Mass. town paints over Noah's Ark display on playground after complaint

The town of Ashburnham, Massachusetts, has painted over a biblical display on a library playground following a complaint from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, an atheist group.

Stevens Memorial Library had featured at its playground a turning picture game of Noah's Ark, which FFRF said violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Madeline Ziegler, a staff attorney at FFRF, sent a letter to Terri Antsiss, director of the library, on July 22 on behalf of a “concerned community member.” 

“Each section of the turning game contains a passage from the tale [of Noah's Ark], which is paraphrased from the book of Genesis in order to be more easily understood,” Ziegler explained in the letter.

After citing legal precedent holding that “permanent displays on public land are government speech” and that “the display of this biblical tale on public property confers government endorsement of religion,” Ziegler complained that the biblical display “has the effect of privileging one religion over others and alienates the nearly 26% of American adults who identify as nonreligious.”

Ziegler urged the library to “remove this turning picture game from the playground and refrain from approving any such displays in the future” and requesting “a written response detailing the steps taken to resolve this matter.”

Ultimately, the town of Ashburnham responded to the FFRF’s request. “Thank you for bringing this matter to the town’s attention,” Ashburnham Town Administrator Brian Doheny wrote in an e-mail to the nonprofit organization. “In response to your letter, the town has painted over both sides of the display with white paint so no symbolism is shown.”

In response to the decision to paint over the biblical display, FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor claimed victory. “We’re pleased the town realized that allowing biblical preaching to children at a public institution isn’t in keeping with our nation’s secular ideals,” she said.

This is not the first time that a biblical playground display has been targeted by a secularist organization. In 2014, a similar playground display in Newark, Delaware, that also told the story of Noah’s Ark, became the subject of a complaint against the city spearheaded by the D.C.-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State and its local chapter, Delaware Valley Americans United.

“DVAU received citizen complaints from some atheist grandparents who did not want their grandchildren to see the Bible verses or the cartoon rendition of the Noah’s Ark story,” Janice Rael, vice president of DVAU, told The Christian Post at the time.

Like the complaint filed against the biblical display in Ashburnham, the complaint in Newark alleged that the playground equipment was “in violation of the establishment clause in the U.S. Constitution,” according to a city official who spoke with CP. Not long after DVAU issued the complaint, the city of Newark decided to remove the display, which was located at a children’s playground at Norma B. Handloff Park.

While secular groups continue to call for the removal of biblical displays in public places, not all of their efforts have been met with success. Three years after a federal judge sided with FFRF and another secular group by ruling that a cross at a public park in Pensacola, Florida, must come down, a panel of judges on the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the 34-foot tall cross could remain in place.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that a 40-foot tall cross erected to honor the memory of World War I soldiers in Bladensburg, Maryland, did not violate the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.

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