Judge OKs Winter Solstice Display at Arkansas Capitol

By JILL ZEMAN BLEED Associated Press Writer
14 December 2009

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) – A secular display celebrating the winter solstice and "freethinkers" such as Albert Einstein and Bill Gates can be placed at the state Capitol alongside a traditional Christian nativity scene, a federal judge said Monday.

The Arkansas Society of Freethinkers sued last week after Secretary of State Charlie Daniels rejected its proposal, saying it wasn’t consistent with the Capitol’s other decorations and displays. The group asked for a quick hearing before the winter solstice, which is Dec. 21.

U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright granted an injunction Monday allowing the display to go up.

The group never wanted to remove the nativity display, said Tod Billings, president of the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers. Billings said he hoped the display would go up Wednesday and that it would remain until the nativity scene came down after the holidays.

"We just wanted the freedom to be included in the holiday celebrations publicly, just like anybody else can do if they fill out the appropriate paperwork," Billings said.

Natasha Naragon, a spokeswoman for the secretary of state’s office, said that they respected the judge’s decision and that they’ll work with the group to erect the display.

The society proposed building an 8-foot-tall, 4-foot-high plywood display that would detail the solstice’s history. It would also include photos of people it considers "freethinkers," such as Einstein, Gates and Eleanor Roosevelt.

"As the old year passes and a new year is born, we reflect on that which has passed and hope for a better tomorrow," the proposed display reads. "May the light of reason be a beacon to a brighter future for us all."

The nativity scene, which includes wooden carvings inside a wood structure south of the Capitol’s entrance, is maintained and displayed by a nonprofit group based in Little Rock. It has been on display on the Capitol grounds for more than half a century.

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