To the People of Kountze, Texas

This column is cross-posted from Texas School Administrators Legal Digest Online. It is written by Texas attorney Jim Walsh, the managing editor of the Digest and co-author of The Educator’s Guide to Texas School Law.

Your school superintendent did the right thing. When he ordered the Kountze ISD cheerleaders to cease putting scripture verses reflecting a Christian point of view on the banners used at football games, the superintendent was doing exactly what he was supposed to do as a public official—he was keeping his school district aligned with the U.S. Constitution.

When the football team charges through the banner to take the field on Friday night, they embody the entire school district and community. The band is playing, the fans are cheering and the pageantry of Texas high school football is on full display. This is not the time or place for a single student to express a personal opinion on religious or political issues—even if that personal opinion also reflects the views of most of the members of the community.

Students absolutely have the right of free speech and free exercise of religion at all times, including when they are attending public school. It has been said that as long as there are math tests, there will be prayer in public schools. This extends to extracurricular activities as well. When the placekicker prepares himself for a game-deciding field goal, he may make the sign of the cross, or privately utter a prayer. This is one student expressing his personal beliefs. Our Constitution guarantees that right.

But it is quite another thing to claim constitutional protection for words placed on a banner, held by cheerleaders in school uniforms, that the entire football team will run through at the high point of community attention. If the banner represents a free speech zone for individual student expression, then I suppose that the student who is chosen for a particular game can express whatever view, on whatever subject he or she chooses. Here are some possibilities:

GO TEAM GO. AND SUPPORT THE SCHOOL BOND ELECTION NEXT WEEK!

GET HIGH WITH THE EAGLES: DECRIMINALIZE MARIJUANA

LET’S WIN TONIGHT: AND LET’S HELP PRESIDENT OBAMA WIN THE ELECTION!

The words expressed on the official Friday night banner are written by cheerleaders acting as representatives of the school district. The football players, also as representatives of the school district, give support to the words by charging onto the field through the banner. It shouldn’t take too long to see that this is not the same as the expression of a single student holding up a sign or painting a scripture verse on his or her face.

When the legal issue was brought to the attention of the superintendent, he did the right thing. He did not ignore the concern, as some would have done, confident that the community would be supportive. He did not take an opinion poll. He did not put it to a vote of the school board—constitutional issues are not decided by majority vote.

He sought legal advice. Then he followed it.

The legal advice he got was right on the money. It took courage and integrity for Superintendent Weldon to act on that advice—courage that neither Governor Perry nor Attorney General Abbott have displayed. They chose to play politics when they should have provided leadership. Leadership involves respecting the law of the land whether you agree with it or not.

It was approximately 50 years ago that the U.S. Supreme Court held that official prayers were not to be recited in public school. As one of the lawyers in one of those early cases put it: the public schools are not Christian institutions to which others are cordially invited.

Fortunately, Superintendent Weldon provided leadership. The people of Kountze ISD should be proud of their superintendent.

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7 Comments

  1. Breckenridge
    Posted October 26, 2012 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    I don’t think this really any different from Santa Fe vs. Doe, another Texas case the Supreme Court ruled on in 2000. It went 6-3 against the school.

    “The Court held that the policy allowing the student led prayer at the football games was unconstitutional. The majority opinion, written by Justice Stevens, depended on Lee v. Weisman.[2] It held that these pre-game prayers delivered “on school property, at school-sponsored events, over the school’s public address system, by a speaker representing the student body, under the supervision of school faculty, and pursuant to a school policy that explicitly and implicitly encourages public prayer” are not private, but public speech. “Regardless of the listener’s support for, or objection to, the message, an objective Santa Fe High School student will unquestionably perceive the inevitable pregame prayer as stamped with her school’s seal of approval.”

  2. Posted October 25, 2012 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

    The indiscriminate showing of Christian verses makes the assumption that all people who are present are Christians. As a non-Christian, I resent being forced to see violations of the separation of church and state. What would their reaction be if I were to display verses from the Koran or the Book of Mormon or quotes from the Hebrew Tenach?

    Actually, they should nothing with quoting from the Hebrew scriptures, after all, Jesus was a Jewish teacher who had only the Tenach from which to quote. The Tenach is the Torah, the Writings and the Prophets. He and his buds did not quote from the KJV as so many Christians seem to believe.

    When the God of Abraham made an ETERNAL testament with him, God also said that “I will bless them that bless you and curse them that curse you.” There are many so-called Christian churches and people who are in deep doo-doo with God.

  3. Coragyps
    Posted October 25, 2012 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    “And doesn’t God have anything better to do than rig a high school football game in East Texas?”

    Can you honestly name anything more important than a high school football game in East Texas? :-)

  4. Renée
    Posted October 25, 2012 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for bringing clarity to this issue. I find myself disturbed by the positions of Gov Perry and AP Greg Abbott.

  5. The Right Is Wrong
    Posted October 25, 2012 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    Splendid article. It should be read at every Tea Party event — that should shut those extremists up. My hit on this is if Kountze cheerleaders’ sign say “With God for us, who can be against us” and if the other team’s cheerleaders make a similar sign, what does it mean for the losing team? That God is not for them? And doesn’t God have anything better to do than rig a high school football game in East Texas?

  6. Ben
    Posted October 25, 2012 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    Awesome.

  7. Coragyps
    Posted October 25, 2012 at 7:35 am | Permalink

    Wow. That’s very nicely done. It needs wider distribution, say, over past Greg Abbott’s office…..

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