A judge in east Texas ruled today that cheerleaders in the town of Kountze can continue to pen Bible and Christian themed messages called 'Bible Banners' which are displayed at football games, 1200 WOAI news reports.
"Neither the Establishment Clause nor any other law prohibits the cheerleaders from using from using religious-themed banners at school sporting events," State District Judge Steven Thomas wrote in his two-page ruling. "Neither the Establishment Clause nor any other law requires the Kountze School District to prohibit the inclusion of religious-themed banners at school sporting events."
For generations it has been a tradition in Kountze, a town of 2100 in the Piney Woods of east Texas, for cheerleaders to write Bible verses and Christian themed messages like 'if God is with us, who can be against us' on large sheets of paper, and the football players will run through the banners when they take the field for home games.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin based group which, according to its bylaws "promotes the Constitutional separation of church and state, and issues related to 'non-theism'" sent the Kountze superintendent a letter last fall, complaining that the banners were a violation of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, which states that the government 'shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.'
When the district tried to block the use of the banners in response to the group's letter, the Texas based Liberty Institute, a group that says it is 'dedicated to defending religious liberty in America,' sued the school district.
Jeff Matear, the general counsel of the Liberty Institute, called the ruling 'a strong victory for religious liberty.'
"This is a victory for students across the country," Matear told 1200 WOAI news. "The message that this decision sends, is it is impermissible for the government to ban the private speech of students."
Matear says the ruling will be heard 'across the country' and will allow school districts to 'stand up to threats' from groups like the FFRF.
"This case sends a strong message to students and parents that it is okay to stand up for your constitutional rights," he said.
Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-President of the FFRF called the ruling 'outrageous.'
"The cheerleaders represent the school," she told 1200 WOAI news. "When they misuse their public podium to tell a captive audience that some of you have the right religion and the rest of you need to convert, that is not only bad law, that's bad manners."
The judge ruled that the messages on the banners "have not created, and will not create, an establishment of religion in the Kountze community."
Gaylor said she expects the case to move to federal court.
"We are hoping that students, parents, and faculty members will come forward when this practice continues and we will be able to sue in federal court where this case really belongs," she said.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who intervened on behalf of the cheerleaders, who filed the lawsuit against the superintendent for the right to continue the practice, praised the girls' courage.
"Our constitution has never demanded that students check their religious beliefs at the schoolhouse door," Abbott said in a statement. "Students' ability to express their religious views adds to the diversity of thought that has made this country so strong. Standing up for what you believe isn't always easy, but it is always the right thing to do."