When it Comes to Minor Church/State Separation Violations, This is Why We Fight

Lately, we’ve seen a handful of complaints/lawsuits over Christian symbols appearing in city seals. Richard Wade commented on this earlier today.

Here’s how it goes down: An atheist individual or group complains about it because it’s a violation of church/state separation. People get up in arms because “How dare you go after something so insignificant?” Even atheists. They want to know why we don’t choose our battles a little more wisely. They want us to stop embarrassing other atheists.

I’ll grant that these issues aren’t as big of a deal as, say, administration-sponsored prayer in public schools. But here’s why it’s still important to go after them.

If we don’t, then two things will happen:

1) Years down the road, when another, more egregious violation pops up in another city, the officials’ response will be, “Well, you didn’t bother that other city when they did it, so why are you going after us?” Perhaps the same city will try to include a Christian symbol in other promotional materials and they’ll say the same thing “Well, you didn’t care then! So why now?”

2) If no one complains, it won’t be long before this city gets to use the age-old excuse of “It’s just tradition.” That’s the excuse Cranston High School West used when they wanted to keep up their religious prayer banner. It’s the excuse many high schools have used to keep prayers in graduation ceremonies or say them over the loudspeakers before football games.

So we must keep fighting.

As one commenter phrased it recently, this is like an atheist version of the “broken windows theory.” That theory roughly says that if you clean up minor instances of graffiti or broken windows, it sends a signal to vandals that you won’t stand for the destruction. They’re less likely to leave their marks if people are going to just clean it up immediately. But if you don’t take care of the problem, the vandals know you don’t care and they’ll just go on doing it — maybe even moreso than before.

Similarly, by going after these “minor instances” of church/state violations — prayers at city council meetings, the word “God” popping up in places it has no business being — we’re sending a message to other cities and Christian officials that we’re not going to let them shove their faith into government. We’ll go after any instance of it, even if it seems petty to you.

That’s why I support the people who are fighting back. I may take issue with some of their methods, but I agree with them on principle. I wish more people had their backs.

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://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

    “Slippery slope” arguments are often misused (like when those opposed to marriage equality suggest it will lead to people marrying their dogs). But these examples of actual or apparent government endorsement of religion really do represent a slippery slope, and as such, should concern all secularists.

  • gski

    I understand Hemant’s point and I can’t disagree with it. However I also think the whining petty atheist also comes into play. When things like this come up, instead of one or two atheists raising an objection, I would like to see them form a coalition of atheists and leaders of other religions in the community. An objection raised by a diverse group will be taken much more seriously. It would also give us an opportunity to work with others that may feel the same but are afraid to raise an objection.

    • http://twitter.com/InMyUnbelief TCC

      The “whining petty atheist” is simply another form of the “angry atheist” trope, in my opinion, and accepting that caricature is a tacit agreement that the issues aren’t important when they really are.

      • gski

         Whether a trope or not is irrelevant to it’s effect on how people view atheists. Including those that are on the fence as to lending their support.

        • Joe Zamecki

          So what should I do, in your opinion? Just shut up? Please go on the record as saying that, if that’s what you mean. 

          • 3lemenope

            gski said, just above:

            When things like this come up, instead of one or two atheists raising an objection, I would like to see them form a coalition of atheists and leaders of other religions in the community.

            Because:

            An objection raised by a diverse group will be taken much more seriously.

            I don’t know how you get from there to “just shut up”. 

            • Joe Zamecki

              I don’t have a group backing me up. That’s how. The attitude is clear.

            • Joe Zamecki

              Plus I was asking. Not telling. 

            • gski

               Thank you.

          • gski

            Not being on the front-line as you are, I wouldn’t presume to tell you what to do. My goal was to offer a suggestion as to how you might be more effective. It seems instead to have been divisive I regret that.

      • Georgina

         Quite – and why shouldn’t we also be ‘offended’ ?

    • Joe Zamecki

      So will you help form that group?

      • gski

         Being 2000 miles away I would be of little help. There is the Atheist Community of Austin a well established group that might be able to help (atheist-community.org)

  • Djlong77

    I posed the question on the original thread so I’ll bring it here too. Just down the road a bit we have the city of San Antonio which of course has the Alamo on their city seal. Do we go after them as well for having a church on the seal or do we respect the cultural heritage that it represents? I am an atheist Austinite with christian friends and family who could care less about arcane symbols adorning city seals. Do we need to take down masonic symbols as well? They were certainly religious in the past but seem pretty innocuous now. I think this is a great example of when or rather when not to choose your battles.

    • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

      It’s a good question, but how do we distinguish between arcane symbols which are largely historical, and arcane symbols which represent an overt attempt by government to meddle in religious matters? There are clearly extremes at both ends that are easily recognized, but what about the vast middle ground? How do we pick the fights that are really justified? How many fights have to be entered, one at a time, at what expense?

