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Christmas tree controversy takes root in RI
By DAVID KLEPPER
Associated Press
2011-12-07 02:02 AM
Some Christian groups are enraged over a U.S. state governor's decision to call the state's official Christmas decoration a "holiday tree."

The Roman Catholic church and others, including the tree farmer who donated the 17-foot-tall (5.18-meter) spruce, are offended.

An hour after Gov. Lincoln Chafee lights the official tree, state Republican Rep. Doreen Costa intends to light what she is calling a "Christmas tree" outside her legislative office in protest. The Catholic Diocese will host its own Christmas tree lighting just up the street.

Several past Rhode Island governors have called the official evergreen a "holiday tree" to be more inclusive of those who do not celebrate the Christian holiday.

Chafee's event also features Santa Claus and a specially decorated tree honoring the U.S. military.

There has been debate since the founding of the U.S. over how separate religion should be from government. Some Christian conservatives see de-emphasizing or altering Christmas traditions as a rejection of their beliefs.

Local talk radio host John DePetro is urging listeners to crash the holiday tree lighting while singing the carol "O Christmas Tree."

Chafee, an independent, insists that he's simply honoring Rhode Island's origins as a sanctuary for religious diversity. Religious dissident Roger Williams founded Rhode Island in 1636 as a haven for tolerance, where government and religion would forever be kept separate. Chafee also notes that previous governors have used the term "holiday" tree.

"Use of the term 'holiday tree' is a continuation of past practice, and does not represent a change of course on my part," he said in a statement.

Chafee's attempts to diffuse the controversy have so far backfired. He encouraged his critics to use their "energy and enthusiasm to make a positive difference in the lives of their fellow Rhode Islanders."

Instead, his office received 3,500 calls of protest, with all but 700 coming from out of state. According to a tally by Chafee's spokeswoman, his office received only 92 calls supporting his choice of words.

Bishop Thomas Tobin, head of the Roman Catholic church in Providence, said the governor's decision to call it a holiday tree was "most disheartening and divisive." The diocese said it would hold a competing lighting _ of a Christmas tree, naturally _ at a parish a block from the Statehouse.

The state House of Representatives in January passed a symbolic resolution declaring that the tree traditionally put up at this time of year be referred to "as a 'Christmas tree' and not as a 'holiday tree' or other non-traditional terms."

Rep. Costa was the resolution's sponsor. "I don't care what he calls it. Anyone who looks at it knows it's a Christmas tree. That's just what it is," she said.

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