Separation of church and state is a constant battle in America…
…particularly in our schools. With the public education system being an arm of the government “by the people,” school- sanctioned prayer and promotion of specific religions is strictly prohibited by law. However, students are allowed to pray and hold religious events as a part of their First Amendment rights to “freedom of religion.” Now, what constitutes a legitimate interpretation of the word “freedom,” leads some to a non-existent gray area where the battle is typically waged. The lines in this conflicting legal interpretation are often blurred when it comes to what qualifies as school or government sanctioned religion. One Texas group of cheerleaders is proving that point.
This blurring has ignited a national controversy in the case of cheerleaders in Kountze, Texas, a small town with about 2100 people about 85 miles northeast of Houston, and their “freedom” to wave banners with Bible verses at football games. An anonymous complaint to the Freedom from Religion Foundation started it all, with the Foundation contacting the district superintendent. After consulting with the District Attorney, Superintendent Kevin Weldon banned the religious banners, which said things like…
“I can do all things through Christ which strengthens! Phil 4:13”
“If God is for us, who can be against us? Romans 8:31”
The ban went into effect for the September 18 football game this year, causing parents of the cheerleaders to sue the school district. They received a temporary restraining order to continue to allow the banners, which would have ended last Thursday, but during a recent hearing a judge issued an injunction allowing the banners pending a jury trial. The banners will be allowed the rest of the school year until the trial on June 24, 2013.
The lawsuit went to Hardin County District Judge Steve Thomas, who said the cheerleaders had “raised some relatively complex issues.” He also said he had to “preserve the status quo” and that if he chose not to act the district’s “unlawful policy prohibiting private religious expression would remain in effect.”
The cheerleaders, their parents and supporters applauded the ruling continuing the allowance of the banners as it was handed down in the packed courtroom. One cheerleader, 17-year-old Rebekah Richardson said of the ruling:
“It set a bar for other schools so that if they want to express their religious beliefs, they can.”
Superintendent Weldon said that he had respect for the judge’s decision as well, despite the fact that, for now, his side has lost:
“I respect the judge for what he did. He was in a pretty tough predicament, like myself.”
There was testimony from both sides of the debate in the hearing, and the battle is far from over. The decision has been made for now, and the school district has yet to seek an appeal. The lawyer for the school district, Tom Brandt, cited a Supreme Court case from 2000, where it was determined that student led prayers over the loudspeaker at sporting events were not allowed, because they implied school sponsored religion.
The judge asked several questions of each side of the issue, one of which was:
“Is it government speech or private speech, putting Bible verses on a banner?”
Liberty Institute lawyer David Starnes, who was representing the cheerleaders, cited a ruling in favor of a valedictorian who had been told she could not pray during a graduation speech, and said that the banners were private religious expression because the cheerleaders created them themselves. He said:
“…it is clearly, without a doubt, private speech. When a football player runs into the end zone and points at the sky, is that going to be prohibited? There is still in this country and this state the right to express religious viewpoints.”
Tom Brandt disagreed with this assessment of the role of the cheerleaders and their banners with regards to the football game, because the cheerleaders signed the district’s cheerleaders’ constitution,” thus making them representatives of the school. He said:
“School-sponsored speech is speech that can be regulated. It’s hard to argue that the banner on your field with your representatives is not school-sponsored.”
The judge, however, was skeptical of Brandt’s explanation, and seemed to wonder how far- reaching bans on public religious displays would go. He said:
“I go to football games myself every night, and when the kids get down on their knees, is that prohibited? Voluntary expression, that’s what we’re talking about.”
Both sides have formed private Facebook pages for their side of the cause. Concerned East Texans for the Separation of Church and State, a group that formed because of this controversy, has 279 members in its group, opposing the banners. Opponents of the cheerleaders’ banners have sent gift baskets to the school, and have taken to bringing signs of their own to games that say “We support the separation of church and state.”
A member of the group, a 48-year old agnostic mother, who asked not to be named, fearing threats, asked one simple question that really should settle this issue without so much complexity. She said:
“What if one little cheerleader isn’t Christian — who’s going to speak up for her?”
I think many people of minority faiths or no faith, or even those of majority faith who recognize the need to be sensitive to others who do not share their faith, would love an answer to that question. That seems to matter not to the supporters of these banners, though, because they have already made a new pink banner for the next game that includes scripture from Luke 18:27 that says:
“And he said the things which are impossible with man are possible with God.”
Opponents of the banners are not surprised by the ruling, and Annie Laurie Gaylor, Co- President of the Madison, Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation, says that it is bullying on the part of Christians. She says:
“We’re just seeing a great bullying response by the state of Texas against irreligious minorities. It’s very ugly.”
I have to agree that this is bullying. The thing is, you never know what someone else’s private religious beliefs are, if they have any at all. It is about being sensitive to other people. There are plenty of ways to show support to the players and keep it neutral. These banners assume that every cheerleader and every football player is a Christian, and, even if they are currently, it sends the message that in a public school, only Christians are welcome on the cheerleading squad and on the football team.
Even above and beyond sensitivity towards other people of different faiths or no faith, this is about the law. It is about separation of church and state. When these students wave these banners, they represent the school, and thus, the allowance of them is indicative of the school sanctioning the Christian religion, which, under the letter of the law, in unacceptable.
That is my opinion, now please share yours in the comments.
What do you think? Is the majority religion in the wrong for insisting on displaying religious messages at public school football games? What happens when a non-religious or minority religious cheerleader or football player objects? Is it censorship to ask that the banners be banned, or is it honoring the Constitutional separation of church and state?