Post Office Ejects (Most) Religion (December 1994)

Nativity scenes and “Merry Christmas” signs are among the religious symbols explicitly barred from U.S. Post Office property under new guidelines issued by the U.S. Post Office.

The U.S. Post Office amended its handbook on October 27, 1994, to “clarify postal policy regarding seasonal displays and the display of religious symbols or matter on postal property.”

The Foundation and various members have complained over the years about religion in post offices, usually with speedy results from the current Postmaster General Marvin T. Runyon. A copy of the Postal Bulletin containing the clarification was obtained from Minnesota Atheists, which received the public information from a Foundation member who is also a postmaster.

Freethought Today is reprinting the clarification published in the Postal Operations Manual so that any readers encountering illegal religious displays at their post offices can invoke the new regulations to correct the violation. The rules are found in Postal Operations Manual 221.5, Lobby Space Utilization, and Handbook PO–203, Post Retailing, 535.4, Displays:

“Lobby Space Utilization

“.528. Seasonal Displays. Seasonal displays on postal property concern events or seasons that have a substantial impact upon mailing patterns. When postmasters elect to display seasonal decorations, the following guidelines apply:

“a. Displays should relate to the business of the Postal Service, such as promoting the use of postal products and services and encouraging customers to send greetings and gifts.

“b. The Postal Service must avoid the appearance of favoring any particular religion or religion itself.

“c. Symbols identified with a particular religion, including but not limited to nativity scenes, crosses, or the Star of David, shall not be displayed on postal property. Examples of permissible displays include: stamps and stamp art, evergreen trees bearing non-religious ornaments, menorahs (when displayed in conjunction with other seasonal matter), wreaths, holly, candy canes, Santa Claus, reindeer, dreidels, snowmen, stockings, candles, carolers, hearts, colored lights, and Kwanzaa symbols such as mkeka (a straw mat), kikombe cha umoja (unity cap), or mishumaa saba (a seven place candle holder with three red, three green, and one black candle).

“d. Messages identified with a particular religion, such as ‘Merry Christmas’ or ‘Happy Hanukkah,’ are prohibited. Examples of permissible messages include ‘Season’s Greetings,’ ‘Happy Holidays,’ ‘Happy Valentine’s Day,’ and ‘Happy Mother’s Day.’ “

Similarly, under “Prohibited Postings,” the Post Office lists “Religious symbols or matter including but not limited to nativity scenes and the Star of David.”

It adds: “Nothing in this section prohibits the display of stamps and stamp art or use of secular holiday decorations,” listing the same objects as cited above, including the menorah. “The expressions ‘Season’s Greetings’ and ‘Happy Holidays’ must be used in lieu of ‘Merry Christmas’ or ‘Happy Hanukkah,’ ” the bulletin advises.

Under “Decorative Displays,” the handbook repeats the wording quoted under “Seasonal Displays.”

“We thank the Postmaster General for issuing this clarification,” said Anne Gaylor, Foundation president. “Our only criticism, of course, is that the Post Office permits menorahs to be displayed. The menorah is considered sacred by practicing Jews, and is the symbol of Hanukkah, just as a nativity scene is a symbol of Christmas to practicing Christians.

“We think this is an unwise interpretation by the U.S. Postal Service, which will confuse the boundaries of state/church separation and open the door to other violations.

“That noted, we have been favorably impressed with the Postmaster General’s responsiveness to our complaints,” Gaylor added.

Still unresolved is the issuance of religious Christmas stamps every year since 1965. In 1970, the post office adopted its current policy of offering a religious as well as secular “Christmas” stamp every year. A “Madonna and Child” stamp has been issued every consecutive year since 1978.

“Nativity scenes, crosses and the words ‘Merry Christmas’ are very properly prohibited from postal displays, but ironically the U.S. Post Office currently endorses Christian worship through its own Christmas stamps!” Gaylor noted.

“We would like to see the the U.S. Postal Service extend its policy of neutrality to stamps as well.”

Please contact the Foundation in a timely fashion if you encounter any violations at your local post office.

Freedom From Religion Foundation