Kountze ISD may be looking at more legal wrangling over Bible verses on banners at school-sponsored sports games after the district appealed a ruling by a Hardin County judge allowing the banners.
The controversy started in September 2012 when a group of Kountze High School cheerleaders created run-through banners featuring Bible verses for Friday night football games, prompting the nonprofit Freedom From Religion Foundation to threaten legal action.
Superintendent Kevin Weldon — who later resigned — sought the district’s attorneys for legal advice in the matter and later followed that advice, banning the signs outright.
“Here, we have a quintessential example of student-led, student-initiated free speech,” said Mike Johnson, senior counsel for The Liberty Institute, who rushed to the girl’s aid after the community uprising over Weldon’s decision.
A ruling made by 356th District Court Judge Steve Thomas in early May seemed to agree that the girls’ signs were protected by the First Amendment since they were student-initiated and not created by district officials.
Tuesday, May 28, Tom Brandt, who represents the district, filed an appeal with the Texas Ninth Court of Appeals seeking clarification of Thomas’ ruling, saying in a statement the school board’s decision to appeal the ruling “was not made lightly.”
Brandt said in the statement that the appeal was to protect the district from further litigation in the matter.
In an earlier interview, Brandt seemed to hint if the district did not appeal the ruling, the district could be exposed to additional lawsuits at the taxpayer’s expense.
“I would expect, yeah that’s the case,” Brandt said. “I wouldn’t be at all surprised if (plaintiffs) got active and brought something to court.”
During the initial hearings in Thomas’ court, Johnson highlighted the support of Gov. Rick Perry and the state’s top attorney, Greg Abbott, who publicly chastised the school district and the Freedom From Religion Foundation for banning the signs.
Johnson said interjecting politics into the case might have influenced the judge’s decision, who at the end of the day must be reelected by citizens infuriated over the banning of the signs.
“I think it does have some influence when the highest authority in the state says that this is in compliance with the law,” Johnson said. “I think that has the desired effect here and it echoes the arguments we’ve been making from day one.”
In a sign of things to come, Brandt argued in the initial hearings the U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled on the constitutionality of student-led, student-initiated prayer at high school football games when it ruled on Santa Fe ISD v. Doe in 2000. The decision banned prayer at school-sponsored events in a 6-3 decision.
Based on the Supreme Court’s ruling, Brandt said Abbott’s opinion matters little.
“It’s another lawyer’s opinion, basically,” he said of Abbott. “There’s only nine lawyers that we really need to be concerned about, and those are the nine sitting on the United States Supreme Court.”