Liberty Institute Exaggerates Their Win in a Court Case Regarding Kountze Cheerleaders

***Update***: Changes to the title and text of this post have been made since it initially went up. I apologize for any confusion.

The Christian group Liberty Institute put out a press release yesterday that shows just how desperate they are to give off the impression that they’re winning.

It’s in response to the Freedom From Religion Foundation sending letters of complaint to schools that allow cheerleaders to hoist banners with Bible verses on them at football games:

“We are writing to affirm that public school administrators are acting appropriately and lawfully when they allow student-led, student-initiated forms of speech, even if that speech happens to be ‘religious’ in nature,” said Liberty Institute Senior Counsel Mike Johnson. “No student should ever have to leave his or her religious beliefs or expression at the school house gate. Thanks to the precedent set with our victory in Kountze, superintendents should feel empowered to resist the bullying tactics of atheist groups, because federal and state law prohibiting government censorship of students’ free speech is well established.

As to the first part, FFRF is in full agreement. Students always have the right to free speech and the freedom to express their religious beliefs. When they’re representing their public school at a school-sponsored event, though, that right goes out the window. That’s why, for example, Christian students can’t preach the Bible at student council meetings.

The question is what happens when students put on their cheerleading uniforms. Are they school representatives or not? The FFRF says they are, which is why they shouldn’t be allowed to hold up the Bible banners. Liberty Institute says no, which is ridiculous. By their logic, the football team ought to be allowed to do a mass public prayer during a big game because they’re just students, not representatives of the school.

As to the second part, I find it very misleading to suggest this small “victory” has the same force of law as a final decision. No precedent has been set and no victory has been awarded to the Christians in Kountze, Texas. All the judge has said is that the court will make a final decision on the matter sometime next summer. In the meantime, the banners can stay up. That’s not necessarily victory. That’s just a temporary reprieve.

A judge stopped an East Texas school district on Thursday from barring cheerleaders from quoting biblical scripture on banners at high school football games, acknowledging their argument that is appears to violate their free speech rights.

District Judge Steve Thomas granted an injunction requested by the Kountze High School cheerleaders allowing them to continue displaying such banners pending the outcome of a lawsuit set to go to trial next June 24, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said. Thomas previously granted a temporary restraining order allowing the practice to continue.

It’s very likely that the court will decide in June that these banners are unconstitutional and need to come down for good.

Until then, Liberty Institute is squirming over the fact that Christian athletes aren’t able to get away with things they’re used to getting away with. We need to keep the pressure on them.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/GodVlogger?feature=mhee GodVlogger (on YouTube)

    Whatever happened to “Thou shall not bear false witness”?

    • BruceMcGlory

      There’s a secret second part to that.  “But only when it’s convenient for you. Otherwise, lie your ass of in my name.”

    • SJH

       Sorry, you are correct. I apologize for the accusation that they are trying to push their views on others. It was probably not a wise choice to make that statement. Having said that, what are your responses to any of the questions I raise?

      • Coyotenose

         Was this intended to be a response to a different post?

    • Deven Kale

       It’s actually “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.” I’ve always taken this to mean, “Don’t lie to people who follow the same religion as you.” This basically means you can lie all you want to them heathen unbelievers without a problem.

      But in this case, what they’re doing is lying to those who actually do follow the same religion, which is against the Ninth commandment no matter what the interpretation. So yeah, they’re basically condemning themselves to hell by saying that. lol

  • SJH

     Why does a child in a school uniform represent the school? Are uniformed children required to keep silent on all matters religious while at school? Can they have a conversation about religion with a friend who happens not to be in uniform or are even their private conversations restricted? So if, as a christian, an atheist cheerleader told me that God does not exist while she was wearing a uniform at a football game I should be able to take her to court for violation of my religious freedom? This gets to be ridiculous really quickly.
    It is obvious to everyone except the FFRF and its supporters that the comments on the banners do not represent the school’s opinions or beliefs. This is the problem with religious/anti-religious organizations such as the FFRF (there are examples of Christian organizations that do the same). They try to use silly things like this to push their views onto others. Can’t we rise above this and have a real discussion in our society?

    • Ibis3

      If a girl or boy can’t be a cheerleader (i.e. a school sponsored
      activity) without being pressured to hold up a religious sign–for a
      religion that may not be their own and may even say something contrary
      to her or his beliefs, it’s illegal.

    • alfaretta

      I’m sure you can tell the difference between one child in uniform talking to another child and a team of cheerleaders acting in their official capacity at an official school event.  “They try to use silly things” like football games “to push their views onto others.”

