Friday, September 28, 2012

Texas AG offers to help school district in battle over religious banners 

From the Houston Chronicle:

A Southeast Texas school district criticized when cheerleaders put Bible verses on high school football game banners will get help from the state, if they want it, should a civil suit be filed.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott on Thursday sent a letter to the Kountze Independent School District, offering to help the district and the cheerleaders and said that the banners do not violate First Amendment rights, as opponents contend.

In a letter sent to district Superintendant Kevin Weldon, Abbott said that a communication the district received last week from the Freedom From Religion Foundation about the banners was "menacing and misleading." He said based on news reports he has read, the signs were student-initiated and used no school funds, and therefore should be protected under free exercise of religion.

More here.

As always, I'm very dubious about the concept of religious proselytizing in public schools being "student initiated": I strongly recall the "student initiated" prayer at my high school graduation, for which I was privy to the planning meetings; "student initiated" meant an administrator saying, "and this is the point at which Andrea gives the invocation."  That is, there's often some kind of district employee behind it all, especially for really big events like football games and graduations, and that's a clear cut violation of the first amendment's establishment clause.  Having said that, there is, indeed, such a thing as student initiated religious expression, and that should not be suppressed.  Indeed, to do so would be a clear cut violation of the first amendment's free exercise clause.

Yeah, I know, it gets a bit confusing, but only when you tune out and stop paying attention.  That is, this stuff isn't rocket science.  Citizens have the right to freely exercise their religion, but the government cannot do anything that is tantamount to establishing an official religion.  That's why teachers can't lead students in prayer, but also why students must be allowed to pray independently.  See?  Not so complicated, after all.

But this thing about "student initiated" religious cheerleader banners at school football games pushes the envelope.  Even if students came up with the idea totally on their own, it's in a weird realm that, to all appearances, says to all in attendance that the school supports a particular religious point of view.  Everybody involved, the cheerleaders, and the football players who run through the banners as they enter the field of play, are wearing official school uniforms.  The usage of the banners is during an official school function, in front of an audience.  Indeed, the conventional wisdom for high school football games is that, when you wear your school's colors and present yourself in front of the public, you are representing your school, and want to give the best impression possible.  In that light, the "best impression" must necessarily be that such a school is religious, officially religious, and that Christianity is the official religion.

If it looks, sounds, and walks like a duck, it very likely is a duck.  I guess a good test would be to ask how "student initiated" messages of atheism or Islam on these banners would be accepted: I think everybody with half a brain already knows the answer to such a question, but it would be fun to see how district administrators squirm while they spin their response.

At any rate, this is probably dead on arrival as far as the law is concerned, given, as the article observes, precedent that has already outlawed prayers over the loudspeakers at public high school football games.  That means the Texas AG wants to waste taxpayer money chasing a wild goose.  And that's all par for the course in my home state.