Politics & Government

Rival religious displays crowd Washington State capitol

More groups are jumping into the fray over religious displays at the Washington state Capitol, drawing continuing attention from around the country.

Three signs that criticize atheism went on display near a Nativity set Friday, the same day someone stole an atheists' engraving that had been placed nearby. The atheists' placard celebrates the winter solstice and criticizes religion as myth and superstition — wording that has enraged some Christians and even irritated Gov. Chris Gregoire.

After State Patrol troopers returned the sign to the Capitol, atheists affixed a biblical "Thou Shalt Not Steal" message to it.

And, the Association of Washington Business held a ceremony with music to dedicate and light the 30-foot decorated holiday tree it sponsors each year in the Capitol Rotunda.

But more displays, protests and other expressions of religious fervor are planned in the next few days. Many appear to be fueled by the airing of national Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly's eight-minute diatribe against Gregoire on Tuesday over allowing the atheist sign near a Nativity scene.

"This could be the last year we even have a Christmas tree up there because of all this trouble. That's what I'm thinking," said Jim Buenzli of Olympia, who works for the state and applied to put up a "Festivus" pole next in the Capitol on Wednesday.

"Festivus" is a mock holiday popularized on the TV sitcom "Seinfeld" in the 1990s. The father of a "Seinfeld" writer had started Festivus, or the "Airing of Grievances," in 1966, but the show's 1997 depiction of it gave it new life.

"People are taking it too serious. I think we need to laugh a little. This is a way to do it," Buenzli said.

The holiday features people eating a dinner, then standing around a bare metal pole to share their grievances with one another, Buenzli said.

Buenzli's request was one of five submitted Friday to the Department of General Administration, including a 2 p.m. Sunday protest against the atheist sign on the Capitol steps. A balloon display also is planned Sunday outside the Capitol, and another Christian display is expected to arrive Monday.

A Jewish menorah is scheduled for display Dec. 18.

"Your Capitol is going to get kind of cluttered. It doesn't surprise me," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Wisconsin, which erected the solstice display at the request of a Shelton woman offended by religious displays in a secular building.

The group had erected its "Reason's Greeting" solstice placard Monday. That echoed what the group has done in Wisconsin's legislative building in past years, and it incited a reaction.

"We don't think there should be a public forum for religions in a Capitol. That is our message …" Gaylor said by telephone. "It's been quite an exciting day. … I just hope the good Christians out there will follow their 'Thou Shalt Not Steal' commandment."

Gregoire, a Democrat, has said she dislikes the atheist display but has obtained legal advice from the Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna that free-speech rights guaranteed by the Constitution's First Amendment would keep her from interfering with the atheists' message.

In other developments, a few more displays mocking atheism were added Friday, one from Rev. Ken Hutcherson of Antioch Bible Church in King County.

"It is legal. The problem is — is it appropriate to have it" in the vicinity of the Nativity, Hutcherson said of the atheists' sign. "It is appalling to us as Christians, as conservatives and religious people to say this is OK right next to the Nativity scene. It basically allowed the atheists to put up hate speech; this was an attack on religion."

Hutcherson's own sign was put up just a few feet form the atheists' placard, and his message mocked atheism as myth and superstition.