Sunday, January 31, 2016

Do School Sponsored Groups Still Have the Freedom to Practice Religion?

On January 29th, the Texas Supreme Court voted unanimously that Kountze High School and Middle School cheerleaders were in fact allowed to make religious banners to cheer on teammates.  This case goes back all the way to 2012 when the Kountze High School cheerleaders started to make banners with religious content to be displayed at school sponsored events such as football games.  The school district, along with a group called the Freedom From Religion Foundation, decided that having this religious representation at public school events was unconstitutional because of the First Amendment.  When the district court ruled in favor of the cheerleaders, the Kountze school district appealed and decided that they could censor the religious banners at will.  However, the court of appeals declared the case moot but because it drew so much attention some people filed an amicus brief and sent it to the Texas Supreme Court.  The Texas Supreme Court decided in favor of the cheerleaders in an 8-0 unanimous vote.  This decision was based on the fact that the banners displayed the cheerleaders’ own personal religious views, not those of the school.  In sum, the case brief said, “Because the messages on the banners are the cheerleaders’ messages, the content of which is not dictated by the school, the speech is not the school’s, and it does not qualify as ‘government speech.’ The speech belongs to the cheerleaders, and it is entitled to First Amendment Protection.”
            This case brings to light the question of whether public school sanctioned groups may display religious beliefs publicly as a group at school events. This question is tricky because the Kountze cheerleaders are a school group, and generally speaking those cheerleaders are thus representatives of the Kountze school district.  Therefore, do any religious paraphernalia they create and display represent the beliefs of the school?

            What does this ruling mean for the Kountze school district?  Players and fans alike will attend football games and witness the religious display of the cheerleaders.  Also, some cheerleaders may have to financially support the creation of these banners, even if they may not support what is said on them entirely.  Lastly, When Kountze plays other teams, the cheerleaders will represent their school, and other schools and towns may associate Kountze with the religious ideals displayed on the banners.  Is it fair for Kountze as a town to be associated with a certain religion even though their cheerleaders are making these banners with their own money?  The fact that the cheerleaders are using their own money makes this case especially hard to decide.  If the school were paying for the banner supplies, the case would be much easier as it would seem like the school is supporting these banners and what is said on them.  Because the school is government funded, it would thus seem like the government, too, is supporting these banners and thus establishing a religion.  However, because the cheerleaders themselves are funding the banners the government is not, at least financially, establishing a religion.

            Once again, the First Amendment is at ends.  While the cheerleaders do have a freedom to practice religion and free speech, the government (and therefore public school system) cannot establish a religion.  I believe regardless of the fact that the cheerleaders are paying for the banners out of pocket, because they are a school sponsored group and have a very important role in representing their school district, they should not be allowed to create these religious banners.  As mentioned earlier, an implication of these banners could be that other towns then could associate the Kountze school district with the religious beliefs displayed on the banners.  While the government may not be purposely or explicitly “establishing” a religion, other towns or football game goers may think that a government is establishing a religion here.  What if not everyone on the cheerleading team supported the banners? Does every cheerleader still have to pay for the supplies? Peer pressure is a major issue in middle school and high school and thus, even if it seemed like every cheerleader supported the religious banners, some could be very upset with them in actuality.  All in all I believe that since the cheerleaders are a school sponsored group and represent the Kountze school district, they should not be allowed to display religious content on their banners because whatever they are displaying while in their uniforms can be construed as beliefs sponsored and supported by the school district. 

7 comments:

Kaily G said...


I do agree with you that the court ruling appears to be unconstitutional. However, although the school is not paying for the banner and its supplies the school does sponsor the cheerleading group as a whole. By paying for items such as the uniforms and transportation to other schools the cheerleaders are clearly sponsored by their school and therefore represent their school’s values. Thus, how can the banners not represent the school if the girls represent the school? Furthermore, this also begs the question if other girls on the team aren’t Christian would they have to conform to Christian values or would be allowed to create their own posters. If not, this exclusion would infringe on certain girl’s rights to freely practice religion. Lastly, if this case is taken to the extreme such as a group of cheerleaders who decide to waive a Nazi banner under school uniform would the court have the same ruling…I would think not.

Caroline Vauzelle said...

