August 27, 2009

Better Rule in Washington

Last year, I wrote about the nativity scene in the state capitol building in Washington state. My opinion then, which remains the same now, is that Christian groups can put up and display as many nativity scenes, and as lavish as they like, on the lawns of their churches. But the state allowing such a display on the grounds of the state capitol looks a lot like an endorsement of that religious display, and therefore should be prohibited.

Some people said that atheists have no rights, others said that it's okay to display "Judeao-Christian" symbols because we are a "Judeao-Christian" nation. Neither of which is even remotely correct. But a more serious argument was made by others who said that the display is the Christian group's exercise of its free speech rights, and if the capitol building isn't a public forum where anyone can say anything, then there must be no such thing as a public forum anymore. That last argument is, I concede, an argument worthy of sober consideration. But as I see it, the superiority of the endorsement notion was borne out by what actually happened. An atheist group exercised its freedom of speech and put up a sign decrying religion as myth and superstition, in the same general area as the nativity scene. That sign was stolen and vandalized repeatedly. Note that no one vandalized or destroyed the nativity.

Is this a case of "free speech for me but not for thee"? No, I think what was going on was that the vandals thought that the atheist sign somehow represented a contradiction of the message of the nativity scene. And they were frustrated that the state would allow that contradiction to stand. They couldn't abide, so they took matters into their own hands. In other words, they saw the presence of the atheist sign as an endorsement of atheism by the state, and they registered their dissent of that point of view by way of vandalism. (No doubt the vandals considered themselves to have been acting in the service of a higher moral good while they stole and damaged another person's property and prevented them from exercising their Constitutional rights.)

If the sign hadn't represented something the vandals thought was an endorsement of atheism, it's likely they wouldn't have vandalized it. Other displays of atheist sentiments are not similarly vandalized elsewhere, although they do sometimes meet with other forms of unreasonable resistance by those who take offense at the mere existence of atheists.

Well, here's the follow up. Washington is not going to allow any holiday displays other than a "holiday tree" in the capitol building this year. The "holiday tree" is going to be paid for directly by the state and will be non-sectarian in its official display. I think most people associate decorated trees on display with Christmas instead of the generic holiday season, but that's not a place I would prioritize a hard push to enforce church-state separation.

Also note that displays will still be allowed on the exterior grounds of the building. This will presumably include nativities.

Myself, I still see an endorsement as long as the nativity scene is on public grounds. Nativity scenes promote Christianity. That's why Christians feel so strongly about them. The state should not be in the business of promoting Christianity. If it gets in that business, that's an Establishment. But there is the free speech argument as well, and I don't want to be on the wrong side of denying anyone their free speech rights. So maybe this is the right policy after all.

I'd like it better if the state came up with a policy that required a display to incorporate in some readily-visible fashion a statement identifying the actual sponsor of the display. A small display sign next to the sculptures in the nativity that says "This display is sponsored by the Landover Baptist Church" or something like that -- that would help demonstrate that the state is not endorsing the display but rather permitting use of a public forum. Personally, I don't think it's enough, but at least the remove from the building helps to create some symbolic distance between the government and the religious display.

I am also cognizant that as I insist that the state not promote Christianity, so too must it not repress it. The government's stance is supposed to be neutral. Washington State should simply stay out of a discussion about religion and let religious advocates have religious discussions on their own.

In making that concession, I must remind people that the failure to advocate Christianity is not the same thing as criticizing Christianity.

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