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Saturday, December 27, 2014

The war on xmas?

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For his last Christmas in office before handing the reins of government over to Gina Raimondo, Governor Lincoln Chafee mostly avoided the idiotic lambasting he has received in previous years over his decision to refer to the large decorated evergreen placed in the State House rotunda as a “Holiday Tree” rather than a “Christmas Tree.”

Locally speaking, the annual “War on Christmas” was relatively quiet this year, mostly, I believe, because of the election and because of the attention being given to the #BlackLivesMatter protests.

As president of the Humanists of Rhode Island, I waited until the day after the election to formally request a spot in the State House for our Roger Williams banner. This banner, placed for the first time in the State House last year, has been relegated to a spot on the second floor of the State House, in an area designated for displays by local ethnic and civic groups.

The idea of such an area is to allow a “free speech zone,” a place for symbols and ideas of a religious nature to be displayed on public property. In this way has the law evolved so that the separation of church and state may be violated.

Here you will find all sorts of statements and displays about religion. There are mangers and baby Jesuses Jesii?, Christmas trees and icons of saints. In fact, far from being a public space free of religious endorsements, the State House has become a public space chock full of religious endorsements: Christian, Jewish, atheist and other.

This is why I don’t call the battles over such displays a “War on Christmas.” These battles should more properly be called a “War on Secularism,” and we are all losing. None of these displays belong in a public building, with the possible exception of the Humanists of Rhode Island’s exceptionally designed banner which celebrates the birth of Roger Williams and the separation of church and state, which has secular, historical and seasonal value, but no religion.

But the law is the law, and it’s unlikely to change anytime soon, so those with a secular and non-believing outlook will be compelled to at least balance the religious views on displays with their own for the foreseeable future.

There is one big problem though. Humanists, atheists and all non-Christians and non-Jews are victims of viewpoint discrimination, an illegal process where the opinions and ideas of certain religious groups are prioritized over others. Certain groups are routinely being given better placement in the State House, garnering their displays greater visibility than others, which gives these groups the appearance of favoritism.

What I’m talking about is the placement of the Christmas Tree in the main rotunda. Governor Chafee was onto something when he called it a “Holiday Tree.” As a holiday tree, devoid of religious meaning, the tree could stand every year in the best, most visible location in the State House, and no one could make a case that their religion or non-religion was being discriminated against. But calling it a Christmas Tree means that Christian views are being prioritized by being given the favored spot, year after year.

The addition of a Hanukkah menorah, also always located in a favored spot just off the main rotunda, does little to make the situation better. Note that the menorah is never given the center spot, but is always off to the side. Note that the Christmas Tree is never moved to the side so that any other viewpoint might be displayed in its dominating place of honor.

The message the State of Rhode Island is sending is clear: Christians are #1, Jews are #2 (perhaps by virtue of the history, monotheism and holy texts they share with Christians) and all other viewpoints are relegated to the second floor, where visitors must search them out.

This year I repeatedly asked that our banner be allowed to occupy some space on the main rotunda, either hung near the tree or displayed on a structure we would provide. My requests were ignored. When I said that I wanted a place on the main rotunda, I was told that I could have the space on the second floor or nothing.

This is wrong. The second floor is for second class citizens. First class citizens are given the main rotunda, given a state sanctioned lighting ceremony, and given the endorsement of our state government. This is a clear violation of the first amendment, and a clear message to non-Christians that this is a Christian state, run by and for Christians alone. The rest of us are simply tolerated.

Next year the Humanists of Rhode Island will once again demand placement on the main rotunda. 

We hope that Gina Raimondo does the right thing and allows our banner to be placed with the Christmas Tree.

Steve Ahlquist  is a writer, artist and current president of the Humanists of Rhode Island, a non-profit group dedicated to reason, compassion, optimism, courage and action. The views expressed are his own and not necessarily those of any organization of which he is a member.

His photos and video are usable under the Creative Commons license. Free to share with credit.
Steve is happy to accept PayPal donations from those who feel his journalism is worth something. You can use the email address below.

Twitter: @SteveAhlquist

"We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” - Elie Weisel