November 12, 2008

'Tis The Season For Holiday Display Controversies And Atheist Advertising

It is November, so it must be time for holiday display controversies, with a special bonus this year--atheist billboards, from D.C. to Denver.

First from D.C.:
You better watch out. There is a new combatant in the Christmas wars.

Ads proclaiming, "Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness' sake," will appear on Washington, D.C., buses starting next week and running through December. The American Humanist Association unveiled the provocative $40,000 holiday ad campaign Tuesday.
. . .
"We are trying to reach our audience, and sometimes in order to reach an audience, everybody has to hear you," said Fred Edwords, spokesman for the humanist group. "Our reason for doing it during the holidays is there are an awful lot of agnostics, atheists and other types of non-theists who feel a little alone during the holidays because of its association with traditional religion."
. . .
Edwords said the purpose isn't to argue that God doesn't exist or change minds about a deity, although "we are trying to plant a seed of rational thought and critical thinking and questioning in people's minds."
A similar campaign has sprouted in Denver:
Here's an unusual sign that the holidays are coming: just in time for Christmas, a group of atheists and freethinkers plan to sponsor 11 billboards in Colorado.

Against a blue sky backdrop, their billboard poses the question: "Don't believe in God? - You are not alone."

COCORE, an umbrella organization of 11 groups ranging from the Boulder Heretics to the Humanists of Colorado, are spending $5,000 to post their message at 10 sites in Denver and one in Colorado Springs, for four weeks starting around Nov. 17.
. . .
Straub said the one sign in Colorado Springs was not meant to tweak religious groups in that area.

"Absolutely not," Straub said Tuesday, noting that there is a freethinkers chapter in Colorado Springs.

He said the primary goal of the campaign is to reach about eight to 14 percent of the population who tell pollsters that they are not religious.
I support both campaigns on First Amendment grounds. There is nothing inherently offensive about the content, and the phrasing itself isn't as potentially provocative as the D.C. ad campaign.

I do, however, question the timing.

Why not conduct a campaign that occurs year-round? The groups believe that their efforts aren't intended to "tweak religious groups," but the choice of November/December should clearly indicate their intentions. At worst it is a cynical attempt to draw free media attention due to the proximity to Christmas and Hanukkah, and at best is a lame gesture at piggy-backing on the popularity of the holiday season.

Meanwhile, fresh on the heels of the holiday display controversy the last few years up in Fort Collins (extensive coverage and analysis by SP), a rabbi has asked the city of Golden to allow a Menorah display on city property, prompting another dispute over displays:
'Tis the season for municipal holiday decorations, and the city of Golden, after being asked to allow placement of a Jewish menorah on public property, will consider a resolution Thursday that says only secular displays are acceptable.

Golden's proposed policy excludes religious symbols. Its list of acceptable celebratory symbols includes snowflakes, icicles, snowmen, snowballs, ice skates, skis, penguins, polar bears, other animals, lights and foliage — real or artificial and in garland, bush or tree form.

Rabbi Levi Brackman, director of Judaism in the Foothills, has asked the City Council for permission to install a 6- to 8-foot menorah, a candelabrum used during the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. The site Brackman requested is on city property, next to a large conifer that is traditionally strung with lights, at 10th and Washington streets.

Mayor Jacob Smith said Brackman's request catalyzed the discussion at an Oct. 16 study session of the city's first formal policy on holiday decorations.

After reading the city's resolution, drafted Oct. 30, Brackman realized its passage would make the menorah a no-go in Golden.

"This is secularist discrimination against religion," said Brackman, who heads the center for Jewish education and outreach. "And the other thing is that . . . Christmas trees are not secular. You won't find a secular person from the Jewish or Muslim traditions who celebrates the holidays with lights on trees."

At the study session, the mayor said trying to evenhandedly include many religious and secular symbols in a constitutionally correct, multicultural display — the all-or-none approach approved in recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions — would be challenging enough to cause city officials extreme hair loss or even "brain damage."

The city will consider excluding all religious symbols.
The flat-footed government solution to be inclusive of all during the "holiday season"--exclude all religious symbols.

It doesn't appear that Golden has backed itself into the corner the way that Fort Collins own display regulations had--allowing a Christmas tree (described as such) while appearing to not allow a Menorah. The mayor's lame joke about hair loss and "brain damage" notwithstanding, it is clearly the job of the City Council to sort out these difficult, often heated controversies, and the Supreme Court appears to give cities little flexibility with an all-or-nothing approach.

Thursday's vote will certainly not end the growing controversy in Golden--we'll keep you posted.

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