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Judge: Cheerleaders Can Keep Bible Verses On Banners

Eric Kayne for Texas Tribune

Cheerleaders at an East Texas high school who were told to stop displaying Bible verses on banners at school athletic events can resume such displays, after a state district judge ruled in their favor Wednesday.

The national headline-grabbing lawsuit arose last fall when Kountze Independent School District administrators ordered its high school cheerleaders to stop displaying religious messages during athletic events after a group advocating for the separation of church and state threatened to sue. 

Instead, some of the cheerleaders' parents sued, saying the district had violated their constitutional rights. Their plight has earned support from state leaders including Gov. Rick Perry and Attorney General Greg Abbott.

"This is a victory for religious liberties and for high school cheerleaders who stood up to powerful forces that tried to silence their voices," Abbott said in a statement on the ruling, adding, "Students’ ability to express their religious views adds to the diversity of thought that has made this country so strong." 

The case hinges on the question of whether the cheerleaders were representing the school when they held the banners. Their lawyers have argued that because the squad came up with the idea on their own, bought the supplies with their own money and made them off campus, it is clear that they were acting as individuals.

On Wednesday, Judge Steve Thomas of Hardin County issued a summary judgment ruling in favor of the cheerleaders, meaning the school district will have to appeal for the case to proceed. According to the Beaumont Enterprise, the order states: "The evidence in this case confirms that religious messages expressed on run-through banners have not created, and will not create, and establishment of religion in the Kountze community." 

Other legal experts disagree. They point to a 200 U.S. Supreme Court decision that defined the boundary between student and school-sponsored speech in a case that originated in another East Texas town south of Kountze. That case, Santa Fe ISD v. Doe, outlawed student-led prayers over the loudspeakers at football games, saying the district’s policy amounted to government endorsement of religion, a violation of the First Amendment’s establishment clause.

Wednesday's ruling comes soon after the University Interscholastic League made a determination in another case that involved concerns about religious freedom. Perry asked the UIL on Friday to investigate why a high school track team was disqualified after one of the student athletes made what his father called a religious gesture. But the UIL determined thatthe disqualification had to do with the athlete's disrespectful behavior and not with his religious beliefs, according to a statement released Monday.

Morgan Smith was an editorial intern and columnist at Slate in Washington, D.C., before moving to Austin to enter law school at the University of Texas in 2008. (She has put her degree on hold to join the Tribune's staff.) A native of San Antonio, she has a bachelor's degree in English from Wellesley College.
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