A Texas Cheerleader Controversy
High School cheerleaders display banners of Bible verses at football games, which has lead to lawsuits. Dr. Craig explores two questions concerning this: is it legal and is it wise.
A Texas Cheerleader Controversy
Newscaster #1: A group of Texas high school cheerleaders sued after being told that they could not display their Bible verses during football games.
Newscaster #2: But the cheerleader's attorney argued that the cheerleaders have a right to express their religious beliefs; they were doing this totally on their own, not on behalf of the school.
Cheerleader #1: Thanks be to God, who gives us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Cheerleader #2: I think we should be able to hold up our signs and tell everybody that Jesus died on the cross and he gives us the strength and everything to play our games, to cheer.
Woman #1: They really think their faith is under attack and they don't see how this can be construed as them bullying people of non-faith or non-Christians.
Man #1: You know, if you don't like it then don't come to our games; that's how I feel about it.
Woman #2: It is a problem because when it comes to a school you basically have a captive audience. If I'm agnostic, or if I'm an atheist, or if I'm Jewish, or whatever my religion is, or lack thereof, I don't want to sit there and have to take in someone else's religion. Okay, if I want to support my football team I don't want some sort of religious verse or Bible verse or whatever it is, to, you know, identify that game.
Cheerleader #3: We're fighting for God's word. We're not fighting for our rights or anything; we're fighting for God.
Man #2: What's funny about this is there's nothing that makes religion look sillier and pettier in that they think God cares about football games. And by the way this is Texas; I guarantee both of the teams are praying to God.
Woman #3: Our community has raised these kids with such strong values that they're willing to fight for it.
Kevin Harris: Dr. Craig, there is nothing like Friday night football in Texas; it is king. But, boy, has there been a controversy involving Friday night football in Texas lately down in a little town called Kountze; about twenty-one hundred people, eighty-five miles northeast of Houston. It's a small little tight-knit town. And the cheerleaders have been displaying banners at the football games with Scripture verses painted on them for the football players to run through, and, you know, to crash through the banners. Most of the time these will say things like “Go Wildcats!” or “Beat 'em up Bulldogs!” or “Go on to victory!” and they'll come out and run out through it. Well these have verses on them that say, for instance, 1 Corinthians 15: “But thanks be to God which give us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Dr. Craig: Sort of quoting it out of context – isn't it?[laughter]
Kevin Harris: You know, that is one thing; that is not the kind of victory that Paul is talking about in 1 Corinthians 15. “I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me” is another big banner that they've displayed from Philippians 4:13. “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me in Christ Jesus” from Philippians 3, so on.
Dr. Craig: Press on toward the goal. [laughter]
Kevin Harris: Yeah, press on toward the goal, and kick the goal, too! [laughter] So, here they are. Well, obviously Freedom From Religion Foundation got a hold of this and sent a letter down there to the superintendent saying, “Stop this; it's unconstitutional.” The superintendent said, “Okay, we will.” He bowed to that pressure and told the cheerleaders to stop it. Someone representing the cheerleaders filed suit, and they've gotten a temporary injunction until the results of the lawsuit in June of 2013. For now the cheerleaders can continue to have these banners up, and will continue to do so throughout the football season. There are two things that are brought up by this, Bill, that I think our listeners would be interested in. One would be the separation of church and state and the constitutionality. The other aspect is, how wise is this for Christian students to display these banners? Is this a good evangelism tool? Is it a good way to express the faith in a public forum, or is it counterproductive, or what? A couple of things to talk about.
Dr. Craig: Right, I think regardless of the second issue – the “how wise this might be for presenting a public face of Christianity?” – it's encouraging to see the judge protecting the free speech rights of these high schoolers. The courts in the past have ruled again and again and again that students have the right to initiate prayers, to use God's name, to talk about religious things, so long as it is not sanctioned by the governmental institution – in this case the school itself or school officials – and that right has been upheld over and over again in the courts. So long as it's student initiated they can say whatever they want, as long as it's not some sort of defamatory speech. And so that's what this judge ruled in this case, that these cheerleaders have done this on their own initiative, they are not employees of the school, it is not the school who has initiated this. And so just as a student has a right to pray during his valedictory address graduation, or to talk about his personal faith or give his testimony in a public meeting, so these Christian cheerleaders have the right to display these banners with Bible verses on them. And I think it's a shame that schools allow themselves to be intimated by these secular foundations to abridging the free speech constitutional rights of these students by barring this sort of activity and backing down. It's, I think, a tragedy that so often school administrators are intimated and bullied by the threat of lawsuits, which they cannot afford, into walking away from what are in fact perfectly constitutionally permitted expressions of free speech on the part of students.
Kevin Harris: Just the threat of a lawsuit is enough. Now, if the government school, if the employees of the school, being a public school, were to do this or sanction it, or to place the banners using public funds and things like that, that would – what? – violate the establishment clause?
