As a small East Texas high school that ordered cheerleaders to stop using banners inscribed with Bible verses at football games continues to make national headlines, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has stepped into the fray on the girls' behalf.
The Republican wrote a letter to Kountze Independent School District on Thursday saying that legal advice it received to stop the practice of running through the banners at games was "erroneous" and that "the Supreme Court has never ruled that religion must be 'kept out' of public schools."
The school halted the game-time ritual after the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based organization that advocates for the separation of church and state, threatened litigation.
The foundation sent a letter to the district, which has about 1,300 students, two weeks ago saying the display of the banners "offends non-Christians and non-believers alike." It listed several examples of the high court striking down public school sponsored religious activities and messages.
Abbott called the group's letter "menacing and misleading" and said that the U.S. Supreme Court cases it cited involved "decisions by public officials to promote a religious message or to direct the content of a private citizen’s religious message" not decisions made by students — especially like those at Kountze who constructed the banners off of school property and without school funds.
In response, the foundation released a statement saying that Abbott is "failing to recognize the difference between free speech, such as what fans might say in the bleachers, and government speech, such as what cheerleaders in uniforms say as representatives of the school during school-sponsored events."
After receiving the letter from the Wisconsin foundation, officials told parents that religious signs would not be allowed at school events. That attracted the attention of the Plano-based Liberty Institute, which obtained a 10-day restraining order against the school district to allow the cheerleaders to continue showing Bible verses on the field.
A spokeswoman for the district said it had not responded to the letter from Abbott, and said a hearing in the restraining order case is scheduled for Oct. 4. David Bellow, a conservative blogger in Hardin County, where the district is located, reported that a rally is planned to show support for the students at the next home football game on Oct. 5.