City Agrees to Pay $20,000 in Fees, Clarify Rules After 2 Employees Claim Christmas Discrimination

The city has agreed to clarify its rules regarding religious displays in city offices and has agreed to pay $20,000 in attorney fees for two employees who filed a lawsuit over these decorations.

City council members voted unanimously Tuesday to approve the settlement with Chris Spencer and Kenneth Buck.

Brent Olsson, attorney for the employees, said his clients wanted a fair policy that allowed them to express their religious freedom.

"This was not about money," Olsson said. "It was about trying to correct an injustice."

As part of the settlement, City Manager Jim Couch agreed to release a statement to The Oklahoman.

"I appreciate Mr. Spencer and Mr. Buck bringing this matter to my attention," Couch said in the statement. "I also appreciate their working with the city to create new guidelines so that such a misunderstanding does not occur in the future and to ensure protection for the free speech rights of city employees."

The dispute began after Couch sent a memo Nov. 15 that said Nativity scenes, crosses, angels, cherubs and other religious items should not be displayed in government offices to "maintain neutrality" and avoid promoting one religion over another.

Spencer and Buck sued the city Dec. 17, claiming a supervisor told Spencer he had to remove a religious decoration on his filing cabinet. The employees also claim the city forced the removal of a Bible from a break room and the cancellation of an annual break room Christmas party that included an opening prayer.

After the lawsuit was filed, Couch sent a second memo to department and division heads that said the policy only pertained to decorations in public spaces at city offices. Employees could have the decorations in their personal work spaces, the memo said.

City officials said a new memo will be issued next week that will describe the city's guidelines for religious expression in greater detail.