Tennessee bill would legalize wishing students 'Merry Christmas'

NASHVILLE Fri Mar 14, 2014 12:40pm EDT

A holiday reveler holds a Santa Claus hat in front of a Christmas tree in Union Square during the annual SantaCon event in San Francisco December 14, 2013. REUTERS/Stephen Lam

A holiday reveler holds a Santa Claus hat in front of a Christmas tree in Union Square during the annual SantaCon event in San Francisco December 14, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Stephen Lam

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NASHVILLE (Reuters) - Tennessee lawmakers on Thursday passed a measure that allows teachers to wish their students "Merry Christmas" and "Happy Hanukkah" and display scenes and symbols of winter celebrations without fear of legal action.

The state House of Representatives approved the legislation with a 84-4 vote. The state Senate, which passed an earlier version of the bill in February, is expected to take the legislation up next week.

"I'm a real proponent of freedom of religion, but not a proponent of freedom from religion," said the bill's sponsor state Representative Andy Holt, a Republican from Dresden, who wore a Christmas-themed tie when the bill passed.

The bill would seek to provide a legal basis to protect teachers from lawsuits when they wish students "Merry Christmas" and "Happy Hanukkah." Teachers would also be allowed to teach about religious holidays in the classroom under the bill, which supporters say upholds the religious and free speech rights of educators.

The bill also allows schools to display scenes or symbols associated with religious winter holidays, such as a menorah or a Christmas tree, if it is accompanied by a symbol or display of another religion or a secular scene or symbol.

The bill has been dubbed the "Merry Christmas" measure in media reports.

The Senate will consider a slightly amended House version of the bill it passed on February 24, with Holt adding language that said holiday greetings would not be limited to Christmas and Hanukkah but to other types of occasions as well.

"We are just trying to make sure that nobody is to be excluded in this legislation. It doesn't preclude any other traditional winter celebrations," Holt said.

If the Senate passes the bill, it goes to the desk of Republican Governor Bill Haslam for his signature.

(Editing by Brendan O'Brien and Lisa Shumaker)

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