AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - A judge stopped an East Texas school district on Thursday from barring cheerleaders from quoting Bible verses on banners at high school football games, saying the policy appears to violate their 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.
Republican Gov. Rick Perry and Abbott spoke out in support of the cheerleaders on Wednesday. Perry appointed Thomas to fill a vacancy on the 356th District Court, and he is running for election to continue in the post as a Republican.
"The Constitution has never demanded that students check their religious beliefs at the schoolhouse door," Abbott said in a statement issued after the ruling. "Students' ability to express their religious views adds to the diversity of thought that has made this country so strong."
Abbott filed court papers to intervene in the lawsuit and sent state attorneys to support the cheerleaders' position that the district's ban violated their free speech rights. 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, argued in the context of a football game it was unclear who was responsible for the messages, the school or the cheerleaders.
"The speech in question is government speech or, at a minimum, school-sponsored speech," the group said in court papers. "If the majority of the cheerleaders were atheists, would a court support their 'right' to hold up a banner insulting Christianity or all believers? The district has every right to simply prohibit all run-through and on-field banners."
Perry said Texans should encourage the cheerleaders.
"Anyone who is expressing their faith should be celebrated, from my perspective, in this day and age of instant gratification, this me-first culture that we see all too often," Perry said Wednesday. "We're a nation built on the concept of free expression of ideas. We're also a culture built on the concept that the original law is God's law, outlined in the Ten Commandments."
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