Fighting for ‘Normal’

12.24.14 10:55 AM ET

A Field General in the War on Christmas

Outraged when his first-grader came home from school talking about a ‘holiday tree,’ Texas lawmaker Dwayne Bohac vowed to bring back ‘Christmas freedom.’ And he’s succeeding.

Shove those “holiday trees” aside. Feed your “Season’s Greetings” to the Yule log. Deck your halls instead with boughs of holly, shouting “Merry Christmas” (or “Happy Hanukkah”) well into the night.

The latest front in the War on Christmas, like so many of its battles, began in Texas. In 2012, Dwayne Bohac, a state lawmaker from Houston, picked up his son from first grade and was alarmed to hear the boy say he had spent the day putting holiday decorations on a holiday tree.

“What holiday is the word ‘holiday’ taking the place of?” Bohac asked. “He knew what I was asking. He knew exactly what ‘holiday’ means.”

Bohac decided to talk to the school administration. An office manager, he says, was wearing an apron with Santa on it. She hushed him when he tried to bring up the C-word.

“It’s Christmas, Dwayne!” he said she told him. “But shh shhh shh, you have to be quiet about it or they will make me take it off.”

Bohac vowed to that when he came back next year there would be no confusion about any Christmas tree or Santa aprons.

“I said, ‘We have to do something about this. It chills speech and it chills Christmas freedom!’ That is ultimately what it does,” he said.

And so in June 2013 the Texas legislature passed the “Merry Christmas Bill,” in a nearly unanimous vote, to protect school districts and other governmental entities from lawsuits over effusive holiday promotion. That summer, Gov. Rick Perry, surrounded by 10 sleigh bell-ringing Santas, signed the bill with great fanfare, just before he jetted off to the annual Faith and Freedom Conference in Washington, D.C., alongside other 2016 Republican presidential contenders.

“The holidays are coming early this year,” the governor said at the time. “It’s a shame that a bill like this one I’m signing today is even required, but I’m glad that we’re standing up for religious freedom in this state.”

The bill stipulated that schools and other governmental agencies could have a Christmas tree or a Hanukkah menorah so long as another faith was represented or a secular symbol was also created. Asked if the law meant schools would be free to celebrate Kwanzaa or put up a Diwali display, Bohac said, “Those aren’t the traditional winter holidays we are celebrating. I have never gotten one letter in my office about one of those. I have never heard a single person wish me a happy one of those.

“Here is the idea,” he continued. “The anti-religious freedom is against Christmas and Hanukkah. That is what everybody gets the letters about.”

He cited the example of the governor of Rhode Island, Lincoln Chafee, who for years refused to call the statehouse’s evergreen conifer by its proper name, and a series of seasonal cards from the Democratic National Committee that read, “We wish you a merry holiday season.” “I mean, give me a break,” Bohac said.

Now Bohac’s bill is going nationwide, despite the efforts of “the mainstream media that doesn’t even love America, that doesn’t love religious freedom, that has basically an atheist dogma.” Similar legislation passed unanimously in Tennessee and Missouri, and a handful of states are expected to follow suit in the coming months.

“Ninety-six percent of the American people—and when I say American people, I mean those who call themselves Christians—think children in public schools should be allowed to sing Christmas songs,” said Gerald Allen, a Republican state lawmaker in Alabama who is introducing similar legislation there. (His polling data could not be independently verified.)

In Bohac’s story of picking his son up from school, it is unclear whether those teachers who called their evergreens “holiday trees” were doing so out of fear of legal action. They could, after all, have just been trying to make a gesture toward inclusiveness.

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“If the new measure is inclusiveness, then we shouldn’t have Valentine’s Day, because some people don’t have Valentines,” Bohac said. “We need to not have Thanksgiving because there may be people who are not thankful. We shouldn’t have the Fourth of July because there may be Brits who are not as happy about independence as we are. We have to use common sense inclusiveness, because we are quickly getting to a place where our brain is falling out. It is OK to talk about the Founding Fathers! It is OK to talk about religious freedom.”

Exactly what these bills would do, however, is a little unclear. They would not, for example, supersede federal law regarding the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment. If anyone wanted to sue, they could, despite Perry’s promise of protections. And it is not clear that there have been a rash of lawsuits from outraged parents over aggressive Christmastime greetings. Rebecca Robertson, the legal and policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union Texas, said the last lawsuit the organization worked on that involved religious matters was protecting the rights of children on First Amendment grounds to pass out candy canes after school with religious messages affixed.

Most of the complaints the ACLU gets in Texas, Robertson said, are about teachers and administrators openly proselytizing. She fears that this bill “oversimplifies by telling schools, ‘Hey, you can put up a religious display so long as you have a secular component, too.’” She said she had not heard of a lawsuit over a Christmas tree.

Bohac said the bill does not require anyone to say “Merry Christmas” if they are not up for it. He noted that some retail stores that benefit from Christmas sales still instruct employees to wish customers “Happy Holidays.”

“They want to say ‘Merry Christmas.’ That is what is natural. That is what is normal,” he said. “It’s not normal to say ‘Happy Winter Solstice.’ Even a child knows that. In fact, it’s not normal anywhere in the world. Christmas is unique in that it is a global holiday celebrated all over the world by humanity. This is a big deal, this holiday. It’s big in every country and on every continent. It’s really a holiday for all humanity.”

Bohac also requested that a children’s book he wrote, titled Merry Christmas Y’all… Texas Style and set to be published next year, be included in this story.

But asked if he would say “Merry Christmas” to someone who he knew did not celebrate the holiday, he paused for several seconds.

“I have never thought about that,” he said. “I like the term ‘Happy Holidays.’ That is a great term, as well. I wouldn’t want to be offensive to someone.”