Remember that smart aleck in grade school who always had a “gotcha” comeback for the teacher? How about the kid who poked the girl next to him, over and over, until she finally got mad at him? And the kid who bullied the smaller and younger kids, maybe even making fun of their belief in a certain beloved Christmas figure?
The American Atheists are all three, rolled into one.
Right after Thanksgiving, American Atheists launched a campaign of billboards in the South. It was predictable. A little girl writes to Santa with the caption overhead: “Dear Santa, All I want for Christmas is to skip church. I’m too old for fairy tales!” The billboards send a clear message about religion that no doubt gets blood boiling. They also contain an implicit message about Santa Claus. (Hint: it has something to do with the notion of fairy tales.)
As someone who completely believed in Santa as a kid, I have to say—that’s just plain mean.
We all knew the smart-alecky, poking, bullying kid. Maybe some of us were him. But we grew out of it, realizing the truth: that the smart-aleck’s responses are rarely smart, the poking is an ill-judged method of getting attention, and the bully is often weaker and more insecure than the smaller kids he pushes around. This is what I think about every time I see something like the American Atheists billboards or read yet another story about a town facing a challenge from a secularist group during the holidays.
Atheists’ Tiresome War Against Crèches
We’ve seen numerous cases of groups insisting on “holiday” displays to offset or eliminate traditional nativity or menorah displays on government grounds. These include displays of the satirical Flying Spaghetti Monster, a crucified skeleton wearing a Santa suit, Satan falling into a bed of flames, and a board stating, among other charming sentiments, that “[r]eligion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.”
Groups that insist on insulting others’ deeply cherished beliefs are the truly immature ones here. Little do they realize how juvenile they appear to the “fairy tale” believers they so ardently wish to cut down.
Of course, the American Atheists and the Freedom From Religion Foundation have every right to express their beliefs. They have the same right to freedom of speech as the rest of us—and they’re welcome to exercise it on their own space (or on rented billboards). But so often they want more. They want the government to join them in insulting religion. If the government dares to show respect for religion, they cry foul.
Religious Displays on Public Property Are Completely Legal
Unfortunately, in many cases, the government caves to their demands. Why? Like a teacher who indulges a bully, sometimes it’s out of misguided compassion, or fear, or simple confusion—in this case, confusion about what the Constitution requires.
Allow me to set the record straight.
Is it constitutionally acceptable for governments to allow religious displays on their property? Yes! Public monuments often contain religious quotations or symbols. This is because they reflect history as it was—words as they were, sentiments as they were felt. There’s nothing wrong with government recognizing values of its citizens as good and relevant.
Is it a constitutional requirement to give government space to any and all speech and expression, any time it recognizes the religious beliefs or symbols of its citizens? No! We don’t require governments to put pacifist monuments next to all war memorials, after all. When speech emanates from the government, the government has full authority to choose the message it wishes to send—as well as any message it wishes to reject.
Allowing a nativity or menorah display during the winter holidays shows that a government respects the core beliefs of its citizens. Allowing a crucified skeleton Santa—which can in no way be construed as a positive expression of a serious belief— throws that respect in the dirt.
The teacher who gives into the bully quickly loses the respect of the class as a whole. And the government that allows childish, petulant, mean attacks on religious people to occupy government space rapidly loses the respect of its citizens.