This editorial will appear in Thursday’s print edition.
Officials at the state Department of General Administration desperately want out of the Christmas wars, and who could blame them?
The agency has had the dubious pleasure of refereeing the annual ritual of rival creeds jockeying for space at the state Capitol in the hopes of outdoing one another.
It began in 2006 with a real estate agent’s spur-of-the-moment request to erect a Nativity scene alongside the Capitol rotunda’s holiday tree and menorah just three working days before Christmas.
The state’s hasty decision to deny his request landed Washington in court and resulted in a legal settlement that spurred an open season on the Legislative Building’s marbled halls.
In 2008, an atheist group applied for a permit to put up a sign that read, in part: “Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.” Then came the requests to erect a “Santa Claus will take you to hell” message, a display depicting “The Spaghetti Monster,” a sign offering blessings on all people and a Festivus pole inspired by “Seinfeld.”
In December, General Administration called a much-needed time-out to rework the state’s policy. It’s back now with proposed rules to put a damper on the escalating madness.
Under the new rules, residents and organizations would be permitted to place displays or exhibits on Capitol Campus grounds, but not in the public areas of campus buildings.
That means no Spaghetti Monster or hellish Santa Claus message. It also means no booth for the League of Women Voters and other advocacy groups when they visit the Capitol to lobby lawmakers during the legislative session.
This wouldn’t be the first time a few bad actors ruin it for everyone. But the state’s already tried to ban some displays and not others, and that didn’t work out so well. Keeping the Capitol grounds open to exhibits provides citizen groups with a reasonable alternative.
What’s more troubling about the proposed rules is the restriction they would place on gatherings on public property. The Department of General Administration wants to require organizers of activities expected to draw 25 people or more to get a permit two days in advance.
Authorities have a legitimate interest in managing crowds and ensuring that state government can continue to operate. But the proposed threshold for requiring advance notice is far too low. A gathering of 25 people doesn’t cause a stir in a city park, much less on a Capitol campus of 485 acres.
The agency defends the policy as less restrictive than the prior rule which applied to all groups no matter the size. But that rule dictated a permit for a “demonstration, parade or procession.” The new rule would apply much more broadly – to rallies, assemblies, speeches, press conferences and “other similar expressive activities.”
The freedom to gather on public property to air grievances is a fundamental right that government should curb only when absolutely necessary. We can do without the Festivus pole, but not without the First Amendment.