Church officials throughout this state got an unpleasant surprise this Christmas season. They were awakened to the news that unless their places of worship are equipped with sprinkler systems, their tradition of trimming natural cut Christmas trees is at odds with the International Fire Code adopted by the state more than four years ago. This state should consider following the lead of the state of Virginia, which has exempted places of worship from the natural cut tree ban.

State Fire Marshall John Reich told our reporter that a "common sense" approach could still allow the use of natural cut trees rather than forcing congregations to turn to the artificial variety. He said there is some latitude in enforcement, particularly involving historic buildings, suggesting, for example, that local fire departments could train ushers in the use of fire extinguishers.

But our survey of code enforcement officials for major fire departments in the Charleston area indicated a general reluctance to sanction the use of natural cut trees absent a change in the code. While there's no indication that local officials plan to make a church-by-church search for natural cut trees, several officials said that if such trees were observed in churches without sprinklers, they would be deemed in violation. In fact, Charleston's chief code inspector told us he doesn't think the law allows natural cut trees in churches without sprinklers even if they aren't trimmed with lights.

The International Fire Code prohibition against natural cut trees extends to most gathering places without sprinklers, from churches to motels to shopping malls. Further, candles and open flames may not be used near decorative vegetation and artificial decorative vegetation must be flame resistant or retardant.

Our story last week was spurred by news that the South Carolina Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, had advised officials of its more than 160 churches of the little-known code provision. When the code section came to light in Virginia several years ago, the public outcry resulted in two legislative amendments. That code now stipulates that natural cut trees "shall be permitted in places of worship." It also allows the trees in apartments that are part of a complex.

While a justification cited for the IFC ban on natural cut trees notes some 400 fires annually are attributed to Christmas trees, a spokesperson told us the office has no specific information on whether any of those fires involve church Christmas trees — which generally are lit only during services. A Virginia state fire official couldn't recall any Christmas tree fires in churches in his state during the decade he's been involved in fire safety.

Charleston Sen. Glenn McConnell, president pro tempore of the Senate, was as surprised as many church officials to find that the state has a ban on real trees in places of worship without sprinklers and plans to take action early next year to legalize them in all churches once again. Further, he said, the fact that the ban is in place speaks to the need to examine every section of the IFC, which has been adopted in 41 states. The IFC has no statistics on how many states have exempted churches from the natural cut tree ban.

One Virginia official suggested to us a temporary way for churches without sprinkler systems to have the real thing this year. The code, he pointed out, doesn't prohibit the use of trees that still have their root systems intact.

One obvious permanent compromise would be to allow cut trees in churches without sprinklers as long as the decorations don't include anything potentially flammable, including lights.

Now that really would be common sense.