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Cheerleaders win temporary injunction in high-profile free speech case
October 18th, 2012
04:14 PM ET

Cheerleaders win temporary injunction in high-profile free speech case

By Jason Morris, CNN

Dallas (CNN)– Cheerleaders from a small eastern Texas town have won the first battle in their crusade to display Christian religious messages on banners at their high school's football games.

State District Judge Steve Thomas of Hardin County implemented a temporary injunction Thursday in favor of the Kountze High School cheerleaders, and by setting a trial date of June 24, 2013, Thomas effectively allows the cheerleaders to keep displaying Bible-quoting signs at Kountze athletic events through the end of this current school year.

Macy Matthews, a 15-year-old Kountze sophomore, was eating lunch at cheerleading camp last July when her friend Megan became inspired by images she saw on social media.

"She saw a picture on Pinterest of a team that had made a run-through sign with a scripture on it, and as we were sitting down eating, she showed us and asked if we would be interested in doing that for the football season. So, we all talked about it," Matthews remembered. "We all loved the idea and thought it was really cool and encouraging."

Macy's mother, Coti Matthews, said the girls were excited to use Biblical phrases they considered motivational and uplifting for both the Kountz Lions and their opponents.

"It's their Christian belief, and they liked the idea and thought it was very positive, instead of doing traditional banners that say things like, 'Cage the Eagles,' or 'Bash the Tigers,' she said.

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Instead, before the first three home games this season, the football players bolted onto the field through banners bearing New Testament verses such as "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." Philippians 4:13; "I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me in Christ Jesus." Philippians 3:14; and "If God is for us, who can be against us, who can be against us?" Romans 8:31.

Phrases such as those have embroiled the cheerleaders from the small east Texas town of Kountze in a legal controversy: Are the banners, when used at a public school event, a legitimate individual expression of free speech, or do they violate the concept of separation of church and state?

The cheerleaders recently found out via an intercom announcement during the last period of school that they were no longer allowed to use Bible verses on their run-through banners. Macy Matthews said the decision came abruptly, with no explanation. "I was shocked, but I was also very hurt that we couldn't do it anymore, and I didn't understand how we were violating any rights," Matthews told CNN.

Thomas agreed enough to impose the injunction in Matthews v. Kountze Independent School District, ruling that, among other things, the plaintiffs would "suffer a probably imminent and irreparable injury in the interim" without the injunction.

Texas' Attorney General Greg Abbott praised the judge's ruling.

"Today's decision is an important victory for the cheerleaders' freedom of religion. The Constitution has never demanded that students check their religious beliefs at the schoolhouse door. Students' ability to express their religious views adds to the diversity of thought that has made this country so strong," Abbott said. "Texas law supports students' right to freely express their religious beliefs without discrimination. We will not allow groups or individuals to wage a war on religion by trying to intimidate students into embracing a secular mindset."

How this case went to court

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national nonprofit organization based in Madison, Wisconsin, that advocates the separation of church and state, ignited the spark that brought the story into the national spotlight. The organization said it received a complaint about the religious nature of the cheerleaders' signs from somebody in the community, but citing privacy concerns, wouldn't reveal any additional details. The foundation then sent a letter to the Kountze Independent School District, claiming that the religious nature of the cheerleaders' signs was illegal.

Based on a precedent set in a 2000 Supreme Court case, Santa Fe Independent School District v. Jane Doe, the Kountze Independent School District's attorneys advised Superintendent Kevin Weldon to immediately ban the religious banners. In that case emanating from southeast Texas, the Supreme Court ruled that it would not allow the broadcast of student-initiated and student-led prayer over the public address system before high school football games.

After the Kountze Independent School District's decision, the cheerleaders and their families filed suit on September 20. Judge Thomas issued a temporary two-week restraining order later that day, allowing the cheerleaders to continue using their "spirit run-through banners," and extended that order another two weeks on October 4.

