12/28/10

Understanding Why Atheists Might Contribute to Holiday Displays in Government Buildings

reason's greetingsMany Christians in the United States do not seem to understand the problems associated with putting a nativity scene in a government building, so I'd like to see if I can offer a clear and concise explanation. At the outset, I think it is important to understand that atheists taking offense at a religious display is not the issue. I'm not saying that atheists never take offense at religious displays - I'm sure some do. Many of us would prefer not to see religious displays on government property. But this is not what is most relevant here.

So what is most relevant here? If Christians want a Christian display on government property, two conditions must be met. First, the Christians seeking to place a display must pay for the display themselves. The government cannot do so without being guilty of showing preference to one religion over others. This is the simpler of the two conditions, and many Christians understand it perfectly well. This is why outside groups typically sponsor nativity scenes.

It is the second condition that prompts the confusion. The second condition is that when the government grants permission to the Christians to erect their display, they open the door to all other groups who want to add their displays. Because the government cannot legally show preference to one religion over others, they are faced with a choice: either they do not allow any religious displays on public property or they allow them from all groups without discriminating.

If the government denied a Christian group's request to place their display in a government building, they could deny similar requests from Jewish groups, Muslim groups, atheist groups, and the like. They would be treating everyone the same and could easily defend this position. However, as soon as they grant the request of the Christian group, they cannot then deny requests from other groups. This is why it is not uncommon to see Jewish displays in government buildings that allow Christian ones.

Nobody seems to mind any of this until atheists get involved. When we get involved, we are accused of all sorts of absurd things. But again, the issue is not us being offended by religious displays as much as it is us reminding the government of the implications of their decision to allow one religious display. When an atheist group seeks to have their display included, it is not because they are trying to ruin anyone's holiday but because they are asking to be treated equally.

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