At issue is an atheist billboard displayed in the Washington State Capitol in Olympia, Wa. along with a "Holiday tree" and a nativity scene. (Apparently, there is no menorah this year.)
The placard, installed by local members of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, reads:
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.
More on the story here.
According to Gov. Christine Gregoire, a Democrat, and State Attorney General Rob McKenna, a Republican, it is the state's policy to allow any group to sponsor a holiday display "regardless of that individual's or group's views."
Here's the problem. The atheist display doesn't simply express the beliefs of atheists or secularists; it attacks the beliefs of the religious. Its message, except for the first line, is entirely negative, and the last line is actively insulting to believers, implying that they are hard-hearted and weak-minded.
A Christmas display on public property, paid for by the taxpayer, that explicitly attacked non-believers would be inappropriate. So is this.
Perhaps Gregoire and McKenna are right as a matter of publc policy. (Though, if all viewpoints may be represented in holiday displays in the State Capitol, where do you draw the line? Would a placard urging Jews to convert to Christianity be appropriate? How about a "God Hates Fags" placard from the abominable Fred Phelps?) However, those fine folks from the Freedom from Religion Foundation are wrong as a matter of respect, civility, and common sense. They have chosen to express their views in a manner almost calculated to cause irritation. They are also perpetuating the stereotype -- which underlies much of the hostility to atheists in America -- that an atheist is not just a non-believer but someone who actively attacks and denigrates religion.
If they truly wanted to get into the holiday spirit, how about a placard saying something like, "At this season of the Winter Solstice, those of us who do not believe in a deity celebrate the beauty of the natural world and join believers in wishing for peace on Earth and goodwill toward men." A positive message that, among other things, would have countered the widespread notion that atheists "believe in nothing."