It’s that time of year when discussions of “the war on Christmas” make their way into the national news media.
In the past, those discussions have focused on retail chains subsituting “Happy Holidays” for “Merry Christmas,” removal of Nativity scenes from public settings and even Starbucks removing Christmas imagery from its holiday cups last year.
This year, the spotlight has been focused squarely on Killeen.
It’s all because Patterson Middle School’s principal told a school aide to remove her Christmas decoration from a door because it contained a Bible verse. Killeen Independent School District officials backed the principal’s actions, citing the state’s 2013 “Merry Christmas law.”
That was just the start of a tumultous week that saw the story picked up by state and national media, an emotional, standing-room-only school board public forum on the issue and an injunction by a district judge ordering the poster be reinstated. On top of all that, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton announced he was suing KISD, calling the district’s action an attack on religious liberty.
Certainly, separation of church and state is a serious issue, and as agents of the state, public schools are barred from promoting a particular religion. That part of the law is pretty clear, and that’s obviously what the principal had in mind when she ordered the decoration removed.
But there’s another factor at play here, and that’s religious expression.
That’s apparently the principle Paxton was standing on when he said last week that schools can’t silence a biblical reference to Christmas — citing the same “Merry Christmas law.”
In this case, that expression took the form of a cartoon — an iconic one, at that.
The poster featured a scene from the animated classic, “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” in which one of the characters, Linus Van Pelt, quotes Scripture directly: “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior which is Christ the Lord,” then remarking, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
A Fox News columnist noted that the poster was well-received by students and in place for several days before it was ordered taken down.
The school board’s decision backing the district’s order to remove the poster didn’t sit well with most of the residents in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting — nor did it sit well with Jonathan Saenz, president of Texas Values and legal counsel for Dedra Shannon, the aide who put up the poster. Reacting to the board’s vote, Saenz threatened to take the district to court over the issue — and he did.
On Thursday, Judge Jack Jones issued a temporary injunction ordering the poster reinstated, providing it contained the words “Ms. Shannon’s Christmas message.”
The judge’s ruling was a reasonable compromise, and it seemed to satisfy all parties involved.
With only one day remaining before the school’s two-week holiday break, the poster wasn’t on display long. Yet, the judge’s ruling once again raised questions about what place religion has in our public schools.
Granted, Killeen is in the heart of the Bible Belt, where Christian faith-inspired displays are commonplace. But Killeen ISD is also a district with a diverse population, which includes people of many faiths, as well as those who are not religiously inclined. The very fact that our community is so culturally diverse should encourage district officials to promote displays of that diversity in all areas — including religion.
Ultimately, however, this is the Christmas season. And while a school poster featuring a Christmas-themed Bible verse caused concern, it merely provided the historical context behind the holiday.
Once Christmas is over, this controversy will fade. But while the emotion behind the poster incident may be seasonal, the overarching issues of religious expression and church-state separation will continue to be debated for years to come.
And a year from now there will be some other holiday controversy — just as sure as Christmas.