Kountze High School cheerleaders making banners
Image The Beaumont Enterprise, David

On Wednesday, a Houston judge ruled that cheerleaders at Kountze high school in Southeastern Texas can write bible verses on banners that will be displayed at football games. The final ruling had claimed that the cheerleaders' banners do not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

No law "prohibits the cheerleaders from using religious-themed banners at school sporting events," State District Judge Steven Thomas wrote in a two-page final ruling. He had temporarily ruled in favor of the cheerleaders in October.

The controversy started last fall when the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based group that promotes separation of church and state, sent the superintendent of Kountze a letter claiming the banners violated the Establishment Clause. When the district tried to block the banners in response to the group's letter, the Liberty Institute, a Texas-based group "dedicated to defending religious liberty in America," sued the school district on behalf of the cheerleaders.

"This is a victory for students across the country," Liberty Institute General Counsel Jeff Mateer said of the ruling. "The message that this decision sends is it is impermissible for the government to ban the private speech of students."

Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, called the ruling "outrageous."

"The cheerleaders represent the school," she said. "When they misuse their public podium to tell a captive audience that some of you have the right religion and the rest of you need to convert, that is not only bad law, that's bad manners."

The judge ruled that the messages on the banners "have not created, and will not create, an establishment of religion in the Kountze community."

Gaylor said she expects the case to move to federal court.

"We are hoping that students, parents, and faculty members will come forward when this practice continues and we will be able to sue in federal court where this case really belongs," she said.

Texas Governor Rick Perry celebrated the ruling in a statement on Wednesday.

"Today's ruling is a win for free speech and religious freedom," Perry said. "The Kountze High School cheerleaders showed great resolve and maturity beyond their years in standing up for their beliefs and constitutional rights."

Banners with bible verses are not a new phenomenon in Kountze, with many residents saying they reflect "community sentiments," and displaying messages such as "If God is with us, who can be against us?" However, Gaylor, disappointed with the ruling, maintains that the banners "carry the appearance of school endorsement and favoritism, turning Christians into insiders and non-Christians and nonbelievers into outsiders."

The ruling also came under fire from the Anti-Defamation League, who called it "misguided" and says it "flies in the face of clear U.S. Supreme Court and other rulings."

Attorneys for the Kountze district argues that there are several precedent-setting rulings by the Supreme Court, citing a 2000 ruling that a practice of allowing student-led prayer ahead of high school football games in Texas' Santa Fe Independent School District violated the Constitution. The also cited a similar ruling in 1992 of a Rhode Island case that argued a rabbi's prayer at a middle school graduation ceremony also violated the Constitution.

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