The Freedom From Religion Foundation is protesting the illegal closure of the public utility in Sun Prairie, Wis., in observance of Good Friday, and the inappropriate use of religious iconography (a crown of thorns) on Sun Prairie Utilities’ website.
Within an hour of receiving a letter of complaint April 16 from FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert, SPU removed the “crown of thorns” imagery but retained its announcement that the office would close Friday for the Christian religious observance.
Markert informed Utility Manager Rick Wicklund that as a municipally owned corporation, SPU is in violation of a federal court ruling won by FFRF in 1996. The ruling by U.S. District Judge John Shabaz in FFRF v. Thompson overturned a law declaring Good Friday a state holiday because it violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The law mandated the closure of public offices in the afternoon and required citizens to worship.
The court concluded, “The language of Wisconsin's Good Friday holiday law and its undisputed effect of favoring Christianity over other religions leads overwhelmingly to the conclusion that promotion of Christianity is the primary purpose of the law. Defendants’ weak efforts to suggest that Good Friday has become secularized or that Wisconsin has other business reasons for adopting it as a holiday are insufficient as a matter of law to support a finding that the purpose and effect of the statute has changed significantly since its enactment.”
FFRF’s letter added, “As a matter of policy, SPU should remain open on Good Friday and provide regular services to Sun Prairie citizens. SPU likely does not close its offices for Yom Kippur, Ramadan or any other non-Christian religious holidays. Therefore, SPU should not close its doors for a day commemorated only by Christians.”
FFRF sought assurances the practice will cease immediately.
“We should not still have to be mopping up 18 years after a conclusive victory in federal court,” commented FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor, an original plaintiff along with several state employees, against Gov. Tommy Thompson in the 1996 case.
“Local officials need to be cognizant of what the law is and observe it instead of an exclusionary religious event,” Gaylor said.
Freedom From Religion Foundation member Douglas Marshall, who previously sued the city of Warren, Mich., when it censored his attempt to place a freethought winter solstice sign in its city atrium, has been censored again by Warren Mayor James R. Fouts.
Marshall sought a permit to place a table in the atrium of city hall on Thursday, May 1, the date of the federally-proclaimed National Day of Prayer. A “Prayer Station” has been setting up shop for years in this same city atrium with city approval.
Fouts turned down Marshall’s request in an April 15 letter, writing: “All of these events are allowed because of the right to freedom of religion constitutional amendment [sic]. We cannot and will not restrict this right for any religion to use the atrium, as long as the activity is open to all religions.
“To my way of thinking, your group is strictly an anti-religion group intending to deprive all organized religions of their constitutional freedoms or at least discourage the practice of religion. The City of Warren cannot allow this.”
Fouts’ refusal is a legal “smoking gun,” showing outright government censorship of freethought and government endorsement of religion, said Annie Laurie Gaylor, who co-directs the Madison, Wis.-baesd FFRF, the nation’s largest association of atheists and agnostics and a state/church watchdog.
“It is an axiom of U.S. law that if the government creates a public forum, it may not discriminate, or favor religious messages over nonreligious messages,” she noted.
When Fouts allowed a nativity display, but censored FFRF’s sign critical of religion — which he called “highly offensive,” FFRF and Marshall challenged Fouts, filing a federal suit in December 2011. The lawsuit, which included both a free speech and Establishment Clause claim, was lost at the Sixth Circuit in February 2013.
FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert noted that a challenge of the most recent censorship could proceed solely as a free speech case.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is leaving on display — as evidence of the divisiveness of religion in government — its mutilated sign saying “Nobody died for our sins,” which was vandalized by a fanatic before noon today in the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison.
A man wrested FFRF’s foamboard sign, which was securely taped to an easel, and violently mangled it in front of passersby. Capitol security was quickly summoned and gave chase, but the vandal got away.
FFRF has affixed a new statement on top of the mangled sign, which is still legible:
Why is this sign so mutilated?
Somebody, presumably somebody who disagreed with our message, tried to destroy our sign. Apparently, this person believes the Capitol is a public forum for Christianity only.
If you don’t think religious messages should be displayed on government property, join the club! We don’t think they should be, either. But as long as religious groups use the Capitol to proselytize, FFRF has a right to respond to their message.
Religion is divisive. It belongs in churches, not the State Capitol. Keep religion out of government.
FREEDOM FROM RELIGION FOUNDATION
FFRF had sought and received a permit to display its message, "Nobody died for our sins. Jesus Christ is a myth,” in response to “Concerned Women for America’s” Easter display, which includes a cross on a table with religious and antiabortion literature and misinformation about birth control. FFRF has made an open records request for a copy of surveillance tapes.
“This crime, seeking to suppress dissent, is a lesson in the danger of injecting religion into the seat of state government,” Gaylor added. “We strongly object to CWA placing a cross in the rotunda — a symbol of the dominant religion and increasingly a symbol of political intimidation today. But if religious symbols and imagery are permitted, then there must be room for dissent.” F
FRF thanks its staffers Jackie Douglas, Andrew Seidel, Patrick Elliott, Lauryn Seering and Dayna Long for help producing, displaying, and protecting its Capitol sign.