Local government's Christmas policy parallels woke rules found on college campuses

The King County, Washington, Workforce Equity Manager told employees that religious symbols ‘may cause disruption to co-workers.’

According to the manager's LinkedIn page, he’s the former Vice President of Employee Engagement, Equity, and Organizational Development at Shoreline Community College in Washington.

memo shared by the free speech watchdog, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), reveals that employees of King County, Washington, are advised not to include “religious symbols” in their workspaces. 

“Before adding any decorations to your workspace (including your virtual workspace), consider the likely effect of such decorations on all of the employees in and outside of your workgroup,” writes Workforce Equity Manager Gloria Ngezaho in the “Guidelines for Holiday Decorations for King County Employees.” 

“Some employees may not share your religion, practice any religion, or share your enthusiasm for holiday decorations,” the memo continues. 

FIRE called King County, the home county of Seattle, “this year’s First Amendment Scrooge.” 

“King County’s selective targeting of religious views for suppression violates its employees’ First Amendment right to free speech (and likely their right to free exercise of religion, as the First Liberty Institute recently pointed out),” FIRE’s report reads. 

First Liberty “is the largest legal organization in the nation dedicated exclusively to defending religious liberty” according to its website. In June 2022, the Supreme Court held that a First Liberty client, coach Joe Kennedy, has the right to publicly pray after high school football games. 

FIRE Director of Public Advocacy Aaron Terr told Campus Reform that FIRE sent a form to its supporters that asks King County “to respect its employees’ First Amendment rights.” A pre-populated email to Ngezaho and Chief Executive Dow Constantine says, “End this Grinchy tactic for all Who want to celebrate the holidays.”

Ngezaho’s memo told employees that because “King County remains committed to honoring the diversity in its workforce,” employees must keep “crosses,” “stars of David,” and other religious imagery within his or her “personal workspace.” The memo defines “personal workspace” as one “not generally accessible to the public.” 

Religious symbols, he writes, “may cause disruption.”

[RELATED: Frat house cannot hang its own Christmas wreath, university insists] 

King County can’t permit secular speech while forbidding religious speech, or it “can’t ban Christmas trees while allowing Festivus poles,” according to FIRE. 

“The county can’t tell its employees they can display decorations celebrating the holidays only if those decorations don’t represent anything on the county’s list of forbidden viewpoints,” FIRE’s report says. 

The memo’s author, Ngezaho, leads a program within King County Human Resources that “ensures an inclusive and diverse workforce.” 

“Workforce Equity supports, informs, and provides guidance on the county’s Equity and Social Justice (ESJ) Strategic Plan,” according to its website

King County Equity and Social Justice, which employs 19 people, provides resources including a Coalition Against Hate and Bias, which maintains a Hate and Bias Incident Response Survey. The survey collects data on “hate and bias incidents” and shares “resources and education.”

[RELATED: Nonprofit drafts model legislation to combat bias report systems] 

According to Ngezaho’s LinkedIn page, he’s the former Vice President of Employee Engagement, Equity, and Organizational Development at Shoreline Community College in Washington. 

The LinkedIn page lists “[i]ncorporate best practices in HR activities that also engender respect and equity across campus” and “[l]ead collaborative efforts related to the advancement of inclusion and equity” as essential job duties. 

Over a period of about two decades, colleges and universities have seen a sharp increase in the number of administrators that they employ. Many administrators are those serving in roles such as Ngezaho’s that focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). 

Yale, for example, experienced “a nearly 45 percent hike” of administrative employees from 2003 to 2019 according to the Yale Daily News. The Yale Daily News also reports that the university is nearing a 1:1 ratio of undergraduate students to administrative employees. A Yale fact sheet shows 6,494 undergraduate students and 5,177 “Managerial & Professional” staff for the 2021-2022 school year. 

Critics of the proliferation of administrators see these positions as examples of “mission creep,” or a job or department expanding its scope beyond its original role. The National Association of Scholars (NAS), a “non-profit organization that seeks to reform higher education,” described higher education’s expanding scope in a report“Priced Out: What College Costs America.” 

Higher education’s mission, according to NAS, is to help students graduate with skills needed for the workforce. NAS says that DEI initiatives make college classes “more therapeutic than educational,” leaving skillbuilding “confined to graduate education–which is even more expensive.” 

“Education is meant to elevate the mind by introducing students to new perspectives and unfamiliar ideas,” NAS writes. “Students should be exposed to uncomfortable ideas in the pursuit of truth.” 

NAS lists investigating professors for “‘triggering’” material, enforcing speech codes, and offering “‘self-care’” after events such as the election of former President Donald Trump as examples of university administrators’ expanding scope. 

“They prefer to guarantee students’ feelings of comfort than to guarantee students’ and professors’ right to speak and think freely,” NAS writes of university administrators. 

Terr told Campus Reform that the King County incident is similar to issues that FIRE has encountered on college campuses. “Last holiday season, FIRE wrote to Emory University to object to its policy prohibiting students from hanging holiday decorations,” Terr said.  

”King County’s policy also is reminiscent of university speech codes that seek to cleanse the campus of any speech that might offend someone.” 

Campus Reform asked King County Communications for specific examples of the “disruption” that religious symbols might cause. The department said that the county does not “have anything further to add.” 

Campus Reform contacted the offices of Equity and Social Justice and Human Resources in King County. This article will be updated accordingly. 

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