A Long Way from Texas…

Can cheerleaders at a public school sport Biblical phrases on banners?

The cheerleaders in Kountze, Texas, think so.  So does the Texas Attorney General.  So do tens of thousands of Facebook supporters of the cheer team.

But an important part of this story is often being left out by coverage in some mainstream media outlets. Why?

We’ve reported on this story before.  In short, this group of cheerleaders sued when their school superintendent banned their religious banners from football games.  So far, the cheerleaders have been allowed to keep on cheering for Jesus at their games.

Recently, we’ve noticed a puzzling trend in the reporting about this story.  An editorial in yesterday’s New York Times, for instance, bemoaned the situation in Kountze.  “In this country — including in Texas — the Constitution does not leave religious freedom up to majority rule,” the editors insisted.

I agree with the NYT‘s basic position: the SCOTUS precedent in 2000’s Sante Fe ISD v. Doe speaks directly to this case.  Even student-led prayer, if sanctioned by the school district, implies an endorsement of particular religious beliefs by the government.  Though the Kountze cheerleaders insist that their banners represent purely private speech, this seems a stretch.

However, I’m puzzled by the way NYT coverage has left out a vital part of this story.  For those of us who want to understand the ways conservatism works in American education, whether it be about evolution, school prayer, sex education, or other issues, the skewed coverage in the NYT makes the job much harder.

Here’s the problem:  In yesterday’s editorial and in earlier reporting on this Kountze story, the NYT left out an important key player in the drama.  The NYT neglected to mention the role of the Freedom from Religion Foundation.  This Wisconsin-based group warned the school superintendent of its plans to sue over the banner issue.  Only then did the superintendent ban the cheerleaders’ religious practice.

The NYT misled readers with its description of the reasoning in Texas.  The editors described the case as follows:

“Those banners are not merely personal expressions of belief, but in that setting become religious messages endorsed by the school, the school district and the local government.       

“That’s why officials of the school district last month prohibited the banners at football games.”

But the way the story really played out, the school district only prohibited the banners under pressure.  In fact, as the Los Angeles Times reported, the school superintendent himself supported the cheerleaders.

If we hope to understand the dynamic, in this case or in the many other school-prayer cases in history and in the news, we must not omit such an important element.

Please do not misunderstand: I am not denouncing the Freedom from Religion Foundation.  I do not think that sectarian prayers belong at public-school events.  But I do want to understand these cases, and ignoring important elements such as the role of outside organizations leaves us unable to understand the situation.

As political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer have argued in their books Ten Thousand Democracies and Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms, teachers and school districts respond to local culture.  When communities want prayer and creationism in public schools, schools include prayer and creationism.

As Berkman and Plutzer proved with their survey of high-school biology teachers, the beliefs of those teachers usually closely match those of their local communities.

In the Kountze case, the school district, including even the superintendent who banned the banners, supports the cheerleaders.  As superintendent Kevin Weldon told the LA Times, the judge in this case “was in a pretty tough predicament, like myself. . . . I personally applaud the kids for standing up for their beliefs in such a bold way.”

If we hope to understand the ways issues such as creationism and school prayer play out in America’s schools, we can’t let ourselves miss the way schools, teachers, and school districts actually function.  Teachers, as Berkman and Plutzer insist, are “street-level bureaucrats.”  They represent majority opinion in their communities.  The same is often true for superintendents such as Kevin Weldon in Kountze.

None of this is new.  In the Scopes Trial in 1925, the prohibition of evolution in Dayton, Tennessee only became controversial when the American Civil Liberties Union became involved.  More recently, as political scientists Kenneth Dolbeare and Phillip Hammond demonstrated in the 1970s, US Supreme Court decisions about school prayer and Bible reading often have no discernable effect on school practice.  After the 1962 and 1963 Supreme Court decisions against the reading of the Bible and reciting of the Lord’s Prayer in public schools, Dolbeare and Hammond found that all the schools in their survey continued to pray and read the Bible.  Most important, those practices caused absolutely no controversy in the communities they studied.

If we hope to understand school prayer controversies, we can’t allow ourselves to leave out the role of key players such as the Freedom from Religion Foundation.  Perhaps the NYT editors hoped to avoid the old chestnut that only “outside agitators” brought about this sort of school controversy.  Whatever their reasons, they misrepresent the story and make it more difficult for outsiders like me to understand the nature of these school battles.

Cheering for Jesus in a Public School

Source: KNUE

Can they or can’t they?

No one seems too sure of the situation in Kountze, Texas.  In this town of around 2,000, high-school cheerleaders have attracted attention for their religious banners at school football games.

In late September, the district superintendent banned the explicitly Christian banners, under pressure from the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation.

The cheerleaders sued.  The latest decision has been that the cheerleaders can continue to display the banners while the wheels of Constitutional justice grind along.

The case demonstrates the ferocious complexity of school-prayer rules and traditions.  The cheerleaders seem entirely oblivious to the Constitutional issues.  In interviews, they tend to hurt their own legal case by stating such things as “It’s our religion and we want to portray that.”  Or this gem about the complainants, “They can be offended, because that’s their right.”

There is not much doubt of the facts of the case.  The banners are obviously and designedly Christian.  They bear such Biblical phrases as the following:

“I can do all things through Christ which strengthens! Phil 4:13.”

“If God is for us, who can be against us? Romans 8:31.”

“But thanks be to God which gives us Victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Cor 15:57.”

Image Source: Los Angeles Times

The SCOTUS precedents in this sort of case are fairly clear.  The most obvious precedent is Santa Fe v. Doe (2000), the famous football-game-prayer case.  In that case, the Court ruled that a prayer at a high school football game, even when led by students, implies school endorsement of religion.

Lawyers in this case are keenly aware of the precedent.  The cheerleaders’ lawyers, therefore, emphasize the fact that this cheer group is not a school-sponsored organization.  They have no coach, they have no school-provided budget.  In essence, the cheerleaders claim that theirs is purely private speech.  If so, they would have a strong case for passing Constitutional muster.  Their lawyers have also cited the SCOTUS precedent of Tinker v. Des Moines, in which student protest-armbands against the Vietnam War were ruled protected free speech.

The school district has made the predictable counter-argument.  The cheer team, the district has argued, represents the school at a public function.  Cheerleaders must sign a “cheerleaders’ constitution,” which includes a pledge to represent the school well.  As district attorney Tom Brandt argued, “This is government speech. It’s on public property. The cheerleaders represent the school.”

This case also demonstrates the fact that public schooling in America is fractured into what political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer have called “Ten Thousand Democracies.”   Regardless of SCOTUS decisions or state education policy, local school districts often support policies that represent the majority views of local communities.  Arguments in favor of such policies are usually framed in terms of the will of the majority.  As one of the cheerleaders insisted, “so far there hasn’t been any opposition to what we’re doing. Nothing but support.”  Such has been the case for much of the history of religion in public schools.  Local schools tend to endorse and embody local traditions.  Many of those traditions, like explicitly Christian prayer at football games, seem to imply an official endorsement of a particular religion.

It has often required outside intervention to draw attention to these continuing traditions.  In this case, that pressure came from Madison, Wisconsin, and the Freedom from Religion Foundation.

And school prayer has often, as in this case, proven to be enormously popular.  In this case, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has publicly supported the cheerleaders.  And the Facebook page set up in their support looks ready to top the 50,000 friends mark.

So, whether or not the Kountze cheerleaders can or can’t lead prayers at football games, they are.  Whether or not they will be allowed to continue will likely hinge on whether or not their activities are seen as school-sponsored, or private.