Posted By: Dan Crean, Crean Law Office, Pembroke, New Hampshire
As the Holiday season begins to arrive in full swing, a number of local government concerns become increasingly evident. Recently, a letter to the editor of our local newspaper questioned why the city had put up “Happy Holiday,” “Season’s Greetings,” and “Happy Hanukkha” banners, but no “Merry Christmas” banners.
As times have changed, holiday workplace trappings and celebrations have changed as well – witness the replacement of Christmas parties with Holiday celebrations. Individual work stations and individual apparel choice seem to be areas where individual religious celebration might continue. Even in such “personal” areas, though, displays and apparel that indicate a preference for a single religion or sect can be viewed through different prisms. Overtly religious displays in private sector workplaces may raise concerns, but those concerns generally would not extend to Constitutional concerns involving the First Amendment. (Of course, discrimination based on religion might run afoul of equal employment laws, but that is a matter for another discussion.)
In the context of the public workplace, what, if anything, should local governments do when public employees seek to celebrate the holiday season through actions such as religious posters, screen savers, “emoticons” or other religious symbols used in emails, or wearing of religious apparel in the office?
Simplistic solutions lie at either end of the spectrum: impose no control or regulation and let the workplace and work apparel be determined by individual choice or impose controls so that no form of holiday expression is permitted. Office morale in the latter situation might plummet with no garlands, trees, or lights. Is it permissible, though, to allow non-religious holiday decorations (even a Santa Claus) while banning Nativity scenes – or is that content-based regulation?
Where should lines be drawn? How does a local government respond to citizen complaints or those raised by co-workers?