Last December, Houston Representative Dwayne Bohac picked up his son from first grade and asked what he'd done in class. His son answered that they'd decorated their "holiday tree" with "holiday ornaments."
This concerned Bohac. "Why do we call it a holiday tree at school, but a Christmas tree at home?" Bohac said.
When he expressed his sentiments to the school district office, he was told the school didn't use terms such as "Christmas" because they were fearful of litigation.
This inspired Bohac to draft House Bill 308, legislation that allows students and teachers to wish each other a "Merry Christmas," "Happy Hanukkah" or (the pretty secular) "Happy Holidays" and to provide teachers the opportunity to educate students on the history of traditional winter holidays.
Governor Rick Perry signed what has become known as the "Merry Christmas bill" last week. In addition to permitting holiday greetings, the legislation also says that schools are allowed to display scenes or symbols associated with winter holidays on school property, such as a Christmas tree or a menorah, as long as there is at least one other religious or secular symbol present as well.
The fact that no one -- no child, no teen, no grown-up -- has ever been sued in Texas for saying "Merry Christmas" apparently didn't lessen any of the glow of this special moment or the driving force behind this bill.
"It's a shame a bill like this one I'm signing today is even required," Perry said on Thursday. "But I'm proud that we're standing up for our religious freedom in this state."
Present at the signing were Santa impersonators and the Kountze cheerleaders, who just last month celebrated their own victory for religious expression.
"Religious freedom does not mean freedom from religion," Perry said. "Last October...I said that government leaders owe it to the people of all religious faiths, all people who want to project their expressions of faith, to ensure everyone has the right to voice their opinions and worship as they see fit. And I pledge to work during the legislative session to find ways to preserve religious expression and explore ways to protect people of faith."
Bohac's Chief of Staff, Brandon Pepper, told Hair Balls that rather than creating a new law, the Merry Christmas bill is outlining what is already accepted and gives the school district something to point to during the holiday season.
"We don't need our schools and our teachers and administrators worried about frivolous lawsuits, and that's what this bill does," state Senator Robert Nichols said.
Nichols might have been thinking of the ongoing so-called "candy cane case" as an example, which started in 2003 over public school officials in Plano, Texas, banning students from handing out gifts with religious meaning and preventing a class from writing "Merry Christmas" on cards to U.S. troops serving overseas. The U.S. Supreme Court tossed the candy cane case, however, and according to Houston attorney Geoff Berg, there have been a whopping zero cases filed over saying "Merry Christmas."
"There are people who are overly sensitive and get offended over just about anything, but to pretend that there is an epidemic of lawsuits over people saying 'Merry Christmas' is to live in the same fevered fantasy land that causes people to believe there is a war of Christmas to begin with," Berg told Hair Balls. "If you did not know that there was a widespread belief on the extreme right that religious people are actually persecuted in this country, if you didn't know that that was a fantasy that they genuinely, sincerely believed, then this bill would come as a surprise to you."
While people have certainly made a fuss over how others celebrate Christmas, as this interesting article The Blaze lists, Berg's concern stretches to the bill wasting taxpayer time and money when it doesn't affect anything outside the winter holiday season.
"We've got massive problems in our public schools that have got nothing to do with saying 'Merry Christmas,'" Berg said in a video interview with My Fox Houston.
Berg told Hair Balls that the bill invites everything into schools, and that supporters of the bill should be prepared to vocally support a "Hail Satan" just as readily as a "Merry Christmas."
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the mission of the Houston Press. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Houston’s stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
"They have to, because it's a matter of equal protection," Berg said. "You cannot favor certain religions over others."
Perry said the bill does not advocate one religion over another, and that the bill does not force anyone to celebrate anything.
"This is political correctness run amok," Bohac said. "And our brains have completely fallen out as a result of political correctness. This bill seeks to restore some sanity to our civil discourse."