A Texas state judge last week issued a temporary injunction allowing a group of cheerleaders in Kountze, Texas to continue to display banners with Christian messages at high school football games. They have permission to use the signs for the rest of this football season.
The question of where religion belongs in public education is a tricky one.
While the Supreme Court has said that schools cannot sponsor and encourage religious messages at school functions, it has also said that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
The Kountze Independent School District, about 85 miles northeast of Houston, had told the cheerleaders last month that they could not display the banners because they represented school-sponsored speech. The district had received a complaint from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, (FFRF) based in Madison, Wisconsin, on behalf of an anonymous local resident.
FFRF argued that the cheerleaders were violating the Constitution when they displayed Christian messages; the group sent the school district a letter demanding that the students’ practice of holding signs with religious references for the football players to run through prior to the game be immediately stopped.
So what did these banners say?
From Education Week:
The messages include, “I can do all things through Christ which strengthens! Phil 4:13″ and “But thanks be to God which gives us Victory though our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Cor 15:57.” The football team members rip through the banners at the start of each home game.
The decision by the judge in state district court in Hardin County came the day after Governor Rick Perry and Attorney General Greg Abbott, both Republicans, described the efforts by the Kountze school district to prohibit the banners “a great insult,” and something that went against a state law requiring districts to treat student expression of religious views and secular views in the same manner.
The state court agreed and ruled that at least until the case goes to full trial next June, the students have a right to continue displaying the religious messages.
From The New York Times:
At a hearing on Thursday, the judge, Steven Thomas, issued a temporary injunction against the district, prohibiting it from enforcing the ban on religious-themed banners, and set a trial date of June 24, 2013. Judge Thomas, who was appointed to the bench by Mr. Perry last year, did not rule on the merits of the case, though he suggested in his order granting the temporary injunction that the district’s policy was unlawful.
Lawyers for the school district said they would abide by the injunction, but left open the possibility of appealing the judge’s decision. “I haven’t ruled it out, but I don’t know that my client is desirous of an appeal,” said a lawyer for the district, Thomas P. Brandt.
Martin B. Cominsky, the director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Southwest office, called the judge’s decision misguided, saying that the banners represented a school-sponsored religious message. Lawyers for the cheerleaders, however, argued that the banners amounted to private speech, not government-sanctioned speech, and they were joined at the hearing by a lawyer from the attorney general’s office.
But the legal fight is far from over.
The suit in next year’s trial will argue that the Kountze High School cheerleaders, a student-run squad, selected the religious messages independently and thus they have a free speech right to display them.
The Kountze Independent School District will respond that the banners were akin to the student-initiated prayers before football games that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down in a 2000 case from Texas known as Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe.
Interestingly, the banners read, “If God is with us, who can be against us?”
So what if the opposing team had the same banner? Would they just call it a draw?
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