OLYMPIA – The emotional saga over religious displays at Washington’s state Capitol grew more bizarre Wednesday, as a controversial Kansas group requested permission to put up a sign titled “Santa Claus Will Take You to Hell.”
The Westboro Baptist Church, which spreads its virulently anti-gay message by demonstrating at funerals and high-profile events, wants the sign posted near a Nativity scene and atheist sign at the Capitol.
The sign claims that “God’s hate” is to blame for the weak economy, that Santa is a child molester, and that the deaths of U.S. troops are somehow the fault of Santa.
“Holy cow,” said Steve Valandra, a spokesman for Washington’s Department of General Administration, when e-mailed the text. “I guess we’ll consider it like all the other requests.”
State officials say that after a lawsuit a couple of years ago to allow the Nativity scene, they cannot discriminate among holiday displays.
“The sign reflects the sincerely held religious beliefs and viewpoints on the topic that has been made a subject of public comment in this public forum, which viewpoint is well-grounded in scripture,” Westboro Baptist Church pastor Fred Phelps wrote Wednesday to Gov. Chris Gregoire.
Washington’s Capitol has been in the national spotlight for more than a week. Thousands of people from across the country have called the governor’s office over the state’s decision to allow the atheist sign next to the Nativity scene on the Statehouse’s third floor. A large evergreen “Holiday Tree” surrounded by gifts has been erected in the Capitol rotunda each December for decades.
The atheist sign was stolen last week, recovered hours later by state police, and reinstalled in its display case. Since then, religious groups have added signs critical of atheism. State officials ordered the displays roped off to protect them. Security cameras and a state trooper now watch over the competing displays.
And applications continue to roll in.
Another Kansas group, the KC Free Thinkers, wants permission to put up a display celebrating a tongue-in-cheek deity named the Flying Spaghetti Monster. In a similar vein, an Olympia man is requesting approval for a celebratory pole in honor of the holiday Festivus, which was invented as part of a “Seinfeld” TV show episode in the late 1990s.
More serious is the application from a Bellevue mother named Mary Bernard. She’s a longtime friend of a Catholic nun, Mother Antonia Brenner, who runs a prison ministry in Tijuana, Mexico. Brenner heard of the controversy over the atheist sign, which declares that there are no gods, devils or angels, and asked Bernard to put up a “goodwill message.”
“To the Atheist Community,” the 30-inch by 40-inch sign would read. “May all be blessed with Joy and Happiness. We share with you our Peace and Love and Kindness. The Christian Community.”
Bernard said she hopes that common sense will prevail in the growing tussle among holiday displays. “I know it’s real volatile,” she said. “When it comes to their faith, people are real passionate about it.”
She said Brenner’s message attempts to skirt that tension.
“She knows it’s not about demonstrating or taking any kind of side,” Bernard said. “It’s just to say we wish you joy and peace and kindness.”
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