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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. Major Tom

    Basically what these cheerleaders are saying is that they don't think their football team can manage to win a game if their life depended on it – which in Texas it pretty much does – so they have to resort to voodoo and magic to try and win a game.

    October 19, 2012 at 3:21 am |
    • Selendis

      funny enough, might be a bit of truth in that. when I was a kid, Kountze high school has a losing streak worthy of a guinness record. Don't know if they have improved in the last 20-30 years. I would hope so, they were that bad.

      October 19, 2012 at 3:31 am |
  2. Scott in Texas

    That high school cheerleader lay just isn't the same without a little god signage before the game. And yes, I am speaking from experience.

    October 19, 2012 at 3:07 am |
  3. southernwonder

    in the south the new end line on phone or at a store checkout is : "have a blessed day".

    October 19, 2012 at 3:02 am |
    • Anna

      And my reply is always "Ramen".

      October 19, 2012 at 3:05 am |
    • Fun with dingbats

      Run these by them when that comes up:

      "And Buddha bless you too!"

      "The mercy of Allah is wonderous, isn't it?"

      "Hare Krisna, Hare Rama"

      "But I haven't sneezed yet."

      October 19, 2012 at 3:35 am |
  4. Anna

    I am a Texas Atheist. If I were to create my own banner which stated "There is no God, power comes from within" and the football boys rand through it, do you think it would be called Freedom of expression? No, of course not. They'd be all over the banner. In fact, most of the football team would REFUSE to go through it. Now, lets say I'm the one football player who isn't really a Christian (let's go with a Muslim). Everyone goes through this banner, I don't believe in the banner, am I expected to walk through the banner, or walk around it? Through it, of course, because if not, I would be ostricized for not being Christian. This would inflict emotion distress due to a bias of religious beliefs. That's all that FFRF is saying.

    October 19, 2012 at 2:53 am |
    • Selendis

      That is a whole lot of assuming. So, why don't we stick with the facts. The facts say that the only group having a problem with this would be Freedom From Religion, out of Wisconsin.....you don't see a problem with that?

      October 19, 2012 at 2:58 am |
    • Anna

      Like I said. I'm a Texan and an Atheist, and I have a problem with it, so it's not JUST some group from Wisconsin (which, is actually a nationwide group, whose home is in Wisconsin by the way). And obviously it was a person FROM that school that brought it up to the national organisation anonymously. So someone from that school was offended. Wake up.

      October 19, 2012 at 3:03 am |
    • Selendis

      Gotta ask Anna, why would football players running through a banner with biblical references bother you? How exactly does that affect you? Why would another person's religious belief be offensive to you? Sorry love, but that sounds more like "my way or highway" kind of thinking. Which would be the exact stance religious groups are accused of.

      October 19, 2012 at 3:22 am |
    • Selendis

      and again, if the football players were objecting, I could see the problem. Yet, it would seem fairly obvious, they are not. and I can promise, it is not because the entire football team is made up of devout religious folks. I would put money on it, that few of the players really care what that banner says. For the rest, it's a football game, and it doesn't bother them enough to rain on the parade of those that do care. Respect...that is what it is all about.

      October 19, 2012 at 3:27 am |
    • Sam down'n Texas

      I've been into several Mosques, I disagree with Islam but still can walk through the doorway decorated with what I believe to be false teaching respectfully.

      October 19, 2012 at 4:43 am |
    • thecollegeadmissionsguru

      I Have been a member of the Freedom from Religion Foundation for years, we are a nationwide group and our purpose is to ensure that the separation of Church and State remains strong.

      October 19, 2012 at 4:49 am |
    • thecollegeadmissionsguru

      @Selendis, it isn't just about the football team, it is about legal rights here. What about the Hindu kid in the Band or the Muslim kid on the team or the Atheist kid in the stands. Do they all get to have a banner? Do they all get to say their own version of a prayer before each game?

      October 19, 2012 at 4:58 am |
    • Pete

      The Freedom From Religion group only becomes involved if somebody in the town asks them to. They don't just show up on their own. So at least one person in the town has a problem with the signs.

      October 19, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
  5. jawhite

    People... read the first amendment. It says "CONGRESS shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion". It says nothing about cheerleaders making a sign. Now if these cheerleaders happen to be members of congress then it gets a little murky. But still, a sign is not a law.

    October 19, 2012 at 2:49 am |
    • Dubhly

      CONGRESS did do it. They established pubic schools and that is the gist of this. obviously someone in the town is NOT happy with the school ( established by congress) pushing christianity, but if they go public, considering its texas, i could see a gold ol justified homicide happening.

      October 19, 2012 at 3:03 am |
    • jawhite

      Schools are established and run by the states, not the congress.

      October 19, 2012 at 3:07 am |
    • thecollegeadmissionsguru

      I am amazed at the level of ignorance of the law I see on these blogs. There are two hundred years of precedents handed down by courts all over the land concerning prayer in school and the separation clause. The amendment is clear that government shall not endorse any ONE religion, to allow a publically funded school to endorse Christianity without equal time to ALL other religions is a violation of the law.

