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Originally published Sunday, December 23, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Danny Westneat

Deck the courthouse with irises?

The chief judge of the federal courts in Seattle, Robert Lasnik, is no slouch when it comes to keeping church and state separate. He's the judge who...

Seattle Times staff columnist

The chief judge of the federal courts in Seattle, Robert Lasnik, is no slouch when it comes to keeping church and state separate.

He's the judge who last summer ruled it was OK for the Everett schools to bar the playing of "Ave Maria" at graduation, because the song's religious nature might not sit well with some students or families. I guess everyone has a point where political correctness becomes so silly it can no longer be taken seriously. Lasnik reached that point in the lobby of his own courthouse.

The past few weeks, visitors to the U.S. District Court building have been treated to a hapless display of irises, primroses and other spring flowers.

Why spring flowers in the dark of winter? It was a rush replacement. For what has been there in winters past — dozens of bright-red poinsettias.

I love this city, including its eccentric liberal ways. But I'm embarrassed for us because of where this story is going.

Yep, you guessed it — some who work there complained about the poinsettias. Too Christian, they said. Too symbolic of one belief system.

How would non-Christians feel walking past a bunch of poinsettias? Should a courthouse — a place about equality and the Constitution — favor one religion over the others?

Long story short: No more poinsettias in the lobby (workers can still have them in their offices). The landlord, the General Services Administration, felt it had no choice after hearing "a series of complaints" that poinsettias were "too Christmas-y," says Bill Lesh, the agency's spokesman.

"It's just sad," Lesh says. "It's a no-win situation. We live in a day and age where somebody is always willing to be insulted by practically anything."

We're now insulted by poinsettias? Good God, citizens of Seattle: How far will we go down Sensitivity Road? It's leading to a place where all richness and texture is scrubbed from our public culture.

At this year's courthouse holiday party, Lasnik decided he couldn't take it anymore. In remarks to the crowd, he made a plea: Free the poinsettias!

"What I said was: 'You cannot have poinsettias without freedom, and you cannot have freedom without poinsettias.' "

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OK, he made a joke of it. What else can you do? Even that is risky. A society that can't handle poinsettias is a thin-skinned society indeed.

To me, that goes for "Ave Maria," too. Lasnik said he couldn't discuss that case, as it's on appeal. But his written opinion makes clear he was trying to be supportive of public officials who are constantly bombarded with complaints and lawsuits about these issues. Regardless of what they do.

At least "Ave Maria" is overtly religious. Aren't poinsettias just plants that, unfortunately for them, flower in December?

Nope. Apparently some people gaze upon those pointy red leaves and see baby Jesus himself swaddled beneath the star of Bethlehem. And because of those people, you won't see the species Euphorbia pulcherrima in the lobby of the federal courthouse again.

Whatever the poinsettia was a symbol of before, it's now one of something else: political correctness truly run amok.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

About Danny Westneat
Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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