Dec. 10, 2006 -- There is a damper on Christmas cheer at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport: A rabbi's complaint led to the removal over the weekend of synthetic Christmas trees that have decorated the entrances every holiday season for the last 25 years.
The man behind their disappearance, Rabbi Elazar Bogomilsky, told a Seattle newspaper he's "appalled" that the airport officials removed the trees. His goal was not to clear out Christmas, but rather to add a celebration of Hanukah. He asked the port of Seattle, which runs the airport, to build an eight-foot menorah and hold a lighting ceremony.
"Everyone should have their spirit of the holiday," he told the Seattle Times. "For many people, the trees are the spirit of the holidays, and adding a menorah adds light to the season."
Port officials apparently found it easier to remove the Christmas trees -- about a dozen.
Bogomilsky's attorney, Harvey Grad, told the paper, "They've darkened the hall instead of turning the lights up. There is a concern here that the Jewish community will be portrayed as the Grinch."
Patricia Davis, president of the Seattle Port Commission, called the tree-clearing "regrettable."
"We tried to come to some accommodation or some resolution and could not," she said. "They issued us several ultimatums and finally said they would sue is in federal court. … The time deadline was 10 a.m. Friday. … We were faced with the choice of spending unknown amounts of the public's money on litigation, or, in the next few days, trying to figure out how to accommodate all the cultures in our society."
In 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Christmas trees and menorahs were sufficiently secular that they could be displayed in a government building without constituting an endorsement of a particular religion.
The tree debate surprised many travelers and airport staff.
"It's a Christmas tree. It's not like they were displaying crucifixes," one airport worker told ABC News affiliate KOMO-TV in Seattle. "Christmas trees have been around here for years."
Passenger Lisa Jones told KOMO, "Why lose the Christmas spirit? Christmas is for kids."
The airport left some "holiday" decorations in place, including poinsettias, lights, wreaths and snowflakes. Individual airlines were not included in the tree removal, and many still had small trees on their desks and counters.
Davis said the airport's decor policy will be reviewed when things slow down.
"We will talk about all the options -- trees, involving many cultures, or doing nothing at all," she said.