Updated, Oct. 18, 1:41 p.m.:
Cheerleaders at Kountze High School can keep displaying their banners inscribed with Bible verses on the field at football games until a trial set to begin June 24 resolves the issue, an East Texas district court judge ruled Thursday.
Judge Steven Thomas granted an injunction against the school district's rule prohibiting the banners after a morning hearing in Hardin County. The summer trial date means the game-time practice is safe for the rest of the school year — unless, of course, the parties involved reach a settlement agreement before then.
The State of Texas has officially joined the high-profile legal battle over religious expression at a Beaumont-area public school.
Attorney General Greg Abbott filed a motion to intervene in the lawsuit over the Kountze Independent School District’s rule that stopped cheerleaders from holding banners bearing Bible verses on the field at football games, he said at a Wednesday morning press conference with Gov. Rick Perry.
“We will not allow atheist groups from outside of the state of Texas to use menacing and misleading intimidation tactics to try to bully schools to bow down at the altar of secular beliefs,” Abbott said.
The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation wrote to the school district, saying the banners violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits government endorsement of religion. After consulting with lawyers about that letter, school officials halted the practice.
The dispute turns on whether cheerleaders were representing the school when they held the banners, and is the latest in a series of legal fights over the conflict between students’ right to religious expression and the constraints on Texas public schools as governmental entities.
The Liberty Institute, the conservative legal foundation representing the cheerleaders along with Beaumont lawyer David Starnes, argues that because the squad members came up with the idea on their own, bought the supplies for the banners with their own money and made them off campus, it is clear they were acting as individuals.
Lawyers for the district — and other experts on religious expression in public schools — say that the situation falls within the behavior outlawed by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 2000 decision that prohibited student-led prayer over the loudspeakers at high school football games.
On Wednesday, Perry said that it was “astonishing to hear that we to go to court to fight” for what he called the most fundamental of constitutional rights.
“Underlying problem here is that there is a very vocal and very litigious minority of Americans who are willing to legally attack anyone who dares to utter a phrase or a name that they don’t agree with,” he said. “These students, or anyone for that matter who is expressing their faith, they should be celebrated, in this day and age of instant gratification and ‘me-first’ culture.”
In response to a question, Perry also said that the state would be taking the same action if it had been a verse from the Quran on the banners.
“This isn’t about Judeo-Christian values,” he said. “This is about all religion.”