Today a Governor Perry appointed District Judge in Hardin County extended a temporary restraining order allowing Kountze cheerleaders to display religious banners in their official capacity during football games, at least until Oct. 14th.
The controversy started a few weeks ago after a complaint was filed with KISD officials about the signs. After consultation with the district's attorney, backed by Texas Association of School Boards, the district banned the banners per the US Supreme court decision in Santa Fe ISD vs. Jane Doe. At today's hearing the superintendent for KISD now claims he received bad advice from the district's attorneys and that banning the signs violated district policy. The ban does not, despite claims by the Washington Times, extend to individual student activities in the stands. The original complainant remains anonymous but an amicus brief has been filed on behalf of the school district by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin based advocacy group for the separation of church and state.
Just last week after the first temporary restraining order against the school district was granted, Texas Attorney General sent a letter in support of the cheerleaders and their right to freedom of religion. This morning prior to the hearing I asked the Attorney General if he would have sent that same letter of support to Islamic or other religious minority students. Abbott said, “Texas supports religious freedom”. When pressed by Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith for a more direct answer the Attorney General gave a defacto yes and concluded his support for religious freedom is not limited to any particular religion. He specifically compared the right of cheerleaders to a kicker who makes the sign of the cross before a field goal or pointing to God after a touchdown, asserting no difference between an individual act of religious expression and a group display. He gave no specific example of his office defending the rights of an Islamic individual or group as the question asked.
More below the jump…
The disputation has become a national story and turned the tiny East Texas town upside down. Part of the issue with allowing such displays is the effect it could have on religious minorities. Since the cheerleaders have gained fervent support of many in the community some have become embolden to the point of ostracizing those who disagree. One Kountze football player said if people took issue with the sign they could not attend football games and It had also been reported on various Facebook groups that signs were popping up that read, “If you don't like it, leave. We believe.” This type of reaction threatens the very thing they aim to protect, freedom of religion. One of the cheerleaders gave a teary-eyed testimony saying the ban made her feel her religion wasn't good enough but admitted that she hadn't read the Cheerleader Constitution that says she's a representative of the school at all times.
Dan Quinn spokesperson for Texas Freedom Network said, “In 2007 with the Religious Viewpoints and Anti-Discrimination Act the Texas legislature turned public schools into a religious battleground setting them up for unnecessary and expensive lawsuits – and Kountze is a prime example.” He said legislators attempted to turn a gray issue into a black and white one and that school districts have the burden of protecting all religious speech and not just that of the majority. Upon signing the legislation in 2007 Gov. Perry said, “This legislation clarifies the law and makes it possible for students to express themselves individually, or in groups, in the same manner as students involved in secular or non-curricular activities.” After the law was implemented noted 1st Amendment scholar Marissa Rogers of the Wake Forrest Divinity School gave a harsh critique on the effects it would have on Texas school districts,
The statute does not simply codify current constitutional principles. Rather, it articulates some principles in areas of the law that are unsettled and deeply contested. These issues will not be resolved until the Supreme Court decides them. It is impossible to predict when (and how) the Court will reach and resolve these issues, but the process will almost certainly be a long one. In the meantime, the RVAA will invite litigation. The fact that the statute attempts to force a bright-line rule where current law reflects a more fact-sensitive approach also heightens the risk of lawsuits.
Supporters of the school district's decision have sent letters and even a gift basket to the beleaguered KISD staff who have been inundated with angry callers, some reciting bible verses before hanging up. I'll continue to follow this story as it could have larger implications on the relationship between church and state. As of this posting, according to a witness in this morning's hearing, the school district's attorney and that of the cheerleaders have been in negotiations to settle or postpone a decision.
The next game is tomorrow in Kountze.
Please check back for updates.