In an 11th hour move before Christmas, the president of Southwestern Oklahoma University announced this week the school has reversed its ban on the word "Christmas," allowing staff members to display religious symbols in their offices as well as greet each other with holiday salutations.
The clarification followed a directive issued by David Misak, director of Human Resources, to university staff that decorations featuring the word "Christ" or Christmas" be immediately removed from Weatherford school's lobbies and offices, according to the Liberty Counsel. Employees were also instructed to not use the word "Christmas" in e-mails.
Various staff members confirmed to Liberty Counsel that they were not allowed to use the holiday greeting in e-mail or voicemail and that the ITS department was told to remove from the university introduction page a statement that read: "Have a very Happy Holiday ... Merry Christmas ... Happy New Year."
The controversy had drawn attention from Weatherford City Commissioner Warren Goldmann who confirmed the ban policy with the provost of the university and then contacted Liberty Counsel. The Fla.-based legal group then issued a letter to the university urging a rescission of the ban and called on supporters to contact the university.
On Thursday, university president John Hays released a statement clarifying the school's Christmas policy.
"The university does not have a policy that bans the word 'Christmas' or Christmas decorations," stated Hays.
He noted that the instruction of supervisors to staff to exercise caution with Christmas decorations led to a mistaken assumption that such references or religious expression were banned.
"The university will continue to follow the law and to respect the right of all its staff members…[I]f a nativity or other religious symbol of the holiday is displayed in a place open to the general public (like a lobby), the university will include secular symbols of the holiday in the nearby context." Hays added.
"Employees have always been and continue to be permitted to greet one another with the greeting 'Merry Christmas' or 'Happy Holidays.' The decision is up to each employee."
Matthew Staver, president of Liberty Counsel, praised the university's response.
"I am very pleased by the prompt actions of President John Hays to resolve the Christmas controversy. His leadership in resolving the controversy over Christmas and the general guidelines he has set forth regarding the appropriate way a state school and its employees may acknowledge and celebrate Christmas serves as an example for others to follow," he said in a statement Friday.
"Christmas is a wonderful time of the year and it can and should be enjoyed by all."