Cheerleaders Banned From Painting Scripture Verses On Cheer Banners
In 2012, cheerleader Ashton Lawrence sat down with Liberty Institute to talk about the legal battle that was erupting over private religious expression in her high school. That video has since touched thousands of Americans and Liberty Institute supporters.
Matthews v. Kountze ISD
At Issue: Freedom of Religious Expression in the School
Case Status: Ongoing
In an effort to share positive and uplifting messages with their football players, middle school and high school cheerleaders in Kountze, Texas, made a team decision to paint Bible verses on run-through banners at games. Their inspirational signs were banned after the superintendent received a complaint letter from the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF). In an 8-0 decision on January 29, the Texas Supreme Court decided the case in favor of the Kountze cheerleaders. The case now returns to the Court of Appeals for the Ninth District in Beaumont, Texas.
School District Bans Cheerleaders’ Bible Banners
In 2012, high school and middle school cheerleaders in Kountze, TX wanted to encourage their fellow students with positive messages on their cheer signs. The cheerleaders used their own money to buy supplies and create run-through banners featuring Bible verses for school football games.
However, after receiving a complaint letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the Kountze ISD superintendent decided to ban the religious banners. The cheerleaders, supported by their parents and the community, made the bold decision to fight for their free speech and religious liberty rights.
On September 24, 2012, Liberty Institute, along with Beaumont attorney David Starnes, filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Kountze cheerleaders and their parents and sought a temporary restraining order (TRO) to prohibit government school officials from censoring religious speech of the cheerleaders.
The judge granted the TRO, allowing the cheerleaders to continue encouraging their football team, the other team and fans with their Bible verse banners through the remainder of the 2012 football season.
After an intense legal battle that included numerous hearings and long days of depositions in which the cheerleaders endured hours of questioning, on May 8, 2013, Hardin County District Court Judge Steven Thomas found that the Kountze Cheerleaders had the legal right to display their Bible verse banners at KISD sporting events. He determined that the banners were “constitutionally permissible” and rejected the school district’s attempt to dismiss the lawsuit based on the claim that the banners were government speech.
After losing its case against the cheerleaders, the Kountze ISD filed an appeal, and the ACLU filed a brief in support of the school district. On appeal, the Beaumont Court of Appeals declared the case moot because KISD agreed to allow the banners. However, KISD still asserts that the banners are government speech, which gives them the right to censor the banners at will.
The cheerleaders’ attorneys say that is wrong because the banners are the cheerleaders’ private speech, and Texas law forbids the censoring of students’ private religious expression.
What Happens Next
Liberty Institute, with volunteer attorney Jim Ho of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, filed a petition asking the Texas Supreme Court to review the case and reaffirm the student’s rights to free religious expression, free from government censorship.
Some of Texas’s top elected leaders filed briefs asking the Court to review the case, including Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, Senator John Cornyn and Senator Ted Cruz.
On January 29, the Texas Supreme Court decided the case 8-0 in favor of the Kountze cheerleaders. The case now returns to the Court of Appeals for the Ninth District in Beaumont, Texas.
Opinion of the Texas Supreme Court 1/29/16 - Link
Justice Guzman’s Concurring Opinion, accurately highlighting how the struggle for religious liberty continues in our schools 1/29/16 - Link
Press Release 8/6/14 - Link
Filed Petition 8/6/14 - Link
Texas Senators, John Cornyn and Ted Cruz File Amicus Brief - Link
To Kountze ISD Alumni, Current Students and Kountze Community Members:
I was thrilled to learn that the Texas Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Kountze cheerleaders in their case that began in 2012!
I support the rights of all students in America—including cheerleaders, players, and fans at Kountze ISD—to enjoy free speech and religious expression.
To the cheerleaders involved in the original dispute in 2012, thank you. Your positive attitude, courage, and determination have inspired thousands—including me!
To the current students and community members of Kountze, Texas, continue to stand strong for your beliefs and your freedom! You have my support as this case continues.