Only in Texas could high school football emerge as the front line in a growing debate on where the rights of freedom of religion end when they come in contact with public education.
As reported by Houston TV network KHOU and a variety of other Texas sources, cheerleaders for Kountze (Texas) High filed suit and won a legal battle to continue using religious-themed signs through which the school's football players run at the start of football games. Already in the 2012 season, the Kountze cheerleaders have used biblical verses and other references to God and Jesus in "run-through" signs at Kountze high school and middle school football games.
The latest example of the cheerleaders' efforts came on Thursday, when the opening sign used before a faceoff against Silsbee (Texas) Middle School read "if God be For us Who Can be against us," a verse taken from biblical book Romans.
"I'm sorry for people who might be offended," Kountze middle school cheerleader Kori Bumstead told KHOU. "But our boys are happy and we're just trying to win our games."
The issue is that other Kountze students may be among those who were offended. One of Bumstead's classmates, 14-year-old Gabriel Haga, told KHOU that he was opposed to the signs because they constituted a way to "force other people into religion."
While the signs may not actively push anyone toward Christianity, they certainly do cross the line of reasonable ambiguity when it comes to the separation of church and state. Kountze is a public school, and the students making the signs, displaying them and running through them are all attending an educational institution funded solely by tax dollars.
Still, State District Judge Steven Thomas issued a temporary injunction allowing the cheerleaders to continue using religious-themed signs, in large part because the cheerleaders allegedly pay for all the materials used to make the signs themselves, eliminating the use of public funds from the process.
The continued use of the religious signs has drawn great acclaim in the Kountze area, which started a Facebook group to support "Kountze Kids Faith" shortly after school superintendent Kevin Weldon initially decided to ban the signs after receiving a complaint from a parent from another high school at a Kountze High football game.
For his part, Weldon told the Associated Press that he made his decision based on constitutionality, not his own beliefs.
"The decision I made is not my personal opinion," Weldon told the AP. "I'm a Christian. This puts me between a rock and a hard place."
Whether the signs continue in the long run remains to be seen. In the meantime, a small group of Texas cheerleaders will continue to form the surprising vanguard in the ever-evolving fight for prayer and religious activity in public schools.
- Religion & Beliefs