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Connecticut Valley Controversy

Tracie Harris
Posted: March 18, 2008

At the end of 2007, a small group of atheists in the Hartford, Connecticut, area gained notoriety for a holiday display erected on the front lawn of the Vernon Town Hall. A single sign, legally posted by the group, struck at the heart of the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment, which, in just one, short sentence, protects our most valued freedoms in the U.S., and creates the basis for the separation of church and state:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

On December 12, 2007, The Journal Inquirer, which bills itself as "North-Central Connecticut's Hometown Newspaper," commented that, "Ever since the sign was installed Dec. 1 e-mails and letters from across the country have flooded into the Journal Inquirer, as well as Vernon Town Hall, with comments being split fairly evenly--people either love it or hate it."

If you aren't familiar with the story, here is what happened: Connecticut Valley Atheists (CVA) had been protesting a nativity display that, every December, without fail, graced the front lawn of the town hall. Just to be clear, nativities on private property--such as in front of a home or church or even in a storefront window--are not illegal or un-Constitutional, and are not contested by CVA in this case; but the First Amendment has been interpreted, historically, by U.S. courts to prohibit such displays on government land if they appear to promote particular religious views. So, CVA issued a grievance, expressing that when local government supports Christian-only displays, it creates a breach of church-state separation and thereby disenfranchises citizens who may not observe the holidays, or who may celebrate in a nonreligious or different religious fashion. CVA prevailed upon the city to refrain from allowing any such displays. City officials responded, but rather than eliminate the displays, they opted to allow everyone equal opportunity to participate by issuing permits for display spaces on the government lawn.

CVA ultimately decided that despite their conviction that government property should not be used in the promotion of religious opinions, they would apply for a permit in order to attempt to bring their grievances to light. CVA received their permit and mounted a modest display on the lawn. The tri-sided sign presented an explanation and history of the winter solstice on one side; but, it was the other two sides that attracted national media attention.


CVA's controversial sign (click here for a larger view)

CVA Coordinator and Connecticut State Director for American Atheists Dennis Himes agreed to an interview and shared that, "the surprise was not in any single reaction, but in the total size of the aggregate reaction. We expected it to be controversial, but I did not expect the amount of publicity we got." He explained CVA wasn't "expecting it because we had no prior experience with this sort of thing. I think the amount of reaction was to the novelty of atheists being unapologetic about their views." In fact, having any atheist message posted on government property, unapologetic or not, is a novelty in the U.S.

What caused the national reaction? A pre-9-11 image of the World Trade Towers, standing tall and proud, backlit by gleaming sunbeams, illustrating a short quote from a John Lennon song: "Imagine No Religion."

Was criticism predictably split between atheist support and theist criticism? "Mostly." But, Dennis goes on, "there was some theist support and atheist criticism." Most of the criticism, he says, was aimed at the perception "that the display was anti-religious, and not simply celebratory." Further, he says he "was disappointed at some of the atheists' reactions, which seemed to ignore, or forget, that the placement of a nativity scene on government land is a political act." It is considered a political act because, as mentioned earlier, U.S. courts have generally found government support of religion in this fashion to be a violation of the First Amendment. And, just as in the case of CVA's town hall, government agencies try to avoid these types of court battles because they are not optimistic about their chances of winning. Still, Dennis is happy with the publicity, and notes, "It made many people aware that there are atheists in the area who are committed to standing up for what they know is right."

In reading through the criticisms posted at blog sites and newspaper comment sections--including a forum CVA has now begun at their Web site to handle the significant volume of public feedback--many posters were referring to the display, literally, as an "attack against" religion, god or even religious people. Critics appeared to be sincerely unaware that the photo and message on the sign were intended as a statement regarding what is potentially positive about lack of belief in god--about atheism. Many seemed too offended to consider the sign as offering an alternative to the mental and social schisms created by some religious perspectives, which--9-11 made clear--can sometimes lead to atrocities. "No religion" would produce a world where violence and prejudicial hatred would be reduced, since religion would be eliminated as one motivation for such feelings and actions. The sign's message, asking people to imagine the benefits of a world without religion, was interpreted by many as hostility toward religious believers. Ironically, many of these same critics never included an explanation for why the inverse should not also be considered: Why wouldn't religious messages, including the town's standard nativity, asking people to consider religion, be just as reasonably interpreted as hostility aimed at nonreligious citizens?

