Court OKs Bi­ble verses at games

Cheer­lead­ers filed suit af­ter dis­trict barred mes­sages on ban­ners

The Dallas Morning News - - Front Page - By LAU­REN McGAUGHY Austin Bureau lm­c­gaughy@dal­las­news.com

AUSTIN — Texas cheer­lead­ers can dis­play Bi­ble verses at high school foot­ball games, a state ap­peals court ruled Thurs­day.

The Ninth Court of Ap­peals sided with stu­dents from Kountze High School, who sued af­ter the dis­trict barred Chris­tian mes­sages from cheer ban­ners at foot­ball games. The cheer­lead­ers’ choice to dis­play Bi­ble verses is pro­tected as “pri­vate speech,” the ap­peals court ruled.

“We are pleased that once again re­li­gious lib­erty is vin­di­cated and that cheer­lead­ers across the state of Texas have the right to have re­li­gious mes­sages on ban­ners at high school foot­ball games,” Hi­ram Sasser, gen­eral coun­sel of the Plano-based con­ser­va­tive non- profit law firm First Lib­erty, said in a news re­lease. “No school dis­trict should be able to cen­sor, ban, or claim own­er­ship of the pri­vate re­li­gious speech of its stu­dents.”

Since their le­gal fight be­gan in 2012, the Kountze cheer­lead­ers have re­ceived wide­spread sup­port from Texas’ top Repub­li­cans, in­clud­ing Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, At­tor­ney Gen­eral Ken Pax­ton and Gov. Greg Ab­bott.

The cheer­lead­ers were pre­vi­ously def ended by James Ho, whom Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump nom­i­nated to the 5th U.S. Cir­cuit Court of Ap­peals on Thurs­day, and First As­sis­tant At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ma­teer, who has come un­der fire af­ter videos sur­faced of him de­scrib­ing trans­gen­der chil­dren as ev­i­dence of “Satan’s plan” and warn­ing that same­sex mar­riage would lead to polygamy and bes­tial­ity.

Ma­teer, who left First Lib­erty in 2016 to join the of­fice of the at­tor­ney gen­eral, was also nom­i­nated to the fed­eral bench this month.

The case dates back five years, when dis­trict of­fi­cials banned cheer­lead­ers in the south­east Texas school dis­trict from dis­play­ing ban­ners with Chris­tian themes. The move was made af­ter the Free­dom From Re­li­gion Foun­da­tion, a non­profit that ad­vo­cates for the sep­a­ra­tion of church and state, com­plained the ban­ners re­sulted in a pub­licly funded school dis­trict en­dors­ing a spe­cific re­li­gion.

Dis­trict of­fi­cials later de­cided to al­low the ban­ners, but re­tained the abil­ity to con­trol their con­tent.

A dis­trict court judge sided with the cheer­lead­ers in 2013. But the ap­peals court soon af­ter said their law­suit was moot due to the dis­trict’s pol­icy change. Even­tu­ally, the case was kicked up to the Texas Supreme Court, which re­manded it back to the ap­peals court last year.

The court’s rul­ing this week found that since cheer­lead­ing is not re­lated to the “ped­a­gog­i­cal con­cerns” of the dis­trict, the ban­ners did not amount to “gov­ern­ment speech.”

“Given the na­ture of the ex­pres­sive ac­tiv­ity — a hand-drawn, play­ful pa­per ban­ner, dis­played by cheer­lead­ers en­gaged in an ex­tra-cur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­ity, only mo­men­tar­ily be­fore the foot­ball team runs through the ban­ner — it is highly un­likely that the ban­ner would ap­pear to those in at­ten­dance at the game to con­tain a mes­sage en­dorsed by the school,” the court wrote. “Kountze ISD has not raised sub­stan­tial dis­rup­tion of or ma­te­rial in­ter­fer­ence with school ac­tiv­i­ties as a con­cern. Kountze ISD has not pleaded or of­fered any ev­i­dence of dis­rup­tion or in­ter­fer­ence.

“There­fore, we con­clude that the Cheer­lead­ers’ speech ex­pressed on the run-through ban­ners is best char­ac­ter­ized as the pure pri­vate speech of the stu­dents.”

Tom Brandt, at­tor­ney for Kountze ISD, told The Dal­las Morn­ing News

that his clients had not de­ter­mined their next steps in the case. The dis­trict could de­cide to ap­peal once again to the Texas Supreme Court.

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