UPDATE, 10 a.m., May 7: Even more about how this incident didn’t involve religious discrimination. The governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and a long list of religious-right groups and activists owe UIL officials an apology.
One of the fastest ways to whip up a political firestorm in Texas is to claim that government has violated someone’s religious freedom and then wildly exaggerate the story, even if you don’t know all the facts.
That appears to have been the case last week, when religious-right pressure groups and politicians claimed a Texas high school track athlete had been disqualified for pointing skyward after he ran the anchor leg for his victorious relay team. Under University Scholastic League rules that govern high school sports in Texas, athletes may not engage in excessive celebration, including raising their arms in victory.
One of the first news stories about the incident got the ball rolling with an article headlined: “‘Act of faith’ costs track team a win, trip to state championships.” From there, politics took over, with UIL officials raked over the coals for the decision to disqualify the relay team.
- “Track team DQ’d [disqualified] for praising God,” shrieked Texas Values, the lobby arm of the Plano-based litigation group Liberty Institute, in a Twitter post last Thursday. In another tweet, that religious-right group even tried to use the story to push an ill-conceived “religious freedom” amendment to the Texas Constitution that appears hung up in the Legislature : “#ReligiousFreedom Amendment blocked in #TxLege while attacks con’t. #Texas track team latest victim.” Texas Values also posted its phone number on Facebook and asked the athlete to contact the group so it could represent him.
- Liberty Counsel, a virulently anti-gay litigation group based in Florida, appeared to refer professional basketball player Jason Collins’ decision to come out publicly as gay, sneering in a Twitter post: “If he’d [the Texas athlete] have just made a ‘gay’ signal instead of a Christian signal, this never would have happened!”
- Not surprisingly, politicians like Texas Gov. Rick Perry waded in, calling for an investigation: “It is unconscionable that a student athlete could be punished for an expression of religious faith or that an act of faith could disqualify an athlete in a UIL competition.”
- Texas Attorney Greg Abbott — the state’s chief law enforcement officer — didn’t even wait for all the facts to emerge before tweeting this: “Disgraceful: Winning track team disqualified for praising God”
- Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst also couldn’t resist getting in on the act, tweeting that the incident happened on the National Day of Prayer (day religious-right groups have turned into an opportunity to push a political agenda): “Sad that on National Day of Prayer, we read about a track team DQ’d for expressing their faith in God.”
Well, here’s something even sadder: it turns out the story wasn’t true. The athlete’s father now says his son wasn’t making a religious gesture after the race. His son also admits that “I do not feel my religious rights or freedoms were violated.” All of this seems to back up what UIL officials said right after the incident, when they explained that the athlete “raised his arm and finger and behaved disrespectfully toward meet officials” after winning the race. Then the UIL said the following in a press release today:
“The meet official approached the student-athlete in an effort to warn him of a possible disqualification should that behavior continue. In the opinion of the official, the student reacted disrespectfully. Based on his reaction, the student-athlete was subsequently disqualified. Any decision to disqualify a student-athlete at any track meet must be upheld by the head meet referee. The meet official and the meet referee conferred, and the disqualification was upheld on-site. At no point during the discussions surrounding the disqualification at the meet was the issue of religious expression raised by any parties.”
We wonder if the religious-right groups and politicians who smeared UIL officials so recklessly after last week’s incident will now apologize to those same officials. Well, we’re not holding our breath.