Judge Rules That Kountze High School Cheerleaders Can Display Banners with Bible Verses at Football Games

There’s finally some resolution in the case of the Kountze High School cheerleaders. And it’s not a good one.

The backstory, as you may recall, is that the cheerleaders held up banners with Bible verses on them to pump up the football team:

Last year, Superintendent Kevin Weldon told them to stop the promotion of religion, but in October, a judge temporarily ruled in favor of the cheerleaders, allowing them to continue hoisting the banners until this summer when a final decision could be issued.

That decision, released this afternoon, has come much earlier than expected:

A Hardin County district judge has ruled in favor of a group of Kountze Cheerleaders who want to continue displaying religious banners at football games.

356th District Judge Steve Thomas Wednesday ruled that the Kountze Independent School District cannot prevent the displays.

In fact, his ruling (available here) said that no law “prohibits cheerleaders from using religious-themed banners at school sporting events.”

Which makes no sense at all. Did Thomas not get through the first page of the Constitution during law school?!

He went on to say:

The evidence in this case confirms that religious messages expressed on run-through banners have not created, and will not create, an establishment of religion in the Kountze community.

Neither the Establishment Clause nor any other law prohibits the cheerleaders from using religious-themed banners at school sporting events. Neither the Establishment Clause nor any other law requires Kountze I.S.D. to prohibit the inclusion of religious-themed banners at school sporting events.

The Religious Right is gloating already and I don’t blame them. They found a way to subvert the law:

“The Court’s order today that the cheerleaders’ run-through banners are constitutionally permissible vindicates our clients’ rights and brings this case to a successful end,” said Roger Byron, an attorney with Liberty Institute. “We are pleased that the judge ruled to protect the cheerleaders’ display of banners with religious messages at sporting events. This is a great victory, not only for these cheerleaders, but for religious liberty of student leaders across the country.”

Initially, this case was between the cheerleaders and the school district. But over the course of the past several months, the district (under new leadership) joined with the cheerleaders to support the Bible banners. That led Judge Thomas to “issue his summary judgment so as to avoid a trial.” That trial would have occurred this June, but with Thomas’ decision, it’s over for now and the cheerleaders will be able to hold up Bible banners next season.

Forget the fact that some of the cheerleaders might not be Christian.

Or the football players.

Or the students who come to watch the game.

In Kountze, Texas, Christianity is the school’s official religion and it’s hard to see how any reasonable person would think otherwise when they see cheerleaders in school uniforms holding up Bible verses for football players (also in school uniforms) on the school’s taxpayer-funded football field as school administrators watch from the stands.

The question we need to be asking is: Would the ruling have been the same if the students were promoting verses from the Koran instead of the Bible? Would they have been given the free pass this judge just handed them?

I’m reminded of the speech given at a public hearing about the case by Kountze alum Lindsey Brackin (class of 2005) in regards to why this case was so important:

No one is trying to persecute these students for their beliefs. They have a First Amendment right to read their bibles, pray, wear crosses, and express their religion in many other individual and group ways while at school. There are several religious organizations on campus for this purpose. If they wanted to hold individual religious signs in the bleachers or off field, they would be very much within their rights. The problem occurs when one team forces another team to make a public proclamation of their faith on the football field. High school is hard enough without added peer pressure to participate in something that you don’t necessarily believe in.

I understand why students and their parents are afraid to join the FFRF’s lawsuit against the banners — I myself have been threatened with bodily harm for speaking out against this religious bullying, and I saw a sign posted in the middle of town stating “IF YOU DON’T LIKE IT LEAVE- WE BELIEVE!”. As a non Christian who was born and raised here, I am appalled that people are insinuating you must buy in to this religious fervor to live here. I can not imagine how the non Christian students in this school feel after seeing and hearing such hatred, but I am sure they are honestly frightened and bewildered. One in four people in the U.S. are not Christian — it is irrational to try and present this school as being made up entirely of Christian students. A public school should be a safe haven for students of ALL religions, and non religions, not a pulpit for one group to try and push their agenda.

Please remember that while THIS particular group of cheerleaders appear to be in agreement on allowing religious statements on the run through banners, some of them will graduate and be replaced by new students. What will the reaction be if that student is a Muslim, a Hindu, or an atheist? What if she does not want religious statements on the run through banners? Will she be removed from the team? I hope the parents here are able to put themselves in the shoes of others and see the long term negative consequences that their actions will have on this school and its students for years to come.

A press conference is scheduled for 5:00p (CT) at the offices of Kountze lawyer David Starnes.

I’ll post more updates as they come in…

***Update***: The Freedom From Religion Foundation is hoping to hear from affected families so they can challenge this ruling:

Freedom From Religion Foundation officials — who were not a party in the suit — were disappointed with the outcome, stating that they hope enough students, teachers and parents will contact them so they can take the case to federal court.

“We did not expect justice in a Texas state court,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, the foundation’s co-president. “It’s impossible to imagine a judge approving cheerleader messages saying, ‘Atheists rule — God is dead’ or ‘Allah is supreme — pray to him for victory.’”

(Thanks to Richard for the link)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.


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