“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.