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Texas fight over cheerleader banners reaches biblical proportions

A judge temporarily lifts a ban on use of Scripture to cheer on a high school football team in Kountze, Texas, but the battle is far from over.

October 05, 2012|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times
  • Brook Coates paints Scripture on a car in Kountze, Texas. The community is rallying behind high school cheerleaders who are challenging a ban on biblical banners at public high school football games.
Brook Coates paints Scripture on a car in Kountze, Texas. The community… (Dave Ryan, Beaumont Enterprise )

Texas is football country, and in the small town of Kountze, about 85 miles north of Houston, many of the roughly 2,000 residents gather at the public high school on Friday nights to watch the show — the players, the coaches and, of course, the cheerleaders in their red-and-white uniforms, toting homemade biblical banners.

"I can do all things through Christ which strengthens! Phil 4:13."

"If God is for us, who can be against us? Romans 8:31."

"But thanks be to God which gives us Victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Cor 15:57."

The Lions cheerleaders are not competitive — they don't have a coach or captain or permanent leader — and they make decisions by consensus, including what to write on their banners.

"We just wanted to encourage the boys and the fans in a way that gave honor to God. It wasn't supposed to be a big deal," said cheerleader Rebekah Richardson, 17.

But the banners have landed the cheerleaders in court. On Thursday, they made an often impassioned, sometimes tearful case for the banners — the kind that players run through — as Friday's football game against nearby Woodville approached.

The problems started last month, when someone complained about the banners to the Freedom From Religion Foundation based in Madison, Wis. Representatives from the group notified the Kountze superintendent, who consulted attorneys and the Texas Assn. of School Boards — and banned the banners. The decision was announced over the school intercom at the end of the day Sept. 18.

"I was very upset," said cheerleader Macy Matthews, 15.

Two days later, a dozen of the 17-member varsity cheerleading squad and three middle-school cheerleaders who also use such banners sued the school district in Hardin County District Court.

Churches held rallies for them. Advocates petitioned the Texas attorney general, who wrote a letter of support. Fans launched a Facebook page that drew more than 45,000 followers.

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

Judge Steve Thomas issued a temporary restraining order the day the cheerleaders filed suit, allowing them to continue using the scriptural banners until Thursday's hearing on their request for a temporary injunction. That injunction would lift the ban while their case was pending.

On Thursday, a crowd of about 80 — cheerleaders, parents and supporters — descended on the courthouse. Many were wearing red Kountze Lions T-shirts with a passage from Proverbs: "The wicked flee though no one pursues, but the righteous are as bold as a lion."

"They're learning you have to stand up for your constitutional rights," said Coti Matthews, 31, Macy's mother and a former Kountze cheerleader.

Matthews and cheerleader Kieara Moffett, both Baptists, testified that they — not their adult advisors – came up with the idea in July during summer cheer camp. They were stunned when the district banned them.

"It felt like my religion wasn't really accepted," said Moffett, a junior, dabbing her eyes with a tissue.

The school district's attorney, Tom Brandt, pointed out that Kountze High School's squad had signed a "cheerleader constitution" that limited their behavior and designated them — and thus their banners — as school symbols.

"This is government speech. It's on public property. The cheerleaders represent the school," Brandt said.

He 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. Such prayers implied school sponsorship, the court said.

Liberty Institute lawyers have cited precedents of their own — including 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 armbands to school protesting the Vietnam War.

"This is not a prayer case," attorney David Starnes said in closing, after reading Scripture, arguing that it's about free speech, including religious speech. "Even the Supreme Court has recognized you cannot take away religious expression in schools. You can do it in Russia and China, but you cannot do it in the United States."

Thomas ruled immediately, extending the temporary restraining order 14 days.

The cheerleaders left the courthouse tired, but relieved. The court battle appeared far from over, but at least they would be able to bring their banners to two more games before the next hearing.

They had made a new one earlier this week at the school, red with black letters spelling out a passage from Hebrews: "And run with endurance the race God has set before us."

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

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