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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. Other Foot

    Damn activist judges!

    October 19, 2012 at 8:29 am |
  2. Rich

    If this God is so weak that it needs humans to defend it, you need a new God!

    October 19, 2012 at 8:27 am |
  3. Aucausin

    Odd how the same people who fought against freedom of speech when it came to teachers teaching about evolution and various civil rights movements fight so hard for their own rights to enforce their beliefs on football teams everywhere.

    October 19, 2012 at 8:24 am |
  4. Making Love to Thy Neighbor

    good girls don't parade their half nakit bodes like these tramps.God won't forgive them. they r ho'

    October 19, 2012 at 8:21 am |
  5. heyheyhey

    One word ANNOYING!

    October 19, 2012 at 8:21 am |
  6. Rich

    So whose God won? If both teams had the same God, the loser lost because God didn't love them as much as the other team. How would you like to be on the team that God doesn't love?

    October 19, 2012 at 8:20 am |
  7. iambriezy

    Surely, there has got to be a non-Christian on that team or in that cheerleading squad. It's inappropriate for these girls to be speaking for the entire team "In Jesus' name". As an atheist, I'd be highly offended if I were forced to run through or hold that banner. They are encroaching...I don't see how this isn't clear to everyone.

    October 19, 2012 at 8:19 am |
    • heyheyhey

      I agree.

      October 19, 2012 at 8:22 am |
  8. heyheyhey

    Somehow I knew this was going on in the south just by the headline. God squad will attack you there if you don't go along with them.

    October 19, 2012 at 8:18 am |
  9. Banda53

    Gimme a "G"....gimme an "O"....

    October 19, 2012 at 8:16 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Gimme an A W A Y

      October 19, 2012 at 8:28 am |
  10. Henry

    If christianity was as fervent among it's followers as mosleums are about their religion we would have already had a nuclear war. There is no good that has ever come from any religion that tries to convert or dismisses another religion. History has shown that from the inquisitions to taliban. Any claim of such that must be posted on banners is not a religion but is at it's true core a "hate group." An event simular to the Nazi "book burnings." Those carring banners are really trying to claim a territory and challenging any one to disagree against the strength of their unity. Imagin how much hate there would be if one person in the stands carried a sign promoting Muhammadanism. The true nature of the cheerleads and supporters of Christanity would come out, in a most likely storm of violence and cursing. Truth is GOD would have nothing to do with any religion.

    October 19, 2012 at 8:15 am |
  11. Evenstar13

    These anti religious folks have no problem believing in witches, vampires, and any unholy beast, and even celebrate it. But, mention God and they act as if they are vampires who've just had holy water thrown in their faces. They can keep their secular ways for all I care, oh, and by the way, hows it workin out for you? Incredible debt, fuel prices astronomically high despite there being no shortage, soaring food prices, politicians who care only about lining their pockets with PAC money and the unparralled greed of Wall St and their crony bankers.

    October 19, 2012 at 8:14 am |
    • Mirosal

      I'm an Atheist, and we know ther are no such things as the ones you mentioned. Actually we're waiting to place our bets on the unicorn for next May's Kentucky Derby. How do all those bad things you listed that are occuring have ANY ties to any religion or deity?

      October 19, 2012 at 8:17 am |
    • mk

      So, not believing in god caused high debt and gas prices? And almost all politicians claim to believe in god, so it definitely sounds like religion does nothing to curb corruption. How's that working for you?

      October 19, 2012 at 8:20 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Secularism has nothing to do with the societal ills of which you speak.

      October 19, 2012 at 8:26 am |
    • Rational Libertarian

      They may be out there, but I've never met an anti religious person who believes in witches or vampires, and certainly not unholy beasts, seeing as the concept of holiness is alien to anti religious folk.

      October 19, 2012 at 8:36 am |
    • Henry

      As a Christian exactly how much hate were you able to envoke in yourself with that response? You need to really think your faith.

      October 19, 2012 at 8:39 am |
    • epona41

      i'm a witch. i exist. 😛

      October 19, 2012 at 8:56 am |
    • Pete

      It's true she turned me into a Newt.

      October 19, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
  12. Rational Libertarian

    Are there any atheists/agnostics out there who support the cheerleaders?

    October 19, 2012 at 7:59 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      This one does.
      America's laws regarding freedom of expression are unique in the world and should be vigorously defended.
      As a Canadian, my right to free speech is less protected than that of a US citizen and it bugs the hell out of me.

      October 19, 2012 at 8:12 am |
    • ialsoagree

      Personally, I'm on the fence (as an agnostic atheist). They make a strong argument about the supplies, uniforms, etc. Additionally, I'm not entirely convinced about the whole "but it's on school propertly."

