Airport puts away holiday trees rather than risk being "exclusive"

As odd as it might seem, Sea-Tac Airport officials were hoping to avoid controversy when they had maintenance crews working Friday's graveyard shift dismantle nine holiday trees festooned with red ribbons and bows.

The airport managers ordered the plastic trees removed and boxed up after a rabbi asked to have an 8-foot-tall menorah displayed next to the largest tree in the international arrival hall.

Port of Seattle staff felt adding the menorah would have required adding symbols for other religions and cultures in the Northwest, said Terri-Ann Betancourt, the airport's spokeswoman. The holidays are the busiest season at the airport, she said, and staff didn't have time to play cultural anthropologists.

"We decided to take the trees down because we didn't want to be exclusive," she said. "We're trying to be thoughtful and respectful, and will review policies after the first of the year."

The decision, made in consultation with the Port's elected board of commissioners, interrupts a decades-long tradition at the airport. No sooner had the trees come down than their removal spread something less than holiday cheer across religious groups.

Elazar Bogomilsky, the rabbi who last month asked that a menorah be displayed, said he was "appalled" by the Port's reaction to what he believed to be a simple request. There are public menorah lightings at the White House and cities across the Northwest, he said. Next week, Gov. Christine Gregoire will help light a menorah under the Capitol Dome in Olympia.

Why not the airport?

"Everyone should have their spirit of the holiday. For many people the trees are the spirit of the holidays, and adding a menorah adds light to the season," said Bogomilsky, who works at Chabad Lubavitch, a Jewish education foundation headquartered in the University District.

Instead, the Port dragged its feet for weeks and hired an outside attorney to research religious-freedom case law, said Harvey Grad, Bogomilsky's attorney.

"They've darkened the hall instead of turning the lights up," said Grad. "There is a concern here that the Jewish community will be portrayed as the Grinch."

The U.S. Supreme Court had determined that menorahs, like Christmas trees, can be secular symbols if they are not part of a religious-themed display. Bogomilsky's menorah — like those in other public places — is lit with bulbs, rather than oil, which requires a blessing before lighting.

Craig Watson, the port's chief lawyer, said Bogomilsky's menorah likely fits the Supreme Court's definition of secular. But the Port did not want to set the precedent of allowing an outside group to erect a holiday display at the airport, he said, and staff was too busy with holiday traffic to deal with the complexities of doing it themselves.

With Hanukkah set to begin this coming Friday at sundown, the issue came to a head late last week. Grad threatened to file a federal civil-rights lawsuit and set a deadline of Friday for the Port to make a decision. That left insufficient time to consider the issue, Watson said.

"It just wasn't going to get done before the threatened lawsuit was filed. They said they were on their way to the courthouse," said Watson. "We're not in the business of offending anyone, and we're not eager to get into a federal lawsuit with anyone."

Port commissioners were briefed on the issue Thursday and, because litigation was threatened, went into a closed-door session. Although the airport has not received a similar complaint from any other group, commissioners said Saturday they felt obliged to open the door to other religions.

After a long debate, the board of commissioners supported the airport management's decision to take down the trees and punt the issue into next year.

"We didn't have other cultures represented, and rather than scramble around and find representations of other cultures at this late date, we decided to take them down and consider it later," said Patricia Davis, head of the Port commission

"I felt we'd also have to put up Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish symbols. Where does it stop?" said Commissioner John Creighton.

He said he'd hoped the trees would come down "quietly." Instead, airline employees saw the trees being dismantled early Saturday and protested. By 2 a.m. TV crews were at the airport, and Creighton said he's received several irate e-mails.

Commissioner Bob Edwards said he considered the removal of the trees an "overreaction." In an e-mail to other commissioners Saturday, Edwards suggested the Port replace the tree with "a nine-foot-tall statue of the Grinch to welcome our international travelers." He signed his e-mail, "Happy Holidays."

The controversy likely will add fuel to what FOX TV talk-show host Bill O'Reilly and some Christian groups have deemed a "war on Christmas." They are battling what they deem a secularization of the traditions — and even the name — of Christmas. Before Dennis Hastert lost his job at the U.S. Speaker of the House, he renamed the "holiday tree" on the White House lawn a "Christmas tree."

Other airports tread lightly on holiday displays. Portland's airport allows airlines to put up trees, although none has, and emphasizes a snowman in its own publications. At San Francisco's airport, the season is celebrated simply with lights, not trees.

Seattle's retail core is festooned with lighted trees, and Westlake Center Park will host a menorah lighting. But businesses emphasize the word "holiday" over "Christmas." There are "holiday" music events at Pacific Place mall and "holiday wish lists" are presented to the Santa Claus outside Nordstrom. Gleeful kids rode the "holiday wonderland" carousel, gazed at Macy's huge "Northwest Holiday Star" and scampered beneath Westlake Center's "holiday tree."

That trend bothers Paul Goertz, a Marysville construction worker who hosted the second annual "Saving Christmas" rally at Westlake Center on Saturday. Four people, including Goertz, attended.

"I'm a construction worker. There are a lot of things I can think of to say if I want to offend someone, and 'Merry Christmas' isn't one of them," he said.

Bogomilsky, too, said he is not disturbed by holiday trees, but wishes that his own symbol was not excluded. He hopes the Port will reconsider, put the trees back up and install a menorah before Hanukkah.

"I didn't think it would be a complicated issue. I thought it was a simple request," he said.

Karen Gaudette contributed to this report. Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605