Freedom From Religion?

As a nation we need to recognize the vast difference between religiously plural, and religiously empty, public spaces. The first is possible, the second an illusion.

On October 5th the New York Times covered a story from East Texas. It is about cheerleaders whose banners bear Biblical messages and their conflict with a school administration that fears displaying such banners is unconstitutional.

Four themes jump out of the story, and demonstrate (whatever the ultimate ruling in law) how strange American discourse on religious freedom has become. Supporting the school administrators is the newly formed Concerned East Texans for Separation of Church and State. Goading the administrators into taking such action is the Freedom From Religion Foundation, made up of “atheists and agnostics.” The Texas State Attorney General has offered to support the cheerleaders, and they have thousands of Facebook friends. Apparently the legal question turns on whether the banners are a form of coercive “prayer” somehow sponsored by the school district. And the reporter in the story was concerned to ask whether the cheerleaders were worried that their banners might offend a non-Christian.

Let’s take the separation of church and state first. Like many school organizations the cheerleaders depend on the school for a purpose and a place to do their thing, but they don’t receive either support or direction from its teachers and officials. So the question is whether they represent the establishment of religion or just another group exercising its right to free speech.

Let’s take the objections of atheists and agnostics first. They want freedom from religion, because any religion in a public space infringes on their right to non-religiousness. This is problematic in two ways. First because freedom from religion isn’t something guaranteed them by the constitution. And secondly because in fact emptying the public space of conventional religion simply fills it with a different kind of religion, whether it be humanism, atheism, or what might well be called scientism.

From an anthropological standpoint religions are sets of symbols that perpetuate a particular understanding of the world as a whole and the place of people in it. Sociologists might well add that in doing so religions perpetuate social structures and power differentials.

From either perspective humanism, atheism, scientism, and indeed consumerism are religions. They are means by which a certain understanding of the world as a whole and the place of humans in it are perpetuated, and in which social structures and power differentials are perpetuated. Anyone who doubts this merely needs to read the attacks by some scientists on all forms of non-scientific knowing in a university setting, and the ways in which scientists use these attacks to privilege their position and power in the same setting. Of course there are those in the humanities and social sciences who will do the same.

The problem is that any comprehensive worldview, conventionally religious or otherwise, excludes the possibility of other such worldviews simply by virtue of being comprehensive. Science can’t function without bracketing out other religious assumptions about the world. Neither can atheism. And of course neither can Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, or Islam.

This means that there can be no neutral, empty, public space. Efforts to free the public space from religion simply result in the covert importation of something equally, if less obviously religious.

Which brings us to whether expressions of religious conviction should be banned because they might offend others. This is surely the most nonsensical argument ever raised for banning religious symbols and speech in a public forum. Public discourse; political, religious, scientific, or otherwise would grind to a halt if the mere fact that it offended someone could result in having it banned. I personally can’t see a copy of People Magazine without being offended. More importantly we couldn’t have public religious discourse at all. All religions would have to vanish behind their walls to prepare eventual sectarian strife. Properly the question is whether some form of religious discourse effectively colonizes the public space and through intimidation makes other forms of religious discourse impossible. That does infringe freedom of religion.

Now this colonization of the public space is the ultimate aim of many Christians to be sure. They viciously attack politicians who fail to toe the “God bless America” line. The oppose the building of mosques and temples. And they assert that the US is a “Judeo-Christian nation” to justify their attempts to drive others from the public space. But the attacks of the atheist/humanist Freedom from Religion Foundation are similar. They have the same intention of colonizing the public space through the intimidation of those engaged in other forms of religious speech. We need to realize that these are two sides of the same anti-freedom coin, even if we disagree about who has more power to fulfill their agenda. Still, being the underdog doesn’t make you right.

Finally, we need to realize that public space isn’t necessarily government controlled space, nor should it be. Religious expression in public parks, public schools, public streets, and public buildings may need to be regulated by those government agencies charged with maintaining those spaces in terms of public safety. But as long as that regulation is aimed at insuring that these spaces are free and open for all religious expression then it is not the establishing of religion. Anyone in East Texas wants to stand down on a football field on Friday night with “inspirational” posters quoting the Qur’an, the Buddhist Sutras, the Jewish Scripture, the Bhagavad Gita, or for that matter the works of Carl Popper or Ayne Rand should be allowed to do so if there is real freedom in a public space.

Of course in that social setting they may well feel a little intimidated. But this is true of Democrats who put up yard signs in North Dallas or religious students who question the underlying philosophical assumptions of a university science department. (I’ve been there and there.) Feeling intimidated when you are a tiny minority is normal, but it doesn’t constitute an attack on your freedom of religion.

Positively what we need is a social agreement that public spaces should be religiously and culturally pluralistic. Instead of making false claims that “Judeo-Christian culture” has some privileged claim on the American public spaces, or the equally ridiculous claim that atheism and scientism are religiously neutral, we should insure that all viewpoints find a place in public spaces and public discourse. Around the world we have seen the results when once plural public spaces dissolve into warfare as sectarian interests seek to colonize them and exclude others. We can’t let that happen in our own country.

  • Cam

    This is a complete misstatement of the position of the average atheist/agnostic/freethinker on seperation. It is precisely that public spaces are not open to a plurality of views that leads to these sorts of cases. Schools supporting christian groups but actively sabotaging efforts of others to share their views. There are very few who want to try to remove all religious views from the public square but most government bodies are openly bigoted toward any other view being expressed. In many cases it has been the christian government officials closing the public space rather than allow any other view to be expressed.

    Also the cheerleaders are representatives of the school whether paid or not. They are school sanctioned and sponsered. If the most important thing to them is to express their religious views they are free to put on street clothes and stand with the rest of the crowd and put up all the prayer banners they want. No one would say a thing. That is hardly oppressing their freedom to express their religion.

  • Leslei Fisher

    Dear Mr. Hunt,
    This is one of the most rational and well written discourses on the subject of Freedom “of” versus “from” Religion I have ever seen. Thank you! I’ve spread it wide across my network and hope it has a positive effect! I’ll be back to read more!