      I definitely think it's something a court should decide, and it would be a shame if this never went to court, as that would not provide a legal precedence for future instances. If we can establish how we're going to deal with this – in a legal sense – now, it'll be settled for all time.

      I'd be satisfied with any unbiased court decision, regardless of whether that decision allows the cheerleaders to continue or not.

      October 19, 2012 at 8:14 am |
    • MarkinFL

      I'm an atheist and a staunch church/state separatist, but I support the cheerleaders as well. The 1st amendment is sacred to me and I do not see where this crosses the line into church/state. This is why the ACLU defended religious freedom on campuses and won the right of students to bring their religion into schools. Administrators are sometimes too gun shy and err in the wrong direction.

      October 19, 2012 at 8:18 am |
    • Mirosal

      @Markinfl... you're a little off there.. the curts ruled that they could form groups for religion and religious studies. These groups were not held in the open, they are held in rooms after school. Those that wanted to go, they went. Those that did not want to go, did not. But in this case, their views were out in the public for ALL to see, telling anyone there of any faith that their god will help them win, or they'll win in the name of their god. This is a PUBLIC display on public school grounds, the coaches and school staff let them do it. This is not a simple after school meeting in an empty classroom as most after school groups are.

      October 19, 2012 at 8:26 am |
    • Rational Libertarian

      Good to see I'm not completely alone.

      October 19, 2012 at 8:34 am |
    • WASP

      @rational: i do support the cheerleaders having their faith and even doing their little prayer before a game; however with the sign being displayed at games i can't support that type of action.

      October 19, 2012 at 8:49 am |
  13. SarahV

    Free speech exists in the stands. You sit there with any sign you want. Maybe "Kountze Football Sucks". Perhaps not smart to hold that sign, but it is not illegal.

    Let's say that same slogan was "chosen" by a cheerleader and painted on the banner for the team to run through. That cheerleader would be thrown off the squad in a minute. So the football field banner is not "free speech". It is not open to any message. It is a targeted message that is tacitly sanctioned by the coaches, school administration and others.

    October 19, 2012 at 7:56 am |
    • Just the facts mam

      ^^ This

      October 19, 2012 at 10:07 am |
  14. Mennosecularist

    If the cheerleaders used a verse from the Koran I bet there would be a flood of support for the separation of church and state. Perry and all those Neo-cons would be screaming bloody murder for it!

    October 19, 2012 at 7:55 am |
  15. JCD

    Reminds me of a story I heard once where a girl was on a high school sports team, who would pray before every game, so one day they asked her if she wanted to lead the prayer and she recited a hebrew prayer, it never occured to her teammates that she wasn't Christian or Catholic.

    October 19, 2012 at 7:50 am |
  16. Milton Platt

    How is a sign in the middle of a football field "private" speech?
    The problem is that it is difficult to represent thousands of trligions equally in this way. And how would they feel if someome ran a banner out onto the field that supported athiesm?

    October 19, 2012 at 7:38 am |
    • Shakingmyhead

      A banner supporting Atheism? Oh you mean a BLANK BANNER. Yeah, thats such a greeeeeeeaaaaaat idea. Look, if I have to look at your billboards then you can suck it up looking a children's (and yes, they ARE children) banners mentioning Christ. You want freedom from religion, I want freedom from ZEALOTS and OPPRESSION.

      October 19, 2012 at 7:56 am |
    • Dave

      don't forget, American Athiests sponsored a minor league baseball game in Minnesota and had the team change their name to the St. Paul Aints. The Freedom From Religion group is displaying the height of hypocrisy in their complaints.

      October 19, 2012 at 8:26 am |
    • midwest rail

      Dave, was there any public money involved in that minor league baseball game ?

      October 19, 2012 at 8:27 am |
    • mk

      "I want freedom from ZEALOTS and OPPRESSION."

      So there are no christian zealots who stuff their beliefs down everyone's throat? I beg to differ.

      October 19, 2012 at 8:34 am |
  17. WASP

    "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."

    these people forgot the one MAJOR thing the school does pay for................................THE FIELD.
    the football field they play on, the pleachers they sit on, the lighting.............so unless these girls want to foot the bill for a new stadium with all the works the school is still involved thus NO BANNERS.

    October 19, 2012 at 7:37 am |
    • asimpleman

      What you fail to realize is there are MANY taxpayers that pay for that field and supports these cheerleaders.Its time to realize Christians have rights also.no one is forcing you to pray or attend church just as these young people are expressing their free choice.Why is it that the only right thing is what you want?

