Bastrop resident Cindy Hendrix spoke with the Morehouse Parish School Board during its committee meeting held Nov. 26 regarding Keep Morehouse Beautiful's plan to decorate the town for Christmas.
The chosen theme was "Christmas begins with Christ," and Hendrix asked the board to allow each school to decorate, incorporating the theme. The members of the Buildings, Properties and Transportation committee voted to recommend that the schools participate.
At the regular meeting Dec. 3, the motion to recommend participation drew some comments from board member Louis Melton (District 2) regarding the legality of recommending the theme.
"I have no problem with this but, I don't want to get into the legality of the word Christmas," Melton said.
School board attorney Steve Katz explained that a general theme was fine, but a specific theme such as "Christmas begins with Christ" was not.
Hendrix addressed the board, with questions as to why the theme could not be used.
"Sometimes we need to stand up for what we believe in," Hendrix said. "This is a world-wide holiday and the calendar says Christmas Day."
"Yes, but because we are getting federal funds, we have to obey the law," Tamika Ferrell (District 6) said.
Hendrix then asked could the schools say, "Merry Christmas," and Katz said this was allowable.
The motion was amended to state..."the committee recommends that the schools participate in the community Christmas decorating effort..."
In a roll-call vote, the motion passed, with Karen Diel (District 1) and Mike Stephens District 5) voting no.
"I am voting no because I don't want to dictate what the schools use. I am with Mrs. Hendrix in my thoughts that they should be able to use "Christmas begins with Christ," Diel said.
In an article about the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment written for the First Amendment Center, the Hon. Avern L. Cohn, a senior district judge for the United States District Court, Eastern District of Michigan, explains the reasoning of not allowing strictly religious displays as follows:
"Because the establishment clause requires government "neutrality" in all things religious, numerous lawsuits have challenged the common practice of public holiday displays like crèches and menorahs, arguing that such displays are essentially government imprimaturs on a particular religion. In the 1984 Lynch case, the Supreme Court addressed the question of whether a crèche included in Pawtucket, R.I.'s annual Christmas display was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court's fact-sensitive analysis, which included an application of the Lemon test and Justice O'Connor's articulation of the endorsement test, concluded with a determination that the crèche did not violate the establishment clause. The Supreme Court said that the crèche display must be viewed in light of its setting, which included nearby traditional Christmas displays like a Santa Claus house, reindeer and a sleigh, a Christmas tree, lights and carolers. The Supreme Court viewed the crèche in the context of the Christmas season and noted that 'the display depicts the historical origins of this traditional event long recognized as a National Holiday.'"
While the Constitution demands the separation of church and state, federal law also grants public schools the right to treat holidays such as Christmas as learning opportunities to teach students the history of the holiday.