      • treedweller

        I can’t be sure, but I don’t believe it cost Mr. Zemecki any more than a few hours at city hall, and cost the rest of us nothing. However, I do think we are overlooking a strong weapon in the arsenal of the “other side”. Zemecki’s video illustrates just how many things would have to be changed to adopt a new seal. I think we need to figure out a way to cover that expense without using taxes or we will comtinue to be dismissed by some as wasting the city’s time and money on trivial matters. I believe it is important to correct this violation even if taxpayers foot the bill, but I suspect a lot of people would disagree. I propose a contest sponsored by local businesses and organizations (hello, Atheist Society of Austin) to design a new seal. As someone pointed out in one of the other threads, if all we do is tear things down, we don’t look good.

        • Djlong77

           That would be way cool. I would love to see Daniel Johnston’s “Hi how are you”  frog on the city seal!
           http://www.flickr.com/photos/eyeates/3711111286/

          • treedweller

            I’m not sure that would fly with the general population, but I’m all for it.

        • Joe Zamecki

          Actually it’s “Zamecki” not “Zemecki.” The fact is, if the city needs to save money, it could correct this problem with little more than a box full of Sharpees. For the city flag, that would cost a little more. Since the cross isn’t the largest thing in the seal, we’re talking a mark here, a mark there, and a lot of those crosses could be eliminated. I know, I know, the city government would never agree to such a low cost solution. We’ll have to wait. 

          • treedweller

            Sorry for the misspelling.

            I can’t say I love the idea of coloring over the crosses with sharpies. For one thing, either every employee with the logo on their city vehicle would have to do it, and some would claim persecution because of it, or someone would have to spend a solid week or two doing it instead of their regular job. And then the reds would not match, and it would look like a shadowy cross instead of the sharp-edged one we have now. No, if we make the change, I say we have to go all the way. I mean, use up existing supplies of stationery and such, but the color-them-in solution sounds very ghetto to me.

            • Joe Zamecki

              Ok cool. Sounds like you’re ready to help. Ya?

    • Travshad

      The Alamo is not currently a church and wasn’t a church for over 40 years before the Battle that made the place famous.  If it was still currently a church or was famous because it was a church you would have a point. The Alamo is simply a group of buildings some of which were a one time used as a mission.  They were repurposed as a military base (amoung other uses) for years before and after the Battle of the Alamo.  The seal of San Antonio has a picture of the Alamo not the Mission San Antonio de Valero that closed its doors 219 years ago in 1793.

  • treedweller

    When the “small” things like seals arise, we are told to pick our battles. When the “big” issues come up, we are told to recognize and accept that we live in a Christian society, as illustrated by the “small” things.

    As to the Alamo, the fact that it was a mission is, at best, no more significant than the fact that it was a fort—a very specific one, which was very important to the history of San Antonio and Texas. The fact that Stephen F. Austin once made a family crest with a cross on it hardly carries the same significance. so, no, I do not feel a need to remove it on the basis that it does not imply he same endorsement of religion. The cross above is arbitrary and irrelevant to Austin today. Or, at least, it should be.

    • Djlong77

      So the family crest from the city’s namesake is not culturally significant enough to keep and should be removed because of its overt christian theme which is a tiny little cross on top. But the roman catholic mission church, which was created to convert native americans to christianity, on the other seal is okay because of the secular use it was put to during wartime. I’m glad somebody smarter than me is available to parse that out. :)

      • treedweller

        Not just because it was “put to use.”. I admit there’s a fine line around here somewhere, but I don’t think the alamo is very near it. I grew up in Texas. I had to pass Texas history in eighth grade. We were taught that “Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad!” was the slogan that inspired the Texans to fight for independence and, eventually, agree to join the Union to help ensure a victory over Mexico. The fact that it had been a mission barely came up.

      • treedweller

        I might consider the Austin family crest significant if that were the last vestige of Mr. Austin in our current society. But we named the town after him. Nobody will forget who he was (he led the army that was slaughtered at the Alamo, after all). His silly family crest hardly matters by comparison.

      • treedweller

        And, the fact that the line is so fine seems to support the idea that we just need to eliminate religious iconography altogether. I would change my mind about the Alamo in the SA seal before I would change my mind about the cross in the Austin seal.

        • Djlong77

           That’d be a hard sell.  Could you imagine a bunch of us showing up and  demanding that they remove the Alamo from the city seal of San Antonio, oh jeeebus,  fox news would have a field day.

          • treedweller

            Yeah, I have a bad habit of picking the losing side. As a result, I’ve learned that the loser is not always wrong.

          • Joe Zamecki

            What if one person went to the San Antonio city council and just reminded them that some citizens there would prefer the Alamo not be in that seal? Do you think Fox News would jump on that? Just telling the city council that some of us don’t like it? No demands needed…Is that still a terrible idea? (Because that’s all I did…)

            • Djlong77

              You really asked them to remove the Alamo? Holy cojones man I was using that as a totally hyperbolic example of what not to do. You can’t f… With the Alamo in Texas. I mean 10 points for badassery but minus several million for poor judgement. Yes fox would totally jump on that if they cought wind and use it to further their persecuted Christian vs the militant atheist trope. I will get together with you and take on the Texas board of education and their uber conservative textbooks any day of the week but this is a losing battle my friend.

              • Joe Zamecki

                It was a “What if…” No need to take it as a “We’re going to…” Say, are you doing much for state/church separation? Just curious. 

