ST. JOHN, Ind. (CBS) — A small-town tree talker out of St. John, Indiana has grabbed nationwide attention.

As we reported last week, a company sponsored a Christmas tree at St. John’s longstanding Christmas in the Park that was decorated with signs reading, “Unmask our kids.”

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On Monday, as CBS 2’s Marie Saavedra reported, questions were building about why the local clerk-treasurer approved the tree.

The holiday display at Prairie West Park in St. John features evergreens sponsored by families, businesses, and public service groups. But the tree calling for the Lake Central School Corporation to unmask its kids stood out.

The school corporation currently has a mandatory mask mandate, unlike some districts around it that have gone “optional.” The issue of unmasking in classrooms goes directly against county, State of Indiana, and federal public health safety guidelines.

So why would the Clerk-Treasurer’s office approve the instillation of this tree?

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In the comments of the online voting for favorite Tree on Facebook, St. John Clerk-Treasurer Beth Hernandez told her constituents it came down to “free speech, and that it’s not “proper to use her elected position to garner support or opposition for masking or not masking children.”

But some in town question that.

Tipsters confirmed Hernandez’s personal Facebook account is subscribed to a Facebook page calling for the unmasking of Indiana students. The man behind the “unmask” tree is a member too.

Those critical of the decision to host the tree believe this is a conflict. Hernandez insists it is not, telling CBS 2 she also follows “social media groups and individuals that are pro-mask and pro-vaccine,” and saying she does “not have a vested interest in whether or not the Corporation chooses to mask or unmask their students.”

Regardless, Hernandez admits her decision to allow this tree has turned the community event she helped start from a holiday treat to a lightning rod for fierce debate in town and across the internet.

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She said guidelines for messaging allowed on trees could change in the future.

Marie Saavedra