Saturday, September 18, 2021

Freedom of speech, religion in cheerleading sign


At many high school football games every week across America, the home team runs onto the field by tearing through a banner that cheerleaders hold up by the gate in one corner of the field. The sign usually has writing on it to convey some appropriate variation of “Go Team!”

At one high school in a small town in Texas, the words on that banner are being called into question, because the school district prohibited the cheerleaders from using religious sayings on the sign, specifically, quotes from the Christian Bible, the New York Times reports.

There are plenty of words in the Bible that essentially mean “Go Team!” too, such as “Let us run with endurance the race God has set before us,” which comes from the book called Hebrews (Ch. 12).

The question, of course, is over the constitutionality of holding up the sayings at a public school football game. Remember, first, it’s unconstitutional to lead students in a prayer (of any religion) at a public high school football game. The US Supreme Court settled that one in 2000 in the case known as Santa Fe Independent School District v. John Doe:

“The Constitution demands that schools not force on students the difficult choice between attending these games and avoiding personally offensive religious rituals,” the Court said. The Justices added that “nothing in the Constitution … prohibits any public school student from voluntarily praying at any time before, during, or after the school day.”

This decision resulted in several lower courts finding that student groups, such as football teams, had every right to pray, as long as a teacher or other school representative wasn’t involved in the praying.

The situation at Kountze High School, where the next home game is tomorrow, is that the district ordered a ban on the banners, but a judge issued a temporary injunction that holds off the ban until the court can sort the issue out.

And while people who love the Constitution watch in terms of the First Amendment, we have to keep in mind that kids in Kountze still have to go to school. Schools Superintendent Kevin Weldon issued this statement:

Kountze [Independent School District] works hard to foster an atmosphere that values the voices and opinions of all students, teachers and the community. We were pleased to have the opportunity to explain the district’s position regarding this matter in court, recognizing that Kountze ISD must follow all applicable laws in its operations, even if this practice is at times in conflict with personal beliefs of administrators and board members. We were likewise pleased that the court has agreed to extend the restraining order for 14 more days in order to give proper consideration to both sides. While we wait for the court’s ruling, the district will continue to focus on the important business of education, which must be our top priority.

The difference between the Santa Fe case and Kountze is that the cheerleaders are cheering, not praying or performing a “ritual.” Technically speaking, in a religious sense, prayers are generally directed to God. These words are directed toward students, i.e., mortal humans. In other words, encouraging a team is a practice of cheerleading, supported fully by our public schools, along with all its rituals. It is not a religious practice from which we need to protect people.

Let me put it this way: If the saying had come from the Holy Koran—something like (3:103) “And hold fast all together by the rope which God stretches out before you,” which promotes teamwork—I as a Christian would not be offended in the least crashing through it. I would interpret the words in terms of Christianity, of course, because that’s what I know, but I would not think of asking a court to protect me from the universal message of teamwork. That strikes me as a good cheer, albeit a little formal, for a football game.

The words themselves do not promote or endorse any particular “religion.” Rather, they inspire a team. To cite the reference as a verse from the Bible or the Koran would be similar to stating the author after a quote. Something like, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing. —Red Sanders.” Beware, though, if we allow words that may have been spoken by a coach to inspire our teams, then what if a coach quoted from the Koran? Would we be able to cite the original source, or would we have to cite the football coach rather than the original author?

Make no mistake, it’s a slippery slope we’re on here. Plenty of inspirational quotes can be found from people like football coaches that have nothing to do with any religion at all, and then there are those that invoke the name of God, which has been found, on its face, to endorse no particular religion. Although there may be something I’m missing, I think the sayings should be allowed in this context. If cheerleaders (students) want to encourage their classmates, they should be free to use words they know, to express themselves in words they’re comfortable with.

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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