The Freedom From Religion Foundation's Winter Solstice "no gods" display starts its 21st annual run at the Wisconsin Capitol today.
A sign at the exhibit features FFRF's traditional message by its principal founder Anne Nicol Gaylor. It was composed as an equal-time challenge to combat religious dogmatism at the heart of state government.
The sign reads:
At this season of the Winter Solstice, may 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.
Joining the gilt display in the rotunda for a second year is FFRF's whimsical Bill of Rights "nativity." The irreverent graphic by artist Jacob Fortin depicts Founding Fathers Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington kneeling in adoration before a "baby" Bill of Rights in a manger.
A sign beside the tongue-in-cheek nativity reads:
"Happy Winter Solstice. At this Season of the Winter Solstice, we honor reason and the Bill of Rights (adopted Dec. 15, 1791)." At the bottom it reads: "Thou shalt not steal, please."
Both displays are permitted to be up for the entire month of December.
"In celebrating the solstice, the real reason for the season, we celebrate reality," says FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. Occurring on Dec. 21, the Winter Solstice marks the shortest, darkest day of the year, heralding the symbolic rebirth of the sun. It has been celebrated for millennia in the Northern Hemisphere with festivals of light, evergreens, gift exchanges and seasonal gatherings.
"We'd much prefer that our seat of government be free from religion — and irreligion," Barker adds. "The rotunda is getting very cluttered. But if a devotional nativity display is allowed, there must be 'room at the inn' for all points of view, including irreverence and freethought."
The national state/church watchdog, based in Madison, Wis., has more than 24,500 members, including 1,300-plus in Wisconsin.
A Michigan town has removed an official nativity scene after a sustained, nearly decade-long effort on part of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
A larger-than-life nativity scene had been on display in a prominent town bandstand for years in Menominee during the holiday season. It featured an infant Jesus lying in a manger surrounded by Mary, Joseph and others kneeling in reverence. The exhibit was front and center in the city park, set apart from other holiday figurines and was the only display lit up at night.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation had initially sent a letter to the city in 2007 objecting to the nativity scene. It was taken down briefly, then was put back up in 2009 as part of a new City Council policy. Since then, FFRF had been doggedly persistent, writing several letters over the years pointing out the constitutional problems with the display.
"It is unlawful for city of Menominee to maintain, erect or host this nativity scene, thus singling out, showing preference for, and endorsing one religion," the group pointed out in a 2011 letter. FFRF noted that the display breached the separation of church and state, embodied in the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. It also violated longstanding legal precedent from the case County of Allegheny, where the U.S. Supreme Court held that a crèche display at a county courthouse unconstitutionally promoted a religious message. Furthermore, FFRF contended, such a blatant official endorsement of Christianity was deeply alienating for those who are non-Christian, a large and growing portion of the American population.
More recently, FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne sent an open records request to the city of Menominee, asking for documents relating to the city's policy for nativity scenes on public property. After reviewing the city's policy, Jayne again asked the city to stop placing the nativity, reiterating that "the city placing this nativity scene endorses the religious aspects of a Christian holiday in defiance of established Supreme Court precedent."
FFRF's perseverance has paid off. A local television station has reported that the nontheistic organization's intervention was the reason that the city of Menominee finally changed its mind:
"It was determined by the city attorney that we were looking at a violation of our own policy and so the decision was made to remove it," explained Menominee City Manager Tony Graff. He said the Madison-based group the Freedom from Religion Foundation sent numerous complaints to the city. "They have sent letters to the city for many years in a row questioning the policy. This year, we decided to enforce the policy," said Graff.
FFRF is delighted that it was ultimately able to bring some sense into city officials.
"Wow! That took some work on our part," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "It shouldn't take a decade for folks to realize the truth, but better late than never."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a state/church watchdog group with more than 24,000 members nationally, including 600-plus and a chapter in Michigan.