Saturday, December 06, 2008

A dose of Christmas cheer

I ought to be studying for my final on Monday, but I thought I'd write a little bit about the atheist sign that was stolen from the Capitol building in Olympia this week. The Seattle Times has been covering the story, important point of which have been missed by all the blog analyses I've read. First, the atheist group that put up the sign was not the first to cause a commotion about Christmas displays at the Capitol. The past couple of years have seen several similar disagreements in WA, involving Christmas trees, menorahs, nativity scenes and all the permits required to put these things on public property. The state government tried to limit decorations on public property to "winter themed" decorations like evergreen trees, wreaths and fake snow (this is western Washington, we don't get real snow that often!), but there was a lawsuit, and now the state allows any viewpoint at all to put up a display in a designated area.

The governor's statement, "The U.S. Supreme Court has been consistent and clear that, under the Constitution's First Amendment, once government admits one religious display or viewpoint onto public property, it may not discriminate against the content of other displays, including the viewpoints of nonbelievers" seems pretty reasonable to me. Really, the state had no other legal option.

This year, there were two original requests for permits: for a nativity, and for the atheist sign. The atheist group, the Freedom From Religion Foundation also recently put up a billboard in Olympia, and had reason to believe that their sign at the Christmas display would be tolerated. Even the guy who sued for the right to put up a Nativity scene, who also sponsored the Nativity this year, Ron Wesselius, said "I think they're being a little divisive there in their saying. But they have freedom of speech and equal access."

This bears out my experiences in this area: most people in Washington are tolerant of atheism. I've seen quoted that 25% of the state doesn't identify with a religion, and although I don't know if that's true or not, it doesn't sound that far fetched to me. So the FFRF wasn't actually being that radical, and I believe them when they say they didn't expect anyone to vandalize their sign (especially considering it was on the third floor of the Capitol building, where they have guards and cameras and locked doors at night).

However, the sign was stolen, and now the entire country has an opinion on the matter. Even more amusing,

The Rev. Ken Hutcherson of Redmond's Antioch Bible Church put up his own sign at the Capitol on Friday that says, in part: "There is one God. ... Atheism is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds."

There are requests for other displays as well. Someone applied to put up a "Festivus" pole in honor of the invented holiday featured in the 1990s sitcom "Seinfeld." Another person wants to create a religious-themed "balloon display."

And a demonstration against the atheists' sign is planned for 2 p.m. Sunday on the Capitol steps.
I guess once the sign was stolen and accusations began flying, a little bit of circus was inevitable. What surprises me is that there are people I've always considered liberal and progressive who think that we atheists should shut up, and specifically in this case that we should allow a public, government sponsored space, one set aside for expressions of all kind, to be dominated by symbols of religion. I find myself quite taken aback that someone at Shakesville would be less tolerant of atheism than Mr. Wesselius and his Nativity scene. I guess its no different, really, than an atheist saying feminism or disability rights are silly, pointless movements- and I have heard that, although not often at a blog I choose to read regularly. I just wish we could all be true to our progressive principles even when they apply in unexpected situations, and even when a little imagination and the effort to see things from someone else's point of view are required.


yanub said...

I haven't been particularly impressed with the progressiveness of many progressives. Historically, progressives have been concerned about the same issues as conservatives, even holding the same prejudices. The difference between the two is simply the actions they are willing to take.

Tayi said...

I'm afraid you may be right. It seems to me that people who hold very progressive views on issues that affect them personally often hold very reactionary views on issues they haven't been exposed to. Ironically enough, there's been a discussion at Shakesville itself over that very tendency as manifested by rich white gay men. I guess, in the long run, each individual branch of the progressive movement might achieve its goals and then we might not have this problem, but in the short term it makes me sigh.