Christmas displays, celebrations in public schools OK under new state law

http://www.stljewishlight.com/news/local/article_e4b23a0c-3684-11e3-8c30-001a4bcf887a.html
June 28, 2017

Come this holiday season, celebrating Christmas any way any Missourian wants to on public property — be it singing “Silent Night” as part of a public school activity or displaying a nativity scene outside a city hall — will be perfectly legal, according to state law. That’s because on Oct. 11, 2013, a new Missouri law went into effect that says “any state or local governmental entity; public building, park or school; or public setting or place is not allowed to ban or restrict the practice, mention, celebration, or discussion of any federal holiday” including Christmas.

“It’s a terrible piece of legislation and it’s really under the pretense of providing freedoms to everyone to celebrate what they want. But it’s really just about celebrating Christmas,” says Rep. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, who is Jewish. “It’s problematic for people who live differently in the world than the Christian population.”

Sponsored by Rep. Rick Brattin, R-Harrisonville, this law, known as House Bill 278, was vetoed by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon in July. At that time, Nixon cited “pressing public safety and health concerns” related to local governments’ efforts to enforce existing fireworks ordinances around the Fourth of July, another federal holiday. Nixon noted that if the bill were to become law, “individuals would be able to circumvent” bans on fireworks during periods of severe fire risk “by simply claiming the fireworks were being used to celebrate July 4th or other (federal) holidays.”

Regardless, on Sept. 11, state legislators voted 114-45 to override the governor’s veto and make the bill a law.

“It is an honor for me to play a role in this process and to stand in defense to celebrate our holidays in the same ways that our parents and grandparents did,” says Brattin in a recent letter sent to Missouri school administrators and board members, alerting them the new law. “My hope is that HB 278 will help reverse the chilling effect we have seen on the ability of teachers and students to observe these holidays.”

Rep. Stephen Webber, D-Columbia, who is Catholic and vociferously argued against the bill’s passage, contends the new Missouri law is “unconstitutional” because it violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which has been judicially interpreted to require separations between church and state. Tony Rothert, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, says the new state law will put schools in a tough position “because they have to follow the Constitution as well as the Missouri statute.”

“If a public school teacher was proselytizing in class, that violates the establishment clause,” says Rothert. “But if that teacher now says this is part of my celebration of Christmas, I have to tell people about Jesus, that’s going to put the Missouri statute and the establishment clause in conflict and present a problem, especially in the schools.”

Rothert says he wouldn’t be surprised if the law winds up being challenged in court. “This is something the ACLU would take on,” he says. “I would say in the Missouri legislature dozens of bills are introduced that would be unconstitutional. Most don’t become law. We are very disappointed this bill became law.”

Karen Aroesty, regional director of the Missouri/Illinois Anti-Defamation League, thinks the new law is an “example of the more subtle ways members of the Missouri legislature try to figure out a single religious view and foist it on the rest of the state.”

“They’ve just gotten more cagey about the language they use,” she adds.

From Christmas to creationism

In a phone interview, Brattin says this new law isn’t intended to require that anyone have to celebrate a deemed federal holiday such as Christmas, but rather “it protects those who wish to do so.”

“What has been happening is that people are forbidden from discussing Christmas. The ACLU, groups like this, have put a stop to the celebration or even the mention of God or anything like that, and it’s wrong,” says Brattin. “I wanted to address what the vast majority of Americans celebrate because it’s one of the most well-known, worldwide holidays.

“What happens is that we don’t want to offend that one student but we end up offending the 99 who do (celebrate Christmas),” he adds.

Brattin also has introduced a bill that would mandate schools to give “equal treatment” to the theory of evolution and so-called “intelligent design,” which is similar to creationism, in schools across Missouri.

“Make no mistake about it,” says Schupp. “There are so many bad pieces of legislation under review that you have to pick your spots because it takes a lot of time and effort to bring all the various interest groups around them.

“Should someone have been yelling sooner about the Christmas bill?” Schupp adds. “I wish that had been the case. It was a bill that had been kicking around a while and didn’t seem to garner a lot of support early on.

“Federation has lobbyists but I didn’t hear from anyone as the bill moved forward. I don’t want to cast aside any responsibility, but to tell a largely Christian legislature that the (public) celebration of Christmas is undermining the celebration of other religions, well, I don’t know if they would get that.”

Local school chiefs say it won’t matter

Meanwhile, superintendents in both the Parkway and Ladue school districts say they don’t see the Missouri law impacting school policy in any way.

“We have worked so hard and developed a more inclusive culture of the world we live in,” says Keith Marty, superintendent of the Parkway School District. He explains that the district has a religious leaders group made up of people of all faiths and backgrounds that meet regularly to work on issues of tolerance and understanding. If need be, he adds, he would lean on that group for assistance with navigating this new law.

“In Parkway, we’re so beyond this kind of legislation. If we run into issues I think we can talk our way through the fact that while we want to recognize people’s religious rights, we also want to continue the Parkway culture of inclusiveness,” he says. “We are not going to promote one faith or one belief system here.”

Marty acknowledges that one particular Parkway school has had a large Christmas tree in its lobby in recent years, a tradition he hopes to put an end to this year. By the same token, he knows that may be harder to do so because of this new law.

“I want to be respectful of the law but when I talk (with the principal at that school) I will reiterate our Parkway tradition, which has been careful not to promote religious symbols or themes,” he says. “We are at a different place than we would have been had this law come to be 20 or 25 years ago. We are much more understanding of the diversity we now have.”

Adds Susan Dielmann, communications director of the Ladue School District: “We are fortunate to have a very diverse student population, representing a wide and rich variety of cultures, heritages, religions and traditions.  Our intent and practice is to find and create opportunities to celebrate and honor all of them.”

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