By Dan Barker
This op-ed piece ran in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel on Dec. 22, 2007.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation hears from a lot of people this time of year, especially when we complain about nativity scenes on government property. The messages from believers range from nasty unprintable hatred to mockingly friendly yet uncivil Merry Christmas" and "Jesus loves you" wishes (would they call a synagogue and say that?), as if we were challenging those believers rather than the government.
However, we receive many more positive remarks than negative from believers as well as non-believers who support keeping state and church separate.
What most of the detractors don't seem to understand is that we are not threatening their freedom to believe, practice or advertise their religion. We sue governments, not individuals or churches. We are not barging into services pulling worshippers from pews. We don't drag Nativity scenes from front yards or Christmas trees from private businesses. We don't want to break the law: We want to keep the government from breaking the law - law based on the First Amendment protection of personal liberty.
We all have freedom of conscience in this wonderful country, but here is what many believers do not seem to grasp: There is a difference between private speech and government speech. Private speech is protected; government speech is limited. Individuals and private organizations have maximum freedom. Governments possess curtailed freedom in order to allow individual freedom.
In this case, the conservative principle of limited government is an idea with which most liberals agree.
We are not governed by majority rule. We are ruled by a secular Constitution. Specific individual freedoms are hard-wired into our guiding document that no local majority can vote away. No mayor, for example, has the authority to abridge freedom of the press, and no Southern county, regardless of its tradition, may vote to segregate schools - as we saw not so long ago, when federal troops were called in to enforce the will of the Constitution over that of the majority.
The very first liberty in the First Amendment is religious freedom, but notice that before this freedom is spelled out, a restriction is first put in place: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."
The establishment clause does not apply only to Congress: The 14th Amendment makes it clear that the states and all local governments must act accordingly. The courts have nearly universally affirmed that our government, from the White House to the public school principal's office, must neither advance nor hinder religion. Government must be neutral.
Some say our challenges of religious symbols on government property are trivial and not worth the waste of time and money. But if that were true, no one would miss them if they were removed. Are these people saying the depiction of the holy birth of the Christian savior-god is merely an inconsequential secular trimming?
Of course this is not trivial! Not to them or to us. (Besides, what could be less trivial than working to uphold the First Amendment?)
Others say that we non-believers are simply angry at Christianity and use lawsuits to attack the freedom of belief. But if that were true, we would not be joined by so many believers who agree that we should protect the "wall of separation between church and state," as Thomas Jefferson described the First Amendment.
Yes, some of us do find the anti-humanistic nativity scene offensive since it assumes we are all sinners in need of salvation and slaves who need to humbly bow to a dictator - in a country that is supposedly proudly rebellious, having fought a Revolutionary War to expel the king, sovereign and lord.
When the city, county or state erects a religious symbol on public property as the sole or primary focus of the display, representing (or appearing to represent) the government, that is government speech. It is illegal and un-American.
In America, we are free to disagree about religious teachings; we are not free to ask our government to settle the argument. The government must back off and allow all of us maximum latitude to believe or disbelieve as our consciences direct us.
As the founder of the Freedom from Religion Foundation Anne Nicol Gaylor has always said: "You can't have religious freedom without the freedom to dissent."
Dan Barker is co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation in Madison, Wis.