This holiday season, teachers and students will officially have permission to wish each other "Merry Christmas" — or the traditional greeting of their choice — in Texas public schools.
Flanked by high school cheerleaders who recently fought a legal battle to carry banners with Bible verses on them at athletic events, Gov. Rick Perry ceremonially signed legislation Thursday clarifying that school districts can acknowledge traditional winter celebrations.
"The holidays are coming early this year," for students of all faiths "who want to freely express the simplest of appropriate greetings during holy days," said Perry, who was also joined by an off-duty Santa Claus and an orthodox rabbi.
Under the new law, as long as displays include more than one religious symbol — or at least one secular symbol — and don't encourage adherence to a particular religious belief, districts can put up decorations like Nativity scenes, Christmas trees and menorahs on school property. Public school staff and students can also offer each other seasonal greetings like Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah.
House Bill 308 was intended to help protect school districts from lawsuits, said state Rep. Dwayne Bohac, the Spring Branch Republican who carried the legislation, adding that it would "restore some sanity" to "political correctness run amuck." He said he hoped the bill, which passed overwhelmingly in both the House and Senate, would become a model for other states.
Texas public schools have seen several high-profile lawsuits attempting to define students' rights to religious expression, including the landmark 2000 U.S. Supreme Court decision Santa Fe ISD v. Doe. In that case, the court outlawed student-led prayer over the loudspeakers at football games, saying it amounted to government endorsement of religion, a violation of the First Amendment’s establishment clause. More recently, a state district court judge ruled in favor of cheerleaders who sued their East Texas high school after they were told to stop displaying Bible verses at school events. The school district is appealing the ruling.
Though the cheerleaders' situation remained an example of the oppression facing those who want to express their faith publicly, Perry said, the new law would not directly apply to their case.
"It's a shame that a bill like this one I'm signing today is even required. But I'm proud that we are standing up for religious freedom in the state," he said. "Religious freedom does not mean freedom from religion."