Lawmaker’s ‘Merry Christmas bill’ would protect Christmas displays on government property

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By Matt Smith

FRANKLIN COUNTY, Ind. (Dec. 22, 2014)-- A nativity scene in Franklin County will stay up through Christmas.

State Sen. Jim Smith (R-Charlestown) wants it to stay that way forever.

“The tactics are certainly threats and intimidation to silence people,” Smith said, who plans to once again introduce his “Merry Christmas bill” during the upcoming session.

The Indiana American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation recently sued over the display outside the Franklin County courthouse, claiming it violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

A short-term agreement will keep the nativity scene up through Christmas. It will come down the day after.

Smith’s legislation would protect Christmas celebrations in public schools and allow cities and towns to put up Christmas displays on government property if other faiths are represented, too. Smith said the purpose is to create guidelines and protections for schools and local government.

“We are as a nation allowing this to continue,” Smith said referring to recent lawsuits. “We are certainly stealing Christmas from our children and from our culture.”

Gavin Rose, an attorney with the Indiana ACLU working on the Franklin County case, said their legal action is about safeguarding the U.S. Constitution.

“The Indiana General Assembly can’t protect from a lawsuit under the establishment clause; it’s rudimentary that the U.S. Constitution trumps anything they try to do,” Rose said. “A lot of people really do get into this war on Christmas thing. It’s not a war on Christmas. It’s an attempt to make sure government abides by what the constitution recognizes is governments role actually is.”

Last session the Senate unanimously passed a similar bill Smith wrote, but it wasn’t voted on in the House. The new version adds the provisions for municipalities.

Smith said he mirrored his proposal after a Texas law. The National Conference of State Legislatures found at least eight states including Indiana have discussed similar proposals.

“We are a Christian nation founded on Christian principles, and Christmas is a national or a federal and state holiday,” Smith said. “So if they don’t like the holiday, they should probably lobby members of the General Assembly and those in Congress to remove Christmas as being a federal and state holiday.”

Smith said he’s unsure how the bill will fare but promises to introduce it again next year if it fails.

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