Humanists work to place secular banner in State House rotunda

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Humanists of Rhode Island banner

At 4pm on December 21, 2012, Kara Russo and Chris Young led a group of about twenty-five people into the Rhode Island State House and erected a small nativity scene at the base of the “Holiday Tree” not too far from the large Hanukah menorah. According to reports the group sang Christmas songs, engaged in prayer, and erected a seasonal holiday display that was to last until January 6, but was apparently taken down just after Christmas along with all the rest of the Christmas decorations on display.

The Youngs were advised in their efforts by the Thomas More Society, whose president, Thomas Brejcha, said, “So long as these Christmas religious displays and ceremonies are privately sponsored, funded, and held in traditional public forums, they are constitutionally protected.”

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2012 State House

Recently I became aware that the erection of a nativity scene at Rhode Island’s State House was the second in an organized, national effort to put up such displays in or near every state capitol in the country.  According to the website, “for the past five years, a very special Nativity Scene has gone up in a prominent spot in the Rotunda of the State Capitol Building in Springfield, Illinois,” based on the Federal Court decision Grutzmacher v The Chicago Building Commission.

Rhode island joined the party in 2012 with their own Nativity Scene at their state capitol.  Mississippi also has a Nativity Scene which makes it the third capitol to feature the real meaning as to why we celebrate Christmas. All of these are the result of a small but determined group of people who wanted to honor the Holy Family enough to get involved, and get the job done.”

In Rhode Island, Governor Chafee gave up trying to call the large evergreen in the Rhode Island State House rotunda a “Holiday Tree” and decided to officially refer to it as a “Christmas Tree.” I wrote at the time that the Humanists of Rhode Island were disappointed with the governor’s decision, but the group would instead focus on our seasonal blood drive, and of course we are continuing that important work and urge everyone to join us, whether you identify with our secular values or not.

However, in light of the fact that there seems to be a national effort under way to invade every state capital with permanent displays of religious imagery, (as can be seen in this recent piece about Florida’s capital) the Humanists of Rhode Island have no choice but to respond in kind.

Today we have sent an email to those in charge of public displays at the State House declaring our intent to prominently display a secular humanist seasonal banner in the main rotunda of the state house, celebrating secular values and separation of church and state. You can see the art for the banner at the top of this post.

As we await a timely reply from the powers-that-be in the State House, people should know that this was not a decision our group came to easily, as we would much rather focus on our community service efforts, but we are a group that firmly believes, as John F. Kennedy once declared, “in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.” This is why our banner honors the founder of our state, Roger Williams, and attempts to claim the season as a celebration of his wildly progressive and radical ideas.

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Steve Ahlquist is an award-winning journalist, writer, artist and founding member of the Humanists of Rhode Island, a non-profit group dedicated to reason, compassion, optimism, courage and action. The views expressed are his own and not necessarily those of any organization of which he is a member.

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"We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” - Elie Weisel

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor." - Desmond Tutu

"There comes a time when neutrality and laying low become dishonorable. If you’re not in revolt, you’re in cahoots. When this period and your name are mentioned, decades hence, your grandkids will look away in shame." - David Brooks

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