December 10, 2001
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Imagine my surprise when I saw the following inscription on a walkway outside
the brand new public library: "Christ Died For Our Sins. He Rose Again. 1 Cor
15:3-4." I rubbed my eyes in hopes that I was hallucinating, but the message was
still there when I stopped.
King County's new Redmond Regional Library is right next door to the old one. The new building is an attractive addition to the city of Redmond, Washington, and it's located on a busy street about a block from city hall. The walkways along three sides of the library contain 3,000 square red bricks.
I learned that the Friends of the Redmond Library (FRL) were selling engraved messages on these bricks as a fundraising effort for the new building. The tiles were 6" by 6" and cost $40, $45, or $50, depending on the length of the caption. There were norepeat, norestrictions on the content of the messages.
Plague of Jesus Bricks
When I first saw the "Christ" brick on that fateful day in early 2000, only about one-third of the bricks had inscriptions. Those that had messages were closest to the library's two entrances. The FRL told me that there would be another engraving during the summer or fall. Future engravings would apparently spread outward from the entrances to the side streets. So the "Christ" brick, being part of the first engraving, was very close to one of the entrances, only about 20 feet away. A very prominent location.
But that wasn't the only brick with religious wording. Located near the opposite entrance, also only about 20 feet from the door, was this brick: "Christ Is Risen. He Is Risen, Indeed." Another brick encouraged patrons to "Read About Jesus." Another: "Read Your Bible; Prevent Truth Decay." Another tile read, "Thy Word Is A Lamp To My Feet And Light For My Path." Still another: "Psalms 119:160. All Your Words Are True." And, of course, there was a "John 3:16" brick.
It was like a plague! And there were about 2,000 blank bricks remaining, all waiting to be infected with more of this religious proselytizing! I began to have visions of Redmond pastors telling their congregations all about the new library and suggesting that everyone buy a brick for Jesus. Can you imagine a public library surrounded by thousands of "Jesus Loves You" tiles? That thought might keep you awake at nights, so I suggest you repress it immediately.
The library's fundraiser on the face of it was a great idea, at least the way the FRL and the King County Library System (KCLS) likely envisioned it. They probably thought the vast majority of people would place their family names on the bricks to show their support for the library. Perhaps they thought a few might engrave pleasant "We love books" messages. And there are many tiles with exactly that.
The mistake the library made was not placing any restrictions on the content. Perhaps it should have had a guideline that prohibited political, religious, and vulgar messages. Or perhaps it should have had an even more restrictive policy where only family names were allowed. But the library didn't think it through and opened the floodgates. And now we have several Jesus bricks on the grounds of the libraryand more to comeand they will stay there as long as the library stands. That didn't sit well with me.
Plan A: Remove the Religious Bricks!
So I decided on a two-prong attack. First, I would attempt to get the religious tiles removed. If that failed, I would then test the content-neutral policy of the library by purchasing my very own engraved bricks and suing the library if it refused my requests.
So in May 2000, I wrote a letter to Bill Ptacek, the director of the KCLS, saying that the "Christian inscriptions on government property are a blatant violation of the separation of church and state." I mentioned that the Supreme Court had let stand a ruling that allowed a school to ban a citizen from displaying the Ten Commandments on the school's baseball field fence, even though the citizen was willing to pay for the message and even though the school had accepted nonreligious messages (Di Loreto v. Downey Unified School District). So if that school could ban religious messages from its fence, the library could certainly ban religious messages from its walkways. I asked that the religious tiles be removed immediately.
Ptacek responded in a timely manner but said that the library and its grounds served as a public forum, thus the KCLS could not "restrict speech in public areas except to serve a compelling governmental interest." The religious tiles would stay.
I have a problem with authority, so I pursued the matter by writing to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). In my letter, I explained why I thought the public forum argument wasn't sufficient in this case:
"A citizen can certainly display a temporary sign in a public forum such as Washington DC's Lafayette Park, but that doesn't mean a citizen can purchase a permanent structure inscribed with Christian verses (e.g., Ten Commandments) and have it placed forever in that public park. Also, according to KCLS's logic, a library could constitutionally sell sections of wall space and allow citizens to permanently place the Ten Commandments on the internal or external walls of the library. This would be a clear violation, regardless of whether the inscriptions were purchased by the government or by a private citizen."
