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Capitol to host ‘holiday’ tree, atheist billboard

Post by John Henrikson / The News Tribune on Nov. 29, 2008 at 3:36 pm with No Comments »
November 29, 2008 3:36 pm

From Adam Wilson at our sister paper, The Olympian:

Although it seems to get another neighbor every year, the Association of Washington Business’ holiday tree still is the centerpiece of the season in the Capitol.

The tree, up to 30 feet tall, will arrive in the Capitol Rotunda on Monday and be lighted in a celebration Friday. This year, a Christian nativity and an atheistic billboard will join it in the seat of state government.

“The way this whole thing started is that some folks came to us from the Legislature and the Capitol visitor center and said, ‘Hey, there’s no Christmas tree in the Capitol; could you help us?’ And we said, ‘OK, sure,’ ” said Don Brunell, president of the Association of Washington Business.

Now in its 19th year, the tree has become part of a charity drive for rural fire departments and the focal point of a popular lighting ceremony the first Friday of each December.

It has sparked a series of additions, the most recent of which is the billboard by the Freedom from Religion Foundation, new this year.

“Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds,” declares the sign, which is scheduled to be dedicated at 10 a.m.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, foundation co-president, said in a prepared statement that the sign is a reminder of the “real reason for the season, the winter solstice.”

The solstice is the shortest day of the year; it’s Dec. 21 this year.

Also on the third floor of the Capitol will be a nativity scene, a depiction of the birth of Jesus, which is the central event of the Christmas holiday Dec. 25.

A local real estate agent sued the state to erect the display after a Seattle Jewish group sponsored a menorah in the Capitol in 2006. A menorah is a candelabrum that recognizes Hanukkah, celebrated this year Dec. 21 to 29. There have been no requests for a Capitol menorah display this year.

Prior to the placement of a menorah, a lawmaker from Spokane had a holiday protest at the Capitol, demanding the holiday tree be called a “Christmas tree.”

Brunell says he isn’t too concerned with the new displays, and people can call the tree what they want.

“We just treat it as a project. Some governors call it a Christmas tree; some call it a holiday tree. There’s been controversy over it. To each his own,” Brunell said. He added the official name is the “Capitol Holiday Kids Tree,” which the organization feels is most inclusive.

The association raises money with the tree project for rural fire departments, and Brunell said more than $20,000 has been raised this year. He expects the total will match last year’s number of about $25,000.

Just getting the trees into the Capitol is an undertaking each year. Port Blakely Tree Farms donated this year’s tree, which workers will squeeze through the Legislative Building’s front doors and pull upright using ropes from balconies Monday. Last year, a pair of drivers faced an all-day ordeal to deliver the tree as floods ravaged much of Western Washington.

“If the Rotunda could talk, it would have a lot of stories about that tree,” Brunell said.

— Monday: The Freedom from Religion Foundation will dedicate its display on the third floor of the Capitol Rotunda at 10 a.m.

— Friday: The Association of Washington Business and Gov. Chris Gregoire will light the Capitol tree at 6 p.m.

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