The Freedom From Religion Foundation seems to be winning its point in a major state/church skirmish over religious signs in the State Capitol in Olympia, Wash.
The Foundation, which has more than 900 members in Washington state, placed a Winter Solstice sign in the Capitol last December to protest a nativity display in the core government building.
After FOX TV’s Bill O’Reilly, as well as local fundamentalists, went ballistic over the presence of the Foundation sign, the state adopted a temporary moratorium. It has extended the moratorium on signs and private displays at the Capitol through the end of the year and wants to make the ban permanent. Public comments are accepted through Sept. 22.
The Foundation took action after Washington officials permitted a citizen to display a nativity scene in the Capitol in December 2007, and approved a permit for it again in December 2008. That horrified Foundation Lifetime Member Lois Walker, in nearby Shelton, Wash., a firm believer in the constitutional principle of separation between church and state.
She specifically requested that the Foundation place its “equal time” display in Olympia, as it does annually in the Wisconsin State Capitol, to protest state/church violations. (Lois, 80, died late last year, knowing the sign would go up.) The message on the gold sign, composed by Foundation President Emerita Anne Nicol Gaylor, 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 back of the display reads: “State/Church: Keep Them Separate.”
Foundation Co-President Dan Barker’s dedication of the sign on Dec. 1 resulted in an avalanche of regional and national media coverage, including a weeklong rant by O’Reilly.
The gold insert inscribed with the message was even stolen and was later found in a ditch near a conservative radio station in Seattle that had condemned the sign. The slightly damaged insert was recovered and replaced by state troopers (with blow-by-blow media coverage) by the end of the day. More than 400 religionists, organized by fundamentalist clergy, rallied against the FFRF sign and Gov. Christine Gregoire at the Capitol on Dec. 7, bearing signs straight out of Dayton, Tenn., circa 1925 (“Repent”).
As the Capitol became littered with other signs and posters, the state received countless other requests for displays. Such a request by adherents of the spoof Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster apparently was the last straw. The state called a temporary moratorium, leaving only the first several displays, including the nativity, the Foundation sign and several anti-FFRF signs (quoting Psalms calling atheists “fools”: “The fool hath said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ ”).
The Foundation signed up hundreds of new members after the controversy.
“As we stated clearly last December, we do not think religious—or irreligious displays—belong in core government buildings,” said Dan Barker, Foundation co-president.
“But if the state of Washington is going to approve religious displays and nativity scenes in state buildings, then state officials know the Foundation will be back to ensure that nonreligious views—which may be as offensive to believers as nativity scenes are to us—will be represented, too.”
“We consider a crèche in a capitol an egregious First Amendment violation. Tax-free churches abound where nativities may be displayed. The fundamentalist rallies, Bill O’Reilly attacks, theft of our sign, acrimony and circus-like atmosphere, prove how divisive religion is on government property. Everyone wins with state/church separation,” said Foundation Co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor.