School Board Member: Call It Christmas or Go to Hell

An Omaha school board member isn’t apologizing for telling atheists to ‘crawl back into their hellhole’ following a Christmas break debate.

03.24.16 5:00 AM ET

An Omaha, Nebraska, school board member says people in his district should call the winter holidays “Christmas” or go to hell.

Omaha is home to strong atheist, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, and Christian communities of varying denominations. But religious diversity didn’t stop Paul Meyer, a board member at the city’s Millard public school district, from arguing to change the school’s annual winter break to “Christmas break,” or adding that “those atheists who don’t like it can crawl back into their hellhole”.

During a Monday meeting of the Millard school board, Meyer voted against approving the district’s 2017-2018 academic calendar, on the grounds that its two-week winter break was not named after Christmas.

“I’m getting a little bit tired of a minute minority in this country that keeps pushing Christmas out, keeps pushing God out, keeps pushing Christ out, when the majority is still a Judeo-Christian country,” Meyer said. “I would like to make a motion that we rename this period ‘Christmas break,’ and those atheists who don’t like it can crawl back into their hellhole because I for one will not put my lord, my god aside for a few atheists.”

Fellow school board members refused to second Meyer’s motion, ending at least temporarily his Christmas crusade. But Omaha atheists say Meyer’s statements are harmful to the district’s secular residents.

“His bigoted language, telling atheists to ‘crawl back into their hellhole,’ attempts to discredit the broad range of people who support keeping government out of religion,” said Tom Gray, president of the group Omaha Atheists, who has children in the Millard school district. “If he believes we are literally pitchfork-wielding demons, then we are concerned for his grasp on reality.”

Amanda Novotny, director of Nebraska’s American Atheists branch, says the remarks might constitute hate speech.

“I hope that the comments made by Mr. Meyer regarding how atheists who disagree can ‘crawl back into their hellhole’ will be taken seriously for what they are—hate speech against a minority group,” Novotny wrote the school board and superintendent in an email shared with The Daily Beast.

The superintendent has yet to respond, Novotny says. But Meyer’s answer was quick and unapologetic.

“Perhaps, ‘hellhole’ was a bit to (sic) strong for your delicate upbringing,” Meyer wrote Novotny in an email shared with The Daily Beast. “However, it never ceases to amaze me that anytime anything is said regarding atheists is considered unprofessional, derogatory or racist or hate yet, atheists can say anything or do anything against Christians and that is simply ‘free speech.’”

But atheists would not be the only group excluded from the Christian holiday.

The new calendar would take effect during the 2017-2018 school year, during which New Year’s Day, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Yule will all occur the winter break. The Muslim holidays of Ramadan and Eid al-Adha also sometimes take place during the break, which runs from late December to early January.

Ironically, Omaha’s major Christian, Jewish, and Muslim congregations have made headlines for their interfaith cooperation. The city is home to the Tri-Faith initiative, an interfaith group building a multimillion-dollar campus that will contain a community center, a Jewish synagogue, a Christian church, and a Muslim mosque. (Omaha’s current Islamic center has been the subject of frequent vandalism following ISIS’s November 2015 attacks in Paris.)

Meyer, whose place of worship has likely never been defaced with anti-ISIS graffiti, took time to rail against perceived opposition groups during the Monday school board meeting.

“And if they don’t like it, if the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] doesn’t like it, the heck with them,” Meyer said on Monday. “But I would like to make a motion to this board that we rename this period ‘Christmas break’ and if the few people that don’t like it, they can have my email and I will be happy to email them back.”

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Meyer did not respond to a Daily Beast email inquiry. When reached by phone, Meyer declined to take any questions.

“Nope, not interested,” he told the Daily Beast. “Everything has been taken care of.”

But Meyer had considerably more to say in his email to Novotny.

“I do not hate atheists and I say this in all sincerity, I pray for all those who do not believe in God,” he wrote her. “Also, you guys have got to get some new terms. Everyone says the same thing.”