Two weeks ago we reported on the efforts of the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers to put up a winter solstice display on the grounds of the state Capitol. Their application had been denied the previous year because the secretary of state's office said it was not clear on the type of display to be erected. This year, the group submitted a detailed description along with a website, complete with pictures, showing exactly what they had in mind. Their request was, once again, denied.
The reason? Tod Billings, founding member and president of ASF, isn't so sure. The letter the organization received from Charlie Daniels' office simply said their request had been denied and offered no further explanation.
“It's totally a joke,” Billings says. “That letter does not explain what is going on. If there was something offensive in it, they could have pointed that out. But we didn't attack anybody. What other conclusion could be reached other than they are just summarily saying no and free speech is just a sham? That's all there is to it.”
Holly Dickson, staff attorney for ACLU Arkansas, says the situation is under review.
“It's a pretty clear rule about how we use the space on the Capitol lawn. The thing that makes it constitutional to use our government property for displays is the fact that all different points of view have equal access and consideration. So it's troubling to think that we might be in a situation where they haven't been given that consideration,” Dickson says.
Natasha Naragon, the public affairs coordinator for the secretary of state's office, said the request was denied because the “tone” of the display was “not consistent with the holiday tone that our office is striving to create on the Capitol grounds during the holiday season.”
When asked what “holiday tone” meant, Naragon said, “You can look at the other decorations that we have on the grounds. That's clearly what we've determined to be appropriate in the holiday tone that we are striving to create. This display, as explained to us, does not fit in with our holiday decorations.” The displays typical have included lights, a Nativity scene maintained by an independent organization and Christmas trees.
The Walton Family Foundation, the richest in Arkansas and, in 2007, the 37th largest in the country, shows assets of nearly $2 billion on its tax returns filed this week.
The fair market value of all assets at the end of 2008 was $1,948,806,804, an increase of more than $300 million since 2007. Contributions to the foundation in 2008 included $227,877,687 from trusts and the estate of the late Helen Walton, widow of Walmart founder Sam Walton.
The foundation paid out $168,874,434 in grants and contributions; among the largest in Arkansas were $5.1 million to Camp War Eagle, $2.1 million to Southern Financial Partners, $1.6 million (in five grants) to e-Stem Public Charter Schools, $1.25 million to the Harvey and Bernice Jones Trust, $940,090 to UCA, and $917,090 to the U of A Foundation. Earlier this year, the foundation announced a $2.9 million grant to the Arkansas Advanced Initiative for Math and Science.