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Texas high school cheerleaders win Bible-banners case

Published: Thursday, May 9 2013 12:00 p.m. MDT

In this Sept. 19, 2012 file photo, Kountze High School cheerleaders and other children work on a large banner in Kountze, Texas. A judge on Wednesday, May 9, 2013 ruled that cheerleaders at the high school can display banners emblazoned with Bible verses at football games. The dispute began during the last football season when the district barred cheerleaders from using run-through banners that displayed religious messages, such as In this Sept. 19, 2012 file photo, Kountze High School cheerleaders and other children work on a large banner in Kountze, Texas. A judge on Wednesday, May 9, 2013 ruled that cheerleaders at the high school can display banners emblazoned with Bible verses at football games. The dispute began during the last football season when the district barred cheerleaders from using run-through banners that displayed religious messages, such as "If God is for us, who can be against us." (Associated Press)

A Texas judge has ruled that Kountze High School cheerleaders aren't violating the Constitution by displaying banners with biblical verses at football games.

The decision, issued Wednesday, was hailed as a victory for religious liberty advocates, but school attorneys and an atheist group whose complaint about the banners launched the legal battle say the issue isn't entirely settled.

State District Judge Steven Thomas determined that no law "prohibits cheerleaders from using religious-themed banners at school sporting events," according to the Associated Press.

But the school district may ask Thomas for a clarification. School district attorney Thomas Brandt said Judge Thomas also granted a school district motion in his ruling that says the district can permit the banners under the establishment clause but is not required to do so. Brandt said the district's motion argued the banners are the speech of the school, not private speech, so the school has a right to have editorial control of the banners.

Kountze High School cheerleader Brooke Coates paints scripture verses on a car Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2012 in Kountze, Texas. A judge on Wednesday, May 9, 2013 ruled that cheerleaders at the high school can display banners emblazoned with Bible verses at football games. The dispute began during the last football season when the district barred cheerleaders from using run-through banners that displayed religious messages, such as Kountze High School cheerleader Brooke Coates paints scripture verses on a car Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2012 in Kountze, Texas. A judge on Wednesday, May 9, 2013 ruled that cheerleaders at the high school can display banners emblazoned with Bible verses at football games. The dispute began during the last football season when the district barred cheerleaders from using run-through banners that displayed religious messages, such as "If God is for us, who can be against us." (Dave Ryan, The Beaumont Enterprise, Associated Press)

Still, those siding with the cheerleaders are calling it a victory, and it's unlikely the school district will not allow Bible verses emblazoned on banners that the team breaks through as it runs onto the field.

"This is a victory for students across the country," said Jeff Mateer, general counsel for the Liberty Institute, which represented the cheerleaders, told Rueters. "The message that this decision sends is it is impermissible for the government to ban the private speech of students."

The legal dispute began last fall when the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation wrote a letter to the Kountz school district complaining that banners with sayings such as "If God is for us, who can be against us," violated the Constitution's First Amendment establishment clause, which prohibits government from establishing or endorsing a religion.

The district prohibited the banners, prompting the cheerleaders to sue and win a temporary injunction to continue displaying the banners pending the lawsuit's outcome. Thomas' ruling came after both sides requested decision, or summary judgment.

Kountze High School cheerleaders, from left, Savannah Short, Macy Matthews, Kieara Moffett and Rebekah Richardson speak to reporters Wednesday, May 8, 2013, in Beaumont, Texas. State District Judge Steve Thomas determined the Kountze High School cheerleaders' banners are constitutionally permissible. In a copy of the ruling obtained by Beaumont station KFDM, Thomas determined that no law Kountze High School cheerleaders, from left, Savannah Short, Macy Matthews, Kieara Moffett and Rebekah Richardson speak to reporters Wednesday, May 8, 2013, in Beaumont, Texas. State District Judge Steve Thomas determined the Kountze High School cheerleaders' banners are constitutionally permissible. In a copy of the ruling obtained by Beaumont station KFDM, Thomas determined that no law "prohibits cheerleaders from using religious-themed banners at school sporting events." (AP Photo/The Beaumont Enterprise, Guiseppe Barranco) (Guiseppe Barranco, AP)

The case created a national stir, with the cheerleaders appearing on morning television news shows and Texas leaders taking their side, including Gov. Rick Perry and state Attorney General Greg Abbott. Both men praised this week's ruling.

“Today’s ruling is a win for free speech and religious freedom," Perry said in a statement issued Wednesday. "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 Beamont Enterprise reported that Thomas' ruling was based on a state law that calls the banners private speech, an argument the 15 cheerleaders made in claiming the sentiments were their own and the banners created with supplies they purchased.

But foundation co-president Annie Gaylor said the case belongs in federal court and if someone from the community wants to step up as plaintiff, the foundation will sue in federal court.

Kountze High School cheerleaders, from left, Savannah Short, Macy Matthews, Kieara Moffett and Rebekah Richardson speak to reporters Wednesday, May 8, 2013, in Beaumont, Texas. State District Judge Steve Thomas determined the Kountze High School cheerleaders' banners are constitutionally permissible. In a copy of the ruling obtained by Beaumont station KFDM, Thomas determined that no law Kountze High School cheerleaders, from left, Savannah Short, Macy Matthews, Kieara Moffett and Rebekah Richardson speak to reporters Wednesday, May 8, 2013, in Beaumont, Texas. State District Judge Steve Thomas determined the Kountze High School cheerleaders' banners are constitutionally permissible. In a copy of the ruling obtained by Beaumont station KFDM, Thomas determined that no law "prohibits cheerleaders from using religious-themed banners at school sporting events." (AP Photo/The Beaumont Enterprise, Guiseppe Barranco) (Guiseppe Barranco, AP)

"In our opinion, this court just said that Christianity is an official school religion," Gaylor said, citing as a precedent, a ruling in 2000 that student-led prayer ahead of high school football games in Texas' Santa Fe Independent School District violated the Constitution.

Email: mbrown@deseretnews.com

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