By Chris Hutton
Every December, Americans celebrate many different holidays, including Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year’s Eve, the Winter Solstice and even Festivus because the days have personal and social meaning. Now at least eight states have passed or are advancing legislation to ensure public-school students and teachers are allowed to recognize and celebrate the holidays in the classroom.
But not everyone is happy about the idea of recognizing religious holidays in public education. Left-leaning organizations like the Freedom from Religion Foundation, the American Humanist Association and the ACLU don’t believe public schools should allow holiday celebrations. They argue that these activities support a particular religious view and proselytize students.
American Center for Law and Justice Senior Counsel David French said the war on Christmas has been in the courts for years. It’s only now that some state legislators are fighting back. Lawmakers in multiple states have submitted legislation that would allow schools the freedom to recognize and celebrate religious traditions without fear of lawsuits.
The most recent legislation is known as the Tennessee Merry Christmas bill. It was submitted by Tennessee Sen. Stacey Campfield in August 2013, and passed by the state Senate in February and the House of Representatives earlier this month.
Also this month, the Oklahoma House passed its Merry Christmas bill, HB 2317, with a 73-10 vote. Its version excludes Kwanzaa.
Oklahoma’s bill was modeled after Texas’ Merry Christmas law, HB 308, which passed in 2013. On Feb. 3, 2014, the Indiana Senate unanimously passed its Merry Christmas bill, which now moves to the House. Similar bills have also advanced in Alabama and been introduced in New Jersey and Georgia. A state lawmaker in Louisiana has indicated he has plans to file one in his state.
Tennessee’s Campfield said too many people fear being sued over celebrations of the holidays, which he believes is absurd.
Campfield’s bill was written to protect public schools from being sued if a teacher or student chooses to celebrate a winter holiday, as long as the school includes more than one religious tradition in the practice. A public school would be equally protected as long as it has a Santa Claus display and a Nativity set on campus. It’ll also allow campuses to have both a menorah and a Festivus pole on campus without complaint.
The support for such laws appears fairly high. The Tennessee Merry Christmas bill received a 30-0 vote in the state Senate, and an 83-4 vote in the House. Both Campfield and French are excited about the bill.
Campfield said, “Is it the end-all be-all? No. Is it a step in the right direction? I think so.”
French added, “There are a lot of major threats to religious liberty in our country right now. But any push-back is welcome.”
While many support this bill, Freedom from Religion Foundation Co-founder Annie Laurie Gaylor finds it problematic.
“The purpose of a school is to educate, not to indoctrinate. Nobody needs to be educated by Christmas by putting up Nativity scenes in public schools. That is not an educational message, that is a doctrinal message and is improper in our schools. Furthermore, it isn’t only coercive to students, but it is usurping the parent’s right to educate their children how they wish about religion.”
Gaylor wants to maintain what she believes to be a neutral educational environment where only the natural world is represented and no religious ideas, such as miracles, are given time.
She said allowing religious displays in schools would unintentionally imply that the government supports that belief, and thus move education closer to indoctrination.
But most of America disagrees with Gaylor.
A Dec. 11, 2013, Rasmussen Reports poll found a full 75 percent of American adults think Christmas should be celebrated in public schools. Just 15 percent disagree while 10 percent said they were unsure.
It’s clear that the divisions in the debate come from their different understandings of the First Amendment, the relationship between religion and state, and the difference between education and indoctrination. While bills like the Tennessee Merry Christmas bill are just a small part of the larger legal debate, what happens in the state House this month will impact how religious freedom is treated by the courts on a local, state and possibly on the national level.
Chris Hutton is an intern for Radio America.