It’s a sad day in our nation when being permitted to display a biblical message at a Texas high-school football game is a matter that ends up in the courts.
But that was the reality for a squad of Texas cheerleaders who scored a major victory for freedom of speech earlier this week.
Last year, a Southeast Texas high-school cheering squad came into the spotlight when school officials barred them from carrying banners at football games displaying the Bible verse Romans 8:31, which asks, “If God be for us, who can be against us?”
The school banned the banners after receiving complaints about the religious theme of the cheerleaders’ sign.
After cheerleaders challenged the school's decision, State District Judge Steven Thomas issued a temporary injunction allowing the squad to continue displaying its banners. Thomas later ruled that the banners are constitutionally permissible, explaining in his ruling, “Neither the Establishment Clause nor any other law prohibits cheerleaders from using religious-themed banners at school sporting events,” according to a copy obtained by CBS News.
However, it appears the battle has only just begun. David Starnes, an attorney for the cheerleaders, told KFDM News that the school board is in the process of amending the district’s policy in a way that would nullify the ruling. The new proposed policy specifically states the banners are not part of the students' limited public forum—under which their constitutional right to freedom of speech is protected—and instead represent government speech, which would mean the district could ban the banners again..
It seems in this case that officials within the school district, as well as those who launched the initial complaints, seem to think a non-existent “Right to Not Be Offended” supersedes the cheerleaders’ First Amendment rights to freedom of speech. The sad reality is that this is hardly an isolated case of the “Right to Not Be Offended” trumping freedom of speech and expression.
In a similar case from 2012, a Minnesota high school student was barred from wearing a rosary necklace while on school premises. In another case, a student was asked to take off a t-shirt with a pro-life message, so as to not offend other students.
Since the late '80s, when the Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier Supreme Court ruling established schools as limited public forums, there has been a trend toward school officials opting toward limiting freedom of speech when possible.
While there is certainly a place for school officials to intercede and bar some forms of speech on school premises in extreme cases (e.g. explicit content, racist language etc), authorities are sadly all too often banning the most basic expressions of faith with little more justification than that it might offend someone.
I’d advise school district officials in Texas to ask themselves, What is the harm in displaying an encouraging faith-themed banner? And, at what point did these students lose their right to express a positive message of encouragement at a school event?
I suspect the majority of the students and local community support the cheerleaders’ rights to display their banners at games. Perhaps the offended minority could sit out the next few football games and read up on the First Amendment.