Towns cautioned to avoid decorations linked to religious themes

When Millville bought new holiday decorations for its downtown, it opted for lighted snowflakes to hang on streetlamps along High Street.

Mayor James Quinn said it was a safe decision, as the snowflakes were a generic, secular decoration that wouldn’t offend anyone who might otherwise raise a legal stink over the city opting for something related to the season’s religious holidays.

But on two corners, the streetlamps have lighted Santas, which are designed to welcome people to the High Street business district. Those seemingly harmless displays have Quinn worried.

“That may be offensive,” he said.

Quinn isn’t alone in worrying about the ramifications of how municipalities decorate for the holidays: The New Jersey State League of Municipalities is warning local governments that the wrong decision can get them into legal trouble.

Citing a number of lawsuits in New Jersey and other states filed by people or organizations opposed to municipalities using any kind of religious decorations for the holidays, league officials say local officials should get a legal opinion if there’s any doubt about what they intend to display on public property.

The league is providing some guidelines, but there’s a still a lot of potential problems because “the law remains unsettled in this area,” according to league Executive Director William Dressel.

“Municipal holiday displays that are limited to more secular images, like Santa Claus and Christmas trees, are likely to survive constitutional scrutiny,” he said. “However, it is still unclear under what circumstances more religious symbols, like creches, menorahs, or in related cases, copies of the Ten Commandments, may be displayed by a municipality or on municipal property. It is hard to formulate any set of rules to ensure that a given display is constitutionally permissible if it has any religious symbols in it.”

The fear of a lawsuit has municipalities going more generic and less extravagant on holiday decorations during the season when Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa all converge. Some organizations and people believe decorations linked with those events are offensive and don’t belong on public property.

In the past decade, New Jersey courts have ruled on several lawsuits stemming from how municipalities decorated for the holidays. League officials say the outcome of those cases varied and were based on everything from what message the decorations were intended to give to the court determining whether the plaintiffs had enough exposure to the display to be truly offended.

Municipal decorations are now more generic. Gone are years when creches, or Nativity scenes, were set out in front of Wildwood’s municipal building, and signs saying “Merry Christmas” were common outside of municipal buildings.

Ocean City Director of Community Services Mike Dattilo said the resort’s decorations are now very broad: There are white lights on streetlamps and a tree in front of City Hall. A giant card on the front lawn of the municipal building is designed for “the season in general.”

Egg Harbor Township workers Monday put a wreath on the doors of the municipal building. That will be joined by a lighted tree.

Township Administrator Peter Miller said the decorations are part of decision by township officials to keep the display “seasonal and not religious.”

“Elected officials didn’t feel strong about having a religious theme,” he said.

Linwood will decorate City Hall as it has for the past several years: An electronic Santa Claus will waves to passers-by. There will also be a dreidel.

Linwood Public Works Superintendent Hank Kolakowski said the city feels safe in using the Santa Claus and dreidel decoration because nobody has complained about them.

“Everybody seems to be pleased,” he said.

League officials acknowledge that not everyone will be pleased, and some people will pressure local governments to include religious themes on the argument that not doing them violates free speech provisions of the First Amendment.

Giving in to that argument could be dangerous, league officials argue.

“There is a real danger to the municipality accepting that argument, since that would effectively render the area where the holiday display is placed a public forum,” Dressel said.

“Once that occurs, it will be extremely difficult to prevent other displays that individuals or groups wish to see at that location in order to convey their particular message. That could include groups or individuals who want to put up signs for political candidates, advocate a particular political position or advocate on any side of such controversial issues as abortion, racial diversity, war and peace, etc.”

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