Thursday, March 20, 2008

Tax Dollars for Religion

Every year, the City of Redmond, Washington sponsors an Easter Egg hunt for children (the "Eggstravaganza") on the day before Easter. It sounds like a fun event -- for those who celebrate Easter. But I'd like to know why my tax dollars are paying for a religious event. The planners apparently think they have morphed it into a non-religious event by not using the word "Easter" in the title or publicity. I think that's hogwash.

When I was young, I saw my parents and others fighting for the rights guaranteed in the First Amendment. They were doing it for me. I thought to myself that their fight would mean that I wouldn't have to do the same thing when I grew up. Boy, was I wrong.

While this post is largely about a specific event in Redmond, Washington, the problem and my commentary is pretty universal -- from the Bush White House to cities across America, the First Amendment is routinely ignored. And those people doing the ignoring have a lot of reasons. Let's take a look at some of the ones for this event:

It's not an Easter event. Then why is held the day before Easter every year? Coincidence?

Easter isn't even mentioned. I haven't been to the event, so I don't know if that's true, but it's irrelevant. If we have a tree decorated with ornaments, a visit from Santa Claus, and we exchange presents on December 25th, do I have to tell you that it's Christmas?

Eggs were part of spring celebrations before Easter; Christians appropriated the symbols. Sure, that's all true -- most celebrations and symbols from most religions were appropriated from things that came before them. Why does that matter? The fact is that Easter eggs and the Easter Bunny are now part of the Easter celebration.

It's not promoting religion. If you make this argument, I'm sure you believe it. But that doesn't matter much -- the question is not whether you think it's religious, but whether it promotes the religion or precepts of the religion to anybody. Like perhaps impressionable young children, who could easily come away with the idea that Easter (and therefore, Christianity) is a good thing -- after all, they got free candy.

It's not very religious. There's no "very" test in the constitution. You can't be constitutional by only promoting a religion a little bit.

It's all in fun. Funny, but I don't remember the part in the Bill of Rights that says we don't have to follow the constitution if it's done in fun.

It's not a city event -- it's run by the Redmond Senior Center. The Senior Center is part of the city. If they are running the event, then it's a city event. The city's web site says it's sponsored by the city.

It's not a Senior Center event -- it's run by some seniors and they have a right to do it. If a select group of citizens wish to run an event, religious or otherwise, then I'm not going to stand in their way. They certainly have a right to do it. But they need to rent the facilities, like any other group (this is pretty explicit in Washington State law), and city staff and resources can't be used to organize or promote the event.

It's not funded by the city. Yes it is. The Senior Center is the city. Earmarking funds for a specific group within the city doesn't change the fact that they are public funds. There's a fee for the Eggstravaganza and those collected fees become city property. Where does that money go?

Here's a test that I like to use.

Substitute the KKK, Nazis, or Devil Worshippers into any situation and see if you have a problem with it. If you do, then it's not ok. You can run through the arguments above and see if you think they would allow the city to sponsor a KKK event. Or you can try this:

The City of Redmond sponsors a KKK ________ every year at the Redmond Senior Center. Your kids can even ________ with Mr. Nazi.

Fill in each blank with the worst thing that you can think of that would fit what you know of these groups. Now take away the words KKK and Nazi, but leave the filled-in blanks. Does that make the idea any less offensive? Or any more legal?

To be clear, I have no problem with the existence of Easter Egg hunts (or any other religious activities). As I said at the top, I'm sure that kids who celebrate Easter find them fun. Whatever your religion is, I will fight for your right to practice it. But, I definitely have a problem with public funds being used for any religious purpose, no matter what the religion is.

Whether you are religious or not, whether you are Christian or Muslim or Jewish or Baha'i or Pagan, your freedom is diminished whenever the government promotes any religion.


darrellp said...

I am in total agreement that our dollars shouldn't fund religious events - I'm in atheistic agreement thus far. However, I disagree with you on this event (and similar ones).

