Friday, December 26, 2014

"Festivus" at the Firehouse . . .

A humble little sign saying "Happy Birthday Jesus. We love you" at the Shepherd Place firehouse in Utica, NY, received a lot of national attention last week when the Freedom From Religion Foundation complained about it and threatened legal action.  For the most part, FFRF's complaint and threats went over like a lead balloon judging from the on-line comments posted on the multiple renditions of the story that could be found --  a public relations nightmare for those who wish to remove religion from the public square -- both nationally, but especially in Utica .

Utica, after all, has a long tradition of being a "melting pot" -- a place where people of different races, ethnicities, and  religions are welcomed -- a place where the stirring incantation of the call to prayer each Friday from the new mosque next to City Hall  has become as familiar as the noontime chiming of traditional Christian hymns from Grace Episcopal Church or the noontime factory whistle.

The  "melting pot" works in Utica because its diverse groups of people tolerate and respect each others' sensibilities and traditions  -- including respect for the dominant culture.  How could it be a "melting pot" otherwise?   Respect for the dominant culture -- or lack of it -- explains why a new mosque in Utica raised nary an eyebrow while one proposed for New York City created a firestorm of controversy.  

Context is the key to understanding everything.

Now, a new tactic is being tried per this story out of the O-D: Festivus group celebrates outside fire station.  The corner of Shepherd Place and Sunset Avenue would seem to be an unlikely place to "celebrate" "feats of strength" and "airing of grievances" unless the celebration is not really a celebration, but, rather, a protest against that humble little "Happy Birthday Jesus" sign.

This was no spontaneous "celebration." It was advertised in the local paper the day before, and in the Syracuse paper on the day of.  The organizer is a Utica College adjunct who has political connections and has mobilized activists.

There is nothing wrong with organization and mobilization.  Free speech is valued. . .   But what are they promoting? 

Although these folks speak in inclusive terms about Utica's amazing diversity and not "bringing any one group down, but it’s about bringing everybody up," if they get what they ask for what will be achieved?
The Festivus group, meanwhile, is calling for other local religions to request the fire department post signs representing their faiths to foster feelings of unity and togetherness in the city during the holiday season.
If the fire department received such calls, what would be the response?  Post other signs? Remove the original sign? Ignore the calls?

Posting other signs would dilute and confuse the firefighters' simple message about the meaning of Christmas. . . . A victory for anti-Christians.

Removing the sign would be a victory for those who would remove religion from the public square altogether.

Ignoring calls would make other groups feel slighted or discriminated against. . . . A victory for those who would exploit our differences.

Utica,  the "Town that Loves Refugees," needs no group of activists to "foster feelings of unity and togetherness."  Far from "bringing everybody up,"  the "Festivus"  group's tactics would undo Utica by shutting off or confusing certain messages while setting groups of people against each other.

True to their "live and let live" nature,  Uticans ignored the Festivus' call -- this time.  But those who would divide us for political gain, though few in number, are strategically located, highly organized, and know how to use the media.    

Perhaps this is what political 'science' is all about . . .  right, professor?


Kevin Nugent said...

Kevin Nugent here, the professor and organizer to which you are referring. I suppose I should write a response, as I was directly called out in your post.

First of all, you seem to think that our event was a true religious observance, or at least pose the question whether or not it was legitimate. I think we made it pretty clear that it was a satirical event designed to send a political message. Satire and humor have a long history of being used to demonstrate real political messages, all the way back to ancient Greece. You may disagree with the message, or the way that we delivered it, but our message was this: the fire station is a tax-payer funded institution. According to the Constitution’s establishment clause, they may not endorse a single religion (the Supreme Court has many times over confirmed that if public institutions support one religion, they may not discriminate against others).

What really is at heart here is the idea of “Christian normativity.” In short, this means that people assume that the “default” or dominant faith is the correct one, and should be allowed special privileges denied other groups. You may not see how allowing Christian normativity into public institutions would be a problem, but seeing it from outside the Christian faith, we felt it is problematic. We feel that allowing public institutions to endorse a religion (even in a mild way) would make people not affiliated with that faith feel excluded.

You said other faiths should “respect the dominant culture,” and I think this is where we would most disagree. One could make an argument that teacher-led Christian prayer should be allowed in schools, since it would show respect for the “dominant religion.” The Supreme Court, however, has argued that mandated, teacher-led prayer in schools is unconstitutional, regardless of whether or not a majority of the students are Christian.

We rallied behind Festivus first of all because it was fun, and to poke fun at the ridiculous nature of the controversy. No one is offended by what the sign says, but rather that it is posted on government property. We also did it because we felt it would be a non-threatening way to point out the exclusionary sign at the firehouse and get people to think about what it would mean if the government was endorsing certain religions, but not others. Should the government be in the business of picking and choosing which religions should be displayed on their property? Personally, I feel it can be problematic, because of the multitude of faiths that exist. I would prefer that government stays out of the religion game altogether, but if it does begin to support a religion, it should be open to all religions, without denying access to any one religion. We felt that the firehouse was not open, inclusive and representative of the community in which is resides. It doesn’t even represent all of the firefighters at the station (we spoke with one firefighter who I shall not name here who does not like the sign and thinks the department has crossed the line from decorating into proselytizing).

