(Photo: Courtesy of the Freedom From Religion Foundation)
Cheerleaders of an East Texas high school, who were banned from making banners with Bible verses for the football team to run through before games, have received the backing of Attorney General Greg Abott a week after a judge temporarily lifted the censorship.
Abott, a Republican, told Kountze Independent School District in a letter that stopping the practice of running through the banners with Bible verses at games was "erroneous" and that "the Supreme Court has never ruled that religion must be 'kept out' of public schools," according to The Texas Tribune.
Abott wrote on Thursday that the Freedom From Religion Foundation's threat to sue the district for "offending" non-Christians and non-believers was "menacing and misleading."
Superintendent Kevin Weldon banned the gametime ritual after legal advisers at the Texas Association of School Boards told him that the demand of the national atheist organization was in line with legal precedent. The Wisconsin-based Foundation had asked for "immediate action to stop the religious banners from being part of school-sponsored events," claiming it is "illegal for a public school to organize, sponsor or lead religious messages at school athletic events."
Weldon says he doesn't like the idea of getting rid of the banners but he feels he has no choice. "It is not a personal opinion of mine," Weldon told ABC affiliate KVUE. "My personal convictions are that I am a Christian as well. But I'm also a state employee and Kountze ISD representative. And I was advised that that such a practice (religious signs) would be in direct violation of United State Supreme Court decisions."
Abott said that the U.S. Supreme Court cases the atheist group cited involved "decisions by public officials to promote a religious message or to direct the content of a private citizen's religious message," as opposed to decisions made by students, especially like those at Kountze who constructed the banners off of school property and without school funds.
FFRF responded to Abott's letter, saying he is "failing to recognize the difference between free speech, such as what fans might say in the bleachers, and government speech, such as what cheerleaders in uniforms say as representatives of the school during school-sponsored events."
The attorney general's support comes a week after Judge Steven Thomas in Hardin County, Texas, placed a temporary restraining order on the district 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.
After the 10-day restraining order, 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."
FFRF disagreed with the order. "The decision is clearly not going to wash," Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of FFRF, told The Christian Post last week.
A hearing in the case is scheduled for Oct. 4.