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Wisconsin Capitol Christmas tree put up by lawmakers removed

By SCOTT BAUER
Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A Christmas tree put up by two Republican lawmakers in the rotunda of Wisconsin’s closed Capitol was removed Tuesday because they did not have a permit and they refused to move it to an area where it could be displayed.

The lawmakers put the tree up on Dec. 1 after Democratic Gov. Tony Evers said the typical towering live tree would not be displayed because the building is closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. That tree, donated from a Wisconsin resident and decorated with ornaments made by school children from around the state, is typically a big attraction over the holiday season.

Republicans have bristled at Evers’ decision to refer to it as a holiday tree rather than a Christmas tree. Reps. Paul Tittl and Shae Sortwell, the two Republicans who put up their own artificial tree this month, posted a video of them doing it, saying they really wanted to have a Christmas tree in the rotunda even though the governor was against it and asking school children from their districts to submit ornaments.

Tittl and Sortwell erected their tree despite not having heard back on their request for a permit to put up a “historical display.” Capitol police subsequently denied their request and the lawmakers appealed.

Capitol Police Chief David Erwin denied the appeal in a Thursday email. The primary reason the permit was denied, Erwin said, is that that the Department of Administration does not have the authority to approve displays on the ground floor of the Capitol. That authority rests with the State Capitol and Executive Residence Board, he said.

Erwin suggested the tree be moved to the first floor of the Capitol, where the DOA could grant approval and where several other religious displays are put up this time of year when the building is open. He gave the lawmakers until the close of business on Monday to move the tree.

The tree was still in place Tuesday morning, so it was removed, DOA Assistant Deputy Secretary Olivia Hwang said in an email to Tittl and Sortwell. She reiterated that state policy enacted in 1978 does not give Capitol police the authority to decide what can be displayed on the ground floor of the Capitol.

“These long-standing and consistent permitting rules have been used for over 40 years to ensure a fair and equitable process for freedom of speech exercises in the Capitol, regardless of an individual’s political leaning,” she wrote.

She suggested the lawmakers contact their GOP colleague, Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, who chairs the committee that approves ground floor displays in the Capitol. Loudenbeck herself has applied for and received a permit to erect an artificial Christmas tree on the first floor of the Capitol, Hwong said.

Tittle and Sortwell did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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