Smiling brightly and excited about their win in Judge Steven Thomas’ 356th District Court in Kountze, cheerleaders from Kountze High School exited the courtroom Thursday, Oct. 18, ready to display their run-through banners containing Bible verses at Friday football games.
After weeks of litigation, Judge Thomas ruled the cheerleaders would be allowed to display their banners at school games at least until a jury trial scheduled for June 24, 2013.
“Today is a good day,” said cheerleader Kierra Moffett, who took the stand and gave emotional testimony at a previous hearing Oct. 4. “I’m very happy with the decision.”
Moffett said the cheerleader’s new run-through banner at this Friday’s football game on Oct. 19 will read, “Things which are impossible with men, are possible with God” (Luke 18:27).
The cheerleaders set off a national debate and brought down media attention when they produced the banners containing Bible verses at school functions, leading the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a nonprofit based in Madison, Wis., to send a letter to Kountze Independent School District (KISD) threatening a lawsuit.
After seeking legal advice, KISD Superintendent Kevin Weldon, himself a Christian, banned the signs.
“I was in between a rock and a hard spot,” he said.
Attorneys with the Liberty Institute rushed to the cheerleaders’ aid, arguing the cheerleader’s banners were protected by the first amendment and free speech.
“Students and teachers do not shed their constitutional rights to free speech when they walk through the school house gate,” said Liberty Institute senior counsel Mike Johnson. “So if you’re in the hallway between classes or you happen to be on a football field and you’re a student, you’re still an American citizen and you don’t shed your rights to free speech.”
Johnson and attorney David Starnes argued fervently in the Kountze hearings, reading Bible verses and saying the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Santa Fe vs. Doe case did not apply to the Kountze cheerleaders.
In Santa Fe vs. Doe, the Supreme Court ruled that student-led or student-initiated prayer in school functions was unconstitutional according to the establishment clause in the First Amendment.
“I think there’s a widespread misunderstanding of our constitutional rights,” Johnson said just before the ruling. “I think the phrase “separation of church and state” has run amuck through the culture, and most Americans believe that it’s somehow a provision of the constitution. It is not.”
The case prompted Attorney General Greg Abbott and Texas Gov. Rick Perry to decry KISD’s banning of the signs. Johnson said their support might have been a factor in Judge Thomas’ decision.
“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.”
Attorney Tom Brandt, representing KISD Superintendent Weldon and his school district, said Abbott’s opinion matters little in the Kountze case. He said the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution is undeniable.
“It’s another lawyer’s (Abbott’s) opinion, basically,” Brandt said. “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.”
Brandt argued that such an open display of religion at a school function may have been an "innocent" expression of one's faith initiated by the cheerleaders, but that display is still government speech under the law as interpreted by the Supreme Court.
He said KISD was trying to obey the law by banning the signs, hinting the case may have just begun to make its way through Texas courts.
“If we’re wrong, so be it,” Brandt said. “The judge will tell us. Other judges might tell us as well, but we’re trying to, in good faith, go forward and obey the law and try to get this controversy behind us to go back to educating kids.”
Both Starnes and Brandt agreed that, after the June 2013 jury trial, the decision could be appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, and may take years to finally resolve.