On Thursday, a judge in Hardin County, Texas, placed a temporary restraining order on the Kountze Independent School District after the district banned the school's cheerleaders from making banners with Bible verses on them for the football team to run through before games.
Judge Steven Thomas issued the order in response to a lawsuit filed by the Liberty Institute, a Texas-based nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting religious freedoms, on behalf of several Kountze High School cheerleaders and their parents. The school district will now have to explain why it decided to ban the banners during a court hearing set for Oct. 4.
"We are excited that the cheerleaders for the Kountze High School Lions can again do what they do best-cheer on their football team without government censorship," Mike Johnson, senior counsel for Liberty Institute, said. "This is a quintessential example of students' private speech being censored unnecessarily by uninformed school officials. This is a well-established principle of constitutional law that students don't have to shed their constitutional rights of free speech when they enter the school house gate."
The controversy began after Kountze High School cheerleaders began writing Bible verses on the banners that the football team runs through as they enter the stadiums for games. Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) wrote a letter to the school earlier this week claiming the use of such banners was unconstitutional.
In response, the district's superintendent, Kevin Weldon, sought legal advice and was told to ban such displays in the district, which he did. That decision brought with it national media attention and an outpouring of support from Christians in both the region and nationwide.
FFRF, a Madison, Wisc.-based organization that encouraged the school district to put a stop to the Bible banners in the first place, disagrees with the judge's decision.
"The decision is clearly not going to wash," Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of FFRF, told The Christian Post on Friday.
Gaylor says schools have the ability to put a stop to signs and banners that contain obscenities or hostile remarks about an athletic opponent on them, so they should also be able to put a stop to religious banners. Her organization is currently monitoring the situation in Kountze, though it has no formal plans to get involved in the legal battle at this point.
"I think it's rather an outlandish school entanglement issue. And if these had been signs in the bleachers, that would clearly be student speech, but when it's cheerleaders selected by the school, representing the school, they have unparalleled access," said Gaylor. "They're being given this podium ... wearing the school name [emblazoned] on them ... This inevitably gives the appearance of school endorsement."
While there is an overwhelming amount of support for the Kountz cheerleaders and their signs, there seems to be some disagreement among their supporters as to how to approach the situation. Some supporters, like former U.S. Congressman Steve Stockman, think Weldon should "pack his bags" and be fired if he fails to overturn the ban.
Others, like Ashley Brown, a founder of the "Support Kountze Kids Faith" group on Facebook, say they don't want to blame the school district but rather the government for the situation they are faced with.
In a lengthy Facebook post, Brown said school officials didn't have a problem with the banners but were forced to seek legal advice after a complaint was made.
"You see this fight is not with our district! It is with the laws that our district must abide by as a public school. It is not our district that should have to pay for the legal fees to fight their own kids. It is the laws and who enforces them that should be fought. We do not want to hurt our little town," said Brown.
She went on to further express her concern over the financial burden a court battle could have on the small school district.
"Now our children stood up and said this is not right and we support them," she said. "We are not going to back down. This issue is a long awaited issue and needs to go all the way to the supreme court but folks our little district doesn't deserve to go bankrupt over it!"
According to the Houston Chronicle, now that the restraining order has been put in place, the signs marked with Bible verses will be used at Kountz High School football's varsity game next Friday.