AUSTIN, Texas - Texas Gov. Rick Perry on Thursday signed a law protecting Christmas and other holiday celebrations in Texas public schools from legal challenges — but also stressed that freedom of religion is not the same thing as freedom from religion.
It was a serious tone for an otherwise fun bill-signing and should bolster the governor's Christian conservative credentials before he travels to Washington for the Faith & Freedom Coalition's "Road to Majority" conference.
Dubbed the "Merry Christmas" bill, the bipartisan measure sailed through the state House and Senate to reach Perry's desk.
It removes legal risks of saying "Merry Christmas" in schools while also protecting traditional holiday symbols, such as a menorah or nativity scene, as long as more than one religion and a secular symbol are also reflected.
The inclusion of other religious and secular symbols seeks to avoid challenges to the law under the U.S. Constitution's Establishment Clause which prohibits the government from determining a national religion or expressing preference of one religion over another.
"I realize it's only June. But it's a good June and the holidays are coming early this year," Perry said. "It's a shame that a bill like this one I'm signing today is even required, but I'm glad that we're standing up for religious freedom in this state. Religious freedom does not mean freedom from religion."
Perry invited to the signing ceremony cheerleaders from Kountze High School in East Texas. They were briefly barred by their school district from displaying banners with bible verses at football games. Perry decried the ban and a judge eventually ruled it violated students' free speech rights.
The governor said the law was for believers such as the Kountze cheerleaders, who wore red "I cheer for Jesus" T-shirts.
The bill's sponsor, Republican Rep. Dwayne Bohac, said he drafted it after discovering that his son's school erected a "holiday tree" in December because any mention of Christmas could spark litigation.
As Perry signed the bill, 10 members of a group called the Lone Star Santas — with long white beards but wearing colorful summer garb rather than their traditional red suits — cheered and rang bells. Standing behind Perry's desk was Glenn Westberry, or "Santa G" from Houston, and Rabbi Zev Johnson of the Rohr Chabad Jewish Center at the University of Texas.
Both cheered the bill, with Westberry saying he has been "persona non grata in Texas schools for too long." Johnson joked, "I thought this was the 'Happy Hanukkah' law."