WEST CHESTER, PA – On Thursday November 18th, the Chester County Commissioners voted 2 to 1 in favor of Resolution 58-10 (pdf). The resolution was created with the specific intent to exclude the Freethought Society (a local atheist group) from erecting their winter display known as the Tree of Knowledge.
The Tree of Knowledge is a large evergreen tree decorated with laminated book covers from atheist authors as well as book covers from disciplines ranging from history, science, and philosophy. In the spirit of inclusion, the Tree also features book covers from holy books such as the Bible and the Koran.
This would have been the fourth year in which the Tree of Knowledge shared the lawn of the Chester County Courthouse with the Christmas Tree, the Jesus Crèche, and a large Menorah. Each year has been a fight for the Freethought Society to get around the Commissioners ever changing procedures designed to block them from participating in the winter festivities. Last year, the county even created “zones” in which holiday displays could be placed, but after a few days all the displays were moved to a more prominent location not in the zoned area except the Tree of Knowledge which was left in the metaphorical back of the bus.
The year, the Commissioners didn’t even make the application for winter displays available to the public at all. Margaret Downey, the president of the Freethought Society had to use last year’s application with a changed date in order to apply for space in the “Free Speech Zone” before the deadline. It goes almost without saying that The Pastors Network did presumably have access to some sort of application or reassuring nod for their Jesus Crèche display.
This is when the Commissioner Terence Farrell came up with Resolution 58-10 which would ban all displays except for those owned by the County. This resolution however is just another attempt in a long line of attempts to purposefully exclude the Freethought Society from the lawn of the county courthouse. The loophole is that The Pastors Network would “donate” the Jesus Crèche and Commissioners would choose to put it up as well as any other displays “donated” except for the Tree of Knowledge of course.
According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, “After the meeting, he [Commissioner Farrell] said he envisioned a display in keeping with recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that have permitted traditional secular and religious elements such as Santa, a tree, a crèche, and a menorah.” Interestingly enough those are all the displays that are usually on the courthouse lawn with one very noticeable exception.
Downey however offered to donate the Tree of Knowledge to the county. Now the county has multiple winter displays in their possession and will either have to put them all up or none of them up. If they were to discriminate against one particular view on religion by elevating other views, they would be in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The county would be opening themselves up to a legal battle they would not win if somehow the Crèche, Menorah, and Christmas Tree were to be picked by the County while the Tree of Knowledge was somehow excluded. Ironically the Freethought Society’s display is the only display which was designed to be inclusive of the entire community while the other displays only serve to divide the community into religious factions.
The Freethought Society is planning on staging a protest on Saturday December 4th at 5pm, the place, day, and time that they were planning on erecting the Tree of Knowledge, if the county continues to discriminate against the greater humanist/atheist community.
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