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Wisconsin Capitol gets Festivus pole for holidays

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Scott Bauer, Associated Press | December 9, 2013

MADISON — Where do a 30-foot Christmas tree, a nativity-like scene that mocks religion and a Festivus pole peacefully coexist?

The rotunda of the Wisconsin Capitol.

While the towering balsam fir Christmas tree with the toy train circling its base and handmade ornaments attract the most attention, tourists who venture one floor up will encounter a panoply of beliefs — from those who embrace Christianity to those who prefer a fictional holiday created by "Seinfeld," and those who shun religion altogether.

The First Amendment ban on state establishment of religion makes holiday displays in public buildings a sometimes volatile subject. The Wisconsin Civil Liberties Union sued in 1984 to remove the Capitol Christmas tree, halt a menorah lighting and end an annual nativity pageant. But the lawsuit failed, and the solution in recent years has been to embrace all religions.

"The rotunda is getting very cluttered," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation. "But if a devotional nativity display is allowed, then there must be 'room at the inn' for all points of view, including irreverency and free thought."

The foundation, which represents atheists and agnostics, has a "Winter Solstice Nativity" display in the Capitol. The scene features Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein and Mark Twain as the three wise men, the Statue of Liberty and an astronaut as angels and an African American girl baby doll to represent that "humankind was birthed in Africa."

Anyone who submits an application to the Capitol police can put up a display, which has opened the door to an unusual mix of views. But everyone in the Capitol, from Gov. Scott Walker to tourists, said they were OK with that.

"It's fine. It's a diverse state," Walker said. "I think it's a reflection of the many different wonderful traditions in the state of Wisconsin."

Marty Kehrein, of Madison, was in the Capitol for the three lighting ceremony on Thursday.

"I think they're all great," he said of the displays. "I'm all for representing all the beliefs."

The longest running tradition is the Christmas tree, which has been on display every year since 1916. Until 1987, it called a Christmas tree. But that year, state officials replaced the word "Christmas" with "holiday" to avoid offending anyone. Walker started calling it a Christmas tree again after he took office in 2011.

Also in 2011, the anti-abortion group Wisconsin Family Action put up a traditional nativity scene with a baby Jesus, three wise men, Mary and Joseph. The Freedom from Religion Foundation installed its scene in response.

The holiday spat between the two groups dates to the 1980s when they each displayed banners professing their faith, or lack thereof, leading to a policy limiting the size of signs hung in the rotunda.

Both said they are satisfied these days with the dual nativity scenes.

"At least we're represented," Gaylor said.

"It's a public forum," added Wisconsin Family Action president Julaine Appling. "All expressions of faith and opinion are welcomed there."

A silver Festivus pole familiar to fans of the long-running television sitcom "Seinfeld" has been added to the rotunda this year between the two nativity scenes.

Festivus was celebrated in a 1997 episode on Dec. 23 as a substitute for Christmas. The invented "holiday for the rest of us" featured time for celebrants to air their grievances from the past year and participate in feats of strength.

A sign attached to the Festivus pole in the Wisconsin Capitol promises there will be an airing of grievances over the noon hour on Dec. 23, but no feats of strength "due to liability issues."

"I think that's cool," Larry Jensen, of Madison, said of the Festivus pole. Jensen, a retired state worker, was in the Capitol on Thursday to see the Christmas tree lighting ceremony. "For me, the holiday season is a fun time of year. I'm not a religious person."

Appling said she wasn't concerned about the nonreligious Festivus pole sharing space with her group's nativity scene.

"I see it as silly, but you aren't going to hear me complaining about it," she said, adding that the variety of beliefs on display "adds to the fun and excitement of the season."



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