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Texas Judge Upholds High School Cheerleaders' Religious Banners

A Texas state judge has held that allowing high school cheerleaders to display religious messages on banners at football games is not an unconstitutional government establishment of religion.

"The evidence in this case confirms that religious messages expressed on run-through banners have not created, and will not create, an establishment of religion in the Kountze community," Judge Steven Thomas of Hardin County District Court said in his May 8 decision in Matthews v. Kountze Independent School District.

The decision is largely in line with a preliminary ruling Judge Thomas issued in October that granted a temporary injunction allowing the cheerleaders at Kountze High School northeast of Houston to continue to display banners with messages referring to God and Christ.

The cheerleaders sued the Kountze district and then-Superintendent Kevin Weldon, who had said he felt bound by U.S. Supreme Court precedent, particularly in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, to prohibit the religious messages on public school grounds. The disagreement escalated to a controversy attracting nationwide attention and the involvement of outside legal organizations on both sides, as well as a friend-of-the-court brief filed on the cheerleaders' side by Gov. Rick Perry.

With the injunction in place and a trial scheduled for this summer on the merits, the Kountze school board evidently took action changing the district's views. During the winter, the school board passed a resolution concluding that occasional references to religion or quotes from religious texts on the football banners, when chosen by students, would not create an establishment of religion. Actions by then-Superintendent Weldon, the board said in a March 1 release, while taken in good faith, "may have inadvertently given the appearance of hostility to religion or of preference for irreligion over religion."

That shift evidently led the school district to side at least partially with the cheerleaders in seeking summary judgment in the case. In his decision this week, the judge did just that, granting motions of both the cheerleaders and the school district.

"Neither the Establishment Clause nor any other law prohibits the cheerleaders from using religious-themed banners at school sporting events," the judge said, adding that nothing in law requires the school district to prohibit religious-themed banners.

The judge's decision was lauded by the Liberty Institute, a Plano, Texas-based group which represents the cheerleaders. It issued a statement calling the decision a victory for "religious liberty of student leaders across the country."

The Kountze district issued a statement welcoming the ruling, saying it was in line with the school board's resolution on the banners. The district said, however, that it would seek clarification from the judge of certain "unsettled" matters.

The Madison, Wis.-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, which had started the controversy by complaining about the banners on behalf of an anonymous Kountze resident, said in a statement that the judge's "misguided" decision "makes Christianity the official school religion in Kountze, Texas."

"The high school in Kountze is not a Christian high school, Kountze is not a Christian city, Texas is not a Christian state and the United States is not a Christian nation," foundation Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said in the statement. "Proselytizing messages by cheerleaders representing the school, wearing the school uniform, at the official start of a public school football game, inevitably carry the appearance of school endorsement and favoritism, turning Christians into insiders and non-Christians and nonbelievers into outsiders."

It's not clear whether the decision is likely to be appealed, since both actual parties—the cheerleaders and the school district—seem to welcome the ruling.

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