This upcoming legislative session is shaping up to be a real barn-burner. In addition to the anti-TSA groping measure and the continued battle against the imaginary scourge of Sharia law already filed by other legislators, Representative Dwayne Bohac of Houston has made things even more lively. A couple weeks back, he filed a new bill that would enable school district employees to use "traditional winter greetings" on campus, i.e. "Merry Christmas" and "Happy Hanukkah." (Mainly the first one, we suspect.)
Bohac announced what he's termed his "Merry Christmas" bill on December 20; you can take a look at the full text right here. It says a school district "may educate students about the history of traditional winter celebrations," allow students and staff to utter the aforementioned greetings, and permit on school property "scenes or symbols associated with traditional winter celebrations," including nativity scenes or Christmas trees.
There is one catch: The displays would have to include more than one religion, or else one religion and "at least one secular scene or symbol." A message is prohibited if it "encourages adherence to a particular religious belief."
In the press release announcing the bill, Bohac explains that the whole thing began after his first-grade son came home from school last year and reported that he'd decorated a "holiday tree" in class. Bohac continues:
When I asked what a holiday tree was, he told me it was the same as a Christmas tree. After inquiring with school officials as to why the term "Holiday Tree" was being used, it became apparent that the school was fearful of litigation. It was that moment that inspired me to file legislation that would provide students, parents, teachers and administrators a safe harbor for openly celebrating a Federal holiday."
Over on Bohac's Facebook page, much of the initial reaction was quite positive. "Thank you for standing up for our freedom and our children's rights to talk about Jesus publicly," one constituent writes. "If more politicians would stand for what is right the way you have, our country would not be in a mess the way that it is right now. Thank you for your heart for God and for this country."
But Aron Ra, Texas director of the American Atheists, has a few small concerns, as you might expect.
"He wants teachers to randomly be able to proselytize their religious beliefs by being able to put up religious displays in their classrooms, unrestricted, without any fear of litigation." Ra told us today. "But what happens when it's not a Christian that's doing it? What happens when it's a pagan trying to do solstice or Saturnalia? They're using the same damn tree and they can cite where it came from."
Ra, who's also hosts a popular YouTube show and a widely read blog, outlined his concerns with the bill on the blog recently. He doesn't quite buy that the bill would promote a healthy mix of "winter greetings" or wouldn't amount to religious endorsement.
"The problem is that it would marginalize non-Christian students even more than they already are," he writes. Moreover, he argues, "It also forces teachers to reveal what may in many cases be privately held beliefs which should not be scrutinized by principals, pupils, or the PTA."
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"My wife is a teacher," he said today. "And she's an atheist teacher. She knows full well you do not divulge what you do not believe, because they will use it against you. When you don't cower to the line -- she has a coworker that's always saying Bible things or God references. Then she sits there and waits for the pregnant pause, or for you to endorse what she's saying. If you don't, then you're cast as the enemy."
Ra also argues that the legislation fails the "Lemon Test," which details the requirements for any legislation concerning religion, writing:
It has no secular legislative purpose. It will not only advance the already dominant religion in this country, but will also invariably inhibit less-popular faiths, and it will certainly result in "excessive government entanglement" with religion. It's not like Muslim teachers will be welcome promoting Ramadan in the classroom. Wiccan teachers will only attract criticism by celebrating Yule or Saturnalia with all the traditional symbols which were originally pagan -- including the manger scene (thank you, Horus), and which were later appropriated by Christianity. In other words, it was never a Christmas tree to begin with, and there is no defensible reason to back this bill.
All this arguing sounds rather familiar, doesn't it? But will the course of this bill resemble that of the infamous Plano "Jesus Is the Reason For the Season" candy cane case? Or might it look like the "Kountze cheerleaders can carry Bible verses if they damn well please" incident? And do kids in Texas public schools have anything better to do than listen to the adults around them bicker about religion? Probably not, right?