Village debates holiday decorations

The Shorewood Human Rights Commission has proposed a new signs, objects and communicative structures policy that would ban the display of holiday decorations, among other signs, symbols, or structures on public property.

While the policy covers all decorations and signs, it was created to address religious symbols and some decorations that have been ruled to be secular but still relate to a specific religious holiday, such as decorations specific to the celebration of Christmas, including Christmas trees and depictions of Santa Claus. 

Davida Amenta, village trustee and HRC liaison, said that the HRC first began discussing the policy after seeing a need for policy guidelines around decorations. 

“Right now I don’t think we have a policy,” Amenta said. “The [Business Improvement District] has been handling the regular holiday event, a Christmas tree lighting, for as long as I can remember.” 

Last year, Chabad, an Orthodox Jewish organization, asked to put a menorah up in Atwater park. The Supreme Court considers menorahs, which are used during Hanukkah, to be religious symbols, but does not consider Christmas trees to be religious symbols.

“That was [also] part of what spurred the village to say, ‘hmm, we need to really think about this,’” Amenta said. “So the board asked the Human Relations Commission to think about this and come up with a policy.” 

The HRC attempted to come up with a policy that resolved the inequity of allowing Christmas decorations but not allowing other religions to display their decorations or symbols in the same space.

“With the vast amounts of religions in our country, I feel being neutral is best,” said Sarah Spencer, HRC member. “It is the same in our public schools. I am a full believer in [the] separation of church and state.” 

With the vast amounts of religions in our country, I feel being neutral is best.”

— Sarah Spencer, HRC member

The resulting policy states that displays and semipermanent signs or decorations on public property will not be allowed by the village, with exceptions for existing village events like the Shorewood Farmers Market.   

Public spaces would include the Village Hall, the library, the police and fire stations, public streets and sidewalks, and Atwater Park. The village would continue to display the blue snowflake lights in December, as they have been deemed to have no affiliation with any religious holidays. 

The policy would not affect the annual Winterfest, held in Wood Square between MOD Pizza and Metro Market, as it is private property. There would also be exceptions for brief events, such as Shorewood Shenanigans and the Shorewood Men’s Club Easter Egg Hunt. 

Amenta said that the proposed policy takes into account the importance of respecting every religion. 

“I hope people realize that it was not out of any negative [feelings] about other people’s holidays,” Amenta said. “It was more ‘are we going to recognize that there are people in town who don’t celebrate those holidays, and how can we be inclusive of everybody?’”

In addition to trying to be fair to all religious traditions, Amenta said that the proposed policy would simplify matters for the village, as not every religious holiday takes place during what has been deemed the “holiday season,” the time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. 

HRC members said that they want to clear up any misconceptions about what the policy means for Shorewood residents. 

“It…won’t affect what you can put up on your private property,”said Julia Appel, student HRC member. 

It…won’t affect what you can put up on your private property.”

— Julia Appel, student HRC member

Spencer reiterated the clarification.

“From what I have been hearing, the biggest misconception about the policy is that our next step is private property. This is [the furthest thing] from the truth,” Spencer said. “My advice is that everyone read the policy in its entirety and not go off of hearsay,” Spencer said. 

The HRC unanimously voted to bring their policy to the Village Board on August 8th, but the village board sent the policy back for revisions which were made at their October 2nd meeting. The current version has been updated to apply to all signs or displays in public places, rather than just holiday decorations.