AUSTIN, Texas -- A judge stopped an East Texas school district on Thursday from barring cheerleaders from quoting Bible verses on banners at high school football games, saying the policy appears to violate their free speech rights.
District Judge Steve Thomas granted an injunction requested by the Kountze High School cheerleaders allowing them to continue displaying religious-themed banners pending the outcome of a lawsuit, which is set to go to trial next June 24, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said. Thomas previously granted a temporary restraining order allowing the practice to continue.
School officials barred the cheerleaders from displaying banners with religious messages such as, "If God is for us, who can be against us," after the Freedom From Religion Foundation complained. The advocacy group says the messages violate the First Amendment clause barring the government—or a publicly funded school district, in this case—from establishing or endorsing a religion.
The decision came as a relief for twin cheerleaders Ashton and Whitney Jennings, who are also the daughters of a minister.
"I’m done worrying," said Ashton. "I’m done worrying about lawyers and court cases. I’m thinking about, ‘Let’s win some football games.’ The only thing I’m gonna be worrying about is the score."
Republican Gov. Rick Perry and Abbott spoke out in support of the cheerleaders on Wednesday. Perry appointed Thomas to fill a vacancy on the 356th District Court, and he is running for election to continue in the post as a Republican.
"The Constitution has never demanded that students check their religious beliefs at the schoolhouse door," Abbott said in a statement issued after the ruling. "Students’ ability to express their religious views adds to the diversity of thought that has made this country so strong."
Abbott filed court papers to intervene in the lawsuit and sent state attorneys to support the cheerleaders’ position that the district’s ban violated their free speech rights. The Texas Education Code also states that schools must respect the rights of students to express their religious beliefs.
David Starnes, the Liberty Institute attorney representing the cheerleaders in this case, said he hopes the message, even if just a temporary injunction, sends a message to all public schools in Texas.
"Students have the right to freely express their religious viewpoints in every school district in Texas," he said.
Thomas Brandt, the attorney representing the school district, said the superintendent had acted to comply within existing legal rulings.
The Anti-Defamation League issued a statement in which it called the judge’s decision misguided.
"Public schools are for children of all faiths or no faith, and these banners were clearly being displayed in the context of school-sponsored activities," the group said. "Faith is a profoundly personal decision, so students should not be subjected to an exclusionary school-sponsored religious message on campus or be forced to choose between attending quintessential school events—football games—or being subjected to an unwanted religious message."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, which is dedicated to the separation of church and state, argued in the context of a football game it was unclear who was responsible for the messages, the school or the cheerleaders.
"The speech in question is government speech or, at a minimum, school-sponsored speech," the group said in court papers. "If the majority of the cheerleaders were atheists, would a court support their ‘right’ to hold up a banner insulting Christianity or all believers? The district has every right to simply prohibit all run-through and on-field banners."
Perry said Texans should encourage the cheerleaders.
"Anyone who is expressing their faith should be celebrated, from my perspective, in this day and age of instant gratification, this me-first culture that we see all too often," Perry said Wednesday. "We’re a nation built on the concept of free expression of ideas. We’re also a culture built on the concept that the original law is God’s law, outlined in the Ten Commandments."
Kountze ISD Superintendent Kevin Weldon, who calls himself a devoted Christian, says he was just following legal advice when he originally told the students they could not display the banners on the football field. He hopes that a compromise can be reached between now and the next court date in June.
The cheerleaders have already created the paper banner that the Kountze High School Lions football team will run through at tomorrow night’s home game. It’s from Luke 18:27: "The things which are impossible with men are possible with God."
That’s what the cheerleaders and their parents are banking on when this finally goes to trial next year.
"We just have to keep praying. Just have faith in God which is what has got us here," said Shy Seaman who is the mom of a Kountze High School Cheerleader. "And I think with him on our side we’ll have a victory in June too."