Cheerleaders at a Texas high school won a huge victory Friday in their fight for the right to put Bible verses on paper banners at football games.
In an 8-0 ruling, the Texas Supreme Court rejected the Kountze Independent School District’s claim that the case should be dismissed because officials decided to allow the cheerleaders to use the Bible verses while retaining the right to censor speech in the future.
Kelly Shackelford, president of Liberty Institute, which represented the cheerleaders, called it a “victory for the free speech and religious liberty rights of all Texas students.”
“We are delighted that the court considered this case so straightforward that it did not even require oral argument,” he said. “In light of today’s Supreme Court ruling, we hope the Court of Appeals will resolve this case permanently in the cheerleaders’ favor.”
James Ho, the lead appellate counsel, said that at “a time when religious liberty is under assault nationwide, this ruling is a welcome reminder that the Constitution protects people of faith – and a welcome rebuke to government agencies that try to play games with our rights.”
WND reported Sens. John Cornyn, R-Ariz., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, filed a brief in support of the cheerleaders. Cornyn, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, was a district judge, a member of the Supreme Court of Texas and attorney general of Texas.
He argued on behalf of the state of Texas in the Santa Fe Independent School District case that is being cited by the school district for its right to censor student messages.
Cruz, meanwhile, previously was solicitor general of Texas, representing the state in a number of religious liberty cases.
The district did not respond to a WND request for comment.
The cheerleaders for years had made “run-through” paper banners for their team on personal time and with their own funds. They always chose the messages. In 2012, the Bible verses were used until the Freedom From Religion Foundation objected, and the district banned them.
The cheerleaders sued, and the district suddenly reversed itself, saying it would allow the cheerleaders to continue with their messages. But school officials insisted they still would retain control over the messages, leaving future practice uncertain.
The Texas Supreme Court said that won’t work.
In its opinion, the court noted the district “no longer prohibits the cheerleaders from displaying religious signs or messages on banners at school-sponsored events.”
“But that change hardly makes ‘absolutely clear’ that the district will not reverse itself after this litigation is concluded, without the cheerleaders’ requested declaratory and injunctive relief.”
The court said that throughout the litigation, the district “has continually defended not only the constitutionality of that prohibition, but also its unfettered authority to restrict the content of the cheerleaders’ banners – including the apparent authority to do so based solely on their religious content.”
“In fact, while the district has indicated it does not have any current ‘intent’ or ‘plan’ to reinstate that prohibition, the district has never expressed the position that it could not, and unconditionally would not, reinstate it.”
The ruling came in response to a district claim in court that the cheerleaders’ case was moot, or no longer valid, simply because the district said it wouldn’t censor the cheerleaders.
“The district’s voluntary abandonment here provides no assurance that the district will not prohibit the cheerleaders from displaying banners with religious signs or messages at school-sponsored events in the future,” the court ruled.
The high court granted the cheerleaders’ petition for review and sent the case, in which the district claimed to have the authority to control the cheerleaders’ private and personal speech, back to the Court of Appeals for a resolution.
Prerak Shah, co-lead counsel from Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP, said, “We are profoundly grateful to the Texas Supreme Court for enforcing our legal rights, and to Sen. Cornyn, Sen. Cruz, Gov. Abbott, and General Paxton for their leadership and for standing with the cheerleaders in their fight to protect the First Amendment.”
The senators’ brief to the state court explained that under the United States Supreme Court’s “government-speech jurisprudence the answer is straightforward: messages created solely by student cheerleaders do not become government speech simply because aspects of cheerleaders’ activities are regulated by the school.”
“The speech belongs to the cheerleaders, and it is entitled to First Amendment protection.”
The senators said the “undisputed facts of this case establish that the messages written on the banners and displayed at the football games were the cheerleaders’ words, not the schools.”
“KISD makes no claim that the cheerleaders were required or encouraged in any way to include religion messages on the banners. … There is no school policy or rule that, in actuality or effect, even suggested, much less required, the placement of religious messages on the banners.”
The cheerleaders won the initial battle at the trial court in 2013. The school district appealed the decision, claiming the cheerleaders’ banners are government speech and, therefore, subject to censorship and prohibition at the school’s discretion. The ACLU then joined the district, filing a brief on its behalf.
The mid-level court adopted the mootness argument from the district, a ruling that now is reversed.