The merging of church and state has become something of a yearly tradition for the miniscule, economy-less town of Pitman NJ. Founded as a summer retreat for religious fundamentalists in the 19th century, the town, with its religious majority, is known for its flagrant disregard and contempt for anything non-Christian. Just this past Tuesday, for example, two fundamentalists attempted to burn down a pro secular Christmas sign, nearly setting ablaze a patch of forest located behind the billboard. Their anger was likely sparked by recent criticism of a blatantly pro Christian banner hung every year by the local Knights of Columbus, which reads "Keep Christ in Christmas" and is displayed across the town's main road, just feet from the town's center and police station.
Within the past few years, however, an anti-cult organization known as the Freedom From Religion Foundation, has organized demonstrations and purchased billboards, such as the one violently torched by citizens of Pitman, confidently yet respectfully contradicting the illegal melding of church and state committed by Pitman for nearly half a century. In their most recent attempt to stand up for the US constitution, the FFRF has taken legal action against the town of Pitman, claiming that the town's one and only religious banner hanging across the most focal point of the town, is tantamount to state endorsement of religion.
After initially ignoring attempts by the FFRF to determine the legality of the banner, mayor Mike Batten gave in and commented on the issue, but only after local media coverage brought unwanted attention to the town. His statements, however, raise alarming questions about his anti-constitutional, pro-religious mindset and his ability to govern according to US law. He stated casually, "This town's roots are in a Methodist camp meeting.. It's sad, because the beginning of our town was religious and we have 13 churches. And I'm surprised because a banner has hung there for many years and we've never heard complaints before." In essence, his view seems to be that the town should be exempt from US law, since they've been religious, and hung banners, for a long time.
But it gets worse. As if unabashedly brushing aside the US constitution wasn't enough of a dereliction of official duty, the town of Pitman actually employed a lawyer, Brian Duffield, to put forward a more dubious defense of the banner. He argued that since the banner is technically hung on one side from a private building and on the other side from a telephone pole owned by Verizon, the fact that it's the one and only giant banner authorized to be displayed in the heart of the town shouldn't mean that the town is favoring a religion. The implication of his argument seems to be that if a banner or sign is attached to private property, it can invade any amount of public space without the town having any say in the matter. Perhaps in anticipation of criticism of this evasive legal argument, Duffield reluctantly acknowledged that the town does in fact have jurisdiction over signs hung in public places, by way of zoning permits. Duffield then made assurances that "whoever put it up will be asked if they have a permit." He did not specify why the town of Pitman would need to ask the Knights of Columbus if they obtained a permit, rather than simply checking for the existence of such a permit themselves. Could it be that the Pitman zoning board can't be bothered with something as seemingly trivial as making sure they're following the law?