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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. Christmas Eve

    YAY!!!! I'm so happy for these cheerleaders!! No one should EVER stop us from expressing our love for Jesus Christ! This makes me happy!! God bless you Texas cheerleaders for making a change!!

    October 19, 2012 at 11:25 am |
    • Mike D

      You're right! And furthermore, we should get to use school funds to do it, even if non-Christians students or families don't approve! There's no WAY this could ever possibly backfire! That is, unless a Jessica Ahlquist type students sues the school district, gets ACLU backing, and completely destroys the school in court.

      October 19, 2012 at 11:33 am |
    • Chris

      Which I would love to see Mike. I work in a larger Texas school district and the most we allow is teachers to have religious items on their desk. It really is sad. Religion should be kept in the houses and churches. These christian people are living in their own happy little world where most of the people around them believe the same nonsense. They don't even think that there are other people that don't buy it. They won't even consider it until someone challenges them...then they cry persecution. When gays can marry, and I can buy alcohol on Sundays...I will be at war with these people.

      October 19, 2012 at 11:37 am |
    • YoozYerBrain

      Chris, you should be at open war with them now. I don't live in Texas, but I live near a big BIG evangelical-type church and I NEVER let one of them off the hook if I run into them. Remind them of how anti-American supersti tion is as a political ideology always and call them on their belief in fairy tales over the reality of the USA so they can see without blinders that they promulgate and wish for the demise of the USA. But do it nicely, because there is nothing as intolerant as a christian having their belief challenged! Very insecure, it seems to me, but they do lash out if you point out such things as Betty Bowers, America's Best Christian, bible-educational videos. Such as, and I do recommend-;
      "Betty Bowers Explains Abortion" "Betty Bowers Explains Traditional Marriage" just to name 2 of my faves. On YouTube...

      October 19, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  2. no nothing

    Unlike the 10 commandments PERMANENTLY installed in a government building. It is a silly banned with scripture that gets destroyed and is thrown away. You see it for about 2 minuets and its gone. .

    October 19, 2012 at 11:19 am |
    • Chris

      Fact is it's a publicly funded event...and the public is there. No playing favorites...that simple. If I wanted to put F god on the banner...no one would EVER allow it. But it's a free speech issue right? What if it were Muslim versus? Simple..and to the point. You can't favor one group over the others. It's not hard...just leave it out of your public life. Why should religious stuff even leave the home or church?

      October 19, 2012 at 11:24 am |
    • no nothing

      I need to proof read. I meant silly banner

      October 19, 2012 at 11:24 am |
    • no nothing

      Well we will have to wait and see if cheerleaders put some verse from the Koran on a banner. Until then we need to grow up. As an Atheist I could care less what is put on a banned that is temporary. This freedom of speech is still a two way street.
      It just a fact that this town is full of christians and not muslims.

      October 19, 2012 at 11:35 am |
    • Chris

      But it's not a two way street and that's my point. If this had been anything else it would have been a big deal. Why not just remove all nonsense from the start and say...no religious words or text. It's not hard. I realize it may seem vein and pointless, but it's just one small battle in a series of larger battles to help the non religious people of this country. There are laws that are directly there because of religious people. I can't buy liquor on Sundays. Gays can't get married. It's a whole series of things contributing to my opinion. When gays can get married and I can hold public office in my own state(Texas, I can't hold office because of a law that says you have to believe in god) is when things like this won't bother me.

      October 19, 2012 at 11:44 am |
    • Primewonk

      So it's OK to thumb your nose and trample the constîtution – as long as you do it quickly?

      Is there some type of means test for determining the time frame? With this line of thought, forced prayer every morning should be OK, because it only lasts a minute, right?

      October 19, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • Primewonk

      @ Chris – I'd love to see you run for some office and challenge the law. It would take about 12.5 seconds to have it struck down since it violates Article VI, Section 3 of the federal constîtution.

      October 19, 2012 at 11:53 am |
    • GotMahSkoolinInTexas

      Is that troo? Is the teyen comman comand cooma tha notes from gawd reelly up in a Texas state billding? Gawd dang, how'd they do that? How c um it still theyah? aint that dis legal?

      October 19, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
  3. MikesOpinion

    let them make their pretty little bible posters all day- its not like they have science or math class to attend. They're not going to be working in high tech jobs, so some bible education with the nice verses is really all they need.

    October 19, 2012 at 11:19 am |
    • rosie

      You know, the bible teaches people to be nice to one another. if these children learn to be nice and respect others then there is no loss to them for reading the bible. Personally I never read the bible nor find any need for it's inspiration, but others do and it brings them some comfort. Stop being such a hater.

