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Religious Freedom Victory for Cheerleaders in Texas Supreme Court

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Last Friday, the Texas Supreme Court handed a group of Christian cheerleaders a victory in their lawsuit that involved run-through banners that included Bible verses.

The cheerleaders have won their case at every level-district court, appeals court, and the Texas Supreme Court, ruling that they have a First Amendment right to display religious messages at school events.

The dispute began in 2012, when middle school and high school cheerleaders at public schools in Kountze, Texas, began writing Bible verses as a way to inspire athletes on banners that the players run through before football games on the field. The school district, banned the banners after reacting to a complaint from the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), and the cheerleaders filed suit.

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The cheerleaders have received overwhelming support from Texas’ top Republicans and Christian groups, as well as legal support from the First Liberty Institute, a Plano-based nonprofit.

First Liberty’s general counsel and attorney for the cheerleaders, Hiram Sasser, said last Friday:

“As the football season kicks off across Texas, it’s good to be reminded that these cheerleaders have a right to have religious speech on their run through banners — banners on which the cheerleaders painted messages they chose, with paint they paid for, on paper they purchased. School districts everywhere should learn an important lesson from this failed litigation. Stop harassing cheerleaders and accept that they are free to have religious speech on their run through banners.”

Beaumont attorney and co-counsel for the cheerleaders, David Starnes agreed with Sasser saying, “No school district should be able to censor, ban, or claim ownership of the private religious speech of its students,” he said in a statement. “Hopefully, this will prevent Kountze ISD from spending another dollar on attorneys intent on filing yet another frivolous legal attack on cheerleaders.”

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said the move is “a win for religious liberty”, noting that the free exercise of one’s faith is the very principle upon which America was founded.

“The Kountze cheerleaders case involved personal expressions of faith and an ill-advised school district change of policy that mislabeled their expressions as government speech,” Attorney General Paxton said. “Religious liberty is the foundation upon which our society has been built. The Texas Supreme Court’s decision ensures that the Kountze cheerleaders and other cheerleaders across the state will be able to display their expressions of faith on banners at football games.”

Tom Brandt, Kountze ISD’s attorney, said that he was disappointed with the decision but held out hope his clients would possibly have a chance to appeal.

“We’re not happy with this result, but I’m not willing to say that there’s no possibility we can change this,” Brandt told The Dallas Morning News. “I don’t think the case is completely over.”

The cheerleaders’ attorney, however, said the Supreme Court’s decision was final.

“After more than five years of litigation, our clients are relieved that the Texas Supreme Court has brought an end to the school district’s scorched earth litigation tactics,” Sasser said.  “As the football season kicks off across Texas, it’s good to be reminded that these cheerleaders have a right to have religious speech on their run through banners—banners on which the cheerleaders painted messages they chose, with paint they paid for, on paper they purchased.”

Sasser pointed out that the case could have an impact throughout the country.

“School districts everywhere should learn an important lesson from this failed litigation by the Kountze Independent School District: stop harassing cheerleaders and accept that they are free to have religious speech on their run through banners,” Sasser said.

The case is now being sent back to a lower court judge, who will determine attorneys’ fees.

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