University of Tennessee's 'Christmas party in disguise' memo draws ire

An online memo suggesting best practices for inclusive holiday parties evoked intense backlash from Tennessee's Republican lawmakers, who are calling for the Chancellor to resign. 

Paul Efird/Knoxville News Sentinel/AP
A campus landmark called the Rock is repainted to remove a message calling for the resignation of University of Tennessee Chancellor Jimmy Cheek Friday, in Knoxville, Tenn. The message alludes to the university's suggestions to faculty and staff regarding office holiday parties, with members of Congress blasting the guidelines as an attempt to enshrine political correctness on campus. The painters declined comment or being identified.

A memo calling for inclusiveness at University of Tennessee holiday parties has prompted Republican lawmakers to call for the school's chancellor to resign.

Chancellor Jimmy Cheek has come under fire for a memo recently posted on the school’s Office for Diversity and Inclusion website. Titled "Best Practices for Inclusive Holiday Celebrations in the Workplace,” the guidelines suggest that parties should be inclusive of all religions and holidays, not just Christmas.

“Holiday parties and celebrations should celebrate and build upon workplace relationships and team morale with no emphasis on religion or culture,” the memo reads. “Ensure your holiday party is not a Christmas party in disguise.”

The ongoing episode demonstrates the polarizing cultural debate over religious freedom and how it should be applied to December holidays. On one end, conservatives interpret the secularization of the festivities as a “war on Christmas” that infringes upon their religious rights as Christians. Their opponents, however, want to curb the prevalence of Christmas in public in order to protect the religious freedoms of non-Christians.

The Starbucks cup ordeal earlier this year is another prime example of the alienating controversy.

While the school’s president, faculty, and students have defended Mr. Cheek’s recommendation for cultural sensitivity, all nine of the state’s Republican representatives in Congress have spoken out against it, deeming the memo an affront to Christians.

US Rep. John J. Duncan of Tennessee, for instance, said he was “personally embarrassed” about the post in a Fox News interview.

“I am saddened and very disappointed that the school from where I graduated would do this," Representative Duncan said in a statement. “The people I represent are disgusted by this action, and people at the university should be taken to task for it."

Republican state Sens. Delores Gresham and Mike Bell have also publicly condemned the inclusivity memo, issuing a joint statement that warns of Christian persecution on campus.

"The Office of Diversity is not welcoming to all and hostile to none as they claim," Senator Gresham said in the statement. "They are very hostile to students and other Tennesseans with Christian and conservative values. By placing a virtual religious test regarding holiday events at this campus, every student who is a Christian is penalized."

Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey even suggested that the school could be stripped of state funding.

Meanwhile, staff and students have been accumulating written support for Cheek and the holiday party recommendations. According to the university’s Faculty Senate, more than 3,000 signatures have been gathered in approval of the memo’s message, as well as Cheek’s track record in promoting diversity.

The professors have drafted a letter, signed by more than 20 department heads, addressing University of Tennessee President Joe DiPietro. The group of faculty will hold an emergency meeting Tuesday to discuss further resolutions regarding the conservative criticism.

“As a government entity, we firmly believe it is the duty of the University of Tennessee to stand for a position that recognizes no single religious observance over any other,” the letter reads. “We applaud Chancellor Cheek as he stands for diversity and inclusion.”

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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