Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Evergreen Grumbling

By Shawn Healy
The air has turned cold, snow flakes permeate the sky, and holiday cheer envelops the streets and sidewalks. Accompanying these seasonal rituals are the latest installments in our nation's culture wars that seem to come to a head during the month of December. This year, we travel to Olympia, Washington, the site of the state capitol and a rotunda where a holiday tree is positioned alongside a menorah, par for the course in this increasingly inclusive season. What is new is a sign from the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) declaring the following:

“Our message at this season of the winter solstice is may reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.”

The organization has placed the same sign in Wisconsin's state capitol in Madison (its home town), and, before long, also plans to install one in Springfield, Illinois. FFRF stands behind the argument that state capitols are public forums, and by allowing various religious entities to place their seasonal displays there, they open the door for similar exhibits from non-believers.

Surprisingly, not a single lawsuit has been filed, yet Fox News host Bill O'Reilly has made waves by devoting a significant segment of his show last week to the issue, equating the FFRF sign with hate speech, and prompting his viewers to flood Washington State Governor Christine Gregoire with phone calls and emails. Despite this disdain, Gregoire stands on firm legal ground.

The Supreme Court has weighed in on similar cases in years past, allowing a creche to remain in a Pawtucket, Rhode Island park alongside Santa Claus and reindeer pulling his sleigh. Writing for the majority in Lynch v. Donnelly, Chief Justice Warren Burger argued that Thanksgiving and Christmas are national holidays, and seasonal celebrations of our nation's religious roots are sanctioned, for they do not constitute the government's endorsement or establishment of religion. He identified a secular purpose to these displays, thus situating them within the context of the so-called Lemon Test.

In a follow-up case, County of Allegheny County v. American Civil Liberties Union, the Supreme Court ruled against a manger scene displayed in an Allegheny (PA) County courthouse, but allowed a seasonal display featuring a Christmas tree and menorah to remain outside a city-county building located only a block away. Both the county and the City of Pittsburgh erected each display, and in the case of the former, were viewed as endorsing a particular form of religion, namely Christianity. According to Justice Harry Blackmun, who wrote for the majority, this was punctuated by the fact that the creche stood alone inside a government building.

One more piece of historical evidence may be useful in this case, namely the fight over the display of monuments on public property. The 2005 case Van Orden v. Perry concerned the constitutionality of the placement of a monument honoring the Ten Commandments on the lawn of the Texas statehouse. The majority referenced the Lynch decision, and placed the monument in a historic, contextual framework, given that it was privately donated, stood there for more than 40 years, and the fact that our legal system is at least partially based on these religious edicts.

Given this body of case law, despite the consternation of Bill O'Reilly and his fellow culture warriors, it seems as if the compromises in Washington, Wisconsin, and likely Illinois, are both sound and satisfactory to the major parties represented at the seasonal table.

However, an interesting wrinkle centers on a case the Court is currently considering. It involves the Summum faith and their desire to place a statue of the "Seven Aphorisms" of their faith in a public park in Pleasant Grove City, Utah, alongside that of a Ten Commandments memorial donated to the city for display in 1971. The city denied their request, and the Summums filed suit. At issue here is not the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, but instead a charge that Pleasant Grove City engaged in viewpoint discrimination in what the Summum's consider government speech. Their point likely holds water if this is true, but if it is instead considered private speech, they will likely have to look elsewhere to install the Seven Aphorisms statute.

It is unlikely that we'll have resolution of this case prior to the end of this year's installment of the seasonal culture wars, but we'll watch for any breakthrough that may impact our yuletide cheer. The moral of the story is that the First Amendment stands paramount, even with holiday shopping, office parties, and travel tugging at our winter sleeves. From where I stand, Governor Gregoire respected the central tenets of the five freedoms and brokered a compromise, seasonal shouting aside, that should last until the dawn of a new year.


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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

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