Gov. Jan Brewer said she isn’t going to play “word games” with holiday decorations in State Capitol’s Executive Tower lobby.
“I believe in calling something what it is, and it is a Christmas tree, just as a menorah is a menorah,” the governor said in a statement on Nov. 24.
Those symbols had generic names – holiday tree and candle holder – under former Gov. Janet Napolitano, who wanted to avoid singling out certain religions.
Deborah Sheasby, legal counsel for the conservative interest group Center for Arizona Policy, said the governor made a good decision.
“The government does not have to shy away from acknowledging what it is,” she said of the holiday display.
Steve Rosenberg, executive director of the Valley of the Sun Jewish Community Center, said the display’s use of symbols from multiple religious backgrounds is appropriate. He said he would support including symbols from other religions.
“Anything that recognizes the commonality of our diversity is good,” he said. “It might be easier for the governor’s office to have a ubiquitous display, but I like the individuality. I’m surprised that we haven’t gotten anybody yet to challenege the right of the government to do that.”
Religious and holiday displays on government property have traditionally caused lawsuits and controversy across the country around how the First Amendment’s separation of church and state is interpreted.
The displays generally only become an issue when they’re overtly religious, such as the Ten Commandments or a nativity scene, according to Alessandra Soler Meetze, executive director of ACLU Arizona, the state affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union.
But a Christmas tree, despite its name, is relatively tame when it comes to religious symbolism, she said.
“It’s perfectly permissible, and I don’t see it as problematic at all,” Soler Meetze said.
“Christmas in the U.S. has religious and secular meanings, so a Christmas tree standing alone is considered pretty secular and not a religious symbol,” she added.
Since 1965 the governor’s office has put up a holiday display in the tower, with the official lighting a part of the governor’s duties. Under the Napolitano administration, a donated menorah joined the display. This year, Brewer used her own money to purchase a star to top the tree.
According to Alan Ecker, spokesman for the Arizona Department of Administration, public funds can only be used to purchase non-religious holiday displays. But citizens can donate religious symbols to the display.
“We don’t limit people’s religious items during the rest of the year, so why would we limit them during the holidays?” Ecker said.