Image: Atheist display near nativity scene
Ted S. Warren  /  AP
A permanent bust of George Washington, center, sits between a Christian nativity display, right, and a sign placed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation at Washington state's Capitol in Olympia. The sign vanished Friday but was turned into a radio station a few hours later.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 12/5/2008 3:37:39 PM ET 2008-12-05T20:37:39

A controversial atheist sign that was placed in the state Capitol near a Nativity scene vanished Friday morning, but then turned up at a Seattle radio station a few hours later.

A receptionist at the radio station KMPS said a man dropped off the sign around 10 a.m. and asked her to give it to show host Ichabod Caine. The man did not say how he came by it before he left, she added.

The state patrol is treating the disappearance as a theft investigation.

The atheists' sign was installed Monday by Washington members of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national group based in Madison, Wis.

Since then, radio and TV talk show conservatives have derided Gov. Christine Gregoire, a Democrat, for allowing the display.

A Gregoire spokesman said the office at one point was getting about 200 calls an hour, as well as e-mails, about the display.

The governor and state attorney general's office then issued this statement: "The U.S. Supreme Court has been consistent and clear that, under the Constitution's First Amendment, once government admits one religious display or viewpoint onto public property, it may not discriminate against the content of other displays, including the viewpoints of nonbelievers."

With a nod to the winter solstice in late December, the placard reads, in part: "There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds."

The foundation's co-president, Dan Barker, said it was important for atheists to offer their viewpoint alongside the overtly religious Nativity scene and a Christmas-style holiday tree at the Capitol Rotunda.

"Our members want equal time," Barker said. "Not to muscle, not to coerce, but just to have a place at the table."

The three displays, all privately sponsored, were granted permits from state groundskeepers to be placed in the Capitol's grand marble hallways.

The 25-foot noble spruce, called the "Capitol Holiday Kids Tree," is sponsored by the Association of Washington Business and tied to a charity drive for needy families. It's been a Capitol fixture for nearly 20 years.

The Nativity scene was installed more recently, and a menorah has been displayed in the past.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: 'No gods' on display

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