Politicians, advocates and even a Santa Claus turned up at the Capitol on Monday to promote a new law that aims to protect Texans' right to wish one another "Merry Christmas."
Texas Values, a faith-based political advocacy organization, on Monday hosted an educational event to make sure that parents, students and others know about House Bill 308, the so-called Merry Christmas Law that the Texas Legislature passed this year. The law is meant to to ensure that public school districts can educate students about the history of traditional winter celebrations and can use traditional winter greetings, such as “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Hanukkah,” without fear of litigation.
"School districts for too long have either wanted to or thought that they had to be speech police," Jonathan Saenz, president of Texas Values, said Monday.
Critics of the law, however, say the Texas Values campaign is unnecessary, because the right to say "Merry Christmas" and use other holiday expressions was never at risk.
“It’s crazy to think that somehow there is a war on Christmas when the vast majority of people celebrate Christmas,” said Dan Quinn, a spokesman for Texas Freedom Network, a political organization that advocates for the separation of church and state.
Saenz told The Texas Tribune on Friday that one has only to look to recent conflicts in public schools to see the need for the law and the Texas Values campaign.
“For many years, there have been court cases in the state of Texas where students have been restricted from making these expressions and told that they cannot say 'Merry Christmas,' and even not being allowed to wear the colors red and green at parties during this time of year,” Saenz said.
He pointed to a recent instance at Nichols Elementary School in Frisco in which a member of the parent teacher association who was organizing a “Winter Party” sent out an email forbidding red, green, Christmas trees and references to Christmas or other religious holidays at the party.
Following local media coverage and concern from state Rep. Pat Fallon, R-Frisco, the association released a statement reassuring the public that the school was in compliance with the new law.
“Our December celebration is called a 'Winter Party' in an effort to include all holidays celebrated in our Nichols community,” the statement said. "Our effort is focused on allowing all children to celebrate any winter holiday without excluding anyone.”
Saenz said the Frisco incident and recent court cases, including a federal lawsuit against Katy Independent School District over removing a Christmas card from a fundraiser sale and other actions, are evidence that the campaign is necessary. Lawsuits against school districts can be costly for taxpayers, so he said it’s important to make sure the new law is followed.
Saenz said the campaign, which also uses radio ads in major Texas cities, is mainly meant to educate students and parents about the law, so that they can advocate for themselves if school districts attempt to restrict holiday expressions that the law allows.
But Quinn, of the Texas Freedom Network, said he believes the intent of the Texas Values campaign promoting the law is more secular in nature than religious.
“It’s a great fundraising tactic for them,” Quinn said.
Justin Butterfield, a staff attorney for Liberty Institute, a national organization that advocates for religious freedom, said at the Monday event that the Merry Christmas Law simply makes clear what is allowed under the U.S. Constitution and what’s not.
“It sets those bright-line rules and makes things a lot easier for the school districts, the parents, the students and for everyone involved,” Butterfield said.
State Rep. Dwayne Bohac, R-Houston, who authored the legislation, said Monday that lawmakers in other states, such as Oklahoma, are making similar proposals.