Sunday, December 4, 2011

Christmas and Holiday Trees

On Tuesday, December 6, Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee will host the annual State House holiday tree lighting at the State House Rotunda at 5:30 p.m. All Rhode Islanders are invited to attend to see the 17-foot Colorado blue spruce tree lit for the first time, which was donated by Big John Leyden’s Tree Farm in West Greenwich, Rhode Island. Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus will be available for visits with children during the lighting. Although this is an annual event, this year the event has been surrounded by controversy. Gov. Lincoln Chafee proclaimed that the tree must be referred to as a “holiday tree” rather than a “Christmas tree.”

Gov. Chafee, however, is ignoring a resolution recently passed by the State House Legislature that proclaimed trees during this season would be called “Christmas trees.” He claims it cannot be called a “Christmas tree” because that counters Rhode Island’s founding as a haven for religious tolerance, where government and religion were kept separate. Critics of Chafee’s seasonal semantics thought that he was taking political correctness too far- and defying the will of the state legislature. In particular, John Leydon, the owner of the Christmas tree farm, is disappointed with Chafee’s yuletide word choice because he wanted to promote Christmas tree sales with other Rhode Island Christians. He states, “We’re a Christmas tree farm. That’s what the name is.”

This case is important in evaluating the complex relationship between the Establishment Clause and the legality of holiday decorations on town property. In Lynch vs. Donnelly (1984), the court ruled that display of a crèche in Pawtucket, Rhode Island’s shopping district has a legitimate secular purpose to celebrate the season and the origins of Christmas, which has long been part of Western culture. Although placing a nativity scene on public property may plainly have a religious purpose, Chief Justice Berger saw that “like a painting, the crèche is passive.” By labeling the tree as a “holiday tree,” Governor Chafee attempts to make the lighting ceremony passive and give it secular purpose. He wants to ensure the state is neutral towards all religions, and so makes an effort to make the ceremony a holiday one, not just a Christmas tree lighting event. Furthermore, he asserts that if the tree was labeled as a “Christmas tree”, one may view that as a state endorsement of the Christian faith.

I understand Governor Chafee’s attempt to respect all religions in Rhode Island. However, I think it is obvious that the “holiday tree” is in fact a “Christmas tree.” A Christmas tree farm donated the tree, and the ceremony also entails time with Santa Claus, a tradition associated with Christianity. If the state did not want to endorse the Christian faith, Santa would not be present, and there would be no lighting ceremony to begin with. In order to obtain neutrality, there would be no holiday celebrations using tax funds on state property.

The state violated the Establishment Clause by mandating that trees during the holiday season should be called Christmas trees through a resolution. With this legislation, the state undoubtedly endorses the Christian faith. It is important to recognize, that not all spruce trees are used as Christmas trees.

Obviously the tree lighting event has historical tradition and significance for the people of Rhode Island, despite this controversy. In order for the state to avoid endorsing one particular faith though, people should celebrate their holiday traditions privately.


Zoey Goldnick said...

I believe that because there were no government funds used to bring the Christmas tree and it was privately donated, it should have it's place in the public square. However, if other religions wish to use this event to bring out their religious icons, they should be permitted to do so.

Harry R. said...

I do not agree with Sophie that calling the tree a Christmas Tree is a violation of the Establishment Clause. There is no government coercion to support Christianity and anyone can come see the tree or not. A Christmas Tree is brought to the White House every year, and this has not been ruled to be a violation of the Establishment Clause either. The government has every right to recognize religious celebrations and need make no attempt to hide their religious significance.

Molly Veelguski said...

I agree with Zoey. The privately donated tree should be allowed in the public square. There is no government support and therefore religious is not being endorsed. If the Christmas tree is allowed though, then other holiday items should be in the public square as well.

Callie B said...

I believe that a holiday tree is appropriate in this circumstance so long as other religious symbols be allowed if a group supplies one. I shocked however that the legislature tried to force the governor to call the tree a Christmas when he was simply trying to be inclusive. This seems to be clear support for and advancement of one religion-Christianity.