By Emily Bazar, USA TODAY
Thu Dec 1, 6:45 AM ET
In city halls and public parks across the country, stories-high evergreens are being erected and decked with glowing lights and sparkling ornaments.
They look - and smell - like Christmas trees. But not so fast.
In places as varied as Chicago, Reno and Prairie Village, Kan., they're "holiday" trees. In other spots, such as Atlanta, they have no name at all.
This year, the tree-name game has sparked a backlash, with some Americans crying humbug and Christian groups threatening lawsuits over what they say is religious discrimination.
Perhaps the most heated debate is brewing in Boston. The city's Parks and Recreation Department ignited a furor when it advertised the lighting of a "Holiday Tree," scheduled for tonight.
People complained, and the Nova Scotia logger who donated the spruce told newspapers he'd rather feed the tree to a wood chipper than call it that. Said Boston Mayor Thomas Menino: "I consider this tree to be a Christmas tree."
Mathew Staver, president of Liberty Counsel, a legal group that focuses on religious issues, said the mayor's use of "Christmas tree" means there's no need to go to court over the issue. His group's Christmas campaign aims to stop what it views as religious censorship and "political correctness run amok." It is endorsed by the Rev. Jerry Falwell.
"It's like calling a menorah a candlestick," Staver said. "It's wrong. It's offensive. And it disenfranchises a large segment of the community."
This week in Washington, D.C., the "Capitol Holiday Tree" was renamed the "Capitol Christmas Tree" at the request of House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.
It was called a Christmas tree until the mid-1990s, Hastert spokesman Ron Bonjean said. "The Speaker thought it was important to reflect what Americans call their trees, which are Christmas trees," he said.
Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said using the term "Christmas tree" excludes people of other faiths and backgrounds.
"I certainly don't need spiritual sustenance from the government," he said. "I get that in my church."
Respect for diversity is the most common reason given by those that use the term "holiday tree." In the town of Fishers, Ind., officials advertise the annual "tree lighting ceremony," without using the words "Christmas" or "holiday."
"We want to be sensitive to all ethnic backgrounds and religious beliefs," said Marc Steczyk, a town spokesman. "We're in the business of treating all people how they should be treated."