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Originally published December 4, 2008 at 6:38 PM | Page modified December 5, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Atheists' sign at Capitol stolen, found

An atheists group's sign at the Capitol that's spurring protests, countersigns and calls, was stolen, then turned in to radio station KMPS.

Seattle Times religion reporter

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The sign at the Capitol Building, left, is sponsored by the Madison, Wisc.-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, and was stolen early Friday morning. It was later turned in at country music radio station KMPS.

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ELLEN M. BANNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES

The sign at the Capitol Building, left, is sponsored by the Madison, Wisc.-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, and was stolen early Friday morning. It was later turned in at country music radio station KMPS.

An atheists group's sign in the Capitol building that's caused a week's worth of furor was stolen early this morning and then was turned in at country music radio station KMPS.

An employee with KMPS said the sign was turned in to them at about 10 a.m. by someone who didn't say where they had gotten it. The person only said to give the sign to KMPS host Ichabod Caine, the employee said.

The sign, put up Monday by members of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, says, in part: "Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds."

It was apparently stolen sometime between 7 and 7:30 this morning, said Steve Valandra, spokesman for the Department of General Administration, which maintains the Capitol grounds.

Some contract workers who had come in around 6 a.m. to work on an elevator noticed someone hanging around the sign shortly after the building opened at 7 a.m., Valandra said. Another employee who works in the building noticed the sign was gone before 7:30 a.m.

Washington State Patrol is investigating the case.

Freedom From Religion Foundation co-president Dan Barker, said about the theft, "It was unfriendly, it was illegal and it actually underscored our point that religion hardens hearts and enslaves minds so that people are unwilling to be gracious and tolerate another point of view."

The sign has spurred a protest, several countersigns, a news conference, and a deluge of calls to the governor.

Steve Wilson, 28, of Federal Way, is organizing a demonstration against the sign for 2 p.m. Sunday on the Capitol steps.

Wilson, who attends the nondenominational Christian Faith Center, said atheists have a right to air their views but that the sign they put up is disparaging to people of all faiths.

His plan is to hold "a pro-faith rally rather than an anti-atheist" demonstration, he said. "We just want to go show our support for people of faith. We don't want any hate. We want to display a message of God's love for all people."

Today, Pastor Ken Hutcherson of Redmond's Antioch Bible Church, plans to hold a news conference at the Capitol to unveil his own sign, which says, in part: "There is one God.... Atheism is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds."

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Valandra said since Wednesday, his office has handled more than 300 calls on the issue — most from out of state, and that he anticipates getting more requests for other displays.

Earlier this week, Gov. Christine Gregoire's office was inundated with calls — about 200 an hour, a spokesperson said, after Fox News' Bill O'Reilly urged viewers to call to protest.

That prompted the governor and attorney general's office to issue a statement saying that "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."

All this hubbub may overshadow what would otherwise be a big-deal wintertime moment in the Capitol: the lighting of the annual "Capitol Holiday Kids Tree," scheduled for 6 p.m. today. The tree, sponsored by the Association of Washington Business, is tied to a charity drive for needy families.

There will also be a menorah this year, scheduled to go up on Dec. 21.

Information from The Associated Press is used in this report.

Information in this article, originally published Dec. 4, 2008, was corrected Dec. 4, 2008. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Pastor Ken Hutcherson is with Antioch's Redmond Bible Church. Hutcherson is with Redmond's Antioch Bible Church.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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