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PRO: Cheerleaders’ free speech allows them to post religious banners

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.

A Kountze High School cheerleader was searching on Pinterest when she discovered an inspirational run-through banner idea for the next football game.

Instead of the cheerleaders painting a sign that antagonized the opposing football team, they decided to create and display a run-through banner using an inspirational quote from the Bible.

The cheerleaders purchased the banner paper and paint themselves, and together, as students, displayed the sign at a football game before a crowd of cheering high school fans.

Mike Johnson, senior counsel for the Liberty Institute in Plano, who is also representing the cheerleaders in their lawsuit against the school district, said expressions of faith, either verbal or written, are acceptable and lawful on public school property when they do not represent or act as an endorsement from the school.

"Students and teachers do not shed their right to free speech when they walk through the schoolhouse gate," Johnson said. "Not everybody has to agree with it, but that's what it means to be an American. That's what the First Amendment is all about."

Johnson said he supports all students who wish to express their religious views on school property during athletic functions, regardless of whether the sentiments are Christian, Jewish or atheist in nature.

"We have to be intellectually consistent and recognize that other expressions of faith would be no less unlawful," in school, Johnson said. "The price of free speech is that sometimes we're not going to like the messages we see."

Referencing the Kountze cheerleaders, he said the girls were within their rights to express their views on public school property even while dressed in school uniforms, because they were not influenced by school officials or parents.

"They are speaking for themselves, the students. They are not endorsing the school . and unless their message is obscene or lewd, it's all acceptable," he said. "Many public schools issue school uniforms. Does that mean then, that those students who wear their school uniforms lose all their free speech rights? No."

Industrial school district Superintendent Tony Williams, who works for a Jackson County school district similar in size to that of Kountze ISD, said his schools support religious expression from the students as long as it isn't disruptive to the educational process.

"Our kids get a lot of flexibility because we don't pressure them. We're very open here with our kids expressing their religious viewpoints. And it hasn't been a disruption to the educational process," Williams said. "In general, we're all for free speech and for kids expressing their religious views."

Victoria East High School head basketball coach John Grammer said he understands why there's controversy surrounding religious-inspired athletic banners and can understand why some may find the signs inappropriate.

But he also believes students should be allowed to express themselves, especially on matters of faith.

"Personally, I think it's beautiful. If they're using their own money and resources to do it, they should be allowed," said Grammer, who also serves as the Fellowship of Christian Athletes huddle leader. "I'm all for it. I think it's great."

Johnson said he will continue to support all students who desire to express their religious views at school during athletic functions. He also said he will take on other cases throughout the country where religious rights and free speech are compromised or challenged at school by anti-faith organizations threatening legal action.

"We have freedom of religion, not freedom from religion, in this country. We're not a totalitarian state; that's not America," Johnson said. "If everything that's offensive has to be silenced and censored, you're not going to have any religious speech. And throughout history, before a people are conquered, they lose their religious freedoms first. The loss of religious freedom ultimately leads to loss of political freedom."

CON: Allowing religious banners could be slippery slope, click HERE

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