  • Brad Feaker

    Mr. Hunt,

    You make a fundamental mistake is equating a school function (football game) to a mere ‘public space’. That football game IS a government controlled space due to the fact that it is funded by taxpayer dollars under the purview of a government agency (i.e. a public school). I suspect you are being disingenuous by omitting that little fact.

    I, as an atheist, do not want freedom from religion – I just want my government to be religiously neutral. Were those cheerleaders at any other event not sponsored by a government agency – I would be firmly on their side. I am firmly on their side if they want to promote their religious belief at school on an individual basis (i.e. reading their Bible during free time, witnessing, etc…). What I cannot support is using a school sponsored event where they are given a privileged public position to pursue the same agenda as a group. It is a clear violation of Constitutional principles.

    And despite your claim to the contrary, this reads like a typical example of the ‘Privileged Christian Persecution Whine’ (TM) – with a more nuanced tone.

  • roberthunt

    It appears that the issue here is twofold, whether a football game is a public space of a government operated space, and whether the cheerleaders are representatives of a government institution enjoying a privileged space or are effectively a private voice. To the first issue I note that public parks, roadways, and so on are all government operated spaces, and in them all sorts of religious expression take place. So the question isn’t who owns and operates the space, it is whether it is actually free to a plurality of views. If in fact public officials are sabotaging efforts of free expression in this particular space (and similar spaces) then it is both right and necessary that they be challenged in court.

    The same thing is true with regard to the cheerleaders themselves. If in fact they are speaking in any way on behalf of the government, or could be construed to do so by an unbiased observer, then that needs to be shut down. Indeed I would support it. I don’t want my particular understanding of Christianity subverted by theirs, which is clearly different. But to my knowledge no other group has requested the right to cheer for the football team, making use of the same facilities as the cheerleaders, but representing a different religious point of view. One cannot say that a public space is closed to religious pluralism just because at the moment only one religious voice is being heard in that space.

    It is important to distinguish between religious neutrality in terms of coercive power and religious neutrality in terms of expression of religious sentiments by government officials and those under their care. If the free expression of religious sentiments by a government official or those under the care of the government is effectively coercive, or takes place in a way that effectively excludes other voices, then it seems to me to be unconstitutional. Otherwise everyone has a right to freedom of conscience and to express their conscience.

    I leave it to those who have read my other blogs to decide whether I suffer from PCPW. My views were primarily formed living as a member of a tiny religious minority outside the US for 20 years. Nor do I find myself in a majority position in Texas. Debates about religious freedom need to recognize that within various religious groups there is substantial difference, disagreement, and yes – efforts to marginalize minorities.

    • Brad Feaker

      Mr. Hunt,

      I ask this in all seriousness. In reply to your statement:

      ” But to my knowledge no other group has requested the right to cheer for the football team, making use of the same facilities as the cheerleaders, but representing a different religious point of view.”

      Do you really think the school is going to allow anyone that asks to take part in the football game to express their religious views? Really? Sorry – I want equal time for some other cheerleaders that belong to my religion to be given equal time at the football game to spread our religious message. Do you realize just how silly that sounds?

      And just how receptive do you think the school officials would be to, just for example, representatives of the Church of Satan taking the field for a little Black Mass at halftime.

      You have simply confirmed my suspicions…you are merely being disingenuous. Or, giving you the benefit of the doubt, you really didn’t think this all the way through. Or (and I think this is the real case) you just do not have a firm grasp of the issue.


      • roberthunt

        In the 1960′s the anti-defamation league might well have taken the position you take; deciding that it was hopeless to ask to be represented in a dominantly protestant and generally anti-semitic public school system. African Americans who celebrated Kwanza might have taken a similar position as well. Either group could have pursued an entirely negative approach, insisting that public schools and public places be religion free zones. Instead they pushed for rules that both restrained coercive religious expression and insisted on the inclusion of multiple religious traditions. The positions taken by pioneers in this field, the ADL and ACLU, now define public policy in this regard, and have been refined by multiple court decisions.

        I do not doubt that both atheists and humanists feel, particularly in some religious settings, that they are so marginalized and beat up that the situation is hopeless. Thus their only strategy is to limit religious expression rather than try to compete with it. I just think that this is a bad strategy for the future of American religious pluralism. And it does represent by negation the establishment of a particular understanding of the world and the appropriate human place in it.

        I take my cues from my friends in Malaysia and Indonesia. They are Christians in a dominantly Muslim environment that is far harsher with regard to religious minorities than has been experienced by atheists and humanists here in the US. And has far fewer constitutional protections. They continue to claim their place in the public space, of whatever sort, and resist every effort to completely colonize that space by the dominant religious group. I did the same when I was there. And I’m not there any more.

        If in fact school officials will not grant equal access to all public spaces (including football fields and cheerleading squads) by non-Protestants, including any other religious group, then the answer is to go to court. The ACLU will absolutely support you. As will the Anti-defamation League. I would as well.

        But if you are saying that it is easier to shut down someone’s free expression of their religious beliefs than it is to positively present your own in a particular public venue, this seems problematic. Why not begin by asking that the cheerleaders include other religious, including atheist and humanist, viewpoints on their banners? Why not form a group of alternative cheerleaders? You might get turned down, but you would have proven the point that freedom of expression was being denied.

    • Holly

      Love this! Very well said. I’ve seen many comments on your article and others that these cheerleaders are sponsored by the school and thus should not be allowed their individuals freedom of expressions – religious or otherwise. If it works like it does here (also in East Texas) the only thing the school “sponsors” is the ride to the game and back. The PARENTS pay for everything – uniforms, lessons, camp, pom-poms. So doesn’t that insure their individuality separate from the school? Even though it is a school function, it is a student-led effort.

  • raytheist

    You write: “Let’s take the objections of atheists and agnostics first. They want freedom from religion, because any religion in a public space infringes on their right to non-religiousness. This is problematic in two ways.”

