(Photo: Courtesy of the Freedom From Religion Foundation)
A high school football team in Texas will no longer run through paper banners that reference the Bible as they take the field after the school district's superintendent banned the use of religious messages on the banners. The school had received a complaint from a national atheist organization.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), a national atheist organization based in Madison, Wis., wrote a letter to the Kountze Independent School District in Kountze, Texas, telling the district to stop allowing its high school football team to run through the Scripture-based banners.
"It is our information and understanding that Kountze High School cheerleaders regularly display religious banners that the football team runs through before athletic competitions. We understand that each week a different bible verse is displayed for all to observe ...You must take immediate action to stop these religious banners from being part of school-sponsored events. It is illegal for a public school to organize, sponsor or lead religious messages at school athletic events," FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie A. Schmitt said in her letter to the district.
The letter goes on to claim that allowing such banners is offensive to non-Christians and is unconstitutional, even if the creation and use of the banners is student-led. One case FFRF cites in support of its point is the case of Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, in which the Supreme Court decided against allowing student-led prayers to be announced at football games because the games are school-sponsored functions.
The Kountze Independent School District's superintendent, Kevin Weldon, says he doesn't like the idea of getting rid of the banners but he feels he has no choice.
"It is not a personal opinion of mine," Weldon told ABC affiliate KVUE. "My personal convictions are that I am a Christian as well. But I'm also a state employee and Kountze ISD representative. And I was advised that that such a practice (religious signs) would be in direct violation of United State Supreme Court decisions."
KVUE also reported Thursday that Weldon asked parents who are involved in organizing extracurricular activities to make sure student groups do not display religious signs at school-sponsored events.
While the FFRF claims the banners are illegal, attorneys from the Liberty Institute say it is unconstitutional to censor religious speech in this manner, and they are investigating the school district's decision.
"These government school officials will never learn that students' religious rights are protected," Kelly Shackelford, president of the Liberty Institute, said in a statement. "We have successfully passed state laws protecting student religious speech and have won restraining orders to final judgments protecting student religious speech."
Former U.S. Congressman Steve Stockman, who is currently pursuing a seat in the House of Representatives, is also critical of the school district's decision, which he believes infringes on the religious liberties of its students.
"I will not allow school officials to ban religion like we're in San Francisco or something. The First Amendment is clear. Government officials cannot legally ban religion," Stockman said.
He added, "I am consulting with constitutional experts to see what legal action may be taken against Kountze ISD. Banning religion is a direct assault on our founding principles. This is East Texas, not San Francisco. The superintendent can either overturn his ban on religion, or pack his bags."
A new Facebook group, called "Support Kountze Kids Faith," has also been started and has racked up nearly 34,000 members as of Thursday morning, which is staggering considering the city's population is only just over 2,000 people.
"We, as a community, will stand up for our kids and make sure they do not lose their voice and their rights in this. We have a group of parents who are not only outraged, but have decided to make a huge statement for our kids!" the group says.
Faith rallies and other demonstrations of support for Kountze students are currently being organized. Parents and supporters of other schools in Southeast Texas, even those whose teams play against the Kountze Lions, are also expressing their support for Kountze students through the Facebook page and other means as well.