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Furor Erupts Over Atheist Display At State Capitol

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Furor Erupts Over Atheist Display At State Capitol

Comptroller Candidate William J. Kelly Tries To Take Down Sign, Is Escorted From Building

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (CBS) ― A conservative activist and Illinois comptroller candidate was escorted from the Illinois State Capitol building Wednesday when he tried to remove a sign put up by an atheist group.

William J. Kelly, a Chicago Republican, announced Tuesday that he planned to take down the sign put up by the Freedom from Religion Foundation. On Wednesday, he tried to make good on his plan.

But Kelly said when he turned the sign around so it was face down, state Capitol police were quick to escort him away.

Illinois Secretary of State's office spokesman Henry Haupt said Kelly was escorted from the rotunda by state Capitol police, who briefly detained him, wrote an incident report, and directed him to leave the building.

"It doesn't matter how we feel about the message on a display," Haupt said. "Our obligation is to protect the property within the state Capitol building, and we would do the same for any other display."

But Kelly called the sign "hate speech," and said he does not believe it is appropriate for a sign that "mocks" religion to be placed next to a Christmas tree and also near a nativity scene.

"I don't think the State of Illinois has any business denigrating or mocking any religion," Kelly said, "and I think that's what the verbiage on the sign was doing."

The sign reads: "At the time of the winter solstice, let reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is just myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds."

The sign was also on display at the Capitol at this time last year. The group says it filed for a permit to post the display in response to the state's decision to put up the nativity.

But Kelly said he believes the problem is not only the verbiage of the sign, but also its proximity to the Christmas tree.

"The fact that sign was immediately in front of the tree, I found that to be disturbing because any family and any child would run up to that tree with a smile on their face, and they would immediately see that sign," Kelly said.

Haupt said Kelly had been advised not to return to the state Capitol for the rest of the day on Wednesday. 

The Madison, Wis.-based Freedom from Religion Foundation has placed the sign in several state Capitol buildings across the country.

As to Kelly's claims that the sign mocks religion, foundation co-President Dan Barker said: "He's kind of right, because the last couple of sentences do criticize religion, and of course, the beginning is a celebration of the winter solstice. But that kind of speech is protected as well – speech that is critical and speech that is supportive."

The foundation does not approve of the nativity scene, Barker said.

"We atheists believe that the nativity scene is mocking humanity," by suggesting that those who do not believe in Jesus will go to hell, Barker said. "But notice that we are not defacing or stealing nativity scenes because we disagree with their speech."

Signs in other states have been targets of vandals, Barker said.

In Wisconsin, someone threw acid on it one year, and some people turned it around and hid it in the back rooms of the state Capitol, and in Washington state, someone walked it out of the Capitol and threw it away, Barker said. The Washington state sign was later found in a ditch near a country radio station and returned to the capitol in Olympia.

This is the second year the Freedom from Religion sign has been at the Illinois State Capitol.

Haupt said in addition to the sign, the Nativity Scene and the Christmas tree, there is also a Soldiers' Angels wreath, and a tabletop display from the American Civil Liberties Union that says the group "defends freedom of religion." A Hanukkah menorah had also been on display until the Jewish Festival of Lights ended on Saturday.

For the second year in a row, the Capitol also has an aluminum Festivus pole commemorating the fictional holiday popularized in "Seinfeld."

Adam Harrington, cbs2chicago.com

(© MMX, CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

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