Want to Understand the Culture Wars? Start Here…

Even if you don’t share ILYBYGTH’s obsessive fascination with America’s culture wars, you probably noticed a few of its recent battles. Can a baker refuse to make a cake for a same-sex wedding? Can cheerleaders at a public school cheer for Jesus? As a recent article reminds us, if we really want to understand these fights, we need to look beyond Bibles and bakeshops. The behind-the-scenes power of legal activist groups has always fueled these culture-war battles.


The culture-war trenches. But not the culture-war Pentagon.

It has been this way from the very beginning. Back in 1925, the furious creation/evolution fight in Tennessee would never have happened if it weren’t for the influence of the American Civil Liberties Union. Sure, proto-creationists had passed a sweeping anti-evolution law. And, yes, plenty of people had noticed the goings-on in state legislatures. (I flesh out the full context in my book about educational conservatism.) But only when the ACLU offered to sponsor a legal challenge did the Scopes Trial actually gain momentum.

In our century it has been the same. SAGLRROILYBYGTH remember the case from Kountze, Texas. Starting in 2012, cheerleaders at the high school began displaying huge banners with Christian Biblical messages. It’s easy to see how such outright religious preaching at a public school might ruffle feathers. But it was only when the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation intervened that the case became a national sensation.

This sort of legal activism has not been limited to the liberal side. As Daniel Bennett describes at Religion & Politics, the conservative religious Alliance Defending Freedom has scored impressive legal victories over the past decade. As Professor Bennett notes, ADF has repeatedly made its case at the US Supreme Court, in favor of the right of bakers to discriminate against homosexual weddings or in favor of the right of religious schools to receive tax money.

adf logo

A culture-war army of well-dressed lawyers…

These days, as Bennett describes, ADF employs forty full-time attorneys, sniffing out ways to project the power of conservative religious values in the public square. ADF takes in tens of millions of dollars per year to stake out the legal rights of conservative Christians in a secularizing society.

Headlines talk about creationism, public prayer, and transgender issues. Time and time again, it has been the Alliance Defending Freedom who has pushed these cases into the limelight, defending the rights of radical creationist scientists, anti-transgender pastors, or Christian prayer leaders at public town meetings.

Cheerleaders and bakers matter, of course. In order to understand how these cases move from local controversies to national symbols, though, we need to recognize the influence of legal activist groups.


A Liberal Leader Pushes Religion in Public Schools

They say only Nixon could go to China. Maybe now they’ll say that only de Blasio could get religion back into New York’s public schools. According to the New York Times, Mayor de Blasio has been irking his liberal allies by his repeated efforts to chip away at the wall of separation between church and state. With greater success than many conservative activists, this liberal mayor has been able to push religion in the Big Apple.

Public religion: Texas style

Public-school religion: Texas style

No one doubts de Blasio’s left-of-center politics. The Washington Post called his leadership “a laboratory of sorts for modern progressivism.” Yet this progressive politician has done more to integrate religion and public schools than many of the conservative politicians we’ve studied in these pages.

For example, in his quest to expand pre-kindergarten classes to all of New York’s children, de Blasio has included religious schools. As the New York Times relates, the Mayor has welcomed the participation even of very conservative religious schools, as long as they agree to include children of all religious backgrounds. This plan, of course, would funnel tax dollars directly to religious organizations.

Similarly, Mayor de Blasio has added two Islamic holidays to the New York City public school calendar, precisely because they are religious holidays. Muslim leaders celebrated, but civil libertarians point out that this act violates a long-standing principle of church-state separation.

The Mayor has long supported the use of school buildings by religious groups for services, though conservatives accuse him of reversing himself. One case might soon end up before the Supreme Court. If SCOTUS bans this traditional practice, will de Blasio protest? Will the Mayor take the side of religious groups against a constitutional clarification of the required wall between religious groups and public education?

Public-school religion, New York style

Public school religion, New York-style

New York Times writers Michael M. Grynbaum and Sharon Otterman call New York a “famously secular city.” But we need to be careful when we say such things. As Grynbaum and Otterman note, de Blasio’s success has come partly with support from conservative religious New Yorkers, “a substantial portion of the city.” As we’ve explored in these pages, New York, like many big cities, is not secular, but rather riotously religious.

