ORONO — An email from a University of Maine supervisor, directing employees to refrain from displaying Christmas or other religious-themed decorations on campus, has sparked outrage on the campus and in the community.
The story, first reported by WABI-TV on Wednesday, spread wildly across social media: A Facebook group called Bring Cheer Back to UMaine had more than 600 members as of Thursday.
UMaine officials said the email from Monday, Dec. 8, was sent by Daniel Stirrup, the university’s executive director of auxiliary services, to his departmental managers.
The university released the following as the text of Stirrup’s email:
“Just wanted to remind everyone that Auxiliary Services is not to decorate any public areas with Christmas or any other religious themed decorations. Winter holiday decorations are fine but we need to not display any decoration that could be perceived as religious.
This includes xmas trees, wreaths, xmas presents, candy canes, etc.
What is allowed are winter themes, plain trees without presents underneath, decorative lights, but not on trees, snow flakes, etc.
If you are unsure, best to not use or ask me for clarification.”
Ryan Low, interim vice president for administration and finance at the university, said Stirrup is “a really solid manager” who was trying to provide guidance to his management team, and took a “very conservative stance out of an abundance of caution.”
Stirrup is not facing discipline over the email, said Low. Stirrup could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday afternoon.
Dean of Students Robert Dana, in a news release Thursday, said that UMaine did not ban Christmas decorations, or representations of any other holiday.
“We want to be absolutely clear that at the University of Maine, we welcome every faith tradition, and we welcome displays of those faith traditions,” said Dana. “The university is a place where, indeed, there is a great deal of diversity and that’s what we want and expect.
“It doesn’t feel good, it doesn’t look good, and it doesn’t reflect us,” Dana said about the email specifically. “We welcome displays of religious symbols in public spaces and residence hall rooms. We don’t advocate one religion over another.”
A contributing factor to the controversy was the end of an annual fundraiser by a UMaine fraternity, Alpha Tau Omega, which put up 16 Christmas trees in the Memorial Union.
The “Blue and Gold Christmas,” in which Greek and non-Greek organizations raise nonperishable food items, ended Sunday and the fraternity took down the trees, as it does every year, according to Connor Scott, philanthropy chairman for ATO.
Scott added that the fundraiser started earlier this year due to the fact that final exams are occurring this week. Dana was a judge in that event.
“That happened to be around the same time that [Stirrup] sent out an email,” Scott said. “It really was a misunderstanding and a confusion more than anything.”
If there’s any message both Scott and Dana wished to send to the community, it’s that all holiday decorations are welcomed on the UMaine campus.
“Every expression of faith is an open, honest expression and students, faculty and staff have every encouragement and right to have a freedom of speech,” said Dana.
The outside of Memorial Union, where Scott and Dana addressed a throng of media Thursday morning, was covered with holiday wreaths.
“I can confidently tell you that there are thousands of people at UMaine today saying ‘Merry Christmas’ to thousands of other people,” Dana said.