T-Shirts and Ted Cruz: Escalating The Holy War Over Religion In Public School Sports

Apr 25 2014, 5:33pm CDT | by

The impending removal of a Bible verse from just about anything associated with the Parkersburg (W. Va.) South High School wrestling program represents, in the eyes of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, things progressing as they should when the Madison, Wisc.-based atheistic organization is requested by someone locally to address a complaint of an unholy mix of government and religion.

In mid-April, the foundation sent a letter to the school requesting that it take down all references to a Bible verse on the wrestling wall, web site and team T-shirts. Within a few days the district scrubbed Philippians 4:13  off the website and announced plans to repaint the wrestling room. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” is a statement that the Wood County Schools figures won’t wash legally when it comes to explicitly or tacitly approved religious displays. The foundation can give cover for locals making that decision. The idea is that the organization can serve as a flak-catcher in these situations, so the complainer is not the focus of anger (that name isn’t revealed in initial communications), and the district can blame it for forcing the school to do something, sigh, it didn’t really want to do.

“We simply seek to have the school come into compliance and to do so without the need for litigation,” foundation staff attorney Patrick Elliott said in an email. “Most school administrators make changes and that ends the matter.” Elliott estimated that about 350 school-related complaints have come to his organization just in 2014. (The most prominent complaint of recent weeks is against religious activity alleged fomented by Clemson University football coach Dabo Swinney.) But only three complaints — from all years — are currently in foundation-driven litigation, he said.

Not all is over yet at Parkersburg South. Parents are pushing back against getting rid of the T-shirts – or preventing future printings of them — that contain the Bible verse, saying they paid for them, not the school. This could put the Wood County school district between the proverbial rock and hard place. If the school doesn’t do something about then T-shirts, then maybe the Freedom From Religion Foundation gets involved. (It hasn’t stated a course of action.) But if it does ban the T-shirts, then it could get sued — by the parents.

This happens. And as an example, I’ll give you Kountze, Texas, site of a battle over cheerleaders making religious-themed banners for the football team to run through before games. The battle involves not only the school and the cheerleading parents, but it’s drawn in all sorts of political interest, including the state’s two U.S. Senators, one of whom was on the losing end of a very prominent Supreme Court case that expanded the definition of school-sanctioned religious expression.

In September 2012, acting on a local complaint, the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter requesting the Kountze Independent School District stop allowing the banners to be used. Even though the cheerleaders said they were making the Bible-themed banners of their own accord — not with explicit permission of the school — the foundation still objected, citing, among other precedents, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2000 ruling in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, which also involved a small-town Texas school.

The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 (current justices Anthony Kennedy, Stephen Breyer and Ruth Baden Ginsburg were with the majority; Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas were with the minority) that a student-led prayer over the public address system before a football game was tantamount to school endorse of religion. According to the majority opinion, the prayer, “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” made it pretty clear that the school was endorsing a religion.

With that in mind, the administrators at Kountze ordered the Bible-themed banners removed. After all, anyone at a game would assume, with the school-backed cheerleaders using school materials to create a banner held up on the school football field for school football players to run through, that Kountze district was endorsing this.

The parents of the cheerleaders responded by suing. A county court — which in October 2012 granted an injunction allowing the religious bannners to come back – ruled in May 2013 the school was not required to eliminate religious speech, so the banners were permissible, though the district said the ruling also made it clear that it had the right to regulate what is put on there. The cheerleading family’s attorneys disagreed. The school district has appealed the decision, and the case is pending. Briefs have been filed — including one in support of the cheerleading parents put forth together by U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, following the lead of Gov. Rick Perry and state Attorney General Greg Abbott, who had filed briefs supporting the original lawsuit.

In its response to Cruz and Cornyn, the school district took pains to point out that their brief was “irrelevant and mistaken” because it had nothing to do with what was actually ruled by the lower court, and because the senators “misunderstand the facts of the case and misconstrue the relevant precedents.” The district seemed to think this was interesting in Cornyn’s case, given his brief contained the same argument that lost him the  Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe  before the U.S. Supreme Court when he was Texas attorney general.

But Cruz and Cornyn, and Perry and Abbott, all Republicans, know where their political bread is buttered in conservative East Texas. Especially Cornyn, whose brief with Cruz was filed two weeks after Kountze’s House representative, Steve Stockman, filed to run against Cornyn in the 2014 U.S. Senate Republican primary as a even more right-wing alternative. (Stockman, who was giving up his House seat, lost.) Meanwhile, Abbott, who is running for governor this year, appeared in nearby Beaumont and gave an atta-girl to the Kountze cheerleaders as a an easy crowd-pleaser.

So do the administrators at the Kountze Independent School District. In the past, the school has referred to its appeal as a “clarification” of the lower court judge’s decision. Kevin Weldon, the superintendent at the time the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s letter of complaint arrived, told a local TV station at the time that personally, as a Christian, he was with the cheerleaders. But professionally, he had to follow the law. (Weldon left to take another superintendent job in late 2012.)

Personally, as a Christian, I wish people would stop trying to find ways to codify their religion in the public sphere. All Christians certainly don’t celebrate or express their faith in the same way; I’m sure plenty of Christians, for example, would have problems with the fact that my church performed same-sex marriage ceremonies. It’s also easy for me to see, given the diversity of my children’s schools, that trying to have one kind of prayer as something everybody would embrace would fail miserably. As a Christian, I feel like my faith could be expressed and developed in much more productive ways than ensuring a Bible verse is displaying prominently somewhere in the local public schools.

I also get that communities where religion and schools have mixed for years (in Parkersburg, the Bible verse had been up since the 1990s) would be extra resistant to some outsiders (even if an insider brought them in) telling them to change their ways, especially when, say, the Freedom From Religion Foundation can be as smug about its beliefs as any Christian it takes to task.

However, the organization is right, legally and morally, regarding displays of religion at school events (and in the public realm in general), which really only serves to make people madder. I would suggest to the Parkersburg South parents not to launch a lawsuit over T-shirts, if it comes to that. You have better things to do — and examples to set — with your time, money and faith.


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