It is a little-known bit of Texas lawmaking fact that we have something new this year unofficially titled "The Merry Christmas Bill." This bill, signed into law by Governor Rick Perry in June, basically protects the right to say "Merry Christmas" in schools while conditionally protecting traditional holiday symbology.
I confess, I just found out about this six-month old law as December comes into play. The wording of the actually bill is typical of anything produced by a state legislature, but the pertinent passage reads as follows:
"A school district may educate students about the history of traditional winter celebrations, and allow students and district staff to offer traditional greetings regarding the celebrations, including:
(1) "Merry Christmas";
(2) Happy Hanukkah"; and
(3) happy holidays."
The bill goes on to conditionally state that "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." To do this, schools must include scenes or symbols of more than one religion or one religion and at least one secular scene or symbol.
The level at which this will impact school districts varies depending on the policy in place before the bill was signed into law. However, Frisco ISD got into hot water recently when it attempted to ban the word "Christmas" at one of its campuses winter parties. An email sent out by that school’s PTA reportedly stated that there would be "No reference to Christmas or any other religious holiday" and "no red/green or Christmas trees" were to be present. The district backed down only after Texas Representative Pat Fallon reached out to the PTA and educated it on the new law. FISD retracted its stated rules and the party, presumably, commenced without any further drama.
Two local district superintendents said that the new law will not change the way their schools treat the holiday season.
"This provision allows school districts to educate students about the history of traditional celebration and allows school staff and students to give holiday greetings under First Amendment rights," said Anna ISD Superintendent Larry Johnson. "It is not without its limitation. We have to display more than one religious scene or symbol when celebrating holiday traditions. We must remain neutral and cannot promote or condemn any particular religious belief.
"I do not believe that this has ever been an issue at our campuses," added Johnson. "I feel that we need to respect all of our children and their family beliefs while trying to make the atmosphere around holidays as special as possible for our children. We will continue as always with our Christmas celebrations."
Van Alstyne ISD Superintendent Dr. John Spies said that the new law has no impact on his district’s stance on the holidays.
"The bill will not change how we handle the holidays in VA," said Spies. "We have had and will continue to have Christmas parties in our classrooms and sing Christmas songs. We will continue to teach the historical significance of many religions."