By Madeline Ziegler
Cornelius Vanderbroek Legal Fellow
Freedom From Religion Foundation
A blank wall, an unadorned car bumper, a monochromatic cup—some may find it hard to believe, but none of these things take any position on the existence of a god, or whether one religion is better than others.
I don’t want to blow the red Starbucks cups any further out of proportion—FFRF generally doesn’t concern itself with the decisions of private businesses, and anyway, there’s been almost nothing but backlash over one YouTuber’s notion that the cups are somehow anti-Christian for their lack of seasonal decorations. When even the Christian “legal ministry” Alliance Defending Freedom denounces a perceived slight against Christians, it’s clearly a small fraction of people (including an undoubtedly very sincere Donald Trump) who are actually outraged.
Advocating for removing religious decorations in other contexts, however, is much more likely to draw the ire of ADF and its ilk, who perhaps should take a lesson from the Starbucks incident—taking down an unconstitutional religious display from government property is no more hostile to religion than those red cups.
When FFRF advocates removing “In God We Trust” displays, for example, there’s no lack of people claiming we hate religion/Christians and want to impose our atheism on everybody else. Before this summer’s trendy patrol vehicle bumper stickers, the main place we encountered “In God We Trust” displays was city council and county commission chambers. Wherever media attention comes to FFRF’s advocacy against these displays, the same script plays out:
Fixing an unconstitutional endorsement of religion is not, of course, atheistic or an attack on religion. The Supreme Court has recognized this. “To hold that a state cannot . . . utilize its public school system to aid any or all religious faiths or sects in the dissemination of their doctrines and ideals does not . . . manifest a governmental hostility to religion or religious teachings.” McCollum v. Bd. of Educ., 333 U.S. 203, 211 (1948).
If atheists plastered government property with “There Is No God,” and then cried persecution when the unconstitutional vandalism was remedied, the religious certainly wouldn’t be sympathetic to that argument. And they shouldn’t be, because it’s ridiculous! Just because something isn’t actively promoting your thing doesn’t mean it’s promoting the opposite thing. It’s promoting nothing. It’s neutral.
Empty of religious pronouncements, a public school classroom wall, a city council chamber, and a police car’s bumper don’t show hostility toward religion, even if a religious display had to come down to make them blank. These blank slates represent neutrality toward religion, and toward atheism as well—complete, golden silence on the matter, as the Constitution requires.
Madeline Ziegler is FFRF’s Cornelius Vanderbroek Legal Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @FFRFMaddy.
FFRF is a national nonprofit dedicated to keeping state and church separate and educating about nontheism. For more information and a copy of our paper, Freethought Today, please click here.