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Thomas Brandt, the lawyer who represents the Kountze ISD and Superintendent Weldon, says this situation is very similar to Santa Fe v. Jane Doe, and in good faith, they asked the court for clarity and interpretation of the law so they can do the right thing.

"The school district is trying to walk a very thin line here, and to obey the law. That's the primary motive, the primary focus of the school district," he said. "On the one hand, we're trying not be endorsing any particular religion. On the other hand, we're not trying to be hostile to religion. We're trying to walk that very thin line of this elusive neutrality that we are required to achieve."

Texas intervention

On Wednesday, the state of Texas intervened, filing a petition with the Texas District Court of Hardin County to support the Kountze cheerleaders on the basis of defending the constitutionality of Texas statues.

"We will not allow atheist groups from outside the state of Texas to come into the state to use menacing and misleading and intimidating tactics to try to bully schools to bow down to the altar of secular beliefs," Abbott said Wednesday.

In a statement, the Attorney General's office explained that the Texas Religious Viewpoints Anti–Discrimination Act requires school districts to treat a student's voluntary expression of religious views in the same manner that the district treats a student's expression of any other point of view.

"Those banners, which the cheerleaders independently produce on their own time with privately funded supplies, are perfectly constitutional. The State of Texas intervened in this case to defend the cheerleaders' right to exercise their personal religious beliefs - and to defend the constitutionality of a state law that protects religious liberties for all Texans," the statement read.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry even Skyped with the cheerleaders last week to show his support.

"As government leaders, we owe it to people of all religions to protect expressions of faith, to ensure everyone has a right to voice their opinions and worship as they see fit," Gov. Perry said.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation said it was "shocked" and "flabbergasted" at the intervention by Attorney General Abbott and Gov. Perry, calling those actions "highly unprofessional." The foundation's lawyer, Randall Kallinen, accused the politicians of pandering to their Republican constituents for votes.

"It's 100% politics. In their party, that is a fact that it's in their platform to be more favorable to the religious right," Kallinen said.

He added that he thinks today's ruling was "purely a political decision," and that if the case was tried in federal court, there would be a very different outcome.

"I doubt the case will even go to trial," Kallinen told CNN. "The people being sued and the judge have to be re-elected, so I don't see how we can get very far."

Interpreting the First Amendment

Kallinen argued that the First Amendment's Establishment Clause prohibits the government from endorsing a particular religion.

"People have freedom of speech. So, individuals have freedom of speech, but also there is the right that the government shall establish no religion. So, the question becomes, 'Is what the cheerleaders are doing private speech,or is it school-sponsored speech?'" Kallinen said. "What the school district is saying is, 'You are in the uniforms that have the name on it. You are in the property of the school. It's a school football game, and you are putting these religious banners onto school property. Therefore, it is school-sponsored speech.' And when it is school-sponsored speech, then it is subject to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, and that is that the government should not promote, endorse, or advance a particular religion."

Mike Johnson, who is representing many of the cheerleaders' families as senior counsel for the Liberty Institute - a nonprofit group which says it is "committed to defending and restoring religious liberty across America" - disagrees that the banners are school-sponsored, and argues that this is a quintessential example of students' private free speech and expression.

"If you have student-led, student-initiated expression, it is to be regarded as private speech. And because it is private speech, it can't be censored or silenced by the government, short of some reasonable limitations on school kids such as obscenity or a material and substantial disruption to the school day. We don't have any of that here," Johnson said.

Interpretation of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause is something Brandt says can be "a bit confused and confusing."

"Most legal scholars and many judges will admit that the opinions that come out in the Establishment Clause area have been lacking in consistency," Brandt told CNN. "There doesn't seem to have any clear guidance as to individual circumstances."

Kountze locals say town is "united"

A Facebook page started after the school district's decision called "Support Kountze Kids Faith," now has over 48,000 members, far surpassing the reaches of the roughly 2,100 residents of Kountze.

Coti Matthews says the whole town of Kountze supports her daughter and the cheerleaders, and believes they should be able to exercise their freedoms without interference.

