January 2024 Church & State Magazine - January 2024

Religious extremist criticizes Wisc. museum’s inclusive holiday display


A religious extremist criticized a display of Christmas trees at a train museum in Green Bay, Wisc., in late November because two of the trees are from groups he doesn’t like.

The National Railroad Museum annually sponsors a Festival of Trees. Local businesses, community groups and houses of worship are invited to display decorated trees. During the recent holiday season, 66 trees were on display. Among them was a tree from the Satanic Temple of Wisconsin, a nontheistic group that advocates for separation of church and state, and one from the Bay Area Council on Gender Diversity, which supports transgender individuals.

The Green Bay Press Gazette reported that most people in the area weren’t bothered by the inclusion of these trees. Museum CEO Jacqueline Frank told the newspaper that the museum has received only a handful of calls about them.

Frank made it clear that the museum supports inclusion. Local groups are free to put up trees, she said, with the only caveat being that the displays may not include messages with sexual content, or that promote violence or drug use.

“If we want to be an inclusive organization, we want to make sure that everybody feels comfortable,” Frank said. “Who am I to suddenly say … this thing that is your belief system and outside the mainstream is bad? I think there’s a lot to be said of being able to include everybody, to respect everyone and to provide dignity for everybody.”

Frank’s attitude infuriated William Donohue, head of the New York-based Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. Donohue argued that the inclusion of trees from the Satanic Temple and the Bay Area Council of Gender Diversity somehow expressed hostility toward Christianity.

But Americans United pointed out that neither tree contained any messages ridiculing Christianity. (As it turns out, most of the trees in the display were secular. Only six were contributed by houses of worship.)

Donohue, citing the U.S. Supreme Court 1971 decision in Lemon v. Kurtzman, wrote, “The issue is not discrimination — it is hostility to religion. And that is unconstitutional.”

On its “Wall of Separation” blog, AU wrote, “He’s wrong on several counts. First off, the two trees are not hostile to religion. And even if they were, it wouldn’t matter: The limitation on hostility toward religion applies only to the government. While the National Train Museum has received some public funding, it’s a private entity and is allowed to engage in the speech of its choice. Finally, the Lemon decision was abandoned by the Supreme Court last year. Ironically, that came about because the high court has been stacked with justices who are hostile to church-state separation.” 

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