These Are a Few of My Favorite Things (About Holiday Decorations)

And, just like that, another year is nearing its end, which brings with it the holidays. Holiday parties, music, and of course, decorations. The burning question is whether associations should decorate their common areas or common elements for the holidays or forgo decorations entirely? While decorating brings with it a sense of community, it may also incite anger and resentment if the common area holiday display gives the impression that the community favors one holiday or religion over another. So, what should an association do? How should an association navigate requests by homeowners for holiday displays on homeowner property? Knowing the law surrounding these issues and planning ahead can help associations avoid the holiday blues, and instead, have a joyous and stress-free holiday season.

Common Area/Element Decorations

The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion. Therefore, an association should avoid favoring (or appearing to favor) one religion over another when it displays its holiday decorations. An association may do so either by not decorating, decorating in a non-religious manner, or ensuring equal treatment of all religions if decorating in a religious manner.

Not decorating common areas and common elements may appear to be the easiest and safest route, but could also be perceived as “Scrooge-like.” Therefore, if an association makes the determination that it would like to decorate, those decorations should be carefully reviewed and monitored. An association, for example, may choose to decorate in a non-religious manner by hanging lights and displaying evergreens or pictures of snowflakes. If the association takes this approach, it’s important to be thoughtful. For example, while some may perceive Santa Claus as neutral, others do not. While an
association doesn’t need to go to an extreme, it is important to be cognizant of the decorations on display.

Alternatively, if your association determines that it does wish to decorate in a religious manner, it shouldn’t favor one religion over another and should give equal treatment to other religious affiliations. For example, if an association displays a nativity scene, it would be well-served to include an equally prominent religious symbol for Chanukah, Kwanza, etc. Also, if a challenge arises, or if someone believes their religion is being excluded, it’s important to review and consider their request, possibly with the help of legal counsel.

Homeowner Decorations

Your association’s governing documents may prohibit holiday decorations in their entirety. If so, the association should apply the restrictions consistently one holiday decoration versus another.

If the association’s documents permit holiday decorations, your association may wish to avoid battles over decorations by having a policy in place well before the holidays.

The policy should consider the size and location of the decoration and the time frame in which it may be kept up. When drafting a policy, it’s important to be specific about these restrictions so there is no confusion. It is also important to address the timing of when the holiday decorations may remain. Associations should be cognizant that the time for removing decorations for some holidays may not coincide with the timing of other holidays. Therefore, instead of listing a specific date that decorations must be removed, the association’s policy might just state that decorations must be removed 10 days after the holiday. Again, these rules should be reasonable and shouldn’t favor or be restrictive of one religion over another.

By keeping non-favoritism in mind, associations can enjoy a happy Chanukkah, Kwanza, Christmas, winter solstice, festivus or holiday, or non-holiday, of their choice.

Ruth Katz is a community associations attorney who helps board members of condominiums, cooperatives, and homeowners associations govern effectively. She provides general counsel to and resolves disputes for boards and property management companies in Maryland, DC, and Virginia. For information about handling holiday decorations in your association, contact Ruth at [email protected] or 301-657-0188.

This article originally appeared in the November 2017 edition of Quorum.