Saturday, October 5, 2013

Rah Rah for G-O-D!

The cheerleaders at Kountze High School in Southeast Texas sparked controversy under the Friday night lights. They painted the run-through banners with Bible verses such as “I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me,” and “If God is for us, who can be against us?” The words on the banners were intended to inspire the football team, but following an anonymous complaint, the district superintendent banned the use of religious themes. Superintendent Kevin Weldon explained, “My personal convictions are that I am a Christian as well. But I’m also a state employee and Kountze ISD representative. And I was advised that such a practice would be in direct violation of United State Supreme Court decisions.” The school district has always been in opposition to the use of Biblical messages on the banners, despite the support the cheerleaders have received from the court.
            Just a few days after news about the ban broke, the cheerleaders took legal action and were granted a temporary order allowing them to continue using the religious language on their signs at football games in the fall of 2012. The case was later brought to court, and in May 2013, the state district judge decided that the cheerleaders’ banner was constitutionally permissible and that no law “prohibits cheerleaders from using religious-themed banners at school sporting events.”
 However, Thomas Brandt, the school district's attorney, pointed out that Judge Steven Thomas ruled that the district can permit the banners under the establishment clause but is not required to do so, and that the banners are the speech of the school, not private speech, so the school has a right to have editorial control of the banners. Initially, the district banned the religious messages, but after a public meeting, the board of trustees issued a resolution in which it decided that the district was not required to prohibit messages on school banners that displayed "fleeting expressions of community sentiment solely because the source or origin of such messages is religious." Judge Thomas did not think the banners violated the establishment clause, and that the school district does not have to permit or deny the use of such language on banners—in other words, they don’t have to express an opinion about the banners, but it’s in their power to do so. The ACLU has since stated, “Although the banners are prepared by the cheerleaders, school officials review and approve the messages.”
 In a more recent development, various civil rights groups have begun to appeal the decision. The Americans United for Separation of Church and State expressed its opposition to allowing Christian messages at a public school sporting event, arguing that students “have the right to take part in school activities without being pressured to participate in religious exercises…and the school has an obligation to protect the religious freedom of all its students, not just those in the majority.” So, in the eyes of the AUSCS, the school district is violating the rights of the minority—precisely what the Establishment Clause is supposed to protect against. They argue that the banners are an imposition on the rights of the minority students attending the school—this group includes Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs. Further, because faith is “profoundly personal, and that students should be able to attend our public schools without being marginalized or feeling pressured to conform to the majority's religious beliefs,” they stand firmly by the position that banners should be kept off the field.
The ACLU filed Amicus Curiae that also focused on the rights on the non-Christian students at the school, rather than the freedom of speech and free exercise of the Christian cheerleaders. The ACLU, in conjunction with an interfaith coalition, argued that because the school has control over the banners, and gives the cheerleaders exclusive access to the field, that the banners are school-sponsored and thus violate the Establishment Clause. The group claimed that just to attend a football game, the non-Christian students are subject to unfair “school-sponsored evangelizing.”
It seems to me that the court made an error in deeming the signs as constitutionally permissible. At a public, non-religious high school, religious messages cannot and should not be displayed, regardless of how many students follow a given tradition. The cheerleaders are representatives of the school and the district, and by allowing the Christian beliefs on the banners the court is establishing a support for the Christian tradition where it does not belong. While I can concede that the district and the court need not be hostile to the religious beliefs of the cheerleaders, I don’t believe that prohibiting the banner is oppressing religion. There are plenty of ways to encourage and support the football players without reference to God and Jesus Christ. By banning the Biblical ideas from the signs, the district and the court would merely be protecting the minority from the Establishment of religion.


            

8 comments:

Sayeh B said...

I absolutely agree with Maggie that the court made a mistake in granting the cheerleaders an exception and allowing them to use the banners. Because this is a public institution funded by the government, it must be neutral towards religion and putting Christian verses on banners is a clear violation of that. Not only is it privileging religion over non-religion, it is also privileging one religion over all others. This is exactly what the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment is supposed to prevent. Those verses on the banners could make the minority of students at that school who were not Christian feel marginalized and excluded. The peer pressure - especially at a rowdy football game - to blend in and not stand out would be hard to overcome if you did not want to participate or support what the banners were saying. For these reasons, I really don't think it was okay to let the cheerleaders keep having those banners even if they were approved by the school board first (this almost makes it worse because they are paid by the government, and that therefore implies government support of one specific religion). This is an explicit establishment of religion and the court should have ruled that the banners were unconstitutional.

