Monday, December 5, 2011

The Manufactured "Holiday Tree" Controversy

From the Providence Journal, December 3, 2011:

Chafee right to ignore loud majority

Governor Chafee has wisely chosen to refer to the trees being lit at the State House on Tuesday as “holiday trees” rather than “Christmas trees,” referring to Rhode Island’s proud tradition of freedom of, and freedom from, religion. Of course, critics took issue with the governor’s word choice.

Poor Rep. Doreen Costa (R.-North Kingstown). Her very first priority, upon being elected to the House of Representatives as a Tea Party candidate, was to push through a House resolution “Respecting Christmas Trees.” The resolution read, “RESOLVED, That it is the policy of the state that state officials and departments refer to the tree customarily erected or displayed in celebration of the period from Thanksgiving of each year to January of the following year as a ‘Christmas tree’ and not as a ‘holiday tree’ or other non-traditional terms.”

Of course, such resolutions do not have the force of law, which is fortunate, because this particular resolution would be in direct violation of the First Amendment. As First Amendment scholar David L. Hudson Jr. pointed out, “The First Amendment allows people to believe as they wish. It also says the government cannot compel us to speak or compel us to believe anything. State employees should be able to call a tree in their workplace a ‘Christmas tree,’ a ‘holiday tree,’ or just ‘a tree.’ ”

Costa’s poor understanding of simple constitutional issues notwithstanding, more troublesome is that the resolution passed at all. According to The Providence Journal (“Controversy over ‘holiday’ takes root,” news, Nov. 30), the resolution “was approved by the House within moments of introduction, without any of the lawmakers getting copies of the measure on which they were being asked to vote.” Is it traditional to blindly pass resolutions without reading them?

To make matters worse, buyer’s remorse set in immediately, with Speaker Gordon Fox’s chief legal counsel, John Flynn, pointing out that the resolution was “not properly before the body,” and therefore, presumably, in dispute.

So when Representative Costa claims that Governor Chafee is “disrespecting” the legislature by not following the resolution’s directive, the immediate question that comes to mind might be: “Is the legislature acting in a way that deserves such respect?”

While people in this state struggle to find jobs, and as families are losing their homes, Representative Costa put her efforts toward passing a useless resolution that seeks to limit the First Amendment rights of free Americans. Costa, who identifies strongly as a Catholic, introduced the resolution, in her own words, “on a whim,” but was “excited” when it passed.

Whimsy and excitement may be found in holiday themed amusement parks, but are not appropriate in the state legislature.

Of course, it is not just Doreen Costa complaining. Bishop To-bin, of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence, chimed in: “Governor Chafee’s decision to avoid the word Christmas at the State House ceremony is most disheartening and divisive. It is sad that such a secular spirit has swept over our state. The governor’s decision ignores long-held American traditions and is an affront to the faith of many citizens. For the sake of peace and harmony in our state at this special time of the year, I respectfully encourage the governor to reconsider his decision [and] to use the word Christmas in the state observance.”

The bishop must surely realize that the “secular spirit” that “swept over this state” did so in 1663, when the state’s founder, Roger Williams, was granted a royal charter that guaranteed complete religious liberty. It is this secular liberty that let those of many faiths, including Catholics, Baptists, Jews, Quakers and even those with no faith, such as Humanists, prosper in this country.

Bishop Tobin’s position as the highest-ranking Catholic cleric in Rhode Island, the most Catholic state in America, is possible only because of Rhode Island’s secular history of religious freedom. Rhode Island is made up of people with a wide variety of traditions regarding the “holiday season.” Many of these traditions are religious, but many are simply secular observations of traditions long divorced from any spiritual message.

Governor Chafee’s decision, rather than being divisive, as the bishop claims, is in fact an attempt at being inclusive. It is a small step toward respecting the beliefs of all Rhode Islanders, not just those of the loud and whimsical religious majority.

Steve Ahlquist is a founding member of the eight-month-old Humanists of Rhode Island, which does volunteer work while promoting “a godless philosophy based on reason and compassion.” His brother, Mark Ahlquist, is suing Cranston over a “prayer banner” hanging in Cranston High School West.

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