Many of the residents at Mercy Village in Joplin are upset over a directive from management earlier this month requiring them to keep certain Christmas decorations out of the building's shared areas.

But the housing complex's owner, Denver-based Mercy Housing Inc., a nonprofit, said it is following the rules of the Fair Housing Act, which governs its property as a recipient of funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. That act prohibits discrimination by housing providers to people on the basis of race, religion, sex, national origin, familial status or disability.

Fights over the boundary between church and state separation, especially this time of year involving Nativity scenes and other religious symbols on both public and private property, are nothing new.

"Every year I get five or 10 telephone calls," said Dee Wampler, a Springfield attorney who works with Christian legal groups and other organizations. Most of the issues can be resolved without going to court, he said.

"I try to straighten everything out, to solve the problem and to mediate," he said.

But challenges and controversies continue to arise.

This month alone, disputes have already been numerous. A Nativity scene in St. Bernard in suburban Cincinnati has drawn opposition from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national watchdog group that says the display violates the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of separation of church and state.

Students at Concord (Indiana) High School produced their annual Christmas Spectacular earlier this month β€” but without a live Nativity, having been sued last year by the American Civil Liberties Union and Freedom From Religion Foundation over the scenes. And a resident of Knightstown, Indiana, is currently fighting to keep a cross out of a Christmas display in that community's town square.

Sometimes even secular Christmas decorations are challenged. In 2013, a San Diego man hired an attorney after being told by the homeowners association that governed his building that Christmas lights were prohibited outside his condo.

'Sucked the joy out'

At Joplin's Mercy Village, 1148 W. 28th St., residents said they decorated the second-floor public area with some of their own decorations β€” as they have done for the past several years β€” including a Christmas tree with a star, candles, a Santa figurine and a Nativity scene.

"It just felt very welcoming and festive," resident Linda Hopper said. "We need places like that. We need to see beauty and peace; we need to have tradition followed."

But then the directive came from management, they said: All religious symbols would need to be removed from decorations in public areas. So residents packed up everything from the second floor and put it away.

"It was like somebody brought in a vacuum cleaner and sucked the joy out," Hopper said.

A petition launched by the residents, asking that they be allowed to "celebrate Christmas as we deem fit and to put up any and all decorations as we desire in all the common areas," has garnered 49 signatures from across the 65-unit building.

"It's important for us to celebrate the traditions we've known all our lives," resident Jane Bryson said.

Said Quita Henson, another resident and petitioner: "This is my home. I don't want them taking (the decorations) away. It helps us to make it. To have shared values is important to us."

First Amendment right?

Wampler, who met recently with a group of Mercy Village residents on a "volunteer" basis, said he doesn't anticipate any litigation being filed over the issue. But he said there's "no reason" for the dispute.

"They believe they have the right under the First Amendment to celebrate the birth of Jesus this time of year," he said. "They're being denied their full rights to celebrate the season."

Wampler cited a 1984 U.S. Supreme Court case, Lynch v. Donnelly, which upheld the right of a nonprofit group to put up a Christmas display, including a Nativity scene, in the Pawtucket, Rhode Island, shopping district. The court, on a 5-4 decision, found that "the Constitution does not require complete separation of church and state; it affirmatively mandates accommodation, not merely tolerance, of all religions, and forbids hostility toward any."

The court furthermore held that the Nativity in particular was "no more an advancement or endorsement of religion than the congressional and executive recognition of the origins of Christmas, or the exhibition of religious paintings in governmentally supported museums."

Wampler said the view that there is a complete separation of church and state in America is a "misconception," and noted that the courts have also warned against "hostility" to religion.

"The Supreme Court said the celebration of Christmas, including the Nativity, is constitutional," Wampler said. "That law is still good, and there has never been a case that has ruled that Christmas is unconstitutional."

Residents on Thursday confirmed that there is still a "holiday" tree with a star on it in the first-floor lobby, but that is all. They said they also want to put up a Nativity and other religious-themed decorations.

"Nothing substantial has changed," Bryson said.

Fair Housing interpretations

In a statement emailed to the Globe, Kate Peterson, marketing and communications director for Mercy Housing Inc., noted that residents are welcome to decorate their own apartments as they desire, as well as decorate the common areas of the property for Christmas and New Year's Eve with secular decorations.

"However, because of the way the Fair Housing rules work, any decorations have to be religion neutral (in shared spaces)," she said. "So Mercy Housing, as most other property owners, does not allow religiously themed decorations in the common areas at any time of the year."

She cited the Fair Housing Institute, a private consulting company for the housing industry based in Norcross, Georgia. The institute notes that decorations such as a Christmas tree or a Santa Claus are not of a religious nature and not a violation of the Fair Housing Act. But Nativity scenes, crosses, "happy birthday Jesus" signs and stars of David are religious rather than secular and "should be avoided in public areas of a housing facility," it said.

The institute advises housing providers to keep common areas free of religious objects to avoid the perception that they would favor tenants of a certain religion over tenants of other religions or those who are nonreligious.

"Lobbies, hallways and other common areas of your property should be maintained in a religiously neutral state. A religiously neutral state is one that does not give the appearance that the property prefers or limits one religion over another," the group said in a report on its website. "While common area religious displays should be avoided, residents should be allowed, within the property's own house rules, to display personal religious items in their apartments and even on the outside of their apartment doors."

Peterson said Mercy Housing's policy is not likely to change.

"I'm sorry, but their interpretation has gone overboard. To me it just doesn't make sense," Bryson said. She added that the owners of the complex want to make sure no one is offended, but she noted: "What they are doing is just the reverse. They are offending us by not allowing us to celebrate Christmas like for 74 years I have done.

"It's really sad it has come to this."

History

Mercy Village, 1148 W. 28th St., was built in 2005 and was the first HUD-assisted multifamily property to reopen after the 2011 tornado.

Emily Younker is the assistant metro editor at the Joplin Globe. Contact: eyounker AT joplinglobe DOT com.