Christmas trees are going back up at Sea-Tac airport
Port of Seattle officials said they decided tonight to put the trees back up after Rabbi Elazar Bogomilsky and his Central Organization for Jewish Education Lubavitch said they would not file a threatened lawsuit.
Seattle Times staff reporters
The holiday trees that went away in the middle of the night are back.
Tonight, Port of Seattle staff began putting up the trees they had taken down Friday night after a local rabbi requested that a Hanukkah menorah also be displayed. Port officials said the rabbi's lawyer had threatened to imminently file a lawsuit, leaving them with insufficient 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. Today, 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 there are still several days until the start of Hannukah. "I still hope that they'll consider putting the menorah up this year. But ultimately it's their decision."
He 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 tonight, 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've preferred the airport also put up a menorah this year. But "there's a fair amount of sensitvity 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 at 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 there a legal brief as a way of spurring action, given that Hanukkah was coming up, 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 just before Shabbat 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 Thursday.
"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 about 14 organizations or rabbis had reported receiving hate e-mail. On Monday, his organization was advising local Jewish institutions that have received significant numbers of hate e-mails to consider having security during Hannukah and other holiday season events.
This is not the first public clash over the traditional symbols of Christmas.
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 parks.
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 okay to say 'Merry Christmas,'" the group's president Alan Sears said.
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 University.
He 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, admits 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 tree in such a way that it would not have been an endorsement of religion. "And that would have been the end of it," Strait said.
In fact, the Christmas trees on their own might have been problematic, Jay said. Adding a menorahmight 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.
Each year — for many years — Seattle City Hall has featured a Christmas tree, menorah and Kwanzaa display, the mayor's spokeswoman, Marianne Bichsel said. "We want to make sure that however people choose to celebrate this time of year, that it is honored," she said.
In many school districts across the state, including Seattle and Bellevue, any holiday program or decorations must be tied to curriculum, officials there said.
The city of Redmond celebrates the season with displays of evergreen branches with white lights, poinsettias and wreathes inside City Hall. Outside, an evergreen tree, part of the city's landscaping, is decorated with multi-colored lights.
King County opts for "giving trees" in the lobby of the court house and the county administrative building. The trees include the names and gift wishes of people in need during the holiday, spokeswoman Carolyn Dunkin said.
Last year, a Catholic lawmaker from Spokane and his supporters stirred up a hornets' 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 holiday tree, not a Christmas tree.
Next week, following a lighting ceremony, a menorah will accompany that tree in the rotunda, said Steve Valandra spokesman for department of general administration, which oversees the capitol grounds.
Staff writer Jennifer Sullivan contributed to this report.
Janet Tu: 206-464-7727 or firstname.lastname@example.org; Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or email@example.com
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