By Lisa Vercauteren, Vice President of Housing Programs
It is time to pull out those boxes of holiday decorations! As you do so, please keep in mind that religion is a protected class under the Fair Housing Act. Our residents, applicants, and staff should not feel that they are being treated differently, given different opportunities, excluded or disadvantaged because they practice (or don't practice) a certain religion. Because the December holidays are rooted in religious celebrations, the likelihood of this happening is strong if you don't take certain precautions.
As you decorate for the holiday season and plan those parties, please keep the following tips in mind.
When decorating the commons areas and exterior of your community, think festive not religious. Greenery, colored lights, snowmen, and snowflakes all convey the festive atmosphere without alluding to a specific religion. Certain holiday symbols, such as Santa Claus, the Christmas tree, and the menorah have also been deemed "non-religious" by the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity and are okay to use as well. Others, such as a nativity scene, the Star of David, and a crucifix are still considered religious symbols and should not be used in common areas unless you are giving equal representation to all religions.
Many communities allow residents to decorate their front door or the area right outside their front door. If this is something your House Rules allow, then the resident has the right to use religious decorations in that space; however, please be sure your House Rules aren't limiting their selection of decorations. For example, you would not want a policy that says they can put up a Christmas wreath only.
If you send "holiday" cards to your residents, be sure they are not specific to a certain religion. A simple "Happy Holidays" or "Seasons Greetings" conveys your message without being overtly religious.
When planning that party, it is best to call it a "Holiday Party" and not a "Christmas Party" to ensure that all residents feel included. During the event, it is okay to acknowledge the different celebrations, but be sure that you are not promoting one over another. For example, it would not be appropriate to hand out Christmas presents and play only Christmas carols during the party.
Remember, the United States is made up of many different races, religions and ethnicities. The month of December is a wonderful time to celebrate that diversity.