SAN ANTONIO, Sept 21 (Reuters) - Cheerleaders at a Texas
high school have won a court order allowing them to continue
featuring Biblical quotes on the large paper banners that they
hold up for football players to tear through when they take the
field at the game opening.
The ruling by a Hardin County judge late Thursday over the
so-called "Bible Banners" at the school in the east Texas town
of Kountze marked the latest twist in a broader national clash
over the separation of religion from public schools.
The banners typically use Biblical passages for messages
such as "thanks be to God which gives us victory through our
Lord Jesus Christ," and are a tradition in Kountze, which has
about 2,100 residents northeast of Houston.
The dispute began when a group that seeks to enforce
separation of church and state sent a letter to the school
superintendent that contended the banners represented an illegal
endorsement of religion by a public entity.
The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation said it
was acting on the complaint of a concerned Kountze resident.
"It is illegal for a public school to organize, sponsor, or
lead religious messages at school athletic events," said
Stephanie Schmitt, a foundation staff attorney.
Superintendent Kevin Weldon, a former high school football
coach, said he contacted the school's lawyers after he received
the letter and ordered the practice with the banners canceled.
Weldon, a former high school football coach, said he was
uncomfortable removing the banners and that a lot of Kountze
residents agreed with the cheerleaders, but would follow the
decisions of the courts and the school board.
"I applaud the students for what they are standing for, I
applaud their convictions," Weldon said. "I have the same
convictions they do. My relationship with God is very important
to me and this community feels the same way."
The Texas-based Liberty Institute is representing the
cheerleaders in the court case.
Liberty Institute's senior counsel, Mike Johnson, said the
case was "a quintessential example of students' private speech
being censored unnecessarily by uninformed school officials" and
the cheerleaders were committed to fighting for their rights.
"They wanted to demonstrate good sportsmanship by including
positive messages on their banners that will encourage not only
the home team, but also the players and fans on the opposing
side," Johnson said.
Liberty Institute President Kelly Shackelford said the group
had worked to pass state laws that protect religious speech by
students and was ready to pursue the issue as long as it takes.
"These government officials will never learn that a
students' religious rights are protected," Shackelford said.
Schmitt said, however, the circumstances appeared similar to
a U.S. Supreme Court decision finding it was unconstitutional
when a school district effectively gave its seal of a approval
for field pregame prayer at a high school football game using
the school's public address system.
"A reasonable Kountze student would certainly perceive the
banners as stamped with the school's approval," Schmitt said.
(Reporting by Jim Forsyth; Editing by David Bailey and Jackie