Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the atheist group Freedom From Religion Foundation, has some strong words for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
Wednesday, I caught up with Gaylor to discuss the lawmaker's recent decision to change the official reference to the state capitol's "holiday tree" back to a "Christmas tree." Gaylor didn't hold back on her opinions about the governor or on his decision to make the name change.
During our exchange, she dismissed Walker as "...a Teabagger governor wearing religion on his sleeves" and claimed that his recent decision is rooted in an effort to appeal to "religious right" voters. Furthermore, she made it clear that she believes the governor is trampling on the rights of non-believing citizens.
When I asked the famed atheist leader why she opposes calling the decorated tree what many claim it is -- a Christmas tree -- she said, "Because it's not inclusive."
See, the current argument, which Gaylor is happy to engage in, surrounds whether it is appropriate for the government to have the holiday symbol on public land. This, she claims, is absolutely unacceptable. In her view, such a presence indicates that the government is favoring or endorsing one faith over another.
After explaining to Gaylor that more than 90 percent of Americans celebrate Christmas and that not all of them are Christians, I asked if that fact, at all, changes her mind on the matter. She abruptly cut me off, saying, "Where did you get that statistic?," as she was prepared and ready to refute my insinuation that the vast majority of Americans do, indeed, celebrate the holiday.
To answer her question (something I decided not to do during the interview), Gallup reported the following back in December 2010: "Ninety-five percent of Americans celebrate Christmas, and of these, 51% describe the holiday as "strongly religious" for them, continuing an upward trend seen since 1989." So, while not all celebrating Americans consider the holiday's religious significance, by far the vast majority of the nation observes the federal holiday.
Also, back in 2004, Fox News reported that 87 percent of the nation supported nativity scenes on public property. Clearly, the vast majority of the nation isn't opposed to public displays of Christmas-related imagery.
Rather than question her based on this research, I decided to go with a more conservative number, as she proceeded to say that 24 percent of the nation does not identify with the Christian faith. So, I decided to go with 76 percent.
"Considering the fact that 76 percent -- at least -- of the nation is 'Christian' and likely celebrates Christmas, would you consider it unfair or a slap in the face to the majority to not allow a Christmas tree in the state capitol?"
"Where to begin with this question," she said. "Well, it’s not a slap in the face... Are you familiar with the Bill of Rights? ... It would by tyranny if the government came in and said you can't put up a Christmas tree." Here, obviously, Gaylor was referring to the notion that the government shouldn't prevent private individuals from putting Christmas trees up -- a notion that individuals on all sides of the argument would naturally agree with.
"We would never sue over a tree," she continued. "But I have been told ever since we started [the FFRF] that when [some people] go into the capitol, they feel like it’s not their capitol."
Gaylor went on to highlight the fact that the group has received many complaints from non-Christians and atheists following the annual tree-lighting ceremony. These participants apparently feel pressured and offended by the Christians themes present in the songs that are performed at the event. "They are Americans too – they’re citizens of the state too," she said.
"It is a well-settled principle of law that the government shouldn’t engage – Christmas means 'Christ' mas – it celebrates the [Christian savior]," she continued. She does make a point in stating that the holiday is rooted in Christian tradition. That, of course, is undeniable. But to claim that this matter is settled is probably a reach, especially considering the ongoing debates that communities across America have every year around this same time.
In an ideal world, Gaylor says that there should be no Christmas trees, Menorahs or other religious symbols on government property. In this case, she maintained that "the government should not be using the word Christmas."
But since the her group, which is infamous for taking opponents to court over alleged church-state violations, won't be suing, the FFRF plans to ensure that their "religious" symbol is displayed as well. They plan to put up their "solstice sign" in the capitol, which will apparently appear along with other symbols that represent faiths outside of the Christian realm.
Here's an image of the "solstice sign" (pay attention to the anti-God, anti-faith wording):
Toward the end of our interview, Gaylor made the curious statement, "I guess we’ll have a Christmas tree and lots of guns." "Guns?," I asked. "Guns can now be taken into capitol. Maybe they’ll decorate the tree with guns," she quipped. We both laughed. Gaylor was referring to a new regulation that will allow concealed guns inside of the Wisconsin state capitol.
When asked to comment on Gaylor's statements, Walker's press secretary, Cullen Werwie, sent a very short response: "It’s being called what it is, a Christmas tree."
This may be one battle that the FFRF doesn't win.