Clarence Reinders: Freethinker of Year (October 2000)

Foundation Life Member Clarence R. Reinders was named “Freethinker of the Year.” He was unable to attend the Foundation’s 23rd Annual Convention in person, but sent this acceptance speech.

I wish to thank the Freedom From Religion Foundation for naming me “Freethinker of the Year.” I am delighted to accept this award. It is like receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor for fighting and being wounded in a fierce war in defense of the First Amendment to the Constitution. After all, that’s what I really am, a defender of the first clause of the Bill of Rights, i.e., the separation of church and state.

I am honored to have fought and prevailed in keeping the church and state separate because it is between these two powerful governing forces, one “sacred” and the other secular and profane, that freedom of the individual is given a chance to survive and thrive, where free men and women can think and believe and act freely. What a privilege to have been given the opportunity to be a foot soldier in service to such a noble cause.

On June 19, 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court, by a vote of 6 to 3, handed freethinkers everywhere a huge victory. Like the successful appeal, by a 3 to zero vote, of the Jesus idol in the Marshfield Park, it was a strong decision in upholding the first clause in the First Amendment of the Constitution which bars government from establishing religion.

The Santa Fe Independent School District in suburban Houston, Texas, had a policy which allowed an elected student representative to deliver a public prayer before home high school football games. The Supreme Court banned this student-led prayer. You all probably remember reading about this. But what you may be unaware of is that this suit was not brought to the court by a bunch of us “immoral” atheists attacking religion in public life. Irony of ironies, it was brought by a Catholic family and a Mormon family, two Christian minorities bobbing in a sea of the majority Southern Christian Baptists in the very hostile buckle of the Bible Belt.

But what most people are unaware of is that these two families–one Catholic and one Mormon–had their identities sealed by the courts. That fact speaks volumes about their fear of reprisals from their loving Southern Baptist Christian friends and neighbors and the courts’ concern to protect their lives, limbs and property from the depredations of their fellow Christians. So much for Christian love.

Yet in order to challenge the statue of Jesus in a Marshfield public park a named citizen of Marshfield had to step forward, identify himself and sign his name on the dotted line of the legal complaint.

Freedom From Religion needed someone with legal standing, a foot soldier on the frontline to be shot at and I gladly agreed to be that sitting duck. In fact I volunteered. My Christian wife who had supported me in my beliefs, i.e., disbelief of all religious belief systems, had died. My career as a motel owner/operator in Marshfield was near its end. I was in my late sixties. If I didn’t finally take a stand for liberty of conscience and do it now, when?

Anne Nicol Gaylor had asked me many years ago when I first became a member of Freedom From Religion to sue the city regarding the Jesus shrine in the Marshfield park. But I could not do it at that time and she understood. I was fearful about how this basically Christian community and my Christian wife would react. But conditions change and become ripe for ideas whose time has come. And we as atheists, agnostics, skeptics and humanists–our time has finally come.

I knew it wasn’t going to be any cake walk and that I would be the target of much Christian hate. So I bought a telephone answering machine and a tape recorder to record the calls and settled in for the inevitable hostile reaction to the lawsuit. I knew it wasn’t going to be pretty but was totally unprepared for the violent and vitriolic ad hominem attacks on me as the mere messenger. After all, I only said, “The emperor has no clothes.” And the good loving Christian community was really steamed at me for having said it. They never addressed the issue of the unconstitutionality of a religious statue in a public park.

Instead I was called all kinds of names and invited to leave this god-fearing country if I didn’t like it here. One fellow knew of an island in the ocean where I could go. A doctor’s wife from the Marshfield Clinic said I would be lucky if I didn’t get my house egged. And so on. All recorded on tape. I even had a news reporter and a policeman together listen to some pretty nasty threats. Naturally after it was reported in the Marshfield News-Herald that their phone messages were being recorded the volume of phone calls trailed off.

I did however receive three anonymous phone calls from supporters who were fearful of giving their names and phone numbers. Two upfront outspoken supporters called, one of whom was Bernie Ehrman, a Freedom From Religion member who has since died. The other was a very sharp local lady. I also had three or four supporters drop by in person at the motel to give me encouragement, one of whom was my doctor from the Marshfield Clinic. So we as atheistic and agnostic individuals are not so alone as we may seem. Definitely a despised minority but definitely not alone.

Whenever there would be some report in the newspaper as the lawsuit progressed there would be a flurry of letters to the editor. Sometimes four or five letters on this issue dominated the comment section. I clipped and saved them all. The vast majority of them, like 20 to 1, were in favor of keeping the idol in the park. They thought that the majority in Marshfield should rule and that I as part of the minority should just accept it and when I drove by the idol I should just look the other way. They just didn’t get it that the Bill of Rights is not about majority rule but about the protection of the minority within the majority.

They thought that Anne Gaylor and that atheistic organization in Madison should keep their noses out of the way they ran the parks in Marshfield. They just didn’t understand that to protest an egregious violation of the First Amendment is everyone’s secular civic duty and that the benefits of the defense of the First Amendment accrue just as well to them. The day is fast coming when, because of projected future demographic multicultural changes, the Christian majority will become the Christian minority and then they will be most thankful for the religious protections secured by the First Amendment.

As soon as the lawsuit had been filed against the city of Marshfield, the city immediately knew that it was in an indefensible position and was in violation of the First Amendment. First it put up a disclaimer sign saying that it did not endorse any particular religion. Then it quickly sold 15 hundredths of an acre of the public park to the Praschak Memorial Fund and smugly thought it was off the unconstitutional hook. Then Freedom From Religion sued the city and the Praschak Memorial Fund as still being in violation of the separation of church and state because the shrine would still appear to be in a public park. Judge Shabaz found otherwise and the case was appealed to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago where, to my wonderment and surprise, it found 3 to zero in our favor.

I never in my wildest dreams ever thought we would get more than one vote on our side. Three to zero! What a victory! The Jesus idol was found to be in violation of the First Amendment. We were vindicated. That’s what we had claimed all along and we were right. The emperor did indeed have no clothes.

Now a final delicious irony. The Praschak Memorial Group in collusion with the City of Marshfield fought to keep the statue in its present high visibility and prime location on Highway 13 as a welcoming figure to travelers entering and exiting Marshfield on the south side. All north and south traffic is funneled on that one road only. You had to drive by the idol unless as a native of Marshfield you knew of one back street to avoid it. I was several times counseled to use this detour since I was so offended by the sight of their precious Jesus. What a juicy propaganda location to display their cherished idol for all to see.

Even with a fence around it and two disclaimer signs, the city and the Praschak Memorial Group think that they have nevertheless won. After all, they did not have to move the idol which still commands its high visibility location. For, as they say in real estate, the three most important features of a property are location, location and location.

However, the State of Wisconsin is building a bypass around and through the city. Guess what? That bypass will become Highway 13. And the street ahead of the idol will no longer be the official Highway 13 but just plain South Central Avenue. The upshot will be that the vast majority of the traffic that enters and leaves the city will no longer be forced to travel past the idol. What delicious just deserts!

We did not succeed in moving the religious statue out of the public park but benevolent and capricious fate intervened and moved the highway away from the shrine, thus effectively negating the propaganda value of its prized location.

And they say there is no god!

Freedom From Religion Foundation