By Alyson Kay
For the Mitzpeh
At this university’s School of Public Policy in Van Munching Hall, a large green Christmas tree sits lit up and adorned with round ornaments near a framed picture of Testudo next to the main entrance. Garlands make their way up the railing and a wreath encircles the university plaque. Light blue decals of menorahs and Hanukkah themed messages cling to the walls.
Usually, this university tries not to display official expressions of religion on campus such as these. According to a memo sent to university senate members, the university senate voted to end the invocation prayer at commencement ceremonies with 42 in favor, 14 opposed and three abstentions. They did this because of concerns that any prayer, even when it seems non-denominational, can feel like a Christian ritual to non-Christians.
Although the Hanukkah decorations at Van Munching are more limited than the Christmas decorations, Jewish students such as JD Krebs, a freshman letters and sciences student, don’t mind the Christmas decorations.
“I couldn’t care less,” said Krebs. “It seems a little early, considering it’s not for another three, four weeks. But they can do what they want. We have our own building. I don’t worry that much about it.”
Shira Blain, a freshman in letters and sciences, likes the holiday decorations in Van Munching Hall.
“I think it’s pretty,” Blain said. “I like it. It’s festive.”
What freshman computer science major, Tsipora Stone, said she likes about the decorations is the freedom that the public expressions symbolize.
“I think it’s nice that people are celebrating and free to celebrate in public,” said Stone.
Although freshman public health major Rebecca Elspas said she appreciates the mixture of holidays that are displayed in the building, she said that she would like to see some changes as well.
“I like how they’re including all of the different religions within the buildings, specifically in the public policy building within the school,” Elspas said. “I saw Hanukkah stickers above the windows above the Christmas tree and the lights below it. I thought it was nice, but I would like to see even more of a presence. More of a balance too.”
Van Munching is not the only building that has Christmas themed decorations in common areas. On the first floor of the Physical Sciences Complex, there’s a Christmas tree with a single candy cane on one of its branches in one of the lounges in the astronomy department.
According to Stuart Vogel, a professor and the chair for the astronomy department, it was donated and put up by some astronomy graduate students. It was not brought to Vogel and he did not approve it.
“Our country really was founded on the concept of religious freedom,” said Vogel. “The First Amendment in essence says that our government or government institutions, the university certainly is a state university, we can’t favor one religion over another. That’s the First Amendment. Really at the heart of who we are. I think that freedom from government control of religion is why so many people came to this country in the first place. I think it’s really why our country is here.”
Although Vogel is looking for guidance as to what should be done about the tree according to campus policy, he says that this isn’t a simple issue.
“Camaraderie, friendship, good cheer all those things. Anyone would agree, those are good things,” Vogel said. “Without question, that’s the kind of thinking that motivated some of those students to put up that tree. They just wanted to make it a better place where everybody cares for each other.”
Vogel also mentioned that the astronomy graduate students are very diverse and come from all over the country and the world. Some of them can’t afford to go home for the holidays, so they try to bring a little bit of home and holiday cheer into their lives at the university.
Some buildings, such as the engineering building, decide to not display religious symbols of the season in the building and put up non-denominational winter decorations instead.
Peter Kofinas, an associate dean at the school of engineering, feels that this is the best solution to celebrate the holiday season while remaining inclusive to people of all cultures and faiths.
“We don’t want to offend any specific religion, so we’re happy to display non-religious items that reflect all of the cultures or religions and people who are atheists too,” said Kofinas. “There’s people without a religion. We really try not to offend anybody.”