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Texas cheerleaders' biblical banners headed back to court

October 18, 2012|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske
  • Cheerleaders in Kountze, Texas, are returning to court to defend their use of faith-based banners at school football games.
Cheerleaders in Kountze, Texas, are returning to court to defend their… (Randy Edwards / Beaumont…)

Houston —

Attorneys and parents of Texas cheerleaders banned from creating Scripture-themed banners at public school football games are expected to return to court Thursday to defend the signs as religious free speech.

The hearing comes a day after Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Atty. Gen. Greg Abbott announced that the state had intervened in support of the cheerleaders' lawsuit to overturn the school district's ban.

One of the cheerleaders said she was encouraged by the state officials' support.

“We’re very thankful for them standing up for our rights,” Macy Matthews, 15, told the Los Angeles Times.

But opponents said the officials had overstepped their bounds with a court filing in support of the cheerleaders.

“The attorney general has crossed the line,” Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation based in Madison, Wis., told The Times. Her group also released a statement late Wednesday condemning Abbott and Perry’s comments.

“We are defending freedom of conscience. The Constitution differentiates government [public school] speech from individual speech. Those cheerleaders are free to worship as they like, go to the church of their choice, but not to exploit a public school event, and their school-sponsored podium, to push their personal religious views on an entire stadium. That’s just plain bad manners,” the statement said.

The legal battle over the banners began last month in Kountze, a small town (population about 2,100) that's about 85 miles northeast of Houston. Someone complained to Gaylor’s group, and officials there wrote a letter to the Kountze school superintendent.

The complaint came from an individual in Kountze, a “nonbeliever” who regularly attends football games and was “quite shocked” by the banners, Gaylor said, but “is not able to come forward” out of fear of retaliation.

She cited a study released last week by the Pew Forum on Religion and  Public Life that showed 1 in 5 Americans is not affiliated with a particular religion.

"Every place has nonbelievers, even in Kountze," Gaylor said.

Matthews said that if she could speak to the person who complained, “I would actually thank them. I’m very grateful they did this — there’s millions of people it’s reached, and they wouldn’t have heard about it without this.”

After the superintendent received the complaint, he consulted school district attorneys, then banned the banners on Sept. 18. In response, the parents of Matthews and 14 other cheerleaders sued the district. Represented by attorneys from the Liberty Institute in Plano, Texas, they argued that the district was censoring them.

District lawyers said the signs amounted to government endorsement of religion.

Hardin County District Judge Steve Thomas issued a temporary restraining order, which expires Thursday, and now the cheerleaders’ attorneys are returning to Kountze to seek an injunction that would allow them to keep displaying the banners as the case progresses.

Fans of the cheerleaders created a Facebook page that has drawn more than 48,000 followers. The banners have been imitated in other parts of Texas and in Oklahoma and Mississippi, Gaylor said.

The two sides are to meet again in court Thursday morning, ahead of the next Kountze High School varsity football game, scheduled for Friday night.

Cheerleaders have already made a banner for the game, once again  including Scripture, Matthews said.

“I’m just hoping the judge rules in our favor,” she said. “I’m very sincere in my religious beliefs. I just think it’s our right, our freedom of religion.”

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