Santa trumps the Grinch under Texas’ new Merry Christmas law

12/07/2013 2:19 PM

12/07/2013 2:21 PM

The Grinch — and anyone else trying to dampen the holiday spirit — should stay away from Texas this year.

A group of Texans is coming out in full force to protect Christmas, Hanukkah and other holiday celebrations and to make sure students, teachers and parents have the right to observe their holidays at school.

“It’s time to end the war on Christmas and stop forcing our schools to bow at the altar of political correctness,” said Jonathan Saenz, president of Texas Values, which is spearheading a Merry Christmas Texas effort.

After legal battles that prevented a student a decade ago from handing out candy cane pens with a description of the candy’s Christian origin, the Legislature enacted a law this year to ensure that students can still exchange traditional holiday greetings.

Already, though, an effort to hold a “winter party” for elementary school students in Frisco, rather than a “Christmas party,” has drawn national attention.

Supporters of the new Texas law maintain that people may now — without fear of sparking a lawsuit — say “Merry Christmas,” “Happy Hanukkah” or “Happy holidays” at school and display Christmas trees, menorahs and Nativity scenes there, as long as more than one religion and a secular symbol are included.

Radio ads are being broadcast statewide to remind Texans of their religious liberties this holiday season, according to Texas Values, the conservative group that has weighed in on issues ranging from same-sex divorce to the Boy Scouts’ gay ban.

“We hope our Merry Christmas Texas effort will educate millions of Texas public school students and parents and our over 1,200 school districts of their protections under the ‘Merry Christmas’ law,” said Saenz, an attorney.

Not everyone believes all this is necessary.

“I’m sure that right-wing advocacy groups raise of a lot of money this time of year by hyping a fake war on Christmas,” said Terri Burke, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.

“But the truth is that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution already protects schoolchildren’s religious freedom — whether they are Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu or none of the above — and nothing that the Texas Legislature passes is going to improve on what the Founders gave us.”

Holiday concerns

Most recently, concerns were raised about an email from an elementary school in Frisco about a “winter party,” banning any mention of Christmas and “red/green or Christmas trees.”

The principal at Nichols Elementary School in Frisco has said she and the PTA decided on a “winter party” to avoid offending anyone.

The email stated that children had to abide by a few rules to attend: no Christmas trees, no use of red or green, no use of items that could stain carpets and no references to religious holidays, including Christmas.

The Frisco school district has called this situation “an unfortunate misunderstanding” and notes that it was not an official PTA email but one sent by a room mother.

In a note posted on the district’s website, officials state that people may call winter parties whatever they want: “holiday party, winter party, Christmas party.”

“We are still unsure of why the campus and District’s position was misunderstood and why there is the feeling that there is some sort of ban of items or greetings regarding the winter holiday parties at that school,” the note says. “When in our schools and offices, you will see a variety of decorations — you will see Christmas Trees at some, you will see a winter wonderland theme at others, you may even see staff wearing Santa hats.”

Past years have seen legal challenges of religious-themed items at Texas schools.

In 2003, a third-grade boy in the Plano district was stopped from passing out candy cane pens and attached cards that described the legend of the candy cane. The next year, a few families filed a federal lawsuit over similar matters.

Two years later, the district updated rules about when students can hand out religious-themed items, before and after school, at recess, at designated tables during school hours and during three annual parties.

The case is still tied up in the courts. This year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, in New Orleans, ruled that one family didn’t properly notify the district by certified mail about its concerns.

“The hope is that … these conflicts that have happened in the past will become a thing of the past,” Saenz said. “I hope if there are any questions, they can be resolved before they reach a courtroom.”

New law

These are exactly the types of problems that state lawmakers hoped to avoid when they approved a “Merry Christmas” bill.

Students and teachers are now legally protected in offering holiday greetings and displaying anything from a Nativity scene to a menorah. But the display may not include a message encouraging a particular religious belief.

State Rep. Dwayne Bohac, R-Houston, said he drafted the bill after learning that his son’s school put up a “holiday tree” out of fear that talking about Christmas could generate a lawsuit.

“We hope that this is a fire that will take off and become laws in the other 49 states,” Bohac said this year after his bill was signed into law.

A state senator in Georgia recently filed a similar proposal for lawmakers to consider next year.

Jim Harrington, an Austin civil-rights attorney, believes that the only “war on Christmas” is commercialization of the holiday. And he said state lawmakers have gone too far.

“They want to make the practice of Christianity as close to a state religion as they can get,” he said. “I wish they would spend more time figuring out how to fund education than figuring out how to make kids say, ‘Merry Christmas.’”

‘Political correctness’

Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, said he has long seen a need for the “Merry Christmas” law.

For years, Krause worked at Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit organization that promotes the protection of Christian rights in public settings, and fielded countless holiday-related inquiries.

Calls would involve “stories about how the town Christmas tree was now called a holiday tree,” he said. “Or a school had changed the words to Silent Night to a more secularized version. Or that governmental employees were told not to say ‘Merry Christmas’ at work so they wouldn’t offend someone.

“I was able to witness firsthand the ‘political correctness run amok’ side of things for quite a while.”

The “Merry Christmas” bill drew national attention to Texas, and some lawmakers say that’s fine.

“Many Texans feel that our family and faith traditions are being systematically eroded by political-correctness, nanny-state activists, so the Texas Legislature took action to remove legal risks for wishing someone a merry Christmas,” said Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills.

Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, said he supported the measure “because it creates a uniform policy for all schools, just in case there was any gray area.”

“I hope we can all focus more on the true meaning of the season instead of manufactured hysteria about a nonexistent ‘war on Christmas,’” he said.

Coming up

Texas Values is running radio ads in the state’s largest media markets — Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin/Central Texas and the San Antonio area.

The group has an online petition in support of the effort, asking Texans to weigh in on the law and to share it with their school districts. And it’s asking Texans to report on what their school district does.

Texas Values has a Merry Christmas Texas education and celebration event set for today at the Texas Capitol.

Supporters will hold a news conference at 9 a.m. to make sure Texans understand the new law.

An educational presentation will follow at 10 a.m. in the Capitol auditorium. And a Christmas party will be held in the legislative conference center from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

The party will include refreshments, including Christmas cookies, and a visit from Santa.

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