In a surprising ruling on Wednesday, a Texas judge determined that cheerleaders displaying "Bible banners" at high school football games did not violate the First Amendment's Establishment Clause.
The ruling means cheerleaders in Kountze, Texas, can resume making banners with messages like "If God is with us, who can be against us?" after they trounced their school district in court, reports Reuters.
How does this ruling square against the U.S. Supreme Court's long history of separating church and state in schools?
What Is the Establishment Clause?
The First Amendment states, in part, that the government "shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." This is known as the Establishment Clause.
Although this clause is interpreted in many ways, the U.S. Supreme Court has determined that a public law or policy does not violate the First Amendment if:
- It has a secular purpose,
- Its primary effect neither advances nor inhibits religion, and
- It creates no excessive entanglement between church and state
Any government action which lacks one of those three elements is unconstitutional.
Texas Judge Rules Bible Banners Are Constitutional
In his official two-page order for summary judgment, Judge Steve Thomas ruled that the "Bible banners" did not create an establishment of religion in the small Texas school district.
Judge Thomas' order remains unclear as to how he came to his decision, citing no Texas court cases or U.S. Supreme Court precedent, which is odd considering that the Supreme Court has tackled similar issues before.
Religion in School Cases
As early as 1962, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional for public schools to mandate an official school prayer.
Over the next 50 years, the High Court held that the following school-promoted religious expressions were unconstitutional:
- Hanging prayer banners in school. In one case, an 8-by-4-foot school banner containing a prayer that included the phrase "Our Heavenly Father" was found to violate the Establishment Clause.
- Holding a graduation ceremony at a church. There ceremony was accompanied by religious materials promoting a "school ministry," which made it unconstitutional.
- Requiring the Ten Commandments to be displayed in class. A law requiring the posting of a copy of the Ten Commandments in each classroom was held to be a violation of the Establishment Clause, even if privately funded.
While the cheerleaders are rallying behind their victory, it remains to be seen whether the Kountze Independent School District will appeal the ruling based on the similarities between their case and past religion-in-school cases.
- Judge rules for cheerleaders in Bible banner suit (The Associated Press)
- Graduation Prayer Allowed at Public School, 5th Circuit Rules (FindLaw's Decided)
- Will NYC Schools Lose Their Religion? (FindLaw)
- School Prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance: Background (FindLaw)