Eye On Olympia

TUESDAY, DEC. 16, 2008, 4:31 P.M.

State officials put their foot down on any more holiday displays at the capitol…

This winter solstice sign erected at Washington's state capitol by an atheist group from Wisconsin was briefly stolen. After state police recovered it, someone attached a
This winter solstice sign erected at Washington's state capitol by an atheist group from Wisconsin was briefly stolen. After state police recovered it, someone attached a "thou shalt not steal" sign to it. (Rich Roesler / The Spokesman-Review)
There will be no Festivus pole at the state Capitol this year, no banner reading "Lion of David," and certainly no poem claiming that Santa Claus will send us all to hell. So sayeth Washington state officials, who after two contentious weeks have imposed a moratorium on any further holiday displays inside the state Capitol. "It was more than we anticipated," said Steve Valandra, a spokesman for the state department of General Administration. The handful of displays that are already there, he said, can stay. Prodded by requests and a lawsuit, the state in the past few years has allowed holiday displays inside the echoing marble Capitol, which has long featured an evergreen "Holiday Tree" in the rotunda every December. There was a menorah-lighting by Orthodox rabbis, a Nativity scene from an Olympia real estate agent, and then, this year, a sign from a Wisconsin atheist group declaring that there are no gods and that religion is just myths and superstition. That fired up Christians, who promptly added signs critical of atheism and last Sunday held a demonstration on the Capitol steps. One demonstrator assembled a Nativity scene on the spot out of balloons. Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly highlighted the controversy nightly, blasting Gov. Chris Gregoire for allowing the atheist sign. Early one morning, someone stole the sign. State troopers later recovered it. "It certainly stirred people up," Valandra said of the publicity. "The phone calls, the e-mails, it all started the day after." Since then, one group after another has sought permission to add displays. A Catholic nun living in a Mexican prison asked to put up a sign wishing atheists well. Someone else wanted to put up a display for the Japanese holiday Bodhi Day, celebrating the enlightenment of the Buddha. An Olympia man wanted to celebrate Festivus. A group from Kansas City sought to honor the Flying Spaghetti Monster. And a gay-hating Kansas group sought to erect its sign proclaiming that the recession is evidence of God's wrath and that Santa is a child molester. All of which is a bit much, General Administration officials decided, for a small nook now roped off and guarded by a state trooper on the third floor of the Capitol. "We were just anticipating even more, and the area we designated just can't accommodate them anymore," Valandra said. If people try to add displays without a permit, he said, troopers will ask them to remove them. Valandra said the department will try to figure out how to handle things next year. So far, he said, nobody's suggested banning displays entirely. "Everything went fine last year," he said.

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