I have long followed and commented on the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s efforts to banish all religious references from the public square. Well, they just lost one , when the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the City of Warren’s refusal to include an FFRF message disparaging religion from its rather pluralistic holiday display (whose one explicitly religious element is a nativity scene).

Here’s the language on the placard FFRF would have placed in the atrium of Warren’s civic center:


At this season of THE WINTER SOLSTICE may reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, [n]o heaven or hell. There is only our natural world, [r]eligion is but [m]yth and superstition [t]hat hardens hearts [a]nd enslaves minds.



Warren’s mayor James Fouts offered a spirited rebuff to the FFRF. As the Court noted, he overreached a bit, but we can still applaud the following words:


This proposed sign is antagonistic toward all religions and would serve no purpose during this holiday season except to provoke controversy and hostility among visitors and employees at city hall . . . .


Everyone has a right to believe or not believe in a particular belief system, but no organization has the right to disparage the beliefs of many Warren and U.S. citizens because of their beliefs.


Thus, I cannot and will not sanction the desecration of religion in the Warren City Hall atrium.


As I would not allow displays disparaging any one religion, so I will not allow anyone or any organization to attack religion in general. Your proposed sign cannot be excused as a freedom of religion statement because, to my way of thinking, this right does not mean the right to attack religion or any religion with mean-spirited signs. The proposed sign would only result in more signs and chaos.



The appellate panel noted that the Warren display falls squarely within the lines (too narrow in my view, but that’s an argument for another day) drawn by the Supreme Court in a series of cases dealing with holiday displays. And they affirmed the city’s right to decide (within the confines of the Establishment Clause) what messages it wished its display to convey.


Perhaps most crucially, neither the Free Speech nor the Establishment Clause requires any government to provide “equal time” in its speech to those who oppose its message. As the appellate panel points out, if FFRF wants a naked public square, it should seek to elect candidates committed to it. That court, at least, won’t do its dirty work for it.


Merry Christmas!

Articles by Joseph Knippenberg

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