A Nativity scene will be allowed in the Capitol rotunda in Olympia, Wash., this year, as the result of a lawsuit brought against the state a year ago when officials put up a “holiday” tree and allowed a menorah to be displayed, but refused permission for the Nativity.

The word comes just days after the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport announced it not only would not have any Nativity, menorah or other religious symbol, it wouldn’t even have “holiday” trees.

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport installing “winter trees” this Christmas season (Courtesy Seattle Post-Intelligencer)

It’s now a simple notation that it’s “winter.”

The airport unceremoniously removed all of its Christmas trees in the middle of the night last year rather than allow a rabbi to put up a menorah near the largest tree display. Commissioners said they feared that one display would open the door for other religious displays, so this year they will have a grove of birches in Dacron snow.

The rotunda decision, however, went the opposite direction.

“It’s incredible to think that Americans have to think twice about whether it is okay to celebrate Christmas in public,” said Byron Babione, a senior legal counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund, which took up the legal battle.

“Just as it is constitutional for officials to display a menorah and a holiday tree, it is also constitutional to include a Nativity scene. We are pleased that the settlement will allow for a Nativity scene in the rotunda this year,” he said.

The issue was raised by Ron Wesselius, who sought permission in 2006 to erect the display. State officials denied permission, but Gov. Chris Gregoire did light a menorah and a allowed a “holiday tree,” formerly called a Christmas tree, which was sponsored by the Association of Washington Business.

“Ninety-five percent of Americans celebrate Christmas,” Babione said. “In light of that fact, the inclusion of a Nativity scene by a private citizen is entirely appropriate. More importantly, it does not violate any facet of the law.”

Babione continued, “In fact, the state capitol rotunda is open for displays and exhibits during the holiday season. The state cannot bar a Christmas Nativity because of its religious viewpoint and allow other displays like a menorah and ‘holiday tree,'” he said.

Proposed Nativity scene

Steve Valandra, a spokesman for the Washington Department of General Administration, said now all requests for displays will be considered. “If they meet the guidelines and people go through the process, it shouldn’t be a problem,” he said.

The agreement affirms that all applicants will be treated similarly “in all respects, including access to the areas in the Capitol Rotunda … to display a Nativity Scene during the 2007 traditional holiday season.

It also will include a sign saying:

This Nativity holiday display was provided and erected by private citizens of the State of Washington to commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ, which is celebrated by Christians around the world

The avoidance of the word “Christmas” in referring to the Christmas season, and specifically the Christmas tree, sometimes can be extreme.

When Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., avoided using the word “Christmas” while addressing those who watched the 2006 lighting of the 65-foot Pacific Silver Fir as the “Capitol Christmas Tree,” WND questioned her spokesman about the action.

“She was speaking to a crowd, and she said what she said. This is the holiday season, we’re just thrilled that the tree is from Washington state. It’s just a time to bring everybody together to celebrate the season,” Alex Glass, Murray’s communications director, told WND.

When asked if there was any objection to calling the tree a “Christmas tree,” Glass said the senator doesn’t have a policy.

“I think, you know, whatever people want to call it, we are accepting of all of it,” Glass said. “It’s a time to remember what the season is about.”

And that is? Celebrating, of course.

And what are we celebrating?

“The season,” Glass said.

And what is the season?

“I’m not going to get into semantics with you guys,” Glass said.

WND also has reported on the launch of “The Nativity Project,” a campaign to encourage the display of Nativity scenes throughout the United States at Christmas.

Faith and Action made the announcement along with Rev. Patrick J. Mahoney, of the Christian Defense Coalition, who said there is an “erosion” of religious freedoms in America.

“This is especially true during the Christmas season where there is an open hostility toward public expressions of faith. We must constantly remind our public officials that the Constitution promises freedom ‘of’ religion not freedom ‘from’ religion,” he said.

For others, including lawyers at the Thomas More Law Center, their Christmas season work already has begun.

They are working in Berkley, Mich., where last winter the city council was “cowed” by a threat of a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union, and removed a decades-old Nativity display from city property.

But the action rejected the will of the people, who assembled behind resident Georgia Halloran as the “Berkley Citizens Vote YES to Christmas Holiday Display” and mounted a successful petition drive to overrule the city decision.

The law firm said enough signatures were gathered to put a proposed charter amendment on the Nov. 6, 2007, general election that would require the city to display a Nativity scene from the Monday following Thanksgiving to Jan. 6.

Another organization, The Rutherford Institute, also is in the middle of its Christmas campaign already. It has been busy addressing attacks on Christmas celebrations at public schools.

The Institute reports that its legal hotline already has been getting calls from parents and teachers with complaints their schools’ traditional Christmas concerts now are “winter holiday programs” and Christmas itself now is a “winter festival.”

The Rutherford Institute said it has published “The Twelve Rules of Christmas” about what can and cannot be done to celebrate the holiday.

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