                • Rwlawoffice

                  Joe as a christian I have admired your work helping the homeless in Austin. You of course can pick your own battles but from someone looking fom the outside, this one looks like it will do damage to the good will you have built up. This crest really oes appear to be of historical significance and not an endorsement of religion. For an example should we also change the names of San Antonio, Corpus Christi, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Bethleham, San Diego, etc…

                • Joe Zamecki

                  As a Christian, did you know that a cross is a torture device?

                • Rwlawoffice

                  Yes. What is your point and how does that answer the question I posed?

              • Travshad

                The “Alamo” was not a mission.  The Alamo is comprised of some buildings that were formerly part of the Mission San Antonio de Valero.  The mission was secularized and abandoned in 1793 by the Roman Catholic Church.  In the early 1800′s is was used as a base for the Mexican Army and gained the name Alamo from the spanish word for popular trees.  The Alamo is being memorialized for being a fort not a mission.  It had not been a mission for over 40 years by the time of the Battle of the Alamo. 

  • phhht

    I just came from the automatic teller, and as I was crossing out “In God We Trust” on my bills, I considered which battles to fight.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=628665833 Bill Santagata

    “There are no de minimis violations of the Constitution – no constitutional harms so slight that the courts are obliged to ignore them.” Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow (O’Connor, concurring).

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=628665833 Bill Santagata

      I do not mean to say that there are no legal contexts by which a city can have a cross on its seal, and indeed the courts have recognized this (e.g. with Las Cruces, New Mexico). But “It’s only a tiny violation of the Constitution” isn’t an excuse. Either it violates the Constitution and must be removed, or it is constitutional and can stay.

      • WoodyTanaka

        The Las Cruces ruling was absolutely wrong. 

  • vexorian

    If the things were small,and insignificant to them then surely  there would be no problem in them changing their ways, right?

    • 3lemenope

      Th is is what really bothers me with the “but it’s so petty and insignificant” crowd. If that were true, they wouldn’t much care about these things being changed, as they don’t matter. But of course, they do matter, hence their indignation at other people’s complaints.

  • Oldfogey

    Well now, as an outsider I looked at that seal and what i saw was a sword, hilt uppermost, surrounded by a native indian headress, backed by a stylized mountain range, and set over the sort of oil lamp you would rub to summon a Djinn.

    • treedweller

      It might well have been meant as a sword hilt. A sword hilt that was designed to incorporate the Christian cross into its design.

      • http://twitter.com/silo_mowbray Silo Mowbray

        The Knights Templar and Knights Hospitallar were known for using their swords as impromptu crosses for prayer. They’d stick them in the ground and kneel before them, head bowed.

        Some of the Templars were seriously fucked up bastards, befitting a religion (although not the only one) that exhorted its followers to kill Saracens, because that wasn’t considered murder in their equally fucked up god’s eyes.

  • newavocation

    I rather see a beer logo on the seal, at least they pay taxes.

    • treedweller

      That idea could gain some traction in Austin.

  • http://twitter.com/ylaenna M. Elaine

     There are also well-meaning people who see these symbols and the word ‘God’ on currency and pledges and city seals, and not necessarily through any fault of their own (except lack of initiative to search for the truth) come to the conclusion that this really is a Christian nation, as the mouthpieces claim. So they mistakenly believe this and see no harm in it, and teach their children, who tell their friends, who all grow up and tell their children, and so on.

    All these little things add up and further promulgate the ‘Christian nation’ myth.

  • skeptic4321

    We must absolutely fight such things.  We have already “lost” with respect to In God We Trust, Under God, creationism in science classes in some states (TN), the fabricated evolution “debate,” climate change denial, anti-abortion legislation, abstinence only sex ed, etc., etc.  All these things, in my opinion, have a significant cumulative effect.
    We cannot afford to sit idly as these people continue their efforts to firmly establish a Christian theocracy in the USA.

    • http://twitter.com/silo_mowbray Silo Mowbray

      …a Christian theocracy that will undoubtedly entrench and expand the privilege of white, straight males at the expense of female and minority rights. Gotta make sure there’s a supply of pretty, subservient, virginal women to marry. Although it’s okay if there are some sluts, the while straight males have to sow their oats, right? But no one will want to marry those loose women, so they’ll just end up being whores.

      Also, gotta have brown and black people to do the shit jobs. Asians get to run the dry cleaners and take-out places. And gays will be rounded up and put into “work camps.”

      I wonder how many Christofascists have exactly that dream?

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/A37GL7VKR3W6ACSIZPH7EID3LI rlrose63

    I’m behind going after these “little” infractions 100% for exactly the reasons you state.  The more we let slide, the more they will add under the “acceptable” column.  We let that happen for too long.  Now that we have a voice, small though it may be, we have to continue.

  • Chris

    Frankly, I am pleased that the FFRF and AA fight these battles for us.  I am a very strong supporter of the separation of church and state.  I hope that this movement just keeps getting stronger.

  • WoodyTanaka

    No symbol is too small or too insignificant.  There is no footnote to the First Amendment that says “unless the infringment is really small.”


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X