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Exiled at the Capitol

Atheists angered by Capitol steps snub, but fear lawsuit reaction

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What state officials call a bureaucratic oversight, Idaho atheists object to as an unconstitutional intrusion of religion into government affairs. But not all Idaho atheists are pleased at the possibility that Idaho Atheists Inc. (IAI) may sue the State of Idaho over access to the Capitol steps on May 5, nominally the National Day of Prayer (NDP) but an occasion which local nonbelievers would prefer to celebrate as the "Idaho Day of Equality." Some fear a backlash as significant as the massive 1999 "Save Our Cross" demonstration that followed a visiting talk-show host's call for dismantling the Table Rock monument. In the meantime, IAI is still considering its legal options, while national organizations such as American Atheists Inc. and American United for Separation of Church and State may also join the fray.

The controversy originated in February, when Susan Harrington, a founding board member of IAI, decided to reserve the Statehouse's front steps for a rally on behalf of a "Cinquo de Mayo Freedom Rally," which for IAI included freedom from religion. Harrington says she was assured by Capitol Mall Facility Services that events are scheduled on a "first-come, first-reserved" basis, and that her application was in compliance with the required guidelines. Thinking that all was well, Harrington proceeded to book several speakers. On February 22, she called Facility Services and asked to revise the name to "Idaho Day of Equality: Equal Rights for Atheists and Others." The office replied that they would enter the change into the computer themselves.

According to Harrington, Idaho NDP volunteer committee member Jim Hughes telephoned her on March 30 with conciliatory intentions, announcing that the ceremonies had now been moved to the inside of the Capitol. This was confirmed by a second telephone message from Hughes, which reaffirmed his desire to avoid conflict and manage pedestrian traffic congestion. At this point, Harrington still believed that IAI had secured the front outside steps for themselves.

Her perception was shattered by telephone and hard copy messages from Statewide Facilities Manager Tim Mason. Mason informed Harrington that the atheists' event had been relocated to the east stairs of the Capitol, and explained that "due to internal problems with our computer's calendar program" his staff had overlooked the long-standing NDP reservation. Since it "has been a regular event on the south stairs for years, we consider that to be 'first-come, first-serve.'" During a telephone interview with BW, Mason reiterated the substance of his letters, and explained that the issue was one of oversight and misunderstanding. Mason emphasized that "It was our mistake. The governor didn't get involved" and that his staff members "weren't even aware of it."

NDP volunteer Jim Hughes backed up Mason's claims. "We didn't ask the governor's office to upstage anyone. We didn't ask anyone to change anything," he told BW. But Hughes admitted that "the governor's office offered to help us straighten this out" once the conflict became apparent. IAI members and the ACLU now question the extent to which Kempthorne or his staff personally interfered on the NDP's behalf.

Harrington believes the switch represents unconstitutional government endorsement of religious faith. Her analysis arises from her previous experience with Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, to whom she has written for over six years. She points out that while Kempthorne has issued official proclamations honoring "Christian Heritage Week" and "Christian History Week," he has refused to do so for either "Atheist Heritage Week" or an "Idaho Day of Reason." Other local atheists recall the questionable legality of a land sale that allowed the Boise Jaycees to erect a lighted cross on property technically owned by the state.

Jack Valkenburgh of the ACLU confirms that while Kempthorne's office has rejected Harrington's numerous applications for proclamations as "nonconforming to policy guidelines," the governor has often violated those guidelines in favor of religious and business organizations, while denying conforming proclamations to public health and vegetarian activists. Valkenburg adds, "The state violated its own written policies. Tim Mason now says the Idaho Atheists can't use the main Statehouse steps because the NDP event 'has been a standing event for a number of years.' But where in the Statehouse use policies is there reference to 'standing events' pre-empting others that are calendared in accordance with the written policies?"

As far as Mason is concerned, the atheist event remains scheduled in its reassigned venue. Atheists are "being accommodated and not denied anything. I don't think [they] are being singled out or discriminated against. It's just a matter of trying to resolve a scheduling conflict."

In the meantime, the ACLU's Valkenburg estimates the chances that an injunction will restore the IAI claim to the steps as good. "I'm optimistic that would succeed," he says.

Should the atheists decide to hire a private attorney or use the ACLU to request an injunction, Harrington will be identified as an individual plaintiff along with her nonprofit organization. A veteran of the Table Rock incident, she remains anxious over the possibility of personal harassment against her family and herself, and has taken time off work. As the most public figure behind the atheist efforts, Harrington recalls, "So many people got so defensive and riled up so quickly" six years ago, and that pattern might repeat itself now. In that case, the basic message-"we are not against religion, we are for atheist civil rights"-will get lost.

Long-standing IAI member Gary Bennett expresses similar concerns that recent coverage of the debate will "become another media-generated crisis that will play right into the hands of the local religious right leaders to get their rabid followers frothing at the mouth." Bennett worries that the threat of an injunction "could lead to the largest turnout yet for the National Day of Prayer," the kind that "threatens with mob rule."

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