A protest formed outside of the Historic Chester County Courthouse in West Chester on Dec. 3; held by members of the Freethinking Society. They gathered to express their disapproval of the county government’s decision to prohibit the placement of their Tree of Knowledge next to Christmas symbols that encourage religion.
The Freethinking Society has been denied a display for the second year in a row. Lead by Margaret Downey, the founder and president of the Society, the groups formed a human Tree of Knowledge by crowding together and holding atheistic literature as decoration. Books such as “Jesus Interrupted” and “Does God Exist?” were among the cluster, as well as the Bible and The Book of Mormon.
Members shared how they found these religious texts to be flawed and how it actually served to enhance their atheistic views.
"We are here to say that treating freethinkers like second-class citizens is unacceptable," Downey stated about the protest. "We demand equal representation on this spot - government-owned land that is supported by you, the taxpayers."
The Tree of Knowledge was first put on display in 2007 in Pennsylvania. Downey describes how she thought of the idea for a symbol of atheism in a mini-documentary about the Tree of Knowledge.
Downey explains how upon first arriving to Pennsylvania, she was greeted by a large Nativity scene and menorah figurine out on a field. “The only message that that gave was that it was a Judeo-Christian nation, but we’re not…” she said.
“I wanted to see Kwanzaa candles and a big fat Buddha…I wanted to see a Hindu God… And I wanted the Atheist community to be there. But it took 10 years to finally come up with a symbol…”
The symbol they felt was appropriate for their mission as “freethinkers” was a 22-foot tree that would be ornamented with book covers.
“And we purposely choose this Tree of Knowledge because in the bible you are not supposed to take from the Tree of Knowledge… we encourage that, we advocate it…Eat from the tree of knowledge, don’t listen to the Bible verse,” Downey says in the documentary.
A member of the Society describes the courthouse in Chester County as very conservative. The courthouse even features a plaque of the Ten Commandments on the sidewall. Once a former Christian, this elderly woman says she had become “disillusioned” by the religion and later found the “Freethinkers.”
The courthouse in the town features a Christmas tree every year. And atheists believe that it is a “common ground for free expression” and they should have their place in society as well.
Many protesters came out, mostly from the Philadelphia area, but also from Washington DC and Canada. One man, Shaun McGonigal, described his only reason for being a member of the Society for 10 years so far.
"It's because of that plaque," McGonigal said, pointing to the Ten Commandments plaque on the sidewall.
"I heard about the protest this morning through a friend," Bill Jones said in opposition to the protest. "I think they found a time when they could irritate people the most."
Jones also said that it was offensive for atheists to be protesting because they don’t even have a holiday they are celebrating. Christmas, Chanukah, Ramadan, etc. all of these holidays have some base of spirituality and usually, religion. What is an atheist observing by putting up a Tree of Knowledge around the holiday season?
"The criticism seems to be it's the winter season," said Staks Rosch, a protester and coordinator for phillycor.org. "It doesn't belong to Christians; it's about the weather, cold, things dying, seasonal depression as well as celebrating with family."
Jones disagreed with Rosch’s defensive and stated that if atheists really cared about the seasons’ changing, they would “celebrate” in the autumn, spring, and summer as well.
The “Members of the Freethinking Society” faced opposition from counter protesters.
"The action of the Chester County Commissioners endorsed a climate of hatred and bigotry towards those who are not religious," Downey said. "Isn't the duty of public officials to promote harmony and brotherhood within a community? Well, that is not the case in Chester County."
And the end of the protest, many members went off to eat, but others remained and continued the discussion. "I'm not against religion; when churches do good, that should be encouraged," said Herschel Elias, a protester who said he regularly attends church and Bible studies. "I just think a lot of times there is hatred from religious groups."
There has not been word from the Chester Country Commissioners on whether the atheists protesting would now allow them to have their tree on display.