Seattle As odd as it might seem, Sea-Tac Airport officials were hoping to avoid controversy when they had maintenance crews dismantle nine holiday trees festooned with red ribbons and bows over the weekend.
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 thought 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, Washington 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 allow 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 to begin this 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.
"We're not in the business of offending anyone," Watson said, "and we're not eager to get into a federal lawsuit with anyone."