KILLEEN, Texas (CN) – A Texas judge blocked a school district’s removal of a “Charlie Brown Christmas” decoration that contained a Bible verse Thursday, hours after a nurse’s aide and Texas followed through on threats to sue over its removal.
Dedra Shannon and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton were granted a temporary restraining order in Bell County District Court on Thursday afternoon.
Earlier on Thursday, Shannon sued the Killeen Independent School District, seven school board trustees, superintendent John Craft and Kara Trevino, principal at Charles E. Patterson Middle School, for allegedly violating her free speech rights.
Paxton concurrently filed a plea in intervention on behalf of the state in support of Shannon.
The lawsuit came two days after the school board declined to reinstate the decoration in a 6-1 vote.
The board refused to overturn Trevino’s decision to tell Shannon to take down the door decoration showing “Peanuts” character Linus reciting to shepherds a verse from the Gospel of Luke about the meaning of Christmas, an image from the “A Charlie Brown Christmas” special.
According to the Houston Chronicle, Judge Jack Jones ruled Thursday afternoon that the door display should be put back up with the line, “Ms. Shannon’s holiday message.”
Paxton applauded the temporary restraining order, complaining that religious discrimination against Christians “has become a holiday tradition of sorts” for certain groups.
“I am glad to see that the court broke through the left’s rhetorical fog and recognized that a commitment to diversity means protecting everyone’s individual religious expression,” he said in a statement.
Killeen Independent School District officials have defended their decision, saying the state’s Merry Christmas law does not protect the decoration because it includes a message encouraging adherence to a particular religion.
Passed in 2013, H.B. 308 allows school districts to permit 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.
“Our employees are free to celebrate the Christmas and holiday season in the manner of their choosing,” school district officials said in a statement last week. “However, employees are not permitted to impose their personal beliefs on students.”
Paxton disagreed, saying the inclusion of Bible verses or religious messages on holiday decorations does not violate state law.
“To the contrary, Texas law prohibits KISD from expressing hostility toward religious messages, and it also specifically encourages school districts to take a more inclusive approach to religious and secular celebrations,” Paxton’s 10-page filing states.
Paxton said his intervention in the lawsuit is proper because state law and precedent recognize his right to intervene in suits regarding constitutional questions.
“Teachers and students do not ‘shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,'” the filing states. “For this reason, school officials may not suppress private speech simply because it contains a religious perspective.”
Paxton says it is permissible for the Bible to be used in an educational setting and that the Bible passages in Shannon’s decoration can be constitutionally presented “via a myriad of teaching methods, including Ms. Shannon’s door display.”
The attorney general said the school district is mistakenly viewing her expression as government speech.
Paxton criticized the school district for deciding that their commitment to diversity “does not extend to Christians.”
“Killeen ISD made a clear legal error when it decided it had to censor staff member Dedra Shannon’s Christmas decoration simply because it incorporated some religious terminology,” he said in a statement Thursday morning before the temporary restraining order was granted.