‘Coexist’ banner abuses religious symbols



Houses of worship often construct enormous religious symbols, beacons for weary travelers on the road of faith. Yet here in St. Cloud, our supposedly secular university has fashioned a 12-foot-high Islamic crescent, Jewish star, and Christian cross to loom over passers-by—in spite of the institution’s legal requirement to remain neutral on religious issues.

These icons line the façade of Atwood Memorial Center, the heart of St. Cloud State University’s campus. Together these religious symbols form the “Coexist” banner, where the crescent takes the place of the “C”, the star stands in for the “X”, and the cross is the “T”. This banner resembles the well-known bumper sticker of the same message, although the smaller version affixed to autos usually includes seven symbols total, not three.

This banner highlights monotheistic followers of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity to the exclusion of other systems of belief. It singles out followers of the three chosen faiths, and places a special emphasis on them to get along with one another—implying that they are not currently coexisting—while excluding people of other faiths.

This banner ignores bans on public institutions from promoting certain religions, or religion in general.

This banner divides students and discriminates based on faith. The SCSU administration must remove this banner. It violates the conscience of students, staff, and faculty who do not subscribe to the three featured faiths, and it also places students of those three faiths into a special category.

Article I, Section 16 of the Minnesota Constitution states that no “preference be given by law to any religious establishment.”

The Constitution further outlaws the appropriation of state property for religious purposes, and the promulgation of any religion. This banner directly violates both provisions.

The school may claim that the banner’s intent is not to discriminate, but discrimination is the outcome. Good intentions do not excuse violations of civil rights or violation of the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of religious liberty.

In Allegheny vs. ACLU, one U.S. Supreme Court Justice said that a public entity’s display of Christian and Jewish symbols was “the very kind of double establishment that the First Amendment was designed to outlaw.”

Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, the parent institution of SCSU, advises employees that displaying religious symbols in a public setting is illegal. From the November 28, 2012 memo “Guidelines for Holiday Directions and Celebrations,” posted on SCSU’s website: “Religious symbols or holiday decorations with religious content may not be displayed.”

The university has been warned in the past about excessive entanglement with religion and violating student and employee civil rights. In Stark vs. SCSU, the school was ordered to stop its relationship with local Christian schools because it “created perception of symbolic union between church and state” and “impermissibly advanced religion in violation of establishment clause of First Amendment.”

In “Insights for a Diverse Campus Community,” Winter 2006 (Volume III, Issue 4), SCSU celebrated the religious symbolism of the then-new banner: “The black-and-white ‘Coexist’ message is spelled out on the banner beginning with the half-moon symbol for Islam forming the ‘C,’ the Star of David symbol of Judaism in the center of the word, and the cross symbol for Christianity forming the ‘T’ which ends the word and completes the imagery.”

If the banner is supposed to encourage harmony, why does it explicitly reference only three religions: Islam, Judaism, and Christianity? Are all other religions equal with those three? What about atheism, agnosticism, and pantheism?

The school made the choice to display the less-inclusive “Coexist” banner with three symbols instead of the more-inclusive bumper sticker version with a symbol for every letter. Although the school’s motive for using the less-inclusive banner is unknown, and although the seven-symbol “Coexist” is problematic, too, the actual result of the chosen imagery is to promote the monotheistic God religions originating in the Middle East to the exclusion of all other forms of faith.

Coupled with SCSU’s inclusion of a religious display case in Atwood (with only religions with over ten followers on campus originally eligible to contribute), its use of Islamic law in preparing food on campus (late hours during Ramadan, advertising “Halal Fridays”), the promotion of Kosher (Jewish ritual) food availability on campus, and a foot-wash station built in Atwood for the convenience of Muslims, the university has adopted a pro-monotheism, pro-popular religion attitude to the detriment of minority faiths and non-religious people.

We must treat all faiths alike by not singling out any one, two, three, or other combination in particular. Students must be free to express their own personal and religious views, but SCSU has no right to promote or pick on any one belief or group of beliefs over any others.

Religious symbols are powerful things, and the risk that these symbols might be abused, misinterpreted, or cause anxiety in students affected by them is too great.

“Religious beliefs and religious expression are too precious to be either proscribed or prescribed by the State,” according to the U.S. Supreme Court in Coles vs. Cleveland.

If the school wants to promote coexistence, it can put up a different banner reading, simply, “Coexist”—without the use of religious symbols.

SCSU must steer clear of interfering in the religious practice of its students and adopt the secular behavior demanded by the law.

