In the rotunda, there is a Christmas tree, called a "holiday tree" for official purposes. There will be a ceremony tomorrow at 11:45 am to turn on the lights.
You can walk up to the mezzanine level and see the top of the tree extending above the railing:
At this level you will also find a full-sized replica of the Liberty Bell:
You'll also find the Wisconsin Constitution (which begins "We, the people of Wisconsin, grateful to Almighty God for our freedom..."):
And you'll also find this large sign. The fine print says "Freedom from Religion Foundation."
UPDATE: I'm sure readers can come up with their own commentary on that sign in the last photograph, but let me add my comment nonetheless. That sign represents a concession to the Freedom from Religion Foundation, which is very critical of the tree. But the sign is extremely disrespectful to religious people and should be considered offensive not only by those who are religious but also by anyone who cares about treating other people with respect and about preserving a civil, pluralistic society. The sign can't properly be defended as a way to balance the tree, because the tree is not an expression of hostility to non-Christians. It is a festive, lovely object associated with the Christian holiday. I haven't looked closely at the ornaments, but I don't think they express hostility to atheists. If atheists want equal treatment, they might celebrate secularism or reason or nature, which the sign does up to a point. But about halfway through, it switches to outright nastiness. We wouldn't accept balancing a menorah with a swastika. Even atheists should object strenuously to this sign. The sign aligns atheism with reason, but what is reasonable about antagonizing the rest of the community? Reason demands that you align yourself with the facts, and the assertion that religion only "hardens hearts and enslaves minds" is clearly false.
ANOTHER UPDATE: Armchair Philosopher has some thoughts on the sign, which, along with some email I've received, has made me think more about the way that sign is phrased. It is phrased as a creed, an assertion of faith -- of all things. The first sentence, in its use of "may," reads like a prayer. And why mention the solstice unless you have some mystic tie to paganism?
YET ANOTHER UPDATE: Sissy Willis comments on the sign. In case you, like Willis, are not familiar with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, here's its website. You may not be too suprised to learn it is based in Madison. Here is its own explanation of the sign:
This is the ninth year the national freethought association's sign has been placed in the Capitol. The Foundation seeks to balance the yearly nativity pageant which takes over the Capitol, the many Christmas activities, a menorah with a religious sign and other displays of religion at the Wisconsin State Capitol.Note the presumptuousness of saying that the 14% of citizens who are not religious would feel represented by an anti-religion sign. And the sign does not does not even begin to try to educate people about the pre-Christian cultures who originated many of the customs that have become part of the Christmas celebration. In fact, if you're going to acknowledge that the lit-up tree represents the widespread human search for ways to raise the spirits in the darkest month of the year, why let the tree bother you at all?
"The nonreligious are 14% of the U.S. population," according to Annie Laurie Gaylor, Foundation co-president. "If religious activities are going to take place in the Capitol, then there should be representation of the views of Wisconsin's nonreligious citizens as well.
"Our sign reminds citizens of the real reason for the season, the impending Winter Solstice (Dec. 21), the shortest and darkest day of the year, which signals the return of the sun. The Winter Solstice has been celebrated for a millennia in the Northern Hemisphere by festivals of light, decorations of evergreens, gift exchanges, parties and feasts.
"Freethinkers don't mind sharing the season with Christians, but we think the natural origins of many of the customs of this time of year should be acknowledged."