Christmas Wins Another Round

Florida university president -- like a Missouri president last year -- reverses ban on holiday decorations. Legal experts aren't surprised.
December 1, 2008

There may be a war against Christmas, but the holiday is holding its own at public universities. On Wednesday, facing widespread criticism, the president of Florida Gulf Coast University reversed a ban on religious holiday decorations on the campus. This is the second year in a row that a public university has initially called off Christmas decorations but then abruptly changed course following criticism. Last year, Missouri State University restored a Christmas tree to a prominent place on the campus.

At Florida Gulf Coast, President Wilson G. Bradshaw's first memo to staff, which banned decorations outside of private office spaces, led to several controversial changes on the campus -- including renaming a “giving tree” for needy children as a “giving garden.” Bradshaw initially gave a strong defense of the rules. “While it may appear at times that a vocal majority of opinion is the only view that is held, this is not always the case,” Bradshaw wrote in a memo to the campus.

But on Wednesday, amid growing criticism, Bradshaw reversed himself. In a new message, he cited "an overwhelmingly negative response" for leading him to change his mind. "As stated in my earlier message, there was no attempt to suppress expression of the holiday spirit. However, the message was received differently, and for this, I am sorry." He added: "Please know that trying to adhere to tenets of political correctness was not the basis for the earlier decision, but rather attempting to achieve a difficult balance."

When issues of holiday displays are raised, they frequently happen at public institutions, since they must respect the separation of church and state. But legal experts generally say that -- within some limits -- Christmas displays are unlikely to result in litigation at public colleges and universities. If displays aren't permanent, and state funds aren't used, these displays are probably legal -- unlike in public elementary and secondary schools.

Robert M. O’Neil, director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression and law professor at the University of Virginia, said the Supreme Court has drawn a sharp distinction in establishment clauses cases between religious expression in elementary and secondary and in postsecondary institutions.

Lee v. Weisman determined that public high schools could not allow members of the clergy to give invocations and benedictions at sanctioned events such as graduation ceremonies, but the decision specifically cites the special nature of elementary and secondary schools in its logic. The court, however, refused to review the decisions of two appeals courts, in Tanford v. Brand and Chaudhuri v. Tennessee, which found no fault in similar practices at public college graduations. (These cases dealt with complaints at Indiana University at Bloomington and Tennessee State University, respectively.)

One implication from these rulings regarding college graduation, O’Neil said, is that older students are less susceptible to religious coercion. He also noted that ceremonies such as graduations at colleges are thus subject to more relaxed standards.

“My sense is that given these decisions for Indiana and Tennessee, organizations such as the [American Civil Liberties Union] and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State would give a low priority to litigating such an issue unless there was either a permanent or prominent and unavoidable religious symbol,” O’Neil said, noting a large display of the Ten Commandments at the front of a student union building as an example of something plausible of challenge.

The temporary and seasonal nature of such holiday displays as Christmas trees and menorahs, O’Neil said, can play a role in a court’s decision on their constitutionality at public institutions. He noted that most of these displays are put up by student groups and the extent of institutional approval often is limited to clearance of menial tasks, such as getting a carpenter to build a stand for them.

“I don’t think anyone can fairly imply that institutional display or approval of the display of a Christmas tree or a menorah is coercive,” O’Neil said, noting the standard by which a legal case could be decided. “I’d be surprised if anything other than proselytizing or the placement of something with a coercive component to it would be found suspect.”

Avoiding controversy during the holidays or what some call the “Christmas wars” is all a matter of promoting equality, said George R. Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges. While president of Palomar College in California, he said he made sure his institution had holiday events and displays for Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. He noted that even college-sponsored concerts contained Jewish and other traditional songs interspersed with Christmas carols.

“We were kind of equal opportunity in terms of displays and concerts and things like that,” Boggs said. “I never had a problem in that regard. I think if we would just open our arms to more religious customs, there wouldn’t be these types of issues. We’re creating this multicultural and multiethnic democracy. If we’re going to make it work, we’re going to have to respect everyone.”

Even critics of such displays by public entities acknowledge there are not many cases involving colleges and universities because of the standard that has been set by the Supreme Court. Rob Boston, policy analyst for American United for the Separation of Church and State, said holiday displays are typically more contentious issues for local and state governments.

Still, Boston said the same legal standard should be applied to displays in shared public spaces at state-funded colleges and universities as town squares. In other words, he said all religious groups should have an equal opportunity to display in the space as they see fit. He also noted that university funds should not provide financial support for the placement of any religious symbol and that they must be funded by these separate groups.


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