I think you err with your argument that is is, in fact, "religious". Your test for a "religious" event is "whether it promotes the religion or precepts of the religion to anybody". That would pretty much include any charitable event in which any individual thought to themselves "This is a reminder to me of the charity spoken of in the Bible". If you argue "No - it's not in the individual, it's in the promotion" I have to say that I could easily attend without ever feeling like Christianity was being promoted if all I saw was colored eggs so I can't agree that it's solely in the organization's presentation. You may believe that the event's promoters have a secret agenda to instill Christianity, but that is surmisal on your part which I, as an atheist, don't share. There is certainly no proof that they're trying to do something other than have a fun day for kids.

I certainly can imagine somebody thinking about Jesus when searching out colored eggs, but whether that's what's being "promoted" is not at all obvious to me. I know that as an "impressionable young child", Jesus was about the last thing I was thinking of while searching for eggs or stuffing my face with candy on Easter morning.

Suggesting that searching for colored eggs promotes Christianity in the same way that a KKK event promotes bigotry is, in my opinion, going way too far out on a limb. I think anybody who's making that analogy wouild imagine the KKK with a burning cross surrounded by robe clad followers. To make that analogy we would have to have priests handing out crosses at the entry to the easter egg hunt and offering free baptisms at the end.

You may argue that easter eggs are to Christianity as burning crosses are to the KKK and all I can do is disagree. I don't really think there is a good KKK analogy to easter eggs, but hypothetically if the KKK had a custom of eating turkey on Nov 1 and had a turkey dinner at the old folks home, I think that in the absence of anything other than turkey and eating utensils, I and the ICLU would be defending their right to be there.

If these promoters keep the celebration to easter eggs, I'm afraid I'll have to go along with them and disagree with you. One cross, though, and I'd be happy to toss them out on their ear.

The thing I think you miss is that Easter has two parts these days. Those folks who argue that Easter has become crassly commercialized are absolutely correct - to the extent that Easter has a "totally crass, secular, let's color eggs with the kids and forget about religion" part and another "Jesus died on the cross for your sins" part. I think these two celebrations have bifurcated and now constitute two separate celebrations which, though history and custom, share the same day and the same name, but are completely different on religious terms. Letting kids have fun in celebration of the commercial holiday on the taxpayer's dollar really doesn't bother me a bit.

Roy Leban said...


Thanks for your thoughts.

When I said "promotes," I meant "promotes." I didn't mean somebody in attendance happened to have religious thoughts. The Easter eggs are Easter eggs. They're not Spring eggs or March eggs. I don't know if the organizers have a secret agenda to promote Christianity or not, but they are promoting Easter eggs, which means they're promoting Easter. The fact that private retailers have managed to commercialize the religious holiday (like every other holiday!) doesn't change the fact that it is a religious holiday.

I wasn't directly comparing the event to a KKK event. That is just a way to test reasonableness. If the KKK had a custom of eating turkey, as you say, that would not be unique to them. But if you took something that was unique to them -- like Easter eggs are unique to Easter -- and then claimed it wasn't promoting them, I think it wouldn't fly. I, too, would defend the right of the KKK to have a turkey dinner at the old folks home -- but not on the taxpayers' dime (and only if the old folks actually wanted it). And you can bet that if the city organized an event where kids could search for hidden devil figures filled with candy (but with no other promotion), the religious right would be up in arms over the city promoting devil worship. Why is this different?

If the city wants a celebration of Spring, I would have no problem with it. Such a celebration would be held on or near the first day of Spring, not the day before Easter, and would include symbols of Spring and life -- flowers, birds, etc.

darrellp said...

I think we'll just have to agree to disagree. Like I said, I see Easter as the name for two entirely separate holidays. You don't. Yes, easter eggs are unique to Easter, but for me, it's the non-religious Easter holiday, not the religious one and they have as much to do with religion as turkey has to do with the KKK. I know that this separation isn't usually called out, but I believe that it's a de facto truth whether it's called out or not. I understand somebody who doesn't recognize this distinction, but as for myself I feel comfortable looking at it this way and it doesn't bother my atheistic senses at all. Thanks for the discussion!