Okay, How about a Disclaimer
The ACLU didn't agree that the religious bricks should be removed (or at least it thought the courts would not agree). But the ACLU did think a prominent disclaimer should be posted near the bricks to indicate that the government did not sponsor the inscriptions.
ACLU attorney Aaron Caplan wrote to Ptacek in June, asking for a disclaimer. In the letter, Caplan explained that a 1995 case (Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board v. Pinette) "makes clear the need for a disclaimer where private religious speech in a public forum consists of structural displays." Caplan even suggested wording for the disclaimer.
Caplan also creatively pointed out (with a hint of humor) that the library had opened a Pandora's box:
"The Friends of the Library web site does not provide any subject matter limitation or other guidelines. Thus, the library would accept tiles that said both 'Jesus Saves' or 'Religion is the Opiate of the Masses.' In a designated public forum operated on the content-neutral principles you describe, the library would also be obliged to display tiles that said 'Keep Abortion Legal,' 'US Out of UN,' 'Vote Jones for County Commissioner,' 'Jimmy Is A Creep,' 'White Power,' 'The Holocaust Is A Hoax,' or 'Overdue Fees At This Library Are Too High.'"
On July 3, 2000, attorneys for the KCLS replied to Caplan: "While the Library District does not agree with the legal conclusions in your letter, the Library District is willing to provide a disclaimer regarding sponsorship of the tiles." The wording was almost identical to that proposed by Caplan:
"About the Tiles: The inscribed tiles you see on the walkway were purchased by individual library supporters, who chose the messages. The views expressed on the tiles are those of the sponsors, not the King County Library System. To sponsor additional tiles, contact the Library staff or the Friends of the Redmond Library."
The library placed this disclaimer on two 11 1/2" by 11 1/2" plaques, one near each entrance to the library.
Plan B: Get My Own Bricks! (Insert Evil Laughter Here)
So I didn't succeed in getting the offensive tiles removed, but at least it is now abundantly clear that the government didn't sponsor the religious messages.
Onto the second part of my strategy! I now filled out order forms for four bricks of my very own and sent them to the FRL. I decided that my messages had to pushif not exceedthe boundaries of good taste. Why? Because if the County decided it couldn't bear to have my words appear on its property, then I hoped the libraryknowing that the ACLU was breathing down its backwould reverse its decision, remove the religious bricks, and henceforth refuse to accept any religion-related messages (including mine).
Less ideally, the library might refuse to engrave my messages but keep the religious tiles, in which case the ACLU would likely have threatened a lawsuit.
The third option was that the library would actually accept my requests. In that case, the library would learn that its free-for-all collection of commemorative bricks was a bad idea, and perhaps the KCLS would discourage other libraries from making the same mistake.
The result? The library mailed me a confirmation letter and subsequently engraved my messages in the fall of 2000, exactly as ordered and without any complaint whatsoever! Here, without further ado, are my four messages that now appear permanently (barring any God-inspired vandalism) on the library's walkway, sorted from least to most offensive:
(1) First Amendment: Keep Church & State Separate
(2) Evolution Is A Fact. Read About It.
(3) Jehovah, Allah, Zeus, Thor & Brahma. They're All Myths.
(4) God Kills Babies. Read 1 Samuel 15:3. And God Is Love??
I hasten to add that I never would have dreamed of placing such inscriptions on the grounds of a library under normal circumstances. I don't think it's the place for personal sentiments, especially controversial ones. Yes, my statements are true (well, okay, God didn't actually kill babies because he doesn't exist), but I don't normally go out of my way to offend. However, if Christians (or any other religious folks) decide to shove their religion down my throat, and if the government facilitates their efforts, then I'm going to play ball, too. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.
The More the Merrier
By the way, when I mailed in my brick orders, I also encouraged other nonreligious folks to buy tiles. You will not be shocked to learn that our very own FFRF purchased a tile: "Freedom From Religion Foundation. WWW.FFRF.ORG". I was very pleased to see the name and Internet address of our fine organization etched permanently in the walkway. I can easily imagine curious library patrons writing down the web address and visiting the site to learn more about our group.
Others who took me up on my suggestion had this witty message engraved: "With Soap, Baptism Is A Good Thing. Robert Ingersoll."
As expected, the latest engraving also added at least one other religious brick: "God Can Change Life." I am very happy to report that the Gods of Juxtaposition smiled upon me and placed that tile directly next to my "God Kills Babies" tile. It's a beautiful sight.
