Why I Became A Plantiff
The writer is a Foundation member and one of the two brave local plaintiffs in the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s newest nativity scene lawsuit, filed against Manitowoc County, Wis., in December. This article was written for publication in the local weekly. There was great concern expressed by several who complained about the presence of the nativity over being identified in this ultra-reactionary county. The Foundation did not identify its two local plaintiffs in the initial Legal Complaint, to spare them December vitriol. The local climate makes Paul’s actions all the more commendable.
By Paul T. Rappel
I am one of the residents of Manitowoc County who is a plaintiff, along with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, in the lawsuit to remove the nativity scene from the County Courthouse lawn, which is public property. This letter is an explanation of my reasons for doing so.
Symbols are powerful objects. A single object can invoke many different interpretations and strong emotions in those who view them. The American flag is one such symbol. To me it represents justice and freedom for all its citizens, and fills most citizens with a sense of patriotism, pride, and thankfulness that we live in such a great country. Yet for others it instills intense hatred, anger and fear. Not only is this true in Muslim countries around the world, where it represents the great Satan and stirs up their religious fervor, but even here in America where it incites extreme hatred in the hearts of Christians like Rev. Phelps. It is the same flag, but induces a different emotional response in individuals, that is not dependent on rational thought or behavior.
The nativity scene is another symbol that induces different responses. Christians see it as a representation of the birth of their Savior, which reaffirms their belief in an eternal life as explained in the bible. It brings to mind all that is good about their faith and fills them with a sense of goodwill towards their fellow humans. This one symbol represents the history and religion of Christians, as well as their belief in the bible being the word of their God.
To nonChristians like me, it elicits a different response. I see superstition, the Inquisition, the Crusades and Holy Wars, anti-science, burning witches at the stake, the Dark Ages, destruction of ancient civilizations, misogyny, creationism, anti-evolution, the Rev. Jim Jones, pedophile priests, the application of blind faith over reason, and hatred against anyone who doesn’t believe as they do. I see religion, especially Christianity in this country, as the standard for intolerance. Such is the power of symbols.
The placement of this symbol at the steps of the Manitowoc County Court-house tells me that this building stands for Christianity and the application of faith over reason. It tells me that religion holds sway in this Courthouse, and any justice that is dispensed will favor those who have faith in the Christian religion. Nonbelievers need not apply because justice will only be applied fairly to believers. If nonbelievers require justice, they will suffer the consequences of their non-belief by receiving a different version of American justice.
The government of Manitowoc County purposefully and intentionally allowed the erection of a religious symbol in front of the courthouse, when the law says they cannot. This means the leaders of Manitowoc County are either ignorant of the law, or feel they are above it. From the statements issued publicly by the leaders, they are aware of the law, so they obviously feel they are above it. They have proven by their actions they can choose which laws to obey and enforce, which ones to prosecute, and which individuals receive fair treatment. Their words and actions confirm my belief that religion rules the government of Manitowoc County, not reason. Because faith and reason are diametrically opposed (and faith is what guides them), reason is not the law of the land in Manitowoc County.
I filed the complaint to hold those responsible for violating the law, and to begin the process of removing religion of any form from the government of Manitowoc County. This is not an issue of Christmas; it is a matter of separating religion from government. Christmas can be celebrated in other ways besides religious iconography. Nonreligious symbols are the norm in most places during the holidays; why not here? The Supreme Court has already ruled on this issue.
In the County of Allegheny v. ACLU, the Supreme Court held that a “County government crèche displayed in the Courthouse represented an unconstitutional endorsement of religion, in violation of the long-standing Constitutional principle that the government may not engage in a practice that has the effect of promoting or endorsing religious beliefs.”
The law agrees with my belief. When the elected and appointed officials who are responsible for maintaining the law intentionally break it, what recourse does any citizen have but to bring it to the attention of the American justice system. This is done by filing a lawsuit, which is what I have done.
I am not a Christian, and was under the assumption that my beliefs or lack thereof, have no bearing on my citizenship, rights, privileges, and responsibilities of being an American citizen. I assumed I have the same rights as a believer in Allah, God, Quetzalcoatl, Zeus, Isis, Jesus, Mithra or Brahma. I don’t expect any special privileges, nor do I expect believers to receive any. The nativity scene tells me otherwise, and the words and deeds of those in charge of our local government confirm this belief. What they are saying in effect is “We believe in God and the bible, and if you want to be a member of this community, you must, also.”
The decision to take this action did not come easily or quickly. The main reason I hesitated all these years was fear of retribution from members of my community. Belief is a powerful emotion, which can drive normally peace-loving individuals to commit horrendous acts of violence. Watch the news on any given day and see for yourself. It is not a matter of if it will happen, but when. For Christians believe the bible is the word of God, and must be obeyed as written. Jesus is quoted as saying in Luke 19:27: “But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me.” I fully expect hate mail, death threats, vandalism, and denial of services from the Christians of Manitowoc County who only love each other and will stop at nothing to silence those who do not believe (think) as they do.
You may think that only religious extremists feel this way, and these extremists are not true Christians. I have to disagree. To be a true Christian requires four beliefs, and the removal of any one of them means you are not a Christian. A belief in God, a belief in Jesus Christ as the son of God, the existence of an immortal soul, and the bible is the infallible word of God. The extremists are the only ones who come close to obeying the literal verbiage of the bible. Most Christians pick and choose what they want to follow from the bible by interpreting what it says, or having it interpreted for them. Mainstream Christians don’t want to sell all their possessions and give it to the poor, won’t pluck out their eye if it offends them, do get divorced, like eating pork and shellfish occasionally, don’t mind working on the Sabbath, but do hate homosexuals and go to church on Sundays.
But this country was founded on Christian principles and we are a Christian community, you might retort. My reply is: As long as you allow religion to rule the hand of our government, you are effectively giving up the freedom to practice the religion you want. Imagine that one of your leaders converts to Islam while in office. Women won’t be able to leave the house uncovered; all will be required to face Mecca five times a day and pray; and no Christian symbols will be allowed anywhere.
By allowing our government to practice your religion, you are saying that religion and government should not be separated. But when a different faith supplants your own, and the government now rules by a religion that is not yours, will you argue then for separation of religion and government?
So why did I do it? Why now, knowing the Christians will attack and could even resort to applying violence against me? Because my fear of retaliation has been overcome by my fear of this country turning into a theocratic society. Muslim countries are by definition theocratic societies. The only difference is they believe in a different God and follow a different book than Christians. All you have to do is read or watch the news to discover what it is like to live in a society where religion and government act as one, where anything illegal is also a sin as determined by the ruling priesthood and all other religions are marginalized, if allowed at all.
That nativity scene reminds me of how close we are to living under the control of priests, ministers and a book of ancient mythology, rather than a freely-elected government that rules by reason and applies justice to all, not just members of their congregation. I love my country, and I like living where I do. I finally decided that some things are indeed worth standing up for.
Paul T. Rappel was born and raised Catholic in Manitowoc. He married young and divorced late. He has had a 29-year career in a local nuclear plant, “where we apply nuclear theory on a daily basis, and it works quite well thank you.” His 7-year-old granddaughter is his Harley passenger and his son “is my mental sparring partner.”