Texas Cheerleaders Take Bible Banner Case to State Supreme Court

Cheerleaders from Kountze High School in Texas set up a banner covered with a Bible verse in preparation for the school's football team to take the field by running through it.
Cheerleaders from Kountze High School in Texas set up a banner covered with a Bible verse in preparation for the school's football team to take the field by running through it. | (Photo: Courtesy of the Freedom From Religion Foundation)

Cheerleaders from a Texas high school have appealed a decision that declared moot a lawsuit they filed to have the right to use banners with Bible verses during public school sporting events.

A petition was filed Wednesday before the Texas Supreme Court on behalf of cheerleaders from Kountze High School and their families.

The appeal was filed by the Plano, Texas-based Liberty Institute and other attorneys regarding the recent Ninth Court of Appeals panel's decision.

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"This dispute over the fundamental constitutional right to freedom of speech and religious expression is anything but moot," read the appeal's introduction.

"So, by declaring this case moot, the court of appeals has not only sanctioned the ongoing violation of the cheerleaders' constitutional rights — it has also given its blessing to a future lawsuit that will ban religious messages from ever appearing on the cheerleaders' banners," notes the appeal.

In 2012, the Madison, Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to the Kountze Independent School District, demanding that its high school cheerleaders stop displaying religious-themed banners.

These banners often included inspirational biblical quotes, such as Philippians 4:13, and were used as run-through banners at the start of football games.

At first Kountze ISD complied, barring the cheerleader banners. The parents of some of the cheerleaders sued the school district, arguing that the cheerleading team was a private organization not directly affiliated with the school district.

Kountze ISD requested a dismissal of the lawsuit, as it changed its policy to allow Christian-themed banners, though it still reserved the right to deny language on banners if found offensive.

In May 2013, State District Judge Steve Thomas ignored the request to drop the lawsuit and sided with the parents in saying the cheerleaders' banners were constitutionally permissible.

The Kountze School District appealed Thomas' ruling, saying in a statement that it sought 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," said the school district.

In May, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Court of Appeals said both the appeal and Thomas' ruling were moot because the school district had already changed its policy regarding the banners.

"[Kountze] has essentially repealed the ban and modified its policy in such a way to allow the religiously-themed messages on the banners," concluded the panel.

"Accordingly, we conclude, there is no reasonable expectation that the student cheerleaders will suffer the same alleged wrong."

David Starnes, a Beaumont attorney who helped file the appeal, said in a statement released Wednesday that "it is critical that the court grant this petition."

"If the opinion is not reversed, it will inevitably lead to the silencing of the speech of the cheerleaders — whose only desire is to cheer on their fellow students with a message of their own choosing and their own faith," he added.

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