INDIANAPOLIS – School Christmas celebrations could be legally protected under a proposal House committee members considered Tuesday, but lawmakers question whether the measure would be enough to fend off legal threats.
The House Government and Regulatory Reform Committee discussed the measure that would legally allow schools to display Nativity scenes or other Yuletide decorations, as long as another religious or secular holiday is recognized.
It would also permit history lessons about winter holidays and traditional holiday greetings, including "Merry Christmas" and "Happy Hanukkah."
Bill sponsor Sen. Jim Smith, R-Charlestown, said lawsuits or just the threat of an expensive and lengthy legal battle often intimidate schools, preventing them from celebrating the holiday season.
"It is legal, but there are no protections," he said. "People are being prevented or persuaded not to pursue this because of these threats and intimidation."
Senate members voted 48-2 in February to advance the proposal, which expands on similar legislation proposed last year that stalled in the House. It would also allow religious displays on municipal properties, as long as other religions are recognized.
The addition responds to an ongoing federal lawsuit involving the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana and Franklin County. ACLU filed the suit against Franklin County in December 2014, because of a Nativity scene outside a courthouse in the county seat of Brookville, about 70 miles southeast of Indianapolis.
The suit alleges the county is endorsing Christianity over other religions, because no other religions are represented. An attorney representing the county says the Nativity scene has been displayed every Christmas for more than 50 years and the county has never rejected any request for a display on the lawn.
The ACLU has said the lawsuit will continue as the plaintiffs seek damages and a federal ruling declaring the previous years' Nativity displays unconstitutional.
Smith cited cases where schools in the U.S. have banned Christmas carols or avoided the colors green and red.
"They don't have to sue everybody, just a few examples to get everyone else to stop," Smith said, and having a state law that explicitly allows the displays would help ease hesitation among schools and community leaders.
But some committee members doubted how effective the measure would be. Rep. Gail Riecken, D-Evansville, said she believes the threats would continue.
Other members questioned whether the State Board of Education or the Indiana Department of Education should be responsible for setting the guidelines for school holiday celebrations. The measure calls for the Board of Education to have that responsibility.
Committee chairman Rep. Kevin Mahan, R-Hartford City, decided not to hold a vote Tuesday to allow for further discussion.