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Senate panel passes bill allowing Christmas in the classroom

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – Schools and teachers that want to celebrate Christmas and other winter holidays in the classroom could get legal protection to do so, under a bill approved by an Indiana Senate committee on Wednesday.

The Senate Education Committee unanimously backed the measure, which would allow schools to have Nativity scenes or other Yuletide decorations, as long as another religious or secular holiday is recognized. It would also permit history lessons about winter holidays and traditional holiday greetings, including “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Hanukkah.”

The bill received little pushback in committee, though some lawmakers expressed doubts on whether it is necessary since celebrating Christmas is already a legal activity in Indiana.

Bill sponsor Sen. Jim Smith, R-Charlestown, said the proposal would help ease hesitation among teachers and schools, and encourage them to celebrate the holiday season with students.

“It will help them defend themselves when they are either threatened with lawsuits or if they indeed get involved in a lawsuit,” Smith said. “It will act as a guideline for them.”

This is the second consecutive year lawmakers have introduced this legislation, which Smith said was sparked by a similar law passed in Texas. In the 2014 legislative session the bill unanimously passed through the Senate, but stalled in the House.

Smith said he plans to get more support in the House this time around. He is also taking the legislation one step further, expanding it to allow religious displays on municipal properties, such as city halls, as long as other religions are recognized.

He said the addition is in response to an ongoing federal lawsuit involving the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana and Franklin County. ACLU filed the suit against Franklin County in December 2014, because of a Nativity scene located outside a courthouse in the county seat of Brookville, about 70 miles southeast of Indianapolis.

The suit alleges the county is endorsing Christianity over other religions, since no other religions are represented. The display has been there for more than 50 years. An attorney representing the county says it has never rejected any request for a display on the lawn.