Atheist group seeks 'special protection' for lost-and-found sign

Atheist group seeks 'special protection' for lost-and-found sign »Play Video
Radio host Ichabod Caine, center, holds the sign that was dropped off Friday morning at the KMPS studio in Seattle.
OLYMPIA, Wash. - A controversial anti-religion placard was reported missing from the state Capitol Friday - then later found - and now the sign's sponsor wants the State Patrol to provide special protection for it when it is returned.

The uproar came as several other groups clamored for permission to post their own holiday displays at the state Capitol.

The anti-religion sign, posted by the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison, Wis., was reported missing Friday morning then was turned over to a Seattle radio station by an unidentified man at about 10 a.m.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, a spokesman for Freedom from Religion, says she was told a Washington state trooper is returning the atheistic sign to Olympia, where it will resume its place next to a Christmas tree and a Christian nativity scene at the Capitol Rotunda.

Gaylor says she's requesting special protection for the sign during the remainder of the holiday season.

A receptionist with radio station KMPS said an unidentified man dropped off the missing atheistic sign and asked that it be turned over to one of the station's hosts who had been discussing the sign on his morning talk show.

The placard has sparked a national firestorm of protest in the midst of the holiday season, and prompted a well-known local pastor to post a pro-religion sign Friday near the site where the anti-religion sign had been.

Applications also were OK'd for four other displays at the state Capitol in the coming days, including one honoring "Festivus," a faux holiday made popular by comedian Jerry Seinfeld.

State officials had allowed the anti-religion placard to be displayed during the holidays at the Capitol, along with a Christian nativity scene and a decorated tree, in response to a lawsuit filed over seasonal religious displays on state property.

The atheistic sign, which had drawn vocal protests from around the nation, was sponsored by the Freedom from Religion Foundation. The sign reads, "Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds."

The sign was reported missing Friday morning. The sign's sponsors said they didn't take it down.

State Patrol Sgt. Ted DeHart said the billboard was still on display Thursday evening when the Capitol rotunda building was shut down.

He said there would be no way someone not authorized to be inside could get in the building after it's closed at 6 p.m.

DeHart later said the State Patrol is working to confirm the reports that the sign was turned in to Seattle radio station KMPS on Friday morning.

A receptionist at radio station KMPS says a man dropped off the sign around 10 a.m. and asked her to give it to show host Ichabod Caine. She says the man did not say how he came by it before he left.

The receptionist, Rose Gump, said the man "was a normal-looking guy, maybe in his late 40s, early 50s." She described him as about 5 feet, 8 inches tall, wearing jeans and a jacket.

"He was very polite, very nice," she said.

She said phones have been "ringing off the hook" ever since word got out that the station had the sign.

Ichabod Caine said he had been discussing the anti-religion sign on his morning show, which may have prompted the man to bring the sign to the station.

Caine said he had taken issue with the wording of the sign, but that he had not encouraged any of his listeners to steal it.

"What struck me ... (about the sign) is that Christianity somehow 'hardens hearts and enslaves minds.' Really? I don't remember, 25 years ago, when I accepted the Lord, that it hardened my heart and it didn't enslave me," Caine said. "And so I thought, how could negative speech like that be allowed?"

Annie Laurie Gaylor, foundation co-president, said in a prepared statement that the anti-religion sign is a reminder of the "real reason for the season, the winter solstice." The solstice, on Dec. 21 this year, is the shortest day of the year.

The billboard has sparked a nationwide firestorm of protest on national television.

Fox News' Bill O'Reilly had an eight-minute segment on his show Tuesday night decrying the inclusion of the atheistic billboard.

The conservative TV personality called the display "political correctness gone mad" and urged viewers to call Gov. Chris Gregoire's office to complain.

Gregoire spokesman Pearse Edwards says the office had been getting about 200 calls an hour, as well as e-mails, as of Thursday.

The controversy over the anti-religion sign prompted Rev. Ken Hutcherson, pastor of the Antioch Bible Church in Kirkland, to post a pro-religion sign about 15 feet from where the athiest sign was located.

It reads: "There is one God. There is one Devil. There are angels, a heaven and hell. There is more than our natural world. Atheism is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds."

Gregoire, a Democrat, and Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna put out a joint statement Wednesday noting that a federal lawsuit led the state to create a policy allowing groups to sponsor a display "regardless of that individual's or group's views."

"The U.S. Supreme Court has been consistent and clear that, under the Constitution's First Amendment, once government admits one religious display or viewpoint onto public property, it may not discriminate against the content of other displays, including the viewpoints of nonbelievers," the statement said.