KOUNTZE, Tx. – Just over three weeks ago, cheerleaders in a small Texas town won a widely-publicized court battle against their school district, allowing them to continue displaying Bible verses at school games. Now, however, the school district is prolonging the fight as it has filed an appeal of the legal ruling.
In Kountze, a sleepy east-central Texas town with 2,000 residents, middle school and high school cheerleaders have used banners decorated with Bible verses for decades. However, the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) suddenly stepped in late last year, claiming the banners were a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s church-state clause, which states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
After hearing of the FFRF’s complaints, officials at the Kountze Independent School District forced the cheerleaders to remove all Bible references from their banners. Soon afterward, the Liberty Institute—a Texas-based nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting religious freedom—filed a lawsuit against the school, claiming the cheerleaders’ rights to religious expression had been suppressed.
This sparked a long, heated, seven-month legal battle, as the Kountze ISD (backed by the FFRF) argued that the cheerleaders were using school property to endorse Christianity, while the Liberty Institute defended the cause of the cheerleaders.
Finally, on Wednesday, May 9th, Hardin County 356th District Court Judge Steve Thomas ruled that the cheerleaders’ actions were in fact permissible under both federal and state laws. Judge Thomas stated in the written ruling that the banners’ religious messages “have not created, and will not create, an establishment of religion in the Kountze community.”
After the ruling, emotions ran high. On one hand, Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the FFRF, called the verdict “outrageous.”
“The cheerleaders represent the school,” Gaylor argued, according to Reuters. “When they misuse their public podium to tell a captive audience that some of you have the right religion and the rest of you need to convert, that is not only bad law, that’s bad manners.”
Meanwhile, several high-ranking Texas state officials praised both Judge Thomas’ ruling and the cheerleaders’ courage. One such official was Governor Rick Perry.
“[This] ruling is a win for free speech and religious freedom,”Perry declared. “The Kountze High School cheerleaders showed great resolve and maturity beyond their years in standing up for their beliefs and constitutional rights.”
While the cheerleaders and the Liberty Institute celebrated the legal ruling as a victory, the FFRF and Kountze ISD vowed further action. And, on Tuesday of this week, the school followed up on their promises by officially filing an appeal to the 9th Texas Court of Appeals in nearby Beaumont.
After hearing the news of this week’s development, the Liberty Institute called the situation “unfortunate,” and David Starnes, the cheerleaders’ lawyer, warned that the entire appeal process could take a full year.
Regardless of how drawn-out the process turns out to be, the FFRF is hoping the case will eventually make it out of the Texas court system and into a federal court.
“We are hoping that students, parents, and faculty members will come forward … and we will be able to sue in federal court where this case really belongs,” Gaylor stated.
In the meantime, Hiram Sasser, Liberty Institute’s Director of Litigation, described this new chapter in the legal battle as an unnecessary waste of money.
“It is unfortunate that Kountze ISD keeps spending taxpayer money fighting against the speech rights of these cheerleaders,” Sasser stated, according to Hardin County News. “I do not understand why the school district cannot simply accept that it lost and move on instead of continuing to fight against these cheerleaders who simply wanted to encourage the players with uplifting messages.”