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Eye On Olympia

Sun., Nov. 30, 2008, 9:21 p.m.

In the capitol dome: nativity scene to the left, atheist nook on your right…

From the print paper:

OLYMPIA _ On Monday in the Washington state Capitol, Christians on one side of the rotunda will erect a Nativity scene, with a 3 1/2-foot-tall Joseph and Mary and a baby Jesus in a manger.

On the other side of the echoing dome, members of an atheist group will post their own display: a 4 1/2-foot-tall sign declaring that there is no God and that "religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds."

Welcome to the latest chapter in the annual tussle to stake out a piece of holiday real estate in what lawmakers like to call "the people's house."

Things were simpler in 2005, before state Rep. John Ahern, R-Spokane, decided to launch a protest against the long-standing offend-no-one practice of declaring the annual evergreen towering inside the Capitol a "holiday tree." (The 30-foot trees, surrounded by gifts, are donated by the Association of Washington Business.)

Ahern objected, saying the thing was clearly a Christmas tree. In protest, he gathered with a few dozen supporters on the steps of the Capitol to sing carols that year. Then he tucked a little "Merry Christmas" sign at the base of the tree, along with a shiny cardboard cutout of a Jewish menorah.

And so it began. The next year, bearded orthodox rabbis gathered with Gov. Chris Gregoire to light a large menorah in the rotunda. That triggered a request by Olympia real-estate agent Ron Wesselius to erect the Nativity scene.

State officials balked. Wesselius sued. The state settled, and Wesselius last year was allowed to prop up the figures on the Capitol's third floor.

As a result, Capitol officials now say they'll honor virtually any request for a religious or political display.

As long as it's not disruptive, costs taxpayers nothing and is not seen as the state endorsing any viewpoint, "it's pretty much wide open," said Steve Valandra, spokesman for General Administration, the state agency that issues the permits. "It's free expression."

After all, he pointed out, state officials had to let about a dozen uniformed neo-Nazis use the Capitol steps for a white-separatist rally in July 2006. Hundreds of state troopers spent the afternoon keeping the Nazis and hundreds of counter-demonstrators separated.

Still, some think the religious expressions go too far.

The Olympian newspaper recently decried the competing displays as "an out-of-control struggle for religious superiority" and "escalating nonsense."

"How long will it be before the Capitol is filled with competing displays?" the paper asked. "Goat sacrifices?"

Ahern said religion is under attack in popular society, and all major religions should be free to have a display in the Statehouse.

"We are a Judeo-Christian nation, and we need to honor the different times of year for Christians, Jews and even Muslims," he said.

Christmas trees, menorahs and displays for Ramadan should all be welcomed, Ahern said. But the atheist sign,

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