Indeed, that ferociously diverse religiosity might be the key to Mayor de Blasio’s success. Conservative activists have tried time and again to push evangelical Protestantism in the public schools of places such as Kansas and Kountze, Texas. In New York City, on the other hand, the Mayor can make a good case that he is not pushing any one sort of religion. In his efforts to improve public schooling for all, he has the liberty to open the door to religious groups in ways a more conservative politician might not.

Time to Pray at School!

It’s that time of year again. Time for students to gather together in their public schools and pray. You heard that right: School prayer is alive and well. In this case, it’s almost the fourth Wednesday of September, which has been set aside as a day for evangelical students to meet at their schools’ flagpoles to pray. This tradition started in 1990, and a San-Diego-based group has promoted the practice nationwide. Is this sort of school prayer constitutional? Even more tricky, are conservative evangelicals consciously pushing the limits of constitutionality with this kind of prayer event?

Let’s take those questions one at a time. Is this sort of student-led prayer constitutional in public schools? Short answer: yes. In spite of a great deal of nervousness among evangelical Protestants and other religious groups, the US Supreme Court’s 1962 Engel decision and its 1963 Schempp decision never outlawed prayer in public schools. The first decision ruled that states could not impose a prayer on students, the second that schools and teachers could not lead students in devotional Bible-reading or prayers. But students still may pray all they want in public schools.

The issues get more complicated these days over the question of school sponsorship. Most recently, SCOTUS ruled against student-led prayer in Santa Fe v. John Doe (2000). In that case, though, the Court did not rule that students couldn’t pray. They only said that the type of student-led prayer at issue implied school sponsorship. Students in Santa Fe public schools would use the school’s PA system to lead prayers before football games. Those prayers were always of an evangelical Protestant faith. The court ruled that such prayers implied school sponsorship of one specific sectarian vision of religion.

As ILYBYGTH readers may recall, the issue of school sponsorship has also been at the center of recent cheerleader debates from Kountze, Texas. It can seem a little perplexing. Down in Kountze, the Christian cheerleaders insisted that they were a private, student-led club. But objectors insist that their presence at the school games implies school support for their religious banners.

Student-led?  Or school-sponsored?

Student-led? Or school-sponsored?

What about See You at the Pole? Does it pass the Santa Fe test? Most observers agree that it does. Watchdog groups such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State have noted that students are free to pray all they want, as long as teachers and school officials don’t encourage or discourage student participation.

To this observer, though, it looks as if the organizers of See You at the Pole are intentionally pushing the boundaries of constitutionality. This year’s theme, for example, is Ephesians 6:18a: “Never stop praying, especially for others.” And promotional materials this year show students vowing, “We’ll never stop.”

It might just be my yen for pluralism and inclusion in public schools, but it seems to me as if this language is consciously tweaking the nose of our school-prayer tradition. As I argued a few years back (behind a paywall, sorry), many conservative evangelicals interpreted the 1963 Schempp decision as a constitutional cataclysm. They viewed the decision as evidence that our society had turned its back on God.

When an evangelical group promises, then, that they’ll “never stop,” we can’t help hearing a sort of promise that they will never accept the notion of pluralist schools. When students insist that they will be praying for others, we can’t help hearing a sort of promise that they will turn their public schools into revival meetings.

After all, among some conservatives, there has long been a drive to re-assert evangelicalism as the implicit theology of public education. For example, evangelists Brad and Susanne Dacus published a handy-dandy guidebook to “Reclaim Your School.” Writing from the Pacific Justice Institute, the Dacuses promised to help readers “evangelizing in the public schools.”

It seems to me as if the SYATP project wants students to do more than simply pray at their schools. The implicit promise is that these students will commit to preaching to other students in their schools. As national organizer Doug Clark told the Christian Post, the event helps students “represent [God] to their schools.”

