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This question is specifically in the context of an American public institution and a generic faculty member, specifically not someone working in religious studies or a similar department. I have noticed over the years that many faculty members have religious items on display in their office or on their office doors, and I was wondering on the one hand whether they are legally allowed, and on the other hand how wise it is to display them while being sensitive to a diverse student population. Here are a few examples from my own experience (all in mathematics).

  • Several years ago I had a colleague post the ten commandments outside his office door.

  • I have another colleague who has Bible study books prominently displayed on his bookshelf.

  • I myself have a poster of the Buddha and a Buddha statue in my office, both given to me by a student.

  • Somewhat less on topic: a now-retired faculty member used to put ads for a Bible study that he held in his home in graduate student mailboxes. (I know many foreign graduate students found this off-putting.)

  • Long time ago, the Director of Bands at UNH had a prominently displayed plaque in his office which read "Non Illegitemi Carborundum." It ain't religious but one wonders if he'd get away with it now. – Carl Witthoft Nov 17 '14 at 22:39
  • I think this question and aesmail's answer are appropriate for most secular nations. – Moriarty Nov 18 '14 at 8:28
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    What if a professor has a Dollar bill on his desk with IN GOD WE TRUST written on it? – Pavel Nov 18 '14 at 12:37
  • If it was illegal then how could there be professors of religion????? – Austin Henley Nov 18 '14 at 16:32
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    What's the issue? The bible is one of the greatest works of literature ever written! A banner reading "Jesus loves you." on the other hand... – Dave Kanter Nov 18 '14 at 19:07
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Here is a document explaining some of the legal issues involved. Since I have no legal education, I will refrain from commenting too much, it is probably better to consult the document and the references within. With that disclaimer, my understanding is that the main legal tension is between First Amendment rights of the employee and the anti-discrimination clause of the Civil Rights Act, on one hand, and, in the case of a public university, the Establishment Clause on the other. If an unequivocally religious display is placed in a way which may induce others to think that the government (including state government) is endorsing a religion, then the display may be unconstitutional. So, for example, placing the ten commandments in a reception area, like the student accounting office, would likely be a problem. On the other hand, displays inside a faculty office are most likely legitimate exercises of free speech. Another consideration is how much disruption the display causes.

To me the ten commandments on the outside of an office door and placing religious ads in mailboxes seem borderline. I have seen posters (for conferences or publications) and comic strip cutouts on office doors, and I always interpreted them as communication from the person who sits in the office, and not university-endorsed communication. So in that sense, I am not sure the endorsement test I mentioned above applies. On the other hand, putting ads in the mail could be reasonably interpreted as something okay-ed by the university, and may be illegal.

One should consult the code of conduct of the institution, which hopefully has more specific guidelines.

  • I wonder if historical preservation ever comes into this, because for example the face of Moses presides over Congress. – MetaGuru Nov 18 '14 at 17:18
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    I think Nikolov's answer is good. As a broader thought regarding the freedom of personal religious expression in America, I like this saying: > It's freedom of religion, not freedom from religion. – matt1616 Nov 18 '14 at 22:04
  • @ioSamurai the link you shared suggests that Moses is portrayed as a historical rather than religious figure. If you look at the list of the 23 people with portraits in Congress, it seems clear they were selected as famous lawmakers. – Sasho Nikolov May 15 '15 at 21:23
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There's a big difference between inconspicuously displaying religiously-themed materials in one's office and effectively proselytizing, as the retired faculty in your example apparently did. The former is I think entirely reasonable, as it's a personal display that does not put any burden on a visitor or guest to the office. Putting religious materials in their inboxes is unwanted, and is inappropriate for a faculty member to do (particularly given the power imbalance involved).

I don't think I've ever received (or heard of) a legal notice that one is not allowed to display religious imagery in a personal office. Is it a good idea? Again, I think it's a question of degree. There's nothing wrong with displaying a small cross or Star of David or moon and crescent in one's office. Having a large and ostentatious display, though, would probably put students ill at ease. Similarly, having those materials where you actually meet with students (say, at a conference table in the office) is more "aggressive" than just having it on a bookshelf.

