Offended Atheists Strike Again


David French

November 1, 2011

3 min read

American Heritage



The decades-long battle over religious symbols rages on. Earlier this year, American Atheists sued to block placement of the famous Ground Zero Cross in the 9/11 Memorial Museum (that case is ongoing). Yesterday, over Justice Thomas’s sharp dissent, the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from a case rejecting the use of crosses as roadside memorials to fallen Utah state troopers. And a controversy is currently building over the Freedom from Religion Foundation’s efforts to have the U.S. Forest Service remove an almost 60-year-old Jesus statue from public land in Montana.

The Montana statue was apparently erected by the Knights of Columbus to honor veterans of the 10th Mountain Division, who reported seeing similar shrines scattered in the Alps during their World War II service. The statue represents a piece of their military experience and has been beloved by skiers for years. 

There is a consistent theme in each of these controversies — symbols of actual, historical significance are unacceptable (indeed, in the Utah cross case, deemed unlawful) because they also have religious meaning. To American Atheists and the Freedom from Religion Foundation, their goal (far more important to them than honoring the fallen or remembering history) is public land devoid of any religious symbolism — regardless of its context. This goal bears absolutely no relationship to the meaning or purpose of the Establishment Clause.

I hate to repeat myself, but this legal mess is the fruit of a poisonous legal quirk that grants "offended observers" of these monuments and displays a right that virtually no one else enjoys in the law — the right to sue merely because their feelings are hurt. Typically, citizens do not have the right to sue simply because a person’s words or actions offend them. Someone says something you don’t like? Tough. Respond to their speech with speech of your own. The government enacts a policy that offends you without censoring you or coercing you in any way? Tough. Use your vote and your voice to try to change the law. But in the Establishment Clause context, the Court has created "offended observer" standing, the right to sue merely because the sight of a monument is upsetting.

At the ACLJ, we're writing a letter to the U.S. Forest Service urging it to renew the long-standing lease that permits the Montana statue to remain in place. (In fact, you can sign on to that letter, along with more than 35,000 others.) While we hope that the Forest Service will reach the correct decision, and the Freedom from Religion Foundation will understand the futility of its opposition, we also have to be prepared for the "offended observers" to once again stampede into court.

This article is crossposted at National Review Online.