Christian Pastor Who Made Boneheaded Comment on Local News Segment Tries to Clear It Up

After the San Diego Coalition of Reason put up their latest billboard, a local news channel did a story on it. As usual, they tried to get an opposing viewpoint to provide “balance” to the story and they got Pastor Chris Clark of the East Clairemont Southern Baptist Church.

While Clark sounded just fine initially, he said something completely inane toward the end of his sound bite:

Pastor Chris Clark

“I don’t know that they’re picking a fight necessarily. I think they’re trying to get their message out,” said Clark.

Clark said he supports the group’s freedom of speech. He just wants to make sure there’s no pushback if his church wants a billboard recruiting believers.

“All I’m asking for is equal access. Don’t get upset when there’s a nativity scene on the public square,” said Clark.

Umm… no. That’s not how it works. Just because atheists pay for a billboard doesn’t mean you get unfettered access to promote your religion on the public square — unless atheists (and everybody else) get to put up their own displays next to yours.

Anyway, Clark has now set up a blog of his own specifically to respond to criticisms of his remarks:

Time would simply not allow a full development of my position in the brief news report. A mere 15-20 seconds of sound byte is hardly enough time to describe what I had for dinner, let alone a position on such a topic.

For the record, I understand the difference between private property and public property. I understand the difference between private parties engaging in a business transaction with an advertising agency to purchase billboard space to communicate their product, service, or message, and a message that is displayed on public property.

Fair point. Sound bites aren’t always fair. Let’s see how Clark elaborates on his remarks now that he has all the space he wants to do it:

Notice that the phrase “separation of church and state” appears nowhere in the [First] amendment…

Oh, Jesus, he’s playing this game…

The irony to this debate comes when the elements of secularism, humanism, and atheism are introduced into the public square. Secular, humanist, and atheist beliefs are not only permitted, but welcomed.

As such, there are more than a few examples of humanism/atheism on display in the public square — in education, in the halls of government, on public property. Were it necessary to cite specific examples, an additional blog post would be in order.

It’s in order. Let’s see these examples. Because I can’t recall public schoolchildren reciting the Pledge of Allegiance with the phrase “One Nation, under no God, indivisible…” or members of Congress being sworn in on a Richard Dawkins‘ book after getting elected.

So what’s he talking about? The teaching of evolution? Government neutrality on matters of religion? I’d love to know.

Finally, Clark gets to the meat of his comments (emphasis his):

For example, I have no problem whatsoever with a humanist/atheist display in a public area that states their view. I have no problem with a sign in a park with their new slogan that is being used on the billboard by the 94 freeway. I don’t think the government has any business prohibiting the free exercise of the humanists or the atheists to espouse and practice their deeply held beliefs, as that is protected by the First Amendment.

All I am asking is that the same protection be afforded to the Christian groups that want to put a Nativity scene in that same park nearby the humanists’/atheists’ sign. Let the Jews put up a symbol of their religion; Muslims theirs; Buddhists and Hindus theirs. Let them all freely exercise their religious beliefs; and if that includes allowing them a chance to publicly display those beliefs, then so be it.

There’s only one problem with that statement: That’s exactly what the law demands and it’s what atheists have been fighting for this whole time. So why act like we’re opposed to it?

The problems occur when Christians want special access to government property and exclusion of all other points of view. While Christians usually just have to ask politely to put up a Nativity Scene in front of City Hall, atheists often have to file lawsuits to get the same treatment.

I promise you no atheist group has a problem with a Nativity Scene on public property — as long as we can put up a display of our own right beside it. If that’s too problematic for everyone, then local governments shouldn’t allow any displays at all.

December isn’t owned by Christians. They don’t deserve better treatment than everyone else in the eyes of the government.

If Clark thinks Christians have it rough when it comes to public displays of religion, he has no idea what the rest of us have to put up with.

(Thanks to @crankyhumanist for the link)

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.

