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.