R.I. lawmaker aims to protect “Merry Christmas” in the classroom

Bill would prevent teachers from being penalized for holiday greetings, decorations

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — There’s no rule in Rhode Island barring teachers from saying “Merry Christmas” in their classrooms, but one state lawmaker says she wants to make sure the freedom to do so is never compromised.

Rep. Patricia Morgan, R-Coventry, announced plans Tuesday to introduce a bill in the upcoming session that would protect teachers who may be afraid to talk about Christmas, Hanukkah, and other holidays at school because of their religious undertones.

According to Morgan, the legislation aims to prevent teachers and other staffers from getting in trouble for offering a festive greeting or teaching students about holiday traditions.

It also aims to allow school districts to put up decorations associated with those holidays, such as Christmas trees and menorahs.

“It’s not about them teaching religion,” said Morgan. “It’s about them sharing our cultural foundations with the kids.”

Morgan said the legislation is modeled after a similar law passed in Texas in 2013. She cited a recent incident in which a school principal forced a staff member take down Christmas decorations; the teacher was spared prosecution under the law.

“I think teachers need a firm footing under their feet that they can talk about Christmas, they can talk about Hanukkah, without fearing that the school is going to be sued by the ACLU,” Morgan added.

Steven Brown, executive director of the ACLU of Rhode Island, released a statement Wednesday saying the bill seeks to address an issue that doesn’t actually exist.

“The so-called War on Christmas that this bill seeks to address is as fanciful as Santa Claus, Rudolph and Festivus. While we strongly support freedom for all religions, large and small, in the coming months we look forward to addressing real, not made-up, attacks on religious liberty, such as the President-elect’s truly un-American proposal for a Muslim registration database.”

Gov. Gina Raimondo said she has no problem with teachers saying “Merry Christmas.”

“I say ‘Merry Christmas’ all day long. I also say ‘Happy Hanukkah’ and ‘Happy Holidays,”” she said. “There are people of many faiths in Rhode Island and they are all welcome.”

A spokesperson for House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello said he likes the concept of the legislation and he anticipates it will get a hearing during the 2017 session.

Morgan’s bill is co-sponsored by Republican Reps. Anthony Giarrusso of East Greenwich, Sherry Roberts of Coventry, Justin Price of Exeter, and Robert A. Nardolillo III of Coventry.