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Separation of Church and State? Not on MY watch!

Earlier this week, a state judge in Texas, ruled that cheerleaders at public high school football games could make and carry banners with Christian religious verses on them. These banners would be held for football players to run through at the start of the game.
Judge Stephen Thomas, in his ruling, wrote that, “The evidence in the case confirms that religious messages expressed on run-through banners have not created, and will not create, an establishment of religion in the Kountze community”.
I wonder, of course, how Thomas could possibly know whether or not these banners create an establishment of religion in the community. How do contenders for political office advertise their candidacy? Among other things, they put up signs and advertisements. So how is relaying Bible verses at public football games not exactly the same?
I know Texas is a state filled with Christians. However, I don’t think it’s likely that every single person at that school is Christian. I think it’s even less likely that every single person in the stands at the stadium is Christian. And yet Thomas is allowing students to hold up these signs in support of Christianity.
You know what makes me even more upset than the ruling, though? It’s the thought of these Christians in Texas, screaming and dancing around, all happy for the decision. It’s, once again, atheists being told that their way of life is wrong and backwards. It’s the idea that the Constitution upholds the separation of church and state, but that our legislators feel the need to ignore that, and instead find any loophole possible to allow people to push their Christian agenda.
I’m thankful that I teach in a state that – while not perfect – at least isn’t so backwards and Christian that it allows mockery to be made of the very values that should govern our educational system.

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Tori Parker

Tori Parker

Tori is a high school English teacher from Ohio (insert cheerleader kick here)! She is emphatic! She is skeptical! She is nifty! Her boyfriend says that they can get a potbellied pig someday and name him Bacon. She has a little boy whose pseudonym is SC, although he has recently asked that his name be changed to Henry. When asked for a comment to add on this bio, he asked, "Why do we sound like a bad '70's cop show?" So there's that.

18 Comments

  1. May 9, 2013 at 8:32 pm —

    While the judge involved is clearly kind of a douche (“We will not allow atheist groups from outside the state of Texas to come into the state to use menacing and misleading and intimidating tactics to try to bully schools to bow down to the altar of secular beliefs”) and his motivations might not be strictly legalistic ones, I’m not necessarily sure that this is the wrong verdict in this case.

    If the school district is empowered to quash public expression of religious views by students and/or clubs, what exactly would prevent them from silencing atheist students or banning a local chapter of the SSA? We kind of do have to respect the difference between religion imposed by school authorities (including teachers and coaches) and the activities of students themselves, especially when the activity in question was not funded by the school (at least according to the news report I saw). Students who object could always bring their own signs to the game, or even (possibly) become cheerleaders themselves and change the message. Should they face some kind of unfair discrimination in doing so…well then that would be a real case, wouldn’t it?

    Yes, school authorities are traditionally empowered to limit the expression of students through official channels such as school newspapers, to enforce standards of dress, and to prohibit other forms of speech deemed disruptive…but how far do we really want those powers to creep?

  2. May 9, 2013 at 8:58 pm —

    Ugh. I am from Texas and this doesn’t surprise me at all.

    Dan, the problem here is that the cheerleaders are acting in an official capacity as representatives of the school. If they were merely sitting in the stands as fans, I agree they could hold whatever signs they liked, but when they hold the sign as part of the official event, it’s a no-go, in my opinion. It puts the cheerleaders and the players in a situation in which they are forced to seemingly support the messages by virtue of participating in a school-sponsored event. What if an atheist or Hindu cheerleader didn’t want to do it? Would she feel like she could say so? Or would it be easier for her to either keep her mouth shut or quit the squad?

  3. May 9, 2013 at 10:10 pm —

    That’s just what I’m questioning though: does permitting the speech to occur constitute endorsement on the part of the school? I don’t think anyone is really under the illusion that cheerleaders (or the marching band for that matter) speak for school administration in any capacity. If a football player (also in uniform) drops to his knees to pray during the game, is this also prohibited because of his position as a proxy for the school? It would also be something else entirely if they were using their school-sanctioned positions to have the crowd engage in a religious-themed cheer. But just allowing the consenting players to run through the signs? I dunno.

    It’s also not clear exactly how the school district went about prohibiting the speech in any of the articles I’ve been able to find. There would be an important difference between say, a regulation that specifically banned religious speech as opposed to one that did not permit cheerleaders to advocate any non-football-related opinions while engaged in their duties. The thing about protected speech, anyway, is that it is protected even if it is in bad taste and even if it makes people uncomfortable (both likely results for your hypothetical atheist or Hindu cheerleader). We can of course make the argument that students don’t have the right to engage in protected speech at school (which is true), but it’s not one a have a whole lot of sympathy for especially when any latitude in regulations against student religious speech would almost certainly be abused to silence atheists or students of minority religions in many more contexts than just a football game.

