Cutting Down the Tree of Knowledge

The ongoing saga for The Freethought Society to have the Tree of Knowledge—an evergreen tree decorated with atheist and freethought-themed books and a widely accepted symbol of the nontheist community—displayed alongside other theistic symbols at the winter holiday display in Chester County, Pennsylvania, has taken a turn for the worse. Just this past month, Commissioners Kathi Cozzone and Terence Farrell denied Margaret Downey, founder of The Freethought Society, and her permit application to place a Tree of Knowledge at the winter holiday display. The first year that the Tree of Knowledge was on display in 2007, it experienced eight incidents of vandalism; the second year, four incidents; the third year, none.

On first glance, it would appear as if this decision was made fairly recently, but this ordeal took root years ago. Philadelphia Examiner reporter Carol Roper wrote that, in 2010, former Commissioner Colin Hanna and leader of The Pastors’ Network didn’t bother to attend a meeting regarding an important resolution, as the office of the Chester County Commissioners found a way to keep nontheists from participating in the Winter Holiday community event and display. According to Secular News Daily, passing Resolution 58-10 would authorize Chester County to “acquire such holiday decorations and displays and erect and maintain such decorations and displays as it determines appropriate on the grounds of the Chester County historic courthouse consistent with and as otherwise constitutionally permitted by applicable law.” When Resolution 58-10 was passed by a vote of 2-1 on November 18, 2010, the progress that was made in increasing tolerance, understanding and acceptance ground to an abrupt halt. In place of inclusion and celebration of diversity within the community came the sole authorization of the Commissioners to make a determination which displays would be permitted.

The Freethought Society's Tree of Knowledge

The Freethought Society’s Tree of Knowledge

Although Resolution 58-10 conforms to the guidelines written in the 1984 United States Supreme Court case Lynch v. Donnelly, if Chester County follows them in the most restrictive way possible, it would also imply that the nontheist community will be prone to an exceptionally demeaning representation. I personally wrote to Commissioners Cozzone and Farrell over a month ago to express my concerns that symbols such as plastic candy canes or Santa Claus displayed to fulfill the minimal legal requirement for a “nontheistic balance” do not provide a meaningful representation of the nontheistic community, and that the consideration to display a Christmas tree, Crèche and Hanukah Menorah didn’t provide equal consideration or opportunity for our Buddhist friends to commemorate Rohatsu, HumanLight for humanists, or Pancha Ganapati for Hindus.

For the Chester County commissioners to deny the application of the Tree of Knowledge relegates the nontheistic community yet again to second-class status. I wrote again to Commissioners Cozzone and Farrell on December 1 with my concerns and respectfully requested that the Commissioners either reconsider the application for the Tree of Knowledge, or if they were to continue with their rejection of the application, to provide both Downey and me with a reason. Neither Cozzone nor Farrell responded to my emailed inquiry for comment.

The Commissioners have failed to recognize that the symbolic Tree of Knowledge isn’t about some knowledge of good and evil as is described in the Hebrew Bible (Genesis 2:17: “But you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will surely die”). To have the Tree of Knowledge isn’t a step towards destruction of a community. Rather, it is a broad-reaching celebration of the knowledge of human endeavors over the years through science, art, literature, the humanities, engineering, and civics, among other things. To favor a couple of theistic symbols in the winter holiday display is an affront to the diverse demographics of people with sincerely held beliefs who call Chester County their home, as it sends out a message of exclusion during a season of inclusion.

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  • okieggma

    All these people who think the United States should be a theocracy best think again…..stay out of my government and I will stay out of your church.

  • William Valenti

    No man’s god owns the Golden Rule.

  • William Bivens

    To not include when requested is to exclude. We know where they stand now. What are we going to do about it? We could move to eliminate all such displays as they are inherently discriminatory to those not included.

  • Fred Haslitt

    All these people who think that the U.S isn’t a christian nation! Should listen to the cult of hate leader annie laurie gaylor as she gets her ass handed to her.

    • Robert Fielder

      You already know the answer to your absurd statement. We are a country that allows freedom of religion by the constitution, you’re sky fairy is no better than any other.

  • Dr Jason D Heap
  • Lefty Blitzer

    These pukes are anti-American TRAITORS and it is time they were treated as such.

    • William Bivens

      I am for freedom from religion or any other tyranny of the mind. I was also an US Army Reserve Captain. I would defend your liberty to believe as you choose. A true patriot would defend my liberty to do likewise.

  • Phil Rounds

    I like the TOK concept. Why not associate it with the Winter Solstice as a further affirmation of it’s rational, scientific and all-inclusive nature? I think we can all agree that Solstice is a real event that ALL the world shares regardless of ideology.

  • CCHumanists

    Has there still been no response from Cozzone or Farrell ?

    • Dr Jason D Heap

      None to my knowledge, and none to the emails that I wrote to them. If we do hear from any of the three commissioners, will post them as an addendum to this article for the sake of transparency and clear communication. 🙂

  • Bob

    No doubt hypocrites like Cozzone and Farrell throw around words like “liberty” and “freedom of religion” and pretend to believe them. This goes beyond duplicity. This is just plain slimy.

  • William Bivens

    I seriously considered setting up a Tree of Knowledge, but decided against it. The Christmas tree is a sacred object/image/icon for many people. By using that same icon in an oppositional way, are we not insulting their beliefs and them by association? I understand the anger that resulted. Isn’t it a better policy to establish our own icon independently of any other group? Maybe we could use the lightbulb as our symbol and put our display of images on it? That would probably avoid the backlash while we get our point across.

    • Dr Jason D Heap

      It is interesting to point out that there has been NO “backlash” from groups who associate a tree/log/natural object as ‘sacred,’ but only from Christian groups for whom the tree is a Victorian-imported northern Continental European idea, perhaps reaching as far back as Martin Luther. It is a fact of history that a “Christmas tree” isn’t a long-standing tradition, nor does it have any particular Judaeo-Christian theological belief associated with it. Had any pagan, WICCAn, Druid, or naturalistic-based group objected to the use of a symbol such as a tree, I would have mentioned it in the article.

      I can say, however, that the response we have received in support of the Tree of Knowledge has been ovewhelmingly positive, even with theistic people saying “I’ve noticed you’ve included The Bible, the Gita, and the TeNaKh on the Tree. You’ve noticed that religious belief has added to human knowledge. Thanks!” How much more all-inclusive could the Tree be?