The City of Utica, NY Fire Department has been under scrutiny this past week after complaints have been made regarding a sign posted outside their Fire Station #4, for the second year in a row. The sign reads, “Happy Birthday Jesus, We Love You,” and is considered by many to be a violation of the separation of church and state we are endowed with in the US. Utica residents, religious and nonreligious alike, have asked for help from local and national organizations in addressing this situation. The Freedom From Religion Foundation sent letters to the fire chief, Russell Brooks, asking him to remove the signage, as it asserts that the government organization tasked with protecting all citizens is showing favoritism toward one religious group.
The chief has responded that he will not remove the sign and that the display is well within their Constitutional rights. Brooks also claims that the sign is a positive message in the firehouse and community. Unfortunately he must be incorrectly assuming all of his firefighters are Christian, along with all of the people he serves.
While the Constitutionality of the sign may be a gray area best sorted out by the courts, it’s plain to see that what the sign represents does more harm than good. As public servants, sending a message out to the community that the fire department prefers one religious group over another is divisive, alienating, and unnecessarily controversial. But it appears Chief Brooks might be enjoying the spotlight and using it as a forum to spread his religious views. Since complaints started coming in, Brooks has been quoted in print and appeared on television, and has sought legal advice from the Thomas More Law Center, a right-wing media-loving firm who has initiated lawsuit after lawsuit on behalf of the Religious Right, including suing President Obama over the Affordable Care Act. The chief has also begun selling t-shirts depicting the sign with “FIRE” and “Utica, NY” on the back. And to pile on the propaganda, the Utica Fire Department now has the sign as the profile image on their Facebook page. This seems to have evolved from a Christmas sign into alienation of the non-Christian community in Utica.
So far, the FFRF has been ignored by the local fire chief, but another organization has reached out with local community ties. Utica residents, including Christians and one person very close to the situation, have reached out to the Central NY Humanist Association. The CNYHA has sent an open letter to Chief Brooks, which is posted on their website. In it, CNYHA President Corrina Allen says this:
When one is acting in a public capacity to serve and represent all members of the community, signs like those show a clear preference for Christians while alienating those of other faiths, nonbelievers, and those who value a government that remains neutral on matters of religion.
As mentioned earlier, someone very close to the situation has asked that something be done about the sign. The CNYHA attempted to get this person in contact with me for an interview, but he was apprehensive. While he would like the sign removed, he’s concerned about backlash from his community and employer. That, alone, should illustrate how divisive and damaging this sign is.
So exactly what good has the sign done? While it’s pumped up the Christian majority in Utica, it’s simultaneously divided the community and caused people to stay quiet in fear of repercussion. Does that seem like a positive Christian message?