Kountze ISD appeals ruling on cheerleaders' religious banners

Earlier this month, a state district judge ruled in favor of the Kountze High School cheerleaders who displayed banners adorned with Bible verses at their school's football games. The Kountze ISD school district is now fighting back, arguing against its own students and appealing the ruling.

While the First Amendment clearly grants freedom of speech and religion, the line between what constitutes free speech in regards to religious matters is often blurred, especially in public schools.

The establishment clause, which prohibits government from establishing an official religion or passing laws in favor of a specific religious doctrine, is often used as an argument against religious speech in public schools. However, speech about religion often challenges this clause, citing freedom of speech as its defense. Supreme Court decisions have attempted to differentiate between the speech of an individual student about religion at school or a school-sponsored event and religious speech that is seemingly sponsored by a public school. Unfortunately, this line still remains very unclear.

In 2000, the Supreme Court ruled against a Texas school that had a policy to allow students to deliver invocations before football games. The Court said the school policy compelled a religious message under the supervision of school faculty and was not private speech. However, this decision has not made understanding the boundary between freedom of speech and religion in schools any simpler.

Last fall, the cheerleading squad was ordered by the school district to cease displaying banners adorned with religious phrases and bible verses at football games. The school district decided on the order following legal advice from the Texas Association of School Boards. The organization cited the 2000 Supreme Court case regarding invocations being recited before football games as a precedent for the controversy.

The cheerleading squad members got the idea of displaying the religious banners from a Pinterest post of a picture from a Georgia high school. The Georgia high school banned the signs in 2009. The Texas cheerleading squad thought the religious banners were more sportsmanlike than banners rooting against the opposing team.

While some legal scholars say this specific incident is clearly unconstitutional, despite the precedent set forth in 2000, the lines surrounding religious speech at public schools and religious speech in general are debatable; there is nothing certain about this incident at all.

The 2000 case determined that an invocation being recited at a high school football game was essentially government speech supported by government policy on government property. If so, the same can be said about the recent Texas cheerleading controversy.

However, is the speech truly from a government entity (in this case, the public school administration)? Or, rather, is the speech from an independent citizen (the cheerleaders)? This case could be argued as an expression of personal freedom versus establishing some sort of official religion per a government entity. Do we limit individuals speaking about religion at all on government property—schools, post offices and other government-owned buildings? Is this not infringing upon the rights of the individual?

This argument is about more than keeping God out of schools. How can schools teach students to be civically engaged and informed of their rights as U.S. citizens if they silence students and take away one of our country’s greatest rights? As seen in Tinker vs. Des Moines School District, when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a few students who wore black armbands to school to show their opposition of the Vietnam War, one student does not speak for an entire school or school district. A student’s actions do not necessarily directly reflect what a school believes or promotes. John and Mary Beth Tinker’s opposition to the Vietnam War did not reflect their school as a whole.

As the Tinker court wrote, “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

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