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Cheerleaders and Bible Verses

Aleksandr Sverdlik,
Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief
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September 5, 2013

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We are unconstitutional!

The beginning of September marks the coming of a new school year, and with it, a new high school football season. But for one public school in Texas, Friday night lights are more like a Sunday morning sermon.

Prior to kickoff, the cheerleaders at Kountze High School take their place on the field, near the home end zone, and hoist massive banners featuring Bible verses as part of the football team’s grand entrance. For example, one banner proclaimed, “I can do all things through CHRIST which strengthens me.” It included a biblical citation to “Phil. 4:13” and the “T” in “CHRIST” was painted to resemble a wooden cross. Another banner declared, “But thanks be to God, which gives us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

As a district-sponsored and regulated group with special access to the football field, the squad’s members are representative of their public school and their banners are school-sponsored speech. In fact, school officials supervise the banner-making process and sign off on the banners’ content.

When the school informed the squad, following a complaint, that it could not use biblical quotations, some of the cheerleaders sued. Inexplicably, the school backed down, saying it would allow the passages as “fleeting expressions of community sentiment.”

As the ACLU, the ACLU of Texas, and a broad coalition of religious groups argue in an amicus brief filed today with the Texas Court of Appeals, such public school promotion of religious messages is unconstitutional under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

To be clear, the Texas and U.S. Constitutions protect students’ right to exercise and express their faith in public schools in a variety of ways, including praying individually or in groups, discussing their beliefs with peers, forming religious clubs, and wearing religious jewelry or clothing required by their beliefs – all rights that the ACLU has unwaveringly defended.

Religious liberty, however, also includes the right of public-school students to decide for themselves which religious beliefs, if any, to adopt. It includes the right of minority-faith students and non-believers to attend public schools and take part in all of the benefits and offerings without being marginalized or pressured by the government to conform to the majority’s religious beliefs. Unfortunately, Kountze High School’s use of school-sponsored banners to disseminate Bible verses at football games does just that.

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