays that the winner gets to pick from and that you can’t submit your own display idea?

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    If no borough taxpayer applied, then people from outside the area would be able to apply… If there were more than one applicant, the borough would hold a lottery to determine who would get to choose the display…

    The way I’m reading these asinine (and probably illegal) “rules,” if just one borough taxpayer applies, (and certainly there will be many) then no “outsiders” like them eevil gay luvin’ ay-thee-ists from Califaggia will be permitted to apply.

    So that leaves only the atheist taxpayers of the boroughs to try to counteract the flood of Christian taxpayer applications.  Are there really that many atheists in Ellwood City who would be willing to apply, that they would have any likely chance?

    Even if a local atheist did win, given the reactionary mobs that swarmed City Hall last year,  I’m concerned that that brave person would be at serious risk. Since the mayor and city officials don’t care about Constitutional law when they put up their little dollhouse, then the yokels won’t care about criminal laws against vandalism, arson, assault, or murder.

    • Ellwood City Resident

      As a non-believer who is a resident of Ellwood City, I feel intimidated by the nativity display supporters who attended the borough-sanctioned December 2, 2011, pro-nativity display rally which was held on the steps of the Ellwood City Municipal Building.  At that rally, one nativity display supporter handed out crosses which were made of segments of 2″ x 4″ wood construction material.  A given cross, being about two feet in length and 18″ in width, could easily be wielded as a weapon.  The sequence of the events of the rally was organized with the assistance of one or more borough officials.  The mayor ceremoniously placed the statuette of the infant in the manger.  In his speech to the crowd, he stated that the nativity tradition would continue as long as the right people continued to hold borough offices.  In my opinion, the worship aspect of the rally was accompanied by a passive-aggressive attitude which sent the message that any person who dared to heckle the rally would be clobbered by a cross.  In fact, news reports had disseminated false information that certain out-of-state atheist groups had been organizing bus trips so that protesters of the nativity display would have a presence at the rally.  Of course, no such protesters arrived, and there is no evidence that any atheist group ever took any steps to arrange for any such bus trips.  However, the zealotry of the cross-waving nativity display supporters is evidence to me that a non-believer resident of Ellwood City would be well advised to refrain from submitting an application to set up a winter holiday display on the lawn of the Municipal Building.   

      • Another anonymous area atheist

        It would just get torn down anyway, just like last year’s (tiny) Kwanzaa banner.

      • Douglas Szklarski

        “People who don’t stand up for there rights, don;t diserve to have any. ” If you think Atheist should just let Christians take away there rights, then by all means bash us with a cross.  Your words do the same.

  • Thegoodman

    God damn it I hope they draw the “Kill all the infidels! Praise be to Allah” ticket from the hat.

  • Cincinatheist

    I’m mostly offended that DeCarbo called Pastafarianism a parody organization.  Blasphemy!

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    The current trend of SCOTUS decisions generally (although certainly not always) favoring not only freedom of but from religion has been in place for nearly 55 years, since McCollum v. Board of Education.
    https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/333/203/case.html 

  • Guest Thought

    So, Let me get this straight. (may be a point to look at also) IF, an atheist wins and puts up the banner. Yes you may have some that get mad. THEN.. you will have a bigger issue on your hands cause the simple 1 that was going to be put up, you now have lots more popping up in others yards to prove a point! Will they then go door to door suing everyone for the “eye sore” or having to see the nativities? So don’t you think it may be a little safer to let it subside and only have 1 up in the town rather than a whole bunch from people protesting the lottery winner not allowing the nativity scene. I was raised in a town that had to deal with this same problem. What it turned into was a HUGE mess cause then the local businesses that sold them in the town and surrounding town sold out of ALL their nativity scenes and you couldn’t go 2 blocks without seeing at least 3.  Don’t you think it is better to just see the 1 then Many? That would be one big bill if you have to turn around and sue EVERYONE who protests by adding one to their yard. (sorry but I can see where it could go messy either way)

    • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

      I’d rather see one in every private yard in town than one on city property.

      That would be one big bill if you have to turn around and sue EVERYONE who protests by adding one to their yard.

      You’re kind of missing the point.  You can’t sue someone for adding one to their yard, nor would most of us want to.  Private yards are fine.  It’s only government property where religion doesn’t belong.


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