Dr. Craig: Right, that would be taken to be the government establishing a religion, and would therefore violate the establishment clause. But the claim here is that what's being violated by the school district is the student’s free exercise of religion, so the free exercise clause is being violated. So you have this interesting tension that we have constantly in American society of the establishment clause of the first amendment and the free exercise clause of the first amendment, and finding that delicate balance in between the two that allows you to tow the line in such a way that neither is violated.
Kevin Harris: This came up in the early sixties – didn't it? – with Madeline Murray O'Hare and praying in schools.
Dr. Craig: Yes, and those cases it was a matter of teachers who were leading in prayers. So there would be a prayer over the intercom in the morning in the school, and the rule there was that since these teachers and administrators are government employees that you cannot have the government sanctioning religion in this way. But in a case like this – as in student-initiated prayers or student-initiated meetings – this is student initiated. It's apparently just the cheerleaders themselves who wanted to use these banners. And so if there were Muslim cheerleaders who wanted to put up Koranic verses, or atheistic cheerleaders who wanted to put up some slogan of Frederick Nietzsche for the team to run through, they would have every right to do that as well.
Kevin Harris: What's the issue here, Bill? I mean, this is a small Texas town, Baptist church on every corner, students are very on-fire for the Lord, apparently, which is great. Nobody seemed to mind this who were going there. And then all the way in Wisconsin Freedom From Religion Foundation gets wind of it, and this becomes a national story.
Dr. Craig: Yes, it's one more attempt on the part of this secular movement to try to rid the public square of any expression of religious faith; to try to have a secular, religiously neutral sort of public square where people aren't free to express their religious views in public or in public forums. And in a case like this they overstepped their bounds because this was student-initiated activity and therefore free speech which is protected by the constitution. It wasn't government mandated speech.
Kevin Harris: Common sense would tell one that if a student stood up in a classroom during a lecture by the teacher and began to loudly preach or start to read from the Bible that that student could be very appropriately sent to the office or told to sit down and be quiet because – what? – he or she is being disruptive.
Dr. Craig: Right, he's out of order. It's not because of the content of his speech in a case like that so much as the disorderly conduct.
Kevin Harris: Okay, so there's an out-of-order aspect of it, and then there's the free speech issue.
Dr. Craig: Right, in a student paper, say, a theme that you have to write, a student can express atheistic views or Muslim views or Christian views and these couldn't be censored because the student has a right to the free exercise of his religion and the freedom of speech to express it. It's just the government employees that can't do it or government-sanctioned speech that needs to remain neutral between religions. Neither can that government-sanctioned speech be atheistic. If the administrator or teacher were to begin to express atheistic sentiments that would also be a violation of the establishment clause.
Kevin Harris: Okay. Well, we could really see that, Bill, but I really want to talk about this second aspect of it, too. And it's probably a secondary aspect of this whole thing, and that is: the wisdom of being this in-your-face with these banners.
Dr. Craig: Yes, when I saw this story, Kevin, I thought, “Oh my goodness, I just can't imagine cheerleaders at a football game holding up these huge banners with these Bible verses on them;” it really is in your face. Now as you said, in this little tiny Texas town perhaps this isn't culturally inappropriate for them. I've never been there. But I do think that Christians need to be shrewder about how we relate to a post-Christian culture in which we live. Our society has made it such now that it's politically incorrect to believe in Christ, and therefore we need to be very careful, I think, about how we present ourselves and present the Gospel so as not to throw up people's defenses before we have a chance to really speak. And I think that's what signs of this sort probably do for most people, is they just immediately throw up a person's defenses because it's so in-your-face, it's so aggressive, I think that we need to be subtler and shrewder in how we commend ourselves.
Kevin Harris: Colossians 4 says to do this, to be wise in the way that we act toward those who are outside of the faith, and so we need to think of the wisdom of what we're doing. But, Bill, I'll tell you, I've expressed some opinions like we're talking here, I questioned the wisdom of it, it's kind of obnoxious. I mean, I'm a follower of Christ and I want us to be able to express ourselves in the public square. So I was trying to figure out what it is that bothers me about this. And some of the my Christian friends have said, “Kevin,” – they've accused me of carnality – “your not very spiritual if you don't want God's Word proclaimed in public.” Well, yes I do; but in a proper way, and in a way that is not obnoxious, and doesn't do what you say, Bill, and that is it could throw up a wall before you even have a chance to present the Gospel. I also don't like the fact that too many people in the church think that before they can go out and enjoy God's world they think they have to baptize it and decorate it with slogans of their faith somehow to make it safe for them. What's wrong with going to a Friday night football game and enjoying that football game as a Christian, and praying for the other team and your team, and then cheering on?
Dr. Craig: Right, I think that the Scripture says God has given us all things to enjoy, and we can do everything to the glory of Christ. And it doesn't need, as you put it, to be baptized with a prayer or with Scripture verses or something in order for us to have a sanctified experience, to have a good time. And so we need to, I think, follow the advice of Jesus when he says to be as shrewd as serpents but as innocent as doves. The way we present ourselves to a culture which is very post-Christian now, I think, requires great shrewdness and sensitivity, not because we are afraid of offending someone so much as because we want to win people to Christ. We don't want to push them away by just getting in their face. And so a presentation that is more invitational, I think, is what's needed than something which is so confrontational as something like these banners at a football game.
