FFRF enters free speech fray over Iowa Capitol displays

The Iowa Capitol building.

Update: The Satanic Temple display at the Iowa Capitol has been destroyed by a Christian zealot who has proclaimed that he carried out the deed because “I saw this blasphemous statue and was outraged. My conscience is held captive to the word of God, not to bureaucratic decree.” As FFRF has pointed out repeatedly in such instances, his actions highlight the fundamental idea that religious displays on government property convey an appearance of government support for those ideas — an inherently divisive situation.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, which has a Bill of Rights “nativity” display in the Iowa Capitol, has sent a letter of reproof to Gov. Kim Reynolds for violating the spirit of the Bill of Rights by promoting Christianity while denigrating a non-Christian Capitol display.

FFRF’s Winter Solstice display, which depicts three of our Founders plus the Statue of Liberty gazing at a manger scene containing the Bill of Rights, honors the Dec. 15 anniversary of the signing of this foundational document in 1791. That display has returned to the Capitol for the seventh year, where it counters a Christian nativity scene.

This year, the Satanic Temple added its own display to the consternation of a variety of conservative Christians, legislators and the governor. The group’s seven tenets include the statement that “the freedoms of others be respected, including the freedom to offend.”

The state/church watchdog notes that Iowa has chosen to open the Capitol building as a public forum for holiday displays, which means it must accept all comers. In a letter to the governor, FFRF rebukes Reynolds’ response. She has joined a chorus of some other Christians who have demanded that the display be removed or even sledgehammered. Iowa state Rep. Brad Sherman has called the display “disgusting,” insisting that it be taken out and that the Legislature even pass a law that “prohibits satanic displays in our Capitol building.”

Reynolds has deemed the display “absolutely objectionable” and has grandstanded over the issue, even circulating a press release on Tuesday to condemn the display: “Like many Iowans, I find the Satanic Temple’s display in the Capitol absolutely objectionable. In a free society, the best response to objectionable speech is more speech, and I encourage all those of faith to join me today in praying over the Capitol and recognizing the nativity scene that will be on display — the true reason for the season.”

FFRF takes issue with Reynolds’ approach.

“Sadly, it seems you have ignored your duty to uphold the spirit of the Bill of Rights in your vitriolic attack against another display,” write FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor. “As governor of Iowa, you are tasked with upholding the U.S. Constitution — including the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. By promoting Christianity in your official capacity as governor, you do the opposite. You serve a religiously diverse state that consists not only of Christians, but also Jewish, Muslim, atheist and other non-Christian constituents.”

There is another important fact for Reynolds to keep in mind: An impressive 29 percent of Iowans today identify as having no religious affiliation, FFRF notes.

While Reynolds in her personal life is free to believe what she lives, when acting as governor she may not use the prestige of her public office to take sides over religious debates, much less to favor one religion — Christianity — over others while taking potshots at minority religions.

Comments Gaylor, “When government creates public forums for religion in December, there must be room at the inn for dissenting views.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national state/church watchdog organization that has 40,000 members nationwide, including hundreds of members in Iowa. Its purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

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Freedom From Religion Foundation

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