All Restrictions on Celebrating Christmas in Public Schools Lifted By Missouri, Lawmakers Override Gov.'s Veto

A new Missouri law has recently gone into effect that allows public schools and buildings in the state to observe Christmas, or any federal holiday, without restrictions. The bill was overrode by state lawmakers in September after it was vetoed by Gov. Jay Nixon over public safety concerns. 

House Bill 278 became law last week after the state's legislators voted to override Democratic Gov. Nixon's veto on the bill in September. Although the law does not explicitly mention Christmas, supporting lawmakers of the bill have said that Christmas was specifically in mind when the bill was drafted. The bill's text reads, in part, "No state or local governmental entity, public building, public park, public school, or public setting or place shall ban or otherwise restrict the practice, mention, celebration, or discussion of any federal holiday."

Gov. Nixon vetoed the bill in July, but then the state's legislators voted 114 to 45 in September to override the veto, and the bill went into effect on Oct. 11. State Rep. Rick Brattin (R-Harrisonville), the bill's sponsor, said in a letter to Missouri school administrators and board members that he hopes the law will reverse the "chilling effect" that the separation of church and state has had on the ability to celebrate federal holidays like Christmas in public schools. 

"It is an honor for me to play a role in this process and to stand in defense to celebrate our holidays in the same ways that our parents and grandparents did. My hope is that HB 278 will help reverse the chilling effect we have seen on the ability of teachers and students to observe these holidays," Brattin said in the letter, as reported by Religion Clause.

Additionally, Brattin told the St. Louis Jewish Light that the purpose of the law is not to force everyone to celebrate a federal holiday such as Christmas, but rather to "[protect] those who wish to do so."

"What has been happening is that people are forbidden from discussing Christmas. The ACLU, groups like this, have put a stop to the celebration or even the mention of God or anything like that, and it's wrong," Brattin said. "I wanted to address what the vast majority of Americans celebrate because it's one of the most well-known, worldwide holidays."

"What happens is that we don't want to offend that one student but we end up offending the 99 who do [celebrate Christmas]," the state representative added, according to the St. Louis Jewish Light.

Gov. Nixon said in a July veto letter that he was choosing to veto bill 278 because he felt it would infringe on public safety laws for firework regulation on the Fourth of July. "[The bill] does not contain a public safety exception. As a result, local governments would be hampered in their efforts to enforce existing fireworks ordinances around July 4th." 

Nixon goes on to state that the bill's broad language would permit public sector employees at the state and local levels to demand federal holidays off, resulting in a great understaffing problem at government functions.

Gregory Lipper, a senior litigation counsel for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told Law Blog that he believes House Bill 278 to be an "extremely dangerous law" that could quickly violate constitutional rights. 

"It could be read to allow public school teachers, while in the classroom, to reenact the virgin birth, preach the salvation of Christ, or press their students to convert to Christianity - all under the guise of celebrating Christmas," Lipper told Law Blog.