My Turn: Schools wrong if they opt to ban 'Merry Christmas'

Posted: Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Last year during our school system's "winter holiday" (once known as Christmas break), we were approached by a young mom asking if we would look into a problem that had upset her son at his elementary school just before the break. Asking him what the problem was, we were shocked at this response: "I was sent out of the room because I said 'Merry Christmas' to kids in my class." Asking him why in the world that had been a problem, he replied, "My teacher said we are not allowed to say 'Merry Christmas,' but should say 'Happy Holiday,' but I forgot."

Thinking there must be more to it, we asked the mom if she had looked into it. She said the boy had come home in tears because kids were teasing him about being sent our for being "bad." When she asked him what he did "bad" he told her about this episode. Thinking her boy was being "picked on" she contacted other parents with children in that class and was told that "he's not the only one - it's just a new thing at the school. Don't worry about it."

Being active members of Alliance Defense Fund's Legal Action Team, we contacted ADF asking for guidelines to help put a stop to this nonsense. In the meantime, the parents opted to not pursue the matter and expose the boy to more tensions, peer pressures, etc., they perceived would follow. Christmas break was over by the time we received a response and it seemed pointless to proceed until the season rolled around again.

While limited space prohibits including all details (case file references, etc.) the case-proved guidelines follow:

Firstly, students are free to express their religious beliefs in school. As long as it's not materially disruptive, they may express their beliefs verbally with phrases like "Merry Christmas;" by wearing clothing that conveys religious messages with words, colors or symbols; or through written materials like school assignments, religious cards, gifts or tracts given to teacher and classmates.

Secondly, at school, students can sing Christmas carols at concerts, teach the biblical origins of Christmas, and perform the Christmas story of Mary, Joseph, Jesus and the shepherds. The Constitution does not require the exclusion of religion from public institutions. Expressions of Christmas through art, music and teaching of it as history serve both a religious and secular purpose; it promotes an opportunity for students to perform a full range of music, poetry and drama, and can be done without creating an Establishment Clause problem.

Thirdly, Nativity scenes may be placed in schools, parks and government buildings. No Supreme Court decision has ever forbidden a private citizen from setting up a nativity display in a public park, because parks, streets and sidewalks are all public forums traditionally devoted to "assembly and debate." Displays may also be placed in public buildings, provided the government has opened the property for expressive activity. Religious speakers are given the same access to public forums as secular speakers.

Even under current decisions, city governments may include a nativity scene in a seasonal display, provided there are a sufficient number of secular objects in close proximity and the overall display is sufficiently secular.

The U.S. Constitution, laws and court decisions are all constructed to protect and permit religious expressions in both public schools and government buildings. Any attempts to remove Christ from Christmas do not stem from the Constitution, but from those who simply seek to silence the Christian message and that is a violation of the Constitution! Christmas is a vital part of our heritage, and those who believe in Christ and wish to express this belief should receive the same respect and tolerance as those who demonstrate for other "rights."

• Bob and Honda Head are members of the Alliance Defense Fund Legal Action Team (for constitutional rights advocacy), and Bob Head is the state director of the American Family Association-Alaska. The couple has lived in Juneau for more than 20 years.

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