The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education on Wednesday used a commentary on its website to cite Cornell University for the “chill” it is imposing this year on students who may want to express their holiday traditions or beliefs.
For example, a tree is all right as a decoration. So are snowflakes. But a tree with lights isn’t, unless there’s an appropriate “dialogue” within the “unit or living area.”
Under no circumstances are angels appropriate, the school has announced. Neither is mistletoe. And banished, too, are stars when they are “at the top of trees.”
The commentary comes from Catherine Sevcenko and points out that the instructions all come from the school’s Department of Environmental Health & Safety.
They include “sensible prohibitions against hazards such as ‘combustible decorations’ and burning candles.”
But then the requirements veer off “from physical safety into rules apparently designed to ensure some kind of ephemeral, emotional safety,” she wrote.
She points out that Cornell is a private university, so the First Amendment isn’t applicable there in the same way it would be an a public university. But even so, she said, the school has professed a “deep commitment to academic freedom and a belief that such freedom is essential to creativity and innovation.”
She continued, “The logic behind the guidelines is … not immediately apparent. Why should a tree decorated with snowflakes be acceptably ‘inclusive,’ yet a tree with bows, garlands, or lights require dialogue – and what is that conversation supposed to entail? … More mystifying is the premise that in order to be inclusive, Cornell’s administration wants to exclude a random list of primarily Christian and Jewish symbols.”
For example, the guidelines say what is not consistent with the university’s beliefs are Nnativity scenes, menorahs, angels, mistletoe, stars at the top of trees, crosses, and the star of David.
Those decoration that really are frowned on, although they might escape a crackdown if there’s a “dialogue,” are trees with bows, garland and lights, wreaths with bows, a combination of snowflakes, Santa Claus and dreidel, or holly.
“It is certainly appropriate for Cornell as an institution not to favor Judeo-Christian traditions over any other. But it is quite different for the university to issue blanket guidelines telling individual students that they cannot express their beliefs in their living areas,” Sevcenko wrote.
“Discouraging students from sharing their traditions with their peers prevents learning and undermines Cornell’s claim that it aims to promote cultural awareness and cross-cultural understanding. If the students themselves, after discussion, decide to limit decorations to snowflakes, that’s their choice. But where does it end? Would Hindu students be limited in their decorative options during Diwali? Or is the Indian festival of lights OK, whereas the Jewish one is not?
“And if the idea is that students know everything there is to know about Christmas and Hanukkah because they are mainstream religions, one need look no further than the guideline drafters themselves to disprove that theory. The guidelines prohibit the display of angels, although they (or similar beings) are found in many religions outside of Christianity and Judaism, including Islam, Hinduism, and Zoroastrianism. Conversely, holly, which is consistent with the guidelines, has been appropriated by Christianity to also represent the crown of thorns.”
The FIRE commentary said, “Being inclusive cannot mean reducing seasonal decoration to its lowest common denominator, which in this case appears to be a snowflake. Yet that is exactly what the guidelines require for students to be ‘inclusive.'”