No Longer “Awash In Religion” by Catherine Fahringer (April 1994)

Rick Geraci and I have been telephone acquaintances for a bit over a year. He was alerted to my TV access program, Freethought Forum, by a Christian friend who suggested it might be “right up your alley.” Rick got my number off the screen and called.

Rick told me that he worked as an escort at the State Hospital. After learning that he wasn’t the only freethinker in the world, and after becoming a member of the Foundation and our chapter, he had someone to voice his concerns to about the heavily Christian ambience at the hospital.

During the 1992 Christmas season, hospital escorts discussed putting up a decorative Christmas message to the patients and signing all their names. Rick said that if it was going to be heavily Christian, they couldn’t count on his signature.

Well, the decorative “billboard” (nearly six feet long and about 3 1/2 feet wide) was hung. It featured a little church with an oversized cross on it, a star, of course, and astonishingly, some trees in full leaf. Since Rick, who is the only artistic one of the group, was not asked to participate, the “artwork” was extremely bad.

Rick decided to contribute his own greeting: a neatly printed, trimmed poem about the solstice. Within a couple of hours, it disappeared. At the end of the day his supervisor called a meeting to discuss the hanging of things on walls. Rick asked what had become of his poem. The supervisor said that he had taken it down, torn it up and thrown it away. He then proceeded to lay down the rules of what could be displayed. Every thing was to be neat and framed. Keep in mind that the Christmas scene was on butcher paper with raggedly torn edges.

Rick let the matter drop, but began revving up well ahead of time in 1993. As it was the custom at the hospital to hold regular meetings to discuss gripes that the employees might have, Rick brought up the expression of religious beliefs. He felt that a fair policy should be established and that he ought to be included. If others could wear Jesus T-shirts, then he wanted to wear his “I’m your friendly neighborhood atheist” one. This sparked a heated discussion of some length which was not commented on in the minutes as read at the next meeting.

Last October Rick wore his friendly atheist T-shirt and was promptly told by his immediate supervisor in no uncertain terms that he was not to wear any shirts, badges or anything else that made any statement about atheism. Rick wrote to the superintendent regarding this public chastisement, saying that he felt that this was “a personal attack on my freedom of religious expression and freedom of speech as guaranteed in the Constitution.” He further stated that he wanted “to be afforded the exact same rights and privileges governing the display of religious ideation now enjoyed by all other employees of the San Antonio State Hospital.”

The letter of reply, written in November by the superintendent, stated that while he supported Rick’s right to his beliefs, “I can safely say that professional staff engaged in treatment perceive the slogans as having a high risk of affecting some of the patients adversely,” admonishing him to “refrain from wearing such slogans at S.A.S.H.”

Rick again wrote for clarification. Was everyone allowed to wear whatever symbols or slogans they liked while he could not? This letter was never answered, so on December 24 Rick wrote again.

Rick described all of the religious decorations and symbols with which he was confronted daily. He got tired after the eleventh. The six creches were combined as only one of those eleven. Poor Rick was awash in religion!

This letter prompted an invitation to Rick from the superintendent to meet with him in person for a discussion. Surprisingly, he told Rick that because he himself was Catholic, he was never really aware of all the symbols that Rick had mentioned. He further stated that he would have the hospital attorney discuss the matter with the head office in Austin.

Nothing happened overnight, of course, but in early February Rick received a letter from his superintendent saying that, “In consultation with our Legal Office and Director of Clinical Services, I have determined that buttons and/or clothing worn by individuals which reference ‘religious beliefs’ will be allowed. 1) Patients need to adjust to a diversity of beliefs, and 2) this organization must not be perceived to be suppressing or endorsing specific individual beliefs.” But it gets even better! The superintendent went on to say that he was appointing a temporary task force to help formulate a final directive regarding these issues and that he would like Rick to be a member of it to assist in establishing “guidelines regarding what may be perceived as ‘State-sponsorship’ of particular religious practices.”

I perceive this as a solid win for Rick due to his perseverance, patience, diplomacy, unfailing good humor and courtesy in dealing with the industrial-strength Christians he works for and with. Cheers, Rick! It was a well carried-out campaign, and your example may give others the courage to wage similar ones.

Postscript: After this article was completed, the numerous religious symbols, including crosses and an open bible, were removed from the State Hospital lobby.

Freedom From Religion Foundation