OLYMPIA – Thanksgiving is still nearly a week away, but the annual Christmas controversy over religious displays in the Capitol has begun.
A tree will go up in the Rotunda at the end of the month, as it has for at least two decades. But a crèche won’t.
Earlier this month the Catholic League sent crèches to governors’ offices in all states asking that the Nativity scenes be displayed somewhere inside each capitol building.
But Washington bans displays by private groups inside its Capitol – an outgrowth of a controversy that erupted two years ago when atheists put up a sign to counter a Nativity scene in the Rotunda.
After receiving the crèche, the governor’s office contacted General Administration, which sent the league a letter explaining the display can be put up outside the building if it would fill out a request form.
Jeff Field, the league’s communications director, said the group is willing to fill out the request if it’s not too much trouble. But the one-piece crèche is only about 15 1/2 inches tall, so it may not stand out on the Capitol grounds, Field said. There is a concern about it being stolen.
If it’s too much trouble, the league will ask the governor’s office to send it back, Field said.
Washington is the only state so far that has told the league it will not display the crèche inside the Capitol, Field said. They’ve received confirmation from more than a dozen states, including a hand-written letter from Idaho Gov. Butch Otter thanking them for the crèche and promising to display it in his ceremonial office near a copy of the Ten Commandments.
Mark Warbis, a spokesman for Otter, confirmed Wednesday the crèche is in the ceremonial office, although it has been moved to a more prominent spot as the office decorates for the holidays.
Steve Valandra, a spokesman for Washington’s General Administration Department, said a 2009 state policy requires displays by private groups to be outside the building.
It was adopted after the 2008 Christmas season saw a much larger crèche, a menorah and a sign proclaiming religion is a myth, all in the Rotunda hallways. Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly called Gregoire a “pinhead” for allowing the atheists’ sign up; other groups asked to put up a Festivus pole and a sign calling Santa Claus a child molester, and General Administration eventually put a stop to more displays that year.
Last year, under the new policy, an atheist group put up a sign on the south lawn and Seattle rabbis put up a menorah during Hanukkah, but controversy was at a minimum.
Field said the league was aware that in 2008 there was “a circus out there. It was like a free-for-all.” But the group believes there’s no constitutional basis to ban religious symbols inside the building, and accused atheist groups of “trying to neuter the religious aspect of Christmas.”
The state policy doesn’t affect the plans to put up the annual “Holiday Kids Tree” in the Rotunda. That’s because the state has taken over some aspects of securing and erecting the tree.
The tree used to be donated by the Association of Washington Businesses, who use it in conjunction with their holiday toy drive. But the state is getting the tree donated by an Olympia couple – former state workers, Valandra said – so it’s not a private group’s display.
The AWB has had some connection with the tree in the Rotunda since at least 1989, Jason Hagey, a group spokesman, said. During that time, it has always called the evergreen a holiday tree, not a Christmas tree.
Tree lighting is Dec. 3.