BELTON — A Bell County judge ruled Thursday a poster made by a Killeen Independent School District employee with a biblical quote from Peanuts character Linus van Pelt in the animated holiday special “A Charlie Brown Christmas” can go back up in the school.
Judge Jack Jones, in the 146th District Court, issued a temporary restraining order against the school district removing the poster.
The poster was made by Patterson Middle School employee Dedra Shannon, an aide in the school’s nurse’s office. She hung the poster on the door of the nurse’s office, but the school’s principal ordered it to be taken down.
District officials and the Killeen school board backed the principal’s call to remove the poster.
Shannon’s legal team was celebrating the judge’s action Thursday afternoon.
“Nothing says ‘Merry Christmas’ like a court victory for religious freedom in December in public schools,” according to a statement from Jonathan Saenz, president of Texas Values and legal counsel for Shannon. “Ms. Shannon is a brave and faithful woman that we are honored to represent. This scenario is exactly why the Merry Christmas law was written — to protect teachers, staff and students in their expression of the Christmas season.”
Jones said the poster must include the words: “Ms. Shannon’s Christmas message” in a font as large as the rest of the words on the poster.
In a separate development, Texas’ attorney general sued KISD over the issue.
Republican Ken Paxton announced the lawsuit Thursday. He argued that Texas’ “Merry Christmas law,” adopted in 2013, means schools can’t “silence a biblical reference to Christmas.”
Killeen school officials said the poster violated prohibitions on religion in classrooms, and they, too, cited the state’s Merry Christmas law as a reason the poster should be removed.
“Christmas and winter celebrations and messages are important to our community,” KISD said in a statement late Thursday. “The board’s actions taken on Tuesday directing district administration to develop guidelines for employees underscore the board’s commitment to this effort. Despite these efforts, we found ourselves in court this afternoon.”
The district said it supports the court’s decision.
“We believe that directing the individual to include the additional text better complies with state and federal law. We support this decision,” according to KISD.
Marc Rylander, the director of communications for Paxton, said that, while he can’t know for sure if the issue would have been treated the same way if it was a similar poster promoting a different religious belief, KISD’s judgment on this issue is not uncommon.
“It’s very interesting, you know, it’s become almost an annual holiday tradition that Christians get beat up for expressing their values, their beliefs, their faith this time of year that is explicitly and historically centered around their faith,” Rylander said. “So we see this year after year, and this is just another case of people with activist agendas trying to silence people of faith.”
In the courtroom, Saenz argued that Shannon was given permission by KISD to place appropriate decorations on her door by a notice that employees could celebrate the holiday season in the manner of their choosing.
Last year, Shannon put a poster of the Grinch from the Dr. Seuss book “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” on her door.
“I don’t think she was an outlier in putting something on her door,” Saenz said. “When employees are given a manner to express themselves, that is a forum.”
The door decoration in question was inspired by a scene in the classic holiday special. Linus stands on a stage and recites a passage describing the Christmas story: “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior which is Christ the Lord. That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
The removal of the decoration sparked nearly 500 comments on the Killeen Daily Herald’s Facebook page and became state and national news over the past week.
It became a national issue after Todd Starnes, a conservative columnist and radio personality, wrote Dec. 8 about the principal’s decision to remove the decoration. Starnes, whose column appears on the Fox News Channel’s website, said he heard about the case when Shannon’s father, a pastor in Nolanville, contacted him.
At Tuesday’s Killeen school board meeting, Saenz sent a warning: “Allow the Charlie Brown poster to go up. If not, we will be forced to take other action,”
The board voted to keep the poster down in a 6 to 1 decision.
“The KISD school board has gone rogue and is now in a very dangerous place,” Saenz said after the decision.
Paxton described the decision as “an attack on religious liberty.”
Friday is the final day of classes before students head out for a two-week holiday break.
The Daily Herald asked to get a photo of the poster being put back up. KISD officials said the photo would be sent Friday.
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