It seems Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee has given up on trying to make a point about the separation of church and state during the holiday season.
In a short statement issued on Monday, Chafee said the 18-foot blue spruce that will be raised inside the State House on Thursday will be called a “Christmas tree.”
In the past, reports WLNE-TV, the Democrat has faced criticism for calling it a “holiday tree” in deference to the state’s diverse population. One lawmaker, the station reports, was even planning on holding her own tree-lighting ceremony in protest and in 2011 helped pass a resolution through the state House declaring the tree a Christmas tree.
Chafee said when he came into office in 2011, he just told his staff to do what his predecessor did the year before.
“Despite the myriad of pressing issues facing Rhode Island and the nation, this presumably happy event became a focal point for too much anger,” Chafee said in the statement. “Strangely lost in the brouhaha was any intellectual discussion of the liberties pioneered here in Rhode Island 350 years ago in our Charter. Because I do not think how we address the State House tree affects our ‘lively experiment,’ this year’s invitation calls the tree a Christmas tree.”
In case you don’t remember that you learned in that American history class in high school, historian J. Stanley Lemons says the Rhode Island Charter of 1663 was the first in the world to totally decouple church and state. In an essay (pdf) tied to the 350th anniversary of the charter, Lemons writes:
“The plea for religious freedom had been voiced by individuals and groups from at least the early 16th century, and varying degrees of toleration had existed in such places as the Netherlands and Poland long before it became the law and practice in Rhode Island. Not surprisingly, the demand for freedom of conscience had risen from persecuted religious groups, such as the Anabaptists and Jews in Europe. However, in all previous instances, only some toleration was extended by the ruling powers to non-conforming groups, a condition that could be (and often was) yanked away.
“Church and state, citizenship and religion were linked everywhere in the world before the householders in Providence in August 1637 agreed to abide by decisions ‘only in civil things.’ This radical arrangement was reinforced in 1640 when Providence created a system to settle disputes, and the heads of households all signed a document affirming that they would ‘as formerly hath been the liberties of the town, so still to hold forth liberty of conscience.’ While the people of Providence were not the first to demand religious freedom, they were the first to put into practice. It was the first place to separate citizenship and religion.”
Chafee says Secretary of State A. Ralph Morris will be the one lighting the Christmas Tree.
The White House, by the way, welcomed its Christmas tree — an 18 1/2-foot tall Douglas Fir — on Friday.