Chicago's Daley Plaza, long home to privately maintained Christmas and Hanukkah displays, now has a giant letter "A" representing the atheist and agnostic community.
Nestled between baby Jesus in his manger and a towering menorah with seven candles illuminated, the 8 1/2-foot-tall letter and accompanying signs erected for the first time last week are meant as a counterweight to the religious displays, according to an official with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the organization responsible for the exhibit.
"The month of December does not just belong to religion or Christianity," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Wisconsin-based foundation. "We're made to feel like outsiders in our own community for at least a month every year when Daley Plaza becomes a nod to a religious holy day."
In a perfect world, Gaylor said, none of the three displays would be in the public space outside the downtown government building.
Atheists and other critics have long opposed the prominent nativity scene along Dearborn Street, arguing that its placement violated the Constitution's separation of church and state. But a federal judge ruled in 1988 that religious exhibits could be erected outside the Daley Center if maintained by private groups, which they are.
During the Wednesday morning commute, passers-by, religious and nonreligious, stated support for having the three exhibits side by side.
"As an atheist myself, I guess it's nice to see a display for us," said Steve Strahm of Chicago.
Bob Smith, an agnostic from southwest suburban Evergreen Park, was downtown on business and paused to take in the new exhibit. He said the nearby religious displays are fine but that it's refreshing to see recognition of the growing number of Americans who don't identify with a faith.
"I think it certainly deserves to be here," Smith said. "We have to have separation of church and state."
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But not everyone was thrilled with the new display. Amanda Sierant, from northwest suburban Crystal Lake, questioned placing the "A," which at night is illuminated with red lights, next to a depiction of Jesus' birth and the holiday shopping market.
"I don't want to be mean, but I don't think it belongs there because Christmas is religious," she said after pausing to snap pictures of the nativity scene. Sierant, a Roman Catholic, said she didn't have a problem with the Hanukkah exhibit.
Next to the large "A," signs explain atheism and agnosticism and wish downtown pedestrians a happy winter solstice. Rather than wise men kneeling beside Jesus' crib, the banner includes a tongue-in-cheek depiction of America's Founding Fathers standing around a crib that contains the Bill of Rights.
"We hope people will walk by, from any point of view, and learn something and smile," Gaylor said.