FFRF open letter to Rep. Gibbons

Open Letter to State Representative Jaret Gibbons
309 Fifth St.
Ellwood City, PA 16117

Re: A Community of 46 Million

Dear Rep. Gibbons:

In your open letter to the Freedom From Religion Foundation you weighed in on the unconstitutional show of governmental religion in Ellwood City: “Ellwood City’s holiday decorations have been a symbol of peace and love that bring people closer together and strengthen our community during this festive time of the year.” 

This is simply not true. The ongoing Ellwood City episode and history in general show that religion in government is a divisive force, not a unifying one. FFRF did not choose to oppose Ellwood’s nativity on a whim, we received complaints from local citizens who work in downtown Elwood and were made to feel like outsiders in their community because of the city associating itself with a particular religion for the past 50 years. We got involved because members of the community felt marginalized by the display. If you want to know why nonbelievers choose not to be public about their nonbelief, you need only look at Friday morning’s mob of angry protestors, out in force to ensure that their god is honored.

You may not know it because many nonbelievers do not advertise their lack of belief, but there are plenty in your community. In fact, 15% of the U.S. population and 15% of the Pennsylvania population is nonreligious (American Religious Identification Survey 2008). That means that Pennsylvania alone has almost 2 million atheists, agnostics, and other nonbelievers; America has 46 million. We are made to feel like outsiders in our community because of governmental shows of Christianity. Your claim that your community consists only of the “faithful” is insensitive and inaccurate.

If history teaches us anything, it is that religion is divisive, not inclusive. In the Federalist No. 10, letters arguing for the adoption of the U.S. Constitution James Madison wrote, “A zeal for different opinions concerning religion… Have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.” The Supreme Court said “The Framers and the citizens of their time intended to guard … against the civic divisiveness that follows when the government weighs in on one side of religious debate; nothing does a better job of roiling society,” and “the divisiveness of religion in current public life is inescapable.” McCreary County, Ky. v. American Civil Liberties Union of Ky., 876, 881 (2005). In fact, the “purposes of the First Amendment's Religion Clauses [are] to assure the fullest possible scope of religious liberty and tolerance for all, to avoid the religious divisiveness that promotes social conflict, and to maintain the separation of church and state.” Van Orden v. Perry, 545 U.S. 677, 678 (2005). The final word goes to a court decision that predates Ellwood’s nativity by some 60 years:

“there is no such source and cause of strife, quarrel, fights, malignant opposition, persecution, and war, and all evil in the state, as religion. Let it once enter our civil affairs, our government would soon be destroyed. Let it once enter our common schools, they would be destroyed.” Weiss v. District Board, 44 N.W. 967 (1890).

So let’s hear no more claims that this display is for the community; it’s for Christians. And let’s hear no more about how it brings people together; it brings Christians together and excludes everyone else. This is not a message the government should be sending or one that you, in your capacity as State Representative should be approving.

You manage to mention the members of our armed forces in a letter concerning a nativity display. FFRF appreciates all Ellwood City residents and all Americans who serve our country but wonder what members of our armed forces have to do with a governmental nativity display? Besides, isn’t the greatest honor we can show to those brave men and women fighting to uphold our Constitution, to uphold the Constitution? Incidentally, FFRF members include over 4000 veterans or active duty military, and 23.4% of all U.S. military personnel identified as atheist, agnostic or no religious preference (2010 MAAF study based on Department of Defense data). 

If the holiday season is indeed a “time of peace and goodwill toward our fellow man,” (and let’s include women, this is supposed to be for the whole community after all) then why not act peacefully? Why endorse a display that is divisive? Why not correct the constitutional violation? FFRF is not suggesting that all nativity displays are unconstitutional, only nativity displays put up by the government, on government property. If the government wishes to show peace and goodwill it should leave religious displays to churches and find a better way to spend its time and money.

In conclusion, we would like to point out that politicians have been capitalizing on religion for centuries. Edward Gibbon, a contemporary of the Founding Fathers (and not to be confused with Rep. Gibbons), wrote in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, “the various forms of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people to be equally true, by the philosopher as equally false, and by the magistrate as equally useful.” Gibbon’s timeless observation holds true today. You, Rep. Gibbons, are certainly finding religion useful. But can we please stop pretending that it is about community, togetherness, tradition, or anything other than the government promoting Christianity?

Sincerely,

Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor 
FFRF Co-Presidents 

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

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