Protecting Christmas ‘Merry Christmas Bill’ would let teachers and students celebrate

December 5, 2013

State Rep. Ken Walker will introduce a bill in the 2014 legislative session that will let public school students discuss Christmas.

HB 2316 would amend the Education Code and authorize a public school district to educate students about the history of winter holidays and allow teachers and staff to say “Merry Christmas,” “Happy Hanukkah” or “happy holidays” without fear of reprimand or legal action.

Walker, R-Tulsa, said his bill also legalizes the display of symbols associated with Christmas and Hanukkah on school property, although it prohibits a display from including a message that encourages adherence to a particular religious belief.

Walker said he was inspired to author the bill after introduction of a “Merry Christmas Bill” in Texas by State Rep. Dwayne Bohac, R-Houston. That bill also protects the freedom of Texas public schools to educate students about Christmas and Hanukkah and other traditional winter celebrations.

“During this time every year, I hear from numerous constituents who believe the words Merry Christmas or Happy Hanukkah should be protected and not subject to censorship in our public schools,” Bohac said. “These parents and educators want the freedom to decorate Christmas trees, use traditional holiday greetings, display Menorahs and generally celebrate these traditional winter holidays on school grounds. This common-sense legislation tracks Supreme Court precedent which has made it clear that such expressions and displays are, indeed, permissible.”

Walker said he talked to Kathy LaFortune, the wife of former Mayor Bill LaFortune, who complained that public school officials felt they had to erase discussion of Christmas during the Christmas season.

Christmas has been recognized as an official holiday since 1870. In the Supreme Court cases of Lynch v. Donnelly and County of Allegheny v. ACLU, it was deemed legal for a governmental entity to acknowledge Christmas for historical and cultural purposes as a traditional winter celebration and as a national holiday. That decision also approved display of a Nativity scene and Christmas trees.

Bohac said he became concerned one year when he picked up his son from the first grade and he said his class had decorated a “holiday” tree. Bohac spoke to school administrators who said they made the switch because they feared a lawsuit from opponents of Christmas.

“Our school officials and teachers have enough on their plate without having to worry about frivolous lawsuits for celebrating Christmas and Hanukkah,” Bohac said.

The Oklahoma Legislature opens its 2014 session in February.

There is a national effort to free teachers from a  ban on mentioning Christmas and Hanukkah.

Alliance Defending Freedom issued a letter in November to more than 13,000 school districts nationwide to explain constitutional protections for religious Christmas carols that some districts have censored due to misinterpretations of the First Amendment.

The letter also backs up the legitimacy of schools participating in community service projects sponsored by religious organizations and offers free legal assistance to districts that need help.

“Schools shouldn’t have to think twice about whether they can celebrate Christmas,” said Senior Legal Counsel Jeremy Tedesco. “School districts can and should allow religious Christmas carols to be part of their school productions, and they can lawfully help impoverished children through community service projects such as Operation Christmas Child.”

The letter cites recent examples of school districts in Wisconsin and New Jersey that wrongly censored Christmas carols in school productions and then changed their positions in response to public outcry and letters from Alliance Defending Freedom explaining that the inclusion of religious carols is permissible.

As the letter explains, “every federal court that has examined the issue has determined that including traditional Christmas carols and other religious music in school music programs fully complies with the First Amendment….”

Most recently, a South Carolina charter school reportedly cancelled its participation in Samaritan Purse’s Operation Christmas Child, a toy drive for needy children, after a humanist group threatened the school with legal action.

“Public schools’ confusion about this issue and the legalities of celebrating Christmas in other ways has been largely caused by inaccurate information about the Establishment Clause spread by certain groups opposed to any religious expression occurring in public,” the nationwide letter states. “Alliance Defending Freedom has produced a Christmas Memo and a Christmas and Public Schools Myths/Fact Sheet that dispel these misconceptions…. Providing students an opportunity to put together a box of gifts for impoverished children throughout the world does not become unlawful just because the toy drive is sponsored by a religious organization.”

“The Constitution both allows and protects the celebration of Christmas in public schools,” added Senior Counsel Kevin Theriot. “We hope the materials we are providing to school districts will help clear up the misinformation that groups attempting to cleanse all traces of religion from the public square have spread for far too long.”

A December 2011 Rasmussen poll found that 79 percent of American adults believe public schools should celebrate religious holidays.