Bring on the Camels, Dragons, and Prayer Flags!
On December 20, 2001, the Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (“HUD”) issued a statement regarding religious expression in public housing. HUD was concerned public housing authorities might misconstrue HUD policy to discriminate against people celebrating faith-based events. In the words of HUD Secretary Mel Martinez: “Now more than ever, it is important to support the celebration of diverse traditions and the joy of fellowship that comes with the holiday season.”
HUD’s policy is that public housing providers should allow both religious and non-religious symbols in the common area as a celebration of American diversity. HUD also cautioned that public housing providers must provide the same common area display opportunities to all religious faiths. Keep in mind the public housing authorities are regulated by the First Amendment, which prohibits restrictions on the free expression of religion.
Community associations are private actors, not public housing authorities. Although we should appreciate the spirit, HUD’s guidance for public housing does not directly translate to community associations. Best practice is for community associations to use secularized terms or symbols in the common areas to celebrate the holidays and promote inclusiveness. A community association should ideally provide a neutral environment that makes clear the association does not favor one religion over another. Once a community association makes the decision to allow any religious displays in the common areas, there is a risk of offending residents or accidentally triggering a fair housing claim. The concept of allowing all religions to have displays in the common area is beautiful, and almost impossible to execute in reality.
Residents enjoy having festive common areas and there is nothing problematic with most traditional winter holiday decorations. I recently visited a clubhouse festooned with garlands, icicles, velvet bows, piles of faux snow – and three fabulous camels covered in glitter. The association had removed their crèche years ago, but kept the camels because ‘we live in the desert after all’. Have fun in the common areas!
The discussion changes when community associations attempt to regulate homeowner decorations. Rules regulating holiday decorations must be neutral and fair across the entire association. A typical example of a neutral holiday rule is that residents must remove holiday lights from homes by a set date in January.
Morris v. West Hayden Estates First Addition Homeowners Association, Inc.
In the recent Morris case, Jeremy and Kristy Morris alleged the West Hayden Estates Homeowners Association discriminated against them on the basis of their religion. The Morris family hosts an elaborate display in their front yard every year, complete with miles of lights, centurions, a live camel, and 10,000 visitors. Unfortunately, in an effort to be neutral, the HOA appears to have sent out a letter to the Morris family that stated, “some of our residents are non-Christians or of another faith and I don’t even want to think of the problems that could bring up.” An Idaho jury awarded the Morris family $75,000 in compensatory damages. Leave religion out of the conversation, and apply neutral rules equally to all residents.
Christmas Dragons and Prayer Flags
Author Diana Rowland lives in a gated community, and has set up her Christmas dragon display for the past several years without an issue. Unfortunately, this year she received an anonymous nastygram from a neighbor who stated the Christmas dragons were, “TOTALLY INAPPROPRIATE AT CHRISTMAS.” Ms. Rowland’s experience made international news and millions have viewed her original tweet about the incident. Fortunately, Ms. Rowland’s “judgy-mcjudgyface” neighbor did not dampen her holiday spirit, and the dragons remain happily roasting chestnuts on her front lawn. Stay alert to neighbor-to-neighbor religious discrimination in keeping with HUD’s 2016 hostile housing guidance.
Multi-faith households often creatively decorate during the holidays to make certain every family member’s faith is included. Community associations need to be aware that many religions celebrate holidays around the winter solstice, not only Christians. For example, an installation of Buddhist prayer flags may join the more traditional string of Christmas lights and a wreath on the front door. These strings of windhorse or Lung-ta prayer flags carry compassion and peace on the wind to all living creatures, a lovely sentiment for the season. Keep in mind that Christmas, or any holiday, looks different to everyone.
Celebrate inclusiveness, even if the association draws the line at loud music, wandering livestock, and strobe lights. Our diversity is our strength. A neutral, festive common area makes all residents and guests feel welcome. Neutral rules applied fairly to all owners allows everyone to celebrate the season in their own way. Enjoy the holidays, have fun, and make your community association a safe place for people of all faiths and beliefs. Happy Holidays.