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Texas cheerleaders win on Bible banners -- for now

KOUNTZE, Texas -- The cheerleaders of Kountze High School are free to wave their Bible verse banners at football games, at least for the rest of the school year, after a judge granted a temporary injunction Thursday preventing school officials from enforcing a ban on the signs.

In a case that has ignited a national controversy over religious freedom, Hardin County District Judge Steve Thomas said the cheerleaders had “raised some relatively complex issues.”

Thomas said he decided to “preserve the status quo” pending a jury trial June 24, in effect allowing the cheerleaders to keep displaying their banners for the rest of the school year, including a big football game Friday night.

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The Lions have a 5-1 record, the best in recent memory. Among the verses on the “breakaway” banners that players have run through to burst onto the field this season: “I can do all things through Christ which strengthens! Phil 4:13” and “If God is for us, who can be against us? Romans 8:31.”

In an order granting the injunction, the judge wrote that if he did not act, the district’s “unlawful policy prohibiting private religious expression will remain in effect” and the cheerleaders “will be prohibited from exercising their constitutional and statutory rights.”

After the ruling, many in the packed courtroom, including the cheerleaders’ parents and other supporters, broke into applause.

“It set a bar for other schools so that if they want to express their religious beliefs, they can,” Kountze cheerleader Rebekah Richardson, 17, told The Times.

Opponents said they were disappointed with the judge’s decision but not surprised.

“We’re just seeing a great bullying response by the state of Texas against irreligious minorities. It’s very ugly,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation based in Madison, Wis., which made the complaint about the banners.

District officials said they had no immediate plans to appeal.

“I respect the judge for what he did,” Kountze Supt. Kevin Weldon told The Times. “He was in a pretty tough predicament, like myself.”

The legal battle over the banners began last month in Kountze, population roughly 2,100, about 85 miles northeast of Houston.

Someone in town, a “nonbeliever” who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution, complained about the banners to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and officials there contacted the superintendent.

Weldon consulted the district attorney about the banners and prohibited them Sept. 18, concerned that they amounted to government endorsement of religion, violating the Constitution.

In response, the parents of 15 cheerleaders sued the district. They were represented by attorneys from the Liberty Institute in Plano, Texas, who argued that the ban amounted to censorship.

Thomas had previously issued a temporary restraining order allowing the cheerleaders to keep using the banners, which he extended after testimony from the superintendent and two cheerleaders at a hearing this month. That order would have expired Thursday.

Texas Atty. Gen. Greg Abbott, who intervened in the lawsuit in support of the cheerleaders Wednesday, sent a lawyer to Thursday’s hearing who urged the judge to side with the girls, and issued a statement afterward praising the ruling.

“Just as schools cannot command students to support a particular belief, those same schools cannot silence a student’s religious belief. The Constitution does not give preference to those who have no religious beliefs over those who do,” Abbott said.

The school district’s lawyer, Tom Brandt, had cited a 2000 Supreme Court case, Santa Fe Independent School District vs. Doe, in which the justices ruled that student-initiated prayers over a loudspeaker during football games were unconstitutional because they implied school sponsorship.

Liberty Institute lawyer David Starnes countered by citing the case of a public high school valedictorian in the San Antonio area who was initially told she could not pray during her graduation speech last year, a decision ultimately overturned by a federal appeals court.

Some supporters of the cheerleaders wore red T-shirts with Biblical verses to the court hearing, which was also attended by a member of Concerned East Texans for the Separation of Church and State.

Before his ruling Thursday, Thomas asked several questions of both sides. “Is it government speech or private speech, putting Bible verses on a banner?” he asked.

Starnes insisted that the cheerleaders designed the banners themselves, so “it is clearly, without a doubt, private speech.”

“When a football player runs into the end zone and points at the sky, is that going to be prohibited?” he said. “There is still in this country and this state the right to express religious viewpoints.”

Brandt disagreed. He argued that the cheerleaders had signed the district’s “cheerleader constitution” regulating their speech and making them representatives of the school.

“School-sponsored speech is speech that can be regulated. It’s hard to argue that the banner on your field with your representatives is not school-sponsored,” he said, calling the cheerleaders “puppets on a string” for the school.

The judge appeared skeptical.

“I go to football games myself every night,” Thomas said. “And when the kids get down on their knees, is that prohibited? Voluntary expression, that’s what we’re talking about.”

After the judge granted the injunction, Brandt told The Times that he planned to consult with district leaders to determine whether they wanted to appeal. The superintendent said he needed to consult with Brandt about that decision.

“I personally applaud the kids for standing up for their beliefs in such a bold way,” Weldon said.

The cheerleaders’ attorneys called it “a banner day in court.”

“No student should ever have to leave his or her religious expression at the schoolhouse gate. Thanks to this victory, the bullying tactics will stop and an entire school district can exercise free speech without government censorship,” said Mike Johnson, senior counsel at the Liberty Institute.

But the case is far from settled, and is likely to remain in the limelight until the trial next summer.

Fans of the cheerleaders created a private Facebook group page that has drawn more than 48,000 members. Some posted signs in their yards that read, “The righteous are as bold as a lion, Proverbs 28:1.” The cheerleaders’ biblical banners have been imitated in other parts of Texas and in Oklahoma and Mississippi, Gaylor said.

Concerned East Texans for the Separation of Church and State, a group that formed in response to the banners, has its own private Facebook group with 279 members, some of whom sent a gift basket to the school district this month. Members have shown up at Kountze football games with signs of their own, saying, “We support the separation of church and state.”

A member of the group who attended Thursday’s hearing, a 48-year-old agnostic mother from a nearby town, opposed the banners. She asked not to be named for fear of being threatened. She told The Times that the school was endorsing Christianity at the expense of the minority of local nonbelievers.

“What if one little cheerleader isn’t Christian — who’s going to speak up for her?” she said.

Cheerleaders Kieara Moffett, 16, said the judge’s ruling “means we can encourage our boys and give them that little oomph they need that could help them win.”

The cheerleaders have already made a new pink banner for the game. It includes the Scripture Luke 18:27: “And he said the things which are impossible with man are possible with God.”

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