SEATTLE — A real estate agent who tried to get a Nativity scene placed alongside a "holiday tree" and a menorah in the state Capitol rotunda has filed a lawsuit, contending his free-speech rights were violated.
The lawsuit, filed the day after Christmas by Ron Wesselius of Tumwater, asks the U.S. District Court in Tacoma court to stop the state's "unauthorized prohibition of religious expression" at the Capitol in Olympia, about 65 miles south of Seattle.
The lawsuit names Gov. Chris Gregoire and officials from the Department of General Administration as defendants. Wesselius is represented by the Alliance Defense Fund, an Arizona-based organization that frequently takes up religious speech cases.
Attorney General Rob McKenna, who defends the governor and state agencies in court, said Wesselius' request for a Nativity scene gave little detail and came just three working days before Christmas.
"I think, ultimately, had this request come in a little earlier, everything might have happened differently," McKenna spokeswoman Janelle Guthrie said yesterday.
State officials have placed an evergreen "holiday tree" in the ornate Capitol rotunda for several years. This year, the Capitol also installed a temporary menorah, the candelabrum used to mark the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah.
Gregoire helped light the menorah at a Dec. 18 ceremony.
The next day, Wesselius said, he went to the Capitol to propose a creche — a display depicting the baby Jesus in a manger after his humble birth — the basis for the Christian holiday of Christmas.
Wesselius' request was turned down by General Administration officials after they consulted with McKenna's office.
In a statement yesterday, McKenna said the "lateness and generality" of Wesselius' proposal made it too difficult to properly weigh the legal issues surrounding religious-themed displays at government facilities.
Officials have said the request that prompted the menorah display came more than a year ago from a rabbi in Seattle.
But Byron Babione, a lawyer with the Alliance Defense Fund, said the timing of Wesselius' request was cited as a reason for denying the Nativity scene only after attorneys contacted the state. In any case, government can't pick and choose which religious-themed displays to feature at the Capitol, he said.
"It's ridiculous that Americans have to think twice about whether it's acceptable to celebrate Christmas in public," Babione said in a statement.
U.S. District Judge Robert J. Bryan denied Wesselius' request for a temporary order to force installation of a Nativity scene.
But Bryan kept alive Wesselius' remaining claims, saying the "shifting legal landscape" around religious speech on public property calls for a full briefing and hearing.
By yesterday, both the menorah and the tree had been removed from the Capitol.