Cheerleader Banners with Bible Verses

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[author:  James G. Ryan]

In Kountze, Texas a lawsuit is pending on students’ right to religious expression. The dispute arose in September 2012 when the Kountze school district received a letter from the national Freedom From Religion Foundation stating that the school’s cheerleaders were holding banners that violated constitutional doctrine.[1] The dispute arose when the cheerleaders painted Bible verses on the banners including “If God is for us, who can be against us.”[2] Following receipt of the letter, Kountze superintendent banned the banners.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott proclaims that he will support the cheerleaders in their right to free expression. Abbott made the following statement:

After receiving a menacing letter from an organization with a reputation for bullying school districts, the Kountze ISD improperly prohibited high school cheerleaders from including religious messages on their game day banners. Those banners, which the cheerleaders independently produce on their own time with privately funded supplies, are perfectly constitutional. The State of Texas Intervened in this case to defend the cheerleaders’ right to exercise their personal religious beliefs – and to defend the constitutionality of a state law that protects religious liberties for all Texans.[3]

Abbott explains that school districts are required to treat a student’s expression of religious views the same way as any other point of view pursuant to the Texas Religious Viewpoints Anti-Discrimination Act.[4]

Consequently, members of the varsity cheerleading squad and middle-school cheerleaders sued the Kountze school district in the Hardin County District Court. The cheerleaders “argued that the district was censoring them, violating their freedoms of religion and speech.”[5] In opposition, attorneys for the District argued that the biblical verses on the banners were commensurate to government endorsement of religion.

On Thursday, October 4th the Hardin County District Court held a hearing on the cheerleader’s request for a temporary injunction to lift the ban on the banners while the case was pending. Tom Brandt, the school district’s attorney argued that “‘this is government speech. It’s on public property. The cheerleaders represent the school.’”[6] In making his argument, Mr. Brandt cited to Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290 (2000), a Supreme Court case where the Court held that student-initiated prayer over a loud-speaker during school football games was unconstitutional. In opposition, attorneys for the cheerleaders argued that the students had a First Amendment right to express themselves, citing to Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503 (1969). Following the October 4th hearing, Judge Steve Thomas extended the temporary restraining order that was due to expire on October 4th for an additional 14 days. The next day, Kountze school district football team welcomed the crowd with a banner “painted with the words of Hebrews 12:1.”[7]

The Hardin County District Court revisited the issue on October 18th and District Judge Steve Thomas issued a temporary injunction prohibiting the school district from outlawing the banners. At the hearing, Judge Thomas set a trial date of June 24, 2013.[8] The lawsuit forces us to consider the growing tension between an individual’s First Amendment right to freedom of expression and the Establishment Clause.

If your institution has any further questions or concerns about First Amendment claims in school, or education law related matters, please email Cynthia Augello at caugello@cullenanddykman.com or call her at (516) 357-3753.

A special thanks to Laura DeLuca, a law clerk at Cullen and Dykman LLP, for help with this post.

[1] “When Faith Meets Football in East Texas,” Morgan Smith, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/14/us/lawsuit-over-cheerleaders-bearing-bible-verses-in-kountze-texas.html?pagewanted=all , October 15, 2012.

[2] “Kountze High School Bible Banner Case: Judge Rules For Cheerleaders,” Chris Tomlinson, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/18/judge-rules-for-cheerlead_0_n_1981865.html, October 22, 2012.

[3] Texas Attorney General’s Office Defends Constitutionality of the Texas Religious Viewpoints Anti-Discrimination Act, https://www.oag.state.tx.us/oagnews/release.php?id=4181?, October 22, 2012.

[4] Texas Attorney General’s Office Defends Constitutionality of the Texas Religious Viewpoints Anti-Discrimination Act, https://www.oag.state.tx.us/oagnews/release.php?id=4181?, October 22, 2012.

[5] “Texas fight over cheerleader banners reaches biblical proportions.” Molly Hennessy-Fiske, http://articles.latimes.com/2012/oct/05/nation/la-na-texas-cheerleaders-20121005, October 15, 2012.

[6] “Texas fight over cheerleader banners reaches biblical proportions.” Molly Hennessy-Fiske, http://articles.latimes.com/2012/oct/05/nation/la-na-texas-cheerleaders-20121005, October 15, 2012.

[7] “When Faith Meets Football in East Texas,” Morgan Smith, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/14/us/lawsuit-over-cheerleaders-bearing-bible-verses-in-kountze-texas.html?pagewanted=all, October 15, 2012.

[8] “Texas Judge, Siding With Cheerleaders, Allows Bible Verses on Banners at School Games,” Manny Fernandez, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/19/us/court-says-texas-cheerleaders-can-use-bible-verses.html?_r=0, October 22, 2012.

 

 

Published In: Constitutional Law Updates, Education Updates

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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