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Nativity Scene At Washington State Capitol Draws 'Freedom From Religion' Parry

Tom Banse
Northwest News Network
Darrell Barker of the Freedom From Religion Foundation poses with the banner he installed on Friday near a privately-sponsored Nativity scene on the Washington State Capitol Campus.

A Nativity scene that appeared without fanfare at the Washington State Capitol early this week has now drawn protest. An atheist/agnostic group installed a counter display Friday on the public Capitol Grounds.

The group, which favors separation of church and state, installed a portable banner about 20 feet away from the privately-sponsored Nativity display. In big letters, the sign reads, "Let Reason Prevail." It ends with a dig, "Religion is but myth & superstition that hardens hearts & enslaves minds."

Darrell Barker, a semi-retired South Sound man who is the Washington state representative of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, explained the sign after he put it up during a cold rain Friday morning.

"Anytime we see an encroachment of religion into our secular government, at that point we speak up,” Barker said.

The long-time sponsor of the capitol Nativity display took the counter protest in stride.

"I don't like it there,” said Ron Wesselius, a real estate agent from Tumwater. “But hey, they have the same rights as I do for a display. Constitutionally, we have free speech. The citizens have to make a choice for themselves."

Wesselius sued the state in 2007 in federal district court when he was denied a permit to place a Nativity scene in the Capitol Rotunda. A settlement to that lawsuit led to the current state policy allowing temporary displays, religious or otherwise, on the Capitol Campus.

"We adopted that policy as part of protection of free speech," said Jon Pretty, spokesman for the state property management agency, the Department of Enterprise Services. Religious worship or instruction in conjunction with displays is specifically forbidden.

The small Nativity display in which thigh-high Joseph and Mary figures look down on a baby doll Jesus in a manger has a required disclaimer at its base.

"This display was coordinated and prepared by private citizens of the State of Washington to commemorate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. No public funds were utilized," the placard reads.

The display is scheduled to remain on the lawn until December 27. Under the current gloomy skies, the unlit Nativity could be easily overlooked by passersby were it not for the large Freedom From Religion sign nearby.

Controversy over holiday displays at he Capitol has become something of an annual tradition in Olympia. This year's edition is actually more muted than others in the recent past. In 2015, the Nativity scene and FFRF counter protest display were joined by a "Gay Pride Festivus Pole."

The Chabad Jewish Center of Olympia annually erects a lighted Chanukah menorah in a different state-owned park near the state capitol.

In 2009, state officials kicked the holiday displays out of the landmark domed Capitol building onto the expansive lawn around the Tivoli Fountain on the publicly-owned Capitol Campus. That came in the wake of a major brouhaha in 2008, which started when Fox News personality Bill O'Reilly used his show to criticize the state for allowing what he perceived to be a mockery of religion sign.

Subsequently, the state received an application from the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church for a "Santa Claus Will Take You to Hell" sign. A parody group proposed a "Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster" holiday display alongside more serious requests for representation by Buddhist and Jewish groups.

A temporary moratorium on permit processing put the kibosh on all of those displays.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.