“Wokewatosa” Backpedals Unconstitutional Christmas Decorating Directive After Receiving Demand Letter
“To that end, we kindly ask that departments refrain from using religious decorations or [sic] solely associated with Christmas (such as red and green colors) when decorating public spaces within city buildings.”
This statement exemplifies the unconstitutional Christmas decorating guidance put forth by city officials in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin in a November 9 email sent to all employees. The guidance was so absurd that at least three employees anonymously tipped off the local media and the story went national this past week.
The unconstitutionality of government-endorsed communications banning Christmas prompted Liberty Counsel to send a letter on November 13, 2023, demanding the retraction of the email and its guidance in an effort “to prevent irreparable harm to cherished liberties.” Within 48 hours, city hall officials issued an about-face “clarification email.”
Backstory on “No Red, No Green, No Manger Scene”
Deputy city administrator Melissa Weiss, under the direction of City Administrator Jim Archambo, sent an email to city employees outlining holiday decorating guidance that removed red, green, and the Baby Jesus manger scene. Essentially, the email directed employees to take “Christ” out of “Christmastime.”
Weiss’ email launched into a plea for employees to “reflect on our commitment to create a welcoming and inclusive environment” for residents, visitors, and co-workers. It went on to condescendingly school them on the importance of recognizing that “not all Wauwatosa employees, residents, or business owners celebrate Christmas” and that “it is crucial [emphasis added] to be considerate of how we decorate our public spaces during this season” as part of “ongoing efforts to foster a more equitable and inclusive community.” In fact, the words “equitable” and “inclusive” appeared a combined nine times in the six-paragraph email.
The email then turned to decorating specifics which, quite literally, “neutralized” Christmas. After “kindly asking” that departments “refrain from using religious decorations … solely associated with Christmas (such as red and green colors),” “Wokewatosa” officials endorsed the whitewashed palette of a non-religious Winter Wonderland as a preferred option. In another suggestion, Weiss offered up the Aurora Borealis natural phenomenon as a source for decorating inspiration.
Wauwatosa’s misguided intention was that “every visitor to our buildings feels valued and respected, regardless of their individual beliefs and traditions” — except if your individual beliefs and traditions are Christian. What glaring hypocrisy! There’s nothing in the guidance to make any Christian feel valued or respected for keeping Christ in Christmas — which, news flash, is the foundational reason for the season.
“The Christmas holiday ban violates the U.S. Constitution by showing hostility toward Christianity,” the demand letter stated. “The First Amendment does not permit the City to eliminate Christmas holiday symbols or expressions regarding a federally and state recognized holiday.”
The demand letter, dated November 13, 2023, went on to say that “couched in ‘suggestions’ and ‘encouragement,’ the email clearly sets forth the mandatory nature of its ‘goal’ of eradicating Christmas through employee ‘cooperation’ and ‘dedication.’”
A host of comments on X (formerly known as Twitter) repeated this sentiment. In response to Weiss’ email posted on X by Wisconsin Right Now, one user, Grandmoi, responded, “In the spirit of ‘inclusion’ they demand that Christians celebrate everything but the birth of Christ … got it.” Another user had a three-word response that simply read, “Inclusion by exclusion.”
Wauwatosa Crossed a Legal Line
Excluding religious viewpoints in the public square is a clear constitutional violation of the First Amendment and Free Exercise Clause. Three significant and consequential victories at the Supreme Court, two in 2022 and one in 2023, not only reinforced — but preserved — religious liberty and its free exercise from blatant encroachments such as the Wauwatosa guidance.
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Two of the victories, Shurtleff v. City of Boston (2022) and Kennedy v. Bremerton School District (2022) overturned the Lemon test which had been used since 1971 to censor religious viewpoints, displays, and symbols by twisting the Establishment Clause to mean something it didn’t. In place of Lemon, now the Establishment Clause must be interpreted by “reference to historical practices and understandings.” Government employees are not extensions of government speech under government control.
In the third case, Groff v. DeJoy (2023), the Supreme Court overruled a bad decision from 1977, giving employees the protection of religious freedom Congress intended in the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
“We’d Like to Add Clarity”
Within 48 hours of receiving Liberty Counsel’s demand letter, City Administrator Jim Archambo issued a second email to employees “clarifying” that the first email was not a policy directive on how to decorate, neither was it “telling employees they cannot bring their full selves to work” (whatever that means). In fact, Archambo wrote, employees are “free to decorate in the manner they have historically decorated.”
In other words red, green, and manger scenes are back on the table.
“After receiving the demand letter, Wauwatosa officials are in full retreat, gladly abandoning their unconstitutional Christmas ban,” said Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel. “Now the city employees can celebrate the Christmas holiday consistent with their faith and the law.”
The gift of religious freedom is a cherished one, indeed. Merry Christmas, Wauwatosa.
Annemarie McLean is a writer for Liberty Counsel, a nationwide public interest civil liberties law firm committed to restoring the culture, advancing religious freedom, protecting the unborn, and strengthening the family. In 2012, she founded 3D Missions, an international outreach taking the Gospel to the nations through the performing arts, and co-founded Brave & Beautiful, a platform empowering young women to live, love, and lead courageously. She holds a journalism degree from Oral Roberts University, with post-graduate work in organizational leadership at Palm Beach Atlantic University.