Four years after a group of East Texas cheerleaders took on their school district to fight for the right to have religious-themed banners at their school football games, Atlantic Monthly takes a trip into flyover country to talk to the girls.
Some of these young women have already graduated from high school and have been able to get a wider perspective on their battle. I thought the magazine’s take on it all had very little snark and some actual respect for these teenagers. Kountze, by the way, is just north of Houston.
So here's how this lengthy piece started:
The cheerleaders in Kountze, Texas, have been painting Bible verses on the banners they hold up at football games for nearly four years. Players line up on Friday nights behind a big stretch of unrolled butcher paper, busting through it as they run onto the field. Instead of a negative slogan, along the lines of “Kill the Tatum Eagles,” the girls wanted to write messages that were more positive, ones “that were really encouraging and honorable to God,” as one of them put it. They proposed this at their cheer camp in the summer of 2012. After the moms who sponsored the club got sign off from the school principal, the girls made their first signs, sporting messages like “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” from Philippians, or “A lion, which is strongest among beasts and turns not away from any,” a Proverbs verse. (Kountze High is home to the Lions.)
Ever since, they have been embroiled in the high-profile legal battle those banners sparked. Early in the 2012 season, the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to the Kountze Independent School District’s superintendent alleging that the district was violating the Constitution by allowing a student group to hold up religious messages at a school-sponsored event. After consulting counsel, the superintendent told the town’s high-school principal to shut down the Bible-verse banners. Some of the girls and their parents decided to sue the district and won a temporary injunction. Since then, the case has been bouncing around the Texas state-court system, mostly on a series of procedural claims. The Texas Supreme Court heard the case and sent it back to the Court of Appeals in January; that court is set to consider the case again any day now.
What’s different about this piece is that the cheerleaders and their more activist parents are portrayed as unlikely newsmakers who stumbled into this national drama and are doing their best to stand up for student self-expression. Whereas the football team is mostly white, the Atlantic interviewed and photographed two of its black members as if to imply that this battle is not a question of entitled Anglo-Saxon Protestants beating down on everyone else.
The original complaint against the signs was brought by the Freedom from Religion Foundation, which I recently discussed here. Usually the FFRF is able to is able to find at least one distressed person in the community with whom it will file a lawsuit but, in Kountze, no one will do so, robbing FFRF of any standing in the matter. This is telling.
One thing the author did not bring out: In mentioning that the FFRF sent out more than 1,100 letters to school districts, governments and sheriff’s offices last year informing them that they are violating the Establishment Clause, the article didn’t give the number of groups (usually schools) that backed down. When I looked at FFRF’s latest 990 tax document, it said 210 had done so. That’s quite a few entities that the FFRF has spooked with the threat of a lawsuit.
This article must have been researched in tandem with another piece that is in the Atlantic’s current issue: Orthodox Jewish millennials in Houston. Whatever the magazine’s interest in all thing Texan may mean, we know one thing: People in the Lone Star state take their religion seriously.
Back to the cheerleaders piece, I appreciated how the religious folks were not made out as one-dimensional fanatics. There was plenty of nuance and the reader got to understand why this was a hill the cheerleaders were willing to die on. Believers were allowed to describe their own beliefs in their own words.
I wish I could see other sympathetic treatment of folks elsewhere embroiled in the culture wars. I’ve yet to see a magazine do thorough take-out on the Oregon couple who got slammed against the wall in the Sweet Cakes by Melissa dispute nor an honest look -- with voices on both sides speaking their piece -- at the lesbian couple that went after them. (One member of that couple, in my opinion at least, comes across as a nitwit in this state complaint).
There are so many pieces out there where the religious folks are portrayed as Neanderthals and their opponents are creative, enlightened and legitimate spokespeople. This article doesn’t go in that direction. It’s sad that, in our national discourse, we have to be grateful when a national magazine does level the journalism playing field and allow voices on both sides of the issue to have their say. Why? Because it's so unusual to see this happen.
Maybe others will follow suit.