Signs Of The Times by Adam Butler (Jan/Feb 1998)

After living in Alabama for any extended period of time, one is rarely surprised by intolerance. In fact, when one considers my state’s history, it would seem that bigotry and ignorance is to be expected–after all, such social evils are thought by many to be our “Southern Heritage.”
So Alabama activists were not astonished when local religious interests pushed for prayer in public schools. No one was amazed when a politically minded judge tried to bring religion into the courtroom. Likewise, it certainly was not a shock to see a nativity scene erected on our taxpayer-funded state capitol grounds.

On December 17, 1997, several private Christian schools jointly hosted a program on the steps of the state capitol building in Montgomery, Alabama. The program, which, except for the venue, seemed innocent enough, began with a student nativity play and the singing of a few Christmas carols. The real motive of the program, however, was revealed when center stage was given to various Alabama church/ state integrationists who condemned a recent ruling against prayer in public schools by Alabama Judge Ira DeMent.

The event continued with a few words from Alabama’s governor, Fob “How the Heck Do I Keep Getting Elected” James, who, as usual, mesmerized everyone with his eloquent prose and unmatched understanding of constitutional law.

When the politicians finally tired of hearing themselves talk, the program concluded and the students climbed aboard their respective buses to go back to school, leaving behind a large lean-to which had served as the manger in the nativity play.

One could almost hear the cry of the baby Jesus: “Wait everybody–you forgot my house!” But the manger had not been forgotten. Just as many religious people believe, a “master plan” was at work.

Local ministers had decided to leave the structure, which was approximately 12 feet wide and 6 feet high, next to the capitol steps. They planned to return later in the week and populate the scene with traditional nativity figurines.

Upon hearing of this blatant church/state separation infraction, other Alabama Freethought Association members and I began making calls to the Governor’s office, the capitol police department, and the historical commission (which oversees the use of capitol property). After several hours of asking questions, we were told that the manger scene was not a breach of church/state separation because the area surrounding the capitol steps is a “public forum” available to anyone. Further, any organization that wished to place a display in this area would be given equal access.

In response to our complaints, we had been offered a chance to create our own display. In good conscience, good Southerners that we are, how could we refuse this hospitality?

We didn’t have to look far for an idea–the Freedom From Religion Foundation had already posted a sign in Wisconsin for a similar reason. We decided to put our own sign next to the nativity scene, repeating what the Foundation had stated in the Madison capitol building: “There are no gods, no devils, no heaven, or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.” (Quote from Anne Nicol Gaylor.)

On Friday, two days after the children’s program had taken place, AFA members Pat Cleveland, Roger Cleveland, Amanda Faulkenberry, Carol Faulkenberry, Bill McCormick, Lamar Stover, and I made a pilgrimage to the Montgomery capitol, where we held a press conference and placed our sign.

As we departed from the state capitol, our minds were occupied with thoughts of the display we left behind. It was a fearless beacon of freedom and equality, a blatant representation of tolerance and understanding, and it demanded thought and reason from those that read it. Needless to say, it never had a chance. That night, after it had been on display for less than eleven hours, an unknown individual or group of individuals stole our sign under cover of darkness. He, she, or they were never apprehended.

But the thief or thieves hadn’t counted on the AFA’s annual Winter Solstice celebration. Freethinkers from all over Alabama had come to Lake Hypatia to celebrate–little did they know they would be put to work! On the following Sunday morning, we had a much larger and rugged new sign which read: “Freedom of Religion Includes Freedom from Religion.” Catchy, huh?

We placed our 8×6 foot sign next to the capitol steps thinking, “Only a moron would try to steal this one!” The moron in question came that very night and our sign was attacked again. But unlike the time before, a suspect was caught by police.

Twenty-four-year-old Andrew P. Sanders was arrested by capitol police for allegedly attempting to destroy the display. It would seem the sign was much larger than the vandal had anticipated, so the plan was to destroy it rather than steal it. Mr. Sanders is charged with criminal mischief, a third-degree misdemeanor punishable by three months in jail and/or up to a $1000 fine. Released on $200 bond, Sanders awaits his trial, slated for March of 1998.

After two crimes had taken place on capitol grounds, one would expect the governor to make a comment on the matter. For some time after the placing of our sign, its theft, and its replacement’s vandalism, James refrained from making a comment, eventually emerging from his seclusion to utter the following statement of unbridled poetry: “I just don’t understand why anyone would protest a nativity scene at Christmas!” With remarks such as this in mind, I sometimes wonder if Governor James’ mother still dresses him in the morning.

Thanks to the capitol police’s work, Roger Cleveland’s craftsmanship, and a little bit of luck, the sign was not beyond repair. With a hammer and a few nails, our display was as good as new and remained that way until it was taken down by the AFA on December 26. During that time, AFA representatives took part in interviews with local and national media, eventually spreading our story to much of the United States. Alabama activists could be found on television shows, newspapers, and talk radio shows as far away as Sacramento. The AFA was bombarded with phone calls, faxes, and emails and our web page received a total of more than 300 hits in the month of December.

Ministers who took part in this year’s fiasco have recently stated that next year’s children’s program and nativity scene will be “even larger” and “planning will begin much sooner.” This certainly sounds like a good idea to me! Last December, the AFA was not prepared for what happened and had only a short amount of time in which to react. Now that we know what is coming, we can start making plans! I wonder how much it costs to have “Religion is All Bunk” written in smoke by an airplane–and where did I put that 50-foot-tall statue of Robert Ingersoll?

Although I sincerely wish Alabama was a haven for religious freedom and progressive thought, you can’t blame me for having fun while it’s not!

Adam Butler is a member of the Foundation and its chapter, the Alabama Freethought Association, and directs a college freethought group.

Freedom From Religion Foundation