Judge rules in favor of Kountze cheerleaders displaying Bible verses

May 8, 2013 6:02:32 PM PDT
A judge ruled Wednesday that cheerleaders at a Southeast Texas high school can display banners emblazoned with Bible verses at football games.

State District Judge Steve Thomas determined the Kountze High School cheerleaders' banners are constitutionally permissible. Thomas determined that no law "prohibits cheerleaders from using religious-themed banners at school sporting events."

The ruling ends the case in Thomas' court. The lawsuit had been scheduled for trial June 24.

In October, Thomas granted an injunction requested by the cheerleaders allowing them to continue displaying religious-themed banners pending the lawsuit's outcome. Thomas at the time said the district's ban on the practice appeared to violate free speech rights.

School district officials had 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 said the messages violated the First Amendment's so-called Establishment Clause, which bars the government -- or a publicly funded school district, in this case -- from establishing or endorsing a religion.

Attorneys for the cheerleaders, who were supported by the Liberty Institute, a Plano, Texas-based nonprofit law firm, argued the girls' First Amendment rights to free speech were being violated by the school district and that the messages on the banners were not asking anyone to believe in Christianity or accept the faith.

"The Court's order today that the cheerleaders' run-through banners are constitutionally permissible vindicates our clients' rights and brings this case to a successful end," said Roger Byron, an attorney with Liberty Institute. "We are pleased that the judge ruled to protect the cheerleaders' display of banners with religious messages at sporting events. This is a great victory, not only for these cheerleaders, but for religious liberty of student leaders across the country."

The Anti-Defamation League, however, criticized the ruling.

"High school football games are a quintessential school event and cheerleaders are a key part of that event," said Martin B. Cominsky, ADL Southwest Regional Director. "This decision flies in the face of clear U.S. Supreme Court and other rulings. The religious banners blatantly convey a message that the school supports and promotes one religion over any other. Not only is that inappropriate, the court should have found it unconstitutional."

The cheerleaders in Kountze, located about 95 miles northeast of Houston, received support in their lawsuit from various state officials, including Gov. Rick Perry and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who filed court papers seeking to intervene in the lawsuit on behalf of them. A Facebook group created after the ban, Support Kountze Kids Faith, has more than 45,000 members.

Governor Perry released a statement: " Today's ruling is a win for free speech and religious freedom. The Kountze High School cheerleaders showed great resolve and maturity beyond their years in standing up for their beliefs and constitutional rights. I'm proud of them and I celebrate this victory alongside them."

The school district eventually reversed course and supported the banners, a move that prompted Thomas to issue his summary judgment so as to avoid a trial.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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