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Published: Friday, 10/26/2012

Texas civics lesson

Cheerleaders at Kountze High School just wanted to put Bible verses on banners the football team runs through on its way to the field on Friday nights. They've landed in the middle of a civics lesson they probably aren't going to like.

Kountze is a small East Texas town. It's a type of place common to many parts of rural America. Most of the 2,100 people who live there know each other. They share the same values and attitudes, including strong, largely Christian, faith.

Cheerleaders made the banners outside of school, from materials paid for with private funds. A mother of one of the cheerleaders insists no one disagrees with the message.

So what's wrong with putting quotes from the Bible on signs to inspire the football team and its fans? Nothing, say banner backers such as Texas Gov. Rick Perry, state Attorney General Greg Abbott, and the conservative Christian advocacy group Liberty Institute.

They argue that the cheerleaders are expressing personal religious beliefs. Banning the banners, they say, would infringe on free speech.

Last week, a local judge ruled that the cheerleaders can continue to raise their Bible banners until the case comes to trial — next June. That merely puts off the inevitable.

The cheerleaders wear uniforms that bear the school name and logo. They are in every sense representatives of the school.

So when they wave signs that proclaim "If God is with us, who can be against us?", that represents the taxpayer-funded school as well — and that's unconstitutional. Banning the banners isn't anti-Christian; it's pro-inclusion.

The banners potentially intimidate people who follow other faiths, or no faith at all. At least one fan objected to having to choose between not cheering for the players and taking part in a Christian-themed ritual.

That fan, a local resident who has remained anonymous out of fear of retribution, complained to the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation. The foundation contacted the school district, which contacted its lawyer, who advised correctly that the banners are unconstitutional.

Some people don't like that idea. They believe in an America in which the Christian majority gets to do as it pleases, and minority non-Christians and nonbelievers can just keep quiet.

Many of these people complain about nonexistent religious control in places such as Dearborn, Mich., that have a growing Muslim population. Yet the First Amendment's establishment clause guards equally against either of these eventualities.

The Texas cheerleaders aren't the first group to test the limits of public sponsorship of religion. They won't be the last. But this civics lesson is worth learning, no matter how often it must be repeated.



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