Texas Judge Orders District to Allow ‘Charlie Brown Christmas’ Poster at School

By Mark Walsh — December 16, 2016 3 min read
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A state judge has ordered a Texas school district to permit a school staff member’s door display featuring the main religious message from the classic TV special “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”

In a case that has attracted nationwide attention, Judge Jack Jones of the 146th Judicial District in Bell County, Texas, on Thursday issued a temporary restraining order that prohibits the Killeen Independent School District from refusing to allow the display of a poster that featured words from the special about the meaning of Christmas.

The case involves a Christmas display put up by Dedra Shannon, who is described in court papers as a “clinic aide” at Patterson Middle School in Killeen. On Dec. 5, Shannon decorated the door of the school nurse’s office with a customized poster based on the Charlie Brown Christmas special that highlights an essential scene from the 30-minute special, which first aired in the 1960s.

The poster reads: “‘For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior which is Christ the Lord’ . . . That’s what Christmas is all about Charlie Brown.’ Linus.”

The phrase is from a longer soliloquy delivered by Linus during the special about the true meaning of Christmas that is adapted from the Bible’s Gospel according to Luke. On Dec. 7, Principal Kara Trevino asked Shannon to remove the poster or delete the quote, citing concerns about “the separation of church and state” and the possibility it could offend non-Christians, court papers say.

The Killeen school board on Dec. 9 issued a statement supporting the principal’s actions. The statement referred to a 2013 Texas statute, known as “the Merry Christmas law,” which is designed to encourage public schools to teach about religious holidays and to allow teachers and students to use greetings such as “Merry Christmas,” but which also requires that holiday displays not adhere to a specific religion.

On Dec. 13, it debated the issue further and voted 6-1 to ask administrators to study holiday displays, but also to encourage school staff members “to use, to the fullest extent allowed by law, the name Jesus, the name God, and anything about our Christian religion.”

The motion called for no further action that would allow Shannon to restore her poster. That prompted the school aide to sue the Killeen district and administrators, citing her right to free speech and free exercise of religion under the Texas constitution.

Shannon, backed by a group called Texas Values, argues in court papers that the Linus quote on her poster did not encourage anyone to adhere to Christianity in violation of the Merry Christmas law.

Shannon was also backed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who filed a brief in Jones’s court that said “contrary to the decision of [the Killeen district], the inclusion of Bible verses or religious messages on student or teacher-sponsored holiday decorations does not violate Texas law. To the contrary, Texas law prohibits KISD from expressing hostility toward religious messages, and it also specifically encourages school districts to take a more inclusive approach to religious and secular celebrations.”

Paxton said the school district was muddling the distinction between government and private speech, and that Shannon’s poster did not constitute government speech.

In issuing a temporary restraining order against the school district on Dec. 15, the judge did not accept several sweeping statements proposed by Shannon’s lawyers. Instead, he wrote that the defendants were restrained from prohibiting Shannon from “displaying the poster that was previously on her door with the addition of the words ‘Ms. Shannon’s Christmas Message’ in letters as large as the other letters.”

In a statement Thursday, the Killeen school district said, “Christmas and winter celebrations and messages are important to our community. The board’s actions taken on Tuesday directing district administration to develop guidelines for employees underscore the board’s commitment to this effort. Despite these efforts we found ourselves in court this afternoon.”

The district noted the judge’s requirement that Shannon add lettering to her poster indicating that it was her Christmas message.

“We believe that directing the individual to include the additional text better complies with state and federal law,” the district’s statement adds. “We support this decision.”

In a statement issued by Texas Values on Friday, Shannon said, “I am so thankful that the court ruled in my favor and that Killeen ISD’s efforts to ban my Charlie Brown Christmas poster have failed. I was thankful to put my poster back up today.”

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.