No ‘religious icons’ during Christmas, colleges tell students

With Christmas approaching, universities are cracking down on potentially offensive religious decorations, all but banning displays of the “Nativity Scene” and images of the “crucifixion.”

At Missouri State University, for example, a list of “holiday decoration guidelines” warns that it would “generally be inappropriate” to display items such as “a cross,” “drawings of Jesus or Mohammed,” “the Nativity Scene,” and “the Bible or Koran” in common areas of the university.

Instead, Missouri State suggests displaying secular seasonal decorations, recommending non-descript “greenery” or simply some generic “winter scenes” (which could include images of “bells” or “flowers”). The document also clears wreaths, snowmen, and Santa Claus as acceptable decor for public spaces, and graciously acknowledges that “faculty and staff may place holiday material (secular or sacred) within their personal space and personal offices.”

Similarly, the College at Brockport, State University of New York encourages students and faculty members to select “culturally sensitive holiday decorations” that are “general and non-specific to any religion.”

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“Create a winter theme with lights and color rather than religious icons, or include decorations from all the cultural traditions represented in your department,” the guidelines suggest, adding that academic departments should “consider a grab bag instead of a ‘Secret Santa’ gift exchange.”

The school asserts that the suggestions “are not meant as rules, but as a starting point for cross-cultural dialog,” warning that “displays that feature exclusively single-themed decorations may be well intentioned, but they can marginalize those who celebrate other religious and cultural beliefs during this season.”

Meanwhile, Oregon State University has published a set of “inclusive strategies” for holiday decorations on its website, which warns students and faculty to “focus decorations on the winter season by using images that are not associated with religious traditions,” identifying “snowflakes, snow, sculptures, [and] sleds” as acceptable alternatives.

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“Remember that images that seem neutral to some may be experienced as religious by others with different traditions,” the document adds, urging readers to “ensure that decorations reflect and are respectful of the diversity of our university community” while conceding that “individuals do have the right to display religious symbols privately in their work areas,” provided they are “clearly” individual expressions that do not imply institutional endorsement.

Whereas each of the preceding examples contains language explicitly clarifying that compliance is optional, however, Rowan University appears to be going to even greater lengths to excise religious references, declaring that “office decorations are allowed as long as no obvious, religious icons are displayed.”

According to the New Jersey public school, examples of “religious decorations include but are not limited to nativity sets, menorahs, etc.,” whereas “examples of allowable seasonal decorations include but are not limited to greenery, Santa, lights, snowflakes, snowmen, [and] candy canes.”

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Campus Reform reached out to Rowan to confirm that the school’s intent is to prohibit, rather than merely discourage, religious decorations, but had not received a response by press time.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @AGockowski