Blog / 2024 / Religious Freedom and the Friends We Need Right Now

March 8, 2024

All municipal offices will be closed in observance of Good Friday.

It was a functional sort of message, one designed to avoid inconveniencing the people of my small town, but it had the opposite effect on me.

Don’t get me wrong: I like a paid day off as much as the next person—even if, as a self-employed artist, I never get one—but this was another religious holiday Lambertville was recognizing. More specifically, it was another Christian holiday, in a municipality which already celebrates Christmas. My town was showing quite the preference for one religion over all others.

After a quick search online, I discovered that Lambertville was not alone in its unconstitutional promotion of Christianity. My town is like all of New Jersey, eleven other states, and many of their municipalities in its recognition of not just Christmas, but also Good Friday. These American governments are all violating the US Constitution twice over, by showing preference to one religion over all others and by doing so not just with the more commonly accepted Christmas holiday but also with a day off for Good Friday.

If you follow my blog, you know how I feel about Christmas being the only religious day that we celebrate as a country. So, last year, when my Mayor informed me and the rest of Lambertville’s residents that the town was observing Good Friday, I decided to remind him of this self-evident truth:

The government promoting one religion over all others is a sure way to make people who don’t worship that way feel excluded.

In response, he told me that he had neither the will nor the power to make a change to the official days off, but that, if I could get fifty signatures on a petition, he’d read it into the record at a meeting.

The signatures weren’t easy to come by: people told me they didn’t want their name on a document that challenged Christianity and its special status in American society. It was discouraging to hear that, but I had to admit that they had a point. Christian nationalists are a terrifying and ever-growing force in our country, with five of our current Supreme Court Justices consistently backing their agenda and countless legislators on all levels of government playing for their team too.

Nevertheless, we eventually made it to fifty and the Mayor honored his promise, asking the City of Lambertville to consider adding Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, and Holi and Diwali as well as the Lunar New Year, International Women’s Day, and Juneteenth as official holidays. (The logic in writing the petition with so many new days off was that, if Christianity gets two holidays recognized by our town, so should other major religions and some secular causes as well.)

The public conversation that followed the reading of the petition didn’t bode well for those of us who care about inclusivity. There was almost no mention of the separation of church and state and how necessary it is to a functioning democracy. What’s more, the one time that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment was alluded to didn’t inspire confidence: an elected official used the word “secular” multiple times to refer to religious holidays and no one corrected the mistake.

I can’t tell you exactly what happened next because there was no more public conversation about the question. Instead, the City’s leadership met privately with the employees who actually get these days off. Together, they decided to adopt Juneteenth as a full holiday, while also making both Good Friday and Yom Kippur optional, allowing City employees to take a half day on one or the other.

In other words, Lambertville will officially celebrate a religious holiday that’s not Christian in 2024!

colorful marker drawing of James Baldwin by queer artist Gwenn Seemel
detail image of a drawing of James Baldwin

When I first got the news, I was happy. I’ve never been religious, and I’d prefer that my government stay as far away as possible from all faiths, but, since that’s not likely to happen any time soon, it felt good to at least get my municipality to stop exclusively endorsing Christianity.

Still, my inititial delight tarnished quickly: I couldn’t help but see that Christianity remained the favored religion, with both Good Friday and Christmas being officially celebrated. The blatant unfairness rankled, and I was frustrated that I hadn’t even been allowed to hear the arguments that led to this decision.

Then I told my partner how things had played out, and his joy centered me. He reminded me that, though the change was modest, it had happened. And if Yom Kippur survives as an official holiday in Lambertville for more than a year, it might very well help create change on a larger scale.

I needed that.

My partner David is the sort of person I want in my life—always, of course, but at this moment especially. In fact, he’s the sort of person I want to be for others right now, during a presidential election year when a rapist, fraudster, and would-be tyrant is the Republican nominee.

What I don’t need is more people telling me I’m naive or that I must prepare myself for a backlash to my activism. Those of us who want to take action don’t need others to voice the concerns that already fill our own minds. We’re perfectly capable of citing all the reasons in favor of keeping quiet and doing nothing, thankyouverymuch.

What we need in 2024 are cheerleaders who foster a can-do kind of mood. We need to cultivate our inner Davids. We need to remember that the point is to keep on trying.

colorful marker drawing of James Baldwin with the quote “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
Gwenn Seemel
James Baldwin
ink on paper with digital additions

“Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

This James Baldwin quote is from “As Much Truth as One Can Bear,” which was published in The New York Times in 1962. The essay isn’t a treatise on activism, though this Baldwin quote gets a lot of play in circles where social justice memes abound. Rather, “As Much Truth as One Can Bear” is a love letter to writers and artists of all kinds.

I recommend reading the entire piece, but this second quote from the essay will give you some context for the more famous citation:

“In my mind, the effort to become a great novelist simply involves attempting to tell as much of the truth as one can bear, and then a little more. It is an effort which, by its very nature—remembering that men write books, that time passes and energy flags, and safety beckons—is obviously doomed to failure. Success is an American word which cannot conceivably, unless it is defined in an extremely severe, ironical and painful way, have any place in the vocabulary of any artist.”

Because, if someone is going to voice the concerns that already fill my mind, I’d like it to be Baldwin. At least he won’t suggest that it’s not even worth trying to tell the truth.

Maybe this post made you think of something you want to share with me? Or perhaps you have a question about my art? I’d love to hear from you!


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