Wash. Statehouse: Menorah OK, Crèche Not

Rabbi Mordichai Farkash, left, Rabbi Shalom Ber Levitin, second from left, and Rabbi Elazar Bogomilsky present Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire with a menorah for her home Monday, Dec. 18, 2006, during a lighting ceremony for the menorah behind them at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash.
AP Photo/Ted S. Warren
The Christmas controversy in Washington state has shifted from the airport to the state capitol, where the governor lit a menorah this week, but officials rejected a Nativity scene.

It all started earlier this month with the plastic holiday trees at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

A rabbi wanted to add a large menorah to the display, but airport officials, worried about lawsuits and requests from other religions, ordered the trees removed instead. They put the trees back up a few days later — without a menorah — after Rabbi Elazar Bogomilsky said he would not sue.

Bogomilsky said he was delighted Monday when Gov. Chris Gregoire lit a menorah, the candelabrum lit by Jews to celebrate Hanukkah.

But when Ron Wesselius, a real estate agent, proposed adding a display depicting the birth of Jesus, the religious heart of Christmas, he was turned down.

"I had been thinking about it, but it's one of those things — you don't want to create waves," Wesselius said Wednesday. "But when I saw the menorah was there, I thought, 'Hey, why don't I ask?'"

He said he was surprised at the response.

Steve Valandra, a spokesman for the Department of General Administration, said officials were concerned that a Nativity scene might carry a stronger impression of government endorsement of religion than a Christmas tree or a menorah.

"Based on that, without having more time, we had to say no," Valandra said.

Wesselius said he had not decided whether to press state officials to change their minds.

Around the country, Christmas displays on public property have become an annual source of contention, forcing elected officials to approach them cautiously because of concerns they may violate constitutional guarantees of separation of church and state.