Faith, Free Speech, and… Football?

 It’s Free Speech Week! Visit to learn more, and continue reading to learn about some current issues dealing with freedom of speech.

An interesting case has recently emerged regarding the appropriate application of the First Amendment. Officials at a public school district in East Texas prevented a group of cheerleaders from displaying a banner containing religious messages at a county football game. The cheerleaders and their parents sued the school district, arguing it was an inappropriate restriction on free speech and free exercise. A district county judge temporarily blocked the school’s policy and allowed the banners to be displayed until the case goes before the district courts sometime next year.

 This situation involves two important First Amendment issues. The Free Exercise clause prevents the government from interfering with religious activity, either by helping or hindering any one particular faith or denomination, including non-belief. The superintendent believed that preventing the display of banners that mentioned a particular religion on school grounds was necessary to fulfill this obligation. On the flip side, the cheerleaders argued that it was an inappropriate restriction of their right to free speech as individuals. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor explained, “There is a crucial difference between government speech endorsing religion, which the Establishment Clause forbids, and private speech endorsing religion, which the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses protect.” So which type of speech was the cheerleaders’ banner?

A Supreme Court case, Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, 2000, dealt with similar issues. This case asked whether student-selected and student-led prayers before public school football games were constitutional. The Supreme Court ruled that the prayers were unconstitutional because they were conducted on school grounds at a school-sponsored event with the support of faculty and therefore these actions were tantamount to an endorsement of religion. The Santa Fe case was based on the earlier Lee v. Weisman, 1992 decision where the majority, led by Justice Kennedy, reaffirmed support for the broad reading of the Establishment Clause and determined that each case needed to pass a coercion test. This test asks whether or not government policy has elements that compel people to follow or engage in a religiously-motivated policy. Similarly, the endorsement test, proposed by Justice O’Conner in Lynch v. Donnelly 1984, asks whether government policy has the effect of endorsing or disapproving religion in the eyes of the community. These tests, developed by the Supreme Court, help them decide whether a policy runs afoul of the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses.

The case will go to full trial in June. The Court’s ruling may provide further guidance as to the appropriate role for government actors when it comes to faith, free speech, and football.

Read more about this First Amendment case.

Do you think the display of student-made banners with religious sentiment on school grounds at a school are an endorsement of religion?

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