Kountze banners still revered
Football and Texas. The words are nearly synonymous. In the land of Friday Night Lights, some joke that football is the state’s unofficial religion.
But it’s the freedom to exercise religion that has flummoxed one Texas school district more than the triple-option ever could.
In this case, it’s a group of middle and high school cheerleaders who defeated the Kountze Independent School District . The Texas Supreme Court in August affirmed — for the second time — the religious liberty right of KISD cheerleaders to paint inspirational Bible verses on game-day banners at football games. Kountz is located 85 miles northeast of Houston.
The story began seven seasons ago when a secularist group wrote a letter to KISD complaining that its cheerleaders were using Bible verses on run-through banners at football games. The cheerleaders used their own money to buy supplies and chose the positive messages for their banners.
The KISD superintendent immediately caved to pressure and banned the religious messages. The cheerleaders, exhibiting more courage than their adult school administrators, made the bold decision to fight for their free speech and religious liberty rights.
My law firm, First Liberty Institute, along with Allyson Ho of Gibson, Dunn, and Crutcher, LLP, and David W. Starnes, represented the cheerleaders and their parents for free. In May of 2013, a Hardin County District Court found that the Kountze cheerleaders had the constitutional right to display their Bible verse banners at KISD sporting events.
KISD filed an appeal and drafted a new player — the American Civil Liberties Union. It didn’t help. Since then, KISD has continued to lose to the cheerleaders.
Similar to speech and religion matters in school districts across the country, cases like this come down to who controls the speech. In Kountze, it’s about whose speech is on the banners.
If the school district could prove that the messages chosen by the cheerleaders, and displayed using paper and paint the cheerleaders paid for, was the school district’s speech, KISD could claim it to be government speech and censor the banners. But if the messages were the cheerleaders’ private speech, then KISD violated the law by banning the Bible verses.
Twice, the Supreme Court of Texas agreed that the speech in question belonged to the cheerleaders.
Just because the cheerleaders “spoke” on school grounds does not entitle KISD to commandeer otherwise protected speech.
That is why, over seven years, and several appeals by the school district, Texas courts have repeatedly declared that that KISD violated the cheerleaders’ rights under the Texas Constitution when it tried to censor their speech because of the religious content.
At this point, you would think the school district would move on. But alas, despite repeatedly losing to the cheerleaders in court, the school district recently filed yet another appeal with the Texas Supreme Court.
The first time the Texas Supreme Court recognized the cheerleaders rights, it commented, “Texas Friday Night football is a tradition all of its own.” But KISD officials have created a new tradition - wasting taxpayer dollars pursuing a lawsuit that it cannot win.
Indeed, school districts everywhere should learn an important lesson from this case: While some seek to rid the nation’s public schools of religious expression, students do not lose their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse gate. Threats from outside anti-religion organizations should not dissuade school boards and administrators from respecting the religious expression of students.
That’s a reality we should all cheer.
Russell is associate counsel to First Liberty Institute, a nonprofit law firm dedicated to defending religious freedom for all.