by Michelle Cole, The Oregonian
SALEM — December inside Oregon’s Capitol is filled with a forest of lighted trees, tall toy soldiers and carols sung by school choirs. But requests to add a Jewish menorah and Christian creche to the mix have sent legislative leaders directly to their lawyers.
What are the boundary lines between church and state? What about freedom of speech and religion? And is the rotunda at the center of the state Capitol truly a public square?
“We’re waiting for a legal opinion, which I think will hopefully clarify the issues,” Senate President Peter Courtney said Friday. “I want to be fair, and I want to be consistent.”
There’s no question that church and state separation issues are difficult, said House Speaker-elect Dave Hunt. “The state should not be endorsing any one religious expression.”
Ideally, Courtney and Hunt would like to have their lawyers weigh in before the Dec. 1 lighting of the Capitol’s giant holiday tree.
Last year, Rabbi Avrohom Perlstein from the Chabad Jewish Center in Salem asked to put up a menorah across from the Capitol’s traditional tree. His argument is similar to one made by Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun: The menorah, used during the celebration of Hanukkah, is a symbol of the season, much like the lighted tree.
After months of delay, Perlstein says, his request was turned down. So he’s asking again this year.
“A menorah is a symbol of the season and specifically a symbol of universal freedom,” he said. “It won’t be a large menorah, and I offered to store it.”
For Fran Martin, who wants a Nativity scene, the argument is all about religious expression.
“They’ve had their tree and choo-choo train there for years and years, and that’s not what Christmas is about,” Martin said.
“It’s about Christ being born in Bethlehem. … The choo-choo train and a couple of holiday trees don’t tell the story at all.”
Besides, Martin said, Washington state’s Capitol has a Nativity scene. “Why can’t they do it here?”
Though religious scenes or icons have not been on display in Oregon’s Capitol, it is a different story in Washington.
This year, the Capitol in Olympia will have a small Nativity scene during December, and a group called Freedom From Religion also will have a display.
Steve Valandra, spokesman for Washington’s Department of General Administration, says he doesn’t know whether there will be a menorah this year, but one has been displayed previously.
“It was a controversy a year or so ago. But since then, we don’t see any problems,” Valandra said. “It’s pretty much open, with the caveat that whatever group puts on a display, they pay for it and the state government isn’t seen as endorsing it.”
Washington state came to welcome sectarian displays inside its Capitol rotunda after it settled with a Christian legal rights group that sued last year for permission to put up a Nativity scene.
The group, the Alliance Defense Fund, argued that the state could not bar a creche because of its religious viewpoint while allowing a menorah and holiday tree.
“The principle is, if they do open a forum, it’s got to be open to all,” said Mike Johnson, the fund’s senior attorney.
Traditionally, Washington’s Capitol rotunda has been open not only to menorahs, but to all kinds of displays and debate. For example, Valandra said, those lobbying for more access for people with disabilities have used the space. And the state’s potato growers erect displays every year for “Potato Day.”
Oregon’s Capitol rotunda — with a golden state seal at its center — is never used for such events.
But the Galleria, in the newer section of the Capitol behind the rotunda, is used that way.
The lawyers might tell legislative leaders that they must allow a Nativity scene, menorah or other displays there.
Hunt, who served as national president of American Baptist Churches in 2002-03, said he has no problem with that.
“Since the Galleria has been traditionally open for rental of a whole variety of displays, that seems to be a more appropriate place to allow individual Oregonians and groups to express their perspectives,” he said.
Fran Martin doesn’t like that idea much.
If her Nativity scene went there, she asks, “would you be able to see it?”