The Smithsonian Institution is reviewing its reservations policy after a group of Kentucky-based abortion opponents booked one of its cafeterias for a breakfast that included antiabortion discussions and remarks by two senators.
Sheila Burke, the undersecretary for American Museums and National Programs at the Smithsonian, was alerted by staff members on Wednesday morning that a group at the National Museum of American History was listening to political speeches.
About 600 people from the Kentucky Right to Life Association, here for that day's antiabortion rallies downtown, heard speeches from their state's senators, Mitch McConnell and Jim Bunning, both Republicans.
The staff members said they objected to any partisan activities taking place in Smithsonian facilities. Dennis Comerford, a manager in the information technology group at the museum, was getting his morning tea in the cafeteria when he overheard the speeches. "It was such a blatant political activity," he said. "I am indifferent to whether it was pro-life, pro-choice or pro-taxidermy. Being the Museum of American History, we have to be unbiased and protect our intellectual activity and the public trust."
Michael Janocik, assistant director of the Kentucky group, said the event was not a political rally but rather its annual breakfast before the march up Constitution Avenue. The Web site for the association called the event a congressional breakfast, which routinely means a drop-by visit or speech from a politician or staff member.
"We did ask for a podium or a head table. They knew we were from the Kentucky Right to Life," he said. The speeches, said Janocik, reviewed the 30 years since the passage of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. "It was nothing different from what it meant, where we are in the movement," he said. Janocik said some people were wearing buttons and caps.
Margie Montgomery, executive director of the Kentucky group, said she was puzzled that people would equate a legislative briefing with a political rally. "We are here because of Roe v. Wade and we hope by our presence to keep the issue alive. We were hearing an update on legislation. I see a broad difference between issues and elections," she said.
A spokesman for Bunning said the senator "enjoyed being at the event and having the opportunity to speak to hundreds of Kentuckians."
About 35 people from the museum staff complained to Smithsonian officials. Burke said a "serious judgmental error was committed." In an e-mail to employees, she said, "I share your concern and want to assure you that the use of the cafeteria for a political event was inappropriate because it was directly counter to SI policy governing use of facilities by an outside group."
Smithsonian Business Ventures, which oversees the institution's moneymaking activities, allows visiting groups to book a cafeteria for breakfast before the museum opens to the public. A group can also obtain discount vouchers for a cafeteria during its regular hours as well as make dinner arrangements.
The booking policy was set up a year and a half ago, and only a small number of organizations have requested breakfast or dinner, according to the Smithsonian. The fee for the Kentucky group, which booked the space last November, was $9,000, or $15 per person for 600 people.
The review will probably produce a list of do's and don'ts and emphasize that that the space is to be used for meals, not for events, a Smithsonian official said.
"We are working to ensure this will never happen again," said Burke.