WASHINGTON — A law firm has given Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee its 2012 “Ebenezer Award” for his insistence that the 17.5-foot fir tree in the local state house rotunda is a “holiday tree,” not a Christmas tree.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a non-partisan, interfaith group of attorneys, said the award is given to “the public figure responsible for the most ridiculous affront to Christmas and Hanukkah.”
It takes its name from Ebenezer Scrooge, the churlish character from Charles Dickens’ famous 19th-century work “A Christmas Carol.”
The dubious honor continues a controversy over a year old.
Last year protesters showed up at the governor’s tree lighting ceremony in Providence to sing “O Christmas Tree” to show their objections to the tree’s generic name.
The law firm said that this year Chafee announced the lighting ceremony only 30 minutes ahead of time so that no protest could happen.
“Heaven forbid the joyful singing of ‘O Christmas Tree’ would happen again by the tree … at Christmas time,” the Becket Fund said Dec. 19.
In various interviews, Chafee has said his office calls the tree a holiday tree because that is what his predecessor did. He said the name of the tree is also inclusive.
“There are many religions in Rhode Island. And everybody pays for the State House,” he told CNSNews.com Dec. 5.
He additionally told the Providence Journal he didn’t want the ceremony to be turned into a controversial event.
Last year, the governor’s office received 3,500 calls of protest, though only 700 came from in state.
The Catholic Diocese of Providence had also held a Christmas tree lighting at St. Patrick’s Church one block from the Statehouse to provide an alternative to the governor’s.
The diocese’s chancellor Father Timothy Reilly in December 2011 told the New York Daily News that the governor’s effort to be inclusive was laudable but he chose the wrong way to do it. Father Reilly said he hoped reflection on Christmas would outweigh the dispute over the tree’s name.
“He probably had the best of intentions but somewhere, somehow we lost hold of the true meaning of the season,” Father Reilly said of the governor. “It’s all about the baby Jesus. We tend to almost forget this.”
The Becket Fund didn’t criticize only Gov. Chafee in its 2012 announcement. It also singled out the U.S. Navy, which canceled a live nativity scene in Bahrain after a military atheist group complained.
The law firm criticized the City of Santa Monica, Calif., which ended the more than 50-year-old tradition of having a nativity scene in a city park. Some objectors to the move then staged a living nativity scene in the same park.
In its announcement, the Becket Fund also praised actions nationwide in support of Christmas.
This year the State of Pennsylvania reinstated the practice of placing a Christmas tree on the front steps of the state capitol, a tradition that had been neglected for 30 years.
The Becket Fund has successfully defended the place of Christmas and Hanukkah in public life. It defended a Utah public school that include religious songs in holiday concerts and two New Jersey cities that faced lawsuits from the American Civil Liberties Union that sought to remove their holiday displays.
The law firm has also defended the federal government’s recognition of Christmas as a federal holiday.