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Originally published December 1, 2008 at 2:19 PM | Page modified December 1, 2008 at 5:48 PM

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Atheists put up sign in Capitol building

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a group of atheists and agnostics, has put up a sign in the Capitol building in Olympia saying religion "hardens hearts and enslaves minds" — the latest in what's become an annual wintertime debate over what's appropriate to display in the public square.

Seattle Times religion reporter

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A sign posted by the Freedom From Religion Foundation takes its place a few paces away from a nativity scene in the State Capitol building on Monday. Both the foundation's sign and the Nativity scene will be on display till Dec. 29.

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ELLEN M. BANNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES

A sign posted by the Freedom From Religion Foundation takes its place a few paces away from a nativity scene in the State Capitol building on Monday. Both the foundation's sign and the Nativity scene will be on display till Dec. 29.

OLYMPIA — A group of atheists and agnostics has placed a sign at the Capitol building that says, in part: "Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds."

The sign, sponsored by the Madison, Wisc.-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, is in part a reaction to a Nativity scene put up in the Capitol by a private citizen.

"Non-believers are a part of the fabric of America and we claim our place at the table to exercise free speech and freedom of religion, which includes freedom from religion," said Dan Barker, 59, the foundation co-president who came from Madison for the sign's unveiling.

The foundation's sign is the latest round in what's become sort of an annual winter tradition: debating what are appropriate religious symbols to put up in the public square.

In 2006, there was a brouhaha when Port of Seattle officials took down Christmas trees at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport after a local rabbi requested that an 8-foot-tall menorah also be displayed.

After intense outcry, the port put the trees back up and a holiday decorations advisory committee determined that in the future, wintertime decorations such as trees, fabrics and garlands could be used, but nothing religious.

Also in 2006, Olympia real estate agent Ron Wesselius saw a menorah displayed inside the Capitol and wanted to put up a Nativity scene. He was denied because he had applied for the permit very close to Christmas and the state didn't have enough time to research the issues, according to the Department of General Administration.

Wesselius filed a lawsuit, the state settled, and he put up a Nativity scene in 2007. This morning, Wesselius again put up a Nativity scene — a few steps away from the Freedom From Religion Foundation's sign.

Both the foundation's sign and the Nativity scene will be on display till Dec. 29.

It is the second such sign the foundation has sponsored in a state Capitol building. Its first sign, which has been up for 13 years in the Wisconsin Capitol, has at times been defaced and frequently turned around, Barker said.

That's why the sign in Olympia will say in the back: "State/Church; Keep Them Separate."

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