Christian legal group sees tree's name change as a victory
A controversy over what to call a Christmas tree thrusts Newport News into the spotlight.
By Chris Flores, Daily Press (Hampton Roads, Virginia), December 8, 2005
When Newport News Mayor Joe Frank stood before the crowd at City Center on Friday and announced the lighting of the "Christmas tree," the Christian legal group Liberty Counsel and its supporters saw another big victory.
Frank saw what he's always seen - and called, even though he's Jewish: a Christmas tree.
When the city announced the Hollydazzle celebration of the Christmas holiday, a news release touted the lighting of the "Tree of Celebration."
That phrase angered Christians who think the word "Christmas" is being removed from the public realm because of religious discrimination.
So Newport News resident Nathan Sage enlisted Liberty Counsel, which took the issue into the national spotlight Dec. 1.
Newport News was held up as an example of political correctness run amok on MSNBC's "Scarborough Country" show.
Liberty Counsel and the Rev. Jerry Falwell, with whom the group is closely affiliated, have been running a "Friend or Foe" Christmas campaign.
The goal is to use pressure - first through the public and then through lawsuits - to reverse bans on public Christmas displays that incorporate an element of Christianity.
But the Newport News spat seems to have emanated from wording that came from an employee in the Parks and Recreation Department.
Frank said there wasn't any organized effort within the city to call it a "Tree of Celebration."
Frank said people of all faiths generally had recognized the holiday symbol by the same name - a "Christmas tree."
Whoever used the term in the city materials was just trying to be inclusive of people of other faiths, he said.
"We've always tried to be sensitive to the diversity of people in the community," Frank said.
Sage, who appeared on "Scarborough Country," said he e-mailed City Council members about the issue and got responses from two members.
He said the two wouldn't address his questions or say "who voted to change the name this year to the 'tree of celebration.' "
Apparently, there was no vote, and Frank proceeded to call it a "Christmas tree" before recognizing Christmas, Hannukah and Kwanzaa.
Liberty Counsel's Mat Staver said a change was made because the city received pressure after the show and before Hollydazzle on Friday.
Liberty sent a seven-page memo on the law and public Christmas displays to the council Friday.
The memo wasn't a direct legal threat, but it's meant to make clear that the potential is there.
Staver said supporters also urged the council to call it a "Christmas tree," leading to the change.
"We got word from one of the council members that a lot of people were opposed to what they were doing," Staver said.
Liberty Counsel has claimed a big victory in Boston, which called its tree a "Holiday Tree" in a news release.
After a campaign of pressure from Liberty Counsel supporters, Boston city officials made clear that they considered it a "Christmas tree."
Frank said the whole thing was overblown.
He's upset that the group is trying to divide communities trying to be respectful of one another's beliefs.
It's a far stretch for Liberty to consider this a victory, he said.
"Jerry Falwell is on a crusade to create an issue," Frank said.
"What his motivation for doing it is, I wouldn't know."
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