Books Must be Hardbound, Quotes Whole, and Genitalia Scrubbed

Earlier this week, I wrote on how county officials in Bronson, Florida, declared the area in front of a court house as limited public forum where private groups could give expression to their views by erecting monuments—and then vetoed an atheist monument because its use of “incomplete quotations” did not meet their guidelines. This strategy—in which atheists are legally allowed the same rights as Christians but are silenced on technicalities—is fairly common. Recent cases on both sides of the Atlantic bear an eerie similarity to the case in Bronson.

Last August, Hermant Mehta wrote on a case in Georgia where atheists objected that a cabin in a government-owned state park offered Bibles in the nightstand. The Bibles were initially removed, but governor Nathan Deal ordered them put back. He argued that that Bibles did not violate the establishment clause because they had been paid for by outside groups. He then added that, “Any group is free to donate literature.”

The American Atheists responded by offering to supply Georgia state parks with atheist literature to compliment the Bibles. Deal’s office then responded that all literature must be hardbound. While this is not an unreasonable request (no one wants to encounter piles of loose-bound manifestos in their cabin), it is suspiciously reminiscent of the Bronson rule that quotations must be complete. In the end, American Atheists were able to supply the cabins with a selection of hardbound books on atheism.

This week posters for the South Bank Atheism Society (SBAS) were removed from London South Bank University by student union authorities. Once again, the claim was not that atheists cannot express themselves, but that the posters did not to comply with the union’s standards. The posters featured a parody of Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” in which God has been replaced with the Flying Spaghetti Monster. The initial objection was that Adam’s genitals were visible. But when SBAS representatives offered to blur out the offending genitalia, they were told that any parody of religious art is offensive and cannot be displayed. The SBAS stall was then removed entirely from a student fair.

Publically mocking religious truth claims probably isn’t very productive, and not all government institutions must be “religion-free zones.” But in a democratic society, the same rules must apply to everyone. These cases point to a pattern of de facto censorship of atheism. The good news is that these sorts of restrictions appear to be a “last gasp” of hegemony before engaging in a more serious and thoughtful conversation about free speech in a religiously plural society.

Joseph Laycock is an assistant professor of religious studies at Texas State University. His forthcoming books include The Seer of Bayside: Veronica Lueken and the Struggle for Catholic Tradition (Oxford University Press, 2014) and Dangerous Games: What the Moral Panic Over Role-Playing Games Says About Religion, Play, and Imagined Worlds (University of California Press, 2015).

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