  4. May 9, 2013 at 10:48 pm —

    What about non-consenting players? What should they do, bypass the giant banner and expose themselves as Jesus-haters to their entire community? That’s what really bothers me: the coercion. When I played basketball in middle school, there was an assumption that athletes would join Fellowship of Christian Athletes. I didn’t particularly wish to join, but I quickly discovered that not joining caused people–students and coaches–to look at me askance. So I joined, on paper, and felt super weird about it. That has no place in school. If you have to conform to Christian Bible verses slinging to be accepted as a football player or cheerleader or chess club member, something is wrong.

    • May 10, 2013 at 12:23 am —

      But this case was not about non-consenting players being coerced to participate, which would be an obvious and flagrant abuse. Asking “what if someone were not religious and were forced to participate” is not the same as saying “should a voluntary practice not endorsed or required by school authorities be allowed to continue.”

      Let’s say, to try to build an analogy, this same highschool has a homecoming dance. Traditionally, at this dance, the cheerleaders have always invited (opposite sex) members of the football team to be their dates. This policy is not specifically endorsed or enforced by the school administration. This tradition also just involves the cheerleaders and football players; there are no other special regulations about who other attendees of the dance can bring (or even if they must have a date). Since it is the homecoming dance, though, there is one dance where the cheerleaders and football players get the dancefloor to themselves.

      So let’s say this dance happens and no one involved objects. Is the school then culpable for enforcing heteronormative behaviour? Would it be reasonable for, say, GLAAD to sue them and force them to stop? In this case I would say no.

      Now let’s say one of the cheerleaders is gay, but decides to participate in the tradition because she thinks it is fun and is good friends with one of the football players. Should the school be sued? In this case I would also say no.

      Now let’s say the same cheerleader feels social pressure to participate, but is closeted and does not want to rock the boat by outing herself or objecting to the tradition. This is regrettable (and the closest hypothetical to your situation), but I can’t really see it as grounds for legal action. For all we know she could be allowed to bring her girlfriend to the dance (or to ask a member of one of the girls’ sports teams instead) but she never asks.

      Last, let’s say the cheerleader does object and is told that she must follow the tradition or be cut from the squad. Now we have clear, actionable discrimination.

      Now let’s say we’re back in the first situation (where everything was voluntary), but a successful lawsuit means that school officials now prohibit any official dates or PDAs at school dances. Who is likeliest to be punished for stealing a furtive kiss on the dancefloor?

      • May 10, 2013 at 6:53 am —

        Dan, I think your analogy is a little misleading. At the dance, students aren’t deliberately attired to represent the school as a matter of compulsion.

        A run-through banner is self-descriptive. There’s really nothing else to do with it. It is a coercion. It’s a school event with representatives in the school (the cheerleaders and team) explicitly endorsing an explicitly Christian text. Certainly in my schools, there was a conduct contract that athletes had to obey regarding their behavior while in uniform, home, away, on campus, off campus, specifically because the students while wearing school uniforms were representing the school.

        Let’s say there are three coaches, 24 players, and six cheerleaders. Even of it’s not an a directly administrative maneuver, the students are still about 91% of the school’s representatives at the game (we’re not counting the marching band, here, though that could drop the aid school representative percent to less than 1% depending on the school). Unlike the coaches, they are absolutely the most visible.

        This is very much an elevation of one specific religion over others by a public institution which is in direct conflict with the first amendment.

        I just moved out of a very Jesus-happy town, and there were Jesus and God messages all over the place, but none of them were created by faculty nor specifically given prominence at school events. This is giving them prominence (even if they’re not created by faculty).

      • May 10, 2013 at 8:03 am —

        I’m not sure I would qualify anything cheerleaders or players are instructed to do by their coaches (create, hold, or run through the banner) as “voluntary.” It’s voluntary in that they can quit the team if they don’t like it, but in no other way, more than likely; it’s expected of them as members of their respective teams. It’s how every football game starts. Usually the banners say “Go TEAM Beat North!” or whatever.

        School dances (and homecoming or prom courts) are relentlessly heteronormative, you’re right, but that’s not illegal.

  5. May 10, 2013 at 9:00 pm —

    DrShell, it would be another thing (as I stated before) if they were instructed to do this by coaches, or at least if they were instructed by authority figures to use specific content. In fact I conceded that this would be impermissible. None of the sources I find show that this occurred, though. The question is about what kind of speech the school is able to ban when students are wearing uniforms.

    Miserlyoldman, no analogy is perfect but I chose that particular one because homecoming dances are, to an extent, about the football team. It is reasonable to enforce a code of conduct when students are wearing uniforms that ‘represent he school’, but the question is whether it is legally (not ethically or morally) permissible to tell them they can’t engage in personal religious expression while in uniform. Let’s say one of the cheerleaders is Muslim. Is she therefore not allowed to wear a headscarf on the field? That also constitutes an endorsement of religion by a uniformed school representative…

    • May 10, 2013 at 9:03 pm —

      There is also a second half of the first amendment in play here (which no one else has acknowledged), about “prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The question is whether students just by virtue of wearing uniforms are therefore to be considered government actors or private citizens.

