Banned Banner Provokes Lawsuit (Jan/Feb 1996)

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is suing Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson in federal court in a lawsuit filed on Jan. 17 over illegal removal of its “State/Church: Keep Them Separate” banner last month.

The Foundation had received a permit to place the red, white and blue banner on the upper level of the Capitol rotunda in Madison, Wisconsin, from Nov. 30ÐDec. 30.

Although 12 days remained of the permit on Dec. 18, Thompson, in an apparent fit of pique, joined by James Klauser, secretary of the Department of Administration, ordered his minions to remove the banner, giving the Foundation less an hour’s notice. Capitol employees then confiscated the banner, which was later retrieved.

Klauser and Michael Metcalf, chief of the Wisconsin Capitol Police, were also named in the lawsuit, which declares that none of the officials had the statutory authority to disregard the permit. For the first time in its history, the Foundation is also seeking damages.

Principal plaintiff in the lawsuit is Freethought Today editor Annie Laurie Gaylor, who handpainted the banner. Also joining as plaintiffs are Foundation president Anne Gaylor, Dan Barker and Shelly Johnson.

“Its removal was a lawless act,” Gaylor said. “Our banner was placed through proper legal procedures. This confiscation was blatant content-based censorship and a capricious abuse of power. There was no due process, no written directive, no appeal available. Just Tommy Thompson ignoring law and order, doing what he pleased!”

Gaylor said the banner was placed by the Foundation as an open forum response to the Christian-oriented tree-lighting ceremony hosted by Gov. Thompson. Every year the Foundation receives complaints about the Christian focus. The 1995 ceremony involved sergeants-at-arms distributing songsheets, with 9 out of 17 songs being Christian hymns about Jesus as lord and savior.

Also objectionable is the annual placement of a huge menorah in the Capitol rotunda.

“It seemed most appropriate to remind visitors to the Capitol, especially schoolchildren, of the time-honored and critically important principle of separation of government and religion,” Gaylor said. The same banner had bee placed in the rotunda for two weeks at the end of 1993.

The Thompson Administration has publicly trashed the Foundation’s banner as well as its message, calling it “ugly” and saying it made the rotunda look like a “hockey rink.”

Klauser called the message “antireligious” and “vulgar.” Thompson even told media the message was “inappropriate” to hang in the Capitol during December.

Governor Thompson’s spokesperson, Kevin Keane, told Milwaukee radio station WTMJ that the banner “attacked everything that millions of people in the state hold valuable.”

“The Capitol doesn’t belong just to people of certain religions in December,” Gaylor said. “It belongs to us all. Why should only religious expression be allowed in the Capitol?”

The Capitol is used as a public forum, with the upper rotunda in constant use for displays.

“Our banner should be hanging year-round in the Capitol! Better yet, the State of Wisconsin should cast this constitutional message in bronze so that it is on display permanently.”

Gaylor added: “Anyone who supports due process and the First Amendment should take alarm. The Capitol is the secular seat of government, not Thompson’s castle or church.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation