Scrooge Atheist by Steven D. Petersen (Jan/Feb 1994)

Four years ago I drove through the town of Belgrade, Minnesota, and discovered a creche on the post office property. I stopped and took some photographs but was not sure what to do about it. In early December I returned to Belgrade. Sure enough, it was still there.

This time I stopped in the post office and asked the postmaster why the religious display was on government property. The postmaster was friendly but somewhat evasive. He stated that the local businesses had donated much of the landscape and did the holiday decorations, and since the property was leased he did not know if the creche display was right or wrong. I saw no need to be hostile to him as I wanted as much information from him as I could get. I made certain he knew that I would be in contact with his boss and would follow up on this.

The Belgrade postmaster referred me to the responsible party for the creche, the Mayor of Belgrade, who just happened to own the business next door. (It should be noted that a private business organization owns the creche). I went next door and introduced myself and stated my business. The Mayor said they did not want any trouble and would move the offensive display.

Marie Castle and I decided to try a follow-up letter and see if they indeed would move it without further action. Much to our surprise they had moved it before they received my letter. It had been there for thirteen years and all it took was one complaint to move it! Now it sits 30 feet away on the Mayor’s private property. She is now the proud owner of the Belgrade creche.

Next came vilification in the Belgrade newspaper, The Observer. They printed a picture of the creche being moved, along with my letter, just so everyone would know who to blame. The next week the paper had a number of letters about the “Scrooge Atheist,” as I was labeled in a Christmas trivia contest, and of course I ruined their “holy days” by “violating their First Amendment rights.”

A local Catholic priest was given almost a whole page for his dribble. He and other letter writers used the “In God We Trust” on our money as a buttress for their claim to their right to proselytize on government property. One letter writer wrote “the Bill of Rights states: ‘One nation under God, Indivisible with liberty, and Justice for all.’ ” [sic] (There is a bright one.)

The side issue here is the direct and measurable impact of religious graffiti on our money and the religious endorsement of the desecration of the Pledge of Allegiance and the national motto. I have turned copies of these letters over to the Foundation’s project on the impact of these religious statements. The people of Belgrade interpret these statements as an endorsement of their religious beliefs. It is vital we support the Foundation’s collection of these statements for a possible challenge.

To date, the Belgrade Observer has printed two 600-word letters by myself, both unedited. The Willmar, Minnesota West Central Tribune did a front page story with a photo on December 24. It was a fair and balanced story.

Two local politicians responded. One agreed that this was a violation of the Constitution, but was “so trivial.” The other was state Senator Joe Bertram, who called it “a holy symbol of the Christian faith . . .”

At the advice of the Foundation I have contacted the Postmaster General, Marvin Runyon. If there is not a direct order from the top next year, it might be back. I expect Mr. Runyon will understand the merits of government neutrality and will order the Belgrade post office to remain secular.

The writer is, by coincidence, a postal employee. Steven Petersen, Co-chair of Minnesota Atheists, is a member of the Foundation, as is Marie Castle.

Freedom From Religion Foundation