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One more time around

Freethinkers vie for holiday display.

COVERED UP: Side three of the solstice display.
  • COVERED UP: Side three of the solstice display.

You may remember the huge Freedom From Religion Foundation-sponsored billboard that stood over the Main Street Bridge in North Little Rock last winter. The board said, “Beware of Dogma” and was sponsored by the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers (ASF), a group made up of the Freethinkers of Central Arkansas and Arkansas Atheists. The general impression was that the billboard was somewhat of a retaliation. ASF had asked the Secretary of State's office for permission to put up a “Winter Solstice Holiday Display” at the state Capitol building near the nativity scene and was rejected. This year, they're trying again.

Last year, the group sent two letters to Secretary of State Charlie Daniels describing the display and asking for permission to set it up. After follow-up phone calls went unanswered, the group received a written response that said, “At this time we are unable to fully determine the appearance or qualities of your proposed display.” ASF had submitted a written description but no pictures. This year, though, the group came prepared, submitting a written proposal complete with a website that shows exactly what the structure will look like.

Rita Sklar, executive director of ACLU Arkansas, has taken an interest in the case.

“We're taking a look at the regulations, just in terms of what it needs to look like and what they need to do,” Sklar says. “If they're in compliance, we would hope that they would be treated like the people who sponsor the Christian nativity scene that's been there for years.”

The display looks like a miniature house. It is four-sided, four feet wide, four feet deep and eight feet tall. It is covered with a plywood roof. Each side has a different display. One side describes the history of winter solstice festivities. Another describes what a “freethinker” is. The third side, or the “Wall of Knowledge,” is a collage of the covers of books written by freethinkers. The final side describes human history and the origins of the universe.

According to Natasha Naragon, spokesperson for Charlie Daniels, state law charges the office with preserving and maintaining “proper order and decorum on the State Capitol grounds.”

The state displays a creche on the Capitol grounds every year. Naragon cites a 1989 Supreme Court decision that says the crucial determination in evaluating the constitutionality of a particular display is whether the display has the appearance or effect of endorsing religion.

“In making this determination,” Naragon said in an e-mail, “the particular setting is critical, and must be judged on its own facts. The office maintains that the [nativity] display does not have the effect of endorsing religion since it is located on the periphery of the Capitol grounds (not in the Capitol building itself).”

Sklar says the court rulings on these types of displays are “ridiculously complicated.”

“So we got into it with them a little bit,” Sklar says, “maybe about 16 years ago. And they have since tried to comply with the incredibly complicated and confusing decisions coming out of the Supreme Court on this issue.

One of the key questions, Sklar says, is what kind of forum the Capitol creates.

“Are they creating an open forum? An open forum means that they are creating a place, where everyone has a fair shot if they follow the rules and they can't discriminate based on content or viewpoint.”

LeeWood Thomas, one of the founding members of ASF, says the display they are proposing could hardly be considered offensive.

“A lot of the constituents that Daniels serves probably aren't going to agree with what we're doing,” Thomas says. But it's exercising the same freedom that the people who put up the nativity scene are exercising. Any time you have two different viewpoints there's the possibility for conflict.”

Thomas said the group tried its best to get their request in early this year, so it would have plenty of time to prepare and build a display. ASF sent its request to the SOS office in mid-October. Naragon says they have received the request, it is currently under review and the group will have a response soon.

For Thomas, he says it really just comes down to the adage “the more the merrier.”

“I think the rest of the community, like the Jewish community could participate. And maybe that would encourage other groups to come out and we could all celebrate the holidays together.”

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