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Saturday, December 10, 2005                                                                                       View Comments

FFRF draws criticism for holiday sign

by Carolyn Smith

A sign promoting the separation of church and state now accompanies the many holiday decorations at the State Capitol as of Friday.

The Madison-based Freedom From Religion Foundation posted their annual “Winter Solstice” sign in the first-floor rotunda area, which has been gracing the building for the past 10 years despite mixed reactions from those who visit the state’s seat of government.

The sign declares: “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.”

Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the foundation, said the FFRF strictly followed the state procedures regarding the proper way to post a sign, which is in response to the regular appearance of Christmas-like and religious decorations adorning the capitol each winter season.

“We felt that it would be important to have a sign saying to keep church and state separate,” Gaylor said.

In the past, however, the sign had been vandalized and stolen. Though the perpetrator was never found from a marring of the sign which took place several years ago, Gaylor noted “it looked like an inside job.”

As a warning to those intending to take or damage the sign, the back of it reads, “Thou shalt not steal,” as well as “State/Church: Keep them Separate.”

Gaylor even noted an instance where former Gov. Tommy Thompson removed a banner with their message from the rotunda.

“He also changed the rules so there could be nothing like that allowed again,” Gaylor said. “But you could put up a little 30-by-40 inch sign, so we started to put up this sign at that time.”

State Rep. Scott Suder, R-Abbotsford, said he disagreed with the placement of the sign at the capitol.

“Apparently Scrooge left his sign in the capitol and I wish Governor Doyle would remove it,” Suder said. “I think it is unnecessary for the Freedom From Religion Foundation to attack Christmas.”

Suder said the sign “has demeaned people of all faiths” and sends a bad message to everyone who visits the capitol, especially children; Suder also said the group “struggles for relevance” and has gotten negative reactions.

“We have had groups or individuals come down who have been very disgusted with the sign; they find [the FFRF] message to be both appalling and very disturbing,” Suder said, adding he encourages people to post “pro-Christmas” signs or signs promoting their own religion in response.

“Most people ignore it, but it does disturb some, and it’s unfortunate that this group has to continue to promote their agenda against all religions,” Suder said.

Some at the capitol took the sign with a grain of salt.

“It doesn’t really affect anything we’re doing,” Mike Prentiss, a spokesperson for State Sen. Scott Fitzgerald said. “They have been given the right to put the sign up, and they put the sign up — it is what it is.”

Fourteen percent of the U.S. population is not religious, Gaylor said, adding many Wisconsinites pay homage to the sign annually.

“There are people who come back every year,” Gaylor said. “I think it’s been a little bit of a tourist attraction.”

Both Suder and Prentiss said, however, they feel most citizens in the state disagree with the sign’s message.

“I certainly do not think they represent the views of the majority of people in Wisconsin, which is a good thing,” Prentiss said.