University of Wisconsin–Madison

AHA’s Displays Invade Wisconsin State Capitol

The Wisconsin State Capitol rotunda became more crowded than ever today.
Every December, the Capitol rotunda becomes cluttered with numerous religious displays, mostly of a Christian nature. This year’s entrants include two large nativity scenes, multiple signs praising Jesus, a Seinfeld-inspired “Festivus” pole, tables advocating pro-life and creationist views, and a large menorah, amongst many others.
Once again, AHA has added our own displays to the fold.

Last year, we discovered that it was incredibly easy for AHA to secure a permit for our own installation. In fact, practically anyone can put anything they want in the Capitol. All you have to do is fill out this simple one-page application (PDF). This year, we decided to push the boundaries by making our displays as blasphemous as ever. We applied for several different permits, and got approved for three displays on behalf of completely made-up organizations.

The first sign erected by AHA is on behalf of a fabricated organization of “Madison Sun Worshippers.”

The second and third signs, submitted by additional fictitious groups, were dedicated to the gods from the popular television show Game of Thrones. One is dedicated to the so-called “Old Gods,” featuring a sacred Weirwood tree and the slogan “Winter Is Coming.”

The other is dedicated to the Faith of the Seven, detailing the attributes of the seven “New Gods” in the form of a hymn from the fictional series, while referring to the fictional book series A Song of Ice and Fire as our “holy texts”.

The intention of these displays is to advocate for the separation of Church and State, and to draw attention to the ridiculous public forum system in the Wisconsin State Capitol which allows nativity scenes and other religious displays to enter the halls of government. We would prefer that our Capitol remain secular and free from divisive religious intrusion, but when the State creates an open forum, everything is permitted. Hopefully the the silly nature of these displays will make people think about whether the Capitol is an appropriate place for promoting personal religious views.

Six other permit requests submitted by AHA officers were denied. These included signs which were intended to celebrate Norse, Greek, and Roman gods, as well as the Flying Spaghetti Monster. According to the Wisconsin State Capitol police department, the requests were not processed due to the limited amount of available space. This raises concerns about the open forum system. The state government is in no position to determine which kinds of religious free speech are legitimate and which are not. If space is limited, how will the Capitol police decide which permits to approve? What’s to stop one religious organization from flooding the forum with their own views, while others get left out?

Take a trip to the Capitol before January 5th and check the signs out for yourself!

3 thoughts on “AHA’s Displays Invade Wisconsin State Capitol”

  1. I am so glad to know who is behind the multiple displays you are sponsoring. Keep up the good work! I am the sponsor of the Festivus pole. I am also sponsoring an Airing of Grievances on Dec. 23rd from 4:30 to 5:30 in the rotunda. Feel free to join us. It is a real event. We did it last year and people were very eager to air their complaints about lots of things.

    As to the competition for space, the crowded rotunda is the natural result of the current administration's botched attempts to regulate speech and assembly after the large protests in 2011. As a result of their aggressive enforcement of unconstitutional restrictions, the courts recently dismissed hundreds of citations issued to people who were exercising their rights of free speech in the Capitol during the summer of 2013. The judges clarified that the Wisconsin Capitol rotunda is a traditional public forum. The harassment of citizen protesters and Gov. Walker's foolish insistence on issuing mean-spirited, provocative proclamations about the state CHRISTMAS tree resulted in others stepping forward to remind everyone that the Capitol is a public forum available to all, not just to a certain sect of fundamentalist Christians expressing state-approved messages.

    The Department of Administration and the Capitol Police have now painted themselves into a corner. They argued in court (despite evidence to the contrary) that they never deny permits based on content, so now they must approve everything or face more lawsuits. I hope and assume that the recent denials of your additional applications were based on when the applications were submitted, because there truly are space limitations. It would be interesting to do an open records request to find out.

    Personally, I have no issue with the privately sponsored displays. Now we are seeing the limits on space, though, which is an interesting problem. Regardless, clearly the state-sponsored Christmas tree in the center of the building is a violation of the first amendment's requirement that governments not favor one religion over others. I have no doubt that some fringe Christian groups will attempt to overwhelm the rotunda with multiple nativity scenes every December as this plays out over the next few years.

    Greg Gordon

  2. Hi Greg!

    Thanks for the kind words, and for the informative comments. We are, of course, also all big fans of the annual Festivus pole. Well done!

    I have to note that I think the Capitol Police did handle our permits fairly. The rotunda is truly filled to capacity at the moment, so basing the rejections on space limitations seems legitimate (although obviously problematic). I took a cursory look at the permits on some of the other displays, and confirmed that they were submitted significantly further ahead of time than ours. This suggests that an unbiased "first come first served" policy was indeed followed.

    I agree, the future will be very interesting. Now that the open forum is getting filled, groups have an incentive to submit permits early and early to secure a spot. The system is very vulnerable to abuse. There seems to be no limit on how much space a group can reserve, especially if they submit multiple permits. The massive nativity scene and pro-life display each already take up 1/8th of the available rotunda space.

  3. I guess you guys should apply for 20 or so locations for next year. If the space is limited you can apply now and edge out everyone else. Of course people will scream, but that is the point. How do you determine who gets in when you allow this?

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