  • Houndentenor

    I’m curious what he actually means by “public square”. If he means on official government property provided at no charge to the user, then yes, I’m opposed to that. If he means “in full public view to lots of people but at our expense on property we own or rented” then that if fully protected under the first amendment. There is no shortage of pro-religious billboards across the country and they have every right to put those up. So do atheists. What we don’t want is the government appearing to take sides because they aren’t just taking sides between theists and nontheists, but between religious sects and even sub-sects. It’s inevitable. What is best is for churches to put up their own displays. I’ve always found it odd that the same people who are always claiming that government can’t do anything good want that same government to endorse and promote their particular religion. It seems to me that religions of various kind flourished in the US precisely because the government kept out of it and various sects had to compete in the marketplace of ideas. If they really think they want a state church then they should look at Europe or Australia where there are state churches everywhere supported by tax dollars that hardly anyone attends.

    • C Peterson

      I agree, we don’t know exactly what he means by “public square”, although it’s not hard to guess based on the entirety of his comments. That said, “public square” does have a well defined legal meaning, which is publicly owned land devoted to, or regularly made available to, public events- concerts, markets, art shows, etc. The events may be private, and generally need not be secular (but it’s rather certain that if any permitting favored nonsecular over secular events, it would be found illegal).

      • Houndentenor

        Personally I think that’s all fine so long as every kind of group has the same access. Many city parks have pavilions that groups can use to have cookouts or other group activities. Denying access to religious groups would be just as wrong as denying access based on ethnicity. So long as access is open to everyone, there’s no problem, even though it’s public land. It just can’t be seen as the government promoting one religion over another, or for that matter promoting religion at all.

        • C Peterson

          As a matter of law, I agree. As a matter of public policy, I think restrictions on certain kinds of access are entirely reasonable, and generally preferable to unrestricted access. The “public square” is a great place for events and demonstrations. For the most part, I’d prefer that they not become places for displaying unattended signs or displays, however.

          Sometimes, the best solution is access to nobody.

  • C Peterson

    I promise you no atheist group has a problem with a Nativity Scene on public property — as long as we can put up a display of our own right beside it.

    I think many groups have a problem with nativity scenes on public property- including the FFRF, which is probably the most prominent organization placing secular displays.

    Most “atheist” groups that place secular displays in opposition to nativity scenes are not doing it for any other reason than to create an environment where no religious displays are permitted at all. That is, they are making a political statement, not a philosophical one.

  • Jasper

    Why do they have such a hard time understanding the difference between public (government-owned) and private (privately owned) property? Is it really that hard of a concept?

    • C Peterson

      Well, since Jesus was a communist, perhaps they don’t recognize the distinction!

    • Haha USA

      if he’s dumb enough to believe that jesus was a dude that died on the cross for our sins then I can see how he might have a problem distinguishing the two, yes.

    • http://twitter.com/RinnosukeETQW Jeff Simons

      What I read in there was that he understands the difference but dosen’t understand the importance of government neutrality.

  • Rain

    “One Nation, under no God, indivisible…”

    Actually, “invisible” would fit nicely in there. “One Nation, under a God that’s invisible, indivisible, with liberty and justice for baby Jesus”. It has a nice cadence to it, although technically not completely secular if we wanted to split hairs about it.

    • Rain

      Edit: Forgot to put an “Amen” at the end of “with liberty and justice for baby Jesus”.

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

        “…and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God and Jesus Christ who died on the cross for all of our sins and then rose on the third day, indivisible, with liberty and justice for most.”

        From Moral Orel: http://video.tvguide.com/Moral+Orel/Pledge+of+Allegiance/338290

    • The Other Weirdo

      It also rolls trippingly off the tongue.

    • Thackerie

      This is how my cousin recited it when he was around the age of 6 or 7:

      I led the pigeons to the flag
      where the Republican Richard stands.
      One nation, Under Dog, invisible,
      with libraries and grape juice for all.

      I suspect his atheist parents egged him on. Good on them.

  • Ryan Jean

    I promise you no atheist group has a problem with a Nativity Scene on
    public property — as long as we can put up a display of our own right
    beside it. If that’s too problematic for everyone, then local
    governments shouldn’t allow any displays at all.

    I’d venture that this is exactly backwards for most atheists and atheist groups. The preference is that public property shouldn’t be used for that purpose at all — better to ban them all and keep the government out of the religion business entirely — but if you’re not going to do so the back-up position is that at least we can respect equal treatment.

