Church, Lone Star State and #RNA2012

As Mollie mentioned, the GetReligion team — which mostly hangs out together in cyberspace — has assembled in human form at the Religion Newswriters Association annual meeting in Bethesda, Md., just outside Washington, D.C. Mollie, GeorgeSarah and I already have convented a brief, impromptu GR meeting where laughing was the primary agenda item. (By the way, Sarah did an excellent job this morning on a panel dubbed "50 Shades of Evangelicalism: Diversity Among Young American Evangelicals.") So far, I have not seen tmatt — he may be teaching or something this morning (or perhaps he's off worrying about his Orioles having to face my Rangers tonight).

Much to my surprise, the first person I recognized when I arrived at the convention hotel was Carla Hinton, who succeeded me 10 years ago as religion editor for The Oklahoman. We both live in Oklahoma City, so it's ironic that we had to travel 1,300-plus miles to run into each other at the elevator. At breakfast this morning, I sat next to Jeremy Weber, news editor for Christianity Today, who edits my freelance pieces for that fine publication. Suffice it to say that I'm enjoying seeing old friends and meeting some Godbeat pros for the first time.

If you watched this morning's session on religious freedom (carried live by and spotted a middle-aged dude with a balding head and a blue polo shirt with a Christian Chronicle logo, that was me. For details on that discussion (and other RNA sessions), I'd recommend following the #RNA2012 hashtag on Twitter. In a roomful of journalists, you can imagine that there's a lot of smartphone tapping, laptop clicking and assorted other "live tweeting" going on.

Speaking of religious freedom, I posted earlier this week on a clash in an East Texas town over high school cheerleaders displaying banners with Christian messages at football games. The New York Times reported on the Texas case today, so I wanted to revisit that topic.

The top of the Times story:

KOUNTZE, Tex. — The hand-painted red banner created by high school cheerleaders here for Friday night’s football game against Woodville was finished days ago. It contains a passage from the Bible — Hebrews 12:1 — that reads: “And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us.”

That banner, and other religious-themed signs made by the high school and middle school cheerleading squads in recent weeks, have embroiled this East Texas town in a heated debate over God, football and cheerleaders’ rights.

School district officials ordered the cheerleaders to stop putting Bible verses on the banners, because they believed doing so violated the law on religious expression at public school events. In response, a group of 15 cheerleaders and their parents sued the Kountze Independent School District and its superintendent, Kevin Weldon, claiming that prohibiting the students from writing Christian banner messages violated their religious liberties and free-speech rights.

The Times piece doesn't till a whole lot of new ground. However, as I read the story, I kept wondering if it would elaborate on the "law on religious expression at public school events." I wanted to know: What law?

To its credit, the newspaper tackles that crucial question:

Mr. Weldon and school district lawyers said his decision to prohibit the messages was based on a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a Texas case, Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, which established that prayers led by students at high school football games were unconstitutional and had the improper effect of coercing those in the audience to take part in an act of religious worship.

While testifying on Thursday, Mr. Weldon — he and school board members had been subpoenaed, though Judge Thomas later nullified those subpoenas — said two lawyers he contacted, a district lawyer and a lawyer for the Texas Association of School Boards, advised him to prohibit the students from writing Bible verses. But he said that he supported the cheerleaders and that, as a Christian, he agreed with their religious viewpoints. ...

One of the lawyers representing the students and their families, David Starnes, argued that the cheerleaders’ Bible-themed banners were protected private speech, not government-sanctioned speech, and that the Supreme Court’s ruling did not apply in this case because it had nothing to do with prayer. Cheerleading practice as well as banner-making occur after school on campus, and the squads are led by students, though adult advisers monitor and assist them. No school funds are used to purchase the banner supplies.

I could say more, but the noon hour has passed on the East Coast, and I don't want to miss the next session — or the lunch that goes with it. I'm sure my fellow GetReligionistas will be sharing much more from #RNA2012. Stay tuned.

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