Texas judge overrules school on bible banners

Texas District Judge Steve Thomas of Hardin County implemented a temporary injunction Oct. 18 in Matthews v. Kountze Independent School District that allows Kountze High School cheerleaders to make and hold Christian banners for football players to run through before games and for players to carry them around the stadium.

Thomas didn’t rule on the actual merits of the case but set a June 24 hearing date for a permanent injunction, thus allowing the banners to be displayed through the end of the school year.

The injunction temporarily overturned the decision Superintendent Kevin Weldon made barring the banners after receiving a Sept. 17 letter from FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt on behalf of a local complainant.

The team ran through banners at home games with bible verses such as “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13); “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:14); and “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31).

Responding to FFRF’s complaint, Weldon told a TV station, “I commend [the cheerleaders] for what they stand for. But I called legal counsel and even though it’s led by students, it should not be allowed to go on.”

Schmitt had cited a long list of court cases that have held such displays “constitute an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion. A reasonable Kountze student would certainly perceive the banners ‘as stamped with [their] school’s approval.’ ” The prevailing precedent is Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, a 2000 Supreme Court case.

According to cheerleaders, the bible banner idea came from an instructional camp they attended. “Coaches preach devotionals before games. We wanted to show our support for our boys,” Meagan Tantillo said.

Banner supporters were immediately up in arms at the school’s decision. FFRF’s phone lines were swamped for several days with angry callers as the story went national, with coverage by major broadcast and print media, including “Good Morning America,” the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. FFRF Co-President Dan Barker faced off with a Liberty Institute spokesperson on Fox News.

Gov. Rick Perry and Attorney General Greg Abbott intervened on behalf of the Liberty Institute, an evangelical law firm, which sued to get the temporary restraining order. Both state officials made inflammatory public statements, as both have done in the past on state/church issues. Abbott called FFRF “menacing and misleading.” 

The grandstanding attorney general then proclaimed at a press conference with Perry, “We will not allow atheist groups from outside of the state of Texas to come into the state, to use menacing and misleading intimidation tactics, to try to bully schools to bow down at the altar of secular beliefs.”

Perry, who repeatedly referred during the press conference to Abbott as “General,” also castigated FFRF and, by extension, its 700-plus Texas members. “The underlying problem here is that there’s this very vocal, as you shared, and very litigious minority of Americans that are willing to legally attack anybody who dares to utter a phrase, a name that they don’t agree with.”

Perry went on to demonstrate that he apparently has never read the godless U.S. Constitution: “We’re also a culture built upon the concept that the original law is God’s law, outlined in the Ten Commandments.”

FFRF’s local counsel Randall Kallinen of Houston filed an amicus brief Oct. 3 on behalf of the school district. (FFRF’s four staff attorneys worked doggedly to research and write the brief in less than a week.)

In its brief, FFRF takes issue with the plaintiffs’ claim that the banners are an exercise of free speech: “The speech in question is government speech or, at a minimum, school-sponsored speech.”

“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.”

FFRF contends that the banners are government speech because they are displayed in a context implying school endorsement and because the school has effective control over the messages. “Cheerleading for the school is undeniably a school-sponsored activity, and the banners displayed by the cheerleaders take place during a school-sponsored event.”

The New York Times quoted Charles Haynes, director at the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum. “If the cheerleaders aren’t representing the school, then who are they [representing]? It would be like saying that the football team doesn’t represent the school, they are just individual students just coming on the field and are free to do what they want to do.”

The school district could decide to appeal Thomas’ ruling, but in what seems like a curious bit of collusion, the district had formally asked the court to hold “that the Establishment Clause should not be interpreted so as to require Defendants [the school] to bar the religious banners. . .”

While FFRF’s complaint started the case, it’s not a party to the suit. But if contacted by those with standing to sue, FFRF is prepared to challenge the continuing violation in federal court, where the case belongs.

“We encourage any student or parent with children in the public schools coming into contact with this religious practice at public school functions to contact FFRF,” said Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. Plaintiffs with standing might also include school employees coming into regular contact with the banners at school sporting events.

FFRF has taken complaints about the practice spreading to other schools and has recently sent letters of complaint to to Newton, Texas; Bossier Parish, La.; Stone County Schools, Miss.; and Thackerville Schools, Okla. FFRF was notified that the Stone County Mississippi School District ordered cheerleaders to stop making religious banners.

“Since the state’s top law enforcer, Attorney General Greg Abbott, and its highest executive officer, Gov. Rick Perry, have openly expressed contempt for atheists and the Establishment Clause, this leads to a climate of intolerance. It takes courage to face down the full apparatus of state government, but we need those brave few to contact FFRF,” added Barker.

“Don’t let collusion, politicking and religious fervor in Texas destroy respect for keeping public schools free of religious divisiveness,” Barker added.

The New York Times (“Faith, Football and the First Amendment,” Oct. 21) and  Washington Post (“Bench the Bible,” Oct. 24) editorialized in FFRF’s favor.

Freedom From Religion Foundation