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School District Bans Cheerleaders’ Bible Banners

In 2012, high school and middle school cheerleaders in Kountze, TX wanted to encourage their fellow students with positive messages on their cheer signs. The cheerleaders used their own money to buy supplies and create run-through banners featuring Bible verses for school football games.

However, after receiving a complaint letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the Kountze ISD superintendent decided to ban the religious banners. The cheerleaders, supported by their parents and the community, made the bold decision to fight for their free speech and religious liberty rights.

First Liberty Legal Action

On September 24, 2012, First Liberty Institute, along with Beaumont attorney David Starnes, filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Kountze cheerleaders and their parents and sought a temporary restraining order (TRO) to prohibit government school officials from censoring religious speech of the cheerleaders.

The judge granted the TRO, allowing the cheerleaders to continue encouraging their football team, the other team and fans with their Bible verse banners through the remainder of the 2012 football season.

After an intense legal battle that included numerous hearings and long days of depositions in which the cheerleaders endured hours of questioning, on May 8, 2013, Hardin County District Court Judge Steven Thomas found that the Kountze Cheerleaders had the legal right to display their Bible verse banners at KISD sporting events. He determined that the banners were “constitutionally permissible” and rejected the school district’s attempt to dismiss the lawsuit based on the claim that the banners were government speech.

After losing its case against the cheerleaders, the Kountze ISD filed an appeal, and the ACLU filed a brief in support of the school district. On appeal, the Beaumont Court of Appeals declared the case moot because KISD agreed to allow the banners. KISD still asserts, however, that the banners are government speech, which gives them the right to censor the banners at will.

The cheerleaders’ attorneys say that is wrong because the banners are the cheerleaders’ private speech, and Texas law forbids the censoring of students’ private religious expression.

Victory

First Liberty Institute, with volunteer attorneys Jim Ho of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher and Beaumont attorney David Starnes, asked the Texas Supreme Court to review the case and reaffirm the student’s rights to free religious expression, free from government censorship. Some of Texas’s top elected leaders filed briefs, including Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, Senator John Cornyn and Senator Ted Cruz. On January 29, 2016, in an 8-0 decision, the Texas Supreme Court decided in favor of the Kountze Cheerleaders, sending the case back to the Court of Appeals for the Ninth District in Beaumont, Texas. On September 28, 2017, the Court of Appeals issued its ruling in favor of the cheerleaders, again affirming their rights to religious freedom.

“This is another great victory for the free speech and religious liberty rights of all Texas students,” Kelly Shackelford, President and CEO of First Liberty, said. “Hopefully this ruling will bring clarity and closure to this issue for all Texas students and schools.”

“We are pleased that once again religious liberty is vindicated and that cheerleaders across the state of Texas have the right to have religious messages on banners at high school football games,” says Hiram Sasser, General Counsel to First Liberty. “No school district should be able to censor, ban, or claim ownership of the private religious speech of its students.”

PRESS RELEASE
For Immediate Release

Primary Contact: Lacey McNiel, Direct: 972-941-4453, Email: media@firstliberty.org

Texas Court Rules in Favor of Cheerleaders in Bible Banner Case
Court concludes cheerleaders’ run-through banners bearing Bible verses are private speech protected by the First Amendment


Beaumont, TX, September 29, 2017 — Late Thursday, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth District of Texas decided in favor of the Kountze Cheerleaders in the case of Matthews v. Kountze Independent School District. Lead counsel James C. Ho of Gibson, Dunn, and Crutcher, LLP, First Liberty Institute, and Beaumont attorney David Starnes represented the students after the Kountze Independent School District superintendent banned all religious banners from the high school football field starting in 2012. Senators Cornyn and Cruz filed an amicus brief in support of the cheerleaders in the Supreme Court of Texas, as did Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.

Read the court’s opinion at FirstLiberty.org/Kountze.

“This is another great victory for the free speech and religious liberty rights of all Texas students,” Kelly Shackelford, president and CEO of First Liberty says. “Hopefully this ruling will bring clarity and closure to this issue for all Texas students and schools.”

The decision comes after the Texas Supreme Court voted 8-0 to reverse and remand the decision of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth District of Texas. On remand, the Ninth District concluded that schools cannot censor purely private speech, like the banners in question, just because a student chooses to display Bible verses or other appropriate religious language.

“We are pleased that once again religious liberty is vindicated and that cheerleaders across the state of Texas have the right to have religious messages on banners at high school football games,” says Hiram Sasser, General Counsel to First Liberty. “No school district should be able to censor, ban, or claim ownership of the private religious speech of its students.”

“All these cheerleaders have ever wanted is the opportunity to cheer on their classmates with a message of their own choosing and their own faith,” David Starnes says. “Today’s decision provides just that opportunity.”

For more on the history of this case, visit FirstLiberty.org/Kountze.

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About First Liberty Institute

First Liberty Institute is a non-profit public interest law firm and the largest legal organization in the nation dedicated exclusively to defending religious freedom for all Americans.

To arrange an interview, contact Lacey McNiel at media@firstliberty.org or by calling 972-941-4453.

To download this press release, please click here.


Press Releases

First Liberty Press Release – 01/29/16

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