MILWAUKEE — At first glance, the video looks innocent enough – a 50-year-old man, standing before a Christmas tree quoting the Bible and offering a religious Christmas greeting in which he urges non-Christians to convert to Christianity.
The video loses its innocence, however, when one learns the speaker is Rep. Scott Allen, a Republican member of the Wisconsin Assembly, and that the video was shot in a state-owned studio in the Wisconsin Capitol and emailed to constituents and others via a state email system.
“The religious message is astounding,” said Marc Stern, general counsel at the American Jewish Committee. “It’s been some time since I’ve seen something that far over the line.”
The video begins with Allen, who is pictured standing in the Wisconsin Capitol’s rotunda telling viewers:
“To me and my fellow Christians, celebrating the birth of our Savior, our Emmanuel, well, it is one of the most important celebrations of the year. For those who may watch this who are not Christians, I invite you to consider the hope offered by the Prince of Peace.”
The 1 minute, 55 second video, includes quotations from Hebrews, Chapter 10 of the Christian Scriptures that appear on the screen as Allen recites the quotes.
“There is a difference between active proselytizing and speaking about your beliefs,” Stern said. “This clearly crosses the line.”
Deborah Lauter, Director of Civil Rights at the Anti-Defamation League, had a similar reaction when she watched the video Wednesday afternoon at the request of The Forward:
“Wow,” Lauter said. “He’s endorsing Christianity over all other religions.”
Allen, a freshman legislator from Waukesha, Wisconsin – a county that political pundits consider one of the reddest in the nation – is non-repentant over his use of state-resources to send out the greeting.
His message about Christ, he told the Forward, wasn’t aimed at those who believe in other religions but rather was targeting those without belief.
“There are a lot of people who feel lonely or lost or don’t have a particular faith.”
The video was sent to people who are on his office’s email list, Allen said, noting he was one of several lawmakers who used the state studio and email to send holiday messages.
“Political leaders have a responsibility to give a message of hope and faith,” Allen said during an phone interview which he cut short when a reporter quizzed him on the propriety of using state resources to send that message. “I’m not ashamed of the message.”
The first criticisms of the video were raised Christmas Eve by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Madison, Wisconsin based watchdog group that polices the line between religion and state.
“It’s simply egregious to have a public official who is this tone deaf,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the foundation, which she said has 23,000 members nationwide. The foundation has filed a request under the Wisconsin Open Records Law for documents relating Christmas videos made by Allen and other legislators.
Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
But Republican State Representative Robin Vos, who is Wisconsin’s assembly leader, is backing Allen. The message, Vos told the Associated Press, was “entirely appropriate,” adding that people were “making a mountain out of a molehill.”
Told of the comments by Stern and Lauter, Vos Thursday said he would “take another look at it.”
Allen and Vos both said the cost of using the state studio and staff was minimal. Vos argued Thursday that there was no cost to taxpayers since they would be getting paid whether they were working on the video or doing something else.
Vos said that when he saw the video he did not see the overt proselytizing that some say it contains. Vos acknowledged that Allen uses the video to tell non-Christians seeking hope that he “hopes you consider Jesus Christ.”
Said Stern: “If that’s not proselytizing, I don’t know what is.”
Still, Stern saw little likelihood of litigation succeeding as elected officials are given freedom to speak about their beliefs. “The courts have made it clear that they are not in the business of policing what every official says,” Stern said. The courts see a difference between an official speaking about his beliefs and imposing policy that would impact religious freedom.
Regardless, he praised the Freedom From Religion Foundation for bringing attention to the video.
“To ignore this would be just wrong,” said Lauter, of the ADL. “Even if the entire population of his district was Christian, it is still insensitive and it violates the First Amendment.”