Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Green Bay's Holiday Display Attempts Create Problems

Things seem to have gotten a bit out of hand with holiday displays in Green Bay, Wisconsin. As previously reported (1, 2), City Council President Chad Fradette put up a nativity scene, and city council invited other religions to place their own displays up as well. Quickly a Wiccan pentacle joined the creche. Today's Green Bay Press Gazette reports that overnight, someone stole and damaged the Wiccan display. Meanwhile, yesterday Mayor Jim Schmitt announced a moratorium on new displays until City Council has a chance tonight to consider proposed guidelines. That angered two people who had brought displays-- a Unitarian Universalist who wanted to put up a peace sign and another individual who wanted to display a decorated cross wrapped in American flag cloth to symbolize the improper merging of church and state. Other proposed displays included ones for Festivus and a "Flying Spaghetti Monster" display. The mayor's proposed guidelines limit the size of displays, provide they cannot contain written words, lights or electronic devices, and require the symbol to be one of a religious holiday celebrated between Dec. 8 and 31.

UPDATE: On Tuesday evening, Green Bay City Council voted to leave Fradette's nativity display up until Dec. 26, to impose a moratorium for now on any other religious displays, and to eventually draw up a set of guidelines for future displays. The Council vote was 6-6 with Mayor Schmitt breaking the tie. Schmitt on Wednesday ordered city maintenance workers to move a Christmas tree and wire reindeer next to the nativity display to secularize the display. He said Liberty Counsel advised him that his Santa Claus-and-reindeer display on City Hall's other main entrance was already sufficient to do that. Meanwhile the Freedom from Religion Foundation is talking with possible plaintiffs in order to file a lawsuit. (Green Bay Gazette, Dec. 20).


Anonymous said...

Doesn't anyone think it odd that this article has a link to the parody religion of The Flying Spaghetti Monster, however there is no link to the primary religion of discussion within the article, Wicca, which is a real, legally recognized religion? Oh, just so you know the link is... http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wicca.

Jim51 said...

"legally recognized" ???

The very concept is unconstitutional in the US.

Perhaps you were thinking of the US Military giving permission to family of Wiccan soldiers using Wiccan symbols in a military cemetery?

As to your question, my guess is that the link to the Green Bay Gazette covers most of the ground and the two that Howard did link to were, in his view, the lesser known. I wouldn't read too much into that.

Chimera said...

Wicca is an officially recognized religion. And it wasn't the US Military who stood in the way of the pentacle in cemetaries, but the Veterans' Administration. And they didn't exactly "give permission," either. They were forced to accept it after years of obstructing the rights of Pagan families to have their dead honored according to their religion.

Every major world religion celebrates a festival at this same time of year. There is no reason for any of them (including Pastafarians) to be excluded from public displays if they wish to be included. If any of them are unacceptable, then all are unacceptable!

Jim51 said...

"officially recognized" ??

By whom? What is the nature of this "official" recognition? What does it enable?

How is a religion restricted if it does not get this "official" recognition.

What body has the power to officially recognize religions? Where did they get this power?

The Pagan Temple said...

I think I might be able to clear this up, somewhat. Wicca is not a legally recognized religion, because it is not one religion, but a variety of spiritual paths that do not have one legally recognized leadership or power structure, such as the catholic church, for one example.

There are some individual Wiccan groups that are legally recognized, however. This recognition is bestowed by the IRS. Such recognition requires applying for recognition and meeting certain guidelines and requirements, which Wicca as a whole does not do, though again, some individual Wiccan groups do.

For that matter, neither does Christianity, even though it is far more cohesive and monolithic. Still, it too gains it's recognition through it's various denominations individually, not as a Christian whole.

You can claim you are this or that all day long, but as a matter of law, what you believe in means nothing, it's what you belong to, and whether that is or is not accepted for tax exempt purposes.

Jim51 said...

Pagan Temple,

OK, the IRS has regs regarding tax exempt status. This, however, is not legal recognition of your religion being somehow "legal" or "legitimate." It is a tax exempt status that organizations other than religions can also procure. As you say "what you believe in means nothing." The crux is whether or not your organization qualifies for tax exempt status, not whether or not some government official decides that your religion is "official."

If I am missing something please lay it out to me. I do not believe that the city council of Green Bay, or any other jurisdiction in the US, has the constitutional authority to decide what an acceptable, official, or legal religion is.

The Pagan Temple said...

I think you're splitting hairs here, Jim. We don't really seem to disagree, it's more of a hangup on the meaning of words.

A tax exempt charity would be a legally recognized charity, would it not? It would seem to me you could make the case that a religious organization that meets the IRS's guidelines would similarly be considered a legally recognized religion, if only by the IRS.

Whether or not the city council of Green Bay has the right to recognize, or not recognize, one or the other might well be a different matter.

Personally, and this is only my opinion, I think it should be a matter of community standards. Then again, I'm also a federalist, more or less, at leas when it comes to matters such as this. I have no problem with Christmas displays, even though I consider myself a pagan. People that complain about things like this are only making asses of themselves, frankly.

They need to get out and get a life, because they sure ain't helping their cause, unless they think fomenting resentment is a positive contribution. Me, I can do without the backlash. We have enough problems without inventing more.

Jim51 said...

Pagan Temple,

You are probably correct when you say that we largely agree.
However, I do think that the meaning of the words is important. I was responding to a poster above who seemed to feel that there was some "officialness" to some religions that others did not have. I think it is always worth pointing out that this is not the case.

To say "Wicca, which is a real, legally recognized religion" implies that something about the religion carries some imprimatur. I do not believe that this is the case. Do we think that the first poster was really saying "Wicca, which is a real tax exempt religion." And why would we care if a particular religion is tax exempt? I know nothing about Paganism but are you tax exempt? Did the IRS specifically consider your particular religious beliefs before granting tax exempt status? If they did, I find that chilling indeed.
To say "that a religious organization that meets the IRS's guidelines would similarly be considered a legally recognized religion" leaves open the interpretation that the religion itself is the object of legal status. This is not the case.
So if there was no intent to imply that the religion itself had any official status then I withdraw my objection. I would only suggest that if we said it more correctly, "this organization statisfied the regs for tax exempt status," rather than "this religion is officially recognized," then there would be no room for this misinterpretation.
In this light, the first poster's comment stops making sense, doesn't it? It seemed to me that they thought that there was some sort of "officialness" to a religion that would matter in this discussion.

Regarding your other point of causing backlash by fighting these sorts of things I think we probably do disagree. I think suffering whatever backlash occurs is probably a trade off worth making. Interestingly, most of the opinion that I have seen on this particular dustup shows a marked backlash against the Green Bay leadership that did this, although it is by no means one sided. Ultimately I'm fine with religious displays on public property as long as no one religious viewpoint is allowed exclusivity. Sadly, many seem to feel that since they have the one true religion, they therefore need not allow others what they insist upon for themselves. In the end I think this will mean no more religious displays on public property or with public money.