Other Cases: Public Schools and Public Park
Raising money through bricks or tiles is apparently becoming a popular activity. And it has spawned other controversies. In October 1999, the Rutherford Institute sued Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, for removing ceramic tiles that contained religious content.1 The tiles had been purchased by friends and relatives of students murdered by Klebold and Harris. The tiles had been placed above lockers in the school's hallways. One tile said, "Jesus Christ Is Lord." Another said, "There Is No Peace, Says The Lord, For The Wicked."
The Rutherford Institute also sued an upstate New York public school in September 2000 after the school removed bricks with messages such as "Jesus Saves" and "Jesus Christ Is The Lord Of This School."2 A Jewish woman had complained about the Christian inscriptions, so the school placed a disclaimer near the walkway: "The messages on this walk are the personal expressions and contributions of the individuals of Mexico Academy and Central School Community." The woman then decided to buy a tile that said, "Keep Abortion Legal." Realizing that it had stepped into a quagmire, the school refused her request, removed the previously accepted religious bricks, and forbade such inscriptions in the future. That's when the Rutherford Institute stepped in.
In June 2000, the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), a group founded by Pat Robertson, sued a school district in Tennessee to force the inclusion of a brick at the entrance of the new Westview Elementary School.3 The brick in question contained the name of a student along with the words "To the Glory of God." Although the school had placed no restrictions on the content of the bricks, the school excluded the brick for fear it would indicate governmental endorsement of religion. But in August, under pressure from the ACLJ, the school district reversed its decision, installed the brick, and paid the ACLJ $7,500 in court costs.
Early in the heated debate, the principal of Westview, Margo Williams, observed, "If we allow something about God, a Satan worshiper could expect the same thing. If we do it for one, we would have to do it for all. And we would be mortified if that happened." ACLJ representative Stuart Roth responded by saying, "If they countered with the hypothetical parade of horribles, that's never enough to violate somebody's freedom of speech. There are always opinions we don't like. That's what happens when you live in a free society."
I'm going to save Roth's quote, because if the ACLJ ever sues the Redmond Library for displaying bricks that are deemed offensive to Christians, I plan to throw his statement back in the ACLJ's face.
The city of Newburyport, Massachusetts, also found itself embroiled in controversy when it removed two commemorative bricks from the city's Woodman Park. The city had not placed restrictions on content, but removed the two bricks"Jesus Loves You" and "For All The Unborn Children"in response to citizen complaints. In January 2001, the ACLJ once again reared its ugly head with a federal lawsuit that demanded the return of the two bricks to the park's walkway.4
Ben Bull of the ACLJ stated, "The heavy hand of censorship of the local government has no place in quashing a person's religious expression." Of course, local governments have no business placing permanent Christian inscriptions on public property, either.
Hurry While Supplies Last!
By the way, more than a thousand bricks are still available at the Redmond Library. Feel free to download the order form from the Redmond Library's website at : www.kcls.org/red/tilesale.html and get your own personal message inscribed. Sure, Christians will step all over your brick, but they won't like it one bit!
Addendum -- December 11, 2001: As a result of reading the original story, several others ordered their own library tiles, including "Religion Is Poison In Your Mind" and "Sexism: The Original Sin." On September 2, 2001, I mailed an order for three more bricks, as well. Almost two months later, on October 30, the FRL mailed my order forms and check back to me and informed me that the brick program had been suspended on September 1 (the day before I mailed my order) "in order to reconsider our pricing, our public relations approach, the projects benefited by our program and the program guidelines. We expect to reinstate the tile program with some changes in the 1st quarter of 2002."
The FRL indicated that one of the possible revisions will be to limit brick inscriptions to names. If that turns out to be the case, then apparently the library's devotion to its content-neutral "public forum" idea has crumbled in the face of a continuing stream of content it doesn't like. If the Redmond Library does indeed close the Pandora's box it naively opened, then I hope it will warn other government agencies about the dangers of anything-goes policies, thus keeping religious messages in the private sphere where they belong, not permanently engraved on government property, which belongs to all of us.
Matthew Barry is a member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation who lives in the state of Washington. This article was originally published in the June/July issue of the foundation's magazine, Freethought Today. It is re-published by permission of the author and courtesy of the publisher.
Please, DO NOT steal, scavenge or repost this work without the expressed written authorization of Swans, which will seek permission from the author. This material is copyrighted, © Matthew Barry 2001. All rights reserved.
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