      October 19, 2012 at 11:26 am |
    • Chris

      No Rosie...parents and teachers teach kids to be nice and polite. If you think morals come from the bible you have a serious problem. If you need an old book to tell you not to kill or steal from people...then I feel really sad for you. I've said it more than once...you don't need god to be good. I'm a perfect example of this.

      October 19, 2012 at 11:39 am |
  4. Fred

    If God is "One" where'd He get the idea for two?

    October 19, 2012 at 11:17 am |
  5. LouAZ

    Buybull words and phrases ? Well, if they start in the beginning, and print every single line, in sequence, leaving nothing out, then I believe that is their Const itutional religious Freedom of Speech Right. They can't pick and choose the "pretty" parts.

    October 19, 2012 at 11:09 am |
  6. ProductOfTexasEducationalSystem

    cheer leaders cute, must be right cuz they for jeesuz, wuts the problm hear? wuts a civics class? that one o them ferin car things? ah dont lak ferin cars, go jeezzus!!

    October 19, 2012 at 11:06 am |
  7. bobeharris

    1. Sanity check: would the town, state representatives or public as a whole be as adamant about this free speech if the girls were using verses from the Quran?

    2. The signs are clearly speech from the cheerleaders towards the team, the student body and even the opposing school. Clearly the cheerleaders are representatives of the school at a school function. Even if all of the cheerleaders are of the same faith and agree to a message, what about the students that sit in the stands or the football players on the field? Should an atheist, agnostic, or Muslim kid have to be subjected to faith messages that they don't believe in and don't support to attend a public school function? I would argue no.

    Generally, these "freedom of religion/freedom of speech" cases are not about wanting to limit someone's freedom, it's about protecting the freedoms of those who are being subjected to unwanted religious teaching...THAT is the freedom that has to be protected...

    October 19, 2012 at 11:06 am |
    • Mike

      You are correct. Christians seem to think they have that right to force their propaganda on others and like to hide behind "freedom of speech". Why should I as a non christian have their religious propaganda forced on me? I am happy with my religious view and don't need to believe in some myth.

      October 19, 2012 at 11:26 am |
  8. LPowers

    Why would god really care about a football game, it seems that he/she would have larger things to consider.....

    October 19, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • LouAZ

      Right ! God already picked the Tigers over the Yankees. He's busy fixing things for the Giants who are behind the Cards by 2 games in the National League. Oh, by the way God forsake the D-backs.

      October 19, 2012 at 11:13 am |
  9. TwitRomney

    Who's the blonde on the far right? I wonder if she's in my binder.

    October 19, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • Al

      She doesn't look to happy.

      October 19, 2012 at 11:11 am |
    • Al

      oops, too or very

      October 19, 2012 at 11:12 am |
  10. lunchbreaker

    In case they hadn't heard, COLLEGE football is God's sport.

    October 19, 2012 at 11:03 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      I do believe Penn State is a college...

      October 19, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • lunchbreaker

      And pedophiles are humans.

      October 19, 2012 at 11:10 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      And at Penn State, they thought they were gods.

      October 19, 2012 at 11:11 am |
    • lunchbreaker

      That they did.

      October 19, 2012 at 11:15 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Bumper sticker often seen in PA: "If God isn't a Penn State fan, why is the sky blue?"

      October 19, 2012 at 11:16 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Oops: "blue and white"

      October 19, 2012 at 11:17 am |
  11. Hammer05

    Comparisons of these cheerleaders and their supporters to terrorists is absurd. No "holy wars" are attempted to be launched. No innocent individuals are being killed.

    October 19, 2012 at 11:01 am |
    • YoozYerBrain

      Religious messages at public functions ARE an attack. Not violent in the physical sense, but these subtle attacks on the essence of American specialness, ie secular NON religious govt inst itutions including schools, do violence to our way of living and the foundation of our principles. Fighting FOR this kind of attack on non superst itious people is a fight AGAINST the principles upon which this country was founded and against the USA, traitors! I vote for forcibly seceeding texas to Pakistan where it belongs. Y'know, since you're choosing not to YoozYerBrain, you should be with the other cave-dwellers. I'd use the word "troglodytes" but I know you wouldn't know what that means....

      October 19, 2012 at 11:12 am |
    • Chris

      Hammer if I came to a school your child went to and put up posters and talked to kids about how there's not a god. Would you be ok with that? Fact is, when it comes to a publicly funded event....leave all gods or lack there of out of it.

      October 19, 2012 at 11:27 am |
  12. Bman

    One would figure it was a small town in Texas. Maybe they can quote the Koran too. I wonder what the small town judge would have to say then.

    October 19, 2012 at 10:58 am |
    • JD

      Ha! One word out of the Koran and all those slack-jawed yokels crowing freedom of expression would be up in arms from Rio Grande to Red River.

