Friday, February 7, 2014

The “Merry Christmas” Bill: Indiana Inches Ever-Closer to Becoming a Theocracy

The “War on Christmas” is once again being fought here in Indiana. After last year’s stunning defeats in which all Christian houses of worship were banned in the State of Indiana and Hoosier children were required to convert to Islam, some Hoosier lawmakers are trying to fight back. Um, what? Christian churches weren’t banned last year? Hoosier children can still invoke the name of Jesus in their prayers? Christmas trees are still permitted on front lawns and in family rooms? The shopping malls still have Santa Claus? Are you sure? Hmm. Oh, I see now. A greeter at Walmart said “Happy Holidays” instead of Merry Christmas and an elementary school teacher didn’t do enough to prostelytize to the students in her class. That must explain Senate Bill 326 (SB326), offered by, among others, Sen. Dennis Kruse (you know, the same Hoosier lawmaker that wanted school children to recite The Lord’s Prayer each day), and passed by the Senate 48-0.

(a) Each school corporation may:

(1) instruct students about the history of traditional winter celebrations; and

(2) allow students and employees to offer traditional greetings regarding the celebrations, including:

(A) "Merry Christmas";

(B) "Happy Hanukkah";

(C) "Happy Holidays"; and

(D) other seasonal greetings.

(b) Except as provided in subsection (c), a school corporation may display on property owned by the school corporation scenes or symbols associated with traditional winter celebrations, including a Menorah, Christmas tree, Nativity scene, or other religious symbol associated with traditional winter celebrations, if the display includes a scene or symbol of: (1) more than one (1) religion; or (2) one (1) religion and at least one (1) secular scene or symbol.

(c) A display described in subsection (b) may not include a message that encourages adherence to a particular religious belief.

(d) The state board shall develop guidelines to assist school corporations in developing appropriate instruction and displays concerning traditional winter celebrations.

Now practically speaking, SB326, if passed by the House and signed by the Governor (both likely) really won’t do much of anything. Well, nothing other than violate the United States Constitution. Issues of church-state are governed primarily by the United States Constitution and, in particular, the establishment clause of the First Amendment. I suspect that at least some of Sen. Kruse’s Senate colleagues are aware of that. Nevertheless, they want to be seen as doing something to combat the so-called “War on Christmas”. Otherwise, Bill O’Reilly might call them pinheads. Or liberals. Hence SB326.

Let’s look briefly at the provisions of this bill. Section (a)(1) tells schools that they can teach students “about the history of traditional winter celebrations”. Um, was there a prohibition against teaching students the history of traditional winter celebrations? No, there wasn’t. Teachers have always been permitted to teach history and probably wouldn’t be doing their jobs if they didn’t teach history. And history involves religion and religious celebrations. Just try teaching European History without discussing the absolute carnage caused by incessant warfare often prompted by different interpretations of Biblical scripture or the millions of innocents slaughtered in the name of G-d, Jesus, or Allah.

I will be interested to see the blowback when a teacher begins to teach his students that December 25 is probably not the real birth date of Jesus but, rather, was likely chosen as the date on which Christmas would be celebrated because of its link to Saturnalia and other pagan winter festivals. For that matter, I look forward to hearing students telling their parents all about the pagan and other winter celebrations that they’ve been taught. Stonehenge exists for a reason; it’s part of history that should be taught along with other traditional “winter celebrations”. Oh, and query why we’re only concerned with “winter celebrations”. Can teachers teach the history of autumn celebrations? What about spring or summer? Why is it just winter celebrations that merit their very own statute. It couldn’t have something to do with wanting to be sure that our schools teach about Christmas could it?

Next we have Section (a)(2) which purports to “allow” students and faculty to “offer traditional greetings” and lists several acceptable greetings. Again, was there some law or policy that prohibited a student or faculty member from offering any of these sorts of “traditional greetings”? It seems that news sources like Faux News keep claiming that this school or that school have prohibited people from even mentioning Christmas, and, almost always, those claims are false (or at least greatly exaggerated). For that matter, I thought that the use of “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” was one of the signs of the apocalypse War on Christmas. The blowback here should be great when a snarky teacher starts greeting his students with “Io Saturnalia!” (the “io” is pronounced “yo”…). “Hail Satan” might also be appropriate as, apparently, some Satanists also celebrate the winter solstice. And if a teacher practices Skyclad Wicca, can he offer a traditional winter solstice greeting in the nude? That should make for an entertaining classroom experience.

Then we get to the real core of SB326: The right to display a nativity scene. After all, how can we expect our schoolchildren to learn good Christian moral values if they don’t have to observe the baby Jesus in their classrooms. I mean, it’s not like families could erect a crèche at home and Indiana certainly doesn’t have many churches to take up the calling of helping children learn about Jesus. (While looking at Google Maps, I tried to do a quick count of the number of churches in close proximity to the middle school my kids attend; I stopped counting at eleven [and that count included one so-called evangelical “megachurch”].) No. Many schools in Indiana seem to think that part of their role remains to teach Christianity to their students, whether in the form of overtly religious songs in choir performances or the use of Christian symbols and observances.

