Church Christmas tree bill misguided

An unnecessary bill to carve out a special right for churches has been approved by the Wisconsin Legislature.

It prohibits any local government “from enacting or enforcing an ordinance, related to fire safety that prohibits the seasonal placement of a Christmas tree in the rotunda of the state Capitol building or in a church.” It also creates a “presumption” for fire safety inspections that such a tree “is not a fire hazard.”

It’s a bad idea to create precedent that privileges churches or otherwise decrees that content-neutral laws do not apply to religious people or organizations.

That’s what got us the disastrous Hobby Lobby decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, giving corporate employers who invoke personal religious beliefs veto power over what forms of contraception their women employees may choose. That’s what brought us in Indiana the state-level version of the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” to allow discrimination against gays.

Now that the tree-exemption bill has passed, what’s next in Wisconsin? A law to exempt church-run day cares or schools from basic safety standards? That’s a real possibility. There are a handful of states, mostly Southern, which endanger children’s lives by excluding church ministries from licensing requirements. Already, Wisconsin is among the states that shamefully exempt religious parents from prosecution for failure to seek medical care for sick or dying children.

There’s no secular purpose for excluding churches from safety requirements the rest of us have to obey. If the law is a good law, it should apply to all; if it’s a bad law, then everyone should be free of it, not just churches.

FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover testified against the bill on March 2.

Freedom From Religion Foundation