    Also, yet another pastor conflating atheist/Humanist, and secular. It leaves off even the pretense of giving a damn about America’s secular legacy. They’ve abandoned even the appearance for the camera of caring about anything other than pushing their sectarian view on everyone, and are willing to blatantly misrepresent secularism in order to do so. I wish I could say I was surprised, but the exceptions to this rule are becoming exceedingly rare these days…

    • Mike Savino

      You know, actually I rather like the opening of things at christmas to all groups. Its a government by the people and for the people, after all, and the things that are important to us can and should be displayed.

      Not to belabor the point but so long as everyone has a chance to put up their symbols of faith or non-faith then I’m happy to let December be the month we choose to allow this in public parks etc. I know its centered around christmas but its also important to remember that we atheists are a minority. December makes the most sense.

  • C Peterson

    The irony to this debate comes when the elements of secularism, humanism, and atheism are introduced into the public square. Secular, humanist, and atheist beliefs are not only permitted, but welcomed.

    Secularism and humanism are not religious belief systems, and therefore don’t fall under First Amendment regulation. A purely atheist statement would, of course, but I can’t think of any example of atheism being introduced into the public square except as an immediate response to a pre-existing nonsecular element. And I’m quite unaware of any case where overtly secular, humanist, or atheist displays or beliefs have been widely welcomed. Unlike religious displays, secular displays almost always generate controversy- exactly as we see here!

    • http://twitter.com/RinnosukeETQW Jeff Simons

      Actually SCOTUS ruled that for the purposes of government they are religious beliefs, semantics I know but it’s how the law sees it.

      • Ryan Jean

        I’m not aware of SCOTUS ever ruling that Secularism was a religious belief, which would be quite nonsensical given what it means. The only instance I know of for SCOTUS taking up Humanism was the *footnote* by Justice Hugo Black in Torcaso vs. Watkins*. That’s not a ruling in any meaningful sense.

        (* The footnote referred to Secular Humanism, a distinct form of humanism separate from the theistic or quasi-theistic forms of humanism like Christian humanism or Ethical Culture humanism. An argument can be and routinely is made that “humanism” could stand on its own in the sense used in the footnote, but as a modifier the “secular” part cannot be taken separately.)

        • baal

          http://www.atheist-community.org/library/articles/read.php?id=742

          Atheism, in the US legal system, falls into the ‘religion’ protection category since it’s the ‘none of the above’ religion. If you have a right to religious freedom, that right means nothing if you can’t skip the whole mess as well. The link above is a non-lawyer who’s done a decent job of pulling relevant language from a number of cases.

          • Ryan Jean

            “Secularism and humanism are not religious belief systems, and therefore don’t fall under First Amendment regulation.”

            “Actually SCOTUS ruled that for the purposes of government they are religious beliefs, semantics I know but it’s how the law sees it.”

            I was responding, as is clear from actually reading the context of the prior comments (which I summarized here) or from reading my own, to the specific assertion that the SCOTUS has ruled Secularism and Humanism to be religious beliefs. The fact is that they have not. Responding to me that Atheism is considered legally a religious belief is a non-sequitur, as that was not the assertion I refuted.

      • C Peterson

        Do you have a reference to such a ruling? I don’t think there is any case of either being viewed as religious expression, except to the extent that they may be protected under the First Amendment in certain cases. But not restricted, so far as I know. Nothing prevents a government expression in support of humanism or secularism (where secularism refers to the separation of state and church).

        • Reginald Selkirk

          Do you have a reference to such a ruling

          You can start at the “atheism and religion” page at Wikipedia and follow the footnotes.

          legal status of atheism

          • C Peterson

            Right, which just reflects my understanding: atheism (and possibly secularism and humanism) can be legally recognized as religions in some cases insofar as First Amendment protections are concerned, but not in terms of restrictions. I’m not aware of any legal precedent restricting government endorsement of either secularism (in the sense of state/church separation) or humanism. Nor am I aware of any legal precendent restricting government endorsement of things that are specifically contrary to certain religious beliefs.

            • SeekerLancer

              Regardless it shouldn’t matter. Atheists and secularists are not the ones asking for special treatment. They’re asking for fair and equal treatment under the law.

  • Buckley

    “All I am asking is that the same protection be afforded to the Christian
    groups that want to put a Nativity scene in that same park nearby the
    humanists’/atheists’ sign. Let the Jews put up a symbol of their
    religion; Muslims theirs; Buddhists and Hindus theirs.”

