FFRF’s call for reason to prevail in the Illinois Capitol was legal, U.S. District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer ruled July 20.
Pallmeyer dismissed a suit filed in January 2010 by Chicago conservative activist and state comptroller candidate William J. Kelly. Kelly sued Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White for approving FFRF’s sign, which said: “At this season of the Winter Solstice, may reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell . . .” FFRF was not a party to the suit.
Kelly called the sign “hate speech” that “has no business being there.” After he tried to take the sign in December, he was escorted from the Capitol by police. FFRF’s solstice sign was one of several holiday displays, including a nativity scene, a Hanukkah menorah, a “Seinfeld” Festivus pole, a Soldiers’ Angel wreath and an ACLU exhibit.
Kelly’s suit said the solstice display violated the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause. He claimed (not trying to be facetious) that people who saw the sign would assume it was the state of Illinois’ official position on religion.
In the state’s successful motion to dismiss, Assistant Attorney General James Lang argued that Kelly “wishes for the state to restrict the free speech rights of others based solely on the content of their speech because he feels it is hostile to religion.
“Although he is perfectly comfortable with the use of the Capitol grounds for religious displays, Plaintiff takes issue with a display which celebrates the winter solstice and expresses an opinion as to the validity of religious beliefs. All of the displays were placed together in the Capitol building, which is either a traditional public forum or a designated public forum.”
In her order to dismiss, Pallmeyer said, “The identity of the anti-religion organization was clearly displayed, defeating any inference that the sign was somehow sponsored by [the] Defendant. The First Amendment prohibits the content-based discrimination for which Plaintiff’s complaint argues. Defendant’s . . . allegations do not support the conclusion that such conduct violated Plaintiff’s federal constitutional rights.”
“We don’t think religion, or irreligion, really belongs in state capitols,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “But if religious displays are going to be in state capitols, we will be there too.”
FFRF first applied and was allowed to put a display in the rotunda in 2008 after the state allowed a nearly life-size nativity scene there for the first time. Other groups followed FFRF’s lead. The Foundation’s sign was stolen soon after it was put up and had to be replaced.