Politics & Government

Holiday display limits offered

A draft state policy governing displays at the Capitol Campus is out for public comment, and a formal hearing on the controversial issue is planned for Sept. 22 in Olympia.

Under the draft policy announced last month, Capitol landlords no longer allow private displays or exhibits in public areas inside any campus building.

The new rules are meant to head off rumblings over religious and atheistic or irreverent displays such as what happened in December, but they also will prevent lobbyists or advocacy groups from putting up exhibits in public hallways of the domed Legislative Building.

Displays “have to be not only government sponsored, but they also have to be related to the conduct of government business,’’ Department of General Administration spokesman Jim Erskine said Friday.

The rules are in response to the flare-up over religious and other displays that competed for attention in the Legislative Building in December. The rules would apparently allow religious displays elsewhere on Capitol Campus grounds, and a state-sponsored holiday tree bought and decorated by the state will replace one inside the Capitol Rotunda.

Erskine said the tree would qualify for display as part of the state’s “care of the building,” and he said courts have not deemed a holiday tree as religious. “It would be a typical decoration that the public would typically expect in the building at that time of the year,’’ he said.

The comment period began Wednesday, and a public hearing on the proposed permanent rules is scheduled for 4 p.m. Sept. 22, in the General Administration Building auditorium, in Olympia.

A final decision is expected sometime in the October to December time frame.

GA hasn’t received comment yet, but the manager of lobbyists’ quarters at the Capitol said she thinks there will be concerns if groups cannot put up displays in the Rotunda.

“I’m sure many of the people who exhibit information about their industry or profession will be disappointed,” said Debbie Gaetz, manager of the Third House, or lobbyists association. “A lot of the time, a picture says a thousand words. … It’s also a way for lawmakers to get insight there they otherwise wouldn’t have the wherewithal to get.’’

The state revised its policy on displays in 2007 to settle a federal lawsuit over a Thurston County man’s request for a nativity display. The policy said displays had to meet certain standards for size and not promote a religious belief over another, GA spokesmen said at the time.

Ron Wesselius, a real estate agent, sued after Gov. Chris Gregoire lit a Jewish menorah in a Hanukkah-related ceremony in December 2006, and the state denied his subsequent request to put up a nativity display. Wesselius and the Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund later settled its federal suit in 2007, paving the way for nativity displays in 2007 and 2008.

Neither Wesselius nor the ADF offered immediate comment this week.

The 2007 policy led to a free-for-all in December that brought national attention to the Legislative Building. The issue came to a head after the Freedom From Religion Foundation based in Wisconsin put in a display mocking religion as “myth and superstition” that “hardens hearts and enslaves minds.’’

Several thousand calls flowed into the Governor’s Office and GA offices from out of state, and Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly blasted Gregoire. O’Reilly questioned the state’s equal treatment for Christian and nonreligious displays, which Gregoire, who is Catholic, and state lawyers said was required under the First Amendment.

GA eventually called a moratorium on further displays after a half dozen were installed, including a menorah. Among the additional requests were one made by a Kansas church that disparages gays and one from a state employee who wanted a “Festivus” pole to honor the mock holiday that comedian Jerry Seinfeld’s sit-com brought into the national spotlight.