OLYMPIA - The deadline for commenting on proposed new rules for Capitol Campus displays and demonstrations is Thursday, and a decision on new limits for holiday displays is expected by the end of October, state officials say.
“I think we’ve had close to 200 comments, maybe a few more. We had more come in just before the hearing and after,” Department of General Administration spokesman Steve Valandra said this week, referring to a Sept. 22 hearing in Olympia. GA extended its comment period for a few extra days after the hearing.
“I’d say the majority are in favor of the proposed rule. We’re getting more comments from people who favor separation of church and state – on religious displays,’’ Valandra said.
The proposed rule, which is in effect on an interim basis, bars displays in public areas of the domed Legislative Building or other Capitol Campus buildings – unless a display is related to a government purpose and had government sponsorship.
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The draft rule came about after a ruckus in the Capitol last year over a Nativity display that was accompanied by a display from atheists that mocked religion; a slew of other requests followed including one for a “Festivus” pole to mark the mock holiday made famous by television comic Jerry Seinfeld.
The Governor’s Office received thousands of complaints, largely from out-of-state residents who were egged on by a television reports and commentators offended by the atheists’ placard equating religion with superstition.
Gov. Chris Gregoire said Tuesday that she had not seen comments on the draft rules but she sees no choice but to exclude religious displays. The previous policy had been written to settle a lawsuit brought by a man who insisted on displaying a Nativity after Gregoire had lit a menorah in 2006.
“I think it’s very unfortunate, to be perfectly honest with you. But I think we’re stuck,” Gregoire said. “I’m not going to litigate every single year and go through the antics of last holiday season. So I’ll have my Christmas tree in my office, we’ll have a holiday tree out there and probably not much of anything else. And I think that is a very unfortunate circumstance for a state that is really pro free speech, but not to the point of abuse.’’
Asked if she thinks the state still would be sued, she said: “probably.’’
The American Civil Liberties Union wrote GA last week to warn that the proposed requirement for a permit for any gathering of more than 25 people won’t survive court challenges, and the group cited past federal court rulings that said a limit of 75 was iffy.
Valandra said similar concerns have been expressed by others. Valandra also noted that many people appear to have missed the point that the rules affect displays in all campus buildings, and not just holiday displays.