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CON: Allowing religious banners could be slippery slope

By Jennifer Lee Preyss
Nov. 4, 2012 at 5:04 a.m.
Updated Nov. 5, 2012 at 5:05 a.m.

In this Sept. 19, 2012 file photo, Kountze High School cheerleaders and other children work on a large sign in Kountze, Texas.  Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott announced Wednesday that he is intervening in a lawsuit that cheerleaders filed against the school district. The district told the cheerleaders to stop using Bible verses at football games after the Freedom From Religion Foundation complained.

For a non-Christian watching a high school football game, cheerleaders holding religious-themed banners may be construed as offensive and exclusionary.

And since the public school is government funded and constitutionally required to separate religion and school matters, isn't that enough to ban the signs entirely from school?

"Absolutely," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, Freedom From Religion Foundation co-founder and co-president.

"We have something called the Bill of Rights in this country, which protects us from the tyranny of the majority," said Gaylor, whose organization sent a letter to Kountze ISD Superintendent Kevin Weldon threatening legal action in recent weeks if the signs were not curbed. "Kountze High School is not a Christian high school. The football game is not a Christian football game. Kountze is not a Christian town, and Texas is not a Christian state."

Gaylor said high school football games or any athletic function at a public high school is not the appropriate place for students in school uniforms, representing school-sponsored teams, to force religious messages on the viewing public.

"We have secular government. When you go to a high school football game, we shouldn't be attacked by banners promoting victory in Jesus. It's just bad manners to proselytize to people at public school events," Gaylor said. "We are all for free speech rights, and if they were in the audience" and the cheerleaders out of uniform, "that would be fine. We would not be complaining."

Gaylor said she also does not support open displays of prayer during athletic events, which is commonly promoted by team coaches before a game kicks off.

"It's a tradition started by coaches, and it's a no-no. It troubles me that huddles turn into religious moments before games because if you're a different religion, you're out of the huddle," Gaylor said. "This take-a-knee business is out of hand."

The Anti-Defamation League agrees.

Recently, Hardin County District Judge Steve Thomas granted a temporary injunction allowing the Kountze cheerleaders to continue making and displaying the Christian signs. The league called the ruling "misguided."

"The decision flies in the face of a well-established U.S. Supreme Court precedent prohibiting school-sponsored religious activity. . These banners were clearly being displayed in the context of school-sponsored activities," said Martin B. Cominsky, the Anti-Defamation League Southwest regional director. "Faith is a profoundly personal decision, so students should not be subjected to an exclusionary school-sponsored religious message."

Cominsky stated the Anti-Defamation League's position does not reflect religious hostility but, rather, a respect for the diverse religious community represented in public schools.

Dr. Gary Branfman, a Victoria plastic surgeon and Southwest Region Anti-Defamation League board member, also agreed that faith-based signs and religious expression on public school grounds are inappropriate.

"As I see it, the decision in the Kountze Independent School District paves the way for a slippery slope," Branfman said. "Any student, as an individual, is free to promote their religious beliefs. However, a team, group or organization under the supervision and approval of a public school on public property - the practice is unconstitutional."

Gaylor said she is confident the decision to allow faith-based banners at school will be repealed when the cheerleaders' lawsuit against the Kountze school district goes to trial next summer.

"The cheerleaders should no more be promoting Christian banners than banners with racist comments, banners about Allah or any other faith," she said. "We do not live in a theocracy, and I think a lot of it has to do with a lack of education in our public schools. And, unfortunately, the court is falling on the wrong side and scape-goating our organization by name. It is creating a climate of hostility."

Related stories:

PRO: Cheerleaders post banners in name of free speech, click HERE

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