After a good amount of hoopla, Texas Governor Rick Perry is expected to quietly sign legislation allowing public schools to celebrate Christmas and other winter holidays plainly and explicitly without fear of lawsuits.
The proposed law, dubbed the “Merry Christmas Bill,” sailed easily through both the Texas House and Senate and now awaits the Perry’s signature, reports the Dallas Observer. Vote tallies were 145-2 in the House and 29-0 in the Senate.
With Perry’s signature, the law will take effect beginning in fall 2013 — roughly 120 shopping days before Christmas.
The text of the bill specifically permits school districts to “educate students about the history of traditional winter celebrations.” More importantly and, somehow, controversially, the bill allows “students and district staff” to declare such things such as “Merry Christmas,” “Happy Hanukkah,” and even the soul-sucking “happy holidays.”
The bill also unambiguously legalizes displays of the religious imagery associated with traditional winter celebrations including nativity scenes, Christmas trees and menorahs. The caveat is that all displays must include imagery from at least two religions or some additional secular symbol. (Messages encouraging adherence to a religion are verboten, too.)
State Representative Dwayne Bohac is the prime mover behind the legislation.
“Our school officials and teachers have enough on their plate without having to worry about frivolous lawsuits for celebrating Christmas and Hanukkah,” the Houston Republican said in a press release when he introduced the bill, notes the Observer.
Bohac also started a website, Merrychristmasbill.com, to generate support for his proposed law.
“This bill originated when I picked up my first grade son from school last year and asked him how his day went,” Bohac asserts at the site. “When I asked what a holiday tree was, he told me it was the same as a Christmas tree. 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.”
Naturally, not everyone in the Lone Star State is enthused about the the “Merry Christmas Bill” becoming law.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas has opposed the legislation.
“We hope administrators and teachers remain mindful that it is of utmost importance that it’s parents who teach their children about matters of faith, not public schools” said ACLU spokesman Tom Hargis, according to Austin FOX affiliate KTBC.
Hargis added that the ACLU will surely keep a close eye on Christmas festivities in public schools next school year.
Aron Ra, Texas director of a group called American Atheists, strongly criticized Rep. Bohac as the bill was percolating through the Texas legislature, according to the Dallas Observer.
“He wants teachers to randomly be able to proselytize their religious beliefs by being able to put up religious displays in their classrooms, unrestricted, without any fear of litigation.” Ra said. “But what happens when it’s not a Christian that’s doing it? What happens when it’s a pagan trying to do solstice or Saturnalia? They’re using the same damn tree and they can cite where it came from.”
Ra has also argued that the bill will marginalize students who aren’t Christian — an issue he sees as a huge problem even in the absence of the “Merry Christmas Bill.”
Ra’s organization, American Atheists, was established in 1963 and bills itself as “the premier organization fighting for the civil liberties of atheists and the total, absolute separation of government and religion.”