KILLEEN, Texas (CN) – A Texas school district voted Tuesday to keep a controversial "A Charlie Brown Christmas" religious decoration down, ignoring warnings from an employee and Attorney General Ken Paxton that it is breaking the law.
In a 6-1 vote, school board trustees for the Killeen Independent School District upheld a decision by Kara Trevino, principal at Charles E. Patterson Middle School, ordering the removal of a door decoration showing “Peanuts” character Linus reciting to shepherds a verse from the Gospel of Luke.
The vote approved the study and development of new guidelines regarding future display of Christian references in schools, postponing any immediate action on the Linus poster. Trevino had told school staffer Dedra Shannon to remove the religious section of her display earlier this month.
Paxton entered the fray last week, telling the board the removal violates free speech rights and the state's Merry Christmas law passed in 2013.
H.B. 308 allows school districts to permit the use of “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Hanukkah” by students and staff. It also allows school districts to display “scenes or symbols associated with traditional winter celebrations,” such as a menorah or Christmas tree, so long as the display shows more than one religion or one religion with at least one secular scene or symbol.
The seven trustees spoke at length before the vote Tuesday about weighing their personal religious views against upholding the law. Several trustees noted the Merry Christmas law does not apply because the statute explicitly states the display must not include a message encouraging adherence to a particular religion.
Board president Terry Delano was the only person to vote for the decoration to be put back up. He expressed concern that the country had reached a point where "we are taking Christ out of everything, in this case, the very word Christmas."
Shannon was present at the meeting with her attorney, Johnathan Saenz with Austin-based religious nonprofit Texas Values.
"I believe it is discriminatory to not allow Christians like me to put up a display that is simply an expression of the story of Christmas," she said in a press conference after the board meeting.
Saenz told reporters the "school board has gone rogue and is now in a very dangerous place."
He told trustees before the vote that banning the display was a violation of Shannon’s religious freedoms.
"Allow the ‘Charlie Brown’ poster to go up," Saenz said. "If not, we will be forced to take other action."
Trustees also heard comments Tuesday from members of the public for over an hour before the vote. A military veteran talked about having fought for Shannon's right to display the decoration, while other speakers noted how references to God remain in the Pledge of Allegiance and on money.
Paxton urged trustees to rescind the ban for a second time on Tuesday, writing in a letter that he "sincerely hope[s] that you choose to rescind this unlawful policy, apologize to Ms. Shannon and move back into compliance with state and federal law."
Paxton said school officials' fear of litigation over leaving the poster up is misguided, that it stems "from an incorrect reading of the law." He said the U.S. Supreme Court has "held repeatedly" that neither teachers nor students shed their free speech rights at the schoolhouse gate.
"Staff members therefore may express their take on the holiday without infringing on the Constitution, even if they incorporate some religious terminology," Paxton wrote.
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