This column is cross-posted from Texas School Administrators Legal Digest Online. It is written by Texas attorney Jim Walsh, the managing editor of the Digest and co-author of The Educator’s Guide to Texas School Law.
Your school superintendent did the right thing. When he ordered the Kountze ISD cheerleaders to cease putting scripture verses reflecting a Christian point of view on the banners used at football games, the superintendent was doing exactly what he was supposed to do as a public official—he was keeping his school district aligned with the U.S. Constitution.
When the football team charges through the banner to take the field on Friday night, they embody the entire school district and community. The band is playing, the fans are cheering and the pageantry of Texas high school football is on full display. This is not the time or place for a single student to express a personal opinion on religious or political issues—even if that personal opinion also reflects the views of most of the members of the community.
Students absolutely have the right of free speech and free exercise of religion at all times, including when they are attending public school. It has been said that as long as there are math tests, there will be prayer in public schools. This extends to extracurricular activities as well. When the placekicker prepares himself for a game-deciding field goal, he may make the sign of the cross, or privately utter a prayer. This is one student expressing his personal beliefs. Our Constitution guarantees that right.
But it is quite another thing to claim constitutional protection for words placed on a banner, held by cheerleaders in school uniforms, that the entire football team will run through at the high point of community attention. If the banner represents a free speech zone for individual student expression, then I suppose that the student who is chosen for a particular game can express whatever view, on whatever subject he or she chooses. Here are some possibilities:
GO TEAM GO. AND SUPPORT THE SCHOOL BOND ELECTION NEXT WEEK!
GET HIGH WITH THE EAGLES: DECRIMINALIZE MARIJUANA
LET’S WIN TONIGHT: AND LET’S HELP PRESIDENT OBAMA WIN THE ELECTION!
The words expressed on the official Friday night banner are written by cheerleaders acting as representatives of the school district. The football players, also as representatives of the school district, give support to the words by charging onto the field through the banner. It shouldn’t take too long to see that this is not the same as the expression of a single student holding up a sign or painting a scripture verse on his or her face.
When the legal issue was brought to the attention of the superintendent, he did the right thing. He did not ignore the concern, as some would have done, confident that the community would be supportive. He did not take an opinion poll. He did not put it to a vote of the school board—constitutional issues are not decided by majority vote.
He sought legal advice. Then he followed it.
The legal advice he got was right on the money. It took courage and integrity for Superintendent Weldon to act on that advice—courage that neither Governor Perry nor Attorney General Abbott have displayed. They chose to play politics when they should have provided leadership. Leadership involves respecting the law of the land whether you agree with it or not.
It was approximately 50 years ago that the U.S. Supreme Court held that official prayers were not to be recited in public school. As one of the lawyers in one of those early cases put it: the public schools are not Christian institutions to which others are cordially invited.
Fortunately, Superintendent Weldon provided leadership. The people of Kountze ISD should be proud of their superintendent.