    Another flaw in his logic is to lump in Atheism with the religions. It’s not a religion and to equate the opposition of a religious symbol on public ground to the idea that all religions should have equal access to the public square is the problem that many atheists are against.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jason.hinchliffe Jason Hinchliffe

    What I continually have an issue with, is the characterization of Atheism as a dogma. “Atheists are free to practice their beliefs”. What “practice(s)” are they referring to? I think we need to be careful in communications to make sure we don’t allow this type messaging to creep in, and create and equivalence. Atheism/Secularism/Humanism are not tightly defined dogmas with ritual and observation.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jason.hinchliffe Jason Hinchliffe

    What I continually have an issue with, is the characterization of Atheism as a dogma. “Atheists are free to practice their beliefs”. What “practice(s)” are they referring to? I think we need to be careful in communications to make sure we don’t allow this type messaging to creep in, and create and equivalence. Atheism/Secularism/Humanism are not tightly defined dogmas with ritual and observation.

    • jo1storm

      My point exactly! I don’t know how to explain to people that is an empty sentiment and completely useless! I can’t really find proper comparison on how stupid it is. Those non-stamp collectors are free to put their stamps in their collections any way they like? Those bald people are free to use government money to buy hairspray like anyone else? It just doesn’t sound right…

    • C Peterson

      Atheism isn’t a belief system except in the most simplistic usage of that expression. Atheism isn’t accompanied by any commonly shared beliefs. That isn’t the case for secularism or humanism, however. While these certainly represent a spectrum of beliefs, they are nevertheless actual philosophies, requiring their followers to maintain active beliefs (not typically associated with either dogma or ritual, but that possibility isn’t excluded, as it is for atheism).

      • http://www.facebook.com/jason.hinchliffe Jason Hinchliffe

        I understand your point, but its stretching. Secularism is literally nothing more than belief in the separation of church and state. There is no ritual observance or dogma attached. Humanism is also not tightly defined. There is no figurehead, no official doctrine or official governing body. It has basic tenets, but nothing beginning to approach organized religion. It also fails the test for any type of ritual observance.

        • C Peterson

          Both secularism and humanism are active belief systems. That doesn’t mean everybody who uses these terms is necessarily sharing the same beliefs, but at least broadly, most agree on the collection of beliefs involved.

          I’m not saying that secularists or humanists are typically dogmatic, but anytime you have an active belief system, you at least have the potential for dogmatism. I have little doubt that there actually are unreasoned secularists and humanists, who essentially hold their views dogmatically. But that’s certainly not common.

          You can’t really have a dogmatic atheist, however. The concept makes no sense. But you can have an atheist who is dogmatic about other things, and conflates those ideas with atheism. We frequently see “atheism” misused this way, as with the “New Atheists”, A+, or much of what we hear from organizations like American Atheists.

  • Aaron

    I think what Pastor Clark is trying to postulate is that everything that is not associated with a religion is therefore secular and a tool for advancing atheism. Therefore, if a city puts up a Santa Claus or a lighted tree, it is a secular symbol that religious groups have a right to counter. Dangerous.

    • Houndentenor

      I had someone tell me last December that “they” (whoever “they are”) were banning nativity scenes? “Really?” I replied. “I seem to see nativity scenes all over the place. In fact there’s a store in a tourist area not too far away that sells nothing but nativity scenes. I don’t see how they are banned.” No, they meant that people had sued to keep cities from putting up one on public land using taxpayer money. A few days later I drove past this person’s church. They had up no Christmas decorations of any kind much less a nativity scene. So they can’t be bothered to put one up themselves, which no one would object to, but want the city to use public funds to put up a nativity scene. This is the mentality of these people. I have lost my patience with them. Religious people should put up their own religious displays and let the city spend its time filling potholes and other things that actually are the city’s responsibility.

  • http://www.facebook.com/freeman.molenaar Charles Raymond Miller

    Inserting “under God” ruined the pledge. “One nation, indivisible” underscores the meaning and purpose of the United States and honors the sacrifices that were made to preserve it. Adding that phrase shows that too many people with too much power don’t understand or wish to defy the first and fourteenth amendments.

