'Merry Christmas' bill has multiple backers
by Tim Lockette
tlockette@annistonstar.com
Nov 16, 2013 | 5374 views |  0 comments | 41 41 recommendations | email to a friend | print
MONTGOMERY — State Sen. Gerald Allen wants Alabama to give its teachers the right to say “Merry Christmas” to their students — though critics question whether educators really need permission from the state.

Allen, a Tuscaloosa Republican, has pre-filed a bill that would change Alabama law to expressly state that teachers are allowed to say "Merry Christmas," “Happy Hanukkah” or “Happy Holidays” to their students. The bill, which the Legislature will consider during the session that starts in January, would also allow schools to put up holiday displays such as nativity scenes, so long as they're accompanied by displays from other faiths, or by secular holiday symbols such as Santa or Frosty the Snowman.

Allen said he filed the bill because of concerns expressed by schoolteachers who feared lawsuits if they did acknowledge the holidays.

"Through the years, various administrators have come to me to talk about this," Allen said. "They have to be very careful about what they put up."

Allen's bill already has seven co-sponsors in the 35-member Senate. Among them is the president pro tempore, Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston.

"It basically OKs using the words 'Merry Christmas,’" Marsh said. "We feel like Christmas is being attacked."

Talk of a "war on Christmas" has become an almost yearly event in political circles, as conservative commentators accuse liberal activists of trying to ban religious expression from public life.

Still, the local leader of the American Civil Liberties Union — the organization most often implicated in war-on-Christmas theories — said she doesn't have a problem with people saying "Merry Christmas."

"The ACLU is all for people celebrating the holidays any way they want to," said Susan Watson, director of the ACLU of Alabama.

Watson said the Alabama ACLU has never sued anybody for saying "Merry Christmas." She said the organization does oppose holiday expressions by government agencies when they come across as an endorsement of a single religion.

Watson said Allen's bill, as currently drafted, doesn't seem to add to what schools are already doing — and what courts have already approved. It allows holiday displays from two or more faiths, or religious displays alongside secular holiday displays.

"The courts have already ruled on that," Watson said. "The courts have said that adding secular symbols dilutes the religious nature of the scene."

Those rules on Christmas displays were hammered out by the high court largely in response to past suits brought by the ACLU and other civil rights groups, challenging religious displays on public property.

"The Legislature can pass any bill it wants," Watson said. "Ultimately it's the Constitution that decides what's appropriate. It's silly to pass a bill like this just to convince people there's a war on Christmas."

While Allen’s bill lists only three holiday greetings, it also would allow educators to use other “traditional greetings” not specified in the bill. Asked if that would include greetings for the Muslim holiday of Ramadan, which sometimes occurs near Christmas, Allen said yes.

"It's a free country," Allen said. "If they have some parents in the school that are Muslim, it's up to them."

Allen acknowledged that even a state law wouldn't prevent people from filing lawsuits over holiday displays, especially in federal courts. Still, he said, it's important to let teachers know, clearly, what the state supports.

Calhoun County Schools Superintendent Joe Dyar said local teachers haven't had any problems with recognition of the holidays during the three years he's been superintendent. He said school officials are careful to follow state and federal law. But the most important rules, he said, are to treat everyone with dignity and use some common sense.

"We have students who don't recite the Pledge of Allegiance because of their religious affiliation, for instance" he said. "We don't see that as a problem. We respect everybody."

Dyar said he's probably said "Merry Christmas" a few times himself this year, though he typically leans toward "Happy Holidays." Nobody has complained, he said.

"People are just good folks," he said. "They want to share a happy time."

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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