CHICAGO – A few feet from a life-size nativity scene at Chicago’s annual Christmas market stands an 8½-foot-tall letter “A’’ that says “Bah Humbug” to all of that.
Adorned with red lights that make it look a bit like a misshapen candy cane, the big “A’’ stands for atheist or agnostic. The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation erected it this holiday season to send the message that it believes religious displays on public property are unconstitutional violations of the separation of church and state.
But instead of employing the typical tactic of suing to block religious displays on public land, the foundation’s Chicago installation sends another message as well: If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.
“We would rather there not be religion on government property, or atheism, but given the state of the law it looks like these public forums are here to stay,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, the group’s co-president.
Faced with the reality that religious displays are often massive, the group decided it needed something bigger and brighter than the banners it has put up in other cities, and that it was worth the $1,500 to build the huge scarlet letter and the $500 the city charges to put it up and plug it in at the “Christkindlmarket” at Daley Plaza.
“Our little banners are dwarfed by those nativity scenes and menorahs, and we were trying to find something to compete with them,” Gaylor said of what is easily the group’s biggest, and most ambitious and expensive display ever.
Reinforcing the message of the big, flashy “A,” the display includes a banner that depicts its own version of a nativity scene: An image of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and the Statue of Liberty gazing lovingly at the Bill of Rights nestled in a manger.
And just in case that’s still too subtle, the banner also is emblazoned with the words “Happy Winter Solstice” – referring to the annual astronomical event tied to the seasons – which the group tells holiday revelers is “the true reason for the season,” as opposed to the birth of Jesus Christ.
“They don’t even know what they’re celebrating, and we’re pointing that out,” said Gaylor.
The group is closely watching the display’s reception and has asked the city to keep a close eye on it to ensure it does not meet the same fate as some of their other displays. Gaylor says there have been outright thefts in Boston and other cities as well as defacement like a banner in Ottawa, Ill., that had a run-in with a guy in a Santa Claus suit armed with a paint brush.
So far, nothing like that has happened. Molly Sullivan, spokeswoman for the city’s public building commission, said the “A’’ has joined the other displays without incident.
In fact, the response to the display has been muted, with many people barely noticing it. Among those expressing displeasure at it on a recent day was Kathy Semrick, 57, of Elburn.
“It just annoys me, but God bless them,” Semrick said.
Others, though, liked the display, or at least the idea of it.
“I think as long as we’re in America, it should be there so everyone can recognize people have different viewpoints,” said Jane Whitford, of Evanston.
But like the city’s iconic 50-foot-tall Picasso sculpture that dominates the plaza and still, nearly 50 years after it was unveiled, draws quizzical looks from passersby, the group’s big “A’’ remained a mystery to many.
Sitting at a table eating potato pancakes at the German-themed market, Margaret Verre, 55, of nearby Maywood, didn’t know what to make of the “A.”
“I thought it was one of those abstract things they put around Chicago where people try to guess what it is,” she said.