      • May 10, 2013 at 10:22 pm —

        Dan, I understand your argument, I do. I just disagree. I’m not sure I’m making my position clear, though: I’m not arguing that the coaches are dictating the Bible verses. I have no trouble believing that was a student-led idea. I’m saying that’s irrelevant to the problem, which is, even if every single current member of the squad totally supports this–and every single member of the football team as well–by allowing these students to use a school event to promote their religion, they endorse the religion and limit the possibility that future students will join those teams if they aren’t Christians. And that tyranny of the majority should not be allowed. There’s no reason to allow it in any case; it has nothing to do with football and everything to do with promoting religion. Your head scarf example doesn’t apply here; that would be a personal, single choice that would not implicate anyone else in the group. Holding the banner and running through the banner are required of the cheerleaders and players, so even if the coaches aren’t dictating the verses on the banners, they are tacitly endorsing it by allowing all participants to be coerced by their peers in this way. It’s not right. And there’s no good reason for it. If you want to exercise your free speech, wear your John 3:16 shirt to school or to the game if you’re a fan. When you’re in school uniform performing required duties of that role, you need to stick to those duties.

        • May 10, 2013 at 10:41 pm —

          Seconded.

        • May 11, 2013 at 2:55 am —

          So then legally where is the distinction supposed to be between one student wearing a headscarf (totally okay and allowing her to do it doesn’t constitute endorsement of religion) and all the students writing bible verses on the paper banners (illegal because letting them do it constitutes coercive endorsement of religion by the school). What about players who write bible verses on their faces? What if one of the players were Muslim and asked for Koran verses on his banner (which, given that these banners are usually intended to represent the players and their interests/personalities, is something that could conceivably happen).

          I honestly don’t like being in the position have having to defend this kind of douchey religious behaviour in schools because I think it has no place there, but really I have trouble seeing a well-grounded legal rationale in the counterargument that doesn’t extend to wide swaths of what we normally think of as constitutionally protected exercise of religion.

          • May 11, 2013 at 9:05 am

            I’m not convinced it’s as murky as you say. A hijab, even if worn by each of the cheerleaders, is indicative of an individual’s choice. Twenty teens in hijab would be twenty teens reflecting their individual choice. A banner for the team is a declaration on behalf of the team and reflects endorsement of the team and organization, which is where the line is. Even if a player wrote the entire book of psalms on his face, it wouldn’t be visible from the stands and would be, again, a reflection of an individual choice. Coordination on the part of the team reflects the endorsement of the team, and endorsement is the part that violates the first amendment’s establishment clause. So, the entire team writing verses on their faces represents a degree of coordination which would seem to be a violation. Non-Muslim players and cheerleaders being asked to wear hijab would be coercion and a violation of the establishment clause, because it’s a coordination on the part of the organization,

          • May 13, 2013 at 2:28 pm

            As has been pointed out, this is on a banner that the whole team runs through. Do you think a devout Muslim entering high school in this town is going to feel comfortable joining the football team it means he has to run through a banner celebrating the Christian faith? I always like to do the reversal or Islam test. How quick would these parents (and this judge) object if Christian football players had to run through a Koran verse?

  6. May 11, 2013 at 9:05 am —

    I see what you’re saying. There’s only one banner per game, though, and everyone runs through it; if every player got his own, I would be more on board with their being able to write whatever they wanted on it. It’s just like prayer: It’s not illegal for a student to pray in school, but it has been deemed illegal for them to do so with a captive audience of other students. Thus, they aren’t supposed to pray over the loudspeakers before games anymore, and coaches are not supposed to participate in group prayer in the locker room, etc. Honestly, the most annoying thing about this to me is how they keep trying to push this issue and force someone to challenge them, when they could just stop being assholes and recognize that they don’t have to drape every single thing they do in their Christianity, forcing everyone else along for the ride. It bugs the living shit out of me. It’s tacky and confrontational and, as you say, utterly douchey.

    • May 11, 2013 at 9:10 am —

      Also, I think most schools are strict about what students can or can’t wear on any part of themselves while in school uniform. Cheerleaders are only allowed to put approved markings on their faces while in uniform, and I’m sure that’s the case with players as well. If not, you’d be spending the hours before each game checking everyone’s exposed skin to make sure they hadn’t written something vile or sketched a cock and balls on themselves.

    • May 13, 2013 at 7:51 pm —

      Ah, I had partially misinterpreted this based on my own experience, where players DID get their own banners.

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