KOUNTZE, Texas — Cheerleaders in Texas have appealed a ruling finding a lawsuit against their local school district moot after it changed its policies surrounding the display of Bible banners during school sporting events.
As previously reported, in Kountze, Texas, a tiny east-central Texas town with 2,000 residents, middle school and high school cheerleaders have used banners decorated with Bible verses for decades. Banners include messages such as “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” from Philippians 4:13 and “If God be for us, who can be against us?” from Romans 8:31.
However, in 2012, the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) lodged a complaint with the Kountze Independent School District (ISD), claiming that 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.”
In light of FFRF’s complaint, officials with the 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.
In May of 2013, a Texas judge sided with Liberty Institute and the Kountze cheerleaders, ruling that the banners “have not created, and will not create, an establishment of religion in the Kountze community.” But as the school district appealed the decision, the case soon made its way to Texas’ Ninth District Court of Appeals. In May, while upholding the cheerleader’s right to display the banners, the court ruled that the case was now moot because the district had since altered its policy.
“With the adoption of Kountze ISD’s new policy, there is no evidence that Kountze ISD has prohibited the speech of the students, such that we would be required to determine whether a violation of their free speech right has occurred,” the ruling read. “Parents cite to no evidence in their brief to this court and we find no evidence in the record that under Kountze ISD’s new policy, the cheerleaders’ speech has been prohibited. We conclude the allegedly wrongful behavior has passed and cannot reasonably be expected to recur.”
But the Liberty Institute disagreed that the case should have been found moot.
“The district court and our state’s leading lawyers and officials, such as Attorney General Abbott, former Attorney General John Cornyn, former Solicitor General Ted Cruz and former Solicitor General Jim Ho, all agree that the school district violated the cheerleaders’ constitutional freedoms and religious liberties, and granted them relief for that reason,” said Kelly Shackelford, President and CEO of the Liberty Institute. “The Court of Appeals did not disagree with any of that, but yet is trying to take a pass on ruling, thus leaving future cheerleaders in danger.”
In a press release about its newly-filed appeal to the Texas Supreme Court, the organization stated that “the school district continues to violate the cheerleaders’ constitutional rights by declaring the religious messages on the banners to be government speech that the school has full discretion to censor.”
“This dispute over the fundamental constitutional right to freedom of speech and religious expression is anything but moot,” the appeal brief before the court further outlined. “[B]y declaring this case moot, the court of appeals has not only sanctioned the ongoing violation of the cheerleaders’ constitutional rights—it has also given its blessing to a future lawsuit that will ban religious messages from ever appearing on the cheerleaders’ banners.”
“For over two decades, everyone understood that the banners are the cheerleaders’ speech, not the government’s speech. So the cheerleaders should have the right to include religious messages if they want to,” added attorney James Ho of the law firm Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher, which has joined Liberty Institute in the fight.
“We’re disappointed that district leaders have sided with the ACLU and its allies in this case in calling this government speech,” he said. “But we thank our state’s leaders—Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz and Attorney General Greg Abbott—for siding with the cheerleaders. We ask the Texas Supreme Court to protect our rights to freedom of speech and religious expression.”