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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. VarsityBlues

    I don't wont yo liiiife (all rednecky tone). I wonder if this God fella has helped their record.

    October 19, 2012 at 7:19 am |
    • Damocles

      Yes, I'm sure they credit a deity with every victory and blame their sinful football players for every loss.

      October 19, 2012 at 7:21 am |
  2. Bill Fitzgerald

    Yes, you can have a banner, separation of church and state means KEEPING the Government out of the issue! There is justice. thank you.Another loss for the non believers.

    October 19, 2012 at 7:14 am |
    • Jt_flyer

      We would give the Taliban that banner too. It's all you need.

      October 19, 2012 at 7:20 am |
    • GOP Hate America

      Nope its another loss for humanity as we are forced to see other peoples cartoonish view of the world

      October 19, 2012 at 7:20 am |
    • WASP

      @bill: don't you just hate it when you're wrong? public school funded by tax payer dollars = NO RELIGION AT SCHOOL EVENTS.
      so do keep your "god" where he belongs....................the fiction section of the library.

      October 19, 2012 at 7:22 am |
    • SarahV

      It is only a temporary injunction. The full trial is in June, which is when the error of Thomas' ruling will be come clear as the "broadcast of student-initiated and student-led prayer over the public address system before high school football games" was previously declared illegal by the Supreme Court. This case is no different.

      October 19, 2012 at 7:33 am |
    • TruthPrevails :-)

      Bill: It also means keeping religion out of government and thus public funded things-ie; schools.

      October 19, 2012 at 7:50 am |
  3. SPW

    Aren't there private schools for this? I really don't see how a school funded with our tax dollars could justify cheerleaders and endorsing only the Christian God.

    October 19, 2012 at 7:06 am |
    • Mirosal

      it isn't justified, and the roots for it all can be traced back to about 1962 with Madelyn Murray O'Hair

      October 19, 2012 at 7:08 am |
    • TruthPrevails :-)

      The ACLU will be all over this soon enough.

      October 19, 2012 at 7:10 am |
    • Jt_flyer

      Texas is the Middle East of the US. Anything is possible and impossible at the same time.

      October 19, 2012 at 7:13 am |
    • saggyroy

      @Mirosal – No not her. The founding fathers and the separation of church and state.

      October 19, 2012 at 7:14 am |
    • SarahV

      Agreed.

      October 19, 2012 at 7:34 am |
  4. Jt_flyer

    Why doesn't Texas do everyone a favor ans secede from the union? They they can do all the stupid stuff they want without ridicule from the other 49 states. Go away Texas. Go away.

    October 19, 2012 at 7:00 am |
    • saggyroy

      Trade Texas for a territory TBD and draft pick considerations.

      October 19, 2012 at 7:08 am |
    • SarahV

      Great idea. And, that would be the one time I would be in favor of the building a wall along the (new) border ... to keep the illegal Texans from entering the US. Keep your crazy world views to yourself.

      October 19, 2012 at 7:39 am |
  5. poeticverbs

    If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off; and if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off, she should cover her head. Corinthians 11:16 Maybe the cheerleaders should not put any bible verses. They seem to not be following any of them as most if not all of the Christians of today. Contradiction!

    October 19, 2012 at 6:59 am |
    • Holy Frijoles

      Wow, I can't wait to hop on over and log in to facebook to post a status including that gem you just came up with. Haha, who knew there are some old cultural prescriptions in the Bible?? Astounding! You certainly have just scored some points there. Again, wow.

      October 19, 2012 at 7:18 am |
    • Nii

      POETICVERBS
      How nice of you to show how little Atheists know of the Bible? I like the part where someone wants to repost it on FB. How touching! lol Dumbeists!

      October 19, 2012 at 9:18 am |
    • gem

      Beautiful. Another example of the pick-and-choose mindset that is the christian faith. I love the quote by Gandhi: "I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ."

      October 19, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
  6. jd

    While I can see both sides of this argument, what really annoys me is the coward that complained the Freedom From Religion Foundation. A weak, spineless individual, if they truly had a problem with it, they should speak up themselves. If they need "help" making their case, fine, but don't hide behind anonymity and "privacy."

    October 19, 2012 at 6:37 am |
    • saggyroy

      Xtians hide behind their god...he's a golden ticket to avoid responsibility. Not much room to talk.

      October 19, 2012 at 6:39 am |
    • Bob

      You are the spinelless one, jd, since you blend in with the mindless and violent crowd that promotes religion.

      October 19, 2012 at 7:31 am |
    • SarahV

      Yes. I am sure they would get a warm and friendly reception. They are being anonymous because the fear for the retribution of the "good" Christians in the small town.

