For the second year in a row, OMAHA (the Omaha Metro Area Humanist Association) joined four other nontheist groups to set up and host a display in the Nebraska State Capitol building in Lincoln from December 18-26, 2016. The various displays erected feature information on church/state separation, a “Tree of Knowledge” with quotes from well-known scientists, information on humanism, a festive display celebrating HumanLight, an “Ask an Atheist” booth, and even a memorial to “Atheists in Foxholes.” So why did the Omaha Humanists and other local groups decide to erect displays promoting secular ideas and humanist traditions in a government building the same week that Christians celebrate the Christmas holiday?
It all started back in 2012 when a group known as the Thomas More Society opened a chapter in Omaha, Nebraska. One of the items on their list of objectives was to lobby for the right to put up a nativity scene in the Nebraska State Capitol building, which opened in 1932 and had operated for eighty years without any such displays. In 2014, during Christmas week, the first ever nativity scene was erected in the capitol building, complete with a special ceremony featuring Christmas carols and prayers.
Local secular and nontheist organizations were caught by surprise when news of the event aired on local television in Omaha and Lincoln. Unfortunately, by that time it was too late to get the permissions necessary to counter the nativity scene with one promoting science, reason, and secular values. However, the nontheist communities in Lincoln and Omaha were not going to sit idly by and allow this intrusion of religion into our state capitol building to continue without a response. So seven area nontheist groups began planning their displays for Christmas week of 2015.
The capitol exhibit area is in the first floor rotunda, and display space can be requested for any (or for all) of the four available corners of the room. When the time came to submit our request, we asked for all four corners, two for Omaha area nontheist groups and the remaining two corners for Lincoln area nontheist groups. A few months later, when the Thomas More Society submitted their request for display space, Christmas week was unavailable and so they opted to reserve the week prior for their display.
When December 2015 finally rolled around, it wasn’t long before the news media caught wind of the story. Not only was there plenty of outrage that atheists were being allowed to set up displays in the state capitol during Christmas week, the news that there was subsequently no room in the capitol for baby Jesus was particularly galling. Jesus was actually being “kicked out” of the capitol building before Christmas to make room for the atheist’s displays!
This year brought an interesting rule change. We were told that the earliest date to request space in the capitol was adjusted down to just six months (from ten) in advance of an event. Interestingly, when the day came to submit our display request for December 2016, we were informed that two groups had somehow already managed to secure two of the four corners (one group being the Thomas More Society), but we managed to squeeze into the two remaining corners, with five nontheist groups erecting three displays in each.
Even though nativity scenes can be found every December in churches across the country and as part of many neighbors’ outdoor holiday displays, that isn’t enough. The Thomas More Society feels the need to force their religion upon the entire nation by erecting their displays in government buildings and on public lands throughout the United States under the guise of “religious liberty” or religious free speech. But it’s not really about “religious liberty” or the free speech rights of religious groups. Christian’s already have that. It’s about securing “religious privilege” for Christians in the public square. It’s a relentless push toward their goal of replacing our secular government with a Bible-based Christian theocracy.
Our counter displays serve to put groups like the Thomas More Society on notice that the Omaha Metro Area Humanist Association and the other secular and nontheist groups in Nebraska are going to be pushing back. We’d prefer we not have to erect such displays but, as long as there’s a nativity scene in the Nebraska State Capitol, we will be there as well providing the voice of reason advocating for secular government and demonstrating to other like-minded individuals across the state that they are not alone and that, in the state of Nebraska, religion will not be the sole voice in the public square.