A celebration of holiday traditions during the festive season has instead become a free fire zone in the culture wars.
To recap: For nearly 20 years a Christmas tree (or “holiday tree” as the governor insists on calling it) has been installed by a business group in the capitol rotunda to celebrate the holidays. A few years ago, a rabbi requested permission to install a Menorah to commemorate Hanukkah. The Gregoire administration nervously agreed. Last year a nativity scene was also allowed. This year, an anti-Christian organization demanded equal access to the rotunda to exhibit a four and a half foot sign denying the existence of God and disdaining religion for “enslaving minds and hardening hearts.” The ensuing uproar has caught national attention and made Washington state look just as ridiculous as it did two years ago when Sea-Tac airport officials took down all their Christmas trees. The anti-religion message has also inspired a backlash of protests at the capitol and anti-atheist signs posted in the rotunda.
Could this have been avoided? Yes. Does it need to be repeated again in the future? No.
The federal courts have ruled that state officials can regulate the “time, place and manner” of holiday displays on public property, but not the content, lest the state be accused of dictating how various religious denominations can express their faiths. This is due in part to cities that previously allowed some types of religious displays, such as a giant menorah in a Beverly Hills Park, while rejecting permits for a winter solstice display, and a request for a Latin cross.
What’s different about the atheist sign in Olympia is that it does not honor, commemorate or celebrate a “holiday tradition.” It is simply a statement of opinion. It mentions the winter solstice, but the solstice does not symbolize the denial of God, it symbolizes different kinds of gods. What the atheists are claiming is that once a town, city or state sets aside a park, an atrium in a public building, or a village green for holiday displays, anyone can then post a sign saying anything they want about anything they choose, including insults about other religions and faith traditions.
That, to use layman’s language is, constitutionally speaking, nonsensical.
There is no way the U.S. Supreme Court as currently constituted would ratify such an egregious misreading of the First Amendment, which merely prevents the government from endorsing one kind of religious denomination over another. But cities and towns do need to specify in writing the purpose and parameters of their policy for accommodating holiday displays, lest they be accused of “making it up as they go along” in determining what is permissible
The Gregoire administration has no such policy, leaving no official grounds for rejecting the exhibit.
Here is all they need to do to keep this from happening again. Simply prepare a one-page notice requiring holiday displays to represent clearly recognized holiday traditions and refrain from criticizing other such traditions. When the atheists return with their sign, the governor should reject it on the grounds that it does neither. If we are lucky, the Freedom from Religious folks will sue, and the Supreme Court will finally have the case they need to restore some common sense and coherence into the Constitution’s First Amendment. Gregoire comes out a hero.
The only losers will be the Grinches who keep trying to steal Christmas.