Why do atheists want to remove the nativity scene from Denver's City Hall? Are they Christmas Grinches with nothing better to do with their time?
Not so, according to Marvin Straus, co-founder of the Boulder Atheist group. There is only one reason to remove the religious icon on public property: separation of church and state.
The Boulder Atheist group was started in 2001 by Mr. Straus and Mr. Simons. Their primary concern was the same then as it is now: keeping church and state separated. The group has two other reasons for existence: creation of social activities and help for those "damaged by religion."
A few years later in 2004, Mr. Straus and others formed COCORE to better coordinate the activities of the various atheistic, freethinking and humanist organizations in the Denver metro area.
The umbrella group is only politically active "when it's appropriate," as their two separate billboard campaigns illustrate. Their message is simple. The first campaign reminded the public that atheists were not alone and could band together. The current campaign argues for separation of church and state in Denver's City Hall (the first billboard went up December 6th).
In a gracious interview, Mr. Straus explained clearly and forthrightly his views on this matter.
Were you always an atheist?
"I was a Christian until I was about 12. I was not only raised in the Bible Belt but I was raised on the buckle of the Bible Belt in Saint Jo (Joseph), Missouri."
He was an inquisitive child, whose curiosities about life were about to come to a head: "There was a significant incident in my life that was probably the linchpin, if you wish. The pastor of the church, his son murdered the church janitor in a most horrible fashion ... even as a child I thought … this is a son of a man of God who's supposed to be having direct communications with God; how could God allow that?"
He found an answer to that question: there was no God.
Different Atheists follow different philosophies of science -- which do you follow?
He was willing to give a more specific answer but admitted: "I’m a rubber-meets-the-road guy; so I’m more involved in the day-to-day things that take place within the community."
Is American Atheism one monolithic group or are there noticeable differences?
Mr. Straus illustrated one such difference by his own actions: "I’ve reacted badly to an atheist going into a school and telling the kids that there was no God. I said you have absolutely no right to do that … I will do everything I can to prevent you from ever doing that again."
With his organization receiving many requests for help from those adversely affected by religion, Mr. Straus admits to succumbing to negativity toward religion. Yet friends have reminded him, "Marvin, you have to remember that there are good religious people out there ... And I have taken that advice to heart."
Why should these displays be removed?
He actually thinks the display is "absolutely lovely."
He also notes that there are two displays: the Christian nativity on the right and the secular elves and Santas on the left. Mr. Straus pointed to the 1984 landmark decision Lynch vs. Donnelly (here), that stated that a nativity was allowable on public property as long as there is "equal seating for everybody at the table."
People have actually prayed at the nativity scene in the past, according to Mr. Straus. So it is "a religious icon; so it is government supported religion." And separation of church and state forbids such icons. "It has nothing to do with signs that say 'Merry Christmas' … it is a religious icon."
In fact, this issue "is the fourth or fifth civil rights movement."
Early America included sponsored religious statements and practices at all levels of government -- what is your view of this?
Yes, the Creator was mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, but “when they got the Constitution and when they got to the Bill of Rights, they did not mention God. And that was a conscious decision."
He sees this time period as a time of transition; such activities reflected the battle at the time.
Then he asked rhetorically, "Why am I doing this? ... I shouldn’t be. I’m not the proper person or organization to be doing this. The proper person or organizations that should be doing this is Christians." It was the Anabaptists of the early 1600s who moved separation of church and state to the forefront (alluding to the book Revolution Within a Revolution, here.)
The larger background of this question -- the "culture wars" -- came to the forefront later in the interview, but without anger: "I hate the term 'this is a Christian nation.' I think it is one of the biggest lies …"
"The fact that they are coming too close" to making this a Christian nation is why "I am an activist." "They [religious right leadership] have turned and wheeled the American churches as they wish."
"I’m talking about Jerry Fawell, Pat Robertson and … Dobson ... basically taking over the leadership of the Republican Party." That is a "mixture of church and state." His evidence is summarized in Blumenthal's book Republican Gomorrah.
Does separation of church and state mean revoking church tax-exemption status (501(c)3)?
He replied that all all such groups can speak against public bills but not against individuals running for public office: "If you want to lose your status, all you have to do is stand up and say ‘vote for John Smith, don’t vote for Mary Jones.'"
His claim is that many churches are violating these conditions.
At the end of the day, the goal of Mr. Straus and those like-minded individuals who payed for this new round of billboards is simple: "I would prefer an absolutely, one-hundred-percent secular government."