Thursday, December 15, 2011

Pitman Punts

"Even though the prospect sickens, brother here we go again"
 - Tom Lehrer, "A Christmas Carol"

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year again folks, and it wouldn't be the "Holiday" season without the War on Christmas, and all its battles, real and imagined, from the annual rumors that our secret Muslim President is changing the name of the White House Christmas Tree to the Holiday Tree, to the real story of the Governor of Rhode Island and the State Holiday Tree, to the various whining talking heads on Fox "News", and the usual skirmishes over Nativity scenes on public property, which can easily be fixed by placing a Menorah beside them.

But there is a real war on Christmas right in my own backyard, in Pitman, NJ, where someone has hung a sign above Broadway (Pitman's main drag), that reads, "Keep Christ in Christmas". Now, you don't need to be a constitutional scholar to understand that this sign breaches the wall of separation of church and state, and one First Amendment advocacy group, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, has complained.

Now, this sort of thing is not unusual, but the response of the Pitman Borough Attorney, Brian Duffield, is quite interesting:
“We found out that the banner is attached on one end to the old bank — which is privately owned — and on the other end it’s connected to an Atlantic City Electric or Verizon pole which the borough does not own. Also, Broadway is a county — not a borough — road. Everything related to the sign is not on Pitman public property.”

Huh? According to my map, the location of this banner lies withing Pitman's borders, hangs in Pitman's airspace, yet the Borough of Pitman has no legal jurisdiction to take it down? The banner, according to the Borough, hangs in some generic part of Gloucester County, not in Pitman. The banner just appeared by magic. Using this logic, I suppose I can park my car at one of the metered spots on Broadway without putting money into the meter, and no cop would give me a ticket because Broadway is out of Pitman's jurisdiction.

Pitman takes pride in its origins as a Methodist encampment and its many churches, but there is no religious test to live in Pitman, nor is there a religious test to travel to or through it, to park on its streets, or to shop at its Mom and Pop stores on Broadway. A banner with a religious proclamation, hanging in a public street, whether it's a municipal road or a county road, is inappropriate and should come down.

Duffield's punt on jurisdiction here pretty much ensures that the banner will remain in place, at least for the near future, but with Christmas just over a week away, it will be down in a few weeks anyway.

So, what can church/state separation advocates do? A legal battle would not be resolved between now and December 25th.

How about some civil disobedience, climb up there and take the sign down ourselves? After all, since the banner is out of Pitman's jurisdiction, we can expect the police to stand idly by and wait for the Gloucester County Sheriff to arrive, by which time the sign and the removers will be long gone, right?


Glen H said...

Yeah, nothing screams religious freedom like climbing up and stealing someone's private property.

Pitman's legal responsibility consists of ensuring they apply the same standard in permitting this banner that they would to any other banner.

They are no more establishing a religion than allowing an MS Bikeathon banner would establish a charity.

Why am I hassling you? Deciminyan sent me.

jeffpickens said...

You can thank him for me.

Deciminyan said...

I don't recall a constitutional requirement for separation of charity and state.

Glen H said...

The constitution prohibits government from establishing a religion. If there is no attempt at establishment, there is no constitutional violation. Thus my analogy.

I am really amused at the discussion of Pitman's "airspace". If the KoC hired a Jersey shore biplane to fly the banner over Pitman, would that make it their issue also?

Perhaps Pitman should install an anti-aircraft battery. This would be proactive, and they could also shoot down any errant reindeer on Christmas Eve (excuse me, Holiday Eve). Kill two birds with one stone.

Unknown said...

I'm glad I amuse you.

The issue here is jurisdiction, and the town's ridiculous claim that they have none over the main street.

If the town government believes they are in the right, which they obviously believe, then they should say so and make a reasoned argument as to why they are right, rather than hide behind some weaselly excuse of non-jurisdiction.

Glen H said...

I would tend to agree their argument as presented sounds pisspoor, although with the caveat that it is being filtered through newspaper reporters.

If, as is likely, it requires a permit to string a banner across main street, they should explain they are bound to issue these permits in a religion-neutral way, lest they be sued under the rarely-mentioned part of the first amendment that says government cannot prohibit the exercise of religion.

If there is no permit requirement, then they truly do have no involvement, except possibly under general public welfare principles (e.g., they could reasonably order a pornographic banner removed regardless of whether or not there is a permit requirement).