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Pa. Nonbelievers Inc. files discrimination complaint

December 22, 2009|By KATE S. ALEXANDER

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. -- Pennsylvania Nonbelievers Inc. (PAN) has filed a discrimination complaint against the Borough of Chambersburg for the borough council's November decision to ban all public displays from Center Square.

PAN President Steve Neubauer said Tuesday that his organization filed a complaint with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC) to affect a position of religiously neutral in local government.

In November, the Chambersburg Borough Council overturned a 14-year policy of allowing displays at the fountain in Center Square when PAN requested permission to place a sign honoring atheist soldiers and the Winter Solstice, which was Monday.

Council President Bill McLaughlin said previously the council faced a decision of allowing "all or nothing," and felt nothing was the safer option.

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The decision prevented PAN from placing its memorial at the fountain and also forced the Norland Garden Club to remove its nativity scene from the square.

PAN's complaint alleges the borough denied it public accommodation for a display at Center Square based on the organization's religious beliefs, said Shannon Powers, director of communications for PHRC.

The complaint has yet to be finalized and no investigation into PAN's allegations has been launched, she said.

Doing nothing about the council's decision was not an option for the organization, said Carl Silverman, a member of PAN's board of directors.

"We have been accused of just wanting the crèche (nativity scene) out of the square, which is not the case," he said. "If we do nothing, it looks as if we are satisfied with the borough's decision, which we are not."

Tuesday evening on PAN's public television show, "The Free Thought Forum," Neubauer and Silverman discussed the complaint and the situation leading up to the change in borough policy.

Neubauer criticized McLaughlin's prior comment that allowing the atheists memorial would attract "even more odious" displays. He also criticized the members of the public who attacked PAN in online forums but who did not call into the show.

"Why are you hiding now?" he said. "When I read these comments, I don't have to ask myself why I am not a Christian. This is so hateful. It's unnecessary."

The link provided by PAN to watch the live program online malfunctioned Tuesday, Silverman said.

Only those with the proper computer programs were able to view the show through the White Rose Community Television Web site, a WRCT cable representative said.

While Neubauer said he was "shocked" by the amount of hostility aimed at the group since November, Silverman said he was not.

"I'm not surprised at all," Silverman said. "I used to live in Franklin County (Pa.), remember? There are some good people in Franklin County, but there are many who are hostile against atheists."

Silverman, who once lived in Waynesboro, Pa., said there are members of PAN living in Chambersburg who fear that admitting their atheist beliefs now could cost them their jobs or their lives.

As of Tuesday, Neubauer was uncertain how far PAN would take the complaint, specifically if it would pursue action in federal court should PHRC deny the complaint.

PAN's goal, Silverman said, is to resolve the issue through the PHRC and not take the long, expensive path through the federal courts.

However, many civil issues are central to the complaint, including the establishment of religion, the freedom of worship, the freedom of speech, viewpoint discrimination and civil rights.

"We are part of an ongoing civil rights struggle against a religious majority that wants to keep nonbelievers as invisible as possible to prevent them from gaining even a proportional share of political power," Neubauer said. "Atheists are the only minority it is socially acceptable to hate in America."

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