Kevin Harris: Yeah, well, a lot of churches have what's called a fifth quarter where they'll invite students to come to a party afterwards, and the church will host it and everything, everybody has fun, there's opportunities there. Another quick objection that I often hear thrown at me, and I think that's kind of in our mindset as Christians, and that is, “Well, come on, this is God's Word, and Isaiah says that when my Word goes out it will not return to me void, so at all costs just get the Word out there.” But, Bill, I want your comments on this but I'll just say that's like using God's Word as kind of a talisman, to me.
Dr. Craig: Sort of magic.
Kevin Harris: Magic, yeah. Like saying hokes-pokus, or abracadabra in a kind of a sense, only spiritualizing it. I don't think that's what God meant, that you use his words and somehow that's going to magically affect the people, and so get it out there at all costs.
Dr. Craig: Right, and when he speaks of the Word I think it means the message, it's not just talking about having a written text. The message of the Lord getting out. And when you put up things like “I press on toward the goal” at the football game, it's sort of a clever pun, but I'm not sure this is really getting out the message of the Gospel. It's using Scripture for other purposes.
Kevin Harris: One more thing I want to mention on this, Bill. It occurs to me when I think back, “Well, has this been done historically in the United State before we were such a post-Christian society; back in the fifties at football games would this be done?” And I'm thinking, no, because it was assumed in such a way that it didn't have to be so in-your-face. Some things go without saying. This ought to be one of those things that just kind of goes without saying, you know, in a sense.
Dr. Craig: Yeah, I tried to think of if you were in the stands at a football game the Christians would be delighted, I think, to see these verses displayed. They would be encourage by that. But the nonbelievers who were sitting in the stands and seeing these verses I think would really be put off by it.
Kevin Harris: And then if I were thinking that, “Oh man, these non-Christians around me here are really going to be put off,” that would make me as a Christian kind of uncomfortable, you know?
Dr. Craig: Yes, yes; it could. And I think that if we really care about these unbelievers and we want to to win them, if our purpose is to win them, then using this kind of hamfisted tactics of evangelism isn't really very effective. It's not that we're concerned that we might offend someone – in many cases the truth can offend people – but it's more like, what is the best method to win people to the Gospel? Is it to do it in this sort of way, or is it in a more subtle way?
Kevin Harris: It's not that you want to compromise.
Dr. Craig: No.
Kevin Harris: If I were sitting on a bus – and this happens in Los Angeles all the time – you're on a crowed bus, you're a captive audience, and there are religious zealots and perhaps even well-meaning believers who get on that bus and will shout a sermon to that bus or shout some Scriptures or something like that, or keep going until they're finally told to shut up or they're shouted down or whatever. Their rationale for that is, as uncomfortable as it is and as in-your-face as it is, is that you've got to get it out there at all costs and you have a captive audience. And it's not fair to that captive audience. They didn't get on the bus to hear you yell at them and lob Scriptures like grenades at them. And I, as a Christian, would be one of the ones to tell them to shut up, [laughter] you know, because I know that it would be counter-productive, it's disruptive, it's obnoxious.
Dr. Craig: That's the word, perhaps, that I was looking for, Kevin. Granted that the cheerleaders have the freedom of expression – and I'm so glad that the judge has upheld it – given that they have that, the question is: is this really counter-productive for them to do this? Now maybe not in Kountze, Texas.
Kevin Harris: Well, yeah, there are certain pockets of America, and Kountze, Texas is one of them, I could name a lot of other places, but really post-Christian society has not infected it as much as others.
Dr. Craig: But that is a question we need to ask ourselves when we think about how we do evangelism or proclaim the Gospel: is this going to be effective or is it going to be counter-productive? And if it's counter-productive then we ought to refrain from it even if we have the right to it.
Kevin Harris: And banner-wars have broken out at these games. Nobody's even watching the poor football players; [laughter] they're reading the banners, everyone's bringing their own banners. “9/11 was an inside job,” you know, things like that, and conspiracy theorists, and atheists have shown up with their banners and things like that, so it really has become a banner war. That's kind of human nature, though, when you're told you can't do something that you hold dear; it kind of makes you want to do it sometimes.
Dr. Craig: Yeah.
Kevin Harris: What are, then, the issues here as we wrap up?
Dr. Craig: Well, one would be, we mustn't allow these secular groups to intimidate us when we have a constitutional right to freedom of expression and freedom of exercising our religion. We shouldn’t back down. We need to show some backbone. And especially school administrators shouldn’t allow themselves to be intimidated by this. Secondly, though, as individuals I think we need to ask ourselves “What is the most effective way of presenting the Gospel to an unbelieving world?” I may have the right to exercise my free speech in a certain way but would this be effective or is it apt to be counter-productive? And then to determine the means of your evangelism on that basis.
 Total Running Time: 23:08 (Copyright © 2012 William Lane Craig)