    • Thackerie

      The sentiment “one nation, indivisible” is made meaningless with the addition of “under god.” I can’t think of anything that does a better job of dividing people than god belief. Of course, you have to think about it before you see it and it appears to me that most of the people who believe they’re under a god don’t indulge in a lot of thinking.

  • Persephone

    The correct phrase is “sound bite,” not “soundbyte.” The concept of a brief quotation intended to distill an idea or stance into a readily-understood phrase or slogan intended for broadcast has nothing to do with eight data bits.

  • ORAXX

    Watching these religious figures squirm as they try to clarify themselves is an indication of just how far our culture has shifted. Shifted for the better in my view. For far too long, religious figures simply said what ever they wanted and expected deference to their opinions, simply because they were religious figures. Having to explain themselves is something they had better get used to.

  • icecreamassassin

    It almost seems like his definition of ‘religion’ or ‘religious’ leaves no room for any sentient entity to *not* have a religion or be religious. Which kind of makes the label useless, no?

    I kind of doubt that to be the case, but from a cursory reading, that was the sensation I got.

  • Stonyground

    Stonyground says:
    It appears to me that, unlike some other religious nuts, this guy actually gets it. He does understand the difference between private and public land, he does understand the principle of state neutrality, and that if a christian display is allowed on public land, then everyone else’s displays must be allowed too. His brief slip, however, reveals that he really wishes that it were not so, that he really wishes that Christianity could be privilaged.
    My advice to Mr. Clark is to take a look at the UK and Europe, where Christianity actually does have the privilaged position that he craves. Apart from a handful of old ladies, everyone regards Christianity with either indifference or contempt. Is that what you want Mr. Clark?

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

    sorry, Hemant, i disagree. i do not want to see religious displays on government property at any time, or any season. i even object to santa claus, who is descended from some mythical norse troll eater of children, or something like that.

    keep our public spaces clean, and free of mythology and political expression in one direction or faith. it’s not that fucking hard. it also saves money. who is paying the light bills for those giant courthouse xmas displays? me, the tax payer. i’m sick of that.

    you love the nativity scene? you’ve got a church, it has a yard. put it there. and i’ll buy a billboard in the free market of capitalism with my own money that capitalist jeebus wants me to freely be able to. it’s in the buybull. i swear.

  • http://skepticink.com/dangeroustalk Dangerous Talk

    You say that the news media tries to find opposing views in order to find “balance,” but that isn’t really true. They rarely try to find opposing views to find balance when it is religion that is making the news; only when atheists are making news:
    Atheism and the media – http://exm.nr/TVtyOw

  • http://chaoskeptic.blogspot.com Rev. Ouabache

    Notice that the phrase “separation of church and state” appears nowhere in the [First] amendment…

    Also notice that the word “Trinity” appears nowhere in the Bible but that doesn’t seem to be a problem for most Christians.

    • Thackerie

      Ah, you must have missed the part where the Trinity got raptured (another religious concept invented long after the Bible was composed).

  • Edmond

    I would count myself as an atheist who has a problem with Nativity scenes on public property… AND with atheist or humanist displays in such spaces AS WELL. Our parks, our courthouses, our capitol grounds, are NOT ADVERTISING SPACES. Imagine how LITTERED they would become, if EVERYONE were invited and welcomed to lay out parallel displays, announcing the wide variety of beliefs that are held in our diverse, pluralistic society!

    Keep these public areas CLEAR, and dedicated to the purposes for which they were originally constructed. That’s why we HAVE billboards and private property. THAT’S where these displays belong. Not plastered over EVERY available space in the name of “equal access”.

  • http://www.facebook.com/karen.uncoolmom Cary Whitman

    If he understands the difference between private and public property and that people and businesses pay billboard companies to put up their signs, then why doesn’t he seem to understand that religious organizations are free to put up as many of their own billboards as they want? Has anyone ever tried to stop a church from putting up a billboard? Do religious billboards get vandalized regularly and cause a flood of complaints when they go up? I see religious billboards all the time and no one ever complains about them. He’s acting like christians are being persecuted in a case where they already have equal, if not better, treatment than the atheists. He should have just left it at “they have just as much right to put up a billboard as anyone else”, but that doesn’t make for very interesting television. I have to feel a little sympathy for this guy because the news reporters were probably pushing him to say something inflamitory, they need to make it a battle so they can make a non-issue into an exciting newscast.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X