Almost a year after a group of Kountze High School students sparked a national debate when they made high school run-through banners with Bible verses for Friday night football games, Judge Steven Thomas’ 356th District Court in Hardin County officially ruled last week that the girls can have their religious banners.
At issue was whether the banners constituted free speech by the high school cheerleaders — as was argued by the Liberty Institute, which represents the cheerleaders — or if the banners should be considered government speech and an establishment of religion by Kountze ISD because of the banners’ use at a school function — as argued by the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion foundation, the organization that started the ensuing court battle after threatening then KISD Superintendent Kevin Weldon.
Thomas ruled the banners “have not created, and will not create, an establishment of religion in the Kountze community,” and that the cheerleader’s banners are constitutionally protected by the First Amendment.
Thomas Brandt, who represented KISD and the now resigned superintendent said school districts have always walked the legal line when it came to religious expressions in Texas’ public schools, adding the U.S. Supreme Court had already drawn a line in the sand with Santa Fe. vs. Doe in 2000.
“The establishment clause in the First Amendment has been interpreted in such a way as to make it difficult for governmental entities like school districts to walk this line,” Brandt said. “And the line is, on the one hand, they’re not supposed to be endorsing a particular religion. On the other hand, they’re not supposed to be hostile to religion, either. So we’re trying to walk that very thin constitutional line so we don’t do either one of those things.”
The decision out of Hardin County might be trumped by a higher court in a drawn out process that could take years to resolve. An appeal has not been made yet, but Brandt said he wouldn’t be surprised if one is coming soon.
“I would expect that’s the case,” he said of a likely appeal. “I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they got active and brought something to court.”
Clay Thorp can be reached at (409) 832-1400, ext. 225, or by e-mail at clay [at] theexaminer [dot] com.