Mr. Secretary, Tear Down This Wall!

It’s a comforting sign familiar to many Foundation members: “At this season of the Winter Solstice, let reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.”

But for William J. Kelly, a Chicago Republican who’s running for Illinois state comptroller, it’s “hate speech” and he’s suing to censor it in the Capitol in Springfield.

The Foundation first put up its winter solstice display in 2008 in Springfield in response to the state’s troubling decision to allow a religious group to plant a very large nativity display in the Capitol rotunda. The state granted the Foundation’s permit application, as it did for a December 2009 display.

“We don’t think religion, or irreligion, belongs in state capitols,” Foundation Co-President Dan Barker noted at the time. “But if a state is going to permit a nativity display and create a public forum, then we want to be sure that the views of the 15 percent of the U.S. population who are not religious are also represented.”

Enter the aforesaid William J. Kelly, steaming mad, last Dec. 23. He tried to turn the FFRF sign face down before Capitol police showed him the door and told him not to come back until he found where he’d left his manners.

What Kelly found instead was a lawyer willing to make a federal case out of it against Jesse White, the Illinois secretary of state, for allowing the display. The complaint, naming White as defendant, says:

“The Capitol Building is visited by persons of all walks of life and by numerous school-aged children, including but not limited to grade-school children. The sign was . . . directly next to the decorated fir tree, leading reasonable persons who regularly visit the Capitol Building to conclude that the sign was endorsed by the Defendant as a state-sponsored opposing view to the displays. This is especially true in light of the fact that allowing the sign violates the very laws that the Defendant is obligated to follow. The sign was unlike any of the displays. The sign was not symbolic, but rather consisted solely of language intentionally denigrating religion and specifically denigrating Christianity, Catholicism, Judaism, Islam and others that worship God and/or believe in the concepts heaven and hell.”

Kelly further whines in the complaint that he “was forced to come into direct and unwelcomed contact with the sign by carrying out his activities as a citizen of the State of Illinois.”

(In other words,  what else could he do but turn the sign face down before rushing home to take a cold shower, maybe after practicing some corporal mortification with a cilice belt like Brother Silas used on his thigh in “The Da Vinci Code.”)

Kelly’s complaint also says he “was required to alter his behavior as a result of the sign.”

Wasn’t it about time? 

Kelly asks the U.S. District Court to declare the Foundation’s display a violation of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution (you know, the clause that protects freedom of conscience for believers only in the Illinois Capitol).

The suit also demands that the court:

“Enter a preliminary injunction and subsequent permanent injunction prohibiting Defendant from placing or allowing to be placed the sign at issue or any such similar sign in the Capitol Building of the State of Illinois and any other State of Illinois buildings under the Defendant’s control.”

Kelly argues that the display is hostile to religion.

“The last couple of sentences do criticize religion,” Barker told CBS. “And of course, the beginning is a celebration of the winter solstice. But that kind of speech is protected as well — speech that is critical and speech that is supportive.”

You might see it as ironic for Kelly to say on his election Web site things like “Fairness Doctrine Not Fair” and “For Free Speech Speak Out.” You may experience further irony in knowing that the Federal Communications Commission stopped even pretending to enforce the Fairness Doctrine in 1987.

Kelly’s actions and lawsuit received a fair amount of media coverage, including at Huffington Post, where Matt Hotz commented:

“I question the faith of Christians or any religion, for that matter, who feel their faith can be threatened by any outside force or thought and decide to push back whether by gun, sword, fist or lawsuit as opposed to going within and seek out what that ‘threat’ can teach them about their faith and more importantly: their humanity.”

“We don’t think the rotunda of a state capitol — the seat of state government — should be designated a public forum where citizens can plant nativity displays or opinions about religion for weeks. If the manger scene goes, we’ll gladly take our sign down,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, Foundation co-president. 

Freedom From Religion Foundation