by Fiona Brennan
For the past five Octobers, the city of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, has given one of its snowplows to each of 27 local high schools to decorate in a “Paint the Plows” competition. The annual contest tends to get fairly heated, but 2014 brought a different kind of tension. This year, local atheists objected when students at Lutheran High School and Sioux Falls Lutheran School adorned their plows with religious messages.
Embracing a Christian youth group cliché, the Lutheran high schoolers painted their plow in candy-apple red, with a white “Jesus Christ” substituted for the Coca-Cola logo. The lettering underneath was John 1:14: “Whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst.”
The seventh-graders at Sioux Falls Lutheran took a simpler approach, painting their plow with “Happy Birthday Jesus” over a yellow star.
The ritual is for the community to come together to review all the decorated plows in the J.C. Penny parking lot at the Empire Mall off of I-29. After this year’s unveiling, the city heard from Eric Novotny, a board member of Siouxland Freethinkers, which describes itself as “a community of atheists, agnostics, humanists, and skeptics.”
“That was a clear endorsement of religion, and it was on city property,” Novotny told Patrick Anderson of the Sioux Falls Argus Leader October 23.[*]
Anderson’s article made clear that while administrators at the two Lutheran schools were not happy about the situation, an amicable acquiescence to the Freethinkers’ concern was in the works. As the written statement from city officials recounted:
“The City contacted the respective schools about the informal complaint, and discussions were held on whether the schools would be interested in creating different artwork. The High School has agreed that their artwork may be repainted, and the City is awaiting a response from the Elementary School.
“The City respects the various views and is evaluating procedures and guidelines for the Paint the Plows program going forward. All the parties appear interested in discussing the concerns raised and developing a process that would allow the Program to display student artwork in the future.”
But in the digital age, local church-state issues have a way of becoming global. The snowplow story went out on AP, and was quickly picked up by the right-wing media.
On October 24, Glenn Beck’s TheBlaze headlined, “Students Were Invited to Paint City-Owned Snow Plows – but the Messages These Christian Kids Painted Will Possibly Be Banned.” A few days later, the online Christian Times went with “South Dakota City to Decide On Religious Snow Plows After Atheist Complaint.”
Under the circumstances, it is perhaps not surprising that Sioux Falls officials reconsidered their position.
“We are not going to be painting over those plows; those plow blades,” Mayor Mike Huether told KELO-AM Radio October 28. “Unless, I guess, I get some Supreme Court case [that] says that I have to.”
Describing the issue as a “delicate balancing test” between competing clauses of the First Amendment, city attorney David Pfeifle told the Argus Ledger. “Our goal is to not paint them over. And we’re exploring every option.”
The solution, announced October 30, was to inscribe all the decorated snowplows with a disclaimer that read, “The City of Sioux Falls encourages creativity. This ‘Paint the Plows’ work is created by students. Any messages or views expressed are not those of the City or endorsed by the City.”
Pfeile said that although his staff could identify no other “Paint the Plow” programs, on the basis of cases involving disclaimers and public property, “We’re confident this will pass legal muster.”
“I think it sounds kind of bizarre,” said Patrick Elliott, a staff attorney from the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation who was advising the Siouxland Freethinkers. “It’s better than no disclaimer…I don’t think a disclaimer fixes the problem if the proselytizing message is on one plow or two plows, or 27. I don’t think a disclaimer case exists out there that he’s talking about where you have one message on one vehicle.”
On October 31, the conservative Washington Times rendered its approval with “Sioux Falls stands strong in face of atheist group who decries ‘Jesus’ snowplows.” The Siouxland Freethinkers were, said the Times, “atheists” and “complainers.”
On November 1, Elliott sent Pfeile a letter asking that the religious artwork be removed. “It is inappropriate and unconstitutional for a government entity to display proselytizing Christian messages to its citizens, including on government equipment and facilities.” he wrote. “These displays send the exclusionary message to nonbelievers and non-Christians that they are outsiders in their community, and a corollary message to Christians that they are insiders and favored citizens.”
On November 4, the online Christian Examiner went with “Snowplow dilemma – outside atheist group nixes mayor’s ‘reasonable’ solution to students’ religious artwork.”
Judging by the op-eds, letters-to-the-editor, and online comments published by the Argus Leader, Sioux Falls’ own opinion was divided on the issue. An online poll – which of course could not be restricted to Sioux Fallsians – showed shows 60 percent of tnearly 4,000 respondents answering no to the question, “Do you think religious messaging should be allowed on city-owned property?”
On November 8, the Argus Leader itself weighed in editorially, taking the position that the city “should have agreed to paint over the messages.”
“The constitutional arguments aside, it would have demonstrated that as this city grows, we will work to be inclusive, not endorsing one belief system or approach over another,” said the paper. “Deciding instead to add disclaimer signs to the plows could end up heaping one mistake on top of another.”
Whether such disclaimers do in fact pass legal muster is a question that may one day have to be decided by the Supreme Court. In the meantime, Mayor Huether had a Midwestern communitarian message for the country: “What America needs to realize is that in Sioux Falls and in South Dakota, we prefer utilizing compromise and common ground and common sense versus the court system to resolve issues that we have.”
It’s possible that the message of compromise got through to the Becket Fund, the truculent conservative advocacy firm, which on December 15 made the City of Sioux Falls number 1 on its list of Ebenezer Scrooge Awards for 2014.
“It is the first time we have awarded the Ebenezer and a toast at the same time—but we hope it won’t be the last,” Becket announced. “In the future, we hope that we can continue to celebrate the season by toasting the victory of both religious expression and common sense.”
Applauded Buzzfeed, “Just like ‘A Christmas Carol,’ this story has a happy ending. The City of Sioux Falls had a Scrooge-like change of heart and mended their ways. The student artwork can stay. Another EGGNOG TOAST for you!!
And a lump of constitutional coal for you, Argus Leader!
Image via Facebook/Lutheran High School of Sioux Falls