In certain parts of the south and southwest, it is hard to distinguish football from religion. Some high school cheerleaders in Texas have tied them together too closely for the taste of the Washington Post editorial board. Applying the journalistic version of the Supreme Court’s endorsement test, the editorial argues as follows:
Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) has weighed in, unhelpfully. “We’re a nation that’s built on the concept of free expression of ideas,” he said, according to the New York Times. “We’re also a culture built upon the concept that the original law is God’s law, outlined in the Ten Commandments.”
And if a student in the stands doesn’t believe that? Or an aspiring cheerleader happens to be a Hindu? Or a wide receiver is a Christian who is offended by the notion that God cares about the outcome of a high school football game? The cheerleaders’ backers say that the school doesn’t have any policy that implies endorsement of the banners’ content and that students, even cheerleaders, who disagree with it are not required to participate in anything banner-related.
Yet the cheerleading squad is a campus organization with faculty oversight, and it represents the school, wears its uniform and occupies a privileged space on the playing field. Its banners are part of a pregame ritual that involves the football players, for whom the school buys uniforms and provides other kinds of support. Since the squad and the team carry the school’s imprint, students should not have to choose between tacitly endorsing a sectarian message and participating in a cheerleading routine or taking the field with their teammates. Likewise, spectators shouldn’t have to choose between cheering on their team and avoiding the cheerleaders’ proselytizing.
The [pick an adjective that expresses your distaste] Freedom From Religion Foundation is looking for a plaintiff to sue in federal court. They’re likely to win, which is unfortunate. We live in a pluralistic society. There are two ways to manage to live peacefully together under these circumstances. One is walk on eggshells in a vigilantly policed public arena, where the hypersensitive dictate the character and content of public expression. The other is to encourage everyone to be broadly tolerant of views with which they disagree, relying on conversation for persuasion and having a thick skin for passionately voiced disagreements.
In the name of a certain kind of inclusivity, our judicial and journalistic elites have chosen the first option. Its effect is either to drive authentic religious expression underground (as the inclusion is also an exclusion) or to persuade people (not so much by reason as by intimidation and coercion) that a religion that calls itself catholic really isn’t. Neither consequence is good; the first harms civil society, while the second eviscerates genuine religion.
The second option requires that we be grown-ups. High school students are grown-ups in training. Aren’t there opportunities for conversation here that will actually advance the prospects for pluralism and mutual understanding? But not if the courts, prompted by the FFRF, intervene.