The Freedom From Religion Foundation is poking holes in a Christian apologist group's intervention on behalf of public religious signs in a Wisconsin town.
FFRF wrote last month to the city of Oconomowoc, objecting to two identical Christian signs on government land there. The displays say, "THE CHURCHES OF OCONOMOWOC WELCOME YOU," and there are prominent Latin crosses on top. The signs are easily visible to drivers and anyone visiting a popular public park. FFRF urged the city to remove them from its property to avoid further Establishment Clause concerns.
The city recently received a letter from the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty purporting to "debunk" FFRF's note. The letter fundamentally misunderstands this area of the law and risks dangerously misleading the city. FFRF has felt compelled to issue a response.
"The letter wrongly stated that sectarian religious symbols are permissible so long as they do not endorse 'a religious principle,'" FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne writes in his follow-up to Oconomowoc Mayor David Nold. Jayne adds that federal courts have struck down Latin crosses on public property.
The group's analysis of the Supreme Court case Van Orden v. Perry is also seriously flawed. The display in Van Orden was permissible only because it was one display among 21, in a museum-like setting, whereas Oconomowoc's signs are stand-alone Christian displays. FFRF has successfully litigated numerous longstanding stand-alone religious displays on government property.
And, finally, the letter from the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty shockingly states that the presence of a Latin cross "does not change anything." As FFRF emphasized in its original communiqué, courts have consistently noted that the Latin cross is the pre-eminent symbol for Christianity, and only Christianity. A reasonable viewer seeing the crosses atop these signs would understand that the signs send a specifically Christian message.
Religious displays on government property are divisive, unnecessary and constitutionally problematic. The simplest solution is for the city to remove these signs and to allow private parties to place similar signs on private property. By ensuring that the government does not take sides on religion, a matter that must be left to the individual conscience, the city of Oconomowoc strikes a blow for — not against — religious liberty.
"City officials mustn't be misled by bad advice from know-nothing groups," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "Oconomowoc needs to ensure that it welcomes all its citizens and visitors regardless of church affiliation — or religious or nonreligious views."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a Wisconsin-based national nonprofit organization with more than 29,000 nonreligious members across the country, including 1,200-plus in Wisconsin. Its purpose is to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church.