KOUNTZE, Tx. – Four months after a district judge ruled that cheerleaders could legally display Bible verse banners at school football games, several religious organizations have joined a court brief challenging the decision.
As previously reported, public school cheerleaders in the tiny east Texas community of Kountze are fighting for the right to display banners with inspirational Bible verses at sporting events. Following a complaint last year by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, school officials ordered the cheerleaders to stop including Scriptures on their signs. However, the Liberty Institute—a religious rights organization—legally challenged the school’s action, and in early May a Texas judge ruled that the banner displays were constitutional.
Despite the ruling in the cheerleaders’ favor, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on Thursday filed a 79-page “friend of the court” brief in Texas’ Ninth District Court of Appeals. Although the document was written by ACLU attorneys, several other organizations are listed as sponsors of the motion, including the Interfaith Alliance Foundation, Muslim Advocates, the Union for Reform Judaism, the Hindu American Foundation, the Sikh Coalition and Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
“According to the 2010 U.S. Religion Census, more Muslims live in Texas than any other state,” the ACLU asserted in a news release announcing the participation of the groups. “Texas is second only to California in the number of Hindus and ranks third in the number of Buddhists.”
As explained in the legal brief, these organizations believe the cheerleaders’ banners violate the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause, which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The brief argues that “robust enforcement of the Establishment Clause is a vital and necessary means of ensuring that freedom of individual conscience can flourish in our society.”
“Robust enforcement of Establishment Clause principles,” the brief continues, “is especially important in public schools: Students are more susceptible to the harms of school-sponsored religious messages and exercise; and public schools play a unique role in our democracy by bringing together students of diverse religious backgrounds and preparing them for their responsibilities as citizens.”
In a Friday statement, Gregory Lipper of Americans United for Separation of Church and State condemned the cheerleaders’ actions as unconstitutional “religious exercises.”
“Students have the right to take part in school activities without being pressured to participate in religious exercises,” he stated. “And the school has an obligation to protect the religious freedom of all of its students—not just those in the majority.”
In a similar statement, ACLU spokespersons claimed that the Bible verse-touting banners make “Friday night lights … more like a Sunday morning sermon.”
David Starnes of the Liberty Institute says it is reprehensible that Kountze school officials and the ACLU are “fighting to censor the private religious messages of the cheerleaders.”
Following this observation, school attorney Tom Brandt asserted that the school has in no way “cozied up” with the ACLU—even though the school district is also fighting to ban the religious banners.
“It’s completely outrageous for anyone to suggest in any way, shape or form that the school district is partnering with the ACLU,” Brandt said, according to the Beaumont Enterprise.
Despite the opposition from the various groups, Starnes remains optimistic about the situation.
“We understand that the Kountze School Board and their ACLU allies are fighting against us with everything they have, but we believe the law and the facts are on our side, and we will prevail,” he stated.
Photo: Texas Ninth District Court of Appeals