It appears that one of the first shots in the so-called “War On Christmas” has been fired. Last year the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers tried to get a Winter Solstice display put up at the State Capitol. After they submitted the request, and after many follow-up calls they were finally denied with the following response:
[The] Arkansas Secretary of State is charged with the responsibility of preserving and maintaining proper order and decorum on the State Capitol Grounds. At this time, we are unable to fully determine the appearance or qualities of your proposed display. You may submit additional photographs or drawings of your proposed display if you would like us to reconsider your request.
The ASF tried for awhile after that to get (and give) more info, but eventually decided to just try again in a year.
So here it is 2009 and they’re a bit more prepared this time. They submitted another application for a Winter Solstice Display, and since they were denied for being too vague last year, this year they’ve got detailed descriptions and images of exactly what they expect the display to look like. Of course, you’ve probably already guessed that they were once again denied. What reason was given this time? No reason except for the same vague statement about maintaining proper order and decorum:
As we stated last year, the Arkansas Secretary of State as the custodian of the Capitol Grounds is charged with the responsibility of preserving and maintaining proper order and decorum on the State Capitol Grounds…
Obviously part of the reason that the reply was so vague was to avoid any language that could be construed as pro-christmas and therefore pro-religion (i.e. pro-christian). Not being a lawyer myself, I’m not sure exactly what the legal situation actually is. The ACLU says they are looking into it (“the situation is under review”), which I can only assume means they’re trying to determine what, if any, legal recourse the ASF has. I’m guessing that the next step is getting some definitive reason about why the application was denied instead of some vague notion of proper decorum.
In any event, the path is pretty clear. The state is apparently going to put up as many roadblocks as possible, and the ASF is going to steadily work their way around them. If they don’t succeed this year, then they’ll use what they learned to try again next year. In the end one of two things are likely to happen: 1. The state finally relents and allows the Winter Solstice Display to be erected (not likely), or 2. the state finally somehow lets slip that they’re denying the application simply because it’s not a christmas display, and then the legal battle is on.
So why is this even an issue? The religous folks would like you to believe that it’s a direct attack on Christianity by evil atheists for no better reason than because they’re atheists and that’s what they do. The reality is that it’s a very clear First Amendment issue. The relevent wording is here:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…
In this case they are doing both by granting rights to Christians which they are denying to everyone else. In other words, by saying “Christmas decorations are allowed, but Solstice decorations are not” the state is saying “Only christian’s may be represented on state owned land.”
It’s late now, and I’m getting tired. To see what my views are on this type of case, see my post on the Mojave Desert Cross (Deep In The Mojave Desert) and it’s followup (Deeper In The Mojave Desert). The situations are very similar, and have the same underlying constitutional problems.