COLUMBIA - South Carolina parents might very well see a menorah and a manger alongside a Christmas tree and even a Festivus pole from the TV show "Seinfeld" at their children's schools next winter if state legislation is passed.
A bill that would permit public schools to display scenes and symbols associated with "traditional winter celebrations" is heading to the House floor after the Education Committee advanced it on Wednesday.
Sponsor Rep. Bill Sandifer, R-Oconee, said the bill is needed to protect schools from the growing trend of lawsuits over holiday displays. He believes the legislation would also protect freedom of speech and accommodate different faiths.
"Defending a lawsuit is an expensive proposition," Sandifer said. "What I am trying to do is to create an environment in which a Christian display can be made. It does not have to be (Christian) but it can only be displayed if there is another type of a display, whether it be an agnostic display, a pagan display, a Jewish display or whatever it might be. So that they each have equal opportunity."
Under the bill, a religious icon such as a nativity scene must be either paired with a secular symbol or grouped with at least one other religion's symbol. The bill also specifies that staff and students can greet each other with "Merry Christmas," "Happy Hanukah" and "happy holidays." Sandifer said the symbols do not have to be limited in number and school districts would have the choice not to have any displays.
"If they display, for example, a nativity scene, they're required to put something else there. It may be what we call a Christmas tree, provided there's no angel or star on the top of it, because the tree is a pagan symbol," Sandifer said.
Sandifer said his bill does not violate the separation of church and state as a display would not be advertising a church.
"I think that my local school district where I live in Oconee County is better able to determine what is permitted and what is not in the schools that my children go to than somebody in D.C. or California," Sandifer said.
American Civil Liberties Union state director Victoria Middleton said the bill is unnecessary and could be problematic.
"A display should be more inclusive than two things," Middleton said. "It raises a lot of questions about it could be implemented without being potentially unconstitutional or specifically someone who is not of that faith. Public schools should be educating students, not prothletising. They already can display symbols of winter holidays and other times."
Middleton is also concerned about public school officials being allowed to say seasonal greetings.
"It's not the same as students exchanging greetings with each other because then they are privileging or promoting one particular faith," Middleton said.
It isn't just the ACLU who is concerned with the bill but also Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.
"Purely religious displays in public schools in December clearly violate the Constitution. The Supreme Court has not squarely faced the issue of whether having multiple religious icons or secular holiday images in schools is acceptable," said the organization's executive director Barry Lynn.
"Rather than have a mix of Santa Claus looking over Mary's shoulder at the baby Jesus, schools are better served by sticking to displays of historical and other materials that fit into the curriculum at the school. If there is not a single 'Christmas' item in any public school in South Carolina, I'm quite confident that the state's residents, particularly its Christian majority will still figure out what time of year it is," Lynn said.