Sis boom brouhaha: Texas cheerleaders’ Bible-banner case, revived and revisited

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On Oct. 17, 2012, then-Gov. Rick Perry and then-Attorney General Greg Abbott held a news conference to support the use of Christian-themed football banners by Kountze High School cheerleaders. (American-Statesman file photo)

In 2012, cheerleaders in Kountze, a small town about 95 miles northeast of Houston, brought some real religion to the religion that is Texas high school football by painting Bible verses on the large paper banners players run through as they take the field. In forsaking the traditional “Sink the Pirates!” or “Snap the Dragons!” the cheerleaders begot a national stir.

An atheist group immediately objected. Kountze’s superintendent, on the reasonable advice of the school district’s attorney, banned the banners. The cheerleaders sued the school district, or rather some parents sued on the cheerleaders’ behalf. A state district judge ruled for the cheerleaders. But the ruling was confusing so Kountze appealed, seeking clarity.

The 9th Texas Court of Appeals in Beaumont declared the cheerleaders’ lawsuit moot in 2014 because in the meantime the Kountze Independent School District had relented and decided to allow the Christian-themed banners. But in doing so, the school district reserved its right to exercise editorial control over the banners as needed. This displeased the cheerleaders’ lawyers, who asked the Texas Supreme Court to resurrect their lawsuit.

Which the court unanimously agreed to do last week. The justices then punted the case back to the 9th appeals court to decide whether the banners violate the First Amendment. The state’s Republican leaders, ever eager to reach for attention from the case, and with plans to make religious liberty a top issue during next year’s legislative session, rejoiced.

The cheerleaders argue that because they used private donations to pay for the banners and decided for themselves which biblical phrase to use on each one, the banners represent private speech and thus are protected by the First Amendment. They further argue that under the First Amendment, the school district, as a government entity, cannot stop them from exercising their religion.

Several school- and government property-related First Amendment rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court “cut against the cheerleaders in this case,” Vikram David Amar, dean of the University of Illinois College of Law, and Alan Brownstein, a law professor at the University of California at Davis School of Law, explained in a 2012 legal analysis. A football game is a school-sponsored event that takes place on school-owned property. If the cheerleaders are acting as individuals and not as representatives of the school, as the cheerleaders’ lawyers assert, then the school district is unconstitutionally favoring their religious views and expressions over the views and expressions of other students when it allows only the cheerleaders to place banners on the field. Either the cheerleaders are school-endorsed participants in a school activity (which is how everyone sees them) and thus subject to school district rules and constitutional prohibitions against the government endorsement of one religion over another, or they are individuals whose speech and religious views are no more privileged than the views of anyone else. The cheerleaders want it both ways.

The Christian verses the cheerleaders painted on their banners are vaguely athletically applicable quotes from the New Testament — passages that should be familiar to anyone who remembers anything about their high school’s chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” from Philippians 4:13, is one example. “But thanks be to God who gives us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ,” from 1 Corinthians 15:57, is another.

The Kountze Lions have now played four seasons since the controversy began. The Texas Supreme Court’s decision last week prompted me to look up Kountze’s record for the first time since I wrote a tongue-in-cheek column in early November 2012 urging the cheerleaders to put aside the feel-good New Testament passages they had been using and turn instead to the fear and wrath of the Old Testament. The Lions were on a losing streak in 2012 and needed a spark to salvage a possible winning season and playoff berth — which would have been Kountze’s first after 40 years of wandering in the playoff wilderness. The cheerleaders needed to bring it on, I wrote. It was time for the Lions to take the field like bears sent to maul the children who mocked Elisha’s bald head. They needed to win a game.

But no. The Lions lost both their final games and finished the 2012 season with a 2-5 district record. It’s unclear how often the school’s cheerleaders — the group who first created the banners would have graduated two or three years ago — still use the Scripture-based banners but I can report that the Lions enjoyed a 4-3 district record in 2013 and 2014 and finally made the playoffs each year — alas, only to be blown out in the first round both times. (My guess is advancing beyond the regular season had more to do with the UIL’s doubling of the number of teams allowed to make the playoffs — Everybody’s a winner! — than with Providence, but I’m willing to be wrong.) The Lions reverted to their losing ways this past season, winning only two games.

From the facetious to the sincere, another suggestion, repeated: Cheerleaders, the lawsuit filed in your name will play out however it will play out. Forget it. Teach the adults who are using you to advance their own political agendas a soft lesson. Start the 2016 season with a banner quoting Matthew 6:6: “When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.” Then dedicate yourself to putting the fun back in your banners. Embrace the lower-case spirit that should animate football games. God is best kept with you, not by turning His word into football inanity.