It’s Christmas chaos at the Capitol


What a mess.

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 Hanukah. 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 4-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, 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 religion folks will sue, and the Supreme Court will finally have the case it needs 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.

Talk to us

Please share your story tips by emailing

To share your opinion for publication, submit a letter through our website Include your name, address and daytime phone number. (We’ll only publish your name and hometown.) Please keep letters to 300 words or less.

More in Opinion

Robert Whale can be reached at
If you're right, and you know it, then read this | Whale's Tales

As the poet Theodore Roethke once wrote: “In a dark time the eye begins to see…”

Robert Whale can be reached at
Grappling with the finality of an oncologist's statement | Whale's Tales

Perhaps my brain injected a bit of humor to cover the shock. But I felt the gut punch.

Cartoon by Frank Shiers
Legislature back in session next week | Cartoon

State lawmakers return Jan. 8 to Olympia.

Cartoon by Frank Shiers
Santa doesn't drive a Kia | Cartoon

Cartoon by Frank Shiers.

Cartoon by Frank Shiers
Salute to veterans | Cartoon by Frank Shiers

On Veterans Day, honor those who served your country.

File photo
Why you should vote in the upcoming election | Guest column

When I ask my students when the next election is, frequently they will say “November 2024” or whichever presidential year is coming up next.

Robert Whale can be reached at
Here's a column for anyone who loves their dog | Whale's Tales

It is plain to me in looking at dogs small and large that a decent share of them are exemplars of love on Earth, innocents who love unconditionally and love their chow.

Robert Whale can be reached at
Please protect your children from BS spreaders | Whale's Tales

Among the most useful things I studied in college were debate, and… Continue reading

It's time to change Kent's City Council elections to districts | Guest column

If you were asked who your city councilmembers are, would you have an answer?

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He is a former president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and lives in Vancouver. Contact
Dear government: Hold your horses when regulating trucks | Brunell

Next to gasoline and diesel, natural gas also has the greatest number of refueling stations.

Cartoon by Frank Shiers
Mariners get red hot | Cartoon

Cartoon by Frank Shiers