- The Washington Times - Friday, March 15, 2002

Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner's chief of staff told a Fairfax woman this week she could not continue a six-year tradition of leaving an Easter display in the lobby of the governor's office because of security concerns.

Rita Warren, 73, has left a foot-tall glass case with two statues of Jesus Christ and a "happy Passover" card on a round table in the lobby of the governor's office every Easter since George Allen was governor. At Christmastime, she delivered a Nativity scene and often posed for pictures with Mr. Allen or his successor, Gov. James S. Gilmore III.

On Feb. 26, Mrs. Warren sent a letter to Mr. Warner telling him that on March 12 she would deliver the statues, which she bought years ago at a local mall for $200 apiece.

But when Mrs. Warren arrived Tuesday, Warner Chief of Staff William Leighty told her she should take the statues home with her.

"He said if I left them there they would ship them back to me," Mrs. Warren said.

Mr. Warner's spokeswoman, Ellen Qualls, said that because of mail screening, the governor's office didn't receive Mrs. Warren's letter until a day before she arrived. But, she said, Mr. Leighty did call Mrs. Warren and warn her not to make the trip to Richmond.

In an official letter addressed to Mrs. Warren dated March 12, Mr. Leighty wrote, "This office has not yet established a policy on displays in the public offices of the office of the governor. It is unfortunate that the heightened security concerns for all Americans make the establishment of the policy necessary, but that is the reality of the times."

Mrs. Warren insists the statues do not pose a threat.

"They're two beautiful statues," she said. "They represent the whole meaning of Easter."

Mrs. Warren has for 23 years created elaborate life-size religious displays outside the U.S. Capitol at Christmas.

Daily in the summer months, she demonstrates in front of the U.S. Capitol in favor of a return to religious values. In 1999, she won a four-year legal battle against the Fairfax County government allowing her to place a Nativity scene outisde the county headquarters.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Allen described Mrs. Warren as "very committed and enthusiastic about her religion." She said Mr. Allen was "happy to oblige" when she first asked about putting up the display in 1996.

But Miss Qualls said that doesn't mean Mrs. Warren's entitled to the space. She said Mr. Warner is within his rights to choose not to display the statues.

"I think the primary concern here is really security, but there probably is some concern about making the governor's office a free speech and display forum," she said. "There are no other groups or viewpoints represented in the lobby."

Delegate Richard H. Black said he "certainly will encourage the House of Delegates" to make a place for the display if Mr. Warner chooses not to keep it in the governor's office.

"This is amazing because she has had this modest religious display every Easter under the last two governors and they each accepted it in a very respectful and dignified way," said Mr. Black, Loudoun Republican. "Are they afraid of Rita Warren or are they afraid of Jesus Christ? Which one poses a threat to the commonwealth?"

Mrs. Warren said displaying the statues in the state Capitol would be fine with her, but that Mr. Warner has lost his chance.

"I don't want them back in his office because after what he did, it wouldn't be the same," she said.

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