Kountze High School cheerleader Brooke Coates paints scripture verses on a car Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2012 in Kountze, Texas. The small Hardin County community is rallying behind the high school's cheerleaders after the squad members were told they could not use scripture verses on their signs at the football games. (AP Photo/The Beaumont Enterprise, Dave Ryan)
HOUSTON — Texas is football country, and in the small town of Kountze, about 85 miles northeast of Houston, that means many of the roughly 2,000 residents gather at the public high school on Friday nights to watch the show: the coaches, the players and of course the cheerleaders toting their homemade biblical banners, or "spirit signs."
"I can do all things through Christ which strengthens! Phil 4:13."
"If God is for us, who can be against us? Romans 8:31."
"But thanks be to God which gives us Victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Cor 15:57."
"Coaches preach devotionals before games. We wanted to show our support for our boys," said cheerleader Meagan Tantillo, who started making the religious signs this year, inspired during summer cheer camp.
Sophomore Macy Matthews said she made the signs to "give glory to God" and to encourage the team.
"It's what motivated the boys each week," said Macy, 15, in a local media report. "I didn't understand why it would be a problem."
But cause a problem it did. The school district banned the signs last month; the cheerleaders sued; a judge reinstated the signs; and on Thursday, Oct. 4, the matter again came to court. At stake — a day before the Lions' next varsity home game — was the order protecting the signs.
The uproar started a few weeks ago when someone notified the Madison, Wis.-based Freedom From Religion Foundation. Organization officials complained to the superintendent, who consulted attorneys and the Texas Association of School Boards — and banned the signs.
"It was upsetting," Macy said.
Fifteen cheerleaders — a dozen from the high school and three from the middle school — sued the district in county court.
Churches held rallies to support the cheerleaders and their signs. They petitioned the Texas attorney general, who came out in support of the cheerleaders, then Gov. Rick Perry. They launched a Facebook page that as of Oct. 4 had more than 45,000 followers.
"We aren't backing down," Meagan has said.
With the help of the conservative Plano, Texas-based Liberty Institute, the cheerleaders argue that the district is violating their freedom of religion and speech. District lawyers argue that the signs amount to government endorsement of religion.
Hardin County District Court Judge Steve Thomas agreed with the cheerleaders.
On Sept. 20, Thomas issued a temporary restraining order allowing the squad to continue using the scriptural banners and signs at football games — until the Oc.t 4 hearing.
Supporters of the cheerleaders descended on the courthouse, several wearing red T-shirts that read "Kountze Lions Strength" and "Kountze faith." The hearing was delayed, however, when the Kountze school board went into executive session before the hearing.
David Starnes, lead attorney for the cheerleaders, said the case is about free speech, not religion. He cited the 1969 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Tinker vs. Des Moines school board that protected students' right to wear arm bands protesting the Vietnam War."Students do not shed their constitutional rights when they walk through the schoolhouse door," he told the Los Angeles Times on Thursday. "If it's private speech, they can't restrain it."
Superintendent Kevin Weldon also attended the hearing, along with district attorneys. He has said he supports the cheerleaders, but was advised that their signs are illegal.
In 2000, the Supreme Court ruled in Santa Fe Independent School District vs. Doe that student-initiated prayers over a loudspeaker during football games were unconstitutional because they implied school sponsorship of the prayers — a violation of the Constitution's establishment clause barring government endorsement of religion.
comments on this story
Nine years later, school officials stopped cheerleaders at a Georgia high school from making signs similar to the Kountze squad's, citing the Santa Fe case.
But Liberty Institute lawyers cite precedents of their own — including the case of a public high school valedictorian outside San Antonio who was initially told she could not pray during her graduation speech last year, a decision initially upheld by a federal judge.
Perry urged the federal appeals court to reverse the decision, which was ultimately overturned.