Every December, Americans celebrate many different holidays, including Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanzaa, New Years Eve, The Winter Solstice and even Festivus. Why? Because they have personal and social meaning. That’s why many public school students and teachers would like to take time to recognize and celebrate the holidays in the classroom as well.
But not everyone is happy about the idea of recognizing religious holidays in public education. Organizations like the Freedom from Religion Foundation, the American Humanist Association and the ACLU don’t believe that public schools should allow holiday celebrations. They argue that these activities unintentionally support a particular religious view and proselytize the students .
American Center for Law and Justice Senior Counsel David French says this fight has been in the courts for years. It’s only now that some people are trying to fix this. Lawmakers in multiple states have submitted legislation that would allow schools the freedom to recognize and celebrate religious traditions without fear of legal suit.
The most recent legislation is known as the “Tennessee Merry Christmas Bill”. It was submitted by Tennessee Senator Stacey Campfield in August 2013, and passed by the State Senate in February and the House of Representatives in March 2014. Senator Campfield says that too many people fear being sued over celebrations of the holidays, which he thinks is absurd.
Campfield’s bill was written to protect public schools from being sued if a teacher or student chooses to celebrate a winter holiday, as long as the school includes more than one religious tradition in the practice. A public school would be equally protected as as long as they have a Santa Claus display and a Nativity set on-campus. It’ll also allow campuses to have both a menorah and a Festivus pole on campus without complaint.
The support for such laws seems fairly high. The Tennessee Merry Christmas bill received a 30-0 vote in the State Senate, and an 83-4 vote in the House. Texas, Oklahoma and Indiana have all passed very similar bills. Both Campfield and French are excited about the bill.
“Is it the end-all be-all? No. Is it a step in the right direction? I think so.” Campfield said. “There’s a lot of major threats to religious liberty in our country right now. But any pushback is welcome.” French added.
While many support this bill, the Freedom from Religion Foundation does not. Cofounder Annie Laurie Gaylor found it to be problematic.
“The purpose of a school is to educate, not to indoctrinate….nobody needs to be educated by Christmas by putting up Nativity scenes in public schools. That is not an educational message, that is a doctrinal message, and is improper in our schools. Furthermore, it isn’t only coercive to students, but it is usurping the parent’s right to educate their children how they wish about religion.”
Gaylor wants to maintain a neutral educational environment where only the natural world is represented and where no religious ideas, such as miracles, are given time.
She says allowing religious displays into schools would unintentionally imply that the government supports that belief; and thus move the education closer to indoctrination.
It’s clear that the divisions in the debate come from their different understandings of the First Amendment, the relationship between religion and state, and the difference between education and indoctrination. While bills like the Tennessee Merry Christmas bill are water drops in the larger legal debate, what happens in the State House this month will impact how religious freedom is treated by the courts on a local, state, and possibly on the national level.