Atheists and agnostics with the Freedom From Religion Foundation put up a sign in the state Capitol that says, in part: "Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds." It's the latest in what's become an annual wintertime debate over what's appropriate to display in the public square.

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OLYMPIA — In the latest round of what’s become almost a winter tradition — conflicts over religious symbols in public places — a group of atheists and agnostics have put up a sign in the state Capitol that says, in part: “Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation members put up the sign Monday, partly in response to a nearby Nativity scene. They also debuted a billboard in downtown Olympia that reads: “Reason’s Greetings.”

“Nonbelievers are a part of the fabric of America, and we claim our place at the table to exercise free speech and freedom of religion, which includes freedom from religion,” said Dan Barker, co-president of the Wisconsin-based foundation. The organization claims 12,800 members nationwide and 670 in Washington state.

Holiday tradition

Debate over such displays has become a regular occurrence in recent years.

In 2005, Rep. John Ahern, R-Spokane, created a stir when he said the fir tree inside the Capitol rotunda in Olympia should be called a Christmas tree, not a holiday tree. This year’s tree-lighting ceremony is scheduled for Friday.

In 2006, there was a brouhaha when Port of Seattle officials took down Christmas trees at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport after a local rabbi requested that an 8-foot-tall menorah also be displayed. After an intense outcry, the Port put the trees back up and a committee determined that in the future, trees, fabrics and garlands could be used, but nothing religious.

Also in 2006, Olympia real-estate agent Ron Wesselius saw a menorah displayed inside the Capitol and wanted to put up a Nativity scene. He was denied because he applied too late for the state to research the issues, according to the state Department of General Administration.

Wesselius, working with the Alliance Defense Fund, filed a lawsuit, the state settled, and he put up a Nativity scene in 2007. He put up another one Monday morning — a few steps from the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s sign.

“A little divisive”

“I think people are losing track of what Christmas is,” Wesselius said. “It’s not about one religion against another religion.”

Of the foundation’s sign, Wesselius said: “I think they’re being a little divisive there in their saying. But they have freedom of speech and equal access.”

Generally, organizations that apply in advance to have a display that isn’t considered disruptive or seen as promoting one religion over another are acceptable, said Steve Valandra, spokesman for the Department of General Administration.

Stewart Jay, a University of Washington law professor, says the state’s decision appears correct.

Though there is much debate, in general, the law allows symbols from various religions to be displayed in government buildings as long as there’s a secular reason for the display — such as celebrating a winter holiday — and as long as the government isn’t seen as endorsing one specific religion.

And, once the government allows such a display, Jay said, it cannot discriminate against the message of other groups that celebrate winter holidays in a different fashion — such as by observing the solstice.

“Emboldened”

Barker said the sign represents a growing number of Americans who don’t identify with any particular religion.

A study released earlier this year by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that about 16 percent of those surveyed said they weren’t affiliated with any particular faith. About 4 percent said they were agnostic or atheist.

Books such as Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” and Christopher Hitchens’ “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” have made best-seller lists.

Those developments, among others, have made the nonreligious “feel emboldened to come out,” said Barker, whose foundation has filed lawsuits on church-state issues and sponsored billboards in various cities including Seattle, where a member paid for an “Imagine No Religion” billboard earlier this year.

That brings cheer to Terry Stock, 69, a lifelong atheist and retired carpenter from Bremerton who was among the dozen foundation members at the Capitol on Monday.

“For a long time, we’ve been just a voice in the wilderness,” he said.

The foundation’s sign — which also reads, “At this season of the Winter Solstice, may reason prevail” — is the second such plaque the foundation has sponsored in a state capitol. Its first sign has been up for 13 years in the Wisconsin Capitol.

The sign, the Nativity scene, and the holiday tree will be on display through Dec. 29.

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or jtu@seattletimes.com