To my ears, that sounds like more than just protection for the religious rights of students. It sounds to me like a plan to insert evangelical pressure into public schools. It sounds to me as if students are being encouraged to foster an environment in their public schools that might make non-evangelical or non-religious students feel decidedly unwelcome.

Is that my secular paranoia? Or do these SYATP events really encompass a sort of covert promise to reclaim public schools for public Christianity?

Do You See Christian Students Acting Strange Today?

Are some students at your local public school lingering around outside?  Holding hands?  Circling the flagpole?

More to the point: If they are, should we be alarmed?

That depends, of course, on your feelings about the thorny issue of religion in public education.

If you see students gathering around the flagpole today, they might be taking part in “See You at the Pole” Day.  According to the Christian Post, this tradition started in Texas in 1990.  Christian students met in prayer around their school flagpole.  The point, according to Doug Clark, director of field ministries for the National Network of Youth Ministries, is to encourage Christian students to come together to ask for God’s blessing on their role as missionaries in their schools.

Clark hopes to see somewhere between 1-2 million public-school students participating in the USA and around the world.  So don’t be surprised if you see some at your local school.

If you do, what does it mean?  For those of us who work for pluralist, inclusive public schools, do we need to be alarmed?  Is this an abrogation of a Constitutional separation of church and state?

I don’t think so.  Though twentieth-century SCOTUS decisions made clear that teachers and schools must not force prayer or Bible-reading on public-school students, they also made it very clear that the religious rights of students themselves must not be violated.  It can get tricky when students lead prayers that seem to have the support of the school administration, as in the recent flap in Kountze, Texas.  Students have every right to wave Bible signs, but they don’t have the right to imply that such mottos are the official dogma of a public school.

In this case, however, students are demonstrating the private nature of their prayer by meeting at the flagpole.  They are leaving the school building, not using any of the school’s bureaucracy to encourage the prayer.  Students’ rights must be protected as they engage in religious activity of any sort.

But what about the “missionary” aspect of this activity?  Students here are not just praying, they are specifically praying for inspiration, praying for the power to convert their fellow students to their faith.  Or at least that is the hope of adult leaders such as Doug Clark.  What about the rights of their fellow students, students of different religious faiths—or of no religious faiths—who might be targeted for missionary work?

Even here, too, we must not fear.  It may be unpleasant for a student to be approached for aggressive evangelical efforts.  But such unpleasantness is not a matter for outside interference.  If a student wants to talk to other students about faith, he or she has that right.  As long as it does not disrupt school activities, the right to make one’s self unpleasant must be protected.  As long as it does not imply that the school itself supports that evangelical effort, student missionary work in public school must be protected.

It certainly makes me personally uncomfortable to think that religious students might target my daughter for outreach efforts as part of her public-school experience.  But I recognize that such outreach efforts are part of other students’ rights.  As long as there is no bullying, no coercion, no disruption, and no implied or explicit support of such missionary work by the school administration, my daughter cannot be protected from other students’ free speech rights.

So, for those like me who want to be sure public schools are inclusive public spaces for students of all backgrounds, if you see groups of students gathering in prayerful huddles around your public-school flagpole, don’t be alarmed.  Students in public schools do not abandon their rights to publicize their religion when they walk through the schoolhouse door.





Update: Cheerleaders Can Love Jesus

Tim Tebow can love Jesus.  But can cheerleaders at a public high school?  A Texas judge ruled this week that they can.

This story has been circulating for several months.  As we’ve reported here on ILYBYGTH, in September the Kountze Independent School District banned high school cheerleaders from displaying Bible-based banners at football games.  Prompted by the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation, the school district worried that such displays violated the Constitution.

Source: KNUE

Source: KNUE

Parents fought back.  They argued that the cheer squad was a student organization, not funded by public dollars.  As such, the students’ religious speech was protected by the Constitution.

Earlier this week, according to a local TV station, District Judge Steve Jones ruled that the cheerleaders should be allowed to continue with their religious messages. 

End of story?  Not quite.  The school district has promised to change its policies, which might give it the right to ban such banners again. 


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.