First Atheist Display Ever In A State Capitol (Jan/Feb 1997)

The Freedom From Religion Foundation successfully placed the first overtly freethought message believed to be displayed in one of the nation’s state capitol buildings, on December 16-31, 1996.

Reporter Amy Rinard of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel promptly reported, in a story headlined “Anti-religion sign attracts tourists,” that the Foundation’s elegant gold sign had become a “tourist attraction.”

In a Dec. 20 story, Rinard quoted Capitol tour guide Bill Bessler saying, “A lot of people want to see it.” Another tour guide who reported a lot of interest told the reporter that a group of elderly people visiting from Ohio had their picture taken with the sign.

The sign read:

“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.
–Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.”

A few moments after the Foundation staff unveiled the sign at the State Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, a Christian group put up a rather tacky sign of their own, saying, in part: “As we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, may truth prevail. ‘For the fool hath said in his heart there is no God.’ “

Two days after the Foundation’s sign had gone up, attracting a lot of interest, Wisconsin’s Governor Tommy Thompson put up yet another religious counter-sign in the rotunda:

“We walk by faith, not by sight.

“During this holiday season, we are thankful for the many blessings bestowed upon our great state, our communities and families. The strength of Wisconsin and her people comes from our deep faith in God and each other, as well as the values, traditions and religious holidays we celebrate. It is that abiding faith that lifts us, unites us and allows us to flourish as a state. And it is our faith that will make us even stronger as we enter a new year filled with hope and optimism. We wish you and your families a blessed and safe holiday season.”
–Office of the Governor

Members of the governor’s staff all donated from $3 to $5 to make the sign, with the Governor advertising he chipped in $3.

In 1995, the Governor ordered the Foundation’s banner, reading “State/Church: Keep Them Separate,” to be torn down before the Foundation’s permit to display it had expired. The Foundation had erected the banner during two Christmas seasons, in response to religion at the Capitol. This includes the presence of a 40-foot Christmas tree dedicated during a Christian tree-lighting ceremony sponsored by the state and its union, and of a 9-foot menorah erected by an ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect with a religious sign beside it.

The capitol is also the host of an annual live nativity pageant involving high-school students. The Foundation has stopped public financing and organizing of that pageant, but, now sponsored privately, it still takes over the Capitol once a year.

The Foundation’s only recourse was to put up a smaller sign conforming to new (but unpublished) state guidelines that signs in the Capitol be no larger than 30″ x 40″. The Foundation was limited to a two-week display.

While the sign was sometimes turned to face the wall, it was not vandalized, perhaps owing to a tiny message affixed to its back: “Thou shalt not steal.”

Governor Thompson, a Catholic, unveiled his office’s sign, formally placing the Office of the Governor on record in support of one religion. “The vast majority of people in this state believe in the Christ child’s birth,” said this neutrality-clueless politician.

Governor Thompson can be reached at State Capitol, Madison WI 53702.

Freedom From Religion Foundation