JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — People of faith seeking to keep celebrations of Christmas and other religious holidays in the public square have some reason for good cheer this year. While the debate over religion’s place in public continues, two laws in Missouri and Texas have given legal cover to celebrating Christmas in public places.
The bipartisan Missouri law enacted this year over a governor’s veto protects public celebrations of Christmas by prohibiting state and local entities from banning or restricting "the practice, mention, celebration or discussion of any federal holiday" on public property.
"For people in the state, their rights are now protected in the public square," said the law’s author, state Rep. Rick Brattin, R-Harrisonville. He told the Register that he has received an "overwhelming response" of thanks throughout the state for the law.
"I’ve been inundated by schools and a bunch of faculty signing one big thank-you letter for protecting their rights and ability to celebrate [Christmas] freely," Brattin said. "I’ve had only a handful of negative feedback from schools, mainly in big, urban school districts."
Multiple national polls show approximately 90% of Americans celebrate Christmas. Rasmussen polls from 2011 showed 67% of Americans consider Christmas to be the country’s most important holiday, 81% of Americans who celebrate Christmas observe it as a religious holiday, and 79% of Americans believe Christmas and other religious holidays should be celebrated in public schools as well.
In Texas, Gov. Rick Perry signed into law the state’s own "Merry Christmas" bill, H.B. 308, which allows public-school students and staff to display religious scenes and symbols on school property (such as Nativity scenes, Christmas trees and menorahs) and exchange religious greetings (such as "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Hanukkah") without fear of a lawsuit or punitive action.
The law has already had an effect: The Frisco Independent School District reversed a policy that banned references to Christmas or other religious holidays, as well as "red/green or Christmas trees," at an upcoming "Winter Party," after state Rep. Pat Fallon, R-Little Elm, sent a letter to the school district, explaining that this interference in religious expression was now illegal in Texas.
Brattin said the laws like the one he authored in Missouri were necessary, because of legal threats from groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
"These groups bully our schools around by threatening lawsuits and tying them up in courts. [Schools] don’t want to spend the money to litigate, so they just take the easy way out and ban the practice of these holidays," he said. "This way, the state is now going to jump into the ring if they want to file suit."
However, Rob Boston, communications director for Americans United, said that laws like the ones in Texas and Missouri "end up being more about political posturing rather than achieving anything." He said that while some school districts have fear of litigation from groups like Americans United, the ACLU and others as "a motivating factor," many others were seeking to be sensitive to the changing religious landscape in the U.S.
"We’re going through a period of cultural changes, and when that happens, there will be periods of uncertainty," he said. "In some parts of the country, especially in urban areas, there is a great bit of religious diversity, and it isn’t safe to assume that everybody celebrates Christmas."
The "Christmas Wars," as some have termed the debate over Christmas in the public square, have seen a number of notable cases this year.
"In 2013, we’ve seen some good and some bad and some really unfortunate attempts from atheist groups trying to silence people from celebrating Christmas and Hanukkah," said Lori Windham, senior legal counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. "We’ve also seen some groups speaking out, and we’re glad they’re taking a stand as well."
In Rhode Island, Gov. Lincoln Chafee reversed a policy of calling the Christmas tree set up in the State Capitol a "holiday tree."
Two school districts in Wisconsin and New Jersey both backed off of policies that would have curtailed the use of religious music in winter public-school concerts.
One case involved a public charter school administrator in South Carolina, who hoaxed an ACLU legal complaint to ban Christmas songs at a Dec. 19 concert. The ACLU of South Carolina denied any role to local media and stated some school administrators were trying to use the ACLU as cover for their own unilateral actions banning Christmas celebrations.
Windham told the Register that some atheist groups are "going after school districts for even voluntary programs." She said two public schools shut down their voluntary association with Operation Christmas Child after getting threats from the American Humanist Association.
Still, Windham said that parents and students at one school in Colorado did not back down.
"They said, ‘If we cannot help poor children inside the school, then we will help poor children outside the school.’ So that is what they did," she said. "They sat outside the school and wrapped Christmas gifts so poor children around the world could receive those gifts."
Freedom From Religion?
Boston said that public schools in general have a different set of rules to play by, as opposed to other public entities, thanks to Supreme Court precedents. He suggested the Education Department guidelines set up in 2003 on prayer in public schools, which discuss impermissible governmental religious speech versus private religious expression, provide generally agreed upon principles that school administrators should consult before making policy related to Christmas. He added that consulting law firms on opposing sides of the issue could also be helpful.
He also noted that Americans United is not concerned with public displays of religion on public property when the displays are funded by private groups "on their own time and own dime." But they do object when governments are the sponsors of religious displays, because it is tantamount to "the state taking a side on theology."
"Under the right conditions, even Christians want freedom from religion. I guarantee you, if a public school began to impose Islamic doctrines on children, a lot of Christians would say they want to be free from that and want their children to be free from that."
Andrew Walther, vice president for media, research and development for the Knights of Columbus, stated that celebrating the birth of Christ "is not an inherently sectarian idea."
"God loved us, so we love other people. There’s nothing inherently offensive about that message," he said.
He said efforts to prohibit public entities from encouraging religion in the public square "misunderstand the broad context" of the American religious-liberty tradition. They also run the risk of doing what Alexander Solzhenitsyn called an "amputation of national memory" by rooting out American religious origins and identity for a secular one.
"There’s a fundamental understanding in the United States that we have our rights not from the state, which could then take them away, but from something prior to the state — and that is God," he said.
He added, "The fact that your rights come from God protects everyone, whether or not you believe in God."