OKLAHOMA CITY – It was Christmas in February for members of an Oklahoma House committee Monday.
The House Common Education Committee approved by a 15-1 vote legislation saying that public school students, teachers and other staff members can greet each other with such traditional phrases as merry Christmas, happy Hanukkah and happy holidays. The committee passed the measure in spite of federal court rulings and U.S. Department of Education guidelines that say public schools already have the right to erect holiday displays with religious themes under certain circumstances and that students and teachers can greet each other with "Merry Christmas."
The so-called Merry Christmas Bill also says that Oklahoma school districts can teach students about the history of the traditional celebrations. It also says school districts can put up displays on school property associated with the winter celebrations -- including a menorah, a nativity scene or a Christmas tree.
The measure's author, Rep. Ken Walker, R-Tulsa, said it will protect Oklahoma school districts from lawsuits over religious-based holiday displays, although Walker acknowledged he is not aware of any such lawsuit filed in the state.
"This is an offensive measure which basically says that we won't do this in Oklahoma," said Walker, who held up a festive red-and-white holiday stocking cap as he fielded questions from committee members.
"It will declare that we have a right to express our core beliefs and celebrate winter traditions without fear of lawsuit, retribution or reprisal," Walker said.
The bill says public schools can display scenes or symbols associated with traditional winter celebrations on school property providing the display includes a scene or symbol of more than one religion or one religion and at least one secular scene or symbol.
It prohibits displays that endorse, favor, disfavor or encourage adherence to a particular religious or nonreligious faith.
A factsheet compiled by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based conservative group that advocates for religious liberty, says federal courts have ruled the display of a nativity scene is constitutional if it is displayed for legitimate secular purposes, such as to celebrate the holiday, and is displayed among other forms of religious and secular seasonal expression.
U.S. Department of Education guidelines state that teachers can greet students with "Merry Christmas" in spite of their role as public employees, and that using a greeting that people commonly use in December does not violate the Constitution.
The guidelines say students have the same right to engage in religious discussion at school as they have to engage in similar activities.
The bill was sent to the full House for debate and a vote.