Capitol tree lit alongside lost-and-found atheist sign

Capitol tree lit alongside lost-and-found atheist sign »Play Video
OLYMPIA, Wash. - Complete with a jolly crowd and Santa Claus, a merry lighting of the Christmas tree on Friday night capped off a day filled with mystery and mayhem at the state Capitol.

A controversial anti-religion placard that's a part of the Capitol's holiday gift went missing Friday morning only to turn up at a Seattle radio station nearly four hours later.

A receptionist with radio station KMPS said an unidentified man dropped off the sign and asked that it be turned over to one of the station's hosts, Icabod Caine, who had been discussing the sign on his morning talk show. Caine had criticized the sign and argued it never should have been allowed to be placed next to the Nativity scene at the capitol.

"I certainly didn't mention steal it. I don't want to be implicated even though my fingerprints are on it," Caine said.

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?"

The sign 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 about 15 feet from the site where the anti-religion sign had been.

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 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.

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 atheist 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."

The sign is a toned-down version of his first draft, which, according to Hutcherson, was to read, '"Hey, I believe in Jesus Christ and if you don't, that's OK because you're going to fry like a Jimmy Dean pure pork sausage on Judgment Day."'

"But that would be just as derogatory as the atheist sign," Hutcherson said.

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.