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    +1 I agree completely, and maybe I should have left off the last example, since I think we can all more-or-less agree that it is impolite, although I'm still curious about the legal issues. But what about the less extreme examples? Are they less severe breaches of etiquette (or perhaps even against some regulation?), or are they perfectly fine? – Jim Conant Nov 17 '14 at 17:01
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    @JimConant On the contrary, they would be considered protected free speech under the First Amendment so long as it's obvious that it's the particular faculty member (or staff member or whatever) and not the University itself doing the promotion. Whether someone may find them off-putting is another matter, but they're certainly not illegal. On the contrary, a policy preventing them would probably be illegal in the case of a public institution. – reirab Nov 17 '14 at 20:43
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    @reirab: it's not so clear that this is protected speech. The university owns the offices. I imagine they are legally allowed to control what is posted on the walls, provided it doesn't discriminate against any group. So if all religious items are banned, not just say Christian ones, then that seems like a constitutional policy. Indeed, at my home institution, during a presidential election several years ago, we were instructed that we were not allowed to post political material on our doors or in our offices. – Jim Conant Nov 17 '14 at 21:28
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    It most definitely is not protected speech so long as it's taking place on property owned by your employer. I know of corporations which have banned all flags in the workplace (basically to avoid near-civil-war conditions). – Carl Witthoft Nov 17 '14 at 22:38
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    @JimConant In the case of the public university, the state actually owns the offices. To quote the document in Sasho's answer, They [the public employer] may only limit that right if the employee’s speech or display causes a disruption or has the potential to cause disruption, sufficient to outweigh the value of the speech. Furthermore, as that article also points out, taking any employment action against the faculty or staff member would likely violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. – reirab Nov 17 '14 at 23:37
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At my college we had one faculty who was a very devout christian. The only visible sign was a small bible in the far corner of his obsessively-tidy desk, and topics of religion never came up. Not once. He was also, per christian teachings, rather homophobic. As a significant percentage (like, half) of the students in that program were gay men he rather pointedly never approached the subject.

End result: zero problems. And he got along fine with the 2 gay guys in our section.

Moral: keep your personal beliefs to yourself and everything will be fine.

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    It's really questionable to say that Christian "teachings" are themselves homophobic, unless you mean some very specific denomination. And, apriori, I find it unlikely that half of the male student population in any school is gay, given less than 10% of American men are gay (and this is a generous estimate afaik). – Sasho Nikolov Nov 18 '14 at 9:42
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    @SashoNikolov many christians consider homosexuality to be bad - Leviticus 20:13 is the appropriate reference. And it was an arts program, where you will find a very disproportionate percentage of gay guys, most of whom are Fabulous. – peter Nov 18 '14 at 12:41
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    @SashoNikolov The doctrines of many Churches do (or did) profess that homosexuality is immoral. If I take it from peter's answer that there were only four students in a program, then two being gay is uncommon but by no means hard to believe. IMO, the professor in the answer handled his faith in a professional setting in an exemplary manner. – Moriarty Nov 18 '14 at 12:55
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    Probably it's not a good idea to start dissecting people's faith. This site is really not the place for that type of discussion. – Jim Conant Nov 18 '14 at 14:38
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    Part of this is objective. Part of this is subjective. The objective part is fine, the subjective part is not. I'd recommend rewording it to be less pointy. – Compass Nov 18 '14 at 17:04
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Seeing as many universities are actually private schools, there is no legality behind it unless the university is a publicly funded school. Even in the case of a public institution, it is only illegal if its being taught as dogma. Displaying religious text outside an office is toeing that line.

Over-all, I would refer to your institutions policies on this. On a personal note, what you want to display in your office is fine, just don't get upset when people judge you for it. School is for academia, not religious expression.

  • Could you please clean up your prose a bit? There are a number of grammar problems in this post... – jakebeal Feb 16 '15 at 22:18
  • I'll agree that my English is irregular at best, but it is grammatically correct for non-disciplinary discussion. (I did correct spelling errors, sorry for those.) – Oedhel Setren Feb 16 '15 at 22:25
  • My question is in the context of a public[ly funded] institution. – Jim Conant Feb 17 '15 at 4:52
  • As long as there's no proselytizing during class hours, there's nothing directly illegal. However, I do think its generally inappropriate in an academic setting. If enough students/faculty had issue with the display of religious items, a petition could do something about it. For the most part, I find it distasteful, but not inherently wrong. – Oedhel Setren Feb 17 '15 at 12:51

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