Cheerleaders at a local high school in Kountze, Texas, are allowed to display Bible verses on banners at school football games, an appeals court ruled Thursday. The attorney for the cheerleaders, however, says he's contemplating appealing this most recent decision, arguing that it does not address the free speech rights of his clients and therefore clarify the issue for future similar situation.
Hiram Sasser, attorneys for parents and cheerleaders from the Kountze School District, told The Associated Press that Thursday's ruling does not necessarily protect students' right to free speech and religious freedom in the future.
"I don't think it provides any protection for the religious liberties of Kountze cheerleaders in the future," Sasser, a lead attorney for the Liberty Institute, said of the ruling, adding that he is contemplating an appeal that could end up at the Texas Supreme Court.
The 9th Circuit Appeals Court for Beaumont said in its opinion that because the Kountze School District had changed its policy to allow cheerleaders to display their biblical messages on their banners, the appeals lawsuit and a lower court ruling were moot.
The district "has essentially repealed the ban and modified its policy in such a way to allow the religiously-themed messages on the banners. Accordingly, we conclude, there is no reasonable expectation that the student cheerleaders will suffer the same alleged wrong," the three-person appeals panel wrote in their opinion.
The legal challenges began in 2012 when the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a threatening letter to the school district, demanding it cease allowing its high school cheerleaders from displaying the religious-themed banners, which often included inspirational biblical quotes and were used as "run-through" banners at the beginning of football games.
The school district complied, banning the cheerleaders from displaying the banners. The parents of some of the cheerleaders chose to sue the Kountze School District, arguing that the cheerleading team was a private organization not directly affiliated with the school district.
Kountze School District requested the parents' lawsuit to be dismissed, as it had changed its school policy to allow the Christian-themed banners, although it still reserved the right to deny language on banners if it proved offensive. In May, State District Judge Steve Thomas ignored the district's request to drop the lawsuit, instead siding with the parents of the cheerleaders in saying the cheerleaders' banners were constitutionally permissible.
The Kountze School District decided to appeal Thomas' ruling, saying in a statement that it wanted to clarify "various matters unclear or unsettled" with the judge's ruling.
"Kountze ISD is considering seeking clarification or review in order to avoid any future confusion regarding the legal status of the 'run-through' banners," the school district stated.
On Thursday, the three-judge panel said both the appeal and Thomas' ruling had been moot because the school district had already changed its policy regarding the banners. Justice Charles Kreger wrote in the opinion for the panel that because the school district had made every effort to change its policy and allow the girls to display their banners, the court could not determine whether free speech rights were prohibited or not.
"With the adoption of Kountze ISD's new policy, there is no evidence that Kountze ISD has prohibited the speech of the students, such that we would be required to determine whether a violation of their free speech right has occurred," he wrote. "Parents cite no evidence in their brief to this court and we find no evidence in the record that under Kountze ISD's new policy, the cheerleaders' speech has been prohibited. We conclude the allegedly wrongful behavior has passed and cannot reasonably be expected to recur."
The school district released a statement to the Beaumont Enterprise commending the panel's ruling.
"Despite the clear decision of Kountze ISD permitting the banners, the plaintiffs' attorneys continued to press this lawsuit against the school district, asking for a judgment and an award of money against the school district. The decision of the Beaumont Court of Appeals makes clear that Kountze ISD took action to resolve this controversy and that there was no reason to enter a judgment against the school district," Kountze Superintendent Reese Briggs said in a statement.
Correction: May 12, 2014:
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the parents and cheerleaders decided to appeal Judge Steve Thomas' ruling. The Kountze School District, not the cheerleaders, appealed the ruling to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.