Dunwoody City Hall will not be decorated with any religious symbols this holiday season as part of a new policy approved Nov. 18 by the City Council. But a list defining which religious symbols were to be banned was scrapped after some residents said including menorahs on the list could be discriminatory.
The council began discussing in October a policy to ban religious symbols in common areas of city buildings after a resident wanted to put up a Nativity scene in City Hall. The city’s legal staff suggested banning all Christian, Jewish and Muslim symbols including crosses, the menorah and the Quran to avoid violating the Constitution. But after some Jewish residents said the menorah is secular, not religious, the council decided to eliminate the list.
“This is not just about menorahs,” Mayor-elect Lynn Deutsch said. “If we strive to be an inclusive and open community, then the menorah is a symbol of what is wrong with the policy.
“It’s not whether I think what religious symbols are, it’s what the courts have ruled,” Deutsch said. She added later, “We got into trouble with the list.”
The debate over what is a religious symbol and what is allowed on government property stems from the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment that bans government from creating a religion.
The Supreme Court has ruled in some cases that municipalities with holiday displays including a Nativity scene violated the Constitution because they appeared to endorse a religion. The Supreme Court has also ruled menorahs are religious symbols. But conflicting rulings and opinions over the years keeps the issue alive and ripe for legal challenges.
City administrators hoped to avoid any local controversy by implementing a policy defining exactly what would be and would not be allowed as part of any holiday display. Items to be allowed included Santa Claus and holiday trees, but some Jewish residents said these are symbols that celebrate Christmas, a Christian holiday.
Councilmember John Heneghan said the policy should be kept simple and suggested eliminating the lists of what could be and could not be allowed. The decision on what is a religious symbol should be left up to the city manager, he said.
“I think we as a council make policy … and we can direct the city manager to not put religious items in City Hall,” he said.