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Austin Cline

Washington Reconsidering Holiday Displays

By December 14, 2008

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Christians rarely recognize the injustice of privileges they are accustomed to enjoying — they are so used to their own privileges that they come to see those privileges as rights. This makes fighting those privileges very difficult: Christians are unlikely to voluntarily give them up while forcing them to give up any privileges through the courts engenders a lot of hostility. The key seems to be to force Christians to share those privileges — force public institutions to treat everyone equally instead of giving special treatment to Christians, Christian beliefs, and Christian traditions.

This may be happening when it comes to religious holiday displays on public property. In the past these displays tended to be financed and owned by the government, but lawsuits successfully ended that because it was clear that the government cannot provide such direct support to religion. Christians groused and complained, but quickly moved to private ownership of religious displays put in the same place. The privileged place of Christianity was thus preserved, or so they thought until non-Christians demanded equal treatment.

Government can't privilege any private messages in the public square, so equal space and time must be given to atheist displays that are given to Christian displays. Christians who are used to seeing Christianity occupying a privileged position react with outrage, but there is nothing they can do to remove the atheist display while keeping the Christian display. The only options are to live with looking at atheist displays — which forces them to experience what non-Christians had to live with already — or remove all displays entirely.

In the case of the displays in the Washington state capitol building, Christians are seriously looking at removing all displays rather than deal with giving atheists equal treatment — and especially after getting a request to erect a Festivus Pole in the same area!

The State’s Solicitor General, Maureen Hart, says as long as the Capitol allows one religious display – it must allow them all.

Maureen Hart: “In many respects what the United States Supreme Court has said is once you open the forum for speech, you give up the right to say something doesn’t fit based on its content.”

Source: OPB News

Christians reveal a great deal about themselves by how they react to situations like this — and I don't mean by how much they personally like or dislike signs like the one erected buy the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Christians who object to an atheist display being given equal treatment with a Christian display reveal that they don't really believe in free speech or the ideal of the government treating all such messages equally. Christians who dislike the sign but believe that the government must treat such messages equally reveal an impressive and laudable commitment to the ideal of free speech.

Christians who would rather see all displays removed rather than see an atheist display given equal treatment reveal that their support for having religious holiday displays was always about privilege, power, and domination, not about merely wanting a right to express religious beliefs publicly. I say this because if they only want their religious display so long as it's there alone and unchallenged, then it seems clear that the entire point is to communicate the message that their religion is preferred or privileged. If the point is merely about expressing religious beliefs publicly, then that isn't undermined by having alternative or dissenting ideas expressed at the same time.

Similar tactics can be used in a wide variety of contexts. Christians have managed to get their beliefs privileged or supported by the state in ways that make it appear as though they are simply taking advantage of a public forum where all views — including theirs — must be treated equally. That can be tested by atheists (and other non-Christians, especially Wiccans and pagans) trying to take advantage of the same rules. If they are accepted without complaint, then there's probably no problem; if Christians suddenly start complaining about the government giving atheists a platform for their ideas, then clearly there is a double-standard being used. In such cases, Christians should be forced to choose between genuinely content-neutral rules that treat atheists and other non-Christians as equals and giving up the privileges they have been enjoying.

December 19, 2008 at 3:42 pm
(1) Drew says:

Great commentary Austin.

The more confrontation like this there is, the better. The only way people get the message is to be forced to see things from another point of view. The only way religionists will ever do so is to be forced to look at things they don’t want to look at.

Quite frankly, I’d rather see them then ask to remove all displays, then carry on with a silly multi-culti display with a dozen competing images.

I got the an email from an aquintance, with the usual “I’m taking back Cristmas” etc. in it. I took an hour or so to craft a long, detailed reply to him of exactly why businesses were now using Happy Holidays; why many individuals were using it; and why nobody was taking anything from him, just including everyone. We’ll see if it affects how he deals with me in social situations.

December 20, 2008 at 8:33 am
(2) hikmatullah says:

hi and respect i am apprecite from your nice teaching of teology and god /if you give me info about the country three is the belivers in atheism/in which countrys / i am waitaing to your responce /the holy religion is top and high in every religion / your sincerly .

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