Freedom and Religion

December 27th, 2009

By Tom Carter

church_state1According to a report by WBBM, the Chicago CBS affiliate, a kerfuffle over religion erupted a few days ago in the Illinois state capitol building in Springfield.

Seems there were a variety of religion-related displays in the capitol.  They included a nativity scene, a Christmas tree, a Soldiers’ Angels wreath, a tabletop display from the ACLU defending freedom of religion, a Hanukkah menorah, and an aluminum Festivus pole representing the semi-fictional holiday from the TV series Seinfeld.

There was also a sign put there with the appropriate permit by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which bills itself as an educational group working “…to promote the constitutional principle of separation of state and church and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.”  The group’s sign, located next to the Christmas tree and near the nativity scene, read:

At the time of the winter solstice, let reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is just myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.

That was just too much for William J. Kelly, a conservative activist and candidate for Illinois Comptroller.  He announced his intention to remove the sign, but all he managed to do was turn it face-down before the police detained him and ordered him to leave the building.

Kelly called the sign “hate speech” and said, 

I don’t think the State of Illinois has any business denigrating or mocking any religion, and I think that’s what the verbiage on the sign was doing. …

The fact that sign was immediately in front of the tree, I found that to be disturbing because any family and any child would run up to that tree with a smile on their face, and they would immediately see that sign.


The First Amendment says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….”  That’s understood to mean that there’s a separation between church and state, and Illinois probably shouldn’t be hosting annual religious displays in its capitol building.  In any case, I don’t think it’s a big deal and certainly don’t spend time worrying about such things. 

However, here comes that pesky First Amendment again, with its “freedom of speech” business.  If religious folks are free to put up signs and symbols of their particular religious beliefs, then non-religious folks are equally free to put up signs that state their beliefs.  The only other acceptable approach, assuming anyone takes the Constitution seriously, is to ban all religious activity, signs, and symbols from the state capitol and other government establishments. 

There are myriad religions and variations on religious belief.  Each believer is convinced, of course, of the absolutes of his faith, whether he relies on the Bible, the Torah, the Qur’an, the Book of Mormon, or some other holy text.  That’s fine.  And who knows — some among them may just have it right.  But the rub comes when believers insist that everyone else accept and even promote their particular beliefs.  That’s what’s happening when people who insist on having a nativity scene in a public building object to non-Christian displays in the same location at the same time.

I also note Kelly’s concern that a child might see the the non-religious group’s sign.  Children grow up in a specific religious belief simply as an accident of birth.  Catholic parents raise Catholic children, Muslim parents raise Muslim children, and so on.  Are those belief systems so fragile that it’s dangerous for children to suffer mere exposure to signs or symbols representing other ways of thinking?

Maybe we should request guidance on the subject from the Chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives, who is a Catholic priest and a Jesuit, or from the Chaplain of the U.S. Senate, who is a Seventh-day Adventist.  If they can’t sort it out for us, we could always go to Reverend Jeremiah Wright, President Obama’s spiritual mentor, who is a … well, whatever.

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4 Responses to “Freedom and Religion”

  1. larry |

    Dear Lord please protect us from the damnation of those who fear us because our belief in God.
    Tom has once again pointed out his interpretation of the First Amendment and it’s effect on people like myself that were taught to believe in God.
    So what Tom? Do you truly feel threatened by Christians?
    I’m kind of sad to note that everytime things get slow you
    figure it’s a good time to feed a few Christians to the lions. Will it ever end?

  2. Tom |

    My “interpretation” of the First Amendment is pretty standard, at least among people who have read it and taken even a passing look at constitutional history and judicial decisions.

    Larry, why on earth would anyone, including me, feel “threatened by Christians?” And what “damnation” are you talking about from “those who fear us because of our belief in God?” And feeding “Christians to the lions?” All this sounds like some pretty dark, heavy paranoia at work.

    The only thing I “fear” when it comes to religion is a government that forces its people to accept one particular form of belief to the exclusion of others. Is that what you want — to live in a state like Saudi Arabia?

  3. larry |

    Give me a break. Same old clichs aimed mainly at the Catholic and Protestant believers. Yes, why not outlaw God and the First Amendment. So much good will come as a result.

  4. Joe |

    I think Tom stopped short of the real rub — atheism, or any non-JudeoChristian God concept is still a religious choice. Freedom of choice requires government, and other religions, treat that choice as equal. There is no real way for government to provide the forum to all religions to witness in government forums — therefore government involvement at all would be prejudicial toward the simple and idolatrous ones, or the ones that were socially ingrained and could use keywords. So government staying out of it is the only choice.

    The problem with that, atheists have chosen a god-concept so powerful that when you cleanse superstition and questionable faiths that require inordinate faith, atheism still remains. It in fact remains as the day-to-day rhyme and reason due to a dependence on psychology, science and medicine as determiners of what is right.

    So, I’d say the course has been well-chosen by the SCOTUS. Stay out of it in forced situations — like school environments, government agencies, and legislative bodies. In prisons and the military, or government hospitals, where all is given up to get government care — special rules can be hammered out, but still not in the form of pronouncements of advertising for the religion — and people “of faith” just have to avoid calling atheism a religion so their more faityh based religion automatically gets the same credibility as a psychologist.

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