Texas cheerleaders fight to keep religious banners at football games

TEXAS — Biblical verse-quoting banners made by Texas high school cheerleaders have become the center of a legal showdown over religious speech in schools.

Cheerleaders at Kountze High School used the “run-through” banners for three games. The banners contained a variety of Bible verses such as Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

After receiving complaints, Kountze School District Superintendent Kevin Weldon told the cheerleaders they could no longer use the banners, said Beaumont attorney David Starnes, who represents some of the cheerleaders.

Starnes and The Liberty Institute, a nonprofit legal group that defends freedom of religion, are investigating the school district’s decision. Thursday, the pair won a restraining order to temporarily stop the school district’s edict from going into effect, Starnes said. This allows the cheerleaders to use the religious banners at least until an Oct. 4 hearing.

Eleven cheerleaders and their parents have filed suit in state court. In addition to the temporary restraining order, they seek a temporary and permanent injunction that would stop school officials from banning the cheerleaders’ banners.

“We hope to sit down with the other side and work out a solution that’s a win-win for everyone so that the constitutional rights of the students are not going to be infringed upon but yet the school district concerns will be met as well,” Starnes said.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation complained to the district after learning of the banners from a town resident, said Tanner Hunt, an attorney representing the Kountze School District. The foundation’s purpose is to “promote the constitutional principle of separation of state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism,” according to its website.

In a letter to the school district, the Freedom from Religion Foundation argued the banners were unconstitutional under Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe.

In that case, the Supreme Court ruled student-led, student-initiated prayer at the Texas high school football game violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The court ruled that the speech was no longer private because it was said over the school’s public announcement system at a school-sponsored event, representing the student body, under the supervision of the school’s faculty.

Hunt said it was clear the situation at Kountze was similar, which prompted the district’s decision to stop using the banners.

According to the cheerleaders’ lawsuit, the girls make the banners themselves and decide what to include on them without adult supervision. No school money is used to make the banners, according to the lawsuit.

Freedom from Religion Foundation co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said she thinks the restraining order won’t be upheld because of its broad wording. The school district has the right to monitor speech that represents the school because the cheerleaders were acting as representatives of the school, she said.

“According to that court order, the cheerleaders could put ‘Fuck You’ in huge letters and the school district wouldn’t have anything to do about it,” Gaylor said.

By Bailey McGowan, SPLC staff writer. Contact McGowan by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 127.