The 35-foot tall balsam fir standing proudly in the rotunda of the Wisconsin Capitol is a familiar annual December display, but it’d be a mistake to call it a “Christmas tree,” much to the dismay of one Badger State lawmaker now leading a legislative fight to change the name of the evergreen.
The General Assembly is expected to vote Tuesday on the bill proposed by Rep. Marlin Schneider, a Democrat, who wants the tree to be known officially as the State of Wisconsin Christmas Tree.
The tree “celebrates one holiday and that holiday is Christmas,” Schneider told FOX News. “It was called a Christmas tree from 1916 until 1985 when political correctness took over, and then we decided it would become a holiday tree. But what it really is, is a Christmas tree, and there’s nothing really wrong with that,” Schneider said.
Not everyone shares the Christmas spirit, however.
Annie Laurie Gaylor, a spokesperson for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a separation of church and state watchdog group, said she considers the proposed name change offensive.
Officially calling the tree a Christmas tree, she said, would amount to a state endorsement of Christianity.
“The word Christmas does have religious significance and to deny it is sort of preposterous,” Gaylor said.
The Capitol rotunda currently houses other displays and decorations with seasonal themes, including a menorah. But Gaylor said the other exhibits are sponsored independently by private organizations â€” unlike the evergreen, which is displayed and decorated by the state.
“It’s OK to have decorations that celebrate the winter season. But when you call something that’s Christmas, that’s religious,” Gaylor said.
Schneider said the majority of Wisconsin’s 5 million residents celebrate Christmas, and most of the Wisconsinites who have contacted him about the tree support his cause.
One of those supporters, Jordan Loeb, is a Jewish attorney from Madison.
“I think it’s a relatively innocuous symbol,” Loeb said. “I have much stronger feelings trying to be convinced it’s something other than a Christmas tree. I don’t think changing the name to a holiday tree somehow makes it an inclusive symbol.”
Further confusing matters, each year the tree is adorned with an official state ornament. For this holiday season, the paperwork inside the ornament reads “the inspiration for the 2007 holiday ornament is the beautiful Christmas tree, which graces the Capitol Rotunda each December.”
Wisconsin isn’t the only place where the battle over Christmas is being fought. On Capitol Hill, Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, is sponsoring a resolution to recognize the importance of Christmas and the Christian faith. The resolution, which has 52 co-sponsors, follows two similar bills honoring both the Hindu and the Islamic religions and their respective holidays, King said.
“Earlier this year , the House of Representatives passed bills proclaiming Hinduism and Islam great religions of the world at the time of their major celebrations. My resolution offers the same honor to the Christian faith,” King said.
Both the U.S. House and Wisconsin Assembly could move on their respective measures as early as Tuesday. But the timing may not be soon enough for the tree to change its identity this year. That measure still must pass the Wisconsin Senate, and Schneider said it’s unlikely the Senate will have time this month to vote on the measure.