Cheerleaders and other children work on a banner in Kountze, Texas. (Dave Ryan, Beaumont Enterprise )
Cheerleaders in a small Texas town can continue to display their Bible verse banners at football games, after a district judge ruled Wednesday that their actions did not violate the Constitution.
The cheerleaders in the football-dominated town of Kountze garnered national attention when they sued the school district in a case that pitted free-speech rights and religious freedom against the doctrine of separation of church and state.
Hardin County 365th Judicial District Court Judge Stephen Thomas said the banners that included religious messages — such as "If God is for us, who can be against us? Romans 8:31" — made and displayed by Kountze high school and middle school cheerleaders were permitted under the Constitution.
"The evidence in the case confirms that religious messages expressed on run-through banners have not created, and will not create, an establishment of religion in the Kountze community," Thomas said in his ruling.
He didn't further explain his decision in the two-page summary judgment order.
The controversy began in September when the Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., received a complaint about the banners. Foundation officials notified the Kountze Independent School District superintendent, who banned them.
The cheerleaders sued the school district with the help of the conservative Plano, Texas-based Liberty Institute, arguing that the district violated their religious and free-speech rights.
Hiram Sasser, director of litigation for the Liberty Foundation, said the ruling was not just a victory for the cheerleaders.
"I think it has an impact across the country to let people know there is a big difference between the government [promoting] a message and cheerleaders privately promoting their own message," Sasser said.
Dallas attorney Thomas Brandt said school district officials would study the ruling and ask the judge for further clarification before deciding whether to appeal. He told The Times that district officials wanted to allow the banners because the community seemed to unanimously support them. But he said the district should not be required to allow them.
"We don't think you have a free-speech right to put up these banners because this is the school district's function," he said.
Freedom From Religion Foundation officials — who were not a party in the suit — were disappointed with the outcome, stating that they hope enough students, teachers and parents will contact them so they can take the case to federal court.
"We did not expect justice in a Texas state court," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, the foundation's co-president. "It's impossible to imagine a judge approving cheerleader messages saying, 'Atheists rule — God is dead' or 'Allah is supreme — pray to him for victory.'"
Times staff writer Molly Hennessy-Fiske contributed to this report.