Updated with statements from Governor Rick Perry and the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
In a high-profile battle based on small-town football, the cheerleaders in the little East Texas burg of Kuntze have won a court battle to praise Jesus during football games.
The Kountze case drew national attention as media-savvy groups for both sides took control of the lawsuit, which involved banners carrying such messages as "If God is for us, who can be against us" (Maybe the Hull-Daisetta Bobcats?) and "I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me." (Replace "Christ" with "PEDs" if you're moving on to some college football teams --cough, cough SEC cough.)
The Freedom From Religion Foundation of (The People's Republic of) Madison, Wisconsin, went to court with an amicus brief to stop the displaying of the banners, arguing the signs were an intrusion of religion into public schools.
The Liberty Institute of (God's Country) Plano fought on behalf of the school district.
Today Hardin County District Court Judge Steven Thomas issued a summary judgment saying the cheerleaders' signs were constitutionally permissible.
"Neither the Establishment Clause nor any other law prohibits the cheerleaders from using religious-themed banners at school sporting events," he wrote. "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."
Liberty Institute attorney Roger Byron hailed the decision.
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. 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.
Also cheering (ha!!) the ruling was Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who has been very publicly supporting the cheerleaders.
This is a victory for religious liberties and for high school cheerleaders who stood up to powerful forces that tried to silence their voices. The Freedom From Religion Foundation was wrong in trying to bully Kountze ISD into prohibiting the cheerleaders from displaying banners with religious messages. Our Constitution has never demanded that students check their religious beliefs at the schoolhouse door. Students' ability to express their religious views adds to the diversity of thought that has made this country so strong. The Kountze Cheerleaders are heroes who fought for principles, and won!
(Rick Perry also vaulted onto the bandwagon -- like a cheerleader!! Which he was at A&M!) (Cue the angry "It's a yell leader, not a cheerleader at A&M" e-mails, as if.)
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We've contacted the Freedom From Religion Institute; they told us they are working on a statement they hope to issue soon. We'll update when they do.
Updated: The FFRI's lengthy statement:
A misguided decision by a state judge in Texas, permitting public school cheerleaders to exhibit Christian bible verses and messages during high school football games, makes Christianity the official school religion in Kountze, Texas.
So contends the Freedom From Religion Foundation, whose letter in September 2012 challenging the religious banners set off the legal controversy in the Kountze Independent School District
After receiving FFRF's letter, the district superintendent properly ordered cheerleaders to stop holding Christian prayer banners for football players to run through while entering the stadium. The cheerleaders, represented by a Religious Right law firm, then sued the school district.
FFRF was not a party to the lawsuit, but filed an amicus brief in the case. FFRF would like to challenge the religious banners as part of official football games in federal court if students, faculty or parents subjected to such proselytizing come forward.
FFRF called the decision by an elected local judge in a conservative state a foregone conclusion.
The four-paragraph decision by Judge Steven Thomas, 356th Judicial District, does not cite a single case, law or constitutional precedent.
"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,' " said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president.
Typical Kountze banners read, "But thanks be to God, which gives us Victory, through our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Cor. 15:57."
"The high school in Kountze is not a Christian high school, Kountze is not a Christian city, Texas is not a Christian state and the United States is not a Christian nation," Gaylor added.
"Proselytizing messages by cheerleaders representing the school, wearing the school uniform, at the official start of a public school football game, inevitably carry the appearance of school endorsement and favoritism, turning Christians into insiders and non-Christians and nonbelievers into outsiders.
"It's not only a violation of the law, it's a violation of good manners," Gaylor said.
"There was not even a bona fide case or controversy before the court concerning a violation under the Establishment Clause," commented FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott. "Both parties -- the school district and the cheerleaders' attorneys -- asked the court to issue an order allowing the display of Christian banners to continue. The lawsuit ought to have been dismissed because there was no case or controversy: both parties sought to display the religious banners."
Under a new school board policy, and in briefs to the court, Kountze ISD made clear that the banners are under district control and are "government speech." The district also expressed that it would like to see the religious banners continue to be displayed.
Both state Attorney General Greg Abbott and Gov. Rick Perry had inappropriately weighed in on the case. Abbott even called FFRF "menacing."