To comply with the Minnesota Constitution, the laws of the State and of the United States, and in the interest of fairness and equality in furthering the University’s mission, the school must remove the Coexist banner and reexamine its meddling in religious affairs elsewhere on campus.



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  • Sarah Portman

    I disagree with your opinion. Although I do not know the exact context in which this banner was put up, it seems to to imply that the Abrahamic religions should “get along with each other”, or “coexist peacefully” with each other. It hardly attempts to impinge on the religious practices of any student.

    Furthermore, it appears that you argue against the University’s “use of Islamic law in preparing food on campus… the promotion of Kosher… food available on campus… and a foot-wash station built in Atwood for the convenience of Muslims”. I therefore infer that you believe that students of those faiths shouldn’t be aloud to practice their religions’ on campus.

    Jewish students who keep kosher need to have kosher food available, or they cannot eat. Islamic students who keep halal need halal food available or they cannot eat. If campus shops did not offer these foods, then they would cut out a very large proportion of the student population who would be unable to buy from them- this does not make good business sense.

    Why this discrimination against religious students? Why can non-Islamic students not simply ignore the foot-wash stations? Why can non-halal, non-kosher students not enjoy the halal/kosher foods, and then go buy themselves a pork sandwich if they feel the need to do so? Non vegetarians can enjoy both vegetarian meals and MacDonald’s hamburgers, after all.

    Why are university students- people who are supposed to be more tolerant and accepting of other people’s ideas and perceptions than your “average Joe”- so upset about a banner? The fact that the banner does not include religious icons of faiths other than the Abrahamic religions in no way implies that other religions are somehow less important, or not worthy of tolerance. It focuses on those religions presumably because those are topically intolerant of each other. Right now, those particular religions are not coexisting peacefully in this world.

    To imply that the banner is somehow influencing people’s religious beliefs seems ludicrous. It does not “promote” any religion, or “discriminate” against any religion. How do you find this so offensive that it warrants your lengthy diatribe condemning it?

    Personally, I am confused by your article. I also feel offended by paragraph 15 (beginning “Coupled with SCSU’s inclusion of a religious display case” and ending “university has adopted a pro-monotheism, pro-popular religion attitude to the detriment of minority faiths and non-religious people.”). If the university has a religious display case, does that not portray the diversity of students? Do you disagree that the university should cater to the majority of it’s students as much as it can? Should it give merely mediocre service to all students instead- by not offering to sell any food at all, perhaps? How does any of this cause detriment to any religion at all?

    Lastly, the words “fairness” and “equality” have very different meanings. Therefore, something can be fair while not being equal, and something else can be equal but not fair. Do not confuse the two. I will end on this quote: “A society that puts equality before freedom will get neither. A society that puts freedom before equality will get a high degree of both.” ― Milton Friedman

  • Joshua Levine

    Dear Sarah,

    Thank you for your thoughtful response to my opinion piece.

    I support freedom of religion 100%. I fully support the rights of Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and all other students to practice their religion according to their own beliefs. I believe that universities should accommodate religious students in universities, including making available kosher, halal, vegetarian, and other religiously prepared food in response to student request.

    Your statement that “I therefore infer that you believe that students of those faiths shouldn’t be aloud to practice their religions on campus” is not supported by anything I said in my article. I make it clear from beginning to end that my belief is that SCSU must remain neutral in religious issues. I brought up religious food, the display case, and the footwash as areas where SCSU should reexamine its policies so that it doesn’t create the impression that “the university has adopted a pro-monotheism, pro-popular religion attitude to the detriment of minority faiths and non-religious people.”

    I do not discriminate against religious students. Instead I promote equality and non-discrimination through statements such as this: “We must treat all faiths alike by not singling out any one, two, three, or other combination in particular. Students must be free to express their own personal and religious views, but SCSU has no right to promote or pick on any one belief or group of beliefs over any others.”

    The footwash is one area where I have suggested the university reexamine its policies for fiscal reasons. I have suggested that the footwash be incorporated into a shower room / changing room. This would save money by combining services, satisfy the religious needs of students, and be more secular. The issue is not that a footwash exists; the issue is that SCSU took the initiative to create the footwash without any request for religious accommodation, when it could have chosen a more secular, more fiscally responsible option. The footwash was not built through the petitioning of religious students; the school saw that students were washing their feet in the sinks, and they wanted to put a stop to that practice for safety reasons. I fully support the religious accommodation of students who need to wash their feet, I just want SCSU to look again at how it makes these decisions so that it doesn’t create the impression it’s looking at the religious angle only.