      October 19, 2012 at 4:56 am |
    • Sam down'n Texas

      The school tired to stop it, but its a private expression of faith on public land...which is protected.

      October 19, 2012 at 5:01 am |
    • Zoop

      Technically its a First and Fourteenth Amendments case. First for the religious part, Fourteenth for the Bill of Rights being applicable to the states part. Additionally, the school gets federal money so the federal governemtn has a say too.

      October 19, 2012 at 11:24 am |
  6. fandancy

    Will they be carrying their bibles while they lead the crowd in christian cheers?

    October 19, 2012 at 2:44 am |
  7. Adam

    I'd bust a gut if the star player refused to play until this coercion stopped. Aftter they lost one game, the town would be singing a different tune.

    October 19, 2012 at 2:35 am |
    • The Looming Apocalypse of Clown Dentist Satan ! ! !

      It's Texas. They'd just lynch him for something like that.

      October 19, 2012 at 2:39 am |
  8. The Looming Apocalypse of Clown Dentist Satan ! ! !

    Gotta love cheerleaders: their idea of promoting Christianity it to hold up a sign with "God" on it for the football players to shred before they bash each other up in a modern gladiator sport.

    October 19, 2012 at 2:34 am |
    • kaitlin

      Welll, no one has ever accused Christians (especially those of the Texas fundie variety) of being the sharpest intellects around. They are generally dimwitted conformists of small brains and big teeth.

      October 19, 2012 at 2:55 am |
  9. TheRationale

    It's a time/place/manner thing. It's a school event and the cheerleaders represent the school, as well as the football players. It's nearly certain the defendants will ultimately lose this case. It's a high school. Plugging for your religion doesn't fly in a prayer before school or before the game, so a banner will not likely be seen as anything different with respect to its relevance to the Establishment Clause.

    Furthermore, it's a high school. There are plenty of rules upon rules at many high schools that would seem to violate student's First Amendment rights that are done to make the environment more hospitable, welcoming, safe, etc.

    The problems seem to come from ho.mogeneous parts of the country where nearly nobody has any objection to this, despite the fact that it, in principle, should not be allowed.

    October 19, 2012 at 2:34 am |
    • Rational Libertarian

      These are students not receiving any official sanction from the school. I don't see how this violates the Establishment Clause.

      October 19, 2012 at 2:39 am |
    • TheRationale

      The students wouldn't receive any money to do a prayer before school over the PA, nor does it cost anyone any money. It's an expression of support for a religion by people who clearly represent the school and during a school sponsored event. A political ad wouldn't fly either.

      October 19, 2012 at 2:46 am |
    • Dubhly

      they have school uniforms on, officially sanctioned. They are on the schools property during a school event, officially sanctioned. The team is making a show of going through this during a officially sanctioned event. How much more official sanctioned do you want?

      October 19, 2012 at 3:19 am |
  10. Helloooo

    I'm a Christian and I DONT think the bible verses are appropriate at any public school , if its a private school do whatever you want but public ... ITS CALLED SEPERATION OF CHURCH AND STATE! But it's Texas where I'm from and they thumb their nose at the consitution unless it's in their favor .... But thats just based off my expieriance here ....

    October 19, 2012 at 2:29 am |
  11. Vanderloof

    I want a great big "there is no god. Just run through the sign, boys!". That is nonsense about the school not paying anything towards the cost. The school support it. This religious nonsense has gone too far. "We're so good, we are all Christians.". Yuck. Texas is just one great big pool of ignorant hypocrites.

    October 19, 2012 at 2:28 am |
  12. brich22

    Keep religion out of the game.

    If these cheerleaders are so pious, then why are they out on the field shaking their booty trying to entice a one night stand?

    October 19, 2012 at 2:18 am |
    • Mirosal

      Just take the "u" out of Kountze and you'll know just what "good" religious girls are in real life.. I spent over a decade in religious schools, I KNOW what these litle "innocent" girls are capable of.

      October 19, 2012 at 2:27 am |
    • Selendis

      Wait up? If I take the U out of Kountze, I get "Kontze"......maybe that is a serious slur in your neck of the woods, but i just don't get it. now, your personal issues? yeah, you got those. stop blaming others. first step to recovery.

      October 19, 2012 at 2:55 am |
    • Mirosal

      sorry, it was a typo .. I meant to take the "o" out of Kountze ... and like the original name, the "e" remains silent.

      October 19, 2012 at 3:03 am |
  13. Pope Joe

    I'm a Catholic and I want only verses from the bible approved by the Catholic Church – not that King James blasphemy. Protestant bible verses should not be used.

    October 19, 2012 at 2:18 am |
  14. redzoa

    "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 [to] 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."

