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With 'holiday tree' and 'National Bible Week,' church-state controversy begins anew
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With 'holiday tree' and 'National Bible Week,' church-state controversy begins anew

Capitol tree

Gov. Tony Evers has resumed calling the Christmas tree in the Capitol rotunda a "holiday tree" as was the practice before Gov. Scott Walker referred to it as a Christmas tree.

Breaking with his Republican predecessor, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers on Friday declared the coniferous fixture that annually graces the Capitol rotunda a “holiday tree.”

Former Gov. Scott Walker called it a “Christmas tree.”

And in a declaration of their own, Assembly Republicans on Tuesday are set to proclaim Thanksgiving week “National Bible Week,” a move that has already irritated proponents of secularism.

In 2011, Walker stirred up controversy during his first holiday season in office when he re-named the Capitol evergreen — which had been dubbed a “holiday tree” among state politicians since 1985 — a Christmas tree.

Beyond returning to the tree’s pre-Walker title, Evers on Thursday went further, declaring the theme of this year’s tree “Celebrate Science.”

“From computer science to dairy science, to clean water and natural resources, to sustainability and renewable energies, this year we want students to make holiday ornaments that celebrate what science means to them, their families, and their communities,” Evers said in a statement.

However, in a separate press release, the Evers administration tried to have it both ways, as the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection noted the beginning of “Christmas Tree Season.”

Evers’ Christmas tree re-naming drew immediate praise from the Madison-based Freedom from Religion Foundation, a group that promotes the separation between church and state.

“It’s a sign of good will to all, which they always say Christmas should be about,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, Freedom from Religion Foundation co-president.

But that was soon followed by condemnation from Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, and Wisconsin Family Action, a group that promotes Judeo-Christian values and principles.

“This is ‘PC’ garbage,” Fitzgerald tweeted, referring to political correctness. “It’s a Christmas Tree.”

Wisconsin Family Action president Julaine Appling said she respects Evers’ decision to call the tree a “holiday tree” but said Evers is acting in error.

“The truth is Governor Walker called it what it is,” Appling said. “It’s a Christmas tree, and that’s the historic tradition in this country.”

Appling rejected Gaylor’s argument the “holiday tree” moniker is a sign of good will, arguing more people recognize Christmas instead of referring to it as a “winter holiday.”

A 2017 Pew Research Report said 90% of Americans celebrate Christmas, but only 46% celebrate it as a primarily religious holiday.

Appling said she wasn’t surprised by Evers’ decision to rename the Christmas tree, adding, “I don’t think Christians expect anything different from the governor.”

Recognizing the Christmas tree’s pagan roots, Gaylor said her group would not sue over placing a Christmas tree in the Capitol unless it were to feature a cross, an overt sign of Christianity.

Bible Week in Wisconsin

Assembly Republicans on Tuesday are likely to pass a resolution recognizing the week of Thanksgiving as “National Bible Week.”

The resolution states the week “encourages us to read the Bible,” a document the resolution says “contributed to the molding of the spiritual, moral, and social fiber of our citizenry.”

The resolution was co-sponsored by Republican Reps. Paul Tittl, Manitowoc; Scott Allen, Waukesha; Janel Brandtjen, Menomonee Falls; Barbara Dittrich, Oconomowoc; Rick Gundrum, Slinger; Cody Horlacher, Mukwonago; Jesse James, Altoona; Scott Krug, Nekoosa; Bob Kulp, Stratford; Gae Magnafici, Dresser; Dave Murphy, Greenville; Ron Tusler, Harrison; Chuck Wichgers, Muskego; Shannon Zimmerman, River Falls; and James Edming, Glen Flora.

Tittl didn’t respond to a request for comment.

According to the resolution, National Bible Week was first declared by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1941.

Resolutions don’t have the weight of law but instead generally serve as symbolic statements.

Appling praised the lawmakers backing the resolution for recognizing the Christian influence on both America and the Thanksgiving holiday.

But Gaylor slammed the resolution for violating the state and country’s constitutional framework that prohibits the government from establishing or favoring a religion.

Appling doesn’t see it that way, arguing there isn’t an inherent separation of church and state embedded in either constitution.


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