A state appeals court has ruled that cheerleaders in a northeast Texas school district have the right to put Bible verses, such as “I can do all things through CHRIST which strengthens me,” on the paper, run-through banners they hold at football games.
The lengthy case dates back to 2012, when the the Kountze Independent School District claimed the banners were government speech and could be censored.
The cheerleaders disagreed, and have had their position affirmed by a number of courts, including the Texas Supreme Court, which sent the case back to a lower court for final disposition.
“We find the cheerleaders’ speech on the pregame run-through banners cannot be characterized as government speech,” said the opinion from the Ninth District of Texas Court of Appeals.
The district’s former superintendent, Kevin Weldon, had “issued a decree that prohibited the cheerleaders from including religious messages on run-through banners used at the beginning of high school football games,” the court found.
The straightforward complaint by the cheerleaders got tangled up when the district announced it would allow the banners at that time, but it still claimed to have control over that speech.
Subsequent rulings, up to the state Supreme Court, sided with the cheerleaders, and the latest appeals court ruling came on remand from that body.
“The central disagreement between the cheerleaders and Kountze ISD has revolved around the question of whether the cheerleaders’ run-through banners are, for the purposes of free speech law, ‘government speech’ as maintained by the school district, or ‘private speech’ as claimed by the cheerleaders,” the opinion said.
“Kountze ISD asserts that the run-through banners are prepared by the Kountze High School cheerleaders, an official school organization, at their school-sponsored, school-supervised practices on school property. The cheerleaders generally are required to prepare and display the banners as part of their duties. The banners are displayed on government property (the football stadium), in an area that is not generally accessible to the public (the football field), and at a time when a limited number of individuals are allowed on the field (players, cheerleaders, coaches, staff and band members). The cheerleader sponsors (paid school district employees) have the right to control the content and review and approve each of the banners.
“On the other hand, the cheerleaders contend that a single, dispositive fact controls the categorization of speech of the run-through banners: the school district allows the cheerleaders to select the message that is placed on the banners.”
The opinion found, “Because the students select the message each week and not the school, the statements on the run-through banners must be categorized as pure private speech of the cheerleaders.”
WND reported a year ago when the state Supreme Court returned the case to the lower courts to affirm the cheerleaders’ speech rights, 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.”
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, had 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 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 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 later was reversed.