Ah, Christmas! The time of year when our thoughts turn to decorated holiday trees, presents, eggnog and Albert Einstein.
Wait a minute – Albert Einstein?
Yep, the theoretical physicist and all-around super-genius has become an official part of the holiday season, at least in Arkansas. Einstein will appear in a Solstice display at the state capitol in Little Rock, thanks to a recent ruling by a federal court.
How did this come about? A private, non-profit group for years has erected a Nativity scene on the grounds of the capitol. It consists of the traditional figures from the New Testament story inside a wooden structure.
In years past, the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers has requested permission to erect its own display, described as a celebration of the Winter Solstice. It features "freethinkers" like Einstein, Bill Gates and Eleanor Roosevelt and a sign reading, "As the old year passes and a new year is born, we reflect on that which has passed and hope for a better tomorrow. May the light of reason be a beacon to a brighter future for us all."
Arkansas officials rejected the display in 2008 and this year. Secretary of State Charlie Daniels called it inconsistent with other decorations at the capitol. Backed by the Arkansas ACLU, the Freethinkers sued and won.
Tod Billings, president of the Freethinkers, told the Associated Press that members of his group never sought to have the Nativity scene removed, they just wanted the same right of access to public space.
"We just wanted the freedom to be included in the holiday celebrations publicly, just like anybody else can do if they fill out the appropriate paperwork," Billings said.
This decision is especially appropriate right now because today is Bill of Rights Day. On Dec. 15, 1791, the Virginia legislature ratified the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, becoming the 11th state to do so. That action officially added the Bill of Rights to our Constitution.
In 1941, the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed legislation declaring Dec. 15 "Bill of Rights Day." Admittedly, the holiday tends to get lost in the pre-Christmas frenzy, and that's a shame. All Americans would do well to pause today and reflect on the rights and freedoms enshrined in the first 10 amendments to our Constitution – and better than that, commit themselves to defending those freedoms.
One of those rights is free speech. Free speech must be open to all, or it is meaningless. Arkansas officials acted unconstitutionally when they allowed one private group to erect a display on public ground but denied that same right to another. The court made the right decision – indeed, the only one it could make, in light of our Constitution.
Once a public forum has been established, government must respect the rights of all speakers. A group cannot be denied space simply because some people don't like their message. Free speech means exactly that: free speech. It isn't free if government tries to take away your right to exercise it.
You don't have to be Einstein to figure that out.