Texas judge extends restraining order prohibiting district from enforcing ban of cheerleaders’ religious banners at football games
The New York Times reports that Hardin County District Court Judge Steven Thomas has extended a restraining order which prohibits the Kountze Independent School District (KISD) from banning the display at football games of the cheerleaders’ banners containing bible verses. A banner, and other religious-themed signs made by the high school and middle school cheerleading squads in recent weeks, has embroiled this East Texas town in a heated debate over God, football and cheerleaders’ rights.
School district officials ordered the cheerleaders to stop putting Bible verses on the banners, because they believed doing so violated the law on religious expression at public school events. In response, a group of 15 cheerleaders and their parents sued KISD and its superintendent, Kevin Weldon, claiming that prohibiting the students from writing Christian banner messages violated their religious liberties and free-speech rights.
The superintendent’s decision has outraged many students and their parents, and has brought national attention upon a small town outside Houston. The cheerleaders’ supporters have put up lawn signs and started a Facebook page that, with nearly 50,000 members, far exceeds the town’s population of 2,100. The Texas attorney general, Greg Abbott, offered to defend the cheerleaders’ First Amendment rights and wrote a letter to the superintendent saying that the decision to ban the religious messages was based on erroneous legal advice.
Recently, the two sides met in a courtroom on the second floor of the Hardin County Courthouse. Each side’s lawyers cast their clients as courageous: The teenage cheerleaders, for standing up to the school district to protect their religious views, and Weldon, himself a Christian and a former football coach, for taking an unpopular position in a largely conservative Christian town in order to, as he sees it, uphold the law.
After a daylong hearing that included the testimony of two cheerleaders, District Judge Steven Thomas of Hardin County decided to extend for an additional 14 days more a temporary restraining order that he had put in place two weeks ago. The move prevents district officials from enforcing the ban on religious signs for 14 days and allows the cheerleaders to continue to create and display the banners at the home game on Friday night as well as other coming games. It seemed likely that the judge would hold another hearing in two weeks.
Judge Thomas issued the first temporary restraining order on Sept. 20, and called the hearing on Thursday to determine whether to turn that order into a more extensive temporary injunction. At the end of the hearing, he postponed ruling on a temporary injunction, saying that he needed more time and additional information from both sides. In the morning, the hearing was delayed for hours as the two sides attempted, but ultimately failed, to reach a settlement.
Weldon and school district lawyers said his decision to prohibit the messages was based on a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a Texas case, Santa Fe Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Doe, [530 U.S. 290 (2000)], which established that prayers led by students at high school football games were unconstitutional and had the improper effect of coercing those in the audience to take part in an act of religious worship.
While testifying on Thursday, Weldon – he and school board members had been subpoenaed, though Judge Thomas later nullified those subpoenas – said two lawyers he contacted, a district lawyer and a lawyer for the Texas Association of School Boards, advised him to prohibit the students from writing Bible verses. But he said that he supported the cheerleaders and that, as a Christian, he agreed with their religious viewpoints.
Weldon and lawyers representing the district have said that they would like to allow the cheerleaders to put religious messages on the banners, but a declaration from the judge was needed to determine whether the district is required to restrict such banners. During his testimony, Weldon said that his decision to prohibit the cheerleaders from putting Bible verses on the signs violated the school’s policies protecting students in expressing their religious viewpoints and discriminated against the cheerleaders.
One of the lawyers representing the students and their families, David Starnes, argued that the cheerleaders’ Bible-themed banners were protected private speech, not government-sanctioned speech, and that the Supreme Court’s ruling did not apply in this case because it had nothing to do with prayer. Cheerleading practice as well as banner-making occur after school on campus, and the squads are led by students, though adult advisers monitor and assist them. No school funds are used to purchase the banner supplies.
Source: The New York Times, 10/04/12, By Manny Fernandez
[Editor's Note: In September 2012, Legal Clips first reported this story, summarizing an article by the Associated Press in the Star-Telegram, which reported that a Texas state court had issued a temporary restraining order preventing KISD from enforcing its ban on displays of religious banners at football games. The ban on religious displays was put in place by KISD’s superintendent after receiving a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
In February 2012, Legal Clips summarized an article by the Associated Press in the Times-Union, which reported that the Cranston School Committee had voted 5-2 not to appeal a federal court decision ordering the removal of a prayer banner displayed in a high school, resulting from a lawsuit brought on behalf of a student at Cranston High School West.
In January 2012, Legal Clips summarized an article in the Rancho Bernardo Patch, which reported that the Thomas More Law Center (TMLC), a public interest law firm, had filed a petition for certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of Bradley Johnson, a teacher employed by Poway Unified School District, who was forced to remove banners containing religious messages from the walls of his classroom by Westview High School officials. TMLC argued that school officials engaged in impermissible viewpoint discrimination on the basis of religion because another teacher was allowed to display a poster with the lyrics to John Lennon’s Imagine, which contains an anti-religious viewpoint.]