Thursday, February 6, 2014

Christmas and the gift of pandering

Posted by on Thu, Feb 6, 2014 at 4:00 AM

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Sometimes it's hard to tell whether Indiana's lawmakers are deluded or whether they just slept through their high school civics classes.

Clearly, though, many of them just don't understand the workings of American government and law - or they choose to pretend that they don't understand.

Perhaps the best recent example is a bill passed unanimously by the Indiana Senate to provide legal protections for educators in public schools who want to observe Christmas.

Senate Bill 326 would require the State Board of Education to establish guidelines that would allow Indiana educators to observe Christmas without being sued. Specifically, the bill would require the state education board to figure out ways for teachers and administrators to allow Christmas carols, greetings and other holiday traditions to be part of school life so long as they're accompanied by secular displays and allow room for other faiths.

"Across the country, there are reports of Christmas traditions, like the singing of Christmas carols or even the colors red and green, being banned in schools because administrators fear lawsuits," the bill's author, Sen. Jim Smith, R-Charlestown, said in a statement.

"We need to provide Hoosier teachers some protections so that these senseless, arbitrary bans do not take hold in our state," Smith said. "Christmas teaches important values, and it should not be absent from our classrooms."

Maybe that's true, but here's the deal: This really isn't the State Board of Education's or the Indiana General Assembly's decision to make.

If there are ways for public school educators to honor Christmas without violating the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, then those teachers and administrators already have the right to do so. The First Amendment gives them that right.

And if those teachers and administrators choose to honor Christmas in ways that violate the First Amendment, then nothing the State Board of Education or the Indiana General Assembly does or says is going to allow them to do so. No Indiana teacher, bureaucrat or lawmaker gets to trump the First Amendment.

The reality is that there are and always have been ways for public schools to mark the Christmas season. And the guidelines aren't that hard to understand.

The first is that if a school or public institution opens the door to one faith tradition, it has to open the door to all of them. And if the school is going to close the door to one faith tradition, it has to close the door to all of them. Government doesn't get to pick winners and losers among churches.

The second is that the schools can't force or pressure anyone to engage in a religious observance in which he or she does not want to participate. Government doesn't have the authority to make people worship in a way they don't want to.

Perhaps, though, Smith and the other members of the state Senate meant their bill to be a symbolic gesture - a way of thumbing their nose at the mythological war on Christmas.

What's the harm in that?

Well, it's costly in a couple of ways.

The first and most immediate way is that such gestures can cost us money. When state and local governments get sued for violating the U.S. Constitution, the taxpayers not only have to fund the cost of defending the government's actions but also will have to pay the legal fees of the party that files the suit if the courts determine that the government was in the wrong. At $50,000 or $100,000 a pop, such gestures can get pricey.

But the second cost to such legislative pandering is the more profound one. It sends a signal that we get to vote on each other's rights.

We don't. We aren't allowed to ask for a show of hands to make our neighbor Jack be a Baptist if he would prefer to be a Methodist, a Muslim or an atheist.

Thanks to the First Amendment, that's Jack's choice.

Not ours.

Not any teacher's.

Not the State Board of Education's.

And not the Indiana Senate's.

John Krull is director of Franklin College's Pulliam School of Journalism, host of "No Limits" WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students and faculty.

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