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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Eye On Olympia

Dear God…

Five days after a Wisconsin atheist group erected a small sign in Washington's state capitol declaring that there is no God, someone has stolen the sign.

"We just heard that someone ran off with our sign," Freedom From Religion Foundation co-president Dan Barker said by phone this morning. "The capitol police are mortified. They're just as upset as we are. It's a theft, a crime committed under their noses."

The sign was in response to a nativity scene erected by an Olympia-area real estate agent on the third floor of the capitol after a lawsuit. The capitol also features a 30-foot-tall "holiday tree," and last year, orthodox rabbis held a menorah-lighting ceremony in the rotunda.

The atheist sign, however, has stirred the most criticism, with conservative commentator Bill O'Reilly blasting it -- and Gov. Chris Gregoire -- nightly. The governor's office and the foundation have both been deluged with phone calls, which are now being routed to an answering machine. Gregoire and Attorney General Rob McKenna issued a joint statement Thursday saying that after a federal lawsuit last year, the state decided to allow such displays "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 non-believers," the statement read.

So the Freedom from Religion Foundation was granted permission to display its sign from Monday to Dec. 29, which is the same period that the nativity scene will be in the capitol. The sign says there are no gods, no angels, no devils, and that "religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds."

The criticism continues. Outgoing state Rep. John Ahern, R-Spokane, who in 2005 objected to the "holiday tree" not being called a Christmas tree, blasted the sign yesterday.

“It's absolutely disgusting," Ahern said. "If I was governor, the first thing I would do, I would order that taken out. And I would contact the Wisconsin group, even the ACLU, any other groups, and I would simply say 'Sue me.'"

For years, the atheist foundation has quietly posted a similar sign in the Wisconsin state capitol, where Barker said the biggest problem has been people turning the sign around or carting it off to a nearby hallway. The foundation finally took to taping a small "thou shalt not steal" sign on it, which he said seemed to take care of the problem.

"Here is Wisconsin, it's become something of a tourist attraction," said Barker, describing busloads of Indiana tourists posing for photos next to the controversial sign. "Maybe that's a Wisconsin thing."

The display has prompted counter-demonstrations. Yesterday, a 30-year-old insurance agent named Jeff Schumacher spent most of the day standing in the rotunda with a sign saying that Jesus was real, and that he knew because he saw Jesus during a near-drowning as a four-year-old in Yakima.

"I always speak out when there's doubts about the existence of God, and this is a good time," Schumacher told me yesterday.

Today, the Rev. Ken Hutcherson is planning a press conference in the rotunda at 11 a.m. to place his own sign, declaring that "There is one God. There is one Devil. There are angels," and that "Atheism is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds."

And so it goes. Steve Valandra, at the state Department of General Administration, says that his office has now received 7 more requests for various displays in the capitol. (Not sure who they are yet; I should have copies soon.)

Meanwhile, in Wisconsin, the controversy over the display has been a recruiting boon for the foundation.

"Whoever stole the sign did us a big favor," Barker said. "Not only in the exposure, but in the sympathy. People read about this and they are motivated to say `You can't do that, you can't stop free speech.' Jackie downstairs is just registering new members all over the place. If you persecute a movement, it makes it grow."

Still, he said, the metal sign that was stolen cost hundreds of dollars.

"In kind of a backhanded way, I guess we should thank that person," he said, "although I wish they would pay us back."

Short takes and breaking news from the Washington Legislature and the state capital.