East Texas cheerleaders win first round of free-speech battle over religious banners
The first round of legal battle over displaying so-called Bible banners at high school football games goes to the cheerleaders in the east Texas town Kountze, Texas.
On Thursday, 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.
Thomas ruled that the school district’s ban on the practice appears to violate the students’ free speech rights.
After the ruling, many in the packed courtroom, including the cheerleaders’ parents and other supporters, broke into applause, according to the Los Angeles Times.
“It set a bar for other schools so that if they want to express their religious beliefs, they can,” Kountze cheerleader Rebekah Richardson, 17, told The Times.
A story in Saturday's Deseret News explains the background to the case that involves a group of cheerleaders who came up with the idea of writing Bible verses on banners that the football team would burst through at the start of a game.
Acting on a complaint, the Freedom From Religion Foundation wrote a letter to the Kountze Independent School District saying the practice violates the Constitution's establishment clause. School officials responded by banning the banners.
The cheerleaders responded by suing the district.
The Associated Press reported that Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who appointed Thomas, a fellow Republican, to the district court to fill a vacancy, called the ruling "a victory for all who cherish our inalienable right to freedom of speech and religious expression.”
The state intervened in the case Wednesday, filing a petition with the Texas District Court of Hardin County to support the Kountze cheerleaders.
"We will not allow atheist groups from outside the state of Texas to come into the state to use menacing and misleading and intimidating tactics to try to bully schools to bow down to the altar of secular beliefs," Abbott said.
CNN reported that Abbott's office issued a statement explaining that the Texas Religious Viewpoints Anti–Discrimination Act requires school districts to treat a student's voluntary expression of religious views in the same manner that the district treats a student's expression of any other point of view.
"Those banners, which the cheerleaders independently produce on their own time with privately funded supplies, are perfectly constitutional. The State of Texas intervened in this case to defend the cheerleaders' right to exercise their personal religious beliefs - and to defend the constitutionality of a state law that protects religious liberties for all Texans," the statement read.
Foundation lawyer Randall Kallinen told CNN that the state's involvement was a political stunt, and he defended the district's interpretation that a football game on public school property is a state-sponsored event.
"And when it is school-sponsored speech, then it is subject to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, and that is that the government should not promote, endorse, or advance a particular religion," he said.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is not a party in the lawsuit, but is asking anyone with standing to sue to contact the foundation, which is “prepared to challenge the continuing violation in federal court, where this case belongs."
As for the school district, its attorney Thomas Brandt told CNN that interpretations of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause can be "a bit confused and confusing."
"Most legal scholars and many judges will admit that the opinions that come out in the Establishment Clause area have been lacking in consistency," he said. "There doesn't seem to (be) any clear guidance as to individual circumstances."
He explained that the district's intent is to get some guidance from the court. "On the one hand, we're trying not to be endorsing any particular religion. On the other hand, we're not trying to be hostile to religion. We're trying to walk that very thin line of this elusive neutrality that we are required to achieve."
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