Missouri Law Defending Christmas Sparks Concern

April 26, 2018

A new Missouri law authorizing public schools and local governments to celebrate Christmas any way they wish has raised concerns that it will give educators license to openly proselytize in the classroom.

The measure, which took effect a week ago after lawmakers voted to override Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto, doesn’t mention Christmas, but its sponsor says lawmakers had the holiday in mind when they passed it. The law reads:

No state or local governmental entity, public building, public park, public school, or public setting or place shall ban or otherwise restrict the practice, mention, celebration, or discussion of any federal holiday.

Gregory Lipper, a senior litigation counsel for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told Law Blog that it’s an “extremely dangerous law” that would open the door to constitutional violations.

“It could be read to allow public school teachers, while in the classroom, to reenact the virgin birth, preach the salvation of Christ, or press their students to convert to Christianity — all under the guise of celebrating Christmas,” said Mr. Lipper, whose group generally opposes the government promotion of religion.

Rep. Rick Brattin, a Republican from west central Missouri who sponsored the measure, said the legislation is just recognizing the fact that more than 90% of Americans celebrate Christmas.

“I’m all for protecting the rights of minorities, but we should also protect the rights of those in the majority as well,” Mr. Brattin told Law Blog. “This bill doesn’t require anybody to celebrate anything.”

He sent a letter to school administrators around the state saying his hope is that it would “help reverse the chilling effect we have seen on the ability of teachers and students to observe these holidays,” according to the St. Louis Jewish Light newspaper.

Mr. Brattin, who is Christian, said schools are overreacting to threats of First Amendment lawsuits by banning Christmas altogether. He said three of his kids attend an elementary school that prohibited students from throwing a Christmas Party and banned Christmas decoration.

“I’m sorry, it’s a federal holiday,” the lawmaker said.

“The bill was led by extremists and doesn’t represent the views of mainstream Christianity, which is very tolerant,” Rep. Jill Schupp, a Jewish lawmaker who represents a suburban district outside of St. Louis, told Law Blog. ”It’s a bill of exclusion, rather than inclusion.”

Mr. Nixon vetoed the bill in July, but not for the reasons you might expect. His concern mainly had to do with fire safety. In his veto message, he said he feared the bill would undermine local enforcement of fireworks ordinances.

He was also concerned that the measure could cause government staffing shortages. “Indeed, under the broad language of the bill, public sector employees at the state and local level could demand leave from work in order to celebrate any federal holiday,” the governor wrote.

A spokesperson for Mr. Nixon didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday.

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