As the wheel turns, the merry month of December is now upon us. ‘Tis the season for many things – one of which is a swell in public religious discourse. Is the Christmas tree really a Pagan tradition? Have the holidays become overly commercialized? News outlets and blog sites are brimming with articles discussing and dissecting the traditional American holiday hullaballoo.
One of these media side-shows is the negotiation of the Christian nativity scene. When located on private property, the crèche causes no alarm. However nativity scenes are often found in public spaces such as parks, squares, and government buildings. As one might expect, these particular displays find themselves at the center of “first amendment” debates.
At the forefront of this particular issue is the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), a national Atheist organization. This year for the first time, FFRF has erected a “free thought display” in Chicago’s Daley Square. Standing near a menorah and life-size crèche is an enormous “A” denoting “Atheism.” In addition, FFRF has posted a sign defining the term and a banner that reads:
Dan Barker, FFRF’s co-president wrote, “If the government is going to open up a public forum to religion, then it has to permit the nonreligious… to express our point of view as well.”
Faced with increasing religious diversity, many local governments have chosen to enact a policy of inclusiveness with regards to holiday displays. That is exactly what happened six years ago in Green Bay, Wisconsin. After receiving complaints about the crèche on City Hall, officials invited other faiths to erect their own displays. Circle Sanctuary responded with a Wiccan Pentacle Wreath. Shortly after its placement, the local news reported that a “witchcraft symbol had been placed above City Hall.” The wreath was eventually vandalized and taken down. Since that incident, Green Bay officials have chosen not to put any religious holiday symbols on their building.
In this particular case the holiday commotion ultimately resulted in the complete “separation of church and state.” According to co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor, that is FFRF’s primary goal – to “protect the Constitutional principle of the separation of state and church.”
If such a forum is created, FFRF won’t be left out of the conversation. In the Florida State Capitol, its “Bill of Rights Nativity” banner is hanging. In the Illinois State Capitol, FFRF has posted its “Winter Solstice” sign. In the rotunda of the Wisconsin State Capitol, FFRF placed a “natural nativity.” The traditional Christian figures are replaced with symbolic figures and recognizable icons of science, nature, human advancement, and freedom. This includes a sign that reads “Heathen Greetings,” information about the Winter Solstice and an image of Botticelli’s Venus – all of which may evoke religious meaning for Pagans.
Has FFRF received any complaints from the Pagan community? Gaylor remembers receiving one phone call but could not recall the details. That one call was from Rev. Selena Fox of Lady Liberty League. Selena says:
Last Yuletide, I called and talked with administrative staff of Freedom from Religion about Pagan holiday diversity concerns. I told them that we were hearing from a variety of Pagans who objected to their appropriation of a Pagan Goddess in their mock “nativity” scene in the Wisconsin Capitol Rotunda. I suggested that instead of using a Pagan Goddess for the Mary figure, they use a representation of Susan B. Anthony or some motherly Freethinker which would keep their display consistent with their name “Freedom from Religion.”
Gaylor stressed that FFRF’s intention is not to “outright offend.” The “Venus was chosen in a hurry” as a substitute fertility image for Mary. However, Gaylor also admits that “even if we had known there would be a problem, nothing would have changed.” FFRF’s primary message is that “public religious displays are offensive. If someone was offended, it only proves our point.”
FFRF’s targets are not limited to mangers. Last week the Sacramento branch created a “billboard blitz” called the “out of the closet” campaign which encourages Atheists to speak out without fear. Later this week FFRF will formally announce its newest public display located in Pitman New Jersey. Over the past few years, the Knights of Columbus have been allowed to hang a street banner that reads “Keep Christ in Christmas.” Because city officials have denied FFRF the permit to hang a “counter” banner, they had to find a workaround. This year FFRF is sponsoring a seasonal billboard bearing its latest holiday slogan: “Keep Saturn in Saturnalia.”
Once again the Atheist organization is using terminology to which Pagans ascribe religious meaning. Does the use of this religious terminology cause confusion in the general populous? One Chicago news site reporting on the “free thought display” wrote: “Signs explaining the display say it’s to celebrate the pagan holiday of the winter solstice.” A text link sends the reader to a BBC explanation of Paganism. The same language is used across news sources including the Huffington Post and Kansas City Star. In response, Rev. Selena Fox of Lady Liberty League says,
We cannot support Freedom From Religion’s use of “Pagan” as part of what sometimes has been called [the] “War on Christmas.” We object to their tactic of waging political war with “Solstice,” Pagan Divine forms, and the word Pagan, which is a term thousands of Pagans use to refer to themselves and their practice of old and new Nature religion.
Is Paganism now caught in a cross-fire between Christian conservatives and Atheists? Some crèches, such as Green Bay one, were originally erected in direct response to Atheist activism. When the manger goes up, FFRF responds back with its own banners and displays. And the battle wages on.
Currently FFRF has a ready supply of banners to be used by any local chapter as needed. In Hancock Maryland, for example, FFRF has complained about a new Christian manger in the public park. According to the Associated Press, government officials have declared the area a safe space for people to “exercise their First Amendment rights.” Will we be seeing a new banner or “natural nativity” display? If so, will that display refer to Saturn, Odin, magic, Heathens, the Goddess or any other terminology that holds religious meaning for Pagans?
The organization’s end game of “Separation of Church and State” is very much in-line with many other freedom-based organizations, including Pagan ones. As Rev. Selena Fox says, “Lady Liberty League has supported a variety of separation of church and state efforts over the years as part of its work for Pagan civil rights and religious freedom.” However, do FFRF’s ends justify its means? And what affects, if any, do those means have in the positioning of Paganism within greater socio-religious politics? Should Pagans even be concerned?
Rev. Selena Fox adds, “Let’s keep with the ancient traditions of making peace at Winter Solstice time and work together for a better world.” In that spirit, Circle Sanctuary will be contributing its own religious “Winter Solstice” display in very same rotunda as FFRF’s “natural nativity.” Circle’s Pagan informational display is part of Wisconsin’s yearly World Religion’s “Interfaith Awareness Week” – an entirely different way of negotiating the very tumultuous holiday season.