City leaders in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin are walking back a viral memo asking employees not to put Christmas decorations in public spaces after legal pushback.
Melissa Cantarero Weiss, deputy city administrator and author of the controversial email, characterized the request as an effort to “create a welcoming and inclusive environment for all residents and visitors” in city buildings.
Weiss’s Nov. 9 email, obtained by Wisconsin Right Now, even barred employees from using “religious decorations” or colors she describes as being “solely associated with Christmas,” such as red and green.
She suggested that employees instead draw décor inspiration from non-holiday themes, such as “snow people” or the blues and purples of the Northern Lights.
Critics viewed the prohibition as an attempt to erase religious holidays – especially Christmas – from the holiday season.
Liberty Counsel, a Christian legal organization, issued a public demand letter calling the city out for what it called an “unconstitutional ban on Christmas holiday symbols, decorations, and expressions.”
On Tuesday, Jim Archambo, the city administrator, claimed the original message was not a directive or requirement for employees.
But Julaine Appling, president of Wisconsin Family Council, told The Lion she suspects the city is trying to save face after getting called to the carpet.
“Wauwatosa has a very solid upper middle class community and solid tax base. We’ve seen a shift in this community from being more ‘red’ to becoming more purple or at points even blue. A memo like this from a city official does not completely surprise me – I think they were testing the waters,” Appling said. “It read more initially as a directive, and then when Liberty Counsel stepped in, then it wasn’t a ‘directive,’ it was ‘well, if you really want to consider your other community members then you might want to be more inclusive of the decorations that you put up.’
“This is just so indicative of woke, for lack of a better word, leaders in that community, whether elected or hired. They hand something out like this and then under pressure from a solid legal group, they have to walk it back. The outcry from people showed that it was, at best, a bad idea, and everybody saw through it. Now they’re just trying to save face.”
Appling also said the Supreme Court has established a precedent for holiday-related public displays.
“We know that the U.S. Supreme Court has said that a public entity like a city can display holiday symbols as long as there is an equal representation of the totality of the holiday,” she said. “You can have a nativity set, but you also maybe have to have a snowman or Santa Claus – those would be considered the secular symbols. We still do have the right for public entities to do that.”
For Liberty Counsel, the Wauwatosa city administration’s retraction is an encouraging development in an otherwise troubling story.
“I think the biggest thing to learn from this is when you find an unconstitutional policy, push back,” Mathew Staver, senior pastor, founder, and chairman of Liberty Counsel, told The Lion. “If you don’t, then something absurd like this will become policy and law.
“We have dealt with this red and green issue before. We’ve had schools that said no red and green because they were Christmas colors, but we haven’t had one of these cases for a while, until Wauwatosa.”
Staver recalled previous efforts to “rename everything related to Christmas,” such as the push in recent years to rebrand items such as Christmas trees as “holiday trees.”
“If we would have just let that go and not pushed back, then you wouldn’t see anything talking about Christmas in the public square,” he said. “We have to not remain silent; we have to push back and remain vigilant.”
To some observers, the Wauwatosa Christmas decoration ban is a sign of the times, pointing to a larger debate about the meaning and purpose of “inclusivity.”
“Being accepted does not mean never being reminded that other people have different beliefs or customs,” said Rick Esenberg, president of the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL), in response to the Wauwatosa viral memo.
“This is contrived exclusion. It is anything but ‘inclusive’ or ‘welcoming.’ It’s a small thing but has an outsized impact.”