Politics & Government

Don’t mess with ‘Merry Christmas’ in Texas

Merry Christmas
Merry Christmas Getty Images/iStockphoto

This is Texas.

So you can safely toss the generic holiday greetings out the door.

As students head into the final week before “winter break” and plan for their “winter parties” state lawmakers are reminding residents that they are free to use the greeting of their choice — “Merry Christmas,” “Happy Hanukkah” or “Happy holidays,” if you must.

“Our teachers and students are able to celebrate the upcoming holiday season without fear of retribution or punishment,” said Rep. Dwayne Bohac, R-Houston, who last year helped pass the Merry Christmas law.

The Legislature wanted to make sure that students can exchange traditional holiday greetings — and display Christmas trees, menorahs and Nativity scenes at school as long as more than one religion and a secular symbol are included — without fear of sparking a lawsuit.

Texas has a history of holiday fights, from the battle a decade ago in Plano over candy cane pens that included a description of the candy’s Christian origin to last year’s concerns about a “winter party” at a Frisco elementary school that banned any mention of Christmas and prohibited the colors red and green, as well as Christmas trees.

“The 2013 Merry Christmas law was a reaction by the Texas Legislature to complaints that many public schools had gone too far in purging all traces of religious greetings and symbols from the holiday season,” said Mark P. Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston.

‘War on Christmas’?

For years, some have said there’s a “war on Christmas” because of controversies tied to celebrating or acknowledging the holiday.

People nationwide, trying to find an acceptable way to observe the holiday, even stopped sending cards wishing others a “Merry Christmas,” opting for “Happy holidays” instead.

Last year, Texas lawmakers said enough is enough and approved their measure, which drew more than two dozen co-authors, including Republican state Reps. Matt Krause of Fort Worth and Bill Zedler of Arlington.

“It’s unfortunate we got to a place where we had to have a law that says it’s OK to say, ‘Merry Christmas,’” Krause said. “But we started to see no Christmas trees, instead holiday trees, and people couldn’t sing Silent Night, changing the words to ‘cold night.’

“This law says it’s OK to celebrate Christmas,” he said. “Sure, it’s a religious holiday, but it’s a federal holiday and it’s one we all observe.”

Krause said people who believe the law has been violated should contact their state representative or state senator.

Some people say the law isn’t needed.

“I think it’s stupid,” said Terri Burke, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Texas. “There is no ‘war on Christmas.’ There’s no need for this law.

“It is just such frivolity,” she said. “There are important things for the Legislature to work on, and this isn’t it.”

Burke said the First Amendment gives people the right to exchange holiday greetings however they see fit. That’s why the ACLU opposed the bill as it moved through the Legislature.

“It’s hard to take this seriously,” she said.

Others see a definite need for the law, particularly “to bolster those who want our traditions to thrive in the face of ‘political correctness,’” said Allan Saxe, an associate political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington.

Saxe said he has donated money in recent years to help light trees in the middle of campus.

“I always make sure when I snap the switch for the lighting to say, ‘Merry Christmas to all,’ and ‘This is a Christmas tree, not a holiday tree,’” he said. “Political correctness made the Merry Christmas law necessary.”

Past conflicts

Last year, concerns were raised about an email from a Frisco elementary school about a “winter party,” barring any mention of Christmas and prohibiting “red/green or Christmas trees.”

Officials at Nichols Elementary School said they went with a “winter party” to avoid offending anyone. But an email noted that children could not have Christmas trees, use anything red or green — or have any items that could stain carpets. Also banned were references to religious holidays, including Christmas.

The Frisco school district called the situation “an unfortunate misunderstanding.” A note posted on its website said people could call winter parties whatever they want: “holiday party, winter party, Christmas party.”

“We are still unsure of 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 stated. “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.”

Religious-themed items at Texas schools have led to several legal challenges through the years.

In 2003, a third-grade boy in the Plano district was stopped from passing out candy cane pens with cards attached 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.

Last year, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans ruled that one family couldn’t move forward with its complaint because it didn’t properly notify the district by certified mail about its concerns.

New law

Bohac has said he worked on the Merry Christmas bill after learning that his son’s school put up a “holiday tree” out of fear that talking about Christmas could generate a lawsuit.

He took part in a news conference at the Texas Capitol last week to raise awareness of the law.

“Our school officials and teachers have enough on their plate without having to worry about frivolous lawsuits for merely acknowledging Christmas or Hanukkah in our schools,” he told the media. “This law offers protection for and guidance to school officials and teachers.

“This bill is ultimately about bringing ‘fun, joy and magic’ back into our schools during the holiday season.”

It’s also about making sure that a uniform rule is applied at schools statewide.

“We are not trying to make you believe in Christmas or Hanukkah. … That’s not what this is,” said Rep. Richard Raymond, D-Laredo, a co-sponsor of the bill. “What this is saying is it’s OK if you do.”

Two other states — Tennessee and Missouri — have followed in Texas’ footsteps with similar laws. And more than a half-dozen other states have introduced similar measures.

“We hope the Merry Christmas law will lead to less school districts being naughty and more being nice,” said Jonathan Saenz, president of Texas Values, an Austin-based conservative group.

“We want people to know that in public schools, it’s OK to say, ‘Merry Christmas.’”

Anna M. Tinsley, 817-390-7610

Twitter: @annatinsley

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