    You seem to lack a fundamental understanding of what atheists are asking for. Nobody wants to ban religion, or ban religion from public view, or strip other individuals of their right to individual religious expression.

    As it pertains to the cheerleaders, they signed a contract with the school and are (while in school-approved cheerleader uniform, leading the cheers at school-sponsored ball games) agents of the school, not acting as private citizens. If they wish to hold up religious-themed quotes, they are more than welcome to sit in the stands like everyone else and act as individuals with a free right to expression. People do it all the time and nobody is dragging them to court for it. As organized agents of the school, however, they have to restrict their expressions to what the school itself would be allowed to do. And it does not matter if the kids bought the supplies themselves, and made the signs on their own free time; they can’t be holding it up while acting as agents of the school. This is not different from a gay guy sewing himself a glorious sequined rainbow sash in his free time at home — but he can’t wear it over his uniform if he’s a cop while on duty.

    This really is not difficult to figure out. Free speech and freedom of religion does not mean any person can say or express any thing at at time or in any place.

  • Joseph8th

    Atheism, consumerism, and “scientism” (whatever the eff that is) are NOT religions. Period. For these isms to be religions stretches the definition of religion to the point that it is no longer meaningful. True Believers often pull this move with “belief” as well, but “religious belief” is not the same psychological phenomenon as believing that the sun will rise or my car will not explode when I start it.

    I didn’t bother reading the rest of the post once I saw that the author was propogating this canard. If he really wants to start a conversation, he’ll have to make a greater effort not to, you know, make shit up.

    • roberthunt

      I offered a definition of religion to support my claim. If you have an alternative definition then the rational thing would be to offer it. Otherwise your claim remains unsupported.

      • vgerdj

        “From an anthropological standpoint religions are sets of symbols that perpetuate a particular understanding of the world as a whole and the place of people in it. Sociologists might well add that in doing so religions perpetuate social structures and power differentials.” And “From either perspective humanism, atheism, scientism, and indeed consumerism are religions.” If this is what you mean by a ‘definition’ of religion, you are way off.

        A religion by definition needs a spiritual component. Atheism, the disbelief in your assertion there is a god/gods. That’s all there is to Atheism. No matter how hard you try to bend the definition, Atheism is one response to one assertion. Therefore Atheism is not a religion. Humanism is the philosophy that we should help and aid our fellow man/woman, now, in the present and physical world, through acts of kindness and support without resorting to unknown or unproven otherworldly claims. Humanism has no spiritual component. Humanism is not a religion. Scientism is a commonly used pejorative, as it’s defined as a religious devotion to the scientific method. You really can’t argue with someone who believes that the scientific method is a religion. It’s like someone who believes in a just god and hell. Consumerism is the acquiring of material goods in this plane of existence. There is no spiritual component to buying a Tv, car, computer, food, clothes, etc. So, pretty much your strawman has been burned to a crisp.

  • Raymond Barrett

    The oft-repeated assertion that “atheism is a religion” is absurd.

    I don’t know if it’s possible to have a one-sentence definition of “religion” that would satisfy everyone and fit all of the world’s faiths. The best description I’ve heard is that in order for something to be considered a religion it would have to include three elements: a doctrine that defines truth, a system of ethics that defines right and wrong, and ritualized expressions of belief. In shorter terms, this is sometimes referred to as _creed, code, and cult_.

    Atheism is not even a worldview, much less a religion. Atheists agree on only one thing: there are no gods. Beyond that, an atheist may be liberal, conservative, fascist, humanist, Objectivist, nihilist. An atheist might even be a Buddhist, or neo-pagan.

    • roberthunt

      The definitions I used were shorthand for common anthropological and socialogical understandings of religion, on the basis of which the study of religion is objectively possible. I’ll quote Clifford Geertz in full, although of course there are those who dispute his definition.

      (1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.

      If in fact atheists agree only that there are no gods then they have none the less accepted a particular order of existence (godless). But of course atheists do surround their particular understanding of the order of existence with a variety or rational arguments and undergird it with a variety of axiomatic assumptions that “clothe these conceptions with a aura of factuality.” That atheists are sufficiently unified as to form social organizations and argue for the validity of their views in the public square further suggests both long lasting moods and motivations that seem uniquely realistic (to the atheist.) A functional religion need not have a formal doctrine, a system of ethics, or a overtly maintained ritual expressions of belief – although the anthropologist might well find this last in many atheist communities.

      • Erp

        I would say atheism is no more a religion than theism is and like theism may be an aspect of a religion. Atheists may associate with the Humanists such as those organizations affiliated with the International Humanist and Ethical Union or they may be Objectivists (followers of Ayn Rand). They may be Unitarian Universalists who don’t care (at least officially) whether you are a theist or an atheist. Some Buddhists are also atheists.

        The issue here is secularism, that the government should be neutral in regards to religion, not atheism. In the case of the cheerleaders, would Jews, Buddhists, Muslims feel that they are wanted in this state school organization. What about Christians who feel that it is not proper to wave piety in public or to invoke God’s aid in a sport’s team winning?

        Most of the lawsuits about church/state issues in the US have come from members of minority (either in power or number) theistic religions and the head of Americans United for Separation of Church and State is an United Church of Christ minister, Barry Lynn. In the Sante Fe case which involved public prayer over the loudspeakers during football games and may be the closest case to this, the plaintiffs were Mormons and Catholics.

        • roberthunt

          You are quite right to point out that religious persons are those who most readily challenge religious practices in public school venues. And for good reason. There are many different kinds of Christianity, and the promotion of one form often excludes others. I would join them whenever that is the case, although I think the withdrawal of religious claims from public life has considerably weakened it.

          What I am questioning is whether “neutral with regard to religion” is possible. I argue that there are no neutral spaces, so its better to have overtly religiously plural spaces. The concept of the “spiritual” is not universal, and is part of the matrix of ideas that make up contemporary Western understandings of religion. In any case, as P.J. O’Rouke has noted of himself – you can be religious without being spiritual.

