Imagine you are in the stands at a high school football game, and the cheerleaders hoist a paper banner painted with the Bible verse "I can do all things through Christ, which strengthens me." The football team then runs through the sign to start play. With whom would you think that religious message was associated? The school-sponsored cheerleading squad holding the sign and lined up around it, obviously. The school-sponsored football team, probably. The school administrators who allow the banner prime space in a pregame ritual, maybe. Surely not just the individual cheerleaders who painted the sign.
Yet that is what the parents of 15 Kountze High School cheerleaders in Kountze, Texas, claim you should think. They argue that their daughters are simply expressing their private views on the football field when the school's cheerleading squad raises its run-through banners, others of which read, "If God is for us, who can be against us?" or "But thanks be to God, which gives us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." After school-district administrators banned the religiously themed banners, the cheerleaders' parents sued in state court, and a judge granted an injunction last week that allows the girls to continue displaying the signs.
The dispute is turning national. The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation is now looking for a Kountze plaintiff to sue in federal court. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, R, has weighed in, unhelpfully. "We're a nation that's built on the concept of free expression of ideas," he said, according to The New York Times. "We're also a culture built upon the concept that the original law is God's law, outlined in the Ten Commandments."
And if a student in the stands doesn't believe that? Or an aspiring cheerleader happens to be a Hindu? Or a wide receiver is a Christian who is offended by the notion that God cares about the outcome of a high school football game? The cheerleaders' backers say that the school doesn't have any policy that implies endorsement of the banners' content and that students, even cheerleaders, who disagree with it are not required to participate in anything banner-related.
Yet the cheerleading squad is a campus organization with faculty oversight, and it represents the school, wears its uniform and occupies a privileged space on the playing field. Its banners are part of a pregame ritual that involves the football players, for whom the school buys uniforms and provides other kinds of support. Since the squad and the team carry the school's imprint, students should not have to choose between tacitly endorsing a sectarian message and participating in a cheerleading routine or taking the field with their teammates. Likewise, spectators shouldn't have to choose between cheering on their team and avoiding the cheerleaders' proselytizing.
The case is headed to trial in a Texas court, with the possibility of a federal case later. But it would be better for the cheerleading squad, the football team and the community they represent if the cheerleaders would drop their suit, stick to messages that are more inclusive and practice and preach their religion in a more appropriate setting.