Agency tries to bring order to displays

Capitol: Rules readied after holiday controversy

July 17, 2009 

The state Department of General Administration is developing rules to govern public displays on the Capitol Campus after holiday items in the Legislative Building created a ruckus that drew national attention in December.

A handful of displays had been allowed in a third-floor hallway of the Legislative Building, not far from a 30-foot noble fir sponsored by the Association of Washington Business for the holidays. A real estate agent then added a Nativity crche.

After that, the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation put up an atheist placard equating religion with myth, two Christian displays were added mocking atheism, and a Jewish group displayed a menorah. Fourteen applications had been filed when the department issued a moratorium on further displays.

“One of the things we want to do is get some clarification on the whole process for events at the Capitol,” department spokesman Steve Valandra said Thursday. “We had all those requests for displays and it was overwhelming. … It became clear we needed to take a look and revise the process.’’

General Administration director Linda Villegas Bremer announced the rule-making in a letter this week to about 300 parties that hold events around the campus. She said officials “anticipate draft rules will be released for comment by mid-August. A public hearing and comment period will be held in early fall.”

More details are expected later, but the department is accepting comments now, Valandra said.’

The issue had been controversial since an Olympia man went to court and in 2007 won a settlement of his lawsuit that was aimed at allowing a Nativity scene in the Capitol. A display by atheists then was allowed in December last year, drawing criticism from Christians and prompting protests. At one point, the atheists’ placard was stolen and later was recovered at a Seattle talk-radio studio.

Among critics’ complaints was that Gov. Chris Gregoire, as the top executive in the state, let the atheists’ display sit just 20 feet from the Nativity scene. But Gregoire, a Democrat, and Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna stood by General Administration’s application of a policy it developed after the Nativity lawsuit, and they cited free-speech law as grounds to allow the displays and to keep them in close proximity.

A national television commentator blasted Gregoire and added to the furor, helping to trigger more than 13,000 complaint calls to the governor’s office. Most complaints were from out of state, but a rally on the Capitol steps also drew in-state protesters.

As the furor built, the agency declared a moratorium on additional applications – in effect freezing eight requests. Those included a “Festivus” pole, honoring a mock holiday made popular on the TV sitcom “Seinfield.” Also put on hold was a request from controversial Kansas pastor Fred W. Phelps that said “Santa will take you to hell,’’ another request was from a Kansas group critical of teaching creationism in schools that wanted to depict a “Flying Spaghetti Monster” as the creator of the universe.

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688

bshannon@theolympian.com

www.theolympian.com/politicsblog

How to comment

To follow the action or to comment, go to www.ga.wa.gov/rules.htm or contact Jack Zeigler, rules coordinator, Department of General Administration, P.O. Box 41000, Olympia, WA 98504-1000.

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