There’s been a change over the past few years in the way atheists handle Nativity Scenes on public property. Instead of doing what we’ve always done and sue local governments (something that costs time and money), atheist groups have been requesting their own displays on the same property.
It puts the local governments in a beautiful damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation: They can allow all religions to share the space (which hurts Christians’ privileged feelings) or they can just promote a Christian display and get hit with a lawsuit. (Or they can avoid all the controversy and not allow any displays whatsoever.)
In a piece for the Washington Post, the director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum, Charles C. Haynes, acknowledges what the “savvy” atheists have done to fight back, but his suggestion for where we should go from here is baffling:
So now that we all understand that a right for one is a right for all, maybe it’s time for atheist groups to declare victory and stay home for the holidays. Let Christian groups set up Nativity displays in public spaces unanswered in December — and save the atheist messages for another time of year.
Yes, I understand why atheists want to make sure that religion isn’t privileged by government in the public square (as it has been for much of our history). But at some point (and Santa Monica has surely reached that point) in-your-face tactics become counter-productive and needlessly divisive.
After all, whether we celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, the Winter Solstice or none of the above, we can all benefit from a more civil and peaceful public square.
Don’t pat our heads like we’ve done a nice job proving our point and then tell us to go away. We’ve fought for our displays on government property and we have no intention of backing down. As long as Christians believe they have a special right to put up a Nativity Scene on government-owned land, we will continue to fight them… or show up right beside them.
Haynes makes it sound like if we lay off on the Nativity displays, then Christians will be totally fine with atheist billboards and other advertisements the rest of the year. That’s complete bullshit and he should know it. The most innocuous billboards get tons of complaints no matter what time of year they’re displayed.
The Christian displays are, in many cases, illegal.
The atheists displays are always legal.
Why should we play by the rules all the time and then let Christians get away with breaking them for months at a time?
This isn’t really about being in-your-face, even though some of the atheist signs aren’t exactly in the “holiday spirit.” It’s all about making a point: If you get to use government property to promote your beliefs, we can use them to promote ours — even if that means saying something you don’t like. The only way change in the system will come about is if the atheists’ messages are so provocative that people are moved to make a decision about whether or not to allow the displays at all.
The truth is, if Christians didn’t take over public space every year and then complain every time anyone else showed up, none of this would be an issue. They brought this on themselves.
We’re the ones fighting for free speech, equal access, and separation of church and state. The Christian groups that want their religious displays — and only their religious displays — at city halls and local courthouses want everyone to bow down to them and their god.
Forget “staying home for the holidays.” We’re not backing down now that we’ve come so far.