"It was student-initiated, student-oriented. The school doesn't pay for any supplies. The school doesn't buy their uniforms. The school does not pay one dollar for anything having to do with cheerleading," she said. "The parents buy the uniforms, the camp clothes, shoes, pom-poms. The school doesn't purchase the paper or the paint or anything to make those banners."

Her daughter Macy looks forward to making religious-themed banners for the rest of her high school career.

"I would like to do this every year," Macy said. "We get into it pretty big."

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Christianity • Courts

soundoff (859 Responses)
  1. Row Jay

    New entry in the thesaurus:

    Airhead:
    -Texas Cheerleader

    October 19, 2012 at 1:31 am |
    • Selendis

      "Airhead"? No, think of it more like this. How sad is it when we have become a society that teenage girls have chosen to be the front line in the fight for freedom and rights? Don't boo a group of young women standing up for something when so many other people are willing to be walked over.

      October 19, 2012 at 2:36 am |
    • Silly Atheists

      And a child shall lead them...

      October 19, 2012 at 9:33 am |
    • tallulah13

      It's nice to see christians comment honestly about how little they care about the Consti.tution and the rights it gives ALL Americans. It just goes to show that the Founding Fathers were right: Religion is the enemy of freedom.

      October 19, 2012 at 9:56 am |
  2. Selendis

    This was the town of my youth, and although I had spent a number of years denying it had much to do with my life, I have aged enough to be grateful. I am proud of Kountze, it's cheerleaders, and it's citizens for supporting their own. If Kountze High School were insisting on religious banners, or any of the football players were objecting, I may feel differently. But for the objections to be coming from "freedom from religion" ticks me off. Those folks have to much time on their hand, constantly trying to push their own agenda. Kountze texas, and I am sure many other small towns, can be fiercely independent. I mean, come on, this town had the first muslim mayor in the country. Stop trying to accuse them of being small minded, and respect their right to stand up for their own rights and freedoms.

    October 19, 2012 at 1:29 am |
    • coolhead

      Do you really want freedom of religion? Or just freedom for your religion?

      October 19, 2012 at 8:37 am |
  3. dana

    Had the banners read "We can do all things without having to believe in a fake god" or "We can do all things through Allah" this would be different. The Texas attorney general doesn't support freedom of religion, he supports the promotion of evangelical Christianity.

    October 19, 2012 at 1:20 am |
    • candiduscorvus

      I don't think you know that. First let's see a case where such a thing has happened, where Greg Abbott has suppressed or failed to defend someone's right to do such a thing, and then I'd agree with you. Until then I think you just need to open your mind.

      October 19, 2012 at 1:45 am |
    • Jebus

      Candid....Are you serious?

      October 19, 2012 at 4:08 am |
  4. CdnJim

    The test of this matter, would be if a group of cheerleaders wanted to put up Satanic run through banners. Something like "Through Satan's strength I will crush all who oppose me." If the school, the school district and the state would support and protect their rights to do so, then I guess the State has a case. How about it. Any satanic cheerleaders out there want to get their pictures on CNN?

    October 19, 2012 at 1:19 am |
    • candiduscorvus

      I believe that any cheerleaders who wanted to make such a banner should be just as free to do so (as far as the school is concerned). The community at large may have a big problem with them doing it, but the school has no right to restrict their speech in that manner.

      October 19, 2012 at 1:43 am |
  5. candiduscorvus

    I'm a little surprised, although I suppose I shouldn't be, that so many people want to restrict the freedom of speech these cheerleaders were expressing. I wonder if people realize that by having the school suppress the cheerleaders' personal decisions to make such a banner that it is the school which was clearly in violation of the First Amendment, and that religious expression is explicitly protected under the Bill of Rights in that way.

    This is very much the same as if students decided to state publicly that God is a lie or religions are false, or that they are Islamic, or Buddhist. Would the same people blasting these cheerleaders feel the same then if the school suppressed their right to say those things instead? I doubt it.

