Last year and this year, I heard complaints about a “do not-celebrate-Christmas” memo by Peter Alexander, dean of SIU Law School. In 2006, civil libertarian David French spoofed the dean’s memo on NRO for all to see. Dean Alexander instructed his staff, “holiday displays [in the Law School] should not be in the form of religious symbols.” These messages, sent to all law school staff, are clearly aimed at people of faith during what he termed this “government holiday called ‘Christmas’” season.
While the dean’s office may be official space, church-state separation does not prohibit personal religious displays by staff or students at SIU, or so I have been told by lawyers who specialize in religious freedom. What kind of message does this official memo send to the future lawyers of America? Is there a “safe, welcoming environment” for people of faith at SIU?
After losing two court decisions in a failed effort to decertify the Christian Legal Society, Dean Alexander again asserts absolute church-state separation. Undoubtedly, the “religious accommodations” policy of the university is gathering dust. And we won’t mention that inconvenient First Amendment.
I cannot imagine that the dean would enforce his directive. Last year’s memo circulated far and wide because many people were upset but afraid to speak. Given the power differential between a dean and his staff, who is to challenge such an order? The higher administration needs to “do the right thing” and require the dean to clarify our legal rights to such displays.
Meantime, have a Merry Government Holiday!
For those wishing to read the latest PC celebration of this government holiday, here is the 2007 “Holiday Reminder” in all its splendor:
DEAN PETER ALEXANDER TO STAFF OF SOUTHERN ILLINOIS UNIVERSITY LAW SCHOOL, December 3, 2007:
“Dear Staff Members:
It is time for my annual email about holiday displays. Many members of the Law School community want to display decorations to celebrate the holiday season, but Christmas is tricky business for all public entities. When we decorate, we must be mindful of a couple of things:
First, the government holiday called “Christmas” is a secular event and not a religious event. Therefore, the holiday displays throughout the Law School should not be in the form of religious symbols; they should be secular in nature. We will have an artificial tree in the formal lounge to recognize the season, but it will be decorated with bows and candy canes, and our students will be encouraged to eat the candy canes for quick energy during their finals. In fact, this year, the SBA has renamed the tree the “Finals Tree.” The tree was donated to the Law School with private funds along with the bows and candy canes. Other than the tree and a holiday plant or two, I do not plan for the Deans’ Suite to have any other holiday displays. If you would like to decorate your offices, that is fine. However, I encourage everyone to be mindful of the separation of Church and State and urge you to use secular holiday displays at the office and leave all religious displays at home.
Second, this is a place of business and, no matter what we do, we should remember that less is more! Let us keep our holiday decorations simple, tasteful and professional.
If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.