Guidelines for Display of Holiday and Religious Symbols and Gifts

Shideler Hall
 Students walking past Farmer School of Business
 Miami seal
 Pulley Tower
 Sundial and McCracken Hall
 McGuffey statue in front of McGuffey Hall

As a public university, the University does not celebrate religious holidays, but many of our employees do. Each year the Office of General Counsel is asked to provide guidance on the law regarding Christmas/holiday trees and other holiday decorations on campus and about University rules for giving and receiving gifts.

Guidelines for Display of Holiday and Religious Symbols

The concern is that certain types of holiday and religious displays may violate constitutional restrictions respecting the separation of church and state. As one court famously noted: “no holiday season is complete, at least for the courts, without one or more First Amendment challenges to public holiday displays.”

This guidance is intended to clarify what types of holiday displays are permissible on University property, including in employee offices and cubicles. These Guidelines are designed for employees and do not address the rights of students or student organizations. If you have questions about these Guidelines or about items not on this list, please contact the Office of General Counsel at generalcounsel@miamioh.edu or by calling 529-6734.

Decorations may not be purchased with any University funds -E&G, unrestricted or gift funds. If decorations are displayed in public areas they must be secular in nature. Christmas and holiday trees, reindeer, candy canes, tinsel, and poinsettias are typically not considered to be religious symbols. All holiday displays must comply with all applicable fire and safety codes. Holiday decorations may not be placed in such a manner as to impede entrances/exits to buildings, public areas or offices.

Religious Decorations in Employee Offices and Cubicles

Displays of religious decorations and symbols inside employees’ offices and cubicles are generally permissible. In fact, prohibiting an employee from displaying religious decorations and symbols in their offices /cubicles could be deemed to be a violation of the employee’s Constitutional rights of free exercise of religion and free speech.  Religious symbols include a nativity scene, a Cross or Crucifixion, Menorah, Star of David, drawings of Jesus or Buddha, and the Bible, Torah, Quran or other religious tome.

Christmas/Holiday Trees

The display of Christmas trees on campus is generally permissible. Courts have recognized that Christmas trees have become a secular symbol associated with the winter holiday season. Due to fire safety concerns, only artificial trees may be used.

Nativity Scenes and Menorahs

The display of nativity scenes and menorahs in public areas has generally been upheld by courts against legal challenges if they appear as part of a larger display with a secular purpose, such as the celebration of pluralism and freedom or the promotion of tolerance and respect for diverse customs. However, any holiday display with an overtly religious symbol (such as a nativity scene or a menorah) must include at least one other religious symbol from a different religious tradition. The legal validity of these displays is premised on the notion that they do not represent an endorsement of any particular religion, any religious doctrine, or religion in general.

Messages Accompanying Displays in Public Areas

Any message that might accompany a holiday display should be secular. Courts have upheld messages that celebrate pluralism and liberty and do not promote the observance of any religion.

University Rules for Giving and Receiving Gifts

Frequently Asked Questions

I Want to Give

Should I buy my supervisor a gift?

No. The University discourages employees from giving gifts to their supervisors or others who exercise authority over their employment.

Can I use unrestricted or gift funds to buy gifts for employees?

No. Holiday gifts are personal. No university funds (including unrestricted or gift funds) may be used to purchase holiday gifts.   University credit cards may not be used to purchase gift cards or other gifts.

I have great employees who have worked hard all year-Is there anything I can do to honor them?

Yes. There are lots of activities to help celebrate the hard work and dedication of your employees over the past year.  An office pot-luck lunch, a white elephant/gag gift exchange or even a simple thank you note will let people know their efforts are greatly appreciated.

I Want to Receive

What if I receive a gift from my supervisor?

The University does not encourage or discourage supervisors from giving gifts to those they supervise.  If you receive a gift from your supervisor, accept the gift graciously.  A thank you is all that is necessary.

Sometimes vendors send gifts- Is it okay to accept them?

It depends on whether the gift is of more than nominal value. Ohio’s ethics laws prohibit University employees from soliciting or accepting anything of value from a person, company, organization, or other public agency if the source of the gift is doing or seeking to do business with, regulated by, or interested in matters before the University.

The Ethics Commission has concluded that items of nominal value may be accepted as long as the gift will not have a substantial influence on the employee.

 

Vendors who wish to express their appreciation are encouraged to make donations to the Miami University Foundation Annual Fund in lieu of gifts.