But you see, everything should be A-OK because a school can’t just display a nativity scene. Nope. Under SB326 the school must also display a scene or symbol from another religion or a secular symbol. Because, you know, the best way to respect the constitutional separation of church and state is to violate that separation not once, but twice. You see, this is the mistake that many Christians make: They think that putting a menorah next to their nativity scene will make us Jews happy. Wrong. Most of us would prefer to honor the separation of church and state and have no religious displays in our public schools. We (well most of us) are perfectly happy to have our menorahs in our homes and in our synagogues. Maybe even in our businesses. But we don’t need them in our kids’ classrooms. I don’t know. Maybe we’re not so insecure about our beliefs that we need the sort of constant reinforcement?

It is worth noting, however, that there is a hidden problem with Section (b) of SB326. Remember, the bill purports to permit a religious symbol (such as a nativity scene) so long as it is displayed with the symbol from another religion or with a secular symbol. Like a Christmas tree. You see, the leading Supreme Court case on the topic (Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668 (1984)) held that a Christmas tree was not a religious symbol, but rather, was secular in nature. Thus a teacher would be complying with SB326 if she were to have a crèche, a Christmas tree, and maybe a Santa on her desk. Only one “traditional winter celebration” would be honored, but hey, it’s the “right” celebration, so yeah…

But, if the current Supreme Court caselaw says that it’s OK to have a religious symbol if accompanied by secular symbols (like, um, say, a Christmas tree), then what is the point of SB326 anyway?

And what if the secular symbol placed next to the crèche is an American flag (or the flag of the State of Indiana). Would that make the crèche OK? Or might that proximity of the flag run afoul of Section (c) which we’ll come to in a moment?

Finally, what happens when a teacher chooses not to erect a crèche or a menorah, but rather, a group of pagan symbols (maybe with a Buddha and some incense for good measure). I’m sure that everyone will be OK with that right? Query: Can a teacher put a joint next to her Christmas tree and say that it’s a symbol of Rastafarian belief? Even better will be the really snarky (and brave) teacher who puts the joint in a colander to honor Rastafarians and Pastafarians together! Even a teacher that doesn’t push boundaries too far, but chooses, for example, to honor Judaism and Islam instead of Christianity will, I’m sure, face to condemnation or backlash, right?

Next we come to Section (c) which prohibits “a message that encourages adherence to a particular religious belief”. How nice. So query: Does “Have a Merry Christmas” (note the use of the directive “to have” in that message) encourage adherence to Christianity? More critically, can a message that discourages adherence to a particular belief be posted? Would “If you pray to Allah, you’re going to Hell” be an acceptable message next to that crèche? What about a message that eating a Christmas ham will damn you to Hell because pork is an abomination?

As I mentioned at the beginning, even if passed SB326 probably won’t have any real practical effect on what is and is not acceptable. Supreme Court precedents like Lynch v. Donnelly govern. That being said, I’m sure that some school administrators or teachers will feel emboldened by the “rights” granted by SB326 and will endeavor to use those newly granted rights to wage their own defense (or would it be offense?) in the so-called War on Christmas. And in doing so, they’re likely to walk right into the buzzsaw of costly establishment clause litigation for which SB326 will be of little practical defensive value. Relying on a state statute is not a viable defense to violating the prohibitions of the United States Constitution.

Oh, and this would probably be a good time to quote Article 1 Section 4 of Indiana’s Constitution: “No preference shall be given, by law, to any creed, religious society, or mode of worship; and no person shall be compelled to attend, erect, or support, any place of worship, or to maintain any ministry, against his consent.”

SB326 may make some legislators feel like they’re doing something. It may give them something to point to when they go home and talk to the voters who elected them. But practically speaking, it won’t do much. And, more importantly, is legislation clearly designed to add religion into our public schools really what Indiana needs? Hmm. Let’s see. We’re gonna double ban same-sex marriage because of the Bible and we’re going to adopt legislation to help promote religion in our public schools because of a mythical War on Christmas. Those are but two examples of the how religion — and almost exclusively a right-of-center Christian understanding of religion — is being used to form the basis of laws and policy. Yep. Indiana is taking yet more steps into becoming a theocracy.

Update: Almost immediately after posting, I thought of one other point worth making. The bill directly relates to school corporations and not to individual schools or teachers. Thus, a teacher might run afoul of a school corporation for putting up an “unapproved” winter celebration symbol. Of course, the decision of which “traditional winter celebrations” are permitted or approved or which symbols can and can’t be used is obviously fraught with peril. I can’t wait to hear a school board explain its decision to permit displays related to Christianity but to prohibit displays related to Islam, Wicca, or other religious beliefs. Yeah, the courts will love that.

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