Commentary: A Christmas ornament, piece of cardboard and free speech

Freedom From Religion members did not deserve a Christmas present from Wendy Treat and the Rev. Ken Hutcherson. They got one anyway.

Seattle activist and artist Deborah Lawrence had no reason to believe first lady Laura Bush would deliver her the kind of career-boosting publicity money can't buy.

But that’s what Mrs. Bush did.

Lawrence and the people at Freedom From Religion are big news. They saw and seized opportunities to use Christmas decorations to further their own political ends.

Freedom From Religion members outlined their take on faith on a placard legally posted at the state Capitol. It insults faith of any kind, including Christianity, but it does not threaten anyone. Thanks to the Constitution that protects all our voices, it’s as legal as the creche that stands nearby. If one were ordered removed, the other would have to go, too.

Lawrence responded to a White House invitation to craft a red-white-and-blue Christmas tree ornament. In among the swirls of color, she pasted type opposing the war in Iraq and calling for the impeachment of President George W. Bush. It was one of 370 ornaments sent to the White House.

Both expressions were entirely legal. Both have Americans who agree with them.

The ideas on the ornament and the placard have gotten national attention because people who disagree with them opted against tolerating dissent.

Laura Bush had every reason to be offended by Lawrence's comments on the president. What loving spouse would not be?

She could have made a face, remembered that hers is no ordinary home, and found an obscure spot on a tree for Lawrence's opinions.

Instead, although she allowed Lawrence to attend the artists' reception at the White House, Mrs. Bush rejected the ornament. That made Lawrence front page news in Seattle. Hundreds of thousands of people got a good look at the red-white-and-blue ball and a quick course in her politics.

The Freedom from Religion placard is a mousy thing, just the kind of sign a few hundred tourists might overlook on their walk through the Capitol. But high-profile pastors organized a protest that drew about 500 people, from atheists to a lawmaker who wants to drive evildoers out of the house of God.

Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly castigated Gov. Chris Gregoire for allowing the sign in the Capitol. In doing so, he gave the ideas on that sign national exposure.

Neither the ornament nor the placard would have gotten such press if people had, shrugged and said, "Everyone's entitled to an opinion."

Instead, those who were offended gave ink, air time and celebrity to the opposition.

This is not to say we shouldn't stand up against bullies and criminals.

Americans should, and we do. That is how we ended the brutality of slavery and segregation. That is how we have prevailed against violent hate groups.

Americans have the sense and the grit to amend cruel laws, change flawed and vicious community standards and demand prosecution of haters who threaten the safety of others.

A Christmas tree ornament and a piece of cardboard in the Capitol threaten no one's safety.

The people who objected to them would have done well to trust to the strength of free speech, and the wisdom of knowing when to nod and say nothing.

The best way to take the thunder out of an opposing view is the American way: Let the other guys share their ideas with anyone interested in listening.

There is no obligation to build a national platform for them.

Allow that you don't agree, but it's a free country.

Tell them that differing views are what keep us fresh. They give us cause to think about our own beliefs, and perspective to appreciate them in a new light.

Shake hands. In this season of peace, brotherhood and light in the darkness, extend your warmest wishes to the people whose views you do not share.

That'll show them.

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