    Hypocrisy at work.

    October 19, 2012 at 1:10 am |
    • Cheese Wonton

      I can't put overtly religious or political slogans or banners up in my workplace. I have to respect the religious and political sensibilities of co-workers who share divergent views. Why is it any different for cheerleaders of a public high school at a school sanctioned sporting event? Why does expecting Christians to respect other religions always become tantamount to suppression of Christianity?

      October 19, 2012 at 1:20 am |
    • Rational Libertarian

      Whose religious views are being disrespected?

      October 19, 2012 at 1:26 am |
    • Cheese Wonton

      Rational, how about Jews, Buddhists and Muslims? How would a Christian feel having to sit through some other faiths religious traditions at a Friday night high school football game? How would you feel about a banner praising Allah? Threatened maybe? That is how one feels in such a town when they worship at another altar. Most won't speak out because of the way small towns are. That doesn't mean you don't feel isolated and demeaned, knowing your faith is looked down on by the majority.

      October 19, 2012 at 1:31 am |
    • Selendis

      ya know cheese, not sure how those cheerleaders are disrespecting anyone elses views. Seems like everyone thinks they have a dog in this fight, when it is apparently not a problem for those within the community.

      October 19, 2012 at 1:35 am |
    • Rational Libertarian

      Why would I feel threatened by a banner praising Allah?

      Also, just because someone's views are not being promoted doesn't mean they are being disrespected.

      October 19, 2012 at 1:37 am |
    • Selendis

      ya know cheese, not sure how those cheerleaders are disrespecting anyone elses views. Seems like everyone thinks they have a dog in this fight, when it is apparently not a problem for those within the community. And furthermore, Kountze had the first muslim mayor in the entire country, so to suggest they would fear banners about allah is ridiculous.

      October 19, 2012 at 1:37 am |
    • dana

      Would you allow the school chef to pass out Watch Tower tracts to students with every lunch they serve? Would you allow a student to tell their teacher they're going to hell? Would you want to allow a Muslim teacher to stop their class each day and pray for 5 minutes while the students watched? How about a Roman Catholic principle reminding his students, over the intercom, about why praying the rosary is so important. Would you restrict the right of a school administration in Utah to put up pictures of Joseph Smith in the hallways? They each have a fundamental right to their religious belief and a right to free speech. Do you view the ability for people to do anything they want, at any time they want, as always being protected speech if they do it in the name of their chosen religion?

      October 19, 2012 at 1:49 am |
    • Rational Libertarian

      Those would be clear church/state violations dana, this isn't.

      October 19, 2012 at 1:53 am |
  6. Rational Libertarian

    I support the cheerleaders 100%.

    October 19, 2012 at 1:00 am |
  7. Don in Houston

    Ignorance runs rampant in rural Texas, which is run by the Baptist Taliban. Over time it will die out. However, under Republican rule, it will continue for a few more years. Gov. Ricky Bobby Perry has issued an edict outlawing the use of critical thinking in Texas' public school system.

    October 19, 2012 at 12:57 am |
    • Nah

      Oh look. Another open minded, tolerant liberal.

      October 19, 2012 at 1:10 am |
    • Deeanna

      As a 2011 graduate of KISD attending UT, one of the most liberal colleges in Texas, I am proud to say that I come from that little religious town. I think it's wonderful that they're voicing their opinion, and we need more people in this country to do just that. We've gone too long now letting other people tell us what we can and can't do, because it's politically insensitive, or discriminatory. We believe in our strong Christian faith, and I can't think of anyone in the town who would disagree.

      October 19, 2012 at 1:12 am |
    • I wonder

      Deeanna,

      Well, I guess that the Kountze Independent School District is gonna feel real "Independent" when they are removed from U.S. government funding.

      October 19, 2012 at 1:18 am |
    • Beth

      "I can't think of anyone in the town who would disagree." Deeanna, seems they didn't teach you at your "liberal" college how to take the blinders off. And hey, get out in the big wide world for once and you'll find many who disagree with your particular mythology.