      October 19, 2012 at 8:45 am |
    • WASP

      @asimplemind: it's not what "i" want. it's what is set up by our secular government. you see no problem with these cheerleaders displaying their faith in god during a school event.........and yes an after hours football game is a school event on school grounds.
      the cheerleaders where the school colors and bear the school name on their uniforms.
      yet when we atheists stand up for our rights you christians have no problem trying to shut us up, good luck with that.
      maybe i should encourage your rival teams to display verses from the quran or the torah for all attending to admire. then it would be equal.

      October 19, 2012 at 8:56 am |
  18. Zac

    People constantly confuse freedom of religion with freedom FROM religion. If you don't want to see it, don't go to the football games. If the games are that important to you, then I'm sure you can find a way to ignore it. Basically what I hear is a bunch of "adults" saying "I want to go to the football game, and it needs to be exactly the way I think it should be". Get over yourself and ignore it. And if you simply don't have it in you to ignore a written word, you need to grow up and not demand everyone else coddle you like a 5 year old. GOD forbid you might have to see that name written on something. I'm sure it will cause cancer before the game is over. The fact a name bothers you so much speaks volumes about your lack of maturity and ability to live and let live. Nobody ever promised you that you would never see displays of religion. Only that you could practice whichever you want. Which ultimately is what's most important. But oh... it's at a school paid for by tax payers! So what! Your money was spent as it was intended. On public education. This is an after school activity. But the fact you are so appalled at the thought that someone would use "that" name on the very soil your taxes paid for is so petty and controlling. Are you a vampire? Does seeing a cross make your eyes burn? I am forced to be confronted by idiots every day because nobody ever promised me that I would be shielded from them. You roll with what comes your way. Or, you whine about it.

    October 19, 2012 at 7:32 am |
    • Damocles

      @Zac

      Gosh you are spot on. So if muslim players had burst through quaran sayings, you'd be totally cool with that, yeah?

      October 19, 2012 at 7:39 am |
    • lefty

      Zac,
      Your entire post....one huge FAIL. Your "lack of maturity" was emblazoned on it

      October 19, 2012 at 7:43 am |
    • Darth Cheney

      Well, you're right on one thing...confusion. This is a PUBLIC school. We have separation of church and STATE in this country. That's pretty much the end of it.
      Obviously, you and the nattering nabobs don't like that – but only to the extent that it puts some boundaries on expression of Christianity. Because, let's not kid ourselves – you would NOT be OK with this if it were any other religious belief. What you're confused about is the legitimacy of your 'not okay-ness,' because the separation of church and state isn't really about expression; it's about encroachment of a state-endorsed religion (like the one we have in Texas).

      October 19, 2012 at 7:47 am |
    • Milton Platt

      Alrhough I would rather not see religion of any sort injected into events associated with public schools, I get your point. People do sometimes react too strongly over these things. I think perhaps people feel they need to push back a little harder because of the constant efforts of many religious groups to inject themselves into the political process.

      October 19, 2012 at 7:47 am |
    • mk

      If it weren't for the taxpayers money, Zac, there would be no stadium and maybe no football.

      October 19, 2012 at 8:14 am |
    • candyapple

      Freedom!!! To believe or not to believe... either way, freedom to choose is all that matters. No one's freedoms should be taken away, there are plenty of things that I disagree with that people choose to do but I support their freedom to do it. Words on a banner do not HARM anyone. It's a positive message... there are positive message in every religeous text. One of my favorites from the kuran is, "For every soul, there is a guardian watching it."

      October 19, 2012 at 8:23 am |
  19. Glen

    "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."

    Serious question for all you christians out there who support their right to do this. What if they wanted to use verses from the Quran? I bet you would be singing a different tune then!! Bunch of hypocrites! It is wrong to use the verses in this area because it is a public school paid for by ALL taxpayers (who are not all of the same faith). Just stop with the Jesus already!

    October 19, 2012 at 7:29 am |
    • Darth Cheney

      Good for calling BS on that. It's such an obvious, transparent lie I wonder how they reconcile it with themselves.

      October 19, 2012 at 7:49 am |
  20. WASP

    hmmmm i wonder what happens when this football team loses a game? does it mean god wasn't with them? did they not sacrifice the correct animal to their war-god?
    how does the other team feel about seeing this hogwash on the opposing teams banner?
    what if the other team wrote quotes from the torah or quran; would these christian cheerleaders get offended?

    October 19, 2012 at 7:25 am |
    • Mirosal

      NO ... all the other team would need to do is post the verses about how "god" said it was ok to sell your daughters into slavery. That should get their attention!! lol

      October 19, 2012 at 7:28 am |
    • BigGuy

      In the 1st place how audacious for the cheerleaders to assume that GOD is actually a sports fan!
      I was always taught God was one of those fire and brimstone I'll kill everybody for sinning types!

      October 19, 2012 at 8:12 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.