Politics & Government

Atheists take softer approach

A Seattle-based atheists group asked state officials Friday for permission to display a placard outdoors on the Capitol Campus over the holidays.

Jerry Schiffelbein, the treasurer for Seattle Atheists and an activist in other “free-thought” groups that advocate for separation between church and state, said the sign’s message is less provocative than those that the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation put up last year.

The proposed 18-by-30-inch sign says, “In this holiday season let us remember that kindness, charity and goodwill transcend belief, creed or religion.”

The request to put up the sign came on the same day that state officials lit up a 48-foot holiday tree inside the domed Capitol Rotunda, a yearly tradition that now is entirely under state sponsorship. The evening event featured Gov. Chris Gregoire; Army Staff Sgt. Stephanie McDowell, who recently returned from Iraq; and a children’s chorale group.

The atheists’ request – just like two requests to display a Jewish menorah Thursday through Dec. 19 – will be considered under the state policy adopted after last December’s ruckus over holiday displays inside the Capitol, Department of General Administration spokesman Steve Valandra said Friday. He expects a decision on approving the requests Monday.

“We thought we would get more requests. There is still time,” he said.

Last December, GA declared a moratorium because it had about a dozen requests from groups wanting to put up displays, and a third-floor area for displays was getting crowded. GA had approved a half-dozen of the requests, including a Nativity set, an atheist placard that mocked religion as superstition, Christian placards that mocked atheism, and a 9-foot menorah.

Requests halted by the moratorium included a “Festivus” pole from the mock holiday celebrated on the former “Seinfeld” comedy show, a “flying spaghetti monster” and one from a Kansas church that assails homosexuality.

Before the controversy ended, someone stole the atheists’ placard. Thousands of complaints flooded the Governor’s Office and GA after a national television commentator condemned the state for allowing the atheists’ display near the Nativity.

“There is, of course, a lot of controversy even among the free-thought movement about the tactics the FFRF (Freedom From Religion Foundation) employed last year,” Schiffelbein said. “Many thought it was over the top in the way it criticized religion, especially for this time of year. … It could have been said so much better. Which is kind of the purpose of our sign.”

His placard would go up Dec. 12 to acknowledge the coming winter solstice.

GA has approved one display request so far this year. It was one of two submitted by Chabad Jewish Discovery Center in Olympia for a 9-foot menorah. The approved request is for Sylvester Park, a state-owned property in downtown Olympia; the other is for a menorah next to the Tivoli Fountain on the campus lawn.

The fountain site request has been delayed amid questions about how and where to run power to the nine electric lights on the menorah, according to GA’s Valandra and Rabbi Cheski Edelman. Edelman said he thinks the new policy will tend to dampen the controversy.

Meanwhile, the state went ahead with its Friday evening lighting ceremony, and Gregoire was expected to appear with McDowell and her family. Also planned was a performance by Kids in Koncert of Olympia; the youth singers debuted the song “Christmas Lights,” which composer Al Kasha wrote for them, according to the Association of Washington Business.

AWB sponsored the holiday tree for 20 years and still considers it a centerpiece of its yearly “Holiday Kids’ Tree Project,” which raises donations for needy families. This year’s event had a record 145 donors raising more than $23,000, the AWB said in a news release.

The AWB passes along funds to fire districts in Thurston, Mason, Grays Harbor and Lewis counties, which buy food and gifts for needy families. Three districts in Spokane, Grant and Walla Walla counties are being added this year because of the larger donations, AWB said. It said the Toy Industry Foundation provided toys worth $2,500.

This year’s tree was put up entirely at state expense to meet terms of new campus display rules. The Department of Natural Resources harvested the tree from state land at Toutle Ridge, where it had been planted after the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, according to the AWB.

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688