      October 19, 2012 at 7:42 am |
  7. saggyroy

    God, guns and football. Yeeeehah !!

    October 19, 2012 at 6:32 am |
  8. GreenwoodLake

    Maybe someone can display this sign at a game:
    Deuteronomy 22:28-29
    "If a man is caught in the act of raping a young woman who is not engaged, he must pay fifty pieces of silver to her father. Then he must marry the young woman because he violated her, and he will never be allowed to divorce her."

    October 19, 2012 at 6:30 am |
  9. Earthling

    Texas – brainwashing kids since 1863.

    October 19, 2012 at 6:26 am |
  10. via2

    Wonderful banner!!!

    October 19, 2012 at 6:21 am |
  11. saggyroy

    Bible verses suitable for a football game:

    “..the Lord will rejoice over you to destroy you, and to bring you to nought;”
    –Deuteronomy 28:63

    "...Smite through the loins of them that rise against him...that they rise not again!"
    - Deut 33:11

    "Take all the heads of the people and hang them up before the Lord against the sun.”
    - Numbers 25:4

    “Behold, the day of the Lord cometh, cruel both with wrath and fierce anger...”
    - Isaiah 13:9

    "...They shall fall by the sword: their infants shall be dashed in pieces, and their women with child (pregnant) shall be ripped up!"
    - Hosea 13:16

    October 19, 2012 at 6:14 am |
  12. Sam down'n Texas

    What a sad, angry, bitter group of people y'all are.

    October 19, 2012 at 4:23 am |
    • pauleky

      No, we're Americans. We believe that religion should not be in government and vice versa. I guess you'd be OK if Islam becomes the majority religion in America and the ONLY scripture allowed on banners at football games is from the Koran, right? Seriously, it is the religious right that is a major threat to this country, much more so than any terrorist organization.

      October 19, 2012 at 5:07 am |
    • Lol

      You seriously consider cheerleaders part of the government? If the teachers are organising it, you might have a case, but if it's student organised then the other half 1st Amendment should apply, aka not forbidding the expression thereof.

      October 19, 2012 at 5:27 am |
    • WarMachine99

      Just wait until Sharia Law makes it to the first city or county or state over here. Then we'll see how bad those cheerleaders really were.

      October 19, 2012 at 5:41 am |
    • Jt_flyer

      We're just happy we don't live in Texas.

      October 19, 2012 at 7:18 am |
    • SarahV

      LOL – Read the article. "Broadcast of student-initiated and student-led prayer over the public address system before high school football games" was declared illegal by the Supreme Court. This case is no different.

      October 19, 2012 at 7:44 am |
  13. David

    I live in the heart of this. It is crammed down your throat buy those who do not walk in the light of any lord. This state resembles the actions of those in the middle East. It has caused me to stop attending church. My children now want nothing to do with religion. When you live in Texas one gets a very clear understanding how the Taliban gains support.

    October 19, 2012 at 4:14 am |
    • Sam down'n Texas

      I agree in part, as a former Deacon in my former Church, there are many who follow blindly and ignorantly teaching of self interested people interpreting scripture for social or political purposes; but Texas is far from the middle east.

      October 19, 2012 at 4:29 am |
    • Crested Caracara

      David, I agree completely. I've lived in Texas for the last six years, and it certainly IS crammed down your throat constantly, particularly when you're in the military (although a recent Army incident made the news when several soldiers complained about the behavior: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/02/military-proselytizing-army-chaplain_n_1930703.html). Of course, Texas thinks it is exempt from the rules and regulations that all others are made to follow...

      October 19, 2012 at 6:32 am |
  14. Martin

    Dumb high school kids. There is no god.

    October 19, 2012 at 4:03 am |
    • Qmander

      AMEN!

      October 19, 2012 at 5:39 am |
    • Bill

      Funny.....God just said, "There is no Martin"!!

      October 19, 2012 at 5:44 am |
    • Mike

      Get a life Martin funny how people like you troll cnn to put out youre hate. You will be sorry one day that people like you say these words.

      October 19, 2012 at 6:47 am |
    • Mirosal

      Please explain, in detail, why we'll be "sorry", and provide clear, concise evidence in accordance with established rules of evidence that would hold up in a court hearing.

      October 19, 2012 at 6:54 am |
    • Damocles

      @Bill

      Now when did you hear a deity say that? Did it email it to you? Tweet it? Update its FB status to 'there is no Martin'? Put out an ad in the local paper? C'mon, a claim like that, you have to back it up some way.

