I first heard about the Texas “Merry Christmas” law when it was a bill last summer. My knee-jerk reaction was to roll my eyes. “What a waste of legislative time and effort,” I thought. But in the interest of keeping an open mind, I tried to step back and think about what the law was actually trying to do. And that led to me scrutinize what the law actually says. First things first…
What is the law trying to do?
As far as I can tell, the law is a protection of freedom of speech in public schools. You may think freedom of speech is already protected in public schools, but it isn’t really. School administrators can censor expression if they believe it is in the best interest of their school’s academic and safety environment. Their censorship doesn’t always hold up in court, but that doesn’t stop them from trying. One such censure (in the past however-many years) is for schools to ban “Christmas” parties and “Christmas” themed displays. [I’m quoting Christmas here to emphasize the wording in the context of school policy and the Texas law.] Here are some examples of this in Pennsylvania, New York, and also Germany. And if you ask The Oracle for “Christmas parties in schools banned,” you will get a slew of articles on Frisco, Texas where a school PTA banned “Christmas” trappings. As I understand it, schools that enforce these bans can have holiday parties that are inclusive of all faiths and/or are secular, but they cannot label their parties or associated trappings as “Christmas” (i.e., trees, cards, carols, etc.).
Now you might argue the law is really a protection of freedom of religion because “Christmas” is considered by many to be a religious observance. This may seem ironic now for many years freedom of religion in schools meant removing school-sponsored faith activities (to adhere to the separation of church and state). My sense is that the “Merry Christmas” law is trying to put faith back in schools, not as school-sponsored activities, but as school-sanctioned symbolic displays. I share the language of the law below — you can help me figure out if I’m right on this interpretation.
I don’t think this law is about freedom of religion because I know lots of folks who celebrate Christmas as a secular holiday and who say “Merry Christmas.” These folks may well appreciate being able to say “Merry Christmas” in schools even though the phrase doesn’t hold religious significance for them. From my POV, this law is trying to make it okay for kids, teachers, and parents to say “Merry Christmas” to people while on school grounds, and to have Christmas trappings like Christmas trees (and being able to call them “Christmas” trees) and nativity scenes on school grounds.
In theory, I’m good with the “let people say whatever they want to say to wish you well” part of the law. As I wrote last week, I take all season greetings in the spirit with which they were given. Deeds speak louder than words to us Heathens, and if you greet me sincerely, I will return the sentiment. I’m hoping this bill will allow people of alternative faiths to freely say “Blessed Solstice,” or “Happy Saturnalia,” or “I’m a humanist and don’t really care, but YAY for vacation,” without consequence. I’m skeptical, though. More on my skepticism in a minute. The other part of the bill, the Christmas trappings part — I wasn’t clear on that, so I turned to the actual legislation.
What does the law actually say?
You can read the language of the enacted bill here. The formal name of the law is “An Act relating to a school district’s recognition of and education regarding traditional winter celebrations.” Right away my eyebrow goes up (a la Spock from Star Trek). “Traditional winter celebrations” probably means something different to me (and to a lot of my friends) than it does to other people. A Yule sumbel, a Heathen winter tradition, was likely not on legislators’ minds when they crafted this language. The cynic in me wants to call this for what it appears to be, the majority faith creating legislation to protect majority faith practices. After all, the nickname for this act is the “Merry Christmas” law, not the “All Faiths Are Welcome” law. But this is an exercise in open-mindedness and optimism, right? Right.
I should get back to clarifying the trappings part of the bill. Here’s what the law says:
“(b) Except as provided by Subsection (c), a school district may display on school property scenes or symbols associated with traditional winter celebrations, including a menorah or a Christmas image such as a nativity scene or Christmas tree, if the display includes a scene or symbol of: (1) more than one religion; or (2) one religion and at least one secular scene or symbol. (c) A display relating to a traditional winter celebration may not include a message that encourages adherence to a particular religious belief.”
Here’s how I’m reading this part, “A school district may <display “Christmas” trappings> if the display <represents other faiths>, <and if the display does not prosthelytize>.” Hmm. I actually like this part of the law. I know the focal reference is Christmas — and admittedly this irritates me because free expression of faith only gets airtime when the majority faith is negatively affected. BUT the way this law is worded, any other faith can be included in a “traditional (aka Christian) display.” Presumably, a school could have a Christmas tree decorated in pentacles, or runes, or crescents, or Buddhas — or all of these images — and that would jive with the law. And how cool would that tree be?! While this may not have been the author’s intent (which I cannot speak to), I think the spirit of the law is that any faith display is fine in public schools as long as more than one faith is on display.
Even though the intent of the law is “Merry Christmas,” I am hopeful the enforcement of the law will be more “All Faiths Are Welcome.” And I hope Texas will set a positive example in this regard since other states (like Oklahoma and Louisiana) are considering similar legislation. What do you think? Is this law a not-so-veiled attempt to put (Christian) Christmas in schools? Or does it have the potential for all faiths to be equally valued in schools?