A sign erected by an atheist group at the Legislative Building in Olympia, Wash., was stolen and tossed into a ditch as a nasty ruckus broke out over the display of religious symbols and signs at the state capital.
The sign had been put up by the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), a group based in Madison, Wisc., that promotes the rights of atheists. FFRF sought and won permission to erect the sign, which called religion “myth and superstition,” after an Olympia man was given permission to erect a Nativity scene.
Conservative commentators and Religious Right activists, led by Fox News Channel personality Bill O’Reilly, attacked Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire for allowing the sign.
In a column, O’Reilly implied that Gregoire had erected the sign and said she had “insulted Christians all over the world.” At one point, hundreds of protestors gathered outside the building, demanding that the sign be removed.
But O’Reilly had the facts wrong in blaming the governor. Ironically, it was activism by the Religious Right that led to the sign’s placement.
The Alliance Defense Fund, a Religious Right legal group based in Arizona, sued the state last year on behalf of Ron Wesselius, an Olympia man who wanted to erect a Nativity scene in the state capitol rotunda. The suit alleged that since a menorah and a “holiday tree” were displayed there, officials could not discriminate against a depiction of the birth of Jesus.
The case was settled with an agreement that the Nativity scene would be put up and that the state would broaden its policy on free speech in the building. That opened the door for the FFRF’s sign.
CNN.com reported that the FFRF’s sign was later found in a ditch. The person who found it took it to KMPS, a radio station in Seattle. FFRF staffers promptly replaced the sign, appending to it a note reading, “Thou shalt not steal.”
“I thought it would be safe,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor of FFRF. “It’s always a shock when your sign is censored or stolen or mutilated. It’s not something you get used to.”
In a statement, Gregoire and Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna pointed out that non-theistic groups also enjoy free speech.
“The Legislative Building belongs to all citizens of Washington state, and houses the state Legislature, as well as the offices of several state-elected executives, including the governor,” Gregoire and McKenna said. “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 non-believers.”
The FFRF also arranged for a sign at the Wisconsin capitol.
In Chester County, Pa., atheist activist Margaret Downey erected a “tree of knowledge” – an evergreen decorated with covers of books promoting skepticism of religion and church-state separation – outside the courthouse. The public area also houses religious displays erected by other groups.
In Washington, D.C., Religious Right minister Rob Schenck displayed a Nativity scene on a public sidewalk in front of the Supreme Court. Schenck told TV preacher Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network that he acted in part to respond to groups like Americans United, which he accused of laboring to ban public displays of religious symbols.
AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn pointed out that AU does not oppose privately sponsored religious messages in spaces that serve as public forums for all kinds of speech and accused Schenck of seeking to manufacture controversy in order to get media attention.
On Dec. 9, AU issued a press statement calling on the Religious Right to end its misguided claims of a “war on Christmas.”
“The best holiday present we could get this year would be for the Religious Right to stop using Christmas as a club to bash others,” said Lynn. “The Religious Right is making a mockery of the season with a litany of stunts cheaper than dollar-store wrapping paper.”