Atheist Sign Joins Nativity at Washington State Capitol

An atheist group has unveiled an anti-religion placard in the state Capitol, joining a Christian Nativity scene and “holiday tree” on display during December.

The atheists’ sign was installed Monday by Washington members of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national group based in Madison, Wis.

With a nod to the winter solstice – the year’s shortest day occurring in late December – the placard reads: “At this season of the Winter Solstice may reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.”

The foundation’s co-president, Dan Barker, said it was important for atheists to offer their viewpoint alongside the overtly religious Nativity scene and Christmas-style holiday tree.

“Our members want equal time,” Barker said. “Not to muscle, not to coerce, but just to have a place at the table.”

The atheists’ sign was installed at the Capitol in Olympia by members of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

The three displays, all privately sponsored, were granted permits from state groundskeepers to be placed in the Capitol’s grand marble hallways.

The 25-foot noble spruce, officially called the “Capitol Holiday Kids Tree,” is sponsored by the Association of Washington Business and tied to a charity drive for needy families. It’s been a Capitol fixture for nearly 20 years.

Although nominally secular, the tree is clearly recognizable as a sign of Christmas: It’s strung with lights, topped by a large golden star and usually surrounded by faux-wrapped presents.

In 2006, a Jewish group sponsored a Capitol menorah, the candelabrum that marks Hanukkah. That prompted local real estate agent Ron Wesselius to propose a Capitol nativity scene depicting the birth of Christ.

The request was turned down, with state lawyers saying they didn’t have enough time to wade through issues of government religious endorsement. Wesselius sued; his Nativity scene was installed in 2007 and again this year. No menorah is on display in 2008.

Wesselius agrees with the state’s decision to allow the atheist display and says to let the public decide what to believe.

On Monday, the Nativity scene and atheist sign were installed alongside each other in a hallway between the state Senate and House chambers, separated by a large bust of the state’s namesake, George Washington.

Asked whether he was bothered by the atheist display next to his Nativity scene, Wesselius said, “I think the Nativity scene will speak for itself.” But he added, “I appreciate freedom of speech and freedom of access. That’s why they’re in there, and hey – you know, that’s great.”

For now, the atheist sign is a stand-in. The metal plaque meant for display was delayed by a shipping error, Barker said.

It will be two-sided, with a lengthy message on the main side, and “Keep State/Church Separate” on the back. Barker said that step is necessary because critics have sometimes spun around the group’s other statehouse display, in Wisconsin, in hopes of hiding its message.

The state says the display is free speech and passed certain criteria, and can’t be seen as state endorsement.

With the policy so open, some wonder how extreme the displays will get in the future. The state says they will take them on a case-by-case basis.
The atheist group who sponsors the sign says the Pacific Northwest has the highest level of non-believers in the country. As many as 25 percent in the Seattle-Portland areas don’t believe in a god.

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