Is there any message an atheist group could publicize to express the potentially positive impact atheism could bring to society, without some theists interpreting it as an attack against religious citizens? "Probably not. If atheism has a positive impact on society, then that impact is relative to society without atheism's impact, which is by definition theist." In other words, to promote atheism as a positive choice necessitates promoting that not believing in god is a positive choice. But, again, to state that this should be considered an attack on religious citizens is no different than stating that promoting belief in god should be considered an attack on unbelieving citizens. Dennis admits, though, that CVA was "not attempting to minimize the negative response. Negative response is a price we were willing to pay to get our message out, especially since part of our message was to give the religious a taste of their own medicine. This display was a reaction to the traditional nativity scene, after all."

At CVA's Web site you will find a statement that includes, "Since we erected our holiday display in Vernon we have received several e-mails suggesting that the World Trade Center design was inappropriate." If the intended message of the display includes that without religion some social tragedies would be averted--in the current world climate, what would have presented a more relevant symbol, than the World Trade Towers? It is internationally recognized as an icon of modern atrocity--tragedy on an unparalleled scale--and the attackers themselves expressed religious motivations. Still, what other ideas for visual imagery or slogans did CVA consider for their display?

"Often lost in this controversy is the fact that only two sides of the three-sided display had the 'Imagine No Religion' design. The other had a picture of the sun with the words, 'The Winter Solstice: In late December the sun is lower and the days are shorter than any time of the year. Throughout the rest of the winter the sun gets higher and the days get longer. Because of this people have celebrated the Winter Solstice from time immemorial. People used to believe that gods moved the sun across the sky. Today we know that there are no gods, and that the sun moves by natural causes, and we celebrate not only the movement of the sun but our ability to understand that movement.' We also considered a HumanLight display on one panel, but we weren't sure about trademark issues." HumanLight is a Humanist holiday celebrated on December 23, which focuses on the hope of a positive future for humankind, with reason and compassion as its guide.

Was any of the criticism CVA received constructive? Did any critics offer alternative symbols that would have been more effective or appropriate, or even less offensive, in pointing out how a lack of religious belief (atheism) could benefit the world?

The response is hardly surprising: "No, not really."

In trying to understand CVA's critics, Dennis offers that, "It's hard to speak for other people on matters like this, but I suspect that some of them at least didn't want to be reminded that the political struggles against Al Qaeda and related groups have an ideological basis, and that basis is the conflict between theocracy and secularism." But he is quick to add, "our display is a reaction to the desire by Christians in the town to have a nativity scene on town property, and our recommendation all along has been for no displays promoting worldviews at all. I've also asked several people who've complained how loudly they were complaining when there was only a nativity scene in the park. I haven't received any answers yet."

As if the erection of the CVA holiday display and the reactions it received weren't interesting enough, another significant chapter of this story began to unfold. When complaints began flooding town hall, the mayor decided it was time to add a few more holiday lawn decorations. More government holiday trees were erected--directly between the CVA display and public sidewalk view. CVA's local government, charged with upholding and defending the Constitutional rights of all its constituents--including their right to freedom of speech--appeared to be trying to block CVA's message from public view.

"To be honest, I thought it was kind of funny, because it was such a transparently childish thing to do (and it didn't really block our display all that much). It also turned out to be a big tactical error for the mayor, because it made him look petty. The Fox TV news reporter, in fact, clearly thought the placement of the tree was a bush league thing to do, and if he didn't actually roll his eyes, he came close."

Considering the mayor's reaction to this year's display, how confident does Dennis feel about CVA's chances of obtaining a permit for future holiday displays?

"We have heard no official word from the town whatsoever since the display went up. What will happen in the future is uncertain. One thing to keep in mind is that this is a different mayor than the one who set the current policy. The old mayor, Ellen Marmer, was in favor of having no displays, but decided on the multi-display policy because she was tired of the Republicans in town accusing her of being anti-Christian. (She's a Jewish democrat.)"

If CVA does obtain a permit in 2008, what could they possibly erect that would create more public interest than this year's display? "I'm not sure. We'll undoubtedly be discussing that at our meetings."

In December 2007, a modest, tri-sided holiday display attracted national news agencies to Connecticut to highlight a small group of atheist citizens touting a brief, but powerful message. Public dialogue and debate were opened. Opinions and perspectives were aired and scrutinized. Freedom of speech and separation of church and state were vigorously examined and even criticized. It will be tough to top the 2007 display for generating public interest. But many people will be watching Hartford, Connecticut, to see if CVA can succeed in generating the same sort of fervor in 2008.

© 2008 by Tracie Harris.

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