ATLANTA - Public school students and public workers in Georgia would be able to say "Merry Christmas'' to their friends and colleagues without fear of official retaliation under provisions of a bill the House approved Tuesday.
The legislation, which passed 136-25 and now goes to the Senate, is among a series of measures taken up by state lawmakers across the country following episodes where schools or retailers were reported as having instructed their students or employees to substitute nonreligious holiday greetings for "Merry Christmas.''
Those incidents became frequent fodder for conservative talk radio and television programs.
"In the state of Georgia, it's going to be OK to say, 'Merry Christmas' in our workplaces and public schools,'' Rep. Clay Cox, R-Lilburn, the bill's chief sponsor, told his colleagues Tuesday.
Several Democrats questioned various aspects of the bill, including whether it should be extended to private businesses and private schools.
But Cox said the state shouldn't dictate what rights either private businesses or private schools should extend to their workers or students.
Rep. Tom Bordeaux, D-Savannah, also warned that a change made to the bill as it went through the committee process would prevent local school systems from enforcing some policies aimed at preventing classes from being disrupted.
The bill gives schools the right to regulate "unlawful'' student speech or behavior.
Bordeaux said that language would prevent schools from banning T-shirts with language that is offensive but not unlawful.
For example, he said a student could wear a shirt with language denying the Holocaust.
"This isn't just about religion. It isn't just about Christmas,'' he said. "You are handcuffing your local school boards.''
But most Democrats didn't want to be in a position of voting against Christmas because of reservations over the bill's potential unintended legal consequences.
As the House prepared to vote, Rep. Jeannette Jamieson, D-Toccoa, said she hoped the Senate would resolve Bordeaux's concerns when that chamber takes up the legislation.