I won’t pretend to know Jesus more than any other man. But based on what I learned from reading the Bible for many, many years, I have to believe Jesus would care more about how you treat your neighbors than what you call a tree. – Senator Chris Larson

Republicans who lead the Wisconsin Assembly voted on November 12 to call the state Capitol evergreen a Christmas tree and formally recognize National Bible Week, two moves that willfully ignore the Constitutional separation of Church and State, while ignoring life-saving legislation on gun safety.

The 64-30 vote on naming the tree was a direct response to the recent declaration by Governor Tony Evers that it would be called a “holiday tree.” Former Governor Scott Walker, the son of a Baptist minister, declared the evergreen was a Christmas tree during his first term in 2011.

Representative Jonathan Brostoff, who is Jewish, told Republicans if they want to help Christians they should pass gun control bills to keep them from getting killed.

“We were forced to watch as Republicans gaveled in and out of Governor Evers’ Special Session on Gun Violence within fifteen seconds, with absolutely no substantive debate on popular, life-saving measures. And then yesterday, Republicans literally dedicated a significant amount of legislative floor time to what we should call a tree? Seriously? Is this what the people of Wisconsin elected us to do? The Assembly debated Assembly Joint Resolution 106, which officially recognizes the evergreen tree in the Capitol Rotunda during the holiday season as the Wisconsin State Christmas Tree. The resolution went from initial introduction to a vote on the Assembly floor within twenty four hours, all while more substantive bills have been denied hearings for months.” – State Representative Jonathan Brostoff.

The Assembly also voted 86-9 without debate to adopt a resolution recognizing Thanksgiving week as National Bible Week. The Freedom from Religion Foundation has called the resolution “highly inappropriate,” and that legislators were misusing their secular authority to promote their own religious views

“Dedicating a week to the bible directly endorses Christianity over other religions, thereby telling non-Christian citizens we are second-class citizens for being the ‘wrong’ religion,” the foundation said in a statement. “Imagine the uproar were the Legislature to promote ‘National Quran Week in Wisconsin.'”

The spat over Christian symbols marks the latest chapter in an acrimonious relationship between legislative Republicans and the Democratic governor. It began before Governor Evers even took office, when the Legislature sought to hijack his authority through extreme measures in a lame-duck session, approved by outgoing Walker.

“It’s a holiday season for a whole bunch of people in the state of Wisconsin, even those that aren’t part of the Christian faith. I think it’s a more inclusive thing,” Governor Evers said. “I know a lot of people love to have that debate, and I think it’s a good debate to have.”

The state Department of Administration has for decades placed a huge evergreen in the Capitol rotunda and decorated it with ornaments submitted by Wisconsin schoolchildren. Politicians called it a Christmas tree until 1985, when they began referring to it as a holiday tree to avoid perceptions that they were endorsing religion.

The agency allows other groups to place displays celebrating end-of-the-year holidays in the rotunda as well, including a menorah and a Festivus pole, a nod to the fictional holiday in the “Seinfeld” television series, but the tree towers over them all.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, applauded the Governor’s decision to rename the tree. She said the move showed that the governor was trying to be inclusive, and noted the Christmas tree originated from pagan traditions.

She also praised Evers for promoting science, saying the real reason for the end-of-the-year holidays is the winter solstice, the day in the northern hemisphere with the shortest period of daylight and longest night of the year.

“The Wisconsin Assembly seems to believe it’s a time for good will to Christians and bad will to all the rest of us,” the foundation said.

Michael Leland and Jonathan Bloy

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