      October 19, 2012 at 11:05 am |
    • Mike D

      Now I'm having Simpsons flashbacks. Cletus was the perfect Republican voter (and Mr. Burns was the perfect Republican power player).

      October 19, 2012 at 11:13 am |
    • Chris

      Please don't think us people in Texas are crazy. Look we've had some nutters...we all know this, but you just have to understand that there happen to be a ton of religious people that love to pretend they are being discriminated against. Even if in reality those people stomp on other rights issues.

      October 19, 2012 at 11:29 am |
  13. Rufus T. Firefly

    This is the same state in which the GOP specifically opposes teaching critical thinking skills. Coincidence?

    October 19, 2012 at 10:57 am |
    • Chris

      Yeah a state where creationism is not taught...even though it is in other southern states. Small town Texas is different than us normal 30k-1million+ populations.

      October 19, 2012 at 11:30 am |
  14. SnafuBob

    Well, I'll say this much...these cheerleaders are far different than the ones I remember from high school...

    October 19, 2012 at 10:55 am |
  15. niknak

    Just the next wave of indoctrinated sheep rearing their little empty heads.
    Texas is an abstinance only state, but surprise! it leads the nation in teenage pregnancies.
    Half these girls will be knocked up by their senior year.
    So they can turn around and raise the next wave of religious sheep.
    The cycle continues........

    October 19, 2012 at 10:50 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      I wonder what how many of those knocked-up bimbos will get abortions. Funny how life is sacred to these bozos until they've got one in the oven.

      October 19, 2012 at 10:52 am |
    • Rufus T. Firefly

      TomTom, these are conservative Christians, like Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn) they will condemn it out of one side of their mouth while demanding it out of the other.

      October 19, 2012 at 10:59 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Of course they will. Just like the two Mennonite girls I knew, both of whom became pregnant while still teenagers. Both of them got abortions, which were illegal in the state at the time. They had to cross state lines to have the service.

      I have no problem with abortion; I do have a problem with hypocrisy.

      October 19, 2012 at 11:02 am |
    • niknak

      And if Rmoney wins, and gets to replace two more liberal SC judges with Atilla the Hun conservative ones, then Roe v Wade will get overturned at some point.
      Then the rich xtian teenage girls will get to have their "European" vacactions, while the rest will be forced into the back alley clinics like in the old days.
      Either way, hypocrisy will rule the day like you said.

      October 19, 2012 at 11:06 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      R v W won't be overturned, but even if it were, that would only return the issue to the states. Were that to happen, each state would create its own laws. And then, of course, the red states would ban all abortions, while other states would enact less restrictive laws of their own.

      But yes, the effect would be the same. The poor would be forced to seek illegal abortions or simply give birth to unwanted children that would place more of a financial strain on the state budget.

      October 19, 2012 at 11:09 am |
  16. coderjones

    says a lot about just how narrow minded some americans can be about religion

    October 19, 2012 at 10:50 am |
    • Chris

      I think you mean how narrow minded religious Americans can be.

      October 19, 2012 at 11:32 am |
    • CP in FL

      Religion should be kept out of the schools. Not everyone believes in the magic sky daddy and it’s wrong to shove religion down everyone’s throat.

      October 19, 2012 at 11:36 am |
  17. Adam

    I think I'd be ok with that, as a football player, if I could supply my own banner to run through that said, perhaps, "There is probably no God, so get on with it," or "To presume knowledge where one has only pious hope is a species of evil."

    October 19, 2012 at 10:48 am |
  18. Thorbecke

    Did you know the US is the only country that has cheerleaders? It's obvious exploitation of young girls, but so ingrained in American culture that people don't see anything degrading with the practice. Why would you expect common sense to prevail here?

    October 19, 2012 at 10:48 am |
    • RJ

      Yeah...there are cheerleaders in other countries, so, you are wrong there. But the rest of what you said was right.

      October 19, 2012 at 10:59 am |
  19. Mick

    "Students' ability to express their religious views adds to the diversity of thought that has made this country so strong."

    Would he say the same thing if Muslim students created a sign? Or, God forbid, those evil atheists?

    October 19, 2012 at 10:44 am |
    • rosie

      Apparently the students are better at interpreting this than you are. They were looking for something to inspire their team. With a young person, where do they get the knowledge and experience to express themselves with thoughts. These are young people with little knowledge of the world and they turned to the one thing that they do know, the bible. leave them alone, they will grow to see the world in a new light one day. Hopeully they will not be bitter like you.

      October 19, 2012 at 11:30 am |
    • Chris

      No the students aren't because A. They learn what they know from their parents.
      and B. Christians are a majority. What if it had been an inspiring Qur'an verse?

      October 19, 2012 at 11:34 am |
  20. DANILLE

    SHE IS BEING BRAIN WASH. WHAT NEXT, MOSES

    October 19, 2012 at 10:43 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.