      October 19, 2012 at 1:41 am |
    • Selendis

      I am terribly confused how people can feel so negatively about those with faith, but don't feel that berating others with their lack of faith is offensive. I find it just as offensive to hear someone demean people because of their faith. I don't tell you how ridiculous your life is, you shouldn't feel you have earned the right to dictate belief to others.

      October 19, 2012 at 2:26 am |
  8. CTed

    Wow, but what can we expect from TExas the state that wants to rewrite history and change all the textbooks. This is utter nonsense. They are cheer leaders, at a game, holding up An OFFICIAL banner. If someone in the stands want's to hold a sign fine, but this is the banner the PLAYERS run through. If it is not offical in any way, then why do the cheerleaders get to hold it up for the players to run through?

    Can fans make the next banner or do the cheerleaders ALWAYS get to make the banner? If they do and the school won't let anyone else make it or hold it up then it is SCHOOL SPONSORED SPEECH... period. It should be religiously neutral. If not, they should let a Muslim group make the banner for the next game.

    October 19, 2012 at 12:56 am |
    • candiduscorvus

      I very much disagree. It would be one thing if the school mandated that these cheerleaders must make the banner in a prescribed religious way, but it's quite another thing if the cheerleaders decided on their own to do it. How "official" is something made by hand out of paper by high school cheerleaders? It isn't on letterhead or legally binding or even significant. It's an outright expression of freedom of speech and to curtail it is a violation of the First Amendment.

      October 19, 2012 at 1:05 am |
    • Selendis

      Again, as much as I enjoy the fact that many people keep trying to use Muslims as a polar opposite to Christianity, in this case, that dog won't hunt. Kountze was the first city with a muslim mayor. Guess you have to find another example of stereotypes to use.

      October 19, 2012 at 2:29 am |
  9. Joey GK1!

    a great victory for faith & I am a liberal Christian. Still, I "believe"!!

    October 19, 2012 at 12:50 am |
    • Beth

      No amount of cheerleading, by you or anyone else, will make your Christian fictions true.

      October 19, 2012 at 1:43 am |
    • Hey

      Beth, just be quiet, it amazes me how many stupid militant atheists are on the Internet, I don't mean all atheists, just people like you that make all atheists look like horrible ignorant people. You give atheists a bad name. I really hope you enjoy rubbing your beliefs in everyone else's face hypocrite, you are no different from the intolerant extremists you claim to fight. If your going to preach tolerance, actually be tolerant.

      October 19, 2012 at 2:22 am |
    • the AnViL

      tolerance of delusional religious thinking has to end.

      enough is enough

      October 19, 2012 at 4:28 am |
  10. McJesus

    Come on people. Leave them alone. Its Texas. Land of big hair, big crosses, and small brains.

    October 19, 2012 at 12:42 am |
  11. dandude

    They should be able to put it up if they want to, don't like it? Too bad, become a cheerleader then.

    October 19, 2012 at 12:26 am |
    • where is the sanity

      F'n Christian taliban,,Wonder if these folks would cheer as loud or Mohammed or Satan..Religion and government NEVER a good Idea. Keep your Sky daddy beliefs at home in the church and out of schools you heathens. !

      October 19, 2012 at 12:33 am |
    • TexInd

      How about don't come from some aheap family and pay for your kids to go to a private christian school instead of a free public taxpayer school. If you're parents are so cheap, don't take it out of taxpayers!

      October 19, 2012 at 12:49 am |
  12. Independent

    $20 says they'll be on Fox news with Sean Hannity and Mike Huckabee, and "Fox and Friends" within a week, as they become the next "face" of the "War on Religion" theme that the Republicans are using against Democrats, just like Sandra Fluke became the "face" of the "War on Women/Reproductive Rights" that the Democrats are using against Republicans. Both side are divisive and predictable in stirring up their base. Sad.

