Separation of church and Lone Star State

Separation of church and Lone Star State October 2, 2012

Things that go together in Texas: Chicken-fried steak and gravy. Cowboy hats and boots. Church and state … oh, wait.

The Lone Star State never seems to lack for constitutional clashes. In my time with The Associated Press in Dallas, I wrote about clashes over candy canes at a school and sermons at a senior center. A lawsuit over a prayer at a graduation ceremony made news last year. And those are just a few examples of many.

The latest headline to catch my attention involves high school cheerleaders in an east Texas town displaying Christian messages on football game banners. The first report I saw came from

Cheerleaders in a Texas town will be allowed to include Bible and religious messages on signs at sporting events after receiving a temporary restraining order against a high school’s ban.

The Kountze Independent School District banned the messages this month after the Freedom From Religion Foundation accused it of violating the Constitution.

“I called our legal counsel and they recommended to me that we instruct all administrators in the district that religious signs or messages would no longer be permitted at school district events and that student groups and their sponsors were to be notified of the prohibition effective immediately,” Superintendent Kevin Weldon told Fox News.

But the Liberty Institute, an advocacy organization fighting the ban, won a restraining order from a Texas district court that puts the school’s decision on hold until an Oct. 4 hearing.

The report is not terrible. In fact, it’s close to adequate. Readers learn the basics and hear from an advocate on each side.

But there’s no real journalistic meat here: No specific information on what the messages say. No details on the history of the banners. And no true insight on the legal and constitutional issues involved.

How might the report be improved? Enter the Wall Street Journal to fill in most of the gaps. The top of the Journal’s story:

A Texas public high school cheerleading squad will head to court this week to find out if it can hoist banners inscribed with biblical verses during football games, the latest case to test the sometimes fine line between the separation of church and state and freedom of speech.

The Kountze, Texas, schools superintendent banned the signs two weeks ago after he was contacted by the Freedom from Religion Foundation in Madison, Wis., which said it had received a citizen complaint.

A state district court judge in Hardin County issued a temporary restraining order lifting the ban after the Liberty Institute, a Plano, Texas, group promoting religious freedom, offered to represent the cheerleaders and asked the court to issue a permanent injunction. A hearing is scheduled for Thursday in Kountze, a town of 2,100 about 85 miles northeast of Houston.

Did you notice the subtle difference at the very beginning? “Violating the Constitution” in the article becomes “the fine line between the separation of church and state and freedom of speech” in the Journal story.

Moreover, concerning the unanswered questions in the first report:

• Messages: Journal readers learn the specific nature of the banners at issue:

One banner read: “But thanks be to God, which gives us Victory, through our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Cor. 15:57.” Another, from the Epistle of Paul to the Philippians in the New Testament, read, “I can do all things through Christ, which strengthens me.”

• History: Journal readers learn that the banners are new this school year:

Until this year, the banners typically boasted rabble-rousing slogans urging the Kountze Lions to defeat its opponents. This year, the cheerleaders wanted to do something different, said Kim Haynes, whose daughter, Adrianna, is a freshman cheerleader on the squad. They came up with the Bible verses during cheerleading camp and thought they were more sportsmanlike.

• Legalities: Journal readers hear from a constitutional scholar and the Texas attorney general and gain insight into the specific legal and constitutional issues at play:

The legal issue is expected to revolve on whether the banners are seen as endorsed by the school or representing only the cheerleaders’ personal beliefs.

The Journal even quotes a cheerleader:

A Kountze High official announced over the school’s public-address system that students could no longer make public displays of religion during football games. “I was mad, because the boys liked it and it didn’t hurt anyone in Kountze,” said cheerleader Adrianna Haynes.

I wish the Journal had provided just a little insight into Haynes’ background. Does she attend a local church? If so, which one? What are the specific faith backgrounds of the 18 cheerleaders? Is there a predominant church in town that most of the cheerleaders and football players attend? Is there a leader — a youth pastor or otherwise — working behind the scenes and urging the cheerleaders to push a Christian message via the banners?

Obviously, the Journal paints a fuller picture of the dispute than, but I can’t shake the feeling that there’s more to the story than has been published so far.

Now, about that chicken-fried steak …

Image via Shutterstock

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