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Atheists' Statehouse display generates another Yule controversy

December 18, 2013

PROVIDENCE – The Rhode Island Statehouse has become a battleground in the War on Christmas.

Although Gov. Lincoln Chafee surrendered in the recent skirmish over what to call the tree – it is now officially a Christmas tree, not a “holiday tree” — there is now a battle over banners.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), a Wisconsin-based atheist group, has posted a sign in the Statehouse Rotunda that says: “At this season of the winter solstice, let reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.”

FFRF co-founder Annie Laurie Gaylor said the sign is a response to the crèches and other religious symbols that ring the Rotunda on the second
floor of the Statehouse. “We were asked to do it by our Rhode Island membership who were concerned about devotional religion in the capital not being countered.

“We don’t think our sign belongs in a state capital any more than a manger scene belongs in a state capital,” Gaylor acknowledged. “But if they are going to allow religion, then we will be there, too. We don’t think religion or irreligion belongs on government property. Capitals should stay above the religious fray.”

Earlier this month, the group Humanists of Rhode Island put up a banner in the Rotunda that says: ‘“Tis the season to celebrate the birth of Roger Williams & separation of church and state.”
Williams, who founded Rhode Island in 1636, was an early advocate for religious freedom.

The FFRF is the group that challenged the Place Jolicoeur war memorial in Woonsocket last year. The Humanists of Rhode Island successfully sought the removal of a prayer banner at Cranston West High School, also in 2012.

“Our group is made up of people who are personally free from religion, who tend to think that religion does more harm than good,” Gaylor explained.

“The first question that has to be asked of religion is: is it true,” she said. “if there is no evidence to support its truth, then it is intellectually dishonest to believe it. And more people have been killed in the name of a deity than for any other reason. The world is full of fanatics who think they know what God wants them to do.”

Gaylor quoted Thomas Paine, one of the Founding Fathers, as saying that any religion that is united with a government invariably engages in persecution. In Paine’s “The Age of Reason” he said: “Persecution is not an original feature in any religion; but it is always the strongly marked feature of all religions established by law.

“We see the tradition in Rhode Island of filling the Rotunda with devotional Christian themes to be a union of church and state, and we think that is dangerous,” she said.

Gaylor admitted that the message the sign carries is confrontational.
“The wording of the sign is plain-spoken and it was written, basically, to challenge public forums in capitals that permit manger scenes,” she said, noting that in the state of Washington, it was successful in having crèches removed from the capital.

Attempts to get comment from the governor’s office or the Diocese of Providence were unsuccessful on Tuesday.

Follow Jim Baron on Twitter @Jim_Baron


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