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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.

What Happens Next

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.

Kelly Shackelford, President and CEO of First Liberty, said, “This is an 8-0 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. In light of the Texas Supreme Court ruling, we hope the Court of Appeals will resolve this case permanently in the cheerleaders’ favor.”

The case now sits at the Court of Appeals for the Ninth District in Beaumont, Texas.

PRESS RELEASE
For Immediate Release

Primary Contact: Kassie Dulin, Direct: 972-941-4575, Cell: 214-542-4334, Email: kdulin@libertyinstitute.org

 

TEXAS SUPREME COURT DECIDES IN FAVOR OF KOUNTZE CHEERLEADERS’ IN BIBLE BANNER CASE


AUSTIN, TX, January 29, 2016 — Today, in an 8-0 decision, the Texas Supreme Court decided in favor of the Kountze Cheerleaders in the case of Matthews v. Kountze Independent School District. Gibson, Dunn, and Crutcher, LLP, Liberty Institute, and Beaumont attorney David Starnes represented the students, asking the Texas Supreme Court to protect the rights of all Texas students to free speech and religious liberty.

Read the court opinion: http://www.txcourts.gov/media/1284936/140453.pdf

Kelly Shackelford, President and CEO of Liberty Institute, says, “This is an 8-0 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. 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, lead appellate counsel from Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, LLP says, “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.

Prerak Shah, co-lead counsel from Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, LLP says, “We are profoundly grateful to the Texas Supreme Court for enforcing our legal rights, and to Senator Cornyn, Senator Cruz, Governor Abbott, and General Paxton for their leadership and for standing with the cheerleaders in their fight to protect the First Amendment.”

The case now returns to the Court of Appeals for the Ninth District in Beaumont, Texas.

Background

In 2012, a group of high school cheerleaders from Kountze, TX painted Bible verses on their run-through banners for school football games. The Freedom From Religion Foundation found out about the banners and filed a complaint with Kountze ISD (KISD). In response, the school district banned the cheerleaders’ signs. KISD claims the banners are government speech, which they can censor at will, while the cheerleaders’ attorneys contend that the banners are the cheerleaders’ private speech, which is protected under Texas law.

Gibson, Dunn, and Crutcher, LLP, Liberty Institute, and Beaumont attorney David Starnes represented the students. The attorneys won a Texas Supreme Court victory that advances the fight for religious liberty in schools.

Read more about the case at libertyinstitute.org/kountze

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About Liberty Institute

Liberty Institute is the largest nonprofit legal organization in the nation dedicated solely to defending religious liberty in America. Liberty Institute defends religious freedom for all.

To arrange an interview on this case, contact Kassie Dulin, Director of Legal Communications. Email: kdulin@libertyinstitute.org, Direct: 972-941-9575, Cell: 214-542-4334.

To download this press release, please click here.


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