As atheist groups are known for suing public schools each winter season for displaying Christmas cheer or using greetings like "Merry Christmas," a state representative from Texas, Dwayne Bohac, has filed a bill that would free schools from such concerns.
"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, a Republican from Houston, said in a statement about his "Merry Christmas Bill" to protect traditional holiday greetings and displays in Texas public schools.
"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," Bohac explained. Calling the bill "common-sense legislation," he said it tracks Supreme Court precedent which has made it clear that "such expressions and displays are, indeed, permissible."
The H.B. 308, filed on Wednesday, states that a school district "may educate students about the history of traditional winter celebrations, and allow students and district staff to offer traditional greetings regarding the celebrations," including "Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and happy holidays."
It adds that a school district may also "display on school property scenes or symbols associated with traditional winter celebrations, including a menorah or a Christmas image such as a nativity scene or Christmas tree," provided the display includes a scene or symbol of more than one religion or one religion and at least one secular scene or symbol.
The bill also clarifies that a display relating to a traditional winter celebration "may not include a message that encourages adherence to a particular religious belief."
Bohac said he thought of protection for public schools after his son in the first grade came home from school and talked about a "holiday tree" and "holiday ornaments." This prompted the lawmaker to speak to school officials.
"After inquiring with school officials as to why the term 'holiday tree' was being used, it became apparent that the school was fearful of litigation," Bohac said. "It was that moment that inspired me to file legislation that would provide students, parents, teachers and administrators a safe harbor for openly celebrating a federal holiday."
In October, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott backed a group of cheerleaders in the eastern town of Kountze where the students won the right to display banners with religious references at football games. Perry and Abbott said at a news conference that state law protects the students' speech, citing the Religious Viewpoint Antidiscrimination Act of 2007. A judge later allowed the banners.
The landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases of Lynch v. Donnelly, and County of Allegheny v. ACLU, have established that it is permissible for a governmental entity to acknowledge Christmas for historical and cultural purposes as a traditional winter celebration and as a national holiday.
"Our school officials and teachers have enough on their plate without having to worry about frivolous lawsuits for celebrating Christmas and Hanukkah," Bohac said. "It's my intent to offer protection for school officials and teachers by codifying Supreme Court precedent and providing 'bright lines.'"