          The fundamental basis of modern scientific inquiry is not religiously neutral. This is why those who support it (Lawrence Krauss and Michael Shermer writing in Scientific American (which I read cover to cover every month)) so consistently address and attack what they see as religious claims. I happen to think that the battleground for the present debate, evolution, is non-productive philosophically. The scientific evidence and utility of evolutionary theory are indisputable, and neither side appears willing to look hard at the philosophical underpinnings of their faith. (Although I’ll give it to science for locating these in the evolution of cognitive functioning. It is at least internally consistent.)

      • vgerdj

        What you seem to be saying here is that ALL organizations are religions, because you need to crowbar Atheists into your definition of religion.
        I’ll repeat:
        Atheism, the disbelief in your assertion there is a god/gods. That’s all there is to Atheism. No matter how hard you try to bend the definition, Atheism is one response to one assertion. Therefore Atheism is not a religion.
        I associate with other Atheists, not because I have a spiritual need to commune with like minded people, I do it because they have cookies.

  • roberthunt

    I think it important to reiterate that in this case the status of the cheerleaders in relation to the school is the question – and that at this moment the answer isn’t clear. We don’t know if a plurality of cheer-leading voices is possible, and therefore we don’t know if their speech is privileged.

    It seems to me that the community of atheists, humanists, and others might take a page from the Jewish and other religious communities. ADL guidelines, for example (echoed by the ACLU) do not seek to prohibit the teaching about religion or the singing of religious music by public school choirs. They only insist that no one religion dominate, no student be forced to sing religious music, and that all religions be represented.

    Atheists, Humanists, and others whose views concerning the totality of the universe and the human place in it would do well to insist that this perspective, which I regard as religious, be taught as an important and legitimate part of the tradition of human discourse, and that its representations in music be part of any musical curriculum. There are plenty of examples. One can extend this into any space in which religious speech occurs. The strategy of seeking to block religious speech because it is regarded as privileged in certain public spaces, including schools, gives the impression of seeking a religion-free zone rather than a religiously plural public space.

    • vgerdj

      I think it’s important to reiterate that in this case the status of the cheerleaders is they are a government run organization. They get their money, equipment, location, and function as a roll in the school. Let me ask, would there be a problem if they held up a sign “there is no god, now go enjoy your life.” You don’t seem to get it, you argue that religious expression is OK in any public venue, because you are of the majority. We argue, religious expression in public causes friction. You equate no religious expression in public as oppression. We see it as relief. You can pray in your home, your church, your car, to yourself before a test in school. What we find insulting and oppressive is when you want us to suffer through your insulting oppression of us. We’re not advocating you don’t pray, just don’t make us. Cheerleader religious banners are coercion, if they never had the banners, would you feel oppressed by Atheists, Muslims, Jews, Mormons?

      • roberthunt

        I’ve already commented on the complexities of the status of the cheerleaders. The desire for relief from what can seem to be consistently being subjected to a religious harangue is understandable. Moving to Dallas from Europe I was shocked to be asked by a cashier in a grocery store if I “had a church home.” A different culture, but one I’ll admit doesn’t usually rub me the wrong way. It might others.

        You may have noted a few posts suggesting that in fact the public space is dominated by atheism and humanism, and that religious people are in the minority. Surveys suggest that this may be regional, but it also has to do with who controls the most overt levers of culture. Football is a touchstone for this, because it is our national culture and at the high school level is central to local culture. If I’m a Christian in a small town I can turn off the television or switch over to the 700 Club. If I’m an atheist in a small town, especially one in position that requires a degree of public recognition, then I can’t skip the highs school football game. Especially if my child is in it.

        I do not equate no religion in the public space as oppression. I simply note that any public space is filled with a set of assumptions about the nature of the world and the place of humans in it. If there is no overt religious expression then a set of covert claims govern that public space. Even high school football, as it is played and with the rules of the game, makes a set of value claims and enacts them in public ritual. Do I have right to dispute some of those claims with my own value claims?

        The question is precisely whether the banners are oppressive and coercive. If they are they must go. If not, I’d love to see some alternatives join them. Freedom of choice is better than freedom of no-choice.

        • vgerdj

          Your original post was more dogmatic than most of your responses. So, I assume you have read most of the rebuttals. I think the real contention between the non-religious and evangelical christian is that in the public forum, not having a display of religiosity for the non-religious is moot. But, for the evangelical, the emptiness is a sign to fill a void. I don’t go to a game and say, “WOW, I wish everyone became an Atheist.” But you can bet most evangelicals would love to use the event to proselytize. The big question is do I go to a game to see the game or do I go to get inundated with conversion offers. I don’t see oppression of religion when I go to the park. It wouldn’t bother me if someone conversed

  • Trucreep

    This post seems to have a very flawed understanding of just what atheism is and what atheists are looking for…

    Atheism is not a religion. Neither is science. Both rely on empirical evidence and rationalization.

    I think maybe the biggest difference though is that science is constantly changing and adjusting to the facts, whereas religion always seems to have to twist the facts to make them fit with itself.

    • roberthunt

      See my definition of religion above. I think a history of religions will show that in fact they are enormously adaptable to changing conditions, changing “facts” as understood in a particular social context. This is why religions have continued to endure through the rise of rationalism, materialism, empiricism, and so on. Far less by protest than by adaptation. Post-modernism in some forms, which undermines the claims of science as much as it does religion, may be religion’s best friend and in the West its only hope.

  • Brian Westley

    Even granting the free exercise argument in favor of the banners, there are problems:

    1) There isn’t one banner per cheerleader, but one large banner made by many cheerleaders. It won’t reflect all their religious views, but just the majority.

    2) The football players run through the banner. What if they don’t agree with the religious views espoused on the banner?

    Both of the above situations can easily lead to students who aren’t members of the majority religion being singled out if they don’t go along with the majority, so their choices boil down to “pretend you’re the same religion as the majority” or “be ostracised (or worse)”.

