KISD School Board:
Thank you for giving the public an opportunity to submit comments regarding the current controversy with the cheerleader Bible verse banners. I live in Hardin County, and after seeing these banners on our local television station, I started an informal group called “Concerned East Texans for Separation of Church and State,” to support KISD, discuss legal matters regarding the establishment clause, and raise awareness of church/state issues throughout East Texas. Currently the group has over 250 members, either from East Texas or with close ties to the area. Members come from different religious backgrounds, including Christians, Muslims, Pagans, and non-religious freethinkers, but we all share an appreciation for government neutrality in religious matters.
The Establishment Clause to the First Amendment of the US Constitution states:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. . . .
This is immediately followed by the free Exercise clause,
“…or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
In the case of the football banners, the cheerleaders have emphasized the Free Exercise clause, while Kevin Weldon and the school’s legal team have emphasized the Establishment Clause. In this letter, I wish to argue both that prohibiting the banners does NOT violate the Free Exercise clause, and that continued use of Scriptural banners DOES violate the Establishment.
First, prohibiting the banners does not violate the cheerleaders’ right to individually exercise their religious rights. These girls can still pray individually, wear t-shirts or necklaces, tell their friends about their religious convictions, and form independent clubs that focus on their religion. Nobody, including KISD has told the girls that it is wrong to be a Christian. Last week, a spokesperson for the school issued a statement saying,
“The Board of Trustees is concerned that certain actions by former Superintendent Kevin Weldon, though done in good faith, may have inadvertently given the appearance of hostility to religion or of preference for irreligion over religion.”
I am confused how the school’s actions can be interpreted in this way. There is a proper time and place for everything, and a school, its teachers, and its leaders are guided with the task of deciding when a behavior is appropriate and when something disrupts the learning environment or the harmony of a school. A banner reading “God is dead,” or “Allahu Akbar” would cause harmonious and legal problems for the school, just as much as a Christian banner. I’m sure the KISD school board and legal team would have taken similar actions if such signs were being displayed. This is why I’m confused as to how the school’s actions can be interpreted as being “hostile to religion.” Asking the girls to make their banners relevant to football is not taking away their rights to religious practice; rather, it is asking them to stay on task.
Many Christians believe that it is their religious duty to share the gospel, to tell others “the good news of Christ,” and to let their light shine, so that others will praise their Father in Heaven. These things are important to many Christian students in Kountze, and I have no doubt that this was the intention of the cheerleaders. However, if a child decides to stand on his desk during math class and start sharing his personal testimony, that student would be asked to sit down and listen to the lesson on quadratic equations. He would NOT be in trouble for being a Christian. His Christian faith would NOT be “attacked;” rather, the teacher would ask that he talk to his classmates about his faith after class. Learning occurs in a classroom, and football occurs on a football field.
Like the zealous math student in this example, the cheerleaders have chosen an inappropriate setting for their religious expression. Religious signs on the football field can disrupt the harmony of the student body by causing unnecessary divisions among the students. Those who are not Christian will feel out of place because the signs do not represent their religious holy books or personal convictions. Even those who are Christian may feel offended because, following a certain interpretation of Matthew 6:5, they believe religion should be expressed privately, or because they find it sacrilegious to watch the words of their holy scriptures torn asunder, as the football players rush through them before the game. As I have already stated, children are free to exercise their religion however they please, but they are not free to interrupt the learning process, disrupt the harmony of the school, or break the law while making the school vulnerable to a lawsuit. It is the duty of the school to intervene when such instances occur.
This brings me to my second point, allowing these banners on the football field is, indeed, a violation of the establishment clause, as demonstrated by recent decisions from the Supreme Court.
The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed a case involving a Silsbee cheerleader because (and I quote) "a cheerleader is a mouthpiece for the school." It doesn't matter if the majority of students agree with the message of the sign or even if ALL the students agree with the sign's religious message. These messages are displayed by representatives of the school, while in uniform, and acting as the mouthpiece of the school. In Santa Fe ISD v. Doe, the Supreme Court ruled that a student's expression of religion (prayer), over the loudspeaker before a football game, would give an outsider the impression that the school supports a particular religion. These prayers were then ruled unconstitutional. Public schools are supposed to be religiously neutral spaces, and cannot even give the APPEARANCE of endorsing a religion. These signs, held by the school's mouthpieces, would certainly give outsiders the impression that KISD supports Christianity over other religions, whose holy books are not represented on the football field. Therefore, just as in Santa Fe v. Doe, this particular form of religious expression is unconstitutional.
If you choose to continue fighting against this lawsuit, as I and many others believe you should, the Supreme Court will rule in your favor. If you choose to settle and allow the cheerleaders to continue to hold their religious banners, a lawsuit may come up in the future in which you will be on the losing side.
Kacy Ellis, of Silsbee, TX
Founder of East Texans Concerned for Separation of Church and State