AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - Surrounded by sleigh bell-ringing Santa Claus impersonators, Gov. Rick Perry on Thursday signed a law protecting Christmas and other holiday celebrations in Texas public schools from legal challenges - but also stressed that freedom of religion is not the same thing as freedom from religion.
It was a serious tone for an otherwise fun bill-signing and should bolster the governor's Christian conservative credentials before he travels to Washington for the Faith & Freedom Coalition's "Road to Majority" conference with the likes of tea party darlings and U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, Kentucky's Rand Paul and fellow Texan Ted Cruz.
Dubbed the "Merry Christmas bill," the bipartisan measure sailed through the state House and Senate to reach Perry's desk.
It removes legal risks of saying "Merry Christmas" in schools while also protecting traditional holiday symbols, such as a menorah or nativity scene, as long as more than one religion and a secular symbol are also reflected.
"I realize it's only June. But it's a good June and the holidays are coming early this year," Perry said. "It's a shame that a bill like this one I'm signing today is even required, but I'm glad that we're standing up for religious freedom in this state. Religious freedom does not mean freedom from religion."
During the last Sunday of the legislative session on May 26, Rep. Donna Howard, an Austin Democrat, gave the Texas House's daily prayer.
"We are fortunate to live in a country where we have the freedom to exercise the religion of our choosing while also being free from having any religion imposed upon us," said Howard, herself a Unitarian Universalist.
Her words prompted some conservative lawmakers to hold their own, separate prayer session moments later.
Perry did not mention Howard or her prayer, but invited to the signing ceremony cheerleaders from Kountze High School in East Texas. They were briefly barred by their school district from displaying banners with bible verses at football games. Perry decried the ban and a judge eventually ruled it violated students' free speech rights.
The governor said the law was for believers such as the Kountze cheerleaders, who wore red "I cheer for Christ" T-shirts.
The Faith & Freedom Coalition is a conservative, grass-roots advocacy group whose conference runs through the weekend. Perry heads to Washington on Friday.
The bill's sponsor, Republican Rep. Dwayne Bohac of Houston, said he drafted it after discovering that his son's school erected a "holiday tree" in December because any mention of Christmas could spark litigation.
"We hope that this is a fire that will take off and become laws in the other 49 states," said Bohac.
The proposal has drawn little public opposition. Tom Hargis, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, declined to comment beyond a statement that "we hope administrators and teachers remain mindful that it's an important role of parents to teach their children about matters of faith, not our public schools."
Bohac said Perry "is not a governor that shirks away from the tough issues. And this should not be a tough issue, which is what's even amazing about all this. But this is just political correctness that's run amok and our brains have completely fallen out as a result."
As Perry signed, 10 members of a group called the Lone Star Santas - with long white beards but wearing colorful summer garb rather than their traditional red suits - cheered and rang bells. Standing behind Perry's desk was Glenn Westberry, or "Santa G" from Houston, and Rabbi Zev Johnson of the Rohr Chabad Jewish Center at the University of Texas.
Both cheered the measure, with Westberry saying he has been "persona non grata in Texas schools for too long." Johnson joked, "I thought this was the "Happy Hanukkah' law."