    • asonge

      Ugh, you’re taking this hyper-literally. There is court precedent already for this from as recently as a couple years ago. Cheerleaders and football players act in a school capacity by being on the field/court/whatever. The Supreme Court upheld this when a cheerleader refused to cheer for her rapist who was shooting a free-throw (he had served time for it). She was kicked off the squad. While this is an insensitive thing, SCOTUS upheld that the school has an obligation to regulate the speech for “official representatives” (cheerleaders represent the school when they cheer). This is different from, say, a local reporter asking a football player how they won, and he thanks God. That’s a personal view. But if that football player would, at a pep rally, say that the team thinks that they can only win through prayer, and everyone should pray, that football player is representing the school. In the same way, a student not really “in uniform”, but acting as an agent of the school, if they do morning announcements or they announce games over the PA, has the school imprimatur and *must* regulate their speech as well because the school is responsible for the content of that speech.

      • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

        Actually, the SCOTUS merely declined to hear the appeal; it was the 5th circuit judges that ruled “In her capacity as cheerleader, [she] served as a mouthpiece through which [the school] could disseminate speech – namely, support for its athletic teams. Insofar as the First Amendment does not require schools to promote particular student speech, [the school] had no duty to promote [her] message by allowing her to cheer or not cheer, as she saw fit.”

        Nonetheless, this was also a Texas case; so, the fifth circuit ruling would appear to remain binding precedent, barring appeal all the way to the SCOTUS.

        • asonge

          Thanks for the correction. But yeah, I think the school could’ve definitely made an exception for inconspicuous non-participation. The decision seemed to be about the school’s right to control speech it was legally liable for, though…not about the justice of the situation…which makes me sad.

        • http://exconvert.blogspot.com/ Kacy

          This isn’t just another Texas case.  This incident  occurred just 25 miles East of Kountze in another Hardin County school. You’d think there would be a bit more local memory.

          http://www.sfgate.com/nation/article/Cheerleader-who-wouldn-t-root-for-assailant-loses-2373327.php

    • Sparky

       Really?  You think that a jersey or cheerleading vest with “SCHOOL NAME” or “SI” for the school’s initials or the mascot’s name doesn’t represent the school?  Please give me one example where someone in a uniform or equivalent at the location of that organization doesn’t represent that organization.

      Nice try at the slippery slope argument.  One on one conversations are different, because the offended person can walk away.  When the school’s cheerleading squad holds up a banner to the crowd that reads “Allahu Akbar” for the school’s sports team to run through, how can any non-Muslim student not read the banner and not think that the school supports Islam?

      • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke, Blonde

        really, that’s what needs to happen in TX and other states where the xtians seem to think the separation of church and state doesn’t apply to them. local chapters of secularists and atheists should start putting up banners and posters in schools and at city council meetings declaring “Allahu Akbar” and “Only Ganesh Grants Wisdom” and “Buddha’s Blessing Be Upon you” and watch just how fast the xtians cry outrage and work for the separation of church and state heck, i bet the satanists would get in on such a project just for the attention it would bring. 

        • Coyotenose

           Heh, you just reminded me that I’ve had a mid-size newspaper editor tell me that if I started my own “church” (examples being atheism, Satanism, he’d happily list me on the weekly Services page he’s required to run for free, right in the middle of all the Christian ads. He has to be careful with what he commits to text, but the implication was that he’d find the outraged squawking hilarious.

          • http://www.facebook.com/abb3w Arthur Byrne

            Possibly also profitable. Historically, squawking tends to come as letters to the editor, which gives free column-inch fill and help sell papers.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=628665833 Bill Santagata

      The uniform/no uniform distinction is not a good way to illustrate this problem. The school is not creating an open forum allowing for a free exchange of ideas on the football field. The cheerleading squad is acting in tandem to promote a message in a manner they are only able to do so *by virtue of their being on the official school cheerleading squad.* This has the effect of giving the reasonable observer the impression that this is school-sponsored speech, not the individual speech of the cheerleaders.They can talk about religion whenever they want (so long as they are not being disruptive) so long as all other students are given the same opportunity (for example, at lunch, all students can talk to each other. An atheist student can talk about atheism to his friends just like a Christian student could talk about Christianity.)

    • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

      What a lot of questions. While I’m not a lawyer, I can take a crack at a few, from the framework of current case law. (Treating them as questions of political policy would lead to slightly different answers.)

      Well, one reason why a cheerleader in a school uniform represents the school is because the cheerleader agreement explicitly says they are “representatives of the school”. That’s without even getting into whole “uniform” and heraldic symbolism bit — though the cheerleaders could have a better case if there was a policy specifically allowing non-cheerleaders to wear the uniform at will. 
      I believe the agreement even says “at all times”; in which case, it would appear the argument could be attempted that they should be “required to keep silent on all matters religious while at school” (leaving aside neutral expression — IE, noting the existence of a religion or religious view in a way clearly without expressing any form of favor or disfavor). Contrariwise, that would clearly be an infringement of religious exercise, especially given existing case law on religious exercise by public officials. It might even fall into the unconscionable contract principle. (Fundamental civil rights cannot be contracted away.) A more reasonable requirement would seem to be requiring that they demarcate any religious exercise, to clearly indicate it as private expression rather than official.

      The former also addresses the question about a conversation with a friend. It might be allowed to require demarcation on this, especially if they’re in uniform.

