As the holiday season approaches, buildings and dorms across the university are decorated with lights and greenery, and on Nov. 20, Human Resources sent out a reminder through campus announcements reminding people decorating for winter holidays to follow UW-System legal guidelines.
These guidelines aim to promote religious pluralism across the university, while still allowing students and employees to decorate their personal offices and rooms with any religious or holiday symbol they choose, so long as it complies with safety regulations.
Regulations on decorations in personal space would be an unconstitutional prohibition of free speech. However, the UW-System does caution that in the office of any higher ranking employees religious displays may not be interpreted as an endorsement by the University of a particular religion or religions.
In public spaces however, the University should be careful not to endorse a particular religion, as that goes against the separation of church and state. Religiously neutral decorations include Christmas trees, which courts have recognized as a secular symbol of the holiday season, are permissible in public spaces.
Religiously symbolic decorations like menorahs and nativity scenes may be displayed so long as they appear as part of a larger, secular, display that celebrates pluralism or promotes tolerance and respect for diverse customs.
To prevent the appearance of endorsing a particular religion, the UW-System advises that any holiday display with an overtly religious symbol should include a religious symbol from another religion to avoid the appearance of endorsing one religion over another.
Jim Roecker, pastor at The Word on Clark Street, said that while his church does not preach pluralism, he understands why it is important for a university to display symbols of multiple religions on its campus.
“As just human beings, it would be wonderful to coexist, and we certainly do in a sense. But then it kind of downplays the differences though in religions because it doesn’t matter what religion you look at, there is always, for each of them, one way or one book that they point to,” Roecker said.
Whether the decorations are secular or religious, they are always beautiful.
Gabrielle Kittredge, senior early childhood education major and writing consultant, said she enjoys the decorations all around campus, but especially the lights hanging up in the Tutoring-Learning Center.
“I really like Christmas lights because they add a nice ambiance,” Kittredge said. “In study spaces like this, it’s calming.”
Olivia De Valk