Court OKs Bible verses at games
Cheerleaders filed suit after district barred messages on banners
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.