      Regarding the hypothetical preachy atheist cheerleader: yes, that would also be a violation of establishment and/or equal protection. Barring a prior demarcation, litigation would be practical and likely to win — though taking it up with the school administration would seem a more proportionate first step.

    • http://benny-cemoli.myopenid.com/ Benny Cemoli

      SJH,

      Would you still be arguing in favor of the  display of religious quotes in this context if the sign contained quotes from the Quran?

      For instance, would you support the Muslim  students at the school  if they decided to display the following quote on a sign during a football game?

      Lord…Give us victory over the unbelievers.

      Quran 2:286

      I await with interest you response.

      Benny C.

      • SJH

         Sure, why not? Its the cheerleaders opinion. I don’t care nor should anyone else.

        • Gary B

           Yeah Benny, it’s easy for them to say yes to this because they know it won’t happen.  Benny’s argument isn’t valid anyway (I wish people would stop making it), because the point is that cheerleaders or students shouldn’t be making any religious statements in that context.  What’s your reply to the arguments that others posted SJH?  See the light yet?

        • Edmond

          So, can they run out on the field with banners which review the latest Nicki Minaj album?  Can the banners reveal the locations of the best shoe sales in town?  Can they welcome the football team with a list of the players’ names from cutest to ugliest?

          They can’t just put ANYTHING they want on these banners.  They’re there to promote a football game, put on by the school, supervised by the school, on school property.  The banners are NOT the cheerleaders’ private access to free expression.  They need to stick to the purpose of promoting the game, the team, the school, etc.

        • http://www.facebook.com/abb3w Arthur Byrne

          As noted, there’s 5th Circuit precedent from the same county which says as Cheerleaders, they’re only mouthpieces for the school district. Under current case law, they’re legally prohibited from expressing opinions of their own as cheerleaders.

      • David Starner

         I think a more real question is what if the cheerleaders wanted to put “Legalize marijuana!” on their signs. Because that’s not improbable, and the school would promptly take action to stop it, despite it being a perfectly acceptable form of political free speech for an individual to take.

        • Gary B

           This argument doesn’t work because the message has nothing to do with the implied purpose of the banners, which is to inspire the players.  A pretty good argument could be made that the bible banners are designed to do just that.  This is why it is best to focus just on their religious nature and the illegality of it.

          • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke, Blonde

            oh, i dunno. i’d say legalizing pot is pretty gosh darn inspirational and that even football players would go for it. ;-)

    • Aaron Scoggin

      So if a HS football team goes to the State championships, they’re not representing their school? They can do whatever they want to as a football team, and the school can’t have any say in it because they don’t belong to the school?

      Fact is, they DO belong to the school. If you put on a jersey or a uniform for a particular school, guess what? You’re representing them – Otherwise, why bother having a uniform?

      The question is, why aren’t there any non-Christian banners? Why are they all from the Bible? Answer me that. I’ll wait.

  • Antinomian

    “Winnig?”  Is Charlie Sheen their lawyer?

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_QPVVPRJ7QKLPU6TF5B4IZTENTI No

    The FFRF is getting a lot of press lately. I saw someone’s Facebook update the other day where they had posted a link to a news story about one of FFRF’s efforts to have sectarian religious prayers removed from football games at public universities. The person started in with the whole “A group from Wisconsin is trying to change things in East Tennessee” non-argument. Someone should seriously ask these people: “If the group was in the same city, would location still matter to you?”

    • http://www.youtube.com/user/GodVlogger?feature=mhee GodVlogger (on YouTube)

      yeah, the media almost ALWAYS start their stories on these topics by pointing out that there was a letter (or lawsuit) from “an atheist group in Wisconsin that is trying to change things here down south (or wherever)…”

  • ruth

    An injunction was issued because barring the cheerleader from displaying their banners may violate their free speech rights.  I believe that this is contrary to the current state of constitutional law, as the cheerleaders are representatives of the school, its PR team.  The most interesting is that the principal (or was it superintendent?) told them to stop.  So, displaying the banners is contrary to the school’s direction.  

    Arguably, there are all sorts of things that the cheerleaders could be doing on the field in the name of free speech.      ”Legalized Doping: Performance enhancing Prayer Rocks.”    Or “Crucify Them.”     Or maybe some bible verses like:  ”I will destroy both man and beast” and “happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us–he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.”   Or, “I came not to send peace, but a sword.”  

    Yeah, cheerleaders could do that.  

  • http://twitter.com/Freemage69 Freemage

    Really, you could save some pixels by just trimming down the title to “Liberty Institute Lies”.  It’ll even let you re-use the title every time they get featured.  (See also: American Center for Law and Justice, and most of the other conservative-christiau legal firms.)

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  • SpenderH

    The question for me isn’t “are they representatives of the school?” but rather “are they agents of the government?”. If they are agents of the government, as teachers could be, then they may have to restrict their behavior. However, these cheerleaders are acting on their own, even if they are existing in a school-sponsored manner. The President doesn’t have to refrain from praying while he is at work, does he? He’s much more an agent of the government than a small group of high school cheerleaders.