Sign Goes Up At Wisconsin Capitol (December 1996)

 The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wisconsin, placed a sign at the State Capitol in Madison on December 16, “in recognition of the Winter Solstice season and freethought views.” The Foundation received a permit to place the sign for two weeks in the first floor of the Capitol rotunda. The following statement, by Anne Gaylor, Foundation president, was distributed to press:

The Foundation placed a red, white and blue banner in the Capitol Rotunda in December of 1993 and again in December of 1995, which said: “State/Church — Keep Them Separate,” a cherished (by most) constitutional principle.

Our country was first among nations to establish that principle, first to recognize in a written constitution that entanglement of church and state was dangerously divisive, and first not to pretend that its leaders had a pipeline to a deity.

Our banner was modest in size, completely dwarfed by a three-story Christmas tree and a nine-foot-tall Jewish menorah. In December of 1993 our banner was displayed without incident. However, on December 18, 1995, when our duly-applied for, approved permit had 12 more days to run, the Foundation was informed by phone at 10:30 a.m. that the permit for the banner was being rescinded, and if we did not remove it by noon, Capitol security would. And they did, not handing it to staff members who were present, but locking it in the basement, where, we were told, we could retrieve it later.

The reason for this police-state action: Gov. Tommy Thompson and his aide James Klauser did not like the banner. It was trashed verbally to media, called “ugly,” “antireligious” and “vulgar.” The media were told the message was “inappropriate” to be placed in the Capitol in December. A spokesperson for Thompson said on Milwaukee radio WTMJ that our banner “attacked everything that millions of people in the state hold valuable.”

Hence, the new, smaller message being placed today.

We do not believe religion belongs in this secular seat of government. One of the first actions of the fledgling Foundation in the late ’70s was the successful effort to stop public funding of the annual nativity pageant in the Capitol. (Publicly-paid angels in the dome were unconstitutional, as well as expensive.) But other problems remain. When a state religion always has been illegal under our state and federal constitutions, why do we have an official, state-sponsored Christmas tree? Why do we have a state-sponsored ceremony, presided over by government officials, where a majority of songs sung are Christian hymns? Why should the Capitol become a church in December where only religious views are allowed?

So this year we have prepared a substitute, seasonal message of freethought belief:

“At this season of
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.”

And if one questions why religion “hardens hearts” and “enslaves minds,” reflect on history and on the present day and see what religion has wrought! Think of the hundreds of thousands of women burned as witches because of one bible verse. Think of the lethal Crusades and the unspeakable Inquisition. Reflect on the religious wars that engulfed Europe for centuries. Think of our own Civil War when slaveholders waved their bibles with its sanction of slavery.

In more modern times, note that it took a century of struggle for women to achieve the right to vote, because of religious teachings of women’s inferiority. Most sexism and racism in our society have their roots in religion. It takes “hard hearts” indeed to oppose equality.

It is a fact that most advances in social and moral progress have been opposed by religion. Freethinkers have been the leaders — the first to speak out against slavery, the first to speak for humane treatment of the mentally ill (no, mentally ill people are not inhabited by devils!). Freethinkers were the first to seek prison reform. They were the first to ask for the abolition of capital punishment, to work for the choices of contraception, sterilization and abortion and the right for physician-assisted suicide for the terminally ill who wish to die, battles that go on today because of the “enslaved” minds of religionists.

The removal of our banner a year ago was content-based discrimination. Had it said, “Christians, Rejoice,” it never would have been touched. So we have returned without our banner, but with a new message, and we expect Capitol security to monitor it with the same diligence they provide religious displays.

Freedom From Religion Foundation