New permanent rules formally signed Friday at the Capitol will bar religious displays and nongovernment displays inside Capitol Campus buildings.
The rules take effect Dec. 1 and are aimed at preventing a repeat of last year’s riot of displays inside the Legislative Building. However, the rules do allow a state-sponsored holiday tree inside the Capitol Rotunda.
They also allow religious displays outside the Capitol Campus buildings, which means the battle between pro- and anti-religion factions might simply move outdoors, according to a leader from a Wisconsin group that works to maintain the separation of church and state.
Linda Villegas Bremer, director of the Department of General Administration, signed off on the rules. They incorporate a dozen changes prompted by testimony at hearings in September, GA spokesman Steve Valandra said. The agency took other comments by mail.
Thurston County realty agent Ron Wesselius’ Nativity display at the Capitol stirred controversy last year after the Wisconsin-based atheist group put up a placard nearby that mocked religion. A number of other displays followed, and GA eventually declared a moratorium that froze several pending permit requests.
Wesselius, who had displayed his Nativity set the last two Christmas seasons in the Capitol’s third-floor hallway after challenging the state in court, testified against the rules.
“It’s a shame that the state is basically shutting down 95 percent of Americans that celebrate a federal holiday, which it is. They are not letting them celebrate,” Wesselius said Friday. He declined to comment on what he might do in response to the rules, saying he was busy taking his son to a hospital.
“I’m very pleased,” said Freedom From Religion Foundation co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor. “And I think we deserve all the credit, because nobody was worried or concerned about the Nativity display except for one of our members living in the area.”
Gaylor was referring to Lois Walker, a Shelton resident who had owned a Christmas tree farm but objected strongly to blurring the constitutional separation of church and state with religion-themed displays.
Gaylor said she thinks the state is making a mistake by allowing such displays outdoors.
“I don’t think Nativity scenes belong on the outside of capitols either,” Gaylor said, pledging to put up a large sign if a Nativity is allowed this year on the Capitol Campus. “We will match whatever they do. I don’t think the public will be any happier about it on the outside than they would be on the inside. I encourage the state to avoid the entire debacle.”
Valandra said the state is simply trying to accommodate free speech and maintain some decorum by allowing freer options for expressing opinion on the perimeter of buildings. He said the agency still needs to finish writing procedures and guidelines for handling applications so it is clear to staff members and applicants what they can do.
The rules govern the buildings and four parks GA manages on the Capitol Campus.
One rule change sets a two-day notice requirement for permit requests, and another gives the state two days to accept or deny permits. So for a rally or gathering planned on a Saturday, Sunday or Monday, applicants would need to submit a request to GA by 5 p.m. on the preceding Wednesday, and GA would have to decide by 5 p.m. Friday.
Another change sets a permit requirement for Capitol Campus demonstrations or gatherings of at least 75 people, although a 25-person threshold will be in effect inside the Capitol.
Officials for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington could not be reached to comment; the group protested the permit requirements earlier this year. The ACLU said a proposed rule requiring permits for gatherings of as few as 25 people would be unconstitutional, and it said courts have struck down such requirements as unreasonable.
Valandra said the state tried to answer the ACLU objections by allowing larger outdoor gatherings without permits.
In the political tempest that followed last year’s displays by Wesselius and Gaylor’s group, a circus atmosphere developed, and one Fox News television commentator spurred thousands of calls to the office of Gov. Chris Gregoire to protest the atheists’ sign. The eventual moratorium froze pending requests for a “flying spaghetti monster” display, a poem display sought by a Kansas church that slammed Santa Claus, a Jerry Seinfeld-inspired “Festivus” pole, and others.
“We found last year a lot of people are for free speech as long as people agree with their particular point of view,” Valandra said. “At some point, you have to honor the Constitution.”
Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688