Venice on the web
A semi-regular column
Atheism, Theism and Huntism
An atheist faces off against a local Baptist church; at issue is the separation of Hunt and state
-- John Patten, 04/20/03
Got a comment? Make it here.
Rather than rehash the whole story, here's a link to Patricia Garlausky Horwell's article Removal of Signs Ends Dispute in the Venice Gondolier. It's a pretty good article, and it'll give you all the background for what I am writing about.
This space for rent
Christians and atheists have recently been pitted against each other in a war of words over simple sign placements. A noted local atheist, retired attorney Charles Cheves, feels that the line is blurring between state and church when the city allows signs with spiritual content to be placed on city property. Christians, in turn, are up in arms over the heavy handed slaps they feel they are receiving for merely trying to fulfill the Great Commission.
What's really strange: both sides are absolutely right. I see clearly the argument each side is making, and both sides have valid arguments that are hard to negate. That said, this whole mess could have been simply avoided with a small amount of common sense on the part of City Manager George Hunt. I know, in that request, I am clearly asking for too much.
Make no mistake - this particular tempest in a teapot has A LOT of people very upset with each other. You start telling people how or what they believe and how they can or can't express themselves, they are going to get peeved. This has been a created controversy, another moronic foray by Hunt into meddling with public policy issues when he is clearly out of touch with the general public and the law.
The First Baptist Church in downtown Venice wanted to show support for our troops in Iraq and at the same time get the word out that Jesus loves everyone. Fine. Great. That's one of the many proper internally defined functions of a Christian church, and they have every right to do so. The church asked if they could put some of their signs in the public right of way. Again, no problem, they had every right (and moral mandate from their perspective) to ask.
In yet another case of George Hunt letting concepts like "due process" fly out the window, Hunt agreed to let them put signs with strong religious messages on city owned land.
So, First Baptist, empowered with the feeling that we live in a Godly city with a Godly City Manager, proudly placed their signs with a mixed message of politics and religion all over their lawn and in the public right of way. Signs like "Jesus is our Supreme Commander" suddenly appeared on city land.
Why is this problematic?
Krishna is our Supreme Commander?
As an extreme example, suppose Hunt had approved a sign that read "Krishna is our Supreme Commander." How many Baptists would have been ticked off about that? Lots of them, I assure you. They would have been furious that the city had sanctioned religious statements from a faith system that Baptists believe is of the devil. Baptists (and everyone else) would have been completely right and justified in storming city hall with shouted questions about why Hunt had sanctioned one particular religion or denomination.
What Hunt should have done was either say no to all the signs on the public right of way or made sure that any sign on the right of way would contain no spiritual overtones. The Baptists could have placed their signs on their own property with one or two generic signs in the right of way as an advertising tease to read the rest of the signs. End of controversy.
Instead, Cheves is very unhappy and the Baptists are righteously ticked. All of them have a right to feel angry. Cheves feels that he shouldn't have to tolerate state sanctioned religion. The Baptists feel that they are getting slammed for following the rules as laid out to them when they asked for permission for a variance and received it in a lawful manner.
Cheves goes over the top, proves his own point
Using a transparent two-wrongs-make-a-right argument that a third-grader would have seen through, Cheves pushed for a permit to place signs in front of the church with phrases on them like "There is no God" and "Religion is superstition." Instead of admitting a mistake, apologizing for it and slamming the door shut, Hunt created even more church and state controversy by allowing Cheves' permit, igniting a city-wide theological flame war just before the Passover/Easter high holidays.
The end result: parishioners had to walk past signs reading "There is no God" in order to enter and exit the church's main entrance. Nice work, George. Very nice. That'll calm the masses, for sure.
The existence of Cheves' signs prove the point about what a flake Hunt can be in dealing with the public. Hunt never saw the irony in Cheves' permit, instead he was blindly buffaloed into going along for the ride and wrongly allowed Cheves' signs to go onto the public right of way, just as he had wrongly allowed the First Baptist Church to do the same thing.
Hunt never saw it coming, although he's continuing to feel the heat.
The Fight Between Carnival and Lent
Perhaps a framed copy of a print of Pieter Bruegel's 1559 painting The Fight Between Carnival And Lent should be on permanent display at city hall as a reminder of why government shouldn't meddle in religion.
We don't need a separation of church and state. The constitution, and numerous court decisions over the years, have hammered out what limits a government has in meddling with religious issues. The legal line continues to be moved back and forth as new decisions are handed down, but the line is there. A little common sense goes a long way in avoiding controversies like the present one.
What we need is a separation of Hunt and state.
John Patten is the editor and publisher of Venice Florida! dot com and had previously worked in broadcasting for over 12 years. He can also be incredibly rude at times.