In the classic holiday TV special “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” the main Peanuts character, saddened by the over-commercialization of December 25, decides to put on a play.
But when his classmates push him to modernize the production and mock his sparse Christmas tree, Charlie Brown, exasperated, shouts out: “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”
Linus, his thumb-sucking and blanket-toting best friend, speaks up.
“Sure, Charlie Brown,” he says. “I can tell you what Christmas is all about.”
Then the character recites a lengthy Bible passage, from the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke, when angels descend upon the flock-tending shepherds to announce the birth of baby Jesus.
“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior which is Christ the Lord. . .” Linus says. “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
It is that quote, extracted from the special’s most overtly-Christian scene, that has thrust a Texas middle school nurse’s aid, the school district she works for and the state attorney general into a very public – and unseasonably bitter – debate over what “religious liberty” means inside the walls of the state’s public schools.
The battle began last week, when Dedra Shannon, a nurse’s aid at Patterson Middle School in Killeen, Texas, scrawled that Linus quote on a 6-foot tall poster, added a cutout of the character and the famously sparse Christmas tree, and taped it to the nurse’s office door.
On Dec. 7, the principal asked Shannon to remove the Linus quote or take down the poster altogether.
On Dec. 8, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said that mandate was “an attack on religious liberty.”
In the days that followed, Shannon retained legal counsel from Texas Values, a non-profit law firm that stands for “biblical, Judeo-Christian values” and promotes “faith, family and freedom in Texas,” according to its website. Texas Values sent a letter to the board of the Killeen Independent School District school on Dec. 12, which the attorney general followed with his own letter on Dec. 13, the day the board planned to discuss the ordeal.
In it, Paxton wrote that the district’s decision, motivated by a fear of legal retribution, is “not surprising in an age of frivolous litigation by anti-Christian interest groups,” but that it stems “from an incorrect reading of the law.”
The Supreme Court, he said, “has held repeatedly that neither ‘students nor teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.'”
Then he invoked the state’s so-called Merry Christmas Law.
It’s in the interpretation of this statute that the pro- and anti-poster parties differ.
Passed in 2013, the Merry Christmas Law was intended to protect Texans’ “right to acknowledge traditional winter holidays like Christmas and Hanukkah on school grounds” without fear of litigation, according to a website about the law.
The school district argued that Shannon’s homemade Linus poster, with its biblical quote, violated the Merry Christmas Law by promoting Christianity without also acknowledging other secular symbols, like a snowman, or other winter religious traditions, like Hanukkah – a requirement of the statute. It also mandates that a school display cannot include “a message that encourages adherence to a particular religious belief.”
“Our employees are free to celebrate the Christmas and holiday season in the manner of their choosing,” the district said Friday in a statement obtained by TV station KWTX-10. “However, employees are not permitted to impose their personal beliefs on students.”
The attorney general countered that argument in his letter to the school board, arguing that the Merry Christmas Law “encourages school districts to take a more inclusive approach to religious and secular celebrations” and “explicitly grants school districts the option of educating its students about traditional winter holidays, the meaning of these holidays, and how they are referenced in history and pop culture, which ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ certainly satisfies.”
Paxton asked the school district to rescind the “unlawful policy,” apologize to Shannon and “move back into compliance with state and federal law.”
At their meeting Tuesday night, which drew an audience of nearly 100 people, the school board refused.
Its members voted 6 to 1 in support of the district, but ultimately recommended a study on the matter, reported the Killeen Daily Herald. One school board member said her understanding of the interpretation of the law wasn’t clear, and school board president Terry Delano, who voted in favor of restoring the Linus poster, expressed deep concerns about the greater ramifications of the controversy.
“The poster did not coerce anyone to be a Christian, in my opinion,” Delano said, according to the Daily Herald. “If this continues to be the trend, there will come a day where we can’t say ‘Christ-mas.'”
The droves of people in attendance expressed a similar sentiment, quoting Martin Luther King Jr., and drawing parallels to the “God” references in the Pledge of Allegiance and on U.S. money.
“Our money says ‘in God we trust,'” Concerned Christian Citizens representative Joe Goodson said during the public forum, reported the Daily Herald. “Are we supposed to stop using it to not violate other religions’ rights?”
The decision left Shannon in tears, according to the Daily Herald, and attendees “visibly upset.”
After the meeting, Shannon’s attorney, Jonathan Saenz addressed the media, claiming that the school board had “gone rogue” on the First Amendment and “against their own community.”
“The Killeen ISD school board is on an island of their own and they are legally in a very dangerous place,” Saenz said.
Beside him stood Shannon, still-faced, holding the poster that sparked the whole debate.
“Just about everyone that you hear from cannot believe we’ve reached a place in America,” Saenz said, pausing for emphasis, “and in Texas, that a Charlie Brown Christmas poster is being torn down in our public schools.”
Saenz said they are still considering their next stops.
The Peanuts Christmas TV special turned 50 last year and remains one of the few holiday films to be annually aired that so prominently discusses the religious inspiration for Christmas. Its faith-based tone was a point of pop culture contention from the beginning.
When producer Lee Mendelson and Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schulz first pitched the scene with Linus reciting the Gospel of Luke, CBS network executives balked.
“We told them we wanted to read a short passage from the Bible,” Mendelson told the Star-Telegram last year. “A lot of eyebrows went up about that.”
But the duo did it anyway.
In “The Art and Making of Peanuts Animation: Celebrating Fifty Years of Television Specials,” director Bill Melendez said he was frank with Schulz, who he called Sparky, about the religious implications.
“Sparky, this is religion,” he told Schulz, according to biography.com. “It just doesn’t go in a cartoon.”
Schulz, who was raised Lutheran but later called himself a “secular humanist,” offered a simple response: “Bill, if we don’t do it, who will?”