Question: Can a city spend money on holiday decorations?
Answer: Statutory cities may spend money on decorations, signs, plaques, and attached accessories for public streets, buildings, and parks. Where a city decides to display decorations and how much money is available to use on decorations is a decision for the city council and their designated staff.
Secular vs. religious meaning
With the store aisles already filled with decorations (love it or hate
it), you might also be wondering if there are limits on what a city can
Cities should be careful that decorations, such as those for the Christmas holidays, are not primarily religious in nature. A common approach many cities have chosen to take is a more “winter wonderland” theme with snowflakes and white lights versus recognizing any particular religious holiday.
Another easy way to think about it is decorations with a primarily secular meaning (e.g. Christmas trees, Santa Claus decorations, reindeer, wreaths) will generally be found constitutional while those with a primarily religious meaning (e.g. nativity scenes, menorahs, crosses) will have a greater chance of being challenged based on case law and past interpretations of the Establishment Clause.
Cities should also carefully consider the prominence of the locations it selects for decorations as the city should not be contributing to the advancement of religion.
Religious events on public property
Another common concern with holiday decorations is how a city should treat a special holiday event in a city park by a religious institution. When a religious organization requests to host a special event like a live nativity, the city should consider the request under the same standards it would for a request of the same nature coming from a non-religious organization.
Written by Amber Eisenschenk, staff attorney with the League of
Minnesota Cities. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or (651) 281-1227.
This blog post conveys general information. It’s not legal advice.
Please check with your city attorney before acting on this information.