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Last week, in “Getting Our Message Out“, I wrote about the winter solstice sign that the FFRF posted in Washington state’s capitol building. The sign was put up after the state had legally obliged itself to create an open forum by allowing the placement of other privately sponsored displays carrying specifically Christian-themed messages, including a nativity scene. The FFRF’s sign bears the following message:

At this season of the Winter Solstice, may reason prevail.

There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell.

There is only our natural world.

Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.

An identical sign has been posted in the Wisconsin state capitol for the past 13 years without causing any great fuss, but the one in Olympia seems destined to be different. At first it was stolen, then later recovered. Then local Christian groups started putting up opposing signs. But now the dam has burst:

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Hundreds of demonstrators rallied in front of the Washington state Capitol Sunday, outraged over an atheist display inside.

…Outside, the protest included an opposing sign that portrays Governor Christine Gregoire as the Grinch. It also shows a balloon featuring Bill O’Reilly punching the governor.

…A spokesman at the Capitol said they were getting calls from across the country at a rate of about 200 an hour.

This circus began when professional right-wing bloviator Bill O’Reilly made the FFRF’s sign the latest target of his perpetual outrage on his nightly TV show, calling it “political correctness gone mad”. Apparently, “political correctness” (along with “falafel”, of course) is another word O’Reilly doesn’t know the meaning of. For the record, political correctness means language specifically tailored to offend no one; and whatever else one might say about the FFRF’s sign, we can safely assume that was not one of its goals. If the FFRF’s sign is anything, it’s “politically incorrect” – but the brave culture warriors on the right usually reserve that term for themselves, as a badge of pride for surviving the liberal inquisitions they imagine that they endure.

In any case, O’Reilly’s jeremiad led to hundreds of religious fanatics, none of whom evidently had anything better to do, descending on the courthouse to demand… actually, it’s not clear what they’re demanding, unless it’s the revocation of the First Amendment. Governor Christine Gregoire, a Democrat, and the state’s Republican attorney general issued a joint statement pointing out that the state, having chosen to allow one religious display, cannot legally discriminate against others. One would not expect this perfectly accurate and reasonable legal point to make any impression on the protestors, which it didn’t. Judging by his blustering, even O’Reilly didn’t grasp this simple point (or else didn’t let it interfere with an opportunity to demagogue):

“Washington state is ground zero for just about every nutty secular cause on Earth,” O’Reilly said. “She is a weak and confused leader who allows a fanatical group parody in Christmas displays. I mean, how crazy is this?”

That one word – “allows” – speaks volumes about O’Reilly’s worldview. He seems to think that the government’s role is to decide which religious messages are acceptable, and then use its power to promote those while denying access to all the rest. Fortunately for all of us, he was born several hundred years too late for that. We live in the United States of America, a secular nation founded on human reason and not revelation, and one where petty, loudmouthed bullies do not get to decide which views may or may not be expressed. The infuriated reaction among bigots just goes to show why the FFRF’s message needs to be more widely broadcasted. I, for one, hope identical signs are posted next year in every state capitol or public park that chooses to allow nativity scenes.

Despite appearances, this whole fiasco is a good thing for atheists. The religious right will use it to stoke their perpetual offense, I’m sure, but they would have done that anyway. We, however, can use it to boost our message and our visibility – just think how much free publicity the FFRF is likely to reap from all this national attention – and to reinforce our message about the wisdom of separating church and state. The headache this has no doubt caused for the Washington state government is almost certainly going to cause a lot of other local governments nationwide to reassess whether putting religious symbols on state land is really a good idea.

With that said, being the right’s enemy of the moment can’t be fun for Governor Gregoire. I note that she could have taken the politically safe route of posting only the Christian symbol and then choosing to stand and fight the inevitable lawsuit, earning pandering points with religious voters even as she wastes the state’s money. This is exactly what many other politicians have done in this circumstance, but she chose to uphold the rule of law, and we ought to thank her for that. I can guarantee that any positive message we send her and her staff, expressing our gratitude for their willingness to defend the Constitution, will go a long way toward counteracting the tsunami of hate from the rabid O’Reillyites.

Here’s Governor Gregoire’s contact information. If you want to stand up for atheism and fight back against the religious right, please send her office an e-mail or a phone call, and let them know that you’re an American who appreciates politicians that understand separation of church and state. If you contact her office, please leave a comment and let us know about any response you receive.

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...