AUSTIN, Texas -- 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."

Also on HuffPost:

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  • "Oops"

    At the CNBC debate on November 9, Perry <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/10/rick-perry-oops-video_n_1085336.html" target="_hplink">famously forgot</a> one of the government agencies he would eliminate if elected: <blockquote>"It's three government agencies when I get there that are gone: Commerce, Education and the um, what's the third one there. Let's see," Perry said. He turned to Texas Rep. Ron Paul, looking for some help, but got nothing but a remark from Paul that he would eliminate five agencies. "Oh five," Perry said. "So Commerce, Education, and, uh, the uh, um, um." "EPA?" offered former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. "EPA, there ya go," Perry said as the room exploded in laughter. CNBC moderator John Harwood honed in and pressed Perry: "Seriously? Is EPA the one you were talking about?" "No sir. No sir. We were talking about the, um, agencies of government," Perry said. "The EPA needs to be rebuilt." "But you can't name the third one?" Harwood persisted. "The third agency of government," Perry said. "I would do away with the education, the um, Commerce, and let's see. I can't think of the third one. I can't. Sorry. Oops."</blockquote>

  • Voting Age Flub

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/29/rick-perry-gets-voting-ag_n_1119126.html" target="_hplink">During a campaign stop</a> at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire, Perry got both the voting age and the date of the 2012 presidential election wrong. "Those of you that will be 21 by November the 12th, I ask for your support and your vote," he said to the students. The legal voting age has been 18 since the 26th Amendment was adopted in 1971. The general election is scheduled for November 6, 2012.

  • New Hampshire... Caucus?

    During a November <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/30/rick-perry-new-hampshire-caucus_n_1120304.html" target="_hplink">interview </a>with Fox News, Perry mistakenly referred to the New Hampshire "caucuses." When asked about the emergence of front runners Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, Perry responded, "Americans haven't decided yet at all who they want to lead the Republican nomination, and we're going to be talking about that and we're going to be talking about it in harsh and strong terms over the course of the next four to five weeks as we get ready for those New Hampshire caucuses." New Hampshire holds primaries, not caucuses.

  • Minimum Age To Run For President

    While speaking to Catcher Jones, a seven-year-old from Greenville, South Carolina in December, Perry flubbed the minimum age to run for president. "I'm glad you're not 21," Perry told Jones, who was wearing a t-shirt that said "Future President: Accepting Campaign Donations Now." Perry realized his mistake and added, "Or actually 35."

  • War With Iran

    After a woman in South Carolina asked Perry what he thought about current United States military operations, Perry mistakenly started talking about the wars in Afghanistan and Iran. When an audience member alerted Perry to his error, he joked that his comment "will be on the front page."

  • Revolutionary War

    Following a debate in New Hampshire, Perry met with fraternity brothers at Dartmouth College. When someone asked him about the issue of states' rights, Perry said that one of the "reasons we fought the revolution in the 16th century was to get away from that kind of onerous crown." The Revolutionary War occurred in the 18th century.

  • Decade Mix-Up

    <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=OMK7La2721Y" target="_hplink">In an interview</a> with CNN last year, Perry got stuck in a time warp. "Washington has abused the Constitution. You go back to the, a decade ago, with Woodrow Wilson..." Wilson was president from 1913 to 1921.

  • Bizarre Campaign Speech

    In October, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/29/video-rick-perrys-unusual-speech-performance_n_1065571.html" target="_hplink">an unusual performance</a> at a speech in Manchester led many to question the candidate's sobriety. Perry later made a statement to dispel rumors that he was drinking or using painkillers during the speech.

  • Bush Was Good At "Defending Us From Freedom"

    During an interview with the <em>Today Show</em> last November, Perry told host Meredith Viera that "Bush did an incredible job, in the presidency, defending us from freedom."

  • "Montomayor"

    While speaking with the editorial board of the <em>Des Moines Register</em>, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/09/rick-perry-gaffe-sonia-sotomayor_n_1139541.html?1323463939" target="_hplink">Perry struggled</a> to remember Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor's name: <blockquote>"Do you really think he [President Barack Obama] is waging a war on religion?" asked an editorial board member, referring to Perry's recent ad pledging to "end Obama's war on religion" and "fight against liberal attacks on our religious heritage" as president. "I do because when you see his appointment of two -- from my perspective, inarguably -- activist judges, whether it was," he said, then trailing off for about six seconds trying to recall her name. "Montomayor," he said. Someone on the editorial board said Sotomayor's name. "Sotomayor and [Elena] Kagan, who are both activist judges," he continued.</blockquote>