Wisconsin city says gov't employees can put up Christmas decorations after backlash

Unsplash/Chad Madden
Unsplash/Chad Madden

A city in Wisconsin that garnered pushback for asking public employees not to decorate their workspaces with Christmas imagery has clarified that staff members are allowed to do so.

Wauwatosa City Administrator Jim Archambo sent a memo to employees this week clarifying that an earlier email telling employees to refrain from putting up Christmas decorations was not a policy, nor was he trying to ban Christmas decorations.

City officials received backlash when the city manager's office sent a Nov. 9 email to employees urging them to refrain from putting Christmas decorations in their workspaces, going as far as to oppose red and green lights.

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After receiving a demand letter from the Christian conservative legal nonprofit Liberty Counsel, Archambo contends in his memo that the earlier email was meant to ask "our employees to consider all members of our community before deciding how to decorate public spaces in city-owned government buildings."

Archambo stressed that employees "are free to decorate in the manner they have historically decorated or alter their decorations to be more inclusive at their discretion."

The Liberty Counsel released a statement celebrating the decision Wednesday, saying that "Wauwatosa officials have now backtracked."

"The original email clearly warned employees to refrain from using 'traditional' Christmas decorations, including red and green," the legal nonprofit stated. "In other words, as the law requires, these employees can decorate as they wish without the threat of punishment."

Last week's email from the Wauwatosa city manager's office asked employees to "refrain from using religious decorations or solely associated with Christmas (such as red and green colors) when decorating public spaces within city buildings."

"Instead, we encourage you to opt for more neutral and inclusive decorations that celebrate the season without favoring any particular faith belief system," the email stated. 

The suggestions included "non-religious symbols associated with winter" like snowflakes, with city officials insisting that "festive lighting and greenery can create a warm and welcoming atmosphere without specific religious connotations."

"By embracing inclusive decorating practices, we can reinforce our commitment to being a more equitable and welcoming place for all people who live in Wauwatosa, do business in our community, and our coworkers," the office stated.

The message garnered denunciations from multiple groups, including the conservative website Wisconsin Right Now and the popular rightwing social media account Libs of TikTok.

The Liberty Counsel argues that any rule prohibiting employees from putting up Christmas decorations violates the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and eliminates "all traditional elements of expression regarding a federally and state recognized holiday."

While Liberty Counsel sent a complaint letter to city officials, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports local residents were also planning a protest.

Wauwatosa Mayor Dennis McBride took to Facebook on Sunday to state that he had received emails from people, mostly not local to the area, protesting the manager's office email.

"[I]n years past, some people who have come to City Hall in November and December have complained about religious displays," McBride said. He contends the city manager's office was "trying to minimize the discomfort that some people feel when they come to a government building for governmental, non-religious functions."

"In this country, we have generally avoided religious conflict by welcoming people from all over the world and from every faith. Let us all work together for the cause of peace," McBride said.

"This holiday season, I will celebrate Christmas at home and at church as I always do, joyfully. Others will celebrate the season as they wish, as our Constitution guarantees. I wish you a joyful Christmas season."

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