The Freedom From Religion Foundation is urging the removal of an unpermitted, illegally placed religious display currently installed in its home state Capitol.
In defiance of Gov. Tony Evers’ wise decision not to install a holiday tree in the Wisconsin Capitol rotunda this year because it is closed to the public due to the pandemic, two state lawmakers, Reps. Paul Tittl and Shae Sortwell, put up their own tree. Of special concern to the Madison-based national state/church watchdog is that they’ve included a sign with a clear exclusionary Christian message: “The Magic of Christmas is not in the presents but in His Presence.” Tittl and Sortwell reportedly applied for a permit for this display, but it was properly denied.
The state must be neutral toward religion, FFRF has written to the Wisconsin governor.
“The state of Wisconsin is not obligated to allow private citizens, even if they are state representatives, to erect unattended displays on state property,” FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor write to Evers. “The state is well within its rights to prohibit private unattended displays, as it has done on a temporary basis due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A temporary policy that disallows private unattended displays is a valid time, place or manner restriction consistent with the First Amendment.”
For more than 20 years, FFRF has requested and received permission to place its own nonreligious exhibits in order to provide balance to the various Christian displays put up this time of year. It has followed all of the rules — rules that apply equally to everyone. And when the Capitol has allowed for private displays, such displays have not been allowed on the ground floor of the rotunda.
FFRF looks forward to putting up its equal-time Winter Solstice and Bill of Rights Nativity displays again in future years, but is more than willing to take a year off during the pandemic. In order to maintain religious neutrality, follow the law, encourage social distancing and respect the rights of all Wisconsin residents, the private religious display in the Capitol must be removed immediately, FFRF notes.
Evers has expressed his own incredulity at Tittl and Sortwell’s misplaced priorities. “Can’t come to work to pass any bills around COVID-19, but, by golly, we will put a tree up when no one is looking,” he has remarked.
Gaylor adds, “We appreciate the governor’s reason- and science-based leadership.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a Wisconsin-based national nonprofit organization with more than 33,000 nonreligious members across the country, including 1,400-plus in Wisconsin. Its purpose is to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church.