I completely understand your point about the fact that the cheerleaders displaying those banners could make people think that their school is associated with certain religious beliefs (which is problematic for it is government founded). I also find your theory on peer pressure really interesting, even if it is difficult to check how far this is accurate! However, displays of self-encouragement or encouragement of others based on religious beliefs and especially Christian beliefs seem pretty common to me in the American society, even in public and official contexts. I do think this all phenomenon as a whole is a little incoherent with the First Amendment, but I precisely find it quite harsh to forbid those cheerleaders to create their banners while all this is going on, with relative global acceptance.

Kiriko Masek said...

After reading this post, I believe the ruling to be unconstitutional. I understand the viewpoint that the cheerleaders are entitled to their own religious beliefs but I am also taking the stance that once the cheerleaders have their uniforms on, they are representing the school and then consequently, the school's beliefs. Kaily G. made a great point in her comment that this ruling would technically allow the girls to wave a Nazi flag if they so choose to because the banners are now deemed to be associated solely with the cheerleader who made it, and not the sports team or school as a whole. I would like to know what members of the football team have to say about this situation and whether or not they find it appropriate to be cheered on by religious messages that they are do not necessarily associate themselves with.

Sara G. said...

I agree with you that the court ruling was unconstitutional. The banners created may be made with student-bought materials but they are being displayed at public events hosted by the school. What students do and what the school allows them to present in these public events is a reflection of the school. The banners may reflect the cheerleaders' own personal beliefs but once they bring them out into the public sphere under the school's name, they become school supported and, like you say in your post, others can come to associate them with the school. Because the cheerleaders represent the school, what they do as cheerleaders does as well. Another issue is that every cheerleader, and every team member, might not support the messages in the banners. School years are a time of great peer pressure and some of the cheerleaders may feel pushed or pressured into contributing, financially and by action, to the spread of these messages. Team members may also not support the messages, and should not have to play their game while being bombarded by messages that may make them feel uneasy. By presenting these messages at the games, the members playing, although they had no contribution to the banners, are still subjected to being represented by them in the public eye, and should not have to play their game in support of messages they don't agree with.

Sedona Boyatzis said...

I agree with the statement that this court ruling was unconstitutional. Because the cheerleaders are associated with the school, there is no simple and blunt way to state that the school is not supporting or disagreeing with the various messages the cheerleaders are advertising. At my high school, athletes had to pay an athletics fee to participate in a school sport. There's no way of knowing if this is the case at this school, but if it is, that would create further issues with financial affiliation between the district and the cheerleading team. One might posit that in this case the cheerleaders are paying the school to have the freedom to speak of their religious beliefs freely and without repercussion. Whether or not all cheerleaders are mandated to pay for all advertising supplies is one point mentioned in the article and in other comments that should be paid particular attention to. Regardless of cheerleaders' agreement or disagreement of the statements' alluded religious beliefs, those on the team may feel pressured or angered by this forced financial initiative, even if they have no particular beliefs. The fundamental issue I have is the assumption of the cheerleaders and of the court that no one could potentially be angered by this. I am wondering whether or not the court would declare it appropriate if the cheerleaders representing a different religion wished to advertise their religious beliefs on these banners.

nick paray said...

The cheerleaders, as a group, have no authority to represent the official positions of the school. Any actions by the individuals were reflections of their own ideologies and positions, and not of the school. Had the coach, an employee of the school, decided to mandate that the students hang up the posters, then that could be a direct reflection of the school. However, the children were acting in the public sphere, but not on behalf of the public, therefore there is no establishment of religion by the state. However, the constitutional rights of children are severely limited in the school atmosphere, so the school could easily demand that the cheerleaders not hang the posters. The power seems to be placed at the school district, because I believe that a court cannot call the actions unconstitutional, but the school district can.

Richard Shin said...

With some quick research I found that this school was a Public School, meaning they are funded and ran through the government. The separation between church and state has proved to be a big conflict throughout america since the beginning of this law. Seeing how the school funds the girls and the girls represent the school in games should the girls be allowed to make signs showing their Christian views on these posters which inevitably mean they represent the school? The answer to question is very questionable. At an angle I do think the girls should be allowed to use these signs because they were bought by these girls and the girls do have a freedom of religion and can put up and represent their religion the way they want because of the First Amendment. However once the girls start to represent the school through their cheers with the posters I feel this is unconstitutional.