Every year for the past half decade or so, a holiday controversy has turned the Puget Sound area into a national laughingstock.
In 2005, the “giving tree” at a Medina elementary school was taken down because some people speculated that other people might be offended by a Christmas tree in a public school. Presumably, these would be people who regard Christmas trees as Christian symbols. But the cultural roots of Christmas trees are secular, tracing back to vikings in Scandinavia who brought evergreens into the house to symbolize perseverance in cold, winter weather. Nothing in the Bible links evergreen trees to the birth of Christ.
In 2006, the King County Library staff banned Christmas trees from all its libraries, stating it was “no longer appropriate” because some patrons did not celebrate Christmas. Angry e-mails and phone calls poured in and the library trustees hastily reversed their staff’s decision.
Then we had the Port of Seattle, after decades of decorating Sea-Tac airport with Christmas trees, taking them down in the middle of the night because a local rabbi asked permission to erect a Menorrah to commemorate Hanukah. The following year the port replaced Christmas decorations with a “winter theme” display of appeared to be dead tree limbs sticking out of fake snow throughout the concourse.
Then came the mother of all controversies last year at the Capitol Rotunda in Olympia. For almost 20 years a gorgeous Christmas tree was installed by the Association of Washington Business at the capitol. Citizens asked to install a Menorah and later, a nativity scene. No problem. The Supreme Court has ruled that religious displays can be a part of a public commemoration of the holiday season.
But then an atheist organization, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, demanded the right to post a large sign ridiculing religion. They claimed that once a town, city or state sets aside public space for holiday displays, anyone can post a sign or placard saying anything they wanted, including insults directed at other holiday traditions. The state allowed the sign, a national uproar ensued and, once again, the state of Washington looked ridiculous.
Last week the state’s Department of General Administration announced new guidelines to keep this controversy from ever happening again. The guidelines? Ban everything from the rotunda, except the Christmas tree, which will henceforth be called a “holiday tree.”
In other words, the state of Washington has decided to do what the Freedom from Religion foundation wanted the state to do all along.
Caving in to intolerant grinches has become an art form among schools, counties, port authorities and states. Here’s how to change all that. Gov. Chris Gregoire should submit a one paragraph notice welcoming holiday displays at the capitol between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, as long as they represent a clearly recognized holiday tradition and refrain from criticizing other such traditions. The atheist sign will fail on both counts. It did not commemorate a holiday tradition and it was designed to insult religious celebrations of the season.
The atheists will sue. Good. Let them. This will give the Supreme Court the case they need under Chief Justice Roberts to weave some common sense and coherence into the First Amendment as it applies to religious displays during the holidays.
And as for calling the tree in the Rotunda a “holiday tree” – can anyone point out any other holiday besides Christmas that is symbolized by a decorated Evergreen tree? No? Then stop calling it a “holiday tree” unless you intend to light off “holiday fireworks” on July Fourth and serve “holiday turkey” on Nov. 26. ‘Tis the season to stop the spread of political correctness during the holidays.