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SeaTac removes trees amid claims of holiday exclusion

SEATAC, Wash. – Rabbi Elazar Bogomilsky could think of one thing to improve the holiday display at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport: Add an 8-foot-tall menorah next to the tallest plastic Christmas tree welcoming international arrivals.

When he brought his request to airport managers, they not only denied it, but ordered maintenance workers to take down and box up all nine of the airport’s Christmas trees. The work was done during the graveyard shift early Saturday morning, when airport bosses believed few people would notice.

“We decided to take the trees down because we didn’t want to be exclusive,” said airport spokeswoman Terri-Ann Betancourt. “We’re trying to be thoughtful and respectful and will review policies after the first of the year.”

After consulting with lawyers, Port of Seattle staff believed that adding the menorah would have required adding symbols for other religions and cultures in the Northwest. The holidays are the busiest season at the airport, Betancourt said, and staff didn’t have time to play cultural anthropologists.

Bogomilsky, who made his request weeks ago, said he was appalled by the decision. He had hired his own lawyer and threatened to file a federal lawsuit if the port didn’t add the menorah next to the trees, which had been festooned with red ribbons and bows.

“Everyone should have their spirit of the holiday. For many people the trees are the spirit of the holidays, and adding a menorah adds light to the season,” said Bogomilsky, who works at Chabad Lubavitch, a Jewish education foundation with headquarters in Seattle’s University District.

“They’ve darkened the hall instead of turning the lights up,” said his lawyer, Harvey Grad. “There is a concern here that the Jewish community will be portrayed as the Grinch.”

Hanukkah begins Friday at sundown. Craig Watson, the port’s chief lawyer, said Bogomilsky had threatened to file the lawsuit if the port didn’t make a decision by the end of last week.

“It just wasn’t going to get done before the threatened lawsuit was filed. They said they were on their way to the courthouse,” Watson said. “We’re not in the business of offending anyone, and we’re not eager to get into a federal lawsuit with anyone.”

Port Commissioner John Creighton said he’d hoped the trees would come down “quietly.” Instead, airline employees called Seattle television stations.

Creighton said he’s received several irate e-mails.


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