Capitol holiday-display controversy turning into "circus"
Things have taken a bizarre turn since the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a group for atheists and agnostics, put up an anti-religion sign in the state Capitol. The sign was stolen, then turned in to a Seattle radio station. Now the Capitol will host protests, countersigns, and maybe even a Festivus pole.
Seattle Times religion reporter
The state Capitol hosts a Nativity scene and a 25-foot "holiday tree." The nearby atheists' sign that sparked a nationwide furor was back in place Friday after being stolen and then dropped off at a country-music radio station.
And joining those displays soon could be a 5-foot aluminum pole in celebration of "Festivus for the Rest of Us." Not to mention a protest, a balloon display and even more signs, this time supporting religion.
"It's a circus and we're the center ring," said state Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, who wants the atheists' sign moved farther from the Nativity scene and the governor to establish firmer guidelines on displays.
Things in Olympia have taken a bizarre turn since Monday, when the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national group for atheists and agnostics, put up a sign that says, in part: "Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds." The sign was partly a reaction to the Nativity scene.
The issue went national when FOX News personality Bill O'Reilly chastised the state during his show for allowing the sign.
On Friday, workers discovered the sign was missing shortly after the building opened at 7 a.m., said Steve Valandra, spokesman for the Department of General Administration, which maintains the Capitol grounds.
Later that morning, a man carrying the sign walked into country-music radio station KMPS in Seattle, saying "you know what it's for," said News Director Stephen Kilbreath. Radio-show host Ichabod Caine and others had been talking Friday morning about how disparaging the sign was.
Of the sign turning up at the station, Caine said: "First you think: No way this happened. ... That's sort of funny on one level."
But what happened was stealing, Caine said, and "certainly, because we know 'thou shalt not steal,' don't steal a sign."
The Washington State Patrol is investigating the theft. The State Patrol also is providing extra security in the Capitol for all the holiday displays, Sgt. Mark Arras said.
The Rev. Ken Hutcherson of Redmond's Antioch Bible Church put up his own sign at the Capitol on Friday that says, in part: "There is one God. ... Atheism is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds."
There are requests for other displays as well. Someone applied to put up a "Festivus" pole in honor of the invented holiday featured in the 1990s sitcom "Seinfeld." Another person wants to create a religious-themed "balloon display."
And a demonstration against the atheists' sign is planned for 2 p.m. Sunday on the Capitol steps.
Organizer Steve Wilson of Federal Way said he's for free speech but thinks the sign denigrates religious people. His rally is intended to be pro-faith, not anti-atheist. "We just want to go show our support for people of faith. We don't want any hate," he said.
O'Reilly, on his FOX News show earlier this week, urged viewers to call Gov. Christine Gregoire's office to protest the sign. Gregoire's office received more than 9,000 calls Thursday alone, said spokesman Pearse Edwards.
Both Hutcherson and Roach taped segments Friday for a follow-up segment on O'Reilly's show.
Gregoire, a Democrat, and state Attorney General Rob McKenna, a Republican, issued a statement after O'Reilly's first show, explaining the state's position.
"The U.S. Supreme Court has been consistent and clear that, under the Constitution's First Amendment, once government admits one religious display or viewpoint onto public property, it may not discriminate against the content of other displays, including the viewpoints of nonbelievers," the statement said.
On Friday, some nonbelievers said they had very mixed feelings about the sign.
Michael Amini, a University of Washington student and president of the Secular Student Union, says he's glad to see nonbelievers represented among the Capitol displays. But he doesn't like the sign's wording, saying it's inflammatory and divisive.
"Right now, the atheists are the least trusted minority in the United States," said Amini, who believes the foundation should spend its time and money trying to show people that atheists are "decent people, rational and sane, with legitimate world views. This sign does not send that message."
Dan Barker, Freedom From Religion Foundation co-president, said he intended the sign to be a little controversial — though he didn't expect this much.
"We thought our sign was pretty mild. But some people thought it was pretty hard-hitting," he said. "It's a criticism of religion. I think people like O'Reilly confuse criticism with hate speech."
All this hubbub threatened to overshadow what would otherwise be a big-deal wintertime moment in the Capitol: the annual lighting of the "Capitol Holiday Kids Tree" Friday. The tree, sponsored by the Association of Washington Business, is part of a charity drive.
There also will be a menorah in the Capitol this year, scheduled to go up on Dec. 21.
Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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