Washington Statehouse Allows Menorah for Holidays, Rejects Nativity Scene

The state's Christmas tree controversy has shifted from the airport to the Capitol, where the governor lit a menorah this week, but officials rejected a Nativity scene.

It all started earlier this month with the plastic holiday trees at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

A rabbi wanted to add a large menorah to the display, but airport officials, worried about lawsuits and requests from other religions, ordered the trees removed instead. They put the trees back up a few days later — without a menorah — after Rabbi Elazar Bogomilsky of Chabad Lubavitch in Seattle said he wouldn't sue.

Bogomilsky had made the same request last year for a menorah to go with the decorated trees at the state Capitol, and he said he was delighted Monday afternoon when Gov. Chris Gregoire lit a menorah, the candelabrum lit by Jews to celebrate Hanukkah.

But when Ron Wesselius, a real estate agent in Olympia, then proposed also adding a creche, a display depicting the birth of Jesus that is the religious basis for Christmas, he was turned down.

"I had been thinking about it, but it's one of those things — you don't want to create waves," Wesselius said Wednesday. "But when I saw the menorah was there, I thought, 'Hey, why don't I ask?"'

He said he was surprised at the response.

Steve Valandra, a spokesman for the Department of General Administration, said officials were concerned that in comparison with a tree or menorah, a Nativity scene might carry a stronger impression of government endorsement of religion. Lawyers for the state felt there was insufficient time to fully research the issue, he said.

"Based on that, without having more time, we had to say no," Valandra said.

Wesselius said he hadn't decided whether to press state officials to change their minds.