Freethought San Marcos: A column
by LAMAR W. HANKINS
Sometimes the marvelous English language with its quarter of a million words fails to capture adequately in one word the character of a person or action. Such is the case with the behavior of Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott as he uses his political position to curry favor with the religious right and further develop his obsequious relationship with that group. So I have invented a new word to describe this behavior – demagoduery.
Demagoduery occurs when someone, usually a politician, publicly announces his support for government promotion of religion (for example, posting the Ten Commandments in government buildings), when he advocates that the government sponsor religious exercise (particularly praying at government meetings), when he invokes his belief in God as part of his political character, when he calls on God from his public position to fix something that’s not working right (like when we have a drought and he asks God for rain), when he engages in all manner of conspicuous religiosity, and when he exaggerates or distorts the legal precedents for government entanglement with religion.
Abbott’s latest bit of demagoduery is his support for the Kountze, Texas, cheerleaders, who in their official capacities as school cheerleaders at football games, like to promote their religion (it’s Christian by the way) by writing Bible verses on large signs that they hold up before games and which the football team bursts through when the players run out on the field. Some of the signs have read –
• “But thanks be to God, which gives us Victory through our Lord Jesus Christ – I Cor. 15:57”
• “If God is for us who can be against us? – Romans 8:31”
• “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me in Christ Jesus – Philippians 3:14”
• “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me – Philippians 4:13”
Last fall, when the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), a non-profit educational and advocacy organization, received a complaint from a man who had attended one of the Kountze ISD football games and was offended by the signs, the FFRF pointed out to the superintendent of schools of the Kountze ISD that the cheerleaders were official representatives of the high school and they were promoting religion at an official school-sponsored event with the Bible verses.
The superintendent then sought legal advice from a law firm. He was told that such promotion of religion was a violation of court decisions related to the separation of church and state. He ordered that the Bible-verse promoting at football games cease. The cheerleaders, through their parents, sued the school district in state court and obtained an injunction that would allow the promotion of religion at football games to continue.
The case was scheduled for trial in June, but under pressure from the community, and with the support of the Governor Rick Perry and Attorney General Abbott, the superintendent agreed to rescind his order prohibiting the Bible verses from being displayed by the cheerleaders at football games. State District Judge Steven Thomas, appointed to his position in 2011 by Governor Perry, then granted summary judgment since there was no dispute between the parties, and issued a written opinion.
Thomas’s decree cites no law or court decisions on which the order is based. It simply declares that “the religious messages expressed on run-through banners have not created, and will not create, an establishment of religion in the Kountze community” (a statement that demonstrates a lack of understanding of First Amendment jurisprudence); that the religious messages on the banners displayed during the 2012 football season “were constitutionally permissible”; that “Neither the Establishment Clause nor any other law prohibits cheerleaders from using religious-themed banners at school sporting events”; and that Kountze I.S.D. is not required by the Establishment Clause nor any other law “to prohibit the inclusion of religious-themed banners at school sporting events.”
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott jumped at the opportunity to engage in demagoduery by issuing the following statement:
“This is a victory for religious liberties and for high school cheerleaders who stood up to powerful forces that tried to silence their voices. The Freedom From Religion Foundation was wrong in trying to bully Kountze ISD into prohibiting the cheerleaders from displaying banners with religious messages. Our Constitution has never demanded that students check their religious beliefs at the schoolhouse door. Students’ ability to express their religious views adds to the diversity of thought that has made this country so strong. The Kountze Cheerleaders are heroes who fought for principles, and won!”
Of course, no one tried to silence the voices of the Kountze cheerleaders as individual citizens. But some people recognized that the cheerleaders were using their official positions as representatives of the Kountze ISD to promote their personal religious views, which had the effect of making them the Kountze ISD’s views. These actions appear to violate a previous Supreme Court ruling. The actions place the government in the position of favoring a particular religion over other religions and over no religion. Any student not representing the school district in an official capacity is free to display religious-themed banners at football games, though it might seem to some people that a football game is a strange place to debate religion in all its diversity.
In fact, the context in which speech occurs is relevant to judging its character. As the FFRF has pointed out, if the context of the speech “would lead an objective observer to believe a public school is endorsing the speech,” the Supreme Court has held that the speech “is not properly characterized as ‘private’ speech.” (See Santa Fe I. S. D. v. Doe, decided in 2000.) And the Court’s position holds even if the speech is completely student-initiated and student-led, as was the case regarding the football banners at Kountze ISD last year.
The context suggests that the school is endorsing the religious views expressed, rather than maintaining neutrality toward religion as the Constitution requires. The cheerleaders have official positions with the school district; they wear official school uniforms; they are under the supervision of school officials; the football games are an official school-sponsored activity; the stadium in which the banners were displayed by the cheerleaders is owned and operated by the Kountze ISD; the costs of the event are paid for by the Kountze ISD; the stadium is filled with indicia of the Kountze ISD (its name, the school’s mascot, the school’s colors, the school insignia, etc.); the school district controls who may have access to the playing field. And now the Kountze ISD, in its pleadings to the district court, officially endorses the activity of the cheerleaders in promoting religious views in this context.
As FFRF pointed out in its Amicus Brief filed with the court, “The district controls everything about this message including: (1) where the message is presented; (2) who presents the message; (3) what the students holding the message are wearing; (4) the property where the message is delivered; and (5) the event at which the message is presented. The cheerleading squad represents and speaks for all members of that team, the football team, and the student body.”
In Santa Fe v. Doe, the Supreme Court found that similar speech was government speech in a context remarkably similar to the context found in Kountze. If the viewing audience would reasonably perceive the religious messages promoted by the cheerleaders as representing the views of the student body “delivered with the approval of the school administration,” then the speech will be seen by the court as government speech. It is beyond conjecture or opinion: the Kountze cheerleader banners expressing religious views are government speech. The First Amendment’s Establishment Clause does not permit the government to express religious views. Even Attorney General Abbott should know that.
But the Attorney General wants the citizens to believe that the religious liberty of the cheerleaders is being infringed, although he knows that those same cheerleaders are free to display religious banners at any time they are not representing the Kountze ISD in an official capacity. If the banners were the cheerleader’s private speech, there would be no conflict with the Constitution. The cheerleaders are engaging in religious speech in the wrong context, but it does not serve the Attorney General’s demagoduery to acknowledge that fact.
As the FFRF pointed out in its Amicus brief: “The banners with biblical quotations are an affront to non-Christians and non-religious students, faculty, and members of the school community. Even supporters of the banners have acknowledged to national news media that they could be upsetting to Jewish students. . . . Students on the cheerleading squad and the football team may be offended by the exclusionary message because they are not Christian or religious. Given the elite status that football has in the State of Texas, what dissenter on the squad or team would dare speak out? Allowing the religious messages on these banners forces those students to violate their rights of conscience, or else to ‘forfeit [their] … rights and benefits at the price of resisting conformance to state-sponsored religious practice.’ ” (Citing Lee v. Weisman, a 1992 Supreme Court case.)
If Attorney General Abbott were really representing the Constitution and the interests of all Texans, he would acknowledge that the cheerleaders at Kountze football games engaged in school-sponsored speech – a kind of government-promoted religious speech that offends civil behavior and violates the leading Supreme Court interpretations of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment as applied to public schools. But Abbott will never do that. The attraction of demagoduery is just too strong for a sanctimonious, self-promoting politician like him.
© Lamar W. Hankins, Freethought San Marcos
LAMAR W. HANKINS is a former San Marcos city attorney.Email | Print