      October 19, 2012 at 7:00 am |
  15. athiestbob

    If they had a poster of a male suicide bomber and Darwin having consensual secks using condoms provided by planned parenthood holding a "free abortion-your parents won't know" (and neither will the father) pamplet while they are getting pepper sprayed by whiteeey cops.....then maybe it would be ok...but just this once...

    October 19, 2012 at 3:55 am |
    • The Looming Apocalypse of Clown Dentist Satan

      Here are a few signs for their upcoming games:

      "Embrace Jihad!"

      "You too can be a Jew."

      "Worship Zeus – he's feeling left out"

      "Did you sell all your goods and give the money to the poor yet?"

      October 19, 2012 at 4:04 am |
    • Sam down'n Texas

      Help...get it, soon.

      October 19, 2012 at 4:31 am |
  16. Deadline

    The point about the signs being made with private funds etc. is irrelevant. That doesn't exclude them from being representatives of the school. According to the Kountze HS Student Handbook (http://www.kountzeisd.org/userFiles/289/khs_handbook_12-13.pdf) page 29, "Sponsors of student clubs and performing groups such as the band, choir, and drill and athletic teams may
    establish standards of behavior—including consequences for misbehavior—that are stricter than those for
    students in general. If a violation is also a violation of school rules, the consequences specified by the Student
    Code of Conduct or by local policy will apply in addition to any consequences specified by the organization’s
    standards of behavior."

    And why is this included in the handbook that students sign? Because the school (and cheerleaders by signing the agreement) acknowledges that cheerleaders direct representatives of the school and are thus subject to a higher standard of behavior. If you can get kicked off of the cheerleading squad for something that you do off of school property, outside of school hours, then you most certainly are a representative of the school when you are being given privileged access to the school's facilities (football field) during an official school event. Bottom line is, this is not a matter of individual freedom of speech. This is a matter of school endorsed display of religion. The cheerleaders are not acting as individuals exercising individual freedoms when they are on the field during a game. When the school legally states that they are held to special standards, and the girls sign a code of conduct that holds them responsible for maintaining a higher standard of behavior, they are legally acknowledging that they are acting as agents of the school. Like it or not, cheerleaders are official representatives of the school when they are acting as a squad at an official event, on school property.

    October 19, 2012 at 3:51 am |
    • Yep

      I bet if they held up a sign saying "There is no God", they would be severely punished.

      October 19, 2012 at 3:56 am |
    • lefty

      @ Deadline
      "The cheerleaders are not acting as individuals exercising individual freedoms when they are on the field during a game". EXACTLY. If it's so important to them to display bible verses they can quit the cheerleading team and buy a ticket to the game and sit in the bleachers and hold up any sign they want...they can even hold it the entire game and no one would say a thing. This ruling will be overturned.

      October 19, 2012 at 7:35 am |
  17. Mystic

    Someone should hold up a banner with words from the Quran or from Vishnu or from Ganesh or from the Flying Spaghetti Monster or from one of another 1000 gods. Why should one particular sect of Christianity be allowed to be displayed. I call BS. If you want to quote the bible do it at your home or your church, not at school!

    October 19, 2012 at 3:49 am |
  18. It figures

    So in Texas, if teenagers rip up a sign saying "God," it's considered religious?

    Do the cheerleaders then go write "Jesus" on all the toilet paper too?

    October 19, 2012 at 3:39 am |
    • Sam down'n Texas

      What's this toilet paper you speak of?

      October 19, 2012 at 4:33 am |
  19. God

    This country would be so much better without all the bs I bring please keep me out of America. All you "good" Christians give me a very bad name. The only people I respect are atheists cuz they don't throw me under the bus claiming its what I'd do. Please ban religion and use logic and knowledge to make this world a better place. The bible was created by some guys in Greece I haven't read it cuz it's just a boom by men nothing to do worth me.

    October 19, 2012 at 3:36 am |
    • Red Ruffensore

      If you are so perfect, God, then how do you explain Texas? Were you drinking heavily the day you made Texas? Why did you put so many whackadoodles there?

      October 19, 2012 at 3:42 am |
    • God

      It's like this, Red. If you make some beautiful places, you also have to make some really ugly places too so that people know the beautiful is beautiful. So for every Tahiti, there has to be a Texas. So my real challenge after making a latrine like Texas was creating people who like it that way.

      October 19, 2012 at 3:59 am |
  20. Methuselah

    And to the idiot children who are doing this...Your faith isn't strong when you have to constantly invoke it via scripture...even at your football games. You're simply shallow faux Christians who use your banners to elevate your pathetic existence but haven't clue what the teachings mean.

    October 19, 2012 at 3:29 am |
    • WarMachine99

      Looks like they kicked the life out of your wimpy son's team.

      October 19, 2012 at 5:38 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.