Every year in December I get questions about holiday decorations in apartment communities. How do we respect the Christmas celebrations of some, Hanukkah beliefs of others, as well as festive traditions of various other cultures? Can we put up decorations involving Santa Claus? What about Christmas trees? Rudolph? Menorahs? And what to do if some residents celebrate nothing during this time of year?
For professional apartment management, however, the question of what to do (or not do) with respect to holiday displays and decorations comes up each year at this time. Leasing office staff members are required to balance the religious and holiday requests of all, while showing a preference to none. What some might see as benign can be perceived as offensive to others. HUD’s guidance on this point notes that while our Fair Housing Act (“FHA”) does not prohibit religious expression, all residents must be treated equally and without regard to their particular religion.
To that end, the FHA makes clear that management cannot publish any notice, statement, or advertisement which indicates a preference, limitation, or any type of discrimination based on religion. Furthermore, the applicable regulations prohibit management from engaging in “inherently religious activities” when participating in any activities funded by HUD. “Inherently religious activities” include worship, religious instruction, or proselytism. To be sure, this prohibition is tempered by the qualification that these types of “inherently religious activities” may be offered separately “in time or location” from the programs, activities, or services supported by HUD funds and that participation in these programs must be voluntary. As such, management is tasked to protect the rights of those residents who wish to participate in certain activities as well as the rights of those residents who are of a different faith (or those who have no religion). If you have a community room, for example, any resident can sign up and use it. While management should not get in the business of promoting a specific religious practice or activity, the question about decorations remain.
So, what to do? Well, the easy choice is to simply ban all holiday displays. But many residents are correctly unhappy because it seems like overkill. Yet others may complain that their specific religion is omitted or another display is perceived to receive preferential treatment. What are management’s options? I have recommended that communities have a designated area in which holiday items from various faiths are displayed. Invite residents to participate. Additionally, there is guidance that confirm references to Santa, Christmas trees and the North Pole are far enough away from religion so as to lose any prohibited inference. Another option is to remind residents that they can absolutely decorate the interior of their apartments, their doors, (and if appropriate at your specific community) alcoves or areas next to their doors with more overtly religious displays.
As management, we are looking for a policy which appropriately balances the beliefs of all while ensuring we are not perceived to favor one religion over another. And whatever decision you make, just know that someone may not be happy about it. Which may require you to speak with a lawyer like me.
Just A Thought.