Atheist Sign In Illinios A Violation of the Establishment Clause?

The traditional defense from the Religious Right whenever the government places, or allows others to place, a religiously themed message or display in a public building is that such displays are not an “endorsement” of that religion by the government but rather a recognition and accommodation of the citizens’ right to freely express their religion in public.

Which makes this latest lawsuit rather unique:

A candidate for Illinois Comptroller has sued the state for allowing an atheist group to post a sign alongside the religious holiday displays in the State Capitol. William Kelly, a Republican, claims Capitol Police unjustly “detained (him) and escorted him from the building” because he turned the atheists’ sign face down. Kelly calls the sign “hate speech.

Kelly’s federal complaint against the Illinois Secretary of State claims: “In December 2009, a sign was placed in the Capitol Building, approved by the Defendant, that read as follows:

“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 a myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.”

Kelly’s complaint does not object to the several holiday displays “celebrating various observances” in the State Capitol. He objects only to the atheists’ sign, which, he says, stood near a Nativity scene and next to a decorated Christmas tree.

Kelly claims that for the two weeks the sign was displayed, visitors, including young children, could get the impression that the sign is “endorsed” by the state as an “opposing view to the displays.”

He says the state’s administrative code demands that displays be approved on the basis of “symbolic expression in the exercise of free speech,” but that signs are prohibited.

Kelly claims that by allowing the sign, the state approved expression of “hostility towards religion,” which he says is unconstitutional.

Kelly sued Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, claiming that placing the atheists’ sign in the Capitol violates the Establishment Clause.

He demands an injunction prohibiting atheists from “placing or allowing to be placed the sign at issue or any such similar sign in the Capitol Building of the State of Illinois and any other State of Illinois Buildings”.

So the presence of a Nativity scence was perfectly fine, but a sign from an atheist group was a government endorsement and violation of the Establishment Clause? 

Good luck with that line of argument in court.