AUSTIN, Texas — A judge stopped an East Texas school district Thursday from barring cheerleaders from quoting biblical words on banners at high school football games, acknowledging their argument that it 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 such banners pending the outcome of a lawsuit set to go to trial next June 24, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said. Judge 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 secularist group says the messages violate the First Amendment clause barring the government — a public school district, in this case — from establishing a religion.
Republican Gov. Rick Perry and Mr. Abbott spoke out in support of the cheerleaders Wednesday. Mr. Perry appointed Judge Thomas to fill a vacancy on the 356th District Court, and he is running for election to continue in the post as a Republican.
Mr. Abbott also 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," said David Starnes, the cheerleaders' attorney, 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 with existing legal rulings.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation argued that 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."