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Policy: Display of Christmas Trees and Religious Holiday Symbols on Campus
As the holiday season approaches, questions naturally arise concerning the
permissibility of displaying Christmas trees and other holiday decorations on campus.
The concern is that certain types of holiday and religious displays may violate
constitutional restrictions respecting the separation of church and state.
This memorandum is intended to clarify what types of holiday displays are
permissible on university property, including in employee offices and cubicles. If further
clarification is needed, please do not hesitate to contact the Office of the General Counsel
or your campus legal offices.
The display of Christmas trees on campus is generally permissible. Courts have
recognized that Christmas trees have become simply a secular symbol associated with the
winter holiday season.
Nativity Scenes and Menorahs
The display of nativity scenes and menorahs has generally been upheld by courts against
legal challenges if they appear as part of a larger display devoted to the celebration of
pluralism and freedom, or are used to promote tolerance and respect for diverse customs.
However, any holiday display with an overtly religious symbol (such as a nativity scene
or a menorah) should include at least one other religious symbol from a different
religious tradition. The legal validity of these displays is premised on the notion that they
do not represent an endorsement of any particular religion or religion in general.
The university is not required, however, to display any particular symbol of a religious
nature requested by students, staff or the public. For example, a public school’s holiday
display which included a menorah, crescent and star, Christmas trees and other holiday
symbols was permissible, even though it did not include a nativity scene as requested by
parents and religious leaders.
Messages Accompanying Displays
Any message that might accompany a holiday display should be secular. Courts have
upheld messages that celebrate pluralism and liberty, and do not promote the observance
of any religion.
Religious Symbols and Décor in Employee Offices and Cubicles
Displays of religious décor and symbols inside employees’ offices and cubicles are
generally permissible. In fact, prohibiting the display of religious decorations and
symbols may be deemed an infringement on an employee’s constitutional rights of free
exercise of religion and free speech. Under certain circumstances, however, restrictions
on religious displays may be appropriate such as in the office of a high-ranking university
official where the display may be interpreted as an endorsement by the University of a
particular religion or religions.
Public Forums on Campus
If the campus has a public forum designated for free speech purposes available
throughout the year, the university cannot restrict its use during the holiday season to
prevent the display of holiday symbols or messages. Such actions have been deemed
impermissible content-based restrictions on speech. However, university policies that
reasonably limit use of public areas in time, place and manner still apply, including quiet
hours during study and exam periods.
A PDF of this policy is here.