    You state that the banner “focuses on those religions presumably because those are topically intolerant of each other. Right now, those particular religions are not coexisting peacefully in this world.” I’m not sure what to make of that statement, but in any case I do not question that SCSU believes it’s trying to promote coexistence. I believe the banner was meant in good faith. My issue with the banner is that religious symbols have a variety of meanings to a variety of people, and they can inspire powerful emotions. Using certain religious symbols in such an overt way (approximately 12 feet tall sign, placed on the facade of a 2nd story building overlooking the heart of campus, passed by thousands of people daily, making up the biggest sign on campus) necessarily puts religion at the center of campus.
    In response to your reference to the religious display case, again I do not oppose there being a religious display case. The problem with the case as it currently exists is that favor was given in its creation to existing student groups (which require more than 10 active members on campus), meaning that the more well-known religions were given preference in its creation. I have since spoken with the administration and they have assured me they are open and welcoming to smaller religions and non-religious students as well to contribute something. Therefore I have no problem with the current policy. However the fact remains that the creation of the case, and its current configuration, still favor religions with 10+ members on campus, and additionally is set up for religions with “holidays” or “celebrations” (since it’s meant as a holidays/celebrations dispaly case). Certain religions don’t have specific holidays or celebrations. The reason I only mentioned the case in passing is because the focus of my article is the banner, and I only called for SCSU to look again at its policies regarding religion, not to specifically get rid of the display case, or religious food, or the footwash, or anything else.
    I know that fairness and equality have different meanings, which is why I specifically ask for a non-religious banner to be put up instead. This is a fair solution in that it accomplishes the exact same thing without ruffling any feathers, and it’s a solution with equality for all because no one religion is singled out.
    I appreciate that different people will react differently to religious symbols, so to put it in perspective let’s try a thought exercise. If the banner only contained 2 symbols, not 3, would it still be ok? What if it were 100 feet high? What if it were only one giant symbol, 1000 feet high? The point is that there’s a line somewhere. SCSU could have put the banner with the rest of its hanging/flat art, inside. It could have kept the banner outside, but not put it in the center of campus, high above the ground. It could have purchased a banner with 7 symbols instead of the less-inclusive 3. I don’t expect everyone to agree that this specific banner crosses the line, but for me and many others, it does. Despite the extensive personal attacks against me after writing this piece, a number of fellow students have thanked me for writing it, generally because 1. they felt discriminated against as students of other religions not represented, or 2. they felt singled out because they practiced one of the 3 represented religions.
    The solution is very simple, and is in fact given by Minnesota State Colleges and Universities’ own policy, and the law of the State of Minnesota: public institutions cannot display religious symbols, therefore the banner cannot be displayed as a stand-alone piece. The only lawful way for it to be displayed is in the context of a representative collection of art or other pieces. Just because the university calls it a piece of art and says it’s part of the collection, doesn’t make it so. Putting up an enormous banner, physically separate from the other art, at the most visible place in campus, violates any reasonable interpretation of the existing laws and policies regarding secularity.

  • Sarah Portman

    Hi Joshua!

    Thank you for your thoughtful reply. I now understand where you are coming from. This was a good dialog, and I truly appreciate your reply. I have re-read your article in a different light, and I see that you were correct. I misunderstood the gist of the article, and therefore interpreted a different meaning to the one you you implied.


  • Name

    The banner was put up as a donation to the school and in accordance with Jewish representation on campus in regards to an anti-semitism lawsuit the school suffered in 2002.

    Legally speaking the school has the right to represent religions through the use of displays as long as several religions are shown.

    It is my personal opinion that more religions, such as Hinduism, Hmong, etc., should be represented on campus. We should look to represent more, not represent zero.

  • http://HoldenPage Joshua D. Levine

    Correct, the banner was a donation to the school. The school put it up temporarily, and then decided to make it permanent. The banner was not an official school response to the lawsuit; it was put up at the request of the professor who first saw the banner at a show in Minneapolis and thought it would be a good piece for SCSU to have.

    “Legally speaking the school has the right to represent religions through the use of displays as long as several religions are shown.”
    100% correct.

    I agree, we should represent more, not represent zero. And the answer to that is giving students full and equal rights to express themselves in whatever religious expression (or lack thereof) they choose, and for SCSU to step back and allow freedom to flourish. Just as it would be inappropriate for SCSU to have enormous Democratic, Republican, and Libertarian symbols in the main campus square and claim they are representing political equality, so too is it wrong to have 3 religions and say they represent all.

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