You raised a lot of questions in your piece; who is Kevin Nugent? Why the ties to activism? Is this a real event? What was the message? Just about all of these questions can be answered in one sentence: it was satire. Yes, it was a fun and silly event, but it was meant to get people to think about the establishment clause from another angle. I make no effort to hide the fact that I am an activist and a professor of political science, and I even actively encourage my students to get involved in events in the community (events that I both agree with and disagree with).

It seems as though you are very quick to defend Christian speech, but quick to dismiss our right to hold a satirical event. America is great because it allows everyone the freedom of speech and religion, and no one is forced to respect any one religion. A democracy should not be judged by the rights and protections granted to the majority, but to the minority. Dissent is the most patriotic thing a citizen can engage in.

Anonymous said...

Well said, Kevin.
Your response to this issue was far better than a protest of a negative nature, calling for the sign to be taken down. It's amazing how many people still don't get it. Keep up the good work.

Strikeslip said...

Thank you, Mr. Nugent, for responding to my post. I appreciate hearing from “the other side,” especially when the response is respectful, serious and well thought-out.

Why do people feel that the “Happy Birthday Jesus” sign is inappropriate when the public holiday of CHRISTmas IS the celebration of the birth of Jesus? We celebrate with public holidays the birthdays of other persons who have had a much lesser impact on the world than Jesus. If the fire house displayed a “Happy Birthday George” sign on February 22 would there still be a problem?

The “Festivus” celebration may have been intended to be satire, however, it was satire directed at marginalizing the message of the firefighters by making fun of what they have done. From that perspective it can be viewed not only as disrespect and intolerance for their beliefs, but as hate speech even though the participants may not have intended it that way. If any public funds were involved in promoting this marginalization – which is common on campuses – it could also be viewed as an unconstitutional act. A firehouse, after all, is not only a public building but it is also where the firefighters live when they are on call. Should we also ban such decorations at public housing?

If the Happy Birthday sign is “exclusionary,” by the same definition would not raising the Irish Flag at City Hall on St. Patrick's Day or the Italian Flag on Columbus Day without raising the national flags of all other ethnicities in the Utica population also be “exclusionary? ” Only persons who view life through a lens of constant class struggle view things in such a fashion.

People in this country have the right to demonstrate for causes they believe in – but demonstrators should expect to be judged for the likely consequences of their actions. As explained in the main post above, here the likely result would be either removing expressions of faith from the public square – which is the loss of a constitutional right -- or turning Utica's melting pot into a bunch of competing factions. For me, neither is acceptable

Kevin Nugent said...

I feel as though you are interpreting our satirical event as far more sinister than it actually was. Sure, it was trolling, but it was meant to be light-hearted and fun (that was even one of the first things that came up in the planning stages, was that it was to first and foremost be fun). We used the event not to ask the sign be removed, but just that they think about how diverse Utica is and what responsibilities fall on public officials in such a diverse community. We knew some people would view it as an attack, even though it was not intended as such, but there's nothing we could do about how people will take it.

You had mentioned before that in a melting pot, those who enter should respect the "dominant culture." I would argue that by definition, a "melting pot" has no one dominant culture, but is made up of many.

The "Happy Birthday Jesus" sign, in my mind, is inappropriate not because of what it says or when it was posted, but rather where it was posted. If it had been posted on private property, there would be no controversy. I would also say that I only consider it inappropriate if the department refused to post other religious displays, as this would be showing preference for a single religion. To their credit, they let us post the Festivus pole, though it was gone within an hour. We wanted to use the Festivus pole as a representation of all of the religions in Utica which were not being represented.

I also want to reiterate that no one I know is outraged by the sign. Some of us feel it is inappropriate based on the nature of the funding of the firehouse, but no one thinks is a huge deal, aside from a potential mild breach of the establishment clause.

You also have to understand how people outside of the Christian faith view things and their experiences. Atheists are often maligned as overly sensitive to perceived injustices, and they probably are. If they seem primed to overreact to things, it is because out-of-the closet atheists are treated very poorly not only in this country, but around the world. There are currently at least seven states in the US where atheists are barred from running for elected office, since there are religious tests in place where you must proclaim your belief in god to be sworn in. The arguments used to defend these religious tests for office are almost identical to those used to defend the "Jesus" sign, ie Christianity is the dominant faith, just get over it, it's tradition, etc. I would also point out that these religious tests for office are blatantly unconstitutional based on Article 6, paragraph 3 of the constitution.

Despite the narrative that there is Christian persecution in the US, Christians control every elected body in the United States, from the local level on up to the federal level. All we ask is that you be mindful that not everyone agrees with you and that there is space for everyone in the public square, not just the "dominant culture."

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

The professor seems has too much time on his hands; teaching more classes might be the medicine. He also confuses a religion with Christianity in a Founder/Constitutional sense. Christianity is not a religion but a grouping of religions and people who believe in Christ. As pointed out, a federal national holiday marks the birthday of Christ. A sign on any property, government or not, simply notes that nationally designated birthday. The professor would be better aimed to write his Congressman to urge legislation to rid the nation of the national holiday of celebration. Better yet, he should just spend his time on other matters. The bottom line is that the so called "satire" bombed. But, most professors these days do not have much of a sense of humor anyway.