Texas school district to appeal order allowing cheerleaders' religious banners

TEXAS — A group of Texas cheerleaders who won a state-court ruling that upheld their right to display Christian-themed banners at football games is now facing an appeal filed by their school district.

The girls painted Bible verses on run-through banners for three varsity football games last year, before a school administrator announced that religious messages would no longer be allowed, according to a lawsuit filed on behalf of cheerleaders at Kountze High School.

On May 8, District Judge Steven Thomas found that, “Neither the Establishment Clause nor any other law prohibits the cheerleaders from using religious-themed banners at school sporting events.” His order went on to say that the school district is also not required by any law to prohibit such banners.

The Kountze Independent School District filed a notice of appeal with the state’s Ninth Court of Appeals in Beaumont, Texas, on Tuesday.

Thomas Brandt, an attorney who represents the school district, said he wants clarification of the judge’s order because he feels that there is a question about what capacity the cheerleaders are speaking in — whether their speech is private or whether they are speaking for the school district.

Brandt cited a recent decision in the federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, Doe v. Silsbee School District, that declared a cheerleader was a “mouthpiece” for the school district. In that case, the court ruled the school could remove from the team a cheerleader who refused to participate in a cheer for a classmate and basketball player who she said sexually assaulted her.

“If there is a free speech right, whose is it?” Brandt said. “Is it the individual cheerleader’s or is it the group, and we’re contending that it is not their free speech right because it is our banner at our event and they’re in uniform representing the school.”

Brandt said he wants “to make a middle ground position” where the district is allowed to permit the banners or allowed to prohibit them, but not required to do either.

David Starnes, an attorney who represents the cheerleaders, said he is not concerned about the appeal because he believes the law, including Texas’ Religious Viewpoints Anti-Discrimination Act, is on the cheerleaders’ side.

That act states that a school district “may not discriminate against the student based on a religious viewpoint expressed by the student on an otherwise permissible subject” and that the district must create “a limited public forum for student speakers at all school events at which a student is to publicly speak.” Starnes said that this was such a forum.

“We feel that the evidence and the law are overwhelmingly in our favor,” Starnes said.

By Sara Tirrito, SPLC staff writer. Contact Tirrito by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 124.