    Official school functions like school football games should not put students in such a situation regarding religion.

    • roberthunt

      I quite agree that these are problems, and indeed significant problems. Particularly in a public schools setting, and dependent on age, there is a fine line between what amounts to colonizing the public space through peer pressure and freely expressing one’s religion (whether individually or collectively.) At the same time it is students and parents themselves who must identify the problem in any particular case. As reported we don’t know if this is a real situation of peer pressure colonizing the public space.

      Which leads to another important question. Who has a legitimate interest in pluralism in an essentially local public space? On one hand a violation of the US constitution affects all Americans, and long precedent suggests we need groups that are nationally vigilant even when local persons are not. On the other hand a judgment about what constitutes colonization of a public space must take into account whether those who live in that space are actually being excluded.

      • Cam

        That is specifically why the freedom from religion foundation only involves itself in these disputes when they receive a complaint from someone in the community in question. They don’t go searching. They are assisting people who feel excluded.

  • tm17

    So long as those girls are wearing their cheer uniforms, they are agents of the school and should not be displaying religious verses on the banners. If they sit in the stands wearing their “civilian” clothing and wave religious banners, they are expressing a personal belief.

    • roberthunt

      I am curious as to why the uniforms are key. Does the same apply to the football players and members of the marching band? If a football player crosses himself after a touchdown, or before he goes on the field is he an agent of the school? The problem is that a school is a complicated public space, or collection of public spaces and those who are part of it, from students to teachers to administrators stand in different positions of agency and power.

      If the cheerleaders got together and made a banner saying the principal of the school was a jerk, then displayed when they ran on to the field, would they agents of the school? Would this be legitimate freedom of expression? I expect that these cheerleaders have some kind of agreement with the school voluntarily limiting their freedom of expression in particular ways. Clearly it doesn’t include limiting their religious expression. Should it? Or should particular types of expression (religious for example, or political) be more protected and encouraged than others? These cheerleaders are not policemen, or military, or even elected officials. They are voluntary and self-funded and practice outside of school hours. Could a group of parents, wearing faux football shirts with player names, numbers, and the school mascot display such banners in the stands? A group of students? What is the difference between the field and the stands as a public space? The difference between pre-game and during the game and post-game?

      A school is a place where multiple identities are on display all the time, as are multiple expressions of identity and belief. It isn’t easy to determine when one of these identities manifests itself in an inappropriately coercive fashion that colonizes the public space, and when it expresses itself as part of a genuinely plural public space. I would continue to argue that the best thing is to add more voices to the public space rather than to take one, any one, away.

      • Kay

        Yes, the same DOES apply to the uniformed members of other school sponsored groups. The team, the band and the cheerleaders are all agents of the school while at a school event in uniform. The band, cheerleaders and team from the other school are also agents of their school during the event as long as they are in uniform. So are the coaches, the and the band director.

        I’ve never met an intelligent person who did not grasp that. The speech team is representative of their school at speech meets. The drama club is representative of the school while on stage. The members of every activity who march in the homecoming parade are representatives the entire parade route. No public school allows students to join these organizations without clearly explaining this to them, often making them sign something stating they understand it, as well as sending similarly worded documents on code of conduct to their parents.

        The people who are not agents of the school are the crowd in the stands. They are all free to wave as many signs and banners as they want, shilling anything from scripture to Amway. If the cheerleaders want to wave scripture, they need to turn in the uniform and sit in the stands, where it’s legal, protected speech. Nobody is seeking exile from the Bible – they’re looking for the law to be upheld, and the rights of every member of the student body protected…not just the protestant ones.

        • roberthunt

          If in fact the cheerleaders have signed such a document then they don’t have a legal leg to stand on. And I agree with you that the law should be upheld. The report in the New York Times doesn’t indicate that this is the case, and clearly the cheerleaders don’t feel that they are violating their agreement with the school. I need to point out that this case is different from that of many other public schools, precisely because the cheerleaders as an organization do not appear to be so closely tied to the school administration as is often the case. In other words they don’t stand in the same position as other organizations more directly related to the school.

          This is what makes it interesting. If we were talking about the Dallas ISD or the Richardson ISD it wouldn’t be worthy of comment.

          • vgerdj

            “clearly the cheerleaders don’t feel that they are violating their agreement with the school.” Luckily, other people have gone to law school and passed the bar and understand that the courts have said that this is not free speech but a government endorsement of a particular religion. The government can limit speech, especially when that speech by a government organization and is derisive.
            “I need to point out that this case is different from that of many other public schools,” where did this article in any way infer this?
            Let’s say the chess club. They play chess. Oh, and they go to the same school. Let’s say the Linux club. They’re computer nerds, [represent]. Oh, yea, they go to the same school. Cheerleaders, wear a uniform with the school colors, have cheers with the school name, perform at school sanctioned games, travel to the games in school supplied busses, are chaperoned by school officials, have to wear their school emblazoned uniforms during school hours. And some get away with almost anything at school, because of all that. “cheerleaders as an organization do not appear to be so closely tied to the school administration as is often the case. In other words they don’t stand in the same position as other organizations more directly related to the school.” I think this one statement explains why you are so deluded. What club or organization is more closely associated with the school except for the football/basketball team.

          • roberthunt

            The article states that the cheerleaders don’t receive funding from the school and meet outside school hours with an unpaid adult leader. This is different from public schools in which the cheerleaders meet in school hours under the leadership of a school paid employee. It is this difference, to reiterate, that makes the case interesting. It is the reason that the Times ran the article in the first place. And it will be a new test case on the boundaries of freedom of expression and state establishment of religion, and may establish new precedents.

            It is also interesting because we find a government elected official (the state attorney general) ready to support the cheerleaders against what you and others believe is established precedent in federal courts. This alone suggests that we live in interesting times, and that previous social conventions are changing. The question is how we will respond.

