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An East Texas school district’s flagpole raises questions about America’s separation of church and state

By Pooja Salhotra, The Texas Tribune

An East Texas school district’s flagpole raises questions about America’s separation of church and state” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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The first time Kenneth Bitz drove past the newly constructed auditorium in LaPoynor Independent School District southwest of Tyler in 2017, he was offended.

He saw three flagpoles — one for the U.S. flag, one for the Texas flag, and, alarmingly to him, one that flew a Christian flag bearing a cross. Bitz considered that third flag a gross violation of church-state separation.

“It’s like a glaring red flag,” said Bitz, a resident of the unincorporated community of LaRue in Henderson County. “As far as I know, this is the only district that flies a Christian flag.”

Bitz wasn’t the only one concerned about the placement of a religious symbol on public property. A national nonprofit group asked the East Texas district that serves fewer than 500 students to take down the flag, arguing it violated the separation of church and state, a principle that has long been widely considered to be enshrined in the First Amendment. In a letter to the district’s superintendent, attorneys from the Freedom from Religion Foundation said displaying the cross amounted to an “unconstitutional endorsement of religion” and that the district must immediately remove it.

Students in the conservative community protested by putting their own Christian flags on the hoods of their cars. But the district ultimately removed the flag and flew one from the Texas Revolution in its place.

But the Christian flag has returned.

After the controversy about the Christian flag, the district formed a group of students to serve as a committee that selects what flag flies on that third pole. The group is made up of the student from each grade level with the highest grade-point average and meets on a monthly basis under the supervision of a district parent, according to Superintendent Marsha Mills.

The group has chosen different flags, including one for Breast Cancer Awareness Month and one with the district’s mascot. It raises money to purchase any new flags, Mills said. But the Christian flag seems to be a frequent choice.

“Based on my observations, the Christian flag has been up since the end of October,” Bitz said.

In a Jan. 9 interview with the Tribune, Mills said she did not pay attention to what flag was up at any given time. On Jan. 19, the third pole no longer flew the Christian flag, but a solid purple one. That flag was chosen because homecoming took place on Jan. 19, and purple is the school’s color, Mills said.

In relinquishing control of the flagpole, LaPoynor ISD could be testing the limits of the principle of church-state separation, whether that’s the intent or not.

“There was a time when we thought that having a religious flag would be a violation of the establishment clause,” said Steven Collis, director of the First Amendment Center and the Law and Religion Clinic at the University of Texas at Austin. “That’s no longer the case as long as everyone has equal access to the flagpole.”

Collis said that because of that ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court, LaPoynor ISD is likely allowed to fly the Christian flag if students are the ones choosing to do so. He said the critical question would be whether all students have access to the flagpole. Students of other religions could argue that they would never have the numbers necessary to have enough representation on the flag committee to select a flag that represents their interests.

Sam Grover, an attorney at the Freedom from Religion Foundation, said that if community members are concerned about the flag, they can reach back out to the foundation for support in challenging it.

The return of the Christian flag comes at a time when both Texas and the conservative U.S. Supreme Court have tested or redrawn the lines on what constitutes a violation of the First Amendment.

Last year, the Texas Senate passed a bill requiring public school classrooms to display copies of the Judeo-Christian Ten Commandments. During debate, conservative lawmakers called church-state separation a “false doctrine.” The bill ultimately died in the Texas House.

But in 2021, both chambers passed a law requiring Texas classrooms to display any signs reading “In God We Trust” if someone donated them. And last year, lawmakers crafted a new law allowing unlicensed religious chaplains to work in Texas public schools. Conservative Christians argued that the chaplains could help prevent school shootings, drug use and other problems by returning God to classrooms. The law did not outline the chaplain’s role in the school or mandate any training requirements.

The U.S. Supreme Court has simultaneously become far more likely to rule in favor of religious rights in recent years, especially under Chief Justice John Roberts. The court has recently ruled, for example, that state programs supporting private schools must include religious ones, essentially allowing public funding to go to religious schools.

The high court also ruled that a Washington state football coach’s post-game prayers on the 50-yard line were protected by the First Amendment. And in a case whose facts compare to those in LaPoynor ISD, the court ruled that Boston violated the First Amendment when it refused to let a private group raise a Christian flag in front of City Hall.

Those court decisions — and a growing acceptance of Christian nationalism — have emboldened conservative Christians who want to further insert religion in public life. Christian nationalism is an anti-democratic idea that America is a nation founded by and for Christians and that its laws and institutions should favor Christianity. The movement has become increasingly mainstream and was bolstered during Donald Trump’s presidency.

More than half of Republicans adhere to or sympathize with Christian nationalist ideology, according to polling by the Public Religion Research Institute.

“Christian nationalism has been a major force in Texas politics for the past couple of decades, and there’s a concerted push to undermine the separation of church and state,” said David Brockman, a nonresident scholar in religion and public policy at the Baker Institute.

But back in East Texas, there does not appear to be enough concern over the flag for students to mount such a battle. Parents in the district say they are in support of the Christian flag and do not know of anyone who is upset about the religious symbol.

“I believe in Jesus Christ, and I would not let my children go to school somewhere that does not believe in Jesus Christ,” said Ashley Hamby Brauher, who has three children in the district. “I support the flag 100%.”

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