Texas High Court Says Cheerleaders' Right to Put Bible Verses on Banners Must Be Protected

Public school cheerleaders' right to include Bible verses on the run-through banners at football games must be protected, according to a unanimous ruling by the Texas Supreme Court.

In a decision released Friday, the Lone Star State's highest court ruled in favor of the cheerleaders of Kountze Independent School District, sending the litigation to the Court of Appeals for the Ninth District in Beaumont.

Justice John Phillip Devine delivered the opinion, arguing that the cheerleaders' legal action was not moot solely because the School District had altered their rules regarding religious banners.

"The district no longer prohibits the cheerleaders from displaying religious signs or messages on banners at school-sponsored events," wrote Judge Devine.

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)

"But that change hardly makes it 'absolutely clear' that the district will not reverse itself after this litigation is concluded, without the cheerleaders' requested declaratory and injunctive relief."

Devine also wrote that although "the district has indicated that it does not have any current 'intent' or 'plan' to" prohibit Bible verses on run-through banners, "the district has never expressed the position that it could not, and unconditionally would not, reinstate it."

"Accordingly, we grant the cheerleaders' petition for review and without hearing oral argument … reverse the court of appeals' judgment and remand the case to that court for further proceedings," concluded Devine.

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

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

At first Kountze ISD complied, barring the Bible verse banners. Then the parents of some of the cheerleaders sued, arguing that the cheerleading team was a private organization and therefore had a right to include Bible verses.

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

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

In May 2014, a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth District said both the appeal and Thomas' ruling were moot since the school district 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."

In August 2014, the cheerleaders appealed the decision to the Texas Supreme Court, with the appeal being filed in part by the Plano, Texas-based Liberty Institute.

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

Regarding Friday's decision, Liberty Institute President and CEO Kelly Shackelford said in a statement that it was "an 8-0 victory for the free speech and religious liberty rights of all Texas students."

"We are delighted that the court considered this case so straightforward that it did not even require oral argument," stated Shackelford.

"In light of today's Supreme Court ruling, we hope the court of appeals will resolve this case permanently in the cheerleaders' favor."

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