AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A judge ruled Thursday that cheerleaders at an East Texas high school can display banners emblazoned with Bible verses at football games, saying the school district's ban on the practice appears to violate the students' free speech rights.
District Judge Steve Thomas granted an injunction requested by the Kountze High School cheerleaders allowing them to continue displaying religious-themed banners pending the outcome of a lawsuit, which is set to go to trial next June 24, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said. Thomas previously granted a temporary restraining order allowing the practice to continue.
School officials barred the cheerleaders from displaying banners with religious messages such as, "If God is for us, who can be against us," after the Freedom From Religion Foundation complained. The advocacy group says the messages violate the First Amendment clause barring the government — or a publicly funded school district, in this case — from establishing or endorsing a religion.
Gov. Rick Perry, who appointed Thomas, a fellow Republican, to the district court to fill a vacancy, issued a statement welcoming the ruling.
"Today's ruling is a victory for all who cherish our inalienable right to freedom of speech and religious expression," Perry said. "I am proud of the cheerleaders at Kountze ISD for standing firm in the knowledge of these endowed rights and their willingness to be an example in defending those rights, which a secular group has needlessly tried to take away."
Abbott, who filed court papers seeking to intervene in the lawsuit on behalf of the cheerleaders, also issued a statement commending the ruling.
"Students' ability to express their religious views adds to the diversity of thought that has made this country so strong," Abbott said.
Abbott argued that the Texas Education Code also states that schools must respect the rights of students to express their religious beliefs.
"It is the individual speech of the cheerleaders and not in fact the government speaking," David Starnes, the cheerleaders' attorney said, according to KDFM television. "It is not just one girl or one person in the group that comes up with the quote, but it's on a rotating basis that each girl gets to pick the quote. That is their individual voices that are being portrayed on the banner."
Thomas Brandt, the attorney representing the school district, said the superintendent had acted to comply within existing legal rulings.
The Anti-Defamation League issued a statement in which it called the judge's decision misguided.
"Public schools are for children of all faiths or no faith, and these banners were clearly being displayed in the context of school-sponsored activities," the group said. "Faith is a profoundly personal decision, so students should not be subjected to an exclusionary school-sponsored religious message on campus or be forced to choose between attending quintessential school events — football games — or being subjected to an unwanted religious message."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, which is dedicated to the separation of church and state, said it is ready to provide legal assistance to anyone living in the school district who wants to join the lawsuit to ban religious banners at school events.
"Since the state's top law enforcer, Attorney General Greg Abbott, and its highest executive officer, Gov. Rick Perry, have openly expressed contempt for atheists and the Establishment Clause, this leads to a climate of intolerance," Dan Barker, the group's co-president, said. "It takes courage to face down the full apparatus of state government."