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"Christmas trees going back up at Sea-Tac"

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Christmas trees going back up at Sea-Tac
By Janet I. Tu and Lornet Turnbull
The Seattle (WA) Times

The holiday trees that went away in the middle of the night are back.

Monday night, Port of Seattle staff began putting up the trees they earlier
had removed from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The trees had come
down Friday night after a local rabbi requested that a Hanukkah menorah also
be displayed, and Port officials had said the threat of a lawsuit left them
without enough time to consider all the issues.

A nationwide furor erupted over the weekend as news of the trees' removal
spread, with a flood of calls to Port officials and harshly worded e-mails
to Jewish organizations.

On Monday, Rabbi Elazar Bogomilsky said he would not file a lawsuit and the
Port, in response, said it would put the trees back up.

"This has been an unfortunate situation for all of us in Seattle," Port of
Seattle Commission President Pat Davis said in a statement. "The rabbi never
asked us to remove the trees; it was the Port's decision based on what we
knew at the time. We very much appreciate the rabbi's willingness to work
with us as we move forward."

A menorah will not be displayed this year.

Port spokesman Bob Parker said, "we look forward to sitting down after the
first of the year with not only Rabbi Bogomilsky but others as well, and
finding ways to make sure there's an appropriate winter holiday
representation for all faiths. We want to find out a way to celebrate the
winter holidays that is sensitive to all faiths."

Bogomilsky, who works with Chabad-Lubavitch, an Orthodox Jewish outreach
organization, said, "Like people from all cultures and religions, we're
thrilled the trees are going back up."

But he said he was disappointed that Port officials chose not to put up the
menorah as well, pointing out that there are still several days until
Hanukkah begins at sundown Friday. "I still hope that they'll consider
putting the menorah up this year. But ultimately it's their decision."

The rabbi, who says he never wanted the trees removed, also said he hopes
the Port will apologize for mischaracterizations that led people to believe
he was against having the trees displayed.

"At the end of the day it's not about trees, but adding light to the
holiday, not diminishing any light."

At the airport Monday night, Matt Bachleda of Snohomish was playing cards
while waiting for his daughter to arrive from Paris. He was surprised to see
Port staff putting a tree back up in the baggage-claim area.

"It looks like Christmas is back," he said.

The reaction to the trees' removal had been swift and vociferous. News
outlets nationwide picked up the story.

"There's been such an outcry from the public - from people of all faiths -
who believe that the trees should be reinstalled," Davis said. "I'm very
thankful that we can return the trees and get back to running our airport
during this very busy holiday season."

Port Commissioner John Creighton said he had been swamped with e-mails, 99.9
percent of which supported putting the trees put back up.

"I'm overjoyed as to the resolution," Creighton said. "I'm very happy we
were able to reach an agreement that was acceptable to the rabbi and to us."

Creighton said he personally would have preferred the airport also put up a
menorah this year. But "there's a fair amount of sensitivity at the airport.
Whatever we do, we do after putting some thought into it."

The situation began rather quietly back in late October or early November
when Mitchell Stein, a construction consultant for the Port, contacted a
Port staffer saying he'd like to put up a large menorah near the Christmas
tree in the international arrival hall.

Stein, who is Jewish and is friends with Bogomilsky, said he thought it
would be a "great opportunity for the Port to show their joy and commitment
to diversity."

Over the next several weeks, though, he said, he was referred to several
different people on staff, who told him different things about whether a
menorah would be allowed.

Stein said Harvey Grad, the rabbi's attorney, contacted the Port last week
and sent officials a legal document as a way of spurring action and to let
the Port know the legal precedents involved in the issue.

It was not intended to be threatening, Stein said. When Port commissioners
"told us ... that they were taking down all the Christmas trees, we were
totally aghast."

But some Port commissioners said they first heard about a threatened lawsuit

"From what we were made to understand, if we didn't accede to the group's
demands," they would file a lawsuit by the next day, Creighton said. "At the
time, it seemed to be a reasonable solution to remove the Christmas trees."

Not only the Port, but local Jewish organizations, felt the consequences of
that decision.

Robert Jacobs, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, said more
than a dozen organizations or rabbis had reported receiving hate e-mail. His
organization was advising local Jewish institutions that have received
significant numbers of hate e-mails to consider having security during
Hanukkah and other holiday-season events.

This is not the first public clash over the traditional symbols of

For years, judges - including those of the U.S. Supreme Court - have been
sorting out disputes over how nativity scenes and Christmas trees can be
displayed in the lobbies of public buildings, in downtown plazas and in

The furor has been building for years. Last month, the Alliance Defense
Fund, a religion-based legal-aid group in Arizona, announced it had lined up
an army of attorneys who were prepared to defend the tradition of Christmas
in schools and on public property.

"Frankly, it's ridiculous that Americans have to think twice about whether
it's OK to say 'Merry Christmas,' " said Alan Sears, the group's president.

Federal law prohibits government entities from endorsing any religious
symbols, proselytizing for religion or preferring any one religion over
another, said John Strait, an associate professor of law at Seattle

Strait said the Christmas holiday has become so secular that many symbols
associated with it, such as the Christmas tree, have simply become symbols
of the holiday. But legal debates rage over just how religious some symbols,
such as the nativity scene, actually are. Strait said the menorah has
achieved about the same religious status as a nativity scene.

Stewart Jay, a law professor at the University of Washington, acknowledges
that the rules aren't always so clear. A holiday display, he said, is
allowed as long as it mixes several holiday symbols and traditions.

The Port of Seattle, Strait and Jay agree, could have allowed the menorah
along with its Christmas trees in such a way that it would not have been an
endorsement of religion. "And that would have been the end of it," Strait

In fact, the Christmas trees on their own might have been problematic, Jay
said. Adding a menorah might have given the Port some legal cover.

Across Washington, holiday displays and celebrations reflect the diversity
of ways public and private bodies have found to recognize the holidays.

Seattle City Hall for many years has featured a Christmas tree, menorah and
Kwanzaa display, said Marianne Bichsel, the mayor's spokeswoman.

In many school districts in the state, including Seattle and Bellevue, any
holiday program or decorations must be tied to curriculum, officials said.

The city of Redmond celebrates the season with displays of evergreen
branches with white lights, poinsettias and wreaths inside City Hall.
Outside, an evergreen tree, part of the landscaping, is decorated with
multicolored lights.

King County opts for "giving trees" in the lobby of the courthouse and the
county administrative building. The trees include the names and gift wishes
of people in need during the holiday, spokeswoman Carolyn Dunkin said.

Neither the city of Everett nor Snohomish County have written policies
regarding holiday decorations, but past displays have not generated

Last year, a Catholic lawmaker from Spokane and his supporters stirred up a
hornet's nest when they sang Christmas carols in front of the giant holiday
tree that dominates the Capitol rotunda in Olympia. Rep. John Ahern, a
Republican, said the Washington-grown fir is a Christmas tree, not a holiday

Next week, after a lighting ceremony, a menorah will accompany that tree in
the rotunda, said Steve Valandra, spokesman for department of general

Attached Photo:

Port of Seattle employees Ross Gumke, left, and Rick Laris put up a
Christmas tree Monday evening at Sea-Tac Airport. Removal of the trees last
week had prompted a huge outcry.


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