The Freedom From Religion Foundation and its Maine chapter are pushing back against a town’s attempts at religious favoritism in the public square.
When a nativity scene was erected on public ground in Bucksport, FFRF’s Maine chapter President Tom Waddell requested permission to also put up a banner providing secular representation for the town. Rather than allowing for both displays, local officials decided to initially take down the nativity display, which was reported on by multiple media outlets, including Fox News.
At a meeting on Dec. 15 where several residents spoke out in favor of the nativity exhibit, the Town Council decided to put the nativity scene back and establish a separate area near the town’s veterans memorial for all other displays.
This is constitutionally questionable, FFRF points out.
“While we appreciate the council’s attempt to find a resolution, this ‘solution’ only exacerbates the issue with displaying a nativity scene on public property,” FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor write to Bucksport Town Manager Susan Lessard. “The best solution would be for the town to cease hosting religious displays on public property. The current display could be placed on private property. If the town is going to host a forum for holiday displays, all holiday displays, including the nativity scene, should be treated the same and placed in the same location. This is the only way to send a message that no religious group is favored and all will be welcomed and treated equally. ”
Our Constitution’s Establishment Clause—which protects Americans’ religious freedom by ensuring the continued separation of religion and government—dictates that the government cannot in any way show favoritism toward religion. The town’s decision to officially display a nativity scene while creating a separate forum for all non-Christian displays favors Christianity and needlessly alienates the nearly 30 percent of religiously unaffiliated citizens, alongside the 6 percent of minority religions.
FFRF has received a response from the town doubling down on its decision, making the state/church watchdog and its local activists even more determined to pursue the issue.
“We don't care what people believe, it doesn’t matter,” Waddell states. “What we care about is when local governments show preference for one religion in particular.”
According to Waddell, FFRF’s Maine chapter had been putting up secular holiday displays for eight years, including in Bangor and Rockland. However, no town had put up as much trouble as Bucksport, he says.
FFRF’s display is currently on view at the veterans memorial. Bucksport plans to have a town hall meeting in early January to establish a set of rules for holiday displays in the future. FFRF will report on future developments as they happen.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 38,000 members and several chapters across the country, including hundreds of members and a dedicated state chapter in Maine. Its purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.