Christian Cheerleaders & Religious Speech

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“If God is for us, who can be against us? Romans 8:31” and “I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me! Phil 4:13” are a few examples of the banners cheerleaders displayed at Kountze High School in East Texas. For three weeks, football players ran through the large banners containing quotes from the Bible while entering the field. While the student cheerleaders believed this was just a way to exercise their freedom of speech, an unknown person complained to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, who in turn communicated with the school superintendent. Banners were subsequently prohibited at games. The mother of one of the cheerleaders, along with fourteen other parents, brought suit to challenge the school district’s decision to bar the cheerleaders’ signs. She claims that everyone at the small town high school agrees with the statements on the banners and for that reason they should not be a problem.

On October 18, Hardin County District Judge Steve Thomas stated that he decided to “preserve the status quo” and granted an injunction to allow the banners and bar the continuance of the ban. Thomas claimed that the school district had put into effect an “unlawful policy prohibiting private religious expression” prohibiting the cheerleaders “from exercising their constitutional and statutory rights.” As the Los Angeles Times reports, the injunction will be upheld until the case goes to trial on June 24, 2013.

Several Texas politicians have commended Judge Thomas’s ruling, including Governor Rick Perry who issued a statement expressing his approval. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott also agreed with the judge’s decision and issued a statement praising him. Abbott said “[j]ust as schools cannot command students to support a particular belief, those same schools cannot silence a student’s religious belief. The Constitution does not give preference to those who have no religious beliefs over those who do.”

However, the school district’s lawyer and other commentators argue that a Supreme Court ruling in 2000, Santa Fe Independent School District vs. Doe, 530 U.S. 290, held this kind of religious display at a public school as against the First Amendment. In that case, Justice Stevens wrote that a student delivering a prayer over the loudspeaker before each football game was a violation of the Establishment Clause. “One of the purposes served by the Establishment Clause is to remove debate over this kind of issue from governmental supervision or control”, Stevens wrote, in order to avoid the danger of a unified church and state. The school district contends the cheerleaders represent the school as participants in a school sponsored organization. They argue that as members of a student group, their speech can be regulated since it is probable that people will confuse the cheerleaders’ speech with the schools’ speech.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas cites the aggressive support for Christian beliefs in state classrooms, assemblies, and ceremonies as widespread. In East Texas, supporters of the Kountze Independent School District’s ban recognize that minority non-believers feel threatened and intimidated by the use of Christian banners.  The Concerned East Texans for the Separation of Church and State group formed in response to the banners and has rallied their cause by showing up to the football games with banners of their own protesting the Christian signs. The Anti-Defamation League issued a statement saying that “[p]ublic schools are for children of all faiths or no faith . . . so students should not be subjected to an exclusionary school-sponsored religious message on campus.”

The superintendent himself, a Christian, says he is personally torn on the matter. The banners are sure to continue to create controversy until the case is decided in June.

This case highlights one of the many issues in the area of student First Amendment rights, especially because it involves religious speech. For more discussion on student First Amendment rights, be sure to attend the upcoming symposium dedicated to exploring the status of student First Amendment rights since the Court’s decision in Hazelwood School Dist. v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260 (1988), which dealt with student press rights. The symposium, One Generation Under Hazelwood: A 25-Year Retrospective on Student First Amendment Rights, is a two-day event hosted by UNC Center for Media Law and Policy, the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication, North Carolina Scholastic Media Association, the Student Press Law Center, and the First Amendment Law Review. For more information on the symposium, and to register by November 2, visit: http://hazelwoodsymposium.unc.edu/.


Posted by Anna Jordan Cobb (Jordan) on Sun. October 28, 2012 8:17 AM
Categories: Freedom of Religion, Freedom of Speech

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