    October 19, 2012 at 12:23 am |
  13. mariah

    Pretty sure if a Muslim student wanted to put their scripture all over a banner, it wouldn't be allowed. What a backwards slide away from progression.

    October 19, 2012 at 12:23 am |
    • Mack

      More realistically in Texas, what about the Jewish students? Explain me this one, Texas guy.....you don't care about offending your cheerleader daughter's Jew friend, but you're an "ally of Israel" and that's your "official" political position (because it has to be, remember?). Walk me through the jacked logic.....it's Gordian Knot after Gordian Knot with you republiwhatevers.

      October 19, 2012 at 12:53 am |
    • Ceri

      Actually I reckon if we sat down a rabbi, an imam and a priest, they could come up with some scriptural phrases they could all be comfortable with. Would that satisfy you? Of course not, you're a troublemaker.

      October 19, 2012 at 1:34 am |
  14. pw1121

    Well now that we got the Boy Scouts of America on a path to ruin, what shall we attack next? Faith! Let us destroy all forms of faith in our teenagers. Some call it team building but there is silent prayer in the locker rooms of our high schools before a game or match. This practice must be destroyed because it is not fair to those who do not belive in prayer.

    Join me in saving this years Friday Night Lights by putting an end to faith in our teens by shoving food up our b..u..t..t..s and c..r..a..p..p..i..n..g out our mouths.

    October 19, 2012 at 12:21 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      Why are young people not offered alternatives to faith? Why are they not raised to be skeptics? Perhaps so they can be easily led. Perhaps to simplify marketing strategies. Perhaps to ensure that the religions that have ridden us like parasites will survive another generation.

      October 19, 2012 at 12:29 am |
    • Cheese Wonton

      The Boy Scouts, like the Catholic Church, have no one to blame but themselves. No one from outside either organization made those priests and scout masters molest children. Trying to blame that on the critics is futile.

      October 19, 2012 at 1:27 am |
  15. t3chn0ph0b3

    Test post. Can't figure out which word is banned.

    The fact that the cheerleaders used the1r own money for the pa1nt and paper 1s 1mmater1al. The game 1s a state-sponsored event and the team 1s us1ng 1t as an advert1sement for Chr1st1an1ty. Th1s 1s state-sponsored rel1g1on, pla1n and s1mple. 1f the cheerleaders were W1ccan, the judge wouldn't have supported them at all. 1t's thoroughly unconst1tut1onal and should not be allowed.

    October 19, 2012 at 12:13 am |
    • *

      unconst-itutional

      October 19, 2012 at 1:29 am |
  16. Albert

    I bet you a lot of money this will be struck down if it goes to the Supreme Court

    October 19, 2012 at 12:12 am |
  17. t3chn0ph0b3

    Test post.

    October 19, 2012 at 12:05 am |
  18. Rufus T. Firefly

    I suggest that the Kountz Lions, instead of doing traditional banners that say things like, 'Cage the Eagles,' or 'Bash the Tigers,' do banners that say "Throw them to the Lions!"

    October 18, 2012 at 11:51 pm |
  19. Tom, Tom, the Other One

    This is a start on encouraging young atheists to self-deport from the Republic of Texas. Christ is proclaimed on the field while atheists are held down and shaved in the locker room. Just a little good clean fun they learned from Mitt. As he mentioned in the debate, self deportation works when people are made sufficiently uncomfortable.

    October 18, 2012 at 11:40 pm |
  20. tallulah13

    Welcome to Texas, where people need god's help to run onto a field.

    October 18, 2012 at 11:25 pm |
    • Damocles

      Ahh that's great! Thank you.

      October 18, 2012 at 11:27 pm |
    • Rufus T. Firefly

      You oughtta see the divine intervention it takes to get them to read a textbook...

      October 18, 2012 at 11:38 pm |
    • McJesus

      Indeed Rufus... indeed. Just getting them to actually read a bible is a challenge, nevermind comprehend the lunacy it is filled with.

      October 19, 2012 at 12:44 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.