Jaws: The Christmas special

Tell me, you dedicated readers of religion news, can you imagine anything worse than seeing the following pairs of words in the same story -- "Fred Phelps" and "Christmas wars." Actually, a "Christmas wars" link is merely implied in the mess that is getting started -- probably -- at the state capitol in Washington state.

What? You haven't heard? Here's the news, care of the Spokesman-Review:

OLYMPIA -- The emotional saga over religious displays at Washington's state Capitol grew more bizarre Wednesday, as a controversial Kansas group requested permission to put up a sign titled "Santa Claus Will Take You to Hell."

The Westboro Baptist Church, which spreads its virulently anti-gay message by demonstrating at funerals and high-profile events, wants the sign posted near a Nativity scene and atheist sign at the Capitol. The sign claims that "God's hate" is to blame for the weak economy, that Santa is a child molester, and that the deaths of U.S. troops are somehow the fault of Santa.

"Holy cow," said Steve Valandra, a spokesman for Washington's Department of General Administration, when e-mailed the text. "I guess we'll consider it like all the other requests."

No, believe it or not, there are no signs -- yet -- of prejudice against St. Nicholas (the ancient Christian saint from Myra) in this story. It may take time for Phelps and family to find that angle.

So what, you ask, is the actual news story that is buried under this stuff?

That's where the "Christmas wars" roots show up. You see, this is another equal access story.

Once the state decides that its job is to sponsor forums about religious diversity, this is where things end up. Just for the record, I wish that churches and private organizations offered waves of real, undiluted Christmas displays as far as the eye can see and that states fled the generic holiday decorations business altogether. Don't deck the city halls, people. Is anyone out there writing anything about that option?

But let's return to "Jaws: The Christmas special."

State officials say that after a lawsuit a couple of years ago to allow the Nativity scene, they cannot discriminate among holiday displays. ...

Washington's Capitol has been in the national spotlight for more than a week. Thousands of people from across the country have called the governor's office over the state's decision to allow the atheist sign next to the Nativity scene on the Statehouse's third floor. A large evergreen "Holiday Tree" surrounded by gifts has been erected in the Capitol rotunda each December for decades.

The atheist sign was stolen last week, recovered hours later by state police, and reinstalled in its display case. Since then, religious groups have added signs critical of atheism. State officials ordered the displays roped off to protect them. Security cameras and a state trooper now watch over the competing displays.

Wait! Here comes the Flying Spaghetti Monster lawyers! And what about Festivus?

Actually, this is a pretty solid story. Trust me, I really feel for reporters that have to cover this. I know that it's hard to offer the facts about the law in this kind of church-state circus. Meanwhile, please help me keep an eye open for the more serious follow-up reports. Sad to say, but this is a real story. Tragic, even.

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