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Washington state senior center bans religious Christmas expression

Housing complex wrongly claims HUD requires it to prohibit religious Christmas sayings, carols, cards, symbols

Tuesday, Dec 18, 2018

Attorney sound bite:  Matt Sharp

CHEHALIS, Wash. – Alliance Defending Freedom sent a letter Monday to a senior living complex that has banned its residents from saying “Merry Christmas,” singing religious Christmas carols, or displaying any religious Christmas items in its common areas, including on the doorposts of the building’s apartments. The complex wrongly claims that it cannot allow any resident to engage in religious expression because it accepts funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“Americans don’t lose their constitutionally protected freedom to say ‘Merry Christmas’ or otherwise express their faith just because they live in a facility that accepts government funds,” said ADF Senior Counsel Matt Sharp. “No HUD rule requires senior living centers that accept federal resources to deny their residents the ability to celebrate Christmas with religious songs and symbols.”

The building manager of Providence Place in Chehalis told a Christian resident that the federal Fair Housing Act prohibits residents from saying “Merry Christmas,” singing Christmas carols that reference Christ, or displaying any decorations or cards referencing the Christian religion during the Christmas season. In truth, no federal law prohibits such Christmas expression. As the ADF letter explains, HUD itself has stated that it “continues to strongly support and respect the display of all religious symbols on properties receiving HUD assistance. We discourage anyone from interfering in the free exercise of religion and prohibiting residents from celebrating the joys of the season.”

The resident desires to say “Merry Christmas” to other residents and sing Christmas carols containing religious references in the public common areas of the complex. She also desires to display Christmas cards with religious messages alongside nonreligious Christmas cards on the door to her apartment, a common practice in the building. In addition, she wants to return to her doorframe a Mezuzah, a small religious symbol of Jewish origin, which the building manager ordered her to remove. Interestingly, the same manager permitted a menorah in the complex’s public space “because it was cultural expression.”

The resident is concerned that she will be punished or even evicted from Providence Place for engaging in private religious expression and celebration.

But as the ADF letter explains, “Providence Place’s belief that it is required to suppress religious speech under the Fair Housing Act is incorrect and unwise. The Establishment Clause states, ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion….’ The Establishment Clause is a restriction on government, not on private speakers. Because Providence Place is a private, non-profit corporation—not a government-controlled entity—it is not bound by the Establishment Clause’s prohibition on the government endorsement of religion. Indeed, Providence Place is free to allow the residents to engage in religious discussion and prayer.”

“Furthermore,” the letter continues, “HUD does not prohibit discussion about religion in the facilities to which it provides funding,” explaining that federal court precedent has established that “simply because the government provides a benefit with public funds does not mean that all ‘mention of religion or prayer’ must be whitewashed from the use of the benefit.” Additionally, the letter points out that the actions of Providence Place may violate federal and state anti-discrimination laws.

“The right thing to do out of respect for the senior citizens—many of whom fought or saw their spouses fight in wars to defend our nation and the freedoms upon which it is built—is to remove the ban on religious holiday expression,” the letter states. “Given that your justifications for disallowing religious holiday expression directly contradict the position of HUD on the permissibility of Christmas displays, we hope that this letter will clear up these issues and that you will do away with this terrible policy.”

Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.
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ABOUT Matt Sharp

Matt Sharp serves as senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, where he is the director of the Center for Legislative Advocacy and focuses on state and local legislative matters. Since joining ADF in 2010, Sharp has authored federal and state legislation, regularly provides testimony and legal analysis on how proposed legislation will impact constitutional freedoms, and advises governors, legislators, and state and national policy organizations on the importance of laws and policies that protect First Amendment rights. He has testified before the United States Congress on the importance of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Sharp also authored an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of nearly 9,000 students, parents, and community members asking the court to uphold students’ right to privacy against government intrusion. Sharp earned his J.D. in 2006 from the Vanderbilt University School of Law. A member of the bar in Georgia and Tennessee, he is also admitted to practice in several federal courts.