FFRF tests Ottawa, Ill., public forum with solstice message

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The Freedom From Religion Foundation and one of its area members is placing an 8-foot banner in Washington Square near LaSalle Street in Ottawa, Ill., to counter 16 billboard-sized paintings of “the life of Jesus.” The banner depicts a “Bill of Rights Nativity” in honor of the anniversary of the adoption of the Bill of Rights (Dec. 15). A drawing depicts Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison gazing adoringly at the Bill of Rights in a crib, with the Statue of Liberty looking on.

The banner proclaims: “At this season of the Winter Solstice, we celebrate the Birth of the Unconquered Sun — the TRUE reason for the season. As Americans, let us also honor the birth of our Bill of Rights, which reminds us there can be no freedom OF religion without having freedom FROM religion in government.”

This is the national state/church watchdog’s first attempt since the mid-1990s to express its freethought views in Washington Park, after previous attempts were censored by mob response.

In the early 1990s, FFRF member Richard Rohrer filed suit against the annual Christian display in the park, which stayed up as long as Thanksgiving through Easter. Two lower courts agreed with Rohrer that the spectacle constituted an illegal establishment of religion. However, in 1992, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the paintings could stay, provided Ottawa permit a “public forum” with reasonable time limits. The ACLU, which had taken over the case after Rohrer left the state, hailed the decision as a victory, and did not appeal.

At Rohrer’s request that FFRF test whether Washington Park would be a true public forum, FFRF erected a banner saying “Jesus Christ is a Myth” in December 1992. FFRF members attending the rally were shouted down, spat upon and pelted with snowballs. A Sunday school teacher stole the banner. A second banner placed by FFRF later that month was burned and a third was smeared with paint by a man dressed as Santa, resulting in convictions in two instances.

In 1993, FFRF again placed the banner, adding on the back: “Religion Is Divisive,” hanging it high between two trees. It was stolen 36 hours later.

FFRF eventually gave up, concluding, “There is no public forum in Ottawa, just a forum for Christian, majoritarian views. We think there will never be any ‘Peace on Earth, good will to all’ until the separation of church and state is honored,” said FFRF Co-President Dan Barker.

Barker added, “We don’t think irreligious messages — any more than religious messages — belong on public property. But if the town of Ottawa is going to declare Washington Park a public forum, then it has to ensure there is ‘room at the inn’ for all points of view, including the 20 percent of Americans who are nonreligious.”

FFRF has requested police surveillance and protection.

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