A cheer for the cheer­lead­ers

Houston Chronicle - - NATION | WORLD - By Keisha Rus­sell Rus­sell is as­so­ciate coun­sel to First Lib­erty In­sti­tute, a non­profit law firm ded­i­cated to de­fend­ing re­li­gious free­dom for all.

Foot­ball and Texas. The words are nearly syn­ony­mous. In the land of Fri­day Night Lights, some joke that foot­ball is the state’s un­of­fi­cial re­li­gion.

But it’s the free­dom to ex­er­cise re­li­gion that has flum­moxed one Texas school dis­trict more than the triple-op­tion ever could.

In this case, it’s a group of mid­dle and high school cheer­lead­ers who de­feated the Kountze In­de­pen­dent School Dis­trict . The Texas Supreme Court in Au­gust af­firmed — for the sec­ond time — the re­li­gious lib­erty right of KISD cheer­lead­ers to paint in­spi­ra­tional Bi­ble verses on gameday ban­ners at foot­ball games. Kountz is lo­cated 85 miles north­east of Hous­ton.

The story be­gan seven sea­sons ago when a sec­u­lar­ist group wrote a let­ter to KISD com­plain­ing that its cheer­lead­ers were us­ing Bi­ble verses on run-through ban­ners at foot­ball games. The cheer­lead­ers used their own money to buy sup­plies and chose the pos­i­tive mes­sages for their ban­ners.

The KISD su­per­in­ten­dent im­me­di­ately caved to pres­sure and banned the re­li­gious mes­sages. The cheer­lead­ers, ex­hibit­ing more courage than their adult school ad­min­is­tra­tors, made the bold de­ci­sion to fight for their free speech and re­li­gious lib­erty rights.

My law firm, First Lib­erty In­sti­tute, along with Allyson Ho of Gib­son, Dunn, and Crutcher, LLP, and David W. Starnes, rep­re­sented the cheer­lead­ers and their par­ents for free. In May of 2013, a Hardin County Dis­trict Court found that the Kountze cheer­lead­ers had the con­sti­tu­tional right to dis­play their Bi­ble verse ban­ners at KISD sport­ing events.

KISD filed an ap­peal and drafted a new player — the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union. It didn’t help. Since then, KISD has con­tin­ued to lose to the cheer­lead­ers.

Sim­i­lar to speech and re­li­gion mat­ters in school districts across the coun­try, cases like this come down to who con­trols the speech. In Kountze, it’s about whose speech is on the ban­ners.

If the school dis­trict could prove that the mes­sages cho­sen by the cheer­lead­ers, and dis­played us­ing pa­per and paint the cheer­lead­ers paid for, was the school dis­trict’s speech, KISD could claim it to be gov­ern­ment speech and cen­sor the ban­ners. But if the mes­sages were the cheer­lead­ers’ pri­vate speech, then KISD vi­o­lated the law by ban­ning the Bi­ble verses.

Twice, the Supreme Court of Texas agreed that the speech in ques­tion be­longed to the cheer­lead­ers.

Just be­cause the cheer­lead­ers “spoke” on school grounds does not en­ti­tle KISD to com­man­deer oth­er­wise pro­tected speech.

That is why, over seven years, and sev­eral ap­peals by the school dis­trict, Texas courts have re­peat­edly de­clared that that KISD vi­o­lated the cheer­lead­ers’ rights un­der the Texas Con­sti­tu­tion when it tried to cen­sor their speech be­cause of the re­li­gious con­tent.

At this point, you would think the school dis­trict would move on. But alas, de­spite re­peat­edly los­ing to the cheer­lead­ers in court, the school dis­trict re­cently filed yet an­other ap­peal with the Texas Supreme Court.

The first time the Texas Supreme Court rec­og­nized the cheer­lead­ers rights, it com­mented, “Texas Fri­day Night foot­ball is a tra­di­tion all of its own.” But KISD of­fi­cials have cre­ated a new tra­di­tion — wast­ing tax­payer dollars pur­su­ing a law­suit that it can­not win.

In­deed, school districts ev­ery­where should learn an im­por­tant les­son from this case: While some seek to rid the na­tion’s pub­lic schools of re­li­gious ex­pres­sion, stu­dents do not lose their First Amend­ment rights at the school­house gate. Threats from out­side anti-re­li­gion or­ga­ni­za­tions should not dis­suade school boards and ad­min­is­tra­tors from re­spect­ing the re­li­gious ex­pres­sion of stu­dents.

That’s a re­al­ity we should all cheer.

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