Sigh. The lights are already up all over my neighborhood. There are plastic reindeer, large candy canes and Santa Claus displays all over the place, and of course, the incessant advertising is well under way. It would be nice if we could at least wait until December before we start celebrating Christmas, dontcha think?
But ready or not, here it comes, so we thought it would be a good idea to remind you of the Merry Christmas bill passed by the Texas legislature in 2013. You can find it at Section 29.920 of the Texas Education Code. The TASB Policy Reference Manual includes a summary of the bill in Policy FNA(Legal).
The law was designed to push back against excessive political correctness, by assuring school officials that it is OK to say things like “Merry Christmas” right out loud in the school. The law is not very long and you might want to read the entire thing, but we can summarize it as follows:
1. It says that schools may teach kids about “the history of traditional winter celebrations.” In our culture, Christmas is clearly the predominant “traditional winter celebration.” So the bill tells us that it is OK to teach kids the history of the event; why it is celebrated; what it’s about; why it is such a big deal. You can do that without encouraging or discouraging religious belief. In fact, you have to do it that way to comply with the U.S. Constitution. Of course it’s important to remember that while Christmas is the predominant “traditional winter celebration” around here, it’s not the only one.
2. It says that it is OK for kids and teachers to say things to each other like “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Hanukkah” or “happy holidays.”
3. It says that you can have a display on school property to honor the season, as long as it either a) includes symbols of at least two religions; or b) includes a symbol of one religion along with one secular symbol.
4. But it also says that your display “may not include a message that encourages adherence to a particular religious belief.” That provision is a recognition by the legislature of the constitutional issues.
School communities in Texas run the gamut in terms of diversity. Some of our large, urban districts are a microcosm of the world, including every religion, culture and language you can imagine. Then there are those small, rural districts where a non-Christian (non-Baptist?) can hardly be found. The constitutional requirements are the same, regardless of where you live, but the community attitude and the pressure on the school officials will vary from place to place.
We need a large dose of common sense to navigate this sensitive issue. Advocates on the extremes tend to exaggerate and over-react. It never was illegal to teach kids about Christmas. There is no court case holding that a teacher cannot say “Merry Christmas” to her students. No court has held that you have to call it a “holiday tree,” when we all know that it’s a Christmas tree.
But those who dismiss the concerns over this issue as mere “political correctness” are equally off base. If the decorations, songs, celebrations and greetings that take place in the public school are indistinguishable from what we see at the local church, then the school is not educating kids about the holidays—it is indoctrinating. If we teach children about the origins of Christmas, with no reference to the winter celebrations of groups that are fewer in number, we are not teaching properly.
The constitution allows public schools to teach about religion—but prohibits them from encouraging or discouraging religious belief. May this month be a useful teachable moment for all of us.
DAWG BONE: HAPPY HANUKKAH (December 7)! MERRY CHRISTMAS (you know)! HAPPY KWAANZA (December 26)! HAPPY BOXING DAY (December 26)!