Kountze cheerleaders have their day in court

Kountze cheerleaders have their day in court

Waiting for the judge to begin proceedings that would decide the fate of their spirit banners, a group of Kountze cheerleaders and their parents gathered in the courtroom and prayed.

Huddled in their red shirts, the Christians spoke to God.

“Yes, God,” they repeated. “Yes, God. Amen.”

Almost three hours after the 9 a.m. hearing was to start Thursday, Oct. 4, Judge Steven Thomas took to the bench in the 356th District Court in Hardin County, and the Kountze cheerleaders had their day in court.

The group of cheerleaders sparked a controversy when they created run-through banners for the Kountze football team that featured Bible verses. After a complaint from the nonprofit Freedom From Religion Foundation out of Wisconsin, Kountze Superintendent Kevin Weldon advised students and teachers the signs would no longer be allowed.

After consulting with his attorneys, Weldon said he felt his hands were tied.

“I’m a Christian,” Weldon said moments after court adjourned. “I was in between a rock and a hard spot.”

Attorneys with the Liberty Institute, a legal organization whose self-described purpose is “restoring religious liberty in America,” soon came to the cheerleaders’ aid. At least four attorneys from the group argued in Thursday’s hearing, including lead attorney David Starnes, who read scripture from the book of Jeremiah in his closing arguments.

Starnes said the landmark Supreme Court case Santa Fe vs. Doe — which found student-led or initiated prayer in school-sponsored events unconstitutional according to the establishment clause — did not apply to the Kountze case.

Starnes pointed to the end of the court’s opinion, which states, “By no means do these commands impose a prohibition on all religious activity in our public schools.”

Fighting for an injunction preventing the school district from banning the religious signs, Starnes said the Supreme Court was on their side.

“Even the United States Supreme Court has recognized you cannot stop all religious activity in the schools in the United States of America,” he said. “You can do it in Russia, you can do it in China, but this is the United States of America. You cannot and you do not take away these students’ rights to freely express their religious viewpoints simply because they walk through the schoolhouse gates.”

One of Starnes' main witnesses, Beth Richardson — a co-sponsor of the Kountze cheerleading squad — said the run-through banners containing scripture were entirely student-initiated and she did not sway the girls' decision to write the Bible verses. 

Attorney Thomas Brandt, representing Kountze ISD and Superintendent Weldon, pointed to the cheerleader's own constitution which Richardson required each cheerleader sign. Brandt read the document line by line, highlighting clear language which said the cheerleaders represent KISD in and out school-sponsored events and put the responsibility of the banners and all other aspects of the squad solely on Richardson's shoulders.

Richardson and two other cheerleaders testified they never read the constitution before signing it and rarely, if at all, consulted the document. 

Brandt said no school policy, especially a cheerleader constitution permitting the banners, could trump the Constitution of the United States.

“Their (Starnes) claim is ... that somehow a policy of our school district trumps the United States Constitution establishment clause as it has been interpreted by the United States Supreme Court,” he said.

After a long pause, Judge Thomas extended the temporary restraining order already in place for another 14 days, allowing the cheerleaders to use Bible verses on the signs while giving the judge more time to make a final ruling.

“We’re asking the judge to clarify whether or not Santa Fe vs. Doe applies in this case,” Brandt said after the ruling.

Residents of Kountze say a court ruling either way will make little difference in the attitudes of all Christians in Kountze.

“If (Judge Thomas) comes back and says ‘no they can’t’, it still won’t stop them (the cheerleaders) from believing,” said 7-year Kountze resident Ivy Dinger. “It still won’t break their spirits. It might break their hearts, but if you’ve got God in your heart and in your life, you’re gonna go on.”

The cheerleaders have 14 days before they will see the inside of a courtroom again, possibly to decide the fate of their signs once and for all.