At Christmas, What's In a Name?

ByABC News
November 29, 2005, 5:23 PM

Nov. 29, 2005— -- As millions of Americans prepare for the holidays, a new front in the culture wars has erupted over holiday semantics.

On Capitol Hill, Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., has asked that the giant, decorated spruce that sits on Capitol grounds in December, which has been referred to as the "holiday tree" for the past several years, be renamed the "Christmas tree."

It's an issue that resonates with other Americans as well.

"I think that it's inappropriate that the name was changed to Christmas tree," said one person interviewed by ABC News.

"Christmas represents Christ, and this country was actually built on the religion of Christianity," said another.

In Boston, city officials created an uproar after briefly trying to change the "Christmas tree" into the "holiday tree."

"It'll be a Christmas tree as long as I'm around," said Boston Mayor Thomas Menino.

The tiff over tree titles might strike some as just semantics, but the fights raise real questions about the role of religion in public life.

When the Rev. Jerry Falwell heard about the Boston tree, he and a group of 700 Christian lawyers, affiliated with the conservative civil liberties group Alliance Defense Fund, threatened to sue.

"Anyone who does not acknowledge that this secularization is in progress and that Christmas is under assault is not being honest or is under-informed," Falwell said.

But all those lawyers may be just ornamental. If they had sued they probably would have lost, says Douglas Laycock, a constitutional law professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

"This is a publicity trick," he said. "And it's a fundraising tool."

Governments, he says, are free to call a tree whatever they want.

They're also free -- as happened in Maplewood, N.J., last year-- to tell high school bands they can't even play instrumental versions of Christmas carols, and -- as happened in Chicago -- to make the lyrics of traditional songs more generic.

On the other hand, governments are also allowed to place nativity scenes in the city square, as long as they're surrounded by secular symbols. It's known as the "two plastic reindeer rule."

As for Christmas trees, the Supreme Court has said they are sufficiently secular to stand alone.

So in other words, sometimes a tree is just a tree.

ABC News' Dan Harris filed this report for "World News Tonight."