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I have occasionally heard that it may be illegal for a U.S. government to put up a "Christmas" tree.

Is this true? If yes, what is the motivation for this? I have heard that separation between church and state might be interpreted as such in the USA (for example, a government-sponsored crucifix in a public school would be frowned upon), but as the religious nature of the "Christmas" tree itself is debatable, couldn't they just put up a tree with decorated lights without calling it a "Christmas" tree?

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    How is the religious nature of a Christmas tree debatable? – yannis Jan 12 '13 at 13:41
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    @YannisRizos one could debate whether it has tiny vestiges of pre-christian religious nature, or no religious nature at all ;-) – user97 Jan 12 '13 at 15:18
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    @YannisRizos A "christmas" tree has little to do with christmas, just as Santa Claus doesn't. Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus, and the tree does not worship this event in any way. – gerrit Jan 12 '13 at 20:00
  • -1 since I have openly admitted that "Christmas tree" was an invalid generalization in the follow up comment, and what I intended to use as an example was a "Nativity scene", not just a tree (in my mind, the two are related - thus the mistake in the comment; but I am perfectly aware that it's the Nativity scene that is found legally objectionable by ACLU et al). – user4012 Jan 13 '13 at 13:10
  • @DVK, I have removed the citation from you. In fact, I've heard it in different contexts, and I think the question is still interesting. – gerrit Jan 13 '13 at 15:24
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No, it's not illegal.

The US Supreme Court has never been asked to rule on the legality of state-sanctioned christmas trees, but in Allegheny County v. Greater Pittsburgh ACLU, it did rule that a crèche forming part of a christmas display which happened to also include a large christmas tree violated the Establishment Clause (and conversely that the inclusion of a menorah in the same display did not).

In that opinion, the court did have this to say about trees:

The Christmas tree, unlike the menorah, is not itself a religious symbol. Although Christmas trees once carried religious connotations, today they typify the secular celebration of Christmas.1

Indeed, the court concluded in that case that the inclusion of the tree in the display was a mitigating factor, reducing the likelihood that the menorah could be seen as an overt endorsement of religion.

If they were illegal, presumably some enterprising member of Congress would have tried to impeach the President by now ...

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Just to clarify, the original comment was made by me in error and subsequently amended in the follow up comment to refer to Nativity scene and not the Christmas tree (the former being a religious symbol).

As such, the answer to your question is "it depends". Different courts in USA decided differently:

In some cases, it is permitted alongside other religious symbols:

In 2006, a lawsuit by the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative Christian group in the United States, was brought against the state of Washington when it permitted a public display of a holiday tree and a menorah but not a nativity scene. Because of the lawsuit, the decision was made to permit a nativity scene to be displayed in the rotunda of the state Capitol, in Olympia, as long as other symbols of the season were included

But sometimes, Nativity scene is prohibited even if other religious symbols are included (src):

In federal court pleadings in the United States, for example, the New York City, school system defended its ban on nativity scenes by claiming the historicity of the birth of Jesus was not fact. The judge in the case upheld the ban, noting that the ban on nativity scenes is not discriminatory while permitting Jewish menorahs and Islamic star and crescent displays because the latter two have secular components while nativity scenes are supposed to be purely religious. In another instance, a suburban Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, school banned a nativity scene while permitting a menorah display. The school's principal stated, "Judaism is not just a religion, it's a culture"

On a personal level, I consider the last argument as pure hogwash of monumental proportions. Menorah (more technically, chanukkiyah, which is a special 9-branch Menorah displayed on Chanukkah and is usually involved in cases around Christmas) is mainly used to commemorate a divine miracle of the oil in one lamp lasting for 8 days, not exactly a secular idea.

  • Hanukkah's secular importance is inflated, as it serves as an alternate gift-giving holiday. Its religious significance is kind of subdued. Recall that the holiday is, at its basis, the commemoration of an ancient nationalist military campaign. It's not like that doesn't have secular importance. Even if taken as a real miracle, the eight-day oil reserve really only has symbolic importance. Compare this with the iconography of Santa Claus, an overtly supernatural entity who, nonetheless, is appreciated in a secular fashion. He is the subordinate aspect of a family-centric winter festival. – Eikre Sep 20 '16 at 16:28

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