Benjamin S said...

Let’s look at the Lemon test: Does having Christian Bible verses on banners hold a secular purpose? No. Does it promote the advancement of religion? Yes. Does it entangle the government in religion? Yes. Well then, is it neutral between religions as well as between non-religion and religion? No and no. Is there a wall between the church and the state? No. This passes none of the tests used by the Supreme Court in determining the establishment of religion. I ultimately think that the school has absolute authority in deciding what gets put on their banners and seeing that public funding is being used to fund the sports teams, including cheerleaders, there in no way should be Christian verses on those banners.

Dylan Smith said...

I feel like the lemon test doesn't apply here because this act is fairly removed from the state. The only connection I see between the government and the cheerleaders is government funds supporting cheerleading uniforms. I realize the sports are funded by the state but the situation in which the messages are displayed are fairly removed from the state, it certainly doesn't have anything to do with teaching. This is a much different case than those where the state or school board enforced a law in the classroom. This is delicate and touches on issues of freedom of speech and also freedom of religion on the cheerleaders part. It does not violate the rights of minorities to have religious messages on these signs. No one is forced to come to the football games, it is an open event so it cannot be determined that the government is attempting to establish a religion here. As for the lemon test: The secular purpose was already stated above; the cheerleaders simply wanted to pump up the football team. Also, we do no know that all signs made by the cheerleaders are religiously affiliated. I would almost guarantee that there are a mixture of signs including religion and secular themes. Finally, I feel like the government is pretty much as indirect as possible in this situation since it is the freedom of the cheerleaders' speech that is promoting religion. I feel as though not granting the exemption would only entangle the government more than necessary.

Cori T said...

I really agree with everything that Dylan said. The connection between religion and government in this case is extremely limited and the messages that the cheerleaders display are not created at the school's prompting. There is the secular purpose of pumping up the football team as Dylan mentioned. In Texas especially, football and Christianity are both extremely popular and are in some ways culturally connected. I would be willing to bet that the team prays together before games and that this could potentially be a bigger issue for someone than the cheerleaders' signs.

Blair Kalichman said...

I agree with Maggie completely. Even though football can be considered its own religion in a way, especially in Texas, the sport is played by public school students. While the Cheerleaders have 'rights' to the field because they are on it so often, they do not have the right to establish a religion for their public school team, just as the government can not establish a religion for a public school. If prayer is a necessity, it can be said in private and not promoted by an entire team, especially since the act is directly against the Establishment Clause. Not only are the minority students watching the game exposed to this pro-Christian message, the general audience at large is also in a position where religion is being favored.

Adam J said...

I’m confused as to why the cheerleaders get a say if the school doesn’t allow them to? If they are a school organization then it doesn’t matter if the court says they can because the school has said they can’t whether they are religious reasons or because the school finds them inappropriate. If the cheerleaders aren’t part of the school’s program then they can write whatever they choose. Also, I feel as though this is a tricky subject because if cheerleaders can’t put a poster up for five minutes with a religious text, should schools not be allowed to perform shows such as Godspell? While I don’t support the cheerleaders’ decision to write these posters, I don’t think it is the courts place to tell them that they cannot paint a sign and hold up that sign that they made because they chose to have a religious saying on it.

Kaela Diomede said...

I think that regardless of constitutionality an entanglement, I think the school absolutely has the right to remove, or deem what is inappropriate and what is not, when its on school grounds, during a school sponsored event. I know at my high school, when we would have sporting events, if the school heard a cheer that they did not appreciate, we would ne notified, and that was the end of it. The school is an organization, and institution that wanted to be represented in a particular way, and I think that this does make it seem like the school is promoting Christianity rather than neutrality. I think that if anything, because it is a school sponsored event, and the school does not want to be seen as promoting religion, then they should have any right and authority constitutionally to remove the signs. There are other ways to pump up a foot ball team than God.

SC said...

I initially was in favor of the courts decision. However, after thinking about it, I now agree with you that they should not be constitutionally permissible. I completely agree with Brandt’s assessment that the banners are the speech of the school, and not private speech. As such, I feel it is unacceptable for the cheerleaders to put bible verses on their banners, as they are in a way speaking for their fellow students and robbing them of their religious freedom. I also agree with the ACLU’s assessment that because the banners are controlled by the schools, that allowing them to have bible versus subjects anyone viewing them to “school sponsored evangelizing.”