I detest Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church. Few religious loonies bring the hate home in a more concentrated fashion than Phelps and his not-so-merry band of homophobic nutcases. Whether it be threatening to picket the funerals of Amish girls killed in a school shooting, showing up on TV to spew hate against homosexuals and anyone who doesn’t agree with their particularly twisted brand of fundamentalist Christianity, planning pickets at the memorial for the passengers and crew of Flight 93, or praising God for the tsunami four years ago, few people can bring the religious crazy to the masses in such a flamboyantly hateful manner as Fred Phelps and his posse.
Still, sometimes Phelps comes up with something that’s actually rather funny, albeit unintentionally. (If there’s one thing about Phelps and his fellow cultists, it’s that they utterly lack a sense of humor.) And he actually made me chuckle a bit (although it may be due to schadenfreude) by wanting to include this in a Christmas display at the Washington State capitol:
A controversial Kansas church known for blaming American casualties in Iraq on nationwide tolerance for homosexuality has asked the state for permission to erect a sign stating that “Santa Claus will take you to hell.”
The sign would join a Christian Nativity set, three signs mocking atheism, and the one that started it all – the sign from the atheist group Freedom From Religion whose message that “religion hardens hearts and enslaves minds” sparked a furious nationwide debate over the nature of atheism and the boundaries between church and state.
According to the Spokesman Review, the text of the Westboro Baptist Church’s message would read:
You’d better watch out, get ready to cry,
You’d better go hide, I’m telling you why
‘cuz Santa Claus will take you to hell
He is your favorite idol
You worship at his feet
But when you stand before your God
He won’t help you take the heat
So get this fact straight:
You’re feeling God’s hate
Santa’s to blame for the economy’s fate
Santa Claus will take you to hell.
I particularly like the batshit crazy touch of blaming Santa Claus for the economy going straight into the toilet. I suppose Santa gave all those subprime mortgage-backed derivatives to every banker last Christmas, so that they could melt down before this Christmas. In any case, only the most warped mind can come up such thoughts in any context other than parody. Of course, the Westboro Baptist Church is utterly immune to parody because its every action and utterance is self-parody. The only difference between this utterance and its other actions blaming gays for various evils, picketing the funerals of our fallen soldiers, and proclaiming that “God hates America” is that this one was actually kind of amusing and (unintentionally again) teaches a lesson.
The lesson? The Constitution requires that government be secular, with the First Amendment mandating government neutrality to religion (or lack of religion). In other words, government is not allowed to endorse or favor one religion over another or belief over nonbelief. (I know, I know, it never works out that way in practice, but that’s what the First Amendment says.) Consequently, if government allows one religious display on its property (such as the Nativity scene that started this whole mess), thus giving the impression of endorsing it, if it is to be neutral to religion it must allow displays from any religion that wishes to put up a similar display congruent with its beliefs or by any group opposed to religion. The circus going on in Washington right now shows that opening up government property to any religious display leads to silliness like requests to put a Festivus tree up–or requests by hateful loonies like the Westboro Baptist Church to proclaim their hateful looniness from government property.
I think I’m with PZ on this one. A far fairer solution would be to allow no explicitly religious Christmas displays on government property. This utterly risible conflict illustrates why the separation of church and state is so critical in a free society.