The Oklahoma House passed HB 2317, or the “Merry Christmas bill,” with a 73-10 vote on Monday, advancing a measure to authorize public school students, teachers and district staff to greet each other with “traditional phrases” such as “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Hanukkah.”
"We are resisting the cleansing of our school houses with religious thought and tradition," state Rep. Ken Walker (R) explained in December.
Authored by Rep. Bobby Cleveland (R), the Merry Christmas bill would also permit schools to display religious scenes or symbols, such as a nativity scene or menorah, providing they include "more than one religion or one religion and at least one secular scene or symbol."
Although no Oklahoma teacher has ever filed a complaint at the state level, the legislation’s advocates argue that HB 2317 -- modeled after Texas’ 2013 Merry Christmas law -- will shield Oklahoma schools from lawsuits against religious displays.
“There is a war on Christians and Christmas, and anyone who would deny that is not paying close enough attention,” Cleveland said in a December 2013 press release. “This bill will create a layer of protection for our public school teachers and staff to freely discuss and celebrate Christmas without worrying about offending someone.”
Opponents argue that federal courts and the U.S. Department of Education already permit certain holiday displays in public schools, including exchanges of “Merry Christmas.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma has also voiced concerns over the bill’s legal implications for schools.
“Our big concern about the 'Merry Christmas Bill' is not what it does, but what it doesn’t do,” Brady Henderson, ACLU legal director, said in February. “One of our biggest concerns about the bill is in fact that school districts will engage in behavior that violates the Constitution and then find out that this bill provides them no legal protection in court.”
The bill, which excluded a provision to include Kwanzaa, now heads to the state’s Republican-controlled Senate.