KOUNTZE, Texas -- Kountze, Texas, population 2,115, now has more than 30,000 people weighing in on a Facebook page dedicated to a group of high school students embroiled in a nationwide controversy over the separation of church and state.
This year, cheerleaders for Kountze High School decided to put Bible verses on the paper banners that the football team runs through at the start of each game. Someone mailed a complaint to the Kountze ISD superintendent. Kevin Weldon said he immediately contacted legal counsel and the Texas Association of School Boards, which advised him the practice should end immediately.
Parents involved in organizing extracurricular activities were sent the following email from the superintendent: “Per the advice of TASB Legal, please do not allow any student groups to display any religious signs or messages at school-sponsored events. I appreciate your immediate attention and conveying this to your staff and sponsors of student groups. For example, the run-through signs at the football games.“
But in this small town in Hardin County, 30 miles north of Beaumont, faith and football are as intertwined as much as anywhere else in Texas. And students and parents are fighting back.
“It means I’m playing for the Lord Jesus God and my teammates,” said senior Darrion Harper of the banner he and his teammates prefer to run through.
Harper was among dozens of students who gathered at a home on the south end of town Wednesday to paint scores of new banners and placards to display at the next 7th and 8th grade football game and, after a bye week, at the next varsity game. Students and parents also painted similar messages and Bible verses on their car windows to take their protest through town.
“It is not a personal opinion of mine,” said Kountze ISD Superintendent Kevin Weldon in a phone interview. “My personal convictions are that I am a Christian, as well. But I’m also a state employee and Kountze ISD representative. And I was advised that such a practice (religious signs) would be in direct violation of United State Supreme Court decisions.”
A precedent for the decision is Santa Fe, Texas Independent School District vs. Doe where student-led prayers at games were challenged and found to be in violation of the separation of church and state. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that student-led, student-initiated prayer at high school football games violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
Superintendent Weldon said any teacher or student in uniform is essentially representing the school and cannot, legally, promote one religion over another. Students and any other attendees at games are welcome to express their right to free speech in the stands he said, but not on the field as official representatives of a team or school-sponsored event.
“The one parent that did complain,” said football player Caleb Darby, “if you don’t like it don’t come to our games. That’s how I feel away about it.”
Instead, more people might be coming to their next game. In addition to the flurry of new sign painting for the next football game, students and parents also created a Facebook group page called “Support Kountze Kids Faith.” Within 24 hours, more than 30,000 people signed up to join the site.
“I’m actually thankful for it,” said cheerleader Ashton Jennings of the controversy. “Because if someone hadn’t complained, or if there hadn’t been any opposition we wouldn’t have this chance to spread God’s word in this big of a way.”
“It makes me proud of all of these girls,” said cheerleader parent Shy Seaman who began to cry when asked about the students’ willingness to fight the superintendent’s decision. “It means so much, I mean not only for my own that I’ve raised her right but these other kids have been raised right too. And our community has raised these kids with these strong values that they’re willing to fight for it.”
The next football game for the Kountze High School Lions is an away game September 28th at Hardin High School. Some Hardin residents have already contacted their Kountze counterparts to say they will be bringing their pro-Christianity banners too.