by Max Brantley
Federal Judge Susan Webber Wright sided today with the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers. She directed Secretary of State Charlie Daniels to give the group the same consideration for installation of a winter solstice display that he gives to display of a Nativity scene on the Capitol grounds.
The crux of the dispute was whether Daniels had created a public forum by allowing placement of the Nativity scene. Daniels said he had not. The judge ruled otherwise. The Freethinkers' design for the display fit the Secretary of State's office policy for temporary displays, but was denied, Daniels said, because of "aesthetics." Also not a good argument, said the judge.
The Family Council was on hand to decry the suit as a way to get rid of the Natvity scene. Jerry Cox of the group said it's a popular position of the ACLU, which brought the suit on behalf of the Society.
Todd Billings, president of the Freethinkers, said that wasn't the intent of his group. He said his group wanted the observation of the season to be more expansive rather than limited. At the end of the hearing, the judge told everyone to have a "happy holiday, or solstice, or whatever."
UPDATE: A spokesman for Daniels said later, "The Secretary of State respects the court’s decision and is working with the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers to erect their display on the Capitol Grounds as soon as possible."