Just in time for the holidays, Texas is making sure everyone remembers that wishing someone "Merry Christmas" is now protected by law in its public schools - and conservatives are hoping similar measures will gain momentum across America.
Garnering national attention when it was approved by the state Legislature this summer, the bipartisan law removes legal risks from exchanging holiday greetings in classrooms. It also protects symbols such as Christmas trees, menorahs or nativity scenes, as long as more than one religion is represented and a secular symbol such as a snowman is displayed.
"I'm proud to stand in defense of Christmas and I urge other states to stop a needless, stilted overreaction to Christmas and Hanukkah," the law's sponsor, Houston Republican Dwayne Bohac, said at a news conference Monday.
Bohac, who has a sign at home that proclaims: "Be Merry and Stay That Way," said the law was meant to codify the religious freedoms of the First Amendment and keep "censorship of Christmas out of public schools." He said it will stop "ridiculous" past lawsuits against some Texas schools in the name of excessive political correctness.
"This is a real issue in our country," said Bohac, who said similar bills have been filed in state Legislatures in Alabama, Mississippi, Indiana and New Jersey, and that one is coming in Oklahoma.
Texas is the only state to so far approve such a law, which some civil libertarians have criticized as unnecessary given the First Amendment.
Bohac appeared Monday with his 8-year-old son Reagan and amid booming calls of "Ho! Ho! Ho!" from Santa Claus - aka Bill French of Houston - and a group called the Lone Star Santas. Bohac said Reagan inspired the bill when he was in first grade and was asked to decorate a "holiday tree" in class.
"A Winter Party; I don't even know what that means," said the elder Bohac. "We can celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah, those are the traditional holidays Americans celebrate."
The law also states that schools are constitutionally barred from favoring one religious celebration over another, although it's known as the "Merry Christmas Law."
One of its co-sponsors, Laredo Democratic Rep. Richard Raymond, said Monday that "Christmas and Hanukkah obviously do have religious implications for so many" but they're "just part of America."
"I know that we should be sensitive to how people feel about different issues," Raymond said. "I think all of us up here are."
The issue has already flared up in Frisco, outside Dallas, where a recent PTA Internet posting directed an elementary school not to reference Christmas or use red and green or a tree during its holiday celebrations in order to keep from possibly offending anyone.
School district officials said it was a misunderstanding. But Jonathan Saenz, an attorney who heads the conservative advocacy group Texas Values, said such cases could spark future legal action because of the new law.
"We're hoping that, as a result of the Merry Christmas Law, we'll see more school districts taking advantage of this," Saenz said. "And, as a result, we'll see less school districts being naughty and more being nice."
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