Banner Blowhards: Texas Governor’s Cheers Are Not For The First Amendment

On display in Kountze, Texas: religious supremacism, intolerance and downright bigotry.

The situation in Kountze, Texas, home of a band of public school cheerleaders brandishing Bible-verse banners, is rapidly deteriorating. Loud-mouthed politicians who hate church-state separation have just lumbered into the fray. Things can only go downhill from here.

If you’re just joining us, the fight in Kountze – a small town north of Beaumont – focuses on large paper banners that cheerleaders unfurl before high school football games. Such banners normally bear a game-related message, something like “Go Lions! Crush the Wildcats” or whatever, and football players crash through them as they take the field.

Some of the cheerleaders at Kountze High got it into their heads to decorate the banners with Bible verses. Examples include, “But thanks be to God, which gives us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ,” “I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me” and “If God be for us who can be against us?”

School officials thought this sectarian proselytizing might not be such a good idea and told the cheerleaders to stop. At this point, the cheerleaders and their parents enlisted a Beaumont attorney to rush into state court, insisting that the cheerleaders’ rights were being violated. Religious Right groups are popping off as well.

Disputes like this are normally settled in federal court, so why is this one before state judges? My guess is that the cheerleaders and their supporters believe they’ll find a friendly reception there. Sure enough, a county judge promptly issued a temporary restraining order forbidding the school from stopping display of the banners.

That order expires today, and the same judge is going to consider making it permanent. This has led Gov. Rick Perry and Attorney General Greg Abbott to stand up and declare their support for the cheerleaders; they’ve vowed to lend them every legal resource the state can muster.

“We’re also a culture built upon the concept that the original law is God’s law, outlined in the Ten Commandments,” Perry said at a press conference. “If you think about it, the Kountze cheerleaders simply wanted to call a little attention to their faith and to their Lord.”

Of course, this is coming from the man who last month told a group of pastors that church-state separation is a plot hatched by Satan, so I’m not sure I’d look to him for sound analysis here.

Abbott isn’t much better. During the press conference, he blasted the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which complained about the banners on behalf of an anonymous Kountze resident, for using “menacing and misleading intimidation tactics.”

“This is student-led expression, and that's perfectly constitutional,” Abbott said.

Actually, advising a school district to follow the law of the land is hardly “menacing” or “intimidating.”

And the “student-led” religion line has been debunked time and again by the U.S. Supreme Court. Public schools must serve young people with a wide variety of viewpoints about religion. Schools are not permitted to let students impose religious worship on their classmates at school events. (Attorney General Abbott might want to read this Supreme Court ruling in a 2000 case called Santa Fe v. Doe. He might learn some things.) 

Here’s something I found really amusing. A reporter asked Perry if he would be involved if the banners quoted the Quran or the maxims of Confucius.

Perry replied, “I don’t know whether you’d be here, I would be. The point is, as I said in my remarks, this is about all religion.”

Yeah, right. Perry would be standing there, all right – most likely ranting about how the school had turned its back on our “Christian” heritage and threatening all manner of retaliation. If you seriously believe Perry and Abbott would offer the full legal resources of the state of Texas to support banners promoting Islam, Hinduism or Buddhism, I have a bridge in Brooklyn I’d like you to make an offer on.

The religious supremacism, intolerance and downright bigotry on display in Kountze is bad enough as it is. That community could use some guidance from grown-ups who explain the importance of respecting the beliefs (or non-belief) of all.

Instead it’s getting a blast from publicity-hungry politicians who don’t respect the core values of the First Amendment and who are eager to create a media circus. 

No one should cheer for that.