The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty on Monday named the Wisconsin Department of Administration the 2013 Ebenezer Award recipient for its “Flying Spaghetti Monster” display in the Wisconsin Capitol building.
The Becket Fund’s annual honor—given each year since 2000 to “the most ridiculous affront to Christmas or Hanukkah celebrations”—went to the Wisconsin agency after it allowed a group to display a sign featuring a clump of spaghetti and meatballs with the caption: “He boiled for your sins. Be touched by his noodly appendage before it is too late.”
The group Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison is responsible for the sign, which it said is a protest against public displays on government property that acknowledge the roots of the Christmas season—or any other holiday. “Think this is ridiculous? We agree!” the sign reads at the bottom. “Religious ideas should not be promoted within the halls of government. Protect the separation of church and state, it protects us all.”
Kristina Arriaga, executive director of the Becket Fund, said “massive confusion” exists regarding normal expressions of religious belief in the public square. She said one type of public display does not automatically open public spaces to any kind of free speech exercises.
Arriaga said a jazz concert in New York City’s Central Park doesn’t deny the existence of rock and roll, any more than it has to be accompanied by classical and rock concerts.
“Everyone in Chicago recognizes St. Patrick’s Day is a great cultural celebration, and not an attempt to convert everybody to become Irish Catholic,” she added.
In February, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the Freedom from Religion Foundation, which tried to force the city of Warren, Mich., to include an atheistic message along with a Nativity scene and other holiday displays. The court’s opinion said the Constitution “does not convert [holiday] displays into a seasonal public forum, requiring governments to add all comers to the mix and creating a poison pill for even the most secular displays in the process.”
Arriaga said the 6th Circuit decision was great, but it’s only useful if people know the law. “Confusion in this realm can be extraordinarily dangerous,” she said. “Local officials need to educate themselves and understand the nature of the First Amendment.”
In the Wisconsin case, Arriaga said she partly blames Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who many believe may be a candidate for president in 2016. She said when the governor walks through the Capitol he should recognize a display that is wasting government speech and making a mockery of others’ beliefs.
“I blame him, too,” she said. “It makes me sad that students created this, but it makes me even sadder that the governor’s office didn’t stop it.”
Previous winners of the Becket Fund’s Ebenezer Award include the U.S. Postal Service for banning Christmas carolers and Tyler Moore, an Indiana city commissioner who replaced a traditional holiday display with one featuring a fire truck, a woodpecker, and the Loch Ness monster.
The Becket Fund on Monday also awarded Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee with its annual Eggnog Toast after he revived the use of the term “Christmas tree” this year in place of “holiday tree.” Chaffee said in a statement that using the term “holiday tree” became a “focal point of too much anger” and took away from the festive mood at the state Capitol in Providence.