MADISON (WKOW) -- Governor Scott Walker's designation of the State Capitol's holiday tree as a Christmas tree is drawing criticism.
In a news release on this year's tree lighting, Walker referred to the tree as a Christmas tree.
Walker said Monday that the evergreen decorated with ornaments and adorned with a star in the center of Wisconsin's Capitol Rotunda is a Christmas tree, not a holiday tree as it's been called for the past 25 years.
The roughly 30-foot-tall tree was called a Christmas tree from the first display in 1916 until 1985. That's when politicians bowed to concerns about government endorsing religion and started referring to it as a holiday tree.
The Madison-based Freedom From Religion Foundation has opposed the term Christmas tree, saying it offends nonreligious people and amounts to a government endorsement of Christianity.
"And when you put the word 'Christmas' on it, that sends a message about Christianity. So I think the inclusiveness of 'Holiday' is preferred," Executive Director Annie Laurie Gaylor said.
Gaylor said the group would not bring legal action over the name change, unless a cross was mounted on the tree.
"The reason that it was turned into a holiday tree was to avoid this connotation that the governor chooses one religion over another," she said. "It's essentially a discourtesy by the governor to announce that. He intends that to be a slight and a snub to non-Christians, otherwise he would not do it."
Walker's news release downplayed any potential controversy by simply referring to the decoration as a Christmas tree and not noting any change. His spokesman Cullen Werwie confirmed that the designation and change from past practices was intentional.
"It's a Christmas tree," Werwie said. "In all honesty, I don't know what more to say about it."
The controversy over the name of the tree has ebbed and flowed over the years. In 2007, the state Assembly overwhelmingly passed a resolution to change the name to the Christmas tree.
"It smells like a Christmas tree and it's decorated like a Christmas tree, it has presents under it like a Christmas tree. It's a Christmas tree!," former Representative Marlin Schneider said at a 2007 public hearing on the resolution.
But the resolution on the tree name died in the Senate.
In past years, displays from a variety of religions have been set up in the Capitol rotunda during the holiday season including a menorah and a sign from the Freedom From Religion Foundation which calls religion "superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds."
The tree will be decorated with ornaments submitted by the state's school children. On display from late November through early January, the tree is encircled by a model train and is a popular stop for school groups and other tourists.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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