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Rhode Island 'holiday tree': A pox on Christmas or just the Puritan way?

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Yet the case of the Rhode Island holiday tree stands in sharp contrast to the secular vs. Christian debate. Indeed, the battle over what to call the State House tree could be better described as one of faith vs. faith – an intra-Protestant battle of neo-Puritan ideals against Evangelical lines in the sand.

Expelled from the rigidly Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony for his religious views in 1636, Roger Williams founded the Providence colony and called for a complete separation of church and state, a brave stance which eventually earned the Ocean State a reputation as a refuge for religious dissidents, particularly Jews and Quakers.

Unlike other fronts in the war on Christmas, “this is really a religious and philosophical debate, and [Chafee] seems to want to maintain this idea that Rhode Island is still the cradle of religious liberty that it was at its inception,” says the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State in Washington. “Instead of trying to hedge and fudge this issue, the governor tries to explain the history of the state to its own citizens, and I think that’s commendable.”

Fox News personality and perennial Christmas defender Bill O’Reilly said Tuesday that the idea that Williams would have been offended at the mention of a “Christmas tree” is “insane.”

“There is no reason to mess around with the word ‘Christmas,’ ” Mr. O’Reilly said on his show Tuesday. “President Grant signed a law in 1870 making Christmas a federal holiday. So there really isn’t any controversy unless Congress revokes the holiday.”

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