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Texas cheerleaders’ biblical banners supported by governor

HOUSTON -- Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Atty. Gen. Greg Abbott announced Wednesday that the state has intervened in a lawsuit in support of East Texas cheerleaders whose religious banners featuring scripture verses have been banned by school officials.

“As government leaders, we owe it to people of all religions to protect expressions of faith, to ensure everyone has the right to voice their opinions and worship as they see fit,” Perry said during a Wednesday morning briefing in Austin with Abbott. “During the upcoming session, we’ll continue to find ways to preserve religious expression and explore ways to protect people of faith from this ongoing onslaught.”

Abbott was more blunt in his assessment:

“After receiving a menacing letter from an organization with a reputation for bullying school districts, the Kountze [school superintendent] improperly prohibited high school cheerleaders from including religious messages on their game day banners.”

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One of the cheerleaders’ mothers said she was encouraged to see state officials support them in court.

“I think that’s awesome, that they’re on board with the girls and helping them fight for their rights,” said Coti Matthews, 31, who sued the district to keep the banners on behalf of her 15 year-old daughter and cheerleader Macy Matthews. “If everybody backs down, Christians would be backed into a corner and discriminated against.”

The legal battle over the banners--the “run through” or “breakaway” type that football players burst through onto the field -- began last month in Kountze, a small town about 85 miles northeast of Houston.

Someone complained about the banners -- which feature versus such as “I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me!” -- to the Freedom From Religion Foundation based in Madison, Wis. The organization contacted the Kountze school superintendent, who consulted attorneys and on their advice banned the banners on Sept. 18.

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In response, Matthews and the parents of 14 other cheerleaders sued the school district in Hardin County District Court.

Advocates for the cheerleaders petitioned Perry and Abbott, who wrote a letter of support. Fans launched a Facebook page that drew more than 48,000 followers.

Matthews, a former Kountze High cheerleader herself, said the school and town are so small -- about 2,100 residents, fewer than 400 students -- that if anyone disagreed with the banners, people would know.

“I don’t know of anyone, any student who goes to the school who doesn’t agree,” with the banners, she said. “They’re so close as classmates, if one didn’t view it that way, they would speak up.”

Represented by attorneys from the conservative Liberty Institute in Plano, Texas, the cheerleaders argued that the district was censoring them. District lawyers said the signs amounted to government endorsement of religion.

Judge Steve Thomas issued a temporary restraining order the day the cheerleaders filed suit, and extended it until after a hearing Oct. 4. This has allowed the girls to tote their banners to a few more games.

The restraining order expires Thursday, when the cheerleaders are due back in Thomas’ court seeking an injunction that would allow them to keep using their banners as the case progresses.

Abbott noted at the briefing that he had filed a petition with Hardin County to intervene n the case on behalf of the state to protect the cheerleaders’ religious liberties.

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“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.”

Perry, who spoke with the cheerleaders last month via videoconference, cited the state’s Religious Viewpoint Anti-Discrimination Act, passed in 2007, that requires a school district “to treat a student’s voluntary religious expression the same as a student’s expression of any other viewpoint on a permissible subject.” 

“The law is aligned with the U.S. Department of Education’s Guidance on Constitutionally Protected Prayer in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools, making it clear that students may pray or study religious materials during noninstructional times,” Perry’s office said in a statement.

But the school district’s attorney, Tom Brandt, said the U.S. Constitution’s establishment clause prevents the state endorsement of religion and appears to trump state law.

Brandt cited a 2000 U.S. Supreme Court case -- Santa Fe (N.M.) Independent School District vs. Doe -- in which justices ruled that student-initiated prayers over a loudspeaker during football games were unconstitutional because they implied school sponsorship.

“We’ve asked the court to clarify it. That’s what we want — we want some clarity in the law so we can move forward, move past this and get back to the business of educating the kids,” Brandt told The Times. “We’re not in any way hostile to religion. We’re trying to walk a very, very thin line — to follow the law and not violate anyone’s rights.”

After the last court hearing, district officials — who made it known at the hearing that they are all Christians who personally support the cheerleaders — posted a statement online noting that the district, “must follow all applicable laws in its operations, even if this practice is at times in conflict with personal beliefs of administrators and board members.”

“They’re really just caught in the middle,” Brandt said.

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Liberty Institute lawyers have countered by citing Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent Community School District, a 1969 case in which the Supreme Court found that students had a right to express themselves by wearing arm bands to school protesting the Vietnam War.

They also cite the case of a public high school valedictorian outside from South Texas who was initially told she could not pray during her graduation speech last year. Perry urged the federal appeals court to reverse the decision, which was ultimately overturned.

Mike Johnson, senior counsel with the Liberty Institute, said his organization was “delighted” to receive support from the governor and attorney general Wednesday.

“We welcome the intervention,” he told The Times. “State law is very clear and established on this idea of the protection of students’ private speech rights.”

Both sides plan to return to Hardin County District Court for the latest hearing at 9 a.m. Thursday, ahead of Kountze High School’s Friday varsity football game against Newton.

“Everyone’s just kind of anxious to find out what’s going to happen,” said Matthews, who plans to attend.

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