Summer has not even begun and children across America have barely gotten bored with last year’s Christmas presents. Yet Texas is already gearing up for the season when conservatives accuse liberals like the two people pictured above of waging a War on Christmas.
A measure labeled the “Merry Christmas bill,” which is currently awaiting Gov. Rick Perry’s (R-TX) signature, provides that public school staff may “offer traditional greetings” including “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Hanukkah” to their students, and it permits school districts to “display on school property scenes or symbols associated with traditional winter celebrations, including a menorah or a Christmas image such as a nativity scene or Christmas tree” so long as the display includes either a “secular scene” or symbols from more than one faith. The bill’s lead sponsors also put up a website promoting the bill, where they warn about a world where children ask “Daddy, why do we have a Christmas tree at home and a Holiday tree at school?”
Religious displays that merely comply with the minimum requirements of this bill are likely unconstitutional under existing law — although the law in this space is quite garbled. Although the Supreme Court did uphold a government-sponsored display that included a nativity scene in its 5–4 decision in Lynch v. Donnelly, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor cast the key fifth vote upholding that display, and her opinion made clear that government cannot take action whose “actual purpose is to endorse or disapprove of religion” or which “conveys a message of endorsement or disapproval.” Subsequent decisions make clear that a religious displays which violate the Constitution do not always cease to do so just because they appear alongside non-religious icons. A crucifix is still a crucifix, even if it is displayed next to the Golden Arches.
Yesterday, however, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case that could easily give Texas free reign to tear down much of the wall between separation of church and state. Admittedly, conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy has balked in the past at efforts to make public school students to attend religious ceremonies, so it is possible that he would balk at similar efforts by public schools to endorse a religious viewpoint. At the very least, however, the law is likely going to become much more permissive of lawmakers who wish the government to broadcast their religious beliefs to others.