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Religion In The Town Square: Lawsuit Filed By Shelton Atheist

An atheist backed by secular group the Freedom From Religion Foundation is suing the town of Shelton, Conn., for refusing to post his anti-religion banner in a public park during the Christmas season -- only months after another secular group announced plans to display a non-religious art piece in the city of New Haven this December. 

The sharply diverging responses to religion in the public square have thrust Connecticut into the middle of a national conversation about secularism and religious freedom.

Jerome Bloom is a Shelton resident and member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF). According to his complaint, which was filed on March 22, 2016, the city of Shelton allows a local group to put up a display of heralding angels each year in the town’s Constitution Park.

(In another park, the Freedom From Religion Foundation says, Shelton has also welcomed a nativity scene featuring the infant Jesus by a local Boy Scout troop).

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, which has filed lawsuits against cities and towns across the country for religious displays, says they first asked Shelton to refrain from displaying the angels last winter. When Shelton refused, Bloom asked the city to post an anti-religion banner alongside the angels, which his lawyer considers a “religious display.” The banner’s text is a quote from Freedom From Religion Founder Anne Nicol Gaylor:

At this season of the Winter Solstice, LET REASON PREVAIL. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth & superstition that hardens hearts & enslaves minds.

The city of Shelton refused to put up the banner, saying it would be “offensive to many,” according to the complaint. Freedom From Religion Foundation lawyer Ryan Jayne -- who’s representing Bloom’s case -- says that’s illegal. “If you’re going to allow private groups to put up displays in a public park you can’t be picking and choosing which messages you want to allow,” he says. “That’s called viewpoint discrimination and it violates the free speech clause to the First Amendment to the Constitution.”

But legal expert Eric Rassbach says it’s more complicated than that: “Having any speech within a public park like this doesn’t mean you need to allow any and all speech.”

Rassbach is a lawyer for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty -- a Washington, D.C.-based “powerhouse law firm,” according to the Associated Press, which has successfully represented defendants in multiple lawsuits against the Freedom From Religion Foundation.  

“The FFRF wants to say you know these other guys’ religious beliefs are wrong and we want to tell you not to be mental slaves or what have you,” he says. “That’s a little bit different than celebrating different holidays at different times of year.”

Ryan Jayne, Bloom’s lawyer, says that while the speech on the banner may seem more aggressive than an angelic light show, symbolic religious icons can cause equal offense to members of his group.

“People who grew up in Christianity and are not Christians often times are very disturbed by this idea that ‘Jesus was born of a virgin and died on the cross and because of that, you don’t have to spend eternity in hell -- as long as you believe in him,’” he says. “[Those people] don’t want a symbol on their government telling them -- ‘Since you don’t believe in Jesus, anymore, you’re going to burn in hell.’”

Which lawyer’s interpretation of the law is more correct seems up for debate. Rassbach points to a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in 2013, Freedom From Religion Foundation et al vs. City of Warren, Michigan, which was a debate over whether the city was obligated to post a banner with the same words as the banner in Shelton, alongside a local nativity scene in a Warren city park. The judge for that case said a city-owned park was similar to other government-owned property, like the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial in Washington, D.C. or federally-chosen postage stamps -- and that the government was not obligated to disseminate views that oppose everything it promotes.

Jayne, on the other hand, points to a settlement the Freedom From Religion Foundation won against the same city only two years later -- over a “Prayer Station” that was hosted by a local church in the legislative building. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the presiding judge for that case agreed that if the “Prayer Station” was to continue then local atheist Douglas Marshall was equally entitled to host a “Reason Station” in the same space.

Counsel for the city of Shelton did not respond to a call from WSHU, but the city is expected to respond to the legal complaint within the next week. Meanwhile, about 15 miles away in East Haven, artist Ted Salmon is also working on a secular message for a nearby city park -- but he’s doing it a little differently.

“It’s important to me...that people get along,” he says.

In a bustling warehouse space, two of Salmon’s employees are building his latest designs. Sparks fly; drills bore; electronic music blares in the background. The sculptor turns down the music, leaving the whir of an industrial fan. He points out some of his metalwork before talking about his vision for the public art piece he’s been asked to make for the New Haven Green this December. “There’s a lighthouse to represent that neighborhood in New Haven -- the Annex,” he says, adding that the piece will be “a statement of humanism across the world…unity and togetherness.”

Salmon’s piece was commissioned by the Yale Humanists, a New Haven-based group dedicated to supporting the area’s humanists, atheists, agnostics and non-religious. Executive Director Chris Stedman says he wanted to offer a non-religious alternative to the culture battles and lawsuits that seem to come up over Christmas displays, year after year. “I totally understand why these things happen,” he says. “The separation of church and state is very important -- but I would personally much rather see humanist voices offering something to the public square.”

Unlike in Shelton, the city of New Haven has approved the Yale Humanists’ plans. But the group still has to raise enough money to pay for the sculpture, which they call the Green Light Project. They’re planning a crowdfunding campaign, and they’re hosting a launch party on Wednesday this week at the Happiness Lab in New Haven. Stedman says that he hopes the crowdfunding campaign will allow everyone in the city to feel like they have a relationship to the sculpture that they’ll soon be seeing in their park.

“I would rather hear more of the ‘Yes’ of humanism than the ‘No’,” adds Stedman. “You know, we see those kinds of disagreements arise time and time again but what we don’t see as often is reacting in a way that offers something positive to the community, offers a gift to the community.” 

Kathie is a former editor at WSHU.