As December brings calls for wreaths, lights, Christmas trees, menorahs, Kwanzaa symbols, nativity scenes, and general winter “holiday” décor, colleges and universities encounter requests to place holiday-themed displays on campus property. When those holiday displays include religious symbols, public institutions of higher education must balance sensitivity to all groups with responsibilities under the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause.
The good news is that holiday displays are temporary, and any inadvertent offense a particular display may give should be short-lived. However, to limit disruption, a balanced approach is best. There are generally two avenues for dealing with holiday displays: the permissive route, which allows non-religious and religious symbols in designated areas on campus, and the restrictive route, which permits non-religious displays only.
(Of course, private institutions, not bound by the restrictions of the First Amendment, are free to decorate as they choose or allow placement of religious-based holiday displays as they see fit. Private institutions should consider the extent to which their mission calls for allowing religious vs. secular displays—to promote institutional beliefs, to promote free expression, and/or to acknowledge religious diversity.)
As a public institution, if you decide to permit all holiday displays regardless of religious association, you’ll need to ensure that your institution does not appear to endorse the displays—or you run afoul of the First Amendment. In addition, you must allow more than one particular religious perspective. For example, if you permit a crèche, you must also permit a menorah or other religious symbols. You should require a disclaimer that clearly identifies the sponsoring group and clearly states the display is not paid for with public funds. Also consider neutral and reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions on such displays, such as a two-week maximum with the right of the institution to remove the display if it remains after the designed time period, a limit on the hours during which music can emanate from a display, and size limitations.
Keep in mind that this analysis is simplified; while a permissive approach promotes open discourse, making judgments about which groups may place religious symbols where can be complicated and yield uncertain results in the event one particular group feels left out in the cold.
Some schools have chosen to take a more secular “winter holiday season” approach, in which only non-religious holiday displays are permitted. These institutions generally designate what they consider acceptable winter-themed displays, such as snowflakes or candy canes, and they restrict what they define as an overly religious symbol, such as a cross, a star of David, a menorah, or a nativity scene. This method is an effective way to manage displays in light of a school’s commitment to diversity, without risking the appearance of sponsoring a particular religious position. However, it also opens up the possibility of a free expression claim based on restrictions that may not be considered viewpoint neutral.
What does this mean for you?
Decide which approach is right for your campus, and implement holiday display guidelines that will give the entire campus community a clear road map for the holiday season. Winter is a special time of year for many, and it brings special challenges for colleges and universities that are sensitive to traditions and beliefs but are committed to ensuring a diverse and inclusive community for all.