Once again, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has inappropriately weighed in on the wrong side of a Texas state/church controversy involving the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Last December, Abbott sent to a letter to Henderson County over FFRF's complaint about a nativity scene at the courthouse in Athens, Texas, attacking FFRF and offering support to the county.
Abbott sent a similar letter yesterday to the Kountze Independent School District calling FFRF, among other things, "menacing and misleading" for notifying the district about inappropriate religious promotion by cheerleaders at school events. The violation is bizarre even by Texas standards. As the Beaumont Enterprise put it, "For three straight weeks, high school football players in a small southeast Texas town took the field by bolting through large red-and-white banners that hollered the praises of Jesus Christ."
One typical banner read: "But thanks be to God, which gives us Victory, through our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Cor. 15:57"
FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote a Sept. 17 letter to Superintendent Kevin Weldon of the Kountze Independent School District, informing him that the practice runs afoul of constitutional principles. Schmitt cited a 2000 Supreme Court decision, involving a Texas case, which nixed formal student-initiated school prayers at sporting events.
Weldon responded appropriately by immediately halting the Jesus banners. A Religious Right group, the Liberty Institute, got a 10-day restraining order on Sept. 20 against the district, which has hired a law firm to defend itself. FFRF is readying an amicus brief in support of the district.
FFRF Co-President Dan Barker called it "strange and surprising that the attorney general would weigh in prematurely on a case before a court in his state based on what 'news reports indicate.' He is failing to recognize the difference between free speech, such as what fans might say in the bleachers, and government speech, such as what cheerleaders in uniforms say as representatives of the school during school-sponsored events."
"Just as it would be inappropriate for cheerleaders in school uniforms at official school functions to sport banners saying, 'Praise Allah!' or quoting Koranic verses, so is it inappropriate for them to misuse the podium the school confers on them and their school-endorsed status to promote Christianity and bible verses as part of public school football games," added Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. "We are grateful to the school district for respecting clear court precedent, and the individual rights and freedoms of a diverse community."
FFRF acted on a complaint from a member of the community. KFDM-6 News out of Beaumont interviewed high school students who agree with FFRF that the banners are inappropriate.
If the majority of the cheerleaders were atheists, asked Barker, would Attorney General Abbott support their right to hold up a banner insulting Christianity? "If he would not defend those students, why does he defend banners that quote a book that calls 5 million nonreligious Texans fools (Psalm 14 and 53:1)"?
Public schools are legally obligated to limit any team member's speech that excludes, denigrates or is obscene, since cheerleading chants and banners reflect approval and endorsement by the school. The government, its public schools and its representatives or its actors may not promote one religion over another, or religion over nonreligion at a public school event, FFRF says.
Read previous news release, Sept. 19, 2012