Some contentious issues just keep surfacing again and again, like a persistent plant that pops up repeatedly in your garden, no matter how many times you chop it out. A current case in Texas involves that kind of thorny problem.
Be advised in advance that I offer no solutions. I only suggest a few points for consideration. Not profound points, but honest opinions. I'm rarely profound, but usually honest and always opinionated. Two out of three, you know.
High school and middle school cheerleading squads in the East Texas town of Kountze recently decided it would be a good idea to put inspiring Bible verses on banners at football games, including the large paper barrier that the team bursts through as it runs into the stadium. Thereby joining together two strongly held traditions, especially in that region: Christianity and football.
You have to figure these are good kids. They're presumably not doing drugs, driving intoxicated, having wild parties. No, they're attempting to spread the Christian faith in a relatively gentle way. "I feel like it's getting God's word out to those that need it," one of the girls said.
You might feel, as I do, that Christian actions are more effective than words, but certainly there's a place for both. Whether the place for the latter is at football games is what the debate is all about.
The schools superintendent, reportedly a former coach and a Christian, forbade continuation of the Scriptural displays. He felt he was upholding the law by doing so. Cheerleaders and their parents sued him and the school district. A district judge issued a temporary injunction, allowing the students to continue to display the verses, pending a final decision after he has fully studied the matter.
This is a tough one. Freedom of expression, freedom of and from religion, separation of church and state --this case illustrates how hard it gets when conflicting freedoms collide.
While I think that, in the purest sense, the students have the right to express their religious feelings, there are practical matters that they and their parents might want to consider. Let's say the judge rules in their favor. Next year an influx of Muslim immigrants settles in Kountze. The Muslims, hard-working, quiet citizens, decide to integrate into the community by attending the football games. And painting, in English and Arabic, "There is no God but God, and Mohammed is his Prophet" on banners of their own. And "Allahu akbar!" ("God is great.")
Maybe a group of Wiccans arrives and decides to do likewise. And maybe some Atheists. These groups have been held by the courts to have rights similar to religions with which most of us are more familiar.
The original American idea was kicked off, in many ways, by people looking for religious freedom. To be sure, many of them just wanted such freedom for their own religion, not for anyone else's. But some pretty smart people managed to enshrine the idea of "freedom of religion," period, in our system. That doesn't just mean the Christian religion. We Christians mostly believe it's the only true religion, but Muslims and Buddhists and Hindus and others think likewise about their own.
It's bad when religions fight each other in the name of God. And those fights are sometimes among the most vicious and bloody. Note ongoing battles in the Middle East just between different sects of the same religion. Not to mention the continuing, nagging, terrorist efforts against our own country, fueled by if not based upon religious differences and resentments.
I spent a year in a country where the outward symbols of the accepted religion were followed devoutly. Proof was obvious to the eye and the ear, throughout each day. It didn't make me want to switch to that religion. I was drawn to some of the people, and came to appreciate some aspects of their beliefs, by their interactions with me and by how I saw them live. Not by words they spoke or signs they erected.
I don't envy the judge down in Kountze. Deciding any case involving the conflict of competing freedoms is tough. When it involves two religions, Christianity and football, it has to be even tougher.
Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."