    I certainly don't envy being the lawyer for a TX school district, but if this is a genuine position, then I respect this balanced recognition of the issue.

    October 19, 2012 at 2:18 am |
  15. Greg

    I honestly don't know where I come down on the legal argument here. Better minds than mine will have to untangle if this is school sponsored speech or not. However, I think there is a larger underlying issue here; common courtesy. These cheerleaders, or their parents and teachers, should have had the common courtesy to realize that maybe not everyone at a public event (even in East Texas) shares their faith. It is, quite frankly, obnoxious to flaunt your views about topics like religion and politics when they have nothing to do with the situation or event. I love to discuss and debate religious and political topics but I don't do it where it is uninvited or inappropriate. Can't we all; religious, atheist, liberal or conservative leave that at home when we go out to the football game? That way everyone feels welcome and can have some fun. You wouldn't think that was so much to ask for.

    October 19, 2012 at 2:16 am |
    • Future Texas Doc

      Eloquently said.

      October 19, 2012 at 2:31 am |
    • therealpeace2all

      @Greg

      Pretty well said.

      Peace...

      October 19, 2012 at 2:35 am |
    • Jebus

      Ahhh,but you are missing the point....they don't really want everyone to feel welcome.

      October 19, 2012 at 4:18 am |
    • Wollhead

      That's way too logical for these Christians who feel like their religion is the only one that exists. How do they not understand that it's a public school and their religion should not be shoved in everyone's faces. It's mind boggling. You couldn't pay me to move to Texas.

      October 19, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
  16. worldwidewimpy

    I want to know if all the schools opposing their football team are agents of the Devil... Because if God is on their side, and wants only them to win, shouldn't they they say the opposing team are Satan's work and should be purged from the Earth???

    October 19, 2012 at 2:11 am |
  17. Hooligan

    So does this mean we can also ask Muhammad for victory? Or would that be considered "offensive"?

    October 19, 2012 at 2:10 am |
    • Mirosal

      Just don't draw any cartoons on your banners, or some mullah or imam will issue a fatwa against your whole team!!! 😉

      October 19, 2012 at 2:30 am |
  18. Bry

    I understand that many of you here are Christian, you believe Jesus Christ is your Saviour and God is the only true god etc. But when it comes to a public school, can you not see how people who do not share your beliefs may be a slight bit alienated or offended by seeing these slogans at a public sponsored school event? Pleasetell me you can see the problem, I don't want to always have to invoke the devil's advocate response and ask how you would react if it were Quran verses they decided to display.

    October 19, 2012 at 1:54 am |
    • MattR

      Bry – Was about to post something similar. If there is a high school in Dearborn, Michigan that is 95% Muslim would people be OK with them running out to banners that state "There is no God but Allah" or other quotes from the Koran? Or would people be complaining about how unfair that was to the handful of Christians who attend that high school?

      October 19, 2012 at 2:06 am |
    • Rational Libertarian

      Anybody who's offended by a none threatening slogan needs to grow up. And, as Dawkins says, just because you're offended doesn't mean you're right.

      October 19, 2012 at 2:16 am |
    • TheRationale

      Rational Libertarian:

      Very true indeed about the Dawkins quote, although it's not about threatening vs not threatening (although the one about not being on God's side is actually not too passive). It's about state endorsement of religion, and at a high school no less. This is an easy case for the prosecution.

      October 19, 2012 at 2:41 am |
  19. me

    GOOD. It's about time some consideration was given to people of faith rather than having them shot down by people that don't believe in God. More power to them.

    October 19, 2012 at 1:51 am |
    • Boris

      Oh, the poor persecuted Christians, not. Please, stow the persecution bullsh!t sob story already. Your mythology holds way too much sway in the US. Better get used to the pushback as your mythology and the crimes of your religion get exposed.

      October 19, 2012 at 2:20 am |
    • fandancy

      Will Fred Phelps and his crew of nuts be there to hold up their signs?

      October 19, 2012 at 2:39 am |
    • fandancy

      Well, it's Texas.

      That pretty much says it all.

      October 19, 2012 at 2:42 am |
    • Selendis

      I don't care if you believe in a god, no god, or multiple gods. I do believe the minute you think you have the right to tell people how ridiculous their belief is, you have won the right to be completely ignored.

      October 19, 2012 at 3:04 am |
  20. Jack Skellington

    God bless Texas!

    October 19, 2012 at 1:31 am |
    • M S

      JACK is an indirect diminutive of “JOHN”. The name means "God Is Gracious”. The name is of middle English origin.

      Live up to your name and be careful how you treat anything with your name on it. Try your best not to show disrespect to the word God or other older words which mean God [an example would be El]. Avoid actions like sitting on your wallet which might contain your business card or even US dollar bills/coins (that contain the word God).

      Just my perspective. Have a nice day!

      October 19, 2012 at 2:01 am |
    • Boris

      Your god is a pathetic joke.

      October 19, 2012 at 2:21 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.