          • vgerdj

            “The article states that the cheerleaders don’t receive funding from the school and meet outside school hours”, buzzz. The article SAID ‘they don’t use school funds or supplies TO MAKE the banners, and do it after school hours.’ So a member of the cheerleading squad goes home and makes a sign, comes to the game, and the sign reads “Burn All Jews.” Now, it is her religious belief that the Jews killed Jesus. Where do we draw the line. You might find that offensive, some don’t. I find all proselytizing material in the public sphere offensive. Not because I’m an Atheist, but because it will offend someone sometime. Not having it there offends no one, well, except, obviously, the religious fanatic that thinks their religious propaganda should be everywhere.

      • vgerdj

        “Does the same apply to the football players and members of the marching band?” Yes “If a football player crosses himself after a touchdown, or before he goes on the field is he an agent of the school?” No. If a player crosses himself/herself, it is an individual act. If a group voluntarily forms to pray, that is allowed. What is not allowed is forcing others to join in. Like forcing others to hold or run thru a banner that supports a specific religion. If I don’t want to pray after a touchdown, I will probably not get grief. But if I decided that a religious banner offended me and I said so, most likely, I will be ostracized. How do we decided who supports the banner. Do we poll everyone? That is considered unconstitutional, as it requires a religious test. At every step, there is friction. But, when the government does not support any religion or no religion, equity wins out.

  • LogicGuru

    Who the hell cares? Personally I enjoy religiousity and would love to see as much of it out in public as possible–Christian rituals, Hindu rituals, idolatry–I especially like that–neo-pagans dancing sky-clad around maypoles. I love it! And it doesn’t bother me in the least if atheists put up signs making fun of the whole thing. Big deal. What’s the problem? The more religiousity the better: religion is fun!

    • vgerdj

      The problem is most religious people are not as tolerant as you. And death usually follows when religious rituals collide.

  • jack

    I’m tired of the christian persecution sentiment. You are the majority! There are over 300,000 churches in the United States, and over 1,200 mega churches (2000+ congregation). All of these places you are free to express your beliefs. Just because there are some public places funded by taxpayer dollars where religious speech is prohibited doesn’t mean everyone is out to get you. Tax dollars fund the school, the school funds the cheerleaders, the cheerleaders can’t make religious demonstrations, it’s pretty simple.

    • roberthunt

      Tax dollars do not fund these cheerleaders, so it isn’t pretty simple.

      Nor am I worried that someone is out to “get” Protestants. The recent PEW report suggests that we’ll do ourselves in without anyone’s help if you give us another half century. I would just like to see religious pluralism in the public space by the addition of new and vibrant voices, not the removal of voices – however ill considered their forum.

      • vgerdj

        OK, now you did it. Schools usually provide the uniforms. Even if they bought the uniform or had them donated, the schools provide the practice venue. Schools provide the games they cheer at. Schools are where they have to go to be a member of the squad. The school name is on the uniform they wear. And since most squads require mandatory wear during school hours at certain times of the year, they most certainly are representatives of the school while in uniform. So, tax dollars do fund these squads.

        History has shown that religious pluralism is not healthy for a society. It looks good on paper, but has there never been a non violent religiously pluralistic country. I can’t think of one. Even in the 100% Muslim countries, sects kill each other on a daily basis. Alienation is one of the prime benefits of religion, to the religious. The most peaceful countries are the most non-religious. And the really weird thing is the religions just died out. Norway, Sweden, Japan, Canada, there was no government eradication like in the former Soviet block. People just got more interested in reality.

        • roberthunt

          As I pointed out, there are many public spaces where tax dollars provide some measure of support. Some have posted suggesting that expressing religious views in the stands is okay in “civilian clothes.” But the stands were built with tax dollars, and the school still provides the venue. In any case this case will be settled in court. My question is about how to build a fruitfully religiously plural society, and you obviously don’t want that.

          • vgerdj

            This is where restricting speech, patrons in the stands, and endorsing religion, cheerleader banners, becomes an issue. Some officials alleviated the discourse by banning all print material from the stadium. Public schools, or private stadiums. Giants Stadium in particular bans patron banners, so do the Yankees. Some limit the size. The equitable factor is everyone is afforded the same rules at that event, (obviously to a point, a poster that says “KILL Obama,” would not be allowed, well some places, Ok, bad example). The point is the cheerleaders ARE government representatives whether they like it or not. Walking thru a park with a banner that says ‘repent’ vs a patron in the stands with a banner that says ‘repent’, is not much different; it is a personal belief that I can ignore. And, if it gets too disruptive at a private stadium, management can ban all banners, but they have to do it equitably. But, now, that same banner being displayed by a cheerleader during a football game is an affront to the people that expect their government representatives not to take sides.

            My reason for not wanting the pipe dream you call a religiously plural society is the animosity and friction inherent in religious dogma. But more importantly, we, the non-religious get sucked in because of the ‘you’re with us or against us’ mentality. You have your homes and churches, lunches, dinners, and barbecues, your camps and retreats; the only reason that the religious want to corrupt the public sphere is they need to evangelize, it is in their dogma. It’s the drug called ‘righteousness’. If someone says ‘Be saved, or burn in hell’ and I say ‘fuck off’, which one of us is being offensive. I don’t start a conversation saying ‘fuck off’. I don’t start a conversation saying, “Did you here the good news, there is no god, now stop worrying and get on with your life.” But most religious people have no problem telling me that their religion is the one TRUE religion and the only path to eternal salvation. And it’s always unsolicited.

          • roberthunt

            I’m sure that the courts will sort out the cheerleaders. I wish that religious people could be religious without being obnoxious as well. But there is a strong part of almost every religious tradition that equates strong public assertion of dogmatic truths as being religiously faithful. I don’t think this will go away any time soon, so a discussion about how to manage an assertive religious pluralism is important. I doubt we’ll agree.

          • vgerdj

            @roberthunt says:… 7:00 am THere is a way to manage assertive religious pluralism. Do it in your churches, homes, car, camp, lunches, dinners, and to yourself. Really, isn’t that enough. Obviously not. You need to infect schools, parks, and games. We don’t see it as discourse, we see it as pushy.

      • Holly

        Thank you for pointing that out. In Texas public schools, the schools do NOT fund the uniforms or anything that goes along with cheerleading, except the transportation to and from games. The parents pay for all of it. Including meals before and after games, lodging at away games, and supplies for banners. The “sponsor” adult is usually a volunteer teacher who is not paid additional wages for their time as the sponsor. Also, since my kids are still in high school, in a very small town in East Texas, I can assure you that no one here is bullied into participating in things they don’t like – in fact, the opposite is true. Being different (here in the Bible belt) is often lauded. AND religious expression in public places (such as the school) is not prohibited – it simply must be student-led. We have students who have Bible studies in the parking lot in the mornings and outside during lunch that are open to anyone, and no one is made to feel bad because they do or don’t join. Prayer is allowed, as long as it is STUDENT-LED. Those things do make a difference, because the school does not fund or lead.

    • LogicGuru

      But we are not the majority amongst the educated upper middle class. We Christians are a low status majority–looked down upon for “clinging to guns and religion.” I wouldn’t use the word “persecuted” but we are certainly treated with disdain and contempt by the secular elite.

      To suggest that we Christian have no right to complain because we’re in the majority is like suggesting that blacks in South Africa under Apartheid, who greatly outnumbered the white elite, had no right to complain. You elites look down on us, trash us, are contemptuous of us.

      • roberthunt

        I find your note fascinating, and representative. We live in the odd situation in which both Christians and atheists feel equally marginalized in some (but presumably different) realms of public discourse. I think that this is good. The US was founded by beat up religious minorities suspicious of the establishment of religion by government power. We need to keep that suspicion alive, because inevitably those with power will try to use the coercive power of government to forward their religious ideals.

        We also need to aggressively assert our right, whatever our religious outlook, to an authentically pluralistic public space so that we avoid religious hegemony in any form.

        • vgerdj

          Christians feel marginalized because the Constitution conflicts with their religious belief that they have to evangelize. If the apologists and evangelicals didn’t have a religious requirement to insult and oppress others, this would be a better place to live. This is not about religious freedom, this is about evangelizing and oppression. By oppression I mean , the idea that if you are not one of the ‘saved’, they have every right to force their religion on you. And because of that religious oppression, I can’t enjoy a HS football game without some religious wacko wanting to force me to feel like a second class citizen because I don’t follow their batshit crazy woowoo. I did want to respond to the original post, but many others have eviscerated it better than I could have hoped.

          • roberthunt

            Okay, we’ll put you down as wanting freedom from religion in public venues

          • vgerdj

            @roberthunt says:…5:25 am I’m replying to my comment, because I can’t reply to yours. Your first paragraph supports religious pluralism. But do we allow all 30,000 denominations of christianity, and the Muslim sects, Mormons, Jews, Scientologists. Pluralism works when there is only the few religions that can support a voice in the public space. If all the voices are represented, then it’s not ‘space’ anymore. What happens when one voice conflicts with another. Violence is usually the outcome, or vandalism. How many church signs are vandalized by ‘others’. Now, how many Freedom From Religion billboards, IN THE PUBLIC SPACE, are vandalized everytime they go up.

            A second point is, you said “First because freedom from religion isn’t something guaranteed them by the constitution.” WOW, you have been gone a long time. There are numerous court cases that in fact specifically say the Constitution affords the Freedom FROM religion. Lemon, Kitzmiller, McCollum, Epperson are all cases where the courts say an individual is Free From Religion in/at a government sponsored activity.

          • roberthunt

            The constitution forbids the state establishment of religion and the freedom of conscience and religious expression. The courts have interpreted this to mean that under certain circumstances there should be no religious expression at government functions where such expression would constitute the establishment of religion or would hinder the freedom of conscience of those in attendance. That is not a uniform guarantee of freedom from religion in the public space.

            Finding such freedom is going to get harder and harder. We now live in a nation full of new religions whose adherents assert their religious identity into the public space. Muslim children want to pray five times a day, and want a place to do it in public schools. Do you think that a group of girls in headscarves waling to prayer doesn’t constitute a display of religion in a public space paid for by tax dollars? How about a group of Hindu students bowing and saying “Namaste” to the principal of the school? (I greet the god in you.)

            So I repeat, the question in this case is the degree of agency and coercive power of the cheerleaders and how much it is assigned to them in their personal capacity with personal rights, and how much to the school which provides the venue for their activities. And again, because a religiously neutral space is impossible, I’d like to see one that is religiously plural.

          • vgerdj

            @roberthunt says:…6:21 am The courts have interpreted this to mean that under certain circumstances there should be no government sponsored religious COERCION at government functions where such COERCION would constitute the establishment of religion. The government said that religious expression is OK, as long as it is the individual and it’s not part of the ‘team’.

  • symbolseeker

    My attitude is that offense is taken. Taken. Not given. We can choose to be offended at almost anything. At a girl with pink hair. At a poem. At a piece of art. Or at someone else’s views and opinions. Not having seen these alleged banners, I have no opinion as to their religious symbolism, but even so, why be offended? Is it really the most mature adult response? Does it really matter? Intolerance is the mentality of the day, and it is unfortunate. Are the banners meant to harm you? When something is meant to harm me I am not offended. Just angry. Even when someone actually means to be offensive, the best response is not to be. That really aggravates them.

    • Holly

      oh thank you thank you thank you!!!! Common sense is refreshing!

  • roberthunt

    In the original artical I never used the word oppression. I called for free expression in religiously plural spaces, and spoke against the colonization of such spaces by any group. Clearly the atheists who posted don’t see themselves as colonizing public spaces. Neither do the Christians. All the more reason for public discourse about religious freedom in public spaces.

    • Erp

      There is public space in the sense that everyone is free to use it and speak at it and there is public space that is privately owned but publicly accessible (e.g., the stadium owned by a private company) and there is public space where the government controls the speech there.

      In the first, anyone is free to say what they want (though there may be limits on amplification, etc.). The second I’ll leave aside. The third is what is under discussion here. The government aka school board/principals/government employees controls what is said on the field during football games. If it doesn’t like what the cheerleaders say, the cheerleaders can be penalized (can they criticize the principal on the field?); it chooses who gets to speak on the field. The government does not control what is said in the stands (e.g., it can’t forbid t-shirts with particular words or images).

  • Carl

    Excellent article, as well as the discussion(s) it fostered. I’ll offer something of a first-hand perspective as an ex-teacher with 9 years in the TX public school system. Two examples stand out, and I ask that they be taken for what they are: the perspective of *one* party in the system who, in both cases, chose not to follow a path that resorted to hashing these issues out in the legal system. They should not be construed as normative, though they may be indicative.

    Case 1:
    In the first case, as a new “temporary contract” teacher (meaning I was employed at the discretion of the district) in a school district in the DFW area, I agreed to be the faculty sponsor of the soon-to-be-formed “Pagan Club.” The principal expressed concerns about the project, but affirmed that the law was on my side and that “we either allow no religion in the school, or allow them all. We cannot pick and choose.” Taking that (naively) as official sanction of the club, I moved forward. Long story short, the local community apparently wrote “a thousand letters” to the superintendent decrying the formation of the club, and my contract was not renewed for the next school year.

    Observations? The non-renewal of my contract could have been based on any number of factors. Perhaps my classroom discipline was ineffective. Perhaps my scores were low on the TAKS. Who knows? The practical reality, however, is that by not renewing my contract (1) the Pagan Club never came to be and (2) “thousands” of citizens were affirmed. I am not privy to the workings “on high” within school districts, but I have no doubt that many sighs of (hopefully guilty) relief were breathed at the central administration building.

    Case 2:
    Years later, as a contracted teacher (I could not be fired without going through a lengthy process wherein I could defend myself, etc, etc, etc), I witnessed an overtly Christian assembly, with students singing Christian rap songs, and the principal participating in a skit with blatantly Christian overtones. This was also the school where the vice principal had told the seniors “God’s watching you, and knows what you’re doing, even if we don’t. Did I ever report those events in any official manner? No. I shared my concerns with fellow teachers, but the realities of teaching 100+ lower-income students each day made it difficult to find time to “crusade” against the implicit establishment of Christianity in our school.

    Observations: Did any students ask to have a Buddhist rap sing (let’s say the Beastie Boys’ “Bodhisattva Vow”) at the assembly? Unlikely. Would I have had my contract cancelled had I taken legal steps? Doubtful. Would I have experienced a hostile work environment at the hands of our overtly Christian principal had I done so? Without doubt, but the administration would have had my back had I decided to stay the course.

    To bring this back to what Dr. Hunt wrote above, “Public discourse; political, religious, scientific, or otherwise would grind to a halt if the mere fact that it offended someone could result in having it banned” and “Feeling intimidated when you are a tiny minority is normal, but it doesn’t constitute an attack on your freedom of religion.”

    In the two cases above, the one where I feel I abdicated my responsibility most clearly was the Pagan Club. In that case, the introduction of a different view was effectively silenced. This is a problem. In the overtly Christian school assembly, not such a big deal, as that was more about “being offended” than “being silenced.” No *citizen* has a right not to be offended. Every (?) *citizen* has a right not to be silenced. The Pagan Club was not a case of intimidation, but one of an effective means to deny a particular form of religious expression. The school assembly was not a case of intimidation, but one of being offended. Regardless, in both cases the school acted “legally” insofar as no challenge was brought to establish their actions as illegal.

    So what does all this mean? I’d put it this way: schools are not *illegally* establishing Christianity as the de facto (or sole) mode of religious expression therein. They are simply going with what is the dominant approach to this question and, when challenged (obliquely), doing what they can to kick the can down the road in a legal manner. Of course, even the Supreme Court of the U.S. does this, and it is not an unwise move in a Constitutional Republic. Schools are not violating the Constitution, they are simply aware that this is an issue that they need not deal with *unless willful citizens step forth and stand by their ideals.* Muslims do this to great effect. That others groups in extreme minorities don’t, while unfortunate, nevertheless strikes me as somehow fair. If one’s principles are not so strong that one will not fight for them, then I’m not sure they’re strong enough to be protected (at least proactively). Our legal system is, generally speaking, reactive, and this is a good thing. In some arenas, Christians are learning a painful lesson about this (e.g. gay marriage). In others, religious minorities are the ones learning lessons (e.g. buddhists at football games). It may not be perfect, but from what I can tell, it works pretty well if for no other reason than that we are one of the few (only?) countries that does not prosecute blasphemers.

    I’ve spilled enough ink (or is it “blacked enough pixels”?), but I hope the above comes across as at least minimally coherent. If not, may God (Buddha, Allah, etc) have mercy on my soul. :)

  • eric stone

    If the word “freedom” in freedom of religion has any meaning one must have the liberty to have or not to have religion. If one is forced to change one’s behavior or to observe a religious ritual, then that person is no longer free to not have religion. So in what sense does someone who is being forced to observe a religious ritual free?
    Also would you agree that atheists have the right to voice their feelings about religion at public events to the same extent as believers have of theirs? I happen to feel that religion is a pathological illness of society. If you are saying that removal of religion from a public square only prevents the expression of religion, does it not prevent the expression of antirieligion and therefore wouldn’t secular be the only true neutral position that excludes both the pro- and anti-religious expressions?

    • roberthunt

      I don’t believe that a neutral position in a public space is possible. Civil religion always lurks, if only in the ubiquitous form of the American flag (an idol to which the Jehovah’s witnesses rightly refuse to pray.) I do understand why many people, including religious people, object to the “in your face” displays of religion in public spaces – particularly when these spaces are to a greater or lesser extent publicly financed. Still, a vibrant and respectful multi-religious